He lights a Chesterfield King and takes a swig from his hip flask. Vices abandoned by most. Even his nickname, Fish, seems misplaced. Who goes by Fish?
His forearms are blue with murky, jailhouse tattoos. His penchant for midnight strolls flies in the face of the city’s soaring crime rates. Fish is what someone more romantic than myself might call a relic from a bygone era. He hands me a warped fishing pole, a three-foot piece of PVC pipe, and an old slop bucket.
“What do you catch down the port at this hour anyway?” I ask him.
“A cold sore from a ten-dollar hustler, once-upon-a-time––if that was your thing,” Fish wheezes, taking another pull off his flask. “Nowadays, a bluefish here-and-there. Eel, mostly.”
Fish has wide, black pupils––eyes starved for light. Unkempt silver muttonchops mask gill-deep scars cut across his cheeks. Despite his nicks and scrapes, there’s an agelessness to the way he carries himself.
Fish raps his flask against the side of a derelict shipping container––the clamor sends a colony of wharf rats scurrying blind past our feet. Fish looks pleased with himself.
It takes me a minute to shake off the creepy crawls. “I read developers bought up half the neighborhood down here. This’ll all be waterfront condos within five years.”
Fish scoffs, “They can build condos from here to high heaven and there’ll never be half the life this place once had.”
“Thousands of units, I read.”
“Don’t confuse life with what passes for living nowadays, Kid.” Fish hops off the end of the pier. Boots hit sand. “And while you’re at it, watch your step,” he warns. “This is the spot––the beach’s only here at low tide.”
I toss him down his gear before I shimmy off the ledge.
“Mind the splinters.”
I almost brain myself across an abandoned rowboat tied to a piling. The pier at our backs obscures the entire city. There are only stars and the hush of waves gently cresting, along with the tide’s glug-glug against the belly of the boat. We could be anywhere. Nowhere.
Fish plunges the length of PVC pipe into the sand. He eases his fishing pole into the makeshift sleeve.
“And now, we wait,” he announces. He pats the base of the slop bucket. “Take a load off.”
“Your rod hasn’t got any line,” I inform him.
“What do you take me for, an idiot?”
I dig my cell phone from my pocket. No bars. Fish stares out past the bay, toward the deep, black sea.
“No reception out here,” I say.
“It’s a prop,” he says.
“The rod. It’s like that phone of yours. People get uneasy with too much nothing stretched out right in front of them. They like to fiddle with shit. Create some illusion of purpose.”
I slide my phone back into my pocket. “Fishing’s got plenty of purpose,” I insist.
“Christ, kid, you wouldn’t wanna fry up anything you catch in these waters––unless you’ve got a death wish. You got a death wish?” he asks.
“No,” I shrug.
“Chances are, I’m all you’ll find skulking out here anyway.”
“So, why’d you invite me night fishing?” I ask him.
“Would you have accepted an invitation to troll around the pier in the dead of night?”
“Sure,” I lied.
Fish hacked between drags of his cigarette. “A romantic stroll by the water? I didn’t wanna give you the wrong idea. Most fishing’s just sitting and waiting anyway.”
“So the props…” I begin, “…are so people don’t get uneasy,” he finishes.
I scan the empty pier, wondering exactly who these passersby Fish is expecting might be, and when he expects them to arrive.
“You ever waltz into a bar, one with no TVs, plant your butt on a stool, order a drink, and just watch the world go by in one of those great big bar mirrors? No book, no cell phone, no nothing?”
“I must have…at one point or another.”
“Most don’t have the stomach for it. Sit there long enough and people start to look at you cross-eyed. Or worse––they’ll try and milk some conversation out of you.”
“You don’t like people much, do you Fish?” I ask.
“Ah,” he waves. “I got no problem with people. Feel bad for them mostly––the way most seem so damn uncomfortable in their own skins. But I suppose everybody gets itchy from time-to-time.”
“I blame the space program, mostly,” says Fish.
“Huh?’ I swipe his flask, hoping the crap he’s talking might click if I ascend to his level of inebriation.
“Well, during the Cold War, it started as one big pissing contest, didn’t it? Once we’d conquered, colonized, and contaminated every inch of space down here, we set our sights upstairs. Thing that boggles me is, since we never managed to content ourselves with all the crapola we’d laid claim to on terra firma, who thought some scavenger hunt for little green men might do the trick?”
“Existential loneliness,” I say.
“Heady for a shipping clerk,” he says. “That’s why I keep you around, Kid. You don’t treat thinking––or dissatisfaction––like some kind of crime.”
Stars wink across the water’s surface. “The sea’s just one big mirror, the way I look at it,” says Fish. “Sure, the waves and tides scramble things a bit––but sometimes reality needs a healthy dose of rearranging.”
Fish takes another hit off the flask. He winks, and passes it my way. “I saw on some show that the ocean’s getting too toxic to sustain life.”
“Shit,” I say. “How long’s it got?”
“You’ve gotta figure the ocean’s got forever; it’s the things that live beneath it whose clock is ticking. I forget what they said. Could take a century. Could be a couple decades. What’s that say about humanity––when it looks in the mirror and the reflection looking back’s all toxic like that?”
“It’s no glowing endorsement,” I shrug.
I pry a piece of shale from the sand. I skip it across the water. The stars ripple in its wake.
“Say, Fish––when’d you become such a tree hugger anyway––sucking down rotgut and tossing butts into the bay?”
“I’m just saying what I heard,” he snaps. “Like most, I didn’t give a flying turd about any of that stuff until it hit home.” He nibbles at the edges of his bushy muttonchops, lost in contemplation. “It keeps me awake at night, lately though––might just be my disdain for nostalgia. The way people wet themselves over something once it’s gone while they could give two craps about the here-and-now.”
A light bulb fizzles in my head. “I get it––the rod without any line. The journey, not the destination––you’re trying to drop some real Zen head-trip voodoo on me tonight, aren’t ya? Think I will take one of those smokes after all.”
“Huh?” He tosses me the pack. “I haven’t exactly been straight with you, Kid. The real reason I brought you to the ass-end of town is I need you to take care of something. On the DL.”
I knew there had to be a catch. There always is.
A sudden gust howls across the bay, foiling my attempt to light a cigarette; Mother Nature’s gentle way of letting me know I should know better. I wriggle the butt back into Fish’s pack and pass it back to him.
“I’ve gotta skip town,” Fish explains. “For a while––a long while, maybe. There’s a slim chance it might be for keeps. But I need you to keep tabs on something in case I ever should swing back this way.”
“Shit, Fish––if I’d have known this was your bon voyage party, I’d have gotten you something.”
He waves me off. The wind dies down and the howling with it. A hoarse cry carries across the water. A barking chorus.
“You hear something?” I ask.
Fish presses a finger to his lips. “Out there,” he gestures toward the sea.
I spy a domed buoy of a thing, luminescent in the darkness. Then, the starlight catches a whole harem of them––blunt, moon-pale snouts protruding from the sludgy, black sea––things that look as if they’ve hatched straight out of the reflection of the stars off the bay.
I edge back toward the dock.
Fish eyes me, sensing my unease. “The pole, kid, it’s not to illustrate some trippy parable. It’s not to catch anything, either. It’s to prevent them from catching you.”
Fear uncoils through my chest like a busted spring. “What the eff, Fish––them? Them who?”
Before my brain can put the brakes on my flight instinct, I’m straddling a pillar like some half-atrophied koala, trying to navigate my way back up on the pier.
“No sudden moves,” warns Fish. “We’re all eagle-eyed and prey drive once instinct kicks in.”
“We? Whaddaya mean we?”
Fish wades out toward the bay. He doesn’t even wince, knee-deep in the frigid water. His advance triggers more barking––increasingly frenetic––with each step he takes.
“You might wanna join me,” he warns. “Just a quick dip. Prove to them you’re no threat.”
I scamper down the pillar. I peel across the receding stretch of sand to try and usher Fish back––back ashore, back to sanity.
“We’ve both been down here in daylight––you’ve gone off the deep end if you think I’d take the plunge when I can’t even see in front of me. What are those––dogs? Sea lions? Radioactive carp out there?”
“Something like that,” smiles Fish. “All I’m saying is, it’ll make getting out of here in one piece a hell of a lot easier if you just listen to me. Smooth the waters, so to speak.”
“We’re getting out of here, all right. Me and you both,” I order him. “Right now.”
Fish peels off a glove and lobs it toward the slop bucket on the shoreline. I hadn’t even noticed he’d been wearing gloves. He empties his pockets. Cigarettes, flask, wallet––all follow into the bucket––shirt, coat, shoes, and then his trousers. The bastard’s naked as his name day and not so much as shivering.
He clenches the pointer of his other glove in his teeth and spits it into the water. His teeth follow suit.
“Your dentures,” I howl. An expensive set, I’d imagine. I’d never have known he wore them.
“I don’t wear dentures,” he gums.
He disappears beneath the surface. I charge after him.
Crazy coot’s gonna get himself killed, I think, freezing in place where the tide meets the sand.
Water bleeds through my boot soles. Ice-cold. Fish’s hand floats limply toward me––just out of reach. I grab hold of it.
It’s just a hand. No arm, no torso, no chain-smoking madman attached. I wince. I lob the hand into the bucket as if it’s an unruly bass. I crouch down and plunge my hands back into the water. Water so cold it bites. I scrub them numb.
“Fish––there’s body parts floating around in there with you!”
“You sound like the prospector from one of those old westerns,” he taunts. “There’s gold in them hills! They don’t make many westerns anymore. Do they, Kid?”
The harem of creatures inch toward the shore––whiskers twitching, pulsating gills gauging the brine on the wind. I edge back. Slowly.
I trip over the slop bucket. It capsizes. Out spills Fish. The hands I’d mistaken for gloves. Sleeves flensed of bone and muscle, spangled with murky, jailhouse tattoos. A gelatinous suit of legs and torso like a pair of discarded fisherman’s waders. His wallet, his cigarettes, et al.
“Fish,” I cry out.
“Kid,” he barks back. “Try and breathe. Never realized what a klutz you are––if I’d known, I’d have gotten somebody else to watch my stuff.”
The creatures are legion now. I can feel the heat of their stares, all eyes trained on me––big, black pupils set against eyes that glisten like stars and pock the barking water. I wrest Fish’s pole from the PVC holder planted in the sand.
I white-knuckle the pole and wield it like the world’s worst designated hitter.
“Shoo!” I squeal.
I channel my best Toshiro Mifune and take a second hack––machinations that fail to slow their advance. I might as well be swatting back the tide––which is well above my ankles at this point––with a Whiffle bat.
Fish’s voice rises above the barking water.
“I lied, Kid,” he confesses. “The second time. About the pole. It won’t protect you from squat. Don’t waste your energy––the way you’re wagging that thing around, you might end up just hurting yourself. I’m sorry.”
I make for the pier. The tide steals away the slop bucket Fish entrusted to me. Even that, I managed to botch.
“Don’t sweat it, Kid. It’s just stuff.” Fish must see the distress scrawled across my face from wherever he is out there. “No shortage of stuff in this world. Funny how much power we let stuff wield over us, when it’s the stories we build around all the shit we horde up over the years that really stay with us. You ask me, people are too hung up on surfaces to ever get to the meat of the matter. Kinda funny, isn’t it?”
Little seems funny to me right now. I can’t tell if the tide’s rising or Fish’s legions are moving in for the kill.
“Memories though, they’re waterproof,” Fish resumes, “maybe if I ever run out someday, you can lend me yours. But right now, you really ought to start paddling,” he says. “You’re halfway in already.”
I wade in to my neck. My lungs seize with the shock of icy water. My heart skips with fear of the moonlight creatures that pock the sea and sky around me.
“Atta boy,” barks Fish.
“I’m scared,” I whimper. “There’s things out there…and it’s damn freezing…and it’s so black I can’t see below the surface.”
“The entire sea’s black to a blind man, Kid––the whole wide world. You’ve gotta find different ways of seeing every once in a while.”
I kick until my toes can no longer touch the sludgy bay floor. Saltwater needles my sinuses. I feel the vastness of water around me, the terror and elation of being unfettered. Not quite a void––there is too much cold and motion and darkness beneath its surface for the sea to qualify as something defined by absence.
I writhe toward the surface, toward the wavering stars trapped up there––beyond where all the breathing happens. The first of them tickles past me. Fish’s herd of broken things shimmer quietly behind puckered, gilled masks.
I fight to steady my breath. I fight the hardwired compulsion to fight against the tide as it drags me into its depths.