Third Place winner CL's Fiction Contest 2019
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.”
“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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
“Are you always trying to impress people? Like that guy, Armando, he’s an idiot. Do you try to impress him?”
“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.