Welcome To My Seaworld
Jacob Medina was one for keeping an ear to the ground, and within ten minutes of leaving the 110th Street subway station he had a clear understanding of what kids in the neighborhood—his neighborhood, once upon a time—thought about his clothing and his hair and his walk. He disagreed with most of what he picked up, though he believed one of the floating voices—maybe a boy, more likely a broody girl—had grasped the genius of his stylelessness, she (or he) just got it.
In the time of his exile from Manhattan’s Cathedral Parkway, Jacob Medina had a New York State Identification Number assigned to him by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. To most non-inmates it was his name. To most inmates, he had no name, or many names…or any name that was screamed at him loudly enough, angrily enough. He was an uncontemptuous convict, impartial and unexcitable, except when he wasn’t. It meant something if you fucked with him; if you let him be, that was okay, too. He wasn’t there long enough to be presented with a fight he could win, though in losing, his bloodied face was always stiff with opposition, as if to say the next time would go down harder for everyone. Which it had.
His release came in November, eleven months after his admittance. On both days, it rained, long and heavy. This enraged him, that the memories of each were indistinguishable. He kept his head, though. All the way out—making the sort of small talk he hated with the guard who was his escort—he kept his head.
With Columbia University and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine among its neighbors, the Amsterdam Nursing Home sat on Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street. Today, there was nowhere else Jacob Medina wanted to be more. Tomorrow, of course, would be very different.
It would depend, as it always did, on Miriam Salas.
An orderly knocked twice on her door, saying she had a visitor. When she emerged, she looked almost exactly as he’d imagined. Apparently the same was true for her, as she appraised Jacob in the hallway for too long. “Still?” she said at last. The orderly grinned understanding and left them.
“I was wearing this when I went in,” he said. “The kids like it. I heard them on the way here.”
“The kids like irony,” she said. “They’d snort it if they could.” She turned and he followed her inside.
“You said come visit first thing.” Jacob looked around. “I hope you meant it.”
“Of course I meant it, you spic orphan. Do I look like your mother?” She sat slowly down in the chair she had likely been sitting in before the interruption and, quite possibly, since his conviction. “I wanna bail on my kid, I tell him straight. Or I say nothing and just go. She must have seen that ‘I’ll be back in a little while’ crap on a goddamn sitcom and thought that’s the ticket. But enough about that methhead cunt.”
Jacob thought he could stand to hear a little more.
“I need to be quick. Every word from my mouth is time-sensitive.”
“You seem okay. ”
She gave him a warning look, which he got.
“So. What do people talk about when they come around?”
She smiled in anger. “No one comes. This place is depressing.”
“I thought this was one of the best homes in the city.”
“Dying is depressing.”
He sighed in agreement. “Okay, so what should we talk about?”
“How about criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree?”
He smiled at her, his cheeks dimpling. “Most people would say it’s too late for a lecture.”
“Most people…you know there’s a million ways I could end this sentence and make my point.”
“So make it.”
“Most people are hopelessly goddamn stupid. Match point.”
Her cellphone rang on the table beside the chair. She picked it up on the third ring, which by then sounded a lot like the theme to The Godfather. She explained swiftly, coldly, that she couldn’t talk at the moment: no, it was not an emergency: no, she wasn’t sure that it was not an emergency, how can one know that until the consequences are dealt: what exactly was the appeal of such circular logic? She broke the connection and tossed the phone back on the table. It struck the edge of a stand-alone photo frame that Jacob hadn’t noticed until now.
Lately, she had been getting calls at odd, wayward hours, she told him. “Favors. Threats. Nothing comes at a decent hour anymore. Goddamn vampires with smartphones, that’s what’s out there now.”
“Who’s that?” he asked and pointed at the picture.
He waited, thinking he was supposed to know who that was; then he asked if it was her picture or if someone had brought it to her. Miriam shrugged slightly, as if to imply that the picture hadn’t been there one day, and the next day it had. He thought he saw a resemblance—her sister, maybe?
“What are your plans?”
“To give you a play-by-play of the trains I missed and the trains I didn’t miss to get here.”
“The depth of your ambition frightens me, kiddo,” she said lightly, smiling. “You’ve scared me shitless, you’ll be glad to know.”
Jacob wanted desperately to talk about the importance of this visit. But he knew that he could not speak plainly. He wondered if the situation was an ironic one, the concept always just beyond his grasp. “I was thinking about visiting Renny.”
Miriam stared, unable to speak for what seemed a very long time.
“He didn’t make any promises when I was inside. And he only visited me twice, so it’s not like I got a hard-on for him or anything.”
“Of course not. But what about his daughter?”
That was very slippery of her, but totally understandable. Lily was a damn fine-looking woman and had always liked him.
“She don’t like me.”
“You’re right, she doesn’t. Good on you for seeing it.”
He thanked her cheerlessly.
“Lily’s secret—which isn’t a secret to me of course—is that she’s a dyke, masquerading as a bored hetero, and the only reason men exist is to remind her she made the right choice.”
“Is it a choice really?
“When they’re built like a brick shithouse, it’s destiny. When they’re built like my granddaughter, it’s a choice…as in she has one.”
“That’s beautiful,” he said, eyeing her shrewdly. “Speaking of destiny—”
“It’s not a good idea to see Renny right now.”
Jacob Medina was perfectly still.
“The mayor’s daughter is missing. Cops are crawling all over Yorkville. They’ve knocked on Renny’s door twice. With his record, they’ll be back before you can spit. I set him up with two West Side tenements and he has to move five hundred feet from the mayor’s front fucking door. My beautiful snowflake.” Miriam’s gaze moved slowly down, away from his face. “He’s supposed to call me next week. You know what his calls are like?”
“He tells me who he thinks is moving against him, which he’s always dead wrong about. Then he goes on and on about books that mean a lot to him and nobody else. If I say I like the same book, he says I don’t get it like he does. My child. Do you know who his favorite author is?”
Jacob thought he might but shook his head.
“Robert Ludlum. Seriously. Any author who’s had movies made from his books, most could tell you right off if the book was better or not. Mario Puzo, John Grisham, hell, even Stephen King—whose stories all roll into one bloody shitpile—people can tell you if the book was better than the movie.”
He agreed. Those movies usually sucked.
“Ask someone if a Ludlum book was better than the movie. Go ahead. They’ll probably say yes, you know, just to say it. Sounds like it should be true and maybe it is. But they don’t really know. They. Don’t. Know. That’s my child all over. There’s something wrong with how he sees, and it’s getting worse all the time. I can’t trust his word or his way anymore. I can’t take the chance. Fuck books.”
He locked eyes with Miriam Salas. Hers was the most purposeful gaze he had ever seen.
His expression was stunned and relieved, as if something extraordinary had happened…which it had. The wait was over. Jacob told himself to relax. He would do his best.
They stood together in unaccustomed silence.
Miriam looked away first. “Did you hear something?”
He shook his head. Staring into space, he asked, “Who’s Margaret?”
“Wait.” She raised her head, then her voice. “Is that you, Manny?”
“Yes,” a man answered on the other side of her door. “A visitor for you.”
Miriam threw her head back and roared. “I know that! He’s in here already.”
“No,” said Manny. “Somebody else.”
“Well, tell them to wait. No, tell them to come back tomorrow. I can’t handle two at once—not at my age.”
Jacob hadn’t heard his footsteps before, but now he could hear Manny walking away, his pace uncertain.
She looked back at him and narrowed her eyes and shook her head. “He didn’t get it.”
Jacob wasn’t sure he got it. “How’s Anthony?”
“Tony Shakespeare?” She leaned forward. “That boy’s going to make us all very proud someday.”
He didn’t like the sound of that at all.
Miriam saw the change in his expression. “Relax, the kid’s untouched. His father checks himself into rehab, comes out good as new. Then the schmuck gets picked up for possession. H. Since that was never his poison he figured he could start moving it and stay clean. With his record he’s not seeing daylight for at least two decades.”
She raised her shoulders and breathed loudly. He heard a bone crack.
“So another fatherless spic enters the fray. At least he’s still got Gloria the housekeeper, who might even be his blood mother, who knows. I keep meaning to ask her, but then I remember I don’t give a shit. The important thing is he’s got somebody, even if it’s not you. And he’s probably hooked himself another surrogate big brother by now anyway. He latched onto you pretty quickly after he caught you doing—what the hell were you doing that day, taking out their trash?”
Jacob nodded, certain Miriam knew details he’d forgotten, especially since Renny owned the tenement and prided himself on making his tenants appear as interesting as possible to his mother.
“But he misses you. Keeps asking Gloria when you’re coming back. Probably thinks you’re on a secret mission for the government or some shit. Which reminds me—the Twilight Zone. Ever watch it?”
He tried to think. “Guy with the glasses, always reading. Survives a nuclear war, then finds the library— ”
“Perfect!” said Miriam and leaned forward in her chair. “That is a perfect, nail-on-the-head example.
Speaking of irony—it’s like that entire series was bought and paid for by Merriam-Webster. It existed just to teach people—maybe not with every episode but almost every goddamn episode—the definition of the word. In the end, that’s all it was. Do you remember?”
He wanted to say he didn’t. He nodded.
“Tony got accepted into NYU last month—creative writing. He writes this story and they let him in, just like that. His grades are middle-of-the-road, they’re not helping or hurting him, so it’s all about what’s on the page. And it wasn’t just one story, it was a few. But according to Gloria, it was this one story that sealed the deal. She says it took him longer than all the others combined. Probably spied on him the whole time. You know how she gets.”
He nodded, but Miriam didn’t look over to receive the nod.
“So now then. High school. A guy and a girl. Here it goes. Girl’s beautiful, the guy’s okay. He’s got friends and some kind of charisma because he’s had girlfriends before. At least one. He’s not a loser is what I’m saying. But the girl is untouchable, flawless. Jocks and rich guys barely get the time of day from her. And girls hate her guts. Not to her face, but she knows it and owns it, like anyone would. Then one day they bump into each other coming out of Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. They go to that LaGuardia school for art and music and shit. Remember the movie Fame?”
“I know the school,” he said.
“Well, they had to go see some show as an assignment. Some hybrid performace art opera mashup. I think it’s because they’re acting students. Or musicians. Or maybe singers. They’re something and this show is their homework. But the teacher says it won’t feel like homework. They’ll love it, they’ll even thank him later. But they both hated it! Hated it from start to finish, like a damn trip to the dentist. They’re laughing themselves stupid thinking how they’re gonna thank the prick. Spring forward a week and they’re hanging out a little bit after school almost every day, and it’s all because of that damn show. It’s bullshit but it’s cute bullshit. And it turns out they got a lot things in common. Music, movies, the usual and some unusuals. Story went a little long on that part, like he was trying to show off.”
“Probably what got him in,” he said, looking at his shoes. “That part.”
“More like the stuff that comes next. Listen. They get to fooling around one day. Her house, I think. Nobody around. Things heat up, she takes off her shirt and her pants. Guess what he finds.”
Jacob winced. “No.”
“Like that movie?”
“Girl turns out to be a—”
“Now that would have been something! That would have gotten under Gloria’s skin and rattled her bones. You know how she gets.”
He looked at her wearily. “So what was it? Scars? Whip marks?”
“Gunshot wounds?” He flinched the moment the words were out.
“Colder. One more try.”
“I don’t know.” He stared vaguely away from her. “Tattoos?”
She tapped her nose twice, her eyes wide. “All over her back and all colored up. Like a mural, you know the ones they put up in honor of some dead kid who was slinging rocks at two in the morning. But this is dedicated to a different sort of lost cause.”
“The ocean,” she answered, smiling. “That’s what she says anyway. To him, it just looks like a fish tank with a few fish. That’s what it would look like on any normal-sized back, right? Maybe if she weighed three hundred pounds—”
“No.” He shook his head. “If it was wider, it would look like a saltwater tank.”
She glared at him.
“Those are generally bigger. Because of the chemicals and things.”
“The author would like to thank Jacques Cousteau for his contribution,” she said over his head.
He rolled his eyes. “You’re welcome.”
When her annoyance wore off, she looked at the floor and remembered. “Now. Our hero learns something about himself. He doesn’t like tattoos. Not. One. Bit. He’s never given it much thought before, but once he sees her naked, he knows this isn’t gonna work out. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from letting things take their natural course right then.”
He nodded. “He’s still a kid.”
Miriam blushed with irritation. “But this kid has heart. He really does like the girl a lot. She’s gorgeous and they have all kinds of silly shit in common. He wants to get past this! So the next day he asks her if she plans to get any more tattoos.”
He raised his eyebrows in a pained expression.
“That’s right. She tells him she’s going to cram as many types of fish as she possibly can, big and small. No sharks, though. Every time she strips her body will scream welcome to my seaworld! And if she runs out of space, her ass is up for grabs. No pun intended here, but in the story—well, you know.”
He was starting to doubt he knew anything anymore. “How can you remember all this?”
She stared rancorously at him. “It’s Tony! It’s the beginning of something. And the ending is what sells it. Listen. He tells her. Just flat-out says he’s not liking all the tattoos. He can’t. It’s nothing personal and he absolutely against-all-odds wants to stay friends. He tells her they have a connection and he doesn’t wanna lose it. He tells her it’s probably his loss anyway and he tries damn hard to sound like he means it.”
She considered. “He’s a kid.”
“Nothing’s the same after that,” she went on. “They still meet up after school, except now it’s only every couple days. Then it’s once a week, maybe. He always waits for her but apparently she’s got somewhere else to be most days. It’s killing him but he doesn’t know what to do about it, until—”
“He follows her,” Jacob interrupted.
She bowed her head slowly, keeping eyes on him. “It’s what you would do, right? A man’s tactic. Yeah, he ditches his last class one day and waits across the street. When she shows, he follows her, staying a block behind. Lucky for him, she’s not going very far. Guess where she’s headed.”
He said he was tired of guessing.
“That’s exactly right,” she said with a frown, eyebrows raised. “A tattoo parlor. He doesn’t want to wait
after that. The situation is hopeless, she’s getting more tattoos just like she said she would. But then he gets an idea. When she finally comes back out, he lets her get a couple of blocks away. Then he goes into the tattoo parlor himself.”
This surprised Jacob.
“He speaks to the tattooist, says he’s a friend of the girl with the ocean on her back. Describes her perfectly as well as her tattoos. He says he admires the guy’s work and was wondering how long it would take to finish up what she has planned. Believe it or not, his sister—who of course doesn’t exist—wants to have something similar done. That’s what he tells him, that’s his story. So the guy says based on her new request, it should take about 5 more sessions. He says she’s going all out, going all the way and in a hurry to get it done. Even the goddamn tattooist is impressed by her commitment.”
“Poor kid,” he said.
Miriam snorted. “Exactly! That’s what you’re supposed to think. He just got smacked in the face with more proof that she’s definitely not the one for him and he needs to move on.”
Her cellphone rang again. She held it to her ear, saying nothing.
“Call me in a few days,” Miriam said after a few moments. Then she looked at Jacob. “Call me tomorrow,” she said and sighed and hung up.
They appeared stunned, as if one had reached out and struck the other.
“Sorry about that,” said Miriam, looking helpless. “Do you want me to finish? You don’t gotta say yes just because it’s Tony.”
“Are we near the end?”
“Yes,” she said, sounding suddenly sick. “We are.”
“Well, this part I don’t like so much. It’s not cute bullshit, but bullshit bullshit. You remember those movies with Molly Ringwald? Sixteen Candles and, like, five others?”
Jacob told her he remembered them well, he was both proud and sorry to say.
“Well, thanks to Renny, so do I. And in those movies you got a guy and a girl who’ve been best friends since they were in diapers. Except one fell in love with the other as soon as the diaper came off. Years go by and the lovesick numbnut circles the other nonstop, and numbnut number two is completely goddamn clueless the whole time. Then, in high school the wrong guy, or girl, steps into the fold, the circle breaks and hilarity and heartbreak ensues. Then, in the last five minutes numbnut number two realizes that this longtime best pal who never left their side for more than two minutes is actually their soul mate…and maybe deep down they knew it all along? Puh-lease!”
Jacob grinned. “So our guy has a readymade soul mate to help him forget tattoo lady? What was she, a neighbor?”
Miriam scoffed. “What else? Lived in the apartment down the hall from him. Isn’t that convenient as all hell! Except—and I gotta give Tony credit here—it’s not the end, no. You think you’re getting some gooey wrap-up out of left field, but the real end is what sells it. Remember the tattooist said the girl had 5 more sessions to finish what she wanted done. 5 days, not including healing time. So, a couple of weeks later she’s waiting for him after school. He hasn’t seen or spoken to her in all that time. But there she is and she wants to talk. Wants to show him something.”
“Let me guess—nevermind.”
“Trust me, it’s not what you think. They walk over to Alice Tully Hall. Where it all began. There’s a stairway that leads to the subway. She takes him down there and waits until there’s no one going up or down. Once they’re alone, she lifts her shirt.” She grinned, savoring the moment. When he looked sufficiently hungry, she said: “Nothing.”
This did not surprise Jacob. “She had it all removed.”
“No,” Miriam said, flatly. “You don’t go to a tattoo parlor to get shit removed. That’s surgery. With lasers. Of course you wouldn’t know that. No one rethinks their ink in the joint.”
He wanted to tell her that was probably not true. But it felt true so he kept quiet.
“Remember when the kid first saw her back—to him, it looked like a fish tank. Well, let’s just say she had the tank filled. Instead of an assortment of fish, she chose just one thing.”
He looked first amazed, then disappointed. “What? His face?”
She shook her head. “Sand.”
He closed his eyes. “Right. Flesh-colored. Probably couldn’t even tell unless you saw it up close.”
She nodded once. “It’s part of the ocean, she tells him. And if the ocean were packed solid with sand, then everybody could walk on water. And we’d all be closer to Jesus.”
Jacob sat back in his chair and breathed. “So she loves him and she’s crazy,” he said and squinted at the floor. “It’s…what’s the word? Bittersweet.”
“It’s a Twilight Zone, is what it is. It’s just irony, signed and sealed and approved and stamped. In the end Tony throws the devoted neighbor girl into the mix and then smacks us with tattoo lady’s wacky religious excuse to appease the guy—or herself—and boom, the curtain closes.”
“Just like that?”
“Yes. Well, no—the very end is him getting off at his station. An elevated platform, the kid lives somewhere in Queens. He’s walking along, alone, thinking he’s got a hard decision to make. It sucks that he’s gonna have to hurt somebody, but at the same time he feels like he’s walking on—”
“Air,” she said, smiling. “I know. It feels like irony but it’s not. He’s elevated and elevated.”
Jacob stared at the floor. “Tony. That’s what he’s doing now. Good for him.”
Miriam arched her back and cracked another bone. “Yeah, he’ll be okay, I think. He can only get better.”
“Tell him that the next time you see him.”
“No one comes around anymore. Too depressing. I told you.”
“Somebody was just here. Remember that guy, what was his—Manny! He said—”
“That doesn’t count, trust me. That’s no visitor, that’s a goddamn nuisance,” she said, looking lonely and unsatisfied.
“What about Renny?”
There was a resounding silence.
“He’s decaying. Getting stupid. Dreamy. Up here.” She tapped her forehead with her index finger and Jacob looked away, knowing what it would call to mind. Knowing she knew. “He’s taking chances he never did before. Look what happened to you.”
Her room seemed suddenly unreal in the yellow light coming from the window. The rain had stopped at some point during Tony’s story, and now the sun was out, looming in Jacob’s imagination with the monumentality of a maximum security prison. He raised his hands and dropped them helplessly. “That was my own fault.”
“The hell it was!” she said hoarsely. “Cops were crawling all over the place, and you know why? Because the distraction we set up hit twenty minutes early. You had time to drop off the shipment but before you could unload the piece, they had already finished dealing with Renny’s car crash. Jumping the gun just like he did with those relay races in school. Do you know how embarassing that was? That—and this. My child!”
She convinced him. Seeing Renny wasn’t going to do any good.
“It wasn’t your fault, kiddo.”
“Okay,” he said.
“I do,” he lied.
“You know he shaves now? Tony?”
He hesitated, then nodded. “He’s starting college. Of course he shaves.”
“Except one side of his neck he goes with the grain and the other side, against. He thinks it doesn’t make a difference, even though he looks like he’s been laying out at the beach with his entire body covered except half his neck. That’s what happens when you don’t have a man around.”
“Gloria doesn’t tell him?”
“Maybe she does. Probably she does, but he’s probably thinking what the hell does she know about it?”
He almost said he would tell him. But he wouldn’t be seeing Tony either. “Someone will say something eventually,” he said.
“Miss Miriam,” Manny called to her from the hallway. “Another visitor for you.”
“Jesus H. Christ!”
Jacob smiled. “Nobody comes around, huh?”
“That’s right. A lot of nobodies. But you?” She rose to her feet with an impatient sigh. “I’m glad you came, Jacob. You were good for all of us.”
He believed her and followed her lead. “Me too,” he said and stood up. They hugged briefly.
At the door he said, “If you filled the ocean with sand, wouldn’t that just make quicksand?”
Miriam frowned and raised an eyebrow. “Maybe that’s why Columbia wouldn’t take him.”
“Oh. I was wondering if he applied.”
“If? It was his first choice. Most kids want to cross state lines for college. But Tony wants to live and die within a mile of 110th Street. He loves this neighborhood almost as much as you do.”
Jacob said, faltering, “I guess so.”
The door closed gently and he started on his way out. In the waiting area by the entrance, he saw a middle-aged woman standing against a wall. He recognized her immediately. Margaret. She was crying. Suddenly, he knew that she was Miriam’s sister and that Miriam didn’t have very long to live. Her knees were shaking. He walked out before she could see him.
A few minutes later, crossing the street at Amsterdam and 112th Street, he looked up to see if the poster of Johnny Depp from Public Enemies was still taped across the third floor window of the brownstone there. It was. That meant no one had been using the apartment. Renny owned it but Jacob had been living in it for almost three years before his conviction. He took out his keys and opened the front door with confidence. He walked past the stairway and Tony’s apartment, which at this time of the day would be empty.
For the first time since he had lived there, he waited for the elevator. When he got to the apartment, he inserted his key into the lock and breathed. It turned.
Inside, nothing at all had changed. It was a small studio, tastefully furnished by one of Renny’s ex-girlfriends. One wall was exposed brick, which still pleased him. His bed was made, though the staleness of the sheets made him wince. He sat down and was about to reach under the mattress when something in the corner of the room caught his eye.
An empty fish tank. Forty gallons.
The idea to start a saltwater aquarium came about a year and a half ago. One day he had seen a display in a store window, a brightly lit 55-gallon tank filled with angels, clowns, gobies, tangs, dragonets, hatchets, wrasse and danios, and he had been struck by the possibility of awakening daily to something beautiful that needed him to stay that way. But Renny had been keeping him busy then, so he’d kept putting it off, figuring he wouldn’t be so active for much longer. In Renny’s—Miriam’s—business, people who made moves one right after the other usually didn’t last.
I can’t trust his word or his (people) way anymore.
I could run, Jacob thought. Then he looked at the fish tank again.
“Quicksand,” he heard himself say.
Now he got up from the bed and walked over to it, stepping on a roach on the way. He bent down and picked up the tank, which was covered in a fine dust. He was about to blow on it, then stopped himself when he saw the mouse droppings inside. Instead, he went back to the bed and placed the empty tank next to him. He stared at it and thought about Tony, who had idolized him briefly.
Without thinking, he went to the kitchen and got a marker from a drawer. Moments later he was back on the bed, gripping the top of the tank hard. Finally, he wrote on one side: Tony, you gotta go with the grain when you shave. Like fish swimming downstream. He smiled a slow, prideful little smile.
Then he reached under the mattress again and pulled out a Baby Eagle 9915R semi-automatic pistol. He released the magazine, looked at it, then reinserted it. He repositioned the fish tank on the opposite end of the bed, away from him. Suddenly, he grabbed the pillow from underneath the sheet and placed it on the floor near the tank. If it fell, it should land on the pillow, he thought, satisfied. Then he sat back down on the bed, aimed the pistol at his forehead, and fired.
About the writer:
A graduate of the Dramatic Writing Program at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, Joshua Sastre has published short stories in the online journals Fear and Trembling, Kaleidotrope, Bewildering Stories, The Writing Disorder, and The Adirondack Review, and the print journals parABnormal Digest, Nameless Magazine, and Down In The Dirt Magazine, as well as the online publisher bookstogonow.com. Sastre’s short story “Finished” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by The Writing Disorder.