short story, writing

The Fish

Warning: there is some graphic violence and language in this story. If it might offend you, please do not read. That being said:

THE FISH

My parents were arguing. From my bed upstairs, I couldn’t hear what they were arguing about, just the unmistakable rhythm of a argument: rapid exchanges, talking over each other, both trying hard to convince the other and neither succeeding. There was no violence, no screaming, no broken dishes, but I hated it just the same. I rolled over and pulled the pillow over my head trying to block out the sounds. I’d always hated my parent’s arguments. They made me feel awkward and helpless, like it was somehow my fault. Like I should be able to say something that would solve the problem. But I could never think of anything to say. When my parents argued, I could hardly think at all. I had lots of friends whose parents were divorced; I could not imagine only seeing my Dad on the weekends. I liked seeing him every day.

I don’t know how long I laid there in the dark, listening, but trying not to hear, it seemed like hours. Finally, I could stand it no more. I got out of bed, pulled on jeans, a tee shirt and some sneakers, then crawled out my window, edged out over the roof and dropped down onto the dew-dampened lawn. The grass was thick and lush with early summer’s growth and I didn’t make a sound as I landed. I reminded myself I was supposed to mow it tomorrow, wiped the dew from my hands onto the thighs of my jeans, and started walking toward the railroad tracks.

I could not even guess how many times I had made to trip over to the tracks, both with my friends and alone. It might have been millions. It was definitely enough that darkness didn’t slow me down. Over the back fence into Mrs. Graham’s yard (careful not to land in her precious roses), then out through her side yard. Cross the street, wander down two blocks to the drainage ditch. On maps it was called Robinson creek but it was dry unless it rained; we just called it the ditch. A dirt path led down the slope to the gravel creek bed. From there it was a straight shot down to the train yard. All in all, the walk took maybe ten minutes and I had plenty of time to think of life in a broken home. The thoughts weren’t appealing.

I climbed up the slope just short of the little bridge that allowed trains to cross the ditch and stood on the edge of what we called the yard. It was actually a tiny forgotten siding with two old boxcars slowly rotting to one side of the single track and an equally broken down three-walled building like a giant lean-to on the other. My father said he couldn’t remember the last time the siding had actually been used and I’d only seen a handful of trains run through. Certainly none of them had ever stopped.

It was a magical place, full of the smells of creosote, old diesel, and gently rotting wood. There were ancient bolts and pieces of rusted machinery amid the gravel around the tracks. Shards of thick antique glass scattered beneath and around the lean-to. Jerry Hamblin had even found an Indian head penny out here one day. I’d seen it. The first milkweed were knee high and red thistle and rough grass had found purchase in the gravel. It was warm and far enough away from the houses to be very dark, lit only by a sliver of moon. It was perfect.

I took a step and a rabbit scurried away into the weeds to my left. I tried to follow it down through the grass at the edge of the siding, but I didn’t have much luck. Night was its protector. An owl hooted, then again, then a third time and stopped. Crickets chirped everywhere and nowhere. I turned and started up toward the boxcars.

Something startled me.

I dropped to my belly on the gravel, my first thoughts being of cops. I was trespassing, though I couldn’t imagine anyone worrying about that now. We–me and my friends, all the kids in the neighborhood–came out here all the time. Why worry about it now? Besides, we didn’t hurt anything. We just hung out.

Now I heard voices, several voices, and one of them seemed to be upset, crying. Footsteps sounded in the gravel. A light came on beyond the boxcars, but it looked weird, kind of too yellowish and flickering to be electric, but not red enough to be fire. Besides, I didn’t smell smoke. Maybe some teenagers had come out here to drink and make out with their girl friends. We had found a few used rubbers in the building.

The crickets had stopped chirping.

I told myself I should just turn around and go home, but my curiosity held me tight. I could still hear the voices. It definitely sounded like a couple of guys and one girl. If they were making out . . . I’d never seen a girl naked, not in real life. I wasn’t counting my little sister. I’d never seen a girl naked who had tits and everything. That decided it. The possibility of seeing a girl naked, especially a high school girl with real tits was just too much to walk away from, dangerous or not.

I pushed myself to my hands and knees and slowly crawled up to the nearest boxcar, trying to move cat quiet. I was curious, but I had no illusions about what would happen if I were caught. If I was making out with my girl friend and caught some punk kid spying on us, I would beat the crap out of him. I expected nothing less would happen to me. If I were caught.

I safely reached the boxcar and peered under it, but the angle was wrong, I could only see the unsteady yellow wash of light on the gravel. But now I thought I could hear something else. A girl cried softly. Were they arguing, like my parents? Or maybe she didn’t want to be here? Maybe this wasn’t a make out session; maybe I didn’t want to see. But again I was trapped by curiosity. Something was happening here and I had to see what it was. I had to know.

I dropped onto my belly and crawled forward until my face was right behind one of the rusted-out boxcar wheels. There were cobwebs everywhere down there and I had to wipe a curtain of them away from my face, then fight the heebie-jeebie feeling that spiders were crawling around in my hair.
What I saw in the old building made me forget all about spiders.

The yellow, flickering light of a lantern filled the front of the building, while leaving the back in black shadow. Three men stood with their backs toward me, silhouetted by the light. I couldn’t make out any details. Besides, my eyes were glued to woman. She was naked alright. She was also hanging by her wrists from a beam in the ceiling.

“Oh shit,” I whispered under my breath. This was something I definitely did not want to see. Yet my legs would not move and my eyes never left the woman.

“Please . . . ,” I heard her say. “Please don’t hurt me.”

“Why not?” One of the men said. His voice was deep and dark and just sounded evil. “After what you did to me? Why shouldn’t I?”

She didn’t answer, but I could hear her muffled sobs.

“What did you think I’d do? Just let you fuck around behind my back with a goddamn bartender? You’re my wife. I’m the only one you fuck around with.”

She whimpered. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“A goddamn bartender.”

I wondered where the bartender was. I wondered if I wanted to know.

He turned and said something to the other men, who started walking toward me, their shoes crunching on the gravel.

I ducked behind the wheel of the boxcar and held my breath. But they weren’t coming for me. A few seconds later, two car doors slammed and I realized he’d sent them to the car, which must be parked close by. I slowly edged back around the wheel. The man and his wife were just there, not talking. I could hear her ragged breathing.

“Don’t leave me like this,” she finally said. “Please. I swear. I’ll never look at another man.”

“The damage has been done, babe. A goddamn bartender. Everyone’s laughing at me behind my back. I can’t have that. I can’t do business unless I have everyone’s respect. So now I have to get their respect back.”

“Please,” her voice took on an even more frantic tone. “Please, Eddy. I’ll leave town. I’ll disappear. You’ll never see me again.”

He walked slowly toward her.

“Oh God, Eddy. Please, no . . .”

He moved suddenly and she screamed. Oh God, she screamed. It was the most awful sound I’d ever heard. It made me close my eyes and cover my ears. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It made me wish I was home safe in bed. I almost scrambled out of there and ran. But I didn’t. I probably wouldn’t have made it home.

When the screaming stopped, I opened my eyes again.

Eddie had moved away from his wife and was standing by the lantern, wiping his hands on a cloth. His wife still hung from her wrists, but now a gash had been made from her tits down to her crotch and all her guts were hanging down over her legs. I couldn’t move; I couldn’t think; I barely breathed.

Footsteps sounded in the gravel, coming from the left. His buddies coming back. “We’d better get out of here. Someone could have heard the–Jesus Christ!”

Eddy snuffed out the lantern. The sudden darkness was thick and heavy. “I’m finished here.”

“Jesus Christ, Eddie, you gutted her like a fish.”

“No one fucks with me.”

They walked off to the left, gravel crunching in the new darkness. Doors slammed and a second later an engine started up. I didn’t breathe until the car had moved far enough away that I could no longer hear the engine or its tires on the gravel. I moved farther under the boxcar, but I couldn’t leave. They might be trying to trap me. As soon as I moved, they’d race in and do to me what they’d done to Eddie’s wife. I didn’t dare flee.

So I waited.

I don’t know how long I waited there: an hour, maybe two, spent trying not to think about what was hanging in the building only a few feet from me, trying not to notice the smells that now filled my nose, smells that had nothing to do with trains, or antique glass, or young kids like me. I thought about my parents and thought about my little sister, so irritating and also probably the cutest thing on the planet. I thought about all my friends. I also thought about the dead woman. She had parents too, maybe a little sister, and friends just like me. And as much as they might have loved her, none had been able to save her life. They were sleeping somewhere still loving her and she was dead.

Dawn was just a faint glow on the horizon when I finally managed to crawl out from under the boxcar. I could see no sign of Eddie and his friends. They were gone.

I started home, walking first, then walking faster, then running. I nearly dived into the ditch and ran halfway up its length stopping only to puke my guts out. I walked the rest of the way home, climbed up to my room, undressed and went to bed. My parents had been asleep for hours. They had no idea I’d ever left and I never told them. Apparently they’d found a solution to their argument.

Two days later, a kid I didn’t know found the body. The police came out and did their thing, their investigation, then disappeared with the body. It was the talk of the neighborhood. The next night, when Dad told me at dinner that he didn’t want me to hang out at the old siding anymore, I innocently asked why. He gravely told me that a young woman had been killed there the other day. Dangerous people sometimes hung out around railroad lines. He and my mother would just feel better if I stayed away. I said I would. They were my parents; I didn’t want them to worry.

I never told them what I had seen. I never told anyone what I saw that night. And I’ve never gone back to that siding.

#

The hardest lesson life teaches us all is this: life goes on with or without us. Children grow up and have kids of their own. Parents become grandparents, then grow old and die. People are born; people die. Life goes on. I grew up, fell in love and had two daughters. My parents never divorced, never even contemplated divorce, and grew old together. My little sister turned from cute to beautiful and started her own family. The railroad tore down the old building at the siding shortly after the murder and carted away the two rotting boxcars. The murder of the young woman at the siding grew cold then was put away in the police archives to gather dust, even as her body turned to dust out in Pioneer Cemetery. Life goes on. Life goes on.

#

I stepped out of the men’s room and crossed the nearly empty tavern to my seat at the bar. Two old men were perched at the counter this afternoon plus the bartender and all three sets of eyes were glued to the television screen behind the bar.

“What’s going on?” I asked as I took my seat and another swig of beer.

“Oh, one of our local thugs just got himself killed,” Sam, the guy running the bar, said. “Good riddance, I say.”

“Looks like a pro,” The old guy just to my left said. “One shot from a high powered rifle; right through the head, just like Kennedy.”

This remark caused the old guys at the bar to nod solemnly. Sam rolled his eyes for my benefit. Apparently, the JFK conspiracy was a regular topic of conversation among the regulars.

“Who was the hood?” I asked.

“Eddie ‘the Fish’ Capelli,” Sam make a gesture of spitting on the floor. He didn’t really spit; he’d just made the sound and motion. “He was into anything and everything. Drugs, prostitution . . . if it was illegal or hurt people, he was close by.”

“The Fish was never convicted of anything.”

“Well, you and I both know how much that don’t mean shit.”

All the old men laughed.

“How’d he get the nickname ‘the Fish?'” I asked. “It seems kind of odd.”

The old men consulted each other, but no one seemed to know.

Sam shook his head. “Who knows these things? Maybe he had a skin condition. I’m tired of talking about it.” He turned to me. “You said your Dad was at General Hospital?”

I nodded. “He’s responding well, according to the doctors. He should make a full recovery. But I think I’m going to give up red meat.” I smiled and touched my chest over my heart.

The consensus at the bar was that everyone could be taking better care of their hearts. Of course everyone continued drinking their beer. It was probably too late for them anyway.

“You’re in pretty good shape though,” the man on the far left said. “You said you’re in the military, didn’t you?”

I smiled and ran a hand over the stubble on my head. “That’s me.”

“Then you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.”

“Except war,” one of the old men said.

I laughed. “I let my wife worry about that. She’s better at it than I am.”

They all thought that was very funny.

One of the old men turned to me. “What do you do in the service of our country?”

“Oh, you know.” I smiled, finished my beer, and got off the stool. “I kill bad guys.”

They were still laughing as I walked out of the tavern.

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