The inky mass opened its many mouths; they gaped and retreated. The water always looked like a trained dolphin pulling itself through its daily routine, wanting only to be fed.
Camille wanted to sacrifice herself every day, that desire never left her. Beside that wide oceanic arm, she was less than a microbe, a speck. The water owned her. She was its possession. She owed it to the river, to feed it. And often the fall looked more inviting than a chocolate cake or a feather bed.
But she wouldn't jump, because then what would Harold do? He was not self-sufficient. His existence depended on her.
The river just kept shimmying along, through the track it had worn deep. No seagulls circled the water here. It was a no man's land of beaches that stunk like an collection of fish markets. Down below were stretches of salt and pepper sand with rubbish buried beneath like ostrich eggs. Some houses and buildings that replaced trees were fastened on the vast hills on either side of the river, attached only to the dirt by cement foundations.
She herself was a walking forest, in her muddy jacket and a stretched-out lambs' wool sweater the color of pine needles. She brushed her hand roundabout her scalp, smoothing her invisible hair. She had been told she looked like a fish, with her lips which she puckered big and flamboyant when she had not yet tired of listening. She took this as a compliment.
Camille asked herself how she could be sure anything outside of Scottsdale existed. How was she to know that there were forty-nine other states glued together out there? That Minnesota was not the whole world? Her geography teachers had been, arguably, not trustworthy. Minnesota to Wisconsin, Georgia to Florida. Apparently they connected like limbs. America was just a two-thousand-mile disfigured body, its skin indented and raised by bruises and tumors, battle scars and fat. On maps, the state boundaries were drawn like the sections marked on plastic surgery patients.
The sea, too, seemed like a short-lived thing. She had no evidence that, when out of her sight, the water did not dry up or chop off. For all she knew, outside of this town could be an oceanic ledge, where the water ended like a cut off chunk of ice, a perfectly vertical cliff. Camille imagined the half-fish frozen in this spot, their bright yellow fins wriggling perpetually alongside strands of seaweed, comatose starfish and lumps of coral.
It was fascinating, the idea of neverendingness. But unable to investigate any further, she dropped the idea and stepped off the bridge.
It was only about 75 yards down the road, to the Safeway parking lot. She trusted her choice because they could never prove she didn't work at Safeway or didn't spend the day there. She had done so before, transfixed by the fruit and vegetable section, waiting for the programmed showerheads to extend and moisturize the food.
She climbed into her pale green Buick and turned the key in the ignition. The car wheezed for a moment and then rumbled into action. The bunch of plastic grapes she'd purchased at the craft store jiggled from her rearview mirror. Nothing else in the car moved, except maybe whatever dust molecules were escaping from within the pages of the hardbound 1950s poetry books in the backseat. The radio played some Frank Sinatra as she drove down the road into a slightly more urban end of town.
Her house was the only brown one on a street of light blues and greens. That's why she bought it. Just the appearance of it was dismal, and she made sure to keep it that way. Weeds consumed the front yard, and the grass grew in sickly, stained clumps.
She parked her car in the garage and let herself into the house.
"Harold," she called out in a hushed yell. She didn't want to startle him.
She dropped her bag on the off-white countertop and hung her jacket in the closet. She turned the thermostat up to 61.
Harold was awaiting her on the coffee table in the living room, occasionally making a trip up for air. She turned on a couple lamps.
"How's life?" she asked Harold, hand reaching into a compartment of the table to retrieve his dinner. Shaped like semi-curled brown ringworms, she took a pinch of them and sprinkled them on the surface. They moved almost on their own across the water, like ice skaters. Harold noticed quickly and raced up, opening his mouth like a vacuum cleaner extension tube, sucking the food bits into it.
Camille closed the food container and replaced it in its spot. Then she moved from squatting to sitting and said to Harold, "I got to wash dishes today. Isn't that exciting?"
Harold stuffed himself full of worms and then returned to a life of circling his only scenery, a plastic wrecked ship.
Camille sighed dramatically for no reason at all and patted her head to make sure the hair was still gone. She got up to turn the TV on and then made herself cozy on the couch again.
Nothing really outrageous was on the news. A girl found raped and shot in a hotel bathroom. A convenience store robbed. An uproar in regards to the President's latest speech. Camille stayed rooted to the spot anyway, safe behind the house's burgundy drapes.
Two hours of various news channels later, Camille gave in to her stomach. She went to the kitchen and popped two pieces of wheat bread down into the toaster. She poured a massive glass of buttermilk and sliced up a kiwi. She arranged the dry toast and slippery fruit on a medium-sized ceramic plate and sat herself down at the kitchen table.
She ate everything with her fingers, even the kiwi pieces which challenged her grasp. The toast crunched loudly. A couple crumbs stuck to her upper lip until she took a long chug of milk and wiped her mouth with a cotton napkin.
Eventually her dinner was finished, at which point she took her dish and glass to the sink and rubbed them down with a scrub-brush, exorcising any residue. She flushed them with several dollops of bright blue soap and dried them with a checkered washcloth. Even if they weren't thoroughly sterilized, it wouldn't matter because her own germs were the only ones she had to worry about.
After that process, she sat herself down at the piano and flipped up the cover.
"Listen closely, Harold," she said to the air. "Let me know if there's any genius in this."
She laid her fingers on the keys. Her fingers were strangled by rings which had rusted over time from water damage. Her hands felt heavy against the delicate ivory, but she left them to their own devices. They tinkered along freely, eventually forming a tune.
Camille realized the song her fingers created was familiar and mediocre. It sounded like a combination of all the progressions she'd ever written. Aggravated, she had to resist the urge to slam her hands down onto the keys and create the most gruesome din she could. Instead she kept playing, rougher, in hopes that her hands would realize their mistake and revise it.
They didn't, not even after an hour. So she tied off her pitiful "song" and called it quits.
She turned off the lamps and retreated to her twin bed. She stared at the cracked ceiling. Her eyeballs shone like hard-boiled eggs under an abundance of eyelashes which were arranged like centipede legs. She fell asleep beneath an ocean of wrinkled dark green sheets. They held her affectionately, unaware of any other option.
The mirror glared at her again as she plowed over her head with the electric razor. It sung a reassuring vuhhh, vuhhh. She pretended her head was an overgrown lawn and swiped in straight lines, engulfed in the process. When she finished, she admired the job she'd done. Thorough. Just enough fuzz.
The river looked more vicious than usual that day as she made her way across the bridge. The waves were enormous and more frequent. It was begging for her to succumb. But the faint scent of potato soup blew against her nose almost seductively, attempting to draw her to her real destination before she chose to satisfy the ocean's hunger.
She stepped onto the gravel of the land and made her way to the back door of Rusty's.
"Camille," a red-faced Gerry greeted her, drying his hands on a towel. "Can you wait today?"
"Yeah," Camille replied, realizing it was Saturday.
She selected a half-apron from the rack and tied it snugly around her waist. It was like the tool belt of waiters, and it made her feel substantial. There were three pockets on the front: one with an order-taking notepad and pen, one with a black plastic receipt book, and one with an "emergency" towel. She located her nametag in a box of plastic and pinned it on the breast of her lavender sweater.
She served countless tables of customers and collected fifty-four dollars in tips before she was assigned to her most interesting customer of the day. He was sporting a seemingly historical hat that read "Elk's Club 1983."
"How're you doing today?" was the first thing she asked him.
He pushed his back into his wooden chair and made a bit of a face. "I'm okay," he huffed finally. "I'm very tired."
Camille nodded. "I know how that is," she replied respectfully, scratching her thigh with the top of her pen.
"I feel very alone," he continued, with far-off eyes, as if she had never contributed to the conversation at all. "There's no need to do anything anymore. Not without her."
"What did you used to do?" she found herself asking.
"Um. Go out in my boat," he stated coldly.
Camille was speechless. The man was staring out a window, at the bridge or the water. The hair sticking out from his hat was a speckled gray, and she guessed he was in his fifties. Eventually she sputtered, "that's wonderful. I mean, the boat."
"Yeah," he said.
He didn't want a specific drink, just water. She brought it to him, and he mumbled a thank you.
"Have you decided what you'd like?" she asked him finally. The menu was lying on the table in front of him, and so she assumed.
He nodded and ordered their famous potato soup. She told him it was an excellent choice.
"If you need anything else, just let me know," she said to him when she arrived with his bowl of soup and five packets of saltine crackers.
"There's a lot I need," he said after a beat.
"Is there anything I can do?" she asked.
So Camille went on to serve others, always glancing at the man wistfully, plotting how she could gain entry to his life. She couldn't follow him home, and she wouldn't be able to find his address without asking him. She needed to propose something when she took him his bill.
"Sir, do you need any help around the house?" was what she decided on. She placed the receipt book in front of him.
"What?" he asked, looking at her for once with solid blue eyes.
She reached up to push hair behind her ear and forgot it wasn't there. Foolishly she returned her hand to her side. "I mean, if you need anything. Dusting, organizing, cleaning, anything."
"Why? You need more money?"
"No," she assured him. "I just think you deserve a little help."
He wrote "Richard" and his address on a slip of paper, and she slipped it into the towel pocket of her tool belt.
Camille had to drive across the bridge to get to Richard's house. It was the first time she'd driven across it since her job interview at Rusty's. Before the interview, she'd never even been across the bridge at all.
Her eyes kept reverting to the river as she drove. She felt obscene and sinful not taking her time, but 15 mph was a crawl to the hurried drivers behind her. She was honked at, once.
Richard's cottage, as it turned out, was only about eight miles down the road from Rusty's, and just as close to the river. It was nestled in a fairly wooded area, painted a disappointing Robin's egg blue, with curtainless windows.
"Oh," Richard said when he opened the door to the nearly-bald girl dressed in green. His face was sullen; his eyeballs sunk into their sockets. He was wearing a plaid, flannel shirt.
"Is it okay?" Camille asked. "I'm... here."
"You're here," he repeated, looking over his shoulder at the mess of a house. "Yeah."
He opened the door, and so she stepped in. The entryway reeked of feminism. It was decorated with an elegant oval mirror and dusty blue tiles, and a side table boasted framed photos of Richard and his wife. The only sign that a man inhabited the house were the grungy boots and tennis shoes tossed up against the wall.
Camille slipped off her leather clogs and listened to Richard fiddle with all the locks on the door. He heaved a sigh and brushed past her, into the living room. The living room, yes. That was the disorderly part. There were dishes all around and everything was dusty or misplaced.
"I don't know what you want to do here," Richard said, lowering himself into a recliner that was not reclined. "There's... the cleaning supplies. They're in the hall closet." He flittered his hand in the direction of a claustrophobic hall.
Camille followed his orders with only a nod, finding the closet to be a treasure chest of disinfectants, window cleaners, feather dusters, and scrub brushes. She hauled these things into the living room and worked silently, massaging stains out of the carpet, polishing the coffee tables, carrying dirty dishes to the sink. Wearing some yellow rubber gloves, she felt like a warrior fit to combat anything. Her thoughts drifted away from the labor, and Richard read the newspaper from his chair. The only sounds in the room were the turning of pages, the squeaks of liquid against glass, and the steady eshh, eshh of scrubbing.
After a long bout of silence she finally asked, "when did you build your boat?"
Richard laid the newspaper in his lap noisily. "19... 76."
Camille nodded. "That's amazing," she said.
His mouth shrunk in, as if a secret had been revealed. He watched her sweep over a vase with the duster.
House-cleaning made the weeks pass quicker. Camille would show up impulsively, but rarely. The river did not like her disrespecting it all the time. She was slowly burrowing inside, though, climbing up even. The view out of the kitchen window reminded her of her goal: the cool, swift water, the shade of overripe blueberries. It was a garden of its own – an ongoing leak, or so it seemed, from some core of the earth. It had escaped the ocean. It had rebelled and succeeded.
She made a habit out of washing every dish in Richard's sink. She even ate there sometimes, standing her back up against the island, nibbling on a flaky pastry he had offered her, unaware of the taste.
The TV was a square-shaped reject sitting in the corner. Richard was more into reading the words that would shape his life than seeing them. He learned about the politicians; he was onto their scheming, he said. And those poor drowned rescue dogs in Alaska? That was a shame, but it did not affect him. He gave a half-shrug and tongued the rim of his coffee mug. He liked his coffee with two pinches of cinnamon and a peppermint drop, like the ones they sell in bulk.
Camille tried not to look at him when he had not shaved. The bristles on his chin looked like a war zone where bombs had once gone off but now there were aftermath weeds. He was a sloth. He moped across the carpet, slippers dragging, forgetting his brain.
He did not demand a thing, but only occasionally did he acknowledge money. Camille refused any payment and kept up the cleaning. In his bedroom she replaced a dead bulb and tidied his bed. Triumphantly she folded his size 37 jeans into thirds and arranged them inside his dresser drawers. All of the white socks had stains. She amused herself by matching mud to mud, sweat to sweat, grass to grass.
She advanced to the bathroom, wiping the countertop and reorganizing his pills in their orange tube containers.
He didn't stop her or grow uneasy, but he never did unless she steered into his wife's territory. She was not to touch the perfume bottles, though they winked at her from the vanity. The jewelry did not need any cleaning. Camille nodded to this, hoping only to piece together the puzzle that was presenting itself through its vagueness. She was mostly honest, though she did put her nose to a pink nozzle once: Rosemary.
She had seen enough photos of the woman that had loved him, and it seemed an unfit match. His wife obviously went to many Tupperware parties and owned just as many party dresses. She had not married for money, it seemed, unless Richard was required to die before she would reap the benefits. Looks were debatable. In the wedding pictures, Richard resembled a trim businessman, perhaps with a lazy eye, but otherwise suitable.
The years had grown on his face and belly, though. Now he sagged like a bag of potatoes being held up by a fist. Even the skin under his eyes seemed to be making its way south.
Camille knew the secrets of his house, after a while. The shriveled orchid gripping its stem in a slim vase on top of the TV. The mink fur in the coat closet. The magazines under his bed. These were the things of significance to him. He did not want the flower replaced. He did not want to hold an estate sale and profit from the mink. Camille knew better than to ask about the magazines.
On a late afternoon, Richard stared out the living room window.
"Looks beautiful outside," Camille told him and herself. She had a Greek goddess statue in her hand, caressing it with a dish towel.
He agreed with a vague nod.
"It'd be a good day for boating."
Richard seemed evoked for a moment. His eyebrows raised, his ears honed in, and he almost made a sound.
But it was as if a spirit had passed through him. "Yes," he stated. "It would." Back he went to a slouch, melting into the armchair.
Camille set the statue back on a shelf and laid her free hand on her hip to keep it from shaking. She said, "I wouldn't mind going out on the river with you."
Richard, being more focused on the color of his jeans than Camille's mannerisms, replied with a simple "no, thank you."
Camille pressed her fish lips together. She folded up the towel in her hands. "Maybe," she said. "I could go, and I could come back and tell you all about it."
He could shoo her away, and she knew it. She almost expected it. The nights when she focused on the patterns in her ceiling, during those nights, she constructed his reactions. She had imagined everything, was prepared for nothing.
"You want to?" he asked in a bit of a raised, questioning voice.
"I'd love to," she said.
"It's out back," he said. "Down the hill there. Don't rush. Don't get caught in the current."
Richard, who had mastered expressionlessness, smiled.
She didn't rush until she was out the door. She kicked her clogs joyously into the slanted grass and walked onto the dock. The pieces of wood seemed to be attached to each other not by nails, but by the clusters of grass and dandelions which grew between them. The dock was short, only a couple yards long, and built in a sort of private inlet established by tall plants extending to the sides. The skimming of water-bugs across the water's blackish surface reminded her of how near the river truly was.
It still didn't seem touchable.
She rolled the socks off her feet and discarded them on the dock. The boat, a petite but sturdy-looking thing, was tied up to one of the dock's poles with hairy rope. She dug her fingers into the knot and worked it until it was untied.
She lowered herself into the boat and found two oars stuck inside. She had no idea how to use them, so she sloshed them about in the water, listening to the noise. The water lapped at the sides of the boat.
She didn't go far, fearing the water would whisk her downstream. For hours she sat still in the small boat, entertained by the rise and fall of waves and the passing of other boaters. Some boats made guttural roars and combed the surface of the water with their speed. Others simply drifted, synchronized with the moderate waves.
Camille drifted too, but only a little, and she pulled herself back when she did. She knew better than to challenge a force so unknown to her. Just looking at the water, she decided, and dreaming up conjectures regarding it, did not grant her the knowledge of how to harness its power.
The oars now lay, discarded at her sides. They were cracking in numerous places, and so was the boat. Richard had let slip the fact that he and his wife had gone out on the river too many times to count. It was an event that was romantic to him, Camille could tell just by his glazed eyes. He had never opened up to her more than to say his wife had been beautiful, but Camille knew. The boat had sustained many years.
Now it was a relic of times past. Richard loved it but could not truthfully handle the joy it was supposed to bring, not anymore. The scenery was his only release, because it was, for some reason, not as attached to what he knew as his former life.
The bridge could be seen from where she was, laying across the river like a huge board held up by the land on each side. Cars sped across it, on average, at an alarming speed. Camille figured they could be late to a job interview or to pick up their kids from school, but those were all petty things. Perhaps some were scared of the water (though Camille thought the idea appalling). This was the only excuse she would accept for the speeding.
The water was demanding their attention, could they not see that? They had built their lives around it, almost as if it were an obstacle. And yet they depended on it for their existence. Not just the obvious things, like the fish, but for the mental issues. Camille took more from the river than she had ever absorbed in school. A couple times she swished her fingers about in it.
Of course the ocean didn't end. It had far too much to be alive for. It had so much to prove.
Civilization was so apparent on both sides of the river that it made her push together her lips. She thought of Safeway and cursed it for being so unnatural. She thought of Rusty's and hated that she gathered her money from such an industry – no matter how small – designed only for profit. She thought of Harold, and how caged he must feel. She had never before realized his isolation so regretfully.
The sun was just about to set. It hung over the horizon like a string teasing a kitten. It looked like an exploding bomb or a puddle of spilled yellow paint. It was shapeless and scattered, with bits of red-orange in spots. It was getting a little cold out, but Camille released a pleased sigh anyway. The water kept closing up, almost as if winking at her, granting her permission to go inside.
She returned with stories. She sat herself in a chair across from Richard. He sat himself up straighter to hear her words and coughed into his palm with a strange kind of forced masculinity. She told him of the color of the water, the humming of the water-bugs, the beauty of the sunset.
The skin around and under his eyes radiated weakness; it was as if he had grown two years older in the hours she had been gone. Tissues, pinched up, stood on the coffee table beside him, on top of the day's newspaper.
She arrived home later than usual, that night. It was about seven. She turned the thermostat up to 61. She removed her jacket. She called out to Harold, "Harold!" He did not reply.
She went to the living room and found that Harold was just a body now, floating at the top of the bowl. His eyes were not eyes, they were beads of white. His orange scales no longer glistened. He looked as if he had flung himself into death.
Camille was wracked with weeping. She made herself into a ball, a shaky bundle on the couch. Her lips met in painful passion, keeping out her rolling tears. She poked her fingers against her closed eyelids, milking them of their sadness. She had the frustrating urge to feel hair between her fingers, to comb it restlessly and brutally. Instead she was forced to scratch, with ferocious fingertips, her sphere of a head.
"Oh, God, Harold," she cried.
Harold would have been a year old in a month. She did not know the life-span of a goldfish, but when she had asked the underage pet store employee for a fish from the swarming tank, he gave her a look of disbelief.
"A goldfish?" he had asked. "These are feeder fish. They won't live more than two weeks."
Harold must have loved her, then, to live for her. It was certainly not a suicide, though she was convinced he would have been capable of willing himself into death. Old age did not seem like a possibility, simply because he had survived so long already. He had passed death by! And so the cause of his death was a mystery.
Camille scooped his limp body out of the water and laid him on a cloth napkin. She folded it up. It looked like a napkin full of nothing – an acorn or toothpick maybe, but not much.
She changed into a black sweater and nearly choked herself with a woven scarf. She put on a black coat with buttons and slipped Harold and his casket into one of the pockets. Then she drove to the bridge.
Being night, the water was like liquid obsidian. Camille hung her hands over the edge of the rail. Headlights and taillights passed over her, but other than that she was transparent, black against black.
She took Harold out of her pocket and unfolded the napkin. Half-expecting him to wriggle, she was half-disappointed.
"You've been so good to me," she whispered, her words immediately stolen by the rush of cars and wind.
He laid there.
Tears came to her eyes. She took Harold's cold body in her palm, trembling. The ocean below her played all by itself. He was finally allowed to be sacrificed, like she had always dreamed for herself. It was for this reason that she smiled as she cried, her tears making rivers of their own, springing from the oceans of her eyes.
She let Harold go. He blurred as he went, carried by the wind. He swam in the air, a quick little falling kite, a creature returning to his proper home.
Camille began to feel. Her eyes grew in size. She felt overcome by death; she felt vicarious. She understood, then, the devastation of loss. She understood the journey from sparkling joy to balled-up tissues. Richard's eyes made sense.
She couldn't see Harold reach the water, so she stood there for another ten minutes to make sure.