a short story by Marléne Zadig
NOT ONLY WAS Candy’s usual seat in the café taken—the one towards the back so she could face the corner—but the only spot available in the whole establishment was beside the oversized aquarium, so her meeting with clients would inevitably be disrupted by squawking toddlers and their plump, meandering hands until someone else moved. She’d only had the one sip of her single-origin latte, but already her stomach was sour.
Actually, her regular table wasn’t so much occupied as it was out of order entirely. She frowned at the gaping hole above where the ceiling tile used to be, the outlines of bulbous, leaky pipes barely visible in the shadows. Fluorescent-orange caution cones formed a triangle where the chairs used to be, a trio of orphaned witches’ hats, discarded as if the wearers had simply melted away underneath. A bright red bucket, strangely clean and cheerful-looking enough—perhaps it was new—collected the periodic dollops of watery discharge from the obscured pipes above.
Candy browsed funny cat videos on her phone to psych herself up for her meeting with the chipper couple whose wedding she was due to shoot the following month. She’d dubbed them Cheery and Cheerio, for though most of her clients were at particularly happy stages of their lives (no one had ever asked her to photograph a funeral, for instance), these two were uniquely perky. At times, obnoxiously so.
“Angeline, how good to see you!” she’d practiced earlier at home in front of the mirror to conceal the Resting Bitch Face she was sure that she had. When Candy looked up just then in the café from the video of a Himalayan pouncing on a Labrador’s tail, she prepared to greet them in person and summoned all her reserves in an attempt to match their intensity just as she’d rehearsed.
“Hel-lo! So good to see you! How are you guys do-ing?” She stood to hug the couple as was expected of her.
“Thanks for meeting us on a weekend! We know you have a busy schedule!” Both Angeline and her fiancé Alden smiled continuously in a way that evoked either plastic surgery or apocalyptic religious sects, though Candy did not think they were affiliated with either of those.
Just as she had feared, as soon as they’d all sat down, two little kids ambled up to the fish tank and smushed their faces against the glass.
“Sorry about this!” she apologized to her clients. “I usually sit over there away from foot traffic, but as you can see, it’s currently ‘occupied,’ haha.”
The mother of the two small children appeared behind them. “They haven’t done anything to disturb you,” she pointed out.
“Oh, of course. Of course! We are the intruders here! Hahaha!” Candy hated this young woman, who looked to be approximately the same age as she was.
“They are so sweet,” Alden gushed in the way one does over young children regardless of whether they are or aren’t charming. One of them was clearly brand new to walking, as she tripped and stumbled her way around the linoleum, pausing only to retrieve her fallen pacifier whenever it inadvertently popped out of her mouth; the other child, a boy, was probably three. Both were still in diapers, which Candy felt reflected laziness on the mother’s part.
“Okay, well, if you—if you guys don’t mind, let’s look at my portfolio of some recent weddings so I can tag the shots that are in the style you’re going for, and then we can make a list of any posed shots with family and friends that you’d like for after the ceremony.”
The threesome scooted their chairs around Candy’s computer to have a better view of the images loading on the screen. Angeline managed to grin even more widely each time the little rugrat grabbed onto her chair or thigh to stabilize herself against a fall, at which point the mother would redirect the toddler to the fish tank and pointedly say, “Come, let’s leave these people alone, Moo-Moo, they’re working. Work-ing.”
“Oh, how precious! You do newborn photos, too!” Angeline squealed when Candy’s portfolio page opened. Candy had not updated her website in quite awhile, had not been taking on new clients lately, though she’d kept her commitment to Alden and Angeline from several months before.
“Used to!” Candy corrected. “Not anymore! The subjects are too unpredictable, haha.” Candy was in the process of redirecting the focus of her business towards landscapes and still lifes, which she intended to sell at craft fairs and art-and-wine festivals. She was done with people. Still, the money was less predictable, and her husband had urged her to at least do some weddings, one or two a month, to help pay the bills. He’d quit his corporate job to restore old furniture at a salvage shop, and the money from his gig was even less steady than hers, and now they had a mortgage.
They’d bought the house for the baby that they didn’t have because she’d lost it.
She’d been so far along that it was technically not a miscarriage anymore but a stillborn, and she’d been so far along that Enrique, her husband, had engraved the name with his router into an antique wooden cradle that he’d restored for them to use beside their bed. It was now in the attic.
As Angeline and Alden scrolled through photos of strangers’ weddings with Candy in between them, they explained that once they were presented as man and wife, they were planning to enter the dance hall to “Come On Eileen,” the Save Ferris version, which Alden had once dedicated to Angeline at a karaoke bar on their first date. He had replaced “Eileen” with “Angeline,” and she was immediately smitten. Come on, Angeline. They wondered aloud if Candy was adept at taking action shots because they were working on a dance number.
Candy couldn’t stand it when people manipulated the meter of codified lyrics to suit their whims.
“Isn’t that whole song a euphemism?” Candy suggested.
“I don’t think so,” Angeline mused, smiling with her mouth even as her brow furrowed. “I mean, it is a fan-tas-tic song! We’ve already decided to name our firstborn ‘Johnnie Rae,’ regardless of gender.”
“Shh! Don’t jinx it, Angie!” Alden scolded.
“Or we could adopt, of course! We could adopt and still call it ‘Johnnie Rae!’”
Candy had always enjoyed the song, and despite the fact that they were presently butchering it, she couldn’t help but play it in the back of her mind. Poor old Johnnie Ray…
Meanwhile, the mother of the two kids took off after the toddler, who bounced off the backs of café chairs like a pinball against its bumpers. The three-year-old, meanwhile, suctioned his mouth against the aquarium and puffed out his cheeks to make steam on the glass, which alternately appeared and disappeared as he breathed out, then in. There were no fish in the aquarium, but instead, only a pair of lampreys, whose mouths—if you were unlucky enough to be facing one head-on—resembled enormous, serrated anuses.
“No, Moo-Moo! No!” The threesome looked up as the mother lunged in vain to prevent the toddler from pulling the red bucket off the corner table, spilling its liquid contents across the tiled floor.
“I’m so, so sorry,” said the mother to the counter staff. “Do you have any paper towels?”
She carried the child gingerly over the small pond on the tile and handed her over to Angeline.
“Would you mind holding her for a minute? I’m afraid we made a huge mess.”
“Of course!” gushed Angeline. “I would be thrilled! Hi, sweetheart!”
“Here’s her binky,” the mother said, handing over the pacifier, and then she turned to help one of the baristas sop up the spreading puddle.
The little girl sat very still in the stranger’s lap, accepted the pacifier, and began to suck voraciously, the plastic shield bobbing in and out like a plunger.
Candy hated pacifiers. She hated more the cutesy terms people used for them: binky, paci, dum-dum, nuk-nuk, or whatever inane combination of idiotic syllables parents came up with to distract from the fact that they were essentially plugging up their babies’ mouths.
Then the boy, big brother, who (as far as Candy could tell) had so far been occupying himself by frenching the fish tank, walked over to his little sister, plucked the dummy out of her mouth, and tossed it up and over the side of the aquarium.
The baby gasped audibly, then began to wail. In the moments between the gasp and the wail, Candy sensed the child’s growing distress, and there was nothing she could do to prevent her own body from responding in the only way it knew how.
She certainly tried: she thought about baseball. Baseball! In the abstract, that is; she didn’t care about or have a particular memory in mind concerning baseball, but given that men were supposed to think about baseball to stifle an erection or premature ejaculation, it was the first thing that came to mind. The shape of the diamond, the white lines punctuated by the smaller white diamonds of the bases (all squares are diamonds, not all diamonds are squares), the rust-colored dirt arcing into the green outfield.
This wasn’t working.
She tried thinking about fishing, boxing—anything foul-smelling and hyper-masculine. Hooks and barbs and guts and jaws, spit and sweat, blood and meat.
She thought about sex, she thought about booze. She thought about having sex while drunk, and later, vomiting up the booze.
But still, her body responded. That particular hardening, the pressure, the uncomfortable tingling that she only just now, only right then for the very first time, realized was probably similar to what it felt like to develop an erection—minus the pleasure, anyway. The same swelling of tissue with fluid, the same urge to release.
She looked down at herself just as the toddler was beginning to holler and felt her bra become wet. There were a few seconds before it would show through her shirt, the built-in bra padding soaking up the liquid from the let-down and spreading it evenly over that fabric, then onto the clingy blouse. It had been a few months, so she had stopped wearing the extra absorbent pads, but still, this happened now and again.
But before either Alden or Angeline or—heaven forbid—the mother could see her chest and comprehend what had just transpired, Candy leapt up out of her seat to get to the fish tank. The little girl continued to howl.
She didn’t think. She plunged her arm into the aquarium to retrieve the pacifier, which had sunk all the way to the bottom, and felt her arm-hairs lift all together and float outward in sync. She’d expected the water to be frigid, or at the very least chilly, but it was strangely tepid, like the puddle of soup left at the bottom of the bowl at the end of a meal. The tank was deep and shrouded by green scum, the perfect lair for a pair of lampreys.
As she stood on her toes and reached further into the tank, water from the top sloshed out and onto her shirt, disguising the dampness that had already developed there. The feeling of reaching into the aquarium, of the water sloshing up onto her shirt, reminded her of something that had happened when she was very small herself, about five years old.
She had been wearing a borrowed hair clip of her older sister’s—clandestinely borrowed, that is. It was Candy’s favorite in a series, red plastic with a cat playing the fiddle. Her mother had frugally bought a single sheet of assorted Goody barrettes and split them evenly between the sisters, but Candy got the ones with bunnies and teddy bears, and she didn’t want bunnies and teddy bears; she wanted the cat and the fiddle.
Candy’s hair was thicker than her sister’s, and though the barrettes were lined with tiny teeth for gripping, the clips always snapped open from being over-full. The toilet tank was open at the moment because she needed to flush, and the chain was always getting stuck on the opening to the overflow tube, so her father had shown the girls how to reattach it. She disliked manipulating toilet water, but the chain was always right there at the top, so it was never too much of an ordeal. But this time as she stood on her tiptoes to peek over the top of the tank, her sister’s barrette burst open off her head and plopped into the mucky water, sinking straight to the bottom beside the flush valve.
She’d gasped, then heard her sister coming down the hall to knock on the door.
“I need to use the bathroom!”
“In a minute!” she’d yelled, and then she started to cry, for though she was just old enough to learn how to reattach the chain, she was still young enough to think that the water in the tank was completely contaminated with pee. The mottled, mustard-yellow scum encrusting the inside of the tank only contributed to her belief that it contained pee-water, and the idea of reaching her whole, pure little arm in there was really quite revolting.
But she had stolen the hair clip—she had meant to put it back before her sister got home from school. Candy was still only in morning kindergarten, but her sister was in the second grade and in school all day, but Candy couldn’t yet tell time with any precision.
She swallowed the slime creeping up her throat and thrust in her arm, but she’d miscalculated how much water her arm would displace, and it swashed up and submerged the sleeve of her very favorite Strawberry Shortcake t-shirt. She retrieved the clip and flung it into the sink in disgust in one single motion, then shoved the now-wet shirt over her head, wiped her arm with it, and threw it onto the floor, bawling all the while.
Her sister burst in.
Between rising sobs, Candy told her, “I—-got—-pee—-all—-over—-my—-ARM!!!!!!”
Now, in the café, Candy grasped the ring-shaped handle of the pacifier and felt a terrible, unexpected pain as she pulled her arm up from the aquarium. She snatched it out the rest of the way as fast as she could and handed the pacifier to the little wailing child without a second thought, half-expecting there to be a lamprey attached to the outside of her forearm, which burned with a searing ferocity.
“Oh my GAWD! What have you done?” cried the mother, dashing back from across the room. Surely, the woman must have seen whatever horrible thing had happened to her arm, Candy was thinking, and was rushing to her aid.
But no, the woman was yelling at her, it was soon clear, though she would not return Candy’s gaze. The mother pried the pacifier out of the toddler’s hands just as the child was about to place it back in her mouth straight from the fish tank.
“Do you want to kill my baby? Jesus Christ!”
“He’s not in right now,” Candy remarked, offering the canned response that she and her husband were prone to giving one another lately whenever one of them used the epithet.
The woman huffed out of the café with her two now-both-wailing children in tow. She stopped at the trash can by the exit and made a big show of throwing the contaminated pacifier away before leaving, carefully avoiding eye contact all the while. The toddler looked at her mother as though she had just murdered a kitten.
I’m sorry, Candy thought to the girl. Then—It hurts, it hurts, it hurts.
She looked at Angeline and Alden and saw for the first time since she’d met them that they were not smiling.
“We’d better call the paramedics,” Alden suggested.
Candy began to feel dizzy, then saw in the reflection of the fish tank that a large strip of flesh on the outside of her arm was hanging off like the peel from a banana.
This reminded her of something else from her childhood: her family was attending a summer street fair when she was eight, and she was holding a cone of purple cotton candy, which she’d pulled off in sections, like gauze, with her teeth. The road was closed off to traffic, but for some reason, this motorcyclist—who was riding bare-chested and wearing only shorts because it was that kind of savagely hot day—didn’t see the roadblocks in time and plowed through like they were bowling pins. He swerved to avoid a group of cheerleaders and then skidded across the road face-down for what seemed like the whole block. Candy watched, riveted, horrified that she had just seen a man die.
But he didn’t die. Against all odds, he raised himself up off the ground. He was far away, but she could still see that he no longer had any skin, or even a nose, down the whole front side of his body. Though he stumbled towards them, he was like a figure in a dissection, or in a textbook of human anatomy. But at least he was alive, she thought. He was terrifying to behold, but he was still alive. She then dropped her cone of cotton candy, screamed, and ran.
Later, and throughout her youth, she’d pictured this man recovering in a hospital ward wrapped up in bandages like a bona fide mummy, perhaps existing in this mummy-state forever. Once she was a teenager, she considered that maybe he’d gotten skin grafts from other parts of his body, or even a whole skin transplant from a cadaver.
It was only now in the café as that strip of flesh on her arm, which must have been slashed by some hidden sharp edge of the aquarium’s partial lid, as that strip hung down and she could see the tendons in her arm in the glass, only now did she realize that the man from the motorcycle hadn’t survived at all beyond those first few moments—he couldn’t possibly have. It had been a death march, not a resurrection. Her childhood brain must have created that story in the aftermath of watching this bogeyman stagger down the street towards her with nothing to hold in his flesh, with nothing to keep him inside of himself, as if, in one stroke, the universe had laid bare all of his worst secrets.
And she wept for him as the barista brought over towels to cover her wound. For to her, the man had only just died, right then—right that very second. Too-ra-loo, she sang softly—almost a whisper—for the dead man, as she slowly slumped to the floor. Too-ra-loo-rye-ay.
Marléne Zadig’s stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Joyland, Slice Magazine, Green Mountains Review Online, and The East Bay Review and are currently being translated into Swedish for Kapitel Magazine. She’s a 2016 Pushcart Prize and storySouth Million Writers Award nominee, a Best of the Net finalist, and the runner-up for the Fulton Prize for Short Fiction. Her work made Longform’s Top 5 list of Best Fiction in 2015. She’s a born and bred Californian who now lives in Berkeley, where she is knee-deep into a novel about wildfire.