Oogie Tucker’s Mission
by Gary Cuba
Maybe if Oogie Tucker hadn’t been such a big man, the world wouldn’t have ended up in the fix it now finds itself in. I know that’s a crazy notion, to think that one single person could manage to turn everything so topsy-turvy–but I can’t seem to shake it loose.
I frankly wish I’d never met him. But it’s not like I could have avoided him. I had just nestled back into my window seat on the Malagasy Airlines flight out of Johannesburg bound for Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital city and the location of my latest assignment at the American consulate there. Just ahead of the plane door’s closing, a huge, out-of-breath man in a ten-gallon Stetson hat lumbered down the center aisle, lugging a cheap cardboard carry-on case and clutching a bulging briefcase too filled with loose papers to close properly.
He plopped the briefcase down into the aisle seat next to me, and I glanced at the hem of the tropical shirt riding high over his prominent belly as he reached up to cram his carry-on baggage and hat into the overhead storage compartment. The guy must have topped 350 pounds if he weighed an ounce. And the way he was sweating and panting, he looked like a candidate for a free E-Ticket ride on the Heart Attack Mountain Express.
Great, I thought. It’s going to be one of those flights.
He struggled while trying to squeeze his buttocks into his seat before I finally raised the center armrest clear for him; he apparently didn’t realize it could be stowed between the seat backs. I scooted over as far as I could in my own seat to give him the spill-over space he needed. It wasn’t nearly enough.
“Close call,” he said. “Dang near missed it. Oogie Tucker, out of Galveston, Texas, U. S. of A. Put ‘er there.”
He thrust a hammy hand in my direction, and I gave it a light wag. “Brent Worthington, U. S. Foreign Service. Glad to meet you, Mr. Tucker.” I hesitated, then added, “Oogie. That’s an odd first name. Don’t think I’ve ever run into that one before. Nickname, I presume?”
He wiped his brow with a dirty handkerchief and chuckled. “Been called that ever since I was a kid. By just about everyone–my parents, relatives, friends and foes alike.” He leaned over slightly and added in a low voice, “Real name’s Malcolm. Don’t spread that around, though, heh, heh.”
The plane began taxiing for takeoff, and Oogie started to sweat profusely. My nose detected a pungent odor coming from him, which I took to be the smell of fear. It seemed to increase with each drop of perspiration that rolled down his fat forehead. It was clear to me that he hadn’t flown very often before–and he obviously didn’t care much for the idea. I felt a twinge of sympathy for the poor guy, and tried to divert his thoughts with some more idle conversation.
In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t.
“Traveling to Madagascar on business or pleasure, Oogie?”
“Oh, not pleasure, no. I guess you could call it business. Actually, it’s more like a mission.”
“Ah. Missionary work. That’s very nice. What denomination?”
Oogie shook his head nervously as the plane raced down the runway, gathering lift speed. “No, n-no. I ain’t . . . I ain’t a religious man, Mr. Worthington! It’s a . . . a p-p-personal mission. Fact is, I’ve . . . I’ve g-g-got me a butterfly to kill.”
I blinked in confusion. “Come again?”
Oogie waited until the airplane lifted free of the ground before wiping his brow again and continuing. He exhaled deeply and I could sense his entire frame relaxing beside me.
“Don’t like flying,” he said. “Point of fact, don’t like it much at all.”
How amazing it is, I thought, to witness how such a strong, robust man could be instantly turned into a mass of quivering, mindless protoplasm when confronted by his worst fear. What could have motivated him to intentionally subject himself to it? I felt compelled to find out.
“You said something about killing butterflies, Oogie. Maybe I heard that wrong.”
The man paused for a moment, then turned his head toward me. “You know much about science, Mr. Worthington?”
“A little. Mostly confined to things that impact foreign affairs: agricultural technology, weapons, water treatment, energy production–that sort of thing.”
“I’m not a scientist, myself,” Oogie said. “I own me a local chain of dry cleaning stores back in Galveston, to be perfectly honest. Been very successful with it–not to toot my own horn, mind. And that’s without never having more than a high school education. But I’ve always been interested in science. I study it a good bit on the side.”
“You were talking about butterflies, Oogie.” He’d piqued my interest with that mysterious statement, and I wasn’t going to let him meander off the subject so easily.
The big man leaned forward in an attempt to pull his briefcase out from underneath the seat in front of him. But his portly belly was way too much of an obstacle for him to get past. I finally leaned over in my own seat and helped him reclaim it.
“There’s a phenom called the Butterfly Effect,” he said. “Has to do with Chaos Theory.” He riffed through his papers, obviously looking for something in particular.
“Oh, that one. Yes, I’ve heard of it. Something to do with weather, how it’s so incredibly complex, ruled by tiny influences. The common example is how a butterfly flapping its wings in an exotic location could theoretically produce a powerful hurricane on the other side of the globe.”
As soon as I said that, I began free-associating with the various pieces of our conversation to this point: killing butterflies in exotic locations, hurricanes, Chaos Theory, a man from Galveston. I suddenly felt uneasy. Of all the people in the world who could’ve bought the ticket for the seat next to me, why did it have to be a flaming kook?
“Yeah, that’s it, all right,” he said. “And my question for you is this: Why hasn’t anyone done something about that?” Oogie’s bushy eyebrows raised in my direction.
I should have brushed him off at that point and stuck my nose into a magazine for the rest of the flight. I really should have. But there was a feeling of such raw earnestness in his question, for all its naivete. I couldn’t keep myself from replying–even though I knew it was probably a mistake to do so.
“Oogie, that’s just an example used to explain a concept, not a real scientific fact. It’s nothing more than a . . . a figurative illustration.”
“Then why do you see it mentioned in so many science magazines and books? No, I disagree with you, friend. I’ve done me a lot more research into the subject than you have. Maybe more than anybody else in the world.” He snorted once, loudly, for emphasis.
I stared at him in disbelief, feeling a surge of heat rise behind my collar. Frankly, the smug look on his face at that moment irritated me. That, along with his swaggering, bullshitting, supercilious attitude, which seemed to characterize a lot of native Texans I’d run into in the past. Must be something in the water there.
“Look, suppose it were true. How do you propose to kill all the butterflies in Madagascar? You may not realize just how big a place it is. Almost as big as your home state of Texas, in fact. Plus, it’d be illegal, and I’d be duty-bound to try to stop you.”
“Don’t need to kill ’em all,” he said. “Just need to kill one–the one that’s gonna do the damage.” He patted his briefcase. “And I got me a pretty good clue here as to exactly where that rascal will be. And when he’ll be there.”
There were so many things wrong with his surrealistic exposition, I hardly knew where to begin my deconstruction of it.
“But why just butterflies? What about birds, lemurs, lizards, other things? Why wouldn’t they have a similar effect?”
Oogie chuckled. “I’m only interested in hurricanes, Mr. Worthington. I don’t know about your birds and lemurs and other critters. They probably cause other calamities–tornadoes, earthquakes, killer waves, volcanoes, such as like that. Haven’t studied those aspects. I’ll leave that to other folks to do. But butterflies is my prey, and stopping hurricanes is my game–or, I ought to say, the ones that are gonna hit my town and disrupt my livelihood.”
This had passed the point of being surreal; things had moved into some strange, freakish zone of human discourse that I’d never experienced before. I felt like I was shrinking, pressed further into my seat by Oogie’s huge, encroaching form. The ceaseless drone of the aircraft’s engines bombarded my brain, threatening to turn it into mush. I squirmed, suddenly aware of the mingled pheromones of a hundred other passengers that blew into my face from the ventilation nozzle in the overhead panel. Perhaps all those people are as crazy as Oogie, I thought. Perhaps this flight is, in reality, a chartered medical one, delivering everyone onboard to a remote loony bin on Madagascar–including me. I shook my head vigorously and fought to rescue my sanity. I’m not sure I was completely successful.
“But . . . but how on Earth are you going to identify your target?” I sputtered. “I’ll bet there must be a million butterflies per square mile in Madagascar.”
“Time and location, sir. Exact time, exact location.”
Oogie smiled in a particularly self-satisfied way, whipped a single sheet of paper out of his briefcase in a grand flourish, and showed it to me. All I could see on it were columns of chicken-scratched, penciled numbers, with a couple of them circled at the very bottom. The figures blurred together. It made no sense to me at all.
“You’ve got an answer for everything, haven’t you?”
“I hope so, Mr. Worthington. It took me a lot of years of study to get this far. Look, between you, me and the fence post, I didn’t much feature making this trip. But somebody’s got to take charge of things. Might as well be me as the next man.”
Defeated at last, I sighed. “Commendable thought, Oogie. I suppose, in the final analysis, every man has to follow his calling. No matter how bizarre it may seem to others. Let me just ask you one last question: How do you plan on dealing with your quarry? Climbing up a tree and spraying it with a can of insecticide? I have to tell you, that image seems a bit ludicrous to me.”
Oogie paused for a few moments before answering, apparently considering the issue carefully. “I reckon I could hire me a local native boy or something, to help me out. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”
“Fine. Just don’t break any local laws. Don’t make me have to bail you out of a jam. I mean it.”
And at that point, I finally did find the wherewithal and the good sense to stick my nose into a magazine until we landed.
I managed to put Oogie out of my mind until two weeks later, when I received a call from a hospital administrator in Toamasina, the main Malagasy seaport a couple of hundred kilometers to the northeast of the capital. They wanted to alert us of a U.S. citizen on a tourist visa who was in their care, one Malcolm E. Tucker. He’d suffered a broken leg, concussion and possible internal injuries from an “unspecified accident.”
Oh, no, I thought. Oogie and his cockamamie butterfly hunt. I rearranged my schedule for the day and drove over to Toamasina to see if I could help him out, maybe assist him in arranging for medical transportation back to the U.S.
I entered the hospital ward and saw his hulking body lying on a bed at the far end of the room, a mosquito net suspended over it. His left leg was in a cast that reached clear up to his hip. Bandages encircled his skull. As I neared the bed, I saw that his eyes were closed.
“Oogie? Hello again, big guy,” I said. “Let me guess: Fell out of a tree, did we?”
Oogie stirred and turned his head to look at me. “Couldn’t find me no local boys to help. But I had that sucker in my sights, so . . . well, I reckon it was a stupid thing for me to try and do. Bein’s how I ain’t quite as athletic as I used to be.”
“Where’d it happen?”
“At the nexus, the place I researched. Near to Ambato . . . Abatodraz . . . Ambozak . . .”
“Yeah, that’s it. Wacky names they got around these parts, can’t never get ’em right. Anyways, that’s where the nexus was at the appointed time, the Strange Attractor. The exact spot where little things turn into big things.”
I reached down and picked up his medical chart, looking to see what kind of pain medication they had him on. I figured it had to be some mighty potent stuff, whatever it was. But then again, I reminded myself, Oogie didn’t need any drugs to think and say crazy things.
“I assume you’ve had enough of this weirdness by now,” I said. “We’ll help arrange for a return flight home as soon as possible. Do you have any family members back Stateside that I can contact for you?”
“No, not a living soul. But . . . Mr. Worthington?”
I leaned closer to him.
“I really don’t want to return to Galveston yet. Really don’t. I missed my target. Had him in point-blank range, and then I fell. He got away, just fluttered merrily away. No, Galveston’s not the place I want to be for a while. Not until the storm passes.”
At that moment I heard a rumbling sound, like a freight train passing right outside the window. Things began to shake violently, and I clung to the iron bed frame in panic. Glass shattered somewhere close by. The shuddering and roaring seemed to last for an gut-wrenching eternity, but inside my more rational brain centers I knew it couldn’t have been much longer than a minute. After it passed, I found myself on my knees by the side of Oogie’s bed, my suit covered with plaster dust.
“Jesus,” I said.
“Jeee-zus!” Oogie echoed.
Other tremors came on the heels of the first one. There was nothing more I could do for Oogie; the hospital staff and emergency personnel quickly evacuated all the patients to a safer spot outdoors. My drive back to the consulate was as harrowing an experience as I’ve ever endured, and there were a few moments when I thought I wasn’t going to make it.
Within the span of the two months since that initial event occurred, I suspect everyone on the planet has taken a cram course in geology. Big earthquakes occurring every couple of hours at random spots around the globe can cause a person to get very interested in that field. We’d gotten complacent about our old Mother Earth. Yes, she grumbled and complained occasionally, always had done. But to suddenly begin to reorient herself underneath her own spin axis?
I listened to scientists talk at length about angular momentum, changing center of gravity, moments of inertia, other physical forces and laws that I didn’t fully understand. Some of those experts even mentioned Chaos Theory. A few said there was some geologic evidence of the same thing happening in the distant past. They called it “true polar wander.”
While I didn’t glom onto the finer, more esoteric points, I did get what was happening in broad principle. The heaviest part of any spinning object wants to move to its waist, its equator. For reasons unknown to anyone, a huge mass of dense, iron-rich magma had risen from deep inside the Earth and collected in a spot under the South Atlantic Ocean, near the coastline of Antarctica. And, like a finger on a butcher’s scale, it had tipped a balance that no one knew had been so precariously maintained for so many millions of years.
The Earth’s axis of spin relative to the sun wouldn’t change; that was stable owing to gyroscopic effects. But the globe began to flip underneath it, carried by its new center of gravity as it realigned itself along the plane of the equator.
The most informed scientific predictions said that it’d only take a few years for the new equator to establish itself. There was no time to plan, to react properly. But maybe that wasn’t such bad news after all; everyone presumed that the earthquakes would stop once that finally happened. Siberia, Canada, Greenland and the Scandinavian countries would be the winners, ending up at or near the tropics. And Antarctica, of course. The United States would end up relatively unscathed, just turned upside down geographically as it got translated across the north polar axis before ending up in its final location–though significantly higher in latitude than it had previously been.
The human species would undoubtedly survive, but not without horrific social and economic turmoil. I knew I’d be kept mighty busy in the coming years, helping to hold things together. Nevertheless, it made me glad I didn’t own any retirement property in Florida. No other way to say it: That place was destined to be resettled by the Inuits. Alaska, now, was a different story–it would surely become one of the hottest real estate markets out there.
I’ve recently seen some global maps of the projected continental reconfiguration. North America, turned upside down? The Isthmus of Panama serving as a land bridge over the North Pole? The maps are almost too unreal-looking to believe.
Although I know in my head that Oogie had nothing to do with any of this, in my heart I still wonder. If a tiny butterfly could truly cause a hurricane by flapping its wings in just the right spot on the globe at just the right time–a supposed “nexus” where “little becomes big”–who’s to say what a 350-pound man falling out of a tree at that same spot could accomplish?
I might be willing to forget all about Oogie Tucker and his wacked-out theories, were it not for the fact that–on top of everything else–a Category Five hurricane just tore the living daylights out of Galveston, Texas.
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