Authors: Jessie Bishop Powell
“I think the ‘it’ is the orangutan. But who would be back in our woods with a club?”
” I said. “And whoever he was, I think he
club Art to death.”
“Me too,” Lance said quietly. We were at the hospital now, arriving behind the ambulance, which roared up to the emergency entrance. Lance laced his hands over the steering wheel and rested his head on them for a minute. “I think he’s already gone,” he told me. “And before we go in there and find out, I need to know something.”
“What?” I asked.
“Are you still ready to marry me tomorrow?”
“What?” How could he be thinking about the wedding right now?
“We’re going to go into that emergency room, and it’s going to be nuts. It will be hours before we find anything out, and we are going to be torn apart hoping we’re wrong. We need to decide now, before all that happens, if we’re going to celebrate anything tomorrow.”
“Our families would be so disappointed if we didn’t,” I said.
“Our families can go
” Lance snapped. “We’re not getting married for them, are we?” When I didn’t answer immediately, he prodded, “Are we?”
It was so hard to think. My feet wanted me to move inside. But I heard what Lance was saying, not only his words, but his meaning. He was asking if I had changed my mind. I wiped my face with my sleeve and, as much as I could, turned off my thoughts of Art. Instead, I breathed deeply and tried to think about my fiancé.
When Lance proposed to me last year over dinner, it was almost casual. I made Nana’s prizewinning potato salad, and Lance raised the house’s temperature baking our entrée. I couldn’t remember what that main dish was. He probably could, but I wasn’t about to admit that he’d shocked most of the meal clean out of my head. I remembered that it had a strong spicy smell, one that hung in my senses; I would forever associate it with our engagement. But whatever it was, Lance hadn’t baked it one time since. Besides that aroma, what I remember is that we weren’t ready to turn on the AC for the year, and the kitchen felt like the inside of the oven. So we moved dinner to the porch, where it was cooler.
Lance backed out of the house onto the porch, plates balanced in front of him, and no hands free. He said, “Get the door, will you please, Noel?” As if he needed to ask. I had already jumped up to shut the heat in the house. When I turned back to the table, he was sitting down to his food.
Our dishes are brown stoneware with a solid blue rim. But at my place, instead of a helping of whatever damned thing he’d heated up the house with, Lance had put a ring. The gold band and white diamond contrasted sharply with the plate. I made a low sound deep in my throat and held onto that doorknob like a lifeline.
Lance didn’t look up. He studied his own plate instead, waiting for me. He had posed himself with a fork, like he was getting ready to dig in. But the fork didn’t move toward the pungent food. It hovered in midair until it started shaking. And that was how I knew he was nervous.
“Lord, Lance,” I said. “What brought this on?” I took myself over on rubbery legs and joined him at the table.
He looked up finally, but didn’t say anything for a while. Then, “I’ve been thinking a lot. About you. About us.” He had probably planned what to say, but the words still came to him slowly. I waited. At last, he continued. “And it’s been nine years now. I’m not going to change my mind. I hope you aren’t either.”
I thought he might say more, but he went silent after that.
I laid a hand on his arm, the one he still hadn’t lowered to the plate. I waited until he looked up at me. “No,” I said. “I’m not. You’re right, love. After nine years, I guess it’s time.”
We were both shaking too badly to get the ring on my finger.
His words came back to me now, sitting in the truck, heavy with the grief of what awaited us in the hospital. “I’m not going to change my mind,” he’d said. But that was before Mama turned our quiet little ceremony into a spectacle with formal wear and dozens of guests. Yet he was the one asking me if I still wanted to marry him tomorrow. And he might have been asking if I wanted to postpone a celebration in the face of such tragedy, but I thought the question went much deeper.
Every last-minute decision had been solved by someone else’s force. Never by mine. Certainly, there had been Mama and her chart propelling us forward. But also, Lance had been ready to talk to the caterer weeks ago, willing to visit the baker ages before I was. And completely upset that I wouldn’t go pick out a wedding dress of my own. He was asking me if an idea that had sounded good back on our porch over a year ago had lost its appeal.
It had not.
So I turned Lance’s own words on him. “I’m not going to change my mind,” I told him now, as I opened my door and swung down onto the parking lot asphalt.
He got out of the truck and came around to join me. “Neither am I,” he said. “And I don’t think Art would have wanted us to stop now.”
“No, he wouldn’t.” And then I started crying again because we were already speaking of our dearest friend in the past tense.
Lance and I sat out in the emergency room waiting area simultaneously hoping for and dreading news. Back when we left the center, I had left an urgent message for Art’s nephew Rick. Without bothering to return the call, Rick came to the hospital, arriving shortly after we got inside.
His state of shock was far worse than ours. He had been on a job, and he kept saying, “I was so close by. Why didn’t he call me?”
“He didn’t call us either,” Lance said. “I don’t think he could.”
We tried to explain exactly how bad Art’s condition was, but Rick didn’t seem to understand. Eventually, he said, “I was so close by,” so many times that I realized what he meant by it. Rick owned a construction company, one of the few to survive the recession. He was “close by” because he was on the mall building site less than two miles away from the sanctuary.
“I didn’t know your company was doing the mall,” I told him, since our continued explanations about his uncle were having no impact whatsoever.
“Yeah,” he told me, still sounding dazed. Then he added, “I’d have thought Darnell would have mentioned it.” I shook my head and shrugged, not making the connection. “You know,” he went on, seeing my confusion, “Darnell Marshall. Hasn’t he been volunteering with you?”
“Yeah, but how do you know him?” I asked.
“Used to work for me,” Rick said. “I’ve been hoping I could bring him back part-time. On the mall thing.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s at the center right now.”
Rick cocked his head quizzically at us and finally said, “Wonder why he didn’t tell you.” Before we could pursue the conversation further, a nurse appeared calling for Art’s family. I thought we wouldn’t be allowed back, but Rick lied smoothly for us, identifying me as his sister even though we had only really met him at Art’s holiday parties until today.
I don’t remember what was said, honestly. Only the expression on the doctor’s face stayed with me, the way his eyes seemed wide and heavy, his mouth open and frowning at the same time. And I remember the smell. The same way that the spices of Lance’s meal from our engagement stay with me, the antiseptic hospital stink will forever call to mind Art’s death.
The next few hours of that day were a blur. Art was gone. His heart had stopped beating, and he had stopped breathing in the ambulance. No number of codes and doctors were able to save him.
“All the king’s horses, and all the king’s men,” I murmured to Lance, who did not finish my nursery rhyme. We took turns sitting with him, Art’s nephew still maintaining the pretext that I was his sibling.
At some point, Lance stepped out and placed some calls. Not long after, my mother and grandmother arrived with an entire pressure cooker full of soup. It had been intended for our meal after the rehearsal. Mama didn’t say the word “centerpieces” even once. Instead, she dished me a bowl of vegetables and beef floating in a tomato base, then handed me a spoon and said, “Eat. Please, honey.”
I ate. What else could I do?
Then I suddenly remembered that the primates would need food again this evening. I leapt to my feet, but Lance said, “I’ve got Trudy and Darnell taking care of things at the center.”
“But are they
?” I demanded.
“Everybody is moving in pairs, and I got the security company to send in a couple of extra guys. Plus, right now the place is swarming with cops.”
Mama asked, “Will they shoot it?” and it was several long silent moments before I realized she meant the orangutan.
“Why would they shoot the orangutan?” I demanded. “It didn’t do this!”
“How can you be sure?” Mama asked. “You said yourself that Art probably went out looking for it on his own.”
Before I could answer, Lance cut in, “And he probably ran into poachers or trespassers. Somebody beat him with a branch. The police found that.”
Mama couldn’t let a point go, especially if it was something she didn’t understand, until she’d hashed it over a dozen ways. So even though Lance’s tone and body language should have been a deterrent, and even though I was standing right beside her heading for panicked hyperventilation, my mother said, “I don’t understand why that makes the animal a less likely suspect.”
“Primates don’t use tools the way we do,” Lance snapped, pushing away the bowl of soup she was offering him. It had been sitting so long that it had gotten cold anyway. “There’s anecdotal evidence that a few chimps in the wild will beat each other with tools. But that’s not orangutans. I guess it might have thrown a branch, but that’s not what Art said. This kind of hurt, it’s human.” He looked up as he spoke, not at Mama, but at me.
“It has fingerprints,” I added, my words running together as I hurried to get them out. “Surely the police can figure out if it touched the branch at all!”
“But,” Mama protested, and then she stopped.
We were all thinking about the same thing now. Lance was forcing us to think about it. For a bitter moment, I wanted the orangutan to have beaten Art, because if it were an animal, then it would have been easier to avoid thinking about who had beaten me.
I met Alex Lakeland halfway through my graduate program when he accompanied Lance to a rescue center function. I liked being a scientist with a social life, a smart girl who knew how to have a good time. Lance himself was a little too introverted to attract me, but his brother swept over in a button-down shirt and said, “I’m bored sick. Let’s go dancing,” and right away he had my attention.
I liked going to bars on Fridays. I could come home tipsy with a research insight at two a.m. and call Lance, certain that he would be awake and thinking along similar lines. Even then, we thought alike. But I was attracted to Alex.
Art’s fantasies to the contrary aside, Lance and I didn’t date until after things fell apart so spectacularly for Alex and me. I was following up a biology degree with work toward a doctorate in the same field when I picked up a research assistant position at the primate sanctuary. Art had a vision, and he was selling it to anyone listening. He liked to get a student or donor out behind the barn and say, like he hadn’t courted a dozen others with the same words, “Primatologists with advanced degrees go into labs because that’s where the money lies. Rescue work is haphazard and poorly funded.” He swept an arm around as if to prove his point with the barely adequate facility surrounding him. “But look at these animals. They need us. And if we can convince those eggheads to get out of the laboratory and into the field, think about the changes we can make. For us. For them.”
At that time, the center had about two dozen monkeys and two chimpanzees. Art was raising money for a more complete enclosure. The spiel continued, “Moreover, researchers, the people with doctorates, are so quick to generalize from a single experience. We need,” and here his voice swelled to a rich crescendo, doubtless a tone cultivated to draw his Ironweed U donors in with repetition of the school’s mission statement, “to put more social-justice-minded researchers into the
Too few of the so-called experts are willing to listen to stories from keepers and trainers. We have a unique opportunity with
sanctuary to bridge
divide, to establish research that will back up and explain the anecdotal evidence. That’s how we can make rescue work a worthwhile scientific venture for a greater number of scientists.” Like most of the students and potential donors who came into Art’s domain, I was captivated by his unique ideas and rich baritone voice. Unless he was in a cage covered in hay and sweat, he dressed impeccably, and somehow made the hard work seem like a business venture that required the right team. I found myself drifting from laboratory biology into primatology.
Lance hailed from the Pacific Northwest. After travelling in Africa, he found himself following his little brother to college. He came to Ironweed on a football scholarship, following on the heels of the younger, more athletic Alex. But he was a quick hand at everything he tried, and Ironweed didn’t field the best team. It wasn’t hard for him to get his trip to Ohio paid for by the Ironweed athletics department. Ironweed loved him because his high GPA spoke well for the team.
to graduate their students, because those students didn’t have futures in the pros. Its reputation was more for turning out good coaches, and most of the young men who suited up every Saturday in the fall did so with an eye to one day leading teams of their own.
And then there was Lance. He took the scholarship because he was a decent player and it would pay for his education, but he came to Ironweed for its science program. He did not take a degree in sports anything, but instead divided his time between the field and the lab. Even as an undergraduate, he worked at the sanctuary. Where I didn’t find out about Art’s venture so close to my own back door until I came home from my BA (and to my credit, the center was still in its infancy then), Lance came specifically to work with Art.
He had traveled to Africa as a young teen, and what he learned there about primates drew him toward a degree in that field. As soon as he graduated high school, he went back to Africa, only returning for his degree four years later because a research visa was hard to obtain without one. He wanted to work full-time in his chosen field. He heard about Art and his center from Alex and set his sights on attending Ironweed. He was Art’s first real student after Art opened the sanctuary doors. I came along later.