Tuesday, October 17, 2017

15. The Line

Derek limped back to his campsite to change into dry clothes.  He could not remember ever having been so thoroughly covered in small, irritating wounds, and felt like a potato peeled by an inattentive child armed with a wire coat hanger.  While stanching what oozed from his scraped knees, hands, and elbows, he noticed how drastically his First Aid kit had been depleted.  "I'll bleed to death on this island," he said, thinking blood-loss might explain his light-headedness.  There was also an unusual tickle in the middle of his chest when he inhaled deeply, not at all as pleasurable as the fireworm glow.

He tried to radio Michael to tell him about the previous night's intruders, and brag that he had survived a Man o' War, but there was no response.  He used his disappointment as an excuse to take a beer from his cooler.  Contact with the chilled aluminum caused the pain in his fingers to ease.  "Beer," he said warmly at the cold can.  He popped the lid and guzzled the contents.  Then he belched, wiped his mouth, crushed the can, and went to lunch.

The archeologists were seated on the wall, except for Brian who lay like a felled tree on Mimi's air mattress.  Mimi shifted, and Derek sat between her and Shana.  Everyone was smiling, even Joanne.

"Let me get you some lunch, Derek,” Shana offered, and fixed him a tunafish sandwich.

Derek wondered about the freshness of the mayonnaise, and the rest were quiet and contemplative, sharing a subdued but happy sense of community, as would be found among a group of suburban neighbors who had just survived a tornado or a sneaky attempt by local government to put a group-home on their block.  They were a little rattled, with minor damage here and there, but everyone was more or less okay.  They had experienced the same source of panic and terror and among themselves had worked their way out of it.  They moved slowly and spoke softly to keep this safe, comfortable world from being jarred back into the frightening, unpredictable one just escaped.  A United Airlines 737 was bearing down on them.  They held their breath as it passed.

"Excellent," Stew whispered.

They talked about the jellyfish, of what each had seen and felt.  They laughed about it and at themselves for their worthless reactions and confusion.  Derek laughed when he realized all he needed have done to save himself a lot of pain was use a discarded swim fin or snorkel to scrape away the tentacles adhering to Brian.

Stew said to him, "That was some dive you did.  Man, I thought you were going to kill yourself."

"I didn't dive," Derek answered.  "I blacked out.  I fell."

"No way!" said Shana.  "It was a beautiful dive!"

"I was out like a carp," said Derek.

"Amazing."  Joanne shook her head.

"Derek has spent much of the past day unconscious," Mimi said.  She nudged him with her shoulder.

The students exchanged glances.

"Well, whatever, it was a five-point-seven at least!"  Stew snorted, and inadvertently spat a chunk of tuna.

Brian guffawed, but stopped abruptly.  Laughing hurt his skin.

Lunch was over, but no one was eager to return to work.  Brian said to Derek, "Uh, I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings, about your wrecked eye, I mean.  I was a bit delirious or something, I guess."

There was aching silence in response to Brian's continued faux pas.

Derek spoke, "Do you want to know what happened to me?"  He knew that they did.  Almost everyone did.

"No," said Joanne.
Derek told his story despite the panicky, helpless feelings he knew would accompany it.  He wanted to tell it, because he felt a bond with this group of students, because of what had happened below the cliff that morning, and because he was falling in love with their teacher.  He wanted to tell her the story, because revealing his greatest horror was a way to expose himself, to offer himself to her.  For at least an instant, she would be captured.

He had been maimed two years earlier, in Berkeley.  It was on a Sunday evening on which he intended to meet his wife, Laura, at a movie theatre on the same block as her cookie shop, which was called Cookianna. They were planning to see a foreign film called The Road to Kamogawa.

This was at a time when their marriage was just starting to recover from a lengthy rough patch. Things had gone wrong more than a year before that night when Derek was on a herpetological expedition in Mexico.  He became separated from his group, and was lost in the desert for several days.  Injured from a fall, and severely dehydrated, he stumbled into a beachside community of mostly aging American hippies, and they, after feeding and rehydrating him, the next day took him to the nearest airport.  He arrived home unexpectedly, and found evidence that Laura had been having an affair while he was away.  He had done something similar, though, although perhaps not intentionally.  Among the aging beach hippies there was a relatively young, beautiful woman, who led Derek out onto the beach in the middle of the night, where Derek suddenly found himself having sex with her, at least that was how he thought about it. He couldn’t confront Laura with a suspected infidelity while wracked with his own guilt, and was afraid tohave sex with her until he received test results back for every venereal disease he could be tested for.  A beach hippie?  There was a long, sexless, trustless spell that almost ended the marriage, but bit by bit they rediscovered what had attracted them to each other, and Derek’s tests came back negative, and they started sleeping together again.  One morning Laura asked if he would go to the movie with him, and he said yes.

Derek spent the afternoon before the movie date working manically in his office at Berekely, trying to complete a poster for an upcoming poster.  The poster had to be completed and added to the growing pile in the departmental office by the first thing Monday morning.  There was a problem, however.  He was having trouble producing an image, the last element of the poster.  He called Cookianna to tell her he was coming, not to worry, that he just needed to finish a graph.

The graph wouldn’t print properly.  The axes and labels and the scatter of points came out clean and perfect, but the regression line, which was clean and perfect on the computer monitor, was not being reproduced by the printer. He tried both colour and black and white printing modes, to no avail.  He tried submitting it to two different printers, the one in the lab and a networked one in the departmental office.  No luck.  It was the software.  He changed options, printing again and again as time marched on.

He would have to draw it by hand.  He found a high quality technical pen in another graduate student’s desk drawer, but couldn’t find a decent, steel edged meter-stick.  This was doubly irritating, because when he had joined the lab he brought with him an old wooden, steel-edged meter-stick he had owned since high school.  Someone took it, he thought indignantly, holding someone else’s technical pen in his hand.   He doubted he would be able to find a replacement.  He doubted wooden, steel-edged meter-sticks were manufactured anymore.  He looked at his watch.  There should be enough time to run to the art supplies store two blocks south of campus, buy a new metal straight edge, hurry back, draw a line, submit his poster, and run to Cookianna.

Ten sweaty minutes later he was at the art supplies store.  There, he learned that decent steel-edged meter sticks made of any material were a rare item. 
The salesclerk said, “No one draws lines with rulers anymore. It’s all done with software.”
The single meter stick in stock was made entirely of stainless steel and was heavier than Derek would have liked.  It was flawed too, bent-up into a little torn tepee at the end around the hole meant for hanging it onto a nail or hook.  It looked as though the hole had been forced over too large a nail or hook, and then damaged in the act of prying it off again.  Despite the glaring imperfection, it had been optimistically left on display as if someone wanting a precision drafting instrument wouldn't mind buying a bent one.  Derek laughed at the useless thing, but then it occurred to him that if the twisted end were sawn off, a fine ruler, short enough to fit inside his backpack, could be had.  Derek offered half price. 
The clerk said, “How ‘bout a dime?”
“Ten cents?”

“This is my last day here.  I can afford to be magnanimous.”

Derek ran out the door.  Walking north, he came to Bancroft Avenue, the southern border of the main campus.  There he had to stop. He was blocked by a flood of humanity flowing downhill from Memorial Stadium.  The Bears had been playing.  All of the East Bay seemed to be pouring down the hill from the stadium toward the BART.  There were whole families—dads, moms, grandparents, children, all dressed in blue and yellow, many with their faces painted. 

The crowd had come to a complete stop up ahead, filling the street from the storefronts on the south side to the sheer concrete wall below the Hearst gymnasium.  Something was going on, a fight or an accident. Blue and red police lights were swirling, and there were sirens approaching from several directions.

Derek checked his watch.  Time was tight.  He would double back and head west one block, farther if necessary, to outflank this blockage. He jogged a block south to Durant Street, which now also was partially blocked by the overflow crowd. He crossed to the southwest corner, putting himself directly across from the Durant Hotel, and was about to head west when from out of the dark a rumbling car pulled alongside and a young male voice said, "Hey man, you know how to get to San Francisco from here?"  Derek looked at the car first. It was a Pontiac Le Mans from the late 1970s, repainted in flat black, which gave it a sinister appearance.  That should have been a warning.  He wondered who would drive such a vehicle and looked inside.  The driver and passenger were young men in back clothes.  There may have been others in the back, invisible behind tinted windows.  You never knew who was going to get waylaid by a football crowd. “Well, man, you know?” asked the driver, who seemed anxious for a way out of here, so much that he had pulled up on the wrong side of the road.

How to direct him from here to the freeway?  Pretty straightforward, actually.  Derek stepped forward, leaned close, and arm burst from the darkness, snagged his lapel, and dragged him almost into the black interior.  Derek didn't resist, because there was a little hole hovering like a hornet an inch away from his forehead.  It was the muzzle of a pistol. 

The driver said, "You move, you dead.  I swear I'll kill you."

Derek froze.  This was nuts.  There were a zillion people here, well, over there, where the lights were flashing, where all the police were.  These guys were high.  Derek dropped the art store bag next to the curb.

"Don't move!" the driver yelled.  The passenger door popped open and the other occupant danced around the back, grabbed an arm, twisted Derek half-around, and in a deft motion unzipped his jacket and plucked his wallet.  Then he grabbed Derek's left wrist and pulled back the sleeve.  "Ah, piece o' shit," he said, disappointedly, about his watch.  He noticed the bag on the ground. 

"Hey, what's in the bag, man?"

Derek said, "Art supplies."

The passenger drew out the heavy steel meter-stick and said, "Whoo, look at this!"  He waved it back and forth like a sword.

The driver released Derek’s collar and pulled the gun back a bit, but kept it leveled at Derek's head.  He said, "You don’t move an inch till we're gone, or you are dead.  We got your wallet.  We know where you live." 

With the meter stick tucked beneath his arm, the passenger was leafing through Derek’s wallet.  He yanked out the three twenties and then paused, looking at a picture of Laura.   He said, “Hey, who’s this, your girlfriend?”

He waved the open wallet at the driver and said, “Maybe we ought to drop in on this pretty lady and tell her her boyfriend is temporarily unavailable.”  He read Derek’s driver’s license, and said to the gunman, “You know where Grizzly Peak is?”

More men wanted to touch his wife.         

The gun was still levelled at his head.  

The passenger was dancing away, now waving the meter-stick.  He also was laughing, looking at a picture in Derek’s wallet, and singing, “Pretty lady, your desires are about to be met, in numerous ways you never could have imagined...”
The sensible, correct instructions Derek’s brain had been telling him—stay calm, don't resist, do what they want—were overridden.  Laura was in danger.  He needed to get his wallet back.

He called out, as if to God, “Call 9-1-1!” and then dove at the meter stick but fell short, landing on his hands on the sidewalk.  He was out of the line of fire of the gunman still inside the car.

"Fuckhead!" The passenger swung the meter-stick, but missed completely.  As Derek rose for a second pounce or, maybe, back to his senses, to run away, the backhand ripped into his left eye.  There was a phosphene flash, a popping sound, and wrenching pain.  The passenger then lunged forward, momentarily skewering Derek on the twisted metal tepee, which was wedged into the upper, inside corner of his eye socket.  The passenger backed away and as he did, made a carving motion with his wrist.  Derek was pulled by the stretching flesh of his eyelid, dragged forward until a terrifying, flesh-rending sound released him, accompanied by a pain so excruciating he believed himself shot.  Then he was hit over the back of the head with something heavy—a fist or a boot or the grip of a handgun.  At that instant his ears began to ring.

"Get in, man!" the gunman yelled. 
Derek lay near the curb with blood pooling in his fingers.  He heard the car door slam and more laughter and swearing as the thugs drove away.  Almost immediately another car screeched up to the curb beside him, and yet another flew past.  The Berkeley police had arrived, bulging with Kevlar and weaponry, responding to a 9-1-1 call from patrons of the Durant Hotel restaurant across the street.  They had seen the robbery unfold and had called the police even before Derek called out, but most of the BPD was tied up with whatever was going on with the football crowd over on Bancroft.

Derek was taken to hospital and underwent surgery.

The thugs got clean away.

Afterward, because of his damaged eye and his refusal to accept money from his capitalist brother that would make it possible to repair it, his relationship with Laura nose-dived again.

In relating his story to the horrified Canadians, Derek began in the art store and ended on the sidewalk.  He omitted the marital discord that bracketed the assault, and didn’t mention what triggered his decision to fight back, making it sound more like a simple, brief lapse of common sense, because he didn't want to mention his wife in front of Mimi.  His voice faltered a few times, but he swallowed hard and kept going, walking all the way to the store and part-way back in his mind.  It was more difficult than he had anticipated.  This time, he almost ignored the young man who wanted directions.  He almost ran as fast as he could all the way back to his office, away from South of Campus and the crowds of football fans and the two thugs who cruised the streets, hunting for him, wanting to rip out his eye.

He noticed his shaking hands and pressed them to his lap.  He looked at Mimi, whose large brown eyes were made larger by a thickening layer of salt water.  The others were looking down, or out to sea.

"And then Mimi hit me in the face last night with a shovel," he said, seriously.

The sadness drained from her face and she cracked an enormous smile.  "Hey, don't tell them that!" she said, and playfully punched him in the chest.  He grabbed her wrists, but immediately let go.  "Yeow," he said.  He shook his hands, still too sensitive to grip anything.

Then Mimi described what had happened the previous night.  She told of the two men near the water tank.

"There's no way you should spend any more nights here," Shana said to her.  "You either," she said to Derek.

Mimi shrugged.  She had no intention of staying at the Admiral's house and didn't feel she needed to explain why.

"We should all stay here," said Stew, who was impressed that Derek had a rifle.  "We could take turns standing guard."

"Yes," said Joanne.  "We're a good team."

Derek raised his eyebrows, and Molly shifted uneasily.

"Call the cops," said Brian.

"I haven't been able to," said Derek.  "I can't get an answer on my radio."

"Everything will be fine," said Mimi.

"Yeah, don't worry," said Derek.  He was feeling brave now, because it was daylight.  He was also thrilled Mimi that seemed willing to spend another night.

"We'll tell the Admiral this afternoon," said Shana.

"No, don't do that," said Mimi.  She didn't want to give the old man any more reason to try to force her back to his estate.

"Do your ears really ring all the time?" Brian asked. "That must drive you nuts."

Derek nodded.  "But most of the time it's not too bad."  He explained it was aggravated by high-pitched or sudden loud sounds, and got worse when he was stressed or excited about something.

"They must have been ringing a lot lately," said Stew.

Shana glared at him.

"Look!" whispered Molly.  Next to her leg a Bermuda rock lizard was poking at a bread crust.  It grabbed the crust in its jaws and flipped away, over the wall.  "There's another one!" she said.  She pinched a speck of tuna from her plate and flicked it toward a second lizard that had just popped onto the top of the rampart.  It darted forward, grabbed the scrap and gobbled it down.  It licked its jaws and blinked.

Molly giggled.  A flicker of doubt crossed her face and she turned to Derek, "Is it okay to feed them?"

"Why not." He smiled at her.

They spent several minutes tossing tuna fragments to the hungry lizards.  There were three.  They moved erratically as if they had only two settings, stop and go.  When they stopped, they would lift the fronts of their bodies and fold their hind legs up over the bases of their tails to keep from scorching their feet on the sun-baked rock. 

Derek noticed that all had regenerated tails, meaning most likely all had been attacked by a predator at least once.

"These guys are cool," said Stew.

"They're so cute," squealed Shana.

"In their way, they are magnificent," said Joanne.

"They're smiling," said Molly.

Mimi squeezed Derek's wrist.

"I haven't measured these," said Derek.  "That's what I'll do today."

Mimi happily divided her time between assisting and advising the students and helping Derek measure and mark the lizards.  By three o’clock he had run out of sardines, and, instead of walking back to his stores and opening another tin, the unused portion of which would be rotten by tomorrow, decided to call it a day.  He sat where he had been sleeping the night Mimi arrived on the island, and gently knocked his heals against the wall as he watched her.  The way she moved from one student to the next made him think of a worker bee drifting from blossom to blossom.  She touched them when she spoke to them, on the shoulder or arm, and their faces would light up.  She laughed with them, or gently teased them.  She seemed to have no favorites.  Now and then she would look up at him, and he would feel a flash of a kind of happiness he hadn’t experienced in a long time.

Shortly after four o'clock, the Admiral's boat appeared around the southern tip of Cooper's Island.  "Quitting time!" Mimi called.

Derek squinted at the distant boat and closed his notebook.  He walked to the row of rectangular pits where the students were laboring.  For a second he was bothered by the image of them digging their own graves, and wanted to make them stop.  He said good-night to them, one at a time.  He now knew everyone's name.

The students placed their discoveries, mostly fish bones and possible fragments of pottery, into labeled plastic bags.  They gathered the brushes and trowels and headed to the shore.

Shana was last to leave.  She stood next to Mimi, almost a head taller.  "Aren't you coming?"

Mimi was annoyed.  She had expected Shana would say something.  "No, I'm not coming," she said.  "I'll see you tomorrow."

Shana didn't move.  "Mimi, what do you think you're doing?"

"What are you talking about?"

"You know what I'm talking about.  What about Dr. Lyon, about Adrian?"

Mimi's throat tightened.  "Please mind your own business."

"Fine," she said.  "Just don't forget about us, okay?"  She snatched up her knapsack and hurried away.

From the rampart Mimi watched the sloop turn the corner of Cooper's Island, inching into Castle Harbour.  "What am I doing?" she asked herself.  She hadn't asked Derek if she could stay on the island with him, but without saying anything, he gave every indication he wanted her there.

After lunch he set his traps at the rampart, which did turn out to be a population hot-spot.  Mimi and her students took a break to watch him work.  He was good at catching the skittery little things, sometimes lunging and snatching them from the air as they vaulted from their pop-bottle traps.  Once he had one in hand he became slow and gentle, and would turn his body to keep the lizard shaded.  As he worked, kneeling on the rock, measuring with his calipers, jotting notes in his little book and then dabbing splotches of nail polish on the lizards’ backs, he talked in a low, soft voice, complimenting the lizards on how handsome or beautiful they were.  After blowing on the nail polish to ensure it was dry, he would say, "Good luck, buddy,” or “Good luck, little lady,” and then he would let the lizards go. How he could tell the boys from the girls was a mystery. They all looked exactly the same to her.

She appreciated how he'd been trying to get to know her students.  During breaks in his work he talked to them and joked with them, even tried to understand weird Joanne.  She imagined if this had been Derek's course, he would still be the same way with the undergraduates, patient and friendly and helpful, not intentionally strict and aloof, as Adrian was.

This thought brought back Shana's question, and inspired bothersome questions of her own about her long relationship with her professor, which now seemed at a very low ebb.  She couldn't remember any previous period that compared with the difficulty of the past few months.  Every sexual interaction had been at her instigation, which was beginning to wear her down.  Recently, she'd practically had to beg for it.  She had hoped this course, this place, would turn things back to when he was more interested, more tender, as he had been in the days when he would say how "smitten" he was with her.  He had always had the ability to be a pain in the neck, but he could also be very charming, and, until recently, even sweet sometimes.

What if it were suddenly over?  It might be!  She absolutely didn't want to go to England, where she would be a more of a curiosity than she was in North America.  Adrian was a productive, highly motivated archeologist, a performer, in the prime of his career.  He probably would be offered the job. "Yech, England," she said.  "How would I tell Mama?"

She thought about what seemed to be happening with Derek, this man she did not know much about, with whom she had been thrown together.  Did he feel the same caught-up way about it, wonder if it was the strangeness of the place, or did he not feel affected?  Does he think this is real?  "I'll have to be firm," she said.  "I have to be completely honest with him."

Then he was behind her.

"Hi Mimi."


"Are you going to have dinner with me tonight?"  He had a look she could read clearly.  If he'd possessed a tail, it would have been wagging hard enough to be in danger of flying off.

"Yes," she said.  She leapt lightly from the wall. 

After a few near misses with Spanish bayonets, they concluded it wasn't possible to walk arm-in-arm through the palmetto grove.  Single-file but holding hands, they arrived at Derek's campsite, which was very tidy.  The tent flap was folded back and his sleeping bag was lying flat inside.  The rifle was lying on top of its case, which was zipped.  His flip-flops and boots were placed together and his cooler and stove were lined up next to each other.

She laughed.  "Did you vacuum?"

Dinner consisted of canned beef stew, bread and oranges.  All of Mimi's wine had been consumed, mostly by Derek, the previous night, and its effects had been wasted on the mayhem after nine PM.  This night they drank more of the rum Michael had provided.  They mixed it with Coke in ratios that became less and less precise as the evening wore on.

By the time Derek's watch sounded they were in the tent.  The watch was on top of the cooler at the other side of the campsite and Derek couldn't hear its chimes.  His ears were screaming.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.