She’d read that the skin was the body’s largest organ, that it could easily weigh fourteen pounds, and imagined it folded like a blanket, a wetsuit, or a flap of tripe. She put her hands to her face and explored the contours of her bone structure, tracing the ridge of her nose, the span of her cheekbones, the shallow depressions at her temples. She moved her fingers around to the bumps behind her ears then slid them across the wall of her brow, moving the skin and feeling its slippage over the bone. Raking her hair over her face she smelled salt, oil, smoke, a distant hint of lavender shampoo. She knew she’d made a mistake when she’d seen his expression. Not so much a sneer as outrage that she was presumptuous enough to make a decision of her own. Now she shook her head from side to side so that her hair lashed left and right the way it did when he grabbed her by the neck. She folded her hair behind her ears, first left then right, neatly, then smiled admiring the reflection of her teeth in the lake. Her teeth were impeccable, the gums a series of pink arches that put her in mind of the Alhambra with its elegant arcade. Her knees had grown damp in the lake-side sand. Placing her hands flat on the ground, feeling the grit on her palms, she leaned close to the water as though to drink and thought of animals, wildebeest, elephant, all the various deer in the world that come at dawn to drink at lakes, but she did not drink, she very gently kissed her own lips.
J envied the lake’s calm, a calm he’d never enjoy again, for it was gone, like his youth, his innocence. His hands and arms twitched as if his nerves were shorting out. And all the while the lake’s sheer smooth surface was innocently reflecting the stars as though it was a wide-eyed child gazing at the wonder of the night. But kids weren’t innocent. They were envious and greedy and cruel, and the lake was deceitful, pretending to be so pure despite the tainted body lying in its silty bottom. It was poisonous now, no matter how placid and clear it tried to look, poisonous, and by morning the fish would be floating belly up like so many brightly coloured balloons.
The sun cast a white path across the lake but he knew better than to walk out onto it because his feet were muddy and there would be trouble, the way his mother got mad when he tracked oil from the alley onto her kitchen floor. Don’t sit on the couch with those pants. Don’t lean your head back or the oil in your hair will stain the fabric. Don’t put your feet on the table.
The night had not turned out quite as expected though perhaps for the best—all things considered—and here was the sun, as in the song, more reliable than any guardian in its routine of night and day. He pulled his boots off and studied the rind of callus on each heel. He rolled his jeans and waded out to his knees where the mud slid like tongues between his toes. His mother used to give him a nickel for each seagull feather he collected. After supper she’d go into the bathroom—The Vomitorium she called it—and push one of those feathers slowly down her throat. She was not without a sense of her own absurdity. Come here. Patting her lap, encouraging him to lay his head on her thighs and slowly stroking his hair as they watched Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
They’d laughed like old comrades in arms, campaigners who’d seen the worst of war and now, veterans, stood with their hands behind their backs and their chests out looking at the lake as though inspecting an army over which they shared command, thousands of troops, rank after rank at attention. Look at this, old friend, said one. Yes, answered the other, look at it, think of the battles we could win. Then the one put the pistol barrel to his buddy’s temple and pulled the trigger and would have turned the gun on himself but he wanted to live a little longer, just a little, alone by the lake in the night that throbbed with frogs, that echoed the guns.
The water was still and the moon new and the rats of paradise slept at his feet.
It was pathetic. The guy whining over and over I just wanna go home, I just wanna go home. Skinny guy, grubby, maybe thirty years old, wearing sweatpants and a navy blue nylon team jacket and a ball cap. I don’t know what he’d swiped—what is there in Safeway of any real interest except pharmaceuticals, and the best ones are behind the counter—so what could he have nabbed other than some plain Tylenols. Or maybe it was only a tin of spaghetti. Pathetic. Two stock boys had collared him. They were thrilled. The highlight of their shift, holding this scrawny fuck down between the cornflakes and crackers. Me I just walked past with the other holier-than-thou shoppers, the innocent consumers ready and willing to line up patiently and pay too much for too little. I had a meat mallet, a knife set, a roll of Mentos, two tangerines, and a pair of pantyhose. The cashier—Maureen—cut me a suspicious glance when she rang the pantyhose through. I smiled. What did she think, that I’d put them on and beat off? I stepped on the rubber mat and as the door hissed open saw myself in the glass. The lake is like glass, black glass, and I watch my reflection. My knees ache kneeling here, and I think of those Catholics walking on their knees, all devout, and I’m kind of impressed. I scoop a palm of water and wash my face. Ablutions. The quest for purity. After a few seconds the lake surface regains its calm and my reflection reassembles. Like Riordan’s face when he recognized me. All panicked at first, his face tearing itself apart as if trying to escape its bones. Then he started laughing, because the legs of the pantyhose were hanging down over my shoulders like some sort of jester’s cap. I kind of enjoyed the tightly wrapped feeling, my face all compressed by that sheer fabric designed to hug the el supremo, and yeah Maureen, I’m thinking about you, and if you’re lucky maybe I’ll come a’courting some moonless night. But I’ve got a complaint. The handle of the meat mallet snapped. That’s right. One blow and pop, broken. But it was a good hit. On the mark. Riordan sank. Just sank to his knees like the schmuck in the store.
Fish nudged their way along the bank. Small grey fish. Perch? Mullet? Trout? He didn’t know anything about fish. Except that they had no eyelids. Or some kind of invisible eyelid. Or no nerves in their eyeballs. Like the brain. The brain has no nerves, so he’d heard, wherever it is you hear such things, meaning you can just stick a scalpel in, cut a bit out, the bit that was wrong, that was rotten, that was causing all the trouble. Brain food. His mother was always saying that. Anyway, the fish glided along to the right keeping close to the rocks then came gliding back as if on patrol. In some places they use grenades to fish. He’d read that too. Or heard it. Boom and up they come. Carp? Dolly Vardens? Do they know each other, communicate? He heard that sound travels four times faster in water but in his experience it wasn’t any clearer, it was distorted, like a deaf guy talking, all warped and blunted. He’d rather be deaf than blind. Though he’d heard that the deaf are paranoid, always looking over their shoulders, thinking someone’s sneaking up. He looked around. Tall grass and bullrushes like a wall around the lake. Mid-afternoon, no people, no wind, nothing, just birds in the reeds. He could hear them. Could the fish? Or maybe they felt the vibration? He crouched down, scraped up a handful of sandy dirt and tossed it into the lake. The fish fled. Then, as the dirt sifted down, the fish returned, nosing the granules. He remained squatting, pain in his joints approaching, like a mute siren. Another minute or so and he’d have to stand. But for now he watched the pain’s advance just as he watched the lake, the crackly reeds, the hazy sky that was not quite overcast, then he shut his eyes imagining being blind, hearing the sounds everywhere, behind, below, above, hearing the water and the wind and the reeds as well as the siren in the distance growing louder as it approached, as if coming to save him.
She let her clothes slip and stood naked in the night air flowing in off the lake cooling her sweating skin. She held her arms out to her sides as though waiting for an updraft to carry her across the lake. But she did not take flight. Lowering her arms she thought of a diver on a tower, the crowd quiet, upturned faces expectant, and the blue water swaying far below. Palms pressed to her hips she stepped smartly forward and springing from her toes dove neatly into the surprisingly warm water. As she entered she felt herself shedding a skin and was not merely cleansed but freed and swam blindly ahead, singing.
At first he thought it was a dog on the leash but it was a cat. What kind of cat was hard to say in the predawn light. Not white and not black. Which left grey. He could tell it was a cat by its sinewy motion. But a woman walking a cat on a leash early in the morning wasn’t the strangest thing. He’d seen people walks cats, just as he’d seen people with parrots riding their shoulders, and the guy who used to walk around with a white rat. What was strange was the fact that she was walking on water. She was walking on the lake itself. With a cat on a leash. He shut his eyes then opened them. He looked down at the mud and gravel at the lake edge and then up at the women again. The woman was closer now, heading directly toward him, walking on water, her and her cat. The light was improving so there could be no mistake. A flock of birds skimmed low over the surface then veered up, elongating, morphing like a flying amoeba. The woman didn’t seem to notice though the cat dropped to a crouch and peered up as though under threat. The woman wore a beret, a long skirt and a bulky sweater and no shoes. Her feet made small splashes. Ahh. He understood. The lake was frozen. Of course. Ha! Except it was June. He’d seen kids swimming in the lake yesterday. Swimming and shouting and skipping stones, each bounce causing a ripple, each ripple smaller than the previous. It wasn’t a big lake, at most the size of two soccer fields. He recalled playing soccer on the inevitably muddy November pitch, the abattoir smell of his cleated leather boots, the sting of a gritty wet ball smacking his inner thigh. The woman, not old, not young, was close. Red beret, blondish hair, black sweater, red and black checked skirt. She was smiling. The cat too was smiling, though it seemed to him that cats were always smiling, especially when viewed in profile, though at the same time there was a disturbingly snake-like cut to those smiles. As this cat walked its paws made no splash or ripple, as though the lake were glass, yet it was not glass, it was water, and he proved it by dropping the gun into it. Kerplunk. Like a pebble it sank into the dark. The woman halted some ten feet away, out there on the water, her and her cat. “Well,” she said, still smiling, “You certainly have done it, haven’t you.” She stood before him, one hand on her hip, leash dangling from the other. The cat sat, in the way cats do, curling its bottom into position as though its rear end operated independently from the front. “Yes, you’ve done it,” she said. There was no criticism in her voice, only observation. She had dark blue eyes and a small mouth and gold hoops the size of quarters in her ears. “How did it feel?” Her head was inclined inquisitively to one side. Only now did he wonder how he felt about what he’d done. Nausea boiled up his throat and with a groan he bent forward and vomited. The cat observed the splatter, some of which hung like blood in the water. “Yes,” said the woman, as though agreeing, “You certainly have done it.” Then she added, “Well, it’s time.” She held out her hand. And even as he was bent forward, hands on his knees, breathing hoarsely, eyes watering, sinuses burning, he saw the light from the sunrise breaking through the trees and skipping like stones across the lake, and he did the only thing left to do which was to reach out and take her hand and follow her onto the water. »