Friday, October 27, 2017

6. One Hundred Feet out the Door

Derek resumed trapping as the new arrivals endured their introductory lecture.  He collected and measured twelve rock lizards from the eastern edge of the palmetto grove and checked them for missing toes, evidence their tails had been broken and regenerated, and other traumas.  He painted their backsides with garish combinations of nail polish to facilitate fast recognition the next time he caught them.  Many were repeat captures.  Despite their age and experience, they were unable to learn the consequences of taking the bait.  It was demanding, sweaty, stinky work, involving a lot of digging, squatting, and swatting at flies.  He moved in a foul-smelling cloud of sardine oil, a substance he couldn't avoid spilling on his clothes and notepad.  His sunglasses were continually sliding down his slippery nose, to be smudged with grimy fingers when pushed back up.  Eventually he put them aside, opting to blunder through the brush with his damaged eye almost closed to the glare.  As he worked, the widowed kiskadee flew from tree-top to tree-top, searching frantically for its mate, who was lying in state beneath Derek's brick of cheddar.  It stopped, only briefly, to snap up a baby rock lizard that was gamboling across the papery carpet of fallen bay grape leaves along the shore.       

During his lunch break, Derek's latest letter to Roy blew across his campsite.  He gave chase and trapped it under his shoe, and after brushing away the imprint of the tread, slipped it into his tent. 

What the letter said:

Dear Roy. 

I was convinced to do something I would never think of or desire to do on my own.  There is a bird slowly rotting in my cooler. All my junior marksman trophies in my childhood bedroom in California now haunt me, for they celebrate the training I had that makes it easy to kill.

There is a second one, and it no longer has a mate, to which I can relate. I will put it out of its sadness, and then I hope I never have to load the gun again.

I dreamt about the bridge again last night, there it is, out the window.  Go look!  You can see it, watch the sun go down behind it, 13 miles away, but seems much closer.

Be a good boy.  I hope Ida is brushing you and remembers to give you your malt,


He hoped he would remember to give it to Michael the following morning, because it was important to keep the letters flowing home.  If he let them pile up, he doubted he would continue writing them.  He assumed that at some point, once he had written enough, he would have worked things out enough, bored himself enough with his own pessimism, or anger, or self-loathing, or whatever it was that gripped him.  Then he would be able to move on.

He thought of the students, who were supposed to return to the main island every night.  If he spoke to Mimi about it, would she ask one of them to mail the letter for him?  He didn't think it an unreasonable request.  Moreover, if he went over there for this almost legitimate reason, it would provide an excuse to get an up-close look at the bunch of them.  He came up with a plan, its goal to annoy Adrian, and mildly unsettle the students..  He didn't want them to think they were free to wander over to this end of the island. 

He trapped and painted four more new captures that afternoon, all advanced adults.  Had they been mammals, they would have had bowed legs, thick, lumpy bodies, and grizzled muzzles.  The sky was almost cloudless, the sea was a mirror, and the air lay heavy and moist at eighty-seven degrees.  It was brutal weather for humans, but the elderly rock lizards and rambunctious Jamaican anoles were loving it.  The floor of the palmetto grove and creviced walls of the ruins were frenzied with juiced-up reptiles.  At four o’clock he detected the putter of the Admiral’s approach.

Brian, Shana, Molly, and Joanne were passing the water tank when Adrian's madman erupted from the forest.  He was lean and stubble-faced with messy, sun-streaked hair and a dirty red t-shirt ripped at the collar.  On the front was a rattlesnake woven in and out the eye sockets of a human skull.  He was also wearing army boots, big shorts with bulging pockets, and filthy wrap-around sunglasses.  There was a hint of an odor about him, something like fish, but worse.  "Hey!" he said.

Molly dropped her armful of bags and a heavy shovel.  Shana shrieked.  Brian backed into a Spanish bayonet and speared himself in a few places, but to his credit made no sound.  Joanne narrowed her eyes and contracted her neck muscles.

Shana blurted, "You scared us!"

Derek demanded, "Where's Mimi?"  The students hesitated.  They were instinctively protective of her.

Brian finally spoke, "She's still up at the fort."

Derek hadn't planned for this, her absence.  He had wanted a twenty-second exchange, during which he wouldn't need explain anything, simply appear scary, and nuts, and say, "Mail this, please."  The possibility of a lag had not been considered.  The students were funny, sort of sweet, really, like quails, especially the Chinese girl.  With one hand he flipped the letter back and forth between the thumb and fore-finger of the other, unsure how to maintain this caricature.  He scratched his head.

The students took advantage of his uncertainty to reorganize into a defensive formation, Brian guarding Shana, Joanne in front of Molly.

Stew was coming from behind, with his head down and earphones cranked to maximum.  He blundered into Derek, who yelled.  Stew stopped, clueless, with tinny noises leaking from the sides of his head.  Behind him were Mimi, carrying a box, and Adrian with a clipboard beneath his arm.  On seeing Derek the professor swore quietly to himself, and then said, "I would prefer that you not harass my students."

Derek adapted quickly to the changed situation.  “I was about to explain the rules of this island.”

"There are rules?" said Mimi.

"Yes, Ms. Villanueva, there are rules, devised by me, the senior representative of the human species on this island."

“Uh, I think he’s more senior that you,” said Stew, who had turned down the volume."  He was pointing at Adrian.

"Wrong, he isn’t!  And quiet!" Derek admonished.  "It's very simple.  You must do everything possible not to interfere with my biological research.  I'm doing an important study of the Bermuda rock lizard."

Adrian said, "Let's go, everyone, no time for this.  On we go."  The students bent to gather the items scattered at their feet.  Molly attempted to pick up the shovel, but its thick, slippery shaft escaped from her hand and the blade clanked onto the steel toe of Derek's boot.  Her frightened hand hung in the air.

Derek snatched up the shovel and shook it at those preparing to walk away.  “A minute!  Then you may go."

Joanne made a throaty sound.

Mimi said, "Derek, we have to go." Her head was cocked to the side.  She was smiling.

He said, "All I ask is that you stay away from this side of the island, on the other side of this water tank."  He tapped it with the handle of Molly's shovel.

The students nodded.

"And — of all things, be very careful with your drink containers.  Never leave an open bottle or can lying on the ground.  The rock lizards will crawl inside, and will bake to death in the sun."

Several of the archeologists, including Mimi, glanced left and right.

"You haven't seen any yet?"  Derek was genuinely surprised.  He'd expected that among so many pairs of eyes, at least one would have seen a skink on the rampart, especially on such a hot day.  Although he had not yet collected at the rampart, Derek suspected it to be one of the population strong-holds of the island.

"Nope," said Stew.

"No," said Shana. "What do they look like?"

"No one has seen them," said Adrian.  "I'm really starting to wonder what nonsense you're really here for.  There are no 'rock lizards.'"

"I saw one," Molly said.  "It was black, with an orange face," she said, "on the stone wall."

Derek turned to the timid girl.  "Good!" he said.  He momentarily forgot himself and sounded friendly and sane.  "You saw one.  You saw one of the rarest animals in the world."  This concept caught the imagination of the students.

"The rarest animal in the world?" said Brian, "Wow."

Adrian said, impatiently, "Fine, Derek, no drink containers.  In return, you must agree to stay away from our side of the island, and not interfere with our dig.  Good bye."   He made a weak pretense at marching away, but stopped several paces along when it was clear no one was in step.

"I promise not to interfere with the dig," Derek said to Mimi.  "That's simple professional courtesy.  But I'll go anywhere I have to on the island to study the lizards.  I won't interfere with your work, don't worry."  It was then he realized that Adrian and Mimi were preparing to leave with the students.  "Who's staying here tonight?" he asked her.  "Are the other two spending the night instead?"

"What other two?" said Mimi.

"The two men with the straw hats?" He drew a brim around his head with his hand.

"What are you talking about?  This is it.  This is all of us."

Derek found himself wondering if his own expression matched the confusion on the faces in front of him.  Then he remembered the letter, which he had inadvertently wrapped around the handle of Molly's shovel.  "Mimi," he said.  He was aggressively ignoring Adrian, "could you mail this for me please?"  He presented her with the warped, stained envelope.

"No problem," she said.

Molly reached carefully for the shovel, but Derek pulled it back.  "No-no. You've enough to carry already."  He tossed the tool in Adrian’s direction without looking at him.  It clattered on the rocks.  A Delta Airlines 737 screamed overhead, causing all but Derek to duck.  "Dinner time!" he called, and he crashed crazily back into the trees.  Thirty or forty seconds of branches snapping and leaf-litter being trampled followed, becoming fainter and fainter, then silence.

"Get a load of that," said Stew.

Joanne murmured, "He is insane."

Mimi read the address on the letter, a “Roy Elgato, Esq.," 1120 Grizzly Peak Blvd., Berkeley, California.

Adrian backtracked to read over her shoulder. "Leave that here.  Let him find his own postal service."

Mimi replied, "It's no trouble.  I think it's best to keep him happy if we can.  Simple professional courtesy."  She tucked the letter in her pocket.

Derek clumped to his campsite, pleased with himself.   As the sloop putted away, he showered and prepared supper.  Macaroni and sausage bits.

Afterwards he walked with an unopened beer in his hand to the rampart. Sure enough, no one was there.  No men in straw hats.  Four shallow rectangular trenches had been started next to the collapsed barracks, their borders neatly marked off with string stretched between eight-inch nails hammered into the ground.  Nails had also been hammered into the sides of the remaining walls of the barracks, at what looked like one-meter intervals, and a matrix of string had been wound among them too.  There was a tripod of two-by-fours with a large, square, wooden-framed sieve hanging beneath it, and a small cone of sifted grey soil had sprouted on the ground below.

Without knowing much about archeology, Derek had to admit it looked as though these people knew what they were doing.  He would inform Michael.

On the way back, Derek paused in front of the limestone slab where he had removed the cactus spine from Mimi's ankle.  He opened the beer and slurped as he wondered how her ankle was doing, if it was healing properly, or if maybe it was a little inflamed and itchy, needing a touch of Polysporin.  He should have asked her, in front of Adrian, in front of all of them.  Everyone would then have known they had been intimate, in a way, and Adrian would have seethed.  Derek regretted the missed opportunity and decided it wasn't easy to feign lunacy and be crafty at the same time.  He continued walking.

As he passed the water tank he replayed the encounter with the students, picturing the startled faces.  He wondered what Mimi would tell them about him on the boat ride back.  Then he wondered why he had wondered about her.  In a flash of self-recognition he realized that after Mimi had arrived at the water tank, he'd been paying increasingly less attention to the students and more and more attention to her, more than was required to ignore Adrian successfully.  Oh well, he thought, she’s pretty.

He dragged his air mattress from his tent, and lay down. He stretched his arms and legs as far as possible, and moaned at the pleasurable pain. He was glad to be alone again.

She had a nice smile. In daylight her teeth were so white they were almost blue.  He had noticed that the edges of her incisors were translucent, and, as she spoke, or laughed, it was able to see through them the movements of her tongue.

He didn’t need company, especially non-scientists.  Archeology is not a science.

And very dark brown eyes, almost black, that darted back and forth as she talked.

Now he didn’t have to feel he needed permission to go to the rampart to watch the sunset, which he planned on doing this evening.

She was a small woman, he guessed maybe five feet, tops, and she couldn't weigh a hundred pounds.  She was not voluptuous.  In fact, there was an almost boyish quality to her neck and shoulders, but he had finally had a good look, and as Michael had reported, she had a fine bottom.

And the fewer people at any given time, the less risk to the rock lizards.

She had an immediate appeal, something to do with her posture possibly, which made her seem self-assured, but also potentially vulnerable, a very attractive combination.  It was her hands, maybe.  She stood with arms crossed, but her hands were open, palms upward on opposite forearms, not tucked beneath the elbows.  When listening, her turned her face slightly to one side, but remained engaged, looking at you almost impishly as if she were waiting for you, inspiring you, to say something clever.  Then when she spoke, her lips would part with a tiny, clean pop, and she would talk animatedly with fluttering hands. 

And the sanitation issue.  That was lessened too.

“Good,” he said. They were off his island. 

He was in trouble, a parachutist with a bale of shredded bed sheets on his back, one hundred feet out the door of the plane.

At nine PM he radioed Michael.  "Just checking in," he said.  "I'm here alone, everything seems okay."

"Roger," said Michael.

"I think they're real archeologists."

"Say again?"
Derek knew the explanation could wait. "One thing, there were two other people here this morning.  Over."

"Who were they?  Over," said Michael.

"I don't know -- they were far away.  Two men in blue jackets and straw hats, over."  Derek found radio syntax cumbersome and silly.

"Uh - repeat, over."

"Two men in blue jackets and straw hats, over."

"Are you sure, over?"

"Yes, why, over?"

"How odd.  I'll see you tomorrow, Derek-boy. Over."

"I'll be here, over."

"Good night, over and out."

"Over and out."


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