Saturday, September 30, 2017

32. Union Square

For the most part, the first two trimesters had not been difficult.  All signs and examinations indicated the delivery of a healthy male child in late May.  However, by the end of February, Mimi was becoming uncomfortable about her increasing size because of the stares, comments, and endless jabber about being pregnant from anyone who had ever been pregnant, or had ever known anyone who had ever been pregnant.  There was always that question, too, to which she didn't know the answer.

An expert on early interactions between Europeans and Ontarian aboriginals had agreed to take over sponsorship of her thesis.  Her name was Caroline Williams.  She told Mimi to take time off and have her child and then either work up and submit what she had produced so far as a Master’s thesis, or wait until she had settled her matters and then redirect her research to something she could credibly supervise as a doctoral thesis.  Caroline Williams told Mimi she would support her in whatever choice she made.

Mimi was touched by the faith and kindness from a woman she barely knew.  She had already hedged her bets and applied to the Faculty of Education.

She was happy to be living at home with her mother and Ruby, who had gone to great effort to convert the upstairs storeroom to a nursery.  Her mother had been sympathetic when Mimi finally told her.  "Oh, my girl," she said, "my bad girl," and that was that.  She set about preparing to become a grandmother, to Mimi's surprise apparently somewhat pleased at the prospect of having a child to care for again.  The three women became a team, and at times it was difficult for Mimi to be sure who was in charge, who was the pregnant one. 

There were also the students from the field course, who visited often and cheerfully helped in any way needed.  They shared a sense of importance regarding the pregnancy, having been there, or nearby, when it happened, and were unanimous in the opinion that the child was Derek's.  They learned not to speak of him around her, though.  They knew it bothered her.

Derek had turned down Peter's offer of a business-class ticket back to New York in celebration of Stephanie's birthday.  He had been tempted, but felt he might be needed by his disciples, and had been determined not to take any more of Peter's money.  Stephanie pretended to be upset, and during a phone call playfully threatened to visit him in California if he didn't come.

By mid-March, halfway through his fourth month in Albany, he wished he had gone back.  The rain was getting him down.  After seven years of drought, California's reservoirs were overflowing from record winter precipitation.  He took his pills, kept his patio curtains closed, and spent a lot of time at home in front of his computer.  He forced himself to work on a paper based on his Bermuda data.   It always seemed to go off topic and become unscientifically angry.  He threw draft after draft in the garbage.  The working title was "That's about it for the Rock Lizard."

He was mystified that an ink sketch he had made of Mimi was missing from one of the notebooks.  He leafed through the puckered pages several times.  I must have already torn it out, he thought, without any recollection of doing so.  The nature of brain damage, he concluded.

With some misgivings, he emailed his new address and phone number to Michael.  He received a reply, with more pleading.

"This woman is as insistent as she is alluring.  She has phoned me twice since Christmas.  She is very anxious to talk to you.  She seems troubled, and is afraid you hate her because of what happened to you.  She asks that you would please phone her.  It's extremely important."

Derek didn't know what to think.  Why was Michael so hung up on this?

"Are you feeling strong enough to visit us again this year?  I thought of an interesting joint project we could do:  The effects of hurricanes on oceanic island biota, comparing natural and man-altered habitats.  What do you think?"

He wrote back that he would love to return to Bermuda sometime, but not this year.  He said he was keeping a close eye on Wild California, which was becoming less and less true.  The new drivers were learning quickly from the others, and there was little for Derek to do these days except discover in what new ways Ava was undermining his no-zooproducts policy.  He told Michael that he remained frail, and wouldn't be able to get in and out of the whaler, or jump from crag to crag along the treacherous Bermudian shoreline.  He didn't tell Michael he feared returning to Bermuda for other reasons.  He didn't want to be reminded of the short-lived happiness that had been painfully lost, but more practically, he wondered if the Bermudian authorities suspected his involvement in the Admiral's death.  He thought of the rifle and the spent shell casing he buried next to the water tank.  Michael's story of the missing head was next to incredible, and Derek found himself contemplating that Michael might be lying about it, deceiving him, trying to coax a confession on behalf of his police-friend Andre.  Maybe he was recording their phone conversations.  These were disconcerting, paranoid thoughts, the negative aspect of ass-covering.

The memory of it kept him awake, gnawed at him, held him prisoner within himself.  He expected that if he went back to Tea Kettle Island he would be overwhelmed by it, there, at the scene of the crime.  How would he be able to stand near the water tank and look out to the notch without reliving it?  Impossible.  He wished he had never heard of Tea Kettle Island.  He wished he had never heard of the Bermuda rock lizard.  Why couldn't he have been an entomologist?  Or a rice-farmer?  The Admiral had been a vile human, almost a murderer himself.  However, except for occasional bouts when his leg was particularly troublesome, Derek's rage at his assailant could not compare with his guilt.  Anger was transient; it sloughed away.  Guilt was indelible, insatiable, permanent.  He didn't understand murder.  How could anyone be a killer, a murderer, on purpose?  "Especially me," he said to himself.  He couldn't stand it, and more and more thought of the way to erase the guilt, on the other side of the Albany Hill, eight miles away.

In early April he was lying in bed, mid-morning, listening to rain drumming on the skylight in the upstairs hall.  The phone rang.  Very few people knew his number, which was unpublished, and he feared it was Ava phoning to nag him for something he had done or not done.  He let the machine take the call.

The Toronto accent made his heart jump.  "Derek?  Are you there?"  It sounded like Mimi as a child.  Again, "Derek?"  It was Mimi, excited and breathless.  "Derek?  If you're listening, please pick up the phone.  Please?"

His body rolled over and his hand reached.

The machine counted the seconds of silence, one-two-three, and cut her off the instant he touched the receiver.  It clicked back to the dial tone.

"Damn," he said.  The receiver bounced on the cradle until his hand fell away.

He was angry at himself, but unsure whether this was for his hesitation or for almost answering.  Michael must have caved, he guessed.  That afternoon he phoned Pacific Bell and changed his line to another unpublished number.  Life was worrisome enough without the mental discombobulation any interaction with Mimi would cause.

That evening, homebound beneath the bay, he was struck by an almost blinding migraine.  He feared another seizure and huddled in plane-crash posture, very scared, praying to no one in particular.  There was no seizure, and he limped home slowly from the station.

The next day, clear-headed and feeling unusually robust, he went to a high-priced sporting goods store in Oakland.  There he bought an expensive rowing machine, a good idea, he thought; he would be able to obtain a thorough, leg-strengthening workout without putting himself in danger of falling, and when his left leg faltered, he would be able to cheat and do most of the work with the right.  He would strive toward the day when he could pump continuously with both legs for at least half an hour.  His hypothesis: once this had been achieved, he would be virtually whole again, therefore much more in control of his life, therefore able to deal decisively with Ava, Mimi, and other nagging problems.

It was during his first cautious workout that he decided to develop a new tour for Wild California.  He thought that this might overturn his growing ambivalence to the company, which was beginning to dismay him.  This thing was his future, yet he seemed to care for it less and less.  He had taken it on, made it work, and now the appeal was fading.  He became gloomy about it some days and couldn't understand why.

He decided on a day-trip through the woodlands in the lower elevations of the Gold Country, the world of the 49-er placer-miners, in the Sierra Madres east of Sacramento.  He and Hans and Marcia, and the two new guides, Mark, from Seattle, and Sarah, fresh from Duke University, drove into the foothills to poke around and get a feel for the roads.  Derek was feeling unusually exuberant, with four of his five there with him.  He drew strength from their energy, their optimism, and their faith in him.  He rode in the third bench and listened as they talked back and forth, laughing, teasing each other, slowing to glance at a blob-like bird on a telegraph wire.  At this moment he loved his crew, and approved of the company.  He wished Peter could see them.  He had an urge to shake his older brother, and shout, "Look what I did!" 

He had felt this contentment at other times too, but it never lasted.  It fizzled away slowly, back to apathy, then worse, when he couldn't believe that Wild California was anything more than a money-making enterprise, exploiting what was left of the wilderness.  The van passed another patch of grey fur on the road.  He said, "The road to hell is paved with dead opossums."

They laughed.

 He didn't.

On the train home was a discarded newspaper on the adjacent seat.  Derek flipped it over and read a minor headline at the bottom of the front page.

23 Unsolved Murders Last Year

It was about Oakland.  There were a lot of murderers in the East Bay, it seemed, shopping at Safeway and Lucky and riding the BART, just like Derek.  Maybe there are 24 of us, he pondered, uneasily.  He was in good company, or at least, numerous company, a club — the Bay Area Murderers on the Loose Club.  He tried to coin an acronym, BAM-something, but gave up, feeling angry and shaky and miserable about this revelation.  He didn't want to be in that club, but was trapped, a member for life, or until caught. He wasn't sure which was worse.

At his apartment he ripped open the closet and wrestled with the ironing board.  It was a recent, unused item he had bought only because he didn't already own one.  The legs opened and closed on his finger.  He yelled, and pushed his thumb onto an expanding blood blister.  "Where's the FUCKING thing?" he shouted.  The day after his seizure, after the night the opossum had been killed, Derek gave the spade a quick rinse in the kitchen sink and put it away, no longer wanting to see it or have it as a bedside companion.  He tossed it into this closet, where it had quickly been buried by his rapidly accumulated household junk.  Finally, he spied it standing upright behind a large suitcase, also never used.  He wrangled it out, which caused a fine layer of rust to detach from the blade and settle gently onto the carpet.  It looked exactly like dried blood.  Maybe it was dried blood.  "Shit," he said.

He held the tool under a light and grimaced at the hatch-marks he had fearlessly engraved in Bermuda.  Again he imagined the uncarved notch, and formulated a bolus of hatred for the once-so-esteemed digging tool.  He hurried to the garbage shed and hurled it into the bin.  Then he vacuumed his apartment, starting with the rust on the floor.  The dust bag was less than a quarter full, but he tore it from the machine and threw it away too.  As he came back up the walk he heard the heavy clunk of a car door, and the departure of a car.  He lifted his eyes, and at the end of the driveway was Stephanie.  She dropped her bag and ran to him.

"I love this place!" she exclaimed, which could have meant San Francisco, or Albany, or the entire Bay Area, or Derek's home.  There was a lag, but just in time he acted pleased to see her, and, still sweating from frantic cleansing exertions, hugged her back.  He was troubled that she had come alone.

If it was okay with him, she would be staying for a week, splitting time between his home and a friend's houseboat in Sausalito.  This was her first trip to northern California.  She needed a break from work, she said.  Derek asked her why Peter hadn't come with her. 

"Business," she said.  "You know how he is."

Derek was direct.  "Everything is okay between you two, right.?"

"Oh sure, no problem, I'll get my suitcase."  She spun and headed down the driveway, leaving Derek worrying that Peter might soon be looking for number four, or five.  She lugged her bag toward him, and he stepped forward as though to help but she said, "No, I'm fine," which is what he knew she would say.  Apprehensively he opened his front door to allow her into his freshly-vacuumed home.  "What an adorable kitty!" she exclaimed.

Derek watched as Roy struggled in her arms.

That evening over supper she told him he had to get out more, that he looked pale, that he should have a tan.  He looked better with a tan.

"It's been raining for three months straight," he said, "and forty degrees every day."

"Never mind," she said.  "I have a list of things to see.  Tomorrow I want you to take me to Haight-Ashbury, and then to the Golden Gate Bridge."

He frowned.  "I'll take you to the Haight, which isn’t anything special anymore by the way, but not the bridge.  It's too far.  It's cold.  I don't like going there.”

"Okay, deal," she said.

The next afternoon was sunny and he took her to the Haight, which she agreed wasn’t anything special, then by cab to Wild California.  Derek suggested she take photographs to show Peter, and she obliged.  During the visit Ava glared at her and Stephanie glared back.  "I don't like her at all," she said as they left.  "Peter says you should fire her, and I agree."

Derek sighed.  They took a bus and ended up in Union Square, where she became excited by the proximity of several famous department stores and wanted to browse.  "Go ahead, take your time," he said.  "I'll sit here on this bench and work on my tan, if the Moonies don't get me."  There was a thirtyish man at the west end of the central section of the square, pestering a tourist who was trying to peel a label off the lens of his brand-new sunglasses.

Stephanie skipped off to Saks Fifth Avenue, and Derek regarded the stark grey marble of the part of Macy’s that had once been a competing store called I. Magnin.  He counted the windows.  There were eight rows of eight, but he counted them one at a time and somehow came to 62.

The Moonie blocked out the sun.  "Good afternoon, are you a visitor to San Francisco?"

Derek stood quickly and began walking away, swinging his cane, and then from up the grade in the central square he saw Mimi Villanueva walking south on the opposite side of Stockton Street.  She was here, in the city, trying to find him!  It crossed his mind that this was a set-up, something to do with Stephanie being here, she knowing that there had been someone in his life shortly before the injury, "the one who forgave him."  Perhaps Michael spoke to her and she phoned Mimi (in her well-meaning way, it would be typical of her to butt in like that), but he couldn't imagine that she could have planned for a Moonie to chase him from his bench at precisely this instant, just in time for him to see Mimi Villanueva strolling past the square.  All this thinking was summarized in one word, "Jesus!" as he rushed along between concrete planters, using their shrubbery for cover.  He watched her cross Geary Street at the light, and then wait in front of Neimen Marcus.  She was crossing to this side of the street!  It was her. Wasn’t it?  He crept closer.  A large woman carrying bags was standing in the way.  “Get out of the way,” he muttered.  The light changed and she was crossing to his side, and then he lost her.  She was a small woman in a crowd of large people. He hobbled to the corner of the square and spun in circles.  There!  She was heading toward Market Street.  He struggled down a flight of curving stone steps, saying, “Move leg, move!” and then, “Change light, change!”  He stood at the curb, debating running the red, dodging traffic.  No. He had no chance in hell of not being run over.  He lost sight of her.  And then he saw her for a split second.  She was under the awning, the doorway to the old part of Macy’s.  She went in.

He crossed and hurried to the door.  He entered and avoided the perfume lady.  He didn’t even know what he was planning to do.  Did he want to talk to her?  He definitely wanted to see her.  He made a quick, heart-pounding circuit of the woman’s wear section, carefully examining from a distance anyone who seemed the least bit Asian.  He even peeked for the right sort of ankles beneath the changing room doors.  He went downstairs to house wares and got nowhere, so rode back up the escalator and started from scratch. Finally a suspicious young clerk asked him, "Ah, can I help you find something?" 

Derek looked at her, startled.  He shook his head, and left the store. 

He limped back to his bench in the square.  The Moonie was gone, and so was the sunshine.  He sat shivering in the cool, unable to understand how he could have imagined her so vividly.  He tried to recall something in the woman’s shape, or height, or walk, or the swing of her hair that would mean he was wrong, that it hadn't been her.  The problem was, he suspected, that anyone who to any degree resembled Mimi now to him looked exactly like her, a combination of faulty memory and the feelings that wouldn't go away.  He rested his forehead on the handle of his cane, waited for Stephanie, and thought about this.  He could check it out.  He could phone her.  In Toronto right now it was about seven PM, and it was a weeknight.  She would be home if she wasn't teaching or studying in a library.  He knew her number despite having tried hard to prevent it from entering his mind.  He could phone and hang up when he heard her voice and would know he had not seen her, that she was not here.  No, he couldn't do that.  He would be unable to hang up.  He would stand there shaking and breathing and she would guess it was him, returning her call.  He thought of something else.  Possibly he would be wrong in his voice identification.  Maybe her sister Ruby would answer and sound exactly like Mimi, and therefore not eliminate the possibility that the girl on the street had been Mimi.  All these possibilities.  Another was that the girl he had just seen was her sister.   Or maybe just another ghost.

Two days later Stephanie left for Sausalito, which was fine with Derek, and with Roy.  She gave emotional hugs to both when she left, reaffirming for Derek that yes, his libido was back, which disturbed him because this was his older brother's young wife, and depressed him because he had little use for a libido anymore.  Roy the cat did not have a troublesome libido, because his sex organs had been removed years earlier.  "Lucky you," said Derek, as Roy rolled over and fell asleep.
On May 20, Michael Spencer phoned.  Derek had sent him his new number after Michael agreed not to give it to anybody.  So far, it seemed, Michael hadn't betrayed him.  The big man sounded drunk.  "The blessed event has happened, Derek-boy!” he declared, “I am a father, yet again!"

"Congratulations!" said Derek.  "Is it a boy or a girl?"

"We have a strapping big, big boy!" Michael shouted, as if the phone weren’t working very well, "Ten pounds, seven ounces!"

Derek laughed too.  "How the heck is Evie?"

"A little sore," said Michael, "at me!  She said never again, no more romancing during hurricanes!"
Derek held the phone away from his ear and waited for the laughter to subside.  "So how's the baby — how's Dexter?"

"Nope," Michael said, "that's why I'm calling you.  He's not a Dexter.  That would be too dangerous." 

"Then what's his name?" asked Derek.

"We wanted a gentle boy," said Michael.

"So what did you call him?" asked Derek.

"It was a grand idea, if I do say so myself."

"What?" asked Derek.

"One guess!"  Michael laughed heartily.  Then he said, "Have you called Mimi?"

He became solemn.  "No Michael, I haven't.  I have some personal things to work out before I do."

"I see," said Michael.

Then Derek asked, "Why can't she understand I don't want anything to do with her?"  He could hear the big man smiling.  He even smiled loudly.

"Because it's not true.  If I believed it were true, I'd tell her to give up on you.  But I won't do that.  I tell her not to give up."

"What?  Why are you doing this?"

Mimi's son was born the following day.  He too was healthy, nowhere near the size of baby Derek Spencer, but the problem remained: she still couldn't tell who the father was.  The boy looked very little like either man, and very much like her.  He was dark, with dark hair and very dark eyes.  He looked like a tiny Filipino, and she loved him.

Michael phoned to tell her Derek's new number and home address.

"I already called him at his old number and he didn't call me back," she said.  "I wrote to him in New York and he didn't write back.  He hates me."  Then she said, “Oh maybe it doesn't matter.  Maybe it was never meant to be."  She was thinking of another reason why it would be best to forget about Derek, prompted by her mother's renewed urging.  Quietly but persistently, Mrs. Villanueva had been trying to convince Mimi to contact the father, whom she assumed was Adrian.

 "A baby needs a papa," she said.  "It's very hard for a mother without a papa to help.  These days the world is much harder.  You must tell Adrian."

"You never liked him, Mama."

"True, but he has money.  He has to give you money."

"No,” she said.  “I can make my own money."  Nevertheless, her mother’s words made her wonder who would be the eventual father to her boy.  She speculated that even if restored to full health, to the kind and gentle person she had first found him to be, Derek would not be a good choice for a father.  She was not sure that the kind and gentle Derek existed anymore anyway — she had received no indication of that —  but even if he did, he was an impractical, unambitious man, not the sort who would ever have much money.  His home was California.  Her home was here.  Derek’s time was gone.

Michael wanted to scream.  "He seems to be doing rather well," he said to her, not having any real knowledge of Derek's financial situation. 

"What's he doing, teaching?”

Michael wasn't sure.  This was one of the things Derek was keeping to himself.  Michael guessed that Derek's loathsome moneybags brother was supporting him.  He didn't know what to say to Mimi, but this had never stopped him before, so said, as if with Divine knowledge, "He wants to talk to you, to be with you, but he can't yet."


He explained that there was a reason why Derek wasn't ready to know about the baby and deal with the ramifications of it, if it was his.  It was not in his opinion very much of a lie.  "I didn't want to tell you, to worry you, until I knew for sure the extent of it.  The thing is, there's still something stuck in his brain that the doctors couldn't remove, which has to be fixed before he is properly recovered." 

"What?  What are you talking about?" Mimi said.  "Is it serious?"

He answered, "Serious, but curable.  I'll let you know as soon as I know more."  Then he said, for the sole reason that he wanted it to come true, If Derek is the father, he'll come to you.  Believe me."

"He'll come to me." 

"Within a short time, I'm sure.  Your faith, Sweetheart.  He will reach out to you.  He'll come to you."

 One thing the Mid-Ocean Love God knew for certain was that Derek had no chance in heaven or on earth of ever again finding a gem like Mimi.  He wanted him to have her, and also, her to have him.  This was of paramount importance.  It wasn't right to use people, and then let them suffer, even if you didn't love them the way he loved his two.  He believed with his entire enormous heart that Mimi deserved Derek and would need him regardless of the paternity of the tiny boy.  He knew that this man would be a wonderful father for Mimi's son.  He also knew what had to be done to fix this mess—his mess—and  and that he was the only one capable of doing it.  Only he knew how to remove Derek's burden and reopen his heart before Mimi smiled at another.

There were difficulties though.  As with anything of dire necessity on this planet, the solution to the problem relied on two entirely mundane commodities, money and time. Michael suspected that two thousand dollars and two or three days would be sufficient.  He could book the time, but a Fisheries warden’s salary, a sizeable mortgage, and a household that included two young children made miracles difficult to finance.  And how to explain so crazy a thing to Evie?

Within three months Mimi would recognize her baby's father, after the unclear, glassy darkness in baby Michael's eyes began to change.  On the same day, that year's baby rock lizards started hatching on Tea Kettle Island, a new crop, ripe for the picking.  She phoned Michael to tell him, to ask what he thought should be done now, but missed him by a day.  He was away from Bermuda, on his way to the Golden State.


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