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Fishman

by John J. Clayton


Adam Fishman—the name, with its assimilated spelling, fits the man, an American Jew who flies his family to the Caribbean for vacations. Where doesn’t matter, but the snorkeling has to be terrific so he can commune with his fish. Senior copywriter in a large agency, while he fishes in his brains for seductive copy, he dreams down into pixels that swim his computer screen. Fishman sighs for a return to clear waters—sighs partly because he’s having trouble breathing these days, as if the air’s too thin or too thick. Sometimes he gets dizzy. Thank God, a vacation’s due him for the days he missed last summer when the agency was in the midst of a hard sell to client. That night he dreams of water and wakes to find himself curled up behind Nan. Saturday morning at services he’s given the honor of an aliyah and a blessing before leaving for two weeks.

They fly to a place where he doesn’t read the papers, doesn’t listen to the news on NPR, though even here on St. John, the ongoing suffering that isn’t called news, because it’s nothing out of the ordinary, waits at the back of his head. But this is the vacation when he can teach Pete, who at seven loves to swim underwater, to snorkel—to float and dive and stare at the shimmer of blue and yellow fish streaming by in the clear water like a flag of some underwater country. To let go, almost sleep, breathing through a little tube, hardly needing to breathe at all, to make the slightest effort. He is breathed. And even when, leaving Pete with Nan, he plunges deep, searching caves under the coral to find the big squid the captain of the little boat has told them about, he has no trouble holding his breath; he’s able to stay under long, long, long, while other members of the party return to the surface, dive, return, dive. Coming up, he’s met by Pete and Nan—who says, “Pete was worried about you.”

It’s Nan who’s worried, and she doesn’t even know she has reason to worry, doesn’t know his dizzy, choking sucking of breath of these past few weeks. Diving again, he enters a condition that feels like prayer, and there seems to be no question of breathing at all; it’s as if he were wearing scuba gear. He’s always swum like a fish. Bending his knees, he kicks deeper, further, till no one from the boat is visible, till the keel of the boat disappears, till the reef drops away into blackness. And it’s here, down among the larger fish, solitary adult versions of the little ones in schools by the reef, iridescent blues and flame reds, that he realizes something unusual is occurring. He feels as if he’s home—or at least as much at home as in the nightmare world above.

But of course, that’s not saying a lot. When has he ever felt at home? His whole life hasn’t he been an illegal immigrant with forged papers? Not so unusual. His fathers and mothers before him, back and back and back to the loss of the Second Temple, have been wanderers. Earlier, in fact. We’ve been wanderers since Abraham was told by God to pick up and go, go. We get along, breathing foreign air. At least now, in America, shouldn’t we breathe easy?

But Fishman, asthmatic New Yorker, has been breathing with difficulty; he’s soothed by this strange dark place.

~

“We were worried sick,” Nan half-screams at him. Pete has been crying. Snorkelers stare. Fishman touches the subtle, perhaps invisible, slits on the sides of his neck, where the carotid artery shelters in the hollow of windpipe and muscles. Peculiar—that when, under the water, he brushed his fingers from jaw to collarbone, he felt, or didn’t he, a faint ripple of openings, leaf-like, fringed; now, nothing. “It’s an old capability—I used to win contests as a kid,” he says. Not a lie. But by the looks he’s getting, why, he must have been under for over a minute. Two minutes?

Three minutes, maybe more. It felt like ten.”

At this moment, he feels the great joy of breathing. Breath fills him. Nishmat kol chai . . . The breath, the soul, of every living being will praise Your Name. He feels flooded with breath. But he wants to dive again. There is such healing pleasure in dropping into an atmosphere that holds him, contains and supports him. And suppose he has mutated, grown gills, who knows—maybe, he thinks, through exposure to electromagnetic waves that night in the Laurentians last month, at the very top of the mountain, when he skied away from the lit-up slopes into unlit back country and saw the pulse of the northern lights. We come from the sea; in the womb we morph through fishlike being. Maybe he never lost his sea-being. Or it might be simple craziness from too little real life day after day—hunger for true life. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m perfectly fine.” He tumbles backward off the boat into the water, clears his mask; diving, he kicks down, down to fan coral, brain coral, creatures of the reef. He knows if he tries to breathe in an ordinary way down here, he’ll drown like anyone else. But it’s so peaceful. There’s no strain. He touches his neck. Well? What is that he’s feeling under the rough fringe of day-old beard?

~

Tonight, in the rented condo with a view of the sea, he thinks, I should give up New York, Ishould give up my job, though it’s the job, he knows, that lets him rent the condo. Nan warned him tonight: “Don’t play games in the water. I don’t want to lose you.” And she looked at him as if there were something odd about him. Well, and isn’t there? Curled up, an overlapping question mark, behind Nan, sinking into sleep, he feels water rocking him; it speaks, the water, in fragments of Hebrew prayer; words flow by without his understanding or caring whether he understands. Middle of the night he wakes, says to himself, I get it. I get it. It’s about my mother. The sea is my mother—not a mother out of myth, but my own dear, gone mother, Shirley Barlach.

His mother floats sidestroke at Long Beach. No great shakes as a swimmer, she splashed a little ocean into the cleft between her breasts to acclimate herself: the yenta crawl. Then ten strokes and stand and wrap her pudgy arms around herself, fifteen more strokes and stand and sigh for his benefit, “Beautiful!” For his benefit, so he’d appreciate the sea, but when he did, she was afraid for him. In mind’s eye she stands at the edge of the sea when he’d swum too deep and, pulling a colored kerchief from between her breasts, wave, call and wave. “Don't make me come after you!”

Sea air heals wounds. In the morning Nan kisses him and makes breakfast; Adam puts together sandwiches, chips and fruit in an insulated bag, cold water in a thermos, and they drive their Jeep to a beach at the opposite end of St. John. No boat today. He has to swim far out to get to deep water, away from the eyes of his family, and diving, he feels the water sweet on his skin. Blue tang and angel fish and an odd fish with wings that must dream of changing into a bird. Touch­ing the feathery places at the sides of his neck, he finds his skin extraordinarily sensitive. Well, that makes sense if he’s growing more fishlike. The blue, fringed angelfish swimming alongside, the parrotfish in its fantastic colors and the leisurely yellow-fin tuna below, they all have skin that’s alive, not dead like ours—their scales are covered by a slippery, living membrane. Now he, without scales, feels everything, the way a lover feels. It’s only in making love that our living flesh touches living flesh. But today all his flesh feels alive. In the air, of course, it will die. But why go back? Why did he think he could manage to make a career, marry, raise a human child? He imagines his own dull pink skin become an iridescent sheen of, say, yellow, say crimson, color of blood. His blood is warm in the cool sea; not like a fish at all. And if his skin is slippery, isn’t that the suntan oil? And hmm . . . hasn’t it been a long time he’s been down here? And what if he went on and on, anonymous, no more odd than any of these creatures, barely a stranger to the reef?

~

In the upper world he must seem increasingly a stranger to his wife. Dozing on a bamboo mat, he catches her staring at him. Pretending to be purely human, he calls to Pete, “Don’t dig right under those palms, honey. A coconut could fall on you.” He smiles at Nan. See?

“Why are you breathing like that?” she asks.

“Like what?”

“Like the way you’re breathing, so unnaturally, all that tremendous effort. You never have asthma in the Caribbean. You’re lying on a beach, for godsakes.”

“I’ll relax. I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable.” He leans across her to take up the thermos of water, and, trying not to be observed, fills his cheeks and throat, holding the water before drinking, the way a fish breathes. Then its gills take oxygen from the water inside the mouth. Well, if he has gills, they must be rudimentary. It’s this in-between stage that’s difficult. Adam Fishman, forty-two, of New Rochelle, senior copywriter at the New York firm of Barton, Garrels and Davis, has undergone a curious mutation. . . .

How do other people get along so comfortably in the world? How is the flimsy apparatus credible to them? He—he can practically see the two-by-fours in back holding up the set. On Fridays his account-team meets to discuss the progress of the “campaign” to sell flavored vodkas. He grows sleepy. What campaign? Is this a war? Where’s the battlefield? All over the world, real fields of battle are littered with corpses. He rubs his fingertips over the imitation-cherry grain of the laminated table-top. Bravely, they run PowerPoint demos; they might as well be speaking in Chinese. He grows sleepy. Yet he nods, asks questions. In the long run, what goes on TV or into print gets settled late one afternoon by the account executive, who puts Adam’s words together with Lucia’s story boards. At team meeting they’ll look at the results and congratulate one another.

What holds them up? The atmosphere is so thin. A fish is held in an element whose specific gravity almost equals its weight. What a good deal! Its bones don't need to be so massive. We—we have to hold thick bones upright, lift a hundred seventy pounds of grief at every step. We hold ourselves up, a tremendous juggling act; and so a ballet dancer or ice skater who makes a lift, a leap, look effortless—what an achievement! Hard enough for the rest of us just to walk.

“What did you say? Honey?”

“I didn’t mean to say. Did I say?”

“Adam? Maybe you should go see . . .”

Thigh bone connected to the knee bone. Imagine, instead, growing tail and fins and the long side muscles that let you race ahead, imagine the jet force of water through your gills, leaving far behind Leonard Barton and his twelve neatly collated copies.

“Adam?” she says, rolling over to share his side of the bamboo mat. “Why don’t you quit the agency? We’ve got savings. We can make do on one salary while you go for a masters—”

“—In what?”

“In whatever. I can’t stand seeing you suffer like this. I want the man I married.”

“A Caribbean vacation is hardly suffering.”

“Not the point. Why argue with me? You know I’m right.”

She touches and strokes with her delicate violinist fingers the skin of the inside of his thigh. Ahh. His body flames with color, toes to the tips of his ears, and breath swells within him. It’s the surprise that does it. They’ve been together eighteen years, since they both worked for Sprint just after college. They’re no honeymooners. But flooded with her touch and breath, he’s seduced back into the human world. Is it his new skin, still alive? No, it’s under the skin. It’s temporary, perhaps, but they share a cocoon of life-blood. People talk about making love and mean full connection of living skin to living skin; but this contact, simple, finger to thigh, is already lovemaking; already, while Pete plays at the edge of the sea, they’re swimming together in a single warm current.

Seduced. Making love is like basking in the sea. He’s hooked, drawn back by her to the surface world. He walks to where Pete is digging in white sand. Pete is inside a dream, kind of singing to himself the music of the dream the way he did when he was much younger. Adam digs as Pete’s digging, builds the way he’s building. They hum together; does Pete hear him?

Slipping away, away from his family, away from the two other families on the beach, he heads out to sea, black fins giving him speed, a good thousand yards and down, down to the reef. He opens his mouth to the sea; the snorkel tube bobs uselessly. He imagines water pulsing out through his gills, breathing him. A lazy barracuda swims past; another. He’s all alone. No one can see how long he’s down. Unseen, he stays and stays. How long? Who knows? Suppose he never returned, a freak of nature. Where would he find a minyan, a quorum for prayer, in a place like this? That enormous conch at the base of a sculpture of brain coral, it’s like Triton’s horn, a seagoing shofar. Can you count a Jewfish part of a minyan? If he doesn’t become a bottom feeder, and that’s certainly not likely, would he be a kosher fish? God of fish and human creatures, what are You telling me?

Dawdling on his return, maybe a hundred yards away he sees on the beach a flurry of activity. And now he hears Nan’s voice, calling. She’s waving her beach hat at him; he can read in the set of her shoulders, before he can make out her face, that something’s wrong. Pete! He picks up his pace, pulls off his fins and runs through the shallows. He hears Pete. Nan turns away from him. Eight, nine people surround the mats. Pete’s curled on his side, twisting and turning, crying, yelling, loud as he can, and that’s louder than imaginable, writhing, “Daddy, Daddy, my foot, Mom­my!” It’s already swelling. Nan says, “I was right there—he lost his water shoe.” A sea urchin? Must be. He was pierced and stung. Oh, look at that foot. Nan says, “It’s turned purple—look!”

Adam reaches down. “Don’t touch my foot!” Pete shrieks. Standing, waving his hands at the circle of sympathizers—like doing a breast stroke or like clearing away bad energy in a chi gung move, Adam says, “Please, please, he’ll be okay. Please back off . . . I’ll carry him,” he says to Nan. She collects their things. Adam says, “I’m gonna lift you, honey—I won’t touch your foot.”

“Don't touch my foot, don't touch my foot.”

“I won’t. I won’t. Promise.” Adam feels almost guilty, his boy betrayed by the sea Adam loves, by Adam’s relatives; as if he held himself responsible for what went on in his ocean. He picks Pete up, pretending laughter, “Look at that foot, just look at it. Weird, huh? Mommy will give you the camera, you take a picture and we’ll email it to Jeremy, to Grandma and Grandpa.”

“No! No!”

“No, we won’t take any pictures.”

“Yes! Pictures!”

“Yes, we’ll just groan about the picture ourselves.”

“Now! I want to take a picture! Where’s Mommy’s camera?”

They have to stop the trek till Nan locates the camera and Pete snaps one, two, three pictures of his own foot. “Do you want to keep it private?”

No! In fact, now he wants to send it to his teacher, to his friends, to his Grandma and Grandpa, Nan’s parents—Adam’s are both gone now. “Send it today!”

“Does it hurt?”

A long, awful howl; Adam is sorry he asked.

~

At the little hospital, a jarring Jeep-ride away, the nurses, the doctor, are used to the stinging, the swelling, the yelling. With hot water and a topical anesthetic, gently they pull out the spines and take most of his pain away. An antihistamine, an antibiotic. It’s not a stone fish did the damage, thank God, only a sea urchin, and the purple is a dye; nothing to worry about, it will fade. Adam holds one hand, and across the gurney, Nan the other. They promise him the moon for his bravery. Pete wants to look at the digital photos. He’s never going in the water again! Oh, we’ll get you water shoes that won’t come off, don’t worry. Let’s sue the shoe people, Pete says, we can make a lot of money. Nan asks, You want another ginger ale? With ice! he says. She goes off.

Adam holds Pete’s hands and swings them; the two pair of joined hands, he tells Pete, are the two of us, father and son, swimming deep. He mumbles a prayer for healing. Why does breath come so easy here in the fluorescent white-on-white of a hospital? Love, supposed to take your breath away, softens the chest and oxygenates the blood, making breathing warm and rich. Where would he rather be than here? Fish can’t fantasize lawsuits or email pictures of their swollen feet. Fish are merely beautiful and silent. A good thing: beauty and silence are conditions for love. But listen—so is pain. Ahh! Love is a condition for love. Period.

But suppose he’s becoming a monster, half man, half silent fish. Suppose he stops breathing altogether and they have to build a filtered aquarium tank for him at the boat basin on 79 th Street? I mean, who wants to live in the chilly, unfiltered Hudson? He could surface to spend time in the gritty air with Pete and Nan. How’s school? How’s your job? They’ll make a living by charging admission, living installation art, till New Yorkers get bored.

“Pete, here’s your ginger ale.” Nan’s back. “The doctor,” she says, “tells me you’ll be fine in the morning. We’ll go buy you beautiful shoes that stay on your feet.”

“And it’s Friday. Tonight’s Shabbos,” Adam says. “I brought traveling silver candlesticks. We’ll make Shabbos and you can have a sip of wine and forget your feet.”

Adam puts a finger to his neck. What’s there? Probably nothing, after all. Maybe, he thinks, shock has reversed the metabolic processes. Or suppose by will and love for his family he stemmed the metamorphosis, altered his genes. Or does God-so-be­yond want him to return to the condition of being simply a human creature? Do ordinary fish have the power to become human? No. Does Fishman have the power? God knows. But please!—has he ever been utterly a fish? Maybe all over creation there are fish-like people, birdlike people, and why not lion-like? Certainly there are secret devil-people. Maybe with practice somebody can become halfway an angel. Somebody, thinks Adam, but not me. Maybe a decent man.

~

Next day0 they’re at a beach where the white sand goes out and out, slope free of sea urchins, till it falls steeply away into lovely depths. What a sweet place to spend the Sabbath. While Nan and Pete dive among littler fish, Adam swims out and out, drops down and down. He blesses the reef. Sad to think he’ll stay in the world of gravity and dirty air, seducing with false words to make a living. Unreal, unreal. The real world throbs with suffering and death, and what is he doing?—helping a vodka importer please its stockholders. At the base of great coral sculptures and gardens decorated with starfish, he comes upon a giant, brown grouper too torpid to turn away. They examine one another, mutually strange. Adam imagines the fish asking him for his papers at this border crossing. I have no papers—I’m just visiting, he thinks. What a dreary creature, the grouper says. All one color and no tail. Even duller than me.

You shouldn’t tell creatures they’re dreary, Adam says, hurt by the brush-off. Especially on Shabbos you’re not supposed to bad-mouth.

The grouper opens and closes his funny mouth. Adam doesn’t speak the language.

All over the world crops of corpses are being harvested today. More will be ready to be picked tomorrow. What is he doing here? Who is he kidding? He belongs up in that world of gravity and gratuitous pain—of suffering beyond the common suffering, of living a life and dying a death. Maybe his secret job is to take away a little of the sting. But will he? Will he bring back this beauty from the reef? Or will he take a taxi across midtown, then sit tapping his foot while the meter’s running and bill the time to client? Dress up and nod like hell in board rooms. He’ll have to work harder than ever at protective coloration if he wants to make a living. And ah, client will spot him. Client will shake its corporate head. Some­thing fishy here, they’ll say.

His human lungs gasping for air, he kicks up to the surface, swims back to gravity. To Pete and to Nan.

 

John J. Clayton’s third novel, Kuperman’s Fire, will be published in spring 2007. His collection Wrestling with Angels: New and Collected Stories will be published in fall 2007. Clayton’s stories have appeared in O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories, and Pushcart Prize Stories. His “Light at the End of the Tunnel” (AGNI Online) was named one of the Top Ten Online Stories of 2005 by storySouth. (2/2007)


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