“We’ve had a problem with the cursing, haven’t we, dear?” Mr. Olivestone said, handing an iced tea to his wife. Helen Olivestone took it with a slight smile, but didn’t drink from it until she meticulously removed every drop of condensation from the glass with a paper napkin.
“Well, naturally. Thankfully, it’s mostly been in French, or German. What did the Bookmans say she said? In Chinese? It was darling!”
“It was “˜Tyen-sah duh UH-muo,’ I believe,” said her husband. He handed iced teas to Jennie and Edward Mandrake, the Olivestones’ guests for the afternoon.
“That’s adorable!” said Mrs. Mandrake. “I suppose it’s just a consequence of implanting.”
“Not really surprising,” chimed in Mr. Mandrake. “Curse words are base reactions to base emotions. Not really surprising at all that aâ€”how old is Rachel?”
“Seven months,” said Mrs. Olivestone.
“But she had a mouth on her out of the womb! Swearing up a storm right in the delivery room!” Mr. Olivestone wiped his forehead as he spoke.
“Not surprising at all,” Mr. Mandrake continued. “She’s just expressing herself in the most direct way possible.”
“I am so impressed that you chose languages, Helen,” Mrs. Mandrake said. Mrs. Olivestone flashed a tight smile at her guest before turning her attention back to her iced tea glass, which had once again gotten covered with little water droplets. Mrs. Mandrake massaged her swollen belly. “I wanted something artistic like that, but Eddie insisted on mathematics.”
“Got to give them an edge, don’t we? I hear even Quincy’s daycare won’t let you in without a scholastic implant anymore,” Mr. Mandrake said.
“We’re on the waiting list for Dalton’s.” Mrs. Olivestone said, not looking up. “If she doesn’t get into Dalton’s, she can forget about Harvard.”
“You care so much for Rachel,” Mrs. Mandrake said. “She’s so blessed. You give her so much.”
“Yes, well,” Mrs. Olivestone said, getting out of her lawn chair. “This heat has certainly gotten the best of me. I believe I shall have to go inside before I faint.” She left the garden party and hurried inside the house, wiping what appeared to be perspiration off her face.
“Probably going to check on the baby,” Mr. Mandrake said.
“Oh, no,” said Mr. Olivestone. “It wouldn’t be good for her. We only know two languages apiece. We can’t be in the same room as Rachel for at least another year.”
Malcolm should have been thinking about shrimp, but he was thinking about Sumitra’s smile instead. He hated himself for it, but he was almost glad for the leak in the shrimp pond, since it gave him an excuse to call her. And Sumitra’s voice was well worth the cost of a call from Lee County to Bangkok, or wherever the heck she lived.
Whether it was worth asking a favor from Clem Greentower, well, that was another matter entirely. Sumitra did smile on the phone’s display screen when she saw it was Malcolm calling. She’d only been doing that recently. And that smile went a long way.
“Clem, I need to borrow your boys.” Malcolm shifted from one foot to another. The itinerate glow of Clem’s bug zapper made Malcolm uncomfortable. He twitched every time a mosquito got too close and the passive azure energy erupted. Mosquitoes were as big as Malcolm’s thumb this year, and their charred husks littered Clem’s porch.
Clem regarded Malcolm with folded arms. “Whatcha need ’em for? I know for a fact that you ain’t got no more stumps.” Clem was not a tall man, but he made up for it in girth and attitude. “They sure as hell ain’t plowin’ your field for you.”
“Aww, Clem, I wouldn’t ask for them to plow. I’m hurt you said that. â€˜Sides, you know as well as I do that the state won’t let me plant tobacco on Pa’s field no more.” Malcolm searched for sympathy in Clem’s face, but found none. “Shoot, Clem. I just need â€˜em to walk around.”
“Yessir. See, my shrimp pondâ€”the one the state suggested I put on Pa’s land â€˜stead of tobaccoâ€”my shrimp pond has a leak.”
“You can just put Hydrochlrone in it, cantcha?”
“Nope, that’ll kill the shrimp. Now, I called my friend Sumitra. She does this sorta thing up in Thailand, and she says to just let some cattle graze around the pond to compact the earth. There ain’t been cows within miles of this county since the plant went, Clem. But I got to thinking, you been giving your boys beef hormones since they’ve been old enough to crawl.”
“You just gonna have â€˜em walk? I charge for labor, you know.”
“I’m aware of that, Clem. You can ask ’em when I’m done if they did anything but circle the pond.”
“I will, too.” Clem said. “‘Spose you want ’em now?”
“If it ain’t a bother.” Clem grunted and went back inside the house. Malcolm removed his cap to scratch at his hairless scalp, and watched as another mosquito twitched its last. He didn’t know why he felt the need to mention Sumitra. Covered in the blue light, Malcolm felt very exposed.
Clem’s boys pounded out of the front door, five love-children of some epic tryst of an elephant and a refrigerator, the blue light glinting off their bald heads. Four of the boys had moonstruck, glazed-over faces, save for the oldest, who’s mind probably had the most time to develop before his father took nature into his own hands and stunted the developing grey matter with muscle steroids.
“Pa said we’re suppose to go with you, Mister.”
“Well, you best come on then,” Malcolm said, and led the boys onto the bed of his pick-up. Malcolm’s truck was not an old model, but it strained under the weight nonetheless.
Down at the shrimp pond, Malcolm gave the boys as much direction as he could, then busied himself by dumping bags of sugar into the pond water.
“That ain’t sugar, is it?” the eldest of Clem’s boys asked.
“Yep, it is.”
“Whatcha puttin’ it in the pond for?”
“It’s to control the PH bal…it’s to fix the acid it…it’s to make the shrimp sweeter.”
“Oh! That’s really smart!”
“Yeah, it is. My friend Sumitra told me about it. She’s a smart girl.” There he was, bringing her up again! If Malcolm could, he’d kick himself in the ass.
“Is she your girlfriend? Are you gonna get married?”
“I seriously doubt it. She ain’t gonna want some poor son of a tobacco farmer who’s been on this land so long he ain’t got no hair and his piss glows in the dark.”
“I dunno, she might. You don’t know.” Clem’s eldest contemplated joining his brothers walking around the pond, but thought better of it, and turned his attention back to Malcolm. “I got a girlfriend. Least, I like her a lot. Her name’s Chablis. She’s got the prettiest hair.”
That would be Chablis Levee, Malcolm thought. He remembered her from school. “She wears a wig, you know.”
“She does? Huh.” Malcolm watched the gummed-up mental calculations necessary to process this new information play across the boy’s face. “I guess it don’t matter. I like her anyway. It looks good on her. I think she likes me, too. She smiles whenever she sees me.”
“That’s usually a good sign.”
“Thought so. That’s why I smiled back. One day, I’m definitely gonna ask to hold her hand.” The boy’s giant eyes shifted down to Malcolm’s bags. “Can I have some of your sugar?” Malcolm couldn’t help but chuckle.
“Sure thing. Just don’t tell your Pa.”
“Oh, I won’t.” The titan offspring of Clem Greentower licked a gargantuan finger and jammed it into a sugar bag, only to quickly shove it deep in his mouth. “Oh, man. That’s good. I don’t think that anything could ever be better than that, ever.”
Malcolm found himself doing the same with his own finger. “You’re right. That is good.”
“You’re a good man, Mister,” Clem’s boy said. “I like you. You ever hold your girlfriend’s hand?”
“No, I…I haven’t. She lives…I just haven’t.”
“You should ask. I bet she’d let you if you asked. It never hurts to ask.”
Slug eased himself onto the barstool, a lazy grin on his face. His hair had been professionally tussled that evening, and with his new hologreather jacket, he was confident in his irresistibility.
â€œStart me up a tab, barkeep,â€ Slug said, withdrawing his credit card and inebriation license. With a movement made automatic by constant practice, he placed both cards in the bartenderâ€™s hand while not losing eye-contact with the azure-coifed beauty across the room. No point in wasting time, Slug thought. â€œGimmie a Mai Tai and send one over to that girl with the blue hair.â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry, sir,â€ the bartender said. â€œBut there arenâ€™t enough points on your license for a single Mai Tai, much less two.â€
Slug scowled, and forced himself to look at the bartender. â€œYouâ€™re sure?â€
â€œHow about a gin and tonic?â€
â€œIâ€™m very sorry, but you donâ€™t have enough points for that either.â€
â€œHow many do I have?â€
â€œFor alcohol? None.â€
â€œWhat? How can that be?â€
â€œLetâ€™s seeâ€¦it says here that three days ago you apparently called three ex-girlfriends while under the influence of alcohol, causing a deduction. There was a bar-fight last Thursday that you participated inâ€”no, Iâ€™m sorry, instigated. And then there was your sisterâ€™s weddingâ€”â€
â€œI know what I did at Sheliaâ€™s wedding.â€ At least, Slug knew what they said he did at his sisterâ€™s wedding. It was all sort of a blur.
â€œThat poor flower girlâ€¦â€ said the bartender, scanning the report.
â€œForget alcohol,â€ Slug said. â€œHow about some cocaine?â€
â€œNot after your last misadventure with it. I wouldnâ€™t go back to that aquarium anytime soon, either.â€
â€œNope.â€ The bartender cocked an eyebrow. â€œForty poodles? All of them?â€
â€œI donâ€™t want to talk about it.â€ The blue-haired girl was now deep in conversation with a guy sporting leopard-print facial stubble. Slug pinched his nose in frustration. â€œWhat can I get?â€
The bartender placed two pill capsules in front of him. Slug looked at the bartenderâ€™s grin in askance.
â€œDiet pills and ginseng, sir. The finest in the house!â€
Slug weighed his options. It didnâ€™t take very long. â€œIâ€™ll take â€˜em.â€
â€œExcellent, sir. Shall I send some over to the young lady?â€
â€œYou know what? I think Iâ€™ll just take these to go. Think Iâ€™m gonna spend the night in.â€
Her hands were starting to look like lobster claws. She said she wasnâ€™t going to go all the way, and wiggled the smaller claw to show it was still opposable. She said she liked the little teeth, though, and squeezed my arm too hard. She laughed at the little indentions in my arm. She almost fell off her chair.
The cappuccino machine hissed behind her. She liked coming to this place because it still had one of the old cappuccino machines. It was a relic, now. But things used to be built to last, and so this hunk of brass and copper still spewed out caffeine and foamed milk. She liked it because it was shiny and noisy. She used to do an impersonation of the machine, bouncing on the bed, hissing and squealing.
We donâ€™t sleep together anymore. Not since she rolled over on me and I caught the business end of one of her new back-spines. I still have the scar.
She started tapping her claws on her forehead. The clack of chitin on chitin made me feel visibly uncomfortable, and she saw that. She stopped, and reached out with her claws at me. I didnâ€™t want to recoil, but I did anyway.
She used to tickle me. She used to run her fingertips down my face. She used rub my stomach for good luck. I looked at the way the track lighting glinted off her enhanced brow-bumps and sickly noticed how similar it was to the glint off the cappuccino machine.
â€œThings used to be built to last,â€ I mumbled. She heard me anyway. Small tears slid down her face. They were falling much to fast, not having pores to slow their descent. I reached out to wipe her tears away, an instinctual motion. She was still soft around the eyes. They were still her eyes.
That’s when I knew things would be okay.
Uchenna watched his eight-year-old daughter Nat charge into the surf. She let out a piercing cry that was one part scream and three parts laugh as soon as the water hit her bare skin.
“It’s so cold!” she said, adjusting her bright red and yellow goggles. Nat grabbed her arms and gave herself and exaggerated shake. “Brrrr!”
“She shouldn’t be out in that,” Corrina said, and drew her shawl closer around her neck. “It isn’t good for her.”
“You lathered that gunk on her–what is that, SPF four-zillion? She’s got her goggles on, she’s fine.” Uchenna shifted on their shared towel. “She’s fine. It’s the beach.”
“She shouldn’t be in the water.”
“We haven’t been to the beach in years, Cor. Let the girl play.”
“Don’t you even! Just don’t. I am not the bad guy here. I’m surprised you’re not worried about our daughter’s safety.” Corrina turned her head suddenly, surprising Uchenna. The scars that edged her eye-sockets stood in sharp contrast from her white skin.
“Nat’s fine,” Uchenna said. He scratched at the tattoo of a gleaming rocket ship on his bicep and turned away from his wife. “She’s got her goggles on. The water’s only bad for your eyes.” Corrina scrunched her face up, but said nothing.
“You used to liked the beach, Cor. We got married here.”
Corrina exhaled. “It was different then.”
“Not so different. Wasn’t that long ago. Remember? There was that bagpiper…”
“We did not have a piper. We had a violinist, and my sister sang.”
“No, no. There was a piper on the beach. He was just walking along the edge.”
“That was a different beach.” Corrina pulled her giant-brimmed hat closer to her ears. “I worry about Nat. She shouldn’t be in the waves like that.”
“I’ll go down their with her. We’ll walk down the surf,” Unchenna said, in response to Corrina’s expression that might have been called a glare, once.
“Be sure to take your goggles,” she said, handing him his green and black pair. Even without eyes, Corrina knew exactly where Uchennaâ€™s hands were. “Just in case you have to go in, or something.”
Uchenna felt a bit like alien, detachedly staring at the other denizens of the beach through his goggles’ tinted lenses. But he couldn’t help it. He watched his daughter dodging the incoming surf. There was a small boy intently digging a hole for not other reason to dig a hole. There were a handful of people bundled up, like Corrina, afraid of the sun and the water. Teenagers, afraid of only each other, nervously beginning a dance that would go on for the rest of their lives. And there were the hardcore swimmers, easily identified by their chalk-white ocean-damaged skin and hair. Some of them had scars like Corrin;, red lines like tears from when their eyes, turned liquid by the water, a seared their way down their cheeks. But still they charged the surf.
Uchenna was surprised to see a wedding party further down the beach, and ran with Nat to catch up to it. The bride and groom were wearing matching neoprene wetsuits, and as they kissed a reggae band struck up and he infectious rhythm wafted along the sands.
Uchenna watched as his daughter danced to someone else’s love song, backed by horizon split evenly between a sky that would burn her flesh and a sea that would melt the rest away. He watched her splash and laugh.
And then he joined in. Because he didn’t know when they’d be back.