Monday, September 27, 2010


I saw Cal for the last time when he came into my office a month ago. He was in for the usual problem: poison ivy rash. There wasn’t much I could do for the blisters except give him a cream, but Cal’s a bit squeamish, so I applied it for him. As usual, he defended his outdoor activities.

“When I’m outside, I’m at one with nature.” he said. “I live with nature. It feeds me and I do what it commands.”

“By ‘doing what nature commands,’ I assume you mean walk around without pants on.” I said as I washed the lotion off my hands.

“You didn’t seem to mind in college,” he said, pulling his clothes on.

I felt my face redden. When we were both in pre-med, he had taken me out camping on Cape Cod. We had gone into the woods near Barnstable and I had watched him catch fish with his bare hands, light a fire with sticks, and raise a tent: all practically naked. That night, he told me all about the Cape, its history and legends. As the campfire light reflected off of his perfect chest, he told me about the geology that formed Cape Cod; it was essentially a giant sand bar and nobody knew why it hadn’t washed away into the ocean. Okay, it was a pretty dull story, but he was beautiful, and I was in love with him, and his words cast a spell over me.

Then he sat in poison ivy. The spell broke as he swore like he had Tourette’s and hopped about the fire, scratching like mad. Honestly, I was amazed he had managed it. Cal was the most natural outdoorsman I had ever met, knowing the names and uses of every plant we had seen, yet poison ivy was invisible to him. It was worse than invisible, it was almost magnetic. Over the years, I treated him for exposure dozens of times.

“Have you considered looking where you sit?” I said, handing him a prescription. “It’s not like ivy is all that hard to recognize.”

“I won’t need to any more,” he said, crumpling up the prescription as he stuck it in his pocket. “I’ve got a new plan.”

“Cal,” I said, suppressing a groan, “your plans never go well.”

It was true. A skilled geneticist, his first “plan” was to create a new kind of orchid that grew like kudzu. The new plant did, in fact, grow like the weed, but never blossomed like an orchid. Over the next few years, the plant slowly covered rural Virginia, unnoticed by the authorities, but studied carefully by a terrified Cal. Luckily he was also a skilled chemist and came up with a new plan. He chartered dozens of crop dusters to fly over the state, dropping a herbicide he had created. It worked and nobody every found out what he did.

“This time I’ve been more careful,” he told me. “Aerial spraying is too haphazard. Besides, ivy’s roots are too long. Seriously, they go down for miles! So, I’m using a microbe that eats at the roots.”

“But that would devastate the ecosystem,” I said. Was he crazy enough to do it again?

“Nah, poison ivy doesn’t do anything useful. It just grows everywhere making everyone miserable. They’re like mosquitoes.”

“But lots of animals eat mosquitoes!”

“Yeah, but they don’t have to,” he said, shrugging me off. “They could eat something else.”

“Cal, please don’t do this,” I said, grabbing him by the arm as he turned to leave. “Remember what happened the last time? A third of Virginia still doesn’t have any grass!”

“It’s already done!” he said, smiling. “I applied batches to ivy groups all over the Cape last week. I’m going to go check on how fast the microbes are spreading, but it should be over in a month.”

My stomach dropped. He had already started.

“Don’t worry Joseph,” he said, noticing my distress. “I’ll call you when it’s over. We can go camping again, but you have to go naked.”

He smiled at me, and then he was gone.

Over the next month, he was proven right. There were no reports of missing poison ivy, since nobody kept track of things like that, but I checked the sales of rash creams and ivy-specific herbicides, and they had all dropped precipitously. Within that predicted month, all the poison ivy had disappeared from Cape Cod.

The next day, Cape Cod sank into the ocean.

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