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Science, Speculation, Space Opera

David James Keaton is currently in the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh and a full-time closed-captioner. He is also a contributor to The College Rag and a reader for Hot Metal Bridge.


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Shark With Thumbs

“What dost thou strike at, Marcus, with thy knife?”
“At that that I have killed, my lord, a fly.”
“Out on thee, murderer! Thou killst my heart.”

— William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus

You ever get the feeling someone is talking about you?

Iím right at the end of the movie when the speaker starts popping and I hear these words. Once a week, right when Iím finally starting to relax around this spiderweb of power cords and surge protectors, Iím reminded I can never trust the wiring around here. Never move somewhere just because you like seeing a river out your window.

I remember when a nearby lightning strike fried something inside the picture tube and put a freaky green line through the middle of the screen. That green line was there for about six months, mercifully getting smaller and smaller and almost fading away until it was just a glowing yellow smear in the corner of the TV, like Iíd smashed a lightning bug on the glass and never cleaned it up. I donít know if this room is some sort of electric Bermuda Triangle, but I canít risk any more equipment and thatís why I move fast whenever I hear a speaker snap, crackle or pop.

Iím ready to pull the plug when suddenly Iím hearing two voices from the speaker that arenít part of the movie. I know this because the movie was at the end, right at the part where everyone gets what they deserve, and all I should be hearing is gunfire, one-liners and big, dumb music. However, this whispered conversation is something youíd hear in the middle of a flick, maybe the beginning, when youíre not sure what the characters are really up to and youíre supposed to be all suspicious of everyone.

The sad thing is he has no idea I hate his guts.

I sit down by the speaker, actually thinking about getting a glass to put between the television and my ear to hear the voices better.

Remember his last story? Even the goddamn dog was rolling his eyes.

I adjust my legs to get comfortable, hoping the reception lasts a while. I know ďhearing voicesĒ is supposed to make you nervous, but it happens in this building sometimes. A couple times, a year back, when my surround-sound speakers were still working, I picked up some random banter between truckers. Itís the bad wiring that does it. Sometimes, youíll suddenly get three more people in the middle of your phone call, and youíll find yourself answering a question about the first time you stuck a finger up someoneís ass instead of answering your grandpaís question about car insurance.

But those fractured conversations lasted a minute at the most, and they were nowhere near as clear as this. This is like Iím holding the tomato cans between two people, but their stringís coming out both my ears.

If that bastard had any idea what people sayÖ

Right then, the speaker crackles and the voices are buried under static. I lean in closer and bang my head on the glass. Thereís a final POP! and I yank the cord from the wall. I sit with my back to the TV, feeling the electricity tickle my neck as both me and the equipment power down. I reel in the cord, wrapping it around my knuckles, working to bend the prongs straight.

I hold my breath when I plug it back in. Thank Christ it still works. I stare at the green stain in the corner of the picture. Itís back, but it doesnít bother me. Iíd watch TV if the whole screen was green. Nothing happens in the corners of a movie anyway. A green sunset in this western? The gunfighters wonít even notice.

00:00:03:57 - love without a life jacket

When I say thereís a long list of things about her that used to drive me nuts, Iím not talking about a sheet of paper, or even a stack of paper with both sides filled plus illustrations in the margin and a flip-cartoon in the corner to re-enact the top ten, Iím talking about the kind of list where you could stand at the top of the stairs and you let the pages drop and they bounce down the steps and unroll out the door and down the hill and across the street and over the cars and stray dogs are crashing through it like a finish line. Thatís how long my list is. And at the top of that list? That would have to be the way she used to walk into the bathroom to use the phone. It drove me crazy. Well, crazy enough to ruin my day. Luckily, thatís one thing I donít have to worry about anymore. This new girl I got? She stares right at me when sheís on the phone. She letís me listen to the even her most embarrassing conversations. Sheís never turning the volume down on the receiver in case the caller says something I shouldnít hear. Sheís never pressing the phone hard against her head, so afraid a secret would sneak out while she was talking. So hard her ear looks like a ripe tomato slice when she finally snaps the phone shut.

This new girl? Sheís got nothing to hide. Sheís in the bathroom right now, and I trust her so much Iím not even turning down the volume to listen to her piss.

Then the toilet flushes once, twice, and chokes on a third attempt. She walks back into the room, then slides down to her hip in a quick motion that would make any gunfighter shake in his boots. My smile slips when I see her phone drop into her pocket.

ďI thought you drowned,Ē I tell her.

00:00:28:09 - bugs canít use tools

Itís too cold to have a fly on the window, on either side of the glass. Thereís no leaves on trees. The birds are long gone. The morning before, I had to dig my car out from under the wake of a snowplow with red fingers. Thereís nothing alive outside without fur, nothing alive out there smaller than a rat. But there it is.

One of those big, blue-eyed garbage flies, crawling around the edges of the glass like it was summer out there, like there isnít a kid kicking the head off a snowman two houses down. In a daze, I pull the black tape off the window, taking some of the paint with it, knowing itís going to take another hour to seal that window back up. I yank it up with a grunt, cold air freezing the snot in my nose. Itís the first time Iíve ever seen a fly trying to get in instead of out.

What the hell do you feed it? Usually, youíre trying to stop a fly from drinking off the edge of your pop can instead of keeping it alive. So I just stand back and let it ricochet off the walls like a drunk hoping itíll find a stray cornflake or damp toenail to munch on. I watch it circle the room about six more times, increasingly confused by its behavior, cruising frantic figure-eights about a foot from the ceiling. Finally, I grab a stuffed animal still upside down in a corner from three ex-girlfriendís ago and chase it toward the bathroom. If Iím going to have a pet fly it should be near the bowl, right? I mean, Iím a pretty clean dude, but I figure if thereís anything around this place a fly can eat, itís going to be in there. Hell, cats and dogs get water bowls, donít they? I should write the name ďSpikeĒ on the side of my toilet.

00:00:42:31 - am I gonna eat what exactly?

The next day, this new girl comes over to watch a movie. Halfway through, the speakers start popping again, and while Iím screwing with the wires in the back of the box, she sighs and runs to the bathroom. And suddenly, Iím listening to her piss even though sheís 100 feet and a closed door away. Itís splashing so loud I flinch and think she squatted down over my head.

Thatís when I remember the fly.

Same old shit, you know? Why do I come over here?

The voice is fading, so I crawl over to my bookbag and pull out my headphones. I quickly try plugging the headphones directly into the TV and I get zapped with static instead. Like a fool I sit there, with the headphones unplugged and dangling, still listening for the voices. The headphones are new. Theyíre the kind that go into your ears instead of over them, sometimes too deep, the kind that you might lose in your head if you scratch too hard. Like I do. And just like they always told me would happen when people are talking shit, my ears start burning.

I have to go watch the rest of this horrible movie, if he ever gets it to workÖ

Iím so excited about hearing someoneís voice through unplugged headphones that, at first, I donít care what sheís saying. Itís not like the truckers I heard before. This time I can only hear one side of the conversation. Her voice is a non-stop sigh, like the endless hiss of a tire valve.

Maybe Iíll pretend Iím sick.

Then the toilet flushes, and itís as loud as a hurricane. I grab the sides of the TV in case I start spinning around a drain and get sucked down. Iím so wired about this discovery that Iím smiling like a maniac when she comes out, struggling to keep my new eavesdropping skills to myself. By the time we finish the western, I realize itís not just the headphones. The fly was in there with her.

Öthe first time Iíve ever seen a fly trying to get in instead of outÖ

This new power is coming from the fly.

00:01:34:07 - spiders are not our friends

After sheís gone home, Iím thinking I should call NASA or whatever government office deals with the physical manifestation of metaphors. Or, at the very least, spy on about ten more people I suspect are talking shit about me. Iím already making a mental list when I go back into the bathroom.

The fly is dying. At least, itís moving slower. My eyes follow its sluggish path until it vanishes into a crack in the porcelain box behind the toilet. I panic and shove the clock radio and empty box of tissues onto the floor and take off the lid, shaking my head in disbelief as I look inside. Impossible.

The fly is caught in a spiderweb, flailing like a drunk trying to navigate a beaded curtains at a party. Spiders in the toilets? Flies in the snow? Whatís next?

Suddenly, I know what to do. I tie it outside the bathroom window, and, just as I hoped, the cold air seems to revive it. Itís moving fast again, but it never gets back to full speed. Itís not going to last much longer. I check the clock radio on the bathroom floor to try and estimate how much time the fly has left. The display is flashing a green ď12:00 a.m.Ē since I never figured out how to set it. Now, Iíve got two problems. A time limit, Iím not good with math, and I canít get everyone into my bathroom to spy on them.

Staring at the word ďSpikeĒ on the bowl, I decide I should take my fly for a walk.

Once, my grandpa told me he used to stick flies to his fingers with honey when he was a boy.

ďWe were bored as hell back then,Ē he said, ďNow, donít think Iím reminiscing so I can tell you how it built character or any noble shit like that Ďcause the only thing playing with flies does is make you wish you had toys instead.Ē

He told me his flies didnít fly too long because he always smacked them just a little bit too hard to slow them down, sort of like my grandma.

Well, mine wonít last long either. I have to move faster than I am.

I look around the bathroom, find some dental floss the last girl left behind.

I have no trouble grabbing it out of the air, and itís still sluggish enough to tie a leash around its body without risking a swat to stun it, but the floss is too thick for a knot. I look around and around and around, and finally my eyes stop on the answer stuck to the side of my toilet, underlining my pet flyís name. I crouch down to get closer.

All this time I thought it was a crack in the porcelain but itís a long black hair stuck to the moisture on the side of the bowl. I peel it loose and hold it up to the window. Black. One of hers. I half-expect it to twitch like a severed spiderís leg. And even though itís just a hair, even though I havenít cleaned the bathroom since she left, Iím still amazed to find a piece of her still here. Iíd be less surprised to find a five-foot-five layer of skin sheíd shed, rustling and drying in a corner.

I tie the leash quick. Too easily. I decide itís because I had one of my hands buried in her hair for so many years that, when theyíre not connected to her head anymore, they still know my fingers and sometimes I can still get them to do what I want.

The fly grabs her hair and starts stroking it with two front legs. Does that damn thing have thumbs? Impossible. If bugs had tiny thumbs, they would have already invented the tiny wheel.

I tie it to my finger where the skin is still white from the ring she gave me. Then I put on headphones plugged into nothing, a power cord dangling down and tucked into a belt-loop. I start my day.

00:01:09:13 - bringing a fly to a fist fight

Iím out the door looking at my watch, and I see itís time for free doughnuts. The gas station makes new ones and throws out the old ones at exactly 8:00 every day. Theyíre always real cool about giving me those old ones, but you got to time it just right. The fly tugs on its leash, circling my ring finger, then resigning to wrap itself around the steering wheel. I worry about a sudden turn breaking the leash, so I pull over and carefully unwind the hair without breaking it, thinking about the old westerns my grandpa used to make us watch, and the way the cowboys made their horse stay put by dropping a leather strap across a bush or twig without even tying it up or anything.

Inside the gas station, the girl behind the counter smiles, and I grab one of each kind of doughnut before the kid can slide them into the trash. He sighs and waits for me to drop them into my bag, then he quickly clears the case. I take longer than usual because Iím trying to keep one hand behind my back. I donít know what would be worse, someone thinking that flies follow me around, or someone seeing that I keep one a tiny little leash.

When sheís counting the cigarettes behind her, I tie the fly to a bag of peanuts near the cash register, not really tying a knot, just winding the hair around the peanuts one time, then I run out to pump my gas.

Inside, I see the girl at the counter talking to the next guy in line and he throws a thumb my way. I quickly pull the headphones from inside my shirt and pop them in to see if this guy is talking shit. Amazingly, he isnít. But she is.

He just tries to act like he had no idea they were free even though he was in here last nightÖ

My head down, I run in and grab my fly. For the first time since I started going there, she talks to me.

ďYou paying for those peanuts, asshole?Ē

(continued on page 2)


Shark With Thumbs by David James Keaton 1 2
originally published October 14, 2009

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