Red Tide

Fiction
J.S. Sollazzo


Dead Fish on Beach after Red Tide (concentration of algae that's toxic to fish)
Photo Credit: Judy Baxter

It was the worst red tide in memory. More dead fish piled on the beach with every roll of the waves. The cleanup crews were no match and had long since given up. Even the vultures and rats and maggots couldn’t eat fast enough; the smell of rot and death was as thick as mud in the air.

The people who study such things talked of bacterial blooms and irregular tides and global warming. They said that the first big storm of the year would wash it all away. Then the gulls and pelicans and other seabirds began dying, falling out of the sky like kites on a windless day. Their carcasses rotted on the beach with the fish that had poisoned them and the stench became unbearable. The retirees and lawyers and doctors evacuated their condos and expensive homes, the hotels and bars and gift shops closed; the towns along the coast were as deserted as on the eve of a hurricane.

Darryl Biggs was affected by none of these things. He lived far from the beach, in a rusty single-wide trailer on the outskirts of an ugly little town tucked between interstate highways and flat pastures dotted with cows. He worked his meaningless job and came home every evening to his rotund, agoraphobic wife. Angie spent her days inside, her fat ass nestled in the deep depression it had made in the couch, watching television and eating foods that came in plastic wrappers. She wore billowing housedresses stained with condiments and her thin brown hair was so greasy it looked wet. The house was littered with unwashed clothes and grease-stained takeout boxes and smelled of sweat and dust and spoilage and every time Darryl walked through the door he wondered why he bothered.

When he was a boy, Darryl had imagined a different life for himself. He dreamed of going to college and getting a real job in a big, important city, a job requiring a suit and tie and a black briefcase and rides on subway trains and elevators. He dreamed of a pretty blond wife and cute blond kids and a big brick house in a neighborhood peopled with other perfect families, the smells of fresh-cut grass and barbecue grills filling the air.

But dreams died quickly in the trailer park next to the landfill where he grew up. He got Angie pregnant before he finished his junior year of high school, quit for a job bagging groceries at Winn Dixie (a job he still had), and married her only a few days before his pink little son came screaming into the world. When Darryl held his boy for the first time he felt so much love inside him that he thought he might burst like an over-inflated balloon. His dreams became important again and he promised his son that he would one day make them real.

It was a promise he never kept. The boy died in his crib just short of his first birthday, simply stopped breathing sometime during the night, as if he saw the white-trash world he was born into and decided he wanted no part of it.

After that, Darryl’s life became only something to endure, his sole purpose to keep the memory of his boy alive inside him.

Darryl learned about the red tide from CNN. His wife watched obsessively, mumbling things about Revelations and the coming Apocalypse as the screen showed a hot blue sky above a calm blue sea and a shore littered with dead things. To Darryl it looked peaceful, the beach emptied of tourists and the roads deserted. Somewhere between his first and second six-pack he decided it would be a good time to visit.

The smell hit him as soon as he crossed the bridge from the mainland, like a punch in the gut. It sucked the oxygen from the air and settled like phlegm in the back of his throat, making it itch and burn like he had swallowed a mouthful of ants. He wondered if he had made a mistake. Then he saw the Gulf glittering like a galaxy of stars between the condominiums and hotels crowding the beach, reflecting a big yellow sun hanging high in a bottomless blue sky and for the first time in a long time, he smiled.

It was even quieter than he had imagined. The road snaking along the beach, usually clogged with cars, belonged only to him. No police cars, no television news vans, not even a single stubborn tourist or drunken beach bum. He had his choice of the metered spaces in the public parking lots. He found one close to the water and sat in his car, smoking cigarettes and gazing at the view. Even though the place where the waves met the shore was littered with myriad species of fish and fowl in various stages of decomposition, it was beautiful. After awhile, even the smell began to dissipate, if only because he had grown used to it.

He thought about his boy. There were awful times, usually while sitting with Angie while she laughed at her sitcoms, when he couldn’t remember the details of his son’s face. His red lips and gray eyes and the topography of his fragile, fuzz-covered skull turned slippery and furtive, like a nocturnal, elusive animal. Sometimes it would take him hours to catch the memories, to hold onto them long enough to remember every tiny detail of his little boy’s beautiful face.

But today his son was so clear in his mind that Darryl could feel him there, like he was holding him in his arms. It was a wonderful feeling but also a sad one. He missed his boy terribly.

Their son had been dead almost as long as he had been alive and Darryl had never seen his wife cry for him. Unlike Darryl, Angie had chosen to pretend their son had never existed. Instead of remembering, she tried to forget, drowning herself in her television shows and her Bible and her fast food binges and Darryl hated her for it, hated her more each day. It grew like kudzu inside him and when it finally invaded the place where he kept the memories of his boy he knew there was only one way to make it stop.

After one more cigarette, he pulled himself out of his car and opened the trunk.

He wife was in there, wrapped in a green tarp that was once part of a tent he had never used for camping. There was a single, unimpressive spot of blood showing in the place where her head was wrapped, the only reminder of the damage caused by the beer bottle he had broken over it the night before.

After taking a look to make sure he was still alone, he yanked Angie out of the trunk and dragged her towards the beach. She was a very heavy woman but Darryl was strong and he pulled her slowly but inexorably across the warm sand.

He was sweating when he reached the shore and the waves felt cool where they lapped at his feet and ankles. He unwrapped his wife quickly. She was naked, her skin as pale as the underbellies of the fish floating around him and the fat bulging under her skin reminding him of a beached whale, just as it had last night when the idea had occurred to him.

He looked back only once on his way back to the car and his wife was already invisible, lost among the other dead things rotting in the sun.

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Joseph Sollazzo is a retired police officer who splits his time between the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina and the beaches of Tampa, Florida. He has had stories published or forthcoming in Story Teller, Mud Rock, Eyes, Nth Zine, Short Stories Bimonthly and The Circle Magazine. His short story “Doorbell” was nominated for the 2005 Pushcart Prize. In between short stories, he has been painfully, inexorably working on a novel that he hopes to finish by the end of the year. Email: jssollazzo[at]gmail.com