Wednesday, October 4, 2017

28. Not Civilization

In the middle of the afternoon, Derek sat on the corner-balcony of his brother's Fifth Avenue penthouse apartment.  He was carefully moving his head from side to side.  Pigeons swooped and defecated enthusiastically, silent except for the frenzied clapping of wingtips as they were shooed from here and there.  Everything a longtail was, this introduced species was not.  One landed nearby on the balcony rail, and Derek slowly held out his hand.  It toddled away, then dropped into space.

He turned and looked back into the air-conditioned cool of Peter's home and was frustrated that this was as far as he could get away from it apart from leaning way over the railing and letting go.  There were six balconies, one off each bedroom, two off the sunken living room, and one off the adjoining, not sunken, dining room.  There were three bathrooms, two with whirlpool baths, and a kitchen almost the size of Derek's entire rented apartment in Berkeley.  The ceilings were ten feet high, and everything was white, or black, or pink marble, or chrome, except for the two leather sofas that bracketed the living room.  One was plum, the other toffee.

He was wearing an Oakland Athletics baseball cap to cover the right half of his scalp, which had been shaved in Bermuda to shunt and repair his skull.  His brother had given him a Yankees cap, but Derek was no fan of New York, team or city, and asked Peter to buy him another.  He gingerly ran his fingertips over his face, checking the curves, pressing lightly at the sensitive spots.  The worst cosmetic damage had been to his cheek bone, which the surgeon had stapled back into something closely resembling its original configuration.  His frontal bone, which had been smashed into four pieces, had been pried outward almost perfectly, with only tiny fragments left imbedded in his brain.  A minor dent remained above and beside his right eye, but Derek wasn't complaining.  He felt like a derelicted thirty-year-old car skillfully brought back to life with duct tape and body filler, then repainted and accessorized with shiny new wheels and door handles. 

Only three days earlier, under local anaesthetic and accompanied by a heavenly Demerol drip, a new porcelain premolar and molars had been screwed into his upper jaw.  He probed them with his tongue.  They felt entirely natural.  His tongue could have been the imposter.

The most amazing thing, which he was having difficulty believing, was his new left eye.  He was no longer blinded by daylight, and no longer needed dab away an endless stream of tears.  The old poached-egg-in-a-bootprint had been transformed so completely that Derek could now look at mirrors without turning away.  At least once an hour he hobbled to his bathroom to examine himself, to make sure.  Peter had not long ago provided capital for a consortium of four plastic surgeons setting up a mid-town clinic, and in return for a reduction in the interest the doctors had given Derek the best treatment available on the face of the planet.  Peter had also arranged for Derek to receive a custom-made, non-prescription, colorized, semi-permanent contact lens to cover the ruptured iris, perfectly matched to his unique shade of brown, with the surprising golden flecks.  Derek had compromised his principles by going along with the deluxe refurbishment, but had been weak at the time, and now had to admit the results were almost worth this price.  It was as though Peter had wheeled him into the clinic, shown the surgeons Molly's penciled portrait and said, "Make him look like this!"  It had been, in fact, the portrait that tipped Derek's decision.  Peter found it and waved at him.  "Don't you see?" he asked, "You'll look like this again!  Everyone wants you to look like this again!"  He read the inscription at the bottom.  "Do it for Molly!"  Derek remembered the shy student who had wanted to know the names of the fish.

They had come very close.  The lid of the mangled eye wasn't perfect, a little too short, an incomplete secondary fold with lashes sprouting along the outer half only, and with a blink not yet sharp and clean.  But almost no one would be rude enough to stare long enough to notice the flaws, even in New York.

Peter came onto the balcony.         

"So what do you think?"  He proudly waved his hand over Manhattan, his island, his Bermuda, a view east and north from Eighteenth Street, mottled beneath broken and shifting clouds.

"Well, I like the Empire State Building," said Derek.  "It's difficult not to admire that, and the water tanks on the roofs are cool.  They look quaint, out of place, and kind of spooky.  I counted thirty-two of them."

"Thirty-six!" Peter said.  "There are thirty-six water tanks visible from here."

"Oh," said Derek.  "Well, I like them."  He ran a finger along the verdigried rail of the balcony and held up a blackened tip. "But other than that, it’s cement, and soot, and old gum.  And dog poop in the park.”

Peter seemed slightly wounded.  Then he straightened his back and declared with complete certainty, "This city is the greatest place in the world."

Derek wiped his soiled fingertip along the rim of a cement flowerpot that held a mass of purple petunias.

Peter looked at the smudge. 

"Sorry," said Derek.
                       
The hemorrhage from the blows had damaged motor control of his left side and had left the limbs, especially the leg, weak and uncoordinated.  Physiotherapy consisted of walking in a swimming pool to re-develop the nerve-paths controlling the leg, and workouts with light weights to strengthen the arm.  Peter had contemplated buying the necessary equipment for Derek to do his exercises at home and in the pool downstairs, and hiring a physiotherapist to make housecalls, but Stephanie declared it would be better for Derek to get out of the apartment and become part of the real world.  Derek had asked her what she was talking about, not New York certainly.  It seemed there was little real about Stephanie, for that matter, all bangles and cosmetics, over-the-top pretty, which caused Derek to wonder if Peter's surgeons had had a go at her too.  She worked as a graphic artist who did layout for a fashion magazine based uptown.  In addition, she ran a calendar, postcard and poster business on the side, Peter's idea.  She took a leave of absence from the magazine after Derek arrived to help care for him, but operated the calendar business from the spare bedroom, where she spent most of the day in front of her Macintosh, scanning, cutting, pasting, editing and printing. 

Derek found that it was impossible to relax if left alone with her.  She slid around in bunchy socks and would appear silently when he least expected it.  She was pushy and opinionated without being particularly well-informed about anything, and seemed resentful of his presence in her home, which he could empathize with.  This was almost the last place he wanted to be.    

Nursemaid was a role for which Stephanie had neither training not aptitude.  In addition to startling him by appearing without warning, she would fail to appear when he truly needed assistance.  On several occasions he found himself trapped on his dormant left side, reaching hopelessly for something sturdy and stationary.  If she discovered him like this, she would prop him up brusquely, often to ask which of a multitude of pictures he thought were best for the summer months of a calendar such as "Grand Manhattan Brownstones," or “Old New England Inns."  He knew nothing of these things, but thought hard, and chose carefully. 

"Why did pick that one?" she would ask, as if it were an absolutely insane choice, and he would try to answer, but more often than not she would shake her head and say, "No, that's not right," then vanish, leaving him confused on the sofa or floor.

Despite the lack of naturalness in her, he saw her as sexy woman, strawberry-haired and perky, at home tending toward brief athletic shorts, soft, large sweatshirts, and the cotton socks with cuffs folded down that made her footsteps undetectable.  He was grateful his attraction to women had been walloped away; otherwise he would have felt worse in her presence, battered and half-shaved as he was.  Beyond that, as her brother-in-law he would not have wanted to find himself ogling her, which he probably wouldn't have been able to avoid.

The phone rang eight times.  Stephanie rushed in, handed it to him, and rushed out without saying anything.  "Uh, hullo?" he said.  It was the big man.  Derek couldn't hold the receiver steady and had to prop it against a pillow and lie next to it.  "Oh Michael, how are you?" he asked.

Michael was fine, and so were Evie and Anna.  "Evie says hello.  Evie says for you to stay out of trouble, if you can."  Michael said Tea Kettle Island was a disaster, but a positive effect of the hurricane had been the near-eradication of the anoles.  Their habitat had been blown away, and most of them with it.  The rock lizards seemed to have survived, however.  "They must've hunkered down deep within the crevices in the limestone as the storm blasted the island," said Michael.  Derek was happy for this.  The sweet, dumb things had learned at least one trick in the hundreds of millennia since they got there.  It didn't occur to him that he had used exactly the same tactic.

The tone changed.  Michael said, "Oh, I guess I forgot to tell you what someone found, drifting ten miles out on the platform a little while after you departed."

He knew.  His stomach tightened.  "What?" he asked, nervously.

"The Admiral's body."

"Really."

"Yes!" There was a big, rasping laugh.  "It was the damnedest thing."

"What do you mean?"

"About his head."

"Head?"

"Gone!  The old buzzard's head was gone!"

Derek's palms were sweaty.  "Really?"

"Yes, gone!"  Michael explained that the police knew the decapitated body was the remains of the Admiral because it was wearing Royal Navy dive boots, all that remained of its clothes.  It was a little far gone after almost two weeks' soak-time and the head appeared to have been bitten off by a large shark, probably a tiger.

"Wow," said Derek. 

"Funny things, those tiger sharks." 

Derek tried to imagine the expression, but couldn't.  Some things in his head he still couldn't find very well.  Familiar faces was one of them.
"Odd that so experienced a yachtsman would be so far off course, and on top of that, out in the middle of a hurricane."  Michael waited, but Derek remained silent, so he said, "I got a call from Mimi.  She wants to talk to you, and asked me to give you her phone number."

"I can't talk to her," he said.

"Can you write this down?  She was very insistent.  Even though I promised I wouldn't give her your number, she almost got it from me.  I'm a weak man, you know."

"Only sometimes," said Derek.

"She said to say 'Hi' to you, and to tell you she forgives you for what you did — whatever that means — and she hopes to hear from you soon, when you're feeling up to it."

"What?" said Derek.  He raised his voice.  "She forgives me?"

Michael said, "Please call her.  I can't withstand her.  If she asks me again, I'll probably give her your number."

"Okay," said Derek.

"Can you write it?"

"No, my hands are too weak," he lied.  "Just email it please.  I need the time anyway, to figure out what to say.  I have things to deal with before I can talk to her."

"I understand," said Michael. "If you want to talk, about anything, you know where to call."  They hung up.

His head throbbed.  He reached to the floor for his cane and pushed himself up to find that Stephanie was standing behind him, holding a glossy photograph of a massive orange Persian cat, much fluffier and seemingly more mentally deficient than Roy.  "Who forgives you?" she asked, eagerly.

Derek handed her the phone.  "Nobody," he said.  "What a nice cat.  It would be good for September."

She held the photo close to her nose so that, like the cat, her eyes were almost crossed.  "Why?"

"It's reminiscent of a pumpkin."

She considered this.  "Then shouldn't it be for October, for Halloween?"

"No, you need a black cat for Halloween, right?  A thin, short-haired one, arching its back."

She tilted her head thoughtfully, and glided away.
                       
In the evenings, after supper, Derek and Peter would sit on opposite sides of the sunken living room, Derek on the plum sofa, Peter on the toffee.  "Catching up," Peter called it.  He sipped cognac or single-malt scotch.  At Stephanie's insistence, Derek didn't drink alcohol at night.  She had read the cautionary stickers on the pill vials, and allowed him only one beer per day.  Usually he drank it before supper, to make the most of his empty stomach.  "It's just so you won't sue them," he complained.  "They don't really expect you not to drink."  But Stephanie was unmoved, so Derek had to rely on painkillers for mood enhancement.  She kept careful tabs on them too.

After a week of cautious conversation, about relatives neither remembered very well, the uninteresting weather, and Peter's pricey possessions: Oriental rugs, halogen lamps, flat-screen television, stereo, glassware, liquor supply, tables, chairs, paintings, sculptures, umbrella stand, and so on, things started to go sour.

The first argument occurred when Derek walked into the living room to take his plum-coloured seat. Peter was watching the evening news, a story about a group trying to prevent the expansion of a golf course somewhere along the shore in Brooklyn, because a family of beavers had built a lodge on a spot where the developer wanted to dump landfill.  Beavers had not been seen in that part of Brooklyn for at least a century.  Animal lovers and environmentalists wanted to block the development and save the beavers.  Their spokesperson was a young woman with a sweet, pink-cheeked face and crinkly blond hair.  She said, “We don’t understand why this long-established golf course now suddenly needs to expand into this valuable wildlife habitat.  It’s a habitat that has recently begun to improve after many decades of degradation.  The fact that beavers have recolonized the area is something we should celebrate and encourage.  This is a business issue for the golf course.   It’s a life and death issue for the beavers.”

Peter clicked off the set.  "Cute girl," he said.  "But she's even nuttier than you."

“Gee thanks,” said Derek. “But for the record, I'm not nutty. I have brain damage."

"You know what I mean."  He swirled the ice in his glass.

"You mean it's nutty to try to protect the environment?"

“Beavers?  Are you kidding?  They’re rodents.”

“Golf course?  Are you kidding?  Chase a little white ball around and hit it with a stick.”

“You can make a hell of a lot of money chasing a little white ball around and hitting it with a stick if you’re any good at it.”

“I suppose that makes sense if you’re willfully ignorant.  Don’t bother learning about what lives on the wetland you’re going to bury under a rich person’s playground.”

Peter sat forward.  “Are you implying that I’m willfully ignorant?”

“You totally are.”

Peter bristled.  "I'm not ignorant."  He swirled his ice more aggressively.  "Just because I don’t share your hobbies.  Damn it, look at this!"  He waved at Manhattan for the fifth or sixth time that day.  “This is not the home of an ignorant person.”

"There.  Exactly.  Outside of the bottom half of this little island, what do you know?  Name five species of birds.  I bet you can't even do that."

"Why should I?  Not everyone cares about birds." 

"Everyone should."

"Why?"

"Because they're important."

Peter went for a refill.

"Five birds!" called Derek.  "I'll get you started — PIGEON!"

"I hate pigeons," Peter said from the kitchen.

"Name four birds."

There was the sound of booze, water and ice combining in the glass, followed by the click of a plastic cap on glass threading.

"Go. Name four!  I must have shown you at least twenty-five species in California when I was a kid."

Peter resumed his seat.  "I don't remember bird names.  I just want to talk, okay?"

"California towhee," said Derek.  "Name three more."

Peter glanced at the ceiling, way up.

"Mourning dove.  Two more."

Peter drank, a big gulp, waiting for Derek to finish.

"Anna's hummingbird.  One more!  Name one Californian bird!"

He gulped again.

"Come on!  One Californian bird...Any one!"

Peter’s face suddenly opened.  Without wanting to, he had remembered a bird.  "The California Condor!" he said, fiercely, to shut Derek up.  Then his expression changed.  "Oh.  But aren't they extinct?"

"Would it matter to you if they were?"

“Goddammit Derek.”  Peter went to his room.


Mimi inveigled Derek's phone number from Michael on her third bi-weekly call.  She made it sound as though she were about to burst into tears.  The big man collapsed like a circus tent with the center pole kicked out and apologized profusely for not telling her sooner.  "I am so certain that he will call that I didn't mind keeping the promise," he said.

So now she had it.  So what to do next?  How would he greet the news that she was pregnant?  Was that a good thing to tell someone recovering from a severe head injury, someone who would immediately suppose himself to be the father although you yourself had doubts about it, someone who seemed to have no wish to speak to you in the first place?

She was certain that if in the same city she could pester him now and then, and eventually he would snap out of whatever malaise he was in.  She would have him laughing.  She really did want to see him again, to see if there was a way of finding the sweet-natured one who had been so much fun.  Perhaps she could help him heal faster!  Mimi had invented what she supposed was a silly fantasy:  She would place her hand on his injured forehead and the love she had had for him and the love he had had for her on the island would come together again beneath her palm, and his injury would be healed.

She could not help but think of him frequently, with every reminder of the new life growing within, with the sight of every new baby on television or going past in a stroller, and with the sight of any bird or other creature she encountered in her travels around the city.  He had planted in her a seed of interest, if not the other seed too.  Though far away, he was making her stop and look.  One day she observed small birds in a spindly shrub on the campus near Hart House.  They flitted from Forsythia to Dogwood to Lilac, and then settled on a large Magnolia tree, where they hopped from branch to branch, picking at the bark.  She tried to memorize their features, where the stripes were, where the colors were, the noises they were making.  In a loose flock they flew across the road to Queen's Park.

She hurried to the biological sciences library and a young man directed her to the ornithology section.  The little birds were called ruby-crowned kinglets.  She signed out the bird-book and took it home.  That night her sister returned home late from her shift at Toronto East General Hospital, where she was a nurse in the maternity ward, where she cared for premature babies, little underdeveloped embryo-like humans.  She didn't yet know that another was growing within the uterus of her younger sister.

"Hello Ruby-Crowned Kinglet," said Mimi.

"What?" said Ruby.

"Look what a cute bird you are!" she said, and she showed her the picture.
           
She stopped going to church.  She had always paid as little attention as possible to Catholic doctrine when it came to sex, had felt instinctively that it was nonsense.  She was not ashamed of breaking the rules, but was embarrassed she had been caught.

"Aren't you coming to Mass with us?" her mother would ask.

"I don't feel well, Mama."

"Ruby, Mimi is sick!" her mother would call.

"Ruby can't help me."

"Do you want to see a doctor?"

"No, I just want to stay home." 

Two nights after the bird-naming incident, Peter was reading a prospectus at the dining room table, waiting for Stephanie to finish dressing for a party.  Derek was on the far side of the living room, staring into space, wishing Peter owned a cat, or an iguana, or even a tank of tropical fish, something — anything — that he would be able to connect with in this sterile world.  Stephanie came in wearing a bra and half-slip and carrying two dresses on hangers.  "Which one's better for this thing?" she asked Peter.  She saw Peter shift his eyes then turned to see Derek looking at her.  She frowned and hurried back down the hall.  Derek watched her go.

Peter said, "Stop gawking at her!  You act as though you haven't seen a woman for months!  Were you all alone on that island the whole time?"

He said, "I wish I could explain to you the irony of your comment, but my brain will start bleeding again if I try."  He attempted to rise, to go back to his room and out of his brother's private life, but the cane sank into the soft edge of the sofa, providing no leverage, so he gave up. 

Peter scowled at him.  "Stephanie's tired of staying home.  I've been thinking of hiring a nanny, a housekeeper, whatever, to help out while you're here."

Derek didn't like the sound of this.  "I don't want to be so much trouble.  You're already spending too much."

"I know someone who had a nanny he recently let go, a very pleasant Filipino woman."

Derek strangled the cane.  "No." he said.

Peter's eyebrows twitched.

"Not a Filipina."

Peter sat back and pondered the specificity of the response.  He well knew that his brother harbored no ill-feelings toward other races.  Derek had always had a lot of non-white friends, of all sorts: Mexicans, blacks, Vietnamese, whatever.  Now he had resettled and was frowning at his hands.  The left was attempting a mirror-dance with the right, with only partial success.  Peter enunciated carefully, as if clarifying a difficult point, "You don't want me to hire a Filipino."

"I would rather you didn't," said Derek, avoiding eye contact.  He was turning his left hand over and back, over and back.

Peter scratched his chin.   "Let me guess. You feel concern for our brown brothers and sisters, who have no choice but to leave their homes and families to work as virtual slaves in the homes of foreign capitalists.  Like me."

Derek stopped working his hand and looked up.  Peter had intertwined his fingers on top of his abdomen like a smug, wealthy banker — which was exactly what he was.  He was a bastard, too, for making light of this.  Maybe he was itching for a fight, still stinging from the birds.  Well, too bad.  Derek's head hurt, and he wasn't in the mood.  In addition, the last thing he wanted to talk about was Filipinos.  Or Filipinas.  The issue was complicated.  It wasn't simple.  It was personal.  He didn't feel like telling his unsympathetic brother about her.

Peter took a second run at it.  "Well, maybe if they took some responsibility for their population growth, learned to exercise a little birth control, they wouldn't be in such a sorry state."

Derek shrugged.

"But that's the Church's fault, right?  An exploitative right-wing organization that terrifies and brainwashes the uneducated.  Keeps them ignorant and poor, to maintain its control over them."

Derek leaned back on the cushions, silent.  To Peter he seemed listless and disappointing, not such an arbiter of right and wrong tonight, until Derek sighed and said, quietly, "You know, there's only one real problem in the entire world.  All other problems stem from it."

"Please tell me," said Peter, encouraged that his brother wasn't slipping back into a coma.  "I was under the impression that things were a little more complicated." 

"No.  Simple.  There are too many damn people."

Peter cackled.  It was such a disconnected comment. "Sure there are too many damn people, but what are you going to do, leave?" 

"I almost did."  His voice trailed up, as if hinting he had planned his demise but frivolously changed his mind at the last minute.

This irritated Peter.  "You're talking like such a loser."

"I'm not a loser.  I chose not to join the competition."

"Maybe it's time you did."

"I'd rather leave."

Peter was exasperated.  Derek was being morose instead of combative.  He said, "This may sound harsh, but your brain injury may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to you."

Finally Derek became angry.  Ripping hard on the cane, he wrenched himself forward and exclaimed, "Thanks a lot!  I hope you have one too!"                        

"Okay, look, assuming you recover completely, I mean."

"I'm not assuming that.  I doubt I will."

"I think you will."

"Your point?"

"My point is that for years you have been following a non-productive path.  In order to succeed in this world you must learn to tailor your efforts to make use of an existing or untapped market.  Being injured, as horrible as it has been, was like a, oh, a strong message that what you were doing was a dead end.  Almost literally a dead end.  But you survived, luckily, and so now you will become strong, and with a little guidance and encouragement, learn to start anew, in a useful direction.  In a productive direction."

Derek experienced a revelation: their mother had had at least one affair.  Peter could not possibly be a full brother.  Derek could not possibly share half his genetic make-up with a person so completely filled with horse manure, who, once again, had dismissed his entire life.

Continued...






No comments:

Post a Comment

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