Underwater

By Jim Ray Daniels

hey sat on separate branches of the bare tree. Early March in Pittsburgh, but no signs of green, despite the bright, setting sun, the kind of sun that made Beano want to bow down and believe again. He looked at Claire sitting on a branch slightly below him. She smiled shyly.

“We’re safe up here.” She squinted up at him.

“But we can’t stay up here,” he said.

“I’ve been up here a long time,” she said.

*   *   *

In December, at age fifty-five, Beano had taken early retirement from teaching. In July, he took his first peek at the want ads. Want ads. He found it reassuringthat desire’s possibilities were limited only by the $19.95 for three days classified. He liked sitting in the position of rejecting overtures, even if they were only imaginary, generalized. He could take them personally, and dismiss them personally, with one of the Sharpie markers he’d thrown in the box of things when he’d abruptly emptied his desk. He’d left every single sheet of paper there in a jumbled pile, graded or ungraded.

Beano, seeing nothing that might lure him into a second career (no one was asking for his main asset, sarcasm), moved on to the personals. That’s how he met Claire, who’d set about with a bored, mechanical detachment at age fifty to find someone she could trust, through the unlikely network of the daily newspaper.

*   *   *

Beano and Claire sitting in a tree talking about k-i-s-s-i-n-g. She liked his name. She didn’t think anyone named Beano would hurt her. Their first date, and they’d ended up in the climbing tree in her yard. It seemed magical, as if a freak storm had lifted them there on the way home from dinner at the spaghetti place down the road. She’d suggested it after he admitted he never went out to eat. “The whole ‘dining alone’ thing,” he explained. “I don’t want people looking at me like I’m some sad soul when I’m perfectly content to eat by myself.”

The whole ‘alone” thing. Clear, direct. Not like the guy who wanted her to cook dinner for him as some kind of audition. She was beginning to think middle-aged men were simply too set in their ways to move off their own square to meet her on some middle ground.

“Nobody ever climbed this tree with me before…any tree with me,” Claire said, marveling at the view she’d forgotten—a glimpse of downtown towers, lights from the stadium, the dark, twisting line of the Monongahela River.

“It’s kind of romantic,” he said, sighing. “If I was over on your branch, I might try to kiss you.”

“That might be a disaster,” she said.

He thought about the ways it might be a disaster. “Disaster’s a big word,” he said. Too big for a night like this.”

“Let’s just listen to it for awhile—the night,” she said.

Some birds had returned early, or else had never left. He only knew the names of brightly colored birds like blue jays and cardinals. The ones he was listening to just blended into the grayness, waiting for spring.

The tree sat on the far edge of her yard. She had inherited her parents’ house when they died. She’d never left. The tree grew at a 45˚ angle, making it easy to climb, even when she was very young. Her parents vaguely remembered a storm tilting the tree. Tilted, but it never died, never stopped growing.

The lightning of her Uncle Robert, her father’s twin. Jolly Uncle Robert, tickling her on his lap. Her father’s denial, then rage, the family tree split and charred forever. The neat box of silence that sealed it off, buried now that all principals were dead except her.  She’d been the classic maiden aunt nursing her dying parents, but she’d felt anything but classic. The past was like a blackout curtain hanging over the window of her life. At fifty, she decided the war might be over and risked letting some light in again.

“This might be the last time for me, Claire,” Beano said. “Climbing.” He was glad he’d found someone close to his own age so he didn’t have to try to be younger. Someone who wasn’t carrying around a checklist, who didn’t seem to be keeping score for future reference. Plus, she was more beautiful than anyone he imagined would be placing one of those ads.

“My back is going to be as crooked as this tree if we don’t climb down soon,” he said, smiling, trying not to look pained.

“Party pooper,” she said. It pleased her to say it, something vaguely risqué, as if she herself was willing to continue whatever party was at hand.

*   *   *

In the old-fashioned restaurant darkness of Mama Rita’s,they emptied the basket of garlic bread, wiping the sauce from their plates in near unison. They talked about Bloomfield, Claire’s neighborhood, and he seemed genuinely interested. Beano was a South Hills guy who’d taught at a suburban high school outside Pittsburgh. He’d spent little time in Bloomfield, an old Italian enclave. Claire was half-Polish, half-Italian, and they talked about the safe clichés of that mix. Beano told the story of his nickname, and surprised himself by enjoying the telling. The grandfather he’d worshipped had given him the name, taken from a comic book in England he’d read during the war. It’d been years since he met anyone who’d wanted to know. “Beano was a little rascal, I guess,” and he chuckled.

After dinner, they decided it was too early to abandon each other. Claire wondered how much the weather had to do with it. The first night of the year remotely warm enough for anyone to consider getting ice cream. Dairy Dee-lite had taken the boards off its glass a week earlier and had stuck the “Open For Season” letters up on its cheap plastic sign.  They both got the chocolate-vanilla swirl.

Ice cream on the way back to her place, then the tree. She did not invite him in, but she invited him to climb the tree. She laughed at her own audacity, the silliness. Two middle-aged geezers sitting in a tree, overdressed. Thirsty from garlic and ice cream, but she would not let him in for a drink.

“No initials carved anywhere?” he asked as he lowered himself down, stifling a grunt.The question left her stymied, though it had a simple answer. She knew the worn path they were headed down. “A beautiful woman like you?”

The first warm night, Trash Night. The smell of garbage wafted in from the alley lined with large blackplastic bags.

She flashed him a smile. “I don’t believe in marring a tree like that.”

“You’ve got a point,” he said. As much as she wished, she knew her point would be dismissed, would not count. If there was any carving to be done, she wanted to be holding the knife. She’d tell him soon or never see him again. She didn’t want to waste another season of reawakening. As Claire’s years passed alone, her uncle’s shadow would not fade. It spread, a shapeless, malignant blob, an oil-spill of silence over her life.

*   *   *

Who wrote those things, he used to wonder. Their name, the personals, suggested a lurid voyeurism in anyone who even read them. Despite the made-for-TV clichés, he allowed himself some vague hope.The tears of a clown when there’s no one around. The fool on the hill. King Lear in his beer. Looking for Ms. Right when he barely had the initiative to change the channel on the TV with the remote right in his hand. Retirement, sweet retirement. If he were renting out the place, he’d be his own perfect tenant: no kids, no pets, no spouse around the house.

Beano had been part of a secret fraternity of public school teachers who had found a corrupt doctor to give them medical leaves due to stress, which allowed them to take early retirement even earlier than the buyout mandated. They never met anymore, for once their conspiracy had succeeded, they found they had nothing much left to say to each other, and in fact were sick of seeing each other’s faces across the sticky lunchroom tables for at least twenty years. They knew each other’s jokes and tics and spouses and ex-spouses and children and pets and idle lusts. They knew the same doctor.

At school, few people called him Beano. He was Larry. He had another nickname that was never spoken to his face: Larry the Lech. He’d hated teaching for at least half of his thirty years. In retirement, the bitterness cultivated in the teacher’s lounge smelling of burned popcorn, burned coffee, and burned-out colleagues stewed inside him. He’d been hoping it would dissipate, would’ve been happy with a slow leak, but he was sealed up tight. Without the complex maze of principals and school boards and parents to negotiate, he found himself lost on the long straight line of a futurecleared of obstacles, dead ends, potholes, toll booths, stop lights. What he wouldn’t give for a good roadblock, just to give himself something to talk his way out of.

He felt above placing an ad himself. He simply answered hers. He’d been a history teacher with a history of bad relationships, though only married once, so he could edit out a lot of the smaller skirmishes in the chapter on romance in the version he imagined he’s have to tell Claire.

What was it about her ad that drew him in? The phrase, “Comfortable, but Not.”

*   *   *

“My ex-wife,” he began. Inside, she groaned. He’d picked the spaghetti place again. Their second date, and he was already expecting the same thing. She felt reckless with disappointment. The spaghetti house was a stuffy, muffled restaurant where secrets could be told without the ancient waitresses hearing.

When he asked if she wanted to get ice cream again, despite the cool, cloudy, evening, she ordered a refill on her cold coffee, and she told him. She just wanted to get it out of the way, but it was clear immediately that he saw it as a complication, even a burden.

“Listen, Claire, I feel bad about your Uncle. I mean, bad for you about him. What he did.” They were splitting the bill. He was doing the math. “I’ve been pretty much of a shit to women all my life, I admit, but I never—taking advantage of a little girl. His niece. That totally creeps me out. I’d go kick his ass, but I imagine he’s dead by now.

“He is. I killed him.”

“I wouldn’t blame you if you had.”

“The guilt killed him.” Claire was pulling at the ends of her white cloth napkin. He wished she’d put it down.

“How old were you?” he asked, though he suspected she’d already told him.

“Thirteen.”

Thirteen. The freshmen he lusted after at the high school were fourteen. And if he was honest with himself, if he missed anything in his retirement, it was daily access to the parade of young girls down the hall as he stood outside his classroom waiting for the bell to ring. He’d been a miserable old sleaze during his last years, leering unabashedly at girls in his classes. The principal was relieved when he took the buyout. Beano liked to imagine his eyes wandered just to keep him from getting bored, but he thought about those girls way too much when he got home from school at night.

He noticed a spot of spaghetti sauce on his blue shirt. He wet his napkin and dabbed at it. Ice cream, he thought, they needed ice cream.

She’d told him the secret of her life, but he wasn’t budging—his secret nearly intersected with hers. They were in separate lanes of the same road. They touched the same yellow line.

He’d run off with a girl right after she graduated, leaving his wife behind with two small children. He lived with the girl all summer, hiding out in a tiny cottage on Lake Erie. Her parents wanted to kill him. The school could find no evidence that the affair had started during the school year. She was eighteen, and she wasn’t fessing up to anything before her birthday. He was thirty-six. The union kept his job for him.

He wanted to follow her to college. Her parents said they wouldn’t pay for college if she didn’t dump him. The girl, Sarah, went away to Penn State, joined a sorority, and he never heard from her again. Maybe she just tired of it all, that gray area where nobody comes out alive, a malevolent limbo. He came back to school, Larry the Lech. The school watched him closely, but they couldn’t bust him just for looking.

His wife divorced him and moved away with the kids. He gave her whatever she wanted in order to avoid a hearing where it’d become public, in court records. The school rumors died off as class after class graduated and the students moved on. The teachers stayed, and the teachers knew. His children, adults now, did not speak to him. He was a grandfather now, he’d heard.

He finally looked up. She was staring. He shook his head and grimaced for Claire. A good-looking woman like her, he thought.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t even like ice cream,” she said.

*   *   *

Claire asked Beano into her house when he took her home—she couldn’t explain it. She’d stood on the porch fumbling with her keys and, and now she was letting him in. She was mad but didn’t want to let him go. She felt she had something to prove, and she didn’t want him to go until she figured out what it was.

The house, a modest three-bedroom ranch near the Parkway East. Built in the twenties or thirties, Beano guessed, before freeways. At the end of the block, a high brick wall had been erected to try and tamp down the noise, but inside her house, he could hear the steady whoosh of traffic.

She’d spent a lot of money on the inside. Everything looked remodeled, new, spotless. Claire worked for Liberty Bank, where she’d gotten her first job out of high school. She’d taken night classes for ten years to get a college degree and was now a branch manager. She’d slept with four men in her life, but none in years. She paid a woman to clean for her.

She led Beano into a dim living room with pale green carpeting, a dark green leather couch, and the most tasteless coffee table he had ever seen, featuring a slimy green mermaid with her head rising above the glass top of the table, the rest of her body ‘underwater,’ visible below the glass. The mermaid destroyed all of his theories about Claire. A tidal wave of bad taste canceling all the stamps he’d just licked and stuck to the envelope of her story. He almost wanted to climb the tree again.

“Wow,” he said. “That’s some table.” He sat down on the slick couch. It slanted down. He felt like he’d slide off if he let go of the armrest.

She remained standing in the hallway. “There’s a story behind that,” she said.

“I’m glad,” he said.

“Beano,” she said. “Everything has a story.”

Why’d she tell him her story? He felt like his own privacy had been invaded.

“Well, don’t you want a tour?” she said, her voice rising into a shrill squeak.

“Sure,” he said, pushing himself up. She wouldn’t agree to visit his condo, but here she was giving him the grand tour. He stared back at the mermaid’s large emerald breasts as she led him from the room.

She had a guest room, though she’d had no guests, no one to dirty the walls, muss the bed, stain the carpet. Her own room was Spartan in its furnishings: twin bed, dresser, nightstand, mirror.  No knickknacks, no table cluttered with makeup and perfume and jewelry like his ex-wife Dell had.

Beano noticed that the kitchen was immaculate—no sign of recent activity. As if it was a prop. He’d been ready to bail out, but he surprised himself by walking over to her and slowly embracing her from behind.

“No, no,” she said. He didn’t know if she meant let go, don’t go in my kitchen, or both. “Let’s just sit down,” she said. “I feel like we need to get back to—tell me more about yourself. Happy things. Then I’ll tell you some happy things.” She forced a smile.

*   *   *

After the tour, Claire sat hugging herself in a corner of the couch, the side of her face pressed into the bumpy pattern of a throw pillow. She noticed the smudge he’d made on the glass coffee table.

“I guess I shouldn’t have told you. Too soon,” she said, her voice stretching into a defeated sigh.

Beano hadn’t felt so stupid in front of a woman since before he married Dell. He was shocked by the raw exposure of her pain after so much dignity and sophistication. He was thinking about baggage. How far would he have to carry that weight? Would she even let him help after carrying it so long herself?

“Of course, I’m still crazy about you. It’s just. Please don’t cry.” He laughed nervously. “I mean—you know what I mean. Help me out here, Claire. I don’t know anything about this stuff.” He didn’t want to know what lurked beneath the soft leather of that pristine couch. He didn’t want her to trust him just because his name was Beano and he was past fifty and remembered every bad TV show from the sixties. He wanted a new beginning. Not this plunge into another person’s pain. Not a haunting, for he was no exorcist, just a retired history teacher with one long clean blackboard in front of him. A decent pension and a condo that was paid for. He didn’t want to choke on the scrawled layers of dusty chalk. That’s what erasers were for.

“I ruined everything,” she said, though she didn’t sound concerned about the loss. No tears. Just weary, sad.

*   *   *

Beano realized that she must have been abused in one of those rooms. The tiny, tiled pink bathroom with the claw-foot tub? The musty third bedroom now used for storage? Right in the living room? Did he spend the night in the guest room and slip in to her bed?

Once she’d mentioned it, he carefully avoided the subject, so he did not know. Not how frequently, for what duration, what specifically he did, or made her do? It must’ve been close to forty years ago. Was he trying to pretend it didn’t happen, like her parents? He knew no one had believed her.

Claire’s long black hair streaked with gray fell nearly to her waist. She still wore it down or in a ponytail. If she’d dyed her hair, she’d look at least ten years younger. Beano knew about dyeing hair. What little he had left. He’d been balding since age thirty. When the fringe around his ears began turning gray, enough was enough. His ex-wife had ridiculed him when he showed up at her mother’s funeral. “What are you going to do next, start wearing gold chains and hanging out in singles bars? You’re an old man,” she taunted. She didn’t have to say what she meant, that the days of convincing an eighteen-year old to run away with him were long, long gone.

“You have my sympathy,” he managed to say. He wore a gold chain beneath his shirt. He’d been to singles bars.

*   *   *

“Tell me about the mermaid,” he said after a long silence. “I can’t think of any good things right now.”

“Well, she began, then paused. “I always loved mermaids. Kind of childish, I guess. And I know this table is hideous—no, no, it is—but I don’t care, see? My cousin Jill gave me this because she knew—she knew I loved mermaids. After my parents’ died. She said to make it my own house now. Once I got the mermaid, I was able to change everything else.”

“What do you think it is about mermaids?” he asked, bearing down on the novelty of it. He hadn’t thought of Sarah in a long time—they’d had no contact since she went to Penn State. He suspected she was embarrassed to have run off with him, that she would cringe if she saw him now—tired, old man. But he thought of her now, naked in Lake Erie, emerging and running up him on shore where he wrapped her in a towel and warmed her cold, clammy skin, her hard nipples. Everything about her was as fresh as cold lake water. She woke him up, and nothing else mattered. She woke him into a fool and a cliché, but nothing else mattered.

“I like mermaids because….” It was like a school essay. She may have even written that essay, though if she did, she had no copy of it. She liked mermaids because they were free. They were two things at once. They had no burden. They were too smart and quick for the nets. They lived in silence and did not need to explain themselves. They were almost liquid—slippery, fluid, carried by tides. Claire wanted to explain something about the table to make it less hideous, to make Beano see it the way she saw it.

“The only time anyone touches me is when my hairdresser washes my hair,” she said.

“Wow,” he said, and reached over to squeeze her hand. She’s piling it on, he thought. Pitiful. How had such a beauty kept men away from her? Surely someone at her job had put a hand on her shoulder in a friendly way? At school, he knew better than to even brush up against any of the girls after his return from Erie. He was trying to figure out if Claire was ready to break the surface, emerge. Maybe he needed to follow her, let her lead him away from the shore of his own shame.

“You must think that’s pretty pitiful,” she said, pulling her hand away to brush a strand of hair out of her face.

“No, no,” he said. “It must feel good to have someone else wash your hair.”

She frowned. “That wasn’t my point.”

He sighed. He heard his own breath catch, resume.

“It does feel good,” she said. He wondered whether he should try to kiss her. Or at least touch her hair. He felt like a teenager again, and not in a good way. “To have someone else wash your hair. You lean back over the sink and close your eyes.” She closed her eyes.“I feel like a mermaid then,” she said, smiling, blushing.

He leaned in so that he felt her breath warm against his face. He closed his eyes and brushed his lips against her cheek, but she pulled quickly away. He thought he understood why others had run out of patience or stamina, but he swore he would not. After all the years, he might finally have a grown-up relationship, something not completely wrapped up in sex.

“It’s like the sea running through my hair, the gentle sea that judges no one.”

He wasn’t sure what she meant by “judging.” Who had judged who about what? He found himself linking everything to her abuse, and he wondered if she still did, or whether it was because it was news to him. He just wanted to think of the poetry of what she’d said, not the facts. He knew he shouldn’t ask any questions. Just accept her, be happy she’d taken him into her confidence. It was a gift, and he shouldn’t spoil things by looking for the price tag. He hadn’t contributed anything, happy or sad. He was cheating her, cheating on her.

“The only thing like that I can think of is a dentist chair. Some guy telling me when to spit. I don’t like not being in control. Being, being at somebody”—he thought of her uncle again—“at somebody’s mercy.”

“Mercy. That’s such an odd word, isn’t it?” she said. “It implies someone already has power over someone else in order to grant ‘mercy’. I don’t like it.”

She slid her hand over the glass surface of the coffee table. “I knew you’d ask about it,” she said. “The mermaid.” No magazines or coffee-table books—just clear glass. “But I couldn’t come up with a better story…It’s odd, mermaids have been one constant thing in my life.”

“Do you swim?” he asked. He was sitting near the mermaid’s torso, trying not to stare at the detailed breasts near eye level.

“No,”” she said, startled. ”Why, do you?”

“Only with mermaids,” he said, and moved close to touch her cheek.

She flinched.

“Never married?”

“There was no point,” she said, “no point at which I was ready. And then I turned forty and….Beano, that’s personal. Maybe you need to tell me something personal.”

“You never stop looking,” he said.

“You don’t?” she replied.

“No harm in looking,” he said. “It makes us human, looking. Noticing. I mean, if I stop noticing pretty girls—women—you may as well shoot me….Back at the school…,” he began, then stopped.

“Back at the school?” she said. “Tell me about your life’s work.” She curled her knees up against the couch.

“Well you know,” he said feebly. “Between classes and such. History gets kind of boring—never changes. Lots of girls to look at—they change.Year after year….It’s like the mermaid. I can’t sit here and not look at her breasts. Why should I not look at them?”

“Do you want to touch them?” she asked.

Beano laughed nervously. “They’re not real,” he said. “Why would I want to touch stone?”

“Why would you?” she asked. “ If you like them young, why did you answer my ad?”

Her tone shifted. He pressed both hands against the glass tabletop, then lifted them, watched his impressions fade.

“I don’t,” he said, “that’s what I’m saying. Jut the one, and she knew what she was doing.”

“Who?”

“The girl. The one girl. She was legal. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“At what age do women get taken off the ‘look’ list?”

“You’re twisting it. Claire, you’re a real looker. I could look at you all day. I answered the ad—I wanted someone like…‘take it or leave it,’ no games.”

“Take what? Leave what?”
“Me. You. How we are.”

“You want to have sex? With me? Right now?” she cocked her head. She reached her hands up to the buttons on her blouse.

Beano pushed himself against the back of the couch. He felt like he had to defy gravity to stay on board.

“We can’t just….No, no. Not after talking like this. I can’t believe…”

She cut him off. “Oh, that wasn’t an offer. We’re just talking, right? So, your answer is no. Mine is no. See, we agree. We are kindred spirits, Beano.” She paused and swallowed. “Did you know the legend says mermaids drown men out of spite? I’ve gotten rid of my spite. Most of it. When I look at this table, it reminds me to breathe.”

“Are you playing with me?” Beano asked.

“You’ll have to ask me out again and see,” she said. “We can both see. I’m not sure myself.”

“Telling secrets. There’s a reason for secrets. People our age….”

“Nobody believed my secret,” she said. “That’s why I had to tell you.”

“It’s a conversation piece, that’s for sure,” Beano said. He stared at the mermaid, her long green flowing hair, her serene face, her large breasts.

“You can’t change history, that’s what you said,” her voice rising. “But that doesn’t make it boring. Isn’t it all about the interpretation?”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should get going.”

“Too much truth?” she said. “Maybe we should just tell each other lies.” He rose from the couch, and she noticed the indentation his body had made. She wondered how long it would take to disappear.

He moved toward the door, but stopped and turned back. “We could call them myths,” he said.

“I carved initials in the tree,” she said.

“My children love me,” he said.

He wanted to stroke the mermaid’s hair. To show her he could be gentle. He wanted to touch the mermaid’s breasts. To show he had moved beyond shame.

“We’ll live forever,” she said.

The cars on the freeway continued their steady hum.

“We’re all half one thing, half another,” he said.

“That’s not a myth, that’s the truth,” she said.

They stood by the door, caught in the bright artificial light of her foyer. Behind them, the mermaid swam away or drowned.

___

Jim Ray Daniels is the author of five collections of short fiction, including, most recently, Eight Mile High, Michigan State University Press, a Michigan Notable Book and a finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize. He is the Thomas Stockham Baker University Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University.


Comments are closed.