The broad who comes in about quarter to six has short blonde hair and this scar that runs all around her right thigh, puncture marks dotted in the shape of a massive crescent, and I know immediately that it’s a bite mark. And I made it.
Granted, you throw a pair of flippers on the girl and tell her to swim and she doesn’t make a very convincing human, but still, I should have known better back then. But I’m different now. Things change. People change and the world changes and you just gotta keep on swimming.
I pull the black bowler cap lower on my head, till it kisses the grey tip of my nose, I shuffle a little deeper into my suit—hard to do without arms. It’s boiling in here, warm blood and all, you know, but I play it as cool as I can, and that crotchety old hag of a ceiling fan does its best to help me keep it cool, keep it cool.
She stops a foot from the doorway.
Does she suspect something?
She looks corner to corner in the small, boiling room that’s being systematically microwaved by the sun coming in through the one dirty window to my right. She shrugs and walks over. I notice the slight limp. “Hey.” She says. She paws at the badly cushioned, steel frame chair in front of her, across from where I sit behind the plyboard table. “I sit here?”
I give her my least toothy grin but I still see her frown a bit. Something’s wrong but she can’t tell quite what, is it the dorsal fin raised like a grey flag of ambiguous intention? Is it my black eyes, that look taxidermied, that look like marbles? Or is it something less obvious, like the saltwater smell of something that doesn’t quite belong?
She sits in the seat but shuffles around, evidently uncomfortable. Her short, california shorts show so much of her legs, so much of that scar, where her thigh is even slightly indented.
“How can I help you?”
“I’m broke.” She says.
“You could go to the bank.”
“Yeah. Nah. My credit’s actually shit.”
“So you came here. Who told you?”
“I work at the Supermarket deli, another girl there told me.”
“The one on Clyde.” She's very obviously lying, and doesn't want me to be able to reach her at all hours, but lies are not so easy. Every time a lie leaves someone’s mouth it has a little bit of blood on it, and I can smell the lie. The smell of the lie curls up and through the air, and twists like a snake or a strand of something barely connected like phlegm underwater and as I breathe in I smell it. I can smell it from a quarter of a mile away.
“Okay. And why should I trust you about paying it back?”
She lifts her leg. “Yeah. Running away isn’t really my strong suit. I’m more like a poker girl.”
I stare at the leg.
“Shark. Big motherfucker. I used to surf and now I don’t, happened a little off Laguna beach. I was the shark girl on the news for a while, you lived around there there’s no chance you wouldn’t have heard of me.”
I stare at the scar.
“I’ve heard of you.” I say, looking up. “Shark girl. Yeah. Now that rings a bell.”
“Hey! Now you know so you can always trust a celebrity. It’d be pretty shit for my PR if I didn’t pay it back anyway.” She snorts.
We aren’t very good at laughing, so I just smile. “I think we can set something up for you.”
“Sounds official.” she says.
I smile at her and try to think of her as more than a lump of warm, fresh meat with blood squirting around beneath the surface. I keep smiling and looking at her until she gets a quirky little smile in mimicry, confusion, and a little bit of fear.
I nod. “Alright, so, let’s get you set up.” It’s a challenge to get up and open the file cabinet, but I manage anyhow, and I give her a good deal.
“Thank ya very much.” She says at the end. She smiles and the sun comes in as one golden shaft and fires up her bright blonde hair. I wonder if she’s pretty. I wonder what she would look like after a week under the saltwater. Bloated and grey, the scar around her thigh is open again but the flesh is pale and bloodless, and you can see bone as gunmetal waves crash and roar and the green thunderheads rumble and lightning crawls across the sky in blinding flashes above. The thunderheads rumble like the creaking of ancient heavenly ships. The lightning climbs skywards and scuttles to the sea.
I find the Supermarket she really works at the next day. I see her there in the deli, with the fishnet around her blonde hair, as she hobbles around and yells things and holds meat in her hands. In my trench coat I stand by the milk coolers along one wall. With my hat pulled low, it’s brim kissing my grey nose, grey like the color of the ocean when you get far out and it is overcast, I push out a long shadow.
An old lady, just a bag of bones, stops beside me, crooked over her cane. Two bloodshot eyes find my black ones. “My! Tell me how’s the weather up there! I can never find out these days.”
I don’t blink, obviously.
“It’s all on these smartphones you know.” Her hair looks like a wet mop is draped over her head. She’s as white as my stomach, as the trusty bottom of my chin. “Could you get me down that milk up there? The two percent.”
“Oh thank you, sonny, thank you.”
“Just one second.” I say. And then I walk away and I leave the store, and I keep swimming, keep moving forward.
If the blonde girl doesn’t get my money in a month it will go up and up, it will keep moving forward and keep swimming, and if she can’t keep swimming with it I’ll break her knees and throw her off the docks and fucking kill her.
I once met an old whale, so old that his eyes were the same color as the ocean and just as deep. He got ideas that you could swim slow, that life could just be about living slow. Well, you wanna know what happened to him? They caught him, cut him up, and turned him into soap. This memory has a better chance at getting me to laugh than a Bill Burr video.
Anyways, you can’t live slow, there are no more whale falls.
There is no more letting the current take you, you have to swim, lazybones.
There are no more picnics.
There is no “sitting down”.
There is no watching.
There is only reacting and climbing forward, that’s why I left the ocean when the reefs were turning white and the plastics were becoming islands and it started to get hot and acidic and every fish started having a little bit of mercury in it.
Are you going to have a picnic with mercury?
So if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
I think about all of this while I sit in my office and days have passed now and I’m watching the blonde girl’s interest go up and up, and just the same my interest in her goes up too, I find that old news program: “shark girl”, a man with bleached teeth and lawn turf hair calls her.
I lean forward when they put out my actor. There isn’t much resemblance, except for the eyes.
You move forward, but don’t get me wrong this isn’t Rocky one two or three—I don’t think you ever get stronger, you just get weirder. It’s like you’re being squeezed through an alley that’s getting tighter and tighter, and as you’re forced to move around things get put into the wrong places, until at the end you come out on the other side looking nothing like the little pup with dreaming eyes like shiny black buttons. You find a mirror and say, “Holy crap.”
The next day I speak to Tiger. I want him to follow the girl around a little bit, scare her. He nods but looks like he’d rather eat her. He smiles a crescent like the scar around her thigh, full of shredding teeth, and disappears out the door in a flutter of black—he’s wearing this big black kind of coat that I’d overheat in—you know, cold-blooded things.
I’m alone in the room when he leaves. That’s okay, I prefer it that way anyways. I unlock the filing cabinet and sift through it until I find the bone of a child. Once, a long time ago, I swam up a little river to a small pond in the woods—I went straight forward without turning around—there I was surrounded by a peaceful dell, where sunlight dappled the forest floor and the wind stirred gently the leaves, all changing colors as the seasons marched forth. Here I could almost believe things were slow. Maybe stopped. That those red leaves wouldn’t ever fall.
Until one day a young boy came giggling down the slope of the dell, skipping in the autumn pile up and climbing trees and throwing rocks, all elbows and knees and red cheeks. He wore a jean jacket and his father’s cargo pants, far too big on him and tied up. Once he stepped into my little pond, and I watched his toes flex in the silt and pebbles, the water coming up to his ankles.
I hung in the darker part of the pond, slowly swaying in the silence of the deep, maybe twelve feet under, as he came out until he was treading water over my head, and his toes danced before my black eyes. Danced there.
Years later, I heard that they filled in that pond, and now there are only apartment buildings there, what little of the forest remains is on display, in stone bordered gardens, imprisoned, the roots cut off by asphalt, and in a way they are forever stuck there then, unchanging, put on display so that any can remember where we all came from, and be grateful for heated tile flooring.
I can’t believe it when the girl comes back, with the gall to ask for more.
“You haven’t paid back the first loan.”
“I can.” She says, sounding desperate. With dark circles under her eyes: long hours working with dead things at the deli. “I’ll pay it back and the interest but I just really need this one right now.”
“What do you even need all this for?” Sudden curiosity strikes me. Cats of the ocean, call us.
She sighs. “Trying to kickstart a fundraiser. Then I promise I’ll get it all back, my manager says he’ll give me more hours.”
“What for? What’s the fundraiser for?”
She meets my eyes dead-on. “Cleaning up our beaches.”
For the first time, I laugh. “Okay, I’ll see what I can do.”
“I know you want the money, you got that guy to follow me—”
“—I can get it. I just need to do this first.”
Years later, I wonder what all that girl’s fretting really did, why she’d bother to try to fix the thing that gave her the scar on her thigh. White sharks live a very long time, you know, and we can smell a fake but we can’t smell someone drowning.
She wasn’t a fake and I’m sure the water is what killed her. She took my advice to heart, I guess, but missed that main crucial component; you can keep swimming, but you can’t keep swimming against the current.
That’s just time.