Joyland

New York |

Jesus vs. The Creature from the Black Lagoon

by Travis Dahlke

edited by Amy Shearn

This bonfire beach party situation was where they summoned him. Where a great, swift violence came and took us. All you need are coals, melted sea glass, a little harmonica and a sprinkle of ground beef, scorched to coral snot. Now we have a recipe for something that will really get its germs in your shirt.

I came to Amityville with Ichabod Vance. Ichabod drew surfers. I was an ex-Ornithologist with a failed doctorate on the pack mentality of gulls habituating treeless spaces. As it turns out, I had a nonrefundable fear of open spaces. I found if I wore the right pair of sunglasses, the frames would block my peripheral and keep me safe. In Amityville, I was the only naturalist in a pond of artist types. It would be a fresh start where we were going to find ourselves, both Ichabod and I. How I got roped into a propeller accident cover up is beyond me.

The report goes like this: guy played a chords-only version of Elton John's 'Can You Feel the Love Tonight' for a girl. She then sirened that guy into a low, moon sucking tide. This goes to show you can pick notes off in the dark all high and smiling, but the blackness can snuff you out like a blanket if it wants to. As the boardwalk tarot card readers will have you believe, the whole thing was very mythic. Between the smoke off the driftwood, harmonica spit, the moon and the salt, by accident or on purpose, it summoned something from another place.

In the morning, about three miles from an old World War II fort, Levi found the body. He was a cop so he was used to finding bodies. Her remains were badly sunburned. We crossed ourselves there on the beach before calling it in. Reception was shit that far out, so while Levi tried to catch a signal, I had to stand and wait with the dead girl.

“I'm real sorry,” I told her.

“It's ok,” she said. Black-tailed herring gulls hung up in the sky, probably with bits of her in their stomachs.

“Life, you know, works out in weird ways.”

She didn't say anything else.

The official report the coroner put down said Chrissie Watkins was high, drowned, and got cut up by a propellor. Levi concurred. A tragic accident. Real gross. Coroner made a joke about crabs, which confirmed my dislike for him. Chrissy was the niece of someone who owned the most prominent gift shop in town. They identified the poor girl not by her crowns, but by the little sand dollars etched into her bracelet.

My friend Josette said this was a bad omen. She was either going to leave or get rich by trading her pastoral marsh landscapes for repurposed disaster footage.

She said, “I can feel it. This particular summer we're inside right now is bearing darkness. All I'll have to do is wait. Then it's off to Provincetown.”

I had only heard of the killer white from a class I took on larger terrestrial marine biology at Brown. They didn't seem like the kind of things to go after people. According to Levi, this wasn't the first attack. Only a few miles down the coast, about a month before Chrissy, an immigrant who worked at a Dock n Dine restaurant went casting for stripers at high tide. Waist deep in the surf, he had his arm torn clean as if it had been attached to the elbow by red velcro. He didn't make the papers. Cops blamed a bad marriage between tackle and the undertow.

The mayor was not happy: “I mean we sit around eating diner pad thai all winter until tourists flood the parking lots in late May and if they're not tan and wet, then they're not having a good time.” The mayor said, “We gotta resolve the problem and get rid of the shark,” without admitting there was a shark. So I had to really think creatively. It's not easy to get rid of a pretend shark.

At a far booth of the Pancake Man Diner, I met with Cado, the mayor's assistant. “Alonzo. Find a way to get rid of the fish smell,” he said.

I was not hungry as I could still taste the crab-eaten body in my nose hairs. I told him, “All right, I would think about how to do that. We all have something at stake here. It affects me personally seeing as how my cousin runs a petrol station in Hempstead. The only one before the ferry launch.”

Cado told me this beach had been a cursed place forever. Its teenage keepers are out for blood, and they rove in packs at the first hint of warmth in the night. They are possessed by oyster slime mixed with dirty Sprite. In the morning, they've left triangles painted across billboards and have stolen whatever they can, leaving both tourist daughters and sons totally empty inside. Dig deep enough in the sand and you'll find what they've hidden there. A syringe or condom snakeskins packed with sickness from the midwest. Dig deeper and the artifacts of another time will show themselves to you.

Even Ichabod quit using the beach for inspiration, instead choosing to stay inside and sketch made-up surfers. None of them had eyes.

I took a drive to my friend D'Eleanor's house. D'Eleanor and my old college friend Jem ran an ice cream shop by the boardwalk. I drove by the cottages and shack-to-mansions, which were all named things like Land's Edge, Stew's Paradise, or McMiller's Cove. They're all the same, each one filled with kids bored of their parent's drinking problems and decorated solely with white furniture. My cousin's gas station sold maps that omitted these things.

D'Eleanor bought her parent's beach house just so she could tan naked on the roof. Her nest there became a guard post for spotting the shark's black spade. An oiled harpooner riding a cape-colonial. She told me I was getting lumpy. Vacation towns will do that. I opened all the windows to let in a bar band down the street while she displayed a barometer made from a balloon and a Smuckers jar. As we kissed on her couch, its upholstery turned from white to blue. She parted the buttons of my Hawaiian shirt like a surgeon creating a chest cavity from which to remove the heart and told me to shoot my jazz in between her back dimples. We ate kettle corn on the roof until it got cold out.

A week later it was a kid. A boy was eaten by this hypothetical fish smell right in front of the whole New London ferry while it unloaded morning day-trippers. That's how I knew the shark was a witch. Witches go for kids. The Portuguese started calling it Jesus. The drink filled with DIY farmer-tanned hunters. Filo's Gun Repair shop was able to branch out as a chain, just from up-charging the water logged rifle repairs.

Every tourist had a camera they used to permanently memorialize the scene: White caps like styrofoam floating amongst gore. Mangled raft beyond the point of ever being patched or reinflated. A mother calling out her son's name. You can still find photographs in undeveloped Kodachrome baskets at antique shops. If developed, the photographs show clouds in the shapes of sea monsters. If you squint hard enough there are human remains crystalizing in the mud below.

“It's not readily apparent, but they're there. Trust me.” Josette insisted this, keeping her hair away from the moisture in the air by gathering it in a bandana. By this point she had gone back to painting. With oil and horsehair she could control the past.

These shark-shaped clouds turned black. A depression skirted the coast until the sky ripped open and it poured for a week straight. D'Eleanor and Jem had forecasted this weeks prior and installed umbrellas outside of their ice cream shop. When the storm rolled away people would need to bathe. Ridding the grease from their interiors. That was it. Do something, we have to do something. Crosses, make more crosses. Pull the humid afternoon to all four corners and really mean it.

This was when the mayor himself asked me to do something, bypassing Cado. I had never actually met the mayor or seen the tiny anchors on his suit up close. I said okay, I'll do that Mayor because the money would be enough to actually get away from Amityville . The mayor and I shook hands on this and I smelled my hand later to find it minty.

When I'm at an impasse, I'd walk around the boardwalk with D'Eleanor and have a churro with extra mud and maybe a brewskie and think on it. Here the arcades were bursting at their seams. We danced to their music all the while being mocked by the tarot reader's electronic cackle. The Audubon Society had been hired to bring in more gulls to clean up after the tourists. The gulls, however, attracted an infestation of raccoons after all the fowl eggs.

D'Eleanor's face, now tanned to rust, lit up with an idea. “Why don't we bait the shark with rare steaks?”

D'Eleanor didn't read the news. She didn't see that some fishermen from Austin had caught a bull shark with a rib eye and hung their catch like a war criminal for all the papers. This was the incorrect killer. Its stomach flushed nothing but car parts when they sliced it open. I knew Jesus was smarter than to be caught with beef. Raccoons waited beneath us, flashing up their silver eyes. I looked over the water with the carousel grease and cinnamon in my throat and I knew what I had to do.

//

The phone rang five times on the line to my college friend Kirsten. 8 PM Long Island time, 10 PM Amazon time.

Kirsten had devoted her doctorate to studying in Porto de Madeira, planting tags in pink river dolphins. Last time we talked she bragged about how her team had been lead by natives to a remote lagoon where they found something much better. Swamp apes. A pack of orangutans that lived in mud instead of trees. A museum in New Haven hired her to set up a breeding sanctuary for them.

Kirsten told me it wasn't that miraculous. “Mostly the gillmen sit around eating Tyson turkeys. That's their favorite. The matrons hunt.”

Kirsten was going to use most of the grant to travel. To pay off student loans. Over the phone I recited my plan. I told her about the dead swimmers.

She said it was a stupid idea and I asked her to sleep on it. I called the same time next week and she had thought about it/was mad at New Haven/would consider it. The mayor was really breathing down my neck because Jesus had killed again. A marsh mucking New Yorker near the creek. “There's not gonna be a job for any of us next year if this shark keeps taking our tourists,” the mayor told me with his hair flapping in the wind.

So Levi, Cado, and I left for Brazil. We ate yogurt on the plane. When we landed we were greeted at customs by armed men screaming at an elderly couple with plaid legs. They had been caught smuggling coolers stuffed with lobsters stuffed with cocaine. A homeless man freighting his balls in a wheelbarrow told me the flies here think you're already dead. The customs agents gave us a few lobsters as welcome gifts. Our van driver played a tape in his stereo that was only different versions of Elton John's ‘Philadelphia Freedom.’ Cado made him turn it down low enough where we couldn't hear it at all.

It was three hours of dirt road to camp. Kirsten fed us allspice loaves cooked right from the bark. Since college, Kirsten had shaken off the Katherine Hepburn lip we had grown up with in Saybrook. She had successfully become a new native Californian, speaking slower and standing with her arms always winged out as if her back bothered her. She carried around a blow dart gun on a sling that parted her in half.

“Don't talk to anyone,” Kirsten said. “And lock your tent. It's eel mating season. They can traverse land.”

“That's disgusting. How do you lock a tent?” She showed me how to do this, which involved fixing twine on the inside where the zipper meets the flap.

“When do I see the, you know.”

“Be patient. She probably already sees you,” Kirsten said. She fed us baby food mashed from rotten papaya. “This is what we live off here.”

Being in the jungle was a lot like living in a van that had been left in a hot parking lot. To the eyes it was a feast. The edge of the lagoon exploded in toxic sherbet and bowing ferns. The liquid at its core was still and black just like they say it is. All shitty with toucans. Cado took up trying to cook homemade toothpaste. Levi prodded the people on Kirsten's team with questions about football.

We cracked open the cocaine lobsters and became part of the forest. I forgot about Rhode Island and its horrible wide open views. There was no need for sunglasses. Here I was safe and confined to a mansion of forgotten about greenhouses. I could finally see the world for what it was.

Kirsten was going to sell us a mud gorilla for cheap. The mayor's office wired over more money than I cared to think about. According to her research, the young gillmatrons, because of their faster metabolism, were more likely to attack bait, whereas the mature specimens didn't get to it as fast.

“We need to preserve the younger gals. Give 'em a chance to grow. Normally they'd just live off water lily roots and small mammals, but now they're really getting a taste for the frozen chickens,” Kirsten told us, fastening guts upon guts of rope. “It won't be hard to nab a grandmother though. I got one in mind. You'll see a tag tragus piercing right in her left ear.”

We laid out bait and waited for one to surface. For hours we watched the oil. We saw as the poultry became orbited by light bulb sized greenflies. I imagined dropping a match into the lagoon and it going up in flames. Creating a symphony of car tire and gas station coffee. When it got dark and the eels began whistling, it meant it was the night's turn and the four of us retreated into separate tents.

The second morning I came to covered in moths. Kirsten had already gotten up, dressed, made papaya grinders, struck a gillmatron with a tranquilizer dart and wrapped it up like a mummy, all in dampened gauze. Her blow gun was bent in the scuffle. I didn't press. We were reprimanded by the rubber and hazelnut bearing boughs above. Thousands of undiscovered species watched us steal their queen away, getting louder. Warning: never come back!

We transported her on the bed of a truck, driving through the night to the airport. Kirsten's men crossed themselves whenever they caught sight of it, so I did too. They carried it like pallbearers to the back of a plane. I drank apple cider on the plane and ate bbq almonds. My fingertips were sour and earthy which I worried might be a symptom of malaria. I forgot about this when we landed because as Levi says, this is the part where God has stopped speaking to you.

The mayor sent a U-Haul for us, packed with ice we didn't need. I had to put my sunglasses back on to defend myself against the horizon. We removed our gillmatron's wrapping. We saw in the dark that she was flabby and her face sagged with cheek bladders. Her body was covered by patchy cinnamon fur in some places and by scale in others. Kirsten had concluded that the mud apes had layers of blubber in order to keep them warm in deep water.

Levi volunteered to shoot ketamine into her armpit fins because he had a daughter who was allergic to wasps and had practice stabbing needles. Cado lit sage either to cover the hot pond smell, or to absolve us of the act of robbing a tropical place. In the truck we didn't talk about anything much. Just hummed our gillmatron a Skynyrd B-side she probably had never heard before.

Back on the peninsula, we returned to our anchors. Levi, a belt radio. Cado, to his dental floss. For me it was wayfarers with extra dense pillars. The kind an old timer with cataracts would sport. I trimmed the lice outta my sideburns. My landlord had repainted the cement of our patio. Ichabod rolled his ankle on it which forced him to draw while hunched in a chair. His sketches only showed waves with surfers that were insinuated.

D'Eleanor and I lied to one another about how we had spent the last couple weeks, and chose to believe one another's fables. We had sex in her car and ate cheeseburgers from a gray McDonalds that looked like it was part of the boardwalk. It was cold when we woke up which reminded us of Thanksgiving time and the cul-de-sacs we were born on.

The gillmatron was dying from inside the U-Haul, trapped in a tank normally reserved to transport carp to Chinese buffets and koi pond wholesalers. We parked her behind the marina. They paid guys to keep a steady flood of ketamine and ice going into her as if she were a weird case of brewskies. She spent every night chirping, though there was nothing outside the U-Haul to respond. I was worried she wouldn't last long enough to make it out to sea.

On Monday as soon as the weekenders left we made our move. We got up before daybreak and brought the truck to the launch. On the jetty was a new cross dressed in flower leis. Someone that drowned who will be forgotten because he did not die spectacularly in the midst of violence. Taped to the cross was a yearbook photo of him. A man with crow feather hair and a smile which made him seem like he had fewer teeth than a regular person, though I figured it was bad luck to chastise the dead. We could see our breath, it was so freezing. I saw a horseshoe crab beach itself. Bad luck, according to Cado. I said I'd stay behind and return the truck.

“You're going out with us,” Cado said. “We're finishing this together.” Levi did not come to my defense. He plugged his ears to mask the truck's beeping. When I lifted the gate we were thrown back, gagging, by fetid pond humidity.

“She reeks.”

“You would too if you were in that situation,” Levi said.

“Let's get this over with.”

They brought both me and the gillmatron, unwilling, to a small boat. Its engine was a sad thing, bitter at having to accommodate passengers. It sputtered out a glaze of gasoline behind us.

That was my first time ever being on the drink. I should've worn two pairs of sunglasses because all around I was swallowed by space with nothing to shield me. It was close to when the seals would come out. This made our presence all the more dangerous. Levi said Jesus wasn't after seals. It only had eyes for men.

We propped the gillmatron up. She was awake but slow to move. Hands and snout banded like lobsters before you drop 'em in the pot. Cado sliced one band from the body. She studied Cado with deeply set cue balls. I hacked the other band off, grazing rattlesnake boot skin. She unfolded on the starboard, taller than any of us. She was hissing and making cricket noises and this sounded like it was coming from us and not her. I thought maybe she would kill me then so I closed my eyes to ready myself but there was a splash. We were left in the engine's flatulence. Our own scum.

On the ocean the ripples calmed and I saw how the papaya had shaped my face and finished me in washed copper. Things felt ok then. Sometimes things feel ok, though who among us has time to watch themselves in oceans?

Go get him. Get that shark, we sang. We returned to land and I used my switcher knife to cut a popsicle off its stick into a bowl which I ate while listening to the radio. I had wished Josette was around to paint me but she was already on the way to Provincetown.

I celebrated with Ichabod, eating milkshakes made from Oreos that lodged themselves in the straw.

In a week our shark was blown up by some cowboys in a fishing boat, way out deep under shooting meteor stars. The mayor's money became a coat to keep me intact. Kirsten told me the dolphins had left to breed in flood season beds upriver. The mud apes, too encased in blubber to float, became frightened of humans and her grant was revoked.

Over brownie bottom sundaes at Jem's, I was passed a rumor from a local oyster farmer. He claimed the shark was summoned not by accident, but by a roving pack of witches. Our shooter on the grassy knoll theory.

“These witches were descendants from Massachusetts who learned to never settle. They have a van. I've seen it,” the farmer said. We ignored him until he wandered off and then Jem brought us three more brownie bottom sundaes.

We swept the beach out of the businesses. It got tracked back in. Ichabod fell in love with one of his invisible surfers. What had been a great white of winter and animal came to blur together. My widowed gulls kept in circles, gabbing. Come back to us.

///

Little by little, sand gets trapped in crevices. It builds up and no one has the gumption to get in there and deep clean. More New Londoners arrive and leave by the ferry. More kids of tourists have bonfires to set up stories about the kids who died before them, except the stories change. They morph a little more out of proportion each year with little details that corrupt the larger ones. In an effort to dispel bad juju they rename the ferries the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Marino after Dan Marino.

Elton John will not reveal in interviews whether the lyrics of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” are actually an incantation that attracts great whites. I tell this to D'Eleanor at the Pancake Man.

“Take off those stupid sunglasses,” D'Eleanor says. “You look fucking dumb.” At this moment it is the kind of moment I think we could settle down. She is so tan that I can smell how her moles have been fried.

In winter I sit in our karaoke bar with Levi and Ichabod eating hot dogs in lobster roll buns. Levi yells about a story he read in the paper about how March snow had disturbed the dunes. Decimated the wooden stairways where people once plodded down in bare feet. This is when all kinds of debris will wash up. According to the paper, an old timer walking his dog found something all adorned in sea and weed like a debutante. Not really a person. Not really a fish. Some in-between thing that was never fully one or the other and after it was dead, no one knew where to bury it.

D'Eleanor died from melanoma that spread like Pacific wildfire in her chest. Josette went missing on her way to the fist of Cape Cod. Abandoned all her paintings and photographs. According to Cado, Josette was the shark's final victim. He says it takes the form of anything. Trees, pills, men, whatever. Leaving nothing but slime trails and limbs.

When the ground unthawed, we had a metaphorical funeral behind Captain’s Cove mini golf park for the gillmatron and D'Eleanor. Levi propped up a toy lighthouse as a marker. With swooped bangs tickling his eyeballs, he sang Skynyrd to our loved ones. A Dollar Store siren. We were all letting our hair grow out to obscure our faces as something we could hide behind. Even Ichabod, hunchbacked and balding, wore a brilliant crown of hay.

Jem bowed her head and said, “It was a love spell. The fish grew in us like watermelon seeds do. A vine that curls in your tum-tum, eventually snaking out and forcing you to speak with an accent that seemed to come from out of nowhere. You have to do something about this or it'll find someone else to settle down with.” She didn't look at me, though it was obvious. Cado said a prayer in Portuguese and then left for New Bedford and never came back.

Inside sticky half mornings I'll hear another generation howling at the sides of their bonfires, where they conjure their own story. Repurposing antiques into sequels. Evil passing like spit while youth burns whatever the ocean sends back. Amityville's fateful step-summer changes its shape with every year. In one version, Jesus swam up the creek and swallowed an inner tube. In another version, its teeth are yellow and the hippy girl is still alive in its stomach. Both of them swimming around like that forever.