Joyland

The Midwest |

Clarity in Three Colors

by Cameron Stewart

edited by Anna Prushinskaya

At the speed of sleep I shoot up the bathroom. Another tragedy on a Friday. I’ve unzipped my Gratuity Pouch, the one I put the bills in, and am pissing through it onto the stall.

Two months ago I climbed a ladder—when I was still capable of painting houses—and rolled white paint on a cracked exterior (put a blanket over a crime scene). Just as I was coating the final corner, my sneaker slipped perfectly off.

What happened next was I woke up on the grass with a head that didn’t work the same as before.

Now I’m standing in a stall cursed with amateur graffiti. People can hear me. Someone said I’m giggling—but it’s not that innocent a sound.

What the hell are you doing in there? someone asks, knocking with their shoe.

Just fine. Thank you! I say.

I think someone’s in there with him, says another man.

Just me, thanks!

I should probably explain the history of my zoo keeping. While the Detroit Zoo never officially hired me, their aquarium pays me during peak hours and holidays to walk around wearing a Beluga costume, presenting my stiff flipper to kids and a few brave parents. Sometimes, probably out of sympathy (it doesn’t matter to me), I get a $10 bill during a handshake, and me, being unable to clench my palm, end up bending all over the place, contorting my costume to an angle it hates, eventually getting some passerby to place the bill in my hand. It’s like getting paid twice.

I only bring that up to explain why I’m in a bathroom in downtown Detroit wearing a Beluga costume: today I forgot to bring a change of clothes. Or I left my clothes in the aquarium bathroom—in which case, by tomorrow, they’ll already smell like sea salt and morning breath. Either way, I’m here.

Now that I’m done peeing I’m at a bit of a crossroads. Some people are still on the other side of the stall, waiting for me, apparently.  

I was at the bar for two hours drinking pale ales and an underestimated cherry stout.

Today I worked at the zoo.

Two months ago I painted houses.

There is a word I no longer remember that describes the sensation of standing on a skyscraper and looking down, feeling the inevitability of falling. It starts with a V. Vestige? Either way, it’s lost.

After this I’ll probably head home down the street and put on some aftershave, throw myself on the bed. Give my cheeks a slap or two and listen to the nothingness that forever coats the walls. It’s either that or jazz. In a few hours the couples on both sides of me will return from drinking, from eating, and begin the ritualistic shaking of Friday beds. Normally I’d be asleep by the time they get in, but tonight I have the spins and will be up a while.

My costume is getting wet from the bottom up. I have to leave this stall. The door swims open.

*

In front of me now—well, above me—are two nonplussed heads. My feet are pointed away from my body like they’re trying to leave. My head is capable of nothing except aching.

Should learn something from this, says a man, his beard a hive of curly hair.

Wouldn’t know a lesson if it punched him in the face, says another, looking at the bearded man and laughing, rubbing his red knuckles.

I’ma argh my place? I say.

Is he what? What did he say? says the soar-knuckled man.

He thinks he’s home, says the other. Poor bastard.

No no. My friend. You are not.

The word I want to remember used to make me think of the phrase Itchin’ Us.

Now I see something I haven’t in many hours: my skin. Someone has removed me from my whale costume.

Where I? I say to the ceiling.

You’re at my house, says one of them, gesturing to the room. I tip my head to the left and see a sofa that looks like an elephant poached with a machine gun. Stuffing bleeds from about fifteen different holes. The walls are wood-paneled and dark, like tree bark after a forest fire, and the carpet, which I’m getting to know intimately, is robust with cat piss. It’s also highlighted with blood.

What? I say to the floor.

This guy! says the bearded man.

You know what you were doing? At the bar?

Drinking, I say, making eye contact with the man who hit me.           

He slaps me. After that, he says.

Here’s what I remember: the pine needle taste of beer, the Iggy Pop posters (all framed) on the walls, the way my shoes poked out of my outfit, something leathery and designer-made, and my old girlfriend’s name written across the stall with several sharpie penises pointed at it (a shrine I desecrated).

I can explain why I did that, I say to the men. I bring my head off the floor, then my back.

You can explain? Great. Then I hope you’ll explain to my wife why $80 that was once hers got covered in piss in the belly of a shark costume.

This is news to me. I guess I sort of remember my Pouch feeling more pregnant than usual. I look both men in the eyes, my vision a Chuck Close lens, and say, What do you mean?

The bearded man points to a card table where a school of shriveled bills are gathered.

My money? I say.

They laugh.

Your money? More like Sherry-Z’s money.

Sherry-Z? Sounds like off-brand performance enhancer.

Don’t know anyone by that name, I manage to say.

You wouldn’t. I don’t remember any introductions being made, do you, Jitters? says the bearded man to the man who punched me.

Nope. He was rude as a New York subway to my wife. Just stuck his hand in her purse. Then. Pissed all over it, says Jitters.

He continues talking and I notice his jeans—square, faded—and the hammer loop near his ass that sort of jiggles when he says vowels. Maybe this is where he got his nickname. Either way it’s like I’m back in the summer, rolling façades white, and can see everyone’s jeans (because who paints in anything else?) with their loops like curled tongues sticking out from XL waistlines. While on ladder-holding duty you looked mainly at two things: gleaming paint and the underside of peoples’ asses. Someone was (or wasn’t, come to think of it) below me, looking at one of those two things the day I fell.

Falling isn’t the worst part, it’s having to convince yourself that getting up is even worth it.

So will you? says Jitters in a tone that’s almost romantic.

What? I say.

Pay her back double.

Blagh! I say, coughing (but also astounded).

Then another stiff wrist against my cheek.

Okyah! I say, trying to stand up. My legs are straws, they bend away from me. I probably look like I’m balancing on stilts of uneven height—my arms in the air are unattached from my body.

Look at him go. The Shark Boy stands! says Jitters.           

I scrape across the carpeted room and find, in the corner near the couch, my Beluga outfit, which is now black/brown (in the area near my Pouch). Do I put it on in front of everyone? Part of me wants to burn it, to take it out to the front yard of wherever I am and cover it in something flammable. Another part of me wants to wear it forever.

I end up carrying it in my arms like a dead family pet through the door.

*

Up here at these vertiginous heights! I say to Avin.

All the way up! he cries. (It’s our routine.)

Avin is below me. There’s white paint speckling his hair and, as he holds the ladder, I feel as if I can picture him forty  years from now, working a better job, combing his thinning hair—or something like that. Usually we paint without a ladder man, but because of how high up I am, Avin is needed. There is serious distance between where the ladder ends and where I am standing, so much so that when I move up or down a rung, its body bends in and out like a popsicle stick with a fat thumb pressing on it.

Easy there. Take your time, says Avin.

I am rushing because of what went on here. Two months ago a pack of teens shot up this house, thinking it was some drug dealer’s place down the street. Everyone inside was on the couch near the window. Everyone inside was killed.

Now we’re supposed to cover it up, varnish the past, and have it finished by 2 pm.

We don’t have much time, I say to Avin. He likes to give me shit because he knows this is just my day job, knows that I’d rather be in my studio on Cass, painting canvases, not houses. But as long as he holds the ladder, I don’t care what he says.

You rush and do a shit job and we’ll have to come back again, he says.

And it’s not like they’ll pay us twice, I say.

Just go easy for a sec, okay? I’m going to grab my lunch, he says, walking to the back of the house.

It’s hard to tell he’s not there, keeping things in place. I continue rolling and the sound, on this humid day, is like hornets flying at a wall, colliding. Things below me seem sturdy now, as if my ladder doesn’t end at the grass but instead keeps going into the earth, spreading its roots into a reticulate pattern beneath where the bullet casings fell. I make my strokes even, overlapping in just the right places, the new layer of paint like a sheet of fog that will forever envelop this place. My tray wobbles a little. Still no Avin.

The roof curves upward in the middle, exposing some bare panel. I contort and extend. My roller disburses paint, the old colors digesting the new. I stretch from my legs, my weight shifts into my arms and my roller rises far above my head (I must look like a soldier holding a victory flag) as I continue painting, up and down, up, down, up, down. Down.

*

Mr. Anacondo takes one look at me and sighs. You look like you swam through the sewers, he says, holding his nose. Smell like it, too.

We’re in his office, in the bowels of the aquarium. I think it’s Monday.

But you should’ve seen it before. This looks great compared to what it was.

I can’t pay you to walk around looking like that, he says, his nose burrowed in his sweater. He gets up and walks to the closet, retrieving something that looks like an unripe banana. Here, he says, handing the long thing to me.

What it is? I mean, what is it?

An electric eel. You’re electric today. Remember that. Now, give that, that thing, he says, gesturing with a limp wrist at my Beluga suit. Give that to Juanita for cleaning.

Here comes the wave of chaperones and schoolchildren.

I’m standing next to the Deep Sea Tank, the anglerfish and viperfish swim through the dark with faces of frozen horror; they’re what I imagine being if I had to live in the sea, attracting prey with my glowing bait. Then I would have something others wanted.

Ooooh! Look, says a boy to his friend. Skeletons!

Actually, they’re real live dish. Fish, I say to them.

They look at me like I came out of nowhere.

Ms. Hamsin, who is that man? says one boy.

I think he’s a snake, says the woman.

Actually, I’m an eel, I say to them, shaking my head back and forth.

They giggle and touch my costume. I tell them some made-up facts about eels. Something about how their slender shape evolved out of their need to swim down the throats of their prey. The boys make scared noises and the woman abruptly hands me a $5 before shepherding the kids away.

In this costume I can successfully stick my hand out to accept the money. I don’t have to drop it first then have someone else pick it up. This is less embarrassing. But this also—the sight of my bare hand biting money— reminds me of Jitters, of how I have to be at his place tonight with $160. Although he didn’t say, Or Else, it was implied in the way he threw the door shut after I left. It’s assumed.

I slither my way to the anemone tank. Inside it are dozens of glowing red bulbs, their halogen tentacles brushing the saltwater, accepting only the embrace of clownfish. Kids tap at the glass, some with their palms, others with their tiny knuckles.

Kids, please don’t, I say to them.

A girl looks at me. From her nose drips a line of snot like wet paint. Sorry, she says, gently.

I smile at her (or what my bruised mouth poses as a smile) and say, Do you like the enemies? I mean, anemones?

No! They’re creepy, she says, running off to her friends.

I need to find the parents, the teachers, the adults: the money.

I brush across the glass of a tank teeming with puffer fish, wondering, if they were all startled at once, would they expand and shatter the glass? Consider it an exit strategy.

Near the eel exhibit I see three adults talking. I assume they’re not discussing fish. As I approach them my head feels like a shark bite, like something big and important is being ripped into and taken away.

Vertical, venomous, virgins. I sway back and forth as the word I lost resurfaces.

And Laurie could never do Crow Pose for more than three seconds! says one of them, a woman with a Marmot jacket and Birkenstocks.

June, you’re being so rude! says, a man, giggling.

Standing behind them I wish for nothing more than to truly be electric, to bounce around in their huddle, shocking each with my purpose, my voltage.

I look at the fish swimming in the eel tank. Although I don’t recognize any of them, I describe their habits and natural ecosystems to my audience of three.

No way! says the man. I notice his buttery knuckles, moisturized and upper class. I’ve forgotten what I just told him. Either way, it was a lie.

You don’t expect us to believe that. Do you? That these fish are capable of speech? says one of them.

Valueless, vacuous. The word is forming.

Believe what you’d bike, no, like, I say, pinching my wrist (the eel shocks himself).

Realizing that the likelihood of my getting a tip is fading, I get desperate, resort to improv movements and gestures from my arms. Up and down. Up and down.

What’s he doing? says the man.

Dancing? Swimming? says a woman.

No. I think he’s painting, says the yogic woman.

I think he wants a tip, June.

Suddenly out of her red fleece comes a $20 which, in my hand, feels like a salary. Take it, she says, walking away with the others.

I clench my fist and make eye contact with an eel in the tank.

Victorious.

*

I’m standing outside Jitters’s house with $75—five short of even matching what I stole, far from what I actually owe. The lawn outside his ranch home is frostbitten, brown. My feet crunch across the grass up to his door; his house is dark, quiet. I knock.

After a minute of no response, I turn to leave. At the street I hear the front door open, see his silhouette rubbing its face. He laughs, says, Do you have any normal clothes?

The tip of my costume (the eel jaws) collides with the doorframe; I enter his home with my head bent forward, crouching.

You’re one weird-ass lunatic, he says, patting me on the shoulder.

I see the carpet spray painted with my blood, the table where the money was.

Where is everyone? I say.

He gets a beer from the fridge. Not here, he says.

There are voices coming from a TV in another room. They’re talking about the weather. Voracious, volcanic.

He stands holding his beer, listening to the forecast. I approach him, holding the money.

Here, I say. It’s not as much as you wanted, but still.

He grunts. Waves his hand. Sherry-Z came by earlier. Apparently the woman isn’t fazed by a little piss on her bills, he says. You keep it.

What. Are you serious?

Well. Not exactly. I had to swap them. With fresh ones of my own, he says.

Why would you agoo that? Do that.

Watching you walk away the other night with that shit-stained fish costume. I kinda thought you had enough. On your plate, he says, sipping beer.

So, then? I say, expecting this all to be a joke of some kind. Like most things.

So then you take whatever amount that is there and save it for yourself, he says, leading me back to the mudroom. When I see that there’s no one there waiting to take my money, I begin to settle. Jitters grins.

You look like a big ugly building, he says, opening his front door.

I step outside and the word is there: vertiginous.

Apparently when I fell I held on to the roller the whole way down. Droplets of white paint outlined my descent.

It could have been a lot worse, people told me after it happened. If they could see me now, would they still say that? Would you?

I’m out walking in the night with a brain still drying, still arriving. These are the things I remember.