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Joanne Bodin lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She taught elementary special education and gifted for over thirty years and is now retired. She received her Ph.D. in Curriculum Instruction and Multicultural Teacher Education from the University of New Mexico. Her doctoral thesis was a qualitative research study of an internet-based learning network, iEARN (International Education and Resource Network) www.iearn.org.
The concept for Walking Fish began as a qualitative research study on certain aspects of the Sixties Generation; a time of societal and political unrest, with student protest movements, anti -government and anti-Vietnam sentiment, flag burning, bra burning, LSD, marijuana, free speech, free love, communes, hippies....etc.
Over the last four decades, those who managed to assimilate into mainstream society after experiencing the Sixties, still have poignant memories of a time in history where hope sprang eternal, and the possibility of a new world social order was at hand.
Eventually, Walking Fish evolved into a work of fiction which came to represent some of the experiences of individuals who, like the walking fish, needed to find ways to adapt in order to survive.
Joanne is currently on the board of Southwest Writers in Albuquerque , NM www.southwestwriters.com and is past Vice President of the New Mexico Orchid Guild. www.nmog.org She is also past vice president of the New Mexico State Poetry Society. www.nmpoetry.org
Corrales, New Mexico 2004
Wooden shutters banged against the thick adobe wall outside Talia’s bedroom window. Wrenched out of sleep, she opened one eye to a ray of muted sunlight that had made its way along the top of the teak dresser, then over a quartz crystal that sat beside a framed photograph of her daughter, Sophie, at age five. Talia rolled out of bed, picked up a book of matches and lit one, then held the match over a lavender scented candle that sat on the dresser in front of the crystal. The candle flickered for a few seconds, then steadied into a pear-shaped flame illuminating Sophie’s picture. Talia had done the exact ritual each December fifteenth for the last twenty years. It was her way of commemorating the day she left Los Angeles to start a new life. The last time she saw her daughter.
Blizzard weather blanketed the entire state of New Mexico. Most schools and businesses were shut down. Old timers hadn’t seen weather like this since the early seventies when it dropped to single digits and water pipes burst, electricity went out, and people died from hypothermia. But freezing temperatures and the stark absence of color only added to Talia’s somber mood like a veil of purity, a purge, a new beginning was at hand. At least that’s what she told herself. Outside, ghostly shadows of bare trees forced their way through early morning light creating a muted canvas of white on white. Icicles hung from snow-covered branches in rows of ascending and descending alignment like displays of South American pan pipes.
Over the years, the lighting of the candle became a source of strange comfort, like the comfort Talia found in the yearly lighting of a Yahrzeit candle for her mother after she passed away. But the ritual for her daughter had become empty, devoid of meaning, pointless. She had learned to accept the fact that Sophie wasn’t in her life. A pile of unopened letters sat in a shiny black lacquered wooden box next to Sophie’s picture, each envelope stamped with the words “return to sender.” Talia’s anger at Dan for returning the letters had turned to numbness. He had won the custody hearing convincing the judge she was an unfit mother. The black box looked like an ornamental piece that belonged on the dresser next to the painted porcelain vase, but to Talia it was a constant reminder of why it wasn’t her fault. That she needn’t feel guilty for leaving. That it was Dan who forced her into an impossible situation, then severed all contact.
The few pictures she brought with her when she left Los Angeles she meticulously placed in a pink satin covered scrapbook chronicling Sophie’s life up to age five. The last picture in the album was of Sophie with a fat white cat in front of a trailer in Desert Hot Springs. While it was Talia’s favorite picture, it was also the one that reminded her of why she lost custody of her child. Talia kept the album in the top dresser drawer under sweaters and scarves and next to a few journals and sketch pads that she took with her when she left California.
The down comforter was beginning to work its magic and Talia was about to drift back to sleep when she heard a commotion coming from the kitchen at the other end of the house. She heard glass shattering, then Renie’s voice screaming, “Shit, Charlie. Bad dog. Look what you made me do.” Talia turned over on her side. Somehow, the little disturbances from the kitchen seemed to grow louder each year. Talia knew her yearly ritual was hard on Renie. It meant Renie had to sleep in the guest bedroom the night before the ritual so Talia could have her privacy the next morning. But this had been going on for twenty years, as long as they had been together as a couple. Talia wondered if Renie dropped the glass on purpose as a subtle way of saying she’d had enough.
The noise from the kitchen subsided and Talia pulled the comforter over her head. She knew not to dwell too long on memories of Sophie or her defenses would start to wear down. But this year was different. She couldn’t control the feeling of spiraling down into the same black hole she found herself in after the custody hearing. Her head filled with disjointed images that flashed and swirled in a kaleidoscope of color. There was a woman standing alone on a balcony, long black ringlets of hair spilling down toward the ground. Like the childhood fairytale, the woman was imprisoned in a tower waiting for her freedom. Images of Sophie burst through Talia’s membrane thin barrier of resistance like the flood waters of a dam. Sophie as a baby, black saucer eyes, black ringlets surrounding her chubby face. The sweet smell of her tiny body. Sophie’s first birthday party at Pizza Pete’s. Her first tricycle. Sophie splashing in the plastic wading pool set up in the back of their tiny Cedar Street apartment.
The Cedar Street apartment, nestled smack in the middle of a Jewish orthodox neighborhood in West Los Angeles, had been one of the few rent controlled apartments left after Talia’s divorce. With no child support and a part time job teaching art at a private school, she barely made ends meet. Nights were fraught with dreams that kept her tossing and turning until she’d wake up with her blankets in a heap on the floor. The train dream was one of the worst. In the dream she was riding in a train across the desert when she saw another train going the opposite direction on parallel tracks. It was so close she felt the whoosh of wind and smelled the diesel. She got a glimpse inside the boxcars of the other train and her heart started to pound. She broke out in a sweat when she realized she was on the wrong train, immobilized, a transient in her own life. But how could she change trains while they were speeding past each other?
She’d wake to find Sophie in her bed cupped next to her, breath merged into one. Sophie’s long black ringlets cushioned in disarray on the pillow with Sissy, the silvery Siamese cat curled up somewhere between Sophie and the edge of the bed. The warmth of early morning filled their tiny apartment and Talia wished the morning could last all day. “Toasty warm,” she’d say to Sophie. “It feels so toasty warm.” But the teaching job hardly paid the bills and Talia had to watch every penny. She and Sophie would eat peanut butter sandwiches and drink powdered milk for days at a time.
Weeks turned into months of erratic sleep fraught with images from Talia’s sophomore year at Berkeley. Even the sleeping pills prescribed by the doctor couldn’t stop the dreams from coming. Now the dream was about a student protest rally that Talia had attended during the Free Speech Movement. In the dream, Talia was almost to Sather Gate when she heard a deafening sound. She saw yellow school buses traveling along Telegraph Avenue. Thousands of students were protesting the war in Vietnam in front of Sproul Hall. Small fires burned in metal trash cans. Students burned the American flag and chanted anti-war slogans while Joan Baez sang “We Shall Overcome.” National Guards filed out of the yellow buses. They held shields, wore motorcycle-like helmets and forced their way into the crowd. Students screamed, “Hell no, we won’t go!” Tear gas canisters were thrown into the crowd and Talia ran toward the student union where she was safe. Then she saw students being beaten and dragged into the yellow buses. One of the students screamed out to Talia. “Help me!” It was Stella, her roommate from the dorm. Talia tried to answer back, but she was paralyzed with fear. She woke up from the dream in a sweat with her blankets on the floor.
Shrouded by the gray mist of smog that filled the Los Angeles basin, she began to feel apathetic, detached. Even the Lotus Blossom, a bookstore for new age mystics and hippies had lost its appeal. Usually she’d browse through the assortment of New Age books and magazines, but one day she couldn’t resist a quartz crystal that was on sale. She also bought Tibetan meditation bells and a book by Carlos Castaneda on lucid dreaming.
Ever since she was a child her dream life had seemed as real as the every day world, to the point where she was called into the principal’s office in fourth grade. “Talia, we’re worried about you. Why don’t you want to play softball or hopscotch with the other kids?” She had no answer. Her mother was called to the school. The teachers were worried that Talia was becoming too isolated, too withdrawn. The principal gave her an assignment during recess to help out with the kindergarten kids on the playground. Eventually, she pulled out of her introvert stage and stopped sitting alone staring up at the clouds during recess.
The dreams stopped until she was a teenager but came back in a flood of vivid images when she turned “sweet sixteen.” She had hosted a birthday pajama party for a few girl friends with a pancake breakfast in the morning and swim party in her back yard in the afternoon with boys from her high school class. Girls in bikinis and boys with raging hormones. Talia reached down to pick up a fork that had dropped under the wooden picnic table when something made her stomach turn. One of the high school boys sat on the bench next to the table with one leg propped up. When Talia reached for the fork her eyes caught a glimpse of his fully erect penis, hairy balls and all. He’d obviously neglected to wear his jock strap under his bathing suit. She’d never seen anything like that before. That night her dreams started up again in full force.
Nothing could take away the stinging emptiness when Sophie stayed with her father every other weekend. “Please let me see daddy today,” Sophie would say holding up a picture she had drawn with crayons. “It’s for my new baby sister.” Dan and his new wife, Debbie, had a new baby. Talia knew something was going on a year or so after Sophie was born when Dan stayed late at the office and had far too many weekend conferences out of town. How could he cheat on her with his twenty-one year old secretary? But Debbie turned out to be Talia’s excuse to get out of her failing marriage.
Talia had met Dan at one of the student protest rallies at Berkeley. Dan’s thick black curly hair and unkempt grizzly black beard held a certain charm for her when she first saw him. And he apparently felt the same way. She captivated his interest, as he later told her, with her “hippie attire.” The black leather boots, black mini-skirt, black turtle neck, and long strands of beads made of seedpods. But it was her shiny thick auburn hair cascading down her back that enthralled him the most. He asked her to join him for a cup of coffee after the demonstration and it didn’t take long for them to start dating. He seemed head over heels for Talia. The wedding was held in Sausalito where Dan’s parents lived, and in a few months Talia was pregnant. But she miscarried. They tried again, and again. Almost thirteen years passed and still no baby. They had given up and were ready to adopt when Sophie was born, and that’s when things started to change. By then Dan had grown distant from Talia. Instead of Sophie bringing them together things got much worse.
After Sophie’s birth she had no energy, no interest in anything, especially Dan. The doctor blamed it on hormones and said she’d feel better in a few weeks, but she didn’t. Dan would leave for work in the morning, and Talia would play a tape of Puccini’s La Boheme over and over on their eight track tape player while she rocked Sophie to sleep. Puccini’s passionate music pulled her into a dream world where she fantasized Italian villas, the canals of Venice, and making love with a sensuous Italian lover –maybe a version of Puccini. She pictured him Adonis-like, with flowing blond hair and piercing brown eyes. It certainly wasn’t her husband. She scribbled love poems to her make-believe lover in her journal. Your succulent kisses dribble from magnolia blossoms while you caress my body. I merge with the clouds….
Dan found the journal, read the poems, and thought Talia was secretly involved with another man. That’s when she confronted him about his affair and his comment was simply, “Well, you won’t sleep with me anymore so I had to do something.” And the truth was that Talia didn’t care. The poetry in her journal changed. You caress her hair, you kiss her tits. You meander home at three AM to the cry of a baby, the stench of a diaper pail. We’re sinking, sinking. They both agreed to a divorce.