by Paul Stuart
“I don't drink water. Fish fuck in it.”
You've never seen such a self-satisfied ocean. Waves slapped against the beach with wholehearted enthusiasm, applauding itself for a job well done. This was the Pacific, just off the coast of California. The water glittered with warm August sunlight, casting off glints of green and black and blue. The sandy bottom, never to be bested, sparkled like a cathedral on Christmas eve. Dozens of bright golden Garibaldi dodged and darted in the water, playing hide and seek among the long strands of sea grass that waved in the tide. Those fish look bored...Fernando thought...bored as shit.
Beauty can be so monotonous.
His girlfriend, Jacky, loved the fish. She could paddle around and point at them all day. Only the first five minutes of snorkeling was fun for Fernando; after that it became of an exercise in hope. Hope that Jacky would have her fill before the icy water shrunk his balls into black holes. Were all the matter in the universe suddenly sucked into the naked singularity within his Speedo's--only the pretty fishes would be to blame.
He scanned the sea floor, restlessly searching for anything that wasn't seashell shaped. A couple years ago he’d found an old rusty pocket watch that he pulled out with a flourish every time Jacky did a slide show of underwater pics for her friends. They were mesmerized by it, turning the watch over to inspect all the little cracks and tarnished spots, marveling at the exotic “made in China” stamp on its battery plate.
“Mmmph... Mmmph!” Jacky said. She had spotted another school of identical cheddar fish. They passed right under them, evading her outstretched hands. It was at that moment, a one in a million chance really, that Fernando happened to look in just-the-right-spot when the seaweed parted. He gulped in a breath of air and then dove down--hard to tell how far, but deep enough to feel it in his ears. He fought his way through a shag-rug of slimy green tentacles, frantic for a second that he had lost the thing, but there it was.
As soon as Fernando surfaced, he spit his snorkel out. Jackie came up too.
“What was it?” she asked.
“You'll never guess.”
The cove was in a state preserve, situated midway between the twin toxic plumes of LA and TJ.
The water was pristine, the beach resplendent with bleached-blond sand. Fernando's mom was kicked out once for wearing too much sun block. The elderly had to wear zip-lock diapers so they wouldn't piss in the water.
"A T.V." Fernando declared.
T.V: Jacky had heard of such things, but here in the cove, the context, the two syllables might have been "Bleep Gorph." They made no sense.
"TeeVee," she parroted.
“Yeah. Viva la Basura. I'm going back down."
He did, fighting the pressure in his lungs that persuaded him (not so subtly) that the surface was really the place to be. Never mind that, fucking lungs. He ignored their whining. He was gardening. Weeding, really. He pulled out a few quick handfuls of sea grass that had rooted themselves in the speaker grill.
The set was ancient, the kind that had as much wood veneer as it had picture tube, its user manual likely printed in cuneiform on clay tablets. The controls were duly antiquated: two dials, one marked VHF, and one marked UHF, each with a "fine tune" ring. The screen, if it was still intact, was completely covered in sediment. He brushed the sand away, expecting to find a little crab condo. Not so. Instead was a smooth fun house mirror of gray-green glass. It distorted his face, making a large Latino lamprey.
At this point, the fire in his lungs was too much to bear. He had to go back up. Fuck it, he thought, I want a souvenir. Finding this is in the cove was monumental. The unit had a chrome, pull-on, push-off, switch that could have doubled as a car door lock. It was no doubloon, but it was something shiny, and certainly proof of finding a big-ass TV in a state park. He grabbed the switch and gave it a tug.
Three things happened in the next moment: The switch clicked under his grip, he heard a sharp whine (louder and closer than the clitter-clat of feeding fish), and the screen blurred into life.
It didn't come on like a modern television does, with a lightning bolt strike at whatever was left of your cognizant lobes. No, this grew, and glowed, like a toaster. Fernando emptied his lungs in a flurry of bubbles and pushed up to the surface.
As soon as his head popped above water, Jacky yelled, "Holy shit, did it turn on!", directly in his ear.
"Probably just residual charge on the capacitors,” he said above the ringing.
He held up the television switch trophy. Jacky leaned back into the water to look again. She was still for a moment, and then began to splash like a little kid in an eel-filled bathtub. Fernando took the cue and re-submerged. There was a glow from the ocean floor. It came and went with the flow of sea-grass. Every few seconds the strands would part, providing them with an unobstructed view of the screen. Something was on. Not just a glow, but a pattern.
First it was narwhals, flipping him the bird with their improbable unicorn horns. It cut to dolphins, and then to a fleet of rocket-ship marlins. The sort of sea life montage that beanie-capped Frenchmen like to film. Fernando couldn't stop watching. They were so goddamn beautiful. Just look at how gracefully those winged stingrays flew below the surface. How docile and sweet the manatees were as they grazed in warm shallow waters. The camera work was stunning, keeping pace with a sperm whale as it dove into inky blackness to hunt for squid. The screen was full of jellyfish. Fernando loved jellyfish.
Jacky pulled him up by his headband.
“Are you OK?”
It took his eyes a second to refocus. He had the same shitty feeling he had as a kid when he stayed up until three A.M. eating a hog-slop of Dorito's and Mountain Dew.
"Let's head back," he said.
"I think we should pull it up."
Fernando didn't like that idea. He wanted to be away from there, out of the water, out of the cove, in their car, driving to the desert. Deep, deep desert, where water comes in cactus cups. Couldn't tell Jacky that of course, Peruvian machismo still haunted his soul. He was a proud Incan warrior, for christsakes.
“We can't,” he stammered with noble cowardice.
Jacky's brow furrowed to the point that it broke the seal on her mask with a quick phump. “We can't just leave it! That thing's full of shit. Cadmium, lead, mercury, PCB's--”
“It's illegal,” Fernando said.
Jacky stopped in mid yell. “What?”
“This is a State Preserve. It's illegal to disturb the habitat. Little crabs might be living in it. Or spotted owls.”
“You're just scared.”
“I, am an Incan warrior,” He reminded her.
“Well at least turn it off.”
Fernando looked at the switch. So shiny. Probably wouldn't even fit the TV anymore.
“I can't do it.”
Jacky nodded. “Then I will.”
“Give me the switch.” She held out her hand to make it easy for him.
Fernando felt his balls shrink a little more. The universe was doomed for sure. He took the switch and threw it as far as he could.
Jacky gasped. “What'd you do that for!”
Fernando took off swimming. He couldn't look at her after that move. Somewhere a man with an onyx-chip sword was shaking his head in shame. A Native American let a single tear roll down his cheek. Smoky The Bear drank himself into a wild stupor and mauled a group of picnickers. It was shameful, and worse than the shame was the obnoxious aphorism that rolled round in his head, in his grandmother’s voice, as he pushed through the water.
“Pay a little now, or pay a lot later...Incan Asshole.”
A week's worth of work and waking up early passed by. Jacky lived a conspicuously TV-free life, with a single exception: Lost Friends of Seinfeld night (guest starring William Shatner as a paint-ball enthusiast). Two back-to-back episodes of mindless bliss. Jacky watched the whole thing like some people eat the whole bag. The final credits rolled, and News at Ten came on--Jacky's cue to push off to bed. She was reaching for the remote when a steeple-haired anchorwoman appeared on screen with a "can you believe this shit" grin.
Jacky didn’t follow the mouthed words, but the video-feed in the background said it all:
Shot 1: The cove, seagulls in the sunset, montage of water-sports.
Shot 2: A cute Asian woman smiling behind Mr. Microphone. She's on the beach, and behind her, floating in the water, is what looks like the carnage from a marshmallow tanker explosion. Giant gobs of white stuff, floating on the water. But it's not marshmallow at all, Jacky realizes, its Americans, little potato-heads made of Crisco, floating their blub on the waterfront.
Cute Asian woman: "--hundreds have gathered to witness the phenomena; some have been here for days.”
Camera pans out to reveal a small shivering boy, clutching his towel like a cape, standing beside her.
Cute Asian Woman: "How long have you been out here today?"
"Five hours,” little boy says with chattering teeth, then, "Have to go. My show is on."
Camera follows boy to water. Brilliant cut as they switch to an underwater view. They show the television.
Fernando came out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his hair, his head cocked to one side so he could attack his wet ear with a fresh Q-tip. “What's this?”
"The cove," Jacky's said. Her face had twisted into a gruesome frown.
The screen now showed the television that sat on the ocean floor. It was like looking into a row of mirrors, a descending hall of frames going to infinity, except this was an underwater shot of penguins, swimming in formation like little tuxedoed dwarfs performing water ballet.
They both watched as the camera cut back to the reporter on the beach. She's wearing a robe and flip-flops now. She signs off then runs into the water with a splash. It's back to Yolanda and Bill, laughing at the anchor desk.
Jacky flipped off the set. Jesus Christ. She could picture the fish, or what was left of them, breathing a mix of sweat and soda. People managing somehow to eat barbecue chicken wings underwater, using sea skates as bib napkins. Women making neck towels out of bull kelp and slathering garlic butter on live shrimp. Something had to be done.
Fernando was still staring at the blank television. “Penguins are so beautiful,” he said, “...and funny. Did you see the way they flap through the water? I had no idea they were so graceful. Who knew? They're so awkward on the ground, wobbling around like thalidomide babies...”
Jacky punched him in the arm. “We have to go out there.”
“What?” Fernando said, shaking it off.
"You know what the human urine concentration has to be in that water? Did you see the Fritos floating around? I think I saw a turd...maybe it was a candy bar, I don't know.”
Jacky just shook her head, walked into the bedroom, and closed the door.
This was Jacky's trump card. She would make a fine mother someday. With the simple act of closing the door she was able to say: “Fernando, I'm really disappointed in you, and though I love you passionately, I'm seriously questioning why I'm with you. Where's your balls man?” Funny that they say our eyes are windows to the soul, when the simple click of a door can say so much.
He collapsed on the couch and puffed out his cheeks. It was just a TV after all. Would it be so hard to go out there and toss a rock at it? Even if he missed, and he probably would, it would make Jacky happy. And if he hit it? Her door would be open then. Way open. Off the hinges.
He got up and knocked. No reply.
“Yes,” she said flatly.
“Let's go out there.”
“It's our duty. Right after station break.”
They were still a good half-mile from the cove, following twisty roads with pine trees, when Jacky declared, "something stinks."
She was right, and Fernando knew just what it was. He had grown up in rural suburbia, endless acres of cattle feed-lots, with beige vinyl siding and cobblestone sidewalks. He knew the smell by heart, would have made bank on "give me smells for $500, Alex." It had come from the neighbor's farm, it had come from the fields, and on one godforsaken autumn day, it had actually been sprayed on him due to an unfortunate change in wind direction.
"It's shit,” he said.
It only got worse. Fernando pulled into the parking lot and turned off the lights. The engine ticked quietly. They were facing the ocean. Tonight was a new moon, the water evidenced only by a lack of lights: a big black smear along an otherwise twinkling coast.
The car lot led through a hand trimmed (no pets allowed) park that overlooked the ocean. A nouveau-rustic pine-slat fence wound around the perimeter, except for a single gap for access to the cove below. An abrupt cement staircase led down, cut into the side of the sandstone cliff. Its Duplo steps were clearly designed for the beach-going-golem, either built that way to save money on cement, or to deter the elderly from mingling among the flat-stomached bronzes that harvested melanoma on the beach like malignant seashells.
Fernando and Jacky worked their way down in the breezy darkness, each sliding a hand along the stone wall for support. Fernando carried his seldom-used bowling ball in the other hand. Finally, he could put it to good use.
The beach itself was still out of sight, just around the bend of the stairs. A dull, greenish glow edged around the corner. It looked just like the beach smelled: fetid, angry, and shitty.
Jacky pulled Fernando back by his arm. "I'm not sure I want to do this."
He stopped on the last step before the bend. He could see Jacky dimly in the glow, her face looked froggy and dark, her brow furrowed. She didn't want to be here, either.
What a moment to capitalize on. He was working up just the right timbre of tremulous strength in his voice to give his “Inti the Sun God shall conquer the Spaniards” speech, when the squeaky voice of his Grandma crept in again.
“You did this,” her rusty voice said.
“You did this. You little shit.”
Grandma was right. Fernando opened his mouth and then closed it again. The fake fight drained out of him and was replaced by something bigger. It was real, it was more than courage; it was resolve. Jacky saw that Fernando was speechless.
"So can we go home?" she said.
Fernando took the final step around the bend and shrieked. Jacky peeked around the corner for the same reason that we taste orange juice when someone says its gone bad.
What a sight to behold. The cove was illuminated from below, as if someone had plugged in a cheezy party bulb under the fat-fuck filled water. The cove was full of people, floating arm to arm, head to ass, creating concentric circles that spiraled out from the epicenter--the spot where the television must lay.
"Are they dead?" was all Jacky could muster.
"They don’t have snorkels..."
Sure it stunk, but not like a flotilla of corpses. Fernando left Jacky with his bowling ball and inched out onto the beach. The closest person had one foot on dry land. It scratched a trench in the sand as the waves lifted and dragged the leg back and forth. Even in the dim light, he could tell the guy had a hairy back. Big block letters wrapped around his abundant waistline in a marquee: LUCKY YOU, it said.
Lucky me, Fernando thought. He grabbed the fat-ass by the ankle and dragged him onto the beach.
"What are you doing?” Jacky hissed from the sidelines.
Fernando said nothing, just rolled the guy over. He shrieked again, better this time for all the practice.
When he was just a wee brown lad, Fernando had a tree house. Just a wedge of plywood stuck up in an apple tree with a shaky aluminum ladder leaned up to get there. The platform was held between two branches on one side, and nailed to the other. When he was six, it was a good place for play dates; when he was sixteen, a good place for real dates. When he was eighteen, right before moving out, his dad said, "Tear that shit down". So Fernando had gone out with a claw hammer, thinking he was a demolition man. He should have brought a chain saw; he had never noticed the slow creep across the years. The nails had gained a foreskin of bark where the tree had actually grown around them.
He could barely make out the human features of the man's face, but it was clear that his dive mask had somehow grown into his head. What had happened to the rest of the face was unclear. Maybe his mom had fucked a suckerfish, who knows, but it was awful, and the wet, labored hissing as the thing pushed air in and out of its slimy gob was worse.
Fernando reflexively heaved the thing right back over with his foot, then walked back to Jacky as slowly as he could, not looking left or right. She grabbed him as soon as he was within arm's reach, preferring the anchor of his shirtsleeve to the giant cliff wall.
"Is he dead?"
"Give me the bowling ball."
“You can't go out there, I can't even see any water."
"I'm not going to swim."
Fernando was unconsciously giving her the, "Margery, fetch the gun" look that men can adopt in such times of peril. It's only to be rivaled by a woman's "I'm three weeks late" look. She dutifully fetched the bowling ball.
He had no intention of swimming. Fernando took the ball and ran with it. Walked really, but purposefully. The man he had drug from the water had crawled back in, and would serve as Fernando’s doormat to the cesspool. A quick survey revealed that the majority of the swimmers were morbidly obese; some should have collapsed under their own weight, if not for taking to water.
Fernando stepped up onto the back of the "LUCKY YOU" blob and tested his footing. The man only sunk an inch or two under the added weight. Fernando rocked back and forth a little, lowered his center of gravity and then rocked again. Stable enough. He looked over his shoulder, expecting to see Jacky smiling triumphantly. She was on her hands and knees in the sand, weeping. Fernando thought to go back and console her, and then thought, I'm balancing on a fat man with a bowling ball, better push on.
He gingerly put a foot on the next guy, a plump Latino looking fellow with "SD" tattooed on his back. This one was favorably buoyant as well, and Fernando shuffled on board. The next two were even easier as he got his sea legs. On the fifth one out, a woman with silicon soft skin, he got nervous again. Still close enough to the shore to turn back and try to drink this whole memory away, maybe call the Coast Guard in on an anonymous tip. The woman raft suddenly broke wind with a stench that can only come from eating rancid ding-dongs and antifreeze. Fernando held his breath and pushed on to the center.
The inner ring was in turmoil. While the fringes had been static lumps, all content to float on the periphery, the center frothed with turbid action as people vied for front-row seats. Getting through was more guess work than planning. At each step, Fernando had to gauge whether the body he chose was a winner. A losing ride would get pushed back to start, or worse, pushed underwater to god knows where.
It was snakes and ladders. He got lucky and snagged a ride on a really big one with an "EXIT ONLY" tat on his ass. Fernando sat down, straddling him like a pony.
The ride got damn close before they got stuck between two Greek men with high-rise thongs. There was nowhere else to go. Fifteen feet from where the TV must lay, was a solid mat of human flesh. An annular ring of human heads marked the center. The asshole of the universe, the pivot of the whole stinking mess.
After what seemed like an hour of shifting the ball forward and scooting up to it, he reached the center. Two men and three women made up the innermost ring, closer than close; the rift that should have defined where one body stopped and the next began was gone--they had begun to grow together.
Salt water geysered up from the spout their heads made whenever the tide rose, creating a stream of frigid sea water that seemed to head straight for Fernando's lap. The hole was just big enough to fit the bowling ball through.
He let it drop.
There was a moment when all he heard was his heart pounding. He counted one alligator, two alligator, three--and there was a flash, bright white, saturating the green: and then, darkness.
A tidal wave started up below him. A storm rolled through the cove, creating a cellulite tsunami as the enraged patrons of Saint ViewTube boiled with anger. Fernando was tossed on his side, rolled onto his back, and then flung in the air and back down again, like a kickball on a parachute in the popcorn game.
His world was black and spinning, and still filled with the stench that he hadn’t gotten used to. Was Jacky screaming? Maybe it was him. He thought so, but the roar drowned it out again. He was hurled into the air again, and landed in water, pinched between two bodies. He grabbed and pulled, frantically groping breasts and buttocks, but the sea-slick skin offered no purchase. Another wave came, and his head was forced under water.
He kicked back up to the surface but found the ceiling of bodies had formed again. He reached up between what felt like a pair of thighs and pried them apart, just far enough to squeeze his head through. He gasped for air, and got a lungful before the next wave came.
This time he went down and didn’t come up. He tried--tried for an agonizing minute, while his lungs caught fire and burned a hole in his chest, and then spread the flames to his head. The sea was black, but white fireworks burst in his vision. They changed from white to purple to green, and then began to fade. He let out the bubble of air (his lungs had tanked), and stopped his fight.
Before Fernando went to permanent station-break, he saw a light. Not the end of the tunnel sort, this was a light below. It flickered and crackled on, and with its arrival, the seas above him calmed. The TV had come back to life below him.
He stared at it in baby awe. The narwhals were back, flipping him the bird. And then the dolphins, frolicking like big golden retrievers. They looked like they were having fun, and goddammit, they were beautiful.