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Julia Elliott

Jaws

Even though I hate my husband almost as much as I hate myself, I feel compelled to keep my body fuckably fit and freckle-free. Why else would I deck myself capapie in a UV resistant white nylon outfit, topped with a silvery 2-ply hat with mesh panels for airflow and a UPF 45 rating? Not just to avoid skin cancer, but to prevent premature aging too. This is my get-up as I loll by the pool, watching my parents splash around in the pissy chlorine with other leathery senior citizens, getting uglier and sicker in the poison sun. As my tiny mom sports like a porpoise, my big dad mills around, careful not to wet the sprayed wing of the comb-over he has obsessively maintained since Iíve known him.

Momís girlish voice never ceases to narrate her thought processes as she frolicsólook at the dog; look at the airplaneómy father wading grimly around her, watchful, waiting for her to say something. For instance, she has refined her ice-breaker for addressing racist remarks to black children: come here my little black brother, sheíll say, before lapsing into a reverie of the childís inevitable stardom as a basketball player. God told me to say that, she tells us when we scold her. And of course, scolding her is pointless, for a loss of social inhibition and appropriateness is symptomatic of Pickís disease, and so criticizing it would be like criticizing a tumor. But still.

At least she hasnít demonstrated signs of inappropriate sexual advances, a potential symptom so tragically comic that I havenít allowed myself to imagine its possibilities. Giddiness, memory loss, repetition, stubbornness. Constant talking or else, long periods of silence. Pickís sufferers cling obsessively to shards of the world as it collapses and shrinks and everything outside their bubble becomes nonsensical. One case study told of a woman who, in her last months could utter only the word ambassador. Ambassador. Ambassador. Ambassador. Her last link to the physical world.

Dad is on orange alert for Mom has accosted a lady whoís dipping a violet toenail to test the water. The womanís tobacco-cured skin clashes with her day-glo purple bikini, and festooning her burnt flesh with gold jewelry does not seem like the best strategy for downplaying the appearance of liver spots and potentially malignant moles, but to each his own. Mom is standing in the shallow end, her cropped gray hair sticking up in random punk-rock-style spikes.

"But youíre just so skinny, skinny, skinny," she cries.

"Well thank you," says the woman.

"I need a breast reduction," says Mom, grabbing her lycra-clad breasts and holding them up for the lady to inspect.

The woman laughs and retreats to her chaise.

"Iíve had four children," screams Mom, clutching her belly and ambling through the water after her, "and Iíve got a stomach, stomach, stomach."

Now the pool area is an amphitheater and Mom is delivering a speech, my Dad tense in the shadows like a half-wit politicianís handler.

"But my daughter is skinny, skinny, skinny" [pointing at me]. "There she is. Sheís the smartest person in the world. Sheís a professor."

All eyes are upon me, so I indulge the crowd with a movie-star wave, not bothering to explain that Iím just an adjunct prole exploited by a corporate university and not a real professor, then I turn back to my beachbookóNightmerica: How the American Dream Went Badóthe perfect read for fun in the Florida sun.

At Cornucopia, the cavernous all-you-can-eat international super-buffet where products of industrial agribusiness simmer in giant troughs, Mom has foraged her meal and returns to the table, her plate heaped with deep-fried tidbits: fried clams, fried shrimp, fried lobster, fried crabs, fried fish, fried chicken, fried steak, fried pork, fried potatoes, fried onions, fried batter.

"You need to eat some vegetables," says Dad, who has added a blue-cheese-smothered salad of pesticide-saturated GM iceberg lettuce to his pile of garbage.

"Thatís not good for you," he says.

"It is good!" screams Mom, jerking her plate away as though Dad wants to snatch her food.

"Good for you, Betsy, not good."

"It is good," says Mom, her pouched brown eyes quivering behind glasses.

Do I detect a glint of slyness? I wonder, for during my childhood my mother was in some ways the shadow-governor of our house, the manipulator, the ever-scheming dumb-playing domestic Machiavelli, and though her bubble of understanding has shrunk, her control-impulse is stronger than everóher innate drive for power.

"Of course itís good, Betsy, fried meat is high in saturated fat and cholesterol, but not good for you."

"It is good," screams Mom, smacking on a shrimp. "Look at the flowers," she says, pointing at the vase of plastic hibiscus that rests on a pearl-white baby-grand Iíve yet to see played. "Arenít they beautiful?"

"Tell her Kate. Tell her what sheís eating isnít good for her."

Iím in a bind. Should I conduct a preemptive strike against my father, barraging the old man with factoids from Fast Food Nation, Deadly Harvest, and Double Helix Hubris, or should I be realistic, mature, diplomatic, and lie?

"None of this junk is really good for you," I say, "but some of it is worse than others, and I guess genetically modified, chemically grown, frozen vegetables are better than no vegetables at allóthe lesser of two evils, as fools said in our last presidential election."

"Are you saying Iím a fool?"

"No, I was talking about certain voters in the 2000 election."

"Well some people take things too far," says Dad, removing a piece of grilled poultry from a shish kabob. "No reason to be a fanatic. Food is food."

"Actually, so-called food is not always food and is becoming less foody every day," I recite. "And every time you eat a meal like this youíre supporting corporate agribusinessís food-supply take-over and malnourishing your body with chemically-saturated, processed CRAP. Look around you; everybody looks diseased. America is full of starving gluttons. Most of these people are broken down by the SAD and no telling what kinds of effects all these GM . . ."

"The sad what?" says Dad, forcing his grimace into a superior, listen-to-this-lunatic smirk.

"S-A-D. Standard American Diet."

"Are you saying I look diseased?"

"I never said . . ."

"Kate, why donít you eat something," interrupts my mother. "There are all kinds of fruits and vegetables. And itís all natural, natural, natural."

Mom skips off into the labyrinth of troughs, wedges herself between two obese cripples whoíve been wheeled up to feed, heaps her plate with desserts, and returns to the table.

"Want some?" She asks.

I shake my head.

I imagine my husband weeding his vegetable garden, and while the angry side of me wants to decapitate the self-righteous prick, and my paranoid side wonders if such a passionless bastard would ever think about cheating on me, the loving and sensitive soul deep within me, gagged-and strait-jacketed by bitterness, misses him.

"Whew," says Mom, putting down a Pepto-Bismol pink spoonful of M&M-studded pudding. "I ate too much" (she always says this). "I wonít have

to eat a bite of supper" (she always does).

She looks uncomfortable, hypertensive, depressed. In the spasmodic light of the florescent chandeliers, her complexion is the color of Spam.

Sunburned and sandblasted, we sprawl in the crypt-cool efficiency, on furniture screaming with orange passionflowers. The white carpet is dingy. The cheap bedspreads are made of a nylon material that reminds me of a maxi-padís dry-weave. The balcony overlooks a sizzling black parking lot dotted with dumpsters. The whole vacation package had been slashed 60% due to the war, the diseased economy and terror alerts, and who else but the suicidal or moronic would find themselves in such a hysterically festive prison, the sun swelling like a herniated organ in the ozone-starved sky?

My Father and I are lazily arguing, while my mother, as usual, sits scrunched in a chair, biting her nails and looking at us, waiting for her next cigarette craving to give her life shape.

"You have what I call a hyperbolic condition," says Dad.

"What I say seems like hyperbole to you because your views are based on disinformation from the corporate media."

"The radio is conservative, but everybody knows television and newspapers are liberal."

"Donít tell me youíre buying that liberal media propaganda?"

"Propaganda? Youíre paranoid."

"No reason to even argue with a fool who thinks the corporate-owned media is liberal."

"How can I have a discussion with someone who attacks me on a personal level?"

"Look whoís talking about ad hominem attacks."

"You called me a fool".

"You called me paranoid."

"Kate, says my mother, if you and Tim ever have a baby, itís going to be the most beautiful baby in the world. And smart, smart, smart. It will have a perfect nose. It will have a perfect mouth. It will have a perfect . . ."

"Yes, I know," I say, for weíve heard this rhapsody at least a hundred times, but how can we complain when Mom sits for hours, biting her nails and listening to conversation as impenetrable as Arabic?

When I first became aware of the extent of Momís mental deterioration, my husband and I were living on the dark side of a mountain in North Carolina, renting a moldy cabin from a couple of rich hobbyist goat farmers, our isolation growing as absurd and tedious as a Beckett play. The place reminded us of Austria, that hauntingly beautiful void with the highest suicide rate in the worldóthe mountains make you too cerebral, we tried to explain; after a certain altitude, itís hard to get drunk, we complained. My parents had come for their annual summer visit, and we were sitting on the back porch, enjoying jug wine and the breathtaking view that had become as cramped and monotonous as madness.

I was reminiscing about my first boyfriend, a weird hysterical guy with a huge butt, and Mom couldnít remember him. I went through the roster of my childhood friends and my mother, previously an archivist of gossip with an eye for bodily oddities, remembered not a one. How about Richard Simmons, whoís that? I asked her, and she couldnít remember. George W. Bush? I asked. George Bush, she said, that rings a bell. Tom, who is George Bush?

Raiding the junk-rooms of my brain, I called out names: Osama Bin Laden, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson. She didnít know who they were. Whatís a shovel? I cried. Scooper, she said. What are these? I asked, pointing at my nostrils. Nose holes.

"How about a tampon?"

"I donít know."

"Whatís a dragon?"

"A long short crawler," she said.

When I took my usual evening hike with my husband and wept the whole way up the mountain, he said, donít exaggerate. I glared at him for a seething minute and then darted down a trail alone. After I got back, I got drunk, ignored my husband, and spent the rest of the night subjecting my mother to demented quizzes: Why do people eat? Whatís electricity? Cancer, pedophilia, pesticides, SlimJims. Humidifier, bunions, pampers, NAFTA. Tadpoles, Telletubbies, Rasputin, Atari. Apocalypse. Tupperware. Daddy-long-legs. Byzantium, Los Angeles, Hell. What is love? Where do Babies come from?

"If you get pregnant in, letís see, August, September, October, or November," Mom says now, "you can plan your baby for the summer."

"Easier said than done," I mumble, not explaining that weíve already been trying, that Iíve actually been pregnant, that, in fact, I have a "baby" (a clot of swamp-scented blood) frozen in a Brown Cow Organic Yogurt tub.

"You know what I gotta do soon," says Mom, clutching her pack of Doral Menthols, always thinking about the next thing. Halfway through any event she rushes to get it over with in anticipation of the next event, which gives her life shape. And if she doesnít have something on her agenda, sheíll quiz you about yours, try to take control of your schedule, until you lose your shit and scream at her.

Mom scurries to the balcony to smoke. Dad fixes himself a ham sandwich in the kitchenette. I retreat to my cubicle and shut the door. I lie on a garish bedspread made from petroleum, from the rot of ages condensed in a subterranean lode and pumped out of the earth, refined, spun into textiles and dyed a hot toxic pink. I am ovulating. I wonder how many women in this complex, this hive, are ovulating, ripe for fertilization, their bodies still hoping.

Morning, and I am jolted awake, jerked back to the past by that pimp of memoryósmellóa huge waft of frying bacon and aerosol hairspray, blending together in a chemically volatile way. But something is missing. Cigarette smoke. The morning fug of my childhood consisted of cheap fried meat, Dadís hair spray, and cigarette smoke (both of my parents smoked all my life, but only Dad was able to quit). I remember a time when I didnít question this poison, didnít criticize it, didnít rebel against it. It simply was, and my parents and I were intermeshed in the deep bonds of necessity, of habits and stinks, loves and poisons shared. My mother had spent her life frying meat for us, addicting us to fat, sugar, and caffeine, initiating us into the toxic world, weaving our very physicality, running our lives. She wanted to do everything for us; she hadóhasóa vicarious personality.

Mom scurries into my room without knocking.

"Are you awake?" She asks. "Weíre going to Universal Studios today, remember? I canít wait."

"Me either," I say, my sarcasm undetected.

She leans over the bed and I smell fecal coffee breath, a halitosis unique to smokers who drink sugared coffee, familiar and memory-stirring, but worse than it used to be.

"Do you have your clothes ready?"

Sheís looking through my duffel bag.

"Can I iron something for you? Do you want some coffee? Did you bring toothpaste? Do you need to take a shower?"

"Iím getting up."

"This is darling," she says, holding up a linen sundress. "Let me iron it for you." And she is out the door before I can protest.

As Mom irons my dress in their bedroom, Dad and I eat toast in the kitchenette. He clears his throat.

"I need to discuss something with you," he rasps, almost whispering.

"Your mother and I have written our will," he says. "Everythingís in order, insurance policies, CDsóitís all in a safety deposit box. But I need to talk your mother into putting everything in my name."

"Why?"

"We have to think realisticallyóabout the future. Look it straight in the face, no matter how ugly that face is. In case she ends up in long-term care. Weíve got to sign everything over at least four years before. Otherwise they can take everything we own."

"Who are they?" I ask, but before he can answer Mom runs in with my dress, which is covered in strange creases, haphazardly starched. Gripping the limp dress in her fist, she glances from my face to Dadís, wondering who we really are and weíre plotting.

"When are we getting on the boat?" asks Mom for the tenth time, her voice a brass trumpet. Her roasted legs remind me of Chinese chickenwings, skinny, sticking out of lime green shorts.

"Soon," says Dad. "Be patient. Itís a popular ride."

The last thing I ever thought Iíd find myself doing is standing in line at an amusement park beneath a merciless afternoon sun, but a wrecked life will take you on strange adventures. The heat, the asphalt stench, the fair-food aromas entice dormant addictions from my cells. I long for a corn dog. I feel hungry, excited, sick. The ugliness of the pot-bellied couple in front of me glistens in rococo detail. They are gloriously grotesque, with gleaming ham-heads, while their tiny blond daughter is beautiful, brown, smooth as an egg, fine-boned and covered in ethereal down, as though her health and beauty feeds off theirs. The angel child glows in the sun, a miracle beside such hideousness. She he flexes her shoulder blades, eyes my strange hat, whispers something to her dad. The parents slump and fawn.

"I can tell youíre smart just by looking at you," says Mom, leaning over the girl, who hugs her motherís curdy thigh and giggles.

"Thanks," says the girlís Father.

"My daughter is the smartest person in the world," Mom declares. "Let me tell you something," she says to the girl, "if you study and go to college, then you can be . . ."

There is nothing my Father and I can do but ride it out, as though my mother is having a seizure. If she says something inappropriate (like I love you, an increasingly popular declaration, reserved, so far, for people she already knows), I can always make the lunatic hand-signal, twirling my fingers around my ears. But then again, the longer sheís preoccupied with the family in front of us, the less likely she is to insult the black kids behind us.

"Here comes the boat! Here comes the boat!" screams Mom, and the little girl looks at her and wrinkles her nose, not sure if Mom is doing this for her benefit.

"I canít wait to get on the boat!" Mom cries, pressing forward. "I canít wait!"

A teen captain eases a glittery fuchsia boat into the channel and coasts up to dock. Tourists file out.

"Oh, what a big boat. When can we get on?" asks Mom, craning to see over the heads in front of us.

"Just a minute Betsy, be patient," says Dad. "The other passengers have to get off first."

The captain, watching us through orange sunglasses, chews gum, lolls in the fighterís chair. Itís finally our turn. Mom pushes forward and sits beside the couple with the daughter. Thereís one seat left in the row, and Dad takes it. Then Mom says she wants to sit by the water and they switch. I sit behind them with the teenagers, who are trying to scare each other. "Shark!" they keep saying.

The girls sport small platinum beehives and silver eye make-up, the boys afros and iridescent high-tops. I suspect they are making fun of my UV outfit, which looks like a distant cousin of the chemical suit, and I realize that I have reached that crucial age when hipster weirdo devolves into dowdy eccentric, uncool loon.

We float in a fake channel connected to a fake bay fed by the blinding blue ocean. I smell marsh and tar and gasoline. The sky is a blue bubble of gaseous flame. I hold my hat as we lurch off into open water.

"Here we go!" Mom screams, and she is like a monkey in her seat. My Father smiles a martyrís sad smile. They never really connected with each other. He has always wanted to write a novel, has written chapters over the decades but had to put it off and put it off, until he finally stuffed it into the silvery twilight of his retirement where all of his other dreams have been crammed.

The boat churns sluggishly, then stops. The primordial vision of a fin appears, knifing through blue wateróthe theatrics laughable but faintly, viscerally, horrifying.

"Shark!" cries one of the boys behind us.

"Where? Where?" says my mother. "What is it, Jim; what is that?"

"A shark, Betsy."

"Whatís a shark?"

"A huge killer fish with sharp teeth, but itís not a real shark. Itís Jaws."

"Jaws?"

"From the movie."

"Here it comes," says the blond girl. "Here comes the shark."

"Here comes the shark," my mother repeats, grinning and leaning over the side of the boat, stretching her arm out as though she wants to feed the shark. As the fin weaves toward us, and the huge back of the beast darkens the clear water, a boy behind us lets out a fake scream.

"Here comes Jaws," says the blond girl.

"Here comes Jaws, Jaws, Jaws," says Mom.

"OH MY GOD A SHARK. WATCH OUT!" booms the captainís voice over a loud speaker, mock dramatic, as though heís reading a childrenís book. And up pops Jawsí mammoth head at the familiar angle, all gulping mouth and gleaming teeth. Tongue slick and writhing. The archetype of engulfment. A little rubbery and mechanical, but pretty impressive. And huge.

Mom sits stunned, staring right into the abysmal mouth, then yelps and jumps into Dadís arms. Their physical contact makes me uncomfortable; I look at the water. Jaws sinks back into obscurity, swims under the boat.

"Itís not real, Betsy. Itís a robot," says Dad.

"Whatís a robot?" Mom asks, shivering and biting her nails. The kids behind me are snickering. The blond girl is staring hard.

"A machine, Betsy."

"Is it trying to kill us?" she asks.

"Of course not," says Dad.

"THERE IT IS AGAIN; ITíS TRYING TO KILL US!" declares the captain, the words booming from the sky as though narrated by God.

Jaws has popped up on the other side of the boat and my mother is crying, her face ripped open at the mouth, loose around the eyes, ravaged by decades of cheap food, polluted air, carcinogenic sun, disappointment, and my Fatherís well-composed face is devastated by a twitching grin.

The captain lazily grabs a harpoon gun and shoots the shark in the back. A geyser of steam bursts from the wound; magenta blood spurts out.

"Kill it, kill it!" shrieks my mother.

But Jaws, hard to kill, sinks out of sight, lurks around in the vast deep.

"Is Jaws dead?" Mom asks.

"I donít know," says Dad. "But itís a robot, Betsy."

"Is Jaws dead?" Mom screams at the captain. Everyone is looking. I feel a mutated version of adolescent shame, deeply self-centered. Then I feel detached, relieved that Iím sitting one row back, that I donít live with them any more, that I have my own lifeómaybe I havenít wrecked it for good.

Jawsí next appearance, unannounced by the captain, takes everyone by surprise, and the entire boat lets out a primal wail, quickly followed by chuckles that subside as the prehistoric monster gnaws at the cable with its razor teeth, jerking the boat from left to right. My mother, screaming like a terrified lab monkey, attempts to crawl up my Fatherís leg. She wonít stop screaming, ruthless and ear-splitting, and people are struggling with the shapes of their mouths as they take in the spectacle.

I try to stand up to help my parents, but they are locked in an embrace, exclusive and distant, and my body is caught in an alien, gut-shaking convulsion that slams me back down in my seat. I shudder with horrible laugher as tears stream down my cheeks.


Julia Elliott teaches English at the University of South Carolina.  Her fiction has appeared in Fence, Third Bed, Black Warrior Review, and on Webconjunctions.  She has a story forthcoming in the winter issue of Puerto del Sol. 

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