It was five minutes to nine on the best day in the history of the universe; yup, a week after my hometown’s flood and the day that we met. I was cleaning the piranha tank at Pesky’s Fish and Amphibians, the place where I worked, suspecting nothing, when my boss, Mr. Waddles, came over. He dipped his fingers in the water and stirred the fish into a feeding frenzy. “Um, Penny,” he said, “With the town’s reduced customer base, the Peskys have no choice but to let you go.”
“Go where?” I asked.
“Anywhere you won’t be seen by our few remaining customers. You’re fired.” I was speechless but he put a finger over my lips anyway. “Hush,” he said. “Shush.” Which is what he said the time he tried to touch my tits in the broom closet.
“Mr. Waddles,” I pled, “Don’t fire me. I love this job. I love fish and amphibians. I love you.”
But he knew that last part was bull, because of that time in the broom closet when he grabbed my tits and I kicked him in the balls. So he said, “Penny, I’ll be honest with you. The flood is an excuse. Despite their loyalty to your parents, the Peskys want you fired because you smell bad and look worse. Blue hair just doesn’t cut it in the workplace. Pesky’s has a reputation to protect.” I fell to the floor, grabbed his leg and kissed him right on the freckled skin of his knee.
“It’s not me that stinks, Mr. Waddles,” I said. “It’s my clothes. I buy them at the Sally Ann. I’ll get the jackets dry-cleaned. Better, I’ll change. I’m not committed to punk. I don’t even listen to the music.” I was still hanging onto his leg, so he dragged the leg and me across the room to the front door.
“I have…to…open,” he grunted.
“How will I feed my three hundred and twenty-one goldfish without my employee’s discount?” I screamed. “How will I eat? Who will pay the rent?”
“Occidental Airlines will pay for everything,” the bastard said. “When you settle.”
Mr. Waddles unlocked the door and customers trickled in. He sweated as he directed them to the cricket tank and fish pellet aisles. Because of the flood, no one wanted the sunken treasure figurines Pesky’s had advertised on sale. He tried to shake me off his leg, but I was too strong.
“Penny,” he said. “You’re bloody effing nuts.”
“That’s it,” I said. I’m leaving.”
* * *
That fish? Oh, she’s not dead. Her swim bladder is busted so she floats upside down. I make a chair with my hand and sort of scoop her up to feed her. Goldfish can live that way for years.
* * *
Anyway, I was upset and bus service was out, so I walked downtown. My grandma lived near where you and I met, in the tall building with all the bars on the windows. That’s right. The asylum. It’s for people like my grandma who think that they are birds and things.
When my grandma saw the fragile state I was in, she patted my head and cooed. I didn’t mean to tell her about Mr. Waddles, the flood and being crazy were burdens enough, but I couldn’t stop myself. I even confessed to kissing his knee. “I’m traumatized,” I sobbed.
“Traumatized!” my grandma snorted. “Blaa! I’ll tell you about traumatized.” She thought for a moment. “After fifty years of teaching university, I had made my peace with man stink. Then your Mr. Widdles signed up for my Ornithology class.” She paused a moment to preen.
“You aren’t a professor, Grandma,” I said. “You’re a bird. And it’s Waddles.”
“Stop looming large, dear. Rest.” She pointed to the floor and handed me a cushion embroidered with the words There’s No Place Like Home. There was also a picture of an empty nest. I reclined on the floor and filled the nest with my head.
My grandma took a seat and propped my feet on her lap. She removed my sandals and grasped my toes. Her hands felt like those chicken feet they put in Chinese soup. You know, rubbery. “Mr. Widdles,” she said as she massaged, “must have lived in damp storage or a leaking attic. He reeked of mothballs and mouse droppings and fungus.”
“Mouse droppings?” My grandma’s neighbor, Doris, peeped in at the open door. She was six feet tall, bearded and dressed in a black feathered dress and jet beads. I suspected an asylum fashion trend started by my grandmother.
“Go change, Doris,” I said. “Find your own sense of style.” I’d been anti-fashion trends ever since grade eleven when my ex-best friend, Cindy Gourlie, started me on punk and then sold me down the river. She had this party and when I got there I found everyone dressed in Gap, even Cindy. I looked like a major goomba and Cindy said, “I got sick of feeling dirty, Penny. Punk was good for my wild phase but now I’m like, ethereal.”
“Oh,” I said. “And I’m not?”
Cindy’s eyes rolled right back into her head and her Gappy friends twittered. “No way, Penny!’ she said. “You’re like, way too savage.”
I wanted to tell my grandma about Cindy as a warning, but she wasn’t done with Mr. Waddles. “Each day before class, I would spray your Mr. Widdles with sulfuric acid,” she informed me. “To stifle the stench. After a month or so, he complained to the dean. He talked of disciplinary action, possibly a suspension—not of him, but of me.” Just for a moment my grandma looked like something from Hitchcock’s The Birds and I don’t mean the actors. This look was part of why they locked her up.
I was extricating my toes from her claws when I saw a heart-shaped stain spread on the ceiling tiles above me. “You were right to use the acid,” I said. “No one should be permitted to stink like that.” Then a tile gave way and a ton of warm water dumped on my body.
“Oh!” My grandma said. She shook off water and fluffed imaginary feathers. Then she dug up a rose shaped soap from a dresser drawer. I recognized the soap as my mother’s. “PENELOPE,” she declared. “IT IS TIME FOR YOU TO PURGE.”
I knew she was right. It was time. I took the soap and rubbed it until my mother bloomed on my hands. Then I stripped off my favorite T-shirt, the one that promoted Burning Airline’s Come Fly the Flaming Skies CD. I used it to scrub the make-up from my face. There was still a trickle of water, so I rinsed. Next, I removed my face rings. Then I scrubbed away fake tattoos, fake punk band autographs, fake Penny.
When I was clean and real, my grandma rummaged through her closet and came up with a muumuu. It was blue-green and covered with fish. After I put the muumuu on, my grandma twirled me around and pecked me on the cheek. “My daughter was your mother, Penelope.” She told this like a secret.
“I know,” I said. “It made mom so proud that you hatched her.”
My mother was dead. Except for my grandma and me, they all were. Every day for two years I had tried to reconstruct the story so that the plane didn’t crash. Or maybe it did but my family wasn’t on it. Or they were and it did, but I was on the plane with them because I passed algebra and didn’t have to go to summer school.
There was a howl and a nurse stormed my grandma’s room. Her eyes bulged towards the flooded carpet and then bulged towards me. “Leave,” she ordered, as though the flood was my fault and not one of God’s many random acts. “Lunch,” she hollered at my grandma, who wasn’t deaf.
“Take a pill,” I suggested. The nurse called security.
“Grandma,” I shouted as security hustled me away. “Don’t let the buggers get you down.”
“Don’t worry, Penelope.” Her voice was small and getting smaller. “I’ll stick to the air.”
Moments later, I was outside on the slime-covered sidewalk. Security felt guilty so he mentioned that it was warm for a day in May. “You’re wrong, Scotty,” I said. “Today is cold and grey.” He left in a huff.
I was sunk. No shoes, no keys, no money. Then you stepped up. You asked if I had ever seen the ocean in Jamaica. You stared at my muumuu and pointed to a color on the sleeve. “It’s like that,” you said. “That beautiful.” Vapor from an antique steam clock haloed your afro. I thought, “Maybe this lieutenant is special. Maybe she’s here to do more than restore our town. Maybe she’s God’s messenger. Maybe she’s here to deliver an apology.”
I chanced it. I told you what I thought of Jamaica. I told you how I hated them for leaving me behind, how I hoped their plane would crash, how it did. I told you how they burnt to their deaths while surrounded on three sides by water. I told you how I destroyed the airline’s check to damn its soul.
“Occidental Airlines, flight 309,” you said. “Your photo appeared in the paper next to mine. We were scenes of grief.” Your face crumbled into one of those scenes. I touched your hand. It felt hot and firm like a rock on the beach. You smelled of seaweed and I realized that if you were the beach, then I was the sea.
“I’m so sorry.” We said it together, waves lapping shore.
Maybe it was wrong, but we laughed at the coincidence. We laughed like maniacs. Me with my blue hair, bare feet and fish muumuu. You with your black skin, officer’s uniform and briefcase. People stared, but we let them. That laughter, too long in coming, felt great. We laughed and laughed and laughed until our laughter snagged the past.
Then we merged and wept.