‘Floaters’, Joe Baumann

Illustration © 2018 Jason Baltazar

 [ Fontaine, © 2018 Jason Baltazar ] Fontaine finned his way through the water warm as reheated soup. He hated the temperature but vacationers loved it, tossing themselves off skiffs and lolling on inner tubes. The current Fontaine had learned how to manipulate ages ago dragged them to his dock so they bobbed right over in their dinghies or on their jet skis when they were inland enough that they had to cut their engines to abide no-wake zones. At first they would squint through their sunglasses, faces etched with caution. Dude-bros would flex their punchy muscles as they pointed at his sign and said, “That for real, man?” while their bikini-clad girlfriends giggled nervously.

He would bob his head, careless, as if he was listening to a slow rhumba: yes, the sign was for real, yes, the long island iced teas were only four bucks each or two for seven, thirty ounces a piece.

“And the cups,” he’d say, “are biodegradable. Just let ‘em sink right down when you’re done.” This, of course, wasn’t true; Fontaine swam out in the middle of the night with a headlamp suctioned to his forehead, catching the glint of the thick plastic mugs where they’d sunk to the lakebed. He cleaned them out in his cistern, fresh and ready for reuse, applying Dial soap; he may be a barkeep on the edge of a tepid, backwoods Missouri lake frequented by those who couldn’t afford the ritzier waters of Lake Saint Louis or even the Ozark or Table Rock, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t sanitary.

Girls—and some boys—ogled him. He ignored the former and offered the latter his own wistful, subtle flirtations. Fontaine hated to admit that depictions of his type as bulky and ripped, chiseled like Olympic swimmers, were accurate, but a part of him liked the attention as he bobbed in the water behind the cutout in the dock where he kept the booze. After all, when you have to hide half of yourself for most hours of the day, you take whatever other attentions you can. So he even pretended interest, sometimes, when girls flirted and their sweaty palms glanced off his forearms or biceps. The college boys with the nicest abs never did the same, sewn up in their fragile need to burst with straightness.

Fontaine rarely drank while he worked; he’d done so once, and the results had been disastrous. He’d knocked over his cash drawer and had to spend an hour gathering up coins and soggy bills (and even more time drying them out), not to mention the over-pours that increased his overhead (plus, he let a bottle of Popov slip off the dock uncorked, sending sixteen shots of vodka into the water; he hoped the fish enjoyed the buzz). One particularly beautiful waifish boy—in the face only; his body was stacked with striated muscle, his board shorts cinched teasingly low on his hips—had blinked at him and stayed behind when his friends moved off. He purchased two long islands and then immediately handed one back to Fontaine, holding his own out for a wordless toast. Fontaine had felt his mouth go dry, then clinked his cup to the boy’s, taking a deep swallow. The buzzy stack of rum and tequila hit him fast, and before he knew it he was pouring himself—and the boy—a second, then a third. Just before he sent the cash drawer flying the boy had gazed into Fontaine’s eyes, declaring them the most heavenly blue he’d ever seen. The boy promptly vomited into the lake.

People got it wrong that mermaids were banished to the water; the whole story of Ariel (that fictional bitch, giving everyone silly impressions about the stupidity of sea life) was absurd. Fontaine could walk on land; splitting his tail into legs wasn’t so much painful as it was impractical, a time-consuming transformation that he only undertook for trips to the bank and the liquor store. He hated pants, the concussive, suffocating feeling of fabric on his lower body, a crawling itch that reminded him of the raking annoyance of seaweed and floating plastic scrap. The small bungalow sitting on the lip of the hill past the dock was his, empty except for a queen-size bed in the master bedroom whose sliding glass doors peered out onto the water. During his nights diving for discarded cups Fontaine imagined himself, naked feet toeing through the grass, one hand clasping the fingers of a beach boy with a smooth body and skin ruddy from the sun, both of them coursing with anticipation. On his lonelier nights Fontaine let the fantasy linger, stretching into the moment when they slid into the room and kissed, the boy’s lips tangy with lake water and the sharp zip of Beefeater. And when he felt the deepest drags of desperation, when the pressure of the lake was heaviest on his shoulders at its cratered center and he hated the thought of returning to the small, hidden inlet where he normally slept, Fontaine let himself picture he and his lover falling to the sheets, clothes drifting away on the lake breeze when they left the doors yawned open so the fish smell cantered in off the water. He imagined their hands curling over one another.

Fontaine sighed. A cluster six college-aged kids, bronzed like Greek statues, was headed his way, bobbing on black inner tubes linked by bungee cords. They held Bud Light cans, and the nearest girl, a twig in a string bikini that matched the rubber donut she floated on, shrieked in salutation and raised her beer in his direction, the others following suit. Fontaine raised a palm and smiled.

“I told you douchebags it was a real place!” the lead girl said. “Tommy, you have the cash, right?”

The boy bringing up the rear nodded and adjusted his weight, moving with a ginger care so as not to tilt over into the water. Blond, the most slender of the three men in the group, he carried himself with an athletic grace. Track and field, Fontaine figured, the boy’s torso slim, legs thicker with muscle from years of sprints and squats. His toes—Fontaine always noticed the feet—were well-manicured, a drizzle of green veins across his tibialis tendons. The boy fished around in the pocket of his swimsuit, a forest green thing that matched the soggy flora lining the edge of the lake.

“Does it matter if it’s a bit wet?” he said, extracting a clump of wilting bills.

Fontaine shook his head.

“We’ll take six, then!” the girl in the lead said. She held out her free hand. “Show me the money!”

Fontaine watched as the cash was passed up from Tommy to another girl to another boy to the drunken leader, who waggled it toward Fontaine. He pulled the bills from her hand and set them on the bar, beneath an empty cup so they wouldn’t blow away, and started mixing.

“We hear these things’ll knock you on your ass, yeah?” the girl said. Fontaine let out a breathless chuckle and nodded while his fingers, nimble and autonomous, worked the bottles. He flicked his eyes toward Tommy, but only in brief; the boy was staring at him with a gnarling intensity while the others chugged the last of their beers and talked about the kick-ass weather. One of the boys snapped the back strap of a girl’s bikini, eliciting a shriek and a seductive slap toward his chest. Fontaine knew they would have sex that night, their raw skin and baked bodies providing extra, tenderized heat.

“Here you go,” Fontaine said, passing the first pair of drinks to the girl. He unfurled the cash after he’d handed off the rest of the teas. “Let me get you your change.”

“Keep it,” Tommy yelled from the back of the cluster. He tilted his sunglasses up, which Fontaine thought only happened in the movies. The boy was squinting, but Fontaine could see how sharply green his eyes were, glowing like a bottle of Cannabis Absinthe. In the murk of the water, Fontaine felt a tremble.

“Thanks,” Fontaine said, but his voice was swallowed by the lead girl barking orders for Tommy and the others in the back to start waggling themselves off, finding, unknowingly, the current that Fontaine had created in his nightly whirls through the water, the drifts that not only carried people to him but, by necessity, away. As he pushed the bills into his cash drawer he watched the cluster move off, their inner tubes carried lazily across the surface of the water. He thought the one named Tommy craned his neck and looked back, but Fontaine shook his head and gave his attention over to his newest customers, a pudgy pair sitting in a rickety rowboat, and he let the idea of him and Tommy float off as all of his daydreams inevitably did.

© 2018 Joe Baumann

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