by Melanie Lamaga
This excerpt is from the collection The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags and Other Stories, available from Amazon.com in paperback and e-book format.
WHAT KIND ARE YOU?
When I remember Dundalk, Maryland, I think of the Fish Pub: splintered wood floor, blacked-out windows, swinging red doors, the only light from beer signs glowing red, white and blue.
I grew up in a row house with a concrete stoop. I wore a white shirt and plaid skirt like every other girl in school. My folks worked at Industrial Steel. Point is, our lives were normal, far as I knew.
My last night in Dundalk started out normal, too. Just me and Ray and the rest of what we called the Fish Club, playing pool. Except Frank was dead by then, so it couldn’t have been normal at all. Funny how your memory tries to smooth the rough edges.
Rewind. Tell the truth.
My last night in Dundalk, everybody was drinking way too much. Frank was dead, Ma had disappeared, and my fiancé was flirting with the bartender. But all of this still seemed random, separate from my real life.
Then all hell broke loose.
I’d been working at Winger Shipyard two years. The girl welder. That’s what the guys called me when the boss was around. The rest of the time it was Blondie, bring me a sandwich, and Hon, can ya help me light my torch? and other hilarious jokes.
After Ray and I started dating, they eased up. Ray Mikos had smooth, olive skin and a beautiful face like those old Greek statues without arms, except his nose was crooked from falling out of a tree when he was ten. He wasn’t tall, but nobody messed with Ray—and not just because he was a foreman. He was the type who kept everybody cool and got the job done. I liked that about him, almost as much as I liked the way he watched me with those dark eyes of his whenever I walked in a room.
After we got together, I found out he could get the job done in the bedroom, too. The way he used his tongue. He took me to the edge and kept me there until I screamed and grabbed his head.
By the time I turned twenty-one, me and Ray been living together for a year. The wedding was planned for the week before Christmas. Our colors were black, white and red. The church was going to be full of poinsettias.
Then one night at work, I got a call from Pop. Said Ma had taken off. At first I couldn’t believe it. But Pop said he found a note on the kitchen table under a beef and potato casserole, saying it’s what she had to do and asking us to forgive.
After Ray and I got off shift we went over to the house. Pop sat on the couch, still in work clothes and boots. His gray hair bristled on his head like a scrub brush. Normally my pop stands straight as a soldier, but that night he looked like he was melting into the couch. He held Ma’s note in one hand and a bottle of Jim Beam in the other.
“What happened?” I asked. “You guys get in a hellacious fight?”
“No! I swear.” Pop shook his head. “She’s been acting strange, but she wouldn’t say nothing.”
“Strange how?” I asked.
Pop shrugged. “Stopped going to her disaster relief meetings. Got quiet except for talking about your birthday. Worrying what to get you. Give her a check, I say. Let her get what she wants. But no.”
I touched the necklace she’d given me: a silver angel, tiny and perfect right down to the feathers on her wings. At home I had a collection of angels—glass, brass, ceramic, you name it—all presents from Ma. It was our thing.
“Where’s her family?” Ray asked.
Pop shrugged. “They came from Mexico before she was born, but they all died or left a long time ago. Crazy, blonde spics.”
“Ma don’t like that word,” I said.
“Well, she ain’t here.” He took a pull off the bottle, defiant and heartbroke.
“I can’t believe this.” I flopped down on the sofa and took the bottle from Pop. “My wedding is less than three months away!”
“Faye’s a good person,” Ray said. “She’ll be back.”
I took a slug of the whiskey and shook my head. I’d never heard of somebody’s ma taking off like that, a grown woman running away from home. And Pop was right, the last time I saw her she was acting strange.
It was on my birthday. Usually Ma went crazy with foil balloons, streamers and homemade angel-shaped cakes. But for my twenty-first there was just spaghetti and a chocolate cake from the grocery store.
I didn’t think much about it at the time. After all, I wasn’t a kid anymore. But after dinner, when I went to the kitchen to help Ma clean up, I found her holding a plate under the faucet, staring like she was in a trance.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
“You’re twenty-one. A grown woman.” She looked at me with this God-awful sad face that made her seem old. Usually people thought we were sisters ’cause we had the same café con leche skin, honey-colored hair and dark blue eyes.
“Well, for Pete’s sake, Ma.” I clanked plates into the dishwasher. “It ain’t a funeral.”
She flinched. “Don’t say that! Some people in our family have bad luck.”
“What kinda bad luck?” A glass I was rinsing slipped out of my hand and cracked in the sink. “Oops! It’s starting,” I joked.
Ma didn’t smile. “Sometimes, when our people come of age, they change. Sometimes it skips a generation.” She pushed back the white lace curtain and stared out the window. “I wish I’d gotten it, to spare you.”
I could see her hands shake as she dropped the curtain, then picked up a dishtowel and twisted it.
“You’re just freaking out over stories your mama used to tell.” I remembered curling up with my silver-haired abuelita, listening to tales of shape-shifters and ghosts, and sipping cocoa with a hint of chili.
Ma nodded. “Mama wanted me to name you something different. We fought about it right up until she died.”
I frowned. “What’s that got to do with the price of beans?”
She hugged me, harder than she needed to. “I named you Angel to protect you. So don’t worry, okay?”
“Who’s worried? I’m fierce.” I kissed her cheek and went back to loading dishes.
I didn’t believe in luck; I believed in what I could see. But Ma read the Weekly World News and got really twisted about some of those stories, like the alien babies they said the government was experimenting on, or the female yeti who got shot by hunters in Russia. The story said a second yeti kept the hunters trapped in their cabin, howling until they gave the body back.
“Hm. Blurry,” Pop had said when Ma showed him the picture of the yeti carrying his dead wife through the snow. “In this digital age you’d think somebody could get decent photos of Bigfoot every once in a while.”
I guess Pop and me both snickered because Ma snapped, “Shame on you! Especially you, Angel.”
“Me? Why me?” I squealed, still trying not to laugh.
“Because you’re my daughter, and you best remember there are things in this world that you don’t understand. Not everybody’s lucky enough to fit in.”
The Fish Club got started right after Ma left. We was all pretty sloshed, and Marcus decided it meant something that Frank, whose last name was Fish, hung out at the Fish Pub.
“Hey, that’s true.” Frank nodded slowly. He’d drunk so many shots of Jack he swayed in circles, even sitting on a barstool. “We’re the Fish Club of the Fish Pub!” he yelled, and pounded the butt of his cue on the floor.
Frank Fish and I had gone to the same high school, but we weren’t friends back then. I was the girl welder in shop class; he was the all-American jock with a pretty-boy face. Now he worked at his dad’s car repair shop and had a gut like a beanbag chair.
That night we decided everybody needed fish names. I ended up Angel Fish, of course, and Ray got Sting Ray. We named Marcus Flying Fish because he was always popping up with some new obsession like building a DIY submarine or learning to speak Cherokee. We called him Fly for short, because he was stylish, with a wild ’fro that drove the older black guys at work crazy. They was always yelling at him to get a haircut or at least cornrows, for God’s sake. He’d just grin and yell out, “Jimi Hendrix!” or “Weezie Jefferson!” or “Kareem Abdul Jabbar!”
CeCe was harder to name. “How about Catfish,” I said, “because she’s got those slanty green eyes.” CeCe was a beautician, always dying her hair experimental colors. She was her own best advertisement—had the face and the figure, but not stuck-up at all.
“Why don’t we call her Perch?” Fly said. “You know, on accounta she’s lazy.”
CeCe shook her head, swishing her violet curls. “I’m not a fish. I’m the sea, see? I’m the air you breathe, and without me you die. So watch yourselves.”
“Come on!” I said. “You have to pick a fish.”
“Names are important, Angel,” CeCe insisted. “You let people call you the wrong one, you end up living somebody else’s life.”
I let this idea swirl around my brain awhile. “Are you saying your whole life is based on whatever random name your parents pick when you’re born? What if they pick wrong?”
“Egg-sackly.” CeCe widened her eyes.
Ray waved his beer bottle in a circle to get the bartender to bring another round, then turned to me. “So, what kind of angel are you?”
“Fluffy wings. Beautiful,” I said. “What else?”
Ray shook his head. “That’s just Hollywood bullshit. Truth is, you’ve got seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, archangels, powers, principalities, archangels, and guardian angels.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “That’s not counting the fallen angels who left with Lucifer.”
CeCe snorted. “How the hell do you know all that?”
“Church. You should try it sometime, heathen.” Ray took a swig of beer.
“So what do all those different angels do?” I asked.
Ray gave me a long, dark look, and I knew why—I didn’t go to church. It was the only thing we ever had a big fight about, but to me religion made about as much sense as Ma’s Weekly World News. “Angels execute God’s will,” Ray said finally. “You got your messengers, glorifying angels and avenging angels. They’re like gladiators.”
“Gladiators!” Fly yelled, jousting at Ray with his pool stick. Ray blocked him and spun away. Frank tried to join the duel but fell against the table. Glasses clattered and broke.
Our favorite bartender Bob, an Irishman with a goatee, yelled at the guys for being rowdy and told them to settle down or get out. Then Frank tried to pick up the broken glass and almost fell over.
“Fuckin’ stop, man! You’re gonna cut yourself.” Bob came over with a dustpan and broom.
“No, no, no.” Frank grabbed the broom and tried to figure out how to work it.
“Zombie logic,” Ray muttered. That was our saying for people not knowing what they’re doing or why, but hell-bent on doing it anyway.
While CeCe used her charms to get Frank to sit and drink some coffee, Ray swept up the glass and I mopped the floor. After that we forgot all about angels and what kind I might be.
Two weeks later, Frank Fish was dead.
To read the rest of this story, pick up The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags and Other Stories. Available from Amazon.com in paperback and e-book format.