Since Christmas, I have been transferring files from an older laptop to a new one, discarding old prose, yet saving some for future revisions. One of my favorite story ideas that I rescued came right out of my interest in Anthropology. Before I became a strict, no smiley Cancer researcher, I was an engaging and field-bound student of Anthropology at Purdue University. I was so damn fine-looking, too...! Ah, but I digress, and that's just the problem. I was not always the critical thinker in Anthropology, as I strayed from the field's narratives. I was romanticized by the peoples who I studied; emphatic to a fault of the many case studies I read. I wanted to improve upon a culture instead of just observing. In the field, I might have broken the Prime Directive, and many times over. Or, so I feared back then.
I loved the Anthropology field, and I have nothing but fond memories of the school and the professors. Sadly, after taking enough courses to minor in it, I forced myself to leave this romantic field behind due to the lack of job security. I was swayed the biological sciences while taking the primate evolution courses. Purdue hit pretty hard in the sciences, and I was pleasantly surprised how the parameters and the laws and the protocols kept me in line, made me more disciplined, and challenged me to observe in stricter, more defined frames. I liked the idea of hypothesizing, testing a subject, observing the reaction, and then reporting results. And I liked that jobs were aplenty.
Should I have remained in Anthropology? Or, maybe considered the field of Paleontology?Archaeology? Something about the words explore and field. Somewhere out there, in the wilderness or in the lab; should I have been that poor, rugged, boring, enthusiastic explorer; that dirt-digging, artifact-finding, specimen-labeling, tent-dwelling, researcher of our past and our present hominid lives?
Regrets? Yes. And forever.
So, years ago, when I tried to write a story involving Anthropology, I created a character that was based on a parallel me; an older me, with similar flaws in critical observation and social awareness as me. Coincidence, I'm sure! So, the following is a r-o-u-g-h-l-y drafted and ink faded start of that story - one I am already revising and getting up to speed. Again, this is just the first couple of pages of the original scene at the start. It's a dark comedy, but the premise and the ending still feels clever and...uniquely me, if Biology Major; Anthropology Minor.
Outside, the streets are…animated with darkly skinned pedestrians bathed in multicolored fabric; clothes worn so loosely; the young, so beautifully wrapped in their long, dancing banners against the constant hellbreath; exotically beautiful, yes, yet faces blend into one motion like the streak from a painter’s brush. Rarely do these streets of Tananarive ever cease the flow of human circulation.
The flimsy and bent aluminum chairs… the squeaks, the laughter…the hacking songs.
Dark roast coffee and burning tobacco thickly shroud the patrons of Ma'Cambre's Café and further insulates their political gossip from the hot, dry reality outside. Nose curling sting of cigar. Ruins the lovely aroma of this fantastic brew.
He swore he saw micro islands of dust on his sea of thick roast.
Though older Tanans owe their leathered skin to cigars, and to the sun, young and old alike are raped by the stale dust breaching ubiquitous screened doors; this red silicosis.
Not raped, he thought.
Though the old ones owe their deepest layers of leathered skin to cigars and sun, all Tanan are mummified by the red and ubiquitous dust that invades in every room of their screened door reality. This red silicosis irritates the Tanan lung, scaffolds their diatribes –though they are unaware -- evokes a kind of hacking song that someone will start, and two or three others join in to finish.
Ma'Cambre's Café is packed with patrons, having more people than chairs, more people than space. Thus, the kitchen bar shoved against the stoves and sink is lined with human bodies, standing sideways to allow others to squeeze between and retrieve their refills from the sweating housewife-turned-chef-turned-bartender. Anthropologist Ronald Waddell is lucky to have saved a chair and two stacked vegetable crates — serving as a table —in an unusually quiet, cool, and semi-dust-free corner of Ma’Cambre’s. His digital keyboard a waterfall over the fraying crate strips, Dr. Weddell pulls himself back up from his failing patio chair and punches in further observations.
The red velvet of Tananrivo coats every goddamn thing. The tobacco-stained windows, as if it wasn’t cloaked already…and dulls the badly worn linoleum floor even further which had, I’m guessing, decades ago lost most of its luster. Ah. Except near the corners of the faux walnut paneled walls where a Fifties-styled blue floral print suggests a civility of a nation somewhere else. Everything here is from somewhere else.
Dr. Weddell falls back into his seat, looks at the screened door. He had checked. The plane had arrived on time. He didn’t blame them for cleaning up at the hotel. Yet, not answering their calls? Well, he had been given two numbers…left three messages on each in chronological annoyance. He had been sinking into the disintegrating nylon strips for nearly two hours, waiting for his three grad students to show. Or four. Dr. Weddell couldn’t remember how many had finalized their commitment to study abroad with him for the summer – Madagascar’s winter and dry months.
And he most definitely feels the glares of his many chair-less comrades, concludes his welcome is overstayed. Twice the teenaged server asked him if he would be having lunch. The server's baseball cap, worn backwards, is stained with grease and fingerprint smudges. He smells of curry, aftershave, and perspiration. No, no. No lunch for me. Not any food, thank you. Dr. Weddell would never eat the food at Ma'Cambre's or any other cafe in this part of Tana, unless it was attached to the Hilton (so warned Purdue's Anthropology staff). Cooking his own rations or eating with the other camps set up at the site would be much safer. Yet, Curry. The steam from the kitchen effervescently laced with honey and spice… He was getting hungry. He will have no choice soon but to chance it. Where the hell are they?
What if they haven’t left yet? He will have no help moving all of the research equipment to the new camp. He would have to setup the studies all by himself before they arrived. That's a lot of work for one researcher. He pulled himself out of the black hole; his back knees numbed by the aluminum frame of his chair.
Is the food really as severely contaminated as some claim, or is it just a filthy stereotype made by snooty Western tourists? The food served here at Ma'Cambre's certainly looks normal, even pleasant. What's the big scare? Salmonella? Not botulism.
He typed in his thoughts in bullet points.
"Monsieur? Would you care for more coffee?"
"Yes, thank you. Merci."
The young server nods; fails to smile like he had the first couple of times.
It's remarkable how many Tanans desire a cup of coffee at three in the afternoon. Is it a custom here in Madagascar to have coffee at this time? In this heat?
The server returns instead with a pot of freshly brewed tea and gently pours it into Dr. Weddell’s cup. He says nothing, but grabs the server's wrist.
"What is that man having?"
"The man with the glasses, what is…what is he having? You know? Eating. Eating."
"Man is having bisque... our specialty bread avec le vin rouge."
"I'll... I will have a loaf, but without the wine. No bisque either."
"No wine, no bisque. Merci Monsieur."
I fear no bread, Dr. Weddell thought to himself. I fear no bread. Though, Man cannot live by...
A thin, white woman dressed in khaki shorts and a checkered blue and white denim shirt is leaning over the table, the tips of her silky, brown hair touching the crate, her eyes squinting as she looks into his face.
He blinks, slides his tablet onto his lap.
"Dr. Weddell.” She assured. “Hello."
"Yes. Who are you?"
"I am Caitlin Hey. We met, uh, this in May? After your talk at Stewart. I–”
“Yes, yes.” He interrupted; but he did not remember her.
“Great. I am an Assistant Professor of Biology. At Purdue." She held her hand out.
Dr. Weddell shook it, watching himself do so as if outside his own body. “We did meet.” Vaguely, he now recalled her face, her stern voice. And some email exchanges.
"May I sit down?"
"Please do." He gets up from his chair, bumps the crates and spills some of his tea.
Caitlin looks around. Dr. Weddell calls out for the young server who is exiting the kitchen with a tray of four plates held up high over his head. The server somehow acknowledges as he slides between the patrons, serves the food, and seemingly from out of nowhere, pulls out a large metal bucket.
“You can’t be serious." Dr. Weddell fails to take it.
“Thanks.” Caitlin responds, and then takes the bucket.
“No. Absolutely not.” Dr. Weddell grabs the bucket. “Please take the chair.” He urges.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. Yes, please. I must. Allow me. I couldn't let myself..."
"OK.” Caitlin finalizes with a shake of her head. “Thank you."
"Not a problem. No problem." Dr. Weddell chuckles, though nervously, as he slides the bucket around the table and...finds himself studying it. “I am surprised to…that you are here. In Madagascar.” Unfortunately, the bucket is too low to the ground, the crate table comes to the top of his chest.
Caitlin, who from his point of view, parishes over as if she's on a throne, looks at her folding hands, appears to take a deep breath.
“Strange situation here.” He chuckles again as he sits on his leg, attempting to reduce the height difference. "Okay. This is quite fine. So…,” He grinned, tapped the crate top with his fingers, “you are Caitlin.”
“Yep.” Her returned grin, slightly cuffed by dimples, disappears quickly. “You are surprised that I am here?”
Dr. Weddell maintains the grin with some effort, nods, blinks. Something specific he should remember?
"Well, we shared an intern, who decided to join your lab. She's here... Jennifer Weiss.”
“Jennifer! Yes. Of course.” He looks around. “Well, she agreed to be here, so I am happy that she’s here.”
“Actually, Dr. Weddell,” Caitlin pulled herself up from the sinking chair, “Jen is still at the hotel. She’s not…she has some jetlag.”
“Ah. Got it. Where are the others?” He leans into the crate, didn’t know where to put his hands.
“Jennifer… She’s the only one. We have come to replace the others…uh…who couldn't make it to their assignment."
“Who couldn’t come?” He stood up, practically threw down his tablet; her eyes followed.
“Well, uh, everyone had their particular reasons. Various reasons. Family, for Kara Johnson,” She shrugged, belatedly, “and one – Melissa Broxmeyer? She eloped. Apparently. And your post-doc, John, never gave me a reason. But, he might come a month later if–“
“You can’t be serious.”
“At such late notice?” His eyes are glued to Caitlin's. "They all backed out?"
"No. As I said, Jennifer was able to make it."
"For Christ's sake!” He drops hard onto the bucket; a shock goes up his spine. “God… Damn. Never in a million goddamn years... Is this really happening? You really…” He puts out his hands, as if to ask for a pile of reason to fall into them. “Jesus…” He looks around at room; no one seems to relate. “And John Killian? And…and…and,” He snapped his finger,” Kara…? She, too?”
“Yeah.” Caitlin glances out the window when a pedestrian shades the sunlight. “Kara Johnson, too.”
“Kara…goddamn…Johnson. Brightest student I ever had. Kara goddamn Johnson.”
“Please stop saying that.”
“Really? And who are you? Any idea how this might feel to me? And Kara, too? She…of all people; she would have told me long ago if she had any doubts. Now what the hell am I supposed to do here? Why didn’t Purdue inform me–“
“They did. Through me.” Caitlin stared out the window. “They left several messages at the Hilton.”
"This isn't real."
The server interrupts as he sets a loaf of steamy, dark bread between Dr. Weddell and Caitlin, of which they both watch in silence. They look at the bread, the weirdness enduring.
"Dr. Weddell," she cautiously appeals, "I volunteered to come here after your very concerned staff contacted me and…explained the circumstances. Everything was so sudden. Your Dean, Eric Sanders, made last minute arrangements so that I… so Jennifer and I could leave on the same plane and arrive in time to help you set up camp and take on the other studies."
Dr. Weddell wipes his mouth and scratches his earlobe in one deranged swoop. He folds his arms, hands tucked deeply into his armpits, cocks his head. “Why you?"
"Why did they contact me?"
"Why you? You said you're a Biologist.”
Caitlin shrugs, annoyed. “I am an Evolutionary Biologist. Ancient ecologies. Currently, I research nematode diversity. Little things that crawl in the soil. Do you have some sort of issue with that?”
Dr. Weddell chuckles, incredulous. “Worms?” He chuckles, belligerent, looks around the café as if to address the audience. “They asked a worm researcher to help me with my lemur studies?” He wipes off a layer of mud from his forehead; hold his head in his hands. “Ms. Day –“
”Hey.” Caitlin responds, taking in the dramatic scene before her.
“Jesus, Ms. Hey. You must think I’m pretty stupid. Right?”
“What do you mean?”
“Yes, yes… Yes. Who put you up to this?” He chuckles. “Who? Chris Docker? That sonofabitch?”
Caitlin matches his smile. “Don’t think so. Don’t know a Chris Docker.”
“Ah, yes; gots to be him, I tell ya. This is easily one of his jokes.”
Shakes her head, takes in a deep breath. “Not a joke.” Lets it out. “Sorry, Doctor.” Her tone stiffens. “I’m here because your students bailed.”
“No. You’re nuts if you think I’m buying this.” He chuckles. Again.
“Let me tell you something. You know, Dr. Weddell,” Caitlin shifts in her seat, “I am surprised myself that you don’t recall why I might be here. We met at Stewart. I was very much interested in your Madagascar studies. Rather…I was interested in the region where you are conducting your Lemur research. I asked if I might accompany you –”
“I answered your email, too. I informed you that I could not support another person.”
“And I responded that I could fund my own expenses. You never responded.”
“I don’t recall.”
"In other words, you ignored me.”
Dr. Weddell smiled. Sarcastic. “Maybe I did.”
“I must have assumed, wrongly,” Caitlin took in another deep breath, releasing it like smoke drag, “you would appreciate my interest and my expertise."
“In digging up worms? Are you serious?”
“As a researcher. I came here to help you.”
“No.” Dr. Weddell lifted his finger. “You are here to help you.” He pointed.
Caitlin nods, grimaces. “Well. Does it matter? Here I am. Looks like you have your very own worm digger.”
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