Illustration by Quentin Blake
I tend to flip from OK insomnia to bad insomnia depending on how things in my life are going, and this story came out of a stretch of insomnia as bad as I’ve had in a while. I’d been struggling with another story for some months by that point, and woke up one night to the certainty that I just couldn’t pull the fucking thing off. There was no way I could do it. But more importantly, I was a worthless piece of shit. I understood that, lying there, with more than my usual blinding clarity. This went on for some time. My wife murmured sympathetically in her sleep. The dog got up and padded nervously into the other room. Eventually, I conceded: OK, that notion that you were going to write that story? That has to be let go. I got angrier and angrier at my helplessness. Then I remembered a conceit that I’d begun and then stalled on almost a year earlier: a conceit about the lethality of Cretaceous seas. I’d stopped because the conceit had seemed precious. What was supposed to be giving the thing teeth? What was supposed to be providing it with any kind of emotional force? I got out of bed and tramped downstairs at four in the morning and looked at the fragment, which was about a page long. I started writing. I wasn’t sure whatever I was doing was going to work, but given my state of mind, whatever I ended up with, it wasn’t going to be precious.
Dip your foot in the water and here’s what you’re playing with: Xiphactinus, all angry underbite and knitting-needle teeth, with heads oddly humped and eyes enraged with accusation, and ribboned bodies so muscular they fracture coral heads when surging through to bust in on insufficiently alert pods of juvenile Clidastes. The Clidastes spin around to face an oncoming maw that’s in a perpetual state of homicidal resentment. The smaller Xiphactinus are three times your length and swallow their prey whole. They’re gill to gill with Cretoxyrhina, great white sharks fifty feet long with heads the size of Mini Coopers and twelve-inch nightmare triangles of teeth. Mosasaurs big and small, the runts weighing in at two tons and the alphas like Tylosaur a stupefying sixty feet. Under the surface, they’re U-boats with crocodiles’ heads. Pliosaurs in their hunting echelons, competing to see who’s the more viciously ill tempered. Kronosaurs whose jaws provide the kind of leverage that can snap whales’ spines. Thalassomedons, the biggest of the elasmosaurs, with their twenty-foot water-snake necks allowing the Venus-flytrap teeth to be everywhere at once. Dakosaurs gliding through the murk of fish parts kicked up by their initial thrashing attacks.
And rising out of the blue gloom like the ridged bottom itself easing up to meet you, Liopleurodon, holdover from the Jurassic, the biggest predator that ever lived. Families could live in its skull. On the move it’s like the continental shelf taking a trip. It feeds everywhere, in shallow water the surf breaking over it like a sandbar. Its earth-moving front flippers keep it from stranding. If some of the bigger land predators stand around the shallows trolling for what floats in, that’s their mistake. It takes them off their feet like fruit off a tree.
This is the Tethys Ocean, huge, shallow, and warmed by its position locked between the world’s two giant supercontinents. This is the place where the prey could kill a sperm whale. This is all this one guy’s bed. This guy—we’ll call him Conroy, because that’s his fucking name—whose insomnia every night is beyond debilitating, teeming, epic with hostile energy, oceanic. What’s his problem? Well, where to begin? Kick your feet and watch something else surface from below. He’s been a crappy son, a shitty brother, a lousy father, a lazy helpmate, a wreck of a husband. As a pet owner he’s gotten two dogs and a parakeet killed. Some turtles and two other dogs died without his help.
His daughter won’t speak and wears a ski hat in the house and writes stories in which family members are eviscerated and the narrator laughs. She’s an isolate, watched but not approached. We don’t want to make the problem into more than it is. His brother’s alone in Florida, an older version of the same pain, just a phone call away. Whenever Conroy makes his hang-up indications in their once-in-a-blue-moon conversations, his brother tells him it was great talking to him. His father’s ignoring the doctor’s advice, most of that advice having to do with meds, his Dilantin, his Prozac, his everything else, and going downhill because of it, and still they rehearse the same conversational rituals, as though time is standing still instead of vortexing down a drain. His career involves assuring people he’s got the answers and he’s got their back when he doesn’t have the answers and he’s all about craven self-interest: He’s part of the team rolling out a major new pharmaceutical, one of the accomplished tyros vouching for one of the eminences who did the science, and in that capacity he didn’t so much invent his data as cherry-pick it. Will it kill anyone? He hopes not. Because he means well.
He always means well. He tells himself this, treading water in bed.
The good news is who’s in this bed with him. His wife’s in this bed with him. His wife’s the person he loves most in the world. Here’s the thing about his wife: She travels a lot, too, in her role as headhunter for the Center for American Progress, and she’s concerned about him, and the conversational form her concern has lately taken has been to suggest, half-jokingly and half-kindly, that he should have a fling somewhere, with someone. And to him this sounds like You should get yourself some tenderness somewhere. Because you ain’t getting it here.
He could ask if that’s what she means. But he’s the kind of guy given to building tall towers of self-pity and then watching them sway. So he speculates instead.
In bed, arms and legs swirling, he hints around. His wife is all psychological acuity and knows him like she knows her childhood bedroom, but she’s always been impatient with hinting and her requests for clarification sound like demands. Exasperation makes him close up shop like a night-blooming flower.
Think of the good you’ve done, he counsels. Think of the good you continue to do. A breeze blows over the water’s surface.
But here’s this letter in which a Sri Lankan says he’s all but sure he’s found some major links between the product and miscarriage. Didn’t Conroy review the same data? The Sri Lankan wants to know. And here’s this journal entry from his daughter: My Throat = the Shit Pit. And here’s this dream he keeps having of himself as ringmaster and no acts performing, just a guy with a hoop, looking at him and waiting, and everyone he’s ever let down, scattered in the uncomfortable stands, wanting to tell him that all of his forays into selflessness have only made clearer what they’re not, like a thimbleful of cola in the middle of the Kalahari.
His mode such nights is the circuit between bed and bathroom and lamplit magazines. But tonight he’s heard his daughter downstairs ahead of him, and the delicate hiccups of the little breath-intakes that are her version of crying when it’s crucial she not be heard. Her favored position is to wedge herself into the wingback chair with her knees by sitting Indian-style. He holds himself still, listening. And he throws open the sash on their upper-story bedroom window and climbs out on the roof. And his wife stirs, and, sleeping, is sad for his unsettlement. The grit stings his knees. Gravity wants to welcome him forward in a rush. The breeze cools his butt. In the moonlight he’s just a naked guy, most of his weight on his hands, his hands bending the front edge of the aluminum gutter, the grass two stories below a blue meridian, zenith and nadir at once.
How do we help? Throw him a life preserver? How long should anyone survive in that ocean?
He’s Tethys Man, superhero and supervillain all in one. How much does he sweat at night? His sheets smell mildewy in the morning. If you saw him padding to the toilet, stepping naked in place and waving off the bad images like the world’s least fetching drum majorette, would you imagine that inauthenticity was a term that haunted him? If you saw him naked on his roof, gauging the distance from the sloping dormer to the strain insulators and primary cables of the telephone wires, would you imagine that once he jumped he’d ferry himself hand over hand from house to house? Would you imagine that if he did, he would have proved something to himself, in his own inchoate way, about his desire for change? Would you imagine that he then hated himself less?
Would you imagine that when confronting his loved ones’ sadnesses, his vanity knew no bounds? Would you imagine that he thought his problems would solve themselves? Would you imagine that he fancied himself the prey when he was really the apologetic predator? Would you imagine that he’d last very long? Would you imagine that he’d get through this alive? Would you imagine that his kind should die out once and for all? Would you imagine that even now he was telling you the truth?
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The Second Annual Fiction Issue