I started writing this with the intention of submitting it for Three Word Wednesday. It just sort of flowed out. It is a work of fiction. And does not include the 3WW selections.
The first time I laid eyes on Steve McQueen, he was deceased, at least on casual glance.
Wedged awkward in clump of fake coral, I decided it was sad that they’d leave a dead fish in such a beautiful saltwater aquarium. I moved, and a bulging eye followed.
I decided right then he was a he –and his name was Steve McQueen.
It could have been Burt, or Irving or Leon – or Leona, I guess. But the jaunty orange body, the black racing stripe, reminded me of a muscle car, a ’69 Dodge Challenger maybe, so the name and gender stuck.
His bottom fins were built like little hands; individual fingers that allowed him to attach himself motionless in the artificial current and look, well, cool. Park wherever he wanted, just bulging eyes in movement with the surrounding environment.
He was sequestered with Frieda and Sunshine, the lemon-yellow twins that swam in graceful arcs; George and Alice, the Little Nemo fish - he big and fat, motionless in a bubbly sea anemone with Alice circling, giving nagging little nips; Spike, the black-and-white fish that looked like an inmate; and Huey, Dewey, Louie and Bart, the little Blue Angles with their slick blue bodies and yellow tails; Unger, the translucent fish that rested on his fins, too, but blended in with the crushed white coral bottom; and Mrs. Frieburg, the stylish but sensible striped fish with the pinched, pencil-face like my grade-school English teacher.
I didn’t name the sea slug. I mean, what’s the point? The giant turd moved all of three inches since I’d discovered the tank, a floor down in pediatrics.
The tank had become my widescreen television, low on Dolby digital sound yeah, but a calming, gentle treat like a backrub, that cooing of constant electric compression and water bubbles. Just as addictive as television, too. I watched, transfixed as the pulse of the floor went on around me.
The third floor.
The cancer ward.
“Mr. Gannon, you’re father is calling for you,” the nurse said.
Dad was in the last stages of pancreatic cancer, discovered two weeks before in the emergency room after he smashed his thumb with a hammer. I mean, one day, you’re fixing the screen door and thinking about grilling a steak and watching the ballgame on TV with a cold one and then bam – you’re in a non-descript hospital room in a blue gown with your ass constantly hanging out, throwing things at the nurses your pain’s so high and you’ve got a haunted look, cheeks pressed on bone, flesh that looks like a beeswax candle.
And in confidence, you tell your son, your oldest, in a rambling diatribe that this fucking sucks and you scream about unfairness. Spit bubbles froth at the corners of your mouth, barely moisturizing gray lips, but catch in the gray whiskers because those fucking nurses won’t let you use a straight-edge razor because your platelets are so low that one shaving nick and you could bleed out. Fuck, who cares? I’m dead already, right?
And all I can think about it Steve McQueen.
And the twins.
Even that purplish-brown turd of a slug.
He wants prune juice, since the barrage of stool softeners the nurse staff push on him – “Why that fat-assed nurse keeps giving me these, I’ll never know” – won’t produce a B.M. and he needs to take a B.M. before they’ll numb the world with a push of morphine into his IV drip.
And the juice poured like a waterfall across the shitty blue gown, making stains like molasses. I move in with gloved hands – purple this time, from a box of medium gloves that are way too small – and a wad of Kleenex.
“Fuck it, Curtis. Just fuck it. Fuckin’ leave me alone.”
I retreat to pediatrics. To the sanctity of the fish.
And for the first time, spy a slender, hairy tentacle waver from a crevasse in the coral. Mesmerized, I try all the angles to get a look. It’s maddening.
“Mr. Gannon, it’s time,” the nurse said.
“Time for what?”
“It time. Your father…”
“But I have to know.”
“Is there an octopus in there?”
“Oh, no, it’s a spiny starfish. She’s shy.”
“Oh, I call her Belle. I don’t know why.”
Tears well. It’s all crashing inward.
“They’ll be here, after,” she said, touching my arm. “Right now, it’s time to say goodbye to your dad.”
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