Strange Fish

— Brett Arnold

A week passed before Jack and his motorcycle were found on the rocks below the cliffs of Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Barbara.  That was July.

In early June, I picked him up from LAX.  His grandmother, the last of his family and the only one of them he’d ever really loved, had passed away in Berlin.  He traveled to her there when he heard from her nursing home that she wasn’t doing well, that hospice was near, and that she had some things that needed attending to.  Her will.  A funeral.  A chance to be with someone she recognized.  He’d only meant to stay a few days, but that turned into almost all of winter.  She’d survived a world war and a wall, only to be taken by slow, deafening cancer.  “She can’t hear anything,” Jack wrote to me when he first arrived there, “not a damn thing.  It’s for the best.”

When I saw him exit the terminal, his face was puffed up and pink.  I almost didn’t recognize him in the crowd.  All he had on him was a small leather handbag and a crumpled newspaper.  He looked at his feet as he walked towards me.  I got out of the car and hugged him.  His arms were tense, then relaxed.

“It was a long flight,” Jack said.

I nodded.  “It’s good to see you.  Did you sleep?” I studied him.  “You’ve got black stuff on your face.”

He rubbed his cheeks with his thumb, smearing the words abandonnierung, scham, liebe, into his thin facial hair.

“Ink,” he said.  “And no, no sleep.” He threw his bag in the trunk, though it would have fit between his feet just fine.  “They charge for pillows now, did you know that?  So I used a newspaper.”

 

We were roommates during our last semester of college and then again after graduation.  My older roommates had moved away for jobs in other, more interesting cities with other young people, rising and always rising.  But we had found work locally, and he was the first to respond to my ad on campus in search of someone to fill the spare room in my apartment.

When he moved in he brought: a pillow, a tattered copy of The Essentials of Joyce, and a plastic storage bin filled with assorted bottles of liquor.  He set his stuff in his room and then went into the kitchen to cut his hair.  “You don’t mind if I do this here, do you?” It was long then, reaching his shoulders and curling up at the ends.

“Don’t you think the porch would be better?”

“But then people would see me.” He smirked.  “I’m joking,” he said.  “I’m not crazy.”

“Right.”

“Wouldn’t want to freak you out on the first day.” He took out a bottle of Yukon Jack and unscrewed the lid.  “To long health,” he said.  “And haircuts.” It was 9:45 in the morning.  So much for not being crazy.  We both took a long pull—I’d never drank directly from a bottle before.  Later that night I found clumps of his hair in the garbage disposal.

 

On the car ride home from the airport I asked him what was next.  “You can stay with me a while, if you want.”

He stared out the window, over the bridge at the traffic below.  “Only for a night or two.  I’ve got to get to Oakland soon.”

Before everything with his grandmother started, he had been accepted into a fellowship program just outside of Berkeley.  He was going to finish working on his novel.  It had ballooned to over eleven-hundred pages, but the fellowship saw potential.  He wouldn’t tell me what it was about.  They were providing housing, money for food, and a small allowance for everything else so he and the other admitted artists could focus on their craft without needed an outside job.

“I only need to grab my motorcycle,” he said.  “You kept it safe, right?”

“It’ll kill you,” I said.

“Everything will kill me.”

He retrieved a cigarette and match from his coat pocket.  He lit it without rolling the window down.  The car slowly filled with a gray haze and I fought the urge to cough.

 

I came home exhausted one day when we were still roommates, and there he was sitting alone in the living room with his shirt off, a portion of his chest covered in petroleum jelly and Saran wrap.  The radio was blasting the noise of in-between two stations.  He’d gotten a tattoo of a whale.

“Funny fish,” he said between swigs of his bottle of Yukon.

I walked around him, on my way to my room, when he stood and tripped himself and fell back to the floor with a crash.  He was drunker than I thought, and his face was now cut above his left cheekbone.  “My grandmother has cancer, by the way,” he said.  “The one in Berlin.  The only one, I guess.”

When he was young his parents divorced and so he split the weeks between them.  This lasted for three years until they both died within weeks of each other.  At the age of seven he deduced that surely this was a sign that they had still loved each other.  He lived with his grandma in Germany for eleven years before returning to America for college.

“That’s terrible,” I said.  What else was there to say?  I sat next to him on the floor.  His skin resembled wax and smelled like alcohol.  “Is it, um, far along?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t know anything.  I’m going there in two days.  Can I get a ride to the airport?”

 

Back at the apartment, he thanked me for the ride, and we went and sat at the kitchen table.  Half of the space was bare and awkward; his things had only been removed not so long ago.

I’d collected Jack’s mail for him on the table.  A few political magazines, some coupon books I wouldn’t have dared to throw away, and a couple letters.  He flipped through the pile silently, eventually shuffling the whole pile into the trashcan.  He saved only a small, red envelope.

“How was the service?” I asked.  “Do they do them the same there?”

“I always imagined funerals with more people, you know?  Not this time.  Just a bunch of old ladies.”

“You didn’t know them?”

He was studying the handwriting on the envelope.  “No, they’re all—well, the rest are dead I guess, or somewhere else.  Probably somewhere else.”

He ripped it open, and read the contents.

“Strange that I don’t remember what my grandma’s friends looked like,” he said, and sat for a moment staring at the letter.  He stood and walked towards the front door.  “I need a cigarette.”

“What’d the letter say?” But the door had closed.

It was getting dark then, and I started making dinner with the only thing I had in the fridge: a pre-packaged salad.  It was exactly the kind of thing Jack would’ve hated.  After plating it and sitting at the table for a while waiting, I turned on the radio.  A woman on NPR was responding to a reporter’s question.  “It’s true, yes, amputees often feel pain in phantom limbs.  It’s treated with mirrors, with varying degrees, arranged just so…”

I opened the front door, and knew that he’d gone.

 

At three o’clock in the morning the door to my room quietly opened.

“Are you awake?” Jack whispered.  A perfume of whiskey and decay filled the room.

I pretended to be asleep.  I focused on breathing, the purplish shapes behind eyelids in the dark.

“Yes,” I said.

He leaned against the frame of my door, and slid to a sitting position on the floor.  “My fellowship was cancelled.”

My back was towards him, and my eyes were closed with weight.  “That’s awful,” I said, “What happened?”

“I don’t know, something bureaucratic.  Probably decided they hated my book after all.”

I felt guilty, like somehow I was part of a larger human consciousness that had decided this.  But I was also very tired.

“Bureaucracy,” I scoffed.  “They couldn’t defer your acceptance?”

“I’m just letting you know I’m leaving in the morning.  I guess I’ll still go up north and do whatever there.  Something.”

He stayed there, just sitting, neither of us speaking, until he fell asleep.  In the morning he was gone.

It was two in the afternoon, the police figured, when his motorcycle broke through the highway barriers and dove down the cliff face.  Another fifteen yards and he would’ve hit the Pacific, they said.  There was no traffic at that time.  No tire skids, signs of foul play.  I remembered him sitting on the wood floor of the living room the day he’d gotten his whale tattoo.  Drink in hand, he grinned and said,” Everything will go back to the ocean someday, won’t it?”

 


 

Brett Arnold studied writing at Chapman University and the University of Alaska Anchorage. A story of his aired on the Stuff You Should Know podcast, and he has worked with many local literary nonprofits, including 826LA and ISM: A Community Project. His first novella, Avalon, Avalon, was released in 2014.  A lover of the ocean, Brett now lives in Huntington Beach with his wife and daughter.