Sunday, October 1, 2017

31. The Assassin

Mimi was sitting uncomfortably in the lobby of the hospital, waiting for Ruby, who was just coming off shift.  This was to be her second ultrasound, and with the baby bigger, the pressure on her bladder was greater.  Ruby arrived, still in her scrubs, her hospital ID hanging from a lanyard. The receptionist called Mimi and the two sisters entered the suite together.

“This is my sister,” Mimi said to the technician, a young Asian woman.  “Do you mind if she comes with me?”

The technician smiled and said, “No, that’s fine.  This way.”  She led them into a small darkened room.  “You lie down here Mimi, and hitch your pants down a bit.  Sister, you can sit here.”  She pushed a wheeled chair next to the examination bench.      

She applied the gel to Mimi’s rounded abdomen and sat in a second wheeled chair, in front of the sonogram screen. She swirled the transducer on the gel, trying to sort out the orientation of the fetus.  Ghostly bits of anatomy loomed into view and then disappeared into grainy murk—legs, hand, head.  The baby moved, and she had to readjust. She finally had a view she liked, and started taking measurents.  She shifted her chair closer to a computer and with a mouse, left-handed started clicking through a software form as she held and moved the transducer with her right.  The cursor appeared on the monitor screen.  The technician clicked on a point, creating a small plus-sign, and pulled a line to the endpoint of whichever body dimension she was measuring.  A second click recorded the length on the computer. Crown-rump length, biparietal diameter, femur length, click, click, click.

Mimi watched closely the assessment of the little human in her belly.  She thought of Derek measuring the lizards with his calipers.  She had helped him by writing down the numbers.

The technician then started a detailed anatomical examination, zooming the image in and out, checking the spine, the umbilical cord, the crumpled little face.

“Everything appears to be normal,” she said.

Ruby asked Mimi, “Do you want to know the sex?”

The technician gave Ruby a sharp look. You weren’t supposed to ask that, not yet.

Mimi thought the technician didn’t look Filipino, was probably Chinese.  She said, “Oo. Sabihin sa akin.”

Ruby answered, “Batang lalaki.”

“How do you know?”

Ruby pointed.  “Ti-ti.”

They watched the screen, the image shifting, blurring and clearing as the technician moved the device.  Suddenly again, the head was centered.  “Hello baby boy,” said Mimi.  She asked, “Can you tell how old he is?”

The technician looked at the numbers on the computer monitor and said, “Going by the biparietal diameter, which is the width of the head, and usually the most accurate estimator, the baby is18 weeks. You’re halfway there.”

Eighteen weeks.  Mimi had long ago bookmarked the website of Derek’s former PhD supervisor. On a link called “Lab Alumni,” there was a thumbnail picture of Derek.  He was wearing a pale blue t-shirt and sitting on a rock.  It looked like he was in a desert.  As she had done many times before, she clicked on the thumbnail to make him larger and alone on the screen.  His hair was bleached and his skin was tanned.  He had two perfect eyes.  She took down a wall calendar and counted backwards, 18 weeks.  It didn’t help. It still could be either one of them.  Will my baby have those eyes? she wondered.

Her mother walked into the room with folded laundry.  “Who’s that?”  She pointed at Derek.

Mimi jumped.  “A friend from university,” she said.

Her mother came and leaned close to the screen. “He has nice eyes.  Siya ay may mga mata tulad ng isang tuta.”  She sorted the laundry into the drawers and then went out, humming happily.

Mimi looked at Derek.  “Puppy eyes,” she said.  She touched the screen with one hand, her belly with the other.

After the dream, Derek kept his patio drapes closed.  He didn't want to see the opossum again.  He asked his drivers, "Where'd they come from?"  He wanted to see if they knew that opossums had been brought by humans to the west coast sometime in the early 20th century, God only knew why, and that the ugly things had spread north as far as southern British Columbia.  He wondered who had bothered import them, such fools, transplanting mammals across the continent and taking anoles and kiskadees to Bermuda.  There seemed so little hope, everything in the wrong place, all the gentle things doomed or exploited, and there were too many damn people everywhere.  He had learned recently from a television documentary that the top of Mount Everest was peppered with frozen human feces, like decorative cake sprinkles, some older than he was.
He taught his disciples how to find and identify intertidal invertebrates.  He also worked to get them hooked on birds and salamanders and snakes and lizards, because he wanted to add ornithological and herpetological expeditions to the repertoire.  His (and their) efforts paid off beyond Derek's cautious expectations.  The bird-watching and herping trips were extremely popular.

Things really took off after Wild California received an extremely favorable write-up in the weekend Chronicle.  The field trips were described as "the best ecotainment value in the Bay Area."  Derek cringed at the word "ecotainment," but bought an additional copy to send to Peter.  Local school boards took note and begged for special considerations.  He obliged as much as possible, believing this a step in the right direction.

He was also encouraged by the many non-scholastic repeat customers.  It got to the point that there were almost no empty seats.  Derek asked Peter for a loan to buy a fourth bus and hire two more drivers.  Peter happily agreed.  For someone who had spent the previous ten years living from tiny paycheck to tiny paycheck, Derek found the money being thrust every other week into his bank account ridiculous.
Ava manned the front counter, ordered and sold merchandise, and sold tickets for the day-trips.  Her qualifications included a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of British Columbia, and several years low-level management experience in a nursery chain in the Vancouver area.  Through the changeover, her labors had drawn enough income at least to cover the salaries.  She frustrated Derek, however, by remaining aloof and unfriendly.  Despite his general annoyance with human beings as a species, with only a few exceptions Derek liked people as individuals.  He had hoped that this business would quickly become a happy family of workers, one of whom (himself) happened to sign the paychecks.  He was not prepared for the problems he would have with Ava.

She persisted in calling him 'Doctor Coulter,' although he had several times requested she use his first name.  He came to suspect she was rubbing in the fact that his extensive, expensive education had not provided anything more auspicious than ownership of this little business (and she knew that his older brother had bought it for him).  A conflict developed over Derek's policy that no zoological products would be sold.  This included bones, taxidermy, sea shells from any phylum, mounted skeletons, and pinned insects in glass cases.  Zoological merchandise was gruesome, immoral, and tacky, he maintained, and, on occasion, contrary to international treaties on the trade and sale of endangered species and thus illegal in the United States. 

At first he assumed that perhaps he hadn't been entirely clear, because despite his instructions Ava retained blacklisted materials in the inventory.  Shortly after their initial discussion she ordered a series of mammal skulls from a zoological supply company in Indiana: raccoon, otter, rabbit, skunk, and house cat.  A few weeks later she purchased a selection of seashells: cowries, Murex, conch, and cone shells from the South Pacific.  After several reminders, first apologetic, then blunt, then exasperated, he understood that she couldn't care less what he wanted. 

"Listen.  You only own this store," she said, after he finally became infuriated.  She had set up a window display centered around two taxidermied red diamondback rattlesnakes mounted in a courtship joust.  "Be grateful that I know how to run it."  She explained there was a large market for animal souvenirs, especially for flamboyant, dangerous items like rattlesnakes.  "Put them in the window and they bring people in off the street."

"They bring assholes in off the street," he said.  "We don't cater to assholes.  Animals should never die for trinkets and asshole conversation pieces.  No seashells.  No otter skulls.  No butterflies with pins in them.  NO STUFFED RATTLESNAKES!  He hooked the rattlesnakes from the window and destroyed them over the knee of his good leg.  Sawdust flew everywhere.

She said, "That was very clever.  You just cost yourself one hundred and fifty dollars, and now those snakes died for absolutely nothing."

"Of course they died for absolutely nothing!"  His voice was unstable.  "If you order anything like this again, YOU keep it, and it comes out of your paycheck."

She thrust her jaw at him and said, "If you do that I'll quit, and your brother's buddies will have to go through the hassle of finding someone else with my qualifications, and the cost of that will set you back more than you think." 

"Fire her," Peter advised.  “Or I will if you want.  Do you have anyone in mind who could replace her?  Is she working tomorrow?  I’ll send a fax .  It's no big deal, she’s expendable, you know."

“Not yet.  That seems a drastic step.”

Peter said, “It’s not.  You need a different store manager.  You have to think big picture, which includes thinking about other employees and the overall health of your business, which they all depend upon.  You owe it yourself and to your other employees to weed out the ones that work against your vision.”

He had a vision?  What Derek took most from Peter's mercenary words was that he didn't belong on this planet.  

Nightly dreaming resumed, which was some relief, because it meant that some of the disenfranchised sectors of his brain were communicating again, finding new routes around the damage.  This provided hope.  There were unremarkable, day-to-day dreams consisting of forgettable bits and pieces, but numerous nightmares too, a mixed blessing.  Several dreams, good and bad, involved what had happened on the island, and in more than one the opossum featured at the end to scare him awake.  Sometimes there was just its head, perched on the slab as if dropped there, staring, black-eyed and evil. 

The Admiral really had no head?

He didn't know if it still crouched outside the patio door.  He hadn't checked for days, but the recurrent featuring of the opossum in his dreams made him decide he couldn't continue to ignore the possibility.  He had to deal with it.  If the opossum was gone, he wondered, would he be freed from the unsettling dreams?  Thinking less rationally, he wondered if the absence of the animal would be a sign that he was innocent, that he hadn't murdered after all.  It could mean that the old demon had fallen and hit his head on a cleat without any help from a .22 round, perhaps without even knowing Derek had put him in the crosshairs.

But on the other hand, what if the thing was still there?  Why would the ghoulish marsupial be lingering, except to tell him exactly what he was?
On the evening of an entire day spent at home, Derek sat downstairs, flipping channels.  He wasn't paying attention to what he was watching, because he was worrying about what might be breathing against the glass twenty feet away.  The reliable tool was nearby on the floor and the curtain was drawn.

Finally, midnight, it was time.  He slipped his hand around the smooth-worn handle and limped to the door.  He pulled back the drapes, expecting and hoping to see nothing but his own handsome reflection.

Unbelievably, the opossum was there.  Derek's head bailed frantically.  "Go away," he tried to say through the glass with a tongue that felt like terry-cloth.

The marsupial was very hungry and wanted in.

"Okay you bastard," Derek said grimly.  He slid open the door and raised the spade.  The creature backed up a few inches and opened lengthy jaws to display a threatening array of teeth.  "Go a-way," Derek pleaded.  The opossum sidled left, intent on finding the kitty kibble.

Derek lowered the blade and prodded.

There was a hiss, soft, but nasty, which unnerved a suddenly very wobbly Derek, who, as he swung to bunt the marsupial off his back step, was mobbed by more of the exploding black spots he'd first seen next to the water tank after firing on the Admiral.  The last sound he heard was a muffled crunch, like a stepped-on carton of pasta.

Rain started during the early morning hours.  It turned into a Californian mudslide storm.  By the time Derek was awake, sprawled on hard ground, he was drenched and partially covered by wet papery leaves blown from the Dr. Seuss tree.  The spade was beneath him and his first frightened thought was that he had been transported back to the island and was reliving his crime.  But the sounds were wrong.  There was no pulse of waves against shore, no palmetto rustle.  He pawed uselessly to each side, expecting the soft smoothness of the gun case, but feeling only frigid concrete.  Then he recognized the track of the door and knew he was halfway out his apartment in Albany, in almost total blackness.  He couldn't understand the absence of houselights or streetlights.  "Oh, no" he moaned.  Flattened beneath his hip was a cold, furry body, which at first he took to be Roy.  He pushed onto his palms and saw the jagged teeth, the long pale face, and the naked tail.  It was the opossum, stone-cold dead.  He felt relief and then horror.

He left the creature to soak up rainwater like a child's stuffed toy and staggered into his wind-swept kitchen.  He dropped the spade into a large puddle and pushed the door shut.  The floor was flooded from blown rain and the curtains hung soaked and lank.  The doormat was sodden.  "Oh," he moaned again, and propped his back against a wall.  His eyes closed as he sank.

Roy had been waiting nervously for him to come back inside, and now startled him by leaping lightly onto his lap.  For a rattled instant Derek thought the opossum had come back to life, but then gratefully hugged his warm, soft cat, who struggled within his icy grip and then escaped.  Derek rose stiffly to peel off his clothes.  He left them bunched against the wall, and then slowly pulled himself upstairs, where he changed into dry jeans and a sweatshirt.  After a short rest he limped back down, pausing to grasp his cane, which was hanging from the end of the banister.  In the kitchen he noticed a dark smear spreading across the puddle on the pale linoleum.  Rust from the spade, he thought as he tapped the light switch, which accomplished nothing.  There was a city-wide blackout.

He opened the door to hobble outside and dispose of the body.  Despite heavy dizziness, or because of it, it occurred to him he would have more difficulty dealing with the gruesome carcass in daylight, tomorrow, than right now.  Now, in this near-drunken state, there would be no revulsion in touching the thing, of carrying it to the shed with the garbage bin and dropping it in.   He reached for the tail that most would find repulsive.  For a zoologist, it was just a tail.  

He failed to notice that the head of the animal dangled loosely from the body as if attached only by a tab of Velcro. In the dark he couldn't see insipid marsupialian blood dripping from its suspended nose.  He took a few steps and felt something bounce off his foot.  He didn’t look, intent on getting to the shed and then back into the house as quickly as possible.  He opened the door, lifted the lid, and dropped the carcass. It hit the bottom with a thud. He closed the lid, shut the door, and started limping back across the patio. He inadvertently kicked a soggy object. It was white, and skittered ahead of him through a puddle.  It came to rest against the single low step at his back door. He approached, slowly, and bent to investigate.

The opossum’s severed head was staring up at him.

Back inside, yelling, "Yiiiii!" he slammed and locked the sliding door.  He drew the curtains with the intention of never opening them again.  The kitchen lights surged on with the lights in the rest of the City of Albany, hitting him like a length of pipe across the forehead, and he fell forward onto his hands, nauseous, with his face above the blade of the spade.  It was then very clear that the spreading smear had not been rust.  It was the blood of the opossum, who had been all but decapitated when Derek collapsed on top of him.

He rolled away to the farthest corner of the living room and sat very still until he understood what had happened.  It had been a seizure.  "I have to take pills again," he moaned, and held himself, and wanted to cry, because it now seemed he had a long way to go before everything would be all right, before anything would be all right.

He crawled upstairs with happy old Roy rumbling beside him as the bloody spade grew rustier on the kitchen floor, as a severed head began a vigil over his back patio door.


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