(You have to picture that last part with flashing lights and large, sweeping hand gestures.)
As I said, this was a while back, and Thomas and I were both still in high school. Now, when I was a sophomore, the pain-in-the-butt biology project was leaf-collecting in the fall and wildflower-collecting in the spring. I was a fall student. We had regular, designated leaf-collecting days and we couldn’t go home until we filled our list. I retain lovely memories of my 16th birthday, spent running around in the rain trying to reach vines in high places. Clearly, this was something that helped me grow as a student and a human being.
By the time Tom’s turn came around they’d decided to go with a different pain-in-the-butt project. This may or may not have had something to do with the spring wildflowers frequently refusing to bloom on anything like the time frame of the carefully scheduled lesson plans. No, for Tom’s turn they did ‘Biology-In-a-Box.’ They had a huge list of hundreds of Biology related items—“monocot leaf,” “bird feather,” “diatomaceous earth”—and Tom’s job was to find one hundred of the items on the list and put them in a box. Yet another grow-as-a-person assignment (excuse me, I meant “student-active learning project”).
Of course, actually finding one hundred of the list’s items (which included many of the spitefully non-blooming wildflowers and impossible to find leaves) was an ordeal which required many man-hours and whole-family participatory fun. (“Look, Tom! A mushroom! Do you have a mushroom yet? Is there anything on the list which requires a mushroom? What about a rotting log?”)
Students were not actually supposed to purchase items for their boxes—that would be discriminatory against poor students and bad—but as I have it on good authority that students were turning in boxes with walnuts and dried sage and grapefruits it’s safe to say that that rule was honored only in principle. As in, ‘I’ve been working on this box for months and I still need 25 more items and there’s two weeks left and if I don’t actually start making some progress on this thing I will go insane.’ That principle. (“Look, Tom! A Portabello mushroom! Do you have a mushroom yet?”)
So, as I said, time was running out, everyone was getting a little stressed and a little desperate, and correspondingly less selective and more creative (or possibly more demented). All of which goes to explain (for some value of the word ‘explain’) the moment when my dad was driving home from work, saw a road-killed possum, and thought, Ah-ha!
You see, one of the items on the list was ‘a skull.’ No, really. (And I think it’s fair to say, at this juncture, that if my father had crossed the line into psychosis he was well and truly pushed. We’re probably all just lucky no one had an ‘Ah-ha!’ moment looking at a younger sibling.) You may think you can see where this is going now, but believe me, imagination cannot do justice to the events that followed.
The passage of time not proving to diminish his newly formed resolve, my father returned home and placed an ax and a plastic bag in the trunk of his car. On his next trip home from work, he pulled over to the side of the road, took his ax, looked around for traffic, and proceeded to chop the head off of the rotting road-kill. (Did I mention this story is not for the weak of stomach? No? *Ahem.* This story is not for the weak of stomach.)
Actually, I should say he proceeded to attempt to chop the head off of the rotting, road-killed possum. As he explained it later ‘the neck was kind of leathery and rubbery. It wouldn’t come off.’ With increasing vigor he continued to whack at the dead animal, tension mounting. He was very aware of passing cars slowing down… and then speeding up; driving away very, very quickly from the crazy man with the axe dismembering road-kill.
Eventually, however, he succeeded in acquiring one possum skull, still inside one possum head. He put it in the bag, threw it in the trunk, and brought it merrily home. This was the point when the rest of the family was introduced into the venture. (“Look, Tom! A rotting possum head! Do you have a rotting possum head yet?”)
The possum head was foul. The bag did nothing. As I recall (the memory has grown blessedly hazy on the details) maggots were involved. The stench seemed to permeate everything. My mother very intelligently decreed that the thing was not coming anywhere near her house.
Now, if it had just been me, I would have had no idea how to go about removing a skull from the inside of a head. Color me a white-bread product of suburbia. But, apparently, the solution to that particular problem is to boil the flesh off of it (weak stomach people, have you left the building yet?). Once again, my mother very intelligently decreed that the thing was not coming anywhere near her house or her pots and pans, but she did dig out an old camping cook set that was collecting dust in the garage and deemed it disposable. Then, in a scene reminiscent of ritual sacrifice ceremonies (and also cookouts), we dug a pit in the farthest corner of the backyard, started a coal fire, and set the pot on to boil. (Yum!)
If possible, this made the stench even worse. It seemed to rise up on the steam like a tangible presence, spread through the yard, and sink into the pores of anybody unfortunate enough to be caught in its path. I don’t recall precisely how, but I was nominated for fire-watching duty. At that point, a freak fire, engulfing everything, might have been a mercy.
Although I was learning a lot about biology.
Anyway, time passed, my olfactory receptors mercifully took their own lives, nothing caught on fire, and eventually we had a possum skull amid a sea of some indescribably unpleasant matter that I will refer to in the most liberal of interpretations as ‘soup.’ (When Mom served spaghetti that night seven-year-old Matt piped up, “But I thought we were having possum for dinner?” I harbor serious suspicions that we warped him forever that night.)
The skull itself, when finally separated from the unmentionable horror it floated in and boiled a few more times in increasingly clean water (I use ‘clean’ only in the relative sense), was actually pretty neat. Improbably tiny, maybe three inches long at the outside, it was hard to picture it belonging to an animal the size of a possum. (My sources inform me—for about the billionth time during this writing—that the North AmToman version of this rodent-like marsupial is more properly referred to as an ‘opossum.’ My sources can go soak themselves in possum water—I’m telling this story and I’ll call it whatever I like.)
Anyway, the skull was tiny and perfect, the sharp little teeth were fascinating, and there was definitely an element of ‘nobody else has their very own road-killed possum head skull thing.’ This made it all the more distressing when the students turned in their ‘Biology-In-a-Box’ projects (cue sounds of family members snapping out of their psychoses) and Tom’s box was never heard from again. All traces of our hard work were gone; we were left with only memories, and a really disturbing story to tell at dinner parties.
Oh, and I guess Tom got an ‘A’ or something. I do know he escaped the 10th-grade, and went on to bigger and more pain-in-the-butt school projects, although none of them ever quite measured up to the Box’s sheer capacity for generating ludicrously farcical scenes. Oh, and I know one more thing:
Somewhere out there is a high school biology teacher cackling over an ill-gotten possum skull.