There’s a Million Dead Tilapia Outside My Window, Baby (Everything Reminds Me of You)
|By Salvatore Pane | 4 April 2012|
I rushed over to Big Ed’s as soon as I heard about Bambino Cunningham’s murder. The tiny bar was packed when I arrived. With the six barflies laid off from the mill standing against wood-paneled walls. With Big Ed standing behind the bar tugging at his handlebar mustache. With Jebediah the Conquistador—lead singer of Bambino’s barbershop quartet: the Lovely Lovers who Love—weeping fat tears into his checkered handkerchief. I was barely in the door before Detective Cucamonga dragged the slender body of Bambino shoulders first from the bathroom, his pretty boy face pierced by an arrow right through the kisser. When Jeb saw his corpse he ran in my direction, sniffling, gritting his teeth, and if it wasn’t for the barflies locking him up with their beefy arms I don’t know what he might have done. I just don’t.
“It was Gallo!” He jerked his arm loose and pointed. “Nobody wanted his barbershop quartet once we hit the scene. He murdered the competition!”
Detective Cucamonga set Bambino on the floor and walked real slow over to Jeb. Cucamonga was a big guy with a round belly, a face pock marked with acne scars, a black bowler hat that hid his baldness. He slapped Jeb hard across the face and told him to have some respect, that a man had just been killed. Nobody moved and the only sound came from the broken fan blade above, hissing, hissing, hissing. Then he returned to Bambino and asked Big Ed for help. The two of them heaved the kid’s body into the air and carried him outside.
We followed. Me, the barflies, and a newly calmed Jebediah the Conquistador. Big Ed’s was located right off the Salton Sea. The Detective and Big Ed steered the body toward an old motorboat at water’s edge—the town doctor lived on the other side of our miniature ocean. The beach was littered with the rotting corpses of tilapia, millions of them. Some pecked apart by our dwindling flock of seagulls, some still breathing, their leathery bodies rising and falling, rising and falling, Cucamonga’s crimson Studebaker idling exhaust into their gills. In the distance, I could make out the Bombay Bay skyline: the abandoned rubber factory, textile plant, glue mill, all those hollowed out casinos, skeletons of our former glory. We watched the Detective and Big Ed clear a path through the fish with their boots, a bloody paste left behind in their wake. The smell. Something fierce all right.
That’s when I noticed the fog. Nothing unusual really. Just a gray pastry puff over the center of the sea. It could have been cotton candy. I nudged one of the barflies and nodded in the fog’s direction. The barflies were old friends of my father, the most beloved man our town ever had.
“You know what my old man used to say?” I asked. “He told me that whenever a person dies here their soul is sucked into the fog over the sea.” The other men, and even Jebediah, drew close. “He told me if you stayed quiet enough you could hear their ghost songs.”
We all cupped our hands to our ears and leaned forward. We heard it. We heard. We heard Bambino Cunningham’s ghost song.
It’s gonna get you, baby/
It’s gonna get you too/
But that’s all we got. Just two lines before Detective Cucamonga accidentally dropped the kid’s body in the water, the deadly end of the arrow snapping clean off. He cursed and held it in the sky for us to see.
“Lousy arrow!” he yelled. “Who gets killed with an arrow on the gd commode?”
We couldn’t answer. We stood there in silence and tried to remember Bambino’s ghost melody, like searching for a word on the tip of your tongue. An incantation. Lost.
Nights I sang at Big Ed’s with my barbershop quartet—Anthony Gallo the Italian Marvel Jr. and the Zip Zoop Dingleberries—but during the days I worked as the Chief Curator of the Bombay Bay Museum. My father left it to me after he lost his battle with lung cancer. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t see it go under. A son’s duty. But the building’s not much. Just an old house Dad renovated filled with framed photographs and micro exhibits of what the town was like during its heyday. He lived upstairs in the apartment before he died, and I moved in after Kat and Christian left Bombay Bay for good. The day after Bambino Cunningham’s murder, I flipped the neon sign out front to OPEN as if nothing had happened.
As usual, nobody dropped by. Bombay Bay had a population of 274 and they all knew its history as well as I did. Sometimes a group of yuppies would read an article about us on the computer and drive on down and buy a lot of souvenirs—clam shells with googly eyes and little wire arms that held Bombay Bay pennants—and that got me through the month. I stood surrounded by framed newspaper clippings, photographs that showed Bombay Bay and the Salton Seaduring its glory days: the 1940’s. Back when a heavy rainfall and snowmelt caused the Colorado River to run wild and break through the headgates at the Alamo Canal. It flooded our dry bed and created a four mile ocean—the Salton Sea—which quickly became a tourist destination: The Ocean in the Middle of the California Desert! First came the factories during the war, then the casinos where Old Blue Eyes performed and nicknamed Bombay Bay “Li’l Vegas.” But there was no outflow for the sea. The accidental ocean’s salt level shot up way higher than the Pacific’s, and before we knew it, the waters were unsafe for human swimming and deadly to fish, accounting for the millions of dead tilapia each and every year. The poor beasts get swept down during the flooding season and die by the boatload every sweltering summer. The casinos and factories folded, and the population dropped from 60,000 to 50, from 30,000 to 10, sinking lower and lower until we realized the dizzying truth: we mostly jobless 274 accounted for the Final Generation of Bombay Bay.
Upstairs in the apartment, I microwaved tomato soup for lunch. Then I walked to the window, pulled back the curtain, and stared out at the Salton Sea. I took a deep breath and picked up the phone, dialed my ex-wife’s number. It was something I promised myself I’d stop doing. It’s a promise I broke about every three weeks.
Kat’s voice sounded warm and effortless when she picked up in the City of Angels. I tried to mimic her tone, to make her think my calling was the most ordinary thing in the world.
“How’s my favorite lady on the entire west coast?”
A long pause. A clicking of the tongue. Recognition.
“Don’t be cute, Anthony.”
“Hard for me not to.” Another pause. “How’s Christian?”
“He’s struggling. He asks about you. He wants you to come out here. He misses you.”
“I’ll see him here in Bombay for Thanksgiving.”
“And how is Bombay? Have you resigned yourself to the idea that there’s nothing you can do to save it?”
“Don’t start, Kat.”
“I’m just saying. You know where I stand. Come to Los Angeles. Be with your son. Be with-”
“The museum. What about the museum? And the Zip Zoop Dingleberries. What abut a benefit concert? Or a museum gala event? I can’t let this town fall apart. Everything’s salvageable.”
“Your father wouldn’t want you there all alone.”
“This has nothing to do with my father.”
The rustling of chords. The muffled voice of someone in the background, someone adult, someone male. “Anthony, we’ve had this talk before. I’m seeing someone. He wants to get engaged. The school wants Christian to see a psychiatrist. You have thoughts on any of these topics?”
I wanted to remind her that she’d been my prom date. I wanted to tell her she belonged here, that this was where her people were from. I wanted to tell her to go easy on Christian, that he’d always been a finicky child and needed his father in his life, needed somebody to steer him in the right direction. I wanted to know if he could sing like me and his grandfather.
“Bambino Cunningham is dead,” I said. “Murdered.”
“Funny thing about decay. It spreads. Watch your back, Italian Marvel Jr..”
Then the dial tone. Then static.
The show that night didn’t go exactly as planned. My quartet stood on the cracked wooden stage at Big Ed’s and harmonized all our hits. Numbers like “Oh, Baby, Why You’d Take a Hovercraft to Get Away From Me?” and “I Miss You Like I Miss the Abandoned Textile Factory, Baby” and our signature tune, “There’s a Million Dead Tilapia Outside My Window, Baby (Everything Reminds Me of You).” We wore our trademark uniforms: black slacks, white dress shirts, buttoned down red vests, and of course, boater caps with red trim. But nothing stirred Big Ed or the barflies to delight. They sat at the bar with their whiskies and barely moved. How could they get into the music with Jebediah the Conquistador and his two remaining cronies from the Lovely Lovers who Love—humongous German twins with flowing blonde locks—glaring at us from the booth in the corner? Me and the Dingleberries finished our set and joined the barflies. We used to play Big Ed’s five nights a week, but that was before the Lovely Lovers who Love formed. They ate into our revenue, our momentum, and now we were down to two performances a week.
Big Ed poured me a shot and a beer. “I don’t want no trouble tonight, you hear, Anthony? You and Jebediah got beef, you take it outside. Big Ed’s a family establishment. I hear people have been disappearing left and right since Bambino’s murder. I don’t need no murderer here. No sir. I need a murderer like I need a shotgun through the chest.” He stuck his finger at me. “And your father would have been sick with the idea of you brawling. Favorite son of the city he was.”
The Dingleberries all tapped me on the shoulder. “Having a smoke outside,” they said in unison.
I watched them go and hoped that maybe Big Ed would say something else about my father. Big Ed was my dad’s age. He remembered when my dad went into the museum business and lit Bombay Bay ablaze with his barbershop melodies. I drank my beer and was about to ask him to tell me more about the disappearances or perhaps my father—his call—when I noticed those big, dumb Germans follow the Dingleberries outside.
“Oh boy,” Big Ed said.
Jebediah the Conquistador came over and took the stool on my left. He peeled his tin of chew and scooped a big ol’ chunk. Chew, chew. Chew, chew. He leaned in close.
“I don’t think you murdered Bambino no more.”
I downed my shot. “Yeah? Why’s that, Jeb?”
“The arrow. The singing fog. The disappearances. You hear about them? It don’t add up. Doesn’t seem human. His death I mean. Seems otherworldly. Mystical. I don’t know.” He spat into the golden spit jar at our feet. “You think we doomed here in Bombay Bay, Italian Marvel Jr.?”
“Call me, Anthony.”
“Ok, Anthony.” He kneaded my shoulder with his thumb. “We got to stick together. No jobs. We all we got, capiché?”
He sniffed. And before he could get another word in, the front door slapped open revealing a panting Detective Cucamonga. He bent over and grabbed his knees, then pointed behind him to the night sky and Salton Sea beyond. “Come quick, boys. Gosh, I mean it.”
The same motley crew from when Bambino died followed him. The moment we got outside we discovered just what had Cucamonga so spooked. Corpses littered the street, and these weren’t no tilapia. One of the German twins hung by his snapped neck from the street lamp, his skin yellow under the light. The other lay on the pavement, trampled dead with tire tracks across his chest and shins. Two of the Dingleberries lay on the roof of the abandoned tenement, their bodies riddled with bullet holes. And the other one? Let’s just say I’d never seen that shade of brown before.
“Dios mio!” Jebediah the Conquistador exclaimed.
We kept still, the shadow of the hanged German darkening our faces as we listened to the crash of the Salton Sea, the fog above its center growing, growing, growing. It had the girth of a mac truck now, turning and mutating, a flash of electricity beneath its belly. We watched that ghost fog and listened to the barbershop music of the dead.
It’s gonna get you, Anthony/
And it’s gonna kill you, Jeb/
In fact, we’re gonna take you all/
“Two-Seventy,” Cucamonga whispered. “There’s less than two-seventy of us left.”
The deaths came fast then. The next morning, we found old Dr. Church turned inside out alongside the half-destroyed YMCA. A little later, Sister Palmolive popped up drowned in Stinky Weathervain’s busted washing machine. Stinky? Well, he died that very afternoon. His mouth and nose and ears and anus and belly button overflowed with black licorice. Not a pretty sight. Right there on Main Streetand everything in front of the old kindergarten. And did I mention Jebediah the Conquistador? I guess the ghost fog song was right. Big Ed unlocked the bar three days after this whole mess started only to find the entire establishment drenched in blood, a severed arm here, the mush of a crushed eyeball there. Cucamonga only identified him on account of his dental records. A chalky tooth wedged inside the jukebox. No longer could we hit 3B6B to hear the melancholy stylings of the Buffalo Bills. Now we pushed 3 Tooth 6 Tooth.
I drank coffee on the fourth morning. Through the open window of my apartment, I could see Detective Cucamonga and Big Ed perched on the roof of Big Ed’s. The Detective sat on a beach chair and held a megaphone to his lips. Every minute he shouted out the current population of Bombay Bay. “One twenty-four! One twenty-four! One twenty-four!” Big Ed crouched by the edge of the roof, a shotgun cocked above his arm aimed at the now football field-long fog that had rolled itself into town, sweeping over the roofs of the one-story buildings. Something yellow pulsed deep within its center, and every few seconds Big Ed fired a shot into the fog to no effect. Then he reached into the pouch at his side and reloaded. Occasionally, I could hear the screams of another Bombay Bay resident reaching their demise, then Cucamonga’s adjusted count a moment later. But for the most part, all I could hear was the ghost song. Louder and longer than ever before. Powerful with the newly dead.
You can’t shoot me, Big Ed, my darling/
No you can’t stop the birth of decay/
But we appreciate that you are trying/
My baby, baby, sweet bar baby/
When all that became too much, I went down into the museum and flipped the CLOSED sign to OPEN. I found that during extreme trauma, one thing that gives me comfort is routine. It was the same during my father’s cancer. He lay in a hospital bed, oxygen pumping through tubes into his nose and mouth. Sometimes he smoked a plastic pipe that supposedly cleared out his lungs. During all that time I ran the museum on normal business hours. Absolutely powerless to do anything but keep his legacy going. Now, I walked behind the cash register and answered the phone. I hoped the fog hadn’t developed the ability to communicate over telephone wires.
“Ghost fog song?” I asked.
“Christian! How’s the City of Angels?”
“It’s fine, Dad, but I wish you were here. Mom’s seeing this man. I don’t like him. Come here.”
“I know that, Pugsley.” I called him Pugsley sometimes to tease him, you know, good for a boy. “But I have to keep Bombay Bay afloat. Your grandfather’s museum? I’ll have this place fine as frog hair in no time. Maybe I’ll write the governor? Or the president?”
“Dad. If you close your eyes, can you picture me? In your mind’s eye I mean?”
I closed my eyes. I remembered a vacation we all took to a coastal town two hours northwest. I remembered eating fried shrimp in a seaside restaurant. Wooden floors. Sand peeking through. We ate in our sandals. Christian happy as a clam, doodling his little comics on the back of the placemat. Kat leaning her head on my shoulder, giddy after one glass of red, telling us how she’d always dreamed of becoming a painter, of living in a big city next to a coffee shop and just waltzing in and getting one of those fancy drinks with all the foam and such. The smallness of this fantasy, its barely beating heart, well, it was enough to make me love her almost as much as Bombay Bay, the town made flesh in her body.
“Yes, son. I can see you.”
“No. I mean right this second. Can you close your eyes and see me in Mom’s kitchen? What I’m wearing? What I’m doing with my hands?”
“Come be with us, Dad.”
“I want to. I do. You don’t know how much I want to, Pugsley.”
A woman’s voice in the background. Hushed. A dial tone.
I hung up and returned to the front door. Stray fog drifted in through the sliver of space between the door and the floor. It billowed up into a tiny mushroom. I ran my fingers through it. It felt like crushed velvet.
On the fifth day, I returned to Big Ed’s. It was empty except for the two of us, and I fed a quarter into the jukebox, then punched 9F4 Tooth: “We’ve Come to the End of This Romantic Road, My Baby Darling” by Salvatore the Italian Marvel and the Zip Zoop Dingleberries, my father’s legendary quartet. I sat at the bar and ordered a whiskey neat, then set the telephone on the stool beside me. I had started bringing it everywhere. I’d disconnected it from the wall and carried it around like some kind of mystical talisman. It still worked but only received calls from my wife and son. Not that I left the house much anyway. Even getting to Big Ed’s was a hassle, wading my way through the shuddering fog, three stories strong now, the death count long forgotten but rumored to be close to the entire town. I’d run the short path from the museum to the bar, the barbershop melodies of the damned fuzzing in my ear drums.
“Haven’t heard this in awhile.” Big Ed nodded at the jukebox as he polished his shotgun with a rag.
“He would have been proud, you know? Don’t beat yourself up. There was nothing you could’ve done to save the museum, Bombay Bay. Once the factories and casinos left, once all those tilapia washed ashore. We were done for before you were even born, Anthony. Totally fucked.”
We listened to my dead father sing through the speakers.
“How many people left?”
He scratched the underside of his beard. “By Cucamonga’s count? Three. You, me, and him.”
I slugged back the whiskey and ordered another. We could barely hear the harmonies of my father over the fog song outside, taunting us, calling us closer and closer to the void. I went to the bathroom and when I returned, Big Ed lay slumped over the bar, his shotgun plunged deep into his back, lines of blood racing to the floor drain below. I finished my second whiskey and went outside. The fog was everywhere now, all encompassing, and I couldn’t see much in any direction, only a darkened figure running to and fro. I held the telephone close to my heart and walked in his direction. The fog sang to me.
Oh, baby, baby, baby, Bombay Baby, please come home/
A crazed Detective Cucamonga staggered towards me, eyes bulging, his Studebaker a few feet behind. He told me to get on out of there, to leave, to take his vehicle and escape to a city or any place on earth not named Bombay Bay. Then he exploded in a puff of smoke, leaving behind a mound of ashes dotted with the pearly remainders of his bones.
I climbed inside the Studebaker but didn’t turn the engine. I couldn’t see a thing, the road, the buildings, nada, and the wipers didn’t do jack shit. I rolled up the windows to keep the fog out and turned on the radio—the DJ was in the middle of my father’s song from inside Big Ed’s. When it ended, I lowered the volume and called Kat in the City of Angels.
“Italian Marvel Jr.? Is that you?”
“Hi. I think Bombay Bay is done for, honey. I don’t have much time.”
“Just leave. Drive the Studebaker to LA. Be with your family. We can become new and more fully realized versions of ourselves. We can become infinite.”
“I would like that,” I told her. “But I think I’m too stubborn, too loyal.”
“Loyal to whom?”
I hung up the phone. I fastened my seat belt. I rolled down the windows and let the fog roll in, singing me to slumber. What I remember, what I remember most about the whole damn enterprise, is one of my father’s shows at Big Ed’s, sitting in the audience as a boy drinking soda with syrup in it and everything. Watching him sway under the lights. Watching him make our people happy. They loved him, the people of Bombay Bay, they honestly, deep down adored him. Who wouldn’t covet that love for themselves?
Salvatore Pane’s novel Last Call in the City of Bridges is forthcoming this November from Braddock Avenue Books. His chapbook #KanyeWestSavedFromDrowning will be published by NAP Magazine in October. His fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in PANK, Hobart, Annalemma, and others. This fall he’ll begin work as the new Assistant Professor of English at the University of Indianapolis. He can be reached at www.salvatore-pane.com.