Plight of the Puffer Fish

DollsPlight of the Puffer Fish

by Jason Arias

Carlos discovered a half-eaten salami sandwich almost falling out of his grandmother’s closet, just inside the sliding hollow-core door. Despite the blue and red lines that had combined to form an impenetrable purple seal, the once-hoagie had nonetheless gone the green of abandon inside its stay-fresh baggie. It had created its own lush biosphere in there.

The discovery of the sandwich in her closet had come after finding a box of rancid raisins peeking from under the sofa in the living room. There was a carelessly rewrapped Hershey’s bar crawling with ants, sticking out from under the sink cabinetry in the main bathroom, and a partial jar of olives standing upright in the soap dish of the master shower with two drab green manzanillas bobbing dumbly in a murky fluid alongside three fading red pimentos.

Drab green. Drag queen. Coincidence?

Between the mattress and the box spring of Carlos’ grandmother’s bed, a hardened stick of pepperoni jerky was jutting out like the withering tip of some horrible bedtime unmentionable tied in a tiny balloon knot. To be fair, I think I was just getting a little punchy from the sensory overload. It was the smells, and the imagery, and the ghosts of the newly dead mixing with the remnants of the long forgotten.

I don’t deal well with the whole death and dying thing, even in a clean environment, but especially not in a place where compostables seemed to spill from every crevasse. Even with the delicately applied swipe of Vicks VapoRub under my nose the smell of Carlos’ grandmother’s home had almost floored me. It was a leftovers depository of lost souls, a food cemetery of sorts. There seemed to be an inexhaustible amount of once-edibles to be found at Abuela’s house.

I couldn’t fathom how Carlos had gone in dry, Vicks-less. My man. My hero. My God, is that a Pop Tart?

Carlos placed his palms on the thighs of his fading blue jeans and eased himself into a seated position on the foot of what was once Abuela’s bed. The bed that had most recently become her launching point into the afterlife. The mattress’ springs and Carlos sighed together under his weight. There was the sound of stale tortilla chips bending into a break somewhere below him. Above the bed hung a crucified Jesus. They were looking at the floor, Carlos and Jesus, in solidarity.

“This is where they found her,” Carlos said patting the quilt he sat on.

“Oh,” I said and turned and opened the white music box with gold trim on Abuela’s dresser.

Before the lid was fully extended two dangly turquoise earrings fell out onto the floor with a handful of cheese balls. The tiny ballerina inside the music box pirouetted in place, kicking more cheese balls onto the floor with the fine bend in her knee. The balls bounced softly onto the brown carpet and then just laid there, surrounded by their dusty orange shadows.

“She loved those,” Carlos said looking down at the orange spheres.

“Was she stockpiling or something? Just in case every 7- Eleven in the world suddenly closed their doors?” I asked, only half joking. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone to Abuela’s. I don’t do well with this. I have a horrible sense of humor. I have overtly acute olfactory circuitry.

Carlos sighed again, but the bedsprings beneath him stayed silent. They added to the deeper, stranger silence of the food stench, and the greasy cover-up silence of the Vicks. I could hear a dull drumming thud from somewhere under Carlos, and the tinny rendition of Greensleeves playing behind me from the music box where I pictured the tiny ballerina still spinning. I focused on the tune and not the scent. I required distraction. I needed redirection.

“I think I should have double dipped,” I said pointing at my Vicks-stache and trying my best faux sympathy smile.

A gentle ha-ha too soon? Bad timing? I don’t do well with death and dying.

The sporadic thuds continued. The cheese balls kept falling. I don’t do well with rotting stench. My fingertips took in the synthetics of my red dress—the new dress I had purchased just before this trip—my fingers searching for comfort somewhere in its fabrics. Carlos’ feet dangled above the floor the way children sit—kicking out sporadically, and falling back against the box spring, then kicking out again like bored moments spent badly.

What would Carlos’ abuela think if she were still alive? Would she be none-the-wiser? Would she point out the things her grandson hadn’t yet spoken about? Like the fact my high heels are at least four sizes bigger than his work boots. That alone may not have been enough to raise his suspicions at this point, but Carlos wasn’t an idiot. He would eventually put the pieces together. His abuela would have seen it right out the hatch. Wouldn’t she? She would have outted me sure as shit. Or maybe…would she have had mercy?

After all, she lived in this.

Maybe she could have thought of me as the drab green olive to her grandson’s faded pimento, both of us floating through this jar of suspended life. But what did that even mean? The fumes were getting to me. Even me. Drab green. Green Queen: the feminine G.I. Joe action hero with extra attachments.

“My abuela has a food habit,” Carlos said stroking the edges of the folded multi-patterned quilt he sat on. I imagined the mixing colors of the quilt hiding every conceivable kind of condiment. Carlos had said ‘has’ instead of ‘had’ about his grandmother’s habit. I wondered why people talked as if the recently dead were still alive. Do we just forget, or not know how to believe?

I think Carlos had mentioned his grandmother’s food habits on our third date, and had only elaborated with the follow-up byline, “My abuela stashes food.”

He’d said with a slightly tinged accent, “Growing up she would tell us of how her abuelo had fallen in his home, alone, and broken his hip and starved to death before he was found by anybody.”

Carlos had confided the origins of Abuela’s habit to me amongst a shared plate of nachos, mutually picked over, at Don Jaunito’s, a little hole-in-the-wall just outside of the city. I just didn’t realize the extent of that habit. Some explanations need scratch and smell attachments.

Every time he’d picked up his beer at that Don Jaunito’s I was taken by his well-preserved hands. I made a point not to reach for a nacho at the same time as him to avoid the contrast of my much larger hands. I knew the healthy look of his hands were on account of his career and probably a health supply of lotion. I knew their size had to do with his genetic heritage. I knew my giant hands were something else. I wasn’t sure how I’d get around to explaining that to him.

Carlos was an IT guy that wore work boots. He was a short, soft spoken, Mexican with a consistent five o’clock shadow and a sway in his step. He shot guns on the weekends, but he also cried at the end of movies if they were sad enough. I’d seen it. By only the third date I knew he was special. I’d dated a handful of other guys before Carlos, most met online. They were my experiments gone horribly awry. By the end of the first date most of them ended up staring at me with their heads tilted to the side, mouths agape, like they’d just noticed Adam with his apple or something. But that only happened if there was something resembling a real date.

Some of those dates were just long drives to the middle of nowhere followed by some very awkward moments, and some very strange requests. I wondered if these experiences were typical for women, or just women like me.

Then I met Carlos and he was not your typical anything. And there was a second date. And I know, I know, honesty is the best policy, but I’m relatively new to this game. And it had taken so long to get to this point. And maybe if Carlos could get to know what’s real in me he could see beyond the rest of me.

The honesty would come; it would just be a little late.

“I’m sorry about the smell,” Carlos said still drumming his heels on his grandmother’s death bed. “She has a food habit,” he repeated.

I was beginning to understand the full extent of that habit, or maybe only the partial extent; at the least the after-smell of Abuela’s disorder.

“Oh, that’s okay,” I said playing with the flowing red of my dress between my thumb and forefinger and looking worriedly down at him. “We all have our little surprises.”

***

It was late into the first day of our first weekend away together, technically our fifth date, when Carlos received the call on his cell phone. The large touch screen illuminated the side of his face in the cabin we’d rented. His five o’clock shadow prompted a pang of insecurity within me. I gently caressed the edges of my jawbone with the back of my hand. I checked my cheek for continued freshness.

Still smooth.

I batted my lashes in thankfulness. I smiled a whimsical exhale and Carlos smiled sideways at me, watching secretively, thinking I didn’t notice. Men need to think they have secrets. I can understand that. But then Carlos stopped watching me and all of his facial features fell.

I touched the other side of my jawline understanding the importance of positional lighting, but that didn’t seem to be it. There was something else going on.

After a number of ‘yes’s and ‘I-understand’s, and more ‘yes’s, a ‘no’, and a ‘no-not-that-I-know-of’, Carlos pulled the phone away from his face. He pushed the screen with his finger. The light it made slowly faded.

“I’m sorry Sammy,” he said, and even though I still preferred Samantha, I loved it that he’d already shortened me to a nickname. “We will have to leave. I’m sorry. I need to get you back to Portland, and come back to Eureka alone.”

“Aren’t we only a hundred miles from Eureka now?”

“I have to get you back to Portland,” he said again.

“But with the turnaround that’s, like, ten times the distance.”

“My abuela died,” Carlos said, in one breath, his soft voice cracking, shoulders slumping, chin tucking; his manly mannerisms slinking with his phone into his back pocket.

“Oh, baby,” I said stepping in to bridge the distance across the cabin’s wooden planks, taking his hands for the first time in mine. I’d made a point to avoid handholding before this, but this felt right, and sometimes you just need to be swept up in the moment and deal with the tissues later. And standing there, face to face with Carlos (though my face noticeable taller) was like a movie I’d imagined, but never dreamed could be a reality, and I closed my eyes and squeezed his hands. He squeezed mine back and his fingers felt so soft and real and tiny in mine.

“I’m going with you,” I said, “if you’ll have me.” This was the line I’d always wanted to use.

“I’ll have you,” Carlos said, taking my hands in his and bringing them around to my backside while pulling me closer, his gaze rising to meet mine, his fingers exploring the curvature of my waistline and buttocks and hips. “I shall have you,” he reasserted, but not overly aggressive, just self-assured. Just take charge and make this thing right, Carlos. “I shall have you,” he said it soulfully, with all of his spirit, like Rhett Butler from Gone With the Wind with a Spanish accent. And I know what you’re thinking, but trust me when I say this is how it happened. I don’t read harlequin. I only know what I know of romance, and this was not the dark cars pulled to the sides of roads to nowhere. This was something different. It happened just like how I’m explaining it. And that’s exactly where I stopped it, because it was very important we started out early, and that we were well rested, and didn’t see each other naked now, or ever, or, okay, I hadn’t figured that part out quite yet.

***

I let go of the suitable fabrics of my red dress inside Abuela’s house and told Carlos, “I need to go outside, I think.” The smell, the bed, the death, the cheese balls, you know me by now; I wasn’t good with it. Any of it. I didn’t have to say this, because he could sense it. He nodded understandingly. But I didn’t move.

Instead I watched him make a loose fist with one hand and graze the knuckles of that hand with the palm of his other hand. The hands traded places over and over again. All ten knuckles were palmed, and palmed again. He used his hands like worry beads in the gap between his thighs. I watched his quadriceps flex under his faded blue jeans as his feet arced out into the space between us and back again. They made a dull thud on the box spring. I liked his lap. I told myself I would sit in that lap if his hands weren’t busy there, if his abuela hadn’t died here, if I was sure the tuck I’d hurried with this morning wouldn’t give way or bulge suspiciously at the worst possible moment.

He saw me watching him and his mouth yielded to a smile that was true, and truly pained at the edges. It was the kind of smile that wanted to break at the seams with all the tears it had swallowed backwards over the ages, but didn’t for the sake of politeness.

“You don’t have to be strong for me,” I told them, Carlos and his smile and Jesus above the bed in eternal crucifixion.

“But I am strong,” Carlos said.

And my smile matched his smile; pained.

I bowed my head to my padded chest and closed my eyes and took a deep breath through my nose and was hit with the melding scent of menthol peppered with opened—and hidden—MRE packets, and school science projects gone from bad to worse and oozing out of all of Abuela’s secret caches around the house. I looked around the crumbly bedroom carpet at the bags of jelly beans, and six packs of unopened Handi-Snacks, and boxes of Teddy Grahams that lined the baseboards of her bedroom.

I remembered passing similar emergency-preparedness-snacks on the way in, the way they extended down the hall to the living room and into the kitchen.

I regarded the boxes of juice drinks, and Five-Hour-Energy’s, and pretzel crumbs, and those thin red flat serving sticks that came with the fake cheese in the snack packets, scattered on her nightstand with the stained white doily and digital alarm clock blinking 11:03. I’d meant to leave that room and house and situation, but hadn’t.

I hadn’t known a house could get so humid.

How long had we been there?

My eyes followed the slender lamp stem to the dated floral shade and the bruised purple of the painted accent wall at the head of the bed. I wasn’t good with this, with the excessive food rations, with the bread crumbs, with the death and the dying and the tragic. I could feel myself starting to hyperventilate and lose traction.

But then my eyes found focus on the framed and faded 8 x 10 of an older woman with a young girl on the wall above Abuela’s bed. What I wouldn’t give to be that girl with her grandmother in that picture.

“My abuela,” Carlos said twisting his body to follow my stare.

“She was beautiful,” I said.

“I know, gracias.”

“And the little girl?” I asked walking past the licorice twists and trail mix and breakfast bars sticking out from under the foot of the bed where Carlos sat.

I walked cautiously between the bed and the closet to where something ripe stayed hidden. I placed my left hand on the wall next to the closet door and leaned towards the picture of Carlos’ grandmother kneeling in the soil of a nondescript garden delineated into small raised rows; some sort of scaled down backyard vegetable haven. I wanted a better look, but I was also so fatigued with the charades and the day and the rising heat. My armpits were beginning to work on their own dark ripeness at the sleeves of my dress.

In the photo was a left sided profile of Abuela’s face smiling at a little girl holding a small knobby carrot to the camera. The girl was smiling fully at whoever the person was behind that camera. She loved the person on the other side of the camera. I’d seen the same expression on Carlos’ face towards me. Did he love me?

“Your sister?” I asked. “She’s beautiful.”

“No. That’s Carla.”

“Cousin Carla?”

“If you like,” Carlos said behind me and I could hear the tightness of his previous smile fading in his voice. I could hear the strenuous strain of the clearly coveted.

“I’m sorry,” I started to say thinking I’d treaded over someone’s grave, but then I saw it clearly gazing back at me with that same kindness, those same dimples, the same fineness of the hands that drank beers years later and ate nachos and still looked tiny.

Behind me I heard the faded jeans of Carlos’ thighs shifting up and down on the bed. “Samantha,” he said, “I have to tell you something that you may not be so good with.”

In my head there was a movie playing out in which I walked to the foot of the bed and caressed Carlos’ taped chest and the empty space between his legs and softly said, “I’m good with this,” into the base of his ear.

In my head I stepped back and removed my red dress and held it bunched in front of me while standing in front of him as he sat on his grandmother’s bed. Standing there I pictured myself closing my eyes and stretching my arms straight out from my sides and letting the red dress fall to the brown carpet from my right hand. I pictured the dress landing with the smallest puff of orange dust billowing up from around it. I saw myself simultaneously raising my head and opening my eyes to gaze back at them: Carlos, and Carla, and Jesus, and the small platoon of juice boxes on the nightstand, and the closet, and the floral shade still tilted gaudy and unlit.

But in reality I was still standing at the picture. I was reaching down to the nightstand in front of me and retrieving an unopened juice drink and removing the plastic straw from the side of the box and slowly sliding the plastic off the end of the pointed tip and inserting the straw into the juice drink’s area of designated thinness and bringing the straw to my lips and sucking in all of the juices in one long continuous sip that flooded my mouth and senses with artificial pear and apple deliciousness.

I held the juice in my cheeks. I stared at the girl in the picture.

I could do this.

I could do well with this.

Instead of playing out the movie of me at the foot of the bed, I was frozen in an overstimulation of the events. With a mouthful of pear juice I leaned forward and awkwardly kissed the little girl in the picture. The framing glass was cold against my chin and nose, and my cheeks were filled with nectar, and my lips were as nonexistent as a puffer fish.

I eased back from the wall while keeping eye contact with the photo. I regained my balance. I closed my eyes. I retained the vision.

I could do well with this.

I tasted the sweet pear synthetic sugars and concentrate. I savored the apple honey highlights. I took just one loud swallow of the concoction I’d held in my mouth for what seemed like ages. The swallow sounded like being underwater in a bathtub when somebody is flushing a toilet nearby.

I turned to the foot of the bed and Carlos was still sitting there.

“I have something to tell you too,” I said.

I swallowed.

I’d always tried not to swallow in front of him.

“If this is about the size of your hands, Sammy, I’m good with it. I’m good with your apple too,” he said touching the smoothness of his throat, “if you’re good with this.”

I swallowed while fully facing him. My head held still. My apple bobbed.

I tasted pear again.

***
About the Author

Jason Arias lives in Portland, OR, with his wife and two sons. He enjoys breakfast anytime. Jason is a waffle man and a pancake lover, and regulates his obsession with bacon amiably.

[Editor’s note: Jason is an up and coming writer with great talent and modesty. He has been recently noticed by a few literary magazines, and Blue Skirt Productions is proud to be one of the first to offer his work to the public. – Sally K Lehman]

 

Photo: “Dolls” by slehman

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