Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Foreclosure

The three dozen or so abandoned, foreclosed houses had turned into moldering ghost-houses, their yards a fetid jungle. Swamp gas clung to storage sheds and half-drained swimming pools.

Tinguely Querer caught a glimpse of something much too shiny and smooth to be a dog, but too large to be a goat, cow, or pony. It slipped through the dark, waxy leaves of an unpruned magnolia tree, with what appeared to be a large, possibly prehensile tail, curling waggishly through the lower limbs.

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The sound of raspy breathing and tree limbs cracking came from the magnolia. Although Tinguely was intensely curious, she decided not to pursue the animal. It did not seem to be a very good idea. The sounds continued and seemed to ascend the tree. Then, with a crash of branches and leaves, the sound stopped.

Dusk was falling, and the Pinella Pines Subdivision she had been hired to survey was full of abandoned homes, repossessed in the mortgage crisis. The homes were all less than ten years old, but the subdivision had a jungle-y, noir feeling. For every home with lights burning in the dining rooms, and citronella candles burning on the decks or around the pool, five or six had been either vandalized by owners angry over their suddenly unaffordable ballooning ARMS, and another half dozen were simply left behind.

****

Her cell phone startled her.

“Hey kitty-cat, how are you doing?” It was the voice of a guy Tinguely had met in the office of her latest client.

He had taken to calling Tinguely “Hello Kitty” or simply “Kitty” after he saw the Hello Kitty post-it notes she used to remind herself of dates to enter into her calendar. She had bought them because they were the only post-it notes she could find in the strip mall where she grabbed coffee one afternoon.

Tinguely thought of Hello Kitty backpacks, toasters, and pencil cases she saw in Hello Kitty stores in Osaka. She remembered a photo of a child soldier in Liberia who used a Hello Kitty backpack as a lucky charm. He also wore a cheap blonde chemotherapy wig. It was supposed to bring health.

“Hey, Kitty, Hello Kitty,” said the voice on the phone.

Tinguely smiled.

****

Then her dad called.

She listened for awhile, not responding. Then,her words came out, blurtedly.

“Dad. I think I had a vision last night. Sabotage. Key bridges and dams. I’ve started to wonder about the bridges and dams here. Commerce, security, fear, death,” Tinguely told her dad. “I don’t believe, but then I do care.”

The connection was bad. She could not hear his reply.

She glanced at the television. Then a USA Today headline caught her eye. A Senate subcommittee had just heard testimony on the impact of infrastructure sabotage across America.
Tinguely’s stomach clenched. Something scritch-scratched against the wall. It was a large gecko. Its tongue flickered, then it ran out the open doorway and into the hall.

****

After one week without air conditioning in the thick central Florida mangrove heat, a peculiar slimy mold started to coat the carpets, and mildew blackened the grout in the bathrooms. The 2800 block of Periwinkle Way, a cul-de-sac that bordered a small park and a "green belt" area, seemed to be the worst. The former owners had not vandalized their homes, or stripped them of anything they could pawn or install in a parent's home. Instead, they seemed to have left them in haste. In some cases, in mid-meal.

The large bank stuck with the properties was investigating reports of possible environmental damage around the repossessed homes.

The shadowy creature appeared again. Whatever it was definitely had four legs, a tail, and a head. But, what was it? It was much too low to the ground to be a dog. It was not shaped like an alligator. Just as Tinguely caught another glimpse, it dashed back into the shadows between two pale brick ranch-style homes. Something seemed to be scaling the wall, running up the kudzu that had started to overtake the south edge of the three-bedroom, two-bathroom mother-in-law plan ranch.

*****

Headline: Seven-foot Nile Monitor Lizard In Our Town?

Photo Caption: The Nile Monitor is a vicious predator that will eat anything that fits in its mouth.

Question: What were Nile Monitor Lizards doing in Florida? What started out as a cute birthday present, turned into large, smelly reptile that could escape virtually any cage, climb up walls, and scamper out open windows, doors, and cat doors.

The wildlife disappeared. The owners forgot about them. No one thought anything of it.

That is, until they started feeding on neighborhood livestock (dogs, cats, rabbits, songbirds, toddlers).

*****

Tinguely pulled up to the hotel in a rented Ford Mustang. The car was new, with only 8,000 miles on it but was already missing various knobs and part of the dash was brittle as though they had used the low-density polyethylene instead high-density – or, was it the other way around?

Toothless tiger.

Tinguely remembered when the Mustang was a hip, strong muscle car. You have to go back to 1966 for that, she thought. What happened in those 40-something years? That was two generations back.

Uncle Chunk used to brag that he had a Mustang. That was when Tinguely’s father was making his first millions in oil, gas, wheat, and gold. That was when a million dollars was a staggering amount. Now, one would have to earn ten times that, and she would still not be rewarded with the shock and awe that seemed fitting.

Uncle Chunk’s Mustang came from Tinguely’s dad’s largesse. He bought it for him as a graduation gift. It was a classic car, already more than 20 years old in 1987, when Uncle Chunk demonstrated that he, too, could somehow swim the weird and turbulent waters of male self-fashioning.

Nostalgia is cruel.

Tinguely’s graduation gift from dad was a copy of Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, and a collectible “rare book” rated copy of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Her mom gave her a check for $50. She used it to buy new windshield wiper blades for her rusty old Volkswagen Rabbit, and to go on a three-day carbohydrate binge, eating and drinking nothing but “postres mexicanos” and syrupy hazelnut frappucinos.

Struggling builds character, said Dad.

Tinguely balefully considered her Uncle Chunk.

Perhaps he could set up an offshore banking enterprise on Barbados. Tinguely noted with satisfaction that Chunk’s skin was already getting very leathery from too much subtropical sun. Chunk should avoid the sun. His ancestors (and Tinguely’s, for that matter), hailed from the Pyrenees between France and Spain. They came to trade in mink, beaver, and sometimes wolverine.

Sometimes Tinguely craved hot chocolate and goose liver pate. She assumed it was utterly atavistic. One of these days, her atavism could cause her think of impaling a captor’s head on a stake and anchoring it on an upended pike.

For now, the hide of the moose someone in her family had shot, skinned, and tanned would have to do.

You had to send a message, she said. Otherwise, you’re no longer the hunter. You’re the hunted.

****

Someone started shipping exotic animals to pet stores in America, even though, in theory, no one in their right mind would want a black mamba, king cobra, Nile Monitor lizard, Komodo dragon, Burmese python, or anaconda in their teen-age son’s bedroom.

Someone started shipping people to the Americas, even though, in theory, no current inhabitant in his or her right mind would want a fur trapper, clear cutter, distributer of smallpox-infected blankets, or wooden stockade builder to settle there, in the current inhabitants’ pristine and nicely-balanced ecosystem.

****

The Mustang hurrumphed to a stop. Injectors need cleaning? Too much ethanol in the gas blend?

Dusk had turned to night. Tinguely opened the car door and uncoiled her legs. They were tense and a little sore from too many squats at “Pump and Crunch” class.

The air was thick with humidity. For seemingly no reason at all, she felt a surge of aggression. Startled, she sat back in the car, closed the door and breathed deeply. When she felt aggression, it was usually a response to fear. What was out there? All she could hear were her own deliberate exhalations.

****

Seated in a corner of the outdoor café, Tinguely contemplated the wrought iron gates. The pillars were covered with coiled ivy and vines. It was dark. Tinguely was drinking coffee and slowly eating a cheese quesadilla when she heard the creep and crunch of something moving in the parking lot.

A thin man – a Praying Mantis in a limp t-shirt and gym shorts, spiky gray hair – appeared, then disappeared into the shadows.

Tinguely moved into the shadows so that she would not be detected. Her muscles flexed instinctually. He appeared thin, weak, alone. So alone and vulnerable, he would be an easy catch. For some reason, his presence made Tinguely think of death squads operating in Nicaragua during the 1980s. Appearance deceives. Thin, wiry creatures can be the most ruthless; they even attack when not provoked. Peligro. Danger. Not worth it.

Like the Burmese python she had seen in one abandoned neighborhood, she coiled herself around the chair, flexed herself. She felt the need to approach him. Saliva started to pool in her mouth, her quadriceps tightened with the need to spring and pounce.

She stopped herself just before leaping out the gate and pursuing him. Walking back to her chair, she sank down. In the distance, she saw live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. Where were the alligators tonight? Were they in the mangrove swamps, or were they taking over the fountains and personal spas in abandoned neighborhoods? Cicadas buzzed.

She paid her bill and walked outside down a tropical rock garden. Something made her sniff the air, and what she sensed electrified her. Dial soap. Ben Gay.

The Praying Mantis man was nearby. Evidently he was injured. He would absolutely be easy prey.

******

The newspaper vending machine in the entryway of the hotel displayed the front page of the local newspaper. It featured a picture of a Nile Monitor lizard with a chunk of flesh and what appeared to be poodle fur hanging from its thin lips.

“Seven-Foot Lizard Preys Upon Pets”

With a mouth full of kill, eyes glittering with satisfaction, the lizard looked absolutely at home in Florida.

In the moonlight, Tinguely’s eyes shone.

If she had caught Praying Mantis man, what would she have done with him anyway?

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