Monday, November 18, 2019

On the Edge by Clifford Hui

Clifford Hui tells a story about the importance of friends and family in hard times, featuring avian biologist Raul Vega.

Raul Vega pulled their hotel room door closed. He and Josh Leitner turned to walk toward their rental car when Josh said, "Isn't that our phone?" They paused and listened.

"Nah," Raul said. "It's the room next door."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah. I'm sure."

They walked to their car, drove to Saldanha Bay, and crossed the causeway to Marcus Island, home to a colony of Jackass penguins. With the braying of the penguins in the background, they parked their car and walked toward their workspace in the low tin-roof building. Their waffle-soled boots crunched on the rocky pathway. Josh was taller, with sandy hair curling over his ears and down his neck while Raul's wiry form was topped with fine dark hair in waves so tight it appeared almost kinky and cut so short it almost looked painted on.

"I heard you got a post-doc position at Duke," Josh said. "That's a big deal. Congratulations!"

Raul kept his eyes on the ground to avoid the larger rocks. "Thanks. I'm really excited to be going there. Duke has a wind tunnel they fly birds in and it's rigged for measuring and monitoring almost every aspect of a flying bird. I've got a whole list of projects I want to do in it. If all goes like I hope, I'll be able to link flight mechanics to other aspects of bird biology. No one's ever done that."

They reached the building and Raul shouldered open the door, its rusty hinges complaining with a prolonged screech. He flicked the light switch, and the overhead fluorescent lights blinked awake with a little hum.

Raul kept on. "Eventually I want to draw a tree of avian relationships based on flight characteristics. Birds are so defined by their ability to fly that it could provide a whole new look at bird evolution. The penguin wing beat work I've done for my dissertation feeds right into this. I can hardly wait to get started. I just need to finish writing it up." They shuffled across the room, past the dusty windowsills and gray metal bookcases with missing shelves.

"Well, you're almost done, aren't you?"

"Yep. I've collected the data and done the analyses." His voice softened. "And the writing is the... um... the least exciting part."

Josh slipped his canvas briefcase from his shoulder and dropped it next to his desk chair. It's torn upholstery and rust-spotted legs attested to its long life. He pulled a stack of published research papers, with notes jotted in their margins, from his briefcase and plopped into his chair.

Raul placed his small backpack in the file drawer that wouldn't close, rummaged through it, and pulled out a package of crackers and a bottle of grape juice. Ignoring the empty packages of cookies, chips, and other snacks scattered around his work space and the empty soda cans and juice bottles in his overflowing trash can, he looked over at Josh. "Are those articles helping you focus on a topic for your own dissertation?"

"Yeah, but I need a good bull session with a senior person like you to help pull all these concepts into a good dissertation framework before I present it to Helen."

"You got it. We'll talk about some possibilities over a few beers tonight." He smiled a reassuring smile at Josh, munched down some crackers, and slurped some juice. Then he reached for their gear. "Let's go do it."

They headed out to the colony. The breeze was coming from the direction of the birds, carrying with it the telltale stench of fish-eater excrement. Josh and Raul hardly noticed the smell that morning, but when they were first introduced to it last week they had almost gagged. It had a bite like acid and an odor as sharp as daggers. It had seared their noses and stabbed at their throats. The pits of their stomachs had squirmed and kicked as though lashed by rotting fish. They'd wanted to run. Helen, the Principal Investigator for this project and their PhD professor, had assured them that olfactory fatigue and accommodation would develop soon enough, and they would hardly notice it. She was right, and they were glad she was.

The penguin colony covered most of Marcus Island. As they approached it, the braying of the jackass penguins became a din. A few were still courting, but most were incubating a couple of dark green eggs or brooding fuzzy grey chicks.

Helen had selected ten pairs with recently hatched chicks for her study. "Birds brooding chicks have greater nest fidelity, so are less likely to abandon their nests when poked by nosy researchers like us," she told them.

At the first nest, a mere scrape between two larger rocks, they put down their gear while the brooding penguin watched them with benign interest. Helen had gone through this routine with them for the first two days, but today they were on their own because she had a meeting with government fisheries people in Cape Town. As they weighed the bird, Raul read the scale out loud, "Three point one seven kilos." It was about the weight of a small goose. Then, using a small syringe, Raul extracted some blood from a vein on the top of the bird's foot. The bird watched with interest.

Back when she was introducing Raul and Josh to this study, Helen explained, "Some in the fishing industry in South Africa think the birds are serious competitors. They advocate killing them. This project compares the penguin consumption of fish to that of the fishing industry. The results will make it clear how much the birds threaten or don't threaten the industry. We need data to show one way or the other."

It was intriguing to Raul and Josh how knowing more about the biology of these birds could shed light on how they and humans impact each other. It contrasted with the non-human, natural history focus of their other studies. Their motivation increased when, on their introductory walk around Marcus Island, they came across the carcass of a penguin with a bullet hole in it.

At the colony Helen had injected each study bird with a small dose of water that had a tiny amount of the heavier, non-radioactive isotopes of oxygen and of hydrogen. The water mixed with the other water in the bird's body and subsequent measurements of the isotopes allowed calculation of their washout rates from the bird's body. Hydrogen leaves the body as the hydrogen of water molecules. Oxygen leaves the body as the oxygen of both water molecules and carbon dioxide molecules. The water washout indicated by the hydrogen can be subtracted from the total washout indicated by the oxygen so that the remainder of the oxygen washout is due to carbon dioxide. Because carbon dioxide is produced by energy metabolism, the energy expended by the bird doing its natural behaviors then can be computed. This energy comes from their diet, so Helen's team could calculate the amount of anchovies and pilchards the penguins consumed.

After the blood sampling, Josh set the bird back on its nest and strapped a small backpack onto it. The pack had a swim speed sensor and a depth sensor to get a picture of foraging behavior. They would remove it when the bird returned from foraging at sea tomorrow. As the bird inspected the chicks and settled back over them, Josh and Raul moved to the next nest. It took a little over an hour to process the birds on all ten nests.

As they walked back, Josh asked, "The birds of each pair change nest duty at about sundown, and the next morning the relieved bird heads out to sea to forage for itself and its chicks, right?" Raul nodded. "So what happens if one of the parents dies or is eaten at sea?"

Raul grimaced. "Life for a single parent is hard. It's even harder on the chicks. None can get enough food. Because parents feed only their own chicks, single-parent chicks are undernourished, and orphan chicks starve. If they're just little fuzz balls like the ones we're looking at now, they probably won't make it. Older birds, maybe, depending on how much fat they've built up and how close they are to being independent."

"A lot of social animals have 'aunties' that help with raising kids. Penguins are obviously pretty social. Do they have aunties?"

"Nope. There are no penguin aunties. These birds live life on the edge."

Josh nodded.

About an hour later, the foraging mates returned. Raul and Josh repeated the weighing and bleeding, only this time it was on the returning mates. In the midst of the routine, Raul looked over at Josh and asked, "Earlier you said your dad's an engineer. What kind of engineer?"

"He designs water systems for big projects, not buildings. Mom's a surgical nurse. How about your folks?"

"My dad's an auto mechanic. Mom works in a bank." He paused. "I'm the first in the family to go to college."

Josh looked at him with a wide smile. "Wow! Congratulations! To be first is a big deal. And soon you'll be called 'doctor.' Your folks must be very proud."

"Yeah." Raul smiled to himself. "When I graduated from college I thought my dad was going to burst all his buttons. He glowed for days. I can't imagine what he'll be like when I get my PhD." He paused while he drew some blood. "And my sister Tess is getting ready to apply for college. They'll be delirious with joy when she graduates."

"I can believe it."

This time they removed the backpacks they had put on the day before when these birds were taking their turn brooding. The packs now had swimming data.

Back in the building, Raul placed the blood samples in the refrigerator while he ate a banana. Josh replaced the data recorders in the backpacks and stored the newly-returned recorders for later analyses.

Raul looked over at Josh. "It looks like we did okay. Come on, let's secure this place and get outta here." Then Raul stood as though frozen and cocked his head. "Did you hear that?"

"No. What?" Josh looked up and listened. "All I hear is the penguins."

"There it is again." Raul paused. "It's... it's... it's a chorus of beers calling my name."

Josh rolled his eyes.

They grabbed their bags, locked the door, and headed to the stone wall that sealed the penguin colony from the causeway. They walked out the gate, locking it behind them.

As they climbed into their car, Josh said, "I heard a rumor that you play the sax."

Raul started the motor. "Yeah, tenor sax. I played in a jazz combo for a few years. We did gigs on the weekends 'cuz we all had school or day jobs during the week. Now that I'm away at grad school, I get together with the guys for jam sessions only during school breaks. Since I entered the writing phase and am really pushing to finish, those breaks are really far apart." Raul guided the car along the causeway.

"Do you miss it?"

Raul wrinkled his brow. "Yeah. But not too much. Music's a good stress-reliever for me. When I was an undergrad, lack of money and the new culture of being in college, not to mention the expectations with being the first in my family to be there, generated a lot of stress for me. My folks helped as much as they could, but I still had to work. It took me six years to get through. In grad school money's not an issue thanks in large part to Helen's efforts to point out job openings and grant funds. So now I play for pleasure, not stress relief." Raul paused. "You ready for your beer?"

"Definitely. Now I can hear that chorus of cold beers calling my name."

"Good! We'll park at the hotel, dump our stuff in our room, and walk to the microbrewery on the corner, okay?"

"I'm with you."



When they saw the blinking message light on the phone back in their room, Josh gave Raul the you're-sure-it's-the-phone-next-door look. The message was for Raul to phone home.

A few moments later when Josh came out of the bathroom, he saw Raul sitting absolutely still and staring off into space. "What's up? Everything okay?"

Softly, without turning his head, Raul replied, "My dad died last night. Heart attack. I have to get home."

Josh looked like he'd been punched in the stomach. He sat down next to Raul and put his arm around his shoulders like a brother would.



On the flight home Raul felt numb and his mind was unfocussed. He felt completely spent, but when he closed his eyes sleep was elusive. In flashes and flickering images memories of times with his dad washed over his mind. His dad helped him learn to ride a bike. He spent countless hours tossing the ball with Raul after he got him his first baseball mitt. He taught him how to form his hands into a working flute. He introduced him to his first beer. And he taught him to always, always look out for his baby sister Tessa.

At home Raul had fitful sleep and disturbing dreams. He kept having one particular dream. In it he was standing on a small grassy knoll overlooking a field. His dad was among a group of people below walking slowly across the field from right to left. Raul called, "Papa, where are you going?" His dad turned his head and looked directly at Raul, but said nothing. He turned back to face forward and kept walking. Raul called out again, "Papa, Papa, where are you going?" Raul's dad didn't respond and kept walking. Then Raul awoke, frustrated and sad.

More than anything Raul wanted one more visit with his dad. He wanted to hear his voice, to see the corners of his eyes crinkle when he smiled. He longed to tell him things he had never said. Sometimes during the day, his longing gave him an ache deep in his chest. And at night when he was sleeping, even in his dreams he couldn't visit with his dad.

Through the sadness, life in the Vega household settled into a routine. Raul's mother went back to her job at a local bank, and Tessa re-engaged with school. Raul dealt with the issues of his father's estate, learning more than he ever wanted to know about retirement funds, insurance policies, and government offices. The estate busy-ness made him feel like he was getting to know his dad better and gave him a sense of control. He felt more settled. He returned to writing on his dissertation. The frequency of his disturbing dreams diminished.

Back in South Africa, Josh and Helen completed the fieldwork. Then, using the facilities at the University of Cape Town in collaboration with one of Helen's colleagues there, they distilled the water from the blood samples and quantified the isotope concentrations. They were back at UCLA in a week with notebooks full of data.

Soon after their return, Josh gave Raul a call. "How're you doing? How're your mom and Tessa?"

"Well, Mom's taking this really hard. But she's pulled herself together enough to go back to work. Meanwhile, it's not helping that my dad's financial records are a mess. So I'm doing the estate settling process for her. And Tessa... well, she's a good student, but Papa's death is just roiling her life. She'll be applying to colleges and I need to help provide some stability for her so her grades and test scores don't suffer too much. I need to stay home for a while to help get all this settled." He paused. Then, "That's about it for here. Tell me about the penguins."

"Well, you'll be glad to hear that the penguins don't compete with the anchovy fishing industry. The penguins consume only about eight percent of what the commercial fisheries catch and they catch all their food only about nine kilometers from shore."

"That's good news. But that could also mean the commercial fisheries may be outcompeting the birds for fish. And with their foraging range so limited, they could be under threat already."

"Hmmm. Y'know, that's exactly what Helen said. There's definitely more work to do. I've added that to my list of possible issues to examine in my dissertation. But I want to know how you are doing."

Raul paused while he considered telling Josh about his dreams and sleeplessness, but he answered, "Life could be better, but I'm doing okay. I'll call Helen to tell her that I'm taking off this quarter." They traded words of encouragement and signed off.

When Raul hung up the phone Tessa's anguished voice from the front room chilled his spine, "Raul, come quick. Mom fell and can't get up."

Raul rushed to the front room to find his mom on the floor with a terrified look on her face. With a hoarse whisper she implored, "Help me."

Raul reassured her everything would be fine while he made her comfortable on the floor. Then he called 911; rode the ambulance to the hospital; consulted with the doctors; comforted Tessa; and paced. Raul's mom had had a stroke. The doctors said that because she got to the hospital so quickly, her prognosis was pretty good, but she'd be in convalescent residence undergoing physical therapy for a while.

With her home situation in turmoil, Tessa again struggled to stay focused at school. Only this time it was harder. She said she felt like she had sand bags on her shoulders and a harness on her brain. She became short-tempered, snapping at Raul for no apparent reason. She forgot tasks she had set for herself and where she put things. Although Raul wanted to do more for her, the only way he could help was by staying positive, encouraging her, and keeping the household operating.

Raul began worrying that he might need to get a job to help out. As that possibility loomed larger and a long stay at home seemed more probable, he saw his post doc position and academic future fading. Should he forsake his career after all his efforts and right when it's ready to launch? Or should he abandon his family when they need him most? The choice was something Raul didn't want to even think about. But it cast a dark shadow every day.

Raul added doctors, insurance, and his mom's physical therapy schedules to his other efforts. His anguished dreams increased. In one he was walking very slowly toward some blurry figures up ahead. They were moving away from him, but no matter how hard he tried he couldn't walk any faster to catch up. Then he noticed he was walking under water. That explained the slowness, but suddenly he couldn't breathe. He gasped for breath. Panic rose in his throat. He clawed his way to the surface, and awoke panting. He was falling behind in his career pursuits and drowning in other work at the same time. Sometimes he felt like crying.



The piano player of Raul's jazz group had seen the obituary of Raul's father and some mutual friends told him of his mother's stroke. Knowing how making music was calming to Raul, the piano player gave him a call. He suggested Raul join them in their Saturday night jam session. The only people there would be jazz fans and their old regulars. It would be like family, he said.

Jam session? Raul hadn't played in forever. He demurred. But the piano player was gently persistent as good friends sometimes are. With some reluctance, Raul agreed. While Tessa was at school, he got out his sax and got reacquainted with a few old licks.

On Saturday night Raul walked into the club as the band was finishing their last composed piece. The crowd loved their performance and rewarded the band with warm applause. Raul had a quiet get-reacquainted visit with the members. The clarinet player greeted Raul and then excused himself for other obligations, leaving Raul and his saxophone to fill the musical void. The band members accommodated Raul's apprehension about his long absence from playing by agreeing with his loose plans on how he would like to proceed.

Most of the crowd called it an evening and left. A new, after-hours crowd, a little more rowdy, drifted in in small groups.

When the band was ready, the drummer snapped out the introduction, the piano laid the harmony, and they began. The saxophone was like a bird on a musical tether, tied to the home base of a popular old melody. The bird swooped and zoomed, zipped and danced, but frequently returned to home base for a melodic refueling and to allow the piano, bass, and drums their turns to dance with the melody. Raul could see further now. He breathed clean air. The sun illuminated the landscape and flowers appeared. When they finished, Raul's smile showed satisfaction and relief. And the small crowd of jazz aficionados loved them.

After a short break, the band settled in for some serious jamming. There was no old melody for this set. The band created the melody as they went along. The piano introduced the key and chord progressions to the audience while the percussion and base provided the pace and the floor. Then the sax took flight. Raul guided it through climbing dance steps and runs, through spins and peek-a-boos, through wind sprints and high jumps. He glided to slow breaks, allowing the piano to speak its mind, trading with the drums and bass for their opinions. There were no limits except gravity, and Raul soared into transcendence. His eyes were closed but saw everything in bright light. It was all laid out below him: fields of flowers opening their petals, bear cubs tumbling over each other, tadpoles darting under lily pads, and speckled eggs cracking open. He saw life continuing.

When he finished - when they finished - Raul was glistening with sweat and felt exhausted. And yet he wore a relaxed smile, and wanted a repeat next week.

As the days passed, Raul no longer felt like he was trapped in a black tunnel with no exit, but only shaded by a large, passing, dark cloud with slivers of blue sky at the edges. He noticed that the people he dealt with for his dad's and mom's affairs recognized his name now. He had talks with them that were informative, not frustrating. Life was getting easier.

After the next week's jam session, his bad dreams disappeared. He breathed easier. He had more energy.

Raul decided that if his family needed him he would remain. He'd try to get his post doc postponed. Maybe he could get a job teaching at the local community college. That way he could at least keep his fingers in biology until he got back to his post doc. He figured that his future wasn't cancelled, just delayed, a small sacrifice for his family. He attacked writing on his dissertation with renewed vigor. He could take care of his family and himself, he thought. Papa would be proud.

A few days later, Raul sat down with Tessa to talk about how she might take control of her future. After considering various options and their possible consequences, they agreed that the best thing for her was to attend a community college for a year or two. Then she could transfer to a university. That would minimize the importance of test scores and grades. With that decision Tessa slumped back in her chair, and let tears of relief stream down her cheeks. She didn't try to wipe them away, but let them drip from her face as though savoring them. Later she said that at that moment it felt like, the sand bags fell from her shoulders, and the harness slipped from her brain.

Soon thereafter, Raul's mother came home. Her sister Sylvia, who was attentive during her residence in the convalescent facility, brought her home. Sylvia got her sister settled and looked around the house. She hadn't been there since Raul's mother went to the hospital. When she saw the condition of her sister's house under Raul's management, her eyebrows rose. Except for Tessa's room, there were newspapers and magazines scattered about; trash cans overflowed; most surfaces were layered with dust; the freezer was filled with commercial frozen dinners; the pantry was crowded with junk food and with packages whose labels had the word "instant" or "quick" on them; dirty dishes filled the sink; the floor needed cleaning. The only tidy places were the small desk in the front room where Raul was organizing the paperwork for his mother and father, and one end of the large dining table that had neat stacks of pages of Raul's dissertation and published research reports he referenced in his writing.

Then Sylvia didn't ask, didn't suggest, but declared that she was taking charge of household operations.

Raul's Auntie Sylvia was always a large presence in his life. She doted on Raul and Tessa, spoiling them as much as she could. Being childless herself and living nearby may have been contributing factors. Even though now well into middle age, her long, dark hair graying at the temples and her once trim figure expanding toward a pear shape, the force of her presence had not diminished.

When Raul protested that he could handle things just fine, Sylvia folded her arms across her chest and told him, "This is not a discussion. Get your things together. I'm kicking you out of the house."

Raul looked stunned. His mouth opened but no words came out.

Sylvia's face then relaxed. She stepped closer to Raul, put her arm around his shoulders, and softened her voice. "Raul, back when you graduated from college you made us all proud and we all cheered for you... your parents especially. They had tears in their eyes when you were up on that stage receiving your diploma. Now you are almost a doctor. You have to... just have to... go back and finish. We all want you to. It's important to you. It's important to us. It's especially important to your papa." Tears filled Raul's eyes. His Auntie Sylvia enclosed him in her arms for a long time.

The next day Raul was back on campus. He was back focused on his career. He was back from the edge.

3 comments:

  1. Excellent story. I liked the imagery and the intertwining of the different story elements. Nicely Done.

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  2. The bit about music as therapy and the family dynamic was interesting.

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  3. Life serving up curveball after curveball. Easy to relate.

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