Scootie tried to compensate for Jackie’s absence by turning up his cycling a notch, spending every available hour on the roadways. He was recovering from a rain-drenched trip to the Half Moon Bay Library when Rip Scalding entered the Bolero shaking out a navy blue umbrella with a silver handle.
“Zygote! How ya doin’?”
“Just dandy, Rip. Slowly adjusting to the life of leisure.”
“If ya call ridin’ a bike in a hurricane leisure,” he said, then lowered his voice. “My condolensces, by the way, on your sudden departure from the mansion.”
“Ancient history. Besides, I’ve got all the work I can handle.”
“So I noticed,” said Rip, nodding at the pile of books on Scootie’s table. “What are you up to?”
“A lesson plan. I’ve got my first presentation to Cindy tomorrow night.”
“Ah, the star lady. Pick the constellation yet?”
“Had a perfect one: Serpens – the serpent. Sort of inspired by a friend’s pet. Only constellation that’s split in two, the head and the tail. They’re on either side of Ophiuchus. Depending on the account, he’s either got it wrapped behind his back, or he’s just finished ripping it in two.”
“Yeah, isn’t it great? Problem is, it’s a summer star. You could only see it now if you were in Argentina.”
“Well,” said Rip. “As one of your generation might say, ‘That really sucks, dude.’”
“I’m an accomplished linguist. So what about Hydra?”
“Hydra, the Water Serpent.”
“Well! Let’s see.” He opened an oversize volume called Stories in the Stars and flipped to the appropriate page. “Nine-headed serpent of the Lena marshes, slain by Hercules in his second labor. As one head was cut off, two others grew in its place, but Hercules’ faithful companion Iolaus solved the problem by searing the stump as each head was severed.”
“And I repeat: Yeech!”
“Yeah, it’s perfect. ‘One head was immortal, and was placed by Hercules beneath a great stone.’ Now let’s check the position – yeah, part of it’s up in February, including a star, Alphard, located in the breast of the serpent. ‘Alphard is Arabic for The Solitary One...’”
“Will it work?”
“Almost too well,” answered Scootie, chagrinned. “Thanks for the tip, Rip.”
Rip smiled. “Hey, speakin’ of tips, I got another one for you.” He reached into the pocket of his raincoat and pulled out a lavender business card: Fay Swanson, wildlife artist.
“I know her from the Hysterical Society. She heard about your troubles, and says she’s got a business proposition for you.”
Scootie tucked the card into his wallet. “Fay’s my favorite volunteer.”
“So she told me.” Rip laughed and rapped his knuckles on the table. “I’m gonna fetch some liquid adrenaline. Be right back.”
Scootie followed Rip’s see-saw amble and kept thinking about those owlish eyes, the December ocean hue of his irises. He opened a starwatcher’s book, seeking guidance for hunting the Hydra.
Two days later, Scootie found himself on a hilltop north of town, peering into a room filled with animal bones. Splitting a polychromatic forest of painted limbs, antlers and claws, he stopped at a set of four small skulls. They were lined up along a scarlet ramp, some kind of ceramic material that hid all but the top of the rightmost skull, then sloped leftward to reveal more and more of the remaining three. The skulls were painted aqua blue, and composed of thin, sharp bones: a long snout containing two long triangles, the prominent front fangs, and spacious eye sockets set back toward the small brainpan.
Fay came up behind him and giggled. “Coyotes. That was a tough little project. The departed Chester and I drove across southern Utah, and you wouldn’t belive all the roadkill! I brought along a hatchet to do the harvesting – so to speak – and Chester designed these boxes filled with earthworms and maggots. By the time we got home, those skulls were clean as Chester’s dentures!”
Scootie looked at his favorite volunteer for a very long time.
“Oh, Scootie. I know what you’re thinking, but you can’t really know someone just from sitting together on a few committees. And I’m very circumspect about revealing my... aesthetic eccentricities. You’d be surprised at how it sells, though. Take this buck in the corner...” She brought him to a full deer skeleton, propped into a position of flight. Its bones were coated in a rough texture the color of bronze, its ribcage filled with large steel spheres.
“This one’s shipping to a private buyer in Vail, Colorado, for twenty thousand dollars.”
“Of course, I don’t do it for the money. Chester left me enough to last three centuries. But there is something satisfying about people laying out large amounts of cash for my work.” Fay flashed her shy, small smile, surrounded by waves of tiny wrinkles, and headed for the door. “So, my proposition. I’ve got some work for you.”
She led him across the gravel drive to what looked like a double garage.
“That half was rented out as a studio by a Japanese Baptist minister. This half...” she pulled open the door to the reveal a pile of junk, furniture and cardboard boxes “is all the, excuse the expression, crap he left me when he moved out. I’ve given him a year now to send word if he’d like to save any of it, so now, I give up.”
She planted her small wrists against her hips and frowned.
“So, what I’d like, Scootie, is for you to fill up my pickup a few times and take this stuff to the landfill. I’ll pay you ten dollars an hour. There’s no real hurry, so you can basically do it whenever you like.”
Scootie gave a silent chuckle and eyed the pile. So this was his new calling.
“Why don’t I start tomorrow?”
Photo by MJV