Amphibian

My family hadn’t been doing well. It was mostly due to me, my presence in the world. My dad and my brother were good people—they were solid. My brother had graduated Princeton; he was a software engineer and made a lot of money although he was not happy about life. I dropped out of college and got a job at the SPCA—the pound. After I dropped out, my dad died of brain cancer. He had been running corporate development at a quantitative trading firm, and he rode the PATH train in to Union Square every day from Jersey. Then the brain stuff, then death.

After he died, Mom had no one who she really wanted to depend on. And she looked lonely. That’s the worst way a person can look, very lonely, so I avoided coming to see her. She was falling apart like an old jellyfish. It embarrassed me to be around them, my mom or my brother. Dad’s presence had shed a sort of good light on everything, but with him gone we could all see each other better: My brother was good and deserved a lot, my mother was weak and needed care, and I was not a good person.

My apartment was in Brooklyn and that’s where I stayed. The logical thing would have been to live at home with Mom, since she needed someone around. But I was no good with her, so I stayed away. One day my brother went by the house to visit her and it was filthy. The swimming pool out back was covered in green scum. My brother decided to move back in with her. Back home he went, and now he was taking the PATH train in to Union Square every day from Jersey.

I felt really bad. Whenever I thought about my family, I felt ashamed.

Then an old girlfriend called my brother. He had loved this particular girl, now a woman, in high school, but she hadn’t loved him the same way. Now she was in Palo Alto, California, and something had gone wrong. Somehow her life had gone wrong.

“I have to go out there,” he said. “I have to go out there and see her.”

We were talking on the phone.

“You come stay with Mom for a few days,” said my brother, “while I’m in California.”

I said I would be there in the morning, Saturday morning. But I forgot what day it was and I came on Sunday. Sunday night. I had lost my job, the job at the pound. It was easy to forget what day it was.

Mom looked malnourished but sort of weirdly swollen. She was fifty-five or so but seemed older, bloated in the torso but desiccated in the face. I found it difficult to look her in the eye; in the past I had not only disappointed her but treated her badly. Now she was in such poor condition, I felt that my father must be watching me all the time, possibly from another room, with a look of disgust. “You’ve gotten taller,” my mother kept muttering at me when my back was turned, and I would say, “No, your body is just shrinking into itself, so things look taller from your low angle,” and she would mutter, confusingly, “You’re still growing, you’re still growing, you’ll get big yet.”

And I would say, “I’m not getting any bigger at all.”

Sometimes I imagined that not only was my father watching me from another room, my brother was, too. Both of them standing there, arms crossed, pained faces turned a little to the side as if they almost could not bear to look at me. “Look at your mother,” their faces said. “Look at what condition she’s in.”

On Monday, or maybe Tuesday, my brother called. “Things are out of hand here,” he said. He sounded happy. “I have to stay a day or two longer. Ramona is going through a lot of shit.”

“Things are out of hand here, too,” I said. Something noisy was happening in the background in Palo Alto, so my brother had to get off the phone.

After he hung up, I went in the living room and looked at Mom.

Her neck had sunk into her torso, and her head could not move from side to side. She was very shiny. Her torso had continued to bloat, and her arms were flattening out strangely, the fingers fusing. She looked like some kind of sea creature.

“Mom,” I said. “What’s happening to you?”

“Your father would have known what to do,” she said. She was lying on the living room floor, on her side. I felt ashamed and backed out of the room.

By the morning after that, or maybe it was two mornings later, her clothes didn’t fit her anymore. She lay naked on the living room floor. I would have been more embarrassed than I was, but she seemed to have no visible sex organs anymore. All her fingers had elongated and completely fused together, and her limbs had flattened out like big, wide, white flippers. The skin of her body had become glossy and smooth like a porpoise’s back, except white.

“Dad would have known what to do,” I mumbled.

She tried to answer but her changing anatomy made it hard for her to talk, I think, and her words were a sort of mooing. This all made me feel anxious and guilty. I tried to feed her but she couldn’t eat well—her mouth didn’t open much. Finally I forced some jello in and squeezed milk into her mouth.

My brother called again. “I have to take care of Ramona!” he said happily. “She’s crying in the laundry room!” And: “I’ll be here another couple days. Take care of Mom.” After I spoke to him, I held my head in my hands. I was sweating, my fingers kept fidgeting, and I couldn’t stop pacing. If my brother and my dad could have seen me now, what I had let happen to Mom, they would have looked at each other, shaking their heads, so terribly disappointed—but not surprised.

By dusk, Mom seemed to be having trouble breathing and she reminded me of something beached, a small fat whale possibly. So I rolled her across the living room floor and out onto the patio. (It took some maneuvering to get her through the sliding glass door, but she fit. I just had to angle it right.) The swimming pool behind the house was still covered in green scum. Mom’s mouth kept flopping open like a fish’s. “I know,” I said. “I know. I understand what you need.” I rolled her to the edge of the swimming pool and dumped her in with a splash.

The water was totally stagnant, but right away I could see she was happy. It took her a minute to get used to being in there, but then she was okay. She floated, bobbing a little. Blinking her big eyes. On her face, there was something a little bit like a smile—a retarded smile. I felt relieved.

I didn’t sleep well that night, though—I lay awake for a long time. A lot of things were bothering me. I had fucked up my life. I should never have dropped out of college. I had disappointed everyone and there were other things I regretted too. I had made bad decisions.

In the morning, feeling guilty and wanting it to have been a dream, I went back to the edge of the pool where she was floating, bobbing. Trees around the edge of our back yard, plus the fence around the pool, kept her out of the sight of the neighbors, basically. If someone had looked closely, they might have seen a big white thing sort of paddling around in our disgusting pool.

Mom was mooing and I figured it meant she was hungry. From the kitchen cabinet I got a tin that said “Kippers” on it, and I opened the tin and took it to edge of the pool, where, with a lot of trying, I was able to feed the thin little things to her. She sort of sucked them down without chewing.

My brother called, but I was afraid to answer the phone. The first time, I had answered without looking at the caller ID, and I heard him say in a sad voice, “I guess everything is okay here now.” Then I said, “Who is this? I wouldn’t know anything about things that are okay. You dialed the wrong number,” and I hung up the phone and didn’t answer when it rang again and again.

He kept calling though, so after a while I would just pick up the phone and set it down again, and finally I took it off the hook.

I was trying to think of a way to turn Mom human again, but I couldn’t think of anything. I didn’t want to call anyone for help, like a doctor. I was hoping the problem would just fix itself on its own.

In the late afternoon I fed her again, and then once more after dark. I was very careful about remembering to feed her.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” I said. “Everything is okay. Tomorrow morning, I bet you’ll be back to normal.”

In the morning, she was even further from normal. I stood at the edge of the pool looking at her. Instead of feeding her, I went back inside and held my head in my hands.

A key turned in the front door and my brother entered the house slowly, his face sad, a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. His clothes looked like he’d been wearing them for days.

“God damn her,” he said.

He sat down at the kitchen table with me and put his head in his hands, too. I felt embarrassed, anxious.

“Did things go okay with Ramona?” I asked.

He said, “What were you doing with the phone, you asshole?”

I said, “The phone? Oh, did you call me or something?”

“Shut up,” he said, shaking his head in disgust.

I said, “I’m sorry,” meaning that I was sorry about Ramona.

And I was. I really, honestly did feel sorry.

He looked around with a sort of despair. “Look at this kitchen!” he yelled. “It’s filthy! How do you do this in a week?”

I shrugged.

He put his head back in his hands.

I didn’t say anything, partly because I didn’t know what to say and partly because I was afraid me speaking would prompt him to speak, or ask a question, or think about the present instead of about Ramona and the past, and who knew what kind of difficult questions that might lead to. I knew I was going to have to tell him about Mom—I just had to figure out how.

So I kept quiet, maybe sweating just a little, until he got up without a word and went into the living room, where he curled up on the sofa, his face turned away, toward the back of it.

For a moment there was silence, until he said, muffled, “I’m going to lie here. Tell Mom I’m home.”

I said, “Okay.”

After he had fallen asleep, I got up and slipped out the front door, then started back to Brooklyn.

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  • Mohit Parikh

    Great story, Nick. Loved the tension in Mammals (except the last para, which was an easy choice to end?), but this one is more sturdy.

    I felt distracted by the adjective ‘shiny’ in both the stories. Otherwise, I must congratulate you on the seemingly simple prose style.

  • Nate McKinley

    This is one of the best stories I’ve read on this site. Hands down. Thank you.

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