Tuna Fish

ImageThey were well stocked on alcohol for the day and decided to stop at Subway on US1 to pick up lunch.  Billy Hiller was the only one to select tuna.

It was Memorial Day weekend and, as such, quite crowded on the beach.  They walked a ways, past sunbathers and surfers, and settled on a sparse stretch opposite some coquina rock.  Then they put down towels and waxed their boards and cracked open beers.

Somebody said it would be smart to eat the sandwiches right away.  Otherwise they might get sandy.  So they dug in.

A seagull landed nearby and cocked its head to watch them eat.  Then another landed.  And another.  One after the other until they were surrounded by a legion of seagulls.  It was quite common to see such flocks at the beach.  But they always maintained a respectable distance, so nobody thought anything of their growing numbers.

Billy unwrapped the first half of his sandwich.  The chef had been generous.  There was a layer of tuna three or four inches thick.  He savored it.  Clumps of tuna dribbled down his chin and dropped on his lap.

His friends said the sandwich stunk.  The seagulls cocked their heads.  One by one, they inched closer to Billy.  Curious sunbathers watched from the safety of their towels.

A bird as big as a basset hound hopped over to him.  It was missing a foot and had no shame.  It cocked its head and assessed Billy’s size and pecked at his crotch.  He shooed it away and took another bite.  His friends were wrapping up their sandwiches and urged him to follow suit, but he just kept eating.

Another seagull dropped out of the sky like a feathered meteor, grabbed the second half of the tuna sandwich, and flew away.  Billy jumped to his feet, cursing, and gave chase.  A handful of other gulls took flight too, squawking in excitement, eager to share in the spoils.  They collided midair, exploding into a white fireball that landed in the ocean.

The sight so disturbed the remaining birds that they took to the air and circled the picnickers.  Neighboring parties relocated their towels to avoid the fray.  Bird shit rained down on Billy and his friends so they ran away.

The flock chased Billy like an angry cloud.  His lungs filled with fear and he screamed.  Help me!  Help me!

The birds chased him all the way to a crown of coquina rock.  He turned around and ran the other way.  The flock followed.

People watched and shouted for Billy to go this way or that way.  Go into the water!  Fight back!  Drop the sandwich!

Billy weighed his options.  Finish his tuna sandwich while being pursued by 20 seagulls.  Or, drop it and go hungry the rest of the day.  He reached the boardwalk and turned to run the hundred yards back to the coquina ridge.  The birds followed.

Sunbathers stood up from their towels to watch Billy Hiller finish his tuna fish sandwich while evading the flock.  One bite after another, he ate his lunch while on the run.  Reached the coquina rock and ran back to the boardwalk with the squawking flock on his heels.

He tossed back the last of his sandwich and screamed victory.  The birds knew the sandwich was gone and landed in defeat.  They hobbled around, pecking at sand and shells and each other.

Billy Hiller ran at them with everything he had.  They exploded into flight and landed again a few dozen yards away.  When they settled, he chased them again.  And again and again and again.

He refused to let them rest.  All day long, until he was red in the face and it was time to go home.

Billy Hiller hasn’t eaten tuna fish since.

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On Mr. Thicke

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I met Alan Thicke while working on my first real movie in 2006.  It was a low-budget comedy and he was starring.  I’d never heard of him before.

I was hired to be a producer’s assistant.  Which really meant that I was an unpaid intern.  The executive producer told me that he had absolutely nothing for me to do.  He’d only hired me for tax purposes.

We were shooting on an empty floor in a Daytona Beach hospital.  The set was crawling with leathery grips, who were indistinguishable from plumbers.  All of the camera technicians looked like the walking dead with oysters under their eyes.  The AD ran amuck like a headless chicken.  The entire crew seemed perpetually stressed and miserable and haggard.

But talent were glamorously pampered.  Each had his and her own trailer and enjoyed television and air conditioning and praise.  The crew bowed and curtseyed and rolled out the red carpet each time an actor descended on set.  They made out like bandits.

The only thing I ever had to do was help Alan Thicke troubleshoot his television remote.  I was aimlessly wandering the hall when he stuck his head out and said, hey guy, can you help me out here?  I stepped into his room and he pointed the remote at the television and shrugged.  It didn’t work.

I vaguely recognized him.  He had familiar features.  A square-nose below a pronounced forehead below a thick silver mane.  I fiddled with the remote, trying to place his face.

He was familiar like the neighbor with whom you’ve never spoken but always wave to.  Like a grocery store manager you pass in the frozen section and nod to.  Or like an old pediatrician I’d long forgotten.  Namely because he was wearing scrubs for his upcoming scene.

They later told me that Alan Thicke was the dad on Growing Pains.  I’d never seen Growing Pains before.  Had to google it to figure out what it was.

No matter how many times I pointed the remote at the television, it wouldn’t work.  Pressed the buttons as hard as I could and still it wouldn’t turn on.  I began to sweat.

All the while, Mr. Thicke observed me with a sense of detachment, like he was in another room watching from a security monitor.  I didn’t want to fail the only task of my internship.  I didn’t want to let him down.

It took me a few minutes to discover that the television was unplugged.  So I plugged it in.  Then the television and remote worked flawlessly.

Mr. Thicke thanked me and asked how long before he would be needed on set.  He wanted to take a nap.  I said I didn’t know.  He made a pffffft sound and scanned me from head to toe like I was defending a geocentric view of the universe.  Then he asked if I wanted to be an actor.

I said that I wanted to be a filmmaker.

He raised his caterpillar eyebrows and nodded in slow motion.  He settled on The Price is Right and stopped flipping through the channels and crossed his legs in the British style.  Then he turned his full attention to me.

He said that he had a son about my age named Robin.  Maybe a little older.  But roughly the same age.  Anyway, somehow, at some point, Robin had gotten it into his head that he was going to be a musician.

Mr. Thicke said that he’d spent years and years trying to deter Robin from pursuing a career in entertainment.  He’d warned his son that it would be a long, arduous struggle and that there was absolutely no guarantee that he’d ever amount to anything.

My heart sank.  Mr. Thicke looked me over and smiled.  He said that filmmaking was a hard path, too.  Even people with connections in Hollywood fail to break in.

What’s Robin’s backup plan?  Mr. Thicke shrugged and said that he was a stubborn kid.  He didn’t have one.  And the unfortunate thing was, Robin’s career was slow going.

Very, very slow.

Mom’s Catfight

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We were visiting Grandma in Orlando.  The last time I’d seen her was when my brother Jeffrey was born.  Four years prior.

We’d gone out to Denny’s so that Dad could rest his patience.  Mom was talking about how much of a dump Texas was.  She hated it there because it was a cultural backwater.  And also poorly manicured and dry.  The only reason we were there was because Dad was working his dream job at NASA.

She wanted Dad to transfer to Florida, post haste.  Cape Canaveral or Titusville or Orlando.  Anywhere, so long as it was peninsular Florida.  Because Florida was paradise.  And Grandma agreed.

During the discussion, Jeffrey was making faces through the window.  He was a gifted facial contortionist.  Spent hours making faces in front of the mirror, everyday.  At four years of age he was already on par with Jim Carrey.

Took me ten minutes to realize that he was actually mocking a pair of Denny’s employees on a smoke break right outside.  I egged him on.  The smokers noticed him and laughed and made faces back.

Somebody behind us cleared her throat loudly.  Like she was hocking a loogie.  Or trying to get our attention.

Mom, Grandma, and I turned around.  There was a mountainous woman in an Orlando Magic shirt glaring at us.  She put on her glasses to get a better look at Jeffrey.  Her twenty-something daughter sneered.

I found the girl’s appearance frightening.  Namely because she was wearing a leather jacket and not at all because she was cockeyed.  Jeremiah Palmberg had told me that the Hell’s Angels wore leather jackets at all times.  I should always mind my Ps and Qs around leather jackets.

I’m not sure who fired the first shot.  Grandma said something like, why don’t you ladies mind your own business?  Which enraged them.

Magic Lady said Mom should learn how to parent.  Mom retorted with, I do know how to parent, thank you very much!  Magic Lady chortled.  Hell’s Angel flexed her muscle.

All the while, Jeffrey continued making faces at bystanders through the window.  Puffing out his cheeks.  Pulling the skin under his lids to make his eyes bulge.  Baring his buck teeth.

I begged them to disengage but they didn’t hear me.  Grandma was too busy telling them about Dad’s brawn.  Mom said she wouldn’t hesitate to call him.  Magic Lady kicked her head back and guffawed.

The waitress came to check on us but nobody paid her any attention and she left.

When it became clear that there would be no resolution to the discussion, Mom announced our departure.  Pulled Jeffrey away from the window.  Paid at the front.

We got out unscathed and made our way to the parking lot.  Magic Lady glared at us through the window.  Mom stopped in her tracks.  Kissed her fingers.  Planted them on her rear end.  And cackled whilst wiggling her butt, back and forth and back and forth.

Grandma laughed.  I was horrified.  Jeffrey was oblivious.

Hell’s Angel shook her fist, leaped to attention, and made her way out of Denny’s.  Magic Lady squeezed her way out of the booth and ambled after her daughter.  We about-faced.  Mom told me to take Jeffrey by the hand and lock ourselves in the car.

Hell’s Angel ran up to us with Magic Lady in tow.  Mom spun around on her heels and told her to back the fuck up.  Her keys were nestled between her fingers like claws.  Hell’s Angel noticed the weapon and hesitated.

I got Jeffrey safely inside the car.  Tried to distract him by commenting on the humidity.  He ignored me.  Plastered his face to the glass and blew raspberries and puffed out his cheeks and flicked the bird.

Grandma was screaming at the women.  Pointing and screaming.  Spraying saliva.  Eyes red with rage.

Mom tried to get into the car.  Hell’s Angel grabbed the door and slammed it shut, right onto Mom’s hand.  She howled in pain.  Grandma grabbed Hell’s Angel by the hair and yanked her head back.

Magic Lady, who’d maintained a safe distance, called off the assault.  Hell’s Angel walked back to her mother, gingerly pulling torn hair from her scalp.  They paced the parking lot as we drove away.

Jeffrey was awestruck by the fight.  He went on and on about how exciting Orlando was.  I told him that I found it to be a cultural backwater, albeit well-manicured and humid.

We moved there three years later.

Christopher McPhail

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Christopher McPhail rode his bike to Brevard Community College on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  Always spotted him on my drive to work.  Puffing and pumping and sweating on his Huffy.  Taking up too much room on the shoulder.  Everybody knew him by sight because no post-adolescents rode bikes in Melbourne, Florida.

Christopher was roughly six foot six inches tall and weighed about a hundred pounds.  Sported auburn hair cut like a bowl.  Had a row of oddly spaced chickpeas for teeth.  He must’ve been twenty-one or twenty-two.  Give or take five years.

I know his name because he was always doing his homework at the Java Shack.  He’d walk in on stilts, clutching his bike helmet, and stare at the menu for a long time.  Dripping sweat all over the counter.  He’d order a panini, pick a spot by the window, and play on his laptop for a few hours.

One time, a cashier named Carmen interrupted my smoke break to tell me that a customer wanted to speak to me.  He had a complaint.  I told her to tell him to wait it out another five minutes so that I could finish my cigarette.  She complied.

A minute later, a cashier named Rebecca interrupted my smoke break to tell me that a customer wanted to speak to me.  He had a complaint.  I explained that Carmen had just told me about his complaint and that I would be inside to deal with it as soon as I was done with my cigarette.

Rebecca said that this was a different customer.  I told her to just go on inside and I’d be right behind her.  Once I was finished with my smoke.

Just as I was about done, a cashier named Alina interrupted my smoke break to tell me that there was a herd of customers who wanted to speak to me.  I put out my cigarette and went inside.

There were thirteen retirees pacing in front of the bakery.  An old man in golf gear ushered me close.  He said, I don’t wanna jump to any conclusions.  But I do believe that young man over there is, uh, is…

I asked the old man to explain what the young man was doing.  He winced and pointed to the dining room.

All was quiet, save the sound of jazz on the muzak.  Six old ladies had pulled together a couple of tables to play bridge.  Their Tuesday afternoon ritual.

But they weren’t jovial.  They were frozen.  Eyes bulging, clutching their cards, staring at Christopher McPhail.

Christopher McPhail was in his usual spot, staring at his computer with the whites of his eyes.  His bike shorts were hiked and his wiener was exposed and he was voraciously masturbating.  Like a novice camper trying to start a fire with a wet twig.

They’d never said anything in shift supervisor training about how to handle sexual deviants.  So I marched over to him.  Tried to look intimidating.  Bit the insides of my cheeks to keep from laughing and crying and puking.

Christopher noticed me approaching and slammed his laptop shut.  He sunk into his chair.  I pointed a finger in his face and told him not to ever ever come back ever.  If I caught him in the Java Shack or anywhere in the shopping center I would have him arrested.

He agreed to never come back.  Put away his wiener and his laptop and left.  I made Kevin, the busboy, bleach the table and chair.

I never saw Christopher McPhail riding his bike on Wickham Road again.

Melissa on the Q

ImageIn the beginning I was most enamored with riding the subway.  It was a haven for people-watching.  Folks fat and slim and rich and poor.  Eyes kind and eyes shifty and beady ones too.

Every ride was pure novelty.  Pure magic.  Like riding an escalator for the first time.  Or boarding the monorail at Disney.

All the colors of the rainbow forced together.  Perfectly acceptable to lock eyes with strangers.  Most of the time they avoided my gaze.

It took me just a few weeks to notice the stink.  I began to miss privacy.  The freedom of owning a car.  Other commuters became obstacles.  I stopped observing them and started staring at the floor or the wall or my phone.

One time I noticed a girl with Down Syndrome on the Q.  She whispered things to the man next to her and he nodded and whispered back.  He didn’t resist when she locked arms with him.  I assumed they knew each other.

It was around eight on a Tuesday night.  We were deep in Brooklyn and so the train was mostly empty.  I chose to stand because I was anxious.

I was about to see my estranged girlfriend.  We’d been fighting over inconsequential things that had become consequential.  I was staring at the floor of the car, working a dozen arguments over and over and over again.

And the handicapped girl appeared in front of me, her arm outstretched like she was going to pull me up from a ledge.  Like she was going to rescue me from some great catastrophe.

She must’ve been in her late twenties or early thirties.  Unruly blonde hair.  Slightly overweight and wearing a dirty sweater two sizes too small.  There were little scratches all around her mouth.  Like she’d had a cactus for lunch.

Her eyes were trained on mine.  They were liquid.  She looked right through me.  Didn’t say a word.

I thought she was asking me to steady her.  I told her to grab the pole.  She shook her head and thrust her hand in my face.

I shrugged and said I didn’t know what she wanted.  She said it looked like I needed a hug.  And then she hugged me.

I held on to the pole as she buried her face in my chest.  She looked up at me and smiled and told me her name was Melissa.  She said she’d seen me in a dream the night before.

I patted her on the shoulder, politely encouraging her to let go.  But she just buried her face deeper into my chest.  We hugged throughout the rest of my ride.

The train reached my stop and I told her so.  She let go.  Said she hoped to see me again.

I realized everyone was staring.  An elderly woman in a big hat was scowling.  A couple of teenagers were gawking and laughing.  A man in a suit stole glances from behind his newspaper.  All of these people united by disgust.

I never saw Melissa again.

Stonedfish

ImageMy last production gig in Florida was for SeaWorld Orlando.  They wanted a bunch of pre-show videos featuring glassy-eyed trainers talking about all the animals.  Something to show guests on the jumbotron above Shamu Stadium.

On day one we shot at Discovery Cove, where guests pay hundreds of dollars to swim with dolphins in pools lined with faux rock and manicured palms and food carts.  A square-jawed trainer named Brent waded into the pool and read cue cards about echolocation and melons and positive reinforcement.  A bottlenose dolphin named Penny floated patiently at his side.

Brent readied his whistle, nodded, and flicked a wrist.  Penny zipped past him and jumped and everybody groaned.  She’d failed to slap the water with her tail flukes before jumping, which was an integral part of the maneuver.  As a result, we didn’t get our shot and Penny didn’t get a fish.

The director called cut and we rolled again.  And Penny missed again.  And again and again and again and again and again and again and then she finally got it and we broke for lunch.

I struck up conversation with a dolphin trainer named Becky.  She had sun-bleached hair and bronze skin and aspired to work with orcas.  I asked her a lot of questions because I had an inherent interest in zoology that had developed during my Fat Stage in middle school.  And also because I thought she was pretty.

Becky said that orcas are dolphins and dolphins are very smart.  Nobody knows how smart they are, though.  The Shamu tank is divided into different sections.  SeaWorld opens and closes different gates at different times to keep the orcas stimulated.

I asked her about Tilikum.  The big orca who ate the head trainer a few months prior.  Becky said she didn’t want to talk about it.  So we chatted about the weather instead.

On day two we set up at Shamu Stadium.  They called an orca named Katina to the main pool and closed the gates to keep the others out.  She had a newborn baby, Makaio.  The senior trainer, Constance, waded onto a shallow lip and fed Katina to keep her close.

Constance explained that Makaio wasn’t nursing and nobody knew why.  Should he decide to nurse, said Constance, we have to cut and let him finish.  Absolutely no interference allowed.

We got a couple of takes of mother and son at the edge of the tank, on their marks.  Then, Makaio submerged and began nursing.  Constance called cut and was all smiles.  The crew oohed and aahed.

After a few moments Katina dropped below the surface, forced Makaio to stop nursing, and pushed him onto the ledge so that he was fully exposed to the air.  Constance gaped in shock.  Katina gaped for fish.

We started shooting again.  Finished early, solely because of Katina’s assistance.  Makaio had lost his interest in nursing by the time we wrapped.

They opened the gates and a third orca swam into the main tank.  He hugged the glass and lapped the pool like a black torpedo with swiveling eyes.  Searching every nook and cranny because he knew he’d missed something.

I pressed my face to the glass.  He locked eyes with me on every pass.  Then the AD told me to collect the crew’s trash.

We shot in the sick bay on our last day.  It was warehouses and concrete and razor wire.  They had a couple of SeaWorld executives in suits standing over a little pool filled with sea turtles.  Talking all about their efforts to rehabilitate injured wildlife.  Conservation.  Preservation.  Breeding programs.  Flashing pearly whites and talking about the future.  Our children and our children’s children.

At wrap the gaffer asked me to carry a bunch of equipment back to the vans.  Lugging C-stands and lights and hampers back and forth.  All under the watchful gaze of a bottlenose dolphin.

He was in an above-ground pool that couldn’t have been more than twenty feet in diameter.  Just deep enough for him to submerge and turn around.  He propped his head on the edge of the pool and watched me do my job.  Stared me right in the eye when I looked.  And I could feel his eyes on me when I wasn’t looking.

It reminded me of an uncomfortable and cathartic bus trip I had in Milan, once.  An old woman wouldn’t take her eyes off me.  Just smiled and watched me read my book.  Unapologetic, too.

I couldn’t concentrate with her eyes on me so I tried to make small talk.  She didn’t speak English.  I didn’t know Italian.  So I just nodded and smiled back and she kept watching me.

This dolphin was the same.  Like somebody who spoke a different language.  Using his eyes to communicate with me because that’s all he had.

At the end of the shoot Becky said I should apply for a job at SeaWorld.  Said I was a good fit.  I told her I had actually applied and been hired at the beginning of 2010.  Took a test about cetaceans and pinnipeds and sirenians and aced it.

A jovial lady in a pink muumuu gave me a W2 and an I9 and everything was fine and we joked.  Then, she said I was supposed to do a drug test and my heart stopped.  There’d been nothing on the application about any fucking drug test.

She led me to a man shaped in form and personality like a fire hydrant.  He asked for some leg hair.  I had no choice but to say yes.  He trimmed a bunch from my right shin.

I got a phone call from a restricted number a couple of days later.  I answered and heard a lot of static.  A gravelly voice asked if it was me and I said yes.  It was Dr. Charles Weimeraner, of Anheuser-Busch.  He asked if I was ready to hear the results of my drug test.

I said yes.  Then there was a really really long pause.  Really really long.  Like he was going to tell me I had HIV.

Then he said, you tested positive for THC.  I considered my options.  I said, I don’t know what you’re talking about.  He ignored me and asked when I’d last used.

Truth is, the last time I’d used was twenty minutes before his call.

But I told him I’d taken a single puff of weed on July 4th, six months prior.  He laughed and said he found that hard to believe.  My leg hair was more cannabis than human.

I got an official letter stating that SeaWorld had a zero-tolerance drug policy.  For the safety of employees, guests, and animals.

A few days later, Tilikum dismembered the head trainer.  On the 24th of February.  The day I was supposed to start.