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Authors: Michael Cadnum

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BOOK: Edge
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“I bought Carl from the Harveys.”

Mr. Harvey was always having trouble with the zoning policies, the laws against livestock inside city limits. He had sued the city supervisors, claming his right to raise and eat whatever he wanted. When a group of South Sea Islanders were arrested for killing, roasting, and eating a horse one Sunday in July, Mr. Harvey was on television talking about religious freedom, even though he had nothing personally to do with the celebration in question.

She answered my question before I could ask. “Mom goes to the same acupuncturist as Mrs. Harvey.”

Bea could always surprise me.

“The Harveys are very nice,” said Bea.

I felt embarrassed, narrow-minded, ready to laugh at people I didn't know.

“Look, he likes you,” said Bea.

I was swept just then with the warmest gratitude for Bea, thankful to be with her, gazing into the red eyes of the rabbit she held up for me to caress.

“Why?” I asked, not wanting to break the spell, “did you name him Carl?”


Chief drove in the slow lane, the truck sluggish with a jumbo load, quick-setting mortar in ninety-pound sacks, three top-of-the-line spa shells, three sauna installation kits, imported from Finland. We were rolling south, through the Santa Cruz Mountains, past Los Gatos toward Santa Cruz on Highway 17. The four-lane road was not big enough for the traffic it carried, even on this Tuesday morning, about ten-fifty-five, according to Chief's Timex.

When we took the Scott's Valley turnoff, Chief told me to watch for a road off to the left. “It shows up in two point eight miles,” he said. “I watch the odometer, you watch for the secret passageway.”

Redwoods closed in, brushing the side and top of the truck, a gentle scraping sound. “If we miss it we're lost forever,” I said.

“You think it's funny,” said Chief, like it was really
funny, but also true.

We caught the road without any trouble, a huge break in the trees. The highway from then on was small, a winding route that followed a creek bed, rising and falling. Chief fought with the wheel, keeping the truck on our side of the road, slowing to let the occasional car pass us in the other direction. Once a lumber truck loomed and Chief had to stand on the brake. The lumber truck driver held a hand out the window of his cab, sorry to cause so much trouble, and Chief waved back.

Chief levered the truck into reverse, the gears grinding, and back up to a wide place nearly half a mile behind us. Even then the lumber truck had trouble, air brakes gasping, hairy redwood trees so close we could smell them, green life and cinnamon.

“You don't ever want to invest in a new truck,” I said. “You want to drive this until it's ready for the Smithsonian.”

“She's just getting broken in,” said Chief.

The verge of the road was rutted where trucks had strayed off the pavement, and the asphalt was tracked with dried mud and starting to crumble, potholes spreading, burger wrappers in the blackberry vines along the road.

“Inevitable signs of progress,” Chief said.

A creek lazed through boulders, the drought that made every summer dry cooking this water down to pools and dried scab, old algae, insects nipping the surface, a species I couldn't make out from a distance, mosquitoes or gnats. I could imagine my father's brisk insistence: a gnat is nothing like a mosquito, trying to be good humored about correcting me.

I spied a black-winged damselfly over a puddle, a tiny, darting needle stitching in and out of shadow. I imagined myself capturing it with the fine-mesh net and bringing the winged insect to his attention, crying,

I could close my eyes and hear his voice. Whether he kept the insect for his collection or not, he would smile and say, “That's a real specimen, Zachary.”

I drove all the way back from the construction site.

Chief lost a lens out of his glasses. After we both looked around among the boxes of ceramic tile and paper sacks of patching plaster, we gave up the search. I kept praying we wouldn't meet any oncoming trucks on the narrow road, and we didn't. By the time we reached stop-and-go traffic at the turn-off for the Oakland airport, I was getting used to the old truck, enjoying the feel, up above the rest of the traffic.

When I got to the hospital late that afternoon the first thing Perla Beach said to me was, “We have good news.”

I was a little tired from pumping the clutch all the way from the Santa Cruz Mountains, and I was unable to pick up her unspoken message, the brighter-than-ever way she talked. All I could think was: were her clothes new, or did she use bleach every time she did the wash?

My father blinked.

“Zachary,” he said.

The respirator made its constant, airy noise, oxygen in and out.

“Detective Unruh said his partner had a relapse,” said my father in a high, squeaky whisper. I put my hand out to a bright metal pole and a plastic bag of clear fluid swayed back and forth.

My father swallowed, a struggle, and said, “Her pins got infected.” A pause. “But she'll be okay.”


“Sofia says the insurance company was very sympathetic. The agent was really helpful. She's getting a new car,” I said, thinking: I'm chattering again. “It's just like the other one, only a couple years older. And a different color. Sahara sunrise or Sante Fe something.”

“Great,” he would whisper, waiting for the machine to breathe out. If you asked him a question while the air was flowing in he had to wait, like someone speaking on a radio from another planet.

“You don't mind? About the color?”

He made no response, his eyes reading my face, intent on what I was not saying.

I kept talking. “I haven't ridden in it yet, so I don't know what kind of shape the upholstery is in. If there's a problem, I'll rub mink oil all over it, give it a good treatment.”

That was the typical kind of thing I talked about, padding out the safe subjects of cars and gardening. My drive back from the Santa Cruz mountains was good for half an hour of one-way talk, how hard it was to change lanes when you were driving a truck, but how much you could see, higher than the rest of the traffic. Sometimes, though, Dad laughed, a silent parting of his lips, his eyes closing, opening, no sound, when I imitated Chief's walk, like a bantam rooster, or Perla Beach's expression, crosseyed with enthusiasm.

Mom read the Sherlock Holmes novel, stopping to comment, “You're lucky Dr. Watson isn't your surgeon,” or, “I think Holmes was guilty of criminal negligence—his client nearly got torn to pieces.” Mom had the lean look of a tennis player over the hill but refusing to retire, experiencing life as an endurance contest, popping Excedrin when she thought no one was looking.

Sofia could talk of Daniel, what new video he had picked out to watch the night before, what bad dreams had awakened him. Sofia didn't look so sexy these days, puffy and pale, looking like someone who has just gotten up from a restless nap, no matter the time of day.

My grandparents passed through one warm day, flying up from Florida. My grandmother is a woman so calm and pretty, in a delicate way, it is easy to forget that she is deaf and unable to hear a word. She talked about subjects that required no conversation, her trip to Russia at the height of the Cold War, the weather where she lived, how hard it was to keep a boat in the water in Florida for any length of time, the barnacles ate everything alive.

My grandfather is a man so handsome he looks like a model, someone constantly showing off what today's seniors are wearing, golf shirts and pleated twill pants. Only when I took the time to talk to him did I notice how unsteady and unceasing his smile was. They left after only a short visit, their eyes not sure where to look, but sounding upbeat, saying medicine can do wonders.

Dr. Monrovia grew a beard. At first he had a seedy, derelict appearance that made him look hungry and even dangerous, until you realized it was only Dr. Monrovia, back at last after being marooned on a desert island. Gradually he began to look distinguished. One portion of his beard was white and the other dark, the white patch crooked, as though he had been eating powdered sugar and needed a napkin.

Dad was in a new room in a different wing of the hospital. The new ward was quieter, fewer nurses, fewer patients. Wheelchairs waited beside beds, and nurses helped people on crutches out onto a terrace, junipers in big clay urns.

The doctor said Dad was still in pain, headaches he never complained about to me, “an expression of the damage done.” When I asked, the surgeon explained that there was no lingering injury to his head. “It's just that he has no sensation in his body, and there is nowhere else for the pain to go.” Medication blitzed the pain, Valium and Demerol, but they left Dad's eyes drifting, wandering from TV to ceiling to nothing, focused on a zero point.

That first remark he had made to me was something he had prepared, practicing with Perla Beach's help. Detective Unruh's partner's surgical pins had become slightly infected, the bones not healing as quickly as they should. She was expected to recover, and it might have been a sign of my father's state of mind that he found another person's medical problems most worthy of comment.

Some evenings Bea and I went down to Lake Merritt, but the police were enforcing a curfew. New lights illuminated the oaks and redwood trees around the lake, and the water seemed unusually low, dark stones exposed by the receding tide. Bea's hair was growing back, and sometimes she looked completely different to me, someone I did not know.

Some evenings we set up the badminton net in the backyard. Bea and I swatted the birdie back and forth as the twilight held off, not a plastic birdie, but a traditional, feathered specimen, one Mom had bought for a title company picnic at Tilden Park. Sometimes a neighbor's cat crept in to follow the shuttlecock with his eyes, lunging when the feathered thing bounced close, swatting at it, looking up at us with keen puzzlement each time he rediscovered what it was.

I got good at spiking the birdie over the net, striking it with the racket's sweet spot, and Bea fired it right back, as good as Perry used to be. During these games there were no thoughts, no messages, nothing but the game, no one keeping score, Bea and I lunging and laughing, trying to keep the fluttering white shape in the air. Afterward I would put my arms around Bea while moths scribbled the dark.

One afternoon as I arrived home from work, an envelope I had been dreading was there in the mailbox.

A snail had made it all the way up the mailbox post, and stuck. I pried the shell off and could see the gastropod tucked way high up inside his shell. I set the creature on the curb where it probably would survive, tugged open the mailbox, and reached in.

I ignored the multicolored junk mail, platinum credit cards wanting my mom's business, charities she supported telling her it was that time again. There was only one envelope that mattered. It was from Laney College, the word
rubber-stamped under the printed address.

I told myself I wasn't worried. I went into the bathroom, peed, washed my hands. I stalled further, tugging off my Ben Davis work shirt and putting on a clean gray T-shirt, before I picked up the envelope again.

I went into my room and sat on the bed before I opened it. When the envelope was torn carefully, one end gingerly ripped off, I slipped the letter all the way out and left it facedown on my lap.

I think I even prayed, a few muttered words, before I turned the letter over and flattened it against my lap. Even then I kept my eyes out of focus. I wished that I were one of those people who need reading glasses. I could fuss with a pair of spectacles for a few more seconds before the truth was in my eyes.

He parted his lips, his eyes full of questions.

“The Graduate Equivalency Exam,” I told him again, aware of how little this might matter to him now.

He licked his lips. This was beginning to be a tick, something he did without thinking.

I held the letter up so he could read it and waited while his eyes followed the sentences along. He had always been a fast reader, but now his eyes returned to the letterhead, searching the three short paragraphs. When we brought him magazines someone else did the reading, holding up the pictures for him to see. Reading was probably something he had not done since the shooting.

He sees the words, I thought, but they don't make any sense to him. He's farsighted. Or else his brain can't translate the symbols anymore, the injury giving him aphasia, like a stroke victim. He frowned slightly, parsing out the sentences, ashamed to admit his disability.


“Which one do you think?” Sofia asked.

“When was the last time he wore this?” I asked, fingering the lapel of a blue striped seersucker, one of those suits you take one look at and think: mistake.

“Never,” she said. “He bought it for a conference in Greece one summer, but then there was a strike at the Athens airport and the meeting was canceled.”

My dad's suits were displayed on the bed, five of them. They were sinister, headless ensembles waiting to turn into men. My dad was not usually comfortable in traditional men's clothes, preferring to wear khaki field clothes, denims, all-cottons that absorbed sweat and were easy to wash. But he gave lectures and met with supervising committees, explaining why another grant for research on the life cycle of the medfly was a must.

The house my dad shared with Sofia was one of those buildings with too many windows, a view of cypress trees out one side of the bedroom, the Bay out another side, glass everywhere. Daniel was watching television in a distant room, a sound of explosions and screeching tires as the housekeeper's voice reached us, asking him, didn't he want to watch Goofy.

“What did he say he wanted to wear—gray or off-gray?” I asked. “Or maybe this nice granite gray.”

BOOK: Edge
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