I looked away from him—and discovered that Terrible Chester had descended from the roof beams. The cat sat on the top porch step, still staring intently at me.
“But more amazing still,” Ozzie continued, “I’ve seldom known you to indulge in self-deceit.”
“When will I be canonized, sir?”
“Smart-mouthing your elders will forever keep you out of the company of saints.”
“Darn. I was looking forward to having a halo. It would make such a convenient reading lamp.”
“As for self-deceit, most people find it as essential for survival as air. You rarely indulge in it. Yet you insist you came here just to tell me about Wilbur and Danny.”
“Have I been insisting?”
“Not with conviction.”
“Why do you think I came here?” I asked.
“You’ve always mistaken my absolute self-assurance for profound thought,” he said without hesitation, “so when you’re looking for deep insight, you seek an audience with me.”
“You mean all the profound insights you’ve given me over the years were actually shallow?”
“Of course they were, dear Odd. Like you, I’m only human, even if I have eleven fingers.”
He does have eleven, six on his left hand. He says one in ninety thousand babies is born with this affliction. Surgeons routinely amputate the unneeded digit.
For some reason that Ozzie has never shared with me, his parents refused permission for the surgery. He was the fascination of other children: the eleven-fingered boy; eventually, the eleven-fingered fat boy; and then the eleven-fingered fat boy with the withering wit.
“As shallow as my insights might have been,” he said, “they were sincerely offered.”
“That’s some comfort, I guess.”
“Anyway, you came here today with a burning philosophical question that’s troubling you, but it troubles you so much you don’t want to ask, after all.”
“No, that isn’t it,” I said.
I looked at the congealing remains of my lobster omelet. At Terrible Chester. At the lawn. At the small woods so green in the morning sun.
Ozzie’s moon-round face could be smug and loving at the same time. His eyes twinkled with an expectation of being proved right.
At last I said, “You know Ernie and Pooka Ying.”
“The tree in their backyard…”
“The brugmansia. It’s a magnificent specimen.”
“Everything about it is deadly, every root and leaf.”
Ozzie smiled as Buddha would have smiled if Buddha had written mystery novels and had relished exotic methods of murder. He nodded approvingly. “Exquisitely poisonous, yes.”
“Why would nice people like Ernie and Pooka want to grow such a deadly tree?”
“For one thing, because it’s beautiful, especially when it’s in flower.”
“The flowers are toxic, too.”
After popping a final morsel of marmaladed brioche into his mouth and savoring it, Ozzie licked his lips and said, “One of those enormous blooms contains sufficient poison, if properly extracted, to kill perhaps a third of the people in Pico Mundo.”
“It seems reckless, even perverse, to spend so much time and effort nurturing such a deadly thing.”
“Does Ernie Ying strike you as a reckless and perverse man?”
“Just the opposite.”
“Ah, then Pooka must be the monster. Her self-deprecating manner must disguise a heart of the most malevolent intention.”
“Sometimes,” I said, “it seems to me that a friend might not take such pleasure in making fun of me as you do.”
“Dear Odd, if one’s friends do not openly laugh at him, they are not in fact his friends. How else would one learn to avoid saying those things that would elicit laughter from strangers? The mockery of friends is affectionate, and inoculates against foolishness.”
“That sure sounds profound,” I said.
“Medium shallow,” he assured me. “May I educate you, lad?”
“You can try.”
“There’s nothing reckless about growing the brugmansia. Equally poisonous plants are everywhere in Pico Mundo.”
I was dubious. “Everywhere?”
“You’re so busy with the supernatural world that you know too little about the natural.”
“I don’t get much time to go bowling, either.”
“Those flowering oleander hedges all over town? Oleander in Sanskrit means ‘horse killer.’ Every part of the plant is deadly.”
“I like the variety with red flowers.”
“If you burn it, the smoke is poisonous,” Ozzie said. “If bees spend too much time with oleander, the honey will kill you. Azaleas are equally fatal.”
“Everybody plants azaleas.”
“Oleander will kill you quickly. Azaleas, ingested, take a few hours. Vomiting, paralysis, seizures, coma, death. Then there’s savin, henbane, foxglove, jimsonweed…all here in Pico Mundo.”
“And we call her Mother Nature.”
“There’s nothing fatherly about time and what it does to us, either,” Ozzie said.
“But, sir, Ernie and Pooka Ying know the brugmansia is deadly. In fact, its deadliness is why they planted and nurtured it.”
“Think of it as a Zen thing.”
“I would—if I knew what that meant.”
“Ernie and Pooka seek to understand death and to master their fear of it by domesticating it in the form of the brugmansia.”
“That sounds medium shallow.”
“No. That’s actually profound.”
Although I didn’t want the Danish, I picked it up and took a huge bite. I poured coffee into a mug, to have something that I could hold.
I couldn’t sit there any longer doing nothing. I felt that if my hands weren’t busy, I’d start tearing at things.
“Why,” I wondered, “do people tolerate murder?”
“Last time I looked, it was against the law.”
“Simon Makepeace killed once. And they let him out.”
“The law isn’t perfect.”
“You should’ve seen Dr. Jessup’s body.”
“Not necessary. I have a novelist’s imagination.”
As my hands had gotten busy with Danish I didn’t want and with coffee I didn’t drink, Ozzie’s hands had gone still. They were folded on the table in front of him.
“Sir, I often think about all those people, shot….”
He did not ask to whom I was referring. He knew that I meant the forty-one shot at the mall the previous August, the nineteen dead.
I said, “Haven’t watched or read the news in a long time. But people talk about what’s happening in the world, so I hear things.”
“Just remember, the news isn’t life. Reporters have a saying—‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ Violence sells, so violence gets reported.”
“But why does bad news sell so much better than good?”
He sighed and leaned back in his chair, which creaked. “We’re getting close now.”
“Close to what?”
“To the question that brought you here.”
“That burning philosophical thing? No, sir, there isn’t one. I’m just…rambling.”
“Ramble for me, then.”
“What’s wrong with people?”
“Humanity, I mean. What’s wrong with humanity?”
“That was a very short ramble indeed.”