portion of the artwork for Gary Moshimer's fiction

Gary Moshimer

My mother knew where I was. I wrote her letters.

I’m living in a houseboat. It’s tied to a dock behind the restaurant. You know I can’t swim. I’m a cook now, moving up …

That was a lie. I still washed dishes, but Al had his new video camera and he taped me in the kitchen one night. I was bigger than life. He stuffed a chef’s hat on me and showed me stirring some sauce. I pinched the sauce from the wooden spoon and kissed it to the camera. “Brilliant,” Al said.

Al was like a second father. It was his houseboat, an old peeling thing with little holes in the cabin. When I asked about the holes he said, “Take your pick. All my ex-wives had shotguns.” Painted on the wall inside, over my bunk, was a naked mermaid, who came down next to me at night.

My mother wrote back.

I’ll be coming through on the 2nd. I want you to meet Chloe. Here’s a picture.

This was the baby from her new marriage. In the picture Chloe’s face was wide and expressionless. Was something wrong with her, because my mother was over forty? Twenty years ago I had a twin sister. Something happened in the womb. I took up too much space or water or something. My sister died and I was born. I don’t know what her name was, and I never asked.

* * *

During the day Al wore an apron tied around his big middle, but around four o’clock, when the money tourists came for dinner, he changed to his shiny blue suit and tie. He greeted everyone, red hands clapping. His palms rubbed the backs and shoulders of the women in their sleek summer dresses, and he winked.

There was a summer with my parents at this restaurant, long before Al and the tourists. My father had hamburgers and fries. My mother, who once wore dresses like the new women, ate salad, because my father demanded a girlish figure. They laughed and fooled around. They dragged me to the water and dipped my toes, and I cried.

Another summer, my father stole me from her. I thought it was cool, being in the bar. He spun me on the stool. I had Cokes. He had small, evil-looking drinks. He spun me faster. Too fast. He laughed, but then stopped laughing. He acted out squeezing my mother’s neck to the bartender. I was dizzy, wandering out to the dock where I would someday live.

On the way home he hit a tree, breaking his pelvis on the wheel and forever lop-siding my grin. In his hospital bed he cursed, sneaking cigarettes. At home he needed a special chair, my mother waiting on him, her girlish figure rounding out. He viewed her with disgust.

And what happened to that baby? We moved to my aunt’s, my mother slimmed down, said it was bloating, from nerves. It came from wanting another baby. It was a real condition.

* * *

Al wanted to tape my mother’s visit, just the picture, so he wouldn’t invade our privacy.

He greeted Susan in his suit. He tried to run his hand over her, but there were no more curves to follow, she was one solid width. Chloe hung from her arm, a fat baby, dead weight.

Al had his camera on a tripod. He told Susan he always recorded the sunsets. The red light blinked and Al bowed and kissed Chloe’s pudgy bare foot and went back to the restaurant.

“That’s your boss?”

“Al. He watches out for me.”

She handed the baby to me. Chloe was hot and sticky and smelled like baby food. I could still taste the baby food I’d taken through my wired jaw back then. I actually liked baby food, and chose to eat it, at the age of eight.

The fat toes gripped my belt and she bounced, yanking my hair. Susan tried to get her back but she was not letting go. “It’s OK,” I said. “I have her.” It was there for a split second in Susan’s eyes, how she would not trust me.

“So this is where you live?” She looked at the houseboat. “Is it safe?”

“Sure. Sometimes the roof leaks.”

“What about the cold?”

“Then I have a room at Al’s.”

She nodded. She turned around and waved at the camera, smiling.

Chloe grunted and pointed at the lake.

“I brought something cool, so she can float. Don’t move.” Susan hurried to her car. She kept turning around, eyeing me. She returned with a canvas bag and dumped the contents: a melted dragon. There was a foot pump and a long hose. She stuck the nozzle into the dragon’s butt and started pumping.

“It’s totally safe,” she said. “It can’t tip over. And it has this lifeline.” She unfurled a long plastic cord and hooked it to the dragon’s tail. Chloe kicked her legs with excitement. Susan lowered her into the seat, waded a few steps out, and let her go. The surface was calm, with flashes of gold. She got farther away. My heart throbbed.

* * *

After they left, Al played the video. Something was wrong, and it played fast, like the silent movie it was. I had managed to go knee deep in the water, tugging the lifeline. I tottered, a look of exaggerated panic on my face, like Charlie Chaplin. I was saying something, but I couldn’t remember what. I only remember my jaw clicking, opening too far like some monster's. I tried reading my lips. It was something like, “Why are you doing this?” Susan clapped. She looked pleased by Chloe’s glee, or my fear. For a moment I felt like my father, and how easy it would be to slap her and call her bitch a thousand times in time-lapse.

In the night I took a bottle of Boone’s Farm to the houseboat. It rocked slightly, the world out there moving around me, the center. The mermaid came down. I talked and she listened. I told her what I’d never told anyone, about the last and worst thing my father did. He was dying. He told me how my twin had died, how they found a knot in her cord. “Just think of you in there tying that with your teeny hands,” he said. “Just picture that.”

Through the holes there was moonlight, tiny stars, a constellation that never changed. I was not above prayer. I said, “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” I did forgive him, after all. But the mother part I left out.

Gary Moshimer’s Comments

This story came from a painting that floated into my mind one day. I don’t know if it was an actual painting I saw somewhere, or if I just dreamed about it. It was an oil painting, clearer from a distance. It called you to come closer, but the closer you got, the less sense it made. There was the battered house boat at the dock, the woman with a baby on a tether, the smaller man wading into the water, his mouth twisted in some kind of agony, and the big man taking a picture. I named the painting, and then tried to tell its story.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 35 | Winter 2012