By J.A. Field
Ever since the snow cleared—months ago, now—they’ve been out there. Diane stands at her big bay window, hand tight around the pulled-back curtain, and watches. They stand on the pedals of their bikes, chests thrown out like charioteers, and zoom down the middle of her street. They careen down the sidewalk on their scooters. She has had to wait for them to pass before she could back out of her own driveway. They have ridden down her driveway! She has had to glide down the street after them, foot suspended over the brake until they ran out of speed at the bottom.
Sometimes they abandon their bikes and scooters and they run. They run in a line like the cars of a train, one followed by one followed by one, the youngest lagging like an errant caboose. They emerge from between her forsythia bushes on the left, chug across her carefully maintained lawn, and disappear into her arborvitae on the right. She counts—one, two, three, four—and there he is, the caboose, someone’s annoying little brother, legs churning under his patch of shorts, bare chest milky blue like the belly of a fish. They circle around again, enter her view now from the arborvitae, chug-chug across her lawn, disappear engine-car-car into the forsythia. She counts—one, two, three, four—and here he comes, grimy little legs pumping. She imagines grabbing him by the wrist, her thumb and second finger cinching his splintery little bones, and pulling him to the side of her house. She’d like to turn her hose on him and give his legs a good scrubbing.
In the evenings and all day long during her weekends she has to listen to the zoom of their bikes, the clank of their scooters, the pounding of their feet. Wherever she is in the house she can hear them. She has tried sitting in her armchair with the pretty cabbage rose pattern, pulling a soft blanket over her lap, closing her eyes. But then she is back at her job in child protection and children are running through the hallways, having broken loose from their social workers and using all the power in their inadequate little bodies to get to the door that separates them from the visiting rooms. She hears them keening—mummamummamummamumma—as they scramble at their forlorn task, and the noise in her head is worse than the noise on her street, and she opens her eyes and throws aside her blanket and pushes up from her chair, making a bitter sound with her mouth. She likes children, she really does, but children are meant to be manageable.
At the window again, she sees the two girls, so similar and close in age they look like twins, leggy as spiders, wild messes of hair like something discounted after Halloween. When they run they let loose screams so sharp they cut right through her Andersen double-paned windows. Diane flattens both hands against her big bay, as though she can hold it together. The girls scream, she thinks, because they can, because their parents don’t tell them not to, don’t tell them anything, since they never come out of their house—their ugly eyesore of a house right next door to hers, with its cheap, chipped, mustard yellow vinyl siding—not once all day while their children block access to the street and run back and forth across well-kept lawns and scream and disturb their neighbors.
Diane turns away from the window and goes into her bedroom. She keeps the air in the bedroom cold to help her sleep at night, and she shivers a little as she undresses. She puts on her black swimsuit, khaki shorts, white polo shirt. She tucks the shirt in and adds a braided leather belt. She pulls her beach towel from the linen closet, takes her wallet from her purse and car keys from their flower-shaped hook, slips her phone into her pocket. She stops inside her front door, listens. Nothing. They must have gone into one of the houses to scavenge for their lunch. Dirty little scavengers. She pulls her sunglasses down over her eyes, takes a deep breath, and marches to her car.
It’s a short drive through town, past the boutiques and coffee shops, the bookstore with its half circle of armchairs in front of the fireplace, the swaths of blooming flowers in the park and in front of the restored old homes. It is entirely worth it to her to devote the bulk of her salary to her mortgage, so that she can live in this town. Every night when she drives home, she comes to a place where the town lies in front of her and the city is only in her rearview mirror, and as she crosses over she feels the burden on her head and neck and shoulders lighten, as though gravity weighs less where she lives.
The pond is tucked away in a residential area where almost no one ever finds it. As Diane drives the winding streets, she glimpses broad white houses flanked by drystone walls, their roof lines fluttering under the arches of trees. Her breath deepens and evens. She pulls up to a bicyclist, sleek and trim in his black and neon Spandex, helmet bent in concentration. As he passes, his wheels make a slight sound, no louder than the thrum of a hummingbird. She makes the turn, parks near the unobtrusive sign. Standing on the street, towel around her neck, she smiles her first full smile of the day. Everything is quiet, hushed. The houses, set far apart, each in its own landscape, are remote and picturesque as snow globes.
She walks along the edge of the road looking for the trail to the pond. So few people use it—it gets overgrown quickly and can be hard to find. She moves some branches aside, sees it. Within a few steps she has left the bikes and scooters, the screaming Halloween-haired girls and the dirty-legged boy behind. She hears insects buzzing and sees bees floating in the pink and white flowered bushes. As she dips her body, she anticipates the feel of the water, warmed by the sun on the surface but cooler underneath. Through the trees she sees the corner of one of the two wooden benches in the small clearing. She could sing.
Diane steps onto the sand and is caught up so short she almost trips and has to grab the back of a bench to steady herself. Directly in front of her is the back of a man. Hair hangs from his shoulders. Above his waistband rides a bulge of fat plugged with bristles like the side of a pig. The strands of hair sticking out from under his foam and mesh cap are black and stringy. Tattoos spread down from his neck like an oil spill. He is up to the fringe of his cut offs in the water.
Diane takes a step back and notices a kid sitting on a towel. The girl looks about twelve, is plugged into the screen on her lap and barely flicks her eyes up at Diane. Dark bangs clump together in thick bands across her forehead, which is red and rough with acne. She’s wearing black short-shorts, a black t-shirt featuring a pink skull and crossbones, black canvas hi-top sneakers with pink laces. As Diane is taking in the sight of what must be his daughter, the man looks back over his shoulder. Diane sees a fishing pole jutting out in front of him. He’s fishing! In this pond!
“Hey, isn’t this a great place! You from around here?”
Yes, I live here. She smiles tightly and nods once, hoping no verbal response from her will mean no conversation. She considers turning around, but doesn’t want to go home to the noise and chaos. She isn’t going in the pond with him standing there, though. She takes a second look at the girl, notices that the bottom half of her face is moving. Gum! Diane hates gum—the smell of it, the stickiness, the exposure of an intimate item left in the dirt like a used condom. Disgusting.
Lying open beside the girl is a small black canvas shoulder bag. On the front is a butterfly, embroidered in different shades of pink. The bag is unzipped, and from it trail pink things—a pink plastic hairbrush foaming with hair, a pink notepad with a snap closure and a strangely large-eyed kitten decorating the front, a strand of pink and black-checked earbuds, balls of pink tissues. Diane’s eyes narrow and harden. She knows this girl—this kind of girl. This is the kind of girl she would have to deal with at work, the kind of girl who would start out nice and chummy, trying to get things from Diane, and would end up screaming fuck you, you bitch at her when she had to tell her she couldn’t give her what she wanted. This kind of girl should not be making herself comfortable here, on this beach, at this pond.
The man is facing the pond again, reeling in his line. He’s still talking to Diane. “Not too many people know about this pond, but I’ve been coming here for twenty-eight years. I was just thinking about it this morning and I figured it out. Twenty-eight years.” He looks back over his shoulder at her.
“Oh?” She makes her voice cold, as cold as the air in her bedroom. She’s glad she hasn’t met him sooner.
“Yeah,” he nods solemnly. His fingers are paused on the handle of the reel.
Can’t talk and wind at the same time?
“Since I was the age of my youngest over there.” He tilts his chin at the girl. “Thirteen. That’s when I started fishing.” He turns back, starts reeling in the line again. Diane thinks about the kind of people who fish. She pictures a group of men standing in a circle, legs spread, beer cans tilted toward their mouths, caps advertising Budweiser and John Deere. She imagines a knife in a man’s thick hands, slicing open the belly of a fish. Her mind flashes a picture of someone’s little brother’s milky blue chest. Her lip curls.
The girl leans forward and turns on a radio Diane hadn’t noticed. It’s tucked between the spill of the butterfly bag and a faded red and white cooler and looks like a veteran of twenty-eight years of fishing trips. A rap beat blasts into the air. Diane’s body tenses. The kids she has to transport to visits and appointments listen to music like this through their earbuds in her car. That music, in this place! She crosses her arms in front of her chest. She opens her mouth to tell the girl to turn it off, realizes she has no authority, makes a face and looks away. As she does she sees the path that circles the pond and practically leaps down it.
She walks fast. When she is in a place where she can’t be seen from the water or the sand, she stops. The path is very close to the edge of the pond. She can look back across the water and see the man. She watches and realizes that he is fly-fishing. She sees the yellow fishing line swoop through the air like a lariat. She watches. A flick of his wrist and the lariat scribes the air. She hears the zip of the line. It’s an under-sound, a sound that would make a dog sit up and take notice, cock his head; it’s the sound of something coming, a train still miles down the track, its warning bell yet un-rung.
Diane continues to follow the path. She listens for the sound of the fly line. Sometimes she hears it and she stops. Sometimes she thinks she hears it and she stops. It vibrates through the air like a tuning fork. Every time she stops she looks across the pond at the man. Nothing changes. He stands in the same place. He flicks his wrist and the line circles above him like music. Like music? Him? She is halfway around the pond, standing on the spongy edge, the toes of her sneakers dipping into the water, her elbow hooked around a slender birch, leaning toward him, when his line goes tight. Her heart catches on his whoop of delight and rises up out of the water with the silver fish. It plummets as he unhooks it and throws it back into the water.
Back into the water! In the brief moment after it was caught she had imagined him eating it for dinner with his family, a black-and-pink wife and several black-and-pink children sitting around a table, towel-bibbed, knives and forks like soldiers at-the-ready in their fisted hands. But no, he is fishing for sport, he is wasting the fish! Does he think he’s done no damage to the fish, does he think that the fish can just slip back into the water and back into its swimmy fish life? That the gaping hook hole in its mouth is miraculously healed? Does he think of the fish at all?
Diane makes a sound with her tongue on the roof of her mouth. She shakes her head, turns away from the edge, returns to the path. She heads back the way she came, walking fast again. He doesn’t live in this town! He doesn’t care about our fish! He thinks he can come here and do whatever he likes in our pond! Twenty-eight years! He’s been throwing back fish for twenty-eight years! She pictures a pile of fish, dead fish, rotting fish, a mountain of tortured and discarded fish rising up from the bottom of the pond, the top cresting the surface and at the bottom, fish skin sloughing off in the flux of the water, scales and flesh coagulating and floating off in gluey, glinting blobs.
She breaks out into the clearing, opens her mouth to shout at him, and a sudden sharp pain bursts from the side of her face. She screams, a high-pitched Aiiiiiiii then puts her hand to her face, runs her fingers along her cheek, something pointy is there, the corner of her mouth is pulled back hard, something is stuck, she can’t figure out what it is, what’s happened—another sharp pain, a tug, her face is being pulled, she takes an involuntary step forward, she screams, again, louder. She understands: there is a fish hook in the side of her face and she is being reeled in.
Out of the corner of her eye she sees movement on the beach. The girl is up off her towel, she is running into the water, yelling, grabbing her father’s arm. He stops reeling his line in and the pain in Diane’s face reduces by a fraction. They run toward her, big galumphing splashes in the water, him holding the pole out in front of him with two hands, trying to keep it steady, the girl behind him.
When they reach her, the man says, “I didn’t know you were there! I didn’t know you were there, I thought you were—“ and then he stops, reaches into his pocket and takes out a knife.
Diane’s eyes go wide and she steps back, her eyes flit left and right, she makes another strange sound.
The girl rolls her eyes, says, “He’s going to cut the line.”
Diane stands still. The man reaches toward her face with the knife. She flinches and steps back again, even though now she understands. He reaches, makes a loop of the line about a foot from where the hook enters her mouth, and swipes through it. His hand on the line is steady, his hand on the knife quick. Despite his efforts, pain sears through her face like a comet. She makes that noise again.
“I’m not going to be able to get it out,” he tells her. He has led her over to one of the benches, sat her down, and peered into her mouth while her breath comes in quick gasps. He has given her the ice pack from their cooler, which she can’t bear to press against any part of her face and is turning it over and over in her hands. “I have a pair of pliers but it’s too, um, embedded. I wouldn’t be able to reach the barb—you snip the barb off and push the hook back through, to get it out. But the way it’s in there—I can’t do it. You’re going to have to go to the emergency room.”
She can taste blood in her mouth and feel a stream of wet on her chin. Inside her mouth she feels something like hair, bristles. She brings her fingers up beside her face, tentatively pats the air around her cheek. No bristles there, but a jolt of pain makes her jerk. She knows she can’t drive to the hospital. Can they go in his car? But she doesn’t remember seeing another car on the street. Inside her mouth, she inches her tongue toward the feeling, determines that the hair and bristles are part of the hook. The feeling of something wet and hairy in her mouth makes her stomach lurch.
“I don’t think you should drive. We can’t all go on my bike, and I’m not leaving my daughter here.”
“I don’t feel great about leaving my Harley here either, but I don’t see any other way. I’ll have to drive your car. Tara can come with us.”
Diane puts the ice pack down beside her on the bench and with her hands mimics punching numbers, putting a phone to her ear. The man shakes his head. “No service.” He must have a cheap phone, like her clients, always running out of minutes. She stands carefully, reaches into her pocket, pulls out her phone. The man watches her. She looks at the phone. No service. She slips the phone back into her pocket, turns toward the path that leads to the street. The girl is standing there, at the end of the path, waiting, her towel around her neck, her black bag, presumably with every pink and black thing piled back into it, over her shoulder, cooler in hand. Her father’s fishing pole and tackle box are at her feet, ready for him to pick up. They fall into step behind her.
When they reach her car the man suggests they put their things in the trunk. Diane pats her pockets for her keys, pats them again. Her heartbeat quickens. Where are her keys? She left her wallet under the driver’s seat, but her keys should be in her pocket. Where are her keys? The man steps from the back of the car to the driver’s side window. He bends down, shades his eyes against the glare. “Yup,” he says, “They’re in there. In the ignition.” He straightens up again, let’s out an involuntary little sigh, looks toward the nearest house. Across the street and up a hill, it’s a quarter mile away. “Do you think you can you make it to that house?” He tilts his head toward it. “We can use their phone and call an ambulance.”
She doesn’t want to walk to the house but doesn’t want to sit on the side of the road, bleeding, either. She’s embarrassed about the keys. She begins walking. They follow her. They walk in a line like the cars of a train. She is the engine. The girl is the caboose.
As they make their way up the long driveway, the only noise is the scuffling of their feet. Under the trees, it’s cooler than it was on the street, or even at the pond. The lawn stretches before them, flowing green. Flowers are arranged at intervals like stadium seating. Roses cascade from an arbor in the back. Beyond the arbor, a sparkling pool, and beyond the pool, a smaller house, a house Diane could live in—aches to live in—the pool house.
As they walk she allows herself to imagine living in the little house, being cared for by the bigger house. She would have everything she needed—plates that matched those used in the big house, silverware that balanced on her fingers, silk sheets with the family’s monogram, peace, contentment. She imagines lying on a chaise lounge beside the pool, reading a book, a woman in a grey dress with a white apron coming toward her across the lawn, carrying a picnic basket. She imagines the woman opening the basket, taking out a wedge of cheese, a cluster of grapes, a section of bread, and setting them on the square of white linen she has laid for a tablecloth. She sees her lift a clear-stemmed glass out of the basket, sees it catch the sun.
They’ve reached the side door of the house and the man reaches in front of Diane and rings the bell. They hear it echo inside. They wait a long time and the man rings the bell again. Diane’s face throbs. She can’t close her mouth and she’s having difficulty keeping her eye open on the side where the hook is. Her face must be swelling. She wonders what she looks like. Inside her mouth the hook is a clump of pain and—Thread? Feathers? Synthetic hair? Not synthetic hair? She sees the curtain in the window next to the door move slightly, but still no one comes to the door. Of course not. Why would the people who live in this house open their door to them, to the man and the girl, looking like who they are, or to her, looking like she must now?
“No one’s coming,” the girl says.
“We’ll have to try another house.” The man turns away from the door. Diane follows him, the girl comes last. They are just starting down the driveway when a boy opens the door, yells, “Tara! Wait!” They all stop and turn. The boy comes out of the house, hurries down the driveway toward them. He is the same age as the girl, is wearing black skinny jeans, a black t-shirt, old-fashioned flip flops with dark pink rubber thongs. Diane stares at him. How can he possibly know this girl?
“Hi, Tara. Hi, Mr. Waters. I didn’t know it was you until I saw you leaving, then I saw Tara’s bag. I like your butterfly, Tara.” He looks at the girl, blushes a little. “I’m not supposed to answer the door when my parents aren’t home.” He shrugs.
“Hi, Bryan,” the man—Mr. Waters!—says. “We’re trying to help this lady here. I accidentally caught her with my fish hook. Can we use your phone? We don’t seem to have any service.”
“Sure, Mr. Waters, you can come in. We have a land line. The service is really bad around here.”
As she’s being loaded into the ambulance, Diane hears the snorting pig sound of a motorcycle being started. The man and the girl are leaving, going back where they came from, somewhere far from her, from her pond, her town. Back where they belong. She sinks into the stretcher, into the pain medication the EMT’s have administered. The siren whirs, the ambulance heads down the hill, the pig sound fades and is gone.
At the hospital, Diane is wheeled into one of the rooms in the ER, transferred from the stretcher to the bed, raised and adjusted so she’s sitting up. She is so grateful for the crisp cool sheets, the clean sleek tile, the orderliness of the room that her eyes fill. She takes deep breaths in through her open mouth. After a while, a nurse comes in, puts a hand on her arm and bends close to peer at her wound. “How are you doing, honey? Is it hurting right now?” Diane shakes her head, slowly from side to side. There’s just a clotted feeling in her cheek, her mouth, like being stuffed with gauze at the dentist.
“You’re our second fish hook today. Must be a good day for fishing.”
Diane looks at the nurse, blinks.
“My boys love to fish.” She pats Diane’s arm, straightens, sticks a thermometer in her ear. “When they were young their dad took them. Now they’re teenagers, they go on their own.” The thermometer pings, she takes it out, checks it. “Normal. I always tell them, be careful when you’re casting, there are people everywhere.” She wraps a blood pressure sleeve around Diane’s arm, begins to pump, pauses, lets the air out, turns to the counter behind her to write down the numbers. “Even where you don’t want them to be. Even where you least expect them.”
The nurse puts down her pen, bends to pull a blanket out of the cabinet below the counter, unfolds it and lays it over Diane. “You look a little cold, honey.” She smoothes a crease in the blanket with the flat of her hand, straightens, looks around the room. “Okay, I’ll let your friend come in now. The doctor will be in soon to get that out for you, and then you can go home.”
Her friend? She hadn’t thought about getting home, only about getting to the hospital.
The man walks into the room. Diane’s eyes widen. She jerks her head back against the pillow and a spark of pain bursts in her cheek.
“Hi,” he says, waving his hand a little. He’s wearing a shirt now, and jeans, no hat. “I brought your car. I got a buddy of mine to unlock the door so I could drive it over here. I figured you’d need it to get home.”
“I left Tara at home. We don’t live too far from there, from the pond.” He settles in the chair beside her bed. He gives a little laugh. “That’s how Bryan knows Tara, I guess. They ride the same bus to school. He’s got a crush on her, I think. Not sure how she feels about him. Tried to ask her but she just said Daaad! You know how they do that?” He pauses, looks at Diane. “Well, I don’t know if you have kids, if you’re familiar with kids at all. But kids around that age—twelve, thirteen—that’s what they do. They act like their parents are ridiculous. Stupid.” He shrugs. “Oh well. They get over it soon enough. Eventually, anyway. My older kids and I get along great now. And Tara, well, she still goes fishing with me, at least. That’s why I go so much, really, because she’ll still go with me. Keeps us connected, you know?” He looks at Diane again, maintains eye contact. “I’m real sorry about what happened today, though. I should have been more careful. I should have looked where my line was going.” He pauses. “I’m Jerry, by the way.”
Diane waits a second. She thinks about it. Then she smiles, as much as she can, her lip pulled back a fraction on one side, and she lifts her hand and waves a little, Hello.
No one is on the street when Diane drives down it and pulls into her driveway. She opens the door and gets out of the car slowly, holding her face still. The place in her mouth where the hook was still feels open, torn, although she’s got a couple of stitches. As she turns to push the car door shut, someone’s little brother glides up to her on a miniature bike so new the color still looks wet. “Hi!” he says, planting his two small sneakered feet on her driveway. She looks down at him.
“I got a new bike.”
Diane hasn’t spoken yet, not since the accident and the repair of her face, her mouth. She parts her lips to answer him, but nothing comes out.
He looks up at her. “What happened to your face?”
Carefully, carefully, bracing herself with a hand on the car, Diane lowers herself down to him. When she is eye level and her mouth is inches from his ear she tries again. “I got caught by a fish hook,” she whispers. The stitches pinch, inside and out.
“Oh,” he whispers back. He leans forward a little and examines the gauze over her cheek. “You got stitches? How many?”
She holds up two fingers.
“That’s not so many. My sister had way more than that when she fell off her scooter.” He stops whispering. “Want to hear my bell? It’s really loud.”
Attached to the bike’s handlebars is a shiny round metal bell. His thumb, the size of a bean, is poised on the lever. He looks at her face, waits for her signal. Diane closes her eyes. She imagines the clatter, the reverberations. She tilts a bit on her heels. Water sways this way and that inside her. The under-sound of the fly line hums in her head. She tastes the metal snap of the hook as it was released from her mouth. “Yes,” she says. And the raucous noise rings out over the neighborhood.
J. A. Field lives in New England. Other work has been published in East Coast Literary Review, Poetry Quarterly, and Common Ground Review.
"People are Everywhere" is J.A.'s first published short story.