The First Snakehead – August 1987
It’s like those scenes in movies. You’ve seen them, with the perfectly spaced dominoes all carefully lined up in rows going up and down ramps in swirling patterns. The first one is toppled, and it starts the chain reaction and the camera faithfully follows the action, follows as the long chain of dominoes fall. The camera never ever pans back to the fallen dominoes. No. The drama is in the falling. I should know.
Forgive me, if you can. I, John Roger Kleuss am guilty as sin and I need redemption like there is no tomorrow. I didn’t think anyone, I never meant for anyone to be hurt. We all have secrets, don’t we? A side of us we let the world see and another we keep hidden? It seemed like an easy way to make money. What harm could there be? Nameless faceless assholes paying through the nose for a seemingly innocuous service I could provide. I can honestly say I didn’t see that it was getting out of hand, that I was getting out of hand. No. That I had gotten out of hand. I take total responsibility.
It must, or so I am told, have come from my childhood. Maybe if I took a good hard look at all of my relationships, I would be able to give you answers. Maybe there is something there that would explain everything, might grant me the smallest bit of amnesty. Most likely I am doomed to the eternal lambent flames of hell for the disc, if nothing else.
It began when I met Julie, or did it. Can I really put a time frame on it? Identify the exact juncture at which it started? I doubt it. It was like that fish I had when I was a kid. The fish, a snakehead, was relatively harmless at first. Then it began a period of rapid growth and gained in strength, growing or rather outgrowing it’s environment and becoming lethal in the process.
My desires had been there all along, latent, gaining strength and clouding my perception between what was right and what was wrong. Just under the surface, the desires lay there, dormant. I didn’t realize until it was too late that something had changed, that I had crossed the Rubicon.
When I met Julie it had been only a few months since my wife Reneé had packed up her clothes (that I paid for) while I packed her eighty-seven pairs of shoes (that I paid for) and stowed them into the Checker Marathon cab (they are built like tanks. I knew she would be safe in it) which I bought for her to run off to California to “find herself”. Apparently I was not “enlightened” enough. I was not interested in attending her Church of the Living God and chanting while sitting in the lotus position holding runes between my middle finger and thumb.
I was left standing in my driveway with my ass hanging out, freshly reminded I was a two-time loser in the marriage department. My first wife had decided in high school that we were to be married. I went along with it. Then she decided that she wanted to be rich and married to a doctor. She divorced me to find her doctor and ended up marrying a guy who installs sprinkler systems. Wow. That was an upward move on her part. I call him “Digger”.
For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what my major failure, my big shortcoming must have been. The only one happy about Reneé leaving me was my mother. Of course according to her, no one was ever good enough for me anyway. Mom reasoned Reneé had married me for my money, which was rather inaccurate because I didn’t have a whole lot of it. I guess Mom thought the only reason any woman would marry me was for money. Maybe it was projection. Maybe she regretted marrying my dad instead of marrying for money herself. Who knows?
Reneé kept vacillating about when or if she would come back. I should have known she had no intention of coming back. She called me pretty regularly and of course, reversed the charges. Like a fool I accepted. I didn’t get it. I didn’t want to get it .It was clear she was living with some guy in San Diego and I was a fool if I thought she was being honest about the “platonic” relationship she had with the man she met at some spiritual revival while seated in the lotus position with a rune between his middle finger and his thumb. Leon. Neon Leon.
You know how you always associate a name with the first person you knew who had that name? The first Leon I knew was this bully who tormented me through all of fourth grade. Every day I rode the school bus with Leon picking on me over and over without any provocation he would lean over my seat, steal my glasses, hit me and pull at my ears. Every night I prayed that Leon would be out sick. Or die. Each time I was furious that no one would stop him, oh the bus driver would holler when he saw it, but Leon only stopped until his attention was back on the road. I was raging mad and ashamed when the other kids saw me cry. Boys don’t cry.
I swore each day it would be the last time Leon got away with it. Every night before I fell asleep I played out the movie in my head in which I showed him a thing or two. The next day, he started in on me just like regular. It was as predictable as clockwork. Then, something in me broke open like a sore. No one was more surprised than me. Well maybe Leon was, when I punched him right in the nose. He cried. I got my lunchbox and my books and got off at my stop. The bus driver smiled as he opened the door.
“See you Monday, John. Have a great weekend.”
“Thanks Mr. Gregor, you too.” I smiled back at him. At dinner that night, mullet and grits, because it was Friday and mom still thought of herself as Catholic, I told my dad what happened on the bus.
“It’s about time! I told you that is the only way to stop that kind.”
My mom leaned closer to her plate, “Roger, I don’t want John fighting! Don’t encourage him.”
“You prefer he be a sissy?” Roger asked. His voice started out all normal and slow and then it grew and got louder as he went along. It was real strange to see my father taking up for himself at all. “Maybe you should think about cutting those apron strings. Unless of course you would prefer when he grows up he finds himself a wife to pussy whip him like you do me!” He yelled.
“Roger! Don’t you dare use that kind of language. In front of the kids no less. You should be ashamed of yourself.” Mom started to cry. I felt bad for her. You could feel the tension building in the house just like it did in Mom’s pressure cooker, steam escaping with a vicious hiss. You could have cut it with a knife. My sister Marjorie rolled her eyes and stared off into space, but what else was new.
“Dad, you should have seen it! There was blood everywhere squirting out his nose!” I reported in an attempt to distract them before things got worse, if they could.
“Gross! Mom, make him shut up.” Marjorie, who resented having to drag me along everywhere she went, even on dates. Mom said she wasn’t allowed to date for another year, until she was sixteen but she snuck around behind her back and met with boys at the service station. She gave me a dollar that time when I saw her kiss a boy and he bought me an Orange Crush, so I wouldn’t tell Mom. I put it in my bank. I was saving up to buy the Tasco Deluxe High Quality Microscope I saw at Fisher’s Variety on Pass-A-Grille.
“John!”, she paused. Exasperated. “Eat your fish and be quiet. Roger, did you get the car serviced?” She had that edge in her voice. Like we were all depending on her to be reminded to eat and sleep and breathe. Go back to pretending everything is normal, I thought.
Dad gave her the resigned look I had come to expect. He said nothing. He just sat, staring at her, a forkful of fish and grits poised halfway between his plate and mouth and chewed.
“Roger, put your fork down between bites. Set an example, for Pete’s sake.” She spit the words out like they were rancid bacon and then got up from the table and began to clear. My mother looked exactly like June Cleaver, right down to the dresses and strands of pearls. From my mother I got my blue eyes and long narrow face. I apparently disappointed her by inheriting my fathers chin gene.
“It’s a sign of a weak man, a weak chin is.” Apparently I was another sign of Dad’s weakness since Mom took great pleasure in reminding me I was not planned. I just “arrived” some six years after Marjorie. Of course, mom must have weakened some then, but that never came up.
Just as soon as I could, I grew a beard and moustache to conceal my weakness. I’ve had one ever since.
I missed Reneé, thought I still loved her. Hell, I even considered doing the rune thing if she would come back. Although I fully acknowledged the relationship had never been easy. Everything was great as long as Reneé was the center of my universe. But let the goddess worship stop, let me make a simple request that the laundry get done or something and all hell broke loose.
The days turned into weeks and the weeks into months. I went to work, worked as much overtime at time and a half they would give me and came home to this empty house, even though there was not any good reason to come home at all. With the amount of time that I had been working overtime, and my depression over Reneé leaving me, the house had become a wreck. All of the plants on the front porch had died from my neglect as had the fish in each of the aquariums.
When I came home that day, I went to feed the Oscar on the front porch, my last remaining fish and found he had died from the heat. The aquarium was a filthy mess. It was a metaphor of my life.
When I was eleven, my Uncle John gave me a snakehead, a brilliant cardinal red fish with two black racing stripes down its sides. It was about four inches long. I put it in a tank with a couple of other fish which soon became its’ lunch. I started feeding it goldfish I bought at Fisher’s Variety, one or two at a time.
Before I knew it, the snakehead was nearly a foot long and I was spending my whole allowance on goldfish. I had to move it up to a bigger tank until it was in my thirty-gallon tank and my other fish were crowded into the smaller ones.
One Saturday I dropped a dozen goldfish into the tank. Then I rode my bike down to Yeager’s Pier to do some fishing. When I came home, I found the strangest thing. There were three dead goldfish floating in the tank. The Snakehead had killed them, not because it was hungry but for the sheer joy of killing.
“Mom!” I jumped back and screamed. My dad came running into my room. Mom was right behind him. The blood was dripping from my index finger.
“What happened?” She grabbed my hand and hauled me into the bathroom.
“He bit me when I tried to take out the dead goldfish.”
“Who bit you?” Dad asked.
“Roger, get rid of that thing. It’s like something from a bad horror movie. I swear if my brother John were here right now!” She was busy pouring iodine on my finger. It stung.
“Stop it. I know it hurts but goodness knows how dirty his teeth are. Look at that, his teeth must be like razors!” She held my hand up over my head. “Let’s hold it up there and see if we can get it to stop bleeding.”
“How’s dad going to get rid of it?”
“Don’t you worry about it. Let me see. Good. Let me put a band-aid on it.” She gave dad the look that she meant business. He got the mop bucket from the utility room and used my big fish net to fish the snakehead out and into the bucket where it thrashed around so hard I thought it would come out the top. Dad covered the top of the bucket with the net to keep it in.
“Dad, what are you going to do?”
“I’m letting him go.”
That had been what twenty-five years ago, a couple of marriages ago, a lifetime almost. I fed the cat, picked the mail up off the front porch, flipped through it looking only for Reneé’s handwriting on an envelope. There was nothing from her, but there was something with a return address of a law office on it. I opened it. Beautiful. She wanted half of my pension. I tossed the attorney’s letter and the rest of the pile on the top of the table beside the front door and left to go back to work. Run wire, connect jumpers, fix everything, make everyone’s phones work so they can keep in touch with those they love, or used to. Collect. That’s my job, equipment technician for the telephone company.