The Opossum Brings the Message
Nels Hanson

These are the rooms of Robinson.
Bleached, wan, and colorless this light, as though
All the blurred daybreaks of the spring
Found an asylum here, perhaps for Robinson alone--

Weldon Kees

Each late afternoon as I entered the house on Sawyer and passed the darkened TV I remembered I had crossed a line, joined that club who had seen spirits.

I had observed them all on late-night talk shows, those people who had near-death, out-of-body experiences, lived in haunted houses, or been abducted by aliens. I had both believed and disbelieved, felt a mixture of pity and envy.

Light in the cage like burning foil
At noon; and I am caught
With all the other cats that howl
And dance and spit, lashing their tails
When the doctors turn the current on.

Was he here now, in the house?

Of course the poet Weldon Kees' arrival was nothing strictly new, the voices had a long history, I told myself as I dipped the tumbler full of ice and drowned the cubes in Cutty Sark, then eased into the worn leather reading chair beside a leaning pile of Ellen's books.

After Ellen had left to paint in New York, I'd first spoken to her in the quiet house, in the kitchen as I made a salad the way she had taught me, at the hall cabinet when I stacked the folded towels still warm from the dryer, in the early hours when I watched the brightening window from the empty bed--

"This iceberg's crispy and cold, these grape tomatoes firm and sweet, tastier than Romas."

"Fresh sheets make a difference, don't they, Ellen?"

"After a bad dream, when I wake like this in the early morning, before the sun clears the Sierras and the smog sets in, I like to watch the pale sky, that watery blue from van Ruysdael or another Flemish master. I wouldn't mention it to anyone but you."

Ellen and I had respected and sought the other's judgment and agreement on nearly every matter, we had common interests, shared views, we'd taught each other things. Our life together had been one long exchange about nature and art, life and meaning, until she'd tuned me out and gone back East, then taken her life and moved to another frequency--

I'd gone on speaking to her after her death because now we'd never be apart, our relationship would never end. It was as if we were newly married, we were wiser now and ready for a fresh start.

"Look at the ruby-throated hummingbird on the lemon blooms--"

"Those emerald feathers and the shiny whir, the way the air around the wings looks unreal, like cellophan-- Phil, what else could he be, but a bright thought in the mind of some god?"

Twice, lately, a neighbor had overheard us.

In the last year, Ellen had finally begun to answer, hesitantly at first, then with ease, as if over time we'd created a line or pathway, a "channel" as the psychics on TV termed their contacts.

I'd talked to Ellen at work for a break, when things were tense or slow, when there was no one else who would understand. I'd whispered to her in the car, with Glad at the wheel, sometimes at night in hostile country, the siren on in pursuit, shots fired, guns drawn and no help coming.

"That's a beautiful line, isn't it?" she said. "'He leadeth me beside the still waters . . . .' The still waters are the words, don't you think?"

Maybe, without noticing at first, I'd approached within hailing distance, I'd moved closer, within earshot of death.

"Do you sleep sometimes," I asked late one night, "or never sleep, never need to rest? Is it wrong to ask, if you only wake when I call your name?"

I realized I knew the dead better than the living.

They seemed real, achingly so as I heard them again across the years, the same rhythms and inflections, the whole person in the timbre of the voice, my father's, my mother's . . . .

My father was alive, unmurdered--

"I named him Tawny and bottle-fed him from a fawn, but when his spots disappeared and the buds of antlers showed, my dad made me lead him way back into the woods. He sprinkled chili power in a red circle around him, so Tawny wouldn't follow when we rode away."

My mother was healthy and free of leukemia--

"I said I didn't care what the other boys thought, I told you to be proud of your grades. When Adlai ran, they printed a picture that showed a hole in the bottom of his shoe. It cost him votes, they said he was an egghead and wasn't practical, that he was too intelligent to be president. Well, he didn't have a hole where the heart's supposed to be."

Dr. Edwards remained acute and incisive, fresh as Dante's teacher Bruno Latini, who in Hell resembled not a losing runner but the winner who captured the green cloth at Verona:

"I believe the human mind is the labyrinth we're trying to escape," Rheingold explained as I set down Ellen's abridged volume of Frazer's The Golden Bough and glanced around for my drink.

"All of us are Theseus and Ariadne and the Minotaur, passionate Pasiphae and greedy King Minos, the Greek adolescents offered for sacrifice, Daedalus the amoral genius, and his son, poor Icarus."


"Phil, don't you see? We're each the hero and monster, slave and captor--"

As I tasted the sharp Scotch and the sodden evenings began--now that Kees had shown up, the other voices had stopped their browbeating and returned to warm recollection and discussion--I tried to tell myself that I hadn't really "seen" anything, except for a brief glancing dark-haired shadow nothing had materialized solidly outside my own head.

A police detective, a lieutenant with 23-plus years on the force, I had a special relationship with the officially deceased.

After all, it was my job and calling, studying departed persons like Weldon Kees, discovering how they had got that way, and with whose help.

Getting to know them, letting the dead talk and tell their story, was my gift.

Small wonder that the case remains unsolved,
Or that the sleuth, Le Roux, is now incurably insane,
And sits alone in a white room in a white gown,
Screaming that all the world is mad . . .

Technically, I wasn't yet a candidate for the cable shows on the eerie and unexplained. I couldn't confirm a ghost, verify with camera or recorder or secondary witness the existence of a risen soul.

I heard just another inner actor who filled a neurotic need and was hardly supernatural.

We are in Cleveland, or Sioux Falls. The architecture
Seems like Omaha, the air pumped in from Dusseldorf.
Cold rain keeps dripping just outside the bars.

At work, my dark guide was with me almost constantly now, carefully phrasing the bewildered observer's tragic but somehow comic vision, as the orange cat crept home and I moved to my desk and did paperwork through the unbroken hangover.

Kees put the world into resonant and sad perspective, turning the unbearable into poetry.

Had Ellen sent him? I'd found his book on her night table, when I'd flown back to New York to pack her things.

Tired after love and silent in this house,
Your back turned to me, quite alone,
Standing with one hand raised to smooth your hair,
At a small window, green with rain.

I no longer had to register the obvious, daily collapse of everything that had ever made life worth living, as I read coroners' reports, questioned suspects, or rode with Glad through the devastated city to another atrocity.

Reciting soothing soliloquies, the poet moved in a soft blur at my shoulder.

It saved me, to have his poetry always at my ear like Mozart's music, beautiful, elegant, and sad.

(Trombones.) A struggle. (Flutes.) And then the scherzo
Lachrymose, so often thought to deal
With Western Man's religious hopes gone dim.
Drums; and the famous "Wailing of the Damned" motif.

And Kees was loyal.

The poet might come and go on some ghostly round and disappear on nights off, but when I needed him, turning in physical disgust from a homicide scene or slamming down a phone that threatened to explode with blood, he was there, as I'd been told that for some people Jesus was there, speaking with concern and understanding at our shared distress:

--What have they done to me, what have I
Done to myself, entranced these days by only surfaces
Of worn and curious stones, the wet leaves shivering?

"I'd say he's on number nine," Glad said the second week as the orange cat weaved toward the grate.

"What's that?"

"His last life. He's running on empty. No back-up."

"No," I said, watching his narrow hindquarters sway. "No back-up."

The cat sleeps like an old campaigner
During this season of the long rains.

I didn't think the stray would make it much longer. I was tired enough, mind and body. I was ready.

Soon I would fall--by shadowed switchblade or shiny Saturday Night Special, a getaway's madly swerving Buick or accidental electrocution, a sudden quake tipping the toaster into a sink of dishes--the moment that my feline companion spirit succumbed.

The poet standing by the file cabinet had arrived to collect me, place heavy pennies over my eyes at the appropriate moment, the boatman's fare, and ferry me across the dark river to Ellen.

For a cop, I'd read a lot, Ellen had been an avid reader and got me started, until on my own I'd never stopped, and now it was too late.

Maybe like Don Quixote, for whom books had made more sense than life, I'd read too much--especially of The Last Man, that I'd learned by heart to share with Ellen, so that Kees spoke memories as much as words--

. . . . "Now, Soon, and Later have become
Each other--doors all closed, the windows blocked and barred
         for good--
And all sink down together to the bottom of the sea.
Do I wake or sleep? It is as late tonight as it will ever be."

Tonight like each night after five or six Scotches and shining my shoes, I'd go to bed and dream of Ellen holding the knife, trying to decide whether to kill herself as she stared at the greens and blues of her new abstract painting and the secret pattern beginning to emerge.

I'd dream of my father diving and shielding Lisa Barlow, 13, as shots rang forever from the rifle on the tower . . . of my mother lying on the living room sofa, doing crosswords and dying of cancer of the bone . . . Chuey Saldano the doped teenager outside Crispin's who kept firing the Uzi and wouldn't go down . . . the orange cat hesitating, then stumbling and not getting up--

I saw each day join its fallen brethren and quickly change sides, conspiring to feast on the living. The past ate the present, the dragon with a thousand mouths crested the red wave, spoiling the dying hours with its looming shadow and stifling breath.

"There is no twilight on the moon, no mist or rain," Kees offered now, "no hail or snow, no life."

I had become Robinson, Kees' marooned and silent noncommittal last man alone and adrift in the crowded smoky city made of asphalt and cement. The poet spoke my unspoken horror as I patrolled the desert isle and no longer scanned the blurred horizon for the sail or spar of a ship of rescue.

You have forgotten yellow lights of San Francisco coming on,
The bridges choked with cars, and islands in the fog.
Or have forgotten why you left or why you came to where you are,
Or by what roads and passages,
Or what it was, if anything, that you were hoping for.

A day later, out of a tragic toxic spring sky--like the governor's last-minute call to San Quentin just when all hope is gone and the lethal green tablet is about to be dropped into the chamber--came the federal communication, the reprieve, the turning point--

It was the afternoon of the morning a Chinese mom-and-pop grocery store across the 99 in West Fresno was robbed and Glad and I found the Changs, a couple in their 70's who'd been born in Shanghai, lying together beside a blood-spattered antique print of Confucius.

I'd stepped back, watching Foster lean over the victims, his kit set down beside him on the floor, when the Changs started changing.

Their features began to alter, their deceased faces stretching and growing younger, now becoming Ellen and me at 30, our doubles, our doomed other selves from the opposite side of the world.

I recalled Kubrick's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," where each giant pod grows a matching zombie to take the person's place when he falls asleep.

And one day in a field I saw
A swarm of frogs, swollen and hideous,
Hundred upon hundreds, sitting on each other,
Huddled together, silent, ominous,
And heard the sound of rushing wind.

Weldon spoke at my side.

I broke away from him and the crowd of technical staff, ran across the street and swallowed three fast tequilas in the farm laborers' dim bodega before I caught my ghost face in the mirror, then staggered out and was sick in the alley, scaring a white opossum from a tipped garbage can.

His rows of needle teeth showed as he hissed, cornered. Just as he started to dart forward and attack my ankle he trembled violently, then collapsed and lay still.

I thought I'd frightened him to death, before I remembered about opossums.

I watched his half-lidded dark eyes and parted mouth, black whiskers, his limp, clawed feet against the littered pavement.

I touched his white hair-like fur gently, the toe of my shoe nudging his stomach, but he didn't wake.

I looked at him sleeping in plain sight on a bed of wilted lettuce leaves, and started up the alley.

As I reached the sidewalk, I glanced back and saw the opossum slowly rouse and stare about, then turn back to the overturned can.

Then I was sitting at my desk, unconcerned at how I'd gotten there, if I'd walked or hailed a cab.

I was remembering the terrified animal that so convincingly played dead--maybe fooling himself before his marvelous resurrection--when Laura slipped the thick manila envelope in front of me on the desktop, humming as she delivered the mail.

"What's this?"

"A present!"

She was gone, her quick high-heeled steps moving down the waxed linoleum beyond the door as I felt a stirring regret.

Laura knew about the Changs. She was smart and alert. Kind. It made her pretty.

She was divorced, with a grown son--why hadn't I ever asked her out?

The pink memo with the federal eagle stamp announced

Summer in Montana

like a college ad aimed at wealthy coeds: "Nine Weeks in Europe," or "Semester in Salzburg."

Big Sky--Natural Wonders--Clean Air--Wildlife--Sports and Recreation

I skimmed the summary of the investigative exchange program, then with trembling hands and careful steps as if I crossed a floor scattered with hand grenades took it to Glad, who'd arrived five minutes ago, raised a hand to his forehead and started to address me with concern, then quietly turned away.

He glanced at the top page and immediately cleared his desk, brushing papers and heavy folders to the floor, drawing up a chair for me to work beside him.

By four o'clock we had applications in with recommendations, citations, and Captain Travers' signature. We gift-wrapped a bottle of chardonnay for Laura.

Difficult to recall an emotion that is dead,
Particularly so among these unbelieved fanfares
And admonitions from a camouflaged sky.

I ignored the opening lines from "The Patient Is Rallying" as I drove home that night and then the next morning raced to work.

Suddenly, like a happy traitor, I had no time for Ellen or Weldon Kees, the gold hands of my watch spun in a blur. For the first week in years there was something to live for, a bright unexpected star had appeared in our sky and shone day and night from the North.

All we had to do was hope, wait, duck, and wear our flak vests as the days started to fly like the blowing pages of a calendar in a 1930s' movie . . . .

Miraculously, the orange cat began to look stronger, chunkier, fresh-eyed and alert. The missing fur was growing back. Someone was feeding him or had trapped him and taken him to a vet.

"I think he's been washed and clipped," I said, pointing in surprise out the open window into the warm April air.

"I think you're right," Glad agreed, "clipped and dipped! Just like us!"

I'd been cutting back on the drinking, but after seeing the refurbished cat I readied myself like an acolyte.

I was cautious as an Indian preparing for a vision quest, used no tobacco or sedatives, sipped bottled spring water, ate three meals, lots of salmon and salad, drank two and then only one tall watered Scotch after work, established a rule prohibiting avoidable wool-gathering, listening to Kees, and excessive, late-night reading.

It was a new experience, a sense of calm, all my thoughts one turquoise compass needle aiming in a single unwavering direction.

I never feared I'd had a false conversion experience and would wake one morning confused and despondent, or doubted Glad and I would be chosen for the program or worried what would happen if our application fell through. My mind had opened like a door in a wall, become a picture frame around the future where I saw myself moving in a golden, legendary light.

The promise of cool breezes and sky as blue as water filled my waking hours and my dreams.

When I went to sleep I sank into a Montana lake, cold, fathomless, and dark. The pool held a spirit, something deep, mysterious, and shining, at the bottom an elusive, flickering, silver fish.

In one recurring scene I cast my line in wide arcs through late afternoon sun, until the rod bent to match the sun's curve.

I played and then lifted a trout of beaten gold from the river's dazzling current, dropping the fish heavily into the glowing straw creel on my hip. I'd give it to the cat, who would live forever.

Just once I had a nightmare.

I'd been reading a book on the Himalayas, a chapter on Everest and an English climber named Wilson lost in the '20s.

I was climbing alone, somewhere in Montana's Mission Range, past black Brueghel pines in the snow as I made my way beyond the tree line, up onto the scarps and into the swirling Chinese mist.

What we have learned is not what we were told.
I watch the snow, feel for the heartbeat that is not there.

I'd had to leave Kees behind in a deep drift, pointing the way for me with a frozen hand.

Farther along there was a whiteout like a white squall and I knew I was going to freeze. I wouldn't make the summit. Not this time.

Then ahead the veil parted.

Wrapped in a starched sheet, unhappy, her face dead-white as Eurydice's in "Black Orpheus," Ellen waited beside an empty throne of ice--

Glad was studying up, learning all he could about Montana and eagerly sharing it with me:

"If you hit a buffalo on the road, you get to take it home and eat it. It's the law.

"No nighttime speed limit.

"Up in White Horse, each year when the salmon swim back? The grizzlies wade in to fish, while the bald eagles grab the salmon from the waterfalls.

"Custer's troops averaged five foot six."

With the Montana prospect shimmering tantalizingly in the air like the promise of a romance, I studied closely the orange cat's continuing metamorphosis.

Admiring his thickening fur and quickened gait, the new purposeful set of his forward-leaning head and shoulders, I began to imagine other animals, creatures that transformed themselves, altered their color and markings to fit a changing season.

What would it feel like to become something else, to sense each hair turn from white to brown or bright gold? To see a new face as you bent to drink from a pebbled creek?

Standing at the window, watching the new cat dip his head, tilting back his ears like an otter as he slipped into his hole, I remembered that in nature there were no straight lines, that each departure began a circle and promised a return.

Real change was interior, a delicate shift and shiver in the balance of the scales. In one pan was the heart, in the other a feather--I remembered the painted mural in Ellen's prized folio of Egyptian art, then the statue of Blind Justice by the courthouse annex.

"Montana," I whispered to myself at odd moments, as if it were a talisman, a word of power inscribed on a mummy's amulet.

The music of the name summoned crystalline, forest-lined streams and lakes and the sawtooth outline of scarps streaked with snow.

"Let's try to maintain a reasonable perspective," Dr. Edwards told me more than once. "It's a transfer to Montana, not to heaven, you've applied for--"

"Watch your back," warned my father, the old platoon leader. "You're not out of the woods yet."

(Just because my fortune had changed and I was no longer drinking and reading to excess, there was no reason to ignore loyal family and long-standing companions.)

On stakeout with Glad, slumped behind the wheel of the black Dodge, I rocked my arm, cast my hand-tied Royal Coachman, whipped the rod back, then cast again, again, three times, into the light, letting the S of orange line float out on the swift, sunlit river as the great trout rose and struck--

"Last night I had the same dream again," Glad confided, "this seven-foot bear like the Cat in the Hat, real skinny, walking on two legs, back and forth, back and forth across the room, stepping on people, smiling to himself. All white. He wasn't mean, just clumsy. It woke me up.

"'Oh give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above--'"

Glad was wired, but his singing was getting better.

On a hot, smoggy May afternoon, Laura came and got me.

"I don't know, Phil," she offered. "Good luck."

"Luck, Phil." Glad raised a fist with an upturned thumb.

I could see Travers' heavy shadow through the frosted glass.

Live or die, I thought as I turned the brass knob, for a moment catching a glimpse of Kees leaning against the corridor wall.

It was the third time I'd seen him.

Gray men in overcoats are ghosts blown past the door.

Travers' desk was empty except for a single folder and the phone.

"Hello, Lieutenant."

The 300-pound captain leaned back in his chair with his chin on his chest, layers of jowl inexpressive, but a smile reflected in the raised brows shaped like quarter moons.

"You're sprung, Phil," he said. "You deserve it and I envy you like hell."

I tried to catch my breath. My hands shook. I wanted to yell, to rush forward and take Travers in my arms and squeeze him, until he was skinny as Glad's tall, happy polar bear.

"When did it go through?"

"Just now," Travers said, tapping the folder on the desk. "From Helena, the state capital."

He looked like St. Peter gesturing toward the Passport. I stared at the ruby Masonic ring on his huge finger. It was official: Glad and I were flying to bluer, more beneficent skies.

For three months we would work out of the Clarksville County sheriff's office, imparting our big-city expertise while studying aberrant criminal behavior in the test-tube setting of wide spaces and sparse population. Our Rocky Mountain counterparts would suffer in Fresno, breathing smog and sweating as they observed new technologies in urban crime control.

The bonus was Jack Blair, whom I'd met in Kansas City. I'd see Jack's wife, Betty, who would make me laugh as she urged me to regale her with the lighter side of a cop's existence.

I'd been so eager to escape the Valley I hadn't even remembered Jack.

"Thanks, Travers."

"Phil, you can thank yourself," Travers said. "You earned it."

"We try to do the job," I said modestly.

"Some better than others, I'm afraid. Your talk with Bob must have done the trick."

"He knows he can't use that headlock--"

"No," Travers said, adjusting his position and nearly tipping forward. "The thing with Shelly Page. Otherwise I wouldn't have okayed the trip."

"Oh. That--"

"Good job! Now don't let Glad feed the bears."

"I won't."

"Best of luck in the Big Sky."

I shook his hand large as a catcher's mitt and hurried to find Glad.


"It's on!"

We smacked palms like triumphant flankers after a touchdown.

Glad twirled a raised finger and danced a bump and grind, singing, "'Let me straddle my old saddle, Let me wander over yonder.'"

As he phoned Barbara, Glad turned to me.

"You know something, Phil?"

"What's that, Bob?"

"I think this is the start of something."

For a moment I waited, but this time Weldon had nothing to say.

Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

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