ESSEN by Maryse Meijer
Maryse is the author of Heartbreaker, Rag, Northwood, and The Seventh Mansion. She lives in Chicago.
He cut his hand on the bottle cap. A grunt, a bird’s wing grazing the water, why do they fly so
low? Almost into the head of the boat. A lot of flesh had slapped against its white sides, in and
out. Keir lay on his back. Blood on the glass bottle. Big hard belly wired with gray and black hair
over which he rubbed the bottom of his beer, up and down, from his navel to the waistband of his
slim yellow Speedo. Sit on it, he murmured, eyes closed. You did. You spread the cheeks of your
ass as delicately as a woman in another era might lift the folds of her many skirts. Easing onto
the bottle. You fucked the neck of it while looking at Keir’s smooth lids, the eyes rolling
beneath. His mouth relaxed into his slack cheeks. Perfect calm. The water knocking at the boat.
It hurt. Oh well.
You thumbed the fish apart on either side of the slit. From gill to fin. Watery guts, not deeply red
like a deer, not so full of grays as a rabbit. Something blue in there. You dump the chum into the
bucket. A bigger fish will eat them. Guts to make more guts, Keir said, sing-song. Whistling,
loud, de-dum, de-dum, the sharpest thing over the lake. It raised the hair on your arms. He liked
to sing. And he could, too, very well. You looked at his sweaty throat, full of sinew. At the blood
forming the thinnest crust in the slit skin on his hand.
You were forty. Keir telling some big story in the bar when he saw you dropping quarters near
the cigarette machine. You turned to look. Plenty of stupidity in your long face. Hey, ugly shit,
he said, Come have a drink. You looked back to the cigarette machine and got all the quarters in
and you could feel the tears in the back of your nose before they got to your eyes. You didn’t
even smoke. You just wanted to pretend. Keir came up behind you and slapped the Pall Malls
out of your hand with one fist and caught them in the other. Ha! he crowed. The bartender
laughed. It was your bar. Not anymore. Keir tapped a cigarette into his palm and stared at it with
bright eyes in a broad, pink face. Like I said, asshole. Come have a drink.
You did. Next to his friends in a booth. Your knees tight together. You didn’t talk and no one
expected you too. You drank and drank, trying to keep your chin from trembling. Keir banged
the table, had the loudest laugh, a missing tooth. Your got dizzy, your head almost hit the floor.
He caught you by the shoulder. Drove you home.
Who’s that? he asked, about the shape in the window, watching for you. Sister, you said,
swallowing, head back against the seat. Keir’s belly clenched in a silent laugh. Shit, he said. You
live with that fat bitch and you’re how old. Dunno, you breathed. You were so drunk you could
not move your hand on the door. Sick from smoking half the cigarettes. Look, Keir said
suddenly, hushed, serious. Hooking his pinky through yours. Best friends. You passed out.
You didn’t cook them by the lake. Keir said he fried his in a pan, at his apartment, he said they
tasted very nice, kind of green. You asked what he meant by green and he just patted your
shoulder. Plenty of stupidity. What you ate on the lake was a tin of tuna spread on white bread,
dill pickles, barbeque chips. An entire bag. And the beer. Keir thought it was funny, eating the
tuna in front of the dead fish. How’s that, he said, flicking a chunk of tuna into an eye peering
from the bucket. The tuna stuck. Then he leaned forward, licked his cut thumb, thumbed the tuna
from the eye, and ate it.
You heaved the boat upside down on the grass. You didn’t have to tie it anywhere, no one was
going to take it. Keir kicked the rope hanging from the metal ring at the fore. For no other reason
than that cheerful violence that was in him was still drooling, hungry. You had to feed it in little
pieces. Your ass was sore but it wasn’t bleeding, you checked with the side of your hand to make
sure. He had laughed and laughed when you told him you were a virgin. But in a way he was,
too. That was, what, four years ago? Five? Afterward, when he could tell without you saying
anything that you were in pain, he did it a second time even harder. Eventually the pain broke
apart into something else. Like pieces of an animal scattered on the water. You sank into it. I’m
just a baby, I don’t know right from wrong, Keir said, in a child’s voice, panting in your ear. The
lake shuddering beneath the boat. You grinned helplessly into the flaked paint.
You put the fish in the cooler. Even the heads had to come off, which you suppose you knew
before you met Keir, but now you really know. He liked to make you do it. That’s it, he said,
when something unpleasant squirts out of the severed body. All fish have evil eyes, you thought.
Not on purpose. It’s just how animals look. When you first cut into the belly of a pike you saw
another white layer beneath the skin and you thought there was nothing more inside, just this
same white stuff, pure and not disgusting at all. But of course that was a dream.
Why do you have a boat if you don’t even fish, Keir had wanted to know when you showed him
the lake. You didn’t tell him about your idea of shooting yourself on the water. Pitter patter of
blood pocking the waves. You didn’t want to drown. You just wanted to fall back against the
boards and rock and rock and rock. But standing beside Keir you let this idea go. He could tie a
cherry stem in a knot with his tongue in less than sixty seconds, holding it between his teeth for
you to see, then spitting it at your face. You flinched and he said, What. Don’t, you said, wiping
your cheek, and he shrugged. Then winked. So many pink cracks punishing the dry lips he kissed
you with. The mosquitos eating your arms. Life running its hands all over you.
You walked into the house with tight, self-satisfied steps, as if holding some big secret in your
ass. Your sister looking at you. Lips pursed. Where’ve you been. Out, you said. Loading the
word like a gun. Aren’t you so special, she said, tucking a cold hot dog into the side of her
You spent the money saved for the gun on a shirt for Keir. It had all these fish on it, little ones, in
a tight pattern of gray on a field of yellow. You literal son of a bitch, Keir said when you gave it
to him, but he kept looking at the shirt for a long time, holding it in his lap. You bought this
where? he asked. You said you got it in a store that was not in a mall but all by itself, tucked
behind a lush wall of ferns. They even put the shirt in tissue paper and everyone, all the men who
worked there, said Amazing choice. Keir didn’t like to wear a shirt on the water but this wasn’t
for the boat, it was for a time when you wouldn’t be seen with him. The shirt representing you,
holding that big stomach in. An embrace. Does it fit, you said. He squinted at the shirt as he held
it up to the sun, which fell through the silk onto Keir’s face, turning it the color of butter. Yeah,
he said. It’ll fit.
You loved that little drop of blood on the boat. From his thumb. Which had followed the neck of
the bottle into your ass as he griped the back of your head and came with a face so red it was
about to burst.
You brought some cupcakes in a napkin on your 49th birthday and when it was dusk you
unwrapped them so carefully and spread them on the bottom of the boat. Chocolate and vanilla,
each with sprinkles. He picked the chocolate one and pushed it into your face. Chocolate’s your
favorite, he said. Rubbing it in. Frosting sliding over your nose, your cheek, up to your forehead,
painting your lashes. You’d told him the week before about a movie you’d seen where a man
spread butter on a woman’s ass before fucking her. Everyone’s seen that, Keir had said, You
think that’s some big deal? You stayed very still, even when a piece of the cake got in your
nostril. Keir smiled. Happy Birthday, dummy.
You did know he was married but separated and there were five kids in the same town who took
his side in everything against the mysterious wife. Yet Keir lived alone. When you caught more
than six fish you could see him doing the math, imagining the grill on his porch, him turning the
fish for his brood. You’d never seen his apartment but you could imagine it, how neat it must be,
because Keir was very clean about his truck and his things. Even his swim briefs were bright,
spotless, tight. You could see Keir struggling to put together in his mind a life where someone,
his kids or wife or whoever, was always enjoying the fish from the grill. But the fish were small
and you needed a lot of them to feed a party and he never caught enough for that. You tried to
help but he took the rod out of your hands and said, Watch me do it. The tip of his tongue
between his teeth. Barking when the line went taught and he knocked you in the ribs with his
elbow to gloat no matter how little the fish was. Watching between his knees as the fish bent on
the bottom of the boat. Look at that fucker. Doesn’t know what hit ‘em.
It was supposed to be your house, too, half and half, but you could not penetrate beyond your
childhood room. You let your sister fill every corner up with unopened boxes from the QVC.
Your bed was so small, a child’s bed, you had to tuck your knees up to keep your feet from
falling off the end. Not poor but living like you were which was part of the problem, someone
told you, a counselor, someone on the other end of a hotline. A problem of not thinking right
about how to be a person. When you learned how to fish you fed all the medications into the
toilet bowl one by one.
You did not want to keep meeting in the bar. So you told him about the boat and he said Look
I’m going to take us shopping. And true to his word Keir paid. At the glass case you touched the
little knives folded in on themselves. Some of the handles made of plastic, some of wood, and
one made, shockingly, of glass. You like it? he said. You nodded. He bought one, slipped it into
his own pocket, though it was yours. I’ll just hold on to it, he said. And that was the way it was.
He held on to everything.
You spent your life thinking that if you weren’t careful little bits of yourself would just fall off.
You shook all the time, stared at things, had wet eyes. The boat had been yours for years but you
had never put it on the water, you went every week just to look at it, like an animal in a zoo,
waiting for it to do something. Your parents had died. Nobody cared. When you brought Keir to
see it he flipped it over and shoved it into the water in no time. Just like that. He showed you
how to use the knife, saying, Deeper, dummy. The fish were everywhere. Their smell. Scales like
sequins on your knees, your cheek.
You didn’t meet his friends after that first time. He didn’t meet your sister, didn’t see your room,
didn’t show you his grill. The lake, the boat, the truck, that was all.
When Keir put his hand against the hood and bent double all you could say was, What’s wrong.
I’m dying, fucker, Keir said. Then he bowed his head and concentrated. On breathing or
whatever it was his body was trying to do. Hand above his briefs, that hairy hill of fat. What if
there was only white in his belly. That’s what it felt like, when you touched it. Gutless. Immortal.
It did not make sense. Keir was 57. All those evenings he dropped you off at your house and
watched to make sure you got the door open. At the threshold you turned, you looked for his
eyes through the glass. That was the mystery, his waiting there. His pleasure in making sure you
were safe. Now you would have to fish the keys from his bag and drive his truck for the first
time. The stick shift sticky in second gear, you would punish it from its groove the way he did,
by slamming the knob with the heel of your palm. With relish. But to where? Keir dragged by his
ankles to the overturned boat. The crushed grass and the shorts stained with dew. You put your
tank top over his white-blue eyes because you worried something would eat them. Before you
had time to come back with whoever would come back with you. I’m going to make the call, you
said, out loud. Waiting for him to answer, I don’t give a shit what you do. When in reality, he
cared about everything you did. The lake went still as bone. Oh, you dreamer. His sudden
whistle, de-dum, de-dum, cheerful as a robin, slicing the evening to pieces.
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