Maude Larke has returned to writing after years in universities, analyzing others’ work, and to classical music as an ardent amateur. She has been published in Bird’s Eye reView, the Syracuse Cultural Workers’ Women Artists Datebook, Naugatuck River Review, Oberon, Doorknobs and Bodypaint, the Society of Southwestern Authors, Flowers & Vortexes, and The Story Teller.
Ray was allowed off the base once a week, and we would go to our favourite bar, rustic and homey, for a few beers. He rarely spoke much about that shut-away life – a thing only to be expected, as this Special Duty Corps was inevitably involved with things secret and experimental. I would be the filler-in and usually found enough to glue an evening’s news together; not that I am not voluble, quite the contrary, but I do need matter on which to embroider.
It was also only to be expected that Ray would react differently to this rambling gazette, as his activities and his attitudes towards them changed rather regularly. While I spoke I would chart and map and categorize. After some months I had a clear repertoire of the Ray who laughed or snorted, thoroughly enjoying the recounting of local doings, either from a smidgen of nostalgia for civil life or a week of inactivity or slow movement, the Ray who barely noticed the stream of hot and cold items and concentrated on long, slow sips that showed disapproval of the latest project, on quick gulps to wash down his anxiety at the latest progress, or on lengths of abstinence from worry about negative results, the Ray who laughed, nodded, downed, shifted in his seat in the booth from absolutely no thrilling bit of my chronicle but from excitement at new, interesting or successful efforts. The catalogue runs on, but as I am told often that I do as well, it will perhaps suffice to say that the themes and variations continue, although not to the same length as I do.
Nonetheless it always fascinated me to see such a panoply, as I would have expected no such interest, let alone so many shadings of it. Ray had not been absorbed by his science classes in high school, preferring football and getting well enough along with history. To see him become finally sponged in, so to speak, by such concerns was something of a surprise. I had never really asked about the phenomenon, but now that I think of it there must have been a conscious preparation for it. The junior-year tackle that eliminated one kneecap and the possibility of a sports scholarship lightly masked by a history degree must also have exerted its force on the new trajectory that plunged Ray into the local base. Apparently, Ray was determined to make more than simply the best of it, and I do know Ray’s determination. It got him onto the team in the first place.
On one initially mundane evening there protruded a new excitement that I had not seen before. It necessitated the abandonment of our booth; Ray stayed at the bar to drink and fidget for all his worth on two feet. The smiles and chuckles came with such incongruity that I finally gave in to the temptation and filled my report with cancers and traffic accidents in a last (and, I admit, pathetic) attempt to reconquer my Cronkitish place as the focus of many (well, two) eyes. It was to no avail.
“You don’t care if Jean’s dead.”
“And I could just drop into a hole.”
“And you’re the king of the jackasses.”
I was rather put off from continued soliloquy. Unfortunately my silence brought me to a new level of pique, as it was evident that Ray took no notice of it. I launched into a new and different soliloquy, enjoying the situation in order to vent or invent frustrations and rage at my unrequited devotedness to the weekly tryst and the unequal efforts represented by my constant, toiling search for the newsworthy and Ray’s willingness to pay for the beer with his undeserved overinflated Government Issue taxpayer-fed soldier’s blood money. (The last is obviously unfair, as Ray was in a non-combat troop, the only type he could join because of his knee, but again, temptation is difficult to withstand.) It was only when Ray realized that he had spent the last dollar in his pocket that he awoke, stood still for two entire seconds, smiled and stretched, slapped me on the back, said, “Nice talkin’ with ya. See ya next week, Sweet,” and left me with the last beer.
I swallowed down about two more weeks of the bubbling, mind-elsewhere Ray, then regretted that obliviousness as they were followed by a few weeks of the worried Ray in a new variation. It was an agitated worry, still fidgeting, but with the impatience of absence and speculation, a feeling of the need to be in another place at an appropriate time. It was not anticipation, but trepidation; not an expectant would-be father but the last man to hold the bridge and ready to do so. My weekly report became intermittent, as I was caught between sullenness-induced silence and the urge to continue to communicate the latest scoops with my interlarded expert commentary. Then erupted the exultant thought; after all these weeks of feeding the entire town to Ray, I would move on this ebb to take a new scoop on Ray to the sometime victims and usual audience of my in-town performances. I decided to pull down the taboo barrier (which I thought would give like a century-old wooden storm window with the ropes broken) and girded myself for the assault.
“What’s on your mind, Plunger?”
“What’s on your mind?”
Ray seemed lost for a moment, looking for signposts, looking at an undeterminable point in the direction of which his head snapped. His eyes darted swiftly and strangely. Then he snapped his head downwards and said, “You know I can’t answer that.”
“Not the details, maybe, but how about the general state of things? How about the hole you’re wearing in the floor with your truck-driver’s tap-dance?”
Ray hesitated. I let him.
“It’s gotten complicated,” he finally said. Then he hesitated some more. After a while I could see a slight change in his gaze; he had gone from wrestling with how to express his difficulties to wrestling with the problem itself, from an attempt to exteriorize the anxiety to the usual interior struggle that he had apparently been engaged in these past weeks. Suddenly, for no reason, that look became uncomfortable to me.
“Come on, if you think that’s enough for me, you’ve spent no time ever listening. Get out of that trance bubble and talk to me. Why is it complicated?”
While I said this Ray shifted and showed signs of a new type of struggle. It was as if he wanted to answer but could not do so until his eyes could focus on me, and he seemed to have little control over them. That strange, abstracted glassiness that still made me uneasy was warring with his will somehow, until he beat it down with a strange, slow lowering and turning of his head, like a bull at the end of the corrida.
“I don’t know how to put it,” he finally said. “It’s not just the secrecy. It’s the whole . . . point of it that gets me. It’s working, but I don’t know why or how. Or if it should.”
“The experiment. Dim bulb.”
I let that pass precisely because of the pause.
“You’ve had doubts before.”
Another pause ensued. “That was different. It wasn’t me.”
“So you’re doubting yourself?”
“That’s not what I mean. My doubts before were about the experiments. But that was the experiment, it was something else. It was . . . there,” and he pointed to a nondescript spot on the bar. “This time, it’s me.”
“Are you trying to say that they’re experimenting on you?”
“No. Not really. Through me, more like.”
“And you said it’s working?”
“Yeah. All the time.”
“‘All the time’? I thought experiments were supposed to work every time.”
“Not this time.”
“I have to go back.”
I let him go without a complaint because I saw that I had to. I saw that between those two short sentences some sort of switch had flipped. I could not elaborate the entire phenomenon then and there as it was too instantaneous. And as it was too unsettling then and there; I had seen another, stranger version of that gaze loom into place and tear that young, simple mind from its attention to me. I had felt a roller coaster lurch in my stomach at that moment and would have expressed my resentment if Ray had stayed.
Only much later that week did I allow myself to recognize my “resentment” as fear, just before I shoved the whole consideration into the lowest hole that my mind held. It tried to jump back out each time that Ray failed to appear at the gates of the base for the next three weeks. I had both hands on the lid immediately, but my newscasts apparently lost a bit of their striding gait during that time, if I can ascertain correctly by the bemused looks of my interlocutors.
I kept going just to make sure I did not miss him; it was “same time, same place” each time, and one week it led to the gratification of seeing Ray striding jerkily up to the gates. By now it was November, and nearly dark at his leave time.
Ray took one glance at me and turned in the opposite direction from that of the bar without a shift in speed. As the glance was neither hostile nor falsely denying our acquaintance I followed, hoping for a new addition to the chronicle.
This direction brought us down to the seashore, and Ray led us onto the compact low-tide sand parallel to the sea, marching in the straightest line that the coast and the wind permitted. There he suddenly had to check his speed, as his bad knee gave him a sharp stab. He skipped a few steps on his good leg and muttered desperately, “I’m really sorry.”
“Plunger, who in Sam are you saying you’re sorry to?”
He stopped dead. “My partner.”
“What partner?” I asked, stupidly looking all over the beach.
“My partner in the experiment. I just hurt it, and I hate doing that.”
“‘It’? You said ‘it’?”
“Yeah. A tuna. A 1200-pound bluefin. Six years old. Just my age. We called it Charlie, of course. Chuck for the scientists. They like ‘Chuck and Ray’.”
“What do you mean, ‘partner’?”
“In the experiment. Dope.”
“I’m a dope because I can’t figure out how you could be ‘partner’ to a tuna?”
“We’re . . . bonded. Linked. Twinned somehow.”
The pause was mine this time.
“Are you nuts?’
“Maybe. By now.”
“You’re bonded to this fish.”
“And you said ‘sorry’ ‘cause you hurt it.”
“I hurt it when I hurt my knee. It feels what I do. I feel what it does. Last week they didn’t clean the tank on the usual day. I was half sick.”
“Was the fish half sick?”
“No. Charlie is used to slight variations in his environment. I’m not used to them yet.”
I had more than two hands on the lid by then. I was literally writhing at all this information. I had finally realized why that gaze in the bar had upset me. Had frightened me. They were actual fish eyes that I was looking at. The glassiness of fish eyes; the fixity of fish eyes; the unblinking set of fish eyes. And I also suddenly realized that Ray’s eyes, in the half-darkness, were unblinking now.
“It sounded so neat at first. Like I was going to read his mind or something. Like we could sort of communicate. I thought we could learn all kinds of neat stuff about fish. When they introduced us . . .”
I gagged. “‘Introduced’?”
He made that slow movement of his head that I had seen in the bar. I saw it now; the movement of a big fish’s head and upper body when it changes speed or direction. I terribly wanted to stop looking.
“But once we got connected they seemed to change their minds. And they won’t explain to us what they’re after. We just keep . . . feeling and they keep watching.”
His voice had been trailing off. The shock of why came fast; he was looking at the waves. I knew that I had to get him away from that beach, although at that very moment I could not have expressed consciously what made me understand that, or why or how I had to make him move.
Ray was suddenly attentive to me. “Are you cold? I think I am too. We’d better get out of the wind, it might be bad for Charlie.”
We walked off the beach between two dunes, slowly enough so that Ray’s knee would not react. Behind the dunes was the dead end of a side street that took us downtown. It was one of the unlit streets and I was hating that outside darkness because the fish was still there, gliding through the dark air around us with casual flutters of fin and gill. I could feel the movement.
We ended up by reflex at the bar. My slight anxiety about taking Ray in there in his strange state was completely shouted down by my relief at entering the light and enveloping myself in familiarity. Ray was looking dazed and a little disoriented by the light; that seemed to have chased away his tuna eyes for the moment. I steered him to our booth, which fortunately was empty, and mechanically bought two beers.
I set them down and took my seat across from Ray. He took up his beer and brought it to his mouth, but suddenly thumped it down and looked at me in shock. He said, almost in tears, “Fish don’t drink alcohol.”
“You’ve already drunk beer since you were hooked to this fish, Ray.”
“That was before we were so far in. Now we’re too linked.”
“How do you know he won’t like it?”
“I can’t take that chance.”
“Yes you can. You’re not going to let that fish decide things for you, are you? You’ve still got a life out here.”
“I dunno . . .”
I was beginning to panic again. Ray was scarily abnormal enough to me without refusing to drink beer. I had a quick thought.
“Think of it as part of the experiment.”
That argument won him over; he tried to drink. Like a drunk kneeling at the porcelain ring waiting for the inner gong to sound – “Will I? won’t I?” – gasping and gaping at the rim of his glass, not even disturbing a single bubble of the head, Ray turned to and away, to and away from his beer. But there was none of that relief; no inverted “thar she blows!” allowed the tension to break.
“I can’t help it! I keep thinking of the day they didn’t clean the tank. I don’t want to make Charlie sick.”
“On one beer?”
“Besides – ”
“I knew there was a ‘besides’.”
“Sweet, – ”
“Don’t ‘Sweet’ me. What for Pete’s sake are you doing with this thing?”
“Don’t call Charlie a thing! Don’t!”
The menace in his voice was palpable.
“Not Charlie, anvilhead, the experiment! What got into you?”
“I told you, it sounded neat at first. I wanted to see like a fish – ”
“Yeah, but now you’ve ended up looking like a fish. You don’t even know how to do normal things anymore, like drink a beer or spend time with a friend. Why didn’t you come out the past few weeks?”
“What do you mean, ‘couldn’t?’”
“I mean . . . they made me lie down all that time.”
“I don’t know. But I think it was to make me more like a fish.”
“Oh, for – ”
“Fish aren’t vertical, they don’t stand up. Well, point up. Whatever. They put me horizontal all that time too . . . to imitate Charlie, to make me more like a fish. And they watched me all the time, day and night.”
I was speechless.
“I started having trouble sleeping, strange dreams when I did sleep, everything became all mixed together . . . day, night, me, Charlie, them even. I think I must’ve been delirious, even. A few times . . . I’d look at them . . . and they’d be smiling at me.”
I was still tongue-tied.
“The worst was that I couldn’t see Charlie all that time.”
I spluttered out, “‘See’!? So? You married to that thi – that fish, or something?”
I was going to say how little he was upset about not seeing me, but he cut me off.
“I told you. We’re bonded. Don’t you understand that?”
“Why do I even ask? I remember all the ragging you gave me after games about what a bunch of faggots we all looked like after a good play. You never had that. We had that, we needed it. Something was missing if you didn’t give or get a hug or a slap after a touchdown, something . . . something made it right, something made the touchdown extra good, something made the tackle worth the pain. Even when I was down on the turf with my broken leg, I remember, I saw those guys on the other team giving each other slaps on the shoulders and I felt they’d done good. You never had that. That’s what it is to see Charlie.”
“So you do high fives with a fin.”
“No. Not for real. But it’s like that. And it’s the first time I’ve had that since I left football. And I know Charlie feels it too.”
“Charlie needs slaps on the back?”
“Charlie needs . . . buddies, his school. Or whatever it’s called for tunas. He’s got no friends, only me. He gets anxious if I don’t come around.”
“So if he gets anxious why don’t the scientists put you together?”
“I don’tknow. I explained this to them but it was like it was all in my head or something, like a big joke. As if they couldn’t see it for themselves. His fins were flailing like crazy.”
“How do you – OK, OK, you feel the same things, I forgot, give me a chance, you just told me about this.”
“So I couldn’t see him.”
“So why’d they let you out this time?”
“I wasn’t gonna go out. I just wanted to see Charlie. One of the scientists came to the door and told the others to come out, said he had something important to discuss with ’em. They took a long time, so I opened the door and looked out. There was no one in the corridor, so I went out. And I tried to find Charlie. I couldn’t find him ’cause they had taken me to a different part of the base for the new part of the experiment, the lying-down part, and I couldn’t remember anymore where Charlie was. But I saw the entry gates and the sentinels, and you, and I thought I could just go out for a while and set my head straight. Then I could feel my way back to him.”
“‘Back’!? How can you go back with this stuff going on?”
“I have to find Charlie!”
“Never mind Charlie, Plunger, you’ve got to get out of this thing . . . experiment before you grow gills or something! You can’t possibly trust those scientists anymore!”
I saw that I had to take a different tack.
“Charlie will be released once you’re not there. He’s too valuable to kill because of the experiment, but he’s useless without you, and he probably costs a lot in . . . room and board. They’ll . . . send him home too.”
“You think so?”
I did not, but was very happy if Ray did.
“He’ll be back with his . . . school. In his element. He won’t be affected by badly-cleaned tanks anymore.”
At first I thought that Ray was remembering the tank, because he did a strange sort of rasping intake of breath and gripped the table. But that scraping was a first sign of a definite problem breathing. Ray was practically sliding under the table, suffocating, pulling in the air like he was having a tug of war with it. I wanted to help him, but I had no idea how. It was impossible to get a good grip on him with the table in the way. The rasp was becoming more thin and prolonged, as though his throat had closed up and turned against him. I thought for a moment that it was my fault for leaving the beer too near his nostrils.
Jake the bartender was beginning to look at us as if he was not sure whether to call 911 or the bouncers.
Suddenly Ray shot up from under the table and took in a huge breath, like a stubborn pearl diver still without a treasure. He breathed heavily but normally, doubled over the tabletop.
As soon as he could form words, he said, “I gotta go.”
That dropped my jaw still lower.
He was already lumbering up from his seat, still half breathless. I tried to hold him down, then back, but he was still built and trained like a lineman, and he made his way steadily to the door, knee or no knee.
“Plunger! What’s on?” I thrust out, becoming as breathless as he was.
“They’re getting at Charlie.”
By now we were outside.
“Please tell me what’s going on, Plunger. Me, your best human friend.”
“They’re using Charlie against me. It’s like they’re taking him hostage. I think they just took him out of the tank for a few minutes. To torture us. Maybe to show us who’s in control. I gotta go back.”
“Ray! What’ll stop them from torturing you more when you get there?”
“The experiment. They won’t touch us once I’m back.”
“And if the experiment itself ‘touches’ both of you?”
He had no time to answer. He was on his knees, his breath rattling again. I could do nothing other than kneel next to him, one hand on one shoulder, the other thumping the other.
“C’mon, Plunger, hold tight, you’ll make it to the line, I’ll cover you.”
I had no idea how. But I felt a glimmer of what Ray had been talking about. I was in a huddle for the first time: Ray, me, Charlie.
He came up again in a few moments, straightening from the knees, butting his crown against my forehead. My relief erased the pain.
“Sweet, I can’t let them do this. I’m in this, I have to carry it through. I gotta go back.”
But before he could rise or I could acquiesce he was raking again. His eyes were beginning to roll up into his head from asphyxiation as he sat propped against the wall. I thought for a moment that I could help if I tried to control his breathing for him. I tried to press and release his ribcage at regular, slow intervals. It was like my lid, but with a real purpose.
Suddenly he broke into a weak giggle as the desperate spasms subsided. “No! Hee-hee! I got it! Hee-hee-hee . . . that’s not the problem,” he said with aggressive glee, “It’s air!”
And he was up like a hunter, galloping off in the direction we had come from.
He had already rounded the corner before I reached it, and was pounding back down the unlit street. My artist’s, intellectual’s body could not hold that speed. I could only hope that the sand would spring his knee when he arrived at the dunes.
I still did not know what he meant or what he was up to. But why, I have no idea. It should have been clear to me.
By the time I cleared the dunes, he was coming to the water.
“Plunger!” I shredded my voice in an anguished call. He kept wading.
They never found a body. I have never been sure if they should have.
There was an investigation, of course, and as eye-witness to Pt. Raymond Carman’s death I was called in. The military was there too, playing the role of plaintiff in a case of lost property. Their sanctimonious innocence made me sick.
When the investigation was over, I made a point of moving through the crowd to the commanding officer. He gave me a look of vague recognition as the voluble and articulate friend of the deceased.
“Excuse me, sir, but I’d just really like to know how Charlie is.”
His look changed to one of startled, wary surprise.
“It’s just for Plunger’s sake. Wherever he’s gone, I’m sure he’d be more at ease if he knew.”
The officer motioned to his subordinates. “Get this maniac away from me,” he muttered, and they pushed me out of the way. I made no resistance.
So, if you could say such a thing ends, it has ended. The only one left hovering like a finicky hummingbird is myself. You see, I have no idea whether I should mourn or not. Have I lost a friend of gained a fish?
The worst of it is that this question does not sound nearly as strange to me as it should.