The Fish that Make Beautiful Pictures
The Fish that Make Beautiful Pictures
Petra snatched Andy’s hand and bolted into the middle of the street.
A car horn blasted.
A man wearing a shark tooth necklace screamed, “Watch out,” through the window of his Chevy Barracuda but his voice was drowned out by the revving engine when he downshifted to avoid killing the two kids.
Tom called from the parking lot: “Where are you going?”
Petra laughed in spite of all the voices crying for her attention. She spun on her heels and offered the man behind the wheel of the muscle car a double dose of her middle fingers.
“I thought we were going surfing,” Tom cried.
“Let’em go,” Meredith said.
“Do you have a car?” Magdalena asked.
Tom was still watching as his friend vanished down the flight of stairs built into the tide wall that led to the beach.
“Don’t worry,” Meredith added, “nobody’s safe with Petra.”
Tom turned away from the road, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Meredith started laughing while Magdalena started looking in car windows trying to guess which one belonged to Tom. There was a Porsche Boxster with a soft top, and she couldn’t believe the owner would leave the window down. This wasn’t the kind of beach town where people left their front doors unlocked.
“That’s not mine,” Tom said.
Meredith continued to laugh, this time at a higher decibel, as though she were using the variable to respond to Tom’s comment. She bounced across the lot towards her friend who was still studying the contents of strangers’ cars. Her hand rustled around in her small white purse with thin wisps of fringe dangling over the front. She removed a cassette tape.
“Turn on your car, tom,” Meredith urged.
Magdalena noticed the blue Datson with the two surfboards tied to the roof with a frayed rope. “I should have seen this right off.”
“Come on, Tom.”
“Do you bring that tape everywhere you go?” Tom asked.
“There’s a party on the beach. I wanted to bring some music.”
“Where are we going?” Andy gasped.
Petra dragged Andy by the hand across the beach at top speed. Her fingers entwined with his. Sand sprayed the sunbathers on their towels, some listened to transistor radios while others read books and the rest zoned out or slept in the warmth of the sun. Andy always made it a point to dodge blankets and towels if he raced across the beach. The transgression on Petra’s part seemed born out of local privilege. The beach was her domain, her right as a girl born blocks from the shore. Each cloud of debris her naked feet cast across the back of an unsuspecting tourist was an act of disdain, a mark of her territorial instinct.
“Does it matter?” She hurled over her shoulder. Her words came breathlessly.
That was when he noticed the fire on the far end of the beach where a jetty formed by large boulders declared the border of Massachusetts. A sprawling group of kids around Petra’s age gathered on what seemed to be the hinterland of the beach. This was an area Andy had never ventured into. The periphery of the beaches was the possession of locals. Andy and his friends knew better than to encroach on their territory.
As they jogged closer the stench of cannabis burned Andy’s eyes. He could feel the tear running down his cheeks.
Two sets of legs stuck out from beneath a make-shift tent created by a blanket. The skunked-stench of weed billowed from the edges of the enclosure.
Once the two fell upon the tent, Petra kicked the fabric with her bare toes.
A voice from inside complained: “What the hell?”
“Who are you guys hiding from?” Petra wanted to know. “There’s no wind today.”
The air was remarkably still for the beach. Andy always expected a light breeze even on the best days at the coast.
“Is that you, Petra?” One of the voices inquired. “Aren’t you supposed to be shackled in an orange vest picking up trash from the side of the highway?”
Andy turned on her with wide eyes. He wanted to know more about what she might have done to warrant community service on a summer Tuesday.
As soon as she noticed the question formulating inside his brain, she put a finger to her lips, silencing Andy’s curiosity.
The blanket fluttered into the air exposing the two boys who hid beneath. Four red eyes gaped up at Andy who was still focused on the girl holding his hand. One boy had a bushy orange mane that spilled over his shoulders. The other boy had four Chinese symbols tattooed down the side of his neck. The boy with the tattoo had his fingernails polished a sparkling purple. The inside of his fingers where the roach was nestled had yellow stains.
“Are you on the lamb?” The boy with orange hair asked?
“You think I’m going to stand on the side of Route 95 sniffing gas fumes on a day like today?” Petra laughed.
“You’re in trouble with this one, buddy,” the boy with purple nails warned Andy.
Petra performed a full pirouette and landed with her full attention squarely focused on Andy’s eyes. He found the gesture and her gaze intimidating. She grasped his other hand, and Andy found himself unable to break with her stare. She said to the boys in the sand while never taking her eyes off Andy, “I don’t suspect he scares off easy.”
“No guy I ever met knows what’s good for him,” the orange one said.
Tom watched the girls through the windshield. The music was loud in his ears because he had it cranked so they could hear it outside of the car. The girls danced in the parking lot, but it wasn’t the kind of dance he was used to seeing. The music was slow, but it wasn’t a ballade. It had an electronic beat behind it that thumped at a long, slow rhythm that made one feel like they were listening to a heart’s pulse. He watched as their hair flew around their heads even as their bodies swayed back-and-forth like human metronomes.
As the song slowed to its climax, Meredith called out, “Rewind it.”
Tom pushed the button on his radio and listened to the whining magnetic tape spin inside the dashboard. He counted the seconds in his head even though he had no idea how long it took for a three-minute song to wind-back to the beginning.
Tom noticed his brother, Jay, approaching his car from across the parking lot. Jay focused his attention on the two girls dancing to the music pouring out of the Datson’s window. The girls starred up into the sky with their eyes squeezed shut. Their hair cascaded across their shoulders and rolled down their backs.
Jay leaned on the window of the car. He said, “What’s going on here?”
“It’s Andy’s fault,” Tom said.
“I would have blamed him anyway.”
“What’s going on, Jay?”
“Jim is playing flagman for some roadcrew off Route 28 and I hitched a ride. I figured you’d be surfing.”
“What song is this?”
“Apparently, it’s the song of the summer.”
Tom pointed to the girls outside the window spinning across the parking lot without care for any car that might speed through and might run them down.
“It’s a nice song,” Jay admitted.
The boy’s name was Sam. Petra claimed he was her brother, but Andy couldn’t spot the resemblance. His hair fell to his shoulders, and he had a pugilist’s nose. He spoke in slow, deliberate sentences as though at any moment he might lose the thread of the conversation.
“Want a bite of fish?” Sam asked. He was working a metal flipper on a tiny hibachi set in a crater in the sand. The fire was blackening the skin of the fish. “I got to tell you something first. Before you can have a taste of this. You got to know something. This isn’t just some ordinary Haddock or Pike. This isn’t Flounder caught down Gloucester. I got this fish special. You’re a friend of Petra so I might let you in on this. Otherwise, no dice, man. You think I’m going to share this fish with half the people on this beach and you got another thing coming. I got some Snapper for them all. This one is for special. I don’t know if you are special. I don’t guess I’ll have time to get to know. But I can tell Petra took a shine to you.”
Sam glanced over to the girl who claimed she was his sister. She was sitting on a towel beside a girl with dreadlocks down to her knees. Two bongo drums were set between her knees and she lightly thumped the skins with the heel of her hand. Petra rested her head on her shoulder. Her mouth was moving but Andy couldn’t make out the song she was singing over a boom box that blasted from the far side of the bonfire.
“This fish is psychedelic, man.”
“That’s right. It’s called the fish that dreams,” He paused over every word as though that would convince Andy of the fish’s significance. “It’s from the Sea of Galilee, dude.”
The guy paused fully expecting some kind of response out of Andy. The guy was convinced this was a major revelation and it should elicit a response in keeping with its magnitude. When Andy didn’t say anything, the kid started in with his story:
“You ever read the Bible? What about Sunday School, you heard of that, right? The Sea of Galilee shouldn’t be so foriegn to you.”
Andy had noticed over the years that people reacted differently once he told them he was the son of preach. He preferred to keep that detail close to the vest. Instead, he let the kid talk rather than show him his hand.
“The Sea of Galilee was where the disciples of Jesus fished. That same body of water is where this fish comes from. This might be one of the types of fish the disciples themselves may have eaten. That’s why this next part is so important. Or, at least, why I’m so excited to try this fish. Why I’m not planning to share it with everybody on this beach. This fish is special. It has powers if you can believe that.”
Andy glanced over to Petra where she was sitting with a girl that had long, black hair that hung over her face so you couldn’t see any of her features. The girl strummed a guitar and sang. But the words got tangled in her hair and Andy couldn’t make out any of the lyrics to her song. Petra mouthed the words: I want to kiss you. Andy’s stomach took a nose dive into the bottom of his feet. He felt beads of sweat pop out of his forehead. He could practically count each one before it dripped down and landed on his eyebrow.
“The fish will make you see things,” the boy continued. He watched the carcass burn on the grill as though he still worried it might swim away. “That’s what they say. That’s why some cultures call it the fish that shows you pictures. It’ll show you things, man. Deep things. Secret things.”
Andy wondered about Dan levitating in his bedroom last night. He had told Dan that the very act of levitating would open his mind. If he could clear his brain long enough from all the noise that surrendered him all day, it would free his mind and body and he would float off the bed. He believed that was what had happened to him when he had levitated alone in his basement bedroom one night while listening to Pink Floyd on his boombox.
“It’s not the fish, really. It’s the algae the fish eat. A certain time of year the fish eat algae off the rocks at the bottom of the sea. It’s that plankton that causes the hallucinations. So a lot of things have to come together.”
The boy worked the utensil against the edge of the fish to slice a piece off. “Come with me,” the boy said.
“Where are you going?” Andy wanted to know.
“Wherever it takes me…” The boy held out the utensil for Andy to take a bite.
The wave was closing fast. The dark blue water caved in on itself creating a giant burst of froth and mist. Only moments ago, before the barrel collapsed under its own power, Magdalena popped-up on her board and raged down the face of the monstrosity, carving the glassy sea, and waiting for the perfect moment to drop into the rapidly diminishing tube. Tom watched her vanish inside the wave from the edge of the beach where the tidewater left the sand perpetually moist and soggy. His toes curled deep into the soft berm.
A storm had been ripping up the eastern seaboard for three days hitting Virginia Beach the previous night. The conditions on the ocean today were the kind New England surfers could only dream about most of the year. Tom wasn’t about to let money problems at the Video Shack stand between him and head-high breakers rolling up fat from the south. In order to score conditions of this magnitude, he would have to don a sub-zero wetsuit come January and February when the nor’easters churned up white knuckle swells. He didn’t even own a wetsuit built for post-Columbus day water, farless the dark-heart of winter. No, when the northeast was blessed with towering seas on a sun-drenched July Tuesday you agree to sacrifice your first child to Poseidon or whatever ancient God of the sea you put your faith in.
Tom gasped when Magdalena broke through the pipe that appeared to close a millenia ago. One hand reached behind her and traced its fingers along with the crystal shards of ice blue water. Her posture on the board offered zero recognition of the still crashing wave spewing foam and froth in her wake. He watched the heel of her tanned foot as she torqued ever so gently and the board surrendered to her command. The nose sliced back around confronting the final billow of rushing water. The 8-Ball decal on the tip of the board flashed in the sun for an instant before the board stabbed the foam. She was showing off now, and he understood her intentions. She had told him before she entered the water that she would show him what the board was capable of. She stole it from him under the preconception that the quality of the ride was wasted on him. Watching her control the unruly sea, he knew she was right. In the water, Magdalena existed on a different planet from Tom. They existed in two separate planes of the same universe. On the water, he was mortal, and she existed unmoored by time and space. She was a dream that he could never wake to.
Her movements were magical. There was a syncopation between her body and the ocean. They spoke to each other. It was hard to tell where movements ended and where the overwhelming power of the sea began. It was a dance without a lead. Or perhaps the lead kept changing. A give and take against the tide and the arch of her back as she guided the board into the wave and then snapped her body around and forced herself against the will of the sea.
On the board, her body was transported into a world absent of gravity and physics. The laws that held the universe didn’t apply once she swam beyond the breakwater. The equation of her arms, legs, hips, the arch of her back, the twist of her neck produced a sum of infinite possibility rather than the equation he would always face--one of diminishing returns. Magdalena plus waves transcended the limitation of material existence.
In the distance, Tom could make out four surfers drifting on their boards. The way they were mounted on the board gave them the appearance of minotaurs as though their bodies were fused to the fiberglass. None of the surfers anticipated the next set of waves. They appeared to be mesmerized by the girl who only moments ago shredded the wave. There seemed to be something sacrilegious about dropping in on the next set only moments after such purity of motion. Even mediocre surfers viewed the act as a religious experience. Tom on the shore, the boys on the water, knew they were in the presence of something holy when Magdalena crested the wave.
“You’re like the Beaver Cleavers,” Petra said.
The jetty they reclined on formed a natural border between the Mass-holes of Massachusetts and the Live-Free-or-Die pledge of New Hampshire. This beach adopted the name the Line because it was the strip of sand that divided the states. It also provided the best waves between the north shore and the rocky coast of Maine.
Andy could make out Jay, Tom, and Magdalena perched on their boards. The sun broadened towards the west and the shadows over the sea changed. A fuchsia light leaked across the water and fell dimly on their bodies.
“None of my friends’ parents are still married,” Petra admitted.
“It’s no picnic if they stay together, either,” Andy said.
“That’s still no reason to run away?” Petra considered.
“I never felt like I belonged here.”
“Look at her.” Petra pointed to Magdalena resting on her surfboard. “If anybody doesn’t belong on the east coast it’s her. Imagine the kind of noise she would make if she lived in a place where you could surf all day. What makes you so special you belong someplace else?”
“Nothing, I guess.”
When Petra rested her hand on the side of his face he heard the magma roil under the earth’s crust.
“I like the way you look at me,” she said. “They’re so intense; they make me a little nervous.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
Petra took his hand and placed it on her chest. A spark went-off in his fingertip that ignited the forest fire that raced up the tiny hairs on his arms. The heat caused his chest to constrict as though the air he tried to breathe was engulfed in flame.
“Can you feel that?” She said.
He couldn’t decide what her question exactly referred to? Did she want to know what he felt or what she felt like? His tongue thickened inside his mouth and he suddenly needed water. Everywhere he moved his tongue felt like deep pockets of cotton.
When he didn’t answer, she removed his hand from her chest and brushed her lips with the tips of his fingers. The universe spun off its axis. All of time and space gathered into a single instant. He could see the beginning and the end of all history on a silver disc spinning inside his head. And she was blowing on the edges of his cuticles.
Petra asked him: “Do you believe all that stuff about the movie?”
He couldn’t even bring to mind the woman’s name who starred in the movie. Suddenly, he couldn’t remember a single movie he had ever watched. It was as though his mind had been wiped clean by the stroke of her hand.
“Don’t you want to know what’s on the movie reel?” Petra asked.
He wanted to tell her how she made the rain fall on his neck when she smiled.
“I know you thought about it while he was telling the story. I could see it in those eyes. I liked watching your eyes when he told you about the house.”
“Castle?” He choked.
“You’re right. It’s not even a house. A castle, how cool is that. I’ve never been inside a castle before. Have you ever been inside a castle before?”
He wanted to snatch his hand back so his mind could unwind itself from the overwhelming stimuli it shot into his brain.
“I could tell just by watching your face how much you want to find it. You want to know what’s in that movie.”
When Petra opened her mouth to say something else a colored cube fell out. The small square was built of yellow and light and it floated in the space between them. Andy couldn’t take his eyes off the four-sided orb. When he reached out with his free hand to touch it the small box drifted into the air and vanished.
She opened her mouth again and this time the shape that exited her lips was colored blue. His eyes trailed the object as it sailed off into the sky.
Petra wasn’t looking at the cubes falling out of her mouth so Andy wondered if she couldn’t see them. He had never experienced anything like it. He couldn’t imagine she had ever seen anything like this before. By that simple arithmetic, he had to surmise that she did not see the same things he was seeing.
His eyes continued to follow the blue shape until it blended with the sky.
When he turned back to the girl on the rocks, he watched more colors tumble from her moving lips. Even as the colors appeared, her mouth dripped down her chin.
Andy blinked. He quickly turned away. Gaped-out at the open ocean. He glanced up at the burning orb of the sun.
When he returned his gaze to Petra’s face, more words fell out as colors. He had no idea what she was saying to him. The words contained no sound. The colors absorbed the sound as though the colored cubes represented the words. Only he didn’t have a key to decipher their meaning. He could hear the crabs scuttling across the bottom of the ocean, but he couldn’t decipher the words leaving Petra’s melting face.
He squeezed his eyes closed. He rubbed his temples.
When he opened his eyes again her face returned. Her blue eyes shined like California swimming pools on a sun-drenched afternoon. She said, “...I was asking you about the movie…”
He could suddenly hear every word she uttered more clearly than any words he had heard before in his life. It was as though every sound in the world was turned up by ten on the stereo. The waves crashed against the sand. The seagulls screeched across the sky. The crackle of the fire even though it was hundreds of yards away. The periwinkles slinking along the rocks beneath them. The sea grass that moved when a breeze passed above it. And every syllable Petra spoke filled his ears like the melody hidden between the refrains of a song.
“Are you okay?” She asked.
He wanted to ask her if she saw the colors too, but he knew better than to put something like that into words. He knew she didn’t see it. It was impossible. Nobody could have seen it; not even him. He couldn’t have seen it. Not unless he had gone insane, and he wasn’t prepared to admit that. If he said it out loud somebody would believe he was crazy, and what would he do then. How could he unwind a statement like that? How could he pull it back once he tried to explain to the girl he had just met that he watched colored boxes fall out of her mouth when she spoke? How could he possibly explain to her that he watched her mouth melt down her chin and drip onto her neck?
“You can tell me,” she said.
But he couldn’t tell her. He liked the way she was looking at him and he knew she would never look at him again the same way if she knew what he saw when he looked at her. She liked his eyes. She told him she liked his eyes. He didn’t want to change anything. He was always afraid things might change if he told people the truth. Things always changed when he told people the truth.
“What is it about the movie?” He asked in an attempt to change the subject.
“But I just told you,” she explained.
“You want to find it don’t you.”
“There’s something on that film,” he said. “I believe that. I wanted the man’s face as he talked about it last night. His face changed when he talked about that movie. All the other things he said were lies. All the stuff about the music and the toys and the devil and how he gets into people’s homes, I could see that he didn’t believe what he was saying. I don’t know why he decided to go around to church trying to scare people. But I know that if someone is trying to scare you, they know there is some way they are profiting off that fear. But it was different when he mentioned the movie. He was almost like he didn’t even mean to mention it. Like it slipped out or something. I don’t think he meant to talk about it at all. But I could see that his face changed when he started talking about it. I don’t know how I know, but I know when people are lying. I have a sixth sense about it. And he wasn’t lying. He was petrified when he talked about the film. That’s why I was so interested in finding it.”
“You have to find it then…”
“What do you mean?”
“You have to go to that place in Maine. You have to find the movie.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You have to break into that place. I’ll go with you. I want to know too.”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do.”
He noticed that two tiny little mermaids were swimming around in the crystal blue irises of her eyes. He stared at the two creatures as they dove and splashed in the tiny swimming pools of her eyes. They were shadow figures with no details to speak of. But they were swimming, there was no mistaking that.
“What do you see?” Petra asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You see something. I want to know what it is.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You ate the fish, didn’t you?”
He had entirely forgotten that the boy by the fire had given him a morsel of fish. He had forgotten entirely about the boy’s story about the Sea of Galilee. He didn’t believe the story so it flittered from his mind.
“Tell me what you see?”