There’s a man claiming to have seen a giant squid. He says it came up close to the edge of the bay, swimming in T-waves, and shaking a little bit. He says it probably would have eaten him alive, but that he got away just in time. By his account, the squid was purple and looked like a cucumber with too many legs.
My roommate Yongjiu sees the story on the 6 o’clock news. When he tells me about it, I start to think that maybe the guy was me. The way I remember it though, the squid was a dark red, almost a maroon, and it didn’t look at all like a cucumber. A tuba, if anything.
I’m not sure why, but it’s something I’ve been doing ever since I moved to California a few months ago. Mostly it’s a question of inflection, but not entirely. I import meanings that weren’t there, make things sound prettier than they are. I find a small reassurance in this manipulation. Just the other day, I named all my neighbors after my favorite verbs. Now, when the couple down the hall is up fighting until 4 a.m., instead of getting angry, I say to myself something like, ‘Oh that crazy Pirouette family, always up to something.’
I call Rebecca three times this week and none of the times she picks up. I tell myself it’s because she’s at work, and she’s so busy these days. She would stop if she could, I think, but she’s planning a trip to the moon and there’s been hold-up. Fuss over the ozone, broken space heaters.
Later that night at the deli, I bump into Pickle Boy. The deli is halfway across town from me, on the corner of F Street and Covell. It’s open all night, run by a short orthodox Jew who has bright orange hair and whose name is Nick. You can get anything there. Hot sandwiches, soup, or even puzzle glue. It’s the kind of place that feels like a strange little drawer in the big chest of the city, one that opens when you come and shuts when you go.
I’m here tonight because I can’t sleep again, and I told myself that whenever this happened, I was going to do something productive, something like shopping, or laundry, or clipping my toenails. I’m picking through the avocadoes trying to figure out how soft is ripe and how soft is rotten when Pickle Boy taps me on the arm.
“Pickle Boy? Is that you?”
“I haven’t heard that name in forever,” he says.
I ask him what he’s doing in California and he tells me that he lives out here now. We’re both from Aspinwall, a small town just outside of Pittsburgh.
“I moved west about five years ago,” he says. “I ended up in San Francisco after high school and came to Davis a couple years ago.”
I say something about how this is so wild, this is so crazy, look at us, bumping into each other like this, in a deli in the middle of the night. We could have missed each other completely. He says something too, something like wow, isn’t it? It really is. I haven’t seen him since I was a little kid, but I want to tell him about this monster squid – to rally him, to shake the blanket from his eyes. Pickle Boy, I want to say, you’re blinded now, but you better look up. Double-knot your laces, he’s coming, and you and I, we need to get going quick.
Pickle Boy is the kind of person you don’t think about until you’re forced to, until you bump into him ten years later over too-soft avocadoes. His mom and dad were both retarded and neither of them had a job. Instead, they walked up and down our street, back and forth from their house to the bar that all the Vietnam vets in the neighborhood went to for whiskey shots in the middle of the day. His mom always walked with plastic grocery bags cupped in her arms. I don’t know what she carried in them, but she carried them the same way you’d picture somebody carrying something they were trying to save, pushed up against her chest like a nest of baby birds.
When we were about ten, something happened to confirm all of our suspicions. Pickle Boy’s dad ran out of his house naked and chased Pickle Boy all the way down the street. He was wearing nothing but socks, beating a wooden spoon against the bottom of an old saucepan. His belly jiggled like cooking grease with each bounce down the hill.
A little while later, we heard that Pickle Boy was really taken care of by his grandmother. This didn’t surprise us. She was an old woman we knew that fed peanuts to squirrels and passed out toothbrushes and dental hygiene pamphlets on Halloween. It was decided that Pickle Boy was an alien, a transient, and unintelligible life form.
Right around the time my parents were getting a divorce, Pickle Boy and I started walking down to the fire station almost every day. It was three blocks from my house and four from his. We’d stand outside the big glass window staring at the trucks for hours. They were impeccable. Ladders that hung off the side doors, hoses that coiled like thick iron horseshoes, and heavy lights mounted to the front, lights I was sure could kill a man if he looked straight into them. Pickle Boy and I were entranced. We pressed our noses up against the glass and made fish lips onto the window, little oohms and collective sighs.
We’d go back up the street and it would be back to normal. Pickle Boy would be Pickle Boy, and I would run and take my place on Susie Anderson’s porch and make fun of him with all the others from a distance.
When I bump into him in the grocery store, Pickle Boy asks me what I’m doing in California, Davis of all places. I tell him that honestly, I’m not quite sure.
Pickle Boy invites me to his apartment and I go over a couple nights later. There’s a girl on the porch with him who has the look of being blissfully roped up in something. I can tell that she is ready to ride away into the dusk with Pickle Boy and I can’t believe it. She keeps toying with his belt and reaching for his hand. Maybe she does not want to go anywhere unless it is with Pickle Boy, I think. Maybe she cooks him breakfast every morning. Maybe she can’t imagine life without him. He probably likes his eggs scrambled, with a little bit of water, but she probably makes them with a little bit of milk, and this is something they argue about, jokingly. He probably grabs her from behind, and playfully kisses her on the cheek.
Pickle Boy’s girlfriend knows exactly what I’m talking about when I bring up the monster squid later on, as we’re sitting on the porch watching the sun go down over the Coastal ranges. She’s with me on this one.
We agree that there’s no way this nobody saw one. No good. We want footage. Still no good, but at least a little bit better. If he was so close to land, why didn’t he do something about it, grab the authorities before it went away or tackle it? Better to go down fighting at such a moment in one’s life than to do nothing at all. Guy goes to a beach, doesn’t see a sea monster, somebody tell me that story, I say. I’m getting worked up and she is too. She says that if it’s as easy as that, she’ll claim to have seen one too. We plan it out. She’ll curl her hair for the newscast.
She’s been reading a lot about them though, these monster squids. They’re taller than full-grown men, she says, and can jet about the water like engines, squeezing their bodies together in enormous contractions and pushing out the water like giant mutant babies from a womb. They have eyes the size of basketballs. These squids, she says, before this guy, no one had ever seen one alive, but she’s heard that they can eat just about anything, take it between their beak-like jaws, poison it, and then crush it to death.
The three of us sit on Pickle Boy’s porch underneath the shade of the walnut tree until night falls completely. Pickle Boy and I play guitar, and all three of us drink beers, sweating dinner into the still dry air. We decide that if anyone gets this squid, it will be us. I tell them it’s maybe better not to go in with any plan, as underdogs. Let’s think ahead of time that it won’t be easy, I say.
When I left her, I told Rebecca a lot of the same things. She had just cheated on me, and couldn’t look me in the eyes anymore, but I didn’t care to look at her either. I told her something about how I saw breaking up from afar. It’s glowing and seething, I said, round in the middle like the belly of a balloon. I didn’t know what that all meant. I just knew that when I was saying it, my lips felt orange and silly and that I wanted to hurt her in the same way she’d hurt me. I wanted her to picture me in bed with other people, doing that thing she does with her tongue and kicking a foot out over the covers to cool off one leg. It was her move, now it’s mine; sorry if you didn’t know I was taking it with me, I still want to be friends of course. When the plane first landed in California, I felt like I was walking off of a plank. All my toes went numb in chorus, started screaming muffled Hallelujahs through the blanket of my socks.
I’m sitting on the couch one night watching Yongjiu do a diving flip into the wall, this thing he does for exercise. He kicks his feet up behind him and props them on the plaster and he can stand like this on his hands for nearly thirty minutes. Of all places, I think, the last place to find one of these monster squids is Davis.
If I’m going to find it I’ve got to go to the coast. There’s no way that thing will make it to Davis alive. Even if the squid did wash up in the bay, swirl around a bit and push up over the mountains into the bowl of the Central Valley, it would curl up and die in the stagnant heat, just like the palm trees and everything else. Things have been so busy, but when I find the time, this won’t be an issue. I’ll seek it to the coast and further. Whereas it’s only got these messy, ridiculous arms, with suckers that drag in the viscous water, I’ve got legs that can run through smooth vacuums of terrestrial air. My legs can skip and jump and kick. I’ll sneak up on it. Turn my kneecaps in a little and walk softly, breathe out the side of my mouth. I can be incredibly quiet, quieter than 10,000 mice in hibernation.
The squid doesn’t know it yet, but I’ve acquired superpowers, and I’ve been practicing. When I stumble in drunk late at night now, I don’t bother with the lights. I see straight through the dark, crawl into bed without stubbing a toe, and wake up without the slightest of hangovers. Hey Rebecca, I say to my pillow, what now?
Pickle Boy and I are playing soccer in the park when he asks me how he got the nickname.
I remember it pretty well and can’t believe he forgets it. It was maybe when we were about ten, at the end of a long summer. A kid in our neighborhood named Chono Xavier and his older sister Marta held a clothing drive. Chono and Marta were Mexican by descent and they told us that the clothing drive was for a mudslide in the village they grew up in. We wanted to believe them, but we all knew that it was a sham. None of us doubted that they actually sent away some of the clothes, but we knew that they picked through them first and kept what they wanted for themselves. When they had held a clothing drive for hurricane relief the year before, my sister gave Marta her favorite sweater to give away, bright red with special knitting at the base of the sleeves. Winter came, and Marta wore the sweater to school almost everyday.
Pickle Boy had no idea though. He collected cans every day for a couple weeks, cashed them in and then took all the money to a Red and Blue down the street. He bought as much as he could with what he had. He gave everything to Chono except one shirt he had found, a Heinz variety shirt with a bright green cartoon pickle on it, curved above the insignia and sitting sideways like an ugly beret. He started wearing it all the time. That’s how he got the nickname. I don’t remember who exactly started it, maybe a boy named Pierce Fraunheim, but when he did get it, the name stuck. The worst part was, Pickle Boy had no idea. He wore the nickname like a crown.
I can tell by the way he asks me, squinting his eyes in a way that’s sort of half-pained and half-joking that he’s long since figured it out. I tell him I have no idea how it came about. It must have been one of those stupid kid things, I say. You know how those go.
I talked to her today. I finally got through. I had told myself I wouldn’t do this anymore, but I got lonely the other day and remembered how we decided that if we ever had kids, we’d mess them up from the get-go, name them after planets, Jupiter Mars and Saturn Pluto. Can you imagine what the principals would say, she asked me? The soccer coaches? The idea was that you’d put a dent in them early on, like you would with a brand-new car so that you’re not afraid of crashing it every time you drive around the block. I call her at work.
There is a long pause, where she doesn’t say anything, and I don’t say anything. We’re both waiting for the other person to take the lead on this one. I know she’s curling her mouth to one side, and biting on the inside of her lip. She does this whenever she’s impatient, or really tired, or whenever we’ve talked since we’ve broken up.
“Chris…” she says, eventually. “What do you want?”
“I just thought we could talk.”
She doesn’t say anything, so I go on.
“I miss you, Rebecca.”
She’s biting her lip now, I can sense the change over the line. She’s ready to go out on a limb. She’s ready to fly back six months.
“Well, maybe it was right,” she says. “Maybe it never should have ended, if it still hurts.” I watch the words come out through the mouth of the phone and drop to the ground, leaden and writhing. I know she means them, and it feels wonderful. I don’t say anything.
“Chris,” she says, and I can see it coming. She’s still absolutely mine. “I love you.”
On this, I hang up.
It scares me that she’s going away completely. Every time I look up, she’s a little further away. As much as I don’t want to be with her, the most awful side of me needs her to need me. She had perfect lips and bugged her eyes out at all the good parts of stories.
I’m sitting at Pickle Boy’s that night, and we’re playing video games. We’re playing that old Sonic game where after you kill Doctor Robotnik at the end of a level, you release thousands of tiny bunny rabbits and squirrels from the Doctor’s spaceship. I’ve just saved every last rodent in the galaxy, and I’m watching them fill up the screen, bouncing and springing in beautiful synchronization, when Pickle Boy turns to me.
“Now would be the time,” he says.
It’s almost October and he’s absolutely right. If this squid is still around, it won’t be for long. Winter is coming, and soon it will be gone, deeper into the ocean, off to mate and create new giant squids. By the time next year comes, even if Pickle Boy and I are still here, the squids will be unstoppable. If we’re going to do this, it’s got to be now.
The night is spread out like a table before us, and my hands are all palm as I drive, curling around the leather of the wheel and shaking. The road is relatively empty. We listen to pop music and to Spanish DJs that make everything sound urgent and incredible by emphasizing alternating syllables.
The funny thing about driving through California is that so much of it is farm land. It is fields of rice and wheat, acre after acre of orchards and soybeans, crop upon crop going straight into the mouth of a cow. At night though, it’s too dark for all of this and only the foggy sky is left, flanking the road like a pretty set of handmade curtains. We reach the coast at 4 a.m., turn into a patch of beach pressed right up against the mouth of the bay and shut off the car.
The squid is there waiting for us when we arrive. I knew he would be. It makes me angry to say it, but the guy on the news was right – the squid is a dark, almost unforgivable shade of purple.
I grapple with the moment. There are so many things I’ve been waiting to do. I want to hoist the squid above my head, and dig my fingertips into its belly like little needles, pinch it, and make it squirm. Then, I want to take the tentacles and braid them, pull them up into a tight, painful ballerina’s knot on the top of the squid’s head. If they are braided, I decide, the squid cannot use them to maim and destroy and to break people’s hearts.
Pickle Boy and his girlfriend are seated on the wet sand as I approach the water, his arms wrapped loosely around her body and holding her close.
The battle is quick. I dive into the ocean and let my head go under. The squid pushes at me with one furious arm, and I let it sink my head into the warm ocean mud. It feels wonderful to be so submerged but after a moment I pop back out the water. I flip the squid down on his back and press him against the ocean, dig my fist into his side.
Instead of screaming like he’s supposed to though, he’s moaning. He’s turning blue; I’ve hurt him. Now is my moment to hoist and declare, to braid and capture and celebrate, I win, you lose, didn’t you know this would happen when you did the things you did squid, but there are tears coming out of his great molluscan eyes and dripping down his soft body.
I let him be, relinquish my grip. His eyes are streaming now. I wonder where his mother is. Pickle Boy’s standing up now, but I tell him that I’m going to fix the squid, that I’ve changed my mind.
I kneel down in the sand and lean over him, pressing my lips softly to the squid’s eyelids. I pull the tears into my mouth, cupping my hands into a straw, and then moving to release them onto the open surface of the wound. I’m working faster after a bit, sucking up greedy cheekfuls, and pushing them onto the wound like a bath.
“Jesus Christ,” says Pickle Boy after awhile. “Pick him up, throw him back in.”
I step back, and wipe the tears from my face, a mixture of his and mine. I’m crying too now, purple molluscan tears.
“He’s fine,” Pickle Boy says. “He’s fine. Just throw him in.”
The wound is healed completely by this point. I lift him from the bottom and push him back out to sea on the surface of the water, watch as he ducks under and swims away.
The sun rises just as we’re getting back on the freeway. Pickle Boy and his girlfriend are in the front, and I’m in the back. I’m feeling a little bit sleepy and facing forwards into the day, counting out imaginary palm trees as they pass by my window. I think about how when I was younger, I used to play this game whenever I rode in cars. You pull your chin up over the top of one distant tree and duck it back down under the next.