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CL 2018 Fiction Contest, 3rd place: 'Watch Me'

"Watch Me" by Drew Grossman

2018 Fiction Issue Watch Me


For this summer, overpopulation was one factor and heat was the other. This summer was so hot that many folks – Harold and Kimmie among them — ran the AC on full blast trying to keep sweaty backs from soaking through clothes and sticking to leather and plastic furniture. The utilities companies hadn’t accounted for the amount of electricity needed to keep Atlanta cool.

Therefore, as a measure to preserve power, the city scheduled night time blackouts (9 p.m. to 7 a.m.) for sections of the power grid. Section 5, structures 61B through 73, the stretch that included Harold and Kimmie’s two-story Victorian home, blacked out on a steamy Wednesday evening.

After the first night, Kimmie decided she would sleep downstairs for the duration of the blackouts, which were planned to last through the weekend. She told Harold he would probably be more comfortable downstairs, too. But there was only one couch, and Harold liked being near his things when he went to sleep and when he woke up. Plus, big guys don’t sleep well on the floor, he told his wife. He was in fact a big guy, tall and broad shouldered with a belly that had settled permanently on his pant line.

The first night went smoothly for Harold. A little uncomfortable, but fine. Once he woke up, he got ready for work and found his sleeping wife downstairs. He drove to his office in Midtown and did some research on a big-money deal his group was working on with some German investors trying to get a foothold in the Atlanta real estate market. He appreciated the rigidness of the spreadsheets he worked in. And even though work duties never called for him to leave his office complex, he told himself the job was sexy because the client was international. He came home, as he did most days, relieved to be back but bored and not sure what to do with his free evening.

Kimmie, who worked from home doing conference logistics for the National Association of Protective Headwear and Goggle Manufacturers (NAPHGM – colloquially spoken as "naf-gam" within the community of headwear and goggle professionals), had dinner waiting for her husband. She told Harold she wanted dinner made, eaten, and cleaned up ahead of the 9 p.m. power blackout.

Harold and Kimmie ate vegetarian pad thai in front of the TV and watched a whodunit real-life murder mystery where it seemed painfully obvious that the killer had to be one person, a person who had motive and opportunity, until twenty minutes later it was painfully obvious again that the killer must be another person, newly introduced, who had a better motive and an even better opportunity.

The couple watched the show and during slow points talked about Germans and big-money deals and how frustrating protective headwear professionals can be. Then the power cut at 9 p.m. Harold helped his wife cover the couch in an old bed sheet and gather some pillows. He put a flash light on the coffee table in case she woke up in the middle of the night and had to go to the bathroom. They fooled around on the couch in the dark and after they both climaxed Harold said goodnight and went upstairs to their empty bedroom.

Sleep wouldn’t come to poor Harold. The air in the room was stagnant, heavy, and damp. Harold felt swaddled by the heat, but in a malicious way. As if it were teasing him, like when he was a boy and the older neighborhood kids would wrap him in a bear hug and squeeze him until his insides hurt. He couldn’t get away from the bullies then, and he couldn’t get away from the heat now. He kicked his legs. Rolled onto his stomach. His side. His back. His other side. He put a pillow between his legs. Took off his shirt. Threw the duvet on the floor. Took off his pants. If not for the fooling around he’d done a few hours earlier, he’d try masturbating, but Harold wasn’t a multiple times a day kind of guy. About 2 a.m. he grabbed his phone off the night stand.

The go-to internet sites can be pretty boring for a happily married person. No Tinder. Facebook, at a certain age, when you’re not searching for pictures of one of your co-workers in a bikini, becomes an unappealing stream of engagements, weddings, and baby announcements. He checked his personal email. He scrolled through a junk mail offer for 30 percent off storewide at an outdoor retailer that sold gear he didn’t know how to use. He looked through his photo library and deleted some pictures where he thought he looked fat or too bald. He sweat into the sheets.

He went to Reddit, the internet content aggregator and message board, and found a page called r/cantsleep. Harold clicked and scrolled. He hoped to find some short, practical self-help-y type stuff that could get him to sleep before the sun came up.

Overactive mind or something else? [posted by Khoshekh1]

10 Hours Heavy Windstorm with Rain – Ambient Sounds for Sleep [posted by theothertrunk]

Insomnia and Nightmares….uggggh [posted by Zemekus]

No, no. Not what he’s looking for. He kept scrolling. And then he found something.

Feast Your Face Lenses On the World of the H.O.T. [posted by DonDonShephard].

Not what he was looking for, but strangely, not something he wasn’t interested in.

Harold clicked.

The link opened to a thread of commentary. Hundreds of comments.

H.O.T. melts my brain. I want to eat, sleep and drink H.O.T. (preferably steaming HOT) all day, all night. I can’t stop.

Give me the H.O.T., baby! Give me the H.O.T.!

The comment thread was peppered with gifs of dashboard hula dancers, rocking side to side.

The thread was active. It populated new content constantly in real time — comments and links to user-generated videos. "How could I have never heard of this?" Harold thought. Harold read through the comments, skipping a few hundred and then locking into a conversation or debate over H.O.T. Some users were revelatory in their praise of it, but some wrote about H.O.T. as if this were an AA message board and H.O.T. was a very dangerous substance. The commenters seemed familiar with each other. They had rapport and history.

Harold sat up in bed. He threw the top sheet off and spun around to sit upright with his feet on the floor. He held his phone reading and reading. Finally, he found a link. Welcome to H.O.T. – Enjoy! Harold opened the drawer of the bedside night stand and ruffled around until he found a set of Samsung headphones. He plugged in, cued up the video, and on the second night of no electricity, he watched his first H.O.T. video.

In the comments, Harold had repeatedly seen the word transfixed. Mesmerized was a common one. Captivated.

trans·fix - /tran(t)s’fiks/ (verb) — cause someone to become motionless with horror, wonder, or astonishment.

mes·mer·ize - /’mezmə,rīz/ (verb) — hold the attention of someone to the exclusion of all else

cap·ti·vate - /’kaptə,vāt/ (verb) — attract and hold the interest and attention of

Harold watched his first H.O.T. video, the H.O.T. welcome video, and he started out feeling underwhelmed. It was three hours long. After the first hour, he didn’t think he felt anything, except some pain in his back from sitting upright. He kept watching and stretched his back. He stood up to take off some pressure. Alone in his bedroom, Harold shifted his weight from right foot to left foot, headphones in, watching the H.O.T.

About two hours in, his phone gave him the low battery alert. Harold panicked. He dug through his backpack until he found the 2600mAh portable power stick charger he keeps in case of emergencies. He kept watching, pacing the floor of his bedroom, holding the phone’s screen close to his face.

H.O.T. is an acronym — an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word. It stands for Hula On Time. The first H.O.T. video (the welcome video Harold found) was created by a Pilates instructor and amateur cinematographer, with limited but effective motion graphics capabilities. The concept is simple. The conceit is control — control of time and body. This is all explained in the first hour of the welcome video. On screen a fit, middle-aged woman wears a grass hula skirt, a dry-fit track shirt and tights. She stares at the camera. A circular 60-second, analog timer appears above her head. At :00 her hips are vertically aligned. As the clock’s seconds hand makes its way to :15, her hips follow it out to her left in a slow, perfectly controlled hula. The timer’s hand rounds :15 and it revolves down to :30, bringing her hips back to center. At 0:45, her hips have hula’d out to her right. And at :00, she is back to center. A controlled hula that takes a full minute to complete. The concept is commitment.

By the time Harold’s alarm went off in the morning, he had watched the three-hour welcome video and about two dozen user-generated H.O.T. videos, including some DIY videos on how to make your own H.O.T. video using free graphics tools online. When the user’s hula falls out of sync with the time, the video ends. The creator, the master of control, holds the record, as far as Harold can tell, for the longest H.O.T. video. Most user-generated attempts last between thirty seconds and two minutes. Real H.O.T. devotees last at least five minutes.

Harold took a cold shower, partly to cool down and partly to break away from H.O.T. He put on his slacks and tucked in one of the golf shirts he regularly wears to work. On his way out the door, he kissed Kimmie, who was making coffee.

At work, Harold couldn’t focus on the Germans or big money. The Germans, a people who pride themselves on control, systems, and rigidity. What did they know? H.O.T., now that is control, he thought. With his spreadsheets up on his two monitors, Harold watched more H.O.T. on his phone. The concept is dedication. He kept the phone on his lap, so if someone walked by he could roll under his desk and they wouldn’t see it. Three times during the morning, Harold went to the bathroom and sat in a stall watching H.O.T., pretending to poop, so only to be alone, uninterrupted.

Before heading home at the end of the day, Harold did the thing he’d been thinking about doing since early, early that morning. He went on Amazon and ordered a hula skirt, a mini-tripod for his phone, and a one-minute, circular analog timer. He paid extra for next-day delivery to his office.

At home, Kimmie and Harold complained about the blackouts. Only two nights in, ugh, how would they make it? They whined. Secretly, Harold looked forward to the blackout. He watched the clock as it ticked slowly toward 9 p.m. The concept is patience.

They ate fried cod that they made together. Kimmie didn’t like cooking with the hot oil, so she let Harold do that part. Kimmie had a glass of wine. She poured a glass for Harold but he pushed it away. He told her, he had a long day at work and needed to get a solid eight hours of sleep tonight. A wine buzz would mess with his R.E.M. That’s what he told her. Really, he wanted to maintain a sharp mind for that night’s viewing. At work, he’d read about the must-see H.O.T. videos and he had a playlist in his head of who he wanted to watch once he went up to the bedroom alone after the blackout.

Kimmie and Harold ate and then played cards by candlelight until about 10 p.m. She was unknowingly encroaching on his blackout time, and he was getting frustrated. She tried to sit on his lap and kiss his neck, but he reminded her about the need for eight hours. She shrugged him off and they made her sleeping space on the couch. Finally, about 10:30 p.m., an hour and a half later than he’d hoped, Harold went upstairs alone.

There was no R.E.M. or eight hours for Harold. He watched H.O.T. until his eyes were too dry to blink. He went to the bathroom at 4 a.m., washed his face and put in eye drops. Harold practiced along with the videos from the more experienced H.O.T. devotees even though he didn’t have the skirt or the timer or the ability to document it. He took notes on technique, how far apart his feet should be, where his eyes should look, what to do with his hands, etc.

In the morning Harold took an especially long, cold shower, nearly 10 minutes of freezing cold water. His skin felt alive and every cell in his body was screaming to carpe diem. He put on olive slacks and a fresh golf shirt. He kissed Kimmie, who asked if he was okay, and he said of course a little too loud, but left before she could say anything about it.

The packages arrived at his office in the mid-afternoon, a few hours before leaving time. He immediately took them down to the garage and put the packages in his car. He didn’t want any nosy co-workers asking about them. Those last few hours of the day were clock watching at its worst. This was last-day-of-school-before-winter-break-level clock watching. The digital clock at the top right of his computer screen taunted him with how slowly it moved. He decided the Germans and the big money deals could wait, and he left early.

Harold got home earlier than usual, and Kimmie was surprised to see him. She told him it had been a busy day with the National Association of Protective Headwear and Goggle Manufacturers. She hadn’t had a chance to make dinner or even go grocery shopping. Maybe they could go out to eat, she said. Harold told her he wasn’t in the mood. She asked if he’d go to the grocery store with her. He quickly made up a lie about the Germans and the need to get on a conference call, and that that was in fact why he had come home early. You go to the store and I’ll do the call, he told his wife. She looked in the fridge and the pantry, wrote down a few things and then left.

Harold was alone. It felt strange and revealing in the daylight. Once Kimmie’s Jeep had safely left the driveway and turned the corner of the street, Harold ran out to his car to grab the Amazon packages. He ripped them open as he went upstairs and immediately started setting up his in-home studio just as he’d sketched it out in his notes. He took off his slacks and his golf shirt and put on gym shorts. He didn’t wear a shirt. Normally he was self-conscious about his belly, but his focus and sense of purpose overpowered his body image issues. He couldn’t risk frivolous fabric interfering with his H.O.T.

Harold set up the tripod. He arranged the timer behind his head and a mirror behind the tripod. After salivating over it for 38 hours, the moment had arrived. He marveled at the self-control it had taken to get him to this point. It was 6:15 p.m. when he hit record.

Focus, he told himself. Forget the minutes, remember the seconds. Your hips are an extension of your soul. Clean mind, clean sway. He hit the :30 mark, feeling fantastic, feeling in control. His chest upright, his hips swayed to the :40 and :45 positions. He stared at the timer in the mirror. He couldn’t see himself. He only saw the second hand smoothly plot its course around the analog surface. The hand pulled his hips slowly side-to-side as if on a string. Unbeknownst to Harold, the minutes came and went. He hula’d. He did it slowly. And he did it on time.

He was so much in the zone that he never heard Kimmie’s loud Jeep engine pull up the driveway. He didn’t hear her open the door or hear her bang around the kitchen putting away groceries. He didn’t hear her boiling water or chopping vegetables. He did H.O.T. She cooked. Both of them in the same house, completely unaware of what the other was doing.

When dinner was ready, Kimmie went upstairs to check on Harold. She found him transfixed, mesmerized, captivated – standing shirtless in front of a mirror wearing a hula skirt. She stood in the doorway. Harold never took his eyes off the clock. His hips moved in step with the timer’s seconds hand. He opened his mouth and, without looking at his wife, he said: "Watch me. I’m in complete control."


2018 Fiction Issue Drew Grossman

Drew Grossman lives in Grant Park with his wife, Arielle, and their two cats, The Great Catsby and Daisy. The best books he read this year were Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Purity by Jonathan Franzen, and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. He graduated from the creative writing program at Florida State University and works in advertising.



More By This Writer

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  string(17495) "Each morning, before their shifts, Ralph and Armando sat behind the strip mall, drinking Keurig coffee out of Styrofoam cups. At this early hour there weren’t many people to watch, and the two men didn’t have much in their personal lives to talk about. The Atlanta Braves. Their boss, Richard. A personal record one of them hit at the gym. During quiet moments, Armando watched his phone and Ralph watched Armando. Every few minutes Armando showed Ralph his screen to get approval on a chick he was chatting with. Armando was the self-described king of online pickups. He was the architect of a complex system to find and seduce the women on his phone. Ralph and Armando were both obsessed with these women.

As far as Ralph knew, Armando never met them. He messaged them throughout the day and during his shifts at the L.A. Fitness where he and Ralph worked. His goal was to coax a pic. He’d ask them to do an A-town down sign with their fingers, stick out their tongue, or play with their hair in a specific way, something to prove it was them. It didn’t matter what the women looked like, or if they were married, as long as Armando could tell a picture was uniquely for him.

In one photo, a trim 40-something white woman with dreads wore a bikini and straddled a large exercise ball. She might have been a few years younger than Armando, who had the face and skin of a weathered man in his 60s, but the chiseled physique of a college athlete. The woman in the photo crossed her arms, pushing up her boobs. Ralph recognized the pose. It was one of Armando’s go-to’s.

Oye, bro! Can you imagine being that ball? Those thighs wrapped around you like that.”

Armando always talked about inhabiting inanimate objects to get closer to his girls’ butts. Ralph recalled: “Can you imagine being that bike seat? Those jeans? That thong?”

Sometimes Armando would hold his phone up to Ralph’s face and let Ralph read the sexy messages himself, but Armando always pulled the phone away before Ralph could get the gist of the entire conversation. But Ralph liked filling in the context for himself. He made up stories about the women, their histories, their hopes, and their quirks.

He didn’t want to give Armando the satisfaction of knowing how much he cared about the women. But he was hooked.

“She’s not even hot,” Ralph said, looking over Armando’s shoulder at a picture of a curvy young girl, with a shaved head and a lot of tattoos.

“Oye, chico! You crazy.” Armando said. “She’s beautiful, man. I’d make this woman my wife.”

“I wouldn’t,” Ralph said. Even though it was before six a.m., the temperature was already in the 80s. Ralph started to sweat.

“Ha! No kidding. You wouldn’t know how to please a girl like this. You wouldn’t know how to touch her, kiss her, squeeze her. You need the magic hands, little amigo. You wouldn’t even know where to start. If this girl was naked in your bed, you’d run. I know it.”

Ralph spit on the pavement. The only action Armando’s magic hands got was working over the buttons of his keyboard. And probably working over himself late at night, with the smell of the gym’s cleaning supplies permanently soaked into his clothes, hair, and fingernails.

Ralph didn’t say this out loud to Armando. He didn’t want Armando to take the pictures away.

Ralph and Armando opened the gym every weekday morning. They got there at five-thirty and the doors opened at six-thirty. After cleaning the windows, wiping down the counters, stocking the bathrooms and the sauna, they turned on the TVs. The TVs took longer than any other task. By Ralph’s count, there were one hundred and eight TVs in the mega gym, including those in the locker rooms and the ones affixed to the aerobic machines. People needed a place to put their eyes while they worked out. You wouldn’t want to get caught staring at another person. That’s why there were so many TVs, Ralph thought, so no one had to look at each other. Once the gym was ready to open, Ralph and Armando had about 15 minutes to drink their coffee and look at Armando’s women.

Then Ralph worked the front desk for three hours, until lunch, which he took at nine-thirty. Guests liked Ralph because he remembered their names and little things about them, like their being from New York City or that they had a German shepherd at home.

He got in trouble once for friending guests on Facebook. Management spoke to him, and now he was aware and respectful of the boundaries of customer service.

Ralph passed the time at the front desk by writing little stories in his head about the guests. Like Theresa. She was an accountant, probably 60 years old. She hit the gym hard five days a week, lifting, running, and sweating like an Olympic decathlete. Ralph imagined her story: The youngest kid in a family with six older brothers. She competed with the boys in everything from school to karate to baseball. She had a chip on her shoulder. Ralph decided she seduced younger men at the bars in Ormewood Park on the weekends. He would have loved to be one of those younger men. Ralph was happier in these fairy tales. He figured that’s also why he liked Armando’s pictures, because of the stories they inspired.




Ralph lived in a one-bedroom apartment in East Lake, in a small complex called Peachtree Palisades. It was just him and his fish, Tamantha.

None of his neighbors had seen Tamantha because none had been inside Ralph’s apartment.

Tamantha was a Jaguar cichlid. The guy at the pet store called her Tamantha. Ralph thought the name was purposefully different, like him, and he decided to keep it.

Tamantha was territorial, the guy at the pet store told Ralph. For that reason, she needed to live alone in the fish bowl. Ralph joked to himself that that was also the reason he never brought women to his apartment. Because Tamantha was territorial.

Ralph played house with her when he got home from work. He performed for her as he never did for anyone else in public. He yelled, “Honey, I’m home. Is dinner ready?” It was some of the only flirting Ralph did. And it made him feel smart and funny. It made him feel connected to something.

Ralph would tell Tamantha about Armando’s girls. Every now and then there would be one that really stuck with him, like Ariana, who worked with preschool kids. Ralph had created a backstory for her that she was looking for a man to start an orphanage with, a place where they could take care of abandoned children. Ralph would ask Tamantha for advice on where he should take things with this mostly imagined woman, Ariana. He talked to Tamantha about Armando. But he didn’t talk to Armando about Tamantha. Until he did.




“I think I’m taking myself off the market,” Armando said to Ralph one morning behind the L.A. Fitness. “I found the one.”

Ralph moved his head around to see the pic through the glare of the morning sunlight. Damn, he thought. Dark hair. Fake tan. Big eyes. Too much makeup. She was naked.

“She’s sexy, but she’s funny, too. She gets my sense of humor, bro.”

Ralph thought about what it would be like to be with this woman, take her to the Starlight Drive-In, laugh with her, play putt-putt on the roof of the Ponce City Market. He thought about what it would be like to go to bed with this woman.

Armando recognized something in Ralph, and he snatched the phone away. He put it back in his pocket. It was always a game of cat and mouse with Armando, Ralph, and Armando’s pictures.

“Let’s go inside,” Armando said.

Ralph had a hard-on.

“You go. I’m going to stay for a bit.”

The way Ralph said it was unnatural, and even though English was not Armando’s first language he picked up on the slight shift immediately.

“No, we should get in there. Richard will be in soon and you should be waiting for him at the front.”

“I will. I’m right behind you.” Ralph turned away.

“Bro, stand up.”

“Fuck off.”

“You got a boner, dude. I can see it in your eyes.”

Ralph tried to hide himself, but he didn’t know what to cover. He didn’t know what else might give him away.

“You need to get a girl, bro. You can’t get all boned up over a picture, man. A picture, by the way, of my girlfriend. That’s not cool.”

“I have a girl,” Ralph lied.

“What’s her name? It better not be something obvious like Britney or Jessica. I’ll know you’re making it up.”

“Her name is Tamantha.”

“You’re lying,” Armando said.

“I’m not.” The only thing more embarrassing than being caught with an erection was being caught making up a girlfriend.

“You hook up with her yet?”

“I’m just getting to know her. I feel like we might have a connection.” Ralph was using language he’d heard Armando use before.

“Let me see your messages. I’ll help you out.” Armando said.

“We don’t message. We talk, like in person. Well, she doesn’t say much. I do the talking.” Ralph said. He blended truths with lies and it worked.

“You like her, though?”

“Yeah, man. She’s real cool.”

“Like wife material?” Armando said.

Ralph smiled. “I don’t know about all that.”

“OK. OK. Here’s what you do.” Armando looked like a football coach giving a pre-game rah-rah speech. “Don’t joke with her. People always talk about making women laugh, make them do anything, whatever. Women want a man, not a clown. Two, show her the world in a new way. Change everything. Be different. And last, take her swimming. Women love the ocean. And you see her in a bikini.”

Ralph knew this was stupid, but it was nice to no longer be talking about his erection or being cross-examined about a made-up girlfriend.

“You can talk to anyone. You take a leap of faith, little bro. It’s confidence. Believe you can. These girls out there, they’re just waiting for you to be bold enough to speak up.”




Ralph thought about that advice throughout his shift at the gym. Be bold enough to speak up. He looked at women who checked in and wondered if each secretly wanted him to speak up, say something to her, compliment her, ask her out, something.

Probably not.

They looked like they wanted to work out. Some needed a fresh towel. They came in with headphones on. Their eyes on their phones. A few times Ralph did try to speak up, but most of the time they didn’t hear him. He thought one or two might have but pretended not to.

During his lunch break Ralph went to his phone. He toggled between the networking apps, scrolling through profiles. Be bold enough to speak up, he thought. Neighbors flashed by. Classmates from high school. A girl from church camp. Every face looked cold and ceramic. Instagram filters filtered out humanity. These women wouldn’t, couldn’t possibly like him. He wasn’t Armando. He couldn’t force a connection via an algorithm.

He wanted something else. Maybe it wasn’t romantic, but at least it was a sign that he wasn’t alone in a complicated and confusing world. He decided he would try a thing he never thought possible. Ralph decided he was going to talk to Tamantha.




Ralph walked into his apartment. He closed the door and locked it behind him. He dropped his gym bag on the floor at the linoleum landing where he left muddy shoes. He didn’t yell out to Tamantha like normal. He didn’t make a mockery of talking to her. Instead, Ralph moved through the apartment quietly and deliberately, making preparations.

It was early afternoon, and the sun was an acute sort of yellow that found its way into every cranny and corner of the apartment. Ralph closed the blinds. From the closet, he pulled out a stack of old towels and systematically went through the apartment taping them over the windows, blocking out any remaining sunlight that snuck through. 

It was dark. Ralph walked to the kitchen and flipped on the overhead light. He turned on the lamps in the living room. By Ralph’s count there were 17 total lights in the apartment. The electric lights washed out the natural light that managed to find its way in. Natural light was a reminder of the natural world that existed outside of apartment 1822. In the natural world, men did not speak fish. Inside apartment 1822, Ralph was determined to speak fish. He believed. He was bold enough to speak up.

He picked up Tamantha’s bowl and moved her from the living room, where she’d sat every day since he got her, to the kitchen. The teal counter top gave a backdrop to the water in the fish bowl. It looked like Tamantha was swimming in the ocean, somewhere tropical with pistachio-colored water, maybe the Caribbean. 

He breathed. He stared at the fish bowl.

“Hello,” he said.

Then he waited.

No response.

Tamantha swam around her bowl. Moved from the living room to the kitchen, the bowl now offered new views and angles of the apartment that Tamantha had never seen. Ralph imagined how she must feel, being plucked out of her world, out of everything she knew and thought possible, and repositioned in a completely new reality. How magnificent that must be.

“Hello,” he said again.

Ralph tried to make the sharp angles of his face look warm and nonthreatening, inviting even.

Tamantha continued to swim in circles. Every few moments she broke the surface of the water, maybe looking for food or hoping to break through and escape to another place.

Ralph put his hand in the bowl. Tamantha circled it. 

He had an idea. He took his hand out of the bowl, spilling water on the counter and the floor. He opened the door and dashed out of the apartment, down to the communal washroom next to the leasing office. He pulled out a dusty plastic wash tub, which he rinsed out using the hose by the grills and cornhole boards. He brought the tub, still dripping, into his apartment and began filling it with water, one pitcher at a time, from the kitchen sink. He made a mental note to move into a nicer apartment, a place with a bathtub, instead of his cramped stand-up shower.

It was messy work and soon the kitchen floor was soaked. After 10 minutes of dumping pitcher after pitcher, Ralph had the tub full. He gently tilted Tamantha’s bowl into it and let her swim into the dark water.

Ralph stripped to his boxers and climbed into the wash tub with Tamantha.

“Hello,” he said.

The fish looked at him. 

“Do you like living here?” Ralph asked. It wasn’t the question he thought he would ask, but once he heard himself say it, it felt like the right one. “I can buy you a bigger tank,” Ralph said. “Space to swim and maybe some structures to swim with, like a castle or a sunken ship. Would you like that?”

Ralph waited for a response. 

“The girl I told you about, Ariana, the one I said I was going to start an orphanage with, you knew that was a lie, didn’t you?” Ralph said.

He waited for a response.

They were both in the plastic wash tub, Tamantha swimming and bobbing her head up to the surface and Ralph sitting with his knees pulled to his chest.

“Yes, I knew you were lying. Do people even call them orphanages anymore?” 

“I don’t know. I guess if I’m going to lie, I should do more research.” 

“Why lie?” 

“I thought the truth would be boring. I thought the truth wouldn’t impress you, maybe.”

“You don’t need to impress me. I’m a fish.”

“Yeah.”

“Are you always trying to impress people? Like that guy, Armando, he’s an idiot. Do you try to impress him?”

“Yeah. Sometimes.”

“Do you lie to him?”

“I did today. I told him I was dating a girl named Tamantha.”

“Common name, huh?”

“Do you like living here?”

“I do. It’s nice to feel close to someone.”

Tamantha swam around the wash tub and brushed against Ralph’s stomach. He felt her scaly body on his bare skin.

“I like that you live here.”

Ralph slid back into the wash tub. He let his arms slip from the rim and fall into the water. The water crept up to his shoulders and his neck. He heard the hum of the overhead kitchen lights. He slid further down into the water. Tamantha swam around him. Ralph stared at the ceiling. He noticed patterns in the crown molding he’d never seen before. He felt his body temperature increasing the temperature of the water, so it was impossible to feel where he ended and the water began. He let his eyelids close. Ralph tilted his head back and let his hair dip into the water. It encompassed his ears and then his eyes and nose, silenced the sound of the lights. Water spilled over the top of the tub onto the floor of the kitchen. He felt his pulsating brain send ripples into the water, creating a wavelength that connected his inner world and his outside environment. He slid back further. The water took Ralph in. He and Tamantha inhabited the plastic wash tub.

The two together, with no ends and no beginnings, no emptiness of space or emotion. She, who loved him. She, who understood him. He, who believed. He, who spoke up. He, who finally connected.

Drew Grossman lives in Grant Park with his wife Arielle and their two cats, The Great Catsby and Daisy. He works in advertising and his story “Watch Me” finished third in the Creative Loafing Fiction Contest of 2018."
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  string(17511) "Each morning, before their shifts, Ralph and Armando sat behind the strip mall, drinking Keurig coffee out of Styrofoam cups. At this early hour there weren’t many people to watch, and the two men didn’t have much in their personal lives to talk about. The Atlanta Braves. Their boss, Richard. A personal record one of them hit at the gym. During quiet moments, Armando watched his phone and Ralph watched Armando. Every few minutes Armando showed Ralph his screen to get approval on a chick he was chatting with. Armando was the self-described king of online pickups. He was the architect of a complex system to find and seduce the women on his phone. Ralph and Armando were both obsessed with these women.

As far as Ralph knew, Armando never met them. He messaged them throughout the day and during his shifts at the L.A. Fitness where he and Ralph worked. His goal was to coax a pic. He’d ask them to do an A-town down sign with their fingers, stick out their tongue, or play with their hair in a specific way, something to prove it was them. It didn’t matter what the women looked like, or if they were married, as long as Armando could tell a picture was uniquely for him.

In one photo, a trim 40-something white woman with dreads wore a bikini and straddled a large exercise ball. She might have been a few years younger than Armando, who had the face and skin of a weathered man in his 60s, but the chiseled physique of a college athlete. The woman in the photo crossed her arms, pushing up her boobs. Ralph recognized the pose. It was one of Armando’s go-to’s.

Oye, bro! Can you imagine being that ball? Those thighs wrapped around you like that.”

Armando always talked about inhabiting inanimate objects to get closer to his girls’ butts. Ralph recalled: “Can you imagine being that bike seat? Those jeans? That thong?”

Sometimes Armando would hold his phone up to Ralph’s face and let Ralph read the sexy messages himself, but Armando always pulled the phone away before Ralph could get the gist of the entire conversation. But Ralph liked filling in the context for himself. He made up stories about the women, their histories, their hopes, and their quirks.

He didn’t want to give Armando the satisfaction of knowing how much he cared about the women. But he was hooked.

“She’s not even hot,” Ralph said, looking over Armando’s shoulder at a picture of a curvy young girl, with a shaved head and a lot of tattoos.

“Oye, chico! You crazy.” Armando said. “She’s beautiful, man. I’d make this woman my wife.”

“I wouldn’t,” Ralph said. Even though it was before six a.m., the temperature was already in the 80s. Ralph started to sweat.

“Ha! No kidding. You wouldn’t know how to please a girl like this. You wouldn’t know how to touch her, kiss her, squeeze her. You need the magic hands, little amigo. You wouldn’t even know where to start. If this girl was naked in your bed, you’d run. I know it.”

Ralph spit on the pavement. The only action Armando’s magic hands got was working over the buttons of his keyboard. And probably working over himself late at night, with the smell of the gym’s cleaning supplies permanently soaked into his clothes, hair, and fingernails.

Ralph didn’t say this out loud to Armando. He didn’t want Armando to take the pictures away.

Ralph and Armando opened the gym every weekday morning. They got there at five-thirty and the doors opened at six-thirty. After cleaning the windows, wiping down the counters, stocking the bathrooms and the sauna, they turned on the TVs. The TVs took longer than any other task. By Ralph’s count, there were one hundred and eight TVs in the mega gym, including those in the locker rooms and the ones affixed to the aerobic machines. People needed a place to put their eyes while they worked out. You wouldn’t want to get caught staring at another person. That’s why there were so many TVs, Ralph thought, so no one had to look at each other. Once the gym was ready to open, Ralph and Armando had about 15 minutes to drink their coffee and look at Armando’s women.

Then Ralph worked the front desk for three hours, until lunch, which he took at nine-thirty. Guests liked Ralph because he remembered their names and little things about them, like their being from New York City or that they had a German shepherd at home.

He got in trouble once for friending guests on Facebook. Management spoke to him, and now he was aware and respectful of the boundaries of customer service.

Ralph passed the time at the front desk by writing little stories in his head about the guests. Like Theresa. She was an accountant, probably 60 years old. She hit the gym hard five days a week, lifting, running, and sweating like an Olympic decathlete. Ralph imagined her story: The youngest kid in a family with six older brothers. She competed with the boys in everything from school to karate to baseball. She had a chip on her shoulder. Ralph decided she seduced younger men at the bars in Ormewood Park on the weekends. He would have loved to be one of those younger men. Ralph was happier in these fairy tales. He figured that’s also why he liked Armando’s pictures, because of the stories they inspired.




Ralph lived in a one-bedroom apartment in East Lake, in a small complex called Peachtree Palisades. It was just him and his fish, Tamantha.

None of his neighbors had seen Tamantha because none had been inside Ralph’s apartment.

Tamantha was a Jaguar cichlid. The guy at the pet store called her Tamantha. Ralph thought the name was purposefully different, like him, and he decided to keep it.

Tamantha was territorial, the guy at the pet store told Ralph. For that reason, she needed to live alone in the fish bowl. Ralph joked to himself that that was also the reason he never brought women to his apartment. Because Tamantha was territorial.

Ralph played house with her when he got home from work. He performed for her as he never did for anyone else in public. He yelled, “Honey, I’m home. Is dinner ready?” It was some of the only flirting Ralph did. And it made him feel smart and funny. It made him feel connected to something.

Ralph would tell Tamantha about Armando’s girls. Every now and then there would be one that really stuck with him, like Ariana, who worked with preschool kids. Ralph had created a backstory for her that she was looking for a man to start an orphanage with, a place where they could take care of abandoned children. Ralph would ask Tamantha for advice on where he should take things with this mostly imagined woman, Ariana. He talked to Tamantha about Armando. But he didn’t talk to Armando about Tamantha. Until he did.




“I think I’m taking myself off the market,” Armando said to Ralph one morning behind the L.A. Fitness. “I found the one.”

Ralph moved his head around to see the pic through the glare of the morning sunlight. Damn, he thought. Dark hair. Fake tan. Big eyes. Too much makeup. She was naked.

“She’s sexy, but she’s funny, too. She gets my sense of humor, bro.”

Ralph thought about what it would be like to be with this woman, take her to the Starlight Drive-In, laugh with her, play putt-putt on the roof of the Ponce City Market. He thought about what it would be like to go to bed with this woman.

Armando recognized something in Ralph, and he snatched the phone away. He put it back in his pocket. It was always a game of cat and mouse with Armando, Ralph, and Armando’s pictures.

“Let’s go inside,” Armando said.

Ralph had a hard-on.

“You go. I’m going to stay for a bit.”

The way Ralph said it was unnatural, and even though English was not Armando’s first language he picked up on the slight shift immediately.

“No, we should get in there. Richard will be in soon and you should be waiting for him at the front.”

“I will. I’m right behind you.” Ralph turned away.

“Bro, stand up.”

“Fuck off.”

“You got a boner, dude. I can see it in your eyes.”

Ralph tried to hide himself, but he didn’t know what to cover. He didn’t know what else might give him away.

“You need to get a girl, bro. You can’t get all boned up over a picture, man. A picture, by the way, of my girlfriend. That’s not cool.”

“I have a girl,” Ralph lied.

“What’s her name? It better not be something obvious like Britney or Jessica. I’ll know you’re making it up.”

“Her name is Tamantha.”

“You’re lying,” Armando said.

“I’m not.” The only thing more embarrassing than being caught with an erection was being caught making up a girlfriend.

“You hook up with her yet?”

“I’m just getting to know her. I feel like we might have a connection.” Ralph was using language he’d heard Armando use before.

“Let me see your messages. I’ll help you out.” Armando said.

“We don’t message. We talk, like in person. Well, she doesn’t say much. I do the talking.” Ralph said. He blended truths with lies and it worked.

“You like her, though?”

“Yeah, man. She’s real cool.”

“Like wife material?” Armando said.

Ralph smiled. “I don’t know about all that.”

“OK. OK. Here’s what you do.” Armando looked like a football coach giving a pre-game rah-rah speech. “Don’t joke with her. People always talk about making women laugh, make them do anything, whatever. Women want a man, not a clown. Two, show her the world in a new way. Change everything. Be different. And last, take her swimming. Women love the ocean. And you see her in a bikini.”

Ralph knew this was stupid, but it was nice to no longer be talking about his erection or being cross-examined about a made-up girlfriend.

“You can talk to anyone. You take a leap of faith, little bro. It’s confidence. Believe you can. These girls out there, they’re just waiting for you to be bold enough to speak up.”




Ralph thought about that advice throughout his shift at the gym. ''Be bold enough to speak up''. He looked at women who checked in and wondered if each secretly wanted him to speak up, say something to her, compliment her, ask her out, something.

Probably not.

They looked like they wanted to work out. Some needed a fresh towel. They came in with headphones on. Their eyes on their phones. A few times Ralph did try to speak up, but most of the time they didn’t hear him. He thought one or two might have but ''pretended'' not to.

During his lunch break Ralph went to his phone. He toggled between the networking apps, scrolling through profiles. Be bold enough to speak up, he thought. Neighbors flashed by. Classmates from high school. A girl from church camp. Every face looked cold and ceramic. Instagram filters filtered out humanity. These women wouldn’t, couldn’t possibly like him. He wasn’t Armando. He couldn’t force a connection via an algorithm.

He wanted something else. Maybe it wasn’t romantic, but at least it was a sign that he wasn’t alone in a complicated and confusing world. He decided he would try a thing he never thought possible. Ralph decided he was going to talk to Tamantha.




Ralph walked into his apartment. He closed the door and locked it behind him. He dropped his gym bag on the floor at the linoleum landing where he left muddy shoes. He didn’t yell out to Tamantha like normal. He didn’t make a mockery of talking to her. Instead, Ralph moved through the apartment quietly and deliberately, making preparations.

It was early afternoon, and the sun was an acute sort of yellow that found its way into every cranny and corner of the apartment. Ralph closed the blinds. From the closet, he pulled out a stack of old towels and systematically went through the apartment taping them over the windows, blocking out any remaining sunlight that snuck through. 

It was dark. Ralph walked to the kitchen and flipped on the overhead light. He turned on the lamps in the living room. By Ralph’s count there were 17 total lights in the apartment. The electric lights washed out the natural light that managed to find its way in. Natural light was a reminder of the natural world that existed outside of apartment 1822. In the natural world, men did not speak fish. Inside apartment 1822, Ralph was determined to speak fish. He believed. He was bold enough to speak up.

He picked up Tamantha’s bowl and moved her from the living room, where she’d sat every day since he got her, to the kitchen. The teal counter top gave a backdrop to the water in the fish bowl. It looked like Tamantha was swimming in the ocean, somewhere tropical with pistachio-colored water, maybe the Caribbean. 

He breathed. He stared at the fish bowl.

“Hello,” he said.

Then he waited.

No response.

Tamantha swam around her bowl. Moved from the living room to the kitchen, the bowl now offered new views and angles of the apartment that Tamantha had never seen. Ralph imagined how she must feel, being plucked out of her world, out of everything she knew and thought possible, and repositioned in a completely new reality. How magnificent that must be.

“Hello,” he said again.

Ralph tried to make the sharp angles of his face look warm and nonthreatening, inviting even.

Tamantha continued to swim in circles. Every few moments she broke the surface of the water, maybe looking for food or hoping to break through and escape to another place.

Ralph put his hand in the bowl. Tamantha circled it. 

He had an idea. He took his hand out of the bowl, spilling water on the counter and the floor. He opened the door and dashed out of the apartment, down to the communal washroom next to the leasing office. He pulled out a dusty plastic wash tub, which he rinsed out using the hose by the grills and cornhole boards. He brought the tub, still dripping, into his apartment and began filling it with water, one pitcher at a time, from the kitchen sink. He made a mental note to move into a nicer apartment, a place with a bathtub, instead of his cramped stand-up shower.

It was messy work and soon the kitchen floor was soaked. After 10 minutes of dumping pitcher after pitcher, Ralph had the tub full. He gently tilted Tamantha’s bowl into it and let her swim into the dark water.

Ralph stripped to his boxers and climbed into the wash tub with Tamantha.

“Hello,” he said.

The fish looked at him. 

“Do you like living here?” Ralph asked. It wasn’t the question he thought he would ask, but once he heard himself say it, it felt like the right one. “I can buy you a bigger tank,” Ralph said. “Space to swim and maybe some structures to swim with, like a castle or a sunken ship. Would you like that?”

Ralph waited for a response. 

“The girl I told you about, Ariana, the one I said I was going to start an orphanage with, you knew that was a lie, didn’t you?” Ralph said.

He waited for a response.

They were both in the plastic wash tub, Tamantha swimming and bobbing her head up to the surface and Ralph sitting with his knees pulled to his chest.

“Yes, I knew you were lying. Do people even call them orphanages anymore?” 

“I don’t know. I guess if I’m going to lie, I should do more research.” 

“Why lie?” 

“I thought the truth would be boring. I thought the truth wouldn’t impress you, maybe.”

“You don’t need to impress me. I’m a fish.”

“Yeah.”

“Are you always trying to impress people? Like that guy, Armando, he’s an idiot. Do you try to impress him?”

“Yeah. Sometimes.”

“Do you lie to him?”

“I did today. I told him I was dating a girl named Tamantha.”

“Common name, huh?”

“Do you like living here?”

“I do. It’s nice to feel close to someone.”

Tamantha swam around the wash tub and brushed against Ralph’s stomach. He felt her scaly body on his bare skin.

“I like that you live here.”

Ralph slid back into the wash tub. He let his arms slip from the rim and fall into the water. The water crept up to his shoulders and his neck. He heard the hum of the overhead kitchen lights. He slid further down into the water. Tamantha swam around him. Ralph stared at the ceiling. He noticed patterns in the crown molding he’d never seen before. He felt his body temperature increasing the temperature of the water, so it was impossible to feel where he ended and the water began. He let his eyelids close. Ralph tilted his head back and let his hair dip into the water. It encompassed his ears and then his eyes and nose, silenced the sound of the lights. Water spilled over the top of the tub onto the floor of the kitchen. He felt his pulsating brain send ripples into the water, creating a wavelength that connected his inner world and his outside environment. He slid back further. The water took Ralph in. He and Tamantha inhabited the plastic wash tub.

The two together, with no ends and no beginnings, no emptiness of space or emotion. She, who loved him. She, who understood him. He, who believed. He, who spoke up. He, who finally connected.

''Drew Grossman lives in Grant Park with his wife Arielle and their two cats, The Great Catsby and Daisy. He works in advertising and his story “Watch Me” finished third in the'' Creative Loafing ''Fiction Contest of 2018''."
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  string(17805) " Fiction Thirdplace RGB  2019-02-06T18:20:11+00:00 Fiction-thirdplace_RGB.jpg     Third Place winner CL's Fiction Contest 2019 13333  2019-02-06T19:08:17+00:00 'Speak Fish' jim.harris@creativeloafing.com Jim Harris DREW GROSSMAN  2019-02-06T19:08:17+00:00  Each morning, before their shifts, Ralph and Armando sat behind the strip mall, drinking Keurig coffee out of Styrofoam cups. At this early hour there weren’t many people to watch, and the two men didn’t have much in their personal lives to talk about. The Atlanta Braves. Their boss, Richard. A personal record one of them hit at the gym. During quiet moments, Armando watched his phone and Ralph watched Armando. Every few minutes Armando showed Ralph his screen to get approval on a chick he was chatting with. Armando was the self-described king of online pickups. He was the architect of a complex system to find and seduce the women on his phone. Ralph and Armando were both obsessed with these women.

As far as Ralph knew, Armando never met them. He messaged them throughout the day and during his shifts at the L.A. Fitness where he and Ralph worked. His goal was to coax a pic. He’d ask them to do an A-town down sign with their fingers, stick out their tongue, or play with their hair in a specific way, something to prove it was them. It didn’t matter what the women looked like, or if they were married, as long as Armando could tell a picture was uniquely for him.

In one photo, a trim 40-something white woman with dreads wore a bikini and straddled a large exercise ball. She might have been a few years younger than Armando, who had the face and skin of a weathered man in his 60s, but the chiseled physique of a college athlete. The woman in the photo crossed her arms, pushing up her boobs. Ralph recognized the pose. It was one of Armando’s go-to’s.

Oye, bro! Can you imagine being that ball? Those thighs wrapped around you like that.”

Armando always talked about inhabiting inanimate objects to get closer to his girls’ butts. Ralph recalled: “Can you imagine being that bike seat? Those jeans? That thong?”

Sometimes Armando would hold his phone up to Ralph’s face and let Ralph read the sexy messages himself, but Armando always pulled the phone away before Ralph could get the gist of the entire conversation. But Ralph liked filling in the context for himself. He made up stories about the women, their histories, their hopes, and their quirks.

He didn’t want to give Armando the satisfaction of knowing how much he cared about the women. But he was hooked.

“She’s not even hot,” Ralph said, looking over Armando’s shoulder at a picture of a curvy young girl, with a shaved head and a lot of tattoos.

“Oye, chico! You crazy.” Armando said. “She’s beautiful, man. I’d make this woman my wife.”

“I wouldn’t,” Ralph said. Even though it was before six a.m., the temperature was already in the 80s. Ralph started to sweat.

“Ha! No kidding. You wouldn’t know how to please a girl like this. You wouldn’t know how to touch her, kiss her, squeeze her. You need the magic hands, little amigo. You wouldn’t even know where to start. If this girl was naked in your bed, you’d run. I know it.”

Ralph spit on the pavement. The only action Armando’s magic hands got was working over the buttons of his keyboard. And probably working over himself late at night, with the smell of the gym’s cleaning supplies permanently soaked into his clothes, hair, and fingernails.

Ralph didn’t say this out loud to Armando. He didn’t want Armando to take the pictures away.

Ralph and Armando opened the gym every weekday morning. They got there at five-thirty and the doors opened at six-thirty. After cleaning the windows, wiping down the counters, stocking the bathrooms and the sauna, they turned on the TVs. The TVs took longer than any other task. By Ralph’s count, there were one hundred and eight TVs in the mega gym, including those in the locker rooms and the ones affixed to the aerobic machines. People needed a place to put their eyes while they worked out. You wouldn’t want to get caught staring at another person. That’s why there were so many TVs, Ralph thought, so no one had to look at each other. Once the gym was ready to open, Ralph and Armando had about 15 minutes to drink their coffee and look at Armando’s women.

Then Ralph worked the front desk for three hours, until lunch, which he took at nine-thirty. Guests liked Ralph because he remembered their names and little things about them, like their being from New York City or that they had a German shepherd at home.

He got in trouble once for friending guests on Facebook. Management spoke to him, and now he was aware and respectful of the boundaries of customer service.

Ralph passed the time at the front desk by writing little stories in his head about the guests. Like Theresa. She was an accountant, probably 60 years old. She hit the gym hard five days a week, lifting, running, and sweating like an Olympic decathlete. Ralph imagined her story: The youngest kid in a family with six older brothers. She competed with the boys in everything from school to karate to baseball. She had a chip on her shoulder. Ralph decided she seduced younger men at the bars in Ormewood Park on the weekends. He would have loved to be one of those younger men. Ralph was happier in these fairy tales. He figured that’s also why he liked Armando’s pictures, because of the stories they inspired.




Ralph lived in a one-bedroom apartment in East Lake, in a small complex called Peachtree Palisades. It was just him and his fish, Tamantha.

None of his neighbors had seen Tamantha because none had been inside Ralph’s apartment.

Tamantha was a Jaguar cichlid. The guy at the pet store called her Tamantha. Ralph thought the name was purposefully different, like him, and he decided to keep it.

Tamantha was territorial, the guy at the pet store told Ralph. For that reason, she needed to live alone in the fish bowl. Ralph joked to himself that that was also the reason he never brought women to his apartment. Because Tamantha was territorial.

Ralph played house with her when he got home from work. He performed for her as he never did for anyone else in public. He yelled, “Honey, I’m home. Is dinner ready?” It was some of the only flirting Ralph did. And it made him feel smart and funny. It made him feel connected to something.

Ralph would tell Tamantha about Armando’s girls. Every now and then there would be one that really stuck with him, like Ariana, who worked with preschool kids. Ralph had created a backstory for her that she was looking for a man to start an orphanage with, a place where they could take care of abandoned children. Ralph would ask Tamantha for advice on where he should take things with this mostly imagined woman, Ariana. He talked to Tamantha about Armando. But he didn’t talk to Armando about Tamantha. Until he did.




“I think I’m taking myself off the market,” Armando said to Ralph one morning behind the L.A. Fitness. “I found the one.”

Ralph moved his head around to see the pic through the glare of the morning sunlight. Damn, he thought. Dark hair. Fake tan. Big eyes. Too much makeup. She was naked.

“She’s sexy, but she’s funny, too. She gets my sense of humor, bro.”

Ralph thought about what it would be like to be with this woman, take her to the Starlight Drive-In, laugh with her, play putt-putt on the roof of the Ponce City Market. He thought about what it would be like to go to bed with this woman.

Armando recognized something in Ralph, and he snatched the phone away. He put it back in his pocket. It was always a game of cat and mouse with Armando, Ralph, and Armando’s pictures.

“Let’s go inside,” Armando said.

Ralph had a hard-on.

“You go. I’m going to stay for a bit.”

The way Ralph said it was unnatural, and even though English was not Armando’s first language he picked up on the slight shift immediately.

“No, we should get in there. Richard will be in soon and you should be waiting for him at the front.”

“I will. I’m right behind you.” Ralph turned away.

“Bro, stand up.”

“Fuck off.”

“You got a boner, dude. I can see it in your eyes.”

Ralph tried to hide himself, but he didn’t know what to cover. He didn’t know what else might give him away.

“You need to get a girl, bro. You can’t get all boned up over a picture, man. A picture, by the way, of my girlfriend. That’s not cool.”

“I have a girl,” Ralph lied.

“What’s her name? It better not be something obvious like Britney or Jessica. I’ll know you’re making it up.”

“Her name is Tamantha.”

“You’re lying,” Armando said.

“I’m not.” The only thing more embarrassing than being caught with an erection was being caught making up a girlfriend.

“You hook up with her yet?”

“I’m just getting to know her. I feel like we might have a connection.” Ralph was using language he’d heard Armando use before.

“Let me see your messages. I’ll help you out.” Armando said.

“We don’t message. We talk, like in person. Well, she doesn’t say much. I do the talking.” Ralph said. He blended truths with lies and it worked.

“You like her, though?”

“Yeah, man. She’s real cool.”

“Like wife material?” Armando said.

Ralph smiled. “I don’t know about all that.”

“OK. OK. Here’s what you do.” Armando looked like a football coach giving a pre-game rah-rah speech. “Don’t joke with her. People always talk about making women laugh, make them do anything, whatever. Women want a man, not a clown. Two, show her the world in a new way. Change everything. Be different. And last, take her swimming. Women love the ocean. And you see her in a bikini.”

Ralph knew this was stupid, but it was nice to no longer be talking about his erection or being cross-examined about a made-up girlfriend.

“You can talk to anyone. You take a leap of faith, little bro. It’s confidence. Believe you can. These girls out there, they’re just waiting for you to be bold enough to speak up.”




Ralph thought about that advice throughout his shift at the gym. Be bold enough to speak up. He looked at women who checked in and wondered if each secretly wanted him to speak up, say something to her, compliment her, ask her out, something.

Probably not.

They looked like they wanted to work out. Some needed a fresh towel. They came in with headphones on. Their eyes on their phones. A few times Ralph did try to speak up, but most of the time they didn’t hear him. He thought one or two might have but pretended not to.

During his lunch break Ralph went to his phone. He toggled between the networking apps, scrolling through profiles. Be bold enough to speak up, he thought. Neighbors flashed by. Classmates from high school. A girl from church camp. Every face looked cold and ceramic. Instagram filters filtered out humanity. These women wouldn’t, couldn’t possibly like him. He wasn’t Armando. He couldn’t force a connection via an algorithm.

He wanted something else. Maybe it wasn’t romantic, but at least it was a sign that he wasn’t alone in a complicated and confusing world. He decided he would try a thing he never thought possible. Ralph decided he was going to talk to Tamantha.




Ralph walked into his apartment. He closed the door and locked it behind him. He dropped his gym bag on the floor at the linoleum landing where he left muddy shoes. He didn’t yell out to Tamantha like normal. He didn’t make a mockery of talking to her. Instead, Ralph moved through the apartment quietly and deliberately, making preparations.

It was early afternoon, and the sun was an acute sort of yellow that found its way into every cranny and corner of the apartment. Ralph closed the blinds. From the closet, he pulled out a stack of old towels and systematically went through the apartment taping them over the windows, blocking out any remaining sunlight that snuck through. 

It was dark. Ralph walked to the kitchen and flipped on the overhead light. He turned on the lamps in the living room. By Ralph’s count there were 17 total lights in the apartment. The electric lights washed out the natural light that managed to find its way in. Natural light was a reminder of the natural world that existed outside of apartment 1822. In the natural world, men did not speak fish. Inside apartment 1822, Ralph was determined to speak fish. He believed. He was bold enough to speak up.

He picked up Tamantha’s bowl and moved her from the living room, where she’d sat every day since he got her, to the kitchen. The teal counter top gave a backdrop to the water in the fish bowl. It looked like Tamantha was swimming in the ocean, somewhere tropical with pistachio-colored water, maybe the Caribbean. 

He breathed. He stared at the fish bowl.

“Hello,” he said.

Then he waited.

No response.

Tamantha swam around her bowl. Moved from the living room to the kitchen, the bowl now offered new views and angles of the apartment that Tamantha had never seen. Ralph imagined how she must feel, being plucked out of her world, out of everything she knew and thought possible, and repositioned in a completely new reality. How magnificent that must be.

“Hello,” he said again.

Ralph tried to make the sharp angles of his face look warm and nonthreatening, inviting even.

Tamantha continued to swim in circles. Every few moments she broke the surface of the water, maybe looking for food or hoping to break through and escape to another place.

Ralph put his hand in the bowl. Tamantha circled it. 

He had an idea. He took his hand out of the bowl, spilling water on the counter and the floor. He opened the door and dashed out of the apartment, down to the communal washroom next to the leasing office. He pulled out a dusty plastic wash tub, which he rinsed out using the hose by the grills and cornhole boards. He brought the tub, still dripping, into his apartment and began filling it with water, one pitcher at a time, from the kitchen sink. He made a mental note to move into a nicer apartment, a place with a bathtub, instead of his cramped stand-up shower.

It was messy work and soon the kitchen floor was soaked. After 10 minutes of dumping pitcher after pitcher, Ralph had the tub full. He gently tilted Tamantha’s bowl into it and let her swim into the dark water.

Ralph stripped to his boxers and climbed into the wash tub with Tamantha.

“Hello,” he said.

The fish looked at him. 

“Do you like living here?” Ralph asked. It wasn’t the question he thought he would ask, but once he heard himself say it, it felt like the right one. “I can buy you a bigger tank,” Ralph said. “Space to swim and maybe some structures to swim with, like a castle or a sunken ship. Would you like that?”

Ralph waited for a response. 

“The girl I told you about, Ariana, the one I said I was going to start an orphanage with, you knew that was a lie, didn’t you?” Ralph said.

He waited for a response.

They were both in the plastic wash tub, Tamantha swimming and bobbing her head up to the surface and Ralph sitting with his knees pulled to his chest.

“Yes, I knew you were lying. Do people even call them orphanages anymore?” 

“I don’t know. I guess if I’m going to lie, I should do more research.” 

“Why lie?” 

“I thought the truth would be boring. I thought the truth wouldn’t impress you, maybe.”

“You don’t need to impress me. I’m a fish.”

“Yeah.”

“Are you always trying to impress people? Like that guy, Armando, he’s an idiot. Do you try to impress him?”

“Yeah. Sometimes.”

“Do you lie to him?”

“I did today. I told him I was dating a girl named Tamantha.”

“Common name, huh?”

“Do you like living here?”

“I do. It’s nice to feel close to someone.”

Tamantha swam around the wash tub and brushed against Ralph’s stomach. He felt her scaly body on his bare skin.

“I like that you live here.”

Ralph slid back into the wash tub. He let his arms slip from the rim and fall into the water. The water crept up to his shoulders and his neck. He heard the hum of the overhead kitchen lights. He slid further down into the water. Tamantha swam around him. Ralph stared at the ceiling. He noticed patterns in the crown molding he’d never seen before. He felt his body temperature increasing the temperature of the water, so it was impossible to feel where he ended and the water began. He let his eyelids close. Ralph tilted his head back and let his hair dip into the water. It encompassed his ears and then his eyes and nose, silenced the sound of the lights. Water spilled over the top of the tub onto the floor of the kitchen. He felt his pulsating brain send ripples into the water, creating a wavelength that connected his inner world and his outside environment. He slid back further. The water took Ralph in. He and Tamantha inhabited the plastic wash tub.

The two together, with no ends and no beginnings, no emptiness of space or emotion. She, who loved him. She, who understood him. He, who believed. He, who spoke up. He, who finally connected.

Drew Grossman lives in Grant Park with his wife Arielle and their two cats, The Great Catsby and Daisy. He works in advertising and his story “Watch Me” finished third in the Creative Loafing Fiction Contest of 2018.                                        'Speak Fish' "
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Wednesday February 6, 2019 02:08 pm EST
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