Fiction: “Breathing Beneath the Water” by Adam Caldwell

1.

The degree hung on the wall over a piano that Ted’s son Billy no longer played.  Sage had bought Billy an electric guitar.  An amp.  Signed him up for summer indie rock camp.  They were learning the Undertones’ Teenage Kicks.  So now Billy went around the apartment singing “are teenage dreams so hard to beat” and Ted tried not to answer.

It was a B.S. in Biology.  With Honors was typed next to a gold, embossed sticker.  It was super official: there was Latin he couldn’t read.  

Ted now worked at a science lab called Ancestral Organs.  The nightshift janitor.

His day job was at the box factory; he worked the glue gun, a step up from cellophaning pallets of boxed radio-controlled cars.   

He wondered whether his degree had given him an edge over the other two applicants:

the man with Jeffrey Dahmer’s 1982 mug shot mustache;

the woman with the scrotal purse.  

Had his past interest in the sciences made him more fit to wield a mop in a lab after the scientists working as real deal scientists went home to their families?  It hadn’t come up during the interview.  But his past experience had.  His qualifications.    

“The scientists – what we here like to refer to as our Somatic Programmers – are clean in the lab.  Obsessively so.  But they sometimes let off steam etcetera in the bathroom.  Is that OK?”

“I had a summer job at a children’s zoo during college.  There was a depressed Rhinoceros with irritable bowel next to the African wild dogs.  I cleaned the veldt.”

“Sounds perfect.  Did you enjoy the work?”

“Yes sir.  Glad to have it.”  

“But fuck!”  Ted later told a friend.  

“I knew it would end.  It was temporary.  I was getting a degree.  And a piece of that weekly 250 bucks would be spent on beer for moonlit naked swimming in a suburban man-made pond with Laura the lifeguard who liked that I could describe mitosis.  

A new school year would start.  August’s slow-burn.  Full leaved trees.  New girls in sometimes windblown skirts.  Fucking windrows of women in windblown skirts.”

2.

Ted hated Sage.  Sage’s “smug stupid” face.   Sage’s “smug stupid” face smiling in front of Ted’s most precious possession: an autographed still of Billy Joel with a personally penned message: “For Ted, chase your dreams!”  

In the still from the 1989 We Didn’t Start the Fire video, “Billy fucking Joel!” was earnestly pounding out imaginary drums at a vintage kitchen table in front of a blown-up and fire engulfed photo of Nguyen Van Lem’s execution.  “Fucking raw, man,” is what Ted had told BJ during their brief meeting.  And then, when he was too excited to think of anything else to say: “dude, man, dude… just the fucking rawest.”      

When Sage first stopped in front of the photo, Ted had steeled himself to defend the virtues of BJ’s song craft.  But then Sage had simply said: “Bacon?  Reagan?  Palestine?” while wrinkling his brow in grotesque disbelief: “you should check out Fugazi.  Your son loves them.”

Ted said nothing, but started having a “fierce fucking nightmare, man.”  A nightmare that left his sheets soaked in sweat.  Sweat that Ted worried smelled like terrified ladybugs.  

The looped sequence: Sage’s “smug stupid” face, hooded in a hound’s-tooth skirt, stared into Ted’s estranged wife’s vagina.  Ted’s estranged wife’s vagina – in hissing baritone – said “Ted didn’t start the fire.”  Sage replied in a sultry mezzo-soprano: “chubby-checker, psycho” . . . “chubby-checker, psycho” while his head began to swell.  

Ted hated this dream.  But it was nothing in comparison to the reality of (Sage’s “smug stupid” face) + (Billy looking up into it with boundless adoration), which sometimes =’ed thoughts of exhaust-pipe-asphyxiation to Lita Ford’s 1988 ballad If I Close My Eyes Forever.

3.

After the BJ fiasco, Ted bought a copy of Fugazi’s Red Medicine and joined a poetry class that met at a Barnes and Noble Starbucks.  He finished one poem.

Hasselhoff Hamburger

What is wrong with my love?

It runs beneath my skin like knuckles,

but refuses to beat me into something useful.

It only beats me.   

When things get bad, I Google

“Hasselhoff Hamburger,”

and think:

this man provides for his family better than I do.  

And think:

Fuck.   

When Ted had finished reading it aloud at the last meeting he attended, the eavesdropping barista purged his steam wand and said: “Fuck is all wrong man, say egad!”

4.

Joy had made the call on Halloween 2003.  

“I’m pregnant.”

Ted would later tell a friend: “My fucking neck went numb man.  Shit, man, shit.  Did you know your neck could go numb?  Like fall asleep or something?  I didn’t.  I went all boneless you know.  Like a nematode.

And then the rattle of an old projector started up near the back of my head.  Like my brain had shut down and was noisily trying to get going again you know.”

The projector played a clip of a single shivering sperm swimming in space towards an ember-colored egg.  Something Ted had seen long ago on a field trip to the Fort Wayne, Indiana Health and Sciences Center.  The two blind things met, weightless in the starless lonely of someone’s insides.  

A soundtrack of waves toothlessly gumming a sandy shore.  

The worm quivered into the egg.  

A stentorian voice: “The gill arches form; a body begins to bloom.”

It made perfect sense.  

“But fuck,” Ted said.  “How the hell had it happened to me, you know?  That’s what I was thinking.”  

Something Ted had known the basic mechanics of since the talk with his father after a birthday sleepover viewing of 1984’s Enemy Mind suddenly seemed like sorcery.  

“Joy started to cry, man.  All lachrymose.  You know, like lactating sadness from her eyes.  It’s a word dude.  And I totally started spacing out man.  Who knows where I went?  

All I know is wherever I was, a bearded Dennis Quaid was helping a pregnant Louis Gosset Jr. deliver his son Zammis on Fyrine IV.  

Man I had some growing up to do.”  

5.

Billy arrived in June, womb-rumpled and screaming.  

Ted called his Mom: “He looks like a mucus covered walnut with black chimpanzee hair but smells something like caramelized clouds.  I love him, Mom.  I just met him and I love him.”

When Ted held Billy for the first time, he said to Joy:

“My heart feels like a flower blooming in collapsed time.  Seriously.”

And then quietly to Billy: “I’ve sort of been a fuck up so far, so sorry about that.  Seriously little dude.  My love for you will be a resurrecting radiation.”

When they got home from the hospital, Ted downloaded Joe Harnell’s Opening Theme 1. The Incredible Hulk: Main Title – Version #1 from 1978’s The Incredible Hulk television series.  A few nights later, while Joy and Billy were asleep, Ted used an old cassette deck to record a slightly modified opening narrative over the music:

“New father, Ted Banks.  Doctor?  Not really.  Scientist?  Sort of.  Searching for a way to tap into the hidden strengths that all humans have.  Then an accidental overdose of a father’s love for his newborn son interacts with his unique but so far not so stellar body chemistry.  And now, when Ted Banks needs to be totally awesome for the family he loves, a startling metamorphosis occurs.  The creature is driven by love.”

But no metamorphosis occurred.  

For the first few months after Billy was born, it seemed like nothing could stand in the way of Ted’s desire to build a “stellar fucking life” for the two people he loved.    

He blasted the homemade “Hulkspiration” over and over again in the car – a silver 1986 Buick Skylark with drooping roof fabric – going to and coming back from job interview after job interview.  But the rejections piled up and the job he took waiting tables at an Irish pub remained their main source of income.

He started staying up late, watching his son breath, putting his hand over his son’s small tummy.    

He even prayed sometimes.

“Christ shit’s fucked.  So totally fucked.  Please let it not be so fucked.  Just for this little guy.  This little guy right here.  No gnashing of the teeth or stuff like that for this little guy who doesn’t even have any fucking teeth to gnash yet.  No lonely bird on the housetop.  No living like an owl of the waste places.  Shall none of that be done you know.  Please Lord.  I am ready for a new lesson: humility in the face of undeserved fortune.  That would be so fucking awesome of you so on high.  In thy name.  Thank you.”

Ted eventually flung the recording out of the car window, slightly embarrassed.  Confused why the strongest feeling he had ever experienced in his life had had absolutely zero impact on his ability to make a home for his family.    

In its place, Ted started listening to The Lonely Man Theme in D minor that accompanied The Incredible Hulk’s credits.

“You know, the song that plays when Bruce has inevitably failed to keep his green alter ego from fucking everything up again, and sheepishly thumbs a ride to a new town.”       

6.

 But then the seemingly impossible had happened: Ted found a job in a lab assisting a controversial biology professor tackle limitations on the regenerative power of planarians.  Joy baked Ted a cake.  Billy – with more than a little encouragement – put his hands and face into it. They took pictures with the cell phone they shared and sent them to everyone they knew, caption: “My Dad’s Got A Bitching New Science Job.”  

Which was barely true, but who cared: it came with health insurance.  Ted and Joy would no longer have to play Google MD for the person they loved more than anything in the world.         

The work was simple.  

The Nobel Prize winning scientist Thomas Hunt Morgan had established that a planarian cut into more than 279 pieces was no longer capable of regenerating.  

The professor’s thesis: Morgan was wrong; the planarian’s regenerative ceiling could be exceeded through pharmacological manipulation.

Ted’s job for the entire six years:

  • using a microscope and scalpel to slice up the chemically treated planarians beyond their established regenerative ceiling;
  • placing the pieces in an incubator at 24 degrees Celsius;
  • checking if the pieces had regenerated.      

They never did.  

The project lost its funding.  

And six years of dissecting tiny regenerating worms with gloomy white eye-spots was insufficient experience to land Ted another lab job.  

Ted, Joy and Billy were soon uninsured and broke.  Again.    

The fights started, but since Billy was six, Ted and Joy spelled most things out:

“I’d love to go get F-U-C-K-I-N-G I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M.  Go to the F-U-C-K-I-N-G-L-A-K-E.  Eat F-U-C-K-I-N-G-P-I-Z-Z-A.  But we have no F-U-C-K-I-N-G-M-O-N-E-Y.”

Joy was usually more to the point: “Because you’re a F-U-C-K.”  

7.

F-U-C-K-I-N-G Sage had appeared just after Ted lost his job.  

The way Sage told it, his father had been a no account “goon bag wino” for the better part of Sage’s childhood.  A fact that Sage never tired of bringing up.  Something about “my life wasn’t always this good – man – so keep your chin up.  Miracles happen every day man.  Bootstraps.  Create your own future.  The power of positive thinking.”  

On his born-again-night, Sage’s old man had been baptizing his liver with a second box of wine while working on his 1971 Plymouth Hemi Cuda.  The scissor jack broke and the car fell on top of him, slightly crushing his skull.

“I felt like a bag of INSERT! pre-born-again-expletive-here-ha-ha potato chips under there you guys.  My head went all crunchy.  Hand to God. ”

Sage’s father retold the story every Christmas Eve at the megachurch Yoked Together.   

“A group of guys playing the roller hockey in front of the house came to my rescue.  Praise Jesus.  Hallelujah.  Just don’t ask me how to spell that last one.     

And with holy-spirit-inspired-adrenaline – NO DOUBT! – as your teenagers might say.  You know what?  Those fine men were able to lift the car up off me while the holy spirit’s wings pumped enough oxygen into my Cuda-compressed lungs to keep my heart going so that I could crawl out to safety.

And then, with INSERT! pre-born-again-expletive-here-ha-ha cerebrospinal fluid dripping from my blanking ears, I had what you might call a Vulcan mind meld with the Lord.  When I looked at the box of wine on the garage floor, I saw an image of the Last Supper superimposed on the box’s label.

And the Lord said unto me: ship my body and blood in a box.”

Two weeks out of the hospital Sage’s father founded Sanitary Sacraments LLP, and made a fortune, which now belonged to Sage, selling patented boxes of prepackaged, hermetically sealed communion wafers and juice cups to churches across all fifty states.  

Ted hadn’t been so lucky.  The Lord had not descended; there had been no divine entrepreneurial intervention.  But Joy caught a break when Sage happened to be behind her at the grocery store on Thanksgiving eve 2010 when her credit card was declined and five bags of groceries were already sitting in her cart.  

“Miss, may I be of assistance?”

8.

They moved out shortly after the New Year.      

No divorce.  Just a break.  

Joy said: “We’re bent together.  Maybe we’ll come unbent apart.”

Ted stood on the limestone stoop.  Freezing.  

As he watched them drive away in a brand new Tesla Model X, his son’s head cheerfully bopping in the booster seat to some Bulgarian folk music Sage had bought him, Ted said aloud: “But I love you.”

And he watched the words, warm steamy clouds at first, quickly blend into the cold and disappear.  

9.

In his sleep that first night without them, Ted dreamt that he was sitting naked in the living room, shivering a set of subcutaneous wings from his back.  

“The wings had fucking teeth,” Ted told a co-worker at the box factory the next morning while carefully glue-gunning together a cardboard standee of the DeLorean from Back to the Future: Redux.   

“Fucking teeth, man.  Black.  About the size of a baby’s.  And they were covered in something transparent and gooey.  I rubbed the wings together and played music.  Like a fucking cricket man.  Like a centauricket.  And not just any music.  It was Bach’s cello Suite No. 2 in D minor.  And how the fuck do I know that Lou?  The only classical music I have in my record collection is Billy Joel’s 2001 Fantasies & Delusions, Op. 1-10.  Fucking moving shit by the way.  I played it for Billy while he was in the womb.  Fuck Baby Mozart.    

But anyway, when I first met Joy we went to a double feature at this artsy drive-in theatre out in a cornfield near Champaign, Illinois.  It was called the Ivory Screen or something.  Had the bones of a real-deal Midwestern mastodon – tusks and all – woven into a green and pink neon sign.    

The movies were The Beast Within – at seventeen, this kid sheds his skin and seizes himself into a cicada, but a human-sized cicada who is psychically linked to his father, a creepy humanoid cicada that raped the kid’s mom – and Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly – where this woman goes nuts after a horny spider god tries to get romantic with her through some sweaty wallpaper.

They played the Bach Cello Suite in the Bergman movie.  Joy cried.  

Like Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap says: ‘D minor is the saddest of all keys.’

Joy said it was the most beautiful thing she had ever heard.  I bought her a copy of it for our first anniversary.”

Lou – finishing off a standee with a cardboard flux capacitor – said: “Doesn’t Stephen King base most of his books on his nightmares?  You should write it up man.  Could be huge.”  

And so Ted made a stab at outlining a screenplay.  

“Who fucking knows man, maybe it’ll be a hit movie” he told Lou the next day.

10.

Three years later, Ted’s unfinished screenplay mostly gathered dust bunnies beneath his bed.  The binder contained a single page:  

THE CENTAURICKET (© 1/3/11)

By Ted Banks

This dad misses his family so much he grows cricket wings and sings for them to come back (something pretty like Bach).  Guy’s name is Ted.  But is not just me.  Turns out wings help guy to be a pretty cool dad.  Other kids’ dads are super jealous.  Fin.       

Beneath the typed summary were short handwritten notes, one for every New Year’s resolution to finish the story and “turn my fucking life around, you know man, just fucking do it”:

12/31/11: “Revisiting story idea.  Fuck yea Ted.  Idea still seems pretty awesome a year later.  Good sign.  Not your typical Hollywood bullshit.  Keep working on this.  You really have something.  Do it for Billy.  Do it for the future of your family.  Otherwise, family at the mercy of those who do not love them.  Not good.”  

12/31/12: “Took this out again.  Still seems pretty fucking good.  But definitely needs fleshing out.  Keep it up man.  Think.  Remember J.K. Rowling.  But without the fucking wizards man.  Because, you know: inventing believable teenage British orphaned wizards is not your thing.  And that’s OK man.  Don’t feel bad.  Make your own magic.  Fuck yea.  Awesome.  Never say die.”

12/31/13: “Fuck this.”

11.

Billy’s tenth birthday was fast approaching.  Sage had already told Ted his shortlist of presents for Billy:

  1. two tickets to Neutral Milk Hotel’s sold-out show at the Riviera and text messaged directions to a late night DIY show featuring Jeff Mangum, Todd Rittman and Rey Washam;
  2. a ’73 Hiwatt amplifier “used by Robert Fripp on Brian Eno’s Another Green World then later on King Crimson’s Red, and then later by Duane Dennison on The Jesus Lizard’s Goat”;
  3. a Travis Bean TB500 guitar – “same type used by Steve Albini”;
  4. and three reservations at Alinea: Sage, Joy, Billy.  

Ted’s touché: “a fucking charter boat, man.  The Coho Salmon will be running through Lake Michigan just in time for Billy’s birthday.  When he was five we used to play Bassin’s Black Bass for hours on Super Nintendo but he’s never been really for real fishing.  It will be awesome.  I’m even bringing some non-alcoholic beer so we can toss a couple back together.  And fucking custom made Koozies that say ‘Happy Birthday Billy, reel in a big one: follow your dreams man.  I love you.  Your!!!  Dad.”

12.

“Hello?  Ted?”

“Yes?  Who’s this?”

“Rob.  The new shift manager over at Windy City Packaging.  Listen, you’re going to have to come in tomorrow.  It’s fucked.  I know it’s your son’s birthday or something, but the glue gun acted up again and Alvarez ended up with third degree burns on his right hand.

Jesus.  The glue went right to the bone man.  It’s bad.  Weirdest thing: he was gluing fire to Miss Doubtfire’s tits for a new standee going out to department stores.  Some crazy fuck digitally remastered Mrs. Doubtfire and it’s part of a huge promotion.  

Anyways, we’ve got stacked pallets of Doubtfires that still need their tits set ablaze and we need you on the gun man.  As Princess Leia says: ‘you’re my only fucking hope.’”

Ted called Sage:

“Sage.  Look.  Fuck, I’m heading out to the lab tonight.  Got to pull an all-nighter and then go into the factory tomorrow morning for a full shift.  Listen, the boat is chartered for Billy’s birthday tomorrow.  Can you take him?  I can’t get the deposit back and I gotta work.  It’s an emergency.”

“Sure.  I can just take him on my boat, man.  No worries.”

“No, no man.  It’s gotta be my boat.  The charter.  It’s my birthday present for him.  Can you just please do this for me. My boat.  Tomorrow.  I gotta go.”

“Sure Ted.  We’ll take your boat this time.  Stuff like that’s important.  No explanation needed.  Sort of totally starting to understand this whole being a dad thing.  What’s the charter?”  

“It’s Spendthrift Charters out of Waukegan.  And Sage.  I got custom made Koozies for us and non-alcoholic beer.  Can you swing by the apartment in the morning?  You’ve got keys.”

“No problem.  I’ll be sure to pick up some Billy Joel too.”

13.

Ancestral Organs overlooked the Chicago river just a few blocks up from Lake Michigan.  There was a new high-rise luxury apartment complex just on the other side.  

Ted sometimes stared into it.  

“About the time I check in at the lab, the families across the street are just starting to reassemble themselves.”  Ted told a friend.    

“The apartments are like stacked aquariums.  Each tank holds a brightly lit family full of happy pajamaed kids running and playing like schools of fish along the huge windows.  

Each apartment has a long kitchen table.  Mom on one end.  Dad on the other.  The children sit safely between them.  

Always safely between them.  

Growing up with a view uninterrupted by anything but other twinkling sky rises.  Can you imagine that shit?  And if they look out the corner, to the east, the children can see until the water curves away and the lake falls off the earth.”  

During a childhood fishing trip, Ted’s dad had said: “look out to where you can no longer see, that’s where the earth bends the water; that’s where the lake falls off the world.”  

“Into what?”  Ted had asked.

“Into where the clouds are born.”    

On this, the eve of Billy’s tenth birthday, Ted stared into the apartments longer than usual, but eventually pushed himself back into the chair and set it rolling away from the windows.  And then pushed back again, stopping at the opposite wall where he could reengage the motion sensors for the lab lights.  

“Time to clean off the ‘steam etcetera.’”    

14.

When the night’s janitorial work was done, Ted started a simple ritual he invented for especially down days: he called it “being a mother fucking scientist.”   

He went to the hallway closet where the lab coats were stored, and randomly selected one with the name Dr. Fritz McCutty sewn in bright red cursive on the upper right hand side, and swung it around his shoulders.  And with the lights on, he performed for the parents – but mostly for the successful moms – who were just getting up for work in the buildings across the river.  

He walked purposefully to microscopes.  

He shuffled around empty Petri dishes and test tubes from one place to another.  

“There’s no way they can see anything from over there but the vigorous activity of a socially-committed scientist.”

He rolled in a lab chair, turning midway between stations, the lab coat fanning out.  

He pretended to read off important information from a blank computer screen while furiously scribbling nonsense across a yellow pad.  

He composed his face into numerous moods of the scientific process: an “oh my God the serum fucking works!” face; a “haha they were wrong to laugh at my hypothesis face”; a “nonono we have to start the whole damn thing again” face; and his favorite: the “Jesus F’ing Christ we just cured mother fucking cancer” face.  

He thought: “She’s getting out of bed now.  Another day at the office.  Doing business.  Wait, what’s that light on across the way.  That man.  He’s a scientist.  How exciting.  Looking into the corners of the world instead of doing stupid business.  And such a hard worker, up so early.  Maybe I’ll walk over after work.  Yes.  Walk over after work, and maybe bump into that interesting man.  Who knows, maybe he’s curing cancer.”  

And Ted thought: “I’ll tell her that I recently synthesized life with my bare hands.  And she’ll say . . . .”

But just then a hard knocking interrupted him.  Broken glass.  The lights off and hands around his neck.  

15.

Ted came to with a shock of water to his face and saw a number of things: there was a man, a very severe looking man, screaming into his face; there were two other angry looking men; there was an eye on the floor; and there was a fourth man – sort of – with his eyes closed, suspended upright in a large tank of water, who appeared to be breathing from gill slits in his neck.

“What the fuck did you do to my son you fucking son of a bitch.  Oh God.  I’m going to fuck you up so bad Dr. McCutty, oh so fucking bad.  How do we get him out?  What are those fucking things on the side of his neck?  What the fuck is on the side of his neck?”

Ted looked around the room, only halfway conscious.  He had never been in this room before.

“I’m in Big Blue,” he thought.  

Big Blue was the only part of the lab Ted didn’t clean.  The door to Big Blue was heavy and “Jesus Lou, the door’s lock is triggered by a fucking retinal scan.”  

Ted referred to it as Big Blue because someone had taped an old French movie poster for Luc Besson’s 1988 Le Grand Blue on the imposing door.  

“I’ve only wiki’ed it Lou, something about free divers.  Competitive breath holders.  Cinéma doo look.  Whatever the fuck that means.  That room is creepy.  Doo not go in there.”   

Ted felt his face crushed by a fist well-trained for crushing faces.  

Then the other two men grabbed his arms and held him up between them while Ted absently thought “I feel like the man tied between the horses in Faith No More’s 1992 video for Midlife Crisis.”

The angry man – crying now – shoved a syringe into Ted’s neck far enough so that when he depressed the plunger, whatever it was that was in the syringe mostly just sprayed into the back of Ted’s throat.   

It was bitter.  It burned, and it seemed to be causing Ted’s throat to swell shut.

And then his feet were up and the backside of his head smashed into the floor.  

His lips and face felt warm.  

The back of his head felt like it was leaking sand.

They were dragging him.  Ted thought: “my head’s a wheel-barrel wheel.”

Ted’s throat narrowed, becoming a sort of unmusical reed.  Each hard sucked breath of air made a high-pitched and raspy wheeze that Ted hadn’t heard since Billy got the croup and they had “totally freaked the fuck out” and “I’m calling 911, fuck the charge, what if he’s dying.  Sounds like he’s choking.  God please don’t let him die.”

The paramedic had said: “You must love him a lot.  You look scared.  Settle down.  It’s just the croup.  Kids get it all the time.  No.  We still have to take him in the ambulance.  It’s procedure.  Sorry.  The charge?  I think its $600 dollars just for the ride.”  

And then Ted was being dragged down a hallway to a part of the office under construction.  The syringe was still stuck in his Adam’s Apple, and every time he swallowed for a little piece of air, the syringe bobbed up and down too.

The men dragged him over to a window in a far unused corner office that was being remodeled.  The window was open and there was a construction chute hanging off the building.  The chute normally emptied into a large garbage boat, but the boat wasn’t there, and so now the chute just emptied straight into the river.  

The men tied his legs to a heavy office chair, and then threw the office chair down the chute.  Ted followed.  He gasped, but his lungs just mutely pulled at his throat, which was now completely closed.  

Ted heard the chair hit the water, and then nothing.  

He was out.  

16.

“My father could find luck in the head of a fish,” Ted had once proudly told Joy.    

Ted was fishing with his Dad at the end of a poured concrete pier with no discernible organization.  It was as if the construction crew had just poured concrete into the lake until it stuck, and had then haphazardly thrown in chunks of broken limestone, pieces of some house’s foundation, street signs, and any other garbage.

Zebra mussels had invaded the lake.  Fishing in Sandusky was bad that summer, but you could still catch Sheepshead, the mouths of the larger ones full of what looked “just like human teeth, perfect for munching the shells of mussels.”

“Most think this fish is trash,” Ted’s Dad said.

“But it tastes just fine if you cook it up right.  You just need to be careful cleaning it.”

When the cleaning was done, and the filets were placed in a glass casserole dish, Ted’s Dad picked up the heads.

“Right here, about where there’s a crease in the gill, and near the top of the head, just behind the brain, there are two lucky stones.  Fish ears, or otoliths for us biologists.”

Ted’s Dad had always given him the lucky stones.  

“He never kept one for himself.  Said he was already the luckiest man in the world for having me as a son.  For having my Mom as his wife.”    

17.

Large gulps of water came in through Ted’s neck.  

He was breathing.  

His lungs were still somehow involved, animating his submerged body with the rhythm of someone softly sleeping.  But they were altered.  The tissue of the alveolar sacs had thinned, providing more surface area for capillaries to mingle with the water’s small amount of oxygen.

The chair tied to Ted’s legs anchored him twenty feet below the Chicago River’s surface.  The muddy water completely blotted out the sounds of the city’s traffic and absorbed all the sunlight.  

Ted slowly came to, a school of fish collecting above his head, where a small amount of blood still plumed from his wounds.

A quick “what the fuck” bubbled from Ted’s mouth, soundlessly breaking on the river’s surface a few seconds later.

Ted saw nothing but darkness.  But knew he was floating.  Knew he was floating in water.  Knew he was floating in water and somehow still breathing.  

It was cold, but the current sometimes brought warmer pockets.  

He bent over, and blindly fumbled at the knot at his ankles, his mind a machine gun of “fucks!”

It was slow going at first, but he eventually un-noosed himself from the river’s bottom and then started swimming up.  He soon reached a depth where the rays of sun could reach and the darkness bloomed a dusty green.  A little further up and the water yellowed, slightly sparkling with shards of light.  

He broke the surface just beneath the Clark Street Bridge.  It was a beautiful Chicago day.  A perfect birthday day.  A perfect day for fishing.

But he couldn’t breathe with his head out of the water.   

The pink, sore slits that had opened on his neck became engorged with blood that couldn’t feed on the oxygen in the air.  His altered lungs burned.  He went back below the water.  He started to cry.

“Oh my God, what the hell.  The guys.  That dude in the tank.  Oh, shit.  This is bad.  What the hell has happened.”

He searched the slits at his neck with his fingers.  They were sore to the touch, like a row of fresh paper cuts.

Not knowing what to do, but feeling like “a fucking freak with gills in his neck should probably not be near a large city,” Ted swam out of the river’s mouth and into Lake Michigan.  

18.

  Ted swam for what seemed like miles, the roar of boats finally dying down to a few far off mumbling motors.  Soon there was nothing but blue.  The blue above him, streaked with thin clouds.  The blue below, deepening into darkness.  

And then something sharp pierced him around his midsection.  He panicked and rolled in the water, pulling hard against the pain, until somehow he managed to get the sharp thing embedded even deeper into his flesh and tightly wrapped around one of his ribs.  

The pain was excruciating, but grew to be almost intolerable when a few seconds later the sharp thing began to pull him through the water.  

Ted realized that he’d been hooked.  That he was being reeled in.  That on top of everything else on this, his son’s tenth birthday, he would soon be discovered.  Pulled out of the secret of the water.  Sentenced to drown in the sunny day above him aboard some “piece of shit day trader’s yacht, full of beautiful, wide-eyed and shocked spectators.”

He fought hard.  And in the struggle learned more about the person at the other end of the line.  

The angler was persistent.  He didn’t give up.  He wasn’t that strong, but he kept going with a tenacity and patience that Ted hoped his son might have one day.  But there was also hesitancy in the line.  And something like empathy.  Perhaps a feeling of sadness for whatever was hooked and trying to get away.  And Ted hoped that his son too might have this empathy.  Might have this ability to comprehend the suffering of others, even while crawling over them towards his goals.  

And then the fight was all out of Ted.  He gave into the painful pull of the hook around his rib.  

Soon, he could see the white belly of the boat.  He could hear music.  It was difficult to make out at first.  But it became clearer and clearer.  

I go walking in my sleep,

Through the valley of fear

To a river so deep

And I’ve been searching for something

Taken out of my soul

Something I would never lose

Something somebody stole.

And Ted said to himself: “Holy shit.  That’s Billy’s 1993, Grammy Award winning single The River of Dreams from BJ’s final, most personal record, River of Dreams.  Even in this last moment, he’s here to comfort me. My God, life is strange, if only he knew.  

No river is wide enough.  No valley is so full of fear.  I will never lose my love for you.  But they stole so much.  But still, my love for you was something I’d never lose.  My love for you, my son.  Billy, if only I could see you again.”

And then the hook pulled hard, and Ted’s head was up over the water.  He was looking at the back of a charter boat, the name Spendthrift IV was spelled out large across the boat’s back, just above the motor.  

Ted saw Billy and Sage.  Sage held the line.  Billy stood next to him, watching him with “boundless adoration” while nursing a koozied beer.  A koozie that read: ‘Happy Birthday Billy, reel in a big one: follow your dreams man.  I love you.  Your!!!  Dad.”

 


Adam Caldwell lives in Chicago, Illinois with his wife and son.  He writes stories and plays in the noise band Hit School.

Advertisements