One Fish, Two Fish
My favorite story, Simon, was the one where you shot a pear off of your wife's head. It was dead winter, as I recall, and the two of you had just returned from Mexico. I slid by the doorman rather easily; a bundle of red tulips in my fist, I knew they were Isabel's favorite.
"You shouldn't have," she said.
"All in the name of Scrabble and brandy," I said, and she leaned in to kiss me.
Oh Simon, how warm the southern air had made your wife's cheeks. I followed close behind her and watched as she clipped the stems, watched her shirt rise to show her navel as she reached for a vase.
"Let me help you."
"Don't be silly."
I did not place my hands on your wife's hips, nor did I hoist her onto the sink; instead I took a long, slow drink of the Cabernet she poured for me. I had nearly forgotten the dark rim of her irises.
"How are you, Charlie?" she asked.
"Come, come," she said and took my hand.
It was not until we entered the living area that I noticed the hole in the wall. There it was, the size, nearly, of a basketball, perfectly centered between Isabel's latest paintings. I didn't have it in me to ask what had happened, and so, I opted to watch your wife's perfect mouth explain her work.
"This," she said, "is a blue fish." I nodded. "To the left of the blue fish is a red fish."
I nodded again, Simon, my head bobbling like that of a sports team figurine. You, my friend, were in the shower, not dead as I only briefly imagined, but washing parts of you that I have not seen in a long time.
"Jet lag," Isabel explained.
We stood staring, not at the hole between the paintings, but at the paintings themselves, and though your wife smelled of jasmine and ripened fruit, I kept my hands at my side.
"I love the blue one," I told her. "The hook looks so real."
And it did; it nearly made my mouth ache. I turned towards the windows; Isabel turned to me.
"Oh Charlie," she said. "Does it ever all seem so complicated?"
At that moment, though, nothing seemed complicated. The snow spun wild; I was a man, and your wife, biting her pinky nail, a woman. It dashed through my head that she wanted me, but surely, she didn't. She was thinking, I know now, of how fifteen minutes prior to my knocking, you had positioned her at the wall with a pear on her head and taken your perfect aim. Did you kiss her first? Had you asked her to put her hair in those two long braids? I imagine she was in cotton panties; what were you wearing, Simon?
When the phone rang, Isabel brushed past me. I feigned interest in The New Yorker for a moment and then found my opportunity to take a look through the hole. The hard smell of metal on plaster, I saw Isabel first, cradling the phone, whispering, smiling, chewing at the end of her braid, and, beyond her, the hole widened, expanding through the next wall. You were shaving in what I'm sure was a fog-less mirror, and then, another hole, and a family. The neighbors, I assume. Father was wrapping a blue and white scarf around his neck; Mother was reminding him to pick up firewood; the son, a lanky boy of no more than twelve, sat with hunched shoulders playing what appeared to be a video game.
It occurred to me, Simon, that there are no chimneys in your high rise building, but I am, as you've always told me, oblivious to what goes on behind closed doors, especially where families are concerned.
What I remember most about the evening, however, is not that we would later run down 28 flights because of a fire, nor the Scrabble game in which I beat the pants off both you and your wife with my spectacular use of unsex, quell and jive. What I remember is Isabel returning from her phone call. She looked like a girl in love.
"Does what seem so complicated?" I asked her.
"Oh, Charlie. I'll let Simon tell you."
Every time I think of it, I get a glorious picture of you in my mind, that day, before my arrival: the snow just beginning, the gun, hot with your hand, as your small wife precariously placed fruit on her head.
I was thrilled, of course, when the weatherman confirmed the blizzard. You and I would go to the store to pick up staples: bread, milk, eggs. If we were to freeze to death, I proclaimed, we would do so feasting on french toast. Hurrah!
"Better hurry back," the doorman said, and you tipped your hat, its ridiculous peacock feather erect as we opened the door to the night. Snow blew every which way but down, and the streets were slick and nearly empty.
"She's leaving me," you said.
Ah, Simon, this news did nothing for my belief that you were perfect. I had imagined that even though I am one year your senior and three years Isabel's senior, the two of you would adopt me as a son of sorts and that the snow would never stop falling. We would be homebound, forced to order puppies over the internet. New York's only dogsled team would deliver them, and they would be soft and furry and sleep in the crook of my arm.
At the very least, I imagined Isabel would leave you for me, and you would move to a tiny stone home in New Mexico or a silver trailer in Wyoming. We'd send Christmas cards, and eventually all would be forgiven.
This is when you lay down in the street. I, your oldest friend, was plotting to steal your wife who was, for all practical purposes, already stolen, and you lay down in the snow and flapped your arms and legs and yelled out, "Angel!"
It made me think of our boyhood in Arkansas.
"Is there someone else?" I yelled and reached my hand towards you.
Do you remember, Simon, when I had just failed fourth grade because of my mid-semester hernia surgery, and we were placed together in Ms. Trotter's class? It was just after the summer that we alternated between shooting Mountain Dew bottles off Ole Man Kellar's fence and watching Scottie One Ball stick the aquarium pump up his ass.
Who were we in love with then?
Or maybe it was the next summer. Maybe we didn't like girls yet, but there was that film in health class. Ms. Trotter made the whole speech about no laughing matter, so we thought it would be about doing it, but it turned out to be about loneliness. Remember? The girl died face down in the snow because nobody would walk her home from the bus stop.
But you, Simon, were out of the snow, and I was with you. We headed the final two blocks to the grocer. You punched me in the arm, and I thought this meant you wanted to talk.
"What's with the holes?" I asked.
"She wants a divorce."
"No, not whatever," I said. "It's bullshit."
"No shit," you said, and I thought the wind would take us down. God, that was a long walk, and then we were in the store, and you were acting like nothing had happened. "Hey, Charlie," you said, "Catch."
Ha ha, Simon, you were always so funny, but we were back on the street, and the snowflakes were fat and dry. I wanted to hold them on my tongue and keep them in my mouth.
"Seriously," I said, "what's with the holes in your walls?"
"Charlie, my man, I hate to say this, but I think you're losing it."
I wish I had been losing it, Simon. I wish it would have been me and not you.
I often go through the conversation we were meant to have. The one where you say you preferred apples, but Isabel liked pears, how you told her you would forgive her single infidelity if she would stand between the red fish and the blue and keep her eyes open while you loaded the gun.
When we returned, though, Isabel was still there. She had left neither of us; she had sat up the Scrabble and warmed the brandy.
"Toddies!" she said, clapping her hands together, and we found ourselves around the table. Isabel had changed into one of your white dress shirts, the top buttons open, to expose her collarbone, I suppose. It reminded me of the way your mother used to look when we'd come home from school, hair tied in a bun, eyes tired and deep like she had seen the whole world and wanted nothing more than to offer us Cheetos.
You were always telling me that I was wrong, that your mother would be on the next train out if it ran through town, but that was the problem with you, Simon, always has been.
I will admit I drew a B that night, so there was some advantage to my game because of the automatic double word score for laying down first on the pink star, but I do think you and Isabel took it a bit harshly.
"Did Simon tell you?" Isabel asked as I arranged perfidy off of the "f" in your "after."
"Hmm," I responded.
"Simon told you, yes?"
"About the pears?" I asked.
She is such an odd bird, Simon. You know I wasn't exactly delighted with your initial coupling, but then it all began to make sense. I, too, eventually fell for Izzy. I believe it was the day in Coney Island when you were too frightened to ride the roller coaster. She pressed her brown thigh against my rather white chicken of a leg, and I thought of how angry you used to get when your mother let me ride shotgun. Remember when your mother drove us to Little Rock to see the Harlem Globetrotters? Despite the fact that you were shooting spitballs in my hair the whole drive there, it was probably one of the best nights of my life.
"What do you mean pears?" Isabel asked.
Oh, I saw how it was. The snow was settling on the windows, and we were not to mention pears or the holes in the wall or how you and I used to lay in bed together. Beautiful. This is what you were always telling me about family secrets. I was on to you.
"No pears," I said, and you coughed.
"Well, come to think of it," I went on. "There was the time when Simon and I were in grade school, and his father decided he could win his mother back by planting a pear tree in the front yard and special ordering partridges from Cambodia. Remember that, Simon?"
"No," you said.
"Okay, well maybe it wasn't Cambodia, but it was definitely someplace far away."
Simon, you were awful that night. I know you said you were haunted by vowels, but you off of my "y?" I don't even think it's allowed.
"Charlie," Isabel said, "You can't act like this isn't going to happen."
"It's hard enough as it is," she said, and then she was saying more, but loud bells were ringing, and her voice was drowned out. Bells, Simon. Did you not understand what the bells meant?
"Fire," you said.
What did we grab?
I got my coat and my Camels.
"Are you taking anything with you?" I yelled.
"Just come on," you said, and we were making our way down the stairs. It smelled exactly the way I'd always imagined a fire would smell, and the fire escape was filled with strangers, people who lived above you or below you or beside you, people you had never seen before.
Was Isabel crying?
No. It was the Mother, actually. The one I had seen through the hole. Was she now wearing the Father's scarf? Blue and white stripes, the kind of scarves people wear only when you dream of them flying tiny airplanes over the sea. She was crying hard. I wondered what she had forgotten.
And you, Simon, I figured you'd grab something, but nothing? You always surprised me.
I had a red fish under my arm and saw the numbers flying by as we turned each corner of the staircase. 25-24-23. I thought of your wedding day, how we gave you shots of Patron; Isabel's tulips were wilting and her dress strap kept falling off her shoulder. I kissed her that night, Simon, or maybe I didn't, but I'm sorry if I did. 16-15-14. The Globetrotters were losing; I remember thinking it was a scam, that the Globetrotters always won, that in the last two minutes they would shoot and shoot and shoot, and the crowd would go hog wild. You went to get us hot dogs. I sucked hard on my slurpee. "Charlie," your mom said, running her fingers through my hair. "You're going to be a wonderful man some day."
"How the hell did you come up with you?" I asked, but Simon, when I turned around to listen to you tell me about the vowels and how pronouns are perfectly acceptable in Scrabble, you were gone. It was just Isabel and her blue fish and tens of strangers streaming through the stairwell.
"Where is he?" I yelled at Isabel.
"Just go," she said.
We were finally standing outside; the wind blew through us; the building burned like a Roman candle. Popped and burned. I thought of how you and Isabel didn't even go to the Coliseum on your honeymoon because you couldn't afford it. Man, you're a cheap bastard.
"He forgot something," Isabel yelled.
"He forgot something."
"No, I know. What did he forget?"
Simon, you would have loved the fanfare, the sirens and firedogs, the blizzard blowing smoke and snow all around us. I can tell you now that I held her tight, and we watched as the flames licked the building. The firemen had us out in the street, and when I think about it now, I believe we were standing in the place where your body had been, where you lay down and flapped your arms and yelled. The flames turned into smoke, and I thought of the fall when you and I put Ole Man Kellar's iguana in the microwave, how the old man kicked and screamed and said we'd both burn in hell and then clung on to one of his ostriches and cried like a little girl.
In my mind, I am convinced that you went back to switch your letters, that you were reaching your hand into the maroon velveteen bag searching for z's and k's, trying to find the word that would re-crown you. Maybe, though, there was something else. Bigger and better, something I had no idea about.
Yes, Simon, we waited for you. I even imagined I was you, that I'd come through the door at any minute, and when I didn't, I thought I'd fly out the window, wings spread like some bird on fire, and when I didn't, I simply held my wife--held her the way you can only hold a woman who has just lost a love she no longer wanted--held her and thought of all the times I had thought about holding her. I felt the length of her body, as you must have, for years, lying in bed, the early morning light making its way through the window.
"Charlie," she said just as the night ended.
She did not tell me she loved me.
"Yes?" I said again.
She did not tell me that she had thought of me since Coney Island or that she had known in some way that this was the day you would die. She did not mention the children we were willed to have or that the fish was actually cadmium, but no one really understands reds.
"Anything," I said.
And she left me, Simon. Is that what you want to hear?
I kept believing you would walk out of the ash, just to laugh at me one last time, but I guess that's the whole hoopla with dying: you don't get to laugh anymore.
Now, I lay here. The fish are gone; the woman is gone; I have only the place where your body was. The blizzard, it seems, will not fail me: snow falls heavy as blossoms, petal upon petal, and Simon, I think you were wrong about the end, because here in the crook of your wing, it's not nearly as lonely as I thought it would be.
-Nicole Callihan (from InDigest Magazine)