Thursday, October 26, 2017

7. Civilization

The students ate their breakfasts at a single long table on the veranda, which ran the length of the south side of the Admiral's home, facing the endless ocean view indicative of extreme wealth.  The Admiral, Adrian, and Mimi ate inside in the dining room, and surveyed them through French doors. 

"A curious collection," said the Admiral, "especially that one."  He nodded at Joanne, who was alone at one end of the table, stabbing her pancakes as though she hated them.  Not as though she didn't enjoy eating them, but as though she literally hated them and wanted them to suffer.

"We had to take whatever signed up," said Adrian.  "Anyway, they all seem keen, and they worked hard yesterday, didn't they Mimi?"

“Yes,” she said, “they were pretty good.”  She set down her tea cup and dabbed her mouth with the linen napkin.

“And you’ll have to work hard too, to make sure they stay focused,” the Admiral said.

Mimi looked to Adrian for explanation. He said nothing. “Sure,” she said.

The Admiral then asked, “Mimi, would you mind giving us a few minutes?  I have to speak with Adrian.”
           
She stepped out onto the veranda and closed the door.

“Hi Mimi,” said Shana.  “What’s the plan?”

She shrugged.  “You’ll have to ask the professor.  “I’ve just been kicked out of the grown-ups room.”

“Why?” said Brian.

“I don’t know.”

“It’s all right,” said Stew. “We’re way more fun to hang with.  The Skipper is several levels above weird.

“Don’t call him that. Have some respect,” said Joanne.

“But there’s always weirder still.”

“What does that mean?”

The door opened, and Cora, the Admiral’s housekeeper, stepped out.  She said, “Is everyone finished?” and reached to collect the plates, starting with Joanne.

“Let me help,” said Mimi.

“No thank you,” said Cora.

“I don’t mind,” said Mimi.

“No.  Ito ang aking trabaho.  Thank you.”

“Okay, sorry.”

Cora scowled at Mimi and left with the plates.

“If looks could kill,” said Stew.

“What did she say?” asked Shana.

“She kind of told me to mind my own business.”

“That seems a bit harsh,” said Shana.

“She’s like what, his servant?” asked Brian.

“Housekeeper,” said Shana.  “‘Servant’ is derogatory.”

Mimi said, “She’s an overseas worker.  I didn’t know there were any in Bermuda.  I guess they’re everywhere there are rich people.”

“Where’s she from?” asked Brian.

“Same place as me.”

A gentle gust ruffled the edge of the plastic table cloth and carried a pair of longtails close to the house.  They separated and fought back out over the water, chuckling back and forth.

Molly said, "It's nice here, isn't it?"

The others looked at Molly. It was the first thing she had said all day.

*   *   *

Derek had been awakened before dawn by another nightmare, a new but not dissimilar version of a recurring topic: life in the world of his new job.  He was at Weaver College in Blair, Nebraska, what was in store six months after his return from Bermuda.  He dreaded it as he would an appointment for necessary yet likely unsurvivable surgery.  Although he had never been to Blair, or Nebraska, or anywhere near there, the place was becoming horrifically familiar to him in his dreams.  Everything was flat and beige, except for the people, who were grey and burly.  They spoke in incomprehensible mumbles.  The dreams always ended with Derek tumbling off something, a set of warped planks meant as stairs, or a part of a nonsensical barn with enormous gulfs between floor boards, or the curiously convex bed of a pickup truck on which he had no reason to be riding.  After the fall, he would lie confused, unreasonably terrified, suffocating in dry, loose dirt, an endless dustbowl filling his open mouth and unclosable eye.

He had received rejection letters from dozens of other universities and colleges during the previous year.  We don't want you.  We don't need you.  The problem was, he was told—if he was told anything—was that he didn't have enough experience.  A meager doctorate meant next to nothing in modern academia, which was flooded with unplaced PhDs, many with multiple post-docs.  Doctor Derek Coulter was a rosy-cheeked babe compared to the hundreds of other wrinkling, greying, embittered, and impoverished souls applying for the same openings.  He rarely ranked within the top fifty, except at Weaver College, a private liberal arts college affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, where by some misfortune he seemed to have been first choice.  He hadn't even been asked for an interview.

Professor Patricia Lawson, Chairman of the Department of Mathematics, Religion and Sciences at the college, wrote Derek.  She said he sounded perfectly suited to their small but proud institution, enrollment six hundred and fifty.  Derek was appalled.  He had no desire whatsoever to go there, to a tiny institution where biological sciences were somehow melded to mathematics and religion.  He had submitted an application without carefully reading the advertisement, which had been easy enough to do, requiring only that he readdress the same email he had readdressed and sent dozens of times before.  Nebraska!  Derek had never been farther inland than Reno.  He liked living near the coast, with its rolling hills and sun and fog and ebb and flow of multi-colored humanity.  Derek fervently did not want to move to Nebraska.  It would be skull-numbingly bland for a Californian, wouldn't it?  He had asked a Nebraskan-born grad student at Berkeley what it was like, and if he would ever want to go back there after living in California.  The student's reply had been, "Lots o' folks love it there."  Then there was a pause.  "Not me, though."
 
It would be as quiet as a mausoleum.  Derek doubted the sounds of rustling cornstalks and drying mud would amount to anything.  It would be nothing compared to the ringing in his ears. 

He dropped from his hammock and stumbled to the spout.  He spoke at the pale blue gathering itself over the arc of the horizon.  "Come on, come on, come on up, sun," he said.   At times like this, bereft of any sense of security, Derek longed for his cat, who was useless in any practical way but was at least a warm body to hug.  Roy was staying with kooky old Ida, the upstairs neighbor, which was a concern in itself now that Derek thought about it.  He could easily imagine she had forgotten his instructions and let him out.  Roy was a housecat who never went outside.  He could have been kidnapped by a homeless crack-head, who sold him to a disreputable zoological supplies dealer for cocaine money.  At this moment Roy could be floating belly-up and slit open in a tank of formaldehyde somewhere, triple-injected with red and blue and yellow latex.  Derek hugged himself.

The sun grudgingly rose and Derek's fears for Roy, and by connection himself, subsided.  He wobbled back to his campsite and immediately dozed off, slumped against the time-tested wall of the redoubt, safe from the most powerful weapons the seventeenth century could throw at him.

Michael kicked him kindly.  "Hey mate, wake-up."

Derek jerked awake and recognized the sunny face of his provider.  As they shook hands in celebration of their mutual existence, Derek was hauled to his feet, which surprised him enough to make him almost fall over.  "Oh Michael, I had another rough night.  Lots of wild dreams.  I'm a hopeless nutcase, I think."

"Why you belong here,” said Michael.  "Any luck with the kiskadees?"

"What?  Oh, yes.  I got one."  Derek flung open the lid of the cooler and pulled a dripping plastic bag from the ice.
           
"Did you open it?"

"The bird?"

"To see what it ate recently."

"No.  I'll get my dissecting kit."  He ducked into the tent and returned with a little plastic case.  He removed a pair of sharp scissors and handed them to Michael, who was gently tossing the kiskadee in his hand like a bag of gold dust.

"Where's the wound?" he asked.  The head of the bird was damp, and matted feathers obscured the entrances to the little tunnel Derek had made.

Derek took the bird and held it by the neck, up to the sun.  Light shone through, eye-hole to eye-hole. 

"Whoa, did you mean to do that?"

Derek shrugged.

Michael poked one blade of the scissors into the body cavity and sawed the bird from cloaca to bill.  The ribs and breast bone crackled.  He handed the scissors back, smearing Derek's fingers with half-coagulated blood and yellow down.

Derek could smell the blood.  It was putrid.

Michael parted the bird lengthwise with his thumbs like a dinner roll, revealing the compactly looped gut, the large, purple-brown liver, and the gizzard, which was tough and rubbery, like a grape-sized lacrosse ball.  He took the scissors again and snipped further forward, beyond the flimsy proventriculus, through the dark red meat of the flight muscles and then the tough furcula, almost to the crop.  He cut the esophagus as far into the throat as the scissors would reach, the intestine just anterior to the cloaca, and several filmy mesenteries.  With the flats of the blades he lifted the entire digestive tract free and stretched it out on a rock, where he snipped it open, end-to-end.  The intestine contained unrecognizable goo.  The gizzard was filled with the spiny, stick-like legs of cockroaches. 

He opened the proventriculus.  "Here you go," he said.  "Too bad you didn't shoot him sooner."  He gingerly pulled free the corkscrewed, partially masticated body of a baby rock lizard.  He dropped it into Derek's hand, on top of the drying blood of the bird that had eaten it.

Derek rolled the little lizard back and forth in his palm.  Its dead eyes were sucked back into its head.  He let it fall to the ground, then crouched and touched it gently.  "I never killed a vertebrate before, you know," he said.  He returned his attention to the blood between his fingers.  "I was always very proud of that, even though my cousins would make fun of me.  They thought I was a wimp."

Michael said nothing.  He had noticed Derek's eye almost immediately but had not asked about it, because he knew it was none of his business and that Derek was trying hard to keep it hidden.  He had mentioned it to Evie, who told him, yes, it was none of his business.  But now, overcome with curiosity and wondering if the damage to Derek's face had something to do with Derek being such a hopeless nutcase, he said, "Forgive me for asking, but what happened to your eye?"

Derek immediately pushed his sunglasses back up his nose.  "Sorry, I don't like talking about it."  He turned away.  He didn't want to be evasive toward his new friend, but found discussing his eye very difficult.  It reminded him of what he now looked like, what he had once looked like, and the problems he and his wife had experienced because of it.  He had half-expected Michael to say something sooner or later, because the eye was difficult to miss.  It resembled a runny, half-poached egg dropped into a muddy heel-print.  Much of the upper lid was missing and the tear duct was badly torn, causing the eye to weep almost continuously.  The eyeball also was damaged.  The cornea was misshapen and the top half of the iris had been sheared away.  After arriving home from the hospital, dismayed at how little the surgeons had achieved, Derek ran around the house, removing all mirrors. 

Laura didn't get off so easily.  It was there first thing in the morning and was what greeted her when she returned from work.  She couldn't escape the eye.  What frustrated her most was that much of the damage could have been repaired if not for Derek's useless anger.  A plastic surgeon explained that although the eye could never be returned exactly to its previous appearance or to full function, most of the cosmetic damage could be reversed through tissue grafts and prosthetic additions to the upper lid and tear duct.  He said that with the proper contact lens, shaped to fit the irregularities of the cornea, the problems with light glare from the torn iris could be reduced.

The reason Derek didn't submit to the surgery was not, as he would claim, because they couldn't afford it — although it was true that the company from which Derek had purchased his medical insurance would not pay.  (The company informed him he would not be compensated for plastic surgery; cosmetic surgery was not covered by his graduate student health plan.)  The coverage the policy provided was so minimal, in fact, that Derek and Laura had gone into debt from the basic emergency treatment that had restored partial vision and made it possible for Derek to lean forward without his eyeball bulging from the remaining portion of the lid.  The insurance company, located far from California, in Fairfax, Virginia, "to be as impersonal as possible," Derek claimed, would only pay eighty percent of the expenses, unless the bill exceeded one hundred thousand dollars, in which case it would reimburse all costs.  Derek scoffed that it was nearly impossible to require so much treatment and still be alive.

Laura had found a way around the company's stinginess, a source of funds, but Derek would not accept it.  He was furious that Laura had contacted his nearest living relative, his brother, Peter, a Manhattan investment banker.  They hadn't lived together since before their parents' deaths, which happened while Peter was a freshman at Cornell.  He had continued his education while Derek remained with his aunt and uncle and cousins in California's Central Valley, near the small town of Dixon.  During those years, Peter tried to help Derek from across the continent by sending brotherly advice about life — what a twenty-something could know about it — especially regarding his favorite subject, money.  He visited often at first, but over the years, as his life became more complicated and he married, and divorced, and married again, the time between visits increased and the duration of visits decreased, until he stopped going back.  By that time, Derek was a parentless teenager looking for something to resent.  He chose Peter's neglect, demonstrated by his lack of interest in his development as a biologist.  Derek believed Peter had sold him out.  He had chosen money over him.

Peter informed Laura he would pay for whatever treatment Derek needed.  Derek refused, having given up entirely on his brother a few years earlier after a phone call in which Peter had yelled at him to “Grow up, stop playing with animals, and get a real job!”

Laura pleaded with him, to the point of tears.

"No!" he yelled, "I want none of his money!  Ever!"  He chose to live with an eye that was a source of shame and sorrow, that he wouldn't look at or let others see — except for Laura, who didn't want to see it.  "I'm learning to live with it," he would say, which wasn't true.  He was learning to not live with it.

Laura had always loved his eyes.  They had been part of what made her fall in love with him and, she knew, were what made other people like and trust Derek almost immediately.  Laura had many times called them, "dreamy eyes," as she cooed at him, when she was in love with him.  He preferred to think of them as "unique," or "interesting," because the pale brown irises contained very surprising golden spots.  "Please Derek!" Laura pleaded.  "Do it for me!  I want your old eyes back!  I want the old you back!"
           
Michael waved his hands in apology, which Derek couldn't see.  "I'm sorry, very sorry, I shouldn't have asked," he said, angry with himself.  He changed the subject.  "What were you talking about on the radio last night, something about two men?"

Derek turned to face him.  "What happens if you get badly hurt here?"

"Uh, we take you to the hospital.  What do you think?"

"Who pays hospital bills?"

"For you, a foreigner, you should have visitor's insurance."

"Yes, I do, but who pays if you're Bermudian?"

"We have health insurance."

"How does it work?"

 "We pay premiums through our work.  It's deducted from our wages, one way or another."  Michael explained that it depended whether you worked for the government, a small company, a large corporation, or were self-employed.  He said there were various group plans for all sorts of employees.

"Is it expensive?"

"People complain, but no, it's not really expensive, not by American standards."

"What if you're unemployed, or unemployable?  What if you can't pay anything?"

"You still get treatment," said Michael.  "The government pays for it."

"Universal coverage, for everyone, rich or poor?"

"I suppose so, but there's only so much we can do here.  We're a small country, the size of a small city, really."

"But if need be they'll airlift you out?  To Boston or London or Atlanta or somewhere?"

Michael nodded.

"And everyone is treated the same?"

"What's all this about?"

Derek sighed.  "Civilization," he said. “Bermuda is very civilized.”

“A few might argue with that.”
           
Derek said, "Oh, you asked about the men."

Michael stifled a laugh.  Derek's mind was a revolving door.  "Yes, I did," he said.

"They were up there."  Derek pointed across the island to the top of the old house.  "They were standing up there, watching the archeologists arrive.  I thought they were part of the group, but I never saw them again.

Michael was at a loss.

Derek speculated, "Maybe they landed at the stairs behind the rampart and went back down the same way.  That's the only thing I can figure."

“Were they wearing swim gear?”

“No, they were fully-clothed, and wearing straw hats.”

“Were they soaking wet?”

“No”

“If they came by boat, they would have had to anchor offshore.  There’s no landing on that side.  They would have had to wade ashore.    "Did you hear a boat?"

"No, but sometimes you can't hear an engine if the wind is from the east, right?"

“The wind, when there was any, was westerly all through yesterday.”

“Well, I have hearing difficulties anyway.” He started massaging his ears. And then he started massaging them violently, as if trying to rub them off his head.

Michael touched his arm to make him stop. “Derek,” he said.

“What?”
           
The air behind Michael was rudely split by the shriek of a kiskadee.  Michael twisted to spot it, and turning back, glimpsed Derek diving into the tent.  He erupted back out almost immediately, ramming a cartridge into the rifle, already focused on the bird, which was perched on a wispy upper branch of one of the casuarinas.  "Don't move, Michael," he said.

Michael froze.  "Hold your breath," Derek said, and dropped the stock of the gun onto the broad, padded shoulder, “and you may want to plug your ear.”  It was a shot Derek had perfected in California, using an opened car door to assist in eye-holing weather cocks.  The kiskadee was surfing on the young, flexible branch, bobbing and swaying in the wind.   Michael watched its movement and the corresponding minute oscillations of the rifle barrel.

The gun fired and the kiskadee's head spat blood and feathers.  The bird folded and fell, lifeless.  Its body rolled downhill and disappeared among dry bay grape leaves.

“Holy!” Michael exclaimed, bumping off the gun. He turned to see Derek yank back the bolt, which sent the shell flying.  The boy seemed engrossed with the smoke leaking from the chamber.  He then shoved the gun into Michael’s hand and walked to where the bird had landed.

Michael looked at the gun, and at Derek, and at the gun.

Derek walked back dangling the bird by a leg.  He stopped on the apron of the water catchment. Blood dripped onto the concrete and flowed downhill toward the water tank.  In the heat of the day it would not get far, would dry to a stain, which would eventually turn to dust.

The bleeding stopped.
  

“Good.  It’s done now,” said Derek. He dropped the bird and stuck his fingers in his ears.

Continued...

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