Your Black Boiled Conch was right on the waterfront, with its front end accessible by rowboat from the big wooden ships and skiffs that moored in the grey, wine-thin waters of the rich and brisk
There were hundreds of other bars and inns backing up to the waters of the
The kitchen staff of the Conch was pared down to an efficient minimum, and the dishes they served were things that could sit around for hours, needing only to be heated up when ordered. There was a twist cook named Ernie who prepared all of the recipes and did all the chopping, gossiping the whole time even to people who weren’t there, and winking at the sailors and peg-boys. The dishwasher was named Montauk. Montauk was missing the entirety of his lower jaw, and he spoke by squeezing a bicycle horn fast when there was an emergency, or slow to indicate laughter. Montauk’s true laugh often sprayed those around him with thick drool, so he choked back mirth when others were around and instead pumped his horn and gyrated his remaining upper jaw to mimic a smile. Montauk scraped the mugs and plates, soaped down the stools and tables, and generally made sure that no one would catch any diseases that could be tracked back to eating at the Conch.
The third member of the Black Boiled Conch’s kitchen staff was Rentlow, Montauk’s cousin. Before the Conch opened for business every night, Rentlow the fishwasher came in to clean and prepare the day’s catch.
Rentlow the fishwasher was a short, thin, and unfortunate man, if you believed that looks and charm got you ahead in life. His face was pinched around the edges, and was oily and wrinkled like a leather sack even though he was still young. His eyes were brown and dull, and his eyebrows overgrew his whole forehead, raging like brambles along his sharp brow-ridge that made him look like an early draft of a much better grotesque sculpture that had been shipped away on commission to guard a cathedral.
Rentlow’s frame was a whisper -- an elfish skeleton -- and did not match his voice at all. His voice was deep and elegant, and made you wish that his body didn’t exist. When talking with Rentlow, you often found yourself closing your eyes or gazing into the distance. This let Rentlow openly stare at you, giving him something of a perpetual squint that flowed into a perpetual leer.
Until recently, Rentlow had been so ugly and therefore so estranged from the drama of human life that he didn’t bother working. Instead, he spent his time in the library. Why work when people would simply put money in your hat in order to avoid looking at you?
And then things took a turn. A cankerous boil on his tongue had blossomed from cheap City food and had become infected from the heat and fetid City air. The surgeon who removed the boil haunted the insolvent Rentlow, and Rentlow found him one day sharpening his knives in the lobby of the flophouse where Rentlow took his meals, suggesting that a man who didn’t work didn’t need both hands. Against his character, and afraid for his mitts, Rentlow decided to pay him. Montauk set him up with work at the Conch, and Rentlow found that washing fish was easy, and that his quality of life went up dramatically with a few extra bills in his wallet.
Besides, the Conch was a great place to hear a story, and Rentlow loved a good story.
Fish were delivered daily straight to the Conch’s front door in a wicker keg the size of a City trash drum. Rentlow took the invoice and began cleaning them immediately, judging them by quality as either a main dish, or something to go into the stew.
Cleaning City fish was an absolute necessity, and every restaurant in the dock-district had its own fishwasher. Using a prong and a grip of steel wool, Rentlow removed the brine and muck, and cut out the mercury spots that puffed out of the necks of trout and grouper and grew in clusters around the sex organs of addlefish and pankers. He cut along black veins, removed hard balls of arterial calculus, and dug deep into intestines to tease out the bones of smaller fish and the tufts of hair that often sprouted inside the fish as a result of genetic drift.
It was a familiar picture in the district: a man seated on a stool facing the sea, a wicker basket beside him, a pile of guts at his left hand, and several sorted pans of glimmering fish carcasses trussed and ready in an arc around his feet. Periodically, the fishwasher would kick the guts around him into the sea, where they attracted a writhing swarm of carp and blue ruptors.
That evening while he cleaned, Rentlow listened to Ernie’s story of what happened the night before. Ernie leaned against the side of the Conch, smoking a cigarette and using it to draw hieroglyphs in the air. Rentlow was listening so carefully to Ernie’s recap that he was cleaning at a crawl – not at all at his usual cut-em-up-and-toss-em-like-hell speed.
“So this salty dog built like a hairy fire truck comes in, and he’s practically falling down he’s so happy to be around civilized people again,” said Ernie. “He’s buying drinks for everyone, and he’s drinking his tea with his pinky extended and pronouncing every ‘h’. Who is he fooling? His crew sits around him with their hats in their hand, bending to fetch wine, and they are practically sopping at their mouths with their shirtsleeves at the girls. This dog isn’t any prize, but he does have that rough, sea charm, so of course I’m interested, and of course the girls have spotted him a mile off, and aren’t even wasting their time.”
“Who was working last night?” asked Rentlow.
“Nobody special. Missy
“The captain of the Green Parrot.”
“The same,” said Ernie. “And I know it’s all over for me. This salty dog is exactly Brian Booleen’s type. I want to do something drastic, but instead I can only watch out of disgust and fascination. I have to know how it’s all going to shake out, and you never know: people like to make each other jealous. I have no problem being the object of somebody’s jealous fascination.”
“This story ends with you farting in the man’s soup, doesn’t it?” asked Rentlow.
Ernie laughed. Rentlow reached into the wicker basket and pulled out a fat grouper. He turned his knife and poked into the grouper’s sphincter, looking for the fish’s gut cherry.
Something inside the fish clicked and shifted.
“Hello?” said the fish. “Has anybody there?”
Rentlow froze. The point of his knife was already wedged into the fish’s eye, ready to shear away the top layer of the tacky flesh-epoxy that held each scale in place.
Rentlow held the grouper up and peered into its eyes. The eyes were blank beads – cuts of black in saucers of white – seeing nothing, holding no spark.
“Did you hear something?” asked Ernie.
“The fish is talking,” said Rentlow.
“Is that slang?” asked Ernie, stubbing out his cigarette and stepping back inside, annoyed. Rentlow ignored him. He held the fish up to his face, peered at it, tried to establish a rapport.
“Hello fish,” said Rentlow. “Did you say something?”
“Has anybody there?” said the fish again. The lips of the fish did not move, but the voice was urgent, insistent, and in pain. A woman’s voice. “I must speak as quickly, because he is coming back. He is taking the suicide men, and the suicide women. I wanted to die. I was a clerk at a fast restaurant: I took money, I worked so hard, I had no one. But I will not give this joker dee satisfaction of my life. You must find us, under the sea, in dee cages. I keep my eyes open and my mind sharp. I am alone in this. The others are destroyed. You find how he comes in on dee beach! You follow dee tracks from Pier 21, you see it on dee beach! He drag ‘em. He drag ‘em to his underbox, and then he underboxes em’ to the dee sea cages, where we can’t eeben drink a drink, or smoke a smoke!”
Ernie muttered something from inside the restaurant, but stayed where he was.
Rentlow tenderly held the fish between two flat hands and looked at it from several different angles. The fish had been bright blue before it was caught, but it was now a diseased metallic color that reminded Rentlow of his brother Mickey. Rentlow had found Mickey dead in his crib, blue and staring – his fat little knuckles protruding from his mouth, crusted with spittle, as forever still as this talking fish.
There was something hard inside the grouper. Tracing around the fish’s abdomen, Rentlow could feel some kind of hard metal box.
“Sorry fish,” said Rentlow, slitting the fish up the side. “I must know your secrets.”
Inside the fish was a plastic bag, and inside the plastic bag was a tape recorder. Rentlow opened the bag and took the tape recorder out. It was the old fashioned kind: all springs and dials, with one funnel for speaking, and another funnel for listening.
“I cannot decide if this is more strange or less strange than a talking fish,” said Rentlow to himself. “But I am certainly more confused. I have read many stories. I know what to do with a talking fish. You eat him, and move on with a blameless life. A fish with a tape recorder in his stomach presents a puzzle that is going to demand resolution.”
Rentlow rewound the tape and played it back from the beginning. He let it spool out into silence until it clicked off.
“I am alone in this. The others are destroyed.”
“It wasn’t a talking fish after all!” shouted Rentlow inside the restaurant. “It was a tape recorder.”
Rentlow held the tape recorder up for inspection. Ernie shuffled around from the kitchen to see, but Rentlow’s hands were covered with slippery guts and fish oils, and the tape recorder shot out of his hands, bounced once, and fell into the sea.
“What are you on about?” asked Ernie.
“A talking fish,” said Rentlow, staring at the ground. “He offered me wishes, but I gutted him and put him in the stew pile. Any fish that feels he must negotiate with a fishwasher probably has bitter meat inside.”
“Sensible,” said Ernie, returning to his kitchen duties with an irritated shake of his head.
Rentlow finished his shift and made peace by listening to the rest of Ernie’s story. It ended in a challenge to dance. Ernie had refused to participate, and Rentlow agreed that a man of low social conditions must retain his dignity at all costs.
As Rentlow put on his jacket and combed his hair, Montauk joined him in the bathroom. Montauk was just now coming on his shift.
“I’m off to the beach,” said Rentlow. “A fish told me that there are bad things going on under the water at Pier 21.”
Montauk squeezed his horn, and let the air out silently.
“It was a tape recorder inside the fish, like a message in a bottle,” said Rentlow. “I don’t think there’s anything dangerous about it.”
He wished Ernie a fond, unreturned farewell as he left, and set off into the pressing darkness to put his mind at rest about what was going on.
First, he decided to see about the suicide men and suicide women.
A quick jump by train, and then several flights of steps over cold inlet streams brought him to the
At the gate to the hospital, a line of ambulances was waiting to get in, with drivers leaning out of windows on their elbows and paramedics in back heroically thumping chests and changing bags full of antibiotics and morphine. The guard at the gate was meticulously checking hospital manifests and ambulance registration forms, letting ambulances through one at a time with a humorless, sober jerk of his thumb. Beside him, two hospital orderlies with bloodstains down their blue jerkins were smoking cigarettes pinched between white-gloved fingers, and telling each other dirty jokes.
Both orderlies were tall and thin, with dark complexions, black hair, and thin gold-framed glasses.
“And then the farmer says, if that’s an alembic, then what happened to my crucible?” said one orderly, barely keeping a straight face. “And the janitor looks at him, bold as cuss, he looks him right in the face, bold as brass, and he says: your crucible is the one that’s pink. At least, that’s what your daughter said.”
The two orderlies broke up laughing and slapping each other on the back. Rentlow took the opportunity to sidle up to them and take out a cigarette of his own. He pretended that his lighter was empty and moved in closer.
“Fellows,” said Rentlow. “Got a light?”
One of the orderlies passed him his electric lighter, and Rentlow clicked it until his cigarette sparkled in the darkness.
“How’s the shift going?” asked Rentlow.
“Ah, you know,” said one of the orderlies. “You’ve seen one person die from a massive brain hemorrhage and secondary blunt force trauma to the chest, and you’ve seen ‘em all. Die. Of that.”
“Yar,” said the other orderly. “If I get one more whiskey bottle to the back of the head tonight, I’m gonna pack it all in and become a dentist. What I wouldn’t give for a good, straight gunshot. Or hell, you know what I haven’t seen in a butthole’s worth of moons? A suicide!”
“Oh, hell yes,” said the first orderly.
“A suicide?” asked Rentlow.
“Oh yeah, it’s been ages since we’ve had a right royal slasher or pilly queen,” said the second orderly. “I’m starting to wonder whether or not they are putting something in the City water to keep these bastards high and tight.”
“Suicides is fun as hell,” said the first orderly. “All bleary and spent. Trying to write you checks for all their life savings if you’ll just pull the plug, or dose ‘em with a quart of something toxic. Suicides is a right gas. They light up the whole emergency room.”
The three men stood around smoking in silence for awhile: the orderlies relaxing, and Rentlow thinking furiously about what it all meant. There was no getting around it. He was going to have to go down to Pier 21 and see if there were any tracks, like the fish had said.
By now, it was dark as cooked nails, and Rentlow got lost wandering around by the docks, trying to figure out which pier was which. The signs on the struts had been battered smooth by wind and salt, and they were only legible to touch. An off-duty stevedore who sometimes drank at the Conch finally led him in the right direction and Rentlow found himself facing the sea, leaning up against a pylon, scanning the beach for anything unusual, seeing nothing but jellyfish that looked like used condoms, and vice versa.
“If that fish was speaking true, there ought to be tracks,” said Rentlow, scratching his prune-like face. No tracks. The only thing unusual about this part of beach was the obscene amount of trash and drift-netting under the pier. The junk pile was head-high, almost like walls.
While he was thinking, Rentlow plucked out some nose hairs that were making his nostrils tingle, and scattered them to the winds. Winds from the south!
As Rentlow squinted and raunched, he heard a noise behind him, and he instinctively hid himself behind the pylon. A large vehicle was coming up the beach with the lights killed, kicking up sand. It was an ambulance, and it was heading right for his hiding place under the pier.
Rentlow scrambled further into the beach trash, squatting beside a pile of crushed lawn chairs and several Styrofoam coolers that had been eroded into lesser chunks, as spongy as melted candy in the grit of the sand.
The ambulance came to a stop and the driver got out. The driver was not wearing a uniform: he only wore a pair of swim trunks. No shoes. He was muscular and squat, and wore a necklace made of shark teeth. He had on a pair of dark sunglasses even though it was black as cess, and he scampered when he walked, like a bird or a crab.
The man grinned in the dark and tossed open the doors to the back of the ambulance. He grinned in three hundred and sixty degrees, turning around slowly to make sure every soul in an invisible audience saw his teeth. The man’s grin was loose and fast, and rolled along his face as if the bones in his jaw were coated with lube. It made Rentlow dig himself deeper in the sand.
The man leapt inside the ambulance and disappeared. He was only inside for a few seconds before he rolled out a gurney with a patient strapped to it. An IV bag was clipped to the top runner. The man put his head on the patient’s chest, laughed hard to himself – haw, haw, haw -- and then slammed the ambulance doors. He began to cover the ambulance with trash.
Rentlow had a moment of panic as he watched the man hide the ambulance behind piles of driftwood and netting, worrying that the man would come after Rentlow’s cache of rubbish. But the man had a system, and he closed junk around the ambulance like a gate, letting Rentlow peer at him unmolested.
With his ambulance hidden, the man took off, dragging the gurney down to the sea. He kicked his heels up as he sped across the sand, and sand sprayed out behind him like wake from a motorboat. The gurney bumped and pitched across the beach but miraculously did not spill its cargo.
“He’s going to drown him!” said Rentlow. “I ought to do something.”
But Rentlow could only hunker there paralyzed. He hadn’t commissioned the murder, he was morally against it, and it was no one he knew personally. He took no responsibility. Really, there was nothing he could do, lest he face the same fate. And yet. And yet. Fascinated and horrified, Rentlow began sweating and mumbling, trying to remember everything, trying to be the best witness he could be, if that was all he could be.
The man drove the gurney right into the waves. At first the gurney dipped and started to sink, and Rentlow stood up, a knuckle in his mouth. But then the man pulled a ripcord, and two bright orange packets inflated beneath the gurney and made it float. Rentlow breathed a sigh of relief.
No murder yet.
The man and gurney splashed through the shallows, until they reached what must have been the
There was a yellow life-preserver marking the place where the man went underwater, and the preserver shuttled off into the distance as soon as the man was gone, pulled away by magic hands.
No murder yet. Rentlow relaxed.
“Holy hell and heaven’s smell,” said Rentlow. “There’s something more than ‘ordinary sordid’ going on out here on this beach. I should post up to the authorities, or better yet, sell my story to The Merchantbell, The Daily, or The Crime and Sportsman. I could string, after a story like this. I could ‘verily claim large bills in my spirited paw,’ as they say in poetry.”
Rentlow considered this, and soon found himself walking toward the shoreline, trying to stay in the gurney tracks in order to follow the man’s exact progress out to sea. No murder yet. An abduction. He took one look backward and saw that the stolen ambulance was expert-hidden. You wouldn’t know it from an old pile of cast-off radials and iron cuts.
“I’d better get out of here and tell the authorities,” said Rentlow, as he pulled off his shoes and socks and left them in a pile. “Is the tide coming or going?”
Rentlow strode into the sea and immediately tensed up at the freezing slice of surf. But he was in good shape, and he had seen someone else do it, so he headed out in as straight a line as he could muster with the undertow, the dark, and the backfill of an urban beach: half-buried shopping carts, surf-kissed skeletons of beached aquatic creatures, and brittle cast-off plastic cartons that crunched like egg-shells.
After ten minutes of fumbling, Rentlow found the place where he decided that the man and the gurney had gone under based upon the breaking of the waves and sightlines to shore. He could see the life preserver way in the distance, rolling in the bigger waves. He would die if he tried to swim out that far.
“Where did he go?” he asked himself. The tips of his feet barely scraped the bottom now. He turned around in a circle, jerking himself 45 degrees with every kick. A wave crashed over him. The tide was coming in. The sea was boiling. Rentlow thrashed and sputtered. His knee grazed something solid. He lashed out, found purchase, and clung.
A long pole sprouted out of the churning shoals. At the top of the pole was a gear box with two thick buttons on the side -- one green, one red. The red button said “send.” The green button said “recall.” This must have been what the man had used to disappear.
“Dare I?” said Rentlow. The water was so cold that it numbed his sphincter into a prolapsed button that scraped against his waterlogged jeans. He could no longer reach the sea bed with his toes, and his legs churned underneath him in automatic jolts that were slowing down with each kick like a car at a stop sign. He clung to the pole and shivered so hard with every drawn breath that he felt as if he were caught in an earthquake.
He pushed the “recall” button. Far off in the distance, the life preserver popped up in the drink, and then started to return, moving in a slick and eerie straight line that defied the movement of the waves and cut through the water like a spoon tracing over whipped cream.
The life preserver reached the pole where Rentlow clung.
Below the life preserver, and hazy in the black-green water, the structure of a clear cube materialized and then stopped beside Rentlow and beside the pole. The cube had a hatch on top. The man must have gone into the hatch with the gurney. The cube was now empty.
“Do I follow?” asked Rentlow. “Who am I saving? A clerk at a fast restaurant. She took money, she worked so hard, she had no one.”
Rentlow felt life swirling deep inside his shriveled frame. A dizzying torrent of heroic possibility energized him, and he knew what he would do. His face did it first, and then he felt it in his heart. Determination. A narrowing of purpose. And eyebrows.
I know no one very well, said Rentlow to himself.
Rentlow squeezed the handle of the hatch, and felt a click as the lock released. The lid telescoped outward, coiled on a spring in order to prevent water from sloshing inside. Rentlow climbed on top of the box and dropped inside.
The box was the size of a freight elevator, and all four sides were transparent, as if made of glass. It wasn’t glass. Rentlow closed the hatch and hugged himself, trying to warm up, feeling as if he had been pulled from time and space and set aside in a temporary zone where the rules of logic and continuity did not apply. He tapped the side of the box, and discovered the glass was some kind of thick synthetic, tempered and treated, as hard as a lobster shell.
A green rock hung on a chain from the inside of the box and glowed enough so that Rentlow could see a few feet in either direction. When Rentlow rubbed the rock vigorously with his shirtsleeve, the patch of light dimmed, but then it slowly built back up to its embedded incandescent charge. Radium? Inglown formica? Bioreactive lichens?
The bottom of the box was made from yellow copper that had attracted a pathologic encrustation of barnacles. If not cleaned soon, they would eventually eat all the way through. Stretching forward from the box were tracks along the bottom of the sea that led further into the bay and still gleamed as if brand new: no rust, no erosion, no creatures. The tracks were scoured often by the passage of the box, leaving no time for an accretion of decay. The floor of the box was stained with sticky dark patches that Rentlow avoided in his bare feet.
After only a few minutes, the box started to move. Rentlow had not pressed any buttons. There were none inside the box that Rentlow could see to press.
There was a hole in the top of the box that led to a long hose whose terminus was the life preserver floating on the surface. Air flowed into the box through the tube in inconstant puffs that signified a vacuum and filtration system that had long been neglected. Rentlow dreaded what might happen if the hose started to pull water.
In the gloom under the water, spearfish and muddlemen swam up and then swam away. A runt crop. The box pushed through an entire school of postillions, who each turned seven distinct times before speeding off into the night, their angular fins cutting the water in unison, hundreds of tiny bodies punching through water and leaving behind millions of pinprick bubbles.
The landscape angled downward as the pit of the ocean widened and the beach was left behind. Cut anchors lay in the soft spooling sand like forgotten children at an amusement park who had sat down on park benches and turned to dust. Etiolated, poisoned-looking crabs pinched along the bottom in bent, sideways steps, stirring up swarms of mincing, translucent fish whose hollow bones were filled with flecks of parti-colored foam that sloshed inside them as they darted and spun.
The box motored rickety through the inky-green waters, and Rentlow was trapped. Time seemed to collapse in on itself like the flame in a blown-out matchstick. As an experienced and expert fishwasher, Rentlow amused himself by cataloguing and judging this winter’s crop of sea bass and roughy. They were healthy, albeit slow in the water due to the drag of their equally healthy tumor tissue and equally healthy extra appendages.
It wasn’t long before the weight of the sea’s endless murk began to press on him. He was far below the freezing water now as the box continued to plunge into the depths of
A shape rose out of the darkness and the box cruised toward it. It looked like a huge novelty cigar that had fallen from a billboard and was swept out to sea. It was brown and pitted like a turd left to float. As the box slowly hitched onward, Rentlow began to make out other signifying characteristics. Fins. A rudder. The boxy motorhead of a propulsive screw. A conning tower. Slits for torpedo bays.
It was a downed submarine. It was decades old, and it lay flat on its belly between two immense chocks that moored it to the ocean floor and kept it from rolling sideways and destroying itself in the play of the tide.
A bulbous nose and three protrusions ran the length of the submarine in a delta-shaped halo, and gave the sub a pugnacious mien, making it seem forceful rather than sleek – a vessel built for engagement and not evasion.
The sub was pitted and bleached, but it was not hulled, and Rentlow could see no holes or tears. In fact, as the box pulled closer, Rentlow could see patches on the sub’s body that gleamed brand new, as if the sub were being replaced piecemeal by parts cut to fit. There was no need to wonder where the parts came from. All around the sub were the carcasses of ravaged machinery that had been dragged to the sub’s altar, stripped of utility, and riveted into place over what must have been years of tedious, difficult craftsmanship.
The tracks led right up to a scuttle in the side of the sub and pitched upward. Rentlow found himself canted over on his hands and knees, and the hatch at the top of the box slotted right into the sub’s window. There was a puff of air as the pressure equalized, and then the hatch telescoped open on its own steam, swinging open with nary a creak nor whistle.
In the black, still waters, surrounded by glass that wasn’t glass, Rentlow considered his options. He could try to bust out and swim to the surface, but he had a feeling he would freeze to death before he made it to shore, and he hadn’t seen any boats near this part of the bay. He could sit here until someone came and found him. Or he could go inside the submarine.
The submarine’s chilly darkness beckoned. Rentlow bent down and crawled inside.
The scuttle opened into a long tunnel lit by candles in black iron sconces. The sconces had been twisted with violence into hard iron hearts that left overlapping runners of metal sticking out jagged into the passageway. The candles glowed with a languid, sickly flame that seemed to reach out to Rentlow as he walked by, as if the flames were begging him to be snuffed.
“Go! Away! Or! Put! Me! Out!” each flicker seemed to say.
Rentlow pressed on, walking tip-tap-fast through hatchways and portholes and past darkened doors that were heavy with rust. He tried the handle of one of them. It was locked, but he jiggled it anyway. He let go. The handle jiggled back, and he could hear a low moaning through the door.
“Hello?” said Rentlow. “Is there somebody there?”
The moaning grew louder and more insistent.
“The door is locked,” said Rentlow. “I can’t help you, but maybe you can help me. Who are you and what is going on here?”
Abruptly, the handle stopped moving and the moaning ceased.
Rentlow knocked on the door, and tried jiggling the handle again, but whoever was on the other side was gone. Rentlow pressed on.
At the end of the passageway, a shiny copper door greeted him with a cursive nameplate that said “The Galley.” The door had no lock: only a swinging hinge. Rentlow pushed the door open and stepped inside.
The man! The man from the beach! And the empty gurney!
The Galley was a washed, shining place, trimmed in soft woods and polished chrome. There were cabinets on the sides that held delicate china plates in vinyl straps and there was a long oak table bolted to the floor that ran the length of the room, attended by high, hard-backed chairs that were also bolted to the floor and were inlaid with intricate scrollwork. A chandelier hung down over the table, complete with more iron torches and new flickering candles – each one a different color.
At the far end of the table, the man from the beach sat eating an entire cake with a golden fork. His eyes were shut.
The cake was yellow with red frosting, and was raised a foot above the table by a crystal display dish. The man was holding his mouth up to the side of the dish and shoveling cake inside as fast as he could. He was no longer shirtless. Now he was wearing a red terrycloth robe, and striped seersucker suit pants. At his left hand was a crystal glass filled with sparkling lemonade and a bent straw.
When Rentlow entered, the man’s eyes opened and he peered at Rentlow over the edge of the dish as if enjoying a hallucination. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and then stood up slowly. He crossed his arms. Finally, the man clasped his hands together and wrung them – grinning his smooth, well-oiled grin and only moving his arms from the elbows down, making him look like a wind-up toy.
“Welcome!” he said. “Welcome to the Samantha. I am the king of the Samantha, and you must be here to eat some dinner with me. When I saw my underbox head back to shore, I knew I was going to have company, but I was not expecting YOU, whoever YOU are. YOU may eat with me, and have a nice time. YOU are not a police officer. YOU are an ugly little man.”
Rentlow now saw that there was a pistol between the dish of cake and the lemonade. The hammer of the pistol was pulled back, but even as Rentlow watched, the man let the hammer gently down.
“What is your name?” asked the man. “My name is Dan Taylor, and this is my ship.”
“My name is Rentlow,” said Rentlow. “I work in a kitchen. I found a fish with a tape recorder inside it.”
“You are a crazy person,” said Dan Taylor gently. “That’s okay. I have been dealing with crazy people for a long time now, and I like them. If they can control themselves.”
“I can control myself,” said Rentlow.
“Then you shall have stew,” said Dan Taylor. He walked over to a sideboard where there was a steel tureen and a stack of bowls. He slopped soup into a bowl with a ladle, and set it down next to the dish of cake.
“Come and sit down,” said Dan Taylor. “We must not eat across from each other as if we are an old married couple who have too much money. Sit down next to me, and I will tell you about the Samantha.”
The pistol was on the table inches away from Dan Taylor’s hand. Rentlow squared up and crossed the room, sitting down next to him and pulling the offered bowl of soup close.
“Thank you,” said Rentlow.
Rentlow stared at the soup, and Dan Taylor grinned.
“Oh, it’s not drugged or tainted,” said Dan Taylor. “Perfectly clean soup.”
Dan Taylor pulled the straw from his own glass and shoved it into Rentlow’s soup bowl. Dan Taylor leaned down close and took a heroic slug, sucking so hard that the straw collapsed in on itself, flattened like a shirtsleeve.
“See?” said Dan Taylor. “Enjoy it!”
Dan Taylor pulled the straw from the soup bowl and stuck it back inside his drink. Trails of stew mixed with the sparkling lemonade in limpid tendrils.
Rentlow took a tentative bite of the stew and tried his best to stay calm.
“Say!” said Dan Taylor. “Do you like music?”
“Sure,” said Rentlow. “Everybody likes tunes.”
“How about some music, then?”
He stood up and cupped his hand to shout.
“Tina!” shouted Dan Taylor. “Music, Tina! We need some music!”
There was a groan from outside the door, and the clomp of heavy shoes. The door behind Dan Taylor swung open, and a young woman came in, her hands splayed at her side, and a lengthy dollop of snot hanging from her nose. She had almond-shaped eyes, fair grey skin, and black hair cut angular across her face. She wore a striped short-sleeve t-shirt, and her arms were covered with purple scabs from needle marks and two healing slashes. Her eyes did not track: they wiggled back and forth in her sockets like unspooled projector film, clicking out of focus, infinite and dim.
“Music, Tina!” said Dan Taylor, irritably. “Music!”
Tina’s head swiveled to face Rentlow and she shook her hips at him, sticking one finger into her nose and digging without mercy.
“Jesus, how embarrassing,” said Dan Taylor, putting his hand over his eyes. Finally, Tina walked in jerks across the room to an antique phonograph, let a record fall from its sleeve into her hand, placed it on the turntable, and set the needle. Light jazz began to play, and Tina’s finger went back into her nostril.
She ate what she found, and went back for more.
“Good girl, you can go now,” said Dan Taylor. “Tina is my survivor. I don’t know what I did right, to tell you the truth. She’s not perfect, and there’s no way I could trust her with anything like loading a torpedo, or even mopping a floor, but she can do simple things, and she is a fine companion for me. She reminds me of people.”
As Tina walked back to the door, Rentlow saw that there was a bald patch on the back of her head, and a flap of skin had been crudely sewn shut with flat thread like dental floss. The edges of the scar bulged with pus and mélange, and hair was growing through the scab in matted, patchy strings.
Tina lurched back through the door, and before the door stopped swinging back and forth, Rentlow saw her sit down in a chair just outside the galley, waiting to be called to serve.
Dan Taylor swept the cake out of his way so he had a clear line of vision down the table. He put his elbows down, and cupped his jaw in his hands.
“Do you like my submarine?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” said Rentlow. “Very much.”
“Really? You really like it?”
“It’s marvelous what you’d done,” said Rentlow.
“I found it here, you know. It was rotting away. Falling apart so fast you couldn’t believe it. Not only did I turn that around, but I am actually making it better, did you know that?”
“I did not know that,” said Rentlow.
“I have read the ship logs,” said Dan Taylor. “This sub has had such a long history! It used to be called the Palemon, did you know that?”
“I did not know that,” said Rentlow.
“The Palemon was a nuclear submarine. A Yankee class nuclear submarine for the micronation of Headsland. Headsland was so small! It was this little island in the sea, where people could go if they were the kings of countries that had changed government. They could pay enormous amounts of money to Headsland, and then Headsland would defend them with submarines like this one, and they could live out the rest of their lives in peace, with their vices intact. And you never knew: maybe their country would want them back someday.”
Rentlow took another small bite of stew. It was typical fish stew, the same kind they served at the Conch. It was not fresh, and some of the pieces of prawn were still frozen in the middle.
“Tina does most of the cooking, so you can thank her,” said Dan Taylor, watching him poke at the soup. “Headsland was finally taken over by strong colonial powers and turned into a sugar plantation. The kings fled again in their submarines. But they were inexperienced submarine pilots, and most of them did not survive. The people in the Palemon nearly made it to shore, as you can see. They were so close that I could put in my underbox when I started to renovate. When I first found the submarine, their corpses had not yet begun to rot. One gentleman was naked with his little pee-pee in his hand, as if he knew he was going to die, and he wanted to touch himself one last time. His papers said that he had been a famous general in the old country. I gave them all decent burials. Don’t look at me like that.”
“So you have been renovating the ship and making it functional again,” said Rentlow, swallowing. “And you even renamed her. That’s a full pound of work.”
“I’ve only sealed off a few parts of the sub, really,” said Dan Taylor. “It’s still mostly underwater.”
“So who was Samantha?” asked Rentlow.
Dan Taylor’s loose and easy smile turned down at the corners and started to slip. His eyes seemed to contract and form a film, like the extra set of lenses on a bullfrog.
“What do you know about Samantha?” asked Dan Taylor.
“Nothing,” said Rentlow as casually as possible. “Only you named the ship after her, so whoever she was, she must be important to you.”
Rentlow bent over his soup and tried to ignore Dan Taylor’s searching, demented gaze. Finally, Dan Taylor relaxed and shifted in his chair, flopping one leg over the arm. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a worn, haggard photograph that was bent to the shape of his back. He stared at it for a full minute, and then put it away again.
“Yes, I see,” said Dan Taylor. “That stands to reason that you would think that she was important to me. Samantha was a girl who was too beautiful for this world. Next question.”
Rentlow could see that forcing the issue was a bad idea, but he filed Dan Taylor’s hostility away for later. There was weakness here that he could exploit. A thumb sized-bruise that he could press if he needed to press something.
“I bet you want to know why I’m fixing this submarine up, don’t you?” said Dan Taylor, happy again. “And I bet you saw me with my ambulance, and you want to know what I am doing with those poor people I am abducting. Because -- you are right – I do not work for the hospital.”
Rentlow was silent.
“I do not work for anyone in fact,” said Dan Taylor, squinting at Rentlow and putting his knuckles on the table, lining them up as if they were tumblers in a lock. “Did you know that the same place in the brain that controls the desire to commit suicide is the same place in the brain that controls the desire to resist oppression? How is that for odd!”
“I did not know that,” said Rentlow.
“It’s a nice little button of flesh in the very back of the head. Scientists say that the button is binary, and it flashes back and forth in most people. You can’t want to fight and want to kill yourself at the same time. The more you want to fight and resist your enemies, the less likely you are to be suicidal. And, also, the more you want to blow your own brains out, the less of a threat you are to the powers that be. Of course, the human soul – which I firmly believe in, by the way – has a certain amount of control over the impulses from the button. ”
“That’s fascinating,” said Rentlow. “If it is true.”
“Oh, it’s certainly true,” said Dan Taylor. “The little wedge of brain is right in between the parietal and occipital lobe. That is why blind people can either be such stubborn intractables, or such lowlife depressives. Have you ever known any blind people?”
“Not personally,” said Rentlow.
“My father was blind, and that’s why I became so interested in what happens to an atrophied occipital lobe. Reduced pressure from the occipital lobe causes this button – it is called the Beckett’s area – to grow to an advanced, catastrophic size, which begins to choke and starve the temporal lobe, causing seizures, dementia, and a perpetual lapse in punctuality. My father was late for everything. I bought him at least two Braille watches with my pocket money so that he would know how to be on time, but he lost them both. Don’t you think that is incredibly negligent?”
“Incredibly,” said Rentlow.
“So, according to science, you can’t be suicidal and insensitive at the same time,” said Dan Taylor. “That’s why. Depressed people are all open hearts and feelings, and psychopaths never worry that there’s no reason to live, because their Beckett’s area can only structure one set of consciousness.”
Dan Taylor sighed and sat back in his chair, blowing air out from between his puffed cheeks.
“Incredibly negligent,” repeated Dan Taylor. “Anyway, it is easy to find this troublesome spot in the brains of blind people. It is harder to find in the sighted. My theory is that when the Beckett’s area is taken away, a person ought to become the most well-behaved and benign of all people. Even better behaved than after a lobotomy, because they retain their wits. A lobotomy makes people into zombies. Zombies can’t even cook right. You tell me that soup is perfect. You tell me that with a straight face that soup is perfect.”
Rentlow did not do this, and Dan Taylor grinned at him, satisfied. He picked up the pistol and pointed it like a finger at Rentlow’s head.
“Would you like to take a tour?” said Dan Taylor, standing. “Come on, let’s take a tour! You’ve already seen most everything, but let’s see the rest!”
He gestured to the door behind him with the pistol, and Rentlow put the soup aside and stood up. Dan Taylor pulled a big key ring from his pocket and jingled it merrily.
“I love to show off,” said Dan Taylor. “It’s vanity. It really is. But that’s me all over. Vanity and surprises.”
Rentlow passed through the galley door and found himself in another hallway full of rusting locks. Tina rocked back and forth in her chair, and Dan Taylor patted her on the head as they passed.
“Go ahead,” said Dan Taylor, handing Rentlow the key ring. “Open a door. Pick a door. Surprises behind every door!”
His hands shaking, Rentlow turned to the closest bolt and unlocked the steel handle. He pushed the door open and found himself staring at three haggard people chained to three separate steel bunk beds.
“Run away!” screamed one of them, a gaunt old man with thick black bags under his eyes. “He’ll get you! You have to get out.”
“Comic,” said Dan Taylor. “A touch of low comedy.”
“Someday I will be pissing right in tune your face, Dan Taylor,” said the second person, a woman with short yellow hair, and a small mouth that was lashed so tight to the rest of her face that her ears wiggled up and down when she spoke. Rentlow immediately recognized her voice. She was the voice from the fish tape. “Someday I will be dee demon from hell who is pissing in tune your face and laffing forever. Laffing atchu!”
“Why, then you’d be stuck in hell right there with me!” said Dan Taylor.
“Right in tune your face, Dan Taylor,” she mumbled.
The third person in the room was unconscious. He was slumped down across his bunk with his bent arms above his head as if he had been crucified. It was the person Rentlow had followed from the beach, the patient who had been strapped to the gurney.
Dan Taylor leaned over and pulled on the door handle, leaving the door only open a crack.
“Just so you know,” said Dan Taylor, punctuating each word with a shake from his pistol. “Just so you don’t feel bad for them. All of those people in there tried to kill themselves, and I saved their life. I have a police radio scanner, and I listened in on the ambulance channel and I got there first, crack on punctual time. I stitched up wrists, I pumped stomachs, I defibrillated stopped hearts. Those people were done with their lives. They didn’t want them anymore. But I need lives! I need all the lives I can get…because…well…because…well…open the next door…better to show you…”
“Do it!” said Dan Taylor.
Rentlow couldn’t fit the key in the lock because his hands were shaking so bad. Dan Taylor took the keys from him. He opened the door as if there were sleeping babies inside, lifting up on the knob to keep the hinges from creaking.
“I need all the lives I can get because I make a lot of mistakes!” said Dan Taylor.
The room was piled high with stiff, putrid corpses, cracked in places like broken dolls, oozing brains and guts. The walls were splashed black with dried blood, and there was a neat little heap beside the door of money pouches, key rings, and chickenscratch notes that said things like: “For Emily” and “Goodbye Love” and “Bury Me With Mother.”
Many of the dead bodies had holes in the back of their head like Tina’s, and some of them were badly mutilated from the bottom to the top, like dissected frogs turned into abstract art.
Dan Taylor caressed the doorknob with his finger to his lips.
“You want to open another door?” he whispered.
Rentlow didn’t say anything.
“You do, huh?”
All the saliva in Rentlow’s mouth bubbled against his tongue and tasted like vomit. Dan Taylor opened the third door. It was wall to wall with life-size ceramic statues of people in submissive poses, haloed by electric beer signs that buzzed and sparked. They all looked like they were screaming.
“Art! My art! Are there actual people inside those casts?” asked Dan Taylor, chuckling. “That’s a question you are going to ask yourself later. The answer is no! The bodies get burned up in the kiln, and so the statues are all hollow.”
“Why are you doing this?” asked Rentlow. “Who is letting you do this?”
“I want to travel the world,” said Dan Taylor. “I want to see it all. But do you have any idea how many different things have to be monitored on a submarine? I could never do it all by myself. I need help. But enough about me! Let’s talk about you.”
I have read many books, said Rentlow to himself. I should know what to do next.
“Now that you have seen the options, what excites you the most?” said Dan Taylor. “What do you want to be? Slave, dead, or art? I can make each thing happen.”
Rentlow narrowed his tiny, bug-like eyes until they almost disappeared. Was this it?
“Come in of your own free will. Leave of mine,” said Dan Taylor, scratching his chin with the pistol. “There is no…real…right answer.”
Rentlow saw his chance. He lunged and then feinted, catching Dan Taylor by surprise and making him squeal and lower his gun.
“Samantha sent me!” screamed Rentlow, jumping for the floor of the submarine, trying to knock Dan Taylor’s feet out from under him, but missing by a whole body length.
Shocked, Dan Taylor fired three times, missing twice, and catching Rentlow in the arm with the third shot. The bullet passed between the bones in Rentlow’s forearm as he fell to the ground, and punched a hole in the hull next to the other wild shots, making a triangular perforation that immediately began to shoot water. The space between the holes blew next, and water began to shoot into the sub in a violent, horizontal slash that caught Dan Taylor in the chest and blew him back into the kitchen. Rentlow saw the back of his head hit the galley table with a sick crack, and he saw his body flip backwards on the wave of water.
The key ring popped out of Dan Taylor’s hand and twisted in the air, but Rentlow caught it before it could be carried away by the torrent of water. He caught it on reflex with his numb, bleeding hand, and then transferred it to the hand that still worked.
Rentlow spun into the room with the three prisoners and fell to his knees, fumbling with the key ring. Behind him, water rushed into the hallway and was already flooding the room. There were only two keys on the ring, and Rentlow was lucky: the second key opened the locks on the prisoner’s chains and freed them from the bunk beds. The unconscious prisoner stirred from his stupor, and looked at Rentlow with gratitude, rubbing his wrists where the handcuffs had chafed. He blinked, and then fell back asleep. Rentlow caught him as he fell.
“I can free you, but I can’t save you,” said Rentlow, frowning. “It looks like this is where we cash our checks.”
“No!” said the woman from the fish tape. “No, we do not!”
She dashed out the door, lifting up her knees to splash quick through the rising water. Rentlow and the gaunt man looked at one another, and then followed, slogging along as if trudging through oatmeal. Rentlow turned the unconscious man over on his back and dragged him behind like an inner tube.
In the hallway, Tina had found the body of Dan Taylor and cradled him in her arms, sobbing and staring at Rentlow with an oscillating mixture of hate and confusion. By turns, she wanted his help and she wanted to kill him.
Rentlow took a step towards her.
“No time for she,” said the fish-woman. “Leave her be.”
Rentlow reached out his hand to Tina and she tried to bite it, her arms still locked around Dan Taylor’s backwards-bent neck. Rentlow dropped his hand and turned away.
The fish-woman turned the corner into the room of dead bodies. Her eyes were wild and they didn’t rest on anything at first. The unconscious man behind Rentlow blew bubbles of saliva that did not pop, instead sliding along one another like muscles in an arm and filling his chin.
“Bust dat winnow,” said the woman, pointing. “And then getchu two gasbags.”
She bent down and pulled two of the most bloated corpses from the pile: a huge man and a huge woman whose purple tongues pushed between their lips like smashed thumbs. They both wore pink sweater-vests and they could have been twins. Perhaps they had been lovers who had died in a suicide pact.
The gaunt man with the bags under his eyes followed her lead, picking up a little boy in a sailor suit, and a man who had probably once been a college professor, dressed as he was in a tweed jacket and matching pants. The fish woman pointed, and the gaunt man nodded. The gaunt man kicked at the glass in the hatch, lifting each foot in turn and screaming when he connected. Rentlow grabbed the unconscious man under his arms, and then picked up the nearest corpse with his bleeding, numb arm: a granny in cat-eye glasses.
The fish woman’s cadaverous, silent partner busted through the scuttle, and the room began to fill rapidly with more water. Within seconds, the whole place was flooded, and the sub started to pitch from the new weight, tipping completely off of its chocks. The fish-woman wriggled through the porthole first and then dragged her corpses behind. The gaunt man followed, and then came Rentlow.
For a moment, the three of them hovered next to the side of the sub, flailing and choking. Try as he might, Rentlow had been unable to keep the unconscious man from cutting himself on the scuttle’s jagged edge as he pulled him through, and there was a huge gash that ran along his shoulder. Now there were two long trails of blood in the green, black water. The other came from Rentlow’s bullet wound.
The three survivors looked at each other helplessly in the ocean’s fathoms. And then the fish woman dragged her corpses up over her head, and began to rise, jerked upward at a rapid speed by the buoyant pull of two dead fatties in matching cardigans.
The gaunt man held the corpses of the professor and the sailor boy over his head, and he began to rise, too. Rentlow raised the dead old woman, but she was all spindle and leather and she only pulled weakly. He and the unconscious man trailed far behind the other two. Rentlow kicked and grunted. His forehead squeezed into two bleak lines of force.
Dawn was breaking above them, and the golden sun plied on the dappled surface like coins at the bottom of a fountain. Rentlow started to feel his heart slowing and his vision became crowded around the edges. But still he kicked.
And then suddenly the unconscious man in his arms was awake and wriggling free of Rentlow’s grasp. A ceramic statue jolted Rentlow in the back, and Rentlow dropped the granny and reached for the statue’s arm instead. The leering granny’s glasses went cock-about, and her floral print dress rode up high, exposing her desiccated pubis and mottled flanks as she fell back into the depths. Up Rentlow rose on the statue, numb all over, screaming bubbles.
At some point Rentlow passed out. At some point he breached the surface and started to breathe again. At some point the man who had been unconscious carried him deeper into the bay, as the fish-woman held his feet.
When he woke up, he was beached on the deck of a trawler: naked, blankets piled on him like seal furs traded in the
He vomited up oily, salty water and lifted his head. His cousin Montauk was there, honking his horn furiously and stamping his feet.
“I never want to cut another fish,” said Rentlow.
Montauk lowered his head and honked his horn.
The City was there on shore, winking in the morning light. Huge and horrible. Rentlow shivered and vomited again. And then, as he stared, the buildings, so high, began to open before his mind like books.
The City was like a library. At first glance, it didn’t look like much: a mere preponderance of wood and text crammed into shelves seemingly without sense or purpose. But the more time you spent pulling books down from their slots, sitting down and reading them, the more every other book was charged with possibility. Eventually you started to see the library how it really was: an infinite architecture of details in chaos, each fact and story bulging out to form a rigid skyscraper of lives. A nexus of terror and joy, with each heart interpenetrating each formal layer, the blueprints governed by a subtle mathematics that people called liberty.
But the City was sick. The library was on fire. And there was nothing anyone could do about it. The City was full of people like Dan Taylor. Some better; many worse.
And then there were people like Rentlow.
Rentlow vomited again. His brain began to boil, and his heart began to race. He smiled, blinked, and fell asleep to the furious honking of Montauk’s horn.