ISSUE 5 · FALL 2010




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Copyright © 2010

Theodore Carter





The Life Story of a

Chilean Sea Blob

THEODORE CARTER

 

 

The Chilean marine biologist stood on the beach, her black hair swirling in the wind as she spoke into the correspondent’s microphone. Milt watched her on his TV screen from his worn recliner. Over the biologist’s muffled Spanish, the English translator said, “It very well could be a new species, a giant squid, or perhaps just a rotting piece of whale carcass. It’s too early to tell yet.” A French scientist with a fully-funded laboratory had volunteered to run DNA tests. Milt took the bowl of peanuts from his lap and placed it on the side table. He shouldn’t have been eating cholesterol-rich peanuts.

Milt hoped CNN’s translation was accurate, that the female voice-over was being as precise as possible given the incongruities of the two languages. This was important. Already he was separated from the images by thousands of miles of cables, and his television screen bowed outward so that he could never be certain of the accuracy of the pixilated images. What if it was all a grand theatrical performance like War of the Worlds? But the running stock quotes at the bottom of the screen and the scrolling headlines assured him that this was in fact real. This was news. “This is CNN.”

He heard Sylvia rummaging through the pots and pans in the kitchen. “Sylvie, you should come see this,” Milt yelled toward the kitchen. “They found a blob in Chile.”

“I’m not coming out there. I know it won’t look like much. That’s what it means to be a blob.”

“It washed up on the beach. They don’t know what it is.”

The camera cut away from the marine biologist to the mysterious creature, a gray swirl of lava-like flesh that looked as if it had been poured from a pitcher onto the rocky beach. Men and women walked around the mound of meat with tape measures and cameras. The blob’s breadth was impressive, forty feet wide, said the biologist, but it was only a couple of feet high at most—an animal pancake. The story hadn’t earned the “Breaking News” graphic at the bottom of the screen, but the station had given the segment a catchy title: “The Blob: Sea Treasure or Sea Trash?”

Milt had seen the movie The Blob on Thanksgiving in 1958. Sylvia had been at home cooking a turkey. Though approaching thirty at the time, Milt had found it easy to forget his age inside the darkened theater and root for the misunderstood high-school-aged protagonists. Milt had watched Captain Nemo discover the secrets of the deep in Disney’s version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, just a few short years before Sputnik launched a race toward space exploration. The Creature from the Black Lagoon depicted a sea monster with human emotions who reminded Milt of a guy he’d known in the Army who’d never known the right thing to say. Creature movie kitsch wasn’t so farfetched. It could even be prophetic.

Perhaps the Chilean blob had a working brain hidden in its enormity, firing synapses to create thought and an awareness of the scientists and beach goers standing beside it. He imagined a grainy black and white image of a handsome leading man standing on the beach in Chile, his face contorted into sheer panic, begging the Chilean biologist, “What does it want from us?!” A studio executive was probably on the scene already asking the biologist to sell the rights to her life story.

Milt yelled toward the kitchen again. “They say they’re going to send the blob to a lab to find out what it is.”

He could hear the sizzling sound of browning chicken. Since his last trip to the doctor, Sylvia always made chicken—boneless, skinless, saltless, flavorless. She did her best to dress up the heart-safe protein, but her culinary skills couldn’t combat the sheer repetition of it.

“Of course they don’t know what it is. If they did, they wouldn’t be calling it a blob.”

A few years ago Milt had opened the newspaper and learned that by examining a single skin cell, a scientist could map DNA. Analysts and ethicists had argued on talk shows about the realization of a Jurassic Park or Frankenstein scenario. Fantastic horrors seemed possible. T-Rex might walk down Wall Street or an eight-foot-tall, square-headed monster might ravage suburban homes. But the Frankenstein argument turned into Frankenfoods. The T-Rex scenario turned into Dolly the sheep, hardly a doomsday creature. Soon the whole debate digressed into an argument over stem cells and Roe v. Wade. Here was a chance for DNA research to redeem itself. DNA sampling could turn the blob into an honest to goodness sea monster.

CNN’s blob segment had lasted only thirty seconds. Coverage turned toward war in the Middle East and a story about a canine beauty pageant. At the very moment that Brutus, a bulldog from Athens, Georgia, was crowned canine king, the Chilean marine biologist and the French DNA specialist were probably on the phone discussing the find. He pictured the biologist holding a test tube containing a slice of blob up to her laboratory’s florescent lighting and looking at it quizzically. Milt knew the world’s ocean experts were contacting one another to ask, “sea treasure, or sea trash?”

Milt’s computer fit awkwardly into the shell of his antique roll top desk. There was no place to put it. The desk’s shelving contained compartments for an inkwell, envelopes, paper, and pencils, but nothing for an IBM. Wiring spilled over the edge of the desk face like Medusa’s untamed hair and disappeared into a power strip on the floor. He sat down in the black rolling chair ergonomically designed to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome in seniors because, as the salesman had said, “as an older man, it’s extremely important to protect yourself against injuries related to computer work.” Milt had disliked its comfort ever since. When Milt hit the power switch, the IBM sprang to life with a melodious chime.

Sylvia must have heard the tone over the sound of the sizzling chicken. “Oh boy, here we go,” she said. “This blob is going to consume you, isn’t it?”

“I just want to know what people are saying,” he said.

Though a bit clumsy in his navigation, Milt believed the Internet was miraculous. It could be used to back almost any delusion, hope, or preconceived idea. The lingo that came along with the computer was also a plus. He was now a web “surfer,” an “explorer.” While maneuvering his mouse, he pictured himself flying through the world’s circuitry in a rocket car, or dodging in and out of a curling wave of zeros and ones on a neon surfboard. Every now and then he’d do something that would crash his Internet browser and remind him of his lack of computer competence. When this happened, Milt pictured himself falling off his surfboard and splashing into a sea of electricity or his rocket car running into a circuit board wall. His IBM (or was it an H.A.L.?) would say, “I’m sorry, Milt, but that’s something I can’t allow to happen.”

This time the IBM hummed along just fine, something Milt perceived to be a coincidence rather than the result of his own actions. After clicking through several short wire stories on the blob, Milt found seamonster-hunter.com. He’d never been to the site before, but it looked as though today’s page design broke the usual motif. “Sea Monster Found in Chile!!!!!” scrolled across the page in blinking red lettering. Below the headline, plagiarized bits of Reuters and AP stories described the blob’s appearance and quoted experts speculating as to what exactly the blob was.

According to seamonsterhunter.com, this was a genuine find, akin to the blob that washed ashore in Florida in 1896 but was never officially identified. Seamonsterhunter.com pointed out that mythology from numerous cultures described sea monster sightings. Vikings, pirates, naval officers, and conquistadors had all recorded encounters with aquatic beasts. Over thousands of years seafarers had meticulously reported their sightings in cave paintings, diaries, and journey logs. They couldn’t all be imagining the same things. The blob was proof. Sea monsters did exist. Seamonsterhunter.com had been waiting a long time for this, ever since it launched in 1998. Almost five whole years!

The discovery of the blob also proved the Loch Ness Monster’s existence, according to the site. While Nessie had fallen out of vogue after the rise of sonar, the website claimed that the plesiosaur likely burrows in caves and therefore eludes modern fish finding equipment. A page of text explained why R.K. Wilson’s famous black and white photo of the serpentine head was a genuine article, despite the photographer’s recent admission that it had all been a hoax. According to seamonsterhunter.com, Wilson was simply overburdened by the criticism of disbelievers, exhausted from a lifetime of defending his photo. Milt sympathized with the characterization of R.K. Wilson. Though Milt didn’t really believe in sea monsters, UFOs, or Bigfoot, he was still constantly frustrated by the logic of disbelievers.

If R.K. Wilson had only had Sylvia’s sound advice to guide him, he probably would have kept his Nessie snapshot safely in a frame over the mantle instead of selling it to the tabloid magazines. Sylvia had recently suggested to Milt that he stop reading his Ghosts of the Nation’s Capitol book on the subway. “Milt, the thing is that people look at you like you’re a crazy old man, like they expect you to start talking to yourself or scream at the hand rail,” she’d said. “With that mess of white hair and your befuddled look, people don’t know what to think of you.” Sylvia had spent decades as a researcher for a downtown public relations firm and knew quite a bit about perceptions. She gently suggested that Milt get his fill of ghosts from Henry James or Shakespeare while on the subway. Sylvia would have given R.K. Wilson some lessons on artful discretion. He would have been better off.

Milt could smell the chicken breasts cooking in lemon juice. With an easy swivel of his ergonomic chair, he looked toward the kitchen doorway and saw Sylvia’s shadow on the linoleum, her body remaining around the corner by the pantry. He heard her remove dishes and slam the cabinet door shut, then rustle through the silverware drawer. She emerged from the doorway and began laying down their two place settings, her slender hands moving with quick deliberateness, even athleticism. While Milt had grown pudgy through the middle, she’d maintained her sinewy frame and agility, always zipping from one important task to the next. No more weekend tennis or morning runs, but she still moved in the same way. Milt wondered when exactly her curly hair had turned from blonde to stark white, when wrinkles in her cheeks began to accompany her familiar smile. Before Milt could finish taking her in, she’d vanished again into the kitchen.

“So what are they saying about this blob? Is it going to come get us like in the movies? Should we board up the windows and hide in the cellar?”

Sylvia had a habit of starting conversations after leaving the room.

“Not quite sure yet. The scientists are saying it may be some sort of new species, maybe a giant octopus. Did I tell you that?”

“They really think it’s a new species? I thought we already had everything neatly categorized and filed away in the Smithsonian.”

She was teasing him. For thirty-five years Milt had worked as a curator carefully categorizing rare items for The Smithsonian Institution. He’d organized national treasures ranging from Abe Lincoln’s embarrassing love letters, to Jimi Hendrix’s dry cleaning receipts, artifacts so bizarre that they were not only hard to catalog, but hard to believe.

“Well, they said it could be just a decaying whale carcass or whatnot, but the scientist, she thinks it’s an octopus.”

“Remember a couple months ago when that Alaskan truck driver spotted the giant bird?”

“Yeah, fourteen-foot wingspan. Pterodactyl size.”

“Well, you thought it was some sort of aviary monster that would change the animal kingdom, remember? You thought it was leftover from the Jurassic period, but a few days later they decided it was probably just a sea eagle.”

“Ah yes, but they never saw it again, thank goodness. The truck driver may have been right. He may have spotted something completely new. It could still be out there nesting in a distant mountaintop, eating small children, or preparing to battle Godzilla.”

He heard a snicker from the kitchen and then Sylvia emerged with a frying pan and spatula. She walked over to the table and slid a chicken breast onto each plate. For a second, Milt could have sworn her hair was blonde again, that it was thirty years ago and Sylvia was young and beautiful, that their kitchen was an H.G. Wells time machine. But then, she reached into her pocket and took out his heart pills and placed them on his dinner plate, and he felt impossibly old.

“Well, I’d bet it was just a sea eagle. I suspect you think as much, but you’re just too darn stubborn to admit it,” she said.

Sylvia retreated to the kitchen with her frying pan and emerged again to distribute unsalted, unbuttered broccoli and healthful brown rice, hippie rice Milt called it, between their two plates.

Milt walked over to the dinner table, took his seat, and looked down at his heart pills. “The Alaskans should make a myth of that sea eagle. Look at the creature economies in the Loch Ness area and in Roswell, New Mexico: Nessie’s Breakfast Nook, Monster Mash Night Club, Alien Café, Martian Martial Arts Center. You should get your old PR company on this.”

“Yes, radio spots saying ‘Buy a pterodactyl time share in Alaska. And bring your binoculars!’” Sylvia said.

They’d been to both Roswell and Loch Ness, not as admitted destinations, but because while on a trip to the Grand Canyon in 1982, Milt thought they “might as well” make the four hour drive over to Roswell. Beside the military base’s ominous barbed wire fence, the only other noteworthy stop in Roswell was a small museum filled with crude sketches of aliens drawn by museum staff. Years later, while traveling through Europe, Milt had spent hours figuring out how they could “make a quick jump over to Loch Ness.” It had been more than a decade ago, but Sylvia still teased him, usually while they were on their way to a haunted locale, “as long as we’re in the eastern United States . . .” Still, Sylvia had made a sport of it too, buying the worst merchandise she could find at each stop. Her prize find had been a compact purchased in Roswell that read “Government Cover-up” across the lid.

Sylvia came to the table. “Well, I hope this one turns out for you, this blob. Maybe it really is a new species.”

“I hope so too,” Milt said.

. . .

Milt wrapped his arms around the terra cotta pot and carried the bush in from the garden. His vision was impaired by the plant’s stalk, but the three worn wooden steps marked his passing with a familiar squeek and told him he was on the right path. Right knee creaking a bit, he bent down and placed the plant deep on the porch up against the backside of the house where it would be safe from the August sun.

The pain came on almost like a memory, a recollection of his earlier heart failure. First, he noticed he couldn’t quite catch his breath. The realization of it seemed to set in motion other symptoms. His chest tightened and each breath set off a deep, hollow pain. Dizziness set in, and Milt sat down heavy in a deck chair. The familiarity of the pain was somehow comforting. It made him think that he could live through it again. He knew he should yell for Sylvia, but he didn’t want her there now. Even if he did decide to yell out, he wasn’t sure he could make a noise. Maybe it would simply pass and he’d never have to tell anyone, just a quiet moment on the back porch that he’d keep to himself. A dirty secret.

The pain grew deeper. His chest felt as if stabbed; the muscles in his neck and shoulders twisted into an unforgiving constriction. Milt tried to replace panic with thoughts about afterlife, the unknown, the infinite possibilities, ghosts, mummies, but all that came to him was the thought of Sylvia walking out onto the back porch and finding him lifeless in a plastic patio chair. His heart was failing. His body was giving out. It was so ordinary.

He was lightheaded, sweating, and saw splotches of black. Looking out over the yard, the image of his favorite fir tree appeared blurred. He’d fainted once before, and it had been so easy to just fade off, to lose consciousness.

“Milt! Oh my God!” Sylvia said.

Milt looked up and saw her through a haze. She looked beautifully familiar as she stood in front of him, her face frozen in panic. He wanted to tell her he was fine, that he was just tired. He wanted to tell her he was dying. Instead, he said nothing and let her figure it all out.

. . .

Sylvia watched as Milt flipped between the only working channels on his hospital room TV: Univision and The Nashville Network. She wasn’t sure if the whole hospital’s system was on the fritz, or if he was the only patient restricted to Spanish soap operas and professional wrestling. “You only got in here a couple hours ago, Milt. Just behave yourself,” she said to him.

Just moments later, Milt yelled at a nurse he saw walking by the doorway. It was the one Sylvia had named Ms. Ratched an hour earlier after observing her large frame and sour disposition. “Can you get this sick old man a ballgame on the TV?” he asked. Sylvia realized that in asking Milt to behave, she’d started some sort of game that involved the careful prodding of nurse Ratched.

Sylvia looked at the nurse with a sheepish smile. Ratched’s expression didn’t change. Her austere, pulled-back black hair looked to have stretched her features into a permanent scowl. “The important thing is you get your rest,” Ratched said to Milt. Sylvia had noticed that Ms. Ratched was always very practical.

Milt asked Ratched for the ball game again an hour later. Sylvia knew it was more of an attempt to rattle Ratched than a genuine interest in watching the Orioles lose again. Ratched raised one thinly penciled-in eyebrow and replied, “Can I get you anything to eat?”

“How about a bacon cheeseburger, side of fries, and a T-bone steak for dessert?” said Milt. He’d obviously expected Sylvia to be impressed by his pestering, but she didn’t feel like playing along. Sometimes Milt’s antics grew tiresome. He was like a five-year-old standing on the edge of the diving board waving his arms to attract her attention before his next cannonball.

The nurse gave him a scolding look and Syliva half expected her to wag her finger at Milt in disapproval. Ratched returned a few minutes later and placed a spoon and bowl of Jell-O topped with Cool Whip on the tray over Milt’s bed. Milt looked at Sylvia and smiled triumphantly as Ratched turned, her sensible shoes squeaking on the linoleum, and walked out of the room. Sylvia looked down at her lap trying hard not to show amusement.

“Do you want it? I’m not hungry,” he said.

“Thanks,” she said taking the Jell-O off the bed tray. Sylvia hadn’t eaten anything since he’d been admitted.

Upon his arrival, the doctors had told her that Milt had experienced a mild heart attack. He’d need to stay for a few days “under observation.” Sylvia wasn’t exactly sure what that meant and wondered if they were keeping the more frightening details from her. What did it mean to have two heart attacks? Is the damage cumulative?

She relayed what she’d been told to Milt who acted as if he were on some twisted, Kafkaesque vacation where he could break from life’s daily duties but was subject to medical procedures. “So I guess this is what it feels like to be ‘under observation,’” Milt said. “What do you think Sylvie, will nurse Ratched look over my body with a magnifying glass? Or maybe the observation is done with a hidden camera somewhere in the room. Perhaps Ratched is an agent of Big Brother. Next time she’ll come in here wearing a pea green military uniform wielding a state-issued thermometer. Perhaps the limited television is part of her propaganda war, an attempt to make me into a new breed of eighty-year-old Spanish speaking pro-wrestler.”

Sylvia sat hunched over in her chair and studied the movement of her hands as she ran her fingers over a leaf she’d picked off the plant in the lobby. “I suppose they’re going to check your arteries and your heart valves to make sure everything is okay now.”

It was silent for a moment. Silence had always unnerved Milt. “You’ve been observing me for over fifty years,” he said to her. She didn’t know what it was supposed to mean, but understood that he was thanking her for something.

Sylvia kept her face pointed down toward her lap, “Yes, long enough to know you’re a crazy old man. You can’t lift a seventy-five-pound potted plant like you did when you were twenty-five. You shouldn’t do things like that, Milt.” She’d started several conversations like this since his first heart attack, and they always ended badly. While Sylvia accepted the predictable onset of arthritis and liver spots, Milt always looked as if he felt betrayed by what he saw in the mirror.

Sylvia, in part thankful he chose to ignore her statement, turned toward the television and pretended to be engrossed in the muted fishing show. After a few minutes, Milt turned off the TV. She realized the predictability of watching overweight men pull up only one kind of fish was probably torturous for him. He’d probably have preferred they catch an old shoe or a rabid muskrat.

He lay still looking up at the square tiles on the ceiling. “Hey, Sylvie,” he said, “remember that sea blob that was on the TV yesterday? Did the lab results come back from France?”

“I picked up a paper in the gift shop this morning,” Sylvia said. She reached under her chair, pulled out the newspaper, and turned to the back page for the miniscule wire story she’d noticed about Milt’s sea blob.

Sylvia was about to read the article word for word, but Milt was sitting up now so expectantly. He clenched the edge of his blanket in two balled fists and his eyes grew wide in anticipation. She couldn’t bear to send him back to watching muted bass fishing or to watch him study the ceiling. What Milt liked more than anything was to drive her into mischievousness. Sylvia tried hard to suppress a smile, but a small smirk snuck out anyway, which may have given her away, but it hardly mattered.

“It says here, that in order to perform accurate tests, the Paris laboratory asked that the entire blob, not just a piece, be transported from Chile to France. The creature was loaded onto a barge using a specially designed crane constructed by a Chilean engineer in just two hours.” She paused and looked at Milt to see if he’d stop her. He didn’t.

“While making its way around Cape Horn, the barge was hijacked by South Asian pirates. Apparently, when the pirates saw the armed guards on the deck of the barge, they assumed the ship was carrying precious metals. After a shoot-out with the armed guards, the pirates found nothing in the cargo hold but the giant blob. They were so upset that they took over the entire barge. So the blob never made it to France. A South Asian pirate gang is toting it around the Atlantic on a barge. The National Academy of Sciences is furious about the loss of this important specimen and has hired a mercenary navy fleet to meet the pirate-controlled barge for a battle off the coast of Brazil. So, we should know more later.” Then, deciding an extra bit of detail was needed for authenticity, she added, “Oh, it says here that the name of the barge is ‘Nautilus.’”

“Ha!” said Milt, clapping his hands together. “That’s great. A sea monster captured by pirates. We’ll have to see how this turns out, see if the NAS navy can win back that sea blob.”

Milt’s IV bag jiggled a bit on its metal stand. His sudden movement had pulled at the slack in the plastic tubes hooked into his arms. Sylvia stood up to make sure nothing had been jarred out of place.

“I’m allowed to move, Sylvie. The tubes are stuck in there. Tomorrow I may go for a jog.”

. . .

Sylvia awoke from a night’s sleep in the bedside hospital chair to start Milt’s second day of observation. Nurse Ratched came in soon after to check Milt’s vitals and fluids and wrote things down on a clipboard. They talked about her for a while after she had left, then about how Milt would be better soon, but that was about it. He looked ashamed tucked in his standardized bedding, machines beeping, nurses scurrying in and out talking in sterile language and necessary pleasantries. Milt had been so quiet that Sylvia started to worry that his second heart attack had clogged up a bit of his quirk. Their second day in the hospital was only bearable because every few hours he would ask her for the latest update on the sea blob.

Sylvia felt relieved at having a specific duty to perform. She would take the newspaper, now a day old, out from under her chair and give Milt the news. The NAS mercenaries had been victorious after a six-hour battle during the night. Still, the blob had not been transported to the laboratory because it had begun to melt while traveling by truck toward Paris. It was being temporarily stored in a meat locker somewhere in the French countryside.

Sylvia knew the conclusion of the blob saga would have to coincide with Milt’s release from the hospital at noon the next day. Two hours before Milt’s release from the hospital, Sylvia wracked her brain for the ending of her story. The Chilean biologist, the heroine of the story, had finally overseen the successful transport of the blob to the Paris laboratory and received the results, which of course showed the blob was indeed a new species. The saga would conclude with Sylvia’s next installment. There were papers to sign and things to gather before noon too, but that would be the easy part of getting Milt home. With just a half hour to go before his release, Milt acted coy and asked, “So Sylvie, what’s the latest on the blob?”

Sylvia opened up the newspaper and held it up in front of her. “The scientific community is in awe of the complex DNA coding contained by the mysterious blob, now officially named blobous amorphous,” said Sylvia. “Officials are just beginning to understand the medicinal potential of this new species; however, they’ve already found that proteins from blobous amorphous can be used to extract cholesterol from cheeseburgers, potato chips, and peanuts. Chilean biologist Elsa Acosta will no doubt receive the Nobel Prize for finding what will likely become the miracle cure for heart disease. Conservationists have already agreed to fund research that will examine how scientists can grow blobous amorphous specimens in a laboratory setting and curb over-fishing of the now wildly valuable and highly elusive animal. The president of the United States is scheduled to speak today . . .”

Sylvia laid the paper down on her lap and looked at Milt’s deeply wrinkled face that’d grown a bit sallow over the last few days. He looked sick, and the hospital room they sat in was barren and sterile. She wanted to tell him what had really happened.

She could tell by his worried look that he had an idea of what was going through her mind. Waving his hand at her, he said “No, no, you’re doing fine. Keep going.”

“But it’s all been resolved. The DNA results came back from the lab yesterday.” He grimaced and waved his hand at her again. “You’re doing fine. Go on, Sylvie.”

She kept looking at him and curled the newspaper in her hands. “Milt, this is nonsense. The doctor says it was just a mild heart attack. You’re really doing just fine, Milt. You don’t have to worry. You’ll be fine for quite some time.”

“Sylvie, what does it say about the captured pirates? When is the trial?”

She realized they could only go on like they had the fifty-five years before. She lifted the paper to hide her eyes. Her voice grew shakey. “The International Anti-Piracy Commission has asked that the trial be held in the United States. They want the blob-nappers to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. They say there is nothing more serious than endangering the life of a newly discovered sea monster. No one should ever do it.” She folded the paper, placed it in her lap, and looked at Milt.

“Perfect, Sylvie.”

His eyes were closed and his head titled back on the pillow as if he were inhaling the fumes of a fine cigar. Still seated in her chair, Sylvia leaned forward, reached out, and closed her hand around Milt’s little finger.