by Aimee Bender
The third cop was blind, but he still insisted on being a cop. His father had won cop-of-the-year two years in a row, and his grandfather had been the one to trace the word to its root (—“copper, one who cops”—), so number three had a history he wanted to honor. Born blind, the third cop insisted on training with the rest of them, scoring high on all the tests, explaining that his ears were so sensitive that he needed no vision to hear a crook’s footsteps, to gauge the correct distance, to point the gun in the right direction, to shoot swift through the heart.
Of course he killed the wrong man. He killed his father, the double cop-of-the-year, who’d retired by then and was wearing a new pair of retirement shoes that shuffled and scraped the pavement. When the shoot-out hit, the father was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the blind son, aiming at the slovenly sounding shoes, pulled the trigger and blew a hole through the clotting arteries of his paternal line. Ka-blam. Later, at the station, the blind cop’s voice broke when he said how he’d heard something was off by the way the bullet cut through the skin; how he somehow felt, right away, that it was an honest heart he had killed; how he could tell, from the cadence of the slowing beats, that this heart was close to his own. That as soon as the bullet exited the other side, he’d known that he’d murdered his own father. He removed his badge and kicked it to the ground. Plink.
Even though the ambulance was loud and whirring, the blind former cop still heard the murmur of death descending; it was almost a comforting sound; it was a buzz nearly like the pre-break of orgasm, the distant murmur of a train approaching, but so final you wanted to plug your ears.
After the funeral, he put his gun in a drawer. Hung up his uniform, next to the whispering shiftings of other uniforms. His maternal grandfather had been a fisherman in Baja. He had caught the largest striped marlin of his time, over two hundred pounds, releasing it back into the ocean because, he’d said to the frustrated throngs, anything that large should not be eaten. Do we eat elephants? he asked, at the shoreline. No. Do we eat bears? No. Do we eat space?
With one suitcase and a bus ticket, the blind man waited until the night was deep, and then he left his brothers and his mother behind. They were trying very hard not to blame him, and yet he could hear it in every whooshy exhale. And who could blame them? He hated himself more than they ever could. He visited their sleeping beds and kissed their warm faces goodbye, and then he tiptoed out the door and stumbled, with his cane, to the bus station.
From his cop grandfather, the blind man had learned precision. From his fisherman grandfather, he hoped to learn forgiveness.
* * *
The blind man rode the bus down the southern tip of California for many hours. When they crossed into Mexico, he finally got off in the middle of Baja, at a stop where the air smelled of fruit and flowers. He felt his way out of the bus and walked down the road, toward the ocean, entering a small sea village, where he tapped his way to a fishing store and asked to buy a rod.
No fish here, the saleswoman told him in Spanish, handing over the gear anyway, and ringing it up on the cash register.
At this beach?
Whole town, the saleswoman said, opening the cash drawer. Jing. Haven’t you heard?
No fish at all?
Not for months.
Then why do you still have a fish store? the blind man asked, fingering the string on the fishing rod, how it tapered into the pole.
The saleswoman closed the cash drawer. Paused. A few bicycles with bells passed by outside. Hope, she said, with a grunt.
And not unjustified. Because even there, from the storefront, many blocks from the seashore, the blind man could hear the fish in the water, swimming. Flush. Swish. There were plenty.
Bait, please, he asked the saleswoman who sighed and reached back to the small refrigerator.
While she packed everything up for the day, the saleswoman told the blind man how the village was soon to bankrupt itself without a fish industry and that families had started to leave to find work in the tourist economies of the larger resort towns. Lifelong fishermen stood on the rickety pier, staring at the horizon. Wives found their fisher husbands weeping in front of cold stoves. No tug on the line, was all they could say. They walked, unshaven, on the shoreline, searching for shadows in the water, but it seemed that all the fish had left, in a group, to swim to other parts of the ocean.
The blind man thanked the saleswoman and followed the smell of salt to the edge of the water. There, with help from the men on the pier, he settled into a fishing boat and pushed out to a shallow inlet of sea, listening. There were fish there, yes; he could almost feel their bodies, firm and strong, pushing through water. But most of them were lower than usual. Something had shifted in the oceanic structure here, and the fish swam in layers, one two three, the third layer so deep they would never be caught. This third layer, the deepest layer, felt to him to be of the contented fish, who had figured something out and were dodging the traps. But they did not want to leave. They loved the water here; it was clear and flavorful. Not one of them had left.
The blind man listened for awhile to this distant happy swishing, to and fro, and a hunch formed in the back of his mind, so he stayed in his boat and waited. After about an hour, just above the swishing, he heard a subtle low note of pure pain lifting up from the water. He dribbled down the line, and within a minute, felt the seize and tug of a bite, and pulled on the line, dragging in a good-sized dorado. It thrashed for a little while, because its body insisted, but after a short time it gave up. Such is the way despair works, even in fish. The blind fisherman laid one steady hand on its side. He heard again the approaching sizzle of death, and bowed his head in respect.
He ate the fish that night on the shore, the fire spitting below him, snorting and cracking. The stars came out in quiet bass notes. He remembered his father’s voice, and how it’d sounded when the smell of barbecue was in the air. The ripping joy in it. Give me the bloodiest steak! his father liked to yell on the Fourth of July, swirling his beer and laughing, and the blind cop had caught a whiff of the drippy glory on his father’s plate the way a lion cub might bury into the chest of a dead gazelle. They said his father had been handsome, and even a blind man could tell.
He was busy picking bones out of his teeth when two other fishermen came by and in friendly voices asked if they could share his fish dinner—From how far away did you bring it? they asked, in pinched tones, and the blind man explained that it had been from about ten feet away. He pointed. He heard their breath slow. You mean here? they asked, and he said, Yes, here. He handed over cuts of filet, and he heard them eating with amazement, the path from hand to mouth longer than usual, the careful examining of the fish flesh.
You’re sure it was here? they asked.
Yes, he said. Do I look like I get around easily?
Delicious, they marveled, as they chewed.
The blind man finished up, pushed ashes over the fish bones and the fire, and curled up on the sand, which shifted and groaned beneath him. He was tired. In the morning, he opened his eyes to darkness as usual, but he could feel them standing there, a small group, each fisherman straight and tall, guarding his hope with heart muskets. The blind man grunted a greeting, went out in a boat, listened carefully for pain, and caught seven in an hour.
Loud joyful prayers bubbled up from the shoreline, a banging of hands on sand.
They’re here all right, the blind man called out, docking his boat on the shore, holding the fish up by their tails. You just have to listen closer.
The fishermen celebrated by stringing up a big sign over the rickety pier, which the blind man could not read, that said: El Pez Regresa! At the crack of dawn, they all returned to their boats, singing throatily into the water. The boats, side by side, lines cast, bows bobbing.
It wasn’t easy for them, still, the catching of the despairing fish that the blind man seemed almost to pick out of the water with his bare hands. A whole new rhythm had to be learned. But hope generated patience, and in time, they, too, began adding the silvery bodies to their boats. The numbers were far lower than they’d been before, but everyone in town wanted to return to normal, and so they acted like all had been solved. Restaurants unpeeled the fish entree listings on their menus that had been covered with masking tape. Families, with boxes packed, prepping for jobs as tour guides and hotel help, unpacked. The store owner who had sold the blind man his fishing line held a renewal sale, all items twenty percent off.
The fish who swam closer to the surface had a slightly different taste, an edge of bitter, but good bitter.
* * *
The blind man slept on the sand, alone. Each night, he sent a prayer to his mother and brothers, to his dead father whose slowing heartbeat he heard behind every revving car, inside every steady footfall. Fish cut through the dark water, and the weather grew colder. Tired of seeing their friend buried up to his neck in the sand each morning, the local fishermen rented the blind man a cabin. They took turns sleeping at his door, holding a gutting knife in case anyone might try to come by and steal him. What about the town up the hill where, rumor had it, the trees were eaten by bugs from the inside out? What about the city near San Diego, several hours north, where the chickens were laying eggs without yolks?
I’m not going to leave, the blind man assured them. He was out of grandfather role models.
Throw the line. Listen.
* * *
One evening, after a long day of sitting in the boat, catching a few fish here and there, the blind man was having a carne asada plate at a local restaurant in the village when a woman came to his table. She was new to town; he knew pretty much everyone else by now. She came from a village in the mountains, and she smelled of wood musk. She asked, Are you the blind man? He said yes. She said, You’re just who I need.
You’re out of fish in the mountains?
No, she said, her voice smiling.
Are you deformed? he asked, and she said, Quite the contrary. May I?
He nodded, and she settled herself across from him, and the wood musk expanded to a forest. Something about her—the lilt to her voice, or the frank way she sat in the chair—felt wonderful to him, hopeful. Usually the only people who sat across from him just wanted advice on fishing techniques. The woman lowered her voice and leaned closer across the table and explained that her eyes were so unusually blue that people drowned in them. Once, she said, a man who’d loved her very much had looked so deeply into her eyes he had suffocated. Truly. In front of her. He had lost his breathing, fallen over, and died.
No one knew the cause of death, she said, but it’s happened twice now, and I am certain it’s me.
Maybe they had weak hearts, said the blind man, sipping his beer.
They were both athletes, she said. They built houses and played soccer.
Maybe they were old men, he said.
They were young and strong.
Must’ve been unbearable, said the blind man, considering it.
She let out a breath.
Well, I’ve never been in love, said the blind man, stirring his beans with a spoon. But you should know in advance that I killed my own father.
Why? she said, tapping a fork against a plate.
Because it’s good to know these kinds of things about a person in advance, he said. Don’t you think?
No, she said. I meant why did you kill him?
Oh, he said. Accident.
He put his napkin over his plate, to cover the food.
And you should know I’m a good fisherman, the blind man said, after a pause. Maybe the best in the history of the world.
She leaned forward and placed her hand on his, with fingers delicate and warm. Her breath touched with cilantro and white wine. The restaurant, clinking and clanking around them.
Over flan, the woman sat closer to the man and spoke quietly into his ear. She told him stories about the fresh mountain air; he told about his bus ride into town. The evening grew late. He had not been with a woman since the death of his father, but over a year had passed now, and she smelled of the future. He led her back to his cabin, his fingers linked with hers, and at the door, she nodded at the late-night guard while she smoothed the damp corners of the blind man’s hair. They took off their clothes in the middle of the night, very slowly, and the man could hear the one second of pure silence that hits right between night and morning, right before darkness lifts and the sun climbs over the edge to begin its slow move across the world. He heard that silence just as he was releasing inside her, just as she contracted against him, and it was one of the purest, simplest moments of his life.
They spent every day of the next many weeks together. It was like they’d planned it, or known. She reminded him of seven people he’d met before, plus herself. She explained how she’d heard news of him from the mountains and wanted to meet him as soon as she could. I thought you and I might get along, she said, as they walked along the sand. He took her out in his fishing boat and tried to teach her to hear the despair of the fish, which she could not, but in turn, she told him how the water rippled and lapped and glimmered and sparkled. He said he could hear the water, and hear the fish, and hear the sun, and hear the clouds overhead, but that words like glimmer and sparkle might as well be Norwegian to him.
Sparkle is like singing, she said, looking up. And you’re right. There are clouds overhead.
They’re foreboding too, he said, shrugging on a jacket.
They pulled the boat into dock just in time and sat inside the little fishing house holding each other while the rain pounded outside. He dotted little kisses all over the back of her neck until she was laughing from happiness.
The men who drowned, asked the blind man after awhile.
Were they happy drowning?
I suppose it’s possible, she said, holding onto his hand.
But you were not, he said.
She shook her head, then remembered he couldn’t see her. No.
Your eyes are that blue? he asked, and she said, Yes. Bluer than water or sky.
He kissed her softly then, and heard the tear go down her cheek, very, very slowly, then fast at the end.
I don’t know blue, he whispered into the warmth of her neck.
* * *
As they sat in their boats, lines cast, the fishermen swapped info on the new woman in town, the woman from the mountains. They worried she was a scout or a spy, trying to lure their good luck charm away. Maybe she had a secret agenda. Maybe there was a lake up there needing help. They found no unusual facts from her past, just two men dead from natural causes and a series of ordinary jobs. They questioned her as she walked around town, striding along in her low clicky heels, but no one could look into her eyes for very long without feeling queasy.
She’s nice enough, said one, recasting his line. But she makes me hyperventilate.
They shrugged, stared out to sea. The days were shorter now, the air colder. They wore jackets.
What if he falls in love with her? asked one, as he hauled in a small tuna.
What if? they echoed.
* * *
The woman and the blind man ate green chile tamales for dinner, and queso fresco crumbled over deep black beans, and cool margaritas circled by chunks of sea salt. They wove their way back to his cabin, buzzed on beer and lime, back to his room where they had sloppy, gangly sex in the darkness, and then listened to old records they’d found at an old record store, recordings of singers who had never quite made it but were very good anyway. They slept all over the bed, like they were on a walk, during sleep—sleeping upside down, to the side, feet dangling off the edges, and they laughed about it in the morning, all the traversing, like they were going these far dreamy distances together. Every morning he fished, and some days she came with him, and other days she began looking for work in town. This all went on for several months in a row, through winter and into spring, fish arriving in restaurants and storefronts, fishermen grabbing their spouses and lovers around the waists with new lust, all things bountiful, in town and in private.
One afternoon, while the woman was out shopping for wine, one of the fishermen broke the line of protection and knocked briskly on the door of the cabin.
Yes? called the blind man. He was in the living room, sanding the edge of his coffee table to a fabric-smoothness. He had come across some sandpaper on sale at the hardware store.
The fishermen entered. He stood in the doorframe, fidgeting.
Yes? said the blind man again. He turned his head, toward the door.
The fish numbers are good, said the visitor.
Glad to hear it.
We caught double this week, he said.
The blind man wrinkled his nose. He wrapped sandpaper around a table corner. What a whole lot of miserable fish out there. He used the sandpaper like a dusting cloth, sweeping over the wood. The fisherman remained standing by the door.
Okay, said the blind man. Sounds fine. And? Anything else?
And your girlfriend flirts with all the men in town, blurted the fisherman.
The blind man stopped his hand. Excuse me?
We just thought you should know. She flirts and flirts. It’s been even worse this week.
So? said the blind man.
The fisherman fidgeted in the doorframe. People can’t look at her without feeling ill.
I can look at her no problem.
It’s like there’s this tug—
I feel no tug.
Like a pit.
I feel no pit.
We worry, said the fisherman.
The blind man put down his sandpaper. So, she’s a flirt, he said. I don’t care about that.
Her eyes are dripping, said the fisherman. You can’t see it but just looking at her—
The blind man flicked his sandpaper to the floor. He pointed to the door. He knew just where the door was and his point was correct.
I’m sorry, said the fisherman. We weren’t sure if we should say anything—
Go home, said the blind man. Get away from me. You’re one man. You’re no “we.”
I’m the elected representative, said the fisherman, trembling. We’re so sorry. It just seems like she’s not doing well, or something’s wrong with her, or she’s asking for something—
Enough, said the blind man, harder.
The fisherman gave a short, useless bow, and left. Outside, at the window, he apologized again, but the blind man pushed the glass closed. The woman was away that day, buying more records, and after the man had paced the living room, he finished sanding the table, locked up the cabin, and walked out to the ocean. The air was cooling with evening, and at the shore, he listened as usual for the sounds of the fish. Sure enough, there were more. The breeze clear, spring new. The fish population, for some reason, was vaster, unhappier, multiplying. He no longer felt the same as them; before, they had felt like versions of him, made into fish. Now, he felt the difference—how they were doing something else under there, something fishlike, and unknowable.
Later that night, the woman came home, moving slowly, hanging up her coat for five minutes on the hook. She had no records. When he asked her what was wrong, she said, Nothing.
Not nothing, he said.
He sat down, pushed on the cushion next to him. She sat nearby but her hands were tentative in a way he had never heard before. What is it? he said. I can take it. Tell me. I don’t care, he said. He imagined all the fishermen on their knees, asking for her, drowning in her.
I will hurt you, she said.
No, he said. Tell me. Is it someone else?
No, she said. She clenched her hands into the pillow, on the sofa.
I will drown you, she said.
But you aren’t, he said. You aren’t drowning me. He took in a deep breath, exhaled. See?
She was quiet, listening. Then, suddenly, she stood up. She flailed her arms around. Her mood changed, and the air made breezes from the movement of her arms. It’s not working! she said. I mean, am I just another one of your fish? Her voice grew high. The words didn’t fit the voice. I’m just one of your fish! she said. Why don’t you care? she said. Do you really care?
She got out of bed and moved in paces around the room. He tried to keep up. What was happening? He said he did care, he did. She said some more big sentences, about how he didn’t love her. The words came from nowhere. They’d had a wonderful night the evening before. They’d had many wonderful nights in a row. These were words to fit an exit, words made up. He shook his head, said, No, no, and his mind scrambled to understand, to flip the picture and see what she was saying, but he could not get a hold on any of it, and she just went into the bathroom for awhile and then came to bed. It’s wrong, she said, mumbling into the pillow. Something is wrong. What is wrong? the blind man asked. I don’t know, she said. Her reasoning had formed between them like the hard plastic wrapping on a toy. The blind man touched her hair, with the lightest possible hand, but she curled into herself, into the pillow.
Someone will drown, she said.
* * *
Sleep joined their bed for hours, and then sometime in the middle of the night, he awoke, alone. She’d been a weight in his bed and now the bed was light again, and he could not hear her footsteps or her breathing or the fast whirring of her brain on coffee.
Hello? he called out.
Hello? said that night’s guard, just waking up.
She could not leave him a note as he could not read it. She had no tape recording equipment to record a goodbye. She disappeared at the turning point between night and day, right when he was the most sound asleep, and she left the front door open, so that she would not wake him with the sound of shutting.
Now, with the door open, the sounds outside were louder than usual. Waves settled, even though it was a windless morning. Someone was listening to news radio in a car. He dressed and went outside, listening for her voice, the tap tap of her walk, her sparkling laugh which was all he needed to know about light on water.
Hello? he called out. Hello? Did you see where she went? he asked the townsfolk.
I was not concentrating on someone leaving the cabin, said that night’s guard, when his friends interrogated him later for poor watchdogging. The fishermen trailed the blind man worriedly, standing outside bathrooms as he peed, in case he might hitchhike out of town to find her.
As if he could.
All he could do was hear pain, and he had heard it on the first day, in the wreck of two deaths and other sadnesses as of yet unrevealed wafting off her shoulders, and he did understand how to not drown, for no one to drown, could feel, in itself, like a kind of drowning.
The blind man waited all day, and the next, and the next, and next, and his grief was fresh, like a new harvest of a heavy fruit. At dusk, the fishermen docked their boats and stood outside his home. They could hear him crying inside, and they formed a ring around his cabin, holding the wood with their fish-stained hands. They did not go inside. He cried more than anyone expected; he had cared for her very much even though he had not known her very long, but he knew, as he was crying, that this loss had also opened the door to the room called Loss inside of which there were many pieces of older furniture he had previously covered in burlap.
There was work to be done, called mourning.
No one spotted the woman around town, although there was a rumor that someone had seen her buying a soda two villages south.
* * *
The fish kept on coming, steady, faintly bitter, fish upon fish upon fish, and restaurants made up dishes to counteract bitterness, using more sugar and more fruit, and after many weeks, the blind man emerged from his cabin. He hadn’t left much, and he was thinner, and smaller, and paler. The fishermen broke their ring of hands to let him pass and followed him down to the shoreline. It was morning, and the sun was rising with a whiteness, preparing for a hot day. No one said a word. The fishermen stood at the water’s edge while the blind man untied his boat and took it to sea.
He did not take his fishing line, and he rowed out to a prime spot, out of hearing distance. The sun warmed his shoulders, and he placed his oars inside the boat and leaned over the edge. There, he listened, as usual, for despair, and when he felt a few fish had gathered beneath the boat, a group ready to be caught and eaten, he leaned close to the water and spoke to its surface in a whisper. He didn’t want to eat or catch any today, and he told them, instead, to go see their fathers. Find your fathers, he told the drifting gray water. It was about to rain again, but this time he stayed in his boat, with the fishermen watching him from the distant shore, as the drops pelted his shoulders and filled up the bottom inch of the bow.
Go now, he whispered. Swim away.
* * *
Far below, in their layers, the fish listened. They could hear him, the voice above. They understood. They went to find their fathers. Fish fathers generally die early, but several gatherings of yellowtail and bonito and bass wound their way to the family part of the sea, to the nestles of coral and kelp that had sheltered them when they were just little clusters of roe. They did not know which particular fish had birthed them—no fish could remember that—but in the depths they found a group, and all together, they swam for miles. With fish, it is the school swimming; like geese above, it is how good it feels to be part of the V. With fish, it was just swimming near each other, the flush of the water on their gills as they moved in rows through the currents. They swam and swam, in zigs and zags, and the blind man could hear the density of the water shifting below as the families rejoined, grouped together, and then separated. He bowed his head gently to the currents that moved beneath him.
Aimee Bender is the author of five books: including most recently the bestseller The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and The Color Master, a New York Times Notable Book for 2013. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, The Paris Review, Tin House, and more, as well as heard on This American Life and Selected Shorts. She teaches creative writing at USC.