Jan/Feb 2011  •   Fiction

This Is a Jellyfish Eating a Barracuda

by Caroline Kepnes

When Albie's mother went on an okay date, the man would come home with her, at least for a little while. He would sit on the green velour couch with her, laughing at things she said, letting her tell her stories. She told Albie the hardest thing about being alone was not getting to tell her stories. "All women, we have so much to say, Albie, and when there is no one to say it to, you start to fade."

"Like the kid in Back to the Future?"

She sighed and put more sugar in her coffee, and he knew he'd said something wrong.

"Don't always make everything about a movie."

"Okay. I won't."

"It's the worst thing men do. Just listen to what I'm saying. Don't make it sound like everything I think, all my thoughts and feelings and things, that they're all like some movie somebody else made."

"I'm sorry."

He grew to think of her stories as another person who lived with them, like a wheezing grandma or a baby brother, someone who couldn't take care of himself. The stories needed to be told the way old people couldn't take baths on their own, the way babies needed to be fed. And it wasn't just about listening. The way a baby would die if you fed it fried chili peppers and whisky, a story would die if you didn't feed it the right questions. The right questions: Did you work at Friendly's or Dairy Queen? Did you really just jump up on the stage and grab the mic from the singer? How old were you when that happened? Wow, have you ever thought about writing all this down? Why didn't you try out to be a Rockette a second time? But since Albie knew the stories, he couldn't ask those questions.

Albie didn't have any stories of his own yet, but maybe that was because he was a boy. It seemed to him only girls had stories. The men his mother dated never told stories. Maybe men listened because they wanted what they couldn't have, or maybe they just wanted to touch his mother.

If the date had been more than okay, good actually—if he paid for dinner, wore a necktie, and didn't talk with his mouth full of mashed potatoes—Albie's mother would come home alone, thrilled. She would turn on her computer and blast music, Whoa whoa you got the best of my love, singing along so loudly he almost couldn't hear the real music. Albie would get out of bed and go into the living room. She would always dance for him a minute, pretending she didn't see him standing there in his long pants and t-shirt. And then she'd gasp and put her hands to her mouth and say she had no idea he was up and he was supposed to be in bed. He knew she was lying. He knew she always saw him come into the room. But she would pretend to get over her embarrassment and then try and get him to dance with her, which he would, and then she would squeal "Max!" or "Doug!" and spin him around.

(The ones with potential tended to be named Max and Doug. Or maybe those were just Albie's favorite names. He wasn't sure. Albie's favorite girls' name was Jessica because it was too pretty for words like the Allman Brother song. He also liked Rose because once he danced with a girl named Rose. She said he didn't do things right, didn't put his arms in the right places, and then she walked away, but he still liked the name.)

On these occasions Albie's mother would say she might be married someday, and she and Albie would have the second dance at the wedding, that they were practicing. He didn't understand the logic. She didn't let the ones who might be good sit on the couch with her, only opened the door for the ones who were bad. But it would have been impossible to ask her a question like that when she was bouncing and singing at the top of her lungs, Doesn't take much to make me happy and make me smile with glee. What a nice way to think of your mom, easily made to smile and dance. Besides, good or bad, they all went away after a date or two, so maybe it didn't even matter.

If the date went badly, which they usually did—one named Paul paid for dinner and tapped the credit card on the table and looked at his mother sternly and said, "This is me being a gentleman. So I'll expect you to be a lady and reciprocate"—then she would enter the house slowly, slam the door shut, and Neil Young would soon be in there with her, whimpering from the computer housing all the singers and all the songs. She would cry as Neil whinnied about how he never saw a woman look finer and how he used to order just to watch her walk across the room. The sound of his mother's heartache was wild and scary, and it made sense a noise like that needed to be sheltered in harmonicas and bass.

Music gave Albie hints about his own future. He was a kid, no car, no bike (not anymore, anyway) and his morning was a direct result of his mother's evening, of whether she'd been kissed or not, of whether she'd been jumping up and down with Rihanna ella ella ella or weeping alongside Damien Rice, on and on about the colder water, the blower's daughter, the pupil in denial, over and over, a reverse lullaby. Albie listened to all the songs, though. He had to. Without them he wouldn't know what the next day would bring. He planned on learning to play an instrument, but every day had a way of not seeming like the day he would learn to make music for his mother, the day he would become special, able to contribute something new to their family.

It was raining the night of her first date with Max Wenner. This had been a very important night for her. She said Max Wenner was a friend of her sister's, "One of the good ones: employed, decent, normal for once. Pearl even says he's cute." She'd taken a lot longer getting ready, changing her outfits, doing what girls do. But when she got home that night, it was still raining. The rain hadn't stopped for his mother and Max Wenner, and now she was alone for a long time in the quiet, and this was very unusual. There was no music. He was just about to walk out there when Ryan Adams joined her all sprung and country about Oh the days the rain will fall your way, and within seconds he could hear her crying. It wasn't like she hadn't cried before. But usually when she cried, it was with the old hippy saps like Eric Clapton or Joni Mitchell. She'd never cried with Ryan Adams. Ryan Adams was supposed to be for dancing.

Like when she started going out with Horrible Don. The first night he was there, Ryan Adams was there, too. Albie had not walked out to join the dance party, knowing he wasn't wanted. The song had ended quickly, and then, being the dumb adults they were, they made a giggling festival out of the trip to her bedroom, as if now they had to worry about waking him, as if When you're young you get sad at high decibel hadn't startled him out of bed.

(Don was the worst boyfriend, ever. He drank full-fat milk and ate all the bacon and told Albie trying to learn guitar was a waste of time and Albie would be better off focusing on science. Don was gone after three weeks, but they were very long weeks.)

When Ryan Adams finally shut up, there was a brief silence, and then some '80s guy was mewing She's just sixteen years old, leave her alone, they said. The song was very melodramatic, and his mother was crying very hard. She always said people who laugh at songs like this one, songs all crashing drama, those people have no heart, and you have to watch out for them.

Albie worried Max Wenner had done something bad. Maybe he had told her she was ugly, maybe he had squeezed her titties too hard. He felt gross for trying to figure out what had happened and wanted to think about something else, but her crying was animal-like and Separated by fools who don't know what love is yet was getting louder by the second.

One thing was in his head and would not go away: the way she'd spun around before leaving earlier. He went to his door and sat against it. There was probably something very wrong with him, and he shamed to think of it, but the loud beats coming into the room made his body tighten, and soon his pants were off and he was stroking himself the way some kids said he would one day. When it was done, he could hear her crying again. It was as if he'd gone deaf and gotten his hearing back, only now his ears were buzzing, and he wondered if he might ever hear anything clearly again. The music was off, and she must have gone to bed, and he hoped she hadn't heard him doing what he'd been doing, but he had no way of knowing if she had as he couldn't recall if he'd made any noise.

In the morning there were scrambled eggs and microwave bacon, and she was at the table all dressed and smiling. He couldn't think of anything to say. This wasn't a day after crying over Max Wenner (or any Max) kind of breakfast. This was a spread. He looked at the fridge where a picture he drew once when he was a dumb kid was still stuck there, taped on with masking tape. At the bottom, his teacher had written what he had told her to write: "This is a jellyfish eating a barracuda." His mother didn't save much, but she said that particular drawing had touched her because it was dreamy.

He had asked what she meant, and she had said a jellyfish couldn't eat a barracuda. "Well, jellyfish don't eat. They just sting," she'd told him, in a tone instructing him not to ask any more questions—even though it didn't make sense, that something could stay alive and move through the water without any food at all.

"You're not hungry?" She felt his forehead the way she always did when he did something wrong. He thought of what he'd done to his body and worried he might have a fever. But she took her hand away. "Eat up. None of it's any good once it's cold."

He started to eat, and she put her bare feet up on the table and stretched her arms high over her head. "You know," she said. "That's why breakfast is for lovers. Lunch is just the middle of the day. Dinner you can heat up the next day. But breakfast is only good right in the moment. Remember someday when you're dating girls. Best thing you can ever do if you really like a girl is take her to breakfast. She'll know she's special. It's the love time of the date. Night is for people you know really well who already know you love them."

Albie promised he would remember. He wanted to ask why all her dates were at night, but he knew better. That would be a cruel question. His mother was not a loved woman, and it wouldn't be nice of her son to say so. "You're quiet today," he said instead.

"I'm just tired."

"Couldn't sleep, babe?"

She scooped eggs onto her plate, set the spatula on the platter, and reached for the bacon with her hands. She was always taking things she didn't want and hoarding them and then picking up what she really wanted. Why didn't she just grab the bacon if she wanted the bacon?

"I slept."

"If you say so, kiddo."

She kissed him on the forehead, the signal it was time for him to stop eating and go out and get the bus. He complied, got his backpack and his lunch money, and walked out the front door. When he turned back, she was standing there waving, and he waved and walked to the bus, wondering if she would eat all the eggs now that he was gone, wondering why he wondered about such stupid things, like the jellyfish and the barracuda.

The next night he made macaroni and cheese and stroked himself three times. After all, his hearing had returned to normal, so there was reason to celebrate. Really, it was the greatest thing he'd ever done. He thought of his bicycle that got stolen, but it didn't compare. He thought of Doug #2 taking him to the dog track where greyhounds ran wild and controlled in synchronized circles, but that didn't compare, either. Thankfully, he was all done when his mother got home. She wasn't alone this time, and the Beatles were there. Max Wenner, too, and there was more crying, and Paul McCartney was promising The wild and windy night that the rain washed away has left a pool of tears crying for today. It was pretty scary stuff. Max saying words he couldn't make out, Max being here while she cried underneath Paul's wailing, Paul a guy she only sat with when she was alone.

Somehow, he forced himself to sleep. It was easier to nod off after stroking, so there was that. In the morning, he was surprised to find his mother was again dressed and smiling, with just as many eggs as yesterday, and bacon, too. There was no Max in sight.

"Well, you look like you got some z's, yeah?"

"Yeah," he said, hoping she was not onto his new hobby. "Are you okay?"

"What kind of a question is that? Of course I'm okay, honey."

He was torn. He was being lied to, made a fool of. Of course she wasn't okay. Was he deaf or something? No, he was not. Yes, he had heard her crying, and he had heard Max saying things. But at the same time, there was nothing more beautiful than his mother in a cheery mood in the morning, again forking eggs onto her plate, again picking at bacon. He wished he were younger, maybe five, because if so he'd be able to feel only what he was feeling based on his current surroundings. It was hell knowing when the pieces didn't go together. It was hell wondering why a person would lie to you.

When he got home after school, she wasn't there. His Aunt Pearl was in the living room, smoking a cigarette. Her legs were two snakes wrapped around each other, tightly knotted at the ankles. She was very skinny and very made up around her eyes. His mom said the lines around her eyes had been tattooed on, but that couldn't be possible. She had very small tits, and her arms were always crossed, and she made him nervous because she was his aunt and there he always was, thinking about her small tits.

"Albie, you're home."

"Where's Mom?"

She put the cigarette out and patted the sofa. He knew what she wanted, but it felt good to not give it to her. He remained standing at the front door, so he could flee if he want to.

"Fine," she said. "Stand."

She hung her head and rubbed her hands in her hair. The house was very quiet without music, and he wanted nothing more than for his mom to walk in and kill the suffocating silence with something, anything, even one of the whiny dirges would do right now because it would mean she was here.

"Albie, do you know what mental illness is?"

"What do you mean?"

"Do you know what it is?"

"Yes." He thought of the guy at the donut shop nearby who was always there, always clapping over a chocolate frosted donut, never eating it, just looking at it and clapping.

"No, wait. That's not what I meant. She's not mentally ill."

Good. He didn't want his mother clapping over donuts. His bag was heavy on his back, but he would not put it down.

"Sometimes ladies need a rest."

"Uh, huh."

"Your mom is gonna rest for a while."

"Is she in bed?"

"No, Albie."

"Where is she?"

She looked at him in a way she hadn't ever before, like she was a teacher and he was, too, and they were talking about a student. He felt old and took off his backpack because suddenly it really was too much.

"What?" he said.

"Let's get your things together."

His aunt Pearl's house was nothing short of a nightmare. His cousin Angela was in high school and always talking, and his aunt Pearl was always listening and always talking back. His uncle Richard sat in a chair and watched horses run around in circles, an activity Albie couldn't imagine doing. Why would you want to watch them on TV when they were mere miles away, in the flesh? There was never any music, and nobody said much to him all week, and he didn't ask many questions. He didn't know if he lived here now, and the worst part was he couldn't stroke himself, not here, and worse than the worst part was he actually considered that inability to do that worse than the fact that his mother was "resting" somewhere. His head swam, and he slept very little and ate a lot.

Eight treacherous days passed until his aunt told him to pack up his things. Instantly, he felt sad, as if he had done something wrong. He kind of liked the way Pearl and Angela were always talking. It was a sound different than music. The stories being told, long as they were, sometimes actually went somewhere. Now he would never know if Angela would go to the homecoming dance with Bryan or Nick. Now he would never know if Aunt Pearl was going to get beige lipstick or stay with red. He didn't know what channel the dogs ran on, and he knew he wouldn't find them. He and his mom didn't have a TV. His mom said TVs were poison.

In the car Pearl turned the music on, and Bruce Springsteen joined them, again not knowing what a woman like you is doing with me. Some of Bruce's ones always hit Albie hard, especially this one, one of his mom's main ones, and he hadn't stroked himself in days, and he didn't know if he was getting dropped off at a bus station or his house, and You better think hard or think twice, and he started to cry. Aunt Pearl put on her blinker and pulled into a parking lot. His mom never used the blinker, and the gesture stung, like the other drivers mattered—mattered more than his damn tears. Then she silenced Bruce and turned off the car and looked at him like at any moment he might start clapping over a chocolate frosted donut. His mother was right. Pearl could be a real bitch when she wanted to.

"I'm fine. I just got sad for a second."

"You can talk to me. I know you can't talk to her, but you can talk to me."

"We talk just fine."

"Why are you crying, Albie?"

"I was, but I'm not now. Can we go?"

She sighed. She looked like she wanted to cross her legs up all tight but couldn't. It was an awful thing, knowing an adult would much rather be somewhere else, with someone else.

"Albie, she can't help the way she is. The doctors can't help her."

"The doctors?"

"The resting doctors. I don't know. They don't know. They've never known."

Aunt Pearl itched her nose and shook her head, and it was funny, the way she said so many words to Angela all week long. When it was the two of them talking, there was never a break in voices. They talked over and under each other, and they talked in the morning when most people didn't have much to say because the day was starting, and they talked in the evening when most people didn't have much to say because the day was ending, and most days didn't involve all that much activity. But here now, there really was something to talk about, something not involving diet foods or boys or dresses, and his aunt had no interest in talking about it. His love for his mother rose in his chest and threatened to come out in the form of a punch. He breathed, "Where is my mom now?"

"She's home now. I'm taking you home."

"Well, can we go?"

"Well, can you talk a minute? All week you don't say anything and I, I have no idea how to talk to you, damn it. You're just…"

She shook her head and started to cry, but then she stopped, and he noticed none of the black stuff around her eyes had moved. His mother was right. It must have been tattooed there. She started the car and backed out and headed toward the way out to the road. Again, she used her blinker.

When they pulled into the driveway, his mother was standing on the front porch. She wasn't cheery like she'd been last week, but she did wave. He didn't even say goodbye to Aunt Pearl, sensing this was one of those lucky moments in life, where the rules don't apply and you don't have to be nice, where you can just run.

He flung himself at his mother as if he was a kid and waited until Pearl's car was gone to break away.

"Hey, you," she said as she scruffed his hair.


The house smelled different, or maybe his senses were off because of the week at Aunt Pearl's. Her computer with all the music was in its usual spot on the table.


"So," he said.

"I'm sorry I had to go away. It was a business trip."

"Was it fun?"

"It was a lot of work, but it was okay. How was school? How did that math test turn out?"

Albie nodded, unable to look at her, feeling like it wouldn't be of any use to look at her until many years had passed and he knew how to ask questions. "Can I put music on?"

She nodded and started biting her nails, and he was trying to picture her in a suit with a briefcase, resting alongside all the other business people, and he wanted the music now, loud. "What do you want to hear?"

"Oh, anything," she said.

He wanted her to talk to him so badly, to tell him where she had been and why. And this was the way she talked to him, through all her songs inside the computer. She only needed to pick one. She could do that for him. She had to. Business trip.

"Mom, what?"

"I really don't care, Albie. Whatever you want."

"You always care."

"Oh, honey, I just let the music do what it wants. You know, what's it called? Shuffle."

He didn't know what his face looked like then, but it must not have looked good because she pulled her robe tighter and kept talking, as if there was someone else seated across from her. "Yes, see, we didn't have that when I was your age, you know. You had to go and get the record out of the sleeve and put it on the recorder, or wait, tapes. Yeah, I mean I guess I didn't do much with records but tapes, CDs. You had to pick them. It's magic, the way the future is. The songs pick you, and I think that's just magic."

"You don't pick them?"

She just raised her eyebrows and kept talking. "You know if someone told me when I was your age, there would be a magic box choosing the music for you, that just knew what was inside of you even if you didn't know, oh man, I would never. I would have lost every last penny on that bet, oh yes, I would."

She reached over and hit the mute button, and Led Zeppelin was there instantly, a minute into it, telling about the Many times been bitten, many times I've gazed along the open road. And now his mother was up and grooving and reaching for his hands. The music told her she felt like jumping.

"Albie come on! This is one of the best!"

She was pumping the volume as high as it would go, grabbing at his arms, beckoning, sweating already. He felt dense all over, thick like Aunt Pearl's shrubs in the front yard. His mother was crazy. Nobody said so, but if the random songs coming out of the computer made your moods, well, the guy clapping over the donut, at least he'd asked for that donut, at least he'd walked down to the store, sat down at the counter and asked the old man behind the counter to give him one with chocolate on top. He couldn't look at her for a minute, couldn't even feel her hands grabbing at his.

"Albie, come on."

He danced. And when Led Zeppelin finished, Van Morrison started in about When all the dark clouds roll away and the sun begins to shine. She sat down at the table and started to cry very hard. She didn't seem too rested for someone who had been resting for a week. Max and Doug had left for a reason. He wrapped his arms around her. He moved forward to press the button to make another song come on, but she grabbed his arm, hard.

"No," she said. "It doesn't work like that. Life throws you lemons, Albie."

There were ways to save her. He could throw the computer out the window, but no. She would get another. He could delete all the sad songs in the middle of the night, but no, she would notice if they were all gone at once. She wouldn't Jump for my love and celebrate and ella ella ella without getting very tired or suspicious. God, if he took away all the slow ones in one fell swoop, she might even have a heart attack or ground him. She wasn't stupid, and she knew more about music than anyone he knew. But what he could do was take one song away every day. He would start with this whiny bitch Morrison dragging his nice mom down, going on about a brand new day but not acting like it was one. Albie would eliminate that one first, tonight, right after he had his alone time. He would wait to do it until she was asleep in her room.

He set his alarm, but when it sounded, he must have been overtired because he just rolled over and shut it off and fell back to sleep. In the morning she was already awake and doing things in the kitchen. He had failed. He felt dense again, as if his body was a bad place to be, bad almost as his home. He lugged himself out of bed. He was the man of the house. He had to be. He ate eggs and bacon and focused on the night ahead. He would eliminate two sad songs to make up for his failure the night before. He ate his bacon and looked at the jellyfish eating the barracuda, the proportions all wrong, as stupid as a mouse grabbing his mother's titties or a Max moving his things in and paying half the rent.

When he got home from school that day, he tore the picture of the jellyfish and the barracuda off the refrigerator and ripped it into pieces and threw it in the dumpster outside. His mother never asked where it went. She might not have noticed, but she had to have noticed. The refrigerator was barren now. Every time she opened her mouth in that kitchen, he expected her to ask what happened to it, but she always said something else, something about needing to buy bacon or paper towels, or something about a man she was talking to in the grocery store. He wondered when she would ask him about it. Maybe it would be years from now, when she was old and unable to give herself a bath. He could picture himself a man, grown up, maybe even a wife in the kitchen, and he'd be lifting her saggy, naked body into a warm tub, and she'd cling to the hairs on the back of his neck and ask why he'd thrown away the jellyfish and the barracuda all those years ago.