Illustration by Kristina Collantes
t was 1946 and the beaches looked like leather. The shells were chairs and the shells were parasols. Everything that started blue became pink. Dads and moms posed to hide the white cubes of exposed winter thighs. This was the thing I was in. A picture like that. Towels and tufts of singing scrub. Pointy-titted ladies with wide crispy eggs for hats. Beefcakes. And the wind that is only invented ten feet from shore but it’s a bawling baby shredding the pages of magazines and raising lipstick bubbles on the backs of children. And I am bent in a corner of sky in the sand reading a comic. I deny that I am here. I am turned away. Turned inside. My sister is somewhere pretending to swim in four inches of water. My brothers are building bowls out of the droppings of seabirds. It is a joyful place, I suppose, but in my ten-year-old mind it is the bright sunshine of depression. The gold water and rose warmth of permanent intractable despair. I can’t say why it is, but I feel it. Like I’m living in a deep knot.
The sand on my knees covers scudded wounds and each grain is a cutting diamond. Earlier this week I teased a black kid at school. Not for being black, but for having the last name White. On Friday, yesterday, he tackled me on the sidewalk and brought me down under him. There was nothing for me to do but go home and lie. Maybe it’s that. The lying. Maybe that’s why I want to die today.
“Why don’t you go in?” My mom points out to the sea. She wears sunglasses as big as wheelbarrows. My God, this is an awful place. I bring my knees up under me and look at the back page.
“OK. Well, we’re going to walk down to the pier and see the fishermen.”
She pauses, adjusts the mad white ribs in her suit. She wants me to think. And yes, I really, really want to see the fishermen, but I’m suicidal today. She doesn’t sense this at all and pivots on her heels.
The back page. Sea Monkeys. X-Ray Specs. A six-dollar submarine that can submerge to great depths. If I had about 12 dollars to spare I could watch naked ladies in the cabana. If they caught me I could escape out to sea and drown. I would let my monkeys free to swing in the coral.
I despise this kind of thing. It is such obvious fantasy. The truth is I would be caught. I’d be standing by the cabana peering in through the side of a curtain. An old woman would scream and slap her hands to her bum. Everyone would hear her and everyone would see me. I can feel my knees blush, knowing that one day this will happen. I am changing, though, as the day goes on.
It was wanting to be dead. To be burned alive. Now it’s different. After seeing myself at the cabana and being taken that way, I have decided I will be alive. I will kill the old woman in her nakedness. I will pull parasols up like weeds and drive down them into sockets and mouths and bums. The whole beach will be crying and dirty and ashamed. Blood will be pumped into hollow poles and plumes of it will rise and spatter us all. This is where I get to at four in the afternoon. X-Ray Specs. Monkey submarines. Flies leaving the assholes of dogs and wiping their feet on the corner of my mouth.
I close the comic book. On the back is a picture I’ve never seen before. It’s a public warning. BEWARE GAUDIFINGERS! There is a drawing of a young boy and overlapping that an older boy. Then a man. And after that an old man. Then a dead man and then a skeleton. It’s not a very good drawing and the lines are wobbly and broken. Beneath the drawing is an important public announcement.
“This is a public warning that needs to be heeded by all. The Gaudifingers contagion is no longer contained. Be advised that contact with Gaudifingers results in rapid aging and painful terrifying death within minutes. In many cases the horror of this rapid transformation kills the victim seconds before their final physical deterioration. Gaudifingers then takes the form of the victim and moves on. The only way to know who Gaudifingers is is to witness this transformation. The authorities are asking the public for assistance in tracking and eliminating this demon once and for all. If you witness the sudden aging of someone please call the police immediately. There is no one above suspicion. Anyone you know could at any time be Gaudifingers.”
I scan down the page looking for what they are trying to sell. Is this an ad for a new comic?
A movie? There is nothing on the page to suggest it’s anything other than a very serious public warning. I stare at the drawing. The lines are wobbly on purpose. This is what happens: Your skin wobbles and your lines break. It must be so bad. The Gaudifingers touches you and you feel your skin shatter and your heart age 100 years in minutes. I feel that this is something not everyone knows. The news is just getting out now. The threat of Gaudifingers. I picture Rexdale for some reason. Maybe because it’s an ugly place. Yellow factories and stubby strip malls. If Gaudifingers was working its way through there, no one would know. Or maybe some do. A woman closes her dry-cleaning shop early and hides in a rack of film-covered gowns. The man at the Sunoco wipes his hands on his pants and runs across the street and down an alley. Oh my God! A baby, just born, is suddenly tumbling in fat and loose sacks of skin, then long yellow teeth punch up through its nose and eyes and cheeks. There is no way to age a baby that fast. The process is confusing. Gray hair clogs its throat. Its arms hunch like crooked backs and skin tags pop across its feet. A momentary monster. Its eyes have heart attacks. Who can say what it is? I have to help somehow.
But how? If I tell people they’ll think I’m crazy. I’ll just get in trouble. If I show them the page they’ll say, “That’s interesting. Not now.” I know exactly how the world works. How things don’t get passed on. How messages die. People get used to bad news. They have things that they say when they hear it, but they don’t really hear it, do they? It’s as if everyone’s under a spell and they can only can only think about getting home, cleaning up, going to bed. And that’s exactly how Gaudifingers survives. It may be why Gaudifingers exists.
“Hey you! They caught a baby hammerhead! Come on! You gotta see this!”
I jump to my feet and brush my knees.
“Like a shark? How big?”
I am running backward ahead of my mom. She is excited.
“Well, it’s only a baby. But yeah, it’s pretty big.”
I can’t believe I’m going to see a hammerhead shark in just a few seconds.
“Wow, Mom. C’mon! Let’s run!’
I run ahead toward the pier. If you think that nearby there is a baby hammerhead shark it’s all you can think about. They live for millions of years and now, as a baby, they bounce at our feet and they are seconds away.
I stand at the base of the pier. It is very wide and long. All afternoon there have only been three things: sky then sea then sand. Now as I step up onto the planks I feel as if I’m entering a room that’s been hiding in folds. I don’t run because I can’t gauge the room I have. There is more salt in the air here. I run.
You can always tell when it’ll take you. I say that because it may be true and if it is then we are in an amazing world. There is no hammerhead. There are no fishermen. I turn to my mother and one of her arms is 40 feet long and is in the sea. She has thrown a leg, just as long, around and ahead of me. She is screaming; teeth spring though her lips and cut her face. This is one of my final moments. She says it, “Gaudifingers,” to scare me more. Her forehead makes a sudden oblong fob against the sun. The fingers come at me. She wails again, “Gaudifingers!” The fact that she’s trying to scare me is so hard to understand. The fingers telescope in sloppy curls. I can feel my heart ask to stop beating.