The Jupiter of Astoria | Ryan Burruss

42 mins read

Jupiter’s orbit they called it, the path he took nearly every day. He’d start from his little high-stepped house at the farthest end of Duane Street, where the road gets spotty, disappearing in the pines to reappear again, the orange, sharp-edged adobe as precarious as a dime-store Christmas star. It had that feel to it, too, as a piece of architecture—not unloved, necessarily, but not something worried over too much. Jupiter lived there with his wife, a woman who was talked about more than she was seen. Those who did remember her, and had seen her, would refer to her as beautiful, but not in a way that they could ever really do justice to with words. Sometimes, in fact, it just brought a tear to their eye, and that pretty much said it all. Sometimes someone down below thought they saw her watching from the big picture window that dominated the street-side of the place, but would subsequently admit that it could have just been a curtain caught in a breeze, after all.

You couldn’t miss Jupiter, though, massive as he was. The behemoth stood 6’ 5”, at least, and probably weighed well over 300 pounds, though none of it was soft. He wasn’t cut, either—not by any modern definition of physical fitness—but he was broad, and more like an interior planet than his namesake. His shape was a hard, stony flavor of round; his legs particularly looked like two veiny pistons, tasked with moving all that weight.

He traveled slowly, but without a hitch. He didn’t have any more trouble trudging up the steep side streets of Astoria than he did down their slopes, as if he had lived there his whole life, a locally sourced demigod who sharpened himself against the stark emerald backdrop.

Jupiter was not born in Astoria, though, or even Oregon. He wasn’t even native to that coast; his status as a “local” was a measure of adoption. Jupiter was of that somewhat beloved tribe who ran only to run out of runway near the furthermost corner of the Greater Forty-Eight. Pioneers of a more romantic sort than those who came before, these arrived looking for truth or release, or—most heartbreakingly, as it was the hardest treasure to mine—redemption. Jupiter, most understood without knowing a single fact about him, was of that last cohort. You don’t get as big as him without breaking things along the way.

Walking at pace, his heavy cord of a ponytail was as solid as the rest of him, and seemed untouched by the wind. His goatee resembled an upside-down-mountain, salt and pepper streaks running up—down—its pointed tip. He was of indeterminate race, olive-skinned in certain light, pale in others. His gray-green eyes veered toward a muted light, a cold mist, the air just inside a cave where the wild animals slept. The age lines that crossed his face further muddied the waters of perception; he could as likely have been a hard forty as a boyish sixty. Some swore he was Hispanic. Others contended Samoan. Egyptian. Eastern European. Mixed.

He would cut down 3rd Street for a block and then turn right onto Commercial to head downtown and have his breakfast at Lou’s Diner. The same meal every morning—country fried steak and eggs with a side of bacon, which, for Jupiter and Jupiter only, consisted of a pile of thick strips layered on a plate, plus a bottomless cup of black coffee. He sat in his same table everyone morning—never officially reserved, but neither Joanne nor her daughter Megan would seat anyone in that particular booth facing the front glass doors until Jupiter had come and gone.

They could generally tell if it was worth trying to strike up a conversation with him that morning or not. He was never rude, of course; it was more of a curtain that would drop down over his already olive complexion. Sometimes the very weight of the air about Jupiter would tell the locals that he was not much for talking. Even when the curtain lifted, Jupiter was not exactly gregarious, at least in the way most people nowadays define it, but he would manage his own bit of small talk—about the quality of the most recent rain, or the Trailblazers’ chances this season. On a really good day, he might even answer after his wife. “It’s been a good week,” he might say, accompanied by a Davinci smile as impossible to read across his giant boulder face as in the more famous paintings.

Either way—rain or shine, talkative or somber—Jupiter would eventually stand up to head out into the day, with no real warning or pretense. There was a certain pattern to his movements, but much like an expensive watch, Jupiter’s orbit was one of multiple complications, intricacies built on intricacies. There were daily errands, and weekly ones. As-needed. Weather-dependent. Seasonal. There was no real deciphering of the pattern, and it was only in the incurious nature of his engagements, the dutifulness of his stride, that one could even deduce there was a pattern. But those who watched close enough were sure of it, and if one stuck around long enough, one could start to see the repetitions. The Jupiter of Astoria was a clockwork.

There were a few around town who at least intuited that to have not always been the case. A few—Joanne was one, and of course Flo, down at the Labor Temple—even remembered when he and his wife first arrived in Astoria, and clear enough that they didn’t superimpose this mountain of a man on that mountain of a man, so very much the same and yet, somehow, so fundamentally different.

And, of course, Jupiter himself knew it, knew far more than any observer could hope to, if one were ever to hope such a thing. Someone like the diner’s Megan, perhaps—still young and open to the universe, reaching out instead of collapsing in—could gather more in the way one understands truth from reading runes, could understand in broad strokes not just the scaffolding of Jupiter’s routines, but what the scaffolding was meant to do. What she couldn’t ever know, though, was exactly what that scaffolding was holding up. What it was holding back.

Because the Jupiter of Astoria was not the Jupiter of Jackson Hole. And the Jupiter of Jackson Hole was not the Jupiter of Louisiana. And the Jupiter of Louisiana was not the Jupiter of Brookshire. Nor was he the one of Appleton, the opening iterations of him, the first mover of all the Jupiters to come.

Jupiter was a killer before his third birthday—a killer, in fact, before he has any recollection of his life. One of his first memories froze on the floor of his grandmother’s house—he remembered the piss-ochre carpet—the old woman wagging a crooked, bony finger at him, then using it to make the sign of the cross. “Twenty-four people!” he remembered her screaming at him, over and over, until her little Virginia Slim voice was sandpaper. “Twenty-four!” No one believed he could even remember that incident, as he was still so young. They chalked it up as another facet of his misfortune.

And though young once—Jupiter was never small. He weighed eleven pounds at birth, almost killing his mother for the first time there in the stirrups. He kept the pace; by the time he was two-and-a-half, he looked five. Also, at that time, Jupiter St. Claire, left unattended, was tall enough to easily reach the shiny dials of the apartment’s gas stove, inadvertently setting off an inferno that engulfed the entire building and the one next to it, killing twenty-four people in the end, including his parents and older sister, and wounding scores of others. 

It was the direct inverse of a victimless crime: it was a massacre with no villain. Jupiter was just a boy, still innocent in all the ways that should have mattered, guilty only of twisting a couple of eye-catching knobs, not so very different than the ones on his playsets, his toys. He carried no malice in him at that time, nothing but a panoramic kind of love for his parents and big sister. And, yet, in the course of a night, he netted a body count that would impress assassins and gang-bangers alike.

Of course, he didn’t even understand the connection—that anything to do with him also had to do with the monster, the hot orange werewolf that took his family away. He had no conception of correlation, that it was his tiny hand on their murder weapon.

The police, strange as it would sometimes seem to him in his older years, were most able to recognize Jupiter’s tragedy. They were the first to hold him, to comfort him—sometimes even as a windswept man, he would get the sensation of stubble across his skin, a phantom embrace from a lifetime ago, inducing a shiver of both warmth and chill. The police and firemen figured out pretty quickly what had happened, perhaps even before the fire itself had been completely put out—there was no cover-up, after all, not even a ham-fisted effort by the perpetrator to hide himself. The guilty party, after all, was nestled right in their arms, wailing into their necks, begging for his mother.

Jupiter remembered—or thought he did—their long looks that lingered over him; covered in soot, they would stare at him, to a man, blinking away at something until they finally lowered their shaking heads. They were good men and women around him in that dark hour, but there was nothing they could do for him that night or any other. Jupiter knew this, because for more than fifty years he too had been staring hard at that little boy, wondering what he could have—could still—do for him, and inevitably came up empty.

Later, with his family, his grandmother and all his uncles, his aunt—likewise good men and women around him—something shifted. They understood the child was not to blame, not in any way that mattered, and though cognitively they could accept it, some of them could not look upon him without seeing what he wrought in their collective imagination—their brother and sister-in-law and niece locked for eternity in a charred grip, each’s last effort being to drag the others to the relative safety of their barely still-beating heart.

In the end, it was Jupiter’s grandmother that shattered all the little cages the others were building around themselves—and from a distance, him—by taking all the strands of sorrow and anger and resentment and heartache and disgust and shame and lucklessness and doom and combining them into one gnarled, sign-of-the-cross-making finger that pointed at little Jupiter on the floor, spitting out a number so full of wretchedness and contempt that it seared right through his skin and sternum, instantly poisoning his heart and waking him up for the very first time. Like the forbidden fruit, Jupiter saw himself for what he really was—and once he saw, he could never unsee.

And once the others saw—once his father’s mother’s outburst gave them permission to admit what they felt—they too could never unsee. And when they, a daisy-chain of them, uncles and cousins and great-uncles and so-and-sos once-removed, shook their heads at the boy, it had an utterly different taste than the solemn headshakes of the firefighters, the police, empathetic and dappled by red and blue flashing lights.

He carried that with him as he grew, that taste; he tried to blanket over it with other tastes, first of food, of course—all the kinds of food. He only got bigger, though, the original sin no farther away, becoming a proper vessel for all the rage that was emerging to congregate along his bones and against his organs. He was a simmering thing, exiled to a distant cousin’s basement in Brookshire, an active volcano.

And soon, the food was not enough. There was drink, giant plastic handles of Popov bartered from the alkies who held court under the awning of the liquor store at the far end of the strip mall. There was smoke, the two-way street of exhaust that calmed his mind—but dampened his empathy. It was not connection that he found in such mists, those parts of him long since atrophied, snipped back when he was a little boy who killed everyone he loved the most.

There was powder, which made him a god, revealing to him all the cages he could shake. Needed to shake. The powder was power; it was the ashes of his mother, his father and his sister—a kind of metaphysical rocket fuel. It was 1976 or so, the Bicentennial. Jupiter was thirteen years old, but looked like he could have been drafted, if it hadn’t just ended. The doughy softness of youth was already beginning to harden, first around the eyes and jaw, and then down the length of him. He was never not overweight by any estimation, then or now, but that was the summer he began to carry it differently. It was also the summer of his twenty-fifth kill.

This one was not an innocent like the others, but a wiry low-level drug runner who called himself Pontiac for some reason that had never really been explained. He had taken offense to something the adolescent Jupiter had said or done somewhere in the context of their twisty-tunnel social circles, snakes eating their own addled tails—though Jupiter always suspected that what the man had really taken offense to was Jupiter creeping in on his business; no longer content to just use, the man-boy had started slinging out on his own. Either way, Pontiac pulled his Saturday Night Special on Jupiter during a game of spades; more out of shock and fear than anything more strategic, Jupiter shoved the gun and the skinny forearm attached to it away from him—twisting them both back awkwardly toward Pontiac. The man’s finger spasmed, presumably from the pain, and he shot himself point blank right through the bridge of his own ample nose.

Nobody in the room moved except for Jupiter, who stumbled back, knocking over his chair. He wobbled on his two great piston-legs, one step back and then another; he didn’t even register Pontiac’s ruined face in those moments, but only saw his father as he imagined him, pitch black except for the teeth, corralling his likewise charred mother and sister in his arms. Jupiter turned and ran into the night.

It was a night that lasted days, and then months. Years and then decades. Always creeping along the edge of shadows: Mississippi where the trains ran for a spell—close enough to see the jumpsuits through the thickets of brush and trees—and then along the coast, Biloxi to New Orleans. Then up to Baton Rouge. Indianapolis. Jackson Hole, working at a ranch just outside Yellowstone. Always running. 

In reality, it wasn’t really the law that was chasing him at that point, so much as his own memories. Back then, a man could still get lost pretty easily, and Jupiter—even as big as he was—had been lost for a long time. Also, murder is situational—had he killed a nun, or a beauty queen, or somebody’s sweet, sweet cherubic preschooler with a Dukes of Hazard tin lunchbox, some badged wolf pack or other would have circled around his mountainous frame, maybe even given him the chance to put his hands up. But Jupiter killed a coke-runner named Pontiac from the outskirts of Maryland, and nobody was ever going to be looking too hard for that lowlife’s assailant once the trail grew cold.

It was there in Wyoming, living on that ranch, cold and crisp for the longest stretch of the year, that the shadows slowly began to fall behind Jupiter’s step, that the sun finally managed to break in front of him. He met a native woman—the one with the rings he would call her at first, and then later, still, well into their marriage, as a teasing sort of familiarity—who spoke quietly but evenly next to him at the bar. It was through her that Jupiter began to heal, his rage cooling into jagged layers of coal. Not ideal, perhaps, but some kind of scar tissue is the going price of closing up the wound.

And when she grew sick, and got fired from her job at the factory, Jupiter didn’t hesitate—leaned on his own hardness to pick up stakes right there and then, and they left Wyoming for good. Together. She had told him she wanted to spend whatever days or years she still had looking over the water, and Astoria turned out to be one of the few coastal towns Jupiter could afford.

Jupiter’s orbit they called it. He started down the hill each morning to take his breakfast at the diner. Then to work a shift at the hardware store, and his clockwork of self-imposed errands. He’d pick up his wife’s prescriptions when they were ready. Sometimes he helped Mrs. Walters with her groceries or her gardening, or played a game or two of spades with the old drinkers outside the barber shop. All sorts of things. All sorts of scaffolding to build around his days. Eventually the light would start to get just a little longer and old Jupiter would take his dinner from one of the restaurants on Marine Drive, before the tourists and the crowds (if either happened to be in season) made their way downtown. Then always back uphill toward the Labor Temple.

Jupiter worked the door of the bar almost every night, checking IDs and providing a kind of security by omission; his presence was usually plenty enough. Locals liked him, so rarely wanted to mix it up—even when one booze-hound did manage to cajole another into something more than respectable words, Jupiter’s calm presence, veined arms folded, giant head nodding sympathetically to all parties, usually diffused even the most unstable situations. And the tourists—always seasonal, but dwindling more each passing year—took one look at him, the way the hard shadows of the Labor Temple seemed to collect to his massive body like a layer of armor, and thought better of crossing any line.

Naked lightbulbs along the walls provided the dimmest of light, and the way the gold played against the brown panel walls, fighting and losing against those same heavy shadows, gave the whole space a kind of murky red glow. The path from the front door reminded one of a subway tunnel, out-of-fashion booths laid down along both sides of an entering patron like railroad ties. The rubber-mat walkway continued past to pass a single corner of an ancient and long mahogany bar, the majority of which sat behind a makeshift drywall divider with a second doorway cut, a strange byproduct of city ordinance.  Beyond the plaster sat the rest of the bar proper, stationed as the conversation piece of a deeper ring of hell.

Whenever he could, Jupiter would balance his girth on an old wooden stool outside the front doors, and when nothing was happening, or no one was coming in or out for any reason besides burning a butt, he would stare out north, northwest, over the downtown and past it, watching the stars, the moon when it was flung out that way. The whole four- or five-block area that sat on a valley before the earth rose back up on its haunches reminded him of a school-project diorama, or one of those classical paintings meant to make the world seem better than it was. It was strange to be homesick for the place where he was sitting, both an adopted son and a usurper. He was with them, he thought, these people of his life, but not of them, and could never be. 

After about an hour or so, the clouds rolled in from the bay, and it began to rain. Jupiter brought his stool inside, placing it gingerly in the corner.

“You need anything, Jupe?” Flo asked from somewhere behind the bar. 

“No, ma’am,” he replied, not looking up, but flashing the closest thing he had to a smile, a sort of widening of the straight line of his mouth.

“Not even a cola or nothin’?” She pressed. “You’re lookin’ a little piqued tonight.” Flo had known Jupiter a long time, and had no qualms about challenging his urge to demure. 

“I’m fine,” he muttered, just as voices were rising behind the partition at the darker end of the bar. Their eyes met, a tacit agreement in the space between, and Jupiter ambled to the cut-out doorway.

With each step, the voices became incrementally louder, the words sharper. And then there was a loud scrape of a barstool. And then a scream. By the time Jupiter’s eyes had adjusted to the next level of pitch, a skinny kid named Francis DuMont had pulled a silver-plated pistol on Tony “Ant” Smithy, the owner of a used car lot five miles east of town.

The silver of the gun caught the meager yellow light in such a way that it made the weapon look like sparks in Francis’ jittery, folded hands—the whole posture made him look more like a kid than he already did, with his oversized jacket and Timberlands, the swath of piss-colored hair that draped along his brow. “You fuckin’ her, ain’t ya?” He was practically hissing at Ant, something between a snivel and a howl. He cocked the hammer back.

Ant scrambled up in his stool and let out his own kind of whelp. Jupiter imagined the man’s balls were somewhere above his belly-button, if the eyes were any tell. “Jesusfuckingchrist,” the man with the salt-and-pepper crew-cut and matching moustache spat.

“Just tell me yer fuckin’ her.” Francis took a deep breath and then another, chest heaving. He spoke again, this time lower, calmer—like he was far away, like he had gotten on the ghost train that should course through this station a few times a night. “So it can just be over.”

It was the built-in quiet—the very sanity of the kid’s words—that triggered Jupiter, forced him to move faster than most anyone in Astoria had ever seen him move, and put himself between the two men. “Put the gun down, Francis,” he ordered, hand up, calm as metronome.

“What you doin’, Jupe?” the kid said, loud again, back in the shitty little half-alcove, what the locals condescendingly called the Champagne Room. “Get outta my way—this ain’t your fight.”

“I’m security, Francis,” Jupiter retorted, his breathing a bit labored for the quick jaunt across the space. “All the fights are my fights.” 

“He’s fucking my fiancée, the fucker.”

Dark as it was, Jupiter stepped close enough to see that the kid’s eyes were rimmed with tears. One shook loose and landed on his cheek, but he didn’t bother wiping it away. He just held the cocked pistol, now pointed a Jupiter, in his two spindly hands.

“Put the gun down.”

Francis sneered, and Jupiter caught an element in it that bisected time, a sneer like Socrates would have seen it, a sneer from where all other sneers came: this dumbass kid’s, now. Pontiac’s, then. “No,” Francis barked, defiant.

Jupiter stood inches away; he was spinning light years out. It was all the same, he realized, all along the line. “Okay,” he mumbled quietly, then grabbed the barrel with both his hands, and held it tight to his chest. “Shoot me.”

There were sighs, and another choked scream. Flo had made her way down to the near end of the bar. “God, Jupiter,” she whispered, and it was such a heartbreaking, flimsy thing set on her lips—he could recognize one of his own tribe, one who knew that just living was an act of defiance in itself. Blood spatter and the smell of charred flesh, Jupiter figured, were just affectations, dispatches on a war that was lost long ago, before any of us ever had a fucking shot. “Shoot me,” he repeated, clearer. Crisper. “Shoot me.”

Shoot me,” Jupiter ordered, and Francis tried to pull the gun away, but couldn’t—the giant’s grip was like cement, the barrel attached to his chest like a new appendage. “Shoot me,” he said again, this time so quiet, like a child, like a plea, a prayer. They were on a kind of subway platform, it turned out, a red-light juncture fathoms deep underground, the crossroads of coming and going.

Jupiter towered over the kid still trying to wiggle the gun free, getting nowhere, as if Francis were learning in real-time how unworthy of the sword in the stone he was, hilt deep.

“I’ll probably let go when you pull the trigger,” Jupiter snarled. Francis’ eyes widened, the whitest things in the dark, dark bar. “Probably.” Outside, the rain was picking up, smacking against the roof.

All Jupiter heard, though, was the whoosh of the train he was on, careening backwards, spastic on the tracks. An express train to Appleton, Maryland, bypassing all the stops in between. All the Jupiters. All their collisions; just like planets and gods, one didn’t peaceably pick up where the last left off, but plowed through, the price of creation being destruction. Shrapnel. Collateral damage. Never-ending hugs that strangle like vines.

Francis did the only thing he could do—he let go. He jumped back as if off a carousel, something that seemed hardly to be moving, but was actually speeding so much faster than that. He almost lost his balance, but caught himself. He just stood there blinking, not sure what to do with his now empty hands.

Jupiter himself made a lazy turn around the bar, the pistol handle still sticking out from his chest. Flo stood straight behind the bar, rising up to all five feet of herself. “Jupe,” she said calmly— sweetly even—“Put the gun down.” Jupiter looked at her, and something about the ordinariness of how she watched him, as regular as the rain pattering above, broke the spell. He lurched over to the bar and placed the pistol softly down on its face. Flo took it without a hesitation, then called out to the patrons behind him. “Bar’s closed,” she said, and nobody argued. “Francis, go home.” She looked about the bar room. “We’re going to call this thing a mulligan. I don’t remember a thing myself. Must have been some bad hooch.” Stools slid across gnarled linoleum, jackets were donned, and nobody argued.

Ant was one of the last to leave, giving Francis and the rest of the patrons a wide berth. Flo motioned him over and poured him a shot of something clear. He threw it down his throat. Flo let him swallow and sigh before she spoke again. “And you,” she said, “stop fucking that kid’s girl.”

The slick man tried to protest but Flo cut him off. “Stop fucking that girl, or we’ll do this Murder-on-the-fucking-Orient-Express style—we’ll all put a bullet in you, and the cops will have to arrest this whole goddamn town.” The little woman leaned in, gesturing toward Jupiter putting up stools, and whispered, “Or I’ll sic that crazy motherfucker on you.”

Ant nodded, mumbled a hoarse, “Yes, ma’am.” He sheepishly headed for the door, taking one last furtive glance at the behemoth in the corner.

Flo watched Jupiter for a minute, then came around from the bar. “Jupe, dear,” she said, putting one tiny hand on his arm. “Stop that. Go home to her.”

Jupiter looked up and over her, focusing on the bottles lining the far wall. He shook his head. “Some days, she doesn’t even remember who I am.”

Flo snorted, flashed a crooked, sad grin. “Ain’t life full of little blessings?” Jupiter winced, but she gripped his massive arm tighter. “Little secret miracles,” she whispered, nodding. She let him go. “Go to her, Jupe. It’s probably getting so that you shouldn’t be leaving her alone anymore. Particularly at night.” 

“But what about—”

Flo waved him off. “We’ll be fine. I’ll get some of the regulars to mind the door for free drinks. It ain’t hard in a place like this, you know.” Jupiter nodded. “And don’t worry about the money—I’m still going to pay you.”

At this, Juipiter’s face darkened. “I don’t need your charity—”

“It ain’t charity, you big dummy. You’re on suspension.” She waived her hands around the place. “Mandatory desk duty, let’s say, pending an investigation. Until I decide when you come back.” Her voice softened. “Go to her,” Flo repeated, her voice starting to crack. “Go to that pretty girl with the rings. You still owe someone your love.”

Jupiter’s sigh cracked along some well-worn line, and he bent down to kiss Flo on her forehead. He tried to thank her but she pushed him away. “Go,” she ordered.

And he did. It was still raining, hard as it had all night in fact, but Jupiter didn’t mind. He trudged out onto the street, starting up the hill to his girl with the rings. And he would stay with her, stay with her until she—it all—eventually wound down, just as clocks and universes inevitably do.

Ryan Burruss has worked as a professional writer and editor in the business world for more than 20 years. He has enjoyed fiction bylines in such literary magazines as Prairie Schooner, The Carolina Quarterly, Whiskey Island Magazine, and New Orleans Review, among many others. A native of Maryland, he now calls the Front Range of Colorado home.