This story was originally published by The Paper Journey Press in an anthology called Original Sin.
When Joe Wallingford hangs the broom on its hook in the maintenance closet under the Whale and Dolphin Stadium, a flash of gold glistens in its bristles. He looks more closely. Light from the overhead bulb plays off something shiny--a delicate gold chain interlaced in the broom straws. Joe takes off his cap and smoothes his thinning hair back from his brow, then picks the necklace out and holds the strand far enough from his eyes to have a good look without fishing for his glasses.
The ache in Joe’s chest winds tighter. The slender threads of the chain are interlaced, like the braid Lily wove into the back of her blonde hair before their children were born and she cut it off. He loved to touch its satiny surface when she lay next to him asleep, following one plaited strand from its origin as far as he could before his finger was encased in the two other strands. His left thumb caresses the pad of his index finger at the memory and he walks tenderly to the outside door, as if he is treading on blossoms.
Outside the closet, the sky is cloudless over Sea World. Joe tells himself it’s an enormous blue eye, but Lily’s eyes were faded at the end, less intense than today’s azure. The wind rustles in the palm fronds and carries the whooping and clapping from the sea otter show to his ears. Five weeks ago it was the white noise of family fun; now it is the rattle of his grief.
Joe holds the chain up to Florida’s winter sun to inspect it more carefully. A magical snake slithers from his fingertips and pivots in a seductive spiral--a startling transformation. Light flashes off the links and sends pinpoints dancing on the green of nearby hibiscus and oleander. Why can’t some magic zap him like that? Kill the elephant that sits on his chest. Let him breathe again.
Joe retreats into the closet’s cool darkness once again, fingering the gold. It is a good chain, fourteen karat is his guess, though a tiny knot mars the otherwise perfect pattern of its links. He rolls the knot between his thumb and index finger. He’s supposed to turn anything he finds into the lost and found. Has done so religiously since he took this job. Lens caps usually, an occasional ring or watch with a broken band. But this chain. Who would know if he kept it? He’s not sure why he wants it even--it’s not worth much with the knot--but he feels connected to it. To Lily by it, as if she’s somehow holding onto the other end.
Joe stuffs the hand holding the chain into his pocket then pulls it out empty to reach for the glass cleaner on the top shelf.
* * * *
Out by the tank the air smells like brine. Joe squints at the glare off the water. Shamu is in his pool behind the stage confined by a metal gate, the edges of his black and white markings made fuzzy by ripples on the water. The dolphins swim underwater in the main tank, occasionally slicing the surface in shallow scallops.
Though the air is cool, Joe breaks a sweat rubbing the salt off the audience side of the see-through tank. He stands back and eyes the expanse of glass still ahead of him. Above the water line, he sees two trainers, a guy and girl, come out onto the stage platform. They wear wet suits and each carries a bucket of fish. The girl squats down and slaps her hand at the water’s edge. The dolphins speed over to the stage like torpedoes, line up along the stage, their heads bobbing and mouths coughing at her. She laughs and fondles their noses, gives them each a fish from the bucket. Joe wipes the perspiration from his brow and wishes he were a dolphin.
The trainers slip into the water with the dolphins. The guy puts a flexible rubber ring over one dolphin’s head, throws a leg over the dorsal fin so he is mounted on the dolphin’s back and takes a deep breath. The dolphin sounds and the two go streaking around underwater, piggyback. When the dolphin breaks the surface, arcing through space, the trainer is astride, riding bareback, one hand in the air like a rodeo cowboy.
The girl prepares to try it next. She works a ring down over another dolphin’s snout the way he turns Lily’s wedding band down onto his pinkie finger every morning, before feeling silly and returning it to its velvet slot in her jewelry box. The girl holds onto the ring for the underwater part, speeding around underwater, torso pressed to the dolphin’s body. Joe wonders how the dolphin’s flesh feels to her skin. It looks firm like truck tires, but is probably spongy like inner tubes. His thigh muscles tighten involuntarily each time the dolphin breaks the surface. To help her hold on for the buck. But she doesn’t succeed even with his help. She flies through the air and splashes. A million diamonds erupt, stipple the surface, and merge into her next attempt.
Joe wishes she’d notice him, but that’s ridiculous. The only woman who looks his way is the widow who eyes him in the library stacks on Thursday--his day off.
This girl may not be capable of learning the act, but the two don’t seem to care that she succeed. The pleasure of their frolic in the water seems enough for them. They cruise on separate animals, frogman and mermaid, circling the tank underwater, shooting and skimming, breaking and sounding, flying and splashing, brewing a frantic turbulence in the tank.
Joe stands outside, reaching up to the top of the transparent wall with his cloth, feeling the muscles in his back and shoulders scream at him for keeping his arms over his head so long. Sometimes he stops rubbing. Rests his raised arms against the wall but refuses to lower them, to give in to the pain, and watches the underwater side of the couples’ play--a dreamy, slow motion version of the pitch and toss on the water’s surface.
Joe suspects that the trainers can’t see him through the green density of the tank water. Or maybe they don’t care that he is watching. That he knows about the little game they play where each lets go of his mount when the dolphins approach each other underwater. That their bodies merge from the sheer force of their forward motion--into a single column with eight limbs, a mythical octopus that then surges upward, breaking the water’s surface in an explosion of gasping and laughter.
The mermaid’s wet suit glistens in the sunlight as she breaks free, swims to the rim and pulls herself from the tank onto the stage, water slithering down her body in rivulets. The panting frogman follows. They lie down on the warm cement, separate, winded, catching their breath for the next plunge. Joe watches the girl’s breasts rise and fall with her breathing, the ebb and flow slowing to a tidal rhythm the longer she lies. His arms are stiff, his elbows locked, and he plies them gently as he lowers them and stuffs one hand in his pocket to reposition the fullness pushing against his fly.
The chain meets his fingertips.
As Joe walks to the parking lot that afternoon, he pauses at the Ocean Atlantic sportswear boutique, drawn by the liveliness of the colored apparel. He fingers the smooth cotton of an orange and aqua shirt, garish really, a far cry from the khaki and tweed he’d worn to read Wordsworth to ogling coeds at the university. The steel drums of a West Indian band beat a calypso rhythm from the shop’s stereo. “Anything I can help you with?” the saleswoman asks. Her voice is throaty, with a slight drawl. Joe looks up at slender woman in a hot pink, flowered shift, her deep tan slightly too orange to be natural. Her skin looks soft though, not dry; her age only shows in the cords in her neck. Forty is his guess. A divorcee most likely. They’re the ones that exercise, keep themselves up. Lily had grown soft after the girls were born. She let it happen too, to his chagrin. “Keepers, all of them,” she told him, stroking the pouch the pregnancies had made of her once flat stomach.
Joe laughs nervously. He shouldn’t sully Lily’s pride with the presence of another woman. Her lipstick pushes the boundaries, to make her lips look fuller. “How about a drink?” he ventures. If she says no, he’ll pretend to be joking.
“If you can wait a minute,” she says and checks her watch, a moon-faced crystal on a wide pink band. “The evening girl is late. I could meet you at the Coconut Cabana when she comes.”
Joe nods and heads down the walkway toward the Coconut Cabana. Inflated Shamu water toys, hanging from brightly painted and landscaped kiosks, twirl on their strings in the breeze. The sun is still high in the western sky but not so warm as midday. The shops along the way cast slanted shadows across his path. It’s not as though he’s married, he tells the voice in his head, the one with the wagging finger. The evening ahead is long. A little company might be nice.
At an outdoor bistro with a thatched roof Joe takes a seat at the bar. The bartender is tanned and bare-chested, in his twenties, his abs corrugated beneath well-developed pectorals. He wears a tuxedo-style black bow tie around his neck. “What can I get you?” he asks.
“Scotch and water,” Joe mumbles. He sucks in his stomach and wonders if he ever looked like that--in his twenties. Probably not. It’s a look cultivated in a gym, not a university classroom. He wishes he weren’t wearing his Sea World uniform. He crosses his arms, to cover the name embroidered over his pocket and looks back toward the boutique to see if she’s coming. Then he dawdles over his drink when it comes, grateful that the alcohol blurs the edges of his vision.
As the bartender hands Joe another Scotch and water and removes the empty glass, the woman slips onto the stool next to him. Her perfume has a heavy floral fragrance that makes Joe pleasantly sleepy. “Hey, wait for me,” she says and grins. Her teeth are appealingly uneven.
“What’ll it be, Madeline?” the bartender asks.
“My usual,” she says. Joe notes how she avoids the bartender’s eyes. Instead she fumbles in her pocketbook for a pack of cigarettes. Joe reaches for the matches in the nearby ashtray. Madeline’s lips purse expectantly around the cigarette as he brings the lighted match toward her face. The fire glows on the tendrils of bleached hair that escape her French twist. They curl around her hairline in the humid air and lend softness to the severe line of her jaw. Gold curlicues dangle from her ears.
The bartender brings her a frothy drink with an orange twist poised on the edge of a brandy glass. Madeline sips it slowly. Her pink lipstick leaves a smudge on the thin plastic straw. Few words pass between them--nothing that interrupts the force pulling them closer, warm and cloying as tar at midday.
When Madeline finishes her drink, slips off the bar stool, and collects her things, Joe reaches for his wallet. “Stop by again, Pardner?” she drawls. He looks at her orange limbs peeking out in s-curves from the flowered dress, her hair spilling from the hold of its French twist.
“You bet,” he says. Then she is gone and he looks after her, jangling his car keys against the bar as her figure disappears behind a dwarf palm.
On the way home, her perfume lingers on his skin, its heavy fragrance concentrated inside the car. He won’t shower tonight. He’ll close his eyes and pretend she’s in bed with him.
Without Lily’s presence, her daily touch, their condo feels about as homey as an Otis elevator. Joe stares at himself in the mirror over the dresser. His hair is whiter now than six months ago when they left Lansing on early retirement--for her health. His mustache laps over his lip and his pajamas need washing. His eyes have fleshy purple moons underneath that sag on top of bony, sunburned cheeks. How long is this pain going to last?
It’s been five weeks since he’s dressed for bed without staring at the valley in the mattress Lily has left him. Five weeks since he wakened without panic, reliving the memory of himself and the girls lining her hospital bed, watching the heart monitor blip along in its rhythmic dance, mesmerized. He tenses again when the blip goes crazy--beeping non-stop. His heart races, pounding furiously on his ear drums. The code blue team lands, sweeps them into a clump in the corner, shocks Lily’s tired heart back into rhythm and forces sodium through her veins. She dies anyway, though they shock her over and over, and her rag doll body jolts around the bed. “Oh my God,” Joe hollers, again grabbing the arms that hold the paddles to her deflated breast. “Stop it. Let her go.” From the depth of his sleep those words scream forth again, puncturing the silence. He sits upright in bed, panting, and sweat springs from his pores.
“Get over it,” he says now to his reflection, in the sharp tone he remembers using when his daughters were teens, mooning endlessly over a break-up with some linebacking lummox from the football team. He clenches his fist and tightens his pectorals, pulls his stomach up under his ribs. He can’t give in to it. Won’t let himself. His life isn’t over yet.
Joe undresses again, lays his pants over the back of the chair. The chain spills from the pocket and gleams against the white carpet in the lamplight. His eye fixes on it again. Sees its possibilities. Its just the sort of gift Madeline would love--except for the knot. Joe finds his glasses and examines it in the lamplight. It’s a tiny knot. A real challenge. Hard to figure which link to pull on. It wouldn’t be so bad if the chain weren’t the braided kind. Not at all like Lily’s hair either, now that he can really see it. More of a continuous spiral--like the rope on some sailboat he might hire to impress Madeline.
He must pick at the knot very carefully, so he doesn’t disturb even the tiniest strand of the spiral. She mustn’t know he found it. Women are funny about things like that.
Joe succeeds in grasping one loop of the knot with fingers that suddenly seem enormous. When he pulls on that lobe, though, another section locks and he is afraid to pull for fear of bending the links. The gold is soft. That means more gold, less alloy. Madeline will like that.
The only solution is to loosen all of it at the same time. Maybe if he can pierce the very heart of the knot, he can work on the knot from the inside out. A safety pin might work. He’ll check the dry cleaning for one.
Joe opens the door to the closet. Lily’s side is bare. The girls carried her dresses out on hangers, shrouded in green plastic garbage bags, so he wouldn’t have to see them. Good girls. Thoughtful. Lily was a good mother. Only he doesn’t know what to say when they call, concern in their voices, a too-loud television, barking dog and clattering pans in the background. Without Lily chattering away on the extension he is struck dumb after the pleasantries are exchanged. Lily was always the link between the girls and himself.
A safety pin dangles from a hanger on his side of the closet. He presses the prong out of its slot and sets about doing surgery on the knot.
The point is too large. He has to push slightly to get it through the center. Then, gently, gently, he works the pin back and forth, sliding, sliding, until it slips easily through the hole he has made. Joe smiles to himself.
When the knot is loose enough for him to pick at the lobes with his fingers, he enlarges them enough to pull one end of the chain through the other lobe.
“There,” he says, and lays the unknotted chain out along his thigh to examine his handiwork.
The chain won’t lie flat. He pulls gently on each end. Still kinked. No good. Something is wrong. Joe picks the chain up at the joint. Examines it. Sees where the knot stretched the links almost imperceptibly so they no longer mesh in their original design. Damn. He can’t give it to Madeline like this. He’s wasted his time.
Joe scoops the chain up and throws it across the room. It hits the wall over the bed and falls behind so that he can no longer see it. It isn’t gone though; he knows that. Just tucked away, safe for the moment from the searching bristles of his broom.