Starfish

by Jeff Landon Read author interview September 15, 2007
story art

Dan couldn’t sleep. This marked the fifth consecutive night of a new and terrible strain of insomnia. He patted his wife’s stomach—it was tight and bouncy like a bongo drum and he liked the thumping sound it made in that dark room, but in the middle of his solo she turned over and pulled most of the blanket and all of the sheets with her.

Dan listened to the twin whirrs of the ceiling fan and humidifier. He stood up and walked to the kitchen and fixed a cold cheese sandwich with a glass of buttermilk on the side. His cat, Shep, sniffed a lemon rind on the blue kitchen floor.

“Good old Shep,” Dan said.

He couldn’t sleep and it was summer, so he pulled on tiger-print pajamas, tucked his feet into brand new sneakers, and walked outside. It was two in the morning and his neighborhood was asleep, all the lights off, all the dogs pulled inside except for the trashy dogs on tie-ins.

Dan walked to the park. He used to drink every night, but last year, after a series of poor decisions, he stopped. It wasn’t easy. He missed it every night, and he filled the void with sugar and crunchy snacks.

A mangy dog in a poorly constucted doghouse growled low at Dan.

“Somebody must hate you very much to keep you outdoors,” Dan told the dog.

A low fog had settled over the park. It looked like a gigantic above-ground pool. Dan draped his robe over a batting cage and looked at the foggy diamond. He used to play, second base, and he remembered how if felt to hit a slashing line drive up the middle, to turn the pivot on the double play. He thought about things like this all the time.

Dan sprinted onto the all-dirt infield and when he reached first base, he raised his arms over his head.

“Yea, Dan,” he said, out of breath. “You’re the man, Dan!”

Someone was laughing at him, a young woman with a baby. They were sitting on the bench in the dugout. The baby wore a T-shirt with some sort of dinosaur on it; the young woman looked like trouble. She looked like someone who would steal the money off a collection plate.

“Are you drunk, or just a dumb ass?” she asked.

The baby was in a tight little outfit that made the baby look like a starfish. The girl smoked a cigarette. She needed a haircut and probably a good bath. She, too, wore a T-shirt. One of those rap stars.

Dan sat on the opposite end of the bench.

“I can’t sleep,” he said. “I stopped drinking.”

“That’s good,” said the girl. “My boyfriend hits me when he drinks.”

“You should leave him,” Dan said.

“Well, I would,” said the girl. “Except, here’s the thing, I’m a fucking idiot.”

The baby wah-wahed and Dan gave it a look and mouthed: Stop that! The baby tried to move its little arms. That baby would make a good Frisbee, Dan thought. A bus moved almost silently down Carlton Avenue. The bus was lit an eerie shade of blue on the inside.

“Can I hold your baby,” Dan asked the girl.

“You can have it for five dollars,” said the girl. She handed over the baby to Dan. “I’m kidding,”she said. “It’s my sister’s.”

“Our kids are in college now.” Dan sniffed the baby’s head—talcum powder and something fruity, strained pears maybe. “They don’t call much, but we don’t call them, either.”

“I don’t even love him,” said the girl. “I have to buy ugly makeup to cover up bruises.”

Dan returned the baby to the girl. His hands felt clammy and baby-drenched. He sniffed his palms—they smelled like a pet store.

“Why are you up?” he asked the girl.

“Bad night,” said the girl. “Waiting it out.”

Dan reached into his pajama pocket for a lozenge. He had lived an easy life, if there was such a thing. At any rate, he had lived in a world where men didn’t sock women in the jaw, and where babies didn’t roam city parks in the middle of the night.

“I was born here,” he told the girl. “I should’ve left.”

“I’m going back to school,” said the girl. “My sister doesn’t believe me, but I am.”

Dan wanted to do something to make the girl feel better. He wanted to touch her elbow or at least buy her a shirt that fit.

“Do you like ice cream?” he asked the girl.

“Everybody likes ice cream,” she said, smirking a little bit.

“I have six gallons at home,” Dan said. “You can change your baby there.”

The girl stood and hiked the baby up to her shoulder.

“You’re not crazy, right?” she said.

“If loving ice cream is crazy, then yes I am,” said Dan. “Do you like dogs?”

“I guess,” said the girl.

“I loathe dogs,” said Dan. “You have choosen B. You are—incorrect.”

Dan retrieved his robe and slid into it. There were no stars or moons or airplanes. When the girl walked, she whistled through her nose. The baby’s arms pointed to the places in the sky where the stars should have been.

Halfway back to his apartment, they passed a man standing on his front porch, dribbling a basketball. Dan nodded to the man, and the man nodded back.

Back inside his apartment, the girl and the baby made themselves comfortable in the high-ladder chairs his wife had picked out.

“We have peach, rocky road, and several brands of sherbet,” Dan said, his head poked into the deep freezer.

“Peach,” said the girl.

“You have chosen peach,” Dan said. “Congratulations.”

He sat in the chair facing the girl and the baby. Shep the cat looked at the baby, and went back to sleep. Dan filled his spoon with enormous lumps of ice cream. The girl’s bangs swished around like windshied wipers. Under her left eye, in this light, the skin looked puffy and almost purple. She wiped a fingertip of ice cream over the baby’s nose. Through the open windows: church bells, a car starting, someone on a skate board, going somewhere else.

About the Author:

Jeff Landon has been published in numerous places, print and online, including Crazyhorse, Wigleaf, FRiGG, Another Chicago Magazine, F(r)iction, and others. He is also a contributor to New Micro, an anthology of flash fiction published by W.W. Norton in 2018. Lately, he's been doing some chair yoga.