Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

The Mudlark

The Mudlark
Photograph via Unsplash by Jakub Kapusnak.

September 1998

Black walnuts slipped from their freckled husks under the crepe-soles of Ruby’s Keds. Dewey grass bristled against her sunburnt ankles, a dissipating thunderstorm turning the slate steps ahead slickly glassine. She took the stones with a hyper-alertness to the crevasses plated through the slabs. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back: her edict. Images of fractured, knotty alabaster vertebrae filled the forward charge of Ruby’s synapses—the rapid fire of one solicitous cell to the next.

A red-winged blackbird singed the milky sky in her periphery. Lifting off Lake Michigan two blocks away, in languid heaves, gusts of wind tousled Ruby’s crimped hair—the air—her ends: smog-tinged and wildly split.

Waiting behind the brick facade of the ivy-covered bungalow, her modem with its shrill dial-up tone, a robotic mockingbird chirping out a song of war, thickened her pulse. AOL Instant Messenger and the starry expanse of ​Netscape waited on her iMac G3 for her to absorb in a solid crunch of time, the translucency of its candy-colored shell like a blueberry Jolly Rancher. Its four gigabytes seemed to circulate through her blood now, their data stored in the capacity of her thirteen-year-old heart.

Overhung by a sloping eave, the front porch was dry. In this limestone oasis, swept over by the tendrils of a potted white geranium, Ruby picked up a rolled newspaper.

In the foyer with its lead-paned windows, an earthy smell rose over her as she dropped her backpack, easing her grip on the newspaper. A percussive thud sounded against the hickory-planked floor. Ruby looked down; a rainbow mackerel stared up at her with one glassy eye. The fish’s scales shimmered in the soft luminescence of a Tiffany lamp. She opened the newspaper with both hands to see a wet rectangular imprint from where the fish had slipped. Its dorsal fin fluttered in the subtle flow of air breaking in through a crack in the door’s rubberized liner. The soundless gallop of a scream pounded in Ruby’s dry throat. Knees straining against a burgeoning hole in the knee of her jeans, she knelt over the mackerel and picked the fish up by the cartilaginous veining of its tail.

Above their double-barrel sink, the kitchen windows let in the charged after-current of the storm; she absorbed this first. Then, taking in the sharply squared-off angle of her father’s elbows on the emerald-green granite island and her mother’s wan, bleached out complexion, Ruby stepped back.

She stood in their unlit hall with the fish’s tail pinched between her thumb and index finger. The silence layered between her parents built a barbed fortress, moated with the patina of her mother’s shallow breath. Her father’s heavy sigh swam inside the bottomless depth of her mother’s stunned stare—coppery with the glint of tears. Ruby swallowed a gulp of air, stepping out of the stuccoed hallway into the swampy energy rising over the black and white tiles of the kitchen floor. She sloshed her weight from left to right foot as she extended the fish out in front of her. Her father’s eyes cut from the fish to the Chicago Tribune.

A tremble flowed through her mother’s hands, her teacup clattering down to a Blue Willow saucer.

“Rolled up in it?” her father’s leathery voice snagged on each word; his eyes riveted on its smudged print.

“Yes, slipped out,” Ruby handed over the paper; her father flattened it, avoiding its wet midsection.

Ruby read what she could, how something called Google had been founded in California, a Swissair plane had crashed into the cold, choppy waters off a rustic cove in Nova Scotia. But then he crushed the paper into a ball and threw it in the garbage. Under where the paper had been, Ruby saw a ledger of numbers in the tight scrawl of her father’s handwriting. There were a litany of figures cutting against the words: Cantering Cadence, Blossoming Mudlark, and Son of Secretariat.

“What’s a mudlark?” she asked as her father wavered to his feet, plucking the fish firmly from her pinched grip.

“A mudlark can make it through anything,” he said with the silvery mackerel in the bed of his calloused palm, “doesn’t matter how wet or muddy the track ahead is.”

A hard stream of water flipped the fish’s scales forward like sequins caught in a tug of wind. He pulled a butcher knife from its maple block and held it behind the thin ribbon of red under the fishes’ gills, cutting toward its head then flipping it over, repeating the same motion on the other side. With several flicks of his wrist, the tail was chopped off, and he’d filleted the fish to its backbone, pulling away the meat from its ribcage.

“I’m going to do some goddamn living now, who’s with me?” he said as his movements quickened, gaining momentum. He pulled a cast iron skillet from a hanging pot rack. Hinges on the cupboard doors grated together. He poured out a bout of olive oil into the pan and tossed in a handful of basil leaves. Then he was grating the zest of two lemons, pulling out the salt and pepper.

Her mother held her long strand of pearls in her shaking hands, worrying them like a rosary. The buttery snap of the frying fish sizzled through the air.

Ruby moved over to the island, where the numbers grew bolder, and she saw it for what it was, a list of his debts, bets he had lost. It was then that Ruby felt herself slip from inside this moment. She was standing there, with her parents, but she was also outside their scene, her awareness holding the image of them still. Like her smallest Russian doll, they were inside several layers of something larger and darker with a hollowed-out core. She had seen enough TV to know a fish on a doorstep meant something ominous. And she had seen enough of her father’s comings and goings: black eyes, cut lips, the spontaneous appearance of a sleek Lincoln Town Car ushering him away, and the mysterious matriculation of jewels—she and her mother waking one snowy morning in Detroit with glittering diamond rings on their fingers. Ruby both knew and did not know what her father did, the inky parchment of her consciousness boldly redacted in a blackout of its most damaging pieces.

“I’m going to live while I’m alive,” he announced this time, “who’s with me?”

“I am,” Ruby spoke up this time, because she was. Her mother took in her daughter: windswept hair and tears welling in Ruby’s hazel eyes.

“I am too,” her mother rose, pulling a sack of potatoes from the pantry, slipping a knife out from the butcher’s block.

Potatoes were promptly sliced into thin rounds.

“Fish and chips,” her mother said with a wilting smile, “what a delight.”

Ruby set the table with a rainbow assortment of their heavy Fiestaware, the omen of the fish slipping back into the same kind of darkness in which it’d hatched. She felt herself lulled by the outflow of her father’s manic force. Her fear drifted in the wake of his frenetic movements across the kitchen before starting its descent to the pillowy seafloor of her buried feelings. Plunging his knife through a head of iceberg lettuce, he declared dinner was almost ready.

Two hours earlier than they normally ate, the Baileys sat down around their mahogany table. Her father passed her the flaky fish; it melted in her mouth. Her mother handed her the salty, thinly sliced potatoes. It was in silence that their last dinner at 5307 North Ashland simmered to a tepid end.

The oily scent of the mackerel clung to the family’s clothing, dourly cluttering the car with one more thing. Headlight beams dipping into the pitted asphalt of Lake Shore Drive, the electric pulse of Chicago thrummed softly against their Volvo before fading into the industrial throb of Indiana. Smokestacks threaded the mechanical landscape. The lips of a nuclear cooling tower exhaled white steam, hissing from the fission of splitting uranium atoms. Ruby shut her cried-out eyes.

She woke to her father pumping gas in the rusted-out heart of Flint, Michigan. Here, the arteries of alleys joined the capillaries of waste-rich streets under the flickering icy lights of mounted police cameras.

Soon, they were on the Blue Water Bridge, a vein of the St. Clair river rushing underneath, and delivered to Canada through its benevolent border patrol.

Pulling her Samsonite rolly across the unraveling parking lot of a Comfort Inn, Ruby kicked at loosened bits of cement. From the room, she watched the sunrise over a distant slice of cobalt blue, Lake Erie. Her mother stripped the sheets, replacing them with their own: eggshell, Egyptian cotton. This is what told her they’d be here awhile, at least a week, the sheets. Her mother only did this, pulling the corners taut, smoothing the bed’s rippled mid-section, when they were set to stay awhile. Ruby could not say for sure when she’d learned this, maybe at seven, the Bronx receding in their rear window as Phoenix rose up before her sleepy eyes like the Emerald City of Oz set in endless fields of sand.

Falling asleep, Ruby’s slumber unrolled as a heavy carpet and spilled out a river of newsprint from within its fibers. In these bits of crumpled newspaper, fish swam through stories, ate their words and digested photos in a way that brought the ink up to tattoo their glittering scales with images. The watery aftermath of a plane crash, its ravaged metallic fuselage imprinted onto the side of a pink salmon skimming by—snapped Ruby awake.

The cacophony of the nearby racetrack filled the room with an aura of kicked up dirt, oversized hats adorned with silk roses and spilt bear that simply was not there. She knew it all too well though and could hear the muffled roar of the crowd down the block. Her father was gone, but her mother slept with her thin knees pulled to her chest, baby-like. Swathed in ghostly white light, Ruby’s heart sped, again. Her father had set up her computer on the hotel desk.

When she sat before it though, she could only stare into her screensaver, gleaming winged toasters flying across the velvety blackness of outer space. She stared at the screensaver for so long that the images seemed to suffuse themselves with her breath. A piece of toast popped out; she inhaled. The toast slipped back down into its infrared slot of heat; she exhaled. This was all of life, Ruby thought; it had been distilled into this screensaver by Berkeley Systems. Her, her parents, they didn’t know where they were going or when they would get there, but still, they sprung out of bed each morning and sunk back into the glowing warmth of their blankets each night. Ruby listened to the whirl of the air conditioning, felt the cool skin of the keyboard under her fingertips. It was OK, she thought, let the vessel of her life contain all the precarity of a winged toaster lost in outer space. She didn’t care. It didn’t matter because as long as she could fly, she’d get somewhere. And she could, in fact, get anywhere. The clatter of her father’s key in the hotel door broke her concentration on the pixels.

His cheeks were ruddy, sweat-tinged—his voice, joyous. The race was rigged. His lead had come through. They would win, he whispered. And Ruby knew this was true. But not because of the ancient sport, horse racing with its flat course that led to nothing but concentric loss, inevitably. It was because of the plumage to their wings, iridescent and densely feathered. The three of them, their trifecta, suspended in this dark energy together, lives in perpetual flight—they could avoid predators and migrate. Coming down the treacherous tracks of their past, Ruby could hear the laden, three-beat gait of the future cantering in to a gallop. And the future—she smiled—the future was a mudlark, thoroughbred.