Stephen Jarrett

Chum

Walleye fishermen watch Mabel as she wades into the Maumee River with a cinder block cradled in her arms. As a girl, her unemployed father forced her to accompany him to these very banks during bluegill spawning season. Together they caught sunfish with push-button rods until it seemed outright homicidal to keep casting. Dragging the blood-stained Igloo cooler past the stadium of the Toledo Mud Hens while her father said “We’re set for Winter!” was about as enjoyable as eating defrosted bluegill filets, illegally-buckshot songbirds, and discount pinto beans stacked in a pyramid in her basement, she’d tell you. Grade school was really great, she’d tell you. High school life devolved to the point where she’d cut-off potential antagonists by saying: “Yes, I am the ‘Sunfish Bitch'; Yes, I am wearing my Aunt Donna’s second-hand track suit; Yes, I have appeared topless at GLORIA’S EXOTIC NIGHTCLUB.” Each observation was shouted by a different hungover Christian during her salutatorian speech at graduation – “Past the Trials of Pubescence: Onward to Our Dreams,” – which she delivered with steely composure, applauded by her only advocate, Choral Director, Janet Barr.
Today, Mabel’s vegetable Lo Mein broke through her CHINA LIN take-out bag, and she watched as an unleashed Labrador lapped the noodle mound off the sidewalk, its ears inside-out and in full bloom – pink – like a pair of tulip flowers. Following a maelstrom of entranced slopping (it was pleasant, she thought, to see someone so happy), the grease impression of a face remained on the asphalt and Mabel tried to be like her co-worker, Casandra, who saw Mother Mary in machine-mutilated cheese puffs and accepted divine compassion in the form of “profane omens.” Inverting the bag to look through the shredded hole, she too felt like a bag punched through the bottom.
When Herbie broke off the engagement, she was alerted not by a well-rehearsed phone call, but by the FlightTracker application installed on their cellphones, which showed Herbie (or at least Herbie’s phone) headed towards Odessa and not the erectile dysfunction pharmaceuticals convention in Lincoln, Nebraska. She had folded his ties in preparation for the trip; he’d even showed her the digital slides of a fake presentation – flaccid to engorged penises encased in neon with animated evidence of nitric acid flare-ups. She found him on the Internet three years later, engaged to a man in the Netherlands with whom he was raising adopted triplets in a minimalist cottage made of bamboo and hematite.
Was it Lovecraft who said: “I have seen the dark universe yawning?” No one seemed to care about Herbie’s marital wavering, his Odessa exit, or what it felt like for Mabel to forage for crickets with her father on the shoulder of I-90 while he muttered “Free bait, bubba,” to the sound of taunting cars, and how, if they had lived in a different kind of world, this could have been a good memory. In the yawning universe, Mabel bought her father THE WORLD’S LEAST PAINFUL CATHETER from a television ad while he ate bluegill cheek out of a sandwich bag, and her mother watched I Love Lucy and laughed at Ricky’s “Cuban hijinks” while the apartment’s eight inefficient fans whirred the collective aural likeness of a B-17 hangar. In the yawning universe, Mabel pressed her naked breasts against the impenetrable, sound-proof glass of GLORIA’S… “Drive-Thru Rack ‘N Ass Barn” to the still-audible sound of a suburban packed with teenagers playing Freddie Gibbs’ “Let Ya Nuts Hang.” She wore a mask without the owner’s permission, and always looked to the side of the glass, into a corner of the dark yawning universe, fantasizing about a colony of seasteaders she’d read about in National Geographic, pacifists who were developing a small but self-sufficient flotilla in international waters off the coast of Paraguay, where the “barracuda problem” was slowly but surely being attended to. Their website lacked certain textual assurances one would desire in considering the permanent sea-life (desalinization techniques), but the group photos struck her as promising. She had never left Toledo.
As barges move shale-colored cargo down the Maumee on the way to Lake Erie, honking horns that sound like Grecian war bugles, Mabel wades through diluted phosphorous, nitrogen, toxic algae, and farm runoff. Through the barge honks she hears – she can’t believe it – JAZZ. The aimless, brass lamentations of some cruise-ship saxophonist trying to catch his break at the Sonic Architecture club. One of the fishermen shouts: “Hey, whatcha’ doin’ air?” She can imagine the mid-solo facial expressions of the saxophonist. The fisherman shouts, “Wrong day for a thing like that!”
With the flammable water now at neck-level, she holds the cinder block above her head, still attached to her right wrist with an eight-foot stretch of rope, and prepares to throw it as far as she can into the deep water. Carp or something swim around her feet. She knows her fish.
“I’m killing myself, bucko!” she yells.
“Oh, wrong day for that,” he says. “Yeah, look at that sunrise. Big old clementine sun. Big old sun wanting to give you a big old smooch on the cheek. Big old world. Big old life wanting to give you a big old smooch. Who’s done you wrong?” Turning around, Mabel sees – in the body of the sun – some androgynous silhouette with thousands of arms, it looks like, lifting her out of the polluted water. It is, in fact, the fisherman, the one talking about a distinctly non-yawning universe and its affinity for big old smooches. She hears his rain boots slosh through the muddy shoreline. He sets her down and helps her wring the water out of her pant legs and arm sleeves.
“I have to get out of here,” she tells the fisherman.
“Where do you want to go?” he asks.



Stephen Jarrett Photo
Stephen Jarrett is a fiction writer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa, where he is an MFA Creative Writing candidate at the University of Alabama. This is his first publication.