Thursday, October 19, 2017

13. The Smiling Man

Derek had composed himself and was tidying his campsite when Mimi returned for her shower.  She had a small bottle of shampoo and a large blue towel.  Derek explained, unnecessarily, how the Port-O-Spray worked.

"Okay," she said.

He told her he would go to the spout and enjoy the long-tails for half an hour or so.  He grabbed his binoculars and looked at his watch.

"Okay!" she said.

He watched her clutch her towel and step up to the bag.

He explained again how it worked.

"I understand," she said.

He apologized for the cold water.

"That's okay," she said.

"I forgot to heat it," he said.

"That's okay, Derek," she said.

Finally he left.  He went to the tip of the spout.

After what seemed like half an hour he checked the time.  It had been five minutes.  The longtails chuckled at him.

After twenty-five minutes of holding his breath, Derek cautiously padded back to his campsite.  Mimi was sitting on his cooler, wrapped in her towel.  Her hair was glossy wet, and she was combing it through with a sparsely-tined plastic brush.  She almost sparkled, and seemed so tidy, so perfect.  Near her he felt ridiculously large and clumsy, like a parade balloon with tangled guy-wires.  She smelled like flowers.  His ears started to sing.  He batted himself.

 She saw, and her eyebrows arched.

"It’s okay," he said, waving his hand.  Then, about the shower, he asked, "How was it?"

"Great," she said.

"Not too cold?"

"No, nice."

He crawled into his tent to retrieve his Swiss army knife and discovered himself humming tunelessly and happily.   He unfolded the corkscrew and forcefully blew clots of sand out from within the whorls, then wished he had waited until he was outside.  He folded it back down.  When he emerged she had put on her shorts, but was shirtless, standing facing away.

"Wait!" she exclaimed, covering herself with one arm, reaching down for her t-shirt.

He didn't look away, absorbed by the movements of her spine and shoulder blades beneath her skin.  Because she bent slightly to the side, he saw in profile most of one of her breasts.  Derek-the-parade-balloon-filled-with-helium felt his guy-wires unwinding and he began to drift upward above the campsite, from where he looked down, as if from a treetop, or through the viewfinder of an intrepid photographer for National Geographic.  He saw a similar universe in which a respected zoologist, also named Derek L. Coulter, was with his beautiful wife doing field work in the tropics, making a living doing what he loved.  His ears sang like a choir.

Her head appeared from the opening in her shirt and with one hand she pulled through her hair and let it swing down her back.  It left damp trails on the cotton where it touched.  She turned and smiled.

Derek was still floating, listening to his ear music.  He carefully spiralled down to make a soft landing next to her.  He showed her the corkscrew, which made her smile again.

Then she said, "Here you go."  She handed him the bottle in manner so ordinary that the usual physical forces of the universe instantly resumed and the rocks below Derek's feet again bore his weight, sending a wave of compression up his body.  His head felt like the bottom chamber of an hourglass filling with sand and his ear-song took on an annoying kazoo-like tone.

He sighed, and then uncorked the bottle with a swift succession of intricate motions.  Having grown up in wine country and being fond of drink, Derek had dealt with a large number of wine bottles and could open them easily, no matter how debilitated he had already rendered himself.  He was undaunted by the toughest lead sleeves or crumbliest corks.

Mimi was impressed by Derek's nimble fingers.  Although she didn't consider the facile opening of wine bottles an important life-skill, it was fascinating to observe a person who knew what he was doing.  It was fun getting to know new people, especially during the first few days when there were so many little revelations.  She found herself wondering if perhaps for too long, since before she had been old enough to have known better, she had been satisfied with a self-absorbed, conservative man.  She wondered if maybe there was nothing more to learn about Adrian, except for the things he kept hiding from her.

Derek sniffed the cork and said, "Pretty good."  He passed it to her.

“I don’t know why people do that.  I don’t know what to sniff for,” she said.

“No one does.  It’s just part of opening a bottle.”

She laughed and sniffed the cork, and felt a twinge, maybe guilt, maybe something else, as he poured equal levels into two plastic coffee mugs, and then carefully placed the bottle on the ground.
 
She bumped her mug against his.  "To..." she hesitated, straining for an appropriate toast, not too formal, not too frivolous.

Derek helped out.  "To Tea Kettle Island," he said.

"To Tea Kettle Island."  They smiled, and sipped.

They selected dinner from Derek's larder.  “I can make a stir-fry.  Here’s some sausages.  They’re not bad, and…”

“You have Spam!”  She lifted the can from the box.

“You like Spam?”

“I was raised on the stuff.”

“Oh, okay,” he said.

“You don’t like Spam?”

“Spam is fine.  Spam it is,” he said.

He cooked for her on his propane camp stove, spam-fried rice with canned peas.  They ate sitting cross-legged on Derek's air mattress, which he had dragged from his tent and reinflated.  They talked about Bermudian weather, how it was much hotter than Toronto and California, but maybe not as hot as the Philippines.  He asked her how the students were getting along with their digging and how the course was going.  She shrugged a few times.  She asked him how his studies were going.  He shrugged once.  Then Mimi asked, "Why are you studying these lizards?"

"Have you seen one?"

She shook her head.  “Just the one that died.”  She apologized for what had happened.  She said she'd been trying hard to prevent it.

“I know,” he said.  He remembered coming across her crushing the can, and believed her.  He had already decided to forgive her.  He was saving his wrath for Adrian when he got back.  Derek said, "The rock lizards are unique.  In their behavior, they’re more mammal than reptile.”

“Oh, interesting,” she said.

He recognized that her response was one of politeness. His wife had imparted at least one socially useful instruction that stuck with him: If you are going to talk to strangers who were not herpetologists about your lizards, keep it lite.

“Yes. They scurry around like mice, and they find food by smell without using tongue-flicks, and they hang out in little gangs.”

“Other lizards don’t do those things?”

“They don’t.  Certainly other skinks don’t. They’re usually too busy fighting with each other.”

“Skinks?”

“Bermuda rock lizards are skinks.  It’s a family of lizards, the same way that cats are a family of carnivorous mammals, as opposed to dogs or bears or weasels or whatever.”

“I see.  It’s a cute-sounding name.  Skinks.”

“I suppose it is.”
 
“The Bermuda skinks don’t fight?”

“Not yet.  There’s no fight in them it seems.”

She said, “That’s sweet.  Pacifist lizards.”

“Ha,” he said.  “That could be the title for a paper.”

“So that’s it?  You’ve come all this way to watch lizards be nice to each other?”

“Plus they’re the last of an ancient lineage.  They have no close relatives in North America anymore. The skinks living there now are very different, highly aggressive.  Their group expanded its range down from the north during the ice ages and seem to have driven the North American relatives of the rock lizard to extinction.  The rock lizards are the end of an evolutionary line. Only in a refuge like Bermuda can a nonaggressive species survive.  And now, because of the introduction of new, predatory species, they too are on the verge of extinction.  That makes them special in an unfortunate way.”

“Is this part of your thesis work?”

Now this was becoming comfortable, graduate students talking to each other.  Technically, he no longer was one, but he hadn’t yet taken the next step. He said, “No, that was finished six months ago.  This is sort of an add-on, related project. I hope to get a couple of papers out of it.”

“It doesn’t hurt that it’s in Bermuda, does it?”

“It shouldn’t.”

“It does?  You’re not happy to be here?”

He said, “Bermuda’s nice enough. It’s beautiful. But I didn’t expect to be working alone.” 

She said, “That sounds like maybe you recently broke up with a girlfriend or something.”

The fireworm pulsed in his stomach.  “Or something,” he said.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No, thank you.  I’m pretty much talked out about that.”  He poured more wine and gulped half of it.  “More?”

She covered her mug with her hand.

He asked her, “So what do you think of this place?  Is it what you expected?”

She told him she had seen lots of pictures, so knew what the various places looked like. “I wasn’t prepared for the Admiral’s house.”

“Or the Admiral?”

“Adrian warned me that he was kind of stuffy and strange.”

“I would pick other adjectives.  What’s his house like?”

“Very big, very posh.  I don’t know how a former military officer can have so much money, unless he inherited it.”

“Is he married?”

“No, but he has a housekeeper named Cora.  She was a surprise.”

“Why?” 

“Because she’s a Pilipina, a few years older than me.  She doesn’t like me.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe because she thinks things have worked out better for me?  She barely talks to me, mostly just short, passive-aggressive replies.  If I ask a question in English, she answers in Tagalog.  If I ask in Tagalog, she answers in English, like she’s pointing out that we’re too different to talk as equals.  No one else has a clue this is going on.”

“That sounds uncomfortable.”

“And that’s the other reason I don’t want to stay there.”

Thank you, Cora, Derek thought.  He asked, “Do you have everything you need to stay overnight?  Do you have enough food, and ice?”

“I wanted to ask you about that.  I was wondering if I can get a few things from you, if you have enough.”

“I’ll ask Michael to increase the supplies. It probably doesn’t need to be a lot more.  You don’t look like you eat all that much.”

“Hey,” she said. “Look, my plate is cleaned off.”

Derek’s meal was barely touched.  “I’ve been talking more,” he said. There was also the fact that his stomach had barely unclenched since she suddenly appeared at his campsite. The wine, what should have been a reliable unclencher, hadn’t worked thus far.

“You really don’t like Spam.  Be honest.”

“Not really.”

“That’s okay.  You were very gracious to make it anyway.”

“You’re my guest.”

“I wasn’t invited. I barged in.”

“With a bottle of wine, so that’s not barging in.”  He wanted to kiss her.  He remembered what they had been talking about.  He said, “Michael won’t be here tomorrow, but will be the next day, in the morning.”

“The giant teddy bear.”

“He’s the best,” said Derek. “You’ll really like him.”  He stood up and took her plate and his own. He scraped his uneaten food into the garbage bag, and then lowered both plates and the cutlery into a shallow plastic bin that contained soapy water.

“I’ll wash them properly in the morning.  It’s too dark to do a good job right now.”  He reached for the wine bottle.  “How’re you doing there?”

“You go ahead,” she said. “I’m fine.”  She reached to down beside the air mattress and picked up something.  She asked, "Who's Roy Delgato?"  She was holding Derek's phony letter, which had been lying on the ground beside the air mattress.  She must have read the address some time earlier, before sunset, and had been waiting to ask.  "You write to him a lot?"

Derek hesitated. "He's an old, wise friend…"

Then his watch began to chime; it was nine PM.

"Excuse me," he said.  He removed his sunglasses to search for the black radio tucked somewhere among his equipment.  He called Michael and told him everything was wonderful, although neglected to mention that he had a dinner companion.  Michael said Derek might be in luck if experiencing a hurricane was something he truly wanted.  He had just seen on the Weather Channel that there was a tropical wave organizing into a depression off the Cape Verde Islands.  Derek was unsure what it meant, but said, "Great."  They signed off.

Mimi pushed a button on her watch.  "I guess I should go.  I have to prepare a lecture for tomorrow.  Thanks for supper.  I enjoyed it very much.  You're a very good cook, even of Spam.  It was delicious."

Derek was surprised and disappointed.  "You sure you'll be all right by yourself?"  He had hoped she would be spending the night with him at the redoubt — in his tent, as he slept in the hammock.  He was truly concerned for her safety alone at the other end.  There were the mystery-men, and something else.  On more than one occasion he had jolted awake in the middle of the night for no identifiable reason, frightened almost enough to pee himself.  He said, "You could stay here.  You could have the tent and use my lantern to write your lecture.  I'll sleep in my hammock." 

"Okay," she said.  "That's very kind of you.  I'll get my stuff."

Derek was thrilled by the quick change of mind, and with his back turned, ignited the mantle of a small propane lantern.  Momentarily blinded, he patted the ground.

"Here," she said, and placed the sunglasses into his hand.  Then, taking the lantern, she wobbled down into the grove.

"Wait!  I'll come with you!"  Derek was looking for his shoes.  He pulled them on and stumbled after her, but before he'd traveled far was struck again by the glare of the lantern, Mimi zooming past, back toward the redoubt.  He spun in the black and chased her to the tent.  "What happened?"

She told him there were two men at the water tank.  They had opened the door.  One smiled at her.

"Really?"

She nodded.  “And there was something wrong with them!”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know to explain it.  Something not right.  They looked like they were from an old oil painting.”

He picked up the radio and called Michael again, with no response.  He touched her shoulder.  "Stay here," he said.

"Where are you going?"

"To get them."

"What?"

"To get rid of them.  You stay here."

"No, I want to stay with you."

"No, you stay here and keep trying the radio.  Hold the button down and say, 'Calling Fisheries Two'."  He dived into the tent and scrambled back out, clutching the rifle and a little white box.  "But only hold it down when you're talking.  If Michael answers, tell him there are intruders on the island and we need the police."

Mimi had been startled by the men, but Derek's deadly seriousness scared her more, especially because while talking, he had loaded the rifle without even looking at it, as swiftly and easily as he had uncorked the bottle.  Now he was crouched down, removing more bullets from a little box.  He stood and stuffed them into his pocket.

"You can't shoot them!"

"I'm not going to.  I'd never do that.  I just want them to know I have a gun, that's all.  I'll fire in the air or something if I have to, to give them a scare.  Don't worry."  He extinguished the lantern.  In the dark he forced something else into her hands, his folded sunglasses.  "Listen," he said, "there's only one path from the water tank.  When I 'm on my way back, I'll whistle.  If you hear footsteps before you hear a whistle, yell as loudly as you can, then hide in the tent.  I'll hear you."  He hoped he would, because the ringing in his ears had become so loud that he could barely make out his own forced whisper.  Then he was gone.
           
"Derek?"

He had scared himself too.  He was unsure why he thought a weapon was needed, but it felt better to carry one down by the spooky water tank.  He was troubled by the possibility that the mysterious men might be coming to the island every night, for whatever reason.  They could have slit his throat in mid-snore had they wanted to.  It had occurred to him after the incident with Mimi on the boat that maybe they were cedar poachers.  Michael told him that ghost cedars, the iron-hard skeletal remnants of the great forest that once covered Bermuda, wiped out by an epidemic of scale insects in the 1940s, were sometimes stolen, because the wood was as valuable as mahogany and the trunks, some of which were almost three feet in diameter, could provide a lot of rot-resistant timber for doors, window frames and tourist knick-knacks.  It was illegal to harvest the dead trees because they were considered part of Bermuda's heritage and served as wildlife habitat and as physical supports for other native plant life.  Derek had wondered if bonking Mimi on the head was yet another peculiar attempt by poachers to scare away visitors so they could secretly clear out the cedars on the island, one of the last substantial stands of the dead trees.  Whatever their illicit motivation, Derek wanted them gone, off his island.

Had a large, intelligent friend been there, he might have suggested that there was an element of silly bravado in Derek's bold march down the hill with the rifle, a young man, trying to impress a young woman.
 
In the absence of a ribbing to make him think twice, Derek approached the intruders, hands sweaty, mouth dry with the sour aftertaste of too much wine.  He was a little drunk — but he often was — and there was enough starlight for him to find his way.  Because of his constant use of sunglasses, he had become accustomed to functioning in near darkness.  He saw that there was no one at the water tank and that the door was shut, as he had left it that afternoon.  He was about to continue up the opposite path, to the rampart and the old house, but sensed if he got that far from Mimi, the intruders might take a chance to dart up to the redoubt behind him if they had seen him and were hiding among the palmettos.  He quickly checked the beach and the water in the notch of the island.  There was no boat, and no fresh footprints in the sand.  He hastened back to the tank and took a slow look around, dearly wishing he could hear silence.  Perhaps it was this thought that caused the finger to enter his right ear, hot and forceful, which set off a tone harsh enough to make him stagger.  And then, something new: another, colder finger scraped across the back of his neck.  He yelled and leapt in the air, twisting and swinging the butt of the rifle to his shoulder.  No one was behind him.  Lord it was dark.  He was in a bad strategic position, a clearing in the lowest part of the island, surrounded by tall trees with threatening hairdos.  An army could be hiding within them, and there was nothing to say that they didn't also possess firearms.  The single-shot .22 with a telescopic sight now seemed a very bad idea.


A large, winged cockroach dropped from an overhanging frond and clutched frantically at the first surface it encountered as it fell, the tip of Derek's nose.  All those horrible scratchy legs were too much.  Derek's finger twitched and the gun fired, blasting a hole in the weathered doorframe of the water tank.  Without reloading, he bolted for the redoubt.  The next thing he heard was Mimi screaming his name.  A mouth dry from California merlot and panic made whistling impossible.  Puckering uselessly, he stuck his head inside the tent.  He was knocked senseless by a single whack to the face from his collapsible infantryman's spade.

Continued...

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