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Fiction Issue - Phenotype

Third Place

Thursday January 8, 2015 05:00 am EST

The back of a spoon was the easiest way to do it. He would mill the pieces into a small heap of dust the color of peat moss and then swirl it into his coffee. But first a quick strike with the butt of the handle, aimed at the center line of the pill. The idea was to bisect it in one motion, with a clean little popping noise that sounded like a button snapping into place. He measured his success by how little powder was left on the counter when he swept the halves apart.


He lacked Kate’s eye for divining the tiniest asymmetry along the freshly chopped edges, which she would inspect by crouching until she was eye-level with the service line, circling her hand in front of her eye like a jeweler’s loupe. “Fractures mean instant disqualification,” she’d say, and then she would declare herself the winner after an “ahh!” and the discovery of some heretofore unseen flaw in his work. James would stand grinning at this daily arbitration, feigning outrage at his defeat. Then she would whisk her tray from the line and lead him to whichever table was the emptiest. She told him that she liked talking to him, and that he talked better when there was no one else listening.

He tried to replay one of her monologues in his mind as he swept the small mound of powder into the cup. He could not remember whether this combination was allowed, and wondered if caffeine could somehow interfere with the powder’s specific little mission to block a specific little protein from transporting serotonin from one place to another in his brain. But for James it was a necessary marriage of his old rituals and his new rituals.

He was surprised at the mildness of the tremors running through his hand as he sipped the coffee. Nine weeks of mailing applications had yielded one interview, and he was gripped by the contradictory impulses of both wanting and not wanting the job. Kate had told him that being an adult meant trying not to be late for shit you didn’t want to do in the first place.

He stepped outside into the morning warmth and turned and locked the apartment door, fantasizing about the fact that the next time he opened that door he would be retreating into the safety of the apartment. He turned to face the steps to the front yard and noticed a fat emerald beetle standing watch at the edge of the porch, its antennae jittering. The creature watched in silence as James began his walk to the bus stop.

His 32 days at Ridgemont had come about on the same day that he had written a letter of resignation on a legal pad and placed it discreetly in his old supervisor’s plastic in-box. He had the inexplicable idea that such a letter should be written on paper, not emailed, and so he had taken the pad to the hallway bathroom and scribbled against the wall. Even to a casual reader it was obvious that the author’s fingers had been trembling. The looping arcs of his signature wobbled like a polygraph readout. The supervisor did not even find the letter until the next morning, and by then he had already gotten the call from a highway patrolman.

Ridgemont had been the idea of James’s father, or so James was told, although he felt far more confident that one of the hospital’s caseworkers had suggested it. James blinked silently at the news, which was delivered by his father in string of commands at his bedside. James could refuse, he supposed. He was almost 30 years old and now that his weaknesses had been flayed open and displayed past the point of salvaging, was there any better time to offer contradiction? But he did not. He nodded and apologized again for the car and what this all would mean for the insurance premiums and said he just needed some time away and maybe this was the best way of getting it.

Four days later his father drove him the two hours to Ridgemont, and it was filling those two hours that terrified James well beyond the humiliation that might wait at the end of the drive. His father tried, to his credit. He told him that he probably needed some rest and that he had read that a lot of people had gone through the same thing. James spent most of the drive peering out the passenger window as the city was supplanted by yellowing pastures and billboards advertising the certain return of Christ. Occasionally he would tilt his head to nod at something his father had said, catching a glimpse of the older man’s eyes as they solemnly processed the long-gestating acknowledgement that his own progeny had grown so awry from expectations that consanguinity was all that remained.

Most of the conversation was about after, what would happen after. The precise goings-on at Ridgemont were not something his father would even attempt to predict or explain. What mattered was when James could rejoin the world, when routine would set in, when Ridgemont could fade and be subsumed into conquered family memory like the death of an uncle, or a dog.

In his early twenties, James’ father had apparently walked, unannounced, into a machinist’s shop in Statesboro and left with a job, and so now carried the notion that this was how employment was secured generally. “And I didn’t have a Master’s degree,” he would tell James, and James was never certain if this was a boast or a critique or some combination of both. He would tell James: “You can punch your own ticket.” James would nod. Once they reached the facility he would reach over and squeeze James’s shoulder and say, “Remember to call your mother.” His father was back on the highway by the time James had crossed the parking lot.

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Mostly there were classes, and pills. James had never been prescribed anything outside of antibiotics, but now the chemical workings of his brain were being diagnosed and remedied and catalogued on a spreadsheet. He crawled into his cot the first night and stared at the white cinder block walls and tried to determine if he felt any emotional impact at the realization that his mind had been declared broken by trained clinicians.

On the fourth day, the amber-eyed woman who had made James chuckle audibly in class by pantomiming a self-strangulation bounced over to him at a group meeting and asked him if he played baseball.

“Do I play baseball?”

“Yeah,” she said. Her gaze never left his, and she seemed conspiratorial despite the mundane nature of the question. James could feel himself stir.

“I mean, I played little league, but I kind of sucked at it.”

“Well,” she said, seeming to stretch the word well beyond one syllable. James knew that the word prefaced some invitation that he would be powerless to refuse.

She convinced him to sneak away during an outdoor session, and she led him out of view of the building and into a massive and overgrown field that contained a disused baseball diamond. The base paths had been overtaken by weeds, and the concrete dugouts slumped in the sun like abandoned bunkers on the Maginot Line. “I found this place one day,” she said. “I don’t think anyone else has been here in years.”

She said that she wanted him to teach her the rules of baseball, but as he spoke, he could tell that she was not listening, only watching. She smiled when he stumbled over words, smiled as she absorbed his mannerisms, the way he ran his hand across his forehead when he was being earnest. She smiled when he realized that he had been talking for too long, and laughed when he apologized. She told him he never needed to apologize to her.

The next night they slipped away at dinner and came back to find the field cast in the otherworldly glow of fireflies. Hundreds of fireflies buzzing together with the thickness of gnats. Kate squealed as she ran through them, covering her bowed head with her hands like a woman dashing through a rainstorm. They took shelter in one of the dugouts, watching as the fireflies crawled in undulating bunches along the safety fence. When the bugs flashed in sequence it made James feel as though they were looking at the night through an incandescent net, like they were being pulled to the surface from some inky and unknowable corner of the sea floor.

She told him that she had been here for months and no longer knew if she wanted to leave. She said she liked this version of herself better. As she spoke a firefly walked gingerly down the inside of her arm, stepping carefully over the scars until it reached the tip of her thumb and flitted off again.

James told her that one day he had quit his job and had gotten into his car and screamed until he felt something in his throat tear. He told her that he was watching the trees rush by on his way home and without really thinking he tilted the steering wheel towards them. He said that the moment he felt the tires leave the pavement he felt strangely powerful. Before he finished the story she kissed him.

James stood for a moment in the shadow of the massive glass building that might soon devour his weekdays. It was a very respectable-looking building. His father would be proud.

He was ushered to one of the middle floors, and a few minutes later an older woman leaned halfway out of a door and asked him to come in and sit down.

Her face was all polygonal sharp edges, and the way her bright red scarf swirled around her neck reminded James of a caduceus. Her eyes were pale blue but lightless, as if her retinas had been surgically plasticized to prevent the physical manifestation of emotion. James noticed that she was holding a copy of his résumé, and her eyes flicked back and forth from scanning the document to glaring dispassionately at him, as if she was attempting to algorithmically reconcile the person supplicating before her and the bloodless description of his achievements that she clutched between her fingers.

The conversation was steady but mechanical, and James was able to concentrate his efforts to maintain his appearance. He straightened his back and nodded when appropriate, and affected a constant, wry smile that he hoped would imply a resting state of unfailing pleasantness. A pliable sort of confidence. He toiled to ensure that his eye contact never faltered, even during the moments when he would pause to process a question and his eyes would naturally retreat to the subterfuge of their upper corners. The effort was tiring, but he was acquitting himself well. He took solace in knowing that this writhing exposure would soon be salved by its conclusion, by the sheer release he would experience once the elevator whisked him back into the anonymity of the lobby. The remainder of the afternoon could be spent in warm darkness, under blankets, or perhaps leaning his forehead against the cobalt tile of the shower until the hot water was exhausted. He could watch rivulets stream down the grout lines, bringing water to the emergent mildew civilizations clinging to the corners of the stall.

The woman’s progression through his résumé continued until she posed the question that broke James’s labored spell.

“March through June,” she inquired. “What happened then?”

He knew that this was, in the barest technical way, the easiest question that he had been asked, but still its import filled his blood with ice. He hoped to discard it casually.

“Oh, I took some time off then. And of course, a lot of that time has been job hunting.”

She nodded slowly. “Some time off,” she said, with her tone expressing acceptance of the answer but a projection of its true meaning that she had extrapolated from the sudden dilation of James’s pupils. With a dry click she unsheathed the tip of her pen and scrabbled something on the paper. Her pen strokes filled a gap of white space and also crossed directly over the printing, an invasion that James found unexplainably vulgar. She clicked the pen away again, and her gaze wandered to some place over James’s head. A clock, probably.

“I needed some help,” James offered, and her eyes snapped back to meet his own. He knew that the protections he had constructed around himself for the last few minutes had unraveled. This would be the only thing about today that she would remember.

“I had had some problems and decided I needed some help,” he said. He was only vaguely aware of the interviewer’s discomfort. The sudden flood of adrenaline from this revelation had pushed him into a gauzy between-world. He seemed to be watching this exchange from somewhere else, like a fly peeking through a ceiling tile.

He explained that he had spent some time at a “clinic,” choosing the word for its general application but almost instantly realizing that it carried connotations that might require their own explanation and revision. He explained that this was a necessary decision that had helped refocus him on his life and career, that he was “newly energized.” He flailed desperately to provoke some sort of understanding nod. But she watched him without reaction, and seemed to accept her newly ceded and complete situational dominance with a resignation that bordered on pity. James finished and folded his hands in front of him.

“Well, thank you for explaining, that’s helpful,” she said, putting no emphasis on any word.

James blurrily answered a few more inquiries, sacrificially presented to extend the interview to its allotted 20 minutes. He was grateful to her for that. He felt the static wash of adrenaline slowly dissipating from his neck and shoulders, like an electric shawl being pulled away. In its wake was an exhausting coldness.

She thanked him, and they both stood up and she opened the door again. Then she smiled a smile that reminded James of a cavefish.

On his last day he walked to her room to say goodbye, and it was the first time that she would not look at him. She smiled a wan smile and told him to remember their pill-splitting game and told him that she hoped he would be better at it the next time they saw each other. She hugged him with only her arms. He felt her flinch when he tried to pull her toward him, and so he dropped his hands to his sides. He wrote his email address on a piece of paper, and she took it and slipped it into her pocket and smiled in a way that made him know that this was nothing more than a procedure. He wondered if the drawers in her dorm were filled with notes like his, and the thought jabbed at his stomach.

The beetle had barely moved from the morning. Probably had little motivation to move, except for a quick and temporary scurry to take refuge between the boards when the postman arrived. Otherwise it could spend the better part of its day in stillness, perhaps occasionally lifting its gleaming elytra to allow its gossamer underwings to flutter in the breeze. James remembered how the fireflies would walk back and forth between his and Kate’s hands when they pressed them together.

The beetle did not scurry from James when he approached. It accepted his footfalls on the porch with expectant calm. James stopped at the door and looked down. Then he gently pressed his left heel into the porch inches from the creature’s spot and pivoted his foot outward until his half-raised shoe hovered inches above the animal. James waited a moment, expecting the beetle to come fleeing into view, attempting to wedge itself between the boards as a means to escape. Once perched on the underside of the porch, the beetle could release its grip and allow itself to tumble gently to the dark and grassy wilds underneath the porch. Once below it could embark on a journey for new territory through the lawn’s comparatively titanic weeds and dandelions, an insectoid pioneer hacking its way through unknown wilds.

But the creature did not move, and the ever-so-slight pressure James felt against his left sole when he brought his foot down was proof of its faith. The sudden darkness that had blotted the creature’s compound eyes became an enormous pressure, pinning the bug to the wood, inspiring a sudden and desperate flailing of legs and abortive attempts to spread its wings. To James this struggle involved only a whispering series of audible fractures until the gaudy pop when the creature’s thorax burst. He pressed further and the mass under his foot crackled as chitin buckled and flattened and microscopic organs were pressed into jelly.

James raised his foot and stared for a moment at the remains of the beetle. Then he opened the door and went inside and sat down.

On his last day she watched him wait outside until a car pulled up to take him away. She guessed that his dad was driving. She watched as he threw his bag in the back seat, and then he said something to the driver and turned and looked back at the building. She did not know if he remembered that her dorm faced the parking lot but she could tell that he was looking at each of the windows. She ducked away and finally he gave up and got inside the car and shut the door. She lay face-down on the bed until she couldn’t hear the engine anymore, and she stayed there for a long while after.


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Jeremy Fisher is an attorney and former journalist who recently relocated to Savannah after spending six years in Atlanta. “Phenotype” is his first work of published fiction. He is currently attempting to find the time to complete a novel, subject to the whims of his 3-year-old son.