“Come look at this,” Morton said. Sharon left her cubicle to look at Morton’s computer screen. “The chicks were missing from nest c27 this morning. I downloaded this off the bird-cam monitoring the nest.”
Sharon leaned closer to the screen. The video flicked off and on a few times as the Malurus leucopterus parents brought insects to the nest for the chicks. “Now watch,” Morton said. From out of nowhere, a dark red spike blurred across the screen and attached itself to one of the chicks. The baby bird disappeared in an instant outside the view of the bird camera.
“What happened to the other chick?” Sharon said.
“I don’t know, the memory card was full,” Morton said. “Do you know what could have done this?”
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Sharon said. “Let’s go out to Cape Dupuy tomorrow morning. I’ll get Fred to come with us.”
“The pest control guy at the housing complex?”
“He knows his lizards,” Sharon said.
The office assistant interrupted. “Morty, there’s a collect call for you on the main line. It’s from America. Your Cousin Stevie.”
Morton looked at Sharon. “Okay, tomorrow after breakfast. We can leave from the housing complex since we’re taking Fred along.” Sharon nodded and went back to her cubicle. Morton hit the blinking button on the telephone console. “Morton Burkhart.”
“Morty, it’s your cousin Stevie.” Morton hadn’t seen Stevie since his stepfather’s funeral nearly nineteen years ago. “Stevie, from Detroit, your cousin, remember.”
“Ah, yeah, sure. Stevie, it’s been so long since I’ve heard your voice. How are you?”
“Oh, I’m okay. I had to give up Dad’s insurance agency. He left it to me after he died. You knew he died, right?”
“Sure,” Morton said. “Sorry I couldn’t come to the funeral. It’s such a long way from Western Australia. I would have never made it in time.”
“No, I understand. It’s not like you were close to Dad, or anything,” Stevie said. “So, yeah, I gave up the insurance agency. The business just got so complicated, with all the new financial instruments, and then everything went south. A lot of my customers are pretty mad, but it wasn’t really my fault. Shouldn’t have trusted those Wall Street guys. I mean, it’s not like I didn’t lose my own shirt. Now I’m managing a Circle K. It’s kind of boring, but no pressure. Somebody might get a carton of sour milk once in a while and make a stink, but…”
“Great, so why did you call?” Morton said. “I’m kind of in the middle of something here myself.”
“Yeah, you clean up oil spills and stuff like that.”
“No, I work for the Australian Avian Conservancy, it’s a non-profit environmental protection group,” Morton said.
“I thought Australia was just one big desert. How can you protect sand?”
“Actually, I am on Barrow Island, off the northwest coast of Australia,” Morton said. “But you didn’t call to talk to me about work.”
“No, I didn’t. I can see you’re in a hurry to get off the phone. I am sorry I had to reverse the charges, but the Circle K doesn’t pay that well.”
“Right,” Morton said.
“Well, Aunt Nellie, ah, your mother, asked me to call.”
“Why? Is she okay?” Morton said.
“As far as I know, but she’s never taken such a long flight. It’s like two days to fly to Australia.”
“What? She’s coming here?”
“Yeah, it’s kind of a surprise of sorts.”
“She hates to fly,” Morton said. “What would possess her to fly eight thousand miles?”
“Well, there’s been some trouble here at home.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“You guys have computers there, right? The internet?”
“Well, maybe you should check back a week or so on the Detroit News website. There’s a story about your dad there.”
“What kind of story?”
“The Detroit News got hold of some old state police records. Some of it was about your dad. You’d better read it for yourself.”
“Okay,.” Morton couldn’t imagine what his stepfather might have done to have a police record. “When’s my mother due to arrive?”
“She should be landing in Melbourne any time.”
“You mean she’s already here?”
“Right,” Stevie said. “Then tomorrow morning she flies to Perth, and from there gets a connecting flight to Karratha. She’d like you to meet her there.”
“Thursday. She gets in around 4 p.m. local time.”
“Is that a problem?”
“Yes, it’s a problem. I can’t just leave the island anytime I want,” Morton said. “I’ll have to arrange for a helicopter to pick her up and set her up in one of the guest rooms. The only people living on this island are the oilfield workers and a few scientists like me. And we’ve got a crisis.”
“What kind of crisis?” Stevie said.
“Something is eating our endangered birds.”
“That’s more important than meeting your mother, who hasn’t seen you for over three years?”
“It’s important to the people who pay me,” Morton said. “What’s my mother expect to do here? There are no tourist facilities on the island.”
“You should take a couple of days off. Go back to someplace nice on the big island of Australia.”
“I can’t leave now in the middle of a crisis,” Morton said. “Never mind. What’s the flight number into Karratha?
“Does my mother have a cell phone?”
“Yes, but they told her it wouldn’t work in Australia. She didn’t bother to get a new one for the trip. She was in kind of a hurry.”
“A hurry? Why?”
“Read the story, then you’ll understand.”
“Okay, Stevie. Thanks for the heads-up.”
“Hey, nice talking with you again. Don’t be a stranger.”
Morton hung up the phone. “Sharon, we’ve got another problem.”
Morton waited for Mama to step out of the plane in Karratha. After all the passengers had departed, a flight attendant called Morton’s name. He found his mother nearly catatonic in the tourist class section of the plane. A couple of attendants helped her into a special wheelchair, narrow enough to fit in the plane’s aisle.
“She’s dehydrated,” the flight attendant said. “Take her to the cafeteria and get her to eat. All she had on the flight from Perth were a couple of Jim Beam’s and then she passed out.”
An hour later, after a glass of water, a cup of tea and a bowl of soup, Mama came around.
“Mama, the helicopter is waiting for us. We have to go,” Morton said.
“Oh, dear, can’t we just get a hotel here and let me rest for a day or two?”
“No, Mama, I already chartered the helicopter. It’s very expensive. We have to go.”
Morton had arranged for a skycap with a wheelchair to take his mother out onto the runway to the helicopter, but getting her up the helicopter gangway was a challenge. Once on the helicopter, Mama became agitated again. Another double Jim Beam’s put her back to sleep. Morton called Sharon to arrange for a wheelchair from the Barrow Island Infirmary.
Morton had printed out a copy of the Detroit News article about his stepfather to discuss with his mother. Detroit businessman led a double life: civil rights advocate and KKK member, the headline read. The article went on to explain how during the 1960s Detroit auto repair shop operator James Wilkinson had treated his black customers with respect and drove a school bus for children in a black neighborhood, but was recently revealed to have been an officer in the Detroit chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
Morton remembered his stepfather’s funeral nineteen years ago. Most of Detroit’s civil rights leaders attended. The Deputy Mayor came representing Mayor Coleman Young who was speaking at a conference organized by the Reverend Jesse Jackson in New Orleans; he conveyed the Mayor’s personal regrets to the Wilkinson family. Then, earlier this year, a Detroit News reporter got hold of a box of old papers found in the Wilkinson repair shop by its new owner. The box contained documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Request for the State Police records of police surveillance of civil rights organizations going back to the 1960s. The State Police records of undercover operations showed that James Wilkinson had been the treasurer of the Detroit area Ku Klux Klan chapter during the 1960s.
Morton left Mama in the Infirmary over night. She wasn’t happy about it, but he insisted; this way he could leave early with Sharon and Fred for Cape Dupuy. It was only 20 kilometers from Wapet Camp to Cape Dupuy, but maximum speed in the Land Rover was about 15 kph unless you wanted to litter the roadside with corpses of animals that didn’t know they were supposed to get out of the way of oncoming vehicles. By the time they’d return at noon, Mama would be up, fed, dressed and ready to criticize Morton for his neglect.
Sharon, the Australian Avian Conservancy research unit team leader was driving. Morton rode shotgun and Fred bounced around in the back half asleep, perhaps a little hung-over based on the halitosis circulating inside the cabin. Morton cracked his window.
“Fred,” Morton said. Fred jumped a little at the mention of his name. “I printed out a photo from the bird-cam tape.” Fred rubbed his eyes and took the photo from Morton. He rotated the image ninety degrees.
“Which way is up?”
Morton reached back, grabbed the photo, rotated it again, and handed it back.
“Whoa, that’s a lotta tongue,” Fred said. “Too long for a perentie. And look, no fork in the tongue.”
“Is there any kind of native lizard on the island with that kind of tongue?” Sharon said.
“Not that I’ve ever seen in four years working on this island,” Fred said.
“I was afraid of that,” Sharon said. “If it were native, then the Malurus leucopterus would be adapted to it.”
“What then?” Morton said.
“What do you think, Fred?” Sharon said.
“No idea,” Fred said.
“How about a chameleon?” Sharon said. “A big one, a calyptratus.” Fred shrugged.
“Calyptratus?” Morton said.
“The veiled chameleon, a favorite of the pet trade,” Sharon said.
“I thought they were tropical rainforest animals,” Morton said. “Can they live here?”
“They’re originally from Saudi Arabia and Yemen,” Sharon said. “Very adaptable, they can live in tropical forests or semi-arid desert islands. People release mating pairs into the wild. They wait a couple of years for the population to grow, and then go back and capture them to sell in the pet trade—no expensive breeding facilities, no department of agriculture inspections. A place like this where none of the animals are afraid of humans is perfect for feral breeding and recapture. The Himatione sanguinea is being wiped out on Maui by feral calyptratus.” Sharon slowed the Rover and looked into the rearview mirror. “Ever seen any of the oilfield workers with pet chameleons in their quarters, Fred?”
“Can’t say as I have,” Fred said.
Morton turned back to look at Fred, who appeared to be dozing off again.
Morton and Sharon checked the Malurus leucopterus nests around Cape Dupuy. Fred mostly hung out by the Land Rover. There were no sign of chameleons, but they did find fresh vehicle tracks, which was unusual because all the oil wells were on the southern half of the island. On the ride back to Wapet Camp, Sharon and Fred said nothing unless spoken to. Sharon went back to the office. Morton needed to check on Mama in the Infirmary.
“Why did you leave me in this place,” Mama said. “Nobody knew where you went.”
“Mama, the island is only twelve miles long and five miles wide. I couldn’t get very far away, even if I wanted to.”
“It’s not very hospitable to leave your visiting mother stranded in a hospital.”
“It’s not very hospitable to just show up unannounced,” Morton said. “What if I had been away on business or at a conference? What would you have done then? You couldn’t even walk off the plane under your own power. I don’t know what you were thinking.”
“Stop yelling at me,” Mama said. “I got enough of that at home.”
Morton took a breath. “How about I move you over to the guest quarters? Have you had lunch yet?”
“No, I refused to eat until you returned,” Mama said. “But some lunch would be nice.”
Morton called the office to let Sharon know he’d be delayed. Mama was walking much better now that she’d rested and rehydrated, but she moved slowly, still exhausted from her two-day ordeal in the air. Morton decided not to bring up his stepfather for at least another day.
Mama had insisted Morton call James Wilkinson ‘father,’ even though he’d never adopted him. Morton was illegitimate, he’d never known his biological father, and he used his mother’s surname. Mama wouldn’t tell him his real father’s name. Morton had overheard Grandma telling Aunt Norma, “Nellie was a very difficult child. I don’t like to use words like this, but she was a slut. I don’t know who Morty’s father is, and I’m not sure Nellie does either, although he looks a little like Harold Jensen, because of the blonde hair and green eyes.”
“That makes sense,” Aunt Norma said. “Harold’s one of those moody Scandinavians, always thinking about something that’s way over everybody else’s head. Morty is the same, a book worm and know-it-all. He’s always correcting my little Stevie.”
Morton always knew he didn’t want to be like Stevie, so he pushed aside socializing with the rest of the Burkhart family and became the bookworm and know-it-all they despised. Mama encouraged this behavior, but not because she admired it; she barely picked up a book except to read an occasional romance. The rest of the family looked down on Mama for her loose morals, and Morton’s brainiac ways gave her the chance to feel superior—the ‘bad seed’ was bearing smarter fruit than the other siblings who had had proper weddings.
After a light lunch, Morton took Mama to her quarters on the first floor of the guest apartment complex. He warned her to keep her doors and windows closed, or she would be sleeping among bettongs, but she had already fallen asleep in the arm chair.
Back at the research trailer, Morton found Sharon talking on the phone. By the time Morton finished checking his e-mail, Sharon was off the line.
“Sorry about the delay. I wanted to get some food into my mother. She refused lunch at the infirmary,” Morton said.
“How’s she doing?” Sharon said.
“She fell asleep almost as soon as I got her settled in the guest quarters. I’ll give her a few days to recuperate.”
“Her coming now could be an opportunity,” Sharon said.
“How so,” Morton said.
“I just ordered another dozen bird-cams, the new model with the intelligent sensors.”
“Great, but why now? Most of ours are functioning okay,” Morton said. “What’s that have to do with my mother?”
“I’d like you to take your mother on a tour of the island, once she’s recovered. In a couple of days I’ll have the new bird-cams,” Sharon said. “While you’re out showing her around, I want you to leave the old bird-cams in place and set up the new ones in some surveillance locations I am still working on.”
“I can do that without my mother, probably a lot faster.”
“I know, but I don’t want anybody to know where we’re installing the new bird-cams,” Sharon said.
“Who are you trying to catch?”
“The person who drove out to Cape Dupuy and got rid of all the chameleons last night,” Sharon said. “You saw the fresh tire tracks?”
“You suspect somebody who was very tired this morning?”
“Yes, I checked the hood of the maintenance pickup this morning; it was still warm. But I don’t think Fred’s doing this on his own. He doesn’t travel back and forth to the mainland often enough to be transporting many feral chameleons, but he might be working with someone else who does. Once we have the photographic evidence, we can report them to DEWHA.”
“This will be a big black eye for Gorgon if some of the managers are involved in the animal smuggling,” Morton said.
Sharon smiled. “Yes.”
Two days later Mama was bored sitting around dodging bettongs in her guest apartment and ready for Morton’s tour of the island. Morton and Sharon removed all the newly received bird-cams from their boxes and placed them in duffel bags, which they sneaked out to the Land Rover during suppertime when nearly everyone was in the mess hall and Wapet Camp was deserted.
Mama hadn’t adjusted yet to the oilfield workers’ 5:30 a.m. breakfast schedule, so Morton placed her meal in storage containers and brought it to the apartment around 6:30 a.m. By 7:30 they were on the road to Stokes Point.
“We haven’t spoken about father yet,” Morton said. “I read the article about him in the Detroit News.”
“It’s been wonderful not to have to deal with that,” Mama said. “Your Aunt Norma and Aunt Barbara have been just awful about the whole thing. I embarrassed them when we were all young by getting pregnant with you, and now in old age I’m doing it all over again—as if I had any idea what your father was up to.”
“He wasn’t my father,” Morton said.
“Don’t say that. He raised you and fed you and sent you to school; it was his money that got you into the University of Michigan. He did everything a real father would do.”
This wasn’t exactly true. Father paid the bills and let Mama feed Morton and send him to school. Morton had a full scholarship to Michigan. Morton’s stepfather had little use for him. He wasn’t mean or abusive; he just didn’t care about Morton. Morton was family overhead, like the real estate taxes his stepfather had to pay to operate the repair shop. Morton was accepted as part of the package; there was no animosity, but no love either. If his stepfather loved Mama beyond her being a homemaker and companion, Morton never saw evidence of it.
His stepfather spent most of his days at the repair shop. He had a lot of black customers, especially after the Twelfth Street Riot in 1967 drove most of the white folks north across Eight Mile Road. The family continued living in the same house on Labrosse Street. Father always drove second-hand cars he picked up from his autoworker customers who got special deals to buy a new car every two or three years. Father’s second-hand cars were nice, but not flashy. The family never had money problems, but there were few luxuries—no expensive vacations, no eating out at fancy restaurants, no shopping at Hudson’s or Dayton’s downtown. Mama was on an allowance; father managed all the family finances.
Over time there were fewer and fewer white kids in Morton’s classes at school; most of Morton’s friends were black. Father didn’t allow sleep-overs. Morton’s friends were never invited over for dinner, even after he’d been to their houses several times. As the congregation of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church became blacker, the family attended services less frequently. Once they started singing Gospel hymns, father stopped going altogether. But, apart from the in-laws, the family didn’t socialize much with white people either. Morton has never heard his stepfather make a remark that in those days would have been considered overtly racist. James Wilkinson was a man who lived inside of himself. He didn’t seem close to anyone, certainly not to Morton.
“What about all his black customers at the garage,” Morton said. “Surely some of them must have known.”
“He had a lot of bad things to say about colored people back then. I thought he was just blowing off steam after the riots and all. After those four KKK members went to jail for bombing school buses up in Pontiac, your father seemed to change. He got involved in all that civil rights stuff, the convict rehab program, driving the kids to school.”
“What? Do you think he was doing penance for having been a Klan member?” Morton said.
“I never paid any attention to what your father did outside the house,” Mama said. “After your father’s heart attack, I put all that unpleasant stuff behind me. I sold the garage, lock, stock and barrel to Mr. Turner. He’s the one who found that bunch of papers in the little office your father kept above the garage at the repair shop. That’s what showed up in the newspaper. I should have taken the time to clean out the repair shop. I don’t know, maybe I was afraid of what I might find. All his civil rights records were there, the newspaper stories about his starting the Convict Aid Program, copies of checks donating money to New Detroit, the Black Panthers. There were no Klan records. It was your father who filed the Freedom of Information request for State Police records of undercover operations against the Klan. That’s where he was identified as the Klan treasurer.”
“I assumed he was working in the repair shop after dinner on weeknights,” Morton said. “You didn’t know he wasn’t at the garage all that time?”
“I wondered whether he might be having an affair,” Mama said. “I led kind of a fast life when I was a teenager, Morton, but by the time I started having these thoughts I wasn’t sorry that your father might have some other interests.”
“It seems like you would have picked up on his friends being Klansmen,” Morton said.
“He never had any friends,” Mama said. “Nobody came to the house. Your father didn’t want people over for dinner. We never had friends or relatives visit.”
“He was such an outgoing guy at work. It seems like he should have had a lot of friends,” Morton said.
“I guess it was all a performance for the customers; he wasn’t like that at home,” Mama said. “Still, I can’t believe he took part in burning crosses or bombing school buses.”
Morton stopped the Land Rover on the edge of a dune overlooking Bandicoot Bay. “I have to switch out a couple of cameras while we are here.” Morton got a folding lawn chair out of the back of the Rover. “Have a seat here. I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.” It took Morton about half an hour to set up the new bird-cam where he and Sharon agreed they might catch a shot of someone collecting feral chameleons that were eating the Malurus leucopterus chicks.
Mama was back in the passenger seat, and Morton headed the Land Rover north toward Bigadda Waterhole.
“Why did you leave home so suddenly after the newspaper article appeared?” Morton said.
“I just needed to get away from everybody. I was used to my mother and sisters looking down on me, but I showed them when I raised you and you went to college and became a doctor, not a real doctor, but a doctor of philosophy about birds. Now, with all this stuff about your father, the whole rest of the family. . .” She shook her head without finishing.
“What have they said?” Morton said.
“Oh, nothing in particular, except for Barbara and Norma, but you know, they give me the look, like I’ve done something wrong. Like slept with the wrong guy and got knocked up, and now they’re left picking up the pieces.”
Mama and Morton repeated the ritual at Bigadda Waterhole. She rested in the lawn chair, while he set up the bird-cams. Morton returned a half hour later and found Mama sleeping. Mama said she needed to use the facilities, so Morton detoured over to Carattis where the oil storage tanks were located. Grogon had built composting toilets at the site. While the toilets weren’t quite up to Mama’s standards of cleanliness, she didn’t ask to return to the apartment, and in a few minutes, the Land Rover was on its way to Turtle Bay. She seemed to be enjoying herself.
Morton drove carefully through the area, since it was overrun by marsupial mice. Mama dozed off again. He had some time on the road to think about his stepfather’s double life. When Morton was eleven, his grandmother fell and broke her hip. Grandma refused to go to a nursing home, so Mama, Aunt Norma and Aunt Barbara rotated as full time caregivers for a week at a time until Grandma died three months later. Mama’s weeks of caregiving were the only extended periods Morton had spent alone with his stepfather.
Father didn’t enjoy being a single parent, but he shouldered the burden without complaint. He kept Morton fed and sent him off to school in clean clothes. After school, he had Morton come to the repair shop and sent him to the little upstairs office to do his homework. After he shut up the garage for the day, they would stop for supper at Burch’s diner on Abbott Avenue. Father let Morton order whatever he liked. Morton even got to drink coffee, something Mama would never have allowed because it kept him awake at night; Morton was sleepy all the next day in school. He checked Morton’s homework while they ate, so that they would have something to talk about. On Saturday and Sunday, father ordered take out, and they sat in the living room in front to the TV while they ate.
Math homework was father’s favorite. He spent the most time on math problems and almost seemed to enjoy helping Morton find the right answer, often expanding on the homework assignment to related mathematics principles. It’s too bad Morton hated math back then, they might have developed a common interest. English composition assignments were also acceptable, so long as they stuck to issues of grammar and spelling. Science assignments were okay, although father was frequently unsure of the correct answer and told Morton to double check the book. History and social studies were a struggle. Father always left these assignments until the end so that, it seemed to Morton, they wouldn’t have time to discuss them at supper. It never occurred to Morton at the time that father was uncomfortable with the specific topics he’d been assigned that semester: American Civil War history and the geography and cultures of Africa.
“Father, Mrs. Jenkins wants us to write an essay about the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court, but I don’t understand it.”
“Did you look it up in the encyclopedia?” father said. “I spent good money to get those for you.”
“It’s too complicated. There are so many compromises and laws, I get confused.”
“I don’t think someone your age should be studying things like that. When you’re older, you’ll be able to understand it,” father said.
“But I have to turn in the assignment on Wednesday, otherwise I’ll get an F.”
“I think you should go to Mrs. Jenkins and ask for help,” father said.
“But you graduated from high school, you must have learned about this.”
“I didn’t like it and so I didn’t pay any attention to it.” Father’s face turned red, something Morton hardly ever saw. “If you can’t do it by yourself, I’ll write a note for your teacher saying you were sick.”
His tone told Morton to stop asking. Morton wrote the essay on his own; he took his father’s note and threw it away without telling him.
By the time they reached Turtle Bay, Mama was awake again and seemed brighter.
“Mama, look!” Morton pointed to a half dozen large green shells climbing up the beach. “The green turtles are back at their rookery.”
Morton got out a large umbrella and a beach towel and set Mama down not too far from the turtles.
“Do they bite?” Mama said.
“No, green turtle are herbivores. Too bad we didn’t bring some lettuce.” Morton said. “The flatbacks should be nesting on the other side of the island. They’re predators. You wouldn’t want to put a finger in their mouths.”
Mama watched the female turtles climb the beach in search of nesting sites, while Morton went off with his duffel bag full of bird-cams. When he returned, he had to wake Mama again.
“Oh, Morton, I wish I could stay here forever. It’s so peaceful.”
“We can come back. Next time we’ll bring lettuce.”
Morton was worried that his mother might not be up to a tour of the whole island in one day, but she agreed to move on to Cape Malouet. There was no beach, only limestone cliffs, so Mama sat again in the lawn chair overlooking the Indian Ocean. Mama woke up when she heard Morton returning from placing the bird-cam.
“Maybe we could go back to the apartment,” Mama said. “It’s been a pretty full day for me.”
“Sure, we can finish the tour tomorrow.” Sharon would be disappointed he hadn’t been able to place the bird-cams in the mangrove areas along the eastern shore.
That night Morton dreamed he was driving along the road to Ant Point. His stepfather was in the passenger seat of the Land Rover.
“Mammäl,” father said. “Yuada Gurdu-djul Ngan-ya.”
“How did you learn to speak Noongar?” Morton said. “You’ve never been to Australia, you’ve never met an Aborigine, as far as I know.”
“There’s a lot about me you don’t know,” father said.
“No shit. Here I thought you were an antisocial drudge with greasy hands who let me eat your food and sleep in your house because my mother was the only woman who would put up with you. Now I find out you were some kind of undercover redneck terrorist who despised most of the people who were your customers and neighbors.”
“You don’t know that,” he said. “That’s just something you’ve been told by people who also didn’t really know me.”
“What am I supposed to think, not knowing who you really were?”
“It’s time for you and your mother to put to rest what you don’t know,” father said. Morton swerved to miss running over a perentie feeding on a bandicoot in the road; he woke up with a jolt. In the morning, tired from a poor night’s sleep, Morton was late bringing breakfast to Mama.
“No problem, dear. I didn’t sleep that well myself.”
“Did you have a visitor too?” Morton said.
“A visitor? No, it was the bettongs scurrying around all night.”
Morton wasn’t sure she was telling the truth. “I was wondering, why wasn’t father’s funeral held at St. Peter’s?”
“Well, you know, your father wasn’t comfortable there anymore. He liked the old-fashioned services, the traditional hymns,” Mama said.
“Or was it that he missed the white pastor and white acolytes?”
Mama spilled some of the scrambled eggs from her fork. “Well, I don’t know. He just told me he liked the traditional service. I never gave it much thought really.”
“Yesterday you made it sound like maybe after the arrest of the four Klan school bus bombers father changed his attitudes,” Morton said.
“He did, but as Detroit continued to fall apart, especially after crack cocaine showed up, he kind of changed back a bit. I don’t think he went back to the Klan or anything. He kept to himself about it. I never pressed him. I guess I was glad he wasn’t having an affair,” Mama said.
“I’ll go get the Land Rover,” Morton said. “You’ll be ready in fifteen minutes?” Mama nodded, finishing her eggs.
Morton brought along a pair of binoculars for Mama and set up her lawn chair on Mattress Point where she could watch the Brahminy Kites in the mangrove trees below.
“I have to hike over to Ant Point first and then back here. I’ll be gone about an hour,” he said. “You’ll be okay by yourself?”
“I’ll be fine.” Mama held up her binoculars and looked toward the mangroves. There was plenty of kite activity to keep her entertained. Once he walked around the cove to Ant Point, he used his own binoculars to check back on Mama. She was slumped over in the lawn chair, her head in her hands. Morton wondered if he should get Mama back on the mainland for some kind of grief counseling.
Returning from Ant Point, Morton didn’t see Mama sitting in the lawn chair. The rear doors to the Land Rover were open on both sides. She must be in there. He finished placing the new bird-cams around Mattress Point and returned to the Rover. She wasn’t inside. He quickly scanned with his binoculars. Unfortunately, Mama’s favorite color was beige, just like most of the landscape. Then he saw a flash of white in a wash below. Her hat.
Morton scrambled down the side of the wash and found Mama sitting on a rock surrounded by a thicket of small scrubs.
“Mama, what are you doing down here?”
“I came down here to relieve myself. I didn’t want you watching me with your binoculars, and then I ran into this.” She pointed at a brownish-green lump on the branch of a shrub. “I almost didn’t see it. It looks just like the branches. When I came closer, it started getting pink.”
Morton came closer. “Holy Christ, you found it.” Morton stepped over and kissed Mama on the forehead. Her face lit up.
“What is it?” Mama said.
“It’s what eating our birds,” Morton said. He got out his camera and started taking pictures.
“Are you going to kill it?”
“No, it’s our bait.” Morton ran up to the Land Rover, leaving Mama sitting on the rock. He retrieved three new bird-cams, and set them up around the wash.
“Okay, Mama, we’ve got to get out of here,” Morton said, grabbing her hand to help her off the rock. “You can’t tell anybody what you saw here today.”
“Why? Is it poisonous or something?”
“No, it’s been put here by someone in the illegal pet trade. We want to catch them on the bird cameras and report them to the Australian government. It might be someone working for the oil company.”
“That lizard reminded me of your father,” Mama said. “I never could figure out his true colors.”
“A chameleon doesn’t have true colors. Its colors match its surroundings. The change is automatic.”
Mama slowed down and leaned against the Land Rover. “Are you all right?” Morton said.
“I was just thinking, a good man doesn’t change his colors. He keeps to what he believes in.” Mama held her hand up to her eyes. “What a disappointment I’ve been for you.”
“Don’t talk like that,” he said. “You’re just upset because of the scandal about father. It will pass.”
“Yes, the scandal will pass, but the lifetime I wasted with him can’t be saved,” she said. Mama climbed into the Land Rover, and Morton drove off, leaving a cloud of dust.
Mama didn’t speak on the trip back to Wapet Camp. Morton thought about his mother’s life with his stepfather, an uncaring but responsible husband and parent who ran a successful business and treated the unfortunate and disadvantaged with kindness and respect while secretly espousing bigotry and intimidation.
Two weeks later, Mama and Morton were back in Detroit. Morton helped Mama move out of the family home on Labrosse Street and relocate to the McGivney-Bethune Senior Apartments, far away from the relatives. Most of her furniture and household goods were donated to St. Peter’s Church. The house was on the market, but the chance of selling it was slim. If it was empty for more than a few weeks, it would likely become a crack house. If she was lucky, State Farm wouldn’t cancel her insurance policy before the house got burned down next Devil’s Night.
Morton went back to Barrow Island. While he was away, Sharon discovered the new bird-cams had been vandalized and all the memory cards removed. Sharon found a couple of dead chameleons in the wash where Mama had discovered the first one. There were no more sightings. They’d scared off the pet trade smugglers, but with a predator like the chameleons you could never be sure. They were so adept at camouflage.
Andrew Hogan has been a faculty member at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. He has published more than five-dozen professional articles on health services research and health policy. He has published ninety works of short fiction.
Four Questions with Andrew Hogan:
TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
AH: I’ve attached the Detroit News article that was my inspiration. I was also reading about the illegal pet trade in chameleons at the same time.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
AH: Andrea Barrett, because of her science orientation
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
AH: In front of the computer, because I often do a lot of research on the background for my stories using the internet.
TD: What book would you want on a desert island?
AH: Robinson Crusoe, entertaining and useful.