by Nicholas Lepre
I was staring at nothing, sitting in the corner of Lickity Splits, waiting for Dougie to close up, when the sea creatures came in. A beluga whale in cutoffs and a little lobster girl in red ski gloves. I’d never seen a beluga look so miserable. This was a Tuesday night, almost ten o’clock. No one had been in for an hour, just Dougie and me, killing time. I was eating my third mint chip cone because I had spotted Dougie a dime earlier that week. Lobster girl had this look on her face like she was exhausted but didn’t want to go to bed. Nine years old, probably. The whale was in a big hurry and kept snapping at her. Fine by me. All I wanted was to close up, pick up a couple Bell Beefers and watch NOVA in Dougie’s basement.
“How can I help you?” Dougie asked them.
“I wanna cone,” she said.
I chuckled and the beluga gave me a look that said I should mind my business. The fluorescent lights reflected off his shiny, melon head. Even from the corner of the shop, I could smell the two of them. Like blankets left out in the rain. She had these marks and scratches on both of her arms, or what I could see of them—the claw gloves nearly reached her elbows. I was worried the whale could hear my thoughts, because of the way he looked at me. “Go back to the Arctic Sea, you big dumb beluga,” I thought. He bunched up the fat corners of his face, and his marble eyes got smaller. He only turned away when Dougie asked if the girl wanted to try any flavors.
“She doesn’t need any samples,” he said. “Chocolate cone.”
“No, I want umm, pancake.”
“Pancake ice cream?” Dougie asked. He looked at me and I just about died. Hell if I didn’t want some buttery, syrupy, pancakey ice cream. Dougie contained himself, but I couldn’t stop. Forget the Beefers, I thought. I would have eaten a dozen fresh-off-the-griddle pancakes covered in vanilla ice cream. Dougie was keeping it together, so they wouldn’t know we were high. “We’re fresh out of pancake,” Dougie said, “we have bubblegum and strawberry if you want one of those.”
“Chocolate,” the man said. He didn’t have any hair on his arms or legs and I could almost see through his cetacean skin. NOVA, man. If high school had been about real shit, like the “Rescuing Baby Whales” episode, I wouldn’t have spent my early twenties selling weed, sleeping ‘til noon, playing Sega Genesis every day.
“Strawberry!” she yelled. She waved both of those red gloves in the air when she said it, and I wanted to run over and high-five her for being radass.
“If you don’t like it, tough shit,” whale man said to her. “You’re not getting anything else.”
He didn’t seem like a parent. I thought maybe he was a stepdad, and her mom worked the night shift. The neckline of her rose-patterned dress plunged to her sternum, and she couldn’t walk without tripping on the flowing skirt part. As Dougie scooped the strawberry cone, she dragged the dress on the checkered tile and came over to where I was sitting.
“I like your claws,” I said.
“Red’s my favorite,” she said, pointing with one gloved hand to the other.
“What’s your name, lobster girl?”
She looked over her shoulder at the whale man and whispered Francine to me.
“Come on,” the beluga said. She ran to him and he shoved the ice cream at her. She couldn’t hold the cone with the gloves on her hands, so I asked if she wanted to take them off.
“I’m not supposed to,” she said.
“What did I say about talking to strangers?” the man said.
We should have known. Thing is, Dougie and me weren’t part of the newspaper-reading, five o’clock news watching world at the time. I’m sure whale man was counting on it before they ever entered the store.
He tried to take her outside, but she said no.
“I’m gonna drop it,” she whined.
“Three minutes,” he said, “and if you’re not done, it goes in the trash.”
He picked the table closest to the exit and moved his chair to the side so his back was to us. Dougie started wiping down the freezers and I got up and grabbed the metal napkin dispensers off of each table so he could refill them. The ceiling fans throbbed overhead, and I saw our reflections in the brown-black plate glass. Together, in an aquarium, keeping busy, keeping quiet, on display for anyone to see.
Every time I glanced their way, the girl was watching me. Whale man told her to knock it off. I had never seen an adult treat a child that way before. Not like he hated her or he was angry—like she was nothing at all.
When I took the dispenser from their table, he snatched it from me and swiped about thirty napkins before he pushed it my way.
“Is the ice cream good, Francine the lobster?” I asked.
“I’m not a lobster,” she said. The way she smiled when she said it, how happy she seemed in that small moment—knowing what I know now—it’s a cruel world.
She shook the dirty brown bangs out of her face and licked the cone. Her red tongue and green eyes were the only clean parts of her. What I thought was they must have been no-pot-to-piss-in poor. I thought it must have been her birthday.
“Is it your birthday today, Francine?”
“That’s enough,” he snapped at me.
“I’m just being nice,” I said.
“Mind your fucking business.”
“Relax,” Dougie said.
The whale shot out of his chair and dragged her to the door. She said ouch in this unavoidable way as the jingle bells rang out behind them.
Dougie popped open the register and started counting the cash. “Fuck that guy,” he said.
I walked to the glass door and turned the open sign around. I hit the lights, and our reflections disappeared from the windows. The whale had parked on the opposite side of the lot, far away from the door. He drove a red Japanese pickup, flatbed overflowing with junk I couldn’t make out, a blue tarp covering some of it.
The strawberry ice cream cone was overturned on the asphalt, three steps from where I stood. I could see the two of them inside the truck—Francine and the whale, sitting side by side on the bench seat. She was crying. He slugged her in the back of the head. I turned, and Dougie was writing totals on the deposit slip.
“He just hit her.”
“What?” Dougie said.
I got spanked as a kid. Everyone used to. A swat on the ass if I lied about doing chores or didn’t pick up my Matchbox cars. Normal shit. I didn’t know who the man was or who Francine was, but I knew it was fucked. It was more than the way he hit her. It was everything. I unlocked the door and went out to the truck. My legs just started moving.
“What’s the big problem?” I asked. Both of the windows were up, but I could hear her sobbing. There was nothing else out there, just crickets in the night.
He rolled down the driver’s-side window an inch and told me to stay out of it. I asked if she was okay, and he told me to shut up.
“You say one more thing and I’ll get out of this truck and beat the shit out you.” He sounded bored saying it, like he had fought his entire life and the thrill had long passed.
“I’ll call the cops,” I said.
“And I’ll tell them you’re selling pot to kids in an ice cream parlor. How about that?”
They didn’t belong together, a beluga whale and a lobster. They’re from different oceans, for Christ’s sake. But who did I think I was? I was about a buck-fifteen then and had never been in a fight in my whole goddamn life.
“If you touch her again,” I said.
“You ain’t doin’ shit,” he said. He swung the door open and it hit me in the gut and knocked me on my ass. I should have seen it coming. Even though it hurt, the warm asphalt felt good on the backs of my legs. There was nothing more for me to do, and I was ashamed. I thought of all the people better than me who would have fought back, who would have climbed into the flatbed and scraped and clawed. I just sat there. I watched his rust-spotted tailgate disappear into the night. I heard the door chime again, and Dougie helped me up.
She never yelled for help. She never rolled down the window and tried to jump out. It was like those few mouthfuls of ice cream were the best life had to offer, and they were enough for her. I watched it melt on the blacktop. My tailbone began to throb.
Dougie laughed about the whole thing later on in his basement. He called me “Nate the Knight” for the next few months. He’d tell people at parties that some fat fuck knocked me down outside Lickity Splits. He didn’t see what I saw, and it didn’t matter to him.
A few years later, the Providence Journal ran a cover story about the kidnapping. I was legitimate then. Really doing shit. Finishing my social work associate’s at CCRI, pulling overnighters at a group home for my last internship, and cashiering every day at Dairy Mart. It was ten or so, after the morning rush, and I was alone in the store when I read it. FIVE YEARS GONE, the headline said, and there she was, split across the fold. A picture of her before the kidnapping, and a police sketch of what she might look like. I thought of that strawberry ice cream, melting in the parking lot.
Nicholas Lepre’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Minnesota Review, Upstreet, and elsewhere. Nicholas was a winner of the 2015 Blue Mesa Review Summer Writing Contest. He recently completed his debut novel-in-stories, Pretend You’re Really Here.
2 responses to “Keeping Busy, Keeping Quiet”
Reblogged this on Christina Lepre Editorial and commented:
My brother has a new story in Hawai’i Pacific Review from his forthcoming novel in stories, Pretend You’re Really Here. Like everything he writes, it’s well worth your time.
Wow! I saw this on Christina’s blog. You pulled me in from the get go. Words fail me. I wonder how realistic this is and think it’s all too true. You’ve moved me to compassion. Thanks for using your writing to teach.