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Fish Songs by Traci Chee

Fish Songs by Traci Chee

Fiction, Vol. 2.1, March 2008

The day before Jeffrey A. Whetstone turned into a fish, he was a fully functioning, though somewhat inebriated, human being. Twenty-four hours later he was moving slowly along the bottom of the bay, swimming under the green hulls of boats and between empty nets. He was flicking his fins and dodging Ziploc bags and the occasional amoeba of fuel oil, black with a sheen of purple as the dock lights struck it and glanced off into the depths. He wriggled his slim, slick body this way and that, as he had once seen on the Outdoor Living Network, though TV was quickly becoming a slippery concept, sliding out of his grasp before he could turn it over in his little fish brain.

A note about Jeffrey A. Whetstone: Sometime soon, while slurping algae off a pillar at Pier 17, he will remember that he loved, once. He loved like a human, consciously, but he will never love like that again, if he loves at all. He won’t know what to do with his new body, his gleaming scales, the fact that he cannot hear sound these days, just feel it.

Seven hours before Jeff turned into a fish, he was sitting in an apartment belonging to his friend Gabe, where he was slowly emptying the twelve-pack of beer that he had placed on the floor next to him. The apartment was a small, one-bed/one-bath, white-walled box with a kitchen and cable. Since Jeff had moved in, it had become strewn with paper—pages and pages of it crumpled in corners and scotch-taped to the walls. The recycling pile had doubled in size, and no matter how many times Gabe redeemed it for a pocketful of quarters, it continued to grow.

When he got home that afternoon, Gabe jiggled his keys loudly in the lock, which sometimes stuck, before entering. Slinging his bag over his shoulder, he hefted his bike, a slim thing with smooth tires, and shoved it awkwardly through the doorway.

“Pop quiz,” Jeff said from the couch.  “Why are eggs the shape they are?”

The corner of Gabe’s mouth twitched as he leaned the bike against the wall and closed the door. The kitchen stank—probably food in the drain or the dregs of beer in the collection of cans littering the counter. Unbuckling his helmet with one hand, with the other he lobbed a few of them at the cardboard box that served as their recycling bin, missed, and set his messenger bag heavily on the kitchen counter. He sighed.

“Well?” Jeff asked.

“Because their shape makes it more difficult to roll very far and get damaged,” Gabe answered without looking at him. He slipped out of his shoes and placed them by the door, hung up his helmet on the bike’s handlebars.

Jeff wagged a finger at him. “A good guess. But actually they’re shaped like that because they get pushed out of a bird’s ass.”

Gabe struggled with his tie. “No, I’m pretty sure I’m right. The egg won’t go far if it’s oval.”

“Fine. Two points for each of us.”

“Two?”

“One for both of us for getting it right, one for you for knowing random shit about eggs, one for me for thinking up the game. Everybody wins!” He laughed harshly, more of a cough, really.

Gabe crossed his arms. “Discovery Channel? How long have you been watching this?”

“About ten minutes. You just missed a thing on the top ten deadliest sharks. I came in at number six.” He paused.  “You know I can’t resist a countdown.”

“So what’s number one?”

“I dunno. Some brown one that eats chicks who do their laundry in their river.” He frowned at his half-empty beer. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

“How’d the house hunt go?”

Jeff shrugged.  “It’s not about finding a house, Gabriel. It’s about finding a home.”

“Not well, then.”

“They don’t make ’em like they used to. And don’t tell me home is where the heart is, you cheesy Hallmark fuck.”

Gabe sat down on the couch with a sigh. A sheaf of papers wrinkled under him. He shifted, pulling pages from under his ass cheeks.

“What’re you writing?” he asked, glancing at them.

Jeff snatched them away and shoved them under the couch. “The thing about eggs is that they’re a bird’s period. Want a beer?” When Gabe nodded, Jeff handed him a lukewarm can and muted the TV. “You eat scrambled period at Denny’s.”

“Yeah, but if you think about it that way, when you get bacon, milk, and a bowl of fruit, you’re eating the carcass of a pig, boob water, and ovaries.”

“Fuck I could go for some bacon right now.”

Gabe knew that Jeff hadn’t picked up the classifieds or turned on the computer that day. That didn’t matter. What mattered was that it was getting harder and harder, during those rare moments that Jeff was sober, to talk to him.

***

Jeff had slowly been turning into a fish for the better part of two years. It had started with the drinking. Some nights he would drink so much his piss made the bathroom smell like a brewery. When he could, Jeff would start early because some nights, no matter how little he ate or how many bottles he went through, he wouldn’t be able to get drunk.  That’s when you’d notice the dark half-moons under his eyes.

Really, it probably started before the drinking, which had only recently gotten incapacitating. It probably started with his smile. Jeff had a grin like a shark. A shark is a kind of fish, right? He had one of those desperate, hungry grins, the kind you see on carnivores who know it’s only a matter of time before they starve.

Gabe threw a party the summer after they graduated from college. That was a little over two years ago. A few months before Jeff began trying to breathe alcohol. And Jeff showed up after he got off work—they had him close that night, scrubbing the floors with a dirty, shedding mop, so he showed up late—and when Gabe greeted him at the door, he looked fine.

He smiled, normally though wearily, and shook Gabe’s hand. He asked where the booze was, but everyone asked where the booze was, and wandered off in search of a drink.

But later that night, when almost everyone had passed out or gone home, Gabe found Jeff in the backyard, sitting in a rusty beach chair on a lawn that hadn’t been mown in six months, staring up at the sky and tapping his forefinger on the arm of the chair like a metronome.

“I thought you’d left,” Gabe said, stuffing his hands in his pockets.

“Nah.” Tap, tap, tap.

“You going to crash here?”

“Yeah.” Tap. “Maybe.”

“You okay?”

 Tap , tap, tap, tap.  Tap, tap, tap, tap.  “Yeah.”

“Look at me.”

When Jeff turned around, he looked okay. Maybe a little pale, maybe a little green around the gills, as they say, but okay. And then he smiled, and that’s the first time anyone saw it, that shark smile. Everyone who met him after that just assumed Jeff smiled like that, but people like Gabe, who’d known him since high school, knew different.

“I’m fine,” he said.

A note about that night: While Gabe was pouring drinks and the little house was heating up with bodies and loud music and laughter, Jeff realized he smelled like Simple Green. He had never wanted to smell like Simple Green, but that night, he did. Mid-toss in a game of Beer Pong, he caught a whiff of his own body odor—always a strange experience—and realized that he didn’t know how long he would smell like deodorant and household cleaner.

A glimpse into the future: Two years later, Jeff will not smell like Simple Green anymore, but he will come home with the stench of French fries and bleach on him. He will smell like deep fryer and disinfectant, and, having to choose between showering, sleeping, and writing, he will, with timekeeping reliability, always choose writing.

Four months before Jeff turned into a fish, he lost his apartment. First he lost track of rent. Then he lost his keys, and he left one window unlocked so he could break into his own apartment each night when he got home from work. Then he lost his apartment when he landlord slipped an eviction notice under his door, and he moved into Gabe’s closet across town.

His coworkers said to him, “Like Harry Potter?”

And he said, “Sure. Like Harry fucking Potter.”

And they said, “At least you won’t have to deal with the Dursleys.”

And he said, “Christ, you don’t actually read that shit, do you?”

The closet was supposed to be temporary. But Gabe’s closet was big enough for him to throw down his twin mattress, and he lived out of packing boxes converted into sets of drawers, and it was easy enough to turn “temporary” into “indefinitely.”

Gabe didn’t mind. Gabe would have given Jeff a room in the house he will buy with his wife in ten years. Sometimes Gabe would come back to the apartment, and Jeff would be buried in paper. Ever since Jeff moved in, paper had been accumulating in the living room, puddling on the coffee table, then overflowing onto the floor, across the base of the TV and into the bends of the floor.

When Gabe came home that first time, Jeff looked up, baring his teeth, and said, “Paper, paper everywhere and not a drop to drink!” Then he picked up a can and raised it in a toast.

Three weeks before Jeff turned into a fish, Gabe found him sitting in the bathroom, with reams of toilet paper unraveled around him, piling up like snow as he scribbled on the cardboard cores.

“Jeff?”

Jeff didn’t look up. He was wearing boxer shorts and nothing else, shivering. He’d forgotten to turn on the heater. “Form fits content,” he said.

“Does it?”

He drew a line across the tube, his hand shaking.  “It’s nonlinear, see? You can read it in three different circles.”

Gabe crossed his arms and leaned against the doorway.  “Like a venn diagram?”

“A what?”

“It’s a way of looking at relationships between things.”

“No.” Jeff drew a series of dots.

“Yeah, that’s what it is.”

“No, that’s not what this is.”

When he didn’t volunteer further information, Gabe asked, “Did you go to work today?”

“Nope.”

“Did you call in?”

“Yes. Fuck, Gabe, I’m not one of your kids.”

Gabe taught Language Arts at a junior high school a few miles away. He liked it, admired their arrogance and their posturing. Everyone else he knew had lost that strut a long time ago.

“What are you doing?” Gabe asked.

Jeff kept his head bent toward the bare toilet paper roll, sketching sharpie onto it. “Your kids say anything insightful today?” he asked.

“One told me I should have a girlfriend.”

Jeff let out a bark of laughter. “Perceptive little fucker. When’s the last time you got laid?”

Gabe’s face went red and he turned away. “I’m going to the kitchen. Want something?”

“Yeah get me a beer.”

Yanking a can out of a six-pack of Natural Light, Gabe sighed and stuck a glass under the tap, filling it with water.

“What’s that thing that kid said the other day?” Jeff shouted from the bathroom.

Gabe took a few gulps of water before answering. “I hate the government?”

“Ha! No, the other thing.”

“You can never escape the truth?”

“You can never escape the truth!” Gabe heard Jeff laughing, and his laughter echoed off the bathroom walls. “Fuck. You can never escape the truth!”

A note about Jeffrey A. Whetstone: He wrote symphonies. Movements of arias, sonatas, all of them silent, in his head, so only he could hear. Scribbled out, jotted hastily down when the music imagined itself faster than he could follow. When he could he surrounded himself with it, curled himself under it the way some people huddle under dryer-fresh laundry, enveloped himself in reams of notes, bars, rests, keys, shifted into piles that only made sense to him, until the music rose in him like a wave and crashed across the room. A reservoir of unplayed music, stored, tucked away, always unheard.

As far as anyone, including himself, knew, Jeff was only happy in two situations. One, he still had the ability, often but not always, to get foolishly, fun-lovingly drunk. He still knew how to laugh and how to make others laugh, even if it was in a karaoke bar on Monday night while a man named Virgil sang Backstreet Boys songs and swilled appletinis.

Two, when listening to music, which included on CD, computer, in elevators, when he was on hold with an 800-number, and while watching movies. Jeff had been a music major in college, hadn’t dropped out, and had too many loans to pay off too quickly. You can’t do much with a music major so he took whatever shitty fast food jobs he could so he didn’t get too far into debt.

Then the Simple Green and the shark smile.

Then three maxed-out cards and bad credit.

But on afternoons when he had nothing better to do and a few bucks in his pocket, he’d buy a ticket to whatever film had been out longest—emptier theater—and listen. He would sit in the dark, picking at his hangnails until they bled, just listening. He wouldn’t smile. He would be sober. He would be human.

***

Eight hours before Jeff turned into a fish, his girlfriend broke up with him. He didn’t even get off the couch to shout her to the door.

She called him “lazy” and “asshole.”

He called her “bitch-tastic” and “Captain Demando” for lack of more creative epithets.

She said, “Grow up.”

He said, “Fuck off.”

She said the last six months had been a waste of her time.

He said she was a waste of time and then proceeded to ignore her until she left.

She had wanted to make a dramatic exit, but really she just kind of slipped out the door and didn’t begin crying until she ran into Gabe in the hallway.

“What happened, Janine?” he asked when he saw her. He propped his bike against the wall.

“I don’t know how you deal with it,” she said, rubbing the back of her hand across her upper lip.

“With what?”   Gabe asked.

“Him.” She said it so viciously that Gabe cringed. “I’m sorry,” she said.

He tried to smile. “It’s okay.”

“How do you deal with it?”

He shrugged and leaned up against the wall. “I don’t know… You’ve just got to read between the lines with Jeff, I guess.”

“It shouldn’t be that way.” She had gotten off work half an hour early and driven across town because she knew Jeff had had a morning shift. But then she knocked, and knocked, and knocked, until Jeff opened the door and his mouth was hanging slightly open and he looked at her like she was trying to sell him something.

“Hey,” he said, and walked back to the couch.

“The boss let me go early,” Janine said, stepping into the apartment and closing the door behind her.

“Gold star, full marks.”

She frowned, but said in the most light-hearted voice she could muster, “Don’t be such a jackass.”

“Sure.” He didn’t look at her.

“What’s wrong?” She sat down next to him, curled her legs under her and touched him on the arm.

“The Great White is only the third deadliest shark in the world. That’s fucked up.”

“Jeff?”

“The fucked up part is that they give it a name like ‘Great White Shark,’ and maybe he’s got all these aspirations to live up to a name like that. You could probably change the world if your name was ‘Great White Shark.’ But then you’re only the third deadliest? What a blow.”

“Did something happen this morning?” She reached for the remote. Jeff was either intensely focused on the TV or he just didn’t care. Both were possible.

“Nothing,” he said.  “I’m going to change my name to ‘Great White Shark.’ People will say, ‘Nice to meet you, Mister Shark,’ and I’ll say, ‘Call me Great.'” He dipped his hand over the side of the couch and it came back holding a bottle. “Want a beer?”

“No, thanks.” Janine muted the TV. “Can we talk?”

He didn’t look at her. “We can. But we shouldn’t.”

“What’s bothering you?”

“If I said talking was bothering me, would you cut it out?”

She stood. He didn’t. “I don’t understand you sometimes,” she said, crossing her arms.

“What’s not to understand. I want to watch the Top Ten Deadliest Sharks. That seems pretty fucking simple to me.”

“I don’t understand why some days you say you love me and some days you won’t look me in the eye.”

“Maybe it’ll help if I don’t say I love you.”

“Is that true?”

Jeff looked at her then, and looking back at him was like looking at a man etherized and carved open. He said, “Baby, I don’t love you no more.”

Fifteen minutes later, standing across the white-washed hall from Janine, Gabe frowned. “You know that’s not true, right?” he asked.

“Then why would he say it?”

“It’s easier than admitting he does.” He put his hand on her elbow. “You didn’t know him before. He was different. There’s this husk of Jeff walking around pretending to be him, but the old Jeff is still around, somewhere.”

A note about Jeffrey A. Whetstone: He wrote in all of Gabe’s yearbooks, “Without music life would be a mistake.”

Sometimes, when he and Janine were still together, they would spend entire Saturdays in her apartment. It had been winter then, and they’d spend the day in bed, curled under her down comforter, drinking coffee with Baileys and watching TV.

They were watching a movie from Janine’s collection once, something with subtitles, and Janine said, “Are you crying?”

“No.” His eyes were closed. “I was falling asleep. Thanks for waking me up.”

“You can’t sleep through this movie. It’s Ang Lee.”

He rolled onto his side and buried his face in the sheets.  “It’s a kung-fu soap opera.”

“You wouldn’t know romance if it bit you in the face.”

“I’d sucker-punch romance if it bit me in the face.”

Janine was silent after that, watching the movie with furious concentration until Jeff rolled over again, slipped his hand up over her hip bone, and said, “Who am I kidding.   Anything with kung-fu is worth watching.”

She laid her hand over his, but still wouldn’t look at him.

“But this guy. He’s no Bruce Lee. He’s not even a Jackie Chan.”

“He’s Chow Yun Fat.”

“Yeah he is kind of tubby, isn’t he.”

Janine laughed.

A note about Jeffrey A. Whetstone: He got so good at pretending to fall asleep when he started crying that he didn’t realize he was doing it anymore. Sometimes he would fall asleep, and that usually made life easier.

The night they broke up, four hours before he turned into a fish, Jeff was sober, kicking his legs over the side of Pier 17, jutting out into the bay, with nothing but dark water beyond. It smelled like trash, rotting in the shallows, like salt and seaweed. Gabe was sitting next to him, equally sober. “Not tonight,” he said when Jeff offered him a beer. “I’ve got work in the morning.”

“So do I.” Jeff shrugged, staring at the waves. They caught the city lights like glowing, deep-sea lures.

“You’re not getting drunk tonight either,” Gabe pointed out.

“I’m trying.”

“Well good luck.”

“Thanks.” Jeff took another drink. “You know what?”

“What?”

“I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

Gabe looked at him. In the dim light, he could see that the shark smile was gone, and there was only that desperate look to his flat eyes. He said, “I know.”

***

The night before he turned into a fish, Jeff was awake at four in the morning. He looked down at what he’d written, notes scrambling up and down the staves, and what he had heard so perfectly in his head sounded the same as the melody he’d written the night before, the refrain he’d composed last Tuesday, the notes he screamed over the weekend while pissing on a tree in the middle of a deserted park.

He flung the ream of music across the room. It hit the TV and all its leaves fluttered to the ground in a heap. Jeff rubbed the bones around his eyes. His skin was greasy. He took a shower.

Standing there, with the water running over him, striking him in the sternum and running down his chest, he fell asleep. The water ran so fast it rose to his ankles, then his calves. Over the side of the tub and onto the bathroom floor. The apartment filled with water; the couch began to float but the TV was too heavy. Paper rested on the surface like floes of ice.

When Jeff woke, he half-expected to see Noah in the window, sailing by on a trash barge, steering the shallow streets like a gondolier as goats devoured the pile of garbage on which he sat.

Of course, Jeff was still standing, and the water was beginning to run cold. He toweled off and laid himself down in the closet. He stared up into the sleeves of Gabe’s coats and wondered what would have happened if he had slipped. He would have cracked his head on the edge of the tub. He would have bled into the drain. Gabe would have woken three hours later, heard the water running at seven and known something was wrong. He would have checked Jeff’s pulse but Jeff would have been cold already. Gabe would have cradled the naked body and folded his hands and bowed his head and sent out a prayer like a message in an origami bird.

Gabe would have called people. The coroner, or whoever, then Jeff’s parents, and, probably, Janine. She would have made a gasping noise like someone had punched her in the stomach.

Gabe would have worn the black suit with the three buttons, not two, because he would have remembered the time Jeff said the two buttons made him look fat. The funeral would have been small, and the casket would have been closed. Gabe would have known, even if Jeff’s parents didn’t, to throw a party instead of a wake, and people who hadn’t known Jeff had died would have shown up. There would have been a lot of beer, a lot of drinking, and a lot of people passing out afterwards, shirts untucked, skirts askew.

Almost everyone would have forgotten him by morning.

A note about Jeff’s morning: He hadn’t gone to work. He called in sick. He dug out his CD collections, played them on the stereo as loud as the volume would go, until the speakers buzzed and he could feel the bass while lying face-down on the floor. He listened to the most stirring music he could find, hoping that something in him would resonate, and his heartstrings were not so brittle, and his body did not break.

***

Five days before Jeff turned into a fish, he and Gabe were playing the Lord of the Rings drinking game to a TBS showing of The Fellowship of the Ring. The rules were simple: Whenever the One Ring appeared onscreen, or whenever there was mention of the One Ring, you drank.

“He’s saying it, Gabe, he’s saying it.” Jeff took a gulp of the forty in his right hand and belched, reciting, “It says in the common tongue: One Ring to rule them all; One Ring to find them; One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them!” He laughed. “That’s three. Oh shit, there it is again!”

Gabe dutifully chugged half of his beer. The couch beneath his ass was threadbare, sagging, with holes like dotted eighths from when someone flicked cigarette ash over it.

“Howard Shore won an Oscar for this score,” Jeff said.

“You told me.”

“Yeah, but I’m a poet and I’ve got to show it!” He slapped his thigh. “Hey, does it count if they say, ‘Stay tuned for more Fellowship of the Ring ‘ during the commercials?”

“No.”

“Well fuck. Oh wait, there it is again. Drink!”

They took a few gulps, and in the ensuing lull, Gabe asked,”On average, how many hours per day do you spend thinking about music?”

“Thirteen,” Jeff answered promptly. “Give or take. How many times have you masturbated at school?”

“None.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” They drank. “What’s the last thing you wrote?”

Jeff sighed and muted the TV for the commercials. “Synth lead for a symphony in A major. If you had the choice of fucking a good-looking dwarf or a chick with one eye, which would you choose?”

Gabe laughed. “That’s a fucked up question.”

“You bet.”

“Do I love her?”

“No. You don’t get off that easy.”

“Good-looking dwarf. Why don’t you play your music anymore?”

Jeff looked at him out of the corners of his eyes. “We should make a rule banning dumbass questions.” He looked away again.

“We haven’t yet.”

“Fine.”

“Well?”

“Because it sounds like shit.”

The commercials ended. Neither of them moved to unmute the TV.

“How do you know if you don’t play it?”

“Because I hear it in my head. It all sounds like shit.” He sighed. “One Ring. Drink. Okay, two questions: What would you be if you weren’t human and how come you don’t keep your nose out of my fucking business?”

“Can I be an inanimate object?”

“Yeah.”

“Can I be a philosophical concept?”

“No.”

“I’d be a book, probably.”

“Geek.”

“Yeah. And because I make the rules in this house and the rules say I can put my nose wherever the fuck I want.”

Jeff unmuted the TV as the One Ring fell onto Frodo’s finger. They both drank. “Fair enough,” he said. “I motion to make a rule banning dumbass questions.”

“Veto.”

“Fuck you.”

Gabe chuckled. He ran his fingers along the edge of the couch and took another drink before he asked, “Why does it sound like shit?”

Jeff shrugged.  “I don’t know.”

“Rules of the game,” Gabe reminded him.

“I don’t fucking know, alright? I don’t know. I don’t know I don’t know. Why do you care so much anyway? You’re tone-deaf.”

“You’re just so unhappy these days.”

“Yeah. Well. That’s life.”

Gabe looked over at him. “No, it’s not.”

Jeff pointed to the TV. “Drink,” he said.

***

Three hours before he turned into a fish, Jeff was on the bottom of a rowboat kissing a woman whose name he would not have remembered the next morning, even if he had still been human. The floor rolled beneath him. No, that was a woman, and he was kissing her in sloppy, open-mouthed kisses. She was drunk—he could smell it when he came up for air—but he was not. He had her pinned to the bow with his body, awkwardly leaning into her while he braced his feet under the middle seat. The night was on his back, cold and slightly damp, coating him with a chill that coaxed goosebumps to the surface of his bare arms and neck. He wondered if he could see the stars.

He grabbed the woman around the waist, felt her abdomen tense up at his touch, and rolled. The rowboat tipped, letting a sliver of water over the edge, before Jeff was on his back, holding the woman on top of him. She laughed, positioning herself between his legs, and lowered her mouth over his. He raised his head at the last second so her lips closed over his jugular, and around the rim of her ear, he could see the sky.

No stars, not that night—just ambient light drifting up in clouds, making the sky mauve, not black, not even dark.

The water was under him now, icy, seeping into the seat of his jeans and the edge of his T-shirt, and though he was losing feeling in his fingers and toes, he could feel the rowboat rocking every time the woman on top of him shifted.

She bit him, sunk her teeth into his earlobe.

“Ow.” Jeff took her by the shoulders and held her at arm’s length. “Fuck. What?”

In the dock light, she had yellow skin and slimy lips. She looked at him hungrily and clutched at his shirt with her fingers. “What?” she said.

“Look, Tyson, I don’t want to be eaten tonight.”

“I do.” She laughed.

Jeff flung his full weight against the side of the rowboat and dunked them both into the bay. The woman screamed, then gurgled as saltwater flushed down her throat. She floundered back to the surface, wiped the water out of her eyes and said, licking her lips, “Come and get me while I’m still wet.”

She began breast-stroking towards him, but he ducked beneath the surface. The dock light, distorted, made spiderwebs on his skin. Jeff looked up. He was cocooned by sheets of water, comforters that pillowed around his body. His mouth opened and closed, soundlessly. He began to sink, watching the surface fade from sight.

He wondered how long he had been underwater. Maybe three minutes, but that was too long, and as he thought this he took a breath and the water tore through his mouth and out behind his ears.

Breathing underwater became painless after an hour, and he could touch the edges of his new gills without feeling the sting of open wounds.

He felt awkward and heavy, there with his feet in the mud, waving his arms to keep from drifting as scales sprouted over his skin like armor. His legs fused together. His palms lengthened into paddles, slowly—it took maybe two hours but it was getting hard to keep track of time.

He lost his fingers, his opposable thumbs. They fell off, one by one, painlessly and without complaint.

The water was quiet. He listened, but he couldn’t find a note, couldn’t find a melody in it, though he could swear one was there.

***

Four hours before Jeff turned into a fish, he said, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

Gabe said, “I know.”

“Janine and I broke up.” He kicked a can into the water. It landed with a flat metallic sound and bobbed on the surface.

“I saw her leave.”

Hand poised on the silver tab of his next beer, Jeff paused. “Was she crying?” he asked. He popped the can open.

“Yeah.”

“Shit.” He put the can to his lips, then set it on the splintering planking beside him. “Shit,” he said.

Gabe nodded. He tipped Jeff’s beer into the bay with his index finger. The liquid made a gulping sound as it left the small mouth of the can. “Hey,” he said. Jeff didn’t say anything, just stared out across the water. “What’d you say to her?”

For a moment, he thought Jeff would change the subject, say, “You know that part in The Matrix where they take out power to the entire city? We should do that.” But instead he said, “I told her I didn’t love her.”

“Is that true?”

“No.”

“You should call her.”

Jeff shrugged, popped the seal on another can, and said, “You know what I should do?   Find a fucking party. Someone’s got to be doing something tonight.”

Gabe sighed so heavily Jeff could feel it on his shoulders. He didn’t look up when Gabe stood and said, “I’m going home. You should come with me.”

A note about Jeffrey A. Whetstone: He was alone. He was inexplicably, terribly alone, and he didn’t know why. Maybe he had been alone his entire life, and only now did he realize it. He wanted to say something, anything, to bridge the gulf opening between them. But he didn’t.

***

At dawn the next day, Jeff was near the surface, trying to breathe. He flung himself up out of the water for a few brief moments just to strain his nonexistent ears for the roar of ocean, the clatter of traffic or the blaring of horns, the pulse of a helicopter’s rotors, or even the scream of a gull. But when he left the water, his lungs shrank, withered, and he landed flat-smack in the bay again, after hearing nothing.

His brain hadn’t yet figured out how to translate vibration into sound. He wanted to say, “Beethoven,” but he could only form the buh syllable with his fish mouth.

He wondered what Gabe was doing. Gabe would have woken up by now, realized that he hadn’t come home. He would be worried. He would speak to Janine on something called a phone.

He wondered if he could send them a message. If he still knew how to write, and if he could find a Gatorade bottle somewhere near shore, and a scrap of paper, and something to write with, he might write something profound, something that would assure them he was still alive, and maybe he could find his way up the sewer pipes to them.

The message would be carried to the beach by the tide, picked up by a beach comber, who would read the address and deliver like a pizza boy.

Jeff missed pizza, but had no appetite for it anymore. He didn’t think he could write anymore either, even if he had the paper to do it with. He missed paper, but now it made him think of the little flakes at the top of goldfish tanks, and it made him hungry.

He spent days starving on algae and being fed saltine crumbs from tourists on the pier, their blurred faces only circles of flesh against the sky. At first he tried speaking to them, but he couldn’t hear himself, so he didn’t know if he was speaking at all, or just making fish sounds.

Swimming wearily toward the pier where he’d last been human—he remembered its location for about three days before he forgot it—he saw Gabe and Janine standing there, or he thought it was them; he couldn’t be sure. But the woman was on her knees clutching the edge of the dock with her fingers. She looked like she was screaming. She looked beautiful. The man was rubbing circles into her back—smooth, rhythmic circles.

Jeff leapt out of the water. He choked, but there was sky, and they were clear, and it was them. It had to be them. The man looked up, but too slowly, and saw only the ripples where Jeff had landed on his side.

They stayed there all day, and he stayed with them. The woman stopped screaming eventually, and she hung her legs over the side of the dock and looked at the water. Jeff swum below her.

She said something to the man. He could see her mouth move, make human sounds. She pointed at Jeff.

The man looked at him then. The corner of the man’s mouth twitched. They stared at each other for a long time before the man said something back to the woman.

She nodded.

He nodded.

Jeff nodded, though they couldn’t see him, and the three of them stayed there until the night came and he felt weak from hunger, and the humans stood, and with last glances into the water, left the dock.

***

Months after Jeff turned into a fish, he’d forgotten the taste of Chinese take-out but he remembered that he used to like it. He thought of Philly cheesesteaks and meatball subs. He thought of fish and chips and felt like a cannibal, but he hadn’t eaten anything all day.

Then, as mysteriously as he had turned into a fish, he got the music back.

It began with the waves. He was floating listlessly on his side with one eye toward the sky, bobbing up and down as the waves washed toward shore, sweeping over him and carrying him up up, then down again. This rhythm he’d forgotten. This beat of footsteps sending shivers down the struts of the pier and into the water, sending ripples across the surface to the edges of his fins. He flipped upright.

He could feel the waves crashing against the beach. Against far-off shores oceans away and the feet of cliffs as they stood by the sea. He could feel the surf pounding—bam, bam, bam, bam.

Buh, buh, buh, buh.

Fishing lines dropping like notes, sinking smoothly into the water. Diving birds in the delta, making the reeds quiver. Kids skipping rocks upriver. Plink plink plink—triplets over the surface—while the current hummed over wet stones. Feet and ankles dipping into the shallows, changing the timing, making the melody swerve around skin.

Jeff laughed. He’d never tried leaving the bay before… Fuck, did he leave it now! He had to move! He was fast! He was faster than a speeding locomotive, or at least he felt like it as he left the slow currents behind, skimming through them, dipping in and out of them like a bow singing over strings, with the water on his scales and vibrations in his wake—zip! God he was fast! He was a virtuoso in the water, quickfast like silver.

The current spit him into open ocean and when he came out he was still laughing. He hadn’t thought he could still laugh, but there he was, chasing his tail and laughing. He rolled over as the tide pulled him beachward, then rocked upright as the tide pushed him seaward. This rhythm.

He leapt out of the water and he choked on the taste of air but when he fell back in he made a sound, and the sound reverberated across the sea.

***

He wanted to write it down, but he’d forgotten how. Synth lead for a symphony in A major. He didn’t remember synths or symphonies. He wanted to have someone else hear it, to play the lines approaching breakpoint, dodging surfers who complicated his key signatures, to have someone standing on the beach listening, to have her smile. She would drop tears onto the sand. The hush sound of them being absorbed by earth.

He wanted to hold her hand again, and he didn’t know who she was, but he could feel her hands in his, ten articulated fingers drumming on the backs of his palms. He wanted to hear her voice, imperfect, throaty, each word encapsulating him like a bubble before bursting and setting him free. If he could have spoken he would have told her he was sorry.

He missed speech. He missed sound and the plucking of notes on frets, harmonics, and the strumming of strings. He wished he could walk, and see his footsteps on wet sand, and if he could talk he would sit with his elbows on his knees, facing the ocean, and someone would say, “You okay?”

And he would be looking at the crests of waves catching sunlight, and he’d say, “Yeah.”

Someone would say, “Look at me.”

And he would turn, and he would smile and say, “If you had to fuck only one person for the rest of your life, but she was this half-breed mutant, would you want her to be fish on top or fish on bottom?”

“Bottom.”

“But then she’s got no vagina.”

“But she’s got a face and hands. And a voice. Why, would you want her to be fish on top?”

And he’d look down at his fingers. And he’d say, “No.”

Jeff looked toward the beach, kept his little head half-in and half-out of the water so he could breathe. He imagined sitting there, with the sand getting into his pants. He imagined having pants. And then, slowly, he ducked beneath the surface again, and the pianissimo of water through his gills, and the diminuendo of sun into sea, and rumbling basso profondo in the depths.

All the Stones Thrown by Daniel Ditty

Telling the Sampo by Kevin Catalano

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