by JOE MILLER
Never Hail a Yellow Crab by scottabbott | Flickr
They were all collapsed and lifeless. These wet, deserted bath toys fragmented and discarded in the tub next to me. They were lying there with nothing to do, and me no different, so I made up backstories for each of them while I sat on the toilet attempting a shit. My three-year-old, Kayla, was still asleep in the room next door. The toys usually floated around the water playfully but with the tub drained they looked paralyzed and vulnerable. I tried to make up hopeful stories for them, but it didn’t work out that way. Every time I began a happy story it just went downhill for them.
There was Griffin, the down-on-his-luck sea turtle who hadn’t told his wife yet that he’d lost his supply chain analyst job at the glitter company. And then poor Chuckles, the swordfish comb suffering from imposter syndrome who attributed all his anxiety to not getting into Wash U medical school when he was just a little wide-eyed fishy. I tried to make them happy with their stories. I did. But no matter how I started their happy story, the glass, or bathtub in this case, was always half empty.
I continued to make up stories for the bath toys over the next few days. Kayla didn’t know how heartbroken Mr. Jib Jab the shark was who had just lost his adoptive father to cancer. Kayla slammed Mr. Jib Jab’s head into the tub drain and he gurgled. It’s not her fault. Kayla didn’t know. She shouldn’t know. I should probably keep it that way.
“Are you crying?” my wife Jamie asked me, unfolding the towel for Kayla.
I told her it was nothing. I’m fine, I said. I was fine. But how can it not hurt you a little when Greg is floating belly up? His octopus tentacles lifeless above the waterline, surrendering after months and months of loneliness and rejection from the other sea toys.
Two nights later Jamie took her shirt off and slid on top of me in the bed. “What’s wrong,” she said after a moment of blank reciprocation.
“It’s nothing,” I said, covering my face. My lungs caught on a breath and heaved. I could feel her eyes on me like giant spotlights in the dark for a few moments before she rolled off.
We laid in silence. I began to hear poor Fluffles sobbing through his long elephant trunk down the hall in the bathroom, wrestling with his life after divorce.
Jamie rolled her head on the pillow to look at me. “Tell me how I help you.”
Late that night I stood in the bathroom staring down at the bath toys. I opened my mouth to say something kind and reassuring to Sapphire, a bucket with googly eyes and holes whose best friend from high school had finally lost her struggle with drug addiction. But what could I say to that? I’m not equipped for this. Tell me how I help you.
“What do you got to be so damn mopey about,” my Dad said while watching pork steaks grill on the patio, Kayla licking a messy fudge pop on his lap. He’s right. Everyone says the same thing. They’re all right. But how do you keep going when you know the ending will be bad?
You didn’t tell me, I want to say to my father. I didn’t know there was so much pain out here. What do I do now? Suck it up, they say. Man up, whatever that means. It’s out there for us all to drown in.
In the bathtub later I lifted Tugboat Tim high above Kayla’s wet hair. He vomited his bubbly water innards back into the tub, a cycle of binge drinking that has ruined his family’s lives. Kayla splashed happily. She doesn’t know. I don’t want to tell her. How do I tell her? I didn’t know. Not really. Daddy. I want her to know what waits for her. Daddy. Not to scare her. Daddy. To protect her from it all. An inoculation that I never had.
“Daddy,” I realized that Kayla’s been saying my name. She’s holding a little yellow submarine, with Giancarlo the monkey inside at the wheel, him trying to navigate through a deep ocean of suffering and isolation and lost dreams but keeping himself secure and trapped inside a clear plastic bubble.
“It’s you, Daddy,” Kayla said, giggling sporadically, playful bubbles floating up and landing around the rim of the tub. “Silly monkey,” she said through squinted eyes, still giddy, lifting the submarine to her lips and, with Giancarlo within, gave the clear plastic bubble a wet, playful smooch. And the bubble is popped. A warm wave splashed through me. As I pulled Kayla’s big pink towel off the rack, unfolding it across my lap and catching the slosh and spray of my daughter’s wriggling bath dance, I finish the story in my mind.
“That’s one lucky monkey.”
Joe Miller is a dull, old grump who counts things for a living and uses writing to escape his spreadsheet cell. He lives in the Midwest and writes fiction in the wee hours of the morning before his toddler wakes. His work has appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Five on the Fifth, and others.