portion of the artwork for Grant Bailie's fiction

Strange Fruit
Grant Bailie

The snow could not make her smile—could not give her lips the slightest upward curve or tug at either corner of her mouth. The clown fish swimming in the tank in front of the window did not amuse her, even with snow falling incongruously in the glass behind them.

He said: But honey, they’re clown fish.

Her face remained immovable and grim, like the death mask of Voltaire he had seen once in a book. And Voltaire was supposed to have been a pretty funny guy when he was alive.

Were they fighting? He hoped not. He hated to fight. Not only did fighting seem like one step closer to an inevitable end of everything, but he was no good at it. He lost every time, could not even follow the flow of things. Would she still be mad at him about finishing off the bread without telling her still or would larger issues be at play? Was this about him coming home later than expected last night or did it also have something to do with her aged and senile parents’ divorce procedures, which were turning into something of a farce because neither of her parents could consistently remember the names of their respective attorneys. Or maybe she had seen something sad on TV. She was a woman with a propensity for easy tears. Once, she had sobbed for twenty minutes over a feather she had found on the window sill.

Now that he thought about it, she had looked sad last night when he came home. He had said to her then: something wrong?

And she had not said anything, but just got up and went to bed. He had stayed behind and slept on the couch out of instinct. Did it even count as fighting if nothing was said? It was the next day now and he had made pancakes but she had not touched hers and had only sipped at a glass of pulp-free orange juice instead.

He told her: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

But nothing.

He worried about the clown fish, too. Were they too close to the window? Did they need more heat than that, was the snow disorienting? He had placed the tank by the window last summer with the hope of showing the fish a bigger world than the confined glass space they lived in, but maybe the view was only a cruel and confusing taunt, a reminder of captivity and how everything they saw outside could kill them. He had meant it as an act of kindness. He wished he could tell them that somehow. He gave them an extra meal instead.

This was how his acts of kindness often played out; the results in his mind seldom matched the reality that unfolded. His need to do the right thing was thwarted by his inability to figure out what the right thing was. Would it be better to do nothing, to say nothing, to let everything run its natural course?

He said: I wonder if the fish think it’s snowing.

She did not smile.

* * *

He was getting fat. His shirts felt tighter at the belly now, and the zipper of pants that once fit him would no longer close without a struggle. He had quit smoking a year ago and maybe that’s what this was about now.

She never said anything, but probably she noticed, probably thought he was ugly now, or if not that, at least less appealing. He tried to imagine what she must think as she watched him standing in front of the bed trying to cram himself into his old work slacks while she remained beneath the covers, still warm and thin.

She herself never gained weight, even though she had quit smoking the same day as he had. This was probably due to illness. She was always sick, always stricken with one thing or another. And it was not like she was a hypochondriac—she really did have everything she thought she had. It was confirmed by every doctor she saw. A strange collection of maladies, none of them related, all of them exotic and rare. He had never heard of a single one of them until she became afflicted, then she would tell him all about what she had found out about it while he had been at work, and he would do some searches on his own and find out more. Her illnesses often sounded like science fiction—an acute sensitivity to sparks and white noise; a chemically based fear of spineless organisms; a severe allergy to fudge.

He wished he would catch something small and temporary himself, just to take off the few extra pounds. Would a parasitic worm do the trick? Amoebic dysentery? He considered the possibility of drinking standing water at the next opportunity.

The other day he asked her: Honey, am I getting fat?

It was the day before she stopped smiling.

She was sitting at the kitchen table, peeling an apple with a knife, and she looked up at him as if she had forgotten she shared an apartment with anyone. She looked at him like the hand of God had swooped into the room and left him there like an oddly placed pawn.

She put down the apple. He looked at the apple so as not to see the look on her face while she considered his expanding girth. It was an odd-looking apple—misshapen and gnarly, with a thick, nearly reptilian skin and a pink and tender inside dotted with black seeds. The more he looked at the apple the more he was convinced it was not an apple at all.

Hey, he said. What’s that?

She turned her gaze from his belly to the strange fruit on the table.

She shrugged. She said: It grows in the corner of the parking lot. You remember that tree with all the blossoms last spring? This is what it turned into. It must have a late growing season.

He said: You’re not going to eat that, are you?

She said: I was considering it.

He just looked at her.

She said: Why not?

He said: Because you don’t know what it is.

She said: So? Do you only eat things that you know what they are?

He said: Yes, pretty much. Exactly yes, in fact.

And she said: Maybe that’s why you’re so fat.

* * *

She was putting on galoshes. He asked: Going somewhere? She hadn’t left the apartment in weeks. He thought she might be agoraphobic now. He figured that’d be her next diagnosis. It was a natural. Why not be afraid to leave home? There were spineless organisms out there.

She looked at him, still not smiling. He thought she looked a little jaundiced. Her eyes were like runny eggs.

She said: Can’t someone just wear galoshes?

Oh, he said.

But I am going out, she said.

He looked out the window. It wasn’t raining or snowing. It didn’t even look like rain or snow. He mentioned this to her. She said: You never can tell.

He asked why she was going out. She said: To buy a garden gnome. This surprised him. They didn’t have a garden. They didn’t even have a yard. They didn’t even have a balcony.

They make nice art, too, she said. Like a sculpture. Something for the coffee table maybe.

They did have a coffee table.

She was wearing a short skirt. With red galoshes. It made him think salacious things. Some men liked leather, some silk. He liked red rubber galoshes. Ever since third grade and Margaret Deperro. Did she know this? Had he told her this? Had he bought her those galoshes with salacious thoughts already in his mind?

She stood up and said: Now where’s my rain hat?

He shrugged. He didn’t even know she had one. She described it to him. It was yellow and shiny. It had a psychedelic lobster on it.

He couldn’t imagine a psychedelic lobster.

Huh? he said. You mean with stripes or something?

Stripes, she said. What a limited view of things. No. Not stripes.

Then what?

Psychedelic, she said. Spots, she said. And a pinwheel in its pincer. And glasses with black spirals in them. They looked like X-ray specs. A lobster with a pinwheel and X-ray specs.

Sounds odd, he said.

Psychedelic, she said.

They found it in the hall closet. She saw it first, reached for it. He was standing close to her, just touching. Maybe he could parlay this into something, he thought. He could smell her galoshes from here—that new rubber smell. If she only knew; if she only knew … Would this be his attempt at seduction? It had been awhile—weeks maybe. Not that he counted the days. Still, they added up.

She said: Why are you standing so close?

I’m helping you, he said.

I found it, she said.

She put it on. It looked like a child’s rain hat. It did not even fit her. Hardly surprising—who would wear a rain hat with a polka-dotted lobster holding a pinwheel and wearing X-ray specs if they weren’t a child? He doubted they even made a hat like that in adult sizes. Fortunately she had a small enough head to manage it.

She smiled when she put it on and it was like the world sighed. He smiled back at her. You smiled, he almost said. But he didn’t. That would have ruined it. It would have gone away then. Like looking directly at a dim star.

She said: I am galvanized now. She said: My battle armor is on. She said: The elements cannot harm me.

He asked her if he could come with her.

She said no.

* * *

She was gone till late, till the sun was down, till the last of its light was gone from the sky. There was a moon somewhere, but a cloud that seemed both as solid and as permanent as a mountain was sitting in front of it.

He remained on the couch, watching the front door, waiting for something to happen, biding his time by occasionally cleaning the lens of his glasses with a set of wipes designed for that specific purpose which she had bought him last year for his birthday.

When it was after midnight and she had not returned, he gave up on the notion she could still just walk cheerfully in the door, laughing about some adventure or another and maybe even apologizing for having lost track of the time. He began to imagine the worst: car wrecks; muggings, her lying splayed out and dying in some dark alley, the victim of a crime too grisly to even imagine now, to even approach imagining, to even pretend to imagine.

He considered calling the police and maybe would have in another fifteen minutes or so, but then the door did open and there she was, alive and relatively unmauled, though there was a small tear in the sleeve of her blouse, one of her galoshes was missing, and her hair seemed to be sprinkled with a sparkling green powder.

She smiled in a distant, abstract sort of way and he asked her where she had been and she told him she had been around the bend of hell and back in a birch-bark canoe and how about him? He told her he had just been sitting on the couch the whole night waiting to find out how exactly she had died. He said his glasses had never been so clean.

She made a face that was neither a frown nor a smile, walked past him without another word, and a few minutes later he heard the shower running and her singing something at the top of her voice. The song she was singing seemed to be about a fox that had lost its tail but he had never heard it before and wasn’t sure she was not making it up as she went along. Had he read a story about a tailless fox before, or was it something she had told him before about her favorite book when she was a child? They had been together long enough now that he could not always keep straight which memories were his and which were hers.

She did not come back out to the living room after she had showered but instead went directly to the bedroom without even saying good night. He found her there in silk pajamas he had never seen before, downing the last of her daily regimen of prescription pills. On any given day, during any given illness, there were a dozen or so multi-colored, multi-shaped pills she was instructed to take with water or with meals or before bedtime. Pharmaceutical trail mix, he liked to call it, and she had laughed the first few times he had said it but did not laugh about it anymore.

Nice pajamas, he told her. She looked at him for a moment, then down at what she was wearing. She said: Aren’t they swanky?

The pajamas had a pattern of moons, and cows and cowboys tending fires with sheep sitting on rocks, and something else that could have been a puma playing a cello. They were quite possibly the busiest pajamas he had ever seen, with the notable exception of the ones she had once bought him with a pattern of all the major highways of North America on them.

Where were you, he asked, but she was busy setting the alarm on the clock even though setting the clock alarm was his domain as she never had to wake up on time for anything.

She looked at him. Her look said: I have answered you already. He looked back at her. His look said: Around the bend of hell and back in a birch-bark canoe is no kind of real answer. She switched off the light by her side of the bed and closed her eyes. He stood in the darkness, still dressed, wondering how he could find his North American highway pajamas in the dark.

In the morning she was gone. The closet, while not completely devoid of her things, was considerably roomier. He went out to the parking lot. His car was still there. Another unnamed fruit from the tree in the parking lot had dropped onto the center of the car's hood. Snow was falling. What an unwise tree, he thought.

He brought the fruit back with him to the apartment. He peeled it and ate it at the kitchen table. It tasted both floral and bitter. By noon he was overcome with stomach cramps and he vomited in the toilet. His vomit was pink with dark flecks. It seemed like something symbolic and final and he waited a little while before flushing it down. After that, he washed up and fed the clown fish. He had already fed them today, so this was an extra meal. But why not, he figured. Let them have this unexpected and fleeting joy. Something to distract from the strange, confusing things that might be going on outside their windows.

Grant Bailie’s Comments

“Strange Fruit” started as a writing exercise, which grew into something like a directionless novel, and which was then trimmed back and reworked into a short story, which I suspect is what it wanted to be all along.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 44 | Fall 2014