Jul/Aug 2021  •   Fiction

In the Water

by Max Keisler

Photo by Solen Feyissa on unsplash

Photo by Solen Feyissa on unsplash

>For John, it was a form of penance to go to Towcester. His mother called him one Thursday afternoon and asked if he could come for a week to help pack up Nonna's things. She said she knew he was very busy with his job in Turtle Bay, but it would be such a help, and his grandfather would be happy to see him, and it would be hard for her to come up from Florida this time of year. John knew none of that was true, but he decided to go anyway: at least his mother wouldn't be there.

And it would be interesting, in a way, to see what things were like. They couldn't possibly be good, but there was a big space between bad and worse. Whatever it was, he thought, they deserved it.

On Friday evening he left New York and made the trip to the North Shore. It was a different world once you drove over the Tobin Bridge. These were people who still ordered Pu-Pu Platters at the Kowloon on Route 1, who felt like cowboys whenever they parked under the green glow of the giant neon cactus at the Grand Mesa steakhouse. They went to Olive Garden for bottomless breadsticks and Tuscan Garlic Chicken but would never dream of going to Tuscany, where, John knew well, there was no such thing as bottomless breadsticks.

He arrived at his grandfather's house around 10:30. It looked like it always had: aluminum siding, shuttered windows, a general sense of defeat. The front door was already open by the time he parked, and there his grandfather was, standing in the doorway, his remaining hairs harshly illuminated by the porch light.

"I hope you're here to help," he said. "And not just bitch and moan."

"It's good to see you too, Pop."

There were beer cans all over the front lawn, and there were beer cans on the stairs, and in the living room... they formed a circle around the La-Z-Boy almost a foot high. The TV was tuned to NewsMAX, Fox News having become compromised by the snowflakes in recent years, as John had been informed the last time he was back here.

"You want to eat something?" Pop said.

"Sure," John said. "What is there?"

"There's chicken in the freezer. Or there's peanut butter."

"Whatever's easier."

Easier was Jiffy peanut butter on Wonderbread. He tried not to think of the trans fats. How was the drive, Pop asked, and he said it was fine. So you're not too tired to get to work. I guess not.

"Great. Take the boxes out of the basement and load them into the truck."

John went down the stairs, plunging his foot and some of his ankle into cold water.

"It's flooded down here," he yelled.

"It is what it is. Get the boxes."

The smell in the cellar was almost unbearable. Nevertheless, he brought the boxes up, one at a time. He didn't want to look weak.

"You have to do something about that water, Pop," he said.

"It comes in with the tides. It'll go away, too," Pop said dismissively.

"It's going to hurt the property value." That got a scoff.

Afterwards, he spent some time on Facebook looking up the people he went to high school with. Some of them had kids. None of them were married. A few were dead. But it was Maggie he wanted to see, and she proved to be alive and childless. He messaged her with some satisfaction, imagining her going through his photos, seeing him at the PAC with Congressman Edwards, his multiple mentions in the Washington Post, and most of all, his appearance on Face the Nation. She replied within hours, saying she remembered him and yeah, they could meet up.

They agreed to meet at a bar on Tuesday.

John found it difficult to sleep in a house where the walls only intermittently kept out the water. It was probably only his imagination, but he could hear it gurgling around in the walls, in the floorboards, sounding almost like a language. The effect was quite unsettling, and he found himself waking up around 5:00. He decided to go for a stroll.

Early mornings, the town belonged to the junkies. They'd shamble out of their cars and squat houses and converge at the line in front of the methadone clinic, teetering unsteadily on their feet, hiding their train tracks under crappy old coats. The neighborhood dope boy was there, too, dispensing foil-wrapped dime bags to his loyal customers. He'd move down the line, hand to hand, until he'd served everyone, and they'd go inside for their oral dose and come back out with stupid smiles on their faces. They were the reason you needed a key to get into the McDonald's bathroom. They were the damaged remnants of White America.

He accepted that no coffee in Towcester would be acceptable to him and made his peace with the bottle of coke he got from the 7-11. Back at the house, he looked through his phone notifications: several dozen retweets, hundreds of likes, but surprisingly, no likes on his profile pictures from Maggie. In fact, she had not yet accepted his friend request. Playing it coy, apparently. For a moment, he contemplated opening Tinder, Bumble, or maybe Hinge, but he thought better of it. Here, it wouldn't be like the city.

In the house, his grandfather was engaged in a spirited phone discussion about the fishing quotas, the gist of which being the government bastards didn't know their ass from their elbow, that if they were going to pay him to NOT fish, it better be more than this, that they wanted us to be welfare dependents. They don't even eat cod in Washington, they eat lobsters and oysters, and you see, no quotas on the lobsters or the oysters.

It was hard to argue with that kind of logic, but John knew the quotas were nothing but a scapegoat. If they were revoked tomorrow, the fishing boats would still be rusting in the docks, covered in barnacles, the drunks would still be drunks, and the junkies would still be junkies. Then they'd start blaming the immigrants, the welfare cheats, the Shariazation of the government, any boogeyman they could think of to avoid facing the real source of their problems.

Tuesday night, he got a table at the bar and breathed in the smoke. Everyone in Towcester smoked Marlboro Reds, despite, maybe because of, the surgeon general's warnings, as if lung cancer was a Deep State conspiracy. It was the thing that brought people together, now that nobody fished and nobody went to Mass. The old people didn't get high, but they smoked Reds.

Despite his best efforts, he was overdressed. It was hard not to be overdressed in Towcester, where wearing clothes that fit your frame and didn't come from a Walmart made you a hipster, an out of towner, or possibly even a fairy. Thankfully, no one seemed to notice. They were too focused on the hockey game and on guzzling as many Bud Lights as quickly as they could. He flicked through his feed and thought about the logistics: he couldn't bring her to his grandfather's house, the nearest hotel was 25 minutes away, which seemed hardly worth it, and then there was his car, a 2010 Lexus which made up for its mediocre fuel efficiency with its spacious interior.

When Maggie arrived, she wasn't much to look at. In her Facebook pics, she still looked more or less how he remembered her, but in real life, without the filters, her crow's feet were visible, along with a slightly grainy texture to her skin. She was still a right swipe, if a weak one, but certainly not a Superlike. But that was fine. If anything, that was better. From the entrance, she looked around, eventually finding his table. Casually, he looked up from his phone and waved her over.

"Wow, Johnny, you haven't changed at all," she said as she sat down. "What's your secret?"

"I've changed a little," he said. He tapped his credit card against the table. She pretended not to notice, but he saw her look and see that it was metal. "I work in Turtle Bay."

"Really? You don't seem like a fisherman."

Was that a joke? He couldn't answer it without losing a point.

"What do you want? Don't worry about the price."

"Wow, thanks." A nicotine-stained smile. "How about a Grey Goose?"

She ended up drinking most of a bottle, which wasn't cheap when ordered by the glass. He had no problem with that. However, the vodka failed to bring out her promiscuous side. In actuality, she was almost crying by her last drink.

"It's the goddamn fent," she said. "It's in everything now. Percs, sterg, whatever, all of it. You get the wrong bag and that's it. How is that fair? He wasn't any kind of junkie, he just had bad luck and got something with fent in it, and that's all? What's the point?"

"It's sad," he said. "I don't know if this helps, but I happen to know that the HHS is planning to open an inquiry into the fentanyl epidemic."

She gave him a confused look. "What does that even mean?"

"It's the Department of Health and Human Services. Just, you know, they haven't forgotten about places like this."

"Oh," she said. "That's good to hear. I thought they had."

Maggie did not come to his car that night.

In the morning, they were moving the boxes to the U-Stor-It on the mainland, over the bridge. The water in Towcester was dark and murky, the color of the patina on some ancient bronze statue you'd find in an art museum. It didn't matter if it was cloudy or sunny on any given day, nothing seemed to penetrate the water's surface, under which were presumably all kinds of unknowable and strange things. It seemed irresponsible, in his mind, that people went swimming in it. He remembered when he was little, the day when some unlucky kid got dragged under and washed up hours later with lungs full of seawater. They said it was an undertow, but that didn't explain the claw marks on the kid's leg. Nobody really knew what was down there, except that there was hardly any cod left, but even that was a matter of dispute.

"Big government did this to us," Pop said, pointing around.

"You did this yourselves, Pop. You overfished."

"We didn't do anything the sea couldn't handle. The government did the quotas."

How, John wondered, could he possibly explain the rationale of the quotas to someone with a middle school diploma from St. Catherine's? How could he explain the principles of biology to someone who thought the Impossible Burger was part of the New World Order's plans to destroy the American man?

"We'll agree to disagree," John said. Pop snorted through his nose. You pansy.

The hosts on the TV shows Pop watched didn't talk very much about Russia, whom they seemed to view as a wayward ally, but they did have a lot to say about China. The jobs were in China. Fentanyl came from China. The Deep State was in collusion with China. General Matthews had business ties with China. Perhaps the Russians were too white to really be enemies; the Chinese made a better target for small-minded American bigotry. John did not vocally disagree with anything Pop regurgitated. After all, he was a guest in this place. The best thing to do was not pay too much attention to the nonsense. Instead, he scrolled through his feed, let off a choice tweet, and checked Maggie's Facebook. There was nothing new there—she didn't post very often, although her friends did tag her in misleadingly-filtered photos at various bars.

Let's go out tn, he messaged her. Club?

They're demolishing the middle school, she wrote back. U can come watch w me.

Middle school was where social differentiation first occurred: boys and girls, cool kids and losers. Before that, everyone was the same, and after, they were set in the channels that would carry them through their lives. It was decided then that John would not hook up with one of the hot girls, just as it was decided Mike O'Donnell would crash his car into a lamppost, and Katherine Ferreira would ill-advisedly not get the abortion. Everyone's life was decided there, against their will.

They watched from a distance as the wrecking ball crashed into the wall again and again, dust and rubble spewing out around the point of impact. It was the kind of thing you saw every day in the city, but here it felt very symbolic.

"They say it's because of asbestos," she said.

"Jesus Christ. That's not good."

"But that's just an excuse, if you ask me. It's not like they're going to build a new one."

"I'm sure they're going to build a new one."

"It's cute that you think that," she said. "It's called managed decline. You want a cig?"

"I don't smoke."

She didn't come to his car that night, either. He wasn't surprised.

Once he was in bed, he went under the blanket with his phone and pulled up a POV video: amateur, creampie, girlfriend experience.

On Thursday there was a high tide, and the streets flooded. Not dramatically, only with an inch or two of water, but enough that the refuse of the town—the needles, charred bits of aluminum foil, plastic bags, and McDonald's wrappers—was mingled with the seaweed and shells, the refuse of the ocean. This, Pop told him, was nothing to get in a tizzy about. It happened at least a couple times a year. "I don't mind it at all," he said. "Shows someone still cares about us."

"I wish something could be done," John said.

"Yeah. Well." That was the end of that.

On Friday, right as the church bells rang out at noon, a giant fireball erupted in the harbor, smelling at first like gasoline, and then wood and paint and trash burning all at once, the black smoke floating up and up into the colorless sky. You could see the boat burning for almost an hour before it sank beneath the waves and the fire was finally extinguished. It was an insurance thing, Pop told him. Make the banks pay for it, at least get something, enough to get by on. All of that made plenty of sense, except for the faint hint of burning flesh, a bit like nose-to-tail cooking, that accompanied the fire. But it was clear nobody was going to acknowledge that part.

He heard the front door slam as he was packing up his backpack, followed by the sound of a bottle breaking against the wall. Immediately, he was summoned to the living room, to be informed on the evils of Market Basket, a once great New England company now aligned with the SJWs and globalists, as evidenced by the presence of basa fish in their frozen food section for $2.29 a pound. This was a bottom feeder of the worst degree, full of diseases and antibiotics and hormones, and it was farmed and processed in Vietnam, and only a goddamn idiot could trust the Vietnamese on something like this. It was, John was informed, evidence of the government's priorities when they told people here they couldn't fish enough and let this disease-ridden crap into the country. Even if they could fish enough, they couldn't sell cod for $2.29 a pound. John was asked to do something about this: he agreed, choosing not to explain the difference between the FDA and the HHS. Not that it would have mattered.

"You're alright, Johnny boy," Pop said, in a voice he'd never heard. "You're just not cut out for it here." He was close enough that you could smell the beer and cigarettes and Old Spice. John threw the backpack on his shoulder.

"Thanks, Pop," The car chirped as it unlocked.

"Don't feel like you have to hang around here for my sake. It's a long drive back."

"I'm gonna miss you, Pop."

"Yeah. Maybe you will."

He waited to drive back to New York until Maggie was off work. For one, the traffic would be better, and secondly, he deserved an explanation.

He still didn't know what she did, although it was clearly shift work. Whether she was a waitress at Chili's, a cashier at CVS, an InstaCart Full-Service Shopper, or some combination thereof, it was her own cross to bear. He understood, now, there was a perverse kind of dignity in all of this, a steadfastness to staying here that felt very old-fashioned. Not for the first time, he felt a bit of jealousy that he was denied this communion.

They met at the bridge connecting the peninsula to Route 1. Her car was an old hatchback with scrapes on the bumpers and a Boston Red Sox 2013 World Champions pennant on the back windshield. She was smoking a Marlboro in the glow of the streetlight. John approached her for the last time.

"You know," he said. "Normally you're supposed to sleep with the guy on the third date."

Maggie smiled sadly. "You call this a date?"

"I want to know," he said. "Why not? What's wrong with me?"

"There's nothing wrong with you, Johnny. I can tell you got a bright future in front of you, you're gonna be someone very important. But that doesn't have anything to do with me."

"It'll be fun," he said, for no reason. She laughed.

"I had a lot of fun in high school. Anyway, you should go back before you turn into one of us. One of the fish people."

He looked over the seawall, which seemed more and more inadequate with every passing day. The swells out in the Atlantic were easily ten feet high, and if they did wear themselves out before they hit the shore, their retreat was only temporary. The sea was coming for Towcester, and soon the residents would be joining their brothers and sisters in the water, as long as they could grow gills. Fish people.

Maggie glanced at her cigarette, two-thirds done. "You want to finish it?"

"Sure," he said. "Why not." And then, "The water's higher than it used to be."

"Yeah. Isn't it great?"