Monday, October 2, 2017

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Dead Fish, fiction by Tom Barlow

The last thing Ryan asked of Jenny before he left to photograph a member directory for St. Michael Catholic Church was that she carry the three boxes of Christmas decorations his mother had given them that were currently cluttering the hallway up to the attic of their rental duplex.
"I'm not your Sherpa," she muttered as she nudged one of the boxes with her toe to gauge its weight.
He hefted his camera bag and the case containing his umbrellas and backgrounds. "You don't work today. I'm thinking you could fit it into your schedule between Ellen and one of the judge shows."  
"Why is it I watch that crap one day when I'm sick and you never let me live it down?"
He chuckled. "If you really want to get your doctorate, you need to use your time more productively."
"There you go again ragging on me for having ambition."
"I'm not sure if you were Dr. Moss that you'd be happy living with a simple photographer." He was still smiling, but there was a sharper tone in his voice. She was familiar with his insecurity; dealing with it 24/7 was the most exhausting part of her life, even more than hustling tables at the local Olive Garden.
She was relieved when he finally left.
  1. ***
The boxes weren't heavy, but they were bulky enough that she couldn't carry more than one at a time. The final flight was up a pull-down ladder, forcing her to ascend with the box held over her head. When she set it down in the unfinished attic she kicked up a plume of dust, which triggered a sneezing attack.
As she wiped her nose, she took in the contents of the attic. Three straight chairs in need of recaning. An ancient school desk, complete with ink well. Rolls of old wallpaper. A dress form. A canvas Army messenger bag, gnawed upon. A bed frame, disassembled.   
There were a number of boxes. One, lacking a top, was full of books. She picked up a geography text, discovered that at the time of printing Arizona was still a territory. Curious about what else might be in the box, she dug deeper.
A few layers down she came upon a package swathed in many layers of tissue and held together with tape. The yellowed tape was so old it fell off the tissue as she lifted it.  
Jenny placed the package on the desk and gently unwrapped it. Within, she found four picture books by Dr. Seuss; And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Horton Hatches an Egg, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, and The King's Stilts. They appeared to be in perfect condition, and peeking at the title page of each, she found they had been signed by "Ted (aka Dr. Seuss)" for a child named April. Each appeared to be a first edition from the late 1930s or early 1940s.
She left the books sitting on the desk as she made two more trips downstairs to haul decorations. As she worked, she deliberated. Did their landlady, Alice Appleton, know what was in the attic? The top books had been covered with as much dust as the floor, suggesting they hadn't been handled in decades. It was probable that a previous owner or renter had stored the box, and Alice had no idea what was up there.
Still, she thought, perhaps the books weren't worth much. She carried them downstairs where she went online and searched for similar books. She found that if indeed she had authentic signed first editions, the four would sell for something in the neighborhood of $12,000 apiece.
Jenny wasn't by nature a greedy woman, but she was obsessed with returning to school for her doctorate in comparative lit, with the goal of landing a teaching job at a university, and she couldn't help but consider the value of what she'd found. If she sold the books, even if she had to go through a dealer, she could probably clear $40,000. Never to wait on tables again, or end up driving school buses as her mother had done to put bread on their table. If she could just convince Ryan; he found a new reason to discourage her every time she brought school up, mostly financial.
The books were resting on the coffee table when Ryan arrived home after the all-day shoot. He dropped his equipment in the living room corner where it lived and joined her on the couch, where she was on her second Rolling Rock and rereading Chaucer.
"Have a rough day?" she asked, handing him her beer.
He drained the bottle and dropped his head back onto the couch cushion. "Everybody watches those reality shows, so now they all want to strike dramatic poses. Just try to get them to just look at the freaking camera and sit still." As he spoke, he noticed the books on the coffee table. "What are those?"
"My doctorate," she said, and explained how she'd come about them.
"$48,000? For Dr. Seuss? No way."
"I've checked the rare book auction sites."
She wanted to see excitement on his face, something echoing hers, but as usual she could tell he was looking for the black cloud.
His mouth screwed up into kewpie lips. "They belong to our landlady, don't they?"
"I figure they've been there for fifty years, and she only bought the place five years ago. She has no idea what's in the attic."
"So you're suggesting we steal them from her?" He crossed his arms.
"Do you think for a moment Bruce or Willard would pass on such an opportunity?" She was tired of him bringing up his brothers every time they discussed starting a family, and was rather pleased with herself for finding a way to twist them to bolster her point of view.
"Maybe so," he conceded. "But if they did, it would be for the betterment of their families."
"So it's OK to steal to buy braces for the kids but wrong to steal to launch a career?"
"It's not right either way, just more understandable."
"OK, then let's make a deal. I spend what I need for school, and we save the rest for our firstborn."
She hoped this would alter the conversation; Ryan, envious of his brothers' growing families, was hot to reproduce, while she'd postponed, diverted, all but declined. She had as her example her sister Elaine, who had her first child out of wedlock and was trapped now in the daily grind of working in a call center and parenting an autistic child. No time for a real life.
Sure enough, he leaped at the bait. "You're finally ready to start a family?"
"After grad school, once I've landed a faculty gig."
His eyebrows lowered. "I still can't see it. If Alice found out, we could go to jail, and what kind of parents would we be then?"
Jenny rubbed her forehead, where another headache was brewing. "Why don't I feel out Alice, see if she has any inkling of what's in the attic?"
"How are you going to do that? Hypnotize her?"
"Leave that to me."
  1. ***
            Alice lived in half of another duplex two blocks east of Jenny and Ryan in downtown Zanesville. Determined to quiz her about the attic contents, Jenny didn't delay, knowing herself well enough to know she'd only grow more anxious if she waited.
The weather was beautiful, a winter day in the thirties with blue skies and no wind, new snow accenting the trim on houses. As she walked up the steps to Alice Appleton's front door, the flicker of a television set reflected on the blinds. She rang the doorbell, stepped back to allow room for the door to open.
Alice answered a moment later. She was in her seventies, frail with a slight stoop and hunched shoulders, like someone who had spent her life scrubbing shirts on a washboard. She wore her white hair in a short bob parted on the left, and glasses the size of motorcycle goggles.
She stood in the doorway, didn't invite Jenny in. "Something wrong with the house?"
Jenny put her hands up. "No, no, nothing like that. I was out for a walk, and thought I'd stop by to ask if it was OK if we stored some boxes in the attic."
"Of course. I thought I told you that when you moved in."
"I must have forgotten. Anyway, I noticed there are a few rolls of old wallpaper up there. Would you mind if I used one of them as shelf liners? It'd be real pretty."
"I've been meaning to clear out those attics since I bought the place," Alice said. "Do people collect old wallpaper?"
"I can't imagine," Jenny said, trying to remain calm as she realized she might have just inspired the opposite reaction of that she was hoping for.
"Let me check before you do anything. I hate to leave money on the table."
"OK. But it's all right to store some boxes up there?"
"Sure. Just don't disturb anything that's already up there."
"Of course not."
Jenny said her goodbyes and walked double-time back home, cursing Ryan under her breath. If he hadn't been such a moralistic asshole the sale could be a done deal. Now, what if Appleton noted that the dust on the top books had been disturbed? Certainly, she would wonder if something had been taken. If they suddenly came into money and she found out, she would suspect them. She was that kind of woman.
"She doesn't know and doesn't care what's up there," she reported to Ryan that evening as he watched her shove a frozen pizza in the oven. The lie slid glibly off her tongue, to her surprise. She'd never been one to dissemble comfortably, especially to her husband, but perhaps she'd never faced such stakes before.
"Still doesn't mean it's right," he said.
"Damn it, listen to me. This is our chance. We don't take this, it could be years before we have enough money to start a family."
"You keep rubbing children in my face, and I don't think you mean it. I think you're afraid of kids.  And you'd do anything to get into grad school."
"And you'd do anything to keep me as a waitress," she said, tossing a potholder at his head. She strode out of the kitchen so that he wouldn't see her cry.
Jenny felt trapped; if she sold the books, she'd have a hard time concealing the transaction from her husband and if she left a paper trail that Alice could follow she could end up in jail.
However, her mother had spent Jenny's entire childhood complaining about her stubborn nature, and that trait hadn't faded as she matured, although Ryan had broken through more than a few times. Now, however, she was determined to make her discovery pay, but to do so she would have to be devious. Luckily, she knew a devious person who might help her, Ryan's sister Sarah.
Sarah was a few years older than Ryan, single again after a second brief marriage; her sultry beauty seemed to draw men like free beer, but they didn't stick. She was living suspiciously well off the income from a job delivering car parts to garages for a local retailer, taking frequent vacations to St. Kitts and Aruba.
Jenny had learned from a trusted friend that Sarah funded these trips by dealing coke, knowledge she hadn't shared with Ryan for fear he'd attempt to step in and set her right, which could only result in a family drama fest. Perhaps if Sarah was willing to take big risks for modest reward, Jenny reasoned, she would be willing to take a small risk for a big reward.
She waited for a couple of days, until Ryan had an evening shoot at a Lions Club fundraiser, to drive to Cambridge, a half hour east, to pay a call on Sarah. She'd called ahead to make sure she was home.
"Promise you won't tell Mom my house is a disaster," Sarah said as she waved Jenny inside.
"I'm the last person to criticize anyone's housekeeping," Jenny said, following her into the living room.
She was surprised at the furnishings, the 60-inch television, Bose sound bar, xBox One, leather couch and recliner, and a thick wool oriental rug that filled the room from corner to corner.
They took seats and chatted for a couple of minutes about family and work before Sarah said, "That's not why you drove all the way over here. You've been in the family for what? Four years? And you never visited before, so why now?"
Jenny reached into her bag and brought out the books. "I have a problem I thought you might help me with. It'll benefit us both."
She explained about the value of the books, how she came about them, what needed to be done to transform them into cash. She could feel herself blush as she talked.
Sarah finished the glass of beer at her elbow before saying, "So you want me to be your partner in crime? I believe they call what you want me to do fencing stolen property."  
"You wouldn't be the one doing the stealing; that would be on me. You could just blame me if anyone questions it."
Sarah wore a brittle smile. "You must not think much of me."
"Not at all. I just figured you for someone who would see this the way I do. As an opportunity that I shouldn't pass on."
"And we don't tell Ryan about it, because he's too honest."
"I don't know as he's all that honest, but certainly has a stick up his ass about this."
"And what's my cut?" Sarah said.
"Five grand. Seem fair?"
"For the risk you want me to take, I think half is more like it."
Jenny had figured all along that Sarah wouldn't settle for less than half, and $20,000 would cover most of her degree costs as a commuting student. "OK. Half."
"There's no question I could use that money. Give me the books. Now, how am I supposed to sell these suckers?"
Excited, Jenny called her faculty advisor Ben Bishop at Ohio State before work the next morning. She reached his machine. The sound of his voice reminded her of the crush she'd borne for him in Modern American Lit 401 four years before, in her senior year.
He returned her call within the hour. "I expected to hear from you long before now," he said, "as eager as you were to do grad work."
"Life intruded," she said. "In the form of money. That's why I'm calling, actually. I think I have enough to apply now. What should I do next?"
He explained the school calendar; she'd have to hustle to submit her application in time to be considered for the next class of masters candidates.
"I remember our last conversation," he said. "I came away from that wondering something. I hope you don't mind me saying this, but we get a lot of students who spend a shitload of money for a degree and discover when they're done that they had no intention of making a career out of it; they were just hiding out from life. If the latter, I usually counsel them to take the leap, get a job, and put school behind them."
Jenny chewed on his comment for a minute. Was she simply looking to leave her mundane life for the bright lights of university? Or was she ready to devote the rest of her life to literature?
"No," she finally said, "I'm in it for the right reasons."
"Well, then, congratulations. I'm sure that with your grades and our recommendations, you'll have no trouble getting in. If you can afford it."
"No problem," she said, crossing her fingers.
Jenny haunted the rare book sale Internet site she'd chosen for the sale. The books showed up two days later, coincidently the same day that Ryan thought to ask about them. She told him that she'd put them back, buried deep in the box of books. He took her apparent meek surrender as though it was a victory, making her even more content that she'd decided to circumvent him.
Fearing Appleton's visit, she collected a cup of dust from an unused corner of the basement and, using a flour sifter, carefully spread it across the books on top of the box in the attic, so that she would not suspect they'd been unpacked.
To her delight, the Dr. Seuss books sold for almost exactly what she'd expected. Jenny called Sarah the minute the auction ended, but she didn't answer, so Jenny left a message on her cell asking for a return call.
"You're sure in a good mood," Ryan said that evening when he came to find his favorite supper dish, steak poivre.
"It's our three-and-a-half-year anniversary," she said as she scooped Brussels sprouts out of the bamboo steamer.
"You must have a better reason than that." He pulled the cork on the cheap red wine she'd bought with the steaks.
"Well, I do as a matter of fact. I was talking to my advisor about grad school and he said that I might be able to get enough grants and loans to pay my way through the doctoral program."
Ryan quietly poured them each a few fingers of wine, picked up his glass, and drained it. "That's great," he said. "At this rate, you'll be forty and trying to conceive, and we'll still be paying off your loans."
Jenny kept calling Sarah for the next week, but, to her distress, the woman never returned her calls. Finally, one morning after Ryan left for a shoot she drove to Cambridge. No one answered at Sarah's house, so she stopped by the shop for which she did deliveries.
She had to wait for almost an hour before Sarah returned from running a cam shaft to Quaker City. When she saw Jenny standing in the store she pointed toward the door. Jenny stepped outside and Sarah joined her there a moment later, pausing to light a cigarette.
"You get the money yet?" Jenny said. She had not noticed until now that Sarah was so much taller.
"Yeah, about the money. I have some bad news." She was standing uncomfortably close to Jenny.
"What's that?"
"The thing is, I need it all; I owe quite a bit of money to people who have a nasty way of dealing with debtors. And it occurred to me that you can't tell anybody about it without incriminating yourself."
Jenny's jaw dropped. "You mean, you're keeping it? After we agreed?"
"You thought I was such a moron that you could set me up to take the fall if we were caught. I'm not that stupid.
"And here's something to keep in mind in case you're thinking of opening your mouth; I did the entire deal in your name. I even had a driver's license made with your name and my picture on it, so when I cashed the check it was as Jennifer Moss."
"How could you be so mean?" Jenny said, stepping back from her.
Sarah chuckled. "I'm the black sheep of the family, and I could give a fuck what they think. Or what you think. So thanks for the cash. And forget about revenge." She opened her coat far enough to reveal a holstered pink 9mm pistol clipped to her belt.
Jenny was at a loss for a reply. She was normally a passive person, but now a rage burned inside her; if she'd had a weapon, she wasn't sure she could control herself. But she could see from the sneer on Sarah's face that she wasn't afraid of Jenny.
Holding back tears, she returned to her car, avoiding eye contact with Sarah, who watched her the whole way.
Jenny started back to Zanesville, but before she reached the freeway, the rage broke through the numb veneer. Fuck Sarah. And fuck Ryan too. She stopped at the Home Depot and bought a crow bar.
Returning to Sarah's bungalow, she pried the door open and spent the next half-hour turning the place inside out looking for the money. She didn't bother to keep things neat, dumping drawers, dragging the mattress from the box spring, ripping the TV from the wall and letting it fall to the floor.
She left with nothing except the satisfaction of destroying Sarah's belongings. The cash was too well hidden.
Jenny knew she shouldn't answer her cell phone that evening when Sarah called, but she was still furious at the woman and wanted the chance to gloat. She was also emboldened by the bottle of wine she'd consumed in an attempt to quell her distress.
"You stupid bitch," Sarah said without preamble. "You think you can do this to me and get away with it, you're nuts."
"What are you going to do? Steal more money from me? Oh wait; you've already stolen it all."
"You still don't get it, do you? I'm not someone to fuck with. You're going to find that out."
"Bring it on. I've got nothing more to lose."
"You think not? Just wait."
A knock on the door the next morning after Ryan had left for work fulfilled Sarah's threat. There stood their landlady, scowling.
Apprehensive, Jenny opened the door. Alice stepped inside uninvited.
"I had an anonymous call this morning," she said, unzipping her coat. "The caller told me you found some old books in the attic and sold them for $40,000. I looked at the online auction site where she suggested I look, and guess what? There they were, some old Dr. Seuss."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Jenny said, struggling with her composure.
"You know how I came about this house? I bought it from my great-aunt. In a way, it's been in the family for a hundred years. I called my mom's cousin. She remembers my great-uncle buying those books for his daughter April on business trips; he was a gem dealer and made trips to New York City four times a year. She thought they'd been lost."
Jenny felt as though a cold hand was running up and down her spine as her dream of grad school, now destroyed, gave way to a new vision, of prison. Rage and fear contended again within her, and she couldn't think of anything to do but lie. "If there were books up there, they should still be there. I haven't taken anything."
"Then let's go check, shall we?" Alice started up the stairs. Jenny followed.
When they reached the second floor landing, Alice grasped the rope that pulled down the ladder. As Jenny watched, panicked, she began to climb.
Acting on instinct, Jenny waited until Alice had climbed the first four steps before she stepped over, grabbed both ankles and tugged them free of the ladder. Her landlady came flying down, striking her head on the third rung, landing at the head of the first floor stairs, then tumbling down them to come to rest by the front door.
Jenny raced down the stairs to the supine body, reached out to her neck, aghast at what she'd done. She found no pulse. She sat numbly for few minutes waiting to make sure Alice didn't come back to life, before calling 9-1-1 to report that her landlady had fallen down the stairs.
After the emergency squad, then the police left, both satisfied that Alice's death was an accident, Jenny, shocked at her own behavior, found that the guilt over what she had done did not entirely override the rage at losing her dream. Having murdered, she was forced to face the fact that she was no longer the mousey academic she'd thought herself to be. She felt emboldened, reckless, with a sense of unfinished business.
Ryan wasn't due home for a couple of hours yet, so, after stewing over her situation for a while, she grabbed her purse,  a roll of duct tape and her latex gloves and headed to the local gun shop. There she purchased a Taser she couldn't afford and a can of pepper spray.  
The sun was setting behind her as she arrived in Cambridge. She pulled into a space in front of the house that Sarah rented. Her sister-in-law's Silverado was parked by the front door.
Jenny approached the stoop, her gloved finger on the pepper spray in her jacket pocket. Swallowing nervously, she knocked on the front door, then stepped to one side so that she wasn't immediately visible when the door opened.
Sarah answered a moment later. As she opened the door, Jenny stepped forward and sprayed her in the face. Sarah spun away, bringing both hands to her face and coughing violently. Jenny stepped inside, closed the door, pulled the Taser out of her other pocket and fired it at Sarah.
As soon as the contacts hit her in the back, Sarah convulsed and fell to the floor, temporarily paralyzed. Jenny plucked Sarah's pistol from her holster, then quickly spun duct tape around her arms and legs until she was incapacitated.
Jenny stood over her. "Where's my money?"
Sarah shook her head as she regained control of her muscles, laughed, coughed, laughed again. "Jesus; what's got into you? You some kind of Ninja killer now? Like that could ever happen."
"You made me whatever I am now."
"Oh bullshit. You're the one that decided to steal the books. There's a streak of larceny a foot wide down your back."
"Fuck that. Where's the money?"
"What are you going to do? Kill me if I don't tell you?"
"Good idea," Jenny said. She ripped off one piece of duct tape and pressed across Sarah's mouth, another to cover her nostrils, then stepped back and waited, feeling powerful like she never had before.
Finally she saw panic in Sarah's eyes as she thrashed around on the floor. She waited until the woman was turning blue before she removed the tape.
"Had enough?" she said.
"It's in my purse," Sarah said between gasps. "You know I'm going to kill you for this."
"Not if I get you first." Jenny ripped off two more pieces of tape, applied them again to Sarah's mouth and nose.
Sure enough, the money, in hundreds, was in the bottom of Sarah's voluminous purse.
Jenny was surprised to find she wasn't particularly upset by her actions. Unlike the murder of Alice, for which she felt contrite, this felt like justice.
By the time Jenny left, the woman had quit struggling.
At Sarah's funeral, Ryan, Willard and Bruce struggled to accept that their sister could have been killed, as the Cambridge Police believed, over a drug deal gone bad. "They said they'd been watching her for over a year, trying to catch her wholesaling shit to local dealers," Bruce said.
Jenny eavesdropped, hoping that Ryan bought the story too. Her application had gone out that morning, and she wasn't about to allow anyone to come between her and grad school.
Not even her husband.
           She fingered the pink pistol in her pocket.

1 comment:

  1. Haha. Nice. Dr. Seuss, grad school, and a duct tape killing. Oh, the humanity! Good story!