Cold Fish, by Dyannah Byington

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Key West is Neil’s idea, and Mara can’t think of a reason to refuse. She knows next to nothing about the Keys, only that it’s expensive to buy bread and no one cares if you show your tits.

Her plans for the weekend are small. She wants to get drunk, get a tan on her feet.

They eat. On Duval, they drift into one of the cafés that’s in the business of key lime pie. The pie comes in just two varieties, with meringue or without. Mara chooses without. Meringue makes her think of the cafeteria she and Amy used to go to with their mother, the smell of prunes and boiled ham, the noise of flatware clattering against plastic trays, the slices of pie lined up in rows under the glare of the buffet.

At the register, her fiancé snaps out the necessary bills and hands them over. Neil is not a dessert man himself. This is a phrase she’s actually heard him say to people.

When she’s finished eating, Neil seems disappointed to hear that this is not the best piece of pie she has ever put in her mouth.

“Well, what do I know,” she says. “World’s best pie, it says so on the door.”

Before sunset they stand on the promenade at Mallory Square and look out at the islands across the channel. The crowd presses at their backs. The sun, burning off into a fist of pink, drops down. In the diminished light the islands are indistinct from one another, rising from the water like gray and rounded knees.

Neil cups a hand over his eyes and peers dramatically across the way. “One of those is Cuba, you think?”

Then he looks around for someone to take a picture of them. In restaurants Neil is always hailing waitresses with his camera, or teenagers in theme parks. In these photographs Mara looks sallow and put-upon, her hands disappearing into her lap.

The woman he appoints is in her sixties, in a ballooning linen dress, with a kind, soft face. At first there is some fuss about getting her glasses, but she is effusive, full of concern about her photographic aptitude, and wants to take the picture twice, from different angles.

“Just to make sure. You couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful view.”

Laughing, dutiful, Neil puts his arm around Mara and pulls her close. From the way the woman looks at them Mara knows she has seen the ring.

“Beautiful,” the woman says. “Just lovely. This last one you’ll want to keep.”

“Hang on,” Mara says and reaches around, pulling loose the band that ties back her hair so that the heavy fingers of it unfold, tamping down warm and stiff on her neck. “One more like this, if you don’t mind.”

In the distance, approaching from open sea, are fragrant sheets of precipitation stretching up to the heavens.

From the hotel that night she calls her sister. Amy tells her how she spent an hour flipping through TV channels until finally she caught the end of a movie with Jane Fonda.

“Of all people,” Amy says. “I forgot she had this whole legitimate career before aerobics. She kept talking like her teeth were going to fly out of her mouth. Although that could’ve been the part of the movie where she was acting. I find it hard to believe men found her attractive.”

“Wasn’t she in Playboy?”

“I know she was in Vietnam.”

“What was it called?”

“I don’t remember. It had a funny name. It was about a dance competition in Atlantic City. In the last second of the movie Jane Fonda’s dance partner shoots her in the head. Don’t ask me why.”

“Ed watched this with you? Did he catch her with another guy?”

Photographs from Key West, Florida, by Jason Fulford, whose new collection, Contains: 3 Books, was published in October by The Soon Institute

Photographs from Key West, Florida, by Jason Fulford, whose new collection, Contains: 3 Books, was published in October by The Soon Institute

To give her the privacy she doesn’t need, Neil has stepped out onto the balcony, letting sticky ocean air bleed into the room.

“Not unless I missed that part at the beginning. Ed’s not here. He had an event at the school. Anyway they weren’t in love, it was more like they just really understood each other. It was during the Great Depression.”

“I didn’t think they made movies about people just really understanding each other.”

“That could be the problem. How was the drive? Enjoying yourself any?”

Afterward, Mara switches off the lamp and undresses. She is sober. She thinks of her mother in the months before she died, sitting high up against her pillows on the bed in the den, head thrown back, the whites of her eyes hot and glassy.

Neil gets into the bed and moves in close behind her. “Oh, I forgot, I was going to wash my feet. Should I?”

“It’s okay. But you’re breathing in my ear.”

“How’s Amy? Is that better?”

“She was watching a movie with Jane Fonda.”

“Should I know who that is?”

“No. I guess not.”

Neil has been planning this vacation for weeks. Like her mother had, he seems to believe that pages from the internet do not become real until they have been printed out, and on the bedside table next to her is his thick folder of recommendations and agendas.

His pelvis is fitted tightly against hers. He is a familiar, sturdy body at her back. Mara finds his palm, which is cool and dry, and brings it to her face.

Hemingway’s house is an obligation and they go in the afternoon. A guide conducts them from room to room, over wooden floors that shift and sag at every step. The man’s face is flaking like a croissant. Neil, respectful of anyone whose job it is to convey information, stands quietly, hands folded behind his back. As soon as Mara stops listening and begins taking loud, lazy strokes at an insect bite on her thigh, he stiffens and looks at her with reproach.

Out back their guide leads them to a penny pressed into the cement. The penny is an artifact of some argument Hemingway had with his wife. His third, Mara believes. A quarrel about costs. Their swimming pool was the largest residential pool in Key West, and it must have seemed to him that his wife had contracted for the most expensive pool ever built. It is marvelous, Mara thinks. Clean lines, a clear shocking blue. The famous six-toed cats idling up and down the brick. A warm broth of light sinking down through the trees.

The women in their group begin chattering and snapping pictures of the cats, and Mara realizes they’ve been released from their tour.

Neil goes over, shakes the docent’s hand, and gives him a ten-dollar bill.

“That was generous,” she says.

Walking through the midsummer throng on Duval they browse in the entryways of stores while women on the sidewalk wearing neckties and bustiers urge them to come inside whatever bar is just up the stairs.

Key West is not a large island and everywhere there are people. People shoving in and out of stores, jangling the shops’ bells. People sitting under streetlamps with backpacks at their feet. All around there is skin. Bouquets of skin in every possible stage of burn and sweat and undress. In the Keys, Mara thinks, you must abandon any personal code you have about the degree of sweat you’ll tolerate on yourself.

Drawn by the extravagance of sound, they go into a bar. The pressed-tin ceiling shines with perspiration. A band, all in shorts, their shirts held together by a single button below the navel, is gymnastically covering Green Day. They twist forward and their instruments droop to their knees. The music is so loud that Mara can feel it jerking through the valves of her heart.

A group of girls is being pulled onto the stage, and one of them, limp and pink, laden with beads, is dressed as a bride. A spray of netting is affixed to her hair. As the girl tilts onto the stage, Mara cannot help but see the vague, exultant, self-hating light in her eyes.

At Neil’s touch she flinches and heads for the door.

“Mara?” Neil says in the street. “Are you okay? Can you wait? Hey, Mara —”

“Mara what?”

“What happened? Was it too loud in there?”

Neil is sweating and his eyes are bright. He reminds her of the scrappy young men in commercials who lurch off city basketball courts and promptly gulp down violet-colored soft drinks.

“I need to shower,” she says.

“You don’t want to try somewhere else first?”

They are crazy to have come in July. It is weather that makes her think of hot dogs.

“I don’t know. No.”

“It’s completely up to you,” he says.

“Don’t you ever get tired of saying that to me? I hope you remember where we parked the bikes.”

On the boat that takes them snorkeling there is a ponytailed man with his limber-looking wife, and Mara and Neil, seated opposite, are obliged to exchange smiles with the pair. Along the shore the sand is oily and dark, clumped together in misshapen loaves. Mara suspects it’s been carted in and dumped here and needs to be replaced.

Then the motor stirs and the boat moves into the channel and the wind comes up in their eyes.

The ponytailed man reaches an arm around his wife. Head to toe she is uniformly browned and over her bikini she wears a cover-up like an envelope of silky cobwebs. Nothing is covered up at all. The man gives a sarcastic yet companionable laugh that’s meant to include all of them, and soon enough he and Neil are talking about the best way to eat oysters. Fried, says the man. Neil prefers raw. The man and his wife are from Cincinnati, where he works in commercial refrigeration.

Tanya is the name of the wife. In her seat she arches and makes little faces at the size and shape of the waves. Her husband’s hand hangs on her knee.

“You haven’t been here before, have you?” the man asks Neil. “Didn’t think so. You like art? This is the prime place to pick things up. Last time we got this watercolor of two frogs on a tree limb. Looks like they’re mating, but I guess that’s why they call it art. Tanya loves that sort of thing.”

Here is a man who knows how to vacation, Mara thinks. You eat fried foods, purchase frog art to display in your home. Can it actually be as simple as that?

Without warning he flicks his thumb in her direction. “Is she shy or something? Want Tanya to read you one of her horoscopes? Virgo, right? Cold fish. That’s how you spot them. Don’t feel bad. I’m a Gemini. I got it right, didn’t I?”

As the boat slaps across the waves, saltwater spritzes Mara’s face. The cool damp life jacket sticks to her neck.

She is surrounded by so many things that are inarguable and intact: the sunlight, the powdery brightness of the air, the careful razor line of the horizon. Mara knows when she replies that she must be careful about her voice.

But Tanya laughs pleasantly and knocks her husband on the shoulder. “Not everyone likes to gab as much as you do. Believe it or not, some of us shut up long enough to enjoy the sights.”

“Who says I don’t enjoy the sights?” he says, and tickles his wife below her breasts.

Neil’s hands are open on his thighs. His most typical look these days is one of alarm.

Once they stop, the captain throws back the lid of a storage bin and waves his hand at the wet and tangled gear. Apparently this is all the preparation they need.

In the water Mara crawls out quickly from under the shadow of the boat, concerned about how it is pitching above her. Neil is quickly at her side, his legs swishing, head swiveling from left to right.

Mara drops her face below the surface. On the seafloor, gravel is rocking back and forth and coral is stacked like cakes of chalk. A long time passes before she sees a fish.

She calls her sister again while Neil is in the shower. The curtains are tightly drawn, their room is as dark as a tomb, and she still can’t blink the sun out of her eyes. The glare from the water has left a permanent halo on her brain.

Answering the phone Amy is out of breath. From cleaning the kitchen, she explains. “Let me get these gloves off. How’s Neil? You guys having a good time?”

She tells Amy that they went snorkeling and Neil saw a shark.

“What? Speak up. I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

“Neil saw a shark.”

“Neil tried what?”

“He saw a shark.”

“Oh my goodness. How big?”

“Five or six feet.”

Mara is curled up in a towel on their bed and the humidity of the shower and the stretched-out feeling in her limbs are urging her to sleep.

“Honestly, Mara, I don’t know what you keep calling me for when you’re out snorkeling and seeing sharks. So unless you’re going to tell me that you and Neil eloped then I’ve got to go. I’m hanging up.”

Neil’s folder of information is still on the table by the phone. Have they done all the things you’re supposed to do in Key West? Probably there was a time when she would have opened it to find out.

The condolence cards that came for her and Amy showed hardwood trees in autumn and hazy foothills — apparently paradise is a place much like Knoxville, Tennessee — and advised them to “Rejoice in the arms of the Lord,” which is about the last thing their mother would have wanted them to do. Certainly it wasn’t something their mother planned to do herself.

The shower turns off and Neil opens the bathroom door an inch. “Can you get me my towel?”

The towel is still on the balcony where he hung it that morning to dry.

Mara laughs at the misery in his voice. “Get it yourself.”

“I’ll drip.”

“It’s not my carpet.”

“I’m naked.”

“I don’t have a problem with that.”

“Not you.”

“We’re on vacation. You think the ladies at the pool will mind?”

And he steps out shyly, his arms oddly braced at his side.

At a restaurant near the harbor they sit out on the cobblestones and drink down mojitos while a band plays Cuban jazz. The songs come to her in long bolts of primary color. For a moment the trumpet plays alone.

Plates jam every inch of their table, ceviche and coconut shrimp and little cups of relish. Sugar grates against her gums. Beside her Neil is tapping his knee and she smiles at him while she sucks out the mint leaves from between her teeth. Later Neil switches to beer.

“I honestly think you got some color on your face,” Neil says.

“You sound like my mother. Color in your cheeks.”

Neil gives her a look like he’s going to talk about his feelings, and in a hurry, sucking on ice cubes, she signals to their waiter, yes, she wants another. The young man glances at Neil, who nods automatically, sure, him too, why not?

Her mother said just one thing when Mara told her they were engaged.

She said, “I guess he got down on one knee.” By then it was already hard to interest her in things that had nothing to do with herself.

The songs of the band have picked up speed, taken on new rhythms, and couples are out on the flagstones, face-to-face, measuring out the three-step beat.

Did Neil get down on one knee? Of course he did.

Mara suggests they dance and to her surprise Neil doesn’t refuse. All he can manage is a careful step-step-step, yet he is eager, responsive, his elbows held loose and away from his ribs. His concentration is complete. Next to them an elegant old man moves effortlessly in hard-soled shoes. His wife is small and furious as she shimmies, her hair standing up from her face.

Neil shouts something but she can’t make out what he is saying and reaches for his hands. Around her Mara sees lines where there should be curves and curves where there should be lines and then her sandal sticks on a stone and she falls to her knees.

Mara gasps at the blow. Her shoulders jerk. But there isn’t any pain. No pain that she can feel, and she laughs with pleasure that she and Neil, on their last night on the island, have managed to get drunk. Laughing, Mara pushes herself up.

But now for the second time her balance goes. There is no warning. The faculty is simply gone. She lurches forward and her face comes heavily against the brick.

There was something she was going to say. Something she was going to say to Neil.

The sharp sobs of the trumpet shoot over the patio like what? Like little birds? Light and light-bodied, flicking hotly at her scalp, and Neil isn’t far away, she knows, though she can no longer see him because her vision has buckled, gone black.

Mara touches her mouth and her lips feel slick. But there’s something more puzzling than that. Inside her mouth a space has opened up where before there were teeth. Her tongue becomes frantic, dragging up and down the new space.

“Neil?” she says. “Neil? Did I break a tooth?”

“You didn’t. Let me see.”

“Are you laughing at me?”

“Open your mouth. I can’t see. Mara, you’re bleeding.”

“It’s not broken, is it? It feels strange.”

“Actually you chipped it good, I’m afraid.”

It is too idiotic to be believed. This break. This sharp wedge.

Now there are people crowded around offering help. The elegant older man kneels before her with a handkerchief held close to her face. Of course he would have a handkerchief, laundered, pressed and fresh-smelling, tucked into the pocket of his coat.

No, not a handkerchief. Just a napkin from the café.

An official-looking person is urging them to come inside for ice. Even the musicians have stopped playing and are watching her, their instruments frozen at their hips.

Instead, Neil takes her hand and they flee into the crowd.

He must be more drunk than she believed. Otherwise he would not have turned down those offers of aid.

Just ahead are the lights of Mallory Square, and they press forward into the sea of carts selling pinwheels and peacock feathers and glow sticks, the kind that you snap, like a neck, to illuminate. Her mother used to warn her about the toxic fluid inside. This must be the place where travelers come to find a picture of two frogs mating.

Coming fully into the square, they move right to skirt the crowd. She laughs at the fascinating new gap in her mouth. It seems like the funniest thing that has ever happened to her. She stumbles again but Neil has her this time and leads her up to the wall of a building nearby, where they stand together, Mara in his arms. He brushes a thumb across her lip.

“Does it look like I fell on my face?”

“You’re all right,” he says.

He kisses her with an urgency she doesn’t expect. His mouth is on and around hers, his tongue sticky as he folds it to the left and right.

At first Mara worries that his teeth will knock against her broken one. She worries about the blood on her face. Then she understands what is happening and gets her hands under his shirt. As soon as she reaches for his shorts, he stops her and says they should go back.

“We could try it,” she says.

“Not here.”

“I want to.”

They are not in shadow or in any way hidden from the people around them. They are just drunk. Yet he concedes.

She draws his hand under her skirt, and once she’s brought it there, it remains cupped between her thighs like he’s expecting to receive change. She is sweating behind her knees, between her legs, from the small of her back. Feeling her way into his shorts, Mara plies his penis between palm and thumb, and he moans to express the appreciation he seems to think she needs. But what she is holding feels like a bag of jellybeans tied up with a string. She can scrunch it to any shape in her hand.

“We can go back. It’s not a big deal.”

“Give me a minute,” he says.

He presses her against the wall and she hauls up her skirt, trying to pin it between their hips. Can Neil do away with compunction long enough to do this one thing? Her back scrapes against the concrete. The effort shows in his neck.

She wants this for him, for them. All her attention is bent to it. She has forgotten about her tooth. But all he is doing is tossing himself against her thigh. There is no angle, no certain way she can arrange her body to make this work.

She stands up from the wall and tugs her skirt.

“Should I stop?” he says.

“Are you just going to keep stuffing it in?”

Confusion throbs across Neil’s face. There is no use looking too long. She has decades to see what’s there.

Some fifty yards away a man on a high wire has become the focus of the crowd. He is something between a flea and an acrobat, hopping from place to place on the rope. So much for the chance to show her tits.

Above them the wind has risen and is rasping in the palms. Humidity is stamped on her neck.

Riding their bikes back to the hotel they turn too early and get lost among residential streets.

lives in Orlando, Florida. She is at work on her first collection of stories.

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