Issue #55

Summer 2015

They Only Look Like They're Smiling

by Venita Blackburn

Blabbermouth Vicki caught me talking to the turtle tank in the break room. Now everybody knows and is making a big deal out of my days as an animal physiotherapist. We're all trying to save something here. No one works at a not-for-profit out of total selfishness, just mostly selfishness. I don't even know what or whom we're trying to save anymore, victims of natural disasters, ostriches with mange, that same boy they've been showing on TV commercials for twenty years crying with a fly in the corner of his eye, or cats with gimp paws. I shrug. They're all in the pool of great and awful pity, and we're all at the edges cheering them on, filling the pool to the brim with our tears and palm sweat. It gives us purpose. The only thing I like about Vicki is that she gets it. I hate just about everything else. She happens to have diarrhea of the mouth, so I can't talk to her about anything at all and not feel like I just cc-ed the entire office. It was Vicki's whole effing idea to do a company trip to the marine park, which we had to pay for out of pocket including transportation /lodging. It ended the way it always ended. Everyone nose-dived into the nearest bottle of liquor and turned into a gaggle of gushy, violent fornicating adolescents.

There is one person that understands why I talk to the turtle. Erika smells good like a baby's head, so she never goes on dates or anything because people just want to protect her and ask her how she's doing or bring her juice but not actually get close to her that way. She knows it. Sometimes she wears this eau de geriatric femme perfume that makes her look shorter and weak wristed, but the baby aroma comes through just fine still. I think she hopes mixing her scent with an old woman will balance things off, but uh uh. Erika is in love with Caleb whom is in love with Anne whom is our boss and has expressions that say oh no she didn't but knuckles that look like they've made a few grown men brush lips with the concrete, so we all love Anne for hiring mostly women to work in an organization that probably helps struggling women in this country or another with micro-loans, quite possibly, but I am no longer sure. Caleb and I never talk because we aren't the same kind of people, and we are both jealous over Erika because she's our favorite little sister even though she is three years older than I am with different parents. We both want her to get her big girl teeth and go to college and stay away from bad boys that don't do anything bad other than abuse the women that dare to love them, which is pretty bad. Caleb and I know what kind of anal debris can waddle in a room and steal her heart, so we both fight in silence over who has more power over Erika's future.

The turtle speaks to me too . We don't have names for each other because that's not what turtles are into. We know each other because we look right at each other. I can talk to other animals that live in water, something about the flow of liquid over our voices, the tendrils in my ears. I don't know what the fuck it is, but we can do it. Years ago, I used to be bullied for it but times they are a changing. So, it's something I talk about when I have to. Vicki makes sure I have to. Caleb is all tight cheeked because of the dolphin incident at the marine park. We still fight quietly, without words or gestures, with one another over Erika, but I was winning for a while because I wasn't raped by a dolphin in front of the entire office. And if I did, I'm sure I would have the wherewithal to recognize it and not look absolutely gleeful during the entire experience. I told the turtle about it and he/she just couldn't believe it. I didn't know how to explain what a dolphin was without showing a picture, but the picture on my phone was really small so the whole being assaulted by something that could fit in a human's hand seemed too baffling, so instead we talked about how the microwaved food -- bologna sandwiches, fast food chili, gyros and mountain dew in the break room made the turtle tank water funky day in and day out. We all blamed the smell of the break room on the actual turtle tank, but I didn't say that because I thought it might be offensive.

Effing Vicki brought rum. At the hotel she confessed in the lobby that she thought nobody liked her then threw up. The whole trip felt like punching yourself in the face. I purchased a churro for Erika before Caleb even thought of it. She didn't like the strawberry filling (who would), so I ate the rest of hers even the parts that she put her tiny teeth on because I had to teach her not to be wasteful. Vicki insisted we had to buy tickets to the private dolphin pool before we even got to the park as part of the company package. I read on the brochure that it was optional and therefore shit filled Vicki struck again. Still, private pool happened. The rest involved dolphin rape, not rape of dolphins, which would be heinous and should be left in old wives' tales of seventeenth century pirates on long voyages that ended in scurvy/starvation/hallucination/marine bestiality. This was modern day vengeance of the porpoise because it is about power after all. They only look like they're smiling, Jesse the trainer told us. Jesse looked like she hadn't smiled in a long time. I began inventing reasons for her very obvious unhappiness. She had a chorine washed ponytail probably soaked in odorless sea animal saliva, which in most situations is far from sexy. Still, she didn't give off the sex is my problem kind of vibe (too little or too much). I figured Jesse had just the right combination of no sex or a big fat vat of it, so instead the misery had to be corporate in origin. Anne sent us all a group text that we made fun of but we replied to immediately acknowledging her busy schedule as a legitimate reason for missing the company outing. That's when Kitka the bottle-nose went to town on Caleb. He'd been stroking the belly as men are instructed to do by Jesse and gave Kitka a big bear hug in the pool. Kitka didn't dislodge from that hug for several seconds and tossed Caleb around a bit in the water. The entire event seemed pretty obvious to everyone but Caleb. Even Jesse blew her whistle furiously, which made my ears ache something terrible. Caleb looked so happy. Vicki nearly passed out from joy.

After watching the tape on YouTube, Caleb sent me a hostile email accusing me of siccing the dolphin on him, which never occurred to me. The dolphin said some things, but they talk really fast. I just heard things like jingle, jingle and potato chip, potato chip, potato chip and all the usual manic clicking that adds up to the same thing as um or like or I just meant or even so or huh or one more in human speak. I never talked to Kitka, didn't even let on that I could because it doesn't seem wise to go around chatting up every sea creature with a brain. They're kind of like us in that they have their ways and such. The thing that I didn't expect to happen (even though that dolphin bit shocked a little) was Erika and her crush on me now. The churro eating probably did it, but I can't tell her that liking me like that is wrong and against nature somehow without saying being near her makes me think of Saturday morning cartoons and Winnie the Pooh paraphernalia of every kind. Instead, I avoid her except for texts which I keep brief and use the safest of emojis like fists and beer mugs and laughing monkeys to show her what to stay away from and maybe associate that with myself as a wall of protection now that I know soft sensitive types like me are Erika's choice and not wobbly footed anuses with hooker on their partner's sex resume. So, in the end Caleb did all the winning; took all my glory with Erika. They spend their time talking face to face the way we used to while I text her ninja turtles that laugh and wiggling sperm whales then wait for her to look down at her phone and feel something pure about me.

There she stood all wrecked from the inside out, not that her clothes or hair or anything fell out of order, just the internal tendons of her soul appeared frayed. Old jump rope. Vicki could be different if she tried, if she talked like a good human or even the no nonsense way of the turtle. She could be my Erica, one with a grown woman smell of detergent and fertility, not the clean woodsy perfume that grows inside new Barbie doll boxes. I wanted to do something sudden and violent to Vicki like propose marriage. The want of her made me resent her, the clumsy execution of managerial duties made me resent her, and the way she always appeared eaten. And yes, she did appear eaten. Something weary and dreadful like her own body had consumed her. I realized she continuously flopped around as if she were a regurgitated soggy clog coughed up from her own throat; the cause and effect of bad choices. But she saw me, wanted to speak to and hear me in ways I preserved for everyone else. An intensity that suggested all kinds of contradictions breached the membranes of my awareness: runaway devotion. Vicki presented herself in the doorway, a mammoth peanut, uncooked. I prophesied our future together, her smooth surface coated in a layer of residual moisture from countless lickings over every exposed molecule, unsanitary as the blarney stone and just as full of delightful arduous destiny.

Author Bio


Venita Blackburn earned her MFA from Arizona State University in 2008. Her stories have appeared in Pleiades, Madison Review, Bat City Review, Nashville Review, Smoke Long Quarterly, Santa Monica Review, Faultline, American Short Fiction, Devil's Lake Review, Bellevue Literary Review, audio download through Bound Off, and others. Her home town is Compton, California, but she now lives and teaches in Arizona. She was awarded a Bread Loaf Fellowship in 2014.