Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Chapter Ten: Gathering Forces

(picture by Lewis Scharpf)

The dragonfly with the big green lips was called an Eastern Pondhawk. It took Compass a trip to the library and four hours of flipping through pictures of dragonflies before she found the one she was looking for; typing “big-lipped dragonfly” into Google had yielded nothing useful and a couple of things that were frankly disturbing. According to a book called Dragonflies of New Jersey, the Pondhawk she had was male (the powder blue color gave it away, as blue often does), had a broad range and was generally unafraid. Its genus and species names were given as Erythemis simplicicollis. Compass found herself rather affronted by the name. There was nothing “simple” about her bug, thank you. She could neither pronounce nor understand the name, but that didn’t stop her from being affronted. The world had taken far too many liberties with her lately, and she would be affronted if she felt like it.

Beyond the annoying name, there was no information that got Compass any closer to the truth of her paternity. She liked the bug, wished the entomologists had given it a better name than “Pondhawk” which sounded like the supposedly cool name a total geek might BeDazzle in rhinestone studs on the back of his pleather jacket. It had such a ridiculous face, dark bulbous eyes like sunglasses and the round, bobbed green nose and ludicrous mouth. The pictures in closeup made her snort through her nose, a tiny, furtive snot bubble landing on the margin of one glossy page. She wiped it away, feeling terribly guilty, and decided she’d had enough for one day. She checked out several dragonfly books, stuffing them into her backpack, her mind already on Taco del Mar and the latest contribution from Netflix. She stepped out into the cool Seattle mist and almost bumped noses with a familiar face.

“I knew you couldn’t resist.”

“Mark! Hey, what are you doing here?”

“Research. They have a nice collection of myriapoda slides down in the basement. So you got a bunch of books on dragonflies, huh?”

“Nothing wrong with learning a little more about the world around me.”

“I still think you’re on the wrong path. Nothing links those bugs other than their presence in your mother’s trunk.”

“There’s got to be something. My mom wouldn’t just have a bunch of bugs for no reason.”

“Your mom’s a nutcase.”

“I’m aware of that. She’s in Prague. Or was, fairly recently. I just got a copy of her most recent debit card statement.”

“You’re opening her mail now?”

“I had to find out if she was still alive, didn’t I? She’s alive. And eating most of her meals at Joe’s Bar in Prague, apparently. She wouldn’t survive a day in a John Grisham novel – paper trail as obvious as a long stream of TP stuck to a bride’s heel.”


“Been working on it. But is it ironic?”

“Still just unfortunate, Alanis. So what happens now? Now that you know she’s alive?”

“Nothing. I stay in her house with my cats and her ghosts and I keep digging for clues.”


“Henry and Sophie. You’d like them. They’re nice to my cats.”

“Apparently ‘nutcase’ is a genetic condition.”

“Watch it.” Compass paused, swiped some mist from her glasses. “There’s got to be something in there. And I guess it’s something fairly horrible or she wouldn’t have hid it all this time, wouldn’t have flown behind the Iron Curtain to get away from it now.”

“There is no Iron Curtain anymore.”

“Well, behind the continental window sheers, then. Whatever. You really are no help at all.”

“What do you want me to do?”

Compass stared at Mark for a moment. “Do you mean that?”

“I guess. I mean, I know you want to figure out who your father is, and I can understand that. I think you’d be better off waiting for your mom to run out of clean undies and come home, but obviously you’re not prepared to do that.”

“I can’t.”

It nearly took all the air in Compass’ lungs to admit that. She hadn’t entirely fessed up to that fact to herself, much less to someone else, and she had caught herself off guard. She couldn’t wait to start searching, couldn’t let her mom control the terms by which she established the Y side of her DNA. She turned away from Mark and frantically blinked back the unexpected tears. She was nearly under control when Mark gently took her arm.

“I’ll help.”

Such kindness proved to be her undoing. She was undone. She undid. Compass mumbled her thanks without looking up, then ducked and ran. Back home, she unpacked her jumbo veggie burrito (no guac, extra jalapenos), her Diet Coke, her bug books, and snuggled down on the couch. The dragonfly she thought was the most beautiful was the bar-winged skimmer. This one covered a lot of territory, from southern New York to Texas. She put her laptop music collection on “random shuffle,” and somewhere between Billy Joel and the Monkees, she fell asleep.

In her dream, she had just missed the last train to Clarksville, and Mickey Dolenz was looking dolefully out the window as the train took him away. Mickey was always her favorite, and Compass was sad to have missed the chance of coffee-flavored kisses. But the underground station was oddly full of bright sunlight, and what she first thought were dust motes turned out to be – what else – dragonflies. They were so beautiful in their irridescent arrogance, swooping and sliding through the air of the suddenly glass-domed station like tiny fighter planes, all colors of the rainbow and then some, bioluminescent and just plain luminescent. Then she realized that some of them had little tiny canisters around their legs, be-messaged like carrier pigeons. She tried to grab one out of the air, but she grabbed too hard and crushed it. She could feel its tiny heart beating between her fingers, too fast, much too fast, then too slow and then not at all. She opened her hand, eyes already blurred with tears and apologies – it was a smear against her palm, no message at all, and then Tracy Chapman hit her in the nose and she woke to “Give Me One Reason,” which at first had her desperately trying to explain the notes around the dragonflies’ legs until she realized that she was in her mother’s house, dozing on the couch.

It was late but not terribly late. Still it gave her quite a jolt when the phone rang. It was Todd. Todd was very very sorry, and in her still-sleep-adled brain Compass thought he was sorry about the dead dragonfly.

“It’s OK – it was just a dream,” she told him, then realized that it was her dream, not his, and that as far as he was concerned, she had yet to make sense in this conversation. “Hang on. You woke me up. I’ll be with you in a moment.”

“It’s my fault. I’m sorry, Compass. I should have told you.”

“Told me what, exactly?”

“I called your mom. The day she ran off. I called her and confronted her about the blood types.”

“Why would you do that? You hardly know her.”

“Well, actually, I know her pretty well. She and I go shopping sometimes. And we brunch. She said you don’t brunch, and she needed a brunch partner, so we brunch.”

When did ‘brunch’ become a verb, Compass wondered, then dismissed the question as tangential.

“Oh, God. You’re her latest accessory.”


“Todd, my mother is exactly the kind of woman who would have a gay male friend because gay male friends are fashionable.”

“Oh, sweetie, I know that. But it’s nice to be with someone who thinks you’re a Yves St. Laurent in a Target world. But I scared her off. I didn’t mean to – I mean, who thinks a phone call is going to send someone jetting off to Eastern Europe?”

“But why did she run away? That’s what I don’t get. She’s told me unpleasant things before, she never flinched at that. Remember last Christmas when she asked that waiter to put us in the ‘bad hair’ section so I’d feel comfortable with my own kind? Or the time she came to my apartment and sneaked off with half of my clothes which, she told me later, she’d had euthanized as it was the only merciful thing to do?”

Todd snorted. Give him credit, he tried to stop the laugh, hence the snort, but Compass heard it and knew what it was.

“It’s not funny.”

“Sweetie, you are her punching bag, and I’m her handbag.”

“And she’s just an old bag.”

“I’m sorry. Really.”

“It’s OK. Will you help me, though? I’ve decided that the Fates are testing me with this whole ‘Who’s your daddy’ thing – it’s a paternity test, of sorts. I could use help.”

“I am yours to command.”

“No more consorting with the enemy, though.”

“Too bad,” Todd sighed. “I made a good consort.”

“Don’t let her know you’re not still her . . . handbag. I could use a spy in the enemy camp if she ever comes back.”

“Deal. And until then?”

“What do you know about dragonflies?”

Her armies were amassing. Well, not exactly amassing, as there wasn’t a whole lot of mass there, but they were gathering, the three of them. Triangulating, then. Herself plus Todd and Mark. She felt grateful for them, knew that they weren’t enough. She picked up the bar-winged skimmer, turned the plastic cube of dead bug over and over in her fingers, studying the little animal from every angle. Totally missing the clue that would have told her everything.


NuclearToast said...

Another cliffhanger? Augh, more torture! Although, with this story, I guess it's a good kind of torture.

Ash said...

My favorite lines of this chapter:
"paper trail as obvious as a long stream of TP stuck to a bride’s heel"
"Remember last Christmas when she asked that waiter to put us in the ‘bad hair’ section so I’d feel comfortable with my own kind?"

I love it!

OMG – what is the clue? I need more!