Monday, October 2, 2017

30. The Opossum

California was so different from either Manhattan or Bermuda that although a native of the state, Derek felt alien.  My third planet in fourth months, he thought, but then reconsidered: no, it was the fourth.  This was not the same Planet California where he had lived with his wife as a graduate student, as a herpetologist.  This was a more barren, even less certain planet, where he was alone, where he would have to disguise himself as a businessman.

His primary task, after retrieving his purring, long-neglected buddy from teary Ida, had been to find a new home in the flats.  As a result of his brain injury and the unpredictable behavior of the loose islets of bone within his right cerebral hemisphere, he had been instructed not to start driving again.  There was the risk of seizures, elevated by his decision to discontinue his medication.  He had been on those pills for almost four months, and was concerned over the long-term toxic side-effects. They were also expensive, and not covered by insurance. His only self-administered medication was his old favorite, beer, which he now used in moderation.  It was too heavy to buy in more than a six-pack at a time.

As a new non-driver, he needed to find a place down from the hills, within limping distance of the BART.  After a few wearying, palm-blistering days that wore through the rubberized tip on his shiny black carbon-fibre cane, a lightweight but strong replacement for his clunky aluminum four-footer, and a good-bye present from Stephanie, he found a pleasant townhouse-style apartment in the small city of Albany, just north of Berkeley.  It was larger than his previous apartment, with two bedrooms upstairs, an enormous bathroom with an entire wall of mirrors, and downstairs, an airy kitchen and large living-dining room with sliding glass doors leading out to a fenced back patio and garden.  The garden was shaded by a tall tree with papier mâché bark and foliage consisting of whorls of long, pointed leafs fanning out from the ends of painfully twisted branches.  It looked to him as though drawn by Dr. Seuss, a bit like a Joshua tree, or maybe some sort of Dracaena.  He wished he knew a botanist who could tell him what the heck it was.  Californian horticulture was always stumping him with its endless variety of imports.

Apart from the alien plant life, Derek was delighted by the quiet, gardened streets with their tidy, pastel-stuccoed houses painted in Bermudian colors as seen through brown Californian air.  He wondered why he had never considered living here before, back on Planet One.  Albany was snugged halfway between, and safely far enough from, the sprawls of Oakland and Richmond.  His apartment was tucked behind the Albany Hill, a Eucalyptus-crowned dome of bedrock that hid most of the little city from the bay, thus preventing most of its inhabitants from viewing the nightly glory of the sun descending behind the twin towers of the Golden Gate Bridge — and from being reminded that there was an extraordinarily attractive and accessible means to kill themselves, had they the urge, just over there.

He reverted to the existence of his pre-Bermudian marital estrangement: simple meals with not enough vegetables, too much TV with not enough content — but no guns — and vague ideas of what was to come, with not enough serious thought about it.  Hopefully it would be something he wouldn’t regret later on.

He kept to himself mostly, with only lint-brained Roy for companionship.  He missed the respectful, intelligent exchanges with Peter that had evolved during the final weeks of his Manhattan stay.  He missed Stephanie too, he realized, although at the same time was relieved not to have to deal with her on a daily basis.

Mimi remained a problem.  He couldn't stop thinking about her, always during his morning shower, as if expecting her again to bust in on him, perhaps clutching a bottle of wine.  He would recall the night they met:  She said, "Hi. I’m Mimi Villanueva. I’m a graduate student in archeology at the University of Toronto."

He said, "I'm Dr. Derek Coulter.  I’m a biologist, a herpetologist, from California, here to study the endangered Bermuda rock lizard..."  They shook hands.  She had a soft hand.  Such a charming moment. 

He was reminded of her at other times too, because there were many Filipinos in the Bay Area.  The young women would draw him into in a search for her.  Sometimes he thought he found parts: her hair, her skin, her height, her hands, her forehead, her eyes, her ears, her smile, her movements, her laugh.  But they were parts only, at best haunting him.  He tried very hard not to stare.  He now had, in Mimi’s words, “a type.”

One day on the BART he sat with ears cocked.  Two were seated behind him speaking a bastardized version of the main Filipino language— Taglish — Tagalog sullied with English.  He wished they would speak Tagalog only.  He had never listened closely to that language, had not known how appealing it was, rhythmic, lively but suppressed, almost happy, but also almost angry.  It flowed.  Only in a warm oceanic climate could such effortless speech evolve.  He detected a familiarity in the fast, lively choppiness of it, in the hum of syllables being swallowed unexpectedly.  When he remembered where he'd heard that rhythm and quality of those sounds, he smiled.  He could see a pair of longtails flying low above turquoise water, and imagined the breeze luffing warmly in his ears.  The Filipino language had the same fast, jaunty, evasive quality as the song of the white birds riding on top of each other.

He wanted to hear Mimi speak it.  He wondered, was she a different person then, in her other language?  Was it easier for her to say the words he had looked up in the language dictionary?  He repeated them to himself as he recalled them, over and over.  He turned and looked.  The women fell silent, and he felt foolish.  They said nothing.  "Sorry," he said.  After he turned back, they laughed quietly, almost politely, and continued talking more softly in their language.  If there were English words, he didn't hear them.

Sometimes, when he found himself thinking of her, he would grab Roy and wrestle until the good-natured cat had no recourse but to bite and scratch, which seemed to embarrass him.  Then Derek would pinion Roy's legs in his hands and bury his face in the sweet-smelling fur on the side of his body.  "I love you, my boy" he would say, and Roy would start to purr.

New tour guides had been hired by "Peter's people," as Derek referred to his brother's business associates.  They had spent a month memorizing and practicing the routines their unpolished predecessors had delivered so uninspiredly, taking turns driving the minibuses while reciting the scripts, keeping pace with the points of interest in the passing landscape, using each other as audiences.  They were primed, raring to go, ready to impress Doctor Coulter.

Derek wasn't primed or raring or ready.  He wasn't yet comfortable with his disguise.  Nevertheless he worked down the short list of phone numbers Peter had sent, and called a meeting with his staff at the store on a Monday evening.  There was a store manager, Ava, and three driver-tour guides, Marcia, Iqbal, and Hans.  Like most Californians, it seemed, all were from somewhere else.  Marcia was from Austin, Texas.  "Icky" was Sudanese.  Hans was born in Venezuela, of German parents.  Ava was a Canadian citizen from Vancouver with a Green Card.  Derek still harbored ill feelings toward Vancouver, and wasn't too sure about Ava, a hard-faced, thirty-something woman with short-cropped hair and wire-rimmed glasses.  On the side of her nose, like a wart, was a shiny pewter nose-stud.   

After somewhat clumsy introductions, Derek began by telling Ava that he wanted to change the store's merchandising policy.  She rolled her eyes.  He told her he would meet with her to go over things after making sure the bus tours were running smoothly.  The tours were the heart of the company, where his knowledge would be of greatest use, so were to be the immediate focus of his attentions.

He traveled with the drivers to the featured wild areas and listened to their presentations.  Derek was impressed by the enthusiasm and showmanship of his crew—he dared not meddle with that—but felt that their general knowledge and interpretive skills needed work.  All three had bachelor's degrees in biology, but there had been little in their educations to teach them how to think independently.  They needed to know how to be more inventive, to understand that they would have to modify their talks as the seasons changed, and to recognize that there were frequent exceptions to the generalities — what made biology the most interesting of the sciences.  He grilled them to the point of his own mental exhaustion to help them think, to teach them always to ask questions.  "Why do trees grow on one side of the hills and not the others?  How did these Eucalyptus get here?  Why are the sea lions where they are now?  What mammals would you expect to see crossing the road here during the day?  During the night?  He would make them stop the van, run down into a ravine and roll over three logs to see who lived beneath.  Or he would have them identify five wildflowers -- introduced species didn't count.  He made them stop to examine DORs (dead-on-roads), so they would know what reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals were in the area.  There was also his darker message: he wanted them to understand that the world was slipping through our fingers, being crushed beneath our wheels, being diced on our radiator grills.  We were destroying the things that made our planet livable.  The guides called DOR inspection "Pizza Patrol," and found it alternately hilarious and pitiful.  Derek asked them, “Where did the opossums come from?"

"Opossums?" said Marcia.  "What's the deal about opossums?"  He had several times asked questions about opossums, which happened to comprise a relatively high percentage of the road kills.
An opossum had been appearing at Derek's back patio door since shortly after he moved to Albany.  Roy noticed it first, and engaged the odd mammal in a silent staring competition.  Derek saw what Roy was doing, and lowered himself to the floor.  Roy was such a pea-brained cat, usually unaware of anything except Derek, his litter box, and his food dish, and not in that order, that Derek was thrilled to find him interacting with a being from the outside world.  Other cats would have been hissing, arching and growling, but such fury was not in Roy's tampered genes.  He merely stared at the opossum, who stared back. 

Derek studied the juxtaposed creatures.  One, a marsupial, was pretty much an evolutionary dead end, like the Bermuda rock lizard.  The Virginia opossum was one of few remaining examples of a speciose group that had flourished in the southern hemisphere, but fell victim relatively quickly — like the ancestors of the Bermuda Rock lizard — to an influx of distant relatives from the north.  The doughy, slow-moving, feeble-minded marsupials were no match for the fast, tough placentals flooding south across the Isthmus of Panama.  Marsupials were the particle-board members of the Mammalia, built hastily for short, unglamorous lives.  It seemed to Derek that his cat, an immorally inbred Himalayan, represented a perverse attempt to reinvent the opossum.  ( He knew let outside, Roy would be a road-pizza within fifteen minutes.)  Of white Persian and Siamese ancestry, Roy was much the same color and pelage as the opossum — pale, wispy silver fur on the body, dark grey legs and tail.  The differences were at the extremities: Roy's tail was lushly fluffy; the opossum's was naked, scaly, rat-like.  Whereas Roy had soft paws containing little curved daggers, which he had little knowledge how to use, the opossum had crooked, rubbery fingers emerging from fuzzy black gloves and a peculiar pink thumb on each hind foot.  Roy's face was flat and cute in a mutant way; the opossum's was long and tapered with a gaping mouth that lent it a hideous, leering profile.  Although both were stupid, Roy's stupidity was expressed in unconditional, dog-like love, while the opossum's feeble brain left it unable to appreciate any sort of kindness.  It had vinegar in its blood; it hated and distrusted everything.  Perhaps its only defense, Derek thought.  No one likes a grouch.  And maybe that was another factor in the Bermuda rock lizard's demise.  It lacked all essential qualities for survival, including a vile disposition. 

The opossum returned every night, but within a week Roy lost interest or simply forgot to look out the window.  Derek pulled back the curtain, saying, "Roy, look, it's your friend."  He carried Roy to the door to encourage the interaction, but Roy seemed to see nothing, ambled into the kitchen, turned his back, and licked himself.  Derek was disappointed and took it upon himself to keep the opossum company.  He sat on the floor, staring until his eyes became dry, wondering what attracted the animal to the door every night, and why it wouldn't move for the longest time.  It just sat there.  God, it's creepy, Derek thought.  He experienced a twinge of the nervousness he'd felt near the water tank before knowing the secrets of Tea Kettle Island.

The reason for the opossum's presence was fundamental.  It was hungry.  The previous tenants of Derek's apartment had also owned a cat, but, unlike Roy, it had been a real cat, an outdoor cat, who often failed to return home by bedtime.  The cat's owners would leave a bowl of kitty food outside.  Sometimes the cat ate the food, but more often it was opossum who greedily emptied the bowl.  The previous tenants had discovered the opossum, named it Pedro, and continued to feed it.  They found him strangely enchanting, and entertained themselves by leaving the door slightly ajar and dropping a breadcrumb trail of cat-kibble far into the living room.  There, they would crouch in breathless excitement as Pedro waddled in and chewed his way across the broadloom almost to where they were hiding, behind the sofa.  When the food was exhausted, Pedro would snuffle back along his own scent path out into the garden, on to his next dish of kitty food. 

Derek's injured brain invented a vastly different explanation in the first substantive dream to stick with him to consciousness since Hurricane Dexter.

He was back on the island, after the storm, delighted he hadn't been hurt.  Both legs were strong and he strode smoothly over the limestone in blazing sunlight.  Longtails laughed overhead.  They had missed him as much as he had missed them.  He was inspecting the damage, leaping over fallen ghost cedars, kicking aside palmetto fronds, all the while looking for something.  More: his eye and eyelid were intact, regenerated in the healing waters of the tank!

He arrived at the rampart and looked out over wild water the color of anti-freeze-flavored yogurt.  The students weren't there, nor was their instructor, which was either a relief or disappointment.  It was difficult to know; his brain was flying by the seat of its pants. 

A rock lizard smiled at him.  He smiled back.  Such happiness, which he had thought he would never again experience.  Yet still he was looking for something.

What he sought became obvious.  The sun was relentless.  Even with two good eyes he needed his sunglasses and knew where they were.  His imagination wasn't going to take him through the tedium of a systematic search of the island.  It was pushing the dream-plot along and sent him to the limestone slab in the palmetto grove.  As he neared it he sensed the fireworm in his gut, his chest, his throat.

Then he was at the slab.

But instead of the one he wanted and needed, hunched atop the slab was a sullen, evil, neoprened bulk.  It smiled at him, and then it spoke.  "So, Dr....Coulter?  Time to confess!"  It was wearing the sunglasses. 

"Give them to me."  His voice wavered.  The thing possessed the powers of the sunglasses, but Derek reined in his fear.  "Give them to me!" He reached.

The thing laughed as the glasses fell away, revealing in place of the left eye a craterous hole, reddened and veiny like the pitted socket of a ripened peach.  Imbedded in its center was a small, pewter-colored nub, shiny amid oozing blood.  The nub was, Derek knew for certain, twenty-two one-hundredths of an inch in diameter.

"Good shot," the thing growled.

Derek found that his left leg had gone numb.  He looked down at it, and then back up to the thing, which had vanished.  In its place on the slab, motionless, expressionless, staring, was the opossum.

Derek howled awake.  He rolled from his bed and crossed the floor on all fours, not rising until reaching the wall, where he pounded the light-switch.  The glare of the ceiling lamp revealed only Roy, curled in the middle of the bed.  He raised his head and yawned, flashing surprisingly sharp teeth.


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