Slimy Sculpin

November 15th, 2009

“I know exactly where I think we are.”

The “we” mentioned here was, to the rest of us, a he. To him, Sly Skulpin, the self-muttered “we” could have been a royal inflection, or the work of something more classically known as psychotic. Mental health notwithstanding, his utterance was directed outward, at the municipally kept fields, the dog-friendly ravines, and especially the benches, as he tore through the park in search of something that was, if not identifiable to those of us outside the “we,” was at least (and this much without a doubt), misplaced.

How many benches can one park have, anyway? In the case of this one, the answer was rapidly approaching the uncountable, or so it seemed to him (or, as the case may be, them). Whatever it was he’d misplaced was obviously identified by landmark of bench alone, without regard for the fact that there were an uncountable number of same-seeming benches in this park. The park offered no shortage of more identifiable landmarks, as large city parks are wont to do, with nicely woodcut signs offering bucolic trail names and you-are-here maps at every intersection, but whatever it was Sly was hunting with increasing anxiety had been positioned “just behind a bench, just right of center from the bench-sitters’ perspective.” If prodded, he might add, not without a fair amount of reluctance “I hid it beneath some leaves. Hid it pretty well, actually.” And then “I’ll find it. How many more benches do we still have to check out?” Another one of those unanswerable questions, or at least with an answer it’s best not to think about. Best to just scramble onward.

And he was nothing if not a professional at the finer points of scrambling, which, come to think of it, is not unlikely as the source for the tourettics now on display. It went on like this, then, keeping a wildman’s fixated mix of determination/detachment while finishing what he suspects to be the first complete round of the park, then, as he had initially ploughed in with no actual system, making a second pass in what, to our eyes, might be mistaken for “order.”

No luck. Gone. He had, perhaps obviously, left behind a surreptitious audio record device, a nice one, fancy, and most importantly, hot his, hoping to do a little spontaneous field research, nothing peeping-tomish. And enumeration like “nice” and “fancy” is no joke – miniature tubes, electric motor, rugged and durable, top-of-the-line in both quality and cost, which, if adjusted for inflation to today’s dollar, would amount to a whole damned lot. He’d supported it gently on the grass behind, well, the bench, and covered it thoroughly with surrounding leaves, which seems the sensible thing to do, if there was any sense at all in leaving high-end commercial electronics to spend a day in a city park unattended.

Ruled by his own obligarchy, then, both the obligation to find it and that not to get himself good and fired, he circled back a third time, this time asking questions. “Have you seen anybody in the park with a brand new, although slightly leaf-covered, potentially, Nagra?” Wasn’t garnering him much; bemusement at best, and at worst (from those whose ears were unfamiliar with the brand might mistake it for a term of far more offense) righteous contempt. He tried another approach, this time with importunate need for sympathy. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen a very large but portable reel-to-reel audio recorder? I left it in the park earlier today, you see, just behind a bench, but it’s gone now. I can’t believe that anybody would have taken it. It’s just unlikely. Unbelievable.”

If anybody had seen anything, or even had sympathy to give, they were holding out. A dejected slump on an indistinguishable bench, with face hard in hands, led him to perk his ear – surely, this would be right about the time the tape went out, and if nature’s irreducible randomness had taught him anything, it was that the thing would click just as he was on the verge of giving up. He listened for the audible click of the end of the tape. Nothing. He moved on to the next bench. Sat, this time with dejection marred by the slightest hope. Nothing, of course. Got up, circled the bench and tried it again, toning down the verisimilitude. No. Next bench, same scene and now, of course, this was nothing short of a medial digit raised to fate itself. If despair had been affected in the slightest up to now, he wasn’t coming up short now. It was well after he’d stopped counting benches, which itself was at around thirty, that he crossed to the far side of the park when he saw it, in all its metallic majesty, overstuffing a wire garbage can by a lot, and as far as he could tell, as he approached and embraced it with the fervour of a newly returning long-parted lover, unscathed except for a popsicle stick stuck to a side and the butt of what was unmistakably (in appearance, locale, and era, so much so that he didn’t have to add olfactory validation) a marijuana cigarette. “Groovy,” which he registered immediately as the most uncharacteristic word to have escaped his lips, and which he vowed hereafter not to let happen again, although the thought of the machine’s adventure made him actually bend an arm and stroke it where it might, if fully anthropomorphed, sprout hair. It was getting dark, so he cut short the happy homecoming and took closer inspection: the tape was still rolling, with another fifteen feet of reel left, tops. Not without some display of reverence, he placed it onto the ground and let it run its course, still not quite believing his luck or losing himself in a scenario replay of the machine’s travels. He stood over it until the familiar click, then gathered it again and hoofed it, double-time, back to the studio. He might just make it back unnoticed.

If there’s one good thing about working for a university, and there’s at least one good thing about just about anything, it’s that the environment seems to be closed all the time to some people, and open all the time to others. Our Sly was just such an Other, given to maddening hours lost to his own ears, and for him, the door was always open, proverbially if not in a way that prevented him from juggling the thing on a hip while navigating various handles, each going deeper behind veneers from the world at large. The thing was portable, true, but that didn’t make it handle-able. He hipped it to the last door, that of the audiovisual studies department just as Flax was ready to clock out, as was evidenced by the other identifying badge of academia at the time: the one-shoulder-slung backpack and the underarmed textbook of one’s most opposite-sex-attracting course.

“To tell you the truth, I’m a little shocked that you got it back. If anyone else worked here, I’d have bet against it, in fact. Uh, Sly? It’s a little sticky here.”
“Oh, sorry about that. Vanilla ice cream, I think. Maybe a little fudge-like stuff. Should come right off with a cloth, but I took the best care of it.”
“Sly, the bottom’s covered in wet leaves.”

Introducing Sly Skulpin, just the sort of guy who’d completely forget the underside of things. “Some field stuff, you know how it goes. Instructions came straight from Professor Vinnie himself. It’s just leaves, right? No big deal?”

“Do I really need to remind you of the fact that I lent this to you completely off the books?” Then, after not many seconds, “Right, I really do.”
Of course he does. This is the secret of Sly Skulpin’s survival. Or one of them, anyway.

Having removed the reel, deleafed as well as he was capable of, and retreated with the tape to the Professor’s after-hours office, which doubled now as his own pad, the Professor being of the always-closed style of the academe, who kept his mandatory office hours in a coffee shop in a gross effort of juvenilia, and who performed real office-related tasks god knows where. Sly, on the other hand, used the office for all but the most menial of university-related tasks. It was upon its mirrors that his pick-ups were practised, and on its typewrites that his screed scrawled. An inspiring place, and, given that it was entrusted as his own, and he, therefore, as a surrogate professor in his own right, it was his to lose. The entire place, freakishly, was his to lose, and now, looking at the recovered tape before him, he had, for the first time all day, a sense of what that loss could do to a guy.

He dipped deep within the well of his self-restraint to find the patience required not to spool the reel immediately, and instead, in deference to his afternoon’s ordeal, gave a second of cerebral hat-tip to it. It had been discovered, despite his thoroughness at concealment. How? Prima facie, it could have been someone walking a dog. Dogs are born for trouble, and it’d be just like one to dig it up as treasure to an unsuspecting owner. Anything else it could be? Though most people aren’t likely to walk behind the benches, it couldn’t be ruled out. Someone could have tripped over it, and god only knows what sort of twang –that- might leave embedded on tape. What else? A homeless person, someone living in the park, who knows its leaf patterns well enough to have immediately seen through even his remarkable camouflage? Not impossible. Someone following him, who dug it up immediately after he retreated from eyesight? But the greater question was, who would go through the effort of exhumation of something of obvious value only to pitch it with indifference at what, he was now certain, was the exact opposite end of the park? This meant toting forty pounds of equipment (with a moving audio reel at the top) at least three hundred yards. Not a task for those lacking in intrepidity. He’d almost thought a reenactment hopeless when it occurred to him that of course, it was staring him down: everything he needed (and then some, to be sure) would be right here on tape.

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