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Photo Credit: Charlie Kellogg
It's a big sucker. On the corner post of the back porch, there's this thing with wings, like a grasshopper, only four inches long. "Come look at this," I say to my wife. It's burger night, I've got the grill lit, but I'm thinking maybe we should just run. What if there are more?
"Creepy," she says.
"In a world man has destroyed," I say in movie preview voice, "nature gets its revenge."
I say yes. She knows I'm not.
"Maybe it'll turn into a butterfly," she says.
"In a cocoon the size of a football."
I grill the burgers. It's still there. We eat, then wash dishes. Still there. Later on, I go out with a flashlight. Still there, by itself. Big. My wife says, "I'll call Joann."
That afternoon I'm at Red Cross giving blood. Kandice does the Q and A. She comes in with a flourish of her synthetic gown. "Did you eat today?" she asks.
I tell her no, but I promise to eat tonight. "Kandice with a K," I say. "You've been saying that your whole life."
She rolls her eyes. "How come you don't eat?"
"I just got back from Atlanta," I say. "I'm outta whack."
She wraps the blood pressure cuff around my arm, pumps me up. "Drive?"
"I saw a hundred dead deer." I feel the blood bumping in my arm.
Kandice loosens the screw on the bulb and the cuff exhales. She says, "You're kinda high today."
"That better than low high?"
She frowns. "Do you drink alcohol?"
Just enough. She asks, I tell about my coffee consumption. When I do the math, the number of espressos surprises me.
"You probably ought to cut back," she says.
"Wine or coffee?
She smiles, for the first time. "I'd cut back on coffee first."
I get almost home, I notice this car behind me, up close and personal, a guy driving. I turn down my street, he turns too. Not a car I've seen in the sub. I pull in my driveway, go halfway up the drive, and stop. This car, a white sports sedan, looks like a fang on wheels, it's parked at the bottom of the driveway. The guy has his window down, an arm dangling out of it. He might be looking for someone, I think. He might be lost.
I get out. "Help you?"
"You sonovabitch," he says, "you cut me off."
"What?" I say. "When? Where?" I think back a block, a mile, a day—nothing.
"Don't bullshit me." He raises that arm, levels his index finger at me. "You know you did," he says. "I oughta kick your ass."
"If I did," I say, "I'm really sorry."
"Sonovabitch." He says again he should kick my ass, then steps on the gas and roars away. I stand there, baffled, and realize I'm shaking. I look up and down the street. No one outside. Just me and Badass.
Inside the house, I set a bag of groceries on the counter.
"Got any blood left?" my wife says.
"My blood pressure was high." I reach in the bag and pull out a bottle of wine. "High normal," I say.
"You gonna light the grill?"
"You'll never guess what just happened." I can still feel the adrenaline rush. I don't like it.
Our friend Joann the naturalist comes to the door in her pajamas. Bug books under her arm. There's a gleam in her eye that comes with the thrill of pursuit. Ask her, she'll tell you forty years ago she was a hippie. It's not difficult picturing her in jeans, beads, tie-dye, feathers in her hair. Now she works the school nature center, which means she talks to you like you're a sixth grader. We walk through the house, out the back door onto the porch. She sets her books down on the table.
I hand her the flashlight. She puts on her glasses and looks.
"Oh my," she says. "Thank you so much for calling me."
I tell her it doesn't seem like a good idea, her driving around in her pajamas. My wife rolls her eyes. "You never know," I say.
"I was in bed," she says. "But I had to come. She'll be gone in the morning."
Both of us: "She?"
"She, yes. Notice the antennae. And notice her slightly distended abdomen." She tilts her head, draws close to the thing, a few inches away. "I'd say this is a polyphemus moth. She's sending out a powerful scent right now. Males of the species will detect it and come to her. They'll mate. In the morning she'll be gone."
This scent she sends out, I picture it, for some reason, as searchlights or laser beams boring into the night. "It's not going to eat the wood on the house," I say.
"It doesn't eat," she says. "The caterpillar eats. This moth procreates, then it dies."
"I think I know what happened," I say to my wife. We're lying in bed. She's reading a book about Cynthia Ann Parker, kidnapped by the Comanche in 1836. "I know where I cut him off."
"These guys were brutal," she says.
"On the corner of Franklin and Walnut Lake." I wait for a response. She's reading.
"Remember that TV commercial," she says finally, "the piles of garbage and the Native American with a tear dropping from the corner of his eye?"
"Except I didn't cut him off."
"Pure revisionist history. A romanticized view of the Native American," she says. "They raped, they murdered, they tortured people." She taps a page with her index finger and shakes her head. "Mutilation. Babies, slaughtered."
"There's that temporary right lane as you go through the light, north on Franklin?"
"The Comanche," she says, "were terrible."
"He was in that lane. I was in the main lane."
"Sometimes you drive too fast," she says. "You don't pay attention."
"I had the right of way. He's supposed to yield to me."
She reads for minute, then says, with genuine sadness, "So much for the noble savage."
"Maybe he wasn't paying attention." I stare up at the ceiling, playing back the driveway encounter. He sat there, waiting for me to get out of my car. "He probably was waiting to see how big I was."
"That guy this afternoon. What if I was big?"
"Let it go," she says.
"He sat there waiting. Because what if I was linebacker size? What if I was Del Durfee size?"
"Who's Del Durfee?"
"He'd've shut his trap and drove away."
We lie there a minute. I'm pretty sure I won't be able to sleep. And now I got blood pressure. She closes her book and shuts off her light. "They'd take women who looked like they could work, and a couple kids," she says. "Kill everyone else."
He was the sonovabitch.
Next morning on the way to work I stop at my coffee spot. I ask Taha what kind of tea they have.
"Tea?" He's already working on my double espresso.
He starts down the list, I'm listening for something I know, like Lipton. "Sweet cranberry fruit melange, Rooibos chai, Assan Mangalam…"
"Green tea," I say at last. "Plain."
Taha is a little Egyptian, with a voice so soft you have to lean over the counter to hear him. His manner is nothing if not cherubic. He also has a black belt in some variety of martial arts. He's told me what. To me it's all karate. Some Monday mornings his arms are red and bruised. Once he told me his jaw was dislocated. This morning I'm picturing Taha pulling a big guy out of a car, educating him, then throwing him in the ditch.
"Green tea," he whispers, handing me my drink.
"I'd like to see you fight sometime, Taha."
"I don't fight," he says. "I compete."
This thing of tea is big and hot. I hate it already. "But you could fight," I say.
He gives me a gentle smile. "I would do anything not to fight."
I stop in to see Sheldon at work, to tell him about the polyphemous moth. I know it will make his day. Sheldon is sixty, balding, an avid bridge player. Also a nature hog. He's walked the Appalachian trail a few times. He plans to retire soon so he can devote himself to playing cards and hiking. There must be outward bound bridge tournaments somewhere. While we're talking, I begin to notice, for the third or fourth time, this little hallucination thing I've got going. Things are walking into and out of my peripheral vision, little bug-like things, there and gone. I suppose it's blood pressure.
I wonder out loud if I should see a doctor.
"Eat right," he says. "Nuts, celery. How's your omega-3s?"
"How should I know?"
"Get your fish oils going. Limit your industrial foods. There is a pestilence upon the land."
I tell him I appreciate both his advice and his Biblical utterances. I've seen two doctors in the past ten years, a big one and a little one. The big one is your standard issue internal medicine man, an affable guy forty pounds overweight, with a ready prescription pad. The little one is the holistic guy. My wife calls him Speedy. He doesn't have an ounce of fat on him. He says to eat the way people ate in the 1700s. If you can't eat right, he can get the eighteenth century into you through the miracle of dietary supplements. Either way, you end up with artificial pills or natural pills. I don't like pills.
I ask Sheldon about his daughter, he shakes his head. "They rob her blind." Meaning her employees. She and her husband have orchards, cider, donuts, a specialty shop. "Last weekend," he says, "there were a couple men in the shop for over an hour." He looks out the window and shakes his head. "In security films, you can see guns in their pockets. People will do anything these days. They're so desperate."
"They certainly seem crazy," I say.
"They'll kill and not even blink an eye."
I start to say it will be all right, but I'm not so sure. When I turn to go, I tell him I had green tea today.
"Polyphenols," he says. "Out with the free radicals."
"You know she wanted to go back," my wife says. We're lying in bed. She's reading about Cynthia Ann Parker and her daughter recaptured and repatriated to civilized life. I'm reading about hypertension. The story starts slow, then rises to a predictable and awful denouement. I'm also watching for phantom insects in my peripheral vision.
"Back to the Comanche?"
"Is that from the Internet?" she says, pointing to my reading. "You should talk to Speedy."
"Maybe I will."
"Yes, the Comanche."
"Life was good," I say.
"It was the life she knew. She tried to escape from the white people. She ran away countless times. She cut her breasts with a knife, not to kill herself, but out of grief. Then her daughter died. Then she died."
I tell her I liked it better when she was reading about the Persians. "They made you laugh," I say.
"I can't believe you're giving up coffee."
"I'll be an herbal gerbil."
"I don't think you'll be able to give it up."
I tell her about Sheldon's daughter, men with guns.
"What about your friend?" I ask. "Did he get a gun?" Unstable employee, let go. Stalks the boss. Parks outside the house. One imagines a predictable and terrifying denouement.
"I think he did."
We shut off the lights and lie there. I don't ask for it, the image just pops into my head, of those patches of road between here and Atlanta where the deer were struck by cars, smears of red on the pavement, huge and obscene, some of them across two or three lanes. So many as to be almost ordinary.
I hear this thumping behind me. I'm driving home from work the next day. Traffic is slow from months of road repair. In every car you can see the strain; people's expressions range from despair to berserk. Now this noise. In my mirror I see a fluorescent purple Firebird with odd bluish headlights that remind me of zombie eyes. The driver muscles into the left lane, pulls alongside me. He looks over at me, stabbing the air with scissor fingers. He singing, he's having a helluva good time, and my whole car is vibrating. I hate this. While I watch, he guns his engine, surges ahead, then stops.
We sit like this for a full minute. I can see his shoulders bouncing up and down. The music throbs. I'll bet anything he's turned the volume up. From the car in front of me, I see an arm extend through an open window, the driver's palm raised in supplication. The guy must be asking him to please turn the goddam music down. Scissor fingers reach through the passenger window of the Firebird, form a fist, then the middle finger unfolds in response. The driver in front of me responds in kind.
The next thing I know, the Firebird driver hops out of his car. He's wearing camouflage pants and a sleeveless T-shirt that reveal long tattooed arms. He stomps around the front of his car, reaches inside the car in front of me with his left hand, pulls back and smashes the driver with his right fist. Firebird holds him like that, yelling and swaying to the concussion of bass and drum. It's like he thinks he's in a video. He's enjoying himself. I'm waiting for traffic to move, thinking he'll have to get back in his car. I'm also waiting for someone to do something, when he pulls back his right fist again.
What the hell. I'll do what I can.
I honk my horn.
I don't beep it. I lay my forearm across it and mash it.
The Firebird driver pulls his punch, turns to give me a look. You want some of this? He releases the other guy and smiles. I know I'm in trouble, but I'm not giving in. I lay on my horn. Then the car beside me honks. Then the one on the other side of that guy honks. In a few seconds, seven, maybe ten drivers are blasting this guy. He stands there. The dance has gone out of him. More cars honk as he stomps back around the front of his car, gets in, and slams the door.
Traffic begins to inch forward. We're still honking. Everyone has had enough. The drivers in front of him seem to hold back, blocking him. More horns. We're letting him have it, and he can't get away. We all go a little faster, pressing on him.
I realize, wherever this is going, it won't be good. I let up on my horn. I don't want any more. I'd like to get away, but I'm trapped in traffic just the same as he is. We begin to accelerate, a convoy of rage, speeding toward a resolution that we don't deserve and that will solve nothing.
Rick Bailey lives and works in Detroit. Email: baileyrv[at]gmail.com