P.J. Underwood

Cryptid

When I get the let­ter from one of my cousins that my moth­er died, I quit my job wrestling in Florida then move to New Orleans and work at the Aquarium of the Americas as a night watch­man.  It’s easy to con­vince myself that I’m being proud, that I’m work­ing my way back home, instead of avoid­ing a small, emp­ty house or find­ing my mother’s grave in a ceme­tery full of low, met­al mark­ers. Bill Elk, this guy I grew up with on the Reservation knows I need mon­ey when I call.  I take advan­tage of this and he hires me then, offers his old friend a place on his couch.  He feels like he’s doing me a favor.

Training for the job takes a few days. It amounts to lit­tle more than tak­ing a few walks dur­ing the night, and spend­ing the rest of the time in the secu­ri­ty cen­ter, a room no big­ger than a clos­et. It looks like most of the ones you see on TV, small and dark, ringed by silent black and white squares, emp­ty, qui­et hall­ways.  Bill stays the first cou­ple of nights, squeezes into the cam­era room with me.  He shows me how to switch screens, zoom and pan.  We go on checks, right after we lock the doors at clos­ing, then again at mid­night, and a last time at four, just before the ear­ly staff gets there to feed the ani­mals and clean the exhibits.  The first week, Bill tells me hor­ror sto­ries, about how some night watch­man quit because they see things, or because they get tired of chas­ing peo­ple off after a few nights, or weeks, month or two.

After that, he tells me about all the ani­mals, eels and sea hors­es, white-spot­ted Amazonian sting rays, poi­so­nous frogs and pho­to­elec­tric jel­ly­fish no big­ger than one of my thumbs.  At night, the Caribbean sec­tion of the aquar­i­um looks vacant, all the aquar­i­ums dark rec­tan­gles, cir­cles and squares, like chunks cut out of the walls.  I ask him why some of the exhibits are dark, and he explains that some need less light at night, but that all of the tanks have noc­tur­nal set­tings, the illu­sion of day.

The last night he trains me, Bill brings a pack of hot dogs, cheap red ones squeezed inside thick cas­ings.  We stop in the Amazon exhib­it, at the piran­ha tank.  Bill opens the pack with a lit­tle fold­ing pock­et knife and pulls out a link, whole, and hands it to me.

Go ahead,” he says.

I toss the hot dog in the water, and crouch, watch it float, toss­ing end over end, down to the bot­tom of the tank. The fish twitch and low green light rolls along their sides ahead of a wave of shad­ow.  They stay in for­ma­tion with one anoth­er, nose to tail in an even cloud.  “They’re not doing any­thing,” I say.

He points at the tank.  “Just give it a sec­ond,” he says.  “They have to wake up.”

One of the fish breaks from the rest, noses down to the bit of meat.  Another darts in, and anoth­er.  The water churns in a cloud of sil­ver bub­bles around the hot dog and fish, calms.  The fish fall upward in the water, back into for­ma­tion, and I stand.  “Neat,” I say.  I try to sound inter­est­ed.

Bill leans on the tank.  He’s taller than me, but skin­nier, looks stretched in car­go shorts and a too short t-shirt.  He wears his hair the way we all imag­ine the old way, long to the shoul­ders and braid­ed in one, thick braid.  “Why do you want to work here?” He says.  He drops a cou­ple of pieces of hot dog into the tank.

I need­ed the mon­ey,” I say.  “And it’s on the way back to Oklahoma.  Why?”

You just nev­er seemed inter­est­ed in this sort of thing,” he says.  The water churns and he drops anoth­er chunk in, waits, drops anoth­er.  “In high school, it was all foot­ball and sports and drink­ing.  Same thing until you left col­lege.  Then you ran off to be a wrestler.”

Does it real­ly mat­ter why I want to work here?” I say.  “I need the mon­ey and I’ll do the job.”  I watch, as best I can, the fish attack the food, down in the low green night light, deep in the tank.

He looks at me, rais­es his eye­brows.  He shrugs a lit­tle.  “You just kind of dis­ap­peared.”

Overhead I hear a click and hiss, and thick mist tacks down on leaves and rocks, dim­ples water in the open tanks.  I turn my face up and it feels good until the water mix­es with the heat, thick­ens to humid­i­ty.  Bill breathes out, loud, through his lips, and lets the last few pieces of hot dog roll out of his hand into the tank.

Listen,” he says, “You know how it is back on the Reservation.”  He puts the remain­ing hot dogs in a pock­et, dips his hand in the water, quick, and wipes it on the leg of his shorts.  “My mom went to your mom’s funer­al, Cap.”  He puts his hands in his pock­ets.  “That was a month ago.  What are you doing?”

The water spits and rip­ples, sim­mers a bit, and the fish calm, flick them­selves back into neat rows.  “I’m try­ing to work my way back,” I say.  “I’ll get there when I get there.”

Bill looks like he wants to say some­thing else, but I ask him where to next, what else I need to know.  High up, in the ribs of the green­house, the sprin­klers stop.  A few more drops fall, slap the rocks and wide dark mouths of aquar­i­ums, slow­er, until they stop, too.

Nothing,” he says.  “There’s noth­ing else.”  He pulls a hand out of his pock­et, holds it up.  “I could spring for a bus tick­et.”

It’s fine,” I say.  “I think I have it cov­ered if you want to go home.  I know you’re sched­uled tomor­row.”

He tilts a lit­tle in the dim light to look at his watch, puts his hand back in his pock­et.  “It is late,” he says.  “Anyway, you nev­er know what might hap­pen.  Call if you need me.  I’ll lock the doors behind me.”  He turns and leaves, down an incline and away around a brown slump of ivy-crowned rock.

I watch the piran­ha a bit longer, blunt fore­heads nosed into the fake cur­rent.  I think about dip­ping my hand in, won­der what the fish feel like, the still, open eyes and slick scales, rough edges of uneven teeth.

*

The next day, Tuesday, I watch peo­ple file out through the doors at close.  Tourists leave first, a clump of over­weight peo­ple and skin­ny peo­ple, tall and short, for­eign stu­dents and art stu­dents with over-sized sketch pads and tack­le box­es of paint sup­plies; strollers and moth­ers, lit­tle, clus­tered sys­tems of rel­a­tives, aunts, uncles and in-laws.  A man walks by with his daugh­ter on his shoul­ders, a cou­ple behind them hold­ing hands.  Both look to be about my age, not quite into their thir­ties.  They go into the peo­ple crowd­ed around the doors and lose hands, but she grabs the back of his shirt between two fin­gers, and he reach­es back and hooks a fin­ger in the waist of her pants.  They look at each oth­er and smile, leave, and I lose them out in all the peo­ple.  After the last vis­i­tors leave, the girl that runs the gift shop pulls the cage across the entrance and looks at me.  I wave and she looks down, walks back to the reg­is­ter.  She opens it and starts pulling out mon­ey, arrang­ing it into stacks.

While the rest of the staff leaves for the day, I do my first check.  Inside, the aquar­i­um feels like I imag­ine a reef must feel, jagged and nar­row, small­er than it looks on the out­side.  With the low ceil­ing and the low hum of dim tanks, I imag­ine all the build­ing above, so close, like a depth of water, and the ground beneath my feet water, too.  I imag­ine float­ing there, alone, and have to walk through the arched water tun­nel at the Caribbean Reef tank look­ing at my feet, through the rest of the crowd­ed area and small­er tanks, the otter and pen­guin hous­es, the island ter­rar­i­ums of bright, croak­ing frogs.

I feel bet­ter when I get to the Amazon and Mississippi River exhibits.  The trees and brush are close and the open tanks smell like low tide, but I can see the glass ceil­ing over­head.  Outside, jet con­trails cross the sky like unrav­el­ing seams.  I stop and catch my breath, watch the sky pur­ple past white met­al and glass, out over the riv­er and the jagged sil­hou­ettes of pass­ing ships.

I fin­ish my walk­through and go back to the secu­ri­ty room, check all the cam­eras.  At eight, the phone rings once, twice, and I answer.

How’s it going?”  Bill says.  “How’d it go last night?  I guess we just passed each oth­er at home today.”

On one of the cam­eras, I watch shad­ows out­side the Gulf tank. Uneven black out­lines of sharks and small­er fish, a blot of tur­tle on the gray screen, pass across the floor and up the wall, dis­ap­pear into deep­er shad­ow at the ceil­ing.  “The fish are still swim­ming,” I say.

Bill clears his throat.

I lean back and prop an elbow on the arm of the chair, rest my head in my hand, and rock a lit­tle, back and forth.  “Was there some­thing else?”  I say.

You seemed angry last night.  You still seem angry.  I just want­ed to help,” he says, breathes heavy across the phone.

I don’t need help,” I say.  The cam­era in the gift shop pans across cof­fee mugs and shot glass­es, rows of stuffed otters and big-eyed pink tur­tles wear­ing hood­ed sweat­shirts, children’s t-shirts, plush pup­pets, socks, paper weights, world music sound­tracks for all the IMAX movies play­ing at the the­ater.  “Not any­more help than you’ve giv­en me.”  I hate to sound ungrate­ful, so I tell him the help is appre­ci­at­ed.  “I just don’t think you’d under­stand.  And that’s not your fault.”

You have to let some­one try, at some point,” he says.  I hear his stub­ble scrape across the phone.  “We were friends at one point.”

The gift shop cam­era pans back to its start­ing point.  “Have you ever noticed how every­one scat­ters when they leave the Reservation?  We all leave in ones and twos and threes.  You and I left togeth­er.  Then we all sep­a­rate and go our own ways,” I say.  “Is that how it works for nor­mal peo­ple?  Or is that just us?”  I lean for­ward and the chair creaks out a quick groan, met­al against met­al.  “I’m an orphan, now, and you’re the only Indian I still know.”

Go home,” Bill says.  “You still have fam­i­ly there.”

I have aunts and uncles,” I say.  “The same cousins every­one else has.  I’m going back.” I look at the the­ater cam­era, gray grain over rows of rigid, emp­ty seats.  “I just can’t yet. Ask me again after my first pay­check.”

Do what you have to do, then,” he says.  “I’ll see you in the morn­ing.”

I hang up and watch the screens a bit longer, a mosa­ic of black and white, fil­tered shad­ows, and the long dark of emp­ty hall­ways.

*

Later, I go to the bal­cony just off the food court and smoke a cig­a­rette.  Somewhere down along the riv­er, I hear an accor­dion, then a trol­ley pass­es behind the build­ing, under the bridge and away, and the accor­dion music goes, too, and all I hear are cars and far away yells, rough bar music over the low tops of build­ings.  I fin­ish the cig­a­rette and go inside, lock the door.

Something falls behind me in the food court.  It sounds like box­es and sil­ver­ware, emp­ty plas­tic cups clank­ing out across tile.  I turn around.

I’m a pro­fes­sion­al wrestler,” I say.  I hear some­thing that sounds like a sti­fled sneeze from behind one of the coun­ters.   “Who’s there?”  I walk over to the counter and I imag­ine I look like a car­toon thief, tip­toe­ing towards the low red counter and reg­is­ters, the stacked, emp­ty piz­za box­es.  “I know you’re back there,” I say.  “Come on up.”

I almost con­vince myself I imag­ined the whole thing when a girl stands up from behind the counter.  She holds up a hand.  “Hi,” she says.  She smiles.  She has dark hair corkscrewed with curls and green eyes, wears a plain white t-shirt with a pock­et and bag­gy shorts.

Can I help you?” I say.

This looks real­ly bad,” she says.  She chews on a thumb­nail.  “I can explain.”

What are you doing here?”

I lost my purse and got locked in while I was look­ing for it.”  She cross­es her arms, looks up at me.  “Are you real­ly a pro­fes­sion­al wrestler?”

Yes,” I say.  “You didn’t try to find some­one?  I didn’t see you on my walk­through ear­li­er.”

I got scared and hid,” she says.  “Plus, once I was here, I thought it would be cool to spend the night.”  She bends and starts pick­ing up clear plas­tic cups, stacks them upside down on the counter.

I put a hand on top of the cups.  “How old are you?  You want­ed to spend the night?”

She moves my hand and stacks a few more.  “Twenty-five, and yes, I did,” she says.  She fin­ish­es the cup and starts gath­er­ing the sil­ver­ware on a red plas­tic tray.  “I told you I got scared.  You’re a pro­fes­sion­al wrestler.”

Did you find your purse?”

No,” she says.  “I hid.”  She fin­ish­es putting all the loose sil­ver­ware on the tray.  “Do you mind if I put these in the sink?”  She nods back­wards with her head, towards the kitchen.

Yes,” I say.  “Put them down.”  I wave her towards me with a hand.  “Come out from behind there.”

She puts the tray down and the knives and spoons, forks, rat­tle. Out from the counter, she seems short­er, comes just up to my chest. I feel slug­gish and big, too small for my body when I see her shoul­ders, thin brown legs.

You’re tres­pass­ing,” I say.  “I need you to come with me so I can call the cops.”

She looks up at me, winks.  “Why would I want to come with you if you’re going to call the cops?”  She cross­es her arms.

You’re not going to make me chase you, are you?”  The drink machine shakes and a motor inside hums, ice clanks over ice.  “What’s your name?”

Jennifer,” she says.  “And you are?”  She offers me the back of her hand like I’m sup­posed to kiss it.

Cap,” I say.  I ignore her hand, scratch at my beard.

Like cap­tain?” She says.

My dad fought in World War II.  The sol­diers got com­ic books in their ration packs and my dad loved Captain America.”  I scratch my neck, all around the col­lar of my shirt.

World War II?” She says.  “You don’t look that old.”

He was almost six­ty when I was born,” I say.  “You lost your purse?”  I feel hot, and brush my hand through my hair.

Jennifer looks around the food court, at all the chairs on top of tables, the low glow of drink machines.  “Yeah,” she says.  “Could you help me find it?”

I’ve got to call some­one,” I say.  I start breath­ing hard, bend at the waist, put my hands on my knees.  “You’re not sup­posed to be here.”  The room tilts and I fall.

*

I wake up on the food court floor, and sit up.  Jennifer sits next to me, cross-legged, with a steam­ing paper cup, offers it to me.

It’s cof­fee,” she says.  “I went into Haagen-Daas while you were out and made a pot.  Was that nor­mal? The pass­ing out thing?”

I take the cup and sip.  “You shouldn’t be here,” I say.

She props back on her arms.  “I couldn’t leave, could I?”  Behind her, a scale Great White shark hangs from the ceil­ing, mod­eled in mid-strike, teeth float­ing out in a jagged cir­cle.  A scale Whale shark hangs next to it, peace­ful, trail­ing small­er fish and bits of sea weed sculpt­ed in imag­i­nary cur­rents.

Listen, just leave and come back tomor­row,” I say.  I wave her away.  “I’ll look for it tonight and put it in lost and found with your name on it.  I just want to be alone.”  I stand, put the cof­fee in the garbage.

She looks up at me.  “What if you pass out again and there’s no one here?”  She uncross­es her legs and stands.  “Is this a steroid thing?”

I wrin­kle my fore­head, squint at her.  “What?” I say.  “Why would it be a steroid thing?”

You said you were a pro­fes­sion­al wrestler.  I thought they did that sort of thing.” She uses both hands to hook hair behind her ears.

I feel myself start to breathe quick again and I take a few deep breaths, close my eyes, open them.  “I wasn’t that kind of pro­fes­sion­al wrestler,” I say.  I start walk­ing towards the secu­ri­ty room, around the atri­um rail and back past the frogs, through the dark press of black tanks in the Caribbean exhibits.

She fol­lows.  “What kind of pro­fes­sion­al wrestler were you, then?”

I walk faster and she speeds up.  “I was that kind, but I didn’t make steroid mon­ey.”

Did you have a wrestler name?”

I stop at the secu­ri­ty cen­ter door, turn around.  “Just leave me alone.  I don’t even care if you spend the night any­more, or if you find your purse or not.  I’m going to go into this room and I want to be left alone.”  I close the door and sit, lean back in the chair, and fold an arm over my eyes.

A few min­utes lat­er, she knocks on the door.  “Are you alright?” She says.  The thin door muf­fles her voice, makes her sound sad.

Don’t you have any­thing bet­ter to do?” I say.

She’s qui­et, and I think maybe she left.  I lean clos­er to the door.

No,” she says.  “Not real­ly.”

I lean back, throw my arms up.  “I can call the cops,” I say.  “I have a phone in here.”

You’re not going to call the cops, or you would’ve already.”

How do you know I haven’t?” I say.

I look at the bank of cam­eras, find the one that points down the long hall­way towards the secu­ri­ty room door.  She looks like a small ghost in the vel­vet grain of the cam­era. She sits with knees to her chest, back to the door, lays her head back and clos­es her eyes.  “Then you wouldn’t be threat­en­ing to call them now.”

You won’t leave me alone,” I say.  “This is like a hostage sit­u­a­tion.”

No,” she says.  “It’s not.  You can come out when you want.  You just won’t.”  She looks up, opens eyes tiny and dark on the screen.  “Why did you run away from me?”

You’ve got to leave even­tu­al­ly,” I say.  “People start get­ting here at five to feed the ani­mals.”

She looks at her watch, a tiny thing like a kid’s meal toy, cross­es her legs.  She rests her hands in her lap.  “It’s just mid­night.  We can talk until then, right?  Why did you run away from me?”

I look at the phone, think about call­ing the cops, Bill.  “Because you won’t stop ask­ing ques­tions,” I say.  “You won’t leave me alone.”

You seem awful scared of me to be a pro wrestler.”

Why are you stuck on that?”

I’ve nev­er met a pro wrestler before,” she says.  She looks up, and for a minute I think she sees the cam­era, but then she looks off, down the hall.  “It’s creepy out here.  Can you at least open the door?”

You could go home,” I say.

I don’t have a home.”

You could go to your par­ents.”

I don’t talk to my par­ents,” she says.  She stands, cross­es her arms, and faces the door, leans in a lit­tle.  “How about yours?”  Her voice sounds loud­er, clear­er.

My par­ents are dead,” I say.

I watch her stand out­side the door.  She sways a lit­tle, rubs her eyes with both hands, stops.  She looks away down the hall, and back at the door.  “Cap,” she says, “I think someone’s in here.”

I hear a crash some­where out­side, far­ther out in the aquar­i­um.  I look at the cam­era banks, scan the first row and the sec­ond.  Midway through the third row, on the cam­era out­side the pen­guin house, I see three peo­ple.  One stands to the side and the oth­er two yank at one of the bench­es screwed in the floor across from the tank.  They pick it up, and I cock my head, like a dog hear­ing an unfa­mil­iar sound, when the pair take three steps, and heave the bench through the glass.  One of them reach­es in and grabs a pen­guin, cra­dles it, wig­gling, across his body like a water­mel­on.  The three run off and around a cor­ner, appear on the next set of cam­eras head­ing through the fur­ther exhibits, dou­bling back to the front doors.

I open the door and look at Jennifer.  “Stay here,” I say.  I hear the pen­guin down­stairs, bleat­ing like a goat, quick feet, and hur­ried voic­es get­ting clos­er to the front doors.

I run out and down the atri­um stairs, just as two of them run past and through one of the front doors, one of them car­ry­ing the pen­guin.  I start out after them when the third runs out behind me.  He tries to stop and run back into the aquar­i­um, but I tack­le him.  I roll over behind him and lock one of his arms over his head, grab the oth­er wrist and pull it up behind his back.  I stand up with him.

You’re hurt­ing me,” he says.  He sounds like a teenag­er, wears black jeans and a tight black mesh shirt, sil­ver rings on all his fin­gers.

I twist his arm up fur­ther behind him.  “Where are your friends going?”

He laughs and I twist his arm until his shoul­der pops, falls out limp next to him, dis­lo­cat­ed.  I let go and he falls, grabs the shoul­der with a hand, starts cry­ing.  I go to my knees over him and punch him in the face.  “Where are they going?”

Jennifer stands at the top of the stairs. “Cap,” she says.

I punch him again and his head snaps back.  Blood flies out across the floor in a string.

I called the cops,” Jennifer says.  “You have to stop.”

I roll off of him and sit, legs spread out to either side.  I look at the palms of my hands, my bloody knuck­les.  I look up when Jennifer crouch­es next to me.  “Just calm down,” she says.

I lay my head on her shoul­der.  She curls her arm back around my head, cra­dles me into her neck, and I cry until the police get there.

*

After the cops come and ask ques­tions, cuff the goth kid, two of the three squad cars leaves.  The last cop tells me he needs to call who­ev­er is on duty to come to the Aquarium, and that Jennifer and I should stay on hand.  I go to the water tun­nel, a glass arch slic­ing through the Caribbean Reef exhib­it, and stop in the mid­dle.  Shadows like long darts pass across the car­pet.  A stingray swims over­head, a silent black kite in the dim water.  I close my eyes again, and imag­ine the build­ing a dark crush of water.

I’m not both­er­ing you, am I?” Jennifer says.  Veins of light cross her face, break and meld on her fore­head and cheeks.

Does it mat­ter?”  I say.

She looks down, and I tell her no, she’s not both­er­ing me.

So you didn’t lose your purse?” I say.

No,” she says.  She clasps hands behind her neck, touch­es elbows in front.  “I need­ed some­where to stay.”  Her arms fall.  “But I wasn’t in on the pen­guin heist.  I swear.”

Maybe not,” I say.

A stingray picks up a mouth­ful of rocks and drops them over­head.  They tum­ble down the slope of glass and fall through the water, irreg­u­lar dots of black in the murky.

You’re prob­a­bly going to get fired when your super­vi­sor shows up,” she says.  She looks up the arch of glass.

Yeah,” I say.  “I guess I’m going home.”

That’s not so bad, then,” she says.  She puts a hand on the glass, watch­es a fish pass and pause, swim away.

I watch her watch the fish, then I watch it go too, around an arti­fi­cial reef and out into the dark.  “That’s what I’ve been avoid­ing,” I say.

Why?”

I won­der why she cares, why I want to tell her.  I think about Bill.  “I hate the Reservation,” I say.  “We didn’t even live on reser­va­tion land because my moth­er was a white woman.  We lived out on the edge of town, away from every­one.  When my father died, she refused to leave.  All I can think is she must’ve been mis­er­able, that she must’ve died with all these faces around that looked noth­ing like hers.  My dad had five sis­ters, and they all hat­ed my moth­er.  I won­der if any­one was even there when she died.”  I look at Jennifer.

She blows over her hand and the con­den­sa­tion gath­ers around it, beads out across the glass.  “It’d be crazy to have a home and not go to it if you could.”  She looks up at me, hand still stretched out across the glass.

I look at her and think about my moth­er, about all the faces she must’ve seen before she died, aunts, uncles, and in-laws, cousins of cousins, wide faces and dark hair, like mine, like my father’s.

I look at the out­line of her hand, sil­ver water webbed between fin­gers, bent around the low­er curve of palm, through to the tank beyond, thick with slow shad­ows, silent in the crush of water.  The con­den­sa­tion warms and fades, all but the curves of fin­ger­tips, and those fade, too.

PJ Underwood lives, writes, and teach­es in Tupelo, Mississippi. “Cryptid” is the first chap­ter of a longer work.