By Michael Prihoda
Silence. The house condemned his absence with a sharp intake of breath. Always, always, always, his absences were condemned by the house’s silence. He needed a noise-making machine to mirror a pre-adolescent disposition, frolicking about the upstairs bedroom he was supposed to occupy with his overflowing closet of toys gifted at Christmas and birthdays for a cover. Terrence didn’t want toys. His parents thought he wanted toys, and because they thought he wanted toys they gave him loads and never asked Terrence how he felt about it.
“Terrence!” His mother screamed it again for good measure. Soap Opera Digest fell limp from her alligator fingers, a shade of bloody sunset lashed across her fingernails, the color held captive like a prisoner in the British stocks, pelted by tomatoes and rotten refuse that, magically, left nothing but an aura of ill. No scent. True danger is scentless. Good poisons are tasteless. Everything eating away at humans eats so slowly they never notice until both feet are gone or an entire arm is missing.
“Where has that boy gone now?”
Why she bothered to ask anymore was anybody’s guess. Had the garden implements in the garage been privy to her muttered musings, an answer might readily be available. But alas, the shovels, trowels, rakes, hoes, hoses, seed packets, and a broken crying lawnmower were out of earshot.
“Where has he gone?” she wondered aloud a second time. Always twice. As if by voicing her shallow concern two times it would make him come back, reappearing like a genie coaxed from a curvy lamp. Her questions were hockey pucks shot from three-quarter ice with no net to score in at the other end. She was an emotional shotgun, loaded with slugs, trying to strike a thousand turkeys all gawking at her in a globular patterning, an intricate tessellation of nature’s divisive concoction.
While his mother’s fingers wound about her hands, doing their best anaconda strangling a flattened chicken impression, Terrence was off at the local park beside the pond, about to declare himself captain of his newly minted cardboard vessel Catnip Plaza. The reason for its strange nominal nature an answer in two parts.
The first half came from a salvaged chunk of driftwood, from a conversation he overheard between his mother and father through a door that could have been a forest of redwoods axed and shipped through unnamed subsidiary companies to a middle class home.
“Did you feed it catnip?” His father, incredulous, declaring war, assassinating Franz Ferdinand with his saber words.
His mother, preparing a response, composed outwardly but inwardly fuming, a Russian tyrant about to throw infinite troops at the problem of this new betrayal.
This conversation a result of the death of the family dog, Punchbutton, whose naming Terrence had been given dominion over.
The takeaway—and it was a major one for young Terrence—was catnip’s destructive quality. Catnip must be poison because his dog was dead, and his father was accusing his mother of feeding the dog catnip. What else could be the cause of lovable Punchbutton’s death other than catnip? And so, as a young boy, catnip became forbiddingly inviting. A risky thing to encounter but oh so exhilarating.
Alive. He felt alive when he thought of it. Catnip. Yes, catnip. The first part of his flagship’s artistic name.
The second part came from a recent shopping trip to the mall. His mother took him back-to-school shopping. He believed back-to-school shopping was a dreadful reason for leaving the house.
School. He scoffed at the idea. What a prison. Remind him of anything but school and that bulbous turkey of a lady Mrs. Blackgut. Oh the summers. Oh the sun. Whether the other kids had noticed or not he did not know but he certainly had noticed. Of all the buildings he’d been inside (especially one as large, as massive, as dominating as the school) the school (he was insulted at the idea of it being his school) had the fewest windows. The sun, oh the sun, bring back the sun.
On the way to the shopping center they passed a strip mall (strip malls were nothing more to Terrence than imitation teddy bears without hands lined up along concrete and forced to smile, offering sales, promised clearances, back-to-school deals). A sign at the driveway entrance said “Grover Plaza.”
Terrence didn’t know what a Grover was. He didn’t know what a Plaza was either. But Grover…wasn’t that a person’s name? Plaza, hmm. Plaza had possibility, mystery. Nobody Terrence knew was named Plaza. Surely history class would have mentioned someone outlandishly named Plaza.
Danger and mystery. He married them, creating his masterpiece: Catnip Plaza. Ready to sail the ocean blue.
The pond’s water was muddy and only sometimes, when he paid really close attention, could the shadowy flash of a fish be seen beneath the greasy surface as it slithered into a slipstream of light before retreating back into relative murk. Terrence wondered what fish did all day. Swim? Blow bubbles? How boring. How drab. When Terrence was at home, he fancied himself a fish, except not a gold one because he’d heard somewhere (it couldn’t be fourth grade science because they told him useless things there) goldfish don’t have a memory past four seconds. Every four seconds they reset. You could give them a name every four seconds and for the ensuing three seconds they would know their name and maybe love it or hate it or ponder its meaning before they forgot their name and you had to give them a new one. It all sounded very exhausting for the owner of a goldfish and very exciting for the goldfish.
Discovery. Infinite discovery. Imagine having chicken nuggets for the first time every time! Terrence concluded that goldfish were in heaven, and if only humans could all become goldfish everything would be all right in the world.
Terrence looked at his simplistic creation. Cardboard, toilet paper tubes, a hasty duct tape job, and a scrap of notepad torn to mimic a serrated knife’s furrow along the starboard edge for a sail. His boat was seaworthy in his estimation. Terrence looked at the water, then his boat, back at the water, his boat again, then into the sky.
It was sunny. Nothing could go wrong. Not today. Today was about sailing, success, enlightenment.
Columbus! Now there was a man after his own heart. Dear Christopher, may my boat sail as true as yours did, Terrence mentally incanted.
Ocean blue. 1492. He wished they would tell him more about that stuff. But they never did. That was it. So, Terrence made his own boat. Terrence overcame their hassling.
A breeze whispered it was time. The pond rippled, another cog in the machinery of the afternoon.
Terrence Pyle took his handiwork, the makeshift watercraft, and slowly lowered it with both hands into the water, expectation soaring with each successive moment as the gap between landlocked and waterlogged shrank.
The water tickled his fingers and the boat was in. It was in, and he pushed it off from shore and oh glory it was sailing, it was gliding, it was amazing, it was like nothing ever before accomplished. And then it was sinking…
The water penetrated the hull. Cardboard quickly grew soggy, the tape far from waterproof. The mast peeked above the surface, sail about to be engulfed. The wind twisted the boat, the edge of the serrated sail facing Terrence as his creation sank to the bottom of the murky pond.
Droplets of dirty water dripped from his fingertips, arms dangling uselessly at his sides.
Meanwhile at home, his mother said, “I wonder what that boy is getting himself into now.”
Today was not about success. Today was about failure. And Terrence was no goldfish.
Michael Prihoda was born and raised in rural Wisconsin. He currently attends university and writes poems and stories. He loves nature, animal crackers, and the feeling of falling asleep.