Papaya Fish

I am standing at the bus stop when the man in the long, black coat approaches me. His beard is mature, his eyes black. His eyes are as black as his coat, his teeth as black as his eyes. He walks right up to me, standing with his nose inches from my cheek. Years of making the wrong decision in these situations reminds me to keep my eyes pointed at my shoes. I stare at them and pretend there is nothing odd or potentially life threatening about a man inches from my cheek examining it, as if there were secrets or clues hidden within its girth.

His mouth opens and his breath lazily warms my cheek. It doesn't feel nearly as nice as you would think. I consider my options. I have four. All variations on the same theme: ignoring him. As I realize I'm involved in a battle of wills with a man who has resisted a bath since middle school. I do not look up from my shoes.

I can actually feel bacteria setting up small colonies on my cheek. Thousands more arrive with every breath. They seem very, very industrious.

I've notated scuffs and fading on my shoes, mulled the pluses and minuses of a shine, counted the eyelets nine times (twice in Spanish) when Hot Breath finally asks if I'd like to travel with him. I am not looking forward to his reaction if I decline. I can barely whisper "yes" to my shoes.

He places his hand over my eyes. His hand is like a child's hand - soft, gentle and sticky with taffy. I find this comforting. I want to hold his hand in my own. He places his other hand on my shoulder, leans in, and whispers something incoherent in my ear, spitting with every syllable.

He presses hard against my eyes, squeezing my shoulder even harder. It hurts. I silently protest. He presses harder, still whispering.

There will be bruising. I am sure of this.

A rush of wind smacks me in the face and nearly blows me off my feet, the death grip from Hot Breath the only thing keeping me upright. He removes his hand from my eyes and we are on a beach. The sand is so white it's blinding and I shut my just as quickly as I opened them. The waves lap quietly, as if they are falling into pillows. People are laughing and I open my eyes just enough to see their fuzzy outlines. They drink from halved coconuts and wear balloons tied around their necks with yarn. I look down and see we are both wearing costume jewelry and sandals now replace my so meticulously studied loafers.

The waves are, indeed, falling into pillows.

A bartender is standing behind a bar stationed on the beach. He waves us over. His balloon is red.

He says hello. He asks us if we'd like a halved coconut.

My friend holds a finger up to the bartender asking for another second. He stares at the drink menu. He rubs his beard. He looks up to the sky. He taps his fingers on the bar. He lowers his head and grabs fistfuls of hair.

I peek over at his menu. It lists only one item - the halved coconut.

The bartender makes two drinks and drops them in front of us, my friend now biting his fingernails and staring at the sky, still waist deep in the decision making process. I reach for my wallet and the bartender waves off payment, fortunate for me, as my wallet has apparently followed the same mysterious path as my loafers. We sip the drinks. Our heads immediately feeling lighter, our limbs floating, hair lifting from our scalps like we're science teachers during the only day of science class anyone cares to remember. The sun isn't blinding anymore although it's just as bright. The bartender salutes us and speaks in tongues. I squint and cup a hand next to my ear.

Huh, I say. The bartender and my friend laugh like they're exchanging a particularly biting joke, perhaps at my expense. I laugh because I'm out of place. I feel lonely and wish I were back at the bus stop.

They continue to laugh. Slowly, like their voices are trying to ride ten-speed bikes through mud. They both wave their hands at me, trying to push the words into my ears, my head. The bartender brings out nachos and fried cheese on white ceramic plates. They taste better than any food in the world. We eat them furiously, not bothering to talk or look up, using a complicated series of head nods and nasal grunts to communicate our enjoyment. Our bartender is obviously fluent in head nods and nasal grunts because another plate of nachos and cheese sticks appears in front of us.

My face feels greasy. My bet is my friend doesn't notice the change. We retire to a particularly inviting set of beach chairs and remove our sandals, letting the wind work its way through our toes. The wind grabs the accumulated air between them and wafts it up to our noses. It smells like the last slice of pumpkin pie. Sweat trails down our backs and pools in our underwear.

People walk by and smile, their balloons bouncing above them, bouncing in unison with their movement, with the movement of the light wind. They recognize my strange friend with the soft hands. They bring over balloons and stalks of corn, kneeling as they present it to him - a dowry of some sort. We eat the corn from the stalk, me peering out of the corner of my eye, keeping an eye on Hot Breath. The corn is sweet and crunchy and pops in our mouth like candy. It takes only seconds to devour. We tie the balloons around our necks. Our balloons are blue.

We stare at the waves, our bellies full. The water rises up to our chairs. Then to our feet. Then to our stomachs. We don't move and the bartender continues to work his blender. The coconuts now gone, he halves papayas, which he's picking off a papaya tree I hadn't noticed until just now. It's pink with orange leaves and a hole in the trunk where I assume an animal or two must live a comfortable life. The bartender brings us the hair-lifting liquid filled papayas in droves. We drink the liquid then throw the empty papaya carcass over our heads like old-tyme cowboys do with chicken bones. As soon as one drops in the sand behind another appears at our side.

I'm warming up to Hot Breath.

We debate which was a better vessel for drinking. I side with the Papaya, he with the coconut. The arguments become heated. The bartender comes over, bringing with him a blackboard. He lists the pluses and minuses of each. There are many, although each is identical. We stare at the board, fingering the yarn of our balloons nervously, robotically. The bartender throws his hands up in apparent frustration and shoves the blackboard back under the bar. It fits neatly.

We agree to disagree.

Hot Breath and I shake on it (my suggestion). He squeezes my hand as hard as he squeezed my shoulder. I can hear the tiny bones cracking but feel no pain. I smile.

The water begins rising quickly, covering our jewelry and our chins. We do not have the strength or inclination to move. We hold our papayas above our heads, as to not sully our hair-lifting drinks. The blender has stopped, the bartender now busying himself trying to pour peanuts into tiny bowls - the bowls floating uncontrollably along the water, his giant bag following closely above them, the peanuts hitting the water just a few inches behind the bowl, like bullets hitting the dirt just a few steps behind Stallone. We watch his fruitless attempts with wide eyes while digging into the papaya with eager fists, looking for the last tastes of our beverages. People continue to laugh and drink as the water begins to engulf them just as it has us.

Our hands are sticky and cannot be cleansed.

The water rises past our chins and above our heads and the stranger who everyone knows puts the papaya up to his mouth and instructs me to do the same. We close our eyes and it is quiet. We're breathing underwater. People swim by and bring Hot Breath necklaces made of lace, bowing to him once again. He takes the necklace and places it over his head, even though he seems uncomfortable I wasn't given one as well. The people swimming motion for us to follow. We all swim together, breathing like fish. Papaya fish.

They lead us to a dance. Two men swim in with a disco ball, then stand there with their hands on their hips trying to devise a way to hang it. Hot Breath steps in to help, staring at the ball. Looking up. Then down. He rubs his beard furiously, kneading the thick hair into a chaotic ball. He pulls stalks of hair from his head. The rest of us make do without the disco ball and dance and laugh and breathe with our papayas. Flashbulbs go off as chariots ride in and bring charred meats. The smell is intense. Like angel sweat. We eat and eat and drink and drink. Laughing and singing and being Papaya fish.

I walk over to Hot Breath, still staring quizzically at the disco ball, scratching a lone finger on the top of his skull. I ask him his name.

Dean, he says.

Oh, I say. I took you for a Robb.

No, it's Dean.


About the author:

Chuck is saving room for pie.