Guy, as they came to refer to him, was from Arkansas, one of
those states down south that George could never quite place on
the map in his mind. Was it next to Texas? Alabama? Kansas? He
pictured dirt roads beneath a white hot sky and scrubby pines,
one- room shacks and hot springs, men in overalls chugging
moonshine in pickup trucks with confederate flag decals on the
windshields. No matter how many times he reminded himself that
Bill Clinton hailed from Arkansas, he could only picture the
president's drug-addled half-brother, with his mullet and
"The Guy strikes me as a little
eccentric," Ray said as they drove to meet him. "But
he's okay, I think."
repeated. "That means he's crazy, right?"
answer from Ray. He was behind the wheel of his 1979 Cutlass
Supreme, a tank of a car that left a brown cloud of noxious
exhaust fumes in its formidable wake. They were somewhere on the
New Jersey Turnpike, headed toward a pre-arranged meeting with
the Guy at the Walt Whitman service area.
the Guy's not gonna murder us, is he?" George asked. "He's
not gonna cut us up into little pieces and feed us to the
alligators, is he?"
Ray laughed the way he always
did when he thought George was acting paranoid. "No way,"
he said. "The Guy came highly recommended by some people I
know. Besides, I don't think they have gators in Arkansas."
George stared straight ahead. He was anxious whenever he
had anything to do with some people Ray knew. Last year the two
of them drove to somewhere in Canada—eight hours into the
thick woods—to buy some pot from some of those very people.
The pot was intended for George's Uncle Hank, who had pancreatic
cancer. Ray said it was incredible stuff, hyrdroponic or
something, and would keep Uncle Hank in a pleasant haze. Anyway,
the people Ray knew turned out to be a family of in-bred moose
hunters who terrified George with their guns and long, bushy
beards and unbelievably cluttered cabin where they lived on top
of each other in a green cloud of marijuana smoke. They more or
less forced George and Ray to sample the product—"We
don’t like it," the biggest one said in that weird
accent of theirs, "if our customers leave without trying it
out, eh?"—which was every bit as powerful as
advertised, and at the border George was so worried that the
customs agent would smell it on them that he nearly exploded in a
fit of paranoia. He remained so tense all the way home that when
they finally arrived his entire body was sore. And then Uncle
Hank refused to smoke the stuff, saying it was against his ethics
to break the law like that. (Two months later, writhing in pain,
"The Guy's not coming all the way up from
Arkansas for us, is he?" George asked. Not that he was
worried about the Guy being inconvenienced; he just didn't want
there to be too much pressure on them to go ahead with the
transaction. He didn't want the Guy to get all bent out of shape
if they changed their minds.
"Nah," Ray said.
"He's got a lot of business up here."
George had a hard time believing that.
surprised, man," Ray answered.
They had left home
three hours ago, and once again they were breaking the law.
Instead of marijuana, this time it was carp—silver carp, to
be exact, the kind that eats algae. The plan was to buy five of
them from the Guy, at $18 each, then introduce the fish—in
violation of DEP rules—into Lake Tawaba.
in the whole neighborhood complained endlessly about the algae
that bloomed in the lake over the summer, and how it prevented
them from swimming on hot days, not to mention the smell and
unsightliness. George's wife, Shelley, was one of the loudest and
most bitter of the complainers. She and George had bought their
home during the winter three years ago, unaware that, come June,
the algae would bloom and spread like wildfire until the entire
lake was covered in a disgusting green slime. Every year George
tried to minimize the importance of the algae problem, calling it
natural and not a big deal, but in truth it grossed him out to
see the green stuff, as thick and craggy as an elephant's hide,
floating atop the undulating water. And now he was going to do
something about it.
He looked over and saw that Ray was
staring at him. He would do that sometimes, even while driving 75
miles per hour on the turnpike.
"Don't sweat it,
man," Ray said, a wide grin erupting in the middle of his
graying beard. "You won't get in any trouble."
By "trouble," George knew Ray
meant not the law but Shelley. He could just picture her face if
she knew what he was up to. She would scrunch up her mouth so
that her lips disappeared, and those crow's feet wrinkles would
sprout next to her eyes. Then she would say, "Ge-o-rge,"
drawing it out into two or sometimes three syllables, before
launching into a harangue about how he should know better than to
go along with Ray on one of his cockamamie schemes.
Ray maintained, "this is an in-and-out, under the radar,
totally covert operation here. We'll be home in time for supper,
and the missus will never be the wiser."
grown up in a very conservative WASP family in the Midwest, where
she'd had little or no contact with characters like Ray. For one
thing, she'd never met anyone before with no discernible source
of income, who appeared to live from day to day—or even
hour to hour—rather than following some master plan as
dictated by family tradition or, at the very least, a college
career counselor. The whole idea of it made her nervous and
"I'm not worried about that,"
George said, remembering how he'd told Shelley he was going to a
music store in New York with Ray, who was supposedly looking for
a new guitar.
"Whatever you say, man."
was George's participation in Ray's rather unconventional Big
Ideas that really drove Shelley insane. Before last year's
excursion to Canada, for instance, there was the windmill
incident. Inspired by an article he'd read in one of his
environmentally-themed magazines, Ray decided one day to erect a
windmill on his roof. It was not only his own electric bills that
would decrease, he declared, but any extra wind-generated
electricity that flowed out to the local grid would lower the
neighborhood's bills as well. George considered this a noble
experiment, and decided to help his friend. For several days in a
row they climbed up Ray's rickety ladder onto the roof and
hammered together long pieces of wood into a crude but
recognizably windmill-like structure based on a photo in the
magazine. Not accustomed to hard labor, Ray would occasionally
produce a few cold bottles of beer and some locally-grown
marijuana—purchased from the Turner kid across the lake,
and not nearly as strong as that Canadian weed—and a
"coffee break" would be taken right there on the roof.
Normally, George did not indulge in mind-altering substances
before sundown, but then he'd never been very resistant to peer
pressure. One day, after a longer break than usual, and as he was
gazing up at their work—the main body of the windmill had
been constructed and all that needed to be done was to place the
rotor at the top—he was overcome with lightheadedness, lost
his footing, and tumbled toward the edge of the roof like a
bucket. Fortunately, he managed to grab hold of the rain gutter
and was able to hang on until Ray moved the ladder over to his
dangling legs. Still, Shelley made him promise to say no next
time Ray asked him to go along on one of his adventures. (Two
years later, Ray still had not been able to figure out how to
hook up the windmill to the generator.)
Route 73," Ray noted as they chugged past the turnoff.
The Walt Whitman service area
was supposed to be between interchanges 4 and 3, southbound, just
across the river from Philadelphia. George had only passed this
way once before, on another Ray-inspired adventure, this one to
Atlantic City. Ray had been reading books on blackjack and
insisted he had a surefire system. Between the two of them they
went on to lose more than $500, plus the money Ray got from
hocking his old wedding ring at one of those "Cash for Gold"
Ray reached over and turned up the radio. The Mamas
and the Papas' "Monday, Monday" blared from the one
working speaker, located in the passenger side door. He sang
along in a surprisingly sweet tenor voice.
met Ray when he and Shelley were on a walk around the lake not
long after moving in. It was the first nice day of Spring and the
algae had not yet bloomed. As they neared Ray's ramshackle
cottage on the lake road, they heard someone singing and
strumming an acoustic guitar. There was Ray on his patio in a
lawnchair, playing Cat Stevens songs, a pitcher of margaritas at
"Howdy!" he called out. "Can I
interest you in a margarootie?"
George and Shelley
spent the next two hours listening to Ray play songs, gossip
about the neighbors, and complain about how the lake association
was too cheap and lazy to do anything about the algae situation.
"What algae situation?" Shelley asked.
that was the first they heard of the curse of Lake Tawaba.
then on, not three days went by without Ray calling or, better
yet, stopping by to say hello and occasionally recruit George for
his latest project. Sometimes they just sat out on George's deck,
drinking and playing songs until late at night, while Shelley
steamed inside. Inevitably, after any number of tequila shots,
Ray would drag up one or both of his favorite topics—his
ex-wife and the algae problem. About the former he would gripe
and moan and express regrets. About the latter he would gripe and
moan and try to think up some way to counteract nature.
Apparently there were chemical remedies that had been considered
by the lake association, but they were expensive and there was
the fact that they were chemical.
"We need to find
an organic solution to this, man," Ray would say.
went on for three years. Then, last month, Ray arrived on
George's doorstep in an even more excited state than usual.
"Hypothalmichthys molitrix!" he exclaimed.
"Excuse me?" George said.
Ray waved a
copy of the local alternative newspaper in George's face and
said, "Check it out, man!"
Nestled between a
schedule of upcoming peace rallies and advertisements for Asian
massage parlors was a brief article about the algae-devouring
"'The silver carp, or Hypothalmichthys
molitrix, is a proficient feeder that uses gill rakers fused into
sponge-like porous plates,'" Ray read aloud, sounding like a
schoolboy who had discovered a copy of Tropic of Cancer. "'Of
Asian origin, the silver carp was introduced to North America in
the 1970s to control algae growth in aquaculture.' Didja hear
that, Georgie? 'Introduced to control algae growth'!"
me see that," George said. He continued with the article.
"'Also known as the flying carp for its tendency to
leap from the water when startled, the silver carp is considered
a highly invasive species, growing to more than 3 feet in length
and up to 60 pounds.'"
"I don't know, Ray," George said.
"'Highly invasive species' sounds sort of ominous."
"Tut tut, old man. We're gonna take this to the next
lake association meeting and those numbskulls are gonna sign off
on this brilliant, all-natural solution to our lake problem."
It didn't quite work out that way. Apparently, the
president of the lake association, a lawyer named Tony Waters,
had already looked into the idea.
"DEP won't approve
it," he declared. "It's an invasive species."
"So what?" Ray countered. "I'd welcome
piranhas if they ate that green scum out there." He pointed
out Tony's picture window toward the pea green lake. In the
middle of the algae floated a pair of snow-white swans.
lake feeds into a stream," Tony responded calmly, much as a
very patient parent would to a child with attention deficit
issues. "The stream feeds into a major river. Those carp'll
swim right out of here and into the river and totally screw up
the ecosystem. It's a disaster."
On the walk home
from the meeting, an undeterred Ray devised his plan.
know some people," he said. "We can get some of these
silver carp, no problem."
"But what about what
Tony said?" George asked. "What about the stream? The
"Think about it, man. Why would a
silver carp—an animal that lives for algae—decide to
leave this paradise for someplace else? That'd be like you and me
leaving a neighborhood where margaritas grow on trees!"
"Even if that's true," George said, "the
DEP will never authorize it."
"Screw the DEP!
Don’t you know the era of big government is over?"
"I'll get back
to you once I speak to my people," Ray said. "Meanwhile,
I need a post-lake association meeting margarootie."
sing the body electric!" Ray exclaimed as he pulled off the
Turnpike into the service area parking lot. "Hey, they have
those Cinnabons here. Remind me to get one before we go."
He maneuvered through the heavy SUV traffic toward the rear
of the lot. The Guy had told him to look for a rented van with
Arkansas plates. He'd also said to bring along a large cooler,
which sat in the back seat. Ray had borrowed it from a neighbor,
Joey Keeler, who used it when bass fishing. It gave off a fishy
smell that was not entirely eclipsed by the chemical odor from
one of those scented cardboard pine trees dangling from the
"That's the Guy," Ray said as
they approached a U-Haul van parked next to a dumpster. He eased
the Cutlass into the adjoining space and shut off the engine. In
the van the Guy was eating a Nathan's hot dog with such
concentration—try as he might, he could not quite prevent
the relish from sliding out of the back end—that he hadn't
noticed their arrival.
"Let's leave," George
"Let's leave. Right
now. Before it's too late."
"This is a ridiculous idea."
"Aw, that's Shelley talking, man."
It's George. George says, 'Let's go.'"
and said, "Why're you talking in the third person, man?"
"We lose nothing," George continued. "No
money spent, except for gas. I'll pay for that." Then George
remembered that he'd already paid for the gas because Ray had
forgotten his credit cards. "Let's just get out of here,"
It was too late
now. The Guy had seen them. He was leaning out the van window and
staring down at George.
"Would you be Ray?" he
Ray leaned over toward the passenger window and
said, "I'm Ray."
The Guy climbed out of the van. He
was enormous. George pegged him at six foot four or five, close
to 300 pounds. But he did not appear fat at all. He was like one
of those Russian weight lifters with their huge necks and barrel
chests. He was mostly bald but what little hair remained hung in
a limp ponytail over the collar of a salmon-colored golf shirt.
His khaki trousers were pristine but for one green relish stain
next to the zipper. He bent over and peered into the Cutlass.
"How are you, fellas?" he asked in a high voice
without a trace of an accent. George could smell the hot dog
nitrates on his breath.
"We're a-okay," Ray
answered. "How are you?"
Now let's take care of business so I can get back to
George looked over at Ray, who told
him, "We're doing the right thing, man."
got out of the car and followed the Guy to the rear of the van.
"Listen," the Guy said, "I know we agreed
on eighteen each, but I had a little difficulty this trip and I'm
going to have to charge a little more."
kind of difficulty?" George asked.
more?" Ray asked at the same time.
The Guy looked
from one to the other, unsure whom to answer first.
product was a little harder to find this time," he finally
said, "due to certain regulatory issues, that's all. I'm
going to have to ask for $30 each."
of 'regulatory issues'?" George asked. "Is it illegal,
what we're doing?"
"Don’t mind my
friend," Ray interrupted. "He's a tad paranoid. But
thirty each—that's a 60% increase."
the price, my friend," the Guy said. "Take it or leave
Ray got a look on his face that George had seen
only once before, when he'd confronted a neighbor, Hilly Thomas,
about his dog, Schnitzel, who liked to relieve himself in Ray's
front yard. Hilly had refused to apologize or promise to curb
Schnitzel, and Ray blew his top, making all kinds of threats
against the dog. The two men still didn't speak, and Ray kept a
pile of rocks near his door to throw at Schnitzel.
about twenty five?" Ray asked the Guy. The skin above his
thick beard had turned bright pink.
"Like I said,"
the Guy replied. "Take it or leave it."
breathing heavily, as if his nose were congested.
us a moment," he said, pulling George several feet away.
"Goddamn shyster," he muttered.
right," George said. "Let's get out of here."
"I've got exactly ninety bucks," Ray said. "We
need sixty more."
"You mean you still want to
go through with this?"
"We came all this way.
We can't go home empty handed."
"But what's the
Guy talking about—'regulatory issues'?" George glanced
around the parking lot, as if the Department of Environmental
Protection might be lurking nearby. "Could be the
authorities are after him."
said, "can you give me sixty bucks or not?"
already put in forty-five."
"I'll pay you back
half. You know I'm good for it."
George pulled out
his wallet. "I've only got $27."
over and yanked George's ATM card from his wallet. "There's
a cash machine inside," he said. "I'd do it but you
know I forgot my cards."
George looked over at the
Guy leaning against the back of the van. He seemed a little
perturbed. On one forearm was a dark blue tattoo of some kind of
animal, probably a wolf or a mountain lion, George thought. Maybe
he got it in prison.
"Come on, Georgie," Ray
said. "Think of the lake."
George pictured the
algae that covered the lake like a sickly green tarp. Just
yesterday Shelley had gone on a rampage, probably hormonally
inspired, about how disgusting it was, how they'd been ripped
off, how the realtor should be strung up with piano wire. If
these fish really do eat algae, George thought, maybe she would
calm down a little.
"Okay," he said.
"Thattaboy," Ray enthused. "And bring me
one of those Cinnebons, will ya? Hey," he called out to the
Guy, "you want a Cinnebon?"
"Are we on, or
what?" the Guy replied.
"We're on," Ray
told him. "We're very on." Then, under his breath: "You
As George made his way toward the service
plaza he turned back to see Ray and the Guy peering into the dark
depths of the van. He thought of Shelley back home, probably up
to her elbows in the garden, oblivious of this latest bit of
insanity. She was a good woman, he reminded himself. She just
took disappointments hard. The lake house was supposed to be
their dream home after living in a cramped one bedroom apartment
in the city for ten years. Fresh air, a yard, lots of trees—and
a beautiful lake: that was the plan. Now, every morning when she
opened the bedroom curtains, she emitted a disgusted sigh that
landed on George's ear like a frying pan.
Inside the service
plaza hundreds of travelers milled about or stood in line at
Nathan's or Roy Rogers or Cinnebon. The ATM was located near the
rest rooms. George inserted his card and requested $60. For this
privilege he was charged a fee of $2.50. He decided he would ask
Ray to pay the extra amount, as well as the price of the
Next to the ATM was a payphone. He thought
about calling Shelley and telling her what he was up to. She
would probably yell at him and order him home, but maybe that's
what he needed. Ray liked to intimate that George was spineless
around his wife, but sometimes George thought Shelley actually
gave him a spine, and without her he would be a jellyfish. If he
called her now she might inspire him to stand up to Ray, and even
to the Guy. He reached into his pocket for some change—how
much would it cost, he wondered, to call from here?—but
before he could fish it out the phone rang. He looked around, but
no one appeared to be expecting a call. It occurred to him that
it might be Shelley, but of course that was impossible. The phone
kept ringing. He thought of some frazzled parent waiting to hear
from his child's kidnapper. He looked around again. Clearly, no
one was going to answer this phone, so, finally, he picked up the
receiver and said hello.
He heard a click, followed by the dial tone.
He felt the person who'd been on the other end rapidly retreating
from him, like a man falling from the roof of a tall building. Or
maybe it was he who was falling. He hung up and went outside.
The Guy was just closing the rear doors when George
reached the van. "Got the money?" he asked.
George could answer, Ray yanked him over to the car. "Check
it out, man." In the back seat the cooler was open. Water
nearly reached the top, the surface moving slightly. "Look
inside," Ray told him.
George leaned in to see
several silver fish, each about eight inches long, swimming
around in the cooler.
"They're still young,"
Ray explained. "But they grow fast, especially when they eat
"Excuse me, fellas," the Guy
interrupted. "Some folks in Pennsylvania are waiting on me."
"Here, gimme the dough," Ray said to George,
holding out his hand. But George couldn't remember where he'd put
the money. He checked his pockets, but found only coins, keys and
"Where is it, man?" Ray asked.
George pulled out his wallet to find only the $27 that
had been there before.
"Time's a wastin'," the
A flock of small black birds swarmed high above
the parking lot, moving jaggedly but in perfect formation. George
wondered if he'd dropped the cash, or maybe set it on the top of
"What's the deal, man?" Ray asked.
George wanted to tell him about the phone call but the
Guy had crossed his beefy arms in a way that spelled trouble, so
he decided to save it for later. Then he realized that the three
$20 bills were balled up in his left hand, that they had been
there all along.
"Cool," Ray said, grabbing the
bills and flattening them on top of the other $90. "Here ya
go, my friend."
The Guy quickly counted the money
and jammed it into his khakis. "Pleasure doing business with
you fellas." He climbed into the van and revved the engine.
"Good luck," he said as he backed out.
and Ray stood watching the van pull away.
okay, man?" Ray asked.
van roared out of the parking lot and onto the turnpike.
Ray said, "where's my Cinnebon?."
Ray get a new guitar?" Shelley asked when George entered the
kitchen three hours later. She was snapping dry spaghetti in half
and dropping them into a large pot of boiling water. She was
still in her gardening clothes, her jeans dark at the knees. Her
brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail, revealing
aggressively gray hairs at her temple.
George said breezily. He kissed her cheek and headed toward the
living room to mix a drink at the wet bar. The wet bar was his
favorite feature of the house and, according to Shelley, the main
reason Ray liked to visit so often.
"You guys were
gone an awfully long time to come home empty handed,"
Shelley said before he could escape.
He paused in the
doorway. "You know how Ray is. He couldn't make up his
"How can he afford a new guitar,
anyway?" she asked. One of her obsessions was Ray's
mysterious source of income. He had no job, had never mentioned
any previous jobs, and had no apparent plans to find a job in the
future, and yet he lived here in a lake front cottage that, even
in its shabby condition, must have cost a few hundred thousand
George shrugged, as he always did, and left the
kitchen, hoping that would be the end of Shelley's inquisition.
It was imperative that he not antagonize her because later on he
would have to make an excuse to go over to Ray's house. They'd
planned to release the carp upon their return, but Joey Keeler
had been out in his rowboat—he always maintained that the
algae was good for fishing—and would have seen them.
want a drinky?" George called out to Shelley. Sometimes when
she had a cocktail or two she fell asleep early.
thanks," she called back.
He put together a stiff
vodka tonic, took a sip, and sighed. All the way home he'd sat in
the car listening to the water sloshing around in the cooler and
imagining the fish inside, flopping and rolling with the
disorienting motion of the vehicle. Meanwhile, Ray had gone on
and on about how great it was going to be when the algae
mysteriously disappeared from the lake.
last scummy little bloom is gone," he'd piped, "I'm
gonna march over to Tony Waters's house and tell him he can thank
us for sending his property values sky high, man."
hadn't said anything. In fact he hardly said a word all the way
home. He kept thinking about that phone call and wondering who
was on the other end. Obviously, he told himself, it was a wrong
number, but still it haunted him. He'd heard stories of phone
calls waking families up in the middle of the night when the
house was on fire or the gas leaking, with no one on the other
end of the line except, one had to assume, a ghost warning them
to get out of the house before they died. But what was he being
warned about? Was something terrible about to happen? Maybe an
accident? He'd gripped the half-disintegrated armrest right up
until the moment Ray pulled into his driveway.
over after nightfall," Ray said when they'd spotted Joey out
on the lake. "I'll be waiting for you."
he and Shelley sat eating supper in their dining room, George
wondered how he would get himself out of the house.
anything different about the sauce?" Shelley asked. She had
let down her hair, which helped to hide the gray at her temples.
George rolled a forkful of spaghetti against a slice of
bread and took a bite. "Uh uh," he grunted.
different about the meat?"
George poked at the
ground beef in the sauce. He liked his spaghetti this way rather
than with meatballs or plain. It was the way his mother had made
it. "This isn't turkey, is it?" he asked. Shelley had
once tried to fob off ground turkey as beef, but it hadn't fooled
"Nope," she said, smiling.
"It's soy. No meat."
George set down his fork and stared down at his plate.
"It's better for you," Shelley said. "And
obviously you can't tell the difference, so…"
took a breath. He hated this feeling of being bamboozled.
Meanwhile, Shelley smiled that triumphant smile of hers and
continued eating. "Mmmmm," she moaned as she chewed on
some soy product. Lately she'd been trying to get him to lose
some weight. She claimed it was for his health, but he figured
she just didn't like the love handles that had ballooned at his
waist. He didn't like it anymore than she did, but he was getting
old, for God's sake, and lately food had become more important to
him than looking good.
He rolled up another forkful of
spaghetti and shoved it into his mouth. The sauce tasted
different now, less savory, more plastic.
They continued eating in silence. George gazed
out the window at the slowly fading light, the trees on the far
side of the lake shading into black. The lake was a flat expanse
of dark green algae. As night came on it more and more resembled
a well-mowed field, perfect for baseball or soccer. He tried to
picture it clean and clear, rippled by a summer breeze, silvery
in the dying sunlight. Soon, he thought. Soon.
Shelley said, her eyes still twinkling from her victory with the
meat sauce, "you know what date it is?"
thought a moment. It was the fifteenth, or maybe the sixteenth.
What was so special about that? Their anniversary was last month,
he knew that. And Shelley's birthday wasn't until November.
"Ge-o-rge," she said, her lips disappearing.
"Does the word 'ovulation' mean anything to you?"
had forgotten all about it. For months now, Shelley had been
charting her cycle, religiously taking her temperature and
calculating the optimal dates and even hours for conception.
"That's tonight?" he asked.
don't sound so disappointed."
"No, it's just
There was a
split screen image in George's mind. On one side, the carp
swimming in the cooler down at Ray's house; on the other, Shelley
weeping the way she did whenever they argued about this topic.
"Nothing," he said, taking another bite of
Two hours later, George was having a little
"Maybe you shouldn't have had that drink
before dinner," Shelley said—somewhat judgmentally,
George thought--after spending half an hour attempting to arouse
"Maybe," he said, and, satisfied that
she'd made her point, Shelley returned to the task at hand.
George lay back on the bed with his hands behind his head,
trying to relax. He shut his eyes and thought of Angelina Jolie,
then of Tony Waters's voluptuous teenage daughter, Stacey, who he
once saw in her underwear through her window. Ashamed, he moved
on to brief memories of porno movies he'd seen years ago when he
was single and lonely. But it was no good. Every time he detected
a little progress, his thoughts drifted to those carp in the
cooler and then to the mysterious phone call.
By now it
was dark outside. Shelley had turned off the lights and lit a
candle made with special oils or spices that supposedly
encouraged conception, She'd said it was vanilla, or maybe
nutmeg, but to George it smelled of rotten fruit. He bit his lip
and concentrated. At this rate, he thought, he'd never get over
to Ray's. Just as he glanced over at the glowing clock
face—9:21—Shelley paused and looked up.
there someplace you need to be?" she asked.
"I saw you looking at the time."
I mean, I was just curious."
"About how long it's taking."
groaned and lay down next to him. "Is there something we
need to talk about?"
don't know. Maybe you've changed your mind about having a baby
"No, that's not it." Which
was true, technically speaking. George had never wanted a baby,
but Shelley didn't know that.
"What, then?" she
asked. She ran the tips of her fingers across his thighs,
normally a surefire path to seduction.
The flame of the
stinky candle wavered in the dark, making weird psychedelic
patterns on the ceiling. George couldn't tell Shelley about the
carp or the Guy or the phone call, so how could he explain what
was distracting him?
"Is it too much pressure?"
Shelley asked. "I know I can be intense sometimes."
"Maybe," George said, sensing a possible way
"Okay," she said, setting her hands in her
own lap and staring at the ceiling. "Let's just lie here for
a while and relax. No pressure."
This strategy, of
course, had the opposite effect of increasing George's anxiety.
He pictured Ray sitting out on his stone patio, probably getting
high and playing Cat Stevens songs as he waited for George to
show up. Then he had a brilliant idea.
"Maybe I need
a walk," he said.
could detect the anxiety in her voice. "Not a long walk,"
he reassured her.
"Cuz there's a very definite
window of opportunity," she explained.
"We can't miss it."
know. A short walk. Fifteen minutes, maybe."
thought a moment, then sat up. "Okay. Fine. Let's go."
"No!" he exclaimed a little too loudly. "Just
me, I mean."
Shelley didn't say anything, but in the
quivery light of the stinky candle he could see her face.
think I just need to be by myself for a few minutes," he
explained. He took her hand and added,
"Just to get
my head on straight."
"So to speak," she
"So to speak." This is good, he thought.
She was loosening up a little.
"And you'll just be
fifteen minutes?" she asked.
ran down the lake road in the pitch dark. He hadn't bothered to
tie his sneaker laces and nearly tripped into one of the many
potholes on the poorly paved road. Crickets chirped in the shrubs
along the shore, but otherwise there was only the slap of his
soles on the ground. As he neared Ray's house he could hear the
light strum of a guitar.
"Where ya been, man?"
okay at the homestead?"
"Fine, but we have to
"Want a margarootie?" Ray asked.
"It's a killer batch."
George glanced at his watch, then realized he hadn't put it back
on. Shelley always insisted he remove his watch when they made
love, even when it wasn't bedtime. She wanted him totally naked.
"I have to get back ASAP," he said, "so…"
"Let's do it, man."
Because the Cutlass
was a two-door car, they had some trouble getting the water-heavy
cooler out of the cramped back seat. The passenger-side seat belt
kept getting in the way, and there wasn't enough room for the two
of them to get a decent grip. Finally, however, with George
pushing from inside the car, they did manage to slide the cooler
out and set it on the gravel driveway.
how these babies are doing," Ray said as he opened the lid.
In the dim light from the patio George could make out several
silvery shapes in the water. As his eyes slowly adjusted he could
see that something was wrong.
"Why aren't they
moving?" he asked.
"They're moving," Ray
"I don't think so."
the cooler and said, "Yeah, they're moving."
moving because you shook the water up."
man," Ray groaned. "I'm gonna go get the flashlight."
George gazed down into the cooler. These fish are dead,
he thought. Ray returned after a moment and switched on the
flashlight. It was one of those huge spotlight-type things and
the blinding light reflecting off the water made George shut his
eyes for a moment.
"Aw, man," Ray said again.
The fish floated on their sides, their tiny blank eyes
staring up at George and Ray.
George asked. "You think the Guy ripped us off?"
George could hear Ray's breathing getting louder. He
backed away a foot or two while Ray continued to stare down at
the dead fish.
"Take it easy, Ray," George
Ray groaned, then bent over to pick up the cooler.
He grabbed the plastic handles and tugged, but it was too heavy.
Cursing, he managed to lift the cooler an inch or so off the
ground and, with a shout, he tipped it over. Water poured onto
the driveway. The five fish landed with sad little slaps on the
Ray slammed the cooler back down and said, "I
need a drink."
"Hold on," George said.
One of the fish appeared to be moving. It shivered on the
gravel, then flopped over onto its other side.
have a live one!" Ray shouted. He picked up the baby carp in
his hand and rushed across the road to the shore of the lake.
George grabbed the flashlight and followed. At the water's edge
Ray paused and held the agitated fish out in front of him. In the
harsh glare of the flashlight he looked like some disheveled
Biblical character making a sacrifice.
"Go to it,
little man," he said to the carp, and then he tossed it into
George shone the light on the spot. The fish
had landed on top a thick crust of algae.
Ray hissed as the fish flopped atop the green scum, unable to
penetrate through to the water underneath. The two men stood and
watched the poor creature struggle, calling out to it,
encouraging the carp to break through. Soon they were jumping up
and down, shouting, "C'mon! You can do it!" but the
carp just laid there, gasping for water.
Just when it
seemed the fish would give up and die, George gazed down into the
little creature's staring eye, and something about it reminded
him of the phone call. What had the person on the other end been
trying to tell him?
For some reason he turned the glare
of the flashlight on the ground.
doing?" Ray asked.
George scanned the area with the
powerful beam. Near a tree lay a long branch that had fallen.
"That's it!" he hollered. He ran to the branch
and picked it up.
"Georgie?" Ray muttered.
George held the branch out over the water. Just long
enough, he told himself. With a quick movement he jabbed a hole
in the thick algae near the carp.
brilliant!" Ray shouted.
George then gently prodded
the little fish toward the hole. Go on, he thought. You can do
The carp teetered on the edge of the hole. George gave it
one more nudge with the stick and the fish looked up at him with
what seemed to be an expression of thanks, his glassy little eye
revealing a frightening flash of understanding. Then it fell into
the water with a dull splash.
George and Ray stood there looking into the water
for several minutes, imagining the carp darting through the murky
depths, already gobbling away at the delicious algae.
know," Ray said, "we're gonna have to get us some more
of these fish."
"I know," George said, but
he didn't want to think about it now. Instead, he thought of
Shelley, whom he pictured pacing the bedroom in a huff. She still
had a nice body, he had to admit, her legs slim and long, with
just the tiniest layer of softness around her middle. He felt a
stir in his groin.
"I gotta get back," he said.
"Hey, we should celebrate first with a margarootie."
"Sorry, Ray," George said. "Maybe
"Tomorrow's cool," Ray told
him. "We'll discuss the next phase of the plan."
"Good idea," Geoge said.
The two men
shook hands. Then, anticipating what awaited him, George walked
into the darkness toward home.