Big Fish

“I thought you said you had competitive pricing.” Man, he wants to argue. Does he think he can get this sailfish stuffed before it rots? It already smells like a cat ate it and threw it back up.

“Fifteen dollars an inch.” It’s a little high, but it’s not crazy. Plus, how does he even know? I doubt he even caught this nasty fish, probably bought it from the boat captain, and the boat captain probably had it from three days ago. “It’s a big fish.” I’ll add that in, maybe that will make him feel better about the price. “You want it done right, don’t you?” I can see his eye twitch—and I’m going to say he don’t care.

“It’ll cost more to stuff it than it did to catch it.” He’s leaning in, getting crazy pig eyes at me.

“But it’ll preserve it forever.” You’d think people would remember this. You think this is easy, what I do? You think you can find this anywhere? “Forever costs money.”

“Forget it, I’ll find somebody on-line. Ever heard of the internet, man?”

The internet? That’s his comeback? Even broke has standards.

I close his cooler with the tip of my shoe. “Man, you go ahead and try.”

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Learning to Fly

He heard his father’s voice, from far away: “No!” He screamed it. But Icarus didn’t listen. Wind rushed around him, strong beneath his arms, and he was flying. The sun was an orange, a peach—some fruit and he would pick it. The wax bit like fire, and the feathers—so many hours of work—dropped from him, not one by one but all at once, like smoke from smothered flames. He fell, then, turning miserably in a wind that would never, now, hold him. Freedom meant risk, his father had said, but he hadn’t understood. We never know what time will bring us, faith or fate or the choices of our own hands. So he fell, the sea beneath him fast approaching, itself lit bright like a flame, red and orange and silver. Icarus turned, a gyroscope, until the water turned light to darkness and quenched the burning blaze.

Bats

There were bats in the attic when she woke up. Her dreams had been filled with their cheeping, filtered through her subconscious mind into a haze of small alarm clocks with tiny, orange-pointed beaks. But when she awoke she could hear the rustling of their wings up there in the rafters, and see the dark shadows moving against the deeper black of the roof itself. She remembered, in her vague, half-awake state, that bat houses sometimes sat empty for years before the bats accepted them, used them, and yet here they were, swirling through the top of her house. Then the realization clicked against the back of her skull: There were bats. In the attic. With her.

A Full Deck of Cards

Afterwards, no one could explain how it had happened. Marion told the police, in a dazed voice, that there wasn’t any explanation, and looked about her, her eyes moving liquidly, helplessly, around the room. Marion, who had smashed the first brick through the first window, who had helped push the machines out into the street, who had screamed at the police when they finally arrived, the hysteria of them all exciting such attention that traffic blocked up for six miles in either direction. That wasn’t Marion, now—Marion who shushed the fat baby in her arms, and said, could she please leave, there were three others at home, and sighed.

Dr. Raley certainly couldn’t remember. When the young man had come in, brandishing his broken sign like a stake, something had come over him, and his only muttered explanation to the police was to say it had been like “a great weight, like something heavy breaking.” The police officer, hardly an imaginative man, had written down the doctor’s words and promptly signed him up for a psychiatric evaluation. “Not violent,” he wrote, “but two jokers and a pair of aces short of a full deck.” And truthfully, that was as much as anyone understood of Dr. Raley. Why the doctor had been seen throwing his own computer into the dumpster, or later, ripping up his files with the relish of a dog at his dinner … “A great weight, like something heavy breaking,” seemed to be not much more than an intellectual’s way of saying “nervous breakdown.” And in his line of work, who could blame him?

Betsy and Ronda, the nurses (twins), didn’t have much to add to the story of how the abortion clinic staff had destroyed their own office. Maybe, they theorized, holding hands and letting their low voices take turns telling the story, it was the heat, the way the air conditioner had broken an hour beforehand, on a day so hot the asphalt had puddled in the parking lot.  It had created so ungodly a stench they had been about to close for the day.  Betsy—Ronda?—remembered the whine of the computers, the rumbling of the generator, just before the old man, the young man, and the woman with the two severe braids had broken the ordinance and come running, screaming, through the clinic’s open door.  All they could say was that there had been the smell of melting asphalt, of electrical fire, of dry lightening, burning up a paper sky.  Officer Carl Kelly, by this time sure he was out of his league, had dutifully recorded Betsy and Ronda Farquar’s words, and below them, noted, “Psych evaluation—not a full deck between them.” Officer Kelly—a good, decent man—was nevertheless the wrong person to investigate the matter, as his imagination only worked up, down, and inside of clichés.

The old man, the presumed instigator, the one on whom they had an actual record in the police station, from his having been arrested for crossing the safe zone before, and that time even wielding his (registered) gun and shouting (much to the delight of local news stations) obscenities—this man, who should have been the easy one to interview, whom Officer Kelly clearly remembered as being all too willing to incriminate himself … Instead of resisting arrest with righteous indignation, or screaming out an Our Father or a Hail Mary, instead of pulling photographs of mutilated fetuses out of his pockets, he had bowed his head, whispered, “I’m really sorry,” and started to cry. Officer Kelly got rid of him even faster than the others, didn’t even bother to add something witty or disparaging in his notes, had scrawled, “Psych,” torn the paper out of his notebook, and sent the man on his way.

The woman wasn’t much help, either. A well-known convert to the pro-life cause after a horrific abortion experience at the age of eighteen, the look on her face was, wrote Officer Kelly, that of a whipped dog. Her severe braids—half-child, half-old woman—had been reduced to a fuzz of straggling, sweaty knots, and she seemed to be hyperventilating. “I can’t believe,” she would start, wheezing, clutching at her chest. Officer Kelly offered her a flimsy cone of cold water, which she proceeded to pour over her head. “All those children,” she finally managed, so Kelly paused between the “y” and the “c” in his hastily decided “psych,” but when she finished, gasping, “God damn it, they’re still”—another labored breath—“alive,” he wrote in the “c” and “h” and pushed her, and the now crumbled paper cup, out his office door.

The young man, the son of the older, seemed the most put-together. He was clutching a picture of a baby in his hand, but his voice was calm and even, and he didn’t shake, or twitch, or wheeze. Officer Kelly started again. What, he wanted to know (and wasn’t it an eminently reasonable question?) had happened. And the young man, Derrick by name, had started out simply enough. He had gone to talk to talk to his father, embarrassed that his old man should be harassing women on their way to obtain a completely legal medical procedure. Somehow they had been reduced to screaming, and the woman had gotten right into his face, but after he took his father’s sign and broke it in half, as soon as it had cracked across his thigh and he saw that innocent baby broken in two … Officer Kelly looked up from his neatly written notes and was appalled to see tears rolling down Derrick’s face. He sniffled loudly and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, smearing snot across his cheek. “It’s just a baby …”

Officer Kelly thought he would give it one last try. “So you all decided to destroy the clinic?”

Derrick looked up, confused. “What? Oh, no. They tried to stop me. Screamed at me not to lose my temper, and who was I to say one way or the other …” Another sniffle. “Can I go home now?”

Kelly sighed, wrote the last words on his pad—“Playing poker with a pinochle deck—psych,” and sent him off.

Later that night, Officer Kelly went home, feeling fine. He and his wife talked about their days and he managed two serving of hamburger helper before the fever came on. He thought about going to bed early, but wanted to see how the abortion clinic event—undoubtedly it would be labeled, somewhat inadequately, a “protest”—came out in the news, so he just poured himself a big glass of orange juice and put on his slippers while he waited. He didn’t last that long. At 10:30 his wife heard the pounding outside and went to the window, and there he was, slippers, bathrobe, glass of juice resting on the sidewalk, the rubber mallet in his left hand and the sign reading “Abortion Kills” being steadied by his right. He was a man of little imagination, but as it turned out, that was all he needed to be.