Somewhere near downtown Sonoma, a set of false teeth hides a clue to the unsolved mystery of “The Green Tara” – a famous emerald necklace, now missing. When a forgery is discovered, a beleaguered Sonoma mother-of-five enlists the help of an eccentric starlet, a washed up crime writer, and a guerilla horticulturalist to find the true Green Tara before a gang of aging jewel thieves.
Professor Colin James Penley stands at the window of his office on the second story of a building where the English Department of a small, private South Bay college shares a floor, begrudgingly, with the Digital Humanities Department. From his window he looks down onto a small quadrant of asphalt that serves as a parking lot for the electric carts used by parking enforcement to ticket students and faculty without permits. Below, two men smoke, conversing in short words, while another changes a tire. From this vantage point, Colin can see the spattering of pigeon droppings that cover the canvas roofs of the carts. He has accrued so many parking tickets and fines in the last year that he doubts he will ever travel abroad again. For a moment he considers dropping a brick into the middle of this sordid little black market.
With some effort Colin opens the window, liberating flakes of ancient lead paint. As the cool outside air rushes in, it carries with it a sweet, earthy scent that reminds him of parsnips. Though his aunt grew parsnips on her farm in the English countryside – a place where Colin spent most of his boyhood summers – he doesn’t remember ever eating one. They have something to do with soup.
A dense blanket of morning fog hovers over campus. Natives of Northern California, Colin has observed, like to comment on how typical the foggy weather is for late spring. Where he lives, just south of San Francisco, fog is eternal. He never imagined how so much greyness, that “least fleshy of all weathers,” if one asks Fitzgerald, and so few do these days, could affect a person. Like names on paint swatches, Colin categorizes the greys according to their respective intensities. There is “My God! Is it really mid-morning? Grey,” “Ominous Noon Grey,” “Serial Killer Below the Streetlights Grey,” which contains undertones of puce, and his favorite, the putty grey of wet cement he calls “Grey Matter.” After too many afternoons with no sunrises or sunsets, the grey dullness of the deadly fog has settled over his mind, paralyzing his creative impulses. “Gallows Grey.”
Colin’s internist suggested he suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a condition brought on by a lack of sunlight over long periods of time that leads to muscle fatigue, diminished mental clarity, and general malaise. For Colin, the disorder is caused by the very absence of seasons themselves. The fluttering of plum and apple blossoms on the breeze is wasted against this monochrome curtain of light. There can be no “Glory be to God for dappled things” moments where shadows have such weak edges.
Conveniently, Colin blames the fog for the sudden disappearance of his muse. “Vanishing Calliope Grey.” And bad weather is, after all, why he’d left New England. “Irony Grey.”
A figure in a window across the way – in the History Department offices – catches Colin’s attention. A woman, lost in thought, leans against a wall in the alcove, drinking coffee from a ceramic mug. She has long, straight chestnut hair that she parts in the middle, and she wears large silver hoop earrings and a dark turtleneck sweater. She has that certain melancholy gaze that he finds irresistible in women her age, or, about half his age.
The radiator in Colin’s office comes to life, rattling and hissing, breaking the spell of silence. It is an oddly comforting sound. Coastal Californians, says his colleague Philip, are hopeless optimists and so they don’t understand central heating. Colin has been cold now for nineteen years. And how long has he been searching through the warped glass of his window for someone to appear? And do people really need four $100 multi-spectrum light bulbs and generic Prozac as an antidote to SAD? There must be places – sunny, equatorial lands – where this disorder does not exist. Tahiti, for example, might prove a remedy for SAD. Or Scotch, Colin thinks. One doesn’t need a passport to drink.
He takes the elevator downstairs to a poorly lit hallway, and inserts some quarters in a vending machine that gurgles before dispensing a cup of scalding brown liquid mislabeled as coffee. He burns one of his fingers, and then trudges back upstairs to formally begin his sabbatical. For the upcoming academic year a PhD candidate will not only be taking over Colin’s classes, but will occupy his office where, given his slave wages, he will also likely live if he can avoid being caught by a campus administration too busy ticketing the cars of adjunct faculty to notice most of them are starving.
The next hour is spent pulling books off of the shelves and packing them into cardboard boxes. Some of the books are mildewed and Colin decides to throw them out, as much as this pains him. Soon he stops labeling the boxes because he realizes he no longer cares what’s in them. A boom box – a technological relic he uses to hold down a coffee-stained stack of essays he has yet to return – rests unevenly atop a metal filing cabinet that hides a mini-bar. He tries to find a decent radio station but it is all country and auto-tuned pop. He takes down the “Professor C. J. Penley” plaque that hangs over the in-box outside his office and sings to himself instead. Someone, a student perhaps, recently scribbled the words “knight errant” under his name, and someone else crossed that out and wrote “errant knave.” He decides to keep the plaque.
Outside in the hallway, Colin hears footsteps. Someone slides a newspaper article under his door and hurries off. “Forgery of Green Tara found in San Pedro Harbor” is the headline on the torn page. He picks the article up and reads it, his hands shaking. He’d been right all along! There was a double heist and the forgery had ended up in the harbor, not the real necklace. But what does it matter now? That was so long ago. What does any of it matter?
To be continued in the next issue of The Sun, Thursday, June 1.