August 27, 2014
My dad left on a Wednesday afternoon in July. He had made some trial runs; leaving the house late at night and heading off God knows where only to return days later, his clothes wrinkled and stinking of cigarettes and beer, the shadow of a beard growing on his face. But I would never have expected him to leave the day the fish fell from the sky.
I woke up that day to the screen door slamming as Mom came in from working another double shift. I hadn’t planned on sleeping so late. She was setting the grocery bags on the table as I came into the kitchen and when she lifted her arm to wipe her forehead, I was impressed by the size of the sweat stain on her scrubs. She looked at me, still in my sleep shirt, and gave a half smile. “He keep you up late?” she asked, pointing her thumb at the front porch, indicating Dad was still asleep out there.
“More long speeches to Mr. Hagen. And his other favorite words.” I dug through the grocery bags for the cereal as Mom started putting the groceries away.
“They haven’t needed to build houses for a year,” she said, putting a gallon of pistachio ice cream in the freezer. “I don’t know what he thinks is going to change. Where are Jace and Casey?”
“In their room,” I said, grabbing a bowl from the cupboard. “It sounded like they were dragging their beds around in there earlier this morning.”
I poured milk over my cereal and sat down to eat. The first spoonful was always the best, before the cornflakes got too soggy. The faint sound of my dad’s snoring came through the kitchen window along with the summer breeze and the smell of the rosemary bushes out front.
“I can’t believe it!” Mom exclaimed, “I forgot to get eggs.”
“So?” I asked, finishing the last of my cereal.
“So I was going to make a quiche for dinner.” She ran her hands through her hair.
I folded up the grocery bags and put them in the laundry room, “We don’t have to have a quiche.”
“There’s not enough leftovers from last night. I was planning on doing a bigger shop on Saturday.” She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands and let out a deep breath. “I’ll just have to go back.”
“Do you want me to go with you?”
“It’s okay, it won’t take me long.” As she stared down at the table, I could see the purplish circles forming under her eyes. She had already been up for twenty-six hours.
“I have to get more shampoo anyway and there’s a new one I want to try.”
She looked at me for a moment, and then grabbed her purse off the kitchen counter. “Get the boys, I’ll leave a note for your father.”
I went to my room, pulled a pair of jean shorts out of the pile of clothes on the floor, and grabbed a tank top from my dresser. The hem of the tank top was starting to come loose, but I didn’t think it would be noticeable. Once I was dressed, I crossed the hall to Jace and Casey’s room. They were giggling behind the door. “Mom has to go back to the store,” I shouted, “and we’re going with her.” The giggling stopped and Casey answered, “We want to stay here.”
“Well you can’t.” I tried to open the door, but as usual it was locked. “Let’s go or I’ll come get you through the window.” There was a moment of stubborn silence before the doorknob rattled and turned. One face and another exactly like it peered from behind the door, glaring at me to prove I wasn’t the boss of them.
“We’re busy. It’s not convenient,” Jace said matter-of-factly. Casey nodded.
“Dad’s asleep, so you can’t stay here by yourselves.”
“Where you going?” Casey asked.
They looked at each other and smiled, “Okay then, we’ll go.”
The boys ran to the car and as I closed the door, I looked over at my dad sprawled out on the bench under the window, his beer bottles scattered around the porch. Even though he was in the shade, his shirt was sweated through. His leg was dangling over the arm of the bench and I had the urge to kick it hard, but Mom called out from the car to hurry up. I took one more look at the matted hair covering his forehead. “We’d be better off without you,” I said under my breath.
As I buckled my seatbelt, Mom looked back at the boys in the rear-view mirror, “I’ll pick you both up from Patty’s at about three.”
“No!” They shouted. “You said we’re going to the store.”
“Sherri and I are going to the store. You two are going to Patty’s.”
“You know why.”
“Five-finger discount,” Jace muttered.
“That’s right, so don’t argue.”
As we pulled into the driveway, Cole was standing outside with his mother waiting for the boys. Casey bolted out the door to meet him, but Jace paused just long enough to say, “We get a candy bar though, right?”
“If you’re good,” Mom said and Jace ran after Casey shouting, “We’ll still get a candy bar.” Mrs. Johnson waved to Mom, and then corralled the three boys into the house.
As we drove, the sun beating through the windshield made the air in the car heavy, so I turned the fan up. The air blowing out wasn’t exactly cool, but it was better than nothing. Looking out the window, I could see that most of the lawns were half brown from the heat and when we reached the Pallard’s house at the end of the street, Mom frowned at the sight of their sprinkler soaking a dead patch of grass by the driveway. “Waste of water,” she said.
By the time we reached the grocery store, the back of my tank was damp and clinging to my skin. “Okay,” Mom said, “other than eggs, is there anything else we need?”
“Peach yogurt and granola bars,” I could feel the heat of the asphalt radiating on my calves.
The air-conditioned store felt like a relief until goose bumps started prickling their way up my arms. We grabbed eggs and yogurt from the dairy case, and then went down the freezer aisle. Derek was loading bags of green beans into one of the freezer cases. I had forgotten he worked on Wednesdays. I stood behind my mom, hoping he wouldn’t notice us, but he waved as soon as we turned the corner. “So how’s your summer going?” Mom asked. He smiled, “Fine. Been working here three days a week and practice has kept me busy.”
“What position are you again?”
“And your mom said you’re on the varsity team this year?”
“Well Sherri’s going to be a freshman next year,” my mom said. I closed my arms tighter by my sides and tried to face my back against the freezer cases, hoping that Derek wouldn’t see the sweat stains on my shirt. He looked past my mom at me and smiled, which made me look down at my feet. “Well, I’ll see you at school then,” he said.
Suddenly the shelves started to creak and the building swayed. I looked up to see my mom and Derek both staring down the aisle through the front windows at the thick gray clouds covering the sky. Within moments, sheets of rain were pounding against the glass. Then it happened. A flash of silver rippled through the sky, and then there was another and another. We ran to the front windows and joined the cluster of customers staring out into the parking lot. All sizes of fish were dropping from the clouds, their bodies slapping hard against the pavement and bursting, spouting blood and guts into the air. Some people in the store screamed as the fish exploded on the asphalt. One little boy tried to run outside, but his mother grabbed his arm and pulled him back. The fish landed in a hollow drumbeat on the cars, setting off an echo of car alarms through the parking lot. The store shook and I couldn’t tell if it was from the wind or the hammering of the fish and the rain.
Then as quickly as it had come, the rain stopped, dropping the last few fish out of the air as the clouds moved on. The chummy water drained into the gutters and once it receded from the doorway, a herd of people sprinted to their cars to turn off the alarms. My mom went back to the freezer aisle to retrieve our shopping and I met her at the cash register.
“Is that what you call flying fish?” George the cashier joked as my mom paid for the groceries.
“Guess so,” Derek said, trying to scoop the pink fish chunks that had made their way through the door into one pile with a mop. My mom and I loaded the bags into the cart and headed for the doors. When we stepped outside, a wave of rotten fish odor hit our noses.
“Je-sus,” I said, pulling my shirt up over my nose.
“Sherri!” my mother snapped.
“Still,” she said. The fish littered the asphalt. Fingerlike streaks of blood swirled through the puddles and I couldn’t help looking at the faces of the fish as we tried to maneuver around them, their mouths gaping open and glassy eyes wide. Maybe the shock of flying had already killed them, I thought, looking at a particularly big one that had landed near our car. The day was heating up again and the metallic smell of the fish was unbearable. My mom and I loaded the groceries into the car, and then got inside and turned on the fan.
“It still smells,” I said.
“It’s probably from our shoes,” Mom said. “We’ll spray off the floor mats when we get home.”
As we drove through town, I saw that the fish hadn’t just landed around the grocery store. A man was pushing them off of his car with a broom. A very happy cat had picked up one of the larger ones and was trying to climb over a fence with it. People were clustered around the piles of fish that had collected in gutters and on roofs and on lawns. When we drove past the park, a rust-red hawk jackknifed out of the sky, snatched one up, and carried it out over the trees. Even with the windows rolled up and the fan on, the stench was so strong I could taste it. The fish shimmered in the sun as we drove and it made me feel sort of sad to see their limp bodies stranded on the ground.
By the edge of town, the fish dwindled and when we turned down Fairview, there weren’t any at all. We opened the windows and the honey-sweet smell of wet dry grass filled the car. I imagined telling my dad about the fish. Even half in the bag, he would get a kick out of a story like that. Jace and Casey would think it was funny too. They’d probably ask Mom to take them into town tomorrow to see what had happened.
“How long do you think it will take for the city to clean that up?” I asked.
“Not sure,” Mom said, turning the car down our lane. “I hope they do it fast though. If they leave it too long, the flies will be worse than the fish.”
“I’m glad it didn’t happen at our house,” I said.
“Me too,” Mom said.
When we pulled up to the house, I could see that my dad’s truck was gone. “He must have found his keys,” Mom said. She walked into the house and I grabbed a couple bags of groceries from the backseat. Coming up the front steps, my foot rolled over one of the beer bottles and the grocery bags slipped out of my hands. Packages of pasta and cookies slid under the bench, the yogurt split and oozed its contents onto the porch, and the egg carton tumbled end over end out of the bag. I picked it up, hoping the eggs were okay, but the snot-like yokes were already leaking from its seams. I looked down at the bottle by my foot. My heart pounded harder as the raw egg dribbled down my arm and when a thick drop hit my foot, I became furious and I kicked the bottle, smashing it against the concrete steps. Chucking the egg carton into the bushes, I ran inside to get a towel, jamming the doorstop into place.
As I rinsed my arm off in the cool water of the sink, I became less angry about tripping over the bottle and more worried about having to tell my mom about the eggs. I didn’t want her to have to go to the store a third time. As I went back out to the porch to clean up, I thought I heard the door close behind me, but when I looked back, it was still wide open. I threw the yogurt and eggs into a garbage bag, wiped up the mess on the porch, and then brought in the rest of the groceries. The house felt eerily quiet as I set the bags down on the kitchen table. I went down the hall and found my mom sitting on her bed, her hands over her face.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
I thought maybe she had a headache until I noticed that her shoulders were shaking. She was crying. I wasn’t used to seeing my mom cry and the sight was unsettling. She was holding a note. My dad’s shaky hand had scrawled her name across the front.
“What’s that,” I asked. My mom wiped her face and folded up the note.
“Your dad’s gone,” she said, trying to control her voice.
“Gone where?” I said and she looked at me with pity.
“Gone for good.” She got up off the bed and put the note in her jewelry box.
“Can’t I read what he said?”
My mom shook her head. I felt my neck getting hot and I had the urge to snatch the note and either read it aloud or tear it to pieces. My fingers tensed, but then she pulled a tissue from the tissue box. I saw the pale gray streaks of mascara under her eyes and my whole body felt limp.
“I need to be alone for a while,” she said. “Do you mind putting the groceries away? I’ll be out soon.”
“Sure.” I didn’t know what else to say. She stood by the dresser, her fingers twisting her ring over and over around her finger.
As I unloaded the grocery bags, I tried not to cry but the tears came anyway. My knees started to shake and I doubled over onto the kitchen floor, longing to feel the hard tile against my hands. I thought about what I had said on the porch and couldn’t help but feel that I had wished my father away. I thought about Jace and Casey and for a moment I panicked that they would blame me too. They were too little to understand how bad Dad had gotten. They knew he’d get angry if they were loud or paddle them if they caught him at the wrong time, but they didn’t seem to notice the rest.
When I heard Mom’s footsteps in the hall, I made myself get up off the floor. I wiped my face and went back to putting the groceries away, hoping that she wouldn’t notice. She looked at the bags still on the kitchen table and I felt guilty again.
“Sorry,” I said, putting a box of oatmeal in the cupboard.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said softly. She helped me put the rest of the groceries away, and then she poured a glass of soda for me and opened up one of Dad’s beers for herself. My mom rarely drank, so it was worrisome to see her take a long drink from the bottle. I took a drink of the soda and almost gagged. It was cold, but it tasted too sweet. She took another drink of her beer, and then went over to the sink and poured the rest of it out. She set the empty bottle on the counter, and then turned around and faced me.
“I’m going to call Patty and ask if Jace and Casey can stay over at her place tonight. What do you think?” My mother had never asked my opinion on an adult matter before.
“That’s probably a good idea,” I said.
She nodded and went to make the call. I heard her ask Mrs. Johnson if it was okay in a forced cheerful voice, saying that I would be over to bring the boys their overnight things. I felt like I could hardly move, let alone walk to the Johnson’s. I ran my fingers over the glass, watching the condensation form long droplets of water that pooled on the table. My mom hung up the phone and came back into the kitchen.
“I’ll get a bag together for the boys,” she said. “Do you mind running it over to them?”
“No, that’s fine,” I answered.
She went to their room and I got up from the table to pour the rest of the soda down the sink. I hesitated for a moment, not wanting to be wasteful, but then I thought of its sticky sweetness and I felt my tongue go dry. I slowly poured the soda into the big white porcelain sink and watched as the brown liquid swirled, bubbling toward the drain. The smell of the beer mixed with the smell of the soda and made my stomach churn. Then I thought of the fish.
My mother returned with a duffle bag full of Jace and Casey’s overnight things. When she handed it to me, I was surprised how heavy it was. She must have seen the confusion on my face, because she said, “I packed them a few extra clothes just in case they need to stay longer.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I just want us to be prepared.”
“When you say us?”
“I mean you and me,” she said, giving me a reassuring smile. “Don’t tell them what’s happened yet. We can figure that out tomorrow.”
“Okay,” I said, but I wasn’t sure what she thought we would have to figure out. As far as I could tell, my father had already figured out the situation for us.
I slung the duffle bag over my shoulder and headed out the door. It was still hot, but there was a soft breeze coming down over the hills. I didn’t know how I felt about not telling my brothers about our father leaving. It didn’t seem like waiting to tell them was going to make it any better. Maybe Mom hoped that he would change his mind and come back and the boys would never have to know. It would just be like the other times he took off for a few days. When I was little, I asked him once why he left and he said that sometimes he needed to go clear his head, but he would always come back. This time felt different though. It seemed like over the past couple months his head never came clear. As I walked down the road to the Johnson’s house, I heard a blue jay call out from a nearby tree and I could smell damp pine needles in the air. For a moment, things felt almost normal, like every other time I had taken an overnight bag to the boys.
As I stepped up on the front porch, it creaked under my weight and Bella started howling. Her nails clicked on the tile inside and her floppy-eared head looked out at me through the sidelight. Being a basset, Bella was short but her huge body matched the power of her bellow. She snuffled around the door, excited for the visitor. I heard Mrs. Johnson tell her to get back and Bella retreated just as Mrs. Johnson opened the door. She had her hair tied up in a handkerchief and the apron over her jeans was dusted with flour. She smiled when she saw me and wiped a stray strand of hair off her forehead with the back of her hand, leaving a long streak of flour in its place.
“Sherri,” she said. “Come on in.”
“No thanks Mrs. Johnson,” I said. “I just came to bring Jace and Casey their things.” I handed the duffle bag over to her and she set it down inside the front door.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come in?” she asked. “I’m just finishing up some oatmeal cookies.” The smell of the cookies baking was tempting and I didn’t want to be rude.
“Sure,” I said after a moment. “I’ll just come in for a bit.” She smiled wide and stepped aside. This is what I had always liked about Mrs. Johnson, she moved in a way that was always a little theatrical. My mom had told me that when they were in high school, Mrs. Johnson had been into drama and almost always got the lead in the school productions. It was funny to imagine her playing Annie Oakley or Juliet, but it was fitting since some of that flair for performance just seemed to be part of who she was. Cole hadn’t inherited that streak.
I followed her into the kitchen and saw a stack of oatmeal cookies already on a plate and one cookie sheet just about to go into the oven.
“Sit down,” she said, indicating one of the stools at the kitchen counter. “I’ll get you a glass of milk.” I pulled out the stool and sat down as instructed. Mrs. Johnson went over to the fridge and bent down low to get the milk. She shifted her weight from her right leg to her left, her tight jeans showing off the sway of her hips. She always wore tighter jeans than my mom and undid the top two buttons on her shirts to show off her neckline. As she stood up, her bangs came loose from behind her scarf and she caught them between her thumb and forefinger, brushing them behind her ear. When she turned to get a glass from the cupboard, I ran my fingers over my own bangs, but they were still too short to reach behind my ear, so I just brushed them to the side. She poured a tall glass of milk and set it in front of me, then put the plate of cookies within my reach as well.
“Help yourself,” she said, grabbing a cookie off the top of the pile and taking a bite. “I shouldn’t be having any more of these, but it’s hard to resist.” She smiled at me and gave me a quick wink, then put her cookie down on the counter and went to put the full cookie sheet in the oven. I chose a cookie from the plate and took a large bite. It was heavily flavored with cinnamon and I got a raisin right in the first bite. I loved cookies that were warm from the oven. I took a drink of milk, which tasted cold and clean after the soda.
“The boys are out in the back,” Mrs. Johnson said. “They’ve been running around out there all day.” She washed and dried her hands, then folded the towel neatly and hung it on the drawer pull by the sink.
“Mom and I saw fish fall from the sky when we were at the grocery,” I said, and as soon as I said it, the sick feeling returned to my stomach.
“You’re kidding,” Mrs. Johnson said, looking genuinely skeptical.
“I’m serious,” I said, my stomach turning in a knot. “There were hundreds of them all over the streets and people’s cars and houses.”
Mrs. Johnson looked at me like she was trying to catch me out in a joke, and then her eyes widened.
“Yeah I’m serious.”
“Well how about that,” she said, looking impressed. “I might just have to find a reason to go and see this phenomenon.”
“They stank really bad though,” I said, remembering the smell again and wishing I hadn’t brought it up.
“I’ll bet they did,” she laughed. “As hot as it’s been lately.” She took another bite of her cookie and leaned her elbows on the counter. I took another drink of my milk and looked out the window. I saw Cole run frantically across the lawn, chased by Jace and Casey. Poor Cole, he was always outnumbered.
“Do you think it was a sign?” I asked Mrs. Johnson. She studied my face for a moment before answering, “I wouldn’t know about signs.” She finished the last of her cookie, and then stood up and spread her hands wide over the counter and leaned all her weight against them. “I think it means that it wasn’t a good day to be a fish,” she said. Although she tried to make a joke, I could tell that my question worried her. I laughed to bring the subject to a close and finished eating my cookie. I wanted to tell her about my father, but figured it was my mother’s place to share that.
“I’d better get going,” I said, finishing up the last of my milk. “Thanks for the snack.”
“Alright, tell your mother I said ‘hi.’” She walked me to the door. “I’ll have the boys home tomorrow afternoon.”
“Okay.” I stepped back out onto the porch. I could hear the boys hollering in the backyard. It sounded like they had finally caught Cole and were giving him a pink belly.
As I walked down the road back home, I realized that my father would have had to drive this way this afternoon and the sick feeling in my stomach turned to rage. How could he drive past the boys in the yard at the Johnson’s and keep going? I passed the old oak tree where he had hung the swing when I was little. Where he used to push me so high into the air that I would feel like I was flying. I would feel the breeze blow through my hair and my eyes would sting in the bright sunshine. When I was so high that I felt my seat lift off the swing, I would let go and just for a moment, I would be weightless, floating through the sky, before gravity caught hold of my ankles and I came tumbling to the ground.
NICOLE DAMON received her BA in English from UC Davis and is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction through UC Riverside’s Palm Desert program.