Building a Better Possum

I HAVE SEVERAL FRIENDS named Tom. One Tom is concerned that I might be spending too much time alone, reading and writing instead of keeping up with current events. So at least once a day, he leaves short updates at the tone.

“Hey, it’s me again. It turns out that more and more fingers are pointing to the culprit — whom they’re now calling the shooter — being an eccentric loner. That’s what they’re saying now. Talk to you later.”

“Hey. About that shooter. The scientific community is overwhelmingly favoring the eccentric-loner theory. All right. Gotta put the kid to bed. Talk later.”

Eventually, Tom calls when I’m home.

“Hey,” says Tom. “I know you’ve been busy with finding a new place to live, so I thought you might’ve missed something.”

“Thanks, Tom.”

“Today,” says Tom, “CNN, MSNBC and a few others announced that even more and more fingers are pointing toward the Virginia Tech shooter being an eccentric loner. It seems like everything’s kind of leaning that way. I mean, you know, they still have other theories, but almost everybody is keying on the eccentric-loner angle right now.”

“That’s interesting. I was just writing about an eccentric loner.”

“No shit? Which one?”

“Dan Cranbender.”

“Comedian?”

“No, just this kid.”

“Well, I’ll let you get back to that, then,” says Tom. “Oh, and apparently there’s something going on in Iraq.”

ECCENTRIC LONER DAN CRANBENDER and I first spoke at length one cold gray Sunday afternoon while walking along the Illinois Central Railroad tracks. I had lots of friends, but sometimes I just liked to walk alone along the tracks, which ran through the center of town. Sometimes I’d take my dog, but not this time. This time I was just humming, whistling, singing to myself; all bundled up and looking for discarded novelties.

The sky was low. A blizzard had passed without doing much damage; the snow along the tracks had receded into a pleasantly crunchy, patchy, navigable crust.

I heard soft percussion approaching me from behind. I turned around to find Dan Cranbender, this kid from school, walking toward me, tapping at the rails with a homemade walking stick.

Dan was 11, the same age as me. He used to go to South Side School but had transferred across town to Booker T. Washington, a lab school for gifted children. When he was at South Side, Dan was mostly known for not saying much, getting good grades and not caring who did or didn’t pick his or her nose. Dan wasn’t stressed out, like the other quiet kids. He seemed peaceful and reasonable; just unconcerned with friendship. He looked like he knew a wonderful secret that was beyond his ability or interest to explain, so that there was no point in even trying. One more thing: Dan wore the same clothes every day: flannel shirt, dungarees and suspenders. I could see he was wearing the same today, under his parka.

“Hey, Dan.”

“Hey, Dave. What’re you doing out here?”

“I don’t know. What’re you doing?”

“Looking for possum bones.”

We walked south.

We found some empty Dad’s Root Beer bottles, a Red Wheel Restaurant menu and a few possible geodes. I showed Dan my most recent comic book purchase. Dan found it hard to believe that I read Freak Brothers comics but had never tried pot. We found some possum tail bones — “caudal vertebrae” — that Dan said he already had.

“I’m building a possum,” said Dan. “From scratch.”

“The whole thing?” I asked. “Or just the skeleton?”

“Just the skeleton,” said Dan, smiling. “I’ll show you.”

THE CRANBENDER’S HOUSE ON Lynn Street smelled bad on the outside, but on the inside it smelled like good corned beef and cabbage. I met Dan’s soft-spoken family. His older brother, Anthony, was an art student at the university. He’d been tanning cowhides on the Cranbenders’ driveway that afternoon — that’s where the smell came from. Dan’s younger sister, Janet, blushed when I shook her hand, and she went to her room after dinner. His parents, Drs. Jeanine and Milton Cranbender, were well-known professors of agricultural economics who had developed a groundbreaking soybean-breeding technique and were recently semiretired.

Everyone but me was wearing flannel shirts, dungarees and suspenders.

We had some time before dinner would be ready. Dan brought me up to his room and showed me the possum skeleton, which was almost complete and mounted on a Masonite board, with three precisely placed vertical dowels providing stability.

It freaked me out. It looked like it could be a cat. Some of my friends were cats.

“Pretty creepy,” I said, trying to look away. “Should I be worried about you?”

“It’s not like I killed it,” said Dan. “It’s just like building a model. You’re the one who builds model warships and fighter jets. That’s really creepy.”

Dan had a point there.

TOM’S UPDATES CONTINUE. “Hey, man. Me again. CNN, MSNBC and ABC just announced that more and more media organizations are backing off of the term eccentric, because the shooter didn’t have money, and eccentric kind of suggests that he did. You know? Like, Mr. Burns, on The Simpsons, is usually eccentric, but in that episode where he loses all his money, he just becomes a nut. That’s the difference between eccentricity and insanity: the money. Anyway, talk later.”

“Hey. About that shooter I may have mentioned: The scientific news community has now officially abandoned the eccentric-loner theory in favor of the very disturbed young man theory, after some wealthy eccentric loners had complained.”

“Hey, it’s me. Now they’re emphasizing that the shooter wasn’t entirely disturbed, just mentally. So it’s the very mentally disturbed young man theory.”

“Hey. They added clearly — a clearly very mentally disturbed young man. That’s the upshot. More and more fingers are pointing toward that.”

“Hey, man. CNN just updated their theory to clearly very mentally disturbed young man with obvious psychological problems. Oh — and 172 civilians, I think, were blown up in Iraq. The military news community is calling it the work of highly organized insurgents. I’ll let you know when I hear more.”


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