Monday, October 9, 2017

23. The Splinter

The space on the sleeping bag next to Mimi was empty, as it had been all night.  She sat up unaware what time it was and pulled fingers through hair that was more tangled than usual.  She felt empty and unhappy, and not only because she hadn't eaten since lunch the previous day.  Today she would have to tell the students the course was over, that they wouldn't be getting credit for their work.  She wasn't sure which caused her the greater guilt — that, or Derek.

She had no idea where he was and was worried, until she heard him outside doing something with the stove.

She stuck her head out.  The sky was dull, grey, like old canvas.

He looked at her.

"Hi," she said, hopefully.  "I was worried about you."

His eyebrows jumped above his sunglasses in mock surprise.

She knew better than to push him.  She squirmed into her shorts and went to sit next to where he knelt holding the gas cylinder and a rock.

"What's wrong with it?" she asked.

"I'm not taking the job in Nebraska," he answered. "It would be an awful place to be alone." He stood and hurled the gas cylinder against the redoubt.  As it bounced back past him, he threw the rock at it but missed by several feet.

She sprang to her feet.  "Derek!  Why did you do that?"

"Empty," he said.  "We can't have coffee.  I hate not having coffee!"  He hoisted himself onto the wall of the redoubt, putting himself above her.  "You know," he said.  "I was up most of the night, talking to our friends."

She gaped.

"You know," he said, gesticulating, prompting.

"Robert and Reginald."

Derek pointed at her.  "Yes," he said.  "Fine chaps."

She didn’t believe him, but played along.  "What did you talk about?" she asked, cautiously.

"You, me, us, everything."

"Uh-huh?"

"You know what they think?"

“No.”

"They think you shouldn't go to England.  They say it's miserable there, not a fit place for an Indian."

"An Indian?"

"They think you're an Indian.  They've never heard of the Philippines."

"You’re making this up.  What for?"

"I told them what California was like.  They'd never heard of it either, but said it sounded like a beautiful place.  No, they said 'bountiful' place.  I described the Golden Gate Bridge, but I don't think they could picture it.  I couldn't convey the vastness of it."  He swept his hand in a slow, horizontal pan.

She watched him finish his performance, which he must have spent the night inventing.  A gust of wind tossed her hair in front of her eyes.  As she pushed it away, he said, "Weather's taken another nasty turn, huh?"

"Yes."  At least that was true.

Derek placed a hand on the wall and dropped down.  He reached into a box, lifted out a can of peaches and opened it, and handed it to her with a spoon.

"Thank you," she said.

"I'm going to the rest room."  He picked up the spade and a roll of toilet paper.  "Did you know very few English homes have indoor plumbing?  I found out last night."  He wandered off, leaving Mimi feeling worse than before.
           
That afternoon Derek arrived at the rampart as the archeologists were finishing lunch and sat among them, mournful and wordless, as ghost-like as possible.  He was wearing his largest, most loose-fitting t-shirt, which made him look gaunt, and there were fingerprints on the reflective surface of his sunglasses, which made the location of his pupils even more difficult to pinpoint than usual.

The students observed him without comment, waiting to see how he would educate or entertain them this time.  Mimi, on the other hand, was anxious, fearing what he might tell them.  She was afraid to say anything to him, because of what he might say back.  She knew he was surprised that the students had put in a morning's work, that she hadn't told them yet.

"Why aren't the rock lizards coming out today?" Molly asked him.

Derek looked at the sky.  "Too dark, too grey," he said. 

"Oh," she said, disappointed.  "I like seeing them.  I like their smiles."

"Too bad," said Derek.  "Their smiles are not long for this earth."

"Huh?" said Brian.

"This is the end of the road for the rock lizards," said Derek.  "My studies here show, almost conclusively, they are doomed.  Within ten years they'll be gone."

"There must be some way to save them," said Joanne. 

Derek said, "The only way the rock lizard will survive, for a little while, is in captivity—in a zoo.  And what's the point?  Why not just take a photograph?  A zoo is an artificial arrangement, which at best can provide only a marginal approximation of what the lizards really were.  They probably wouldn't survive for long in captivity anyway, because nothing is known of their natural population dynamics, how much inbreeding can be tolerated, their diseases, etcetera, and it's too late to do the research.  The population on this island is already half-senile.  We would never be able to know if we had an adequate, representative sample.  I doubt there's any point in trying to save them.  They'll just die off, same as much of the rest of the life on this planet ."

"But some little ones are being born," said Shana.  "We saw one yesterday."

Derek grunted.  "The poor thing probably won't be alive for more than another few days, if it's still alive now.  And even if it survives a year or two, what a lonely adolescence it'll have without anyone to mate with.  I would advise the rock lizards to stop trying to reproduce.  They're just bringing their children into a dying world.  That goes for humans too.  Why bother?  Why bother getting married?  Why bother having children, bringing them into a dying planet filled with destructive, horrible people?  What a cruel joke!"  He stopped, content with the shock on their faces.

Man, you're in a heavy mood," said Stew.

"Have you ever been to California?" Derek asked him.

"No, why?"

"You'd fit in perfectly."

"Really?"

Brian snorted, but Stew seemed pleased.

Mimi said, “Derek, why are you here?”

“Why shouldn’t I be here?”

She glared at him.

“Okay fine.  I’ll leave.  I’m going to my tent.  I have a letter to write.  You should be talking to your students."  He spun on his heel and headed to the path.

She hesitated, but then followed him into the forest.

The students looked at each other.

“The situation is going sideways,” said Stew.

“They’re having a fight, because Dr. Lyon is coming back,” said Shana.  “I knew this would happen.”

“I vote for Derek,” said Molly.  


She had to run to catch up with him.  She tapped his back.  "Please — stop!"

He stopped.  He leaned against the stone where he had found her seated that first night, a cactus spine in her ankle, and crossed his arms.

"Please don't ruin all my memories of this place.  Try to understand, this is very difficult for me."

He looked down at his worn-out tennis shoes.  "Okay," he said, insincerely, "I understand."  He stood to go.

She grabbed his wrist and pleaded, "Don't end things this way.  I probably won't ever see you again!"

“I’m not ending anything.”

She said, “Please get this straight.  I love my students and I love being with you.  But I feel that I have no other choice.  I’m from a poor family.  We’re immigrants, from a different culture, from a different race.  We’re not well-connected to where we live. There’s just the three of us, my mother and my sister and me.  We have hardly anything.  My mother has worked day and night for years, and a lot of what she makes she must send back to her family in the Philippines.  Now my sister has a pretty good job, but we are still barely scraping by.  They both have helped pay for my education. If I stay with Adrian, I have a chance to make enough money to help them for a change!  You can’t understand that?  I don’t even know how to tell my mother I have to move away from her!”

Derek softened.  He was suddenly very tired.  He hadn't slept last night and the previous night's sleep had been minimal.

"I don't know what to say to them," she said quietly.  "I can't deal with this."

“Please, stay here.  You have to stay here.  We can find the money somehow, if that’s all it is.”

She shook her head.

He reached to touch her hair, but stopped himself, turned and walked briskly away.

In the tent, lying on his stomach, he wrote:



Dear Dr. Lawson                   :

I regret that I will be unable to take up the position of assistant biology professor at Weaver College starting next year.  Complications in my personal life and a persistent neurological disorder have made this impossible.

I hope that you find an appropriate replacement soon and I am grateful for your interest in me.

Apologies and thanks,





Then he toiled over a second letter.  He rewrote it several times, but still, after two hours, something was missing.  He went for a walk to clear his head.  He was conflicted over which to do, beg once more for her not to go, or go and explain to her in clear, angry terms that if she left the island now, there was no other explanation for her actions other than that she was okay with using and discarding the totally innocent students —by which he really meant himself, the students being easy guilt-inducing proxies.  He didn't know how much he would be willing to humiliate himself, or how savage he could possibly be.  He yanked open the door of the water tank and pulled on the rope to dredge up his beer.  It was a tough haul, twelve cans, but it seemed very heavy even for that.  Hand over hand, propping a foot against the outer wall, he brought the pail to the surface.  Its lip was snagged half-inside something large, made of very dark wood.  One more pull would have brought the whole bulky affair out of the murk, but breaking the surface caused the load to magnify.  The overlying wood broke away from the pail, except for a rotted splinter across the rim, which lay across it next to the handle.

Derek plucked out two cans and the splinter, and then released the pail to the bottom.  The splinter seemed to be very old, black and crumbly, like extremely stale chocolate cake.  Attached at one end, also black, was a piece of twisted, decaying metal, possibly part of a hinge.  Derek almost threw the rotted thing back into the tank, but then saw it for what it was — a sliver of hope, a decent reason to speak to her kindly, rationally.  He had found her an artifact.  Maybe also he would find the right words this time, gentle, sincere words, which would bring her back and keep her here.  No anger, no more ghost fantasies. 

He found her at the rampart, surrounded by broken faces.  His hope faltered.

Stew looked up.  "She canceled the course," he said.

Mimi didn't move.  She was on the cooler, enduring their anger.

"What a fucking joke," said Brian.

She flinched.

Molly was on the rampart, crying, rubbing her eyes.  Joanne was sitting next to her, frowning.

"You told them," said Derek.

Mimi nodded.

"I'm sorry this happened," he said to the students.  "I’ve enjoyed getting to know you."

Shana smiled at him and said, "We liked you a lot too."

Derek looked at them all, including Mimi.  They were all unnecessarily sad.  This did not have to happen.  There was a solution, the splinter, in his hand.  "Oh, Mimi," he said, "I found this thing in the water tank.  It looks very old."  He handed it to her.

She took it without looking at him.  She turned it over in her hands. "What is it, part of the door?"

"You tell me," he said.  It was the tool needed to chip a hole in the wall she had re-erected. 

He could see that she had been crying too, and felt terrible for her.  He wanted to pick her up the way Michael did and carry her back to his tent.  He wanted to be alone with her and hold her, just quietly hold her.

"Come with me, please," he said.  He took her hand and led her to the limestone slab.

"What is it?" she said. 

"You can still make everything better."

"No.  I can't."

"Stay," he said, "please?"

She looked at the piece of wood.  She touched the metal.

"I'm sorry for how I was acting.  I was upset.  If you just suddenly leave, now, I don’t think I can handle that.  I really love you, more than anyone ever before.  Please stay."

She continued to examine the wood, turning it over and back.  "I don't think it's significant, but thanks anyway."  She walked back to the rampart with the splinter in her hand.

He yelled at her, "So why did I come here?  Why did you come here?  For this?  This is it?"

She shook her head, and didn't turn around.

At four PM Derek heard Michael arrive to pick up the archeologists.  He knew this would be the last chance to see them, to see her.  He had abandoned all hope.  He had opened his heart to her once again, and she had been cold.  He snatched up the two letters and headed to the landing area.  Just beyond the water tank, Molly boldly stepped in front of him.  "I have something for you," she said.  She opened her notebook and held out a sheet of paper with a sketch on it.

Derek removed his glasses to look carefully at the drawing.  It was beautiful, and it too was heart-breaking.  He said, very quietly, "Thank you, Molly."

"I took some artistic license," she said.  "I hope you like it."

"I love it," he said.  "I only wish it were true."  He carefully rolled the sketch and replaced his glasses as she smiled at him.  He wanted to hug her, but her shyness made him hesitate and the moment was lost.  They continued wordlessly to the rocks.

Because of the ground swell, Michael had moored the boat far out from the beach.  He was wading to it with Brian, each carrying a box overhead.

Mimi was off to the side, ostracized by the others or ostracizing herself.  Shana, Stew, and Joanne turned to see Derek, and then she did too.  Her cold, reddened eyes hit him hard.  He tried to speak, but his jaw muscles locked as if his body were protecting him from the indignity of openly weeping in front of everyone.

She released him by harshly saying, "What?"

As Michael slogged back ashore with Molly's life jacket, Derek approached her slowly.  In front of the students and the troubled Mid-Ocean Love God, he said, "Please do one last thing for me."  He extended the letters.  "Please mail these before you go."  She took them, her face changed, became sad, and she reached out her other hand.  She said something he never heard.  His ears had exploded and he was running into the palmetto grove, slapping the sides of his head like a maniac.

"Good Lord," said Michael.  He dropped the life jacket, stepped around the clustered students and ran after him.
           
Michael found him at the redoubt, calmly sitting in one of the embrasures as if he had been there all day, staring out at Dexter's incoming ground swell.  As Michael had predicted, the surf was spectacular.  In the troughs, the tops of the boiler reefs were completely exposed.  Derek's glasses were dangling around his neck and the wind was causing both eyes to stream.  He was cleaning the rifle.  Michael squeezed into the embrasure next to him.

Derek laughed cruelly and exclaimed, "BOOM!"

"Boom?"

"BOOM!  Blowne up, Burnt and Damnified."

After sitting in silence watching three or four hammering, sucking waves, Michael asked, "Anything I can do?"

Derek shook his head and handed him the bolt of the rifle.  "No," he said.  "I have a lot to think about and I need to do that alone.  If you could look after the students, that would be good.  Funny, isn't it, you and I seem to be the only ones who care about them?"

"I want you to come to our place.  We could stay up late, kill a bottle or two."

"No, thank you," said Derek.  He lay the gun across his lap. "I really need some time by myself.  I have to sulk for a while.  I'm very good at that.  Then I'll be all right."

"Are you sure you want to stay here?"

"Sure, why not?  I'll just sit and watch the storm roll by, get the surf into my ears.  I've got enough food for a couple days.  Leave me here.  Don't bother riding the swell to get me."

"You're not scared?"

Derek smiled.  "I don't really believe in the ghosts.  I dunno, maybe we've been experiencing some kind of group-hallucination.  We've never seen them while we were together, or when we were sober."

Michael nodded.

"The truth is I can't stand seeing her again, absolutely not in front of the students.  I definitely don’t want to go in the same boat as her."

“I understand.”

“Thank you.”

Michael handed Derek the bolt.  He said, “I'll be by tomorrow as soon as I can, come hell or high water.  I’ll see you then.  Please be careful." 


"Boom," Derek repeated as Michael walked away.

Continued...

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