In the room, Bo’s curled up and snoring. I try to imagine his former self: a rodeo star, all those girls crawling through windows to try to get to him like he told me.
He’d been my first, and we dated off and on in high school—we were touch and go during his rodeo career and my life in the Air Force and then college. After a fifteen-year hiatus, he called me again. He was recently divorced. He called a week after my dad died.
Now, I’m just back from the bar, where I told the bartender I was frustrated with Bo’s lack of understanding, how he said death was such a heavy topic—it’s been a year since we reunited, though we live in separate parts of the country. We’re in Key West, where we met up for a vacation. I got here first, though I had second thoughts about coming, mostly because of the death of my grandpa—and it was this or the funeral in Wisconsin. Bo’s flight was delayed, so I occupied myself by checking into the hotel, walking down the main drag, and taking in some sunshine.
Once Bo arrived, he was happy just to get here. We went out for tacos.
I said, “I miss my grandpa. He served in the army. Do you know he was missing two of his middle fingers? He kept them in a jar in the machine shed for over fifty years. In Formica!”
“Formalin,” he said.
“Formalin,” I said.
As we walked back to the hotel, or rather, bed and breakfast, I said, “My grandpa used to fish. He signed me up to be a member of the American Legion. He was proud of me and my service. Do you know he was over ninety?”
Bo dropped my hand and said, “I don’t want to talk about death.”
I said, “But we’re talking about life here.”
In the morning, After Bo wakes, he asks me how my night was.
“I went to a bar. I ordered a martini.” I don’t tell him about wanting to kiss a man who wasn’t him. Wanted someone just to touch me, someone who wasn’t here to judge me.
Bo says he wants to sleep more, so I take a walk through the streets with names like Olivia and Truman. I come up on the Hemingway House. A high fence of red brick surrounds the property, so I really can’t see much except for the tops of the trees. The palm. The house is yellow.
Chickens roam the streets. The homes seem so close to the road, so close to the ground, so close to me here. The sidewalks are cracked and the roads are narrow. I’m wearing shorts and a tank top. The sun shines. I go off further, to the smaller roads, where I see an occasional moped. The lawn with its dirt patches.
It reminds me of Biloxi, those days when my husband would come home with a temper while I was holding our baby.
Bo chartered us a boat, which ended up being smaller than I expected. The captain is tall and lean. Tan skin, benign, with a cap.
Bo planned this a long time ago. He seems not really into this. Mad at me, kind of. Moping around and grumbling. It sucks that I had to wake him up in the morning, to remind him.
Bo and I sit in front while the captain takes us away from the land, where I feel kind of free, in a way, or maybe just different, looking at the sky, bluer than the ones I’m used to. The water is equally blue. With maybe a few green parts. I feel the wind on my face, as the captain takes us faster.
On this boat, this water, looking up and on, I’m thinking of my grandpa. Wondering if he’s tranquil, or just nothing, each molecule of his rising up. I picture his last breath, like that of my father: his body turning colder and closer to death with the slowing of each chest rise.
Bo says I’m too melancholy at times, but hey, my grandpa just died, and this weekend is his funeral.
I’m surprised how quiet the waters seem, how few boaters are out here. I can’t see an ounce of land anywhere. The captain says, “We have bait to get. I know right where to catch them.”
Everything seems blue: under, up, beyond. Crisp. In Wisconsin, the forecast predicts hail. I picture the wake. I picture other family funerals—my dad, my aunts, my grandma: me the one to cry, while others seemed so still-faced. I picture days with my grandpa: him showing me how to reel. I picture his two stubs, where he’d lost his fingers in a farm accident. His talks with me about war. He was in WWII, and I was in the Gulf War, collecting blood to send over.
I hold onto my seat and look ahead, into the blue of the water and I imagine the land, my grandpa’s farm, then the one where I grew up, where I tilled and hoed, putting my hands in.
When the captain stops the boat again, he lifts his poles. He gives one to Bo and one to me.
The captain puts some shrimp on my hook, teaches me how to reel it, says I don’t have to try hard. I keep getting it wrong, confusing the hook and reel, release. I can’t coordinate the terminology, the pole, the string.
I forgot all those things my grandpa told me.
The captain says not to worry, that I can just drop my line if I want, and when I feel a tug, to hook, then start reeling. It seems so simple.
Bo is already going to town on his end.
From my line, I start to feel a tug, and as I reel, I see something at the end of my line, flopping. The captain grabs the fish, with its lemon-colored stripes and unhooks it. He throws it back into the water. He says, “That’s not decent shark bait.”
“What?” I say.
“It needs to have a fork tail. Those bleed. Those are best, if we’re looking for a shark bait.”
Bo seems intent on his business.
Things keep eating my shrimps and getting away from me.
After a while, I start getting the hang of how to cast and reel. I catch what the captain says is a blue runner. I bring in a lot of the lemons, which he throws back into the water. I kind of feel bad for them, but I guess this is a sport.
Bo finally captures something the captain says is a Jack, big as the size of my forearm.
“Lookee here!” says the captain.
Bo puts on more sunscreen. He says, “How’s it going, Sunshine?”
“I’m fine,” I say. “I think I’m getting sunburned.” He rubs some lotion on my hamstring.
He and I put more shrimp on our hooks and throw our lines back in. I pull the pole and hook, wondering what my grandpa looks like in the casket.
I see no other people. No other boats. The water seems forever, calm, something the sun seems perfectly happy to shine on.
As the captain takes the boat further, I feel the wind on my face, the sun, the water like carpet, a gift of sorts and it depresses me to think of shifting gears again to having to eventually get back to the land. I look at Bo and I say, “Thank you.”
He planned the trip and booked it.
I keep thinking of my grandpa. Where his bones are. The cancer that had spread to them. How it had humped his back, carving itself right into the guts of him. His sense of humor, how he once told me he’d been foxy. I laughed when he told me that, not because I didn’t believe him, but who wants to hear that from a grandpa?
I said goodbye to him a few years before he died. I kept thinking he was going to die, then he didn’t. It was strange after saying goodbye so many times to think of him still alive. He stopped remembering me. I can’t stop thinking that he’s dead now.
I take in the blue expanse. Up, around, above. Wondering if this is like forever. I picture a soul rising. I picture my soul above, down below, wherever.
The captain stops the boat in a shallow part and drops an anchor. He cuts open the bait we caught and drops them in the water, saying the blood will bring the sharks in. He adds more bait to the end of a long line connected to a sturdy pool and stations it in a place that looks like business. Then he gets a belt out, something to fit around the waist, with a solid plastic shield in front and a ledge on it to anchor the pole, which I suppose could test one’s core strength.
We wait for the sharks.
As we see one, then two, three, flirt with us, starting to get close, he says, “Who’s going first?”
After one—a bull—takes the bait and catches the line, I steady my core, keep the line up so it won’t get tangled in the boat’s motor. I steel myself. Ground my feet. I have strong legs, grateful for my marathon running days and my childhood as a farm girl. I lower the line, then pull it up and reel, moving myself to the back of the boat, still attached to this shark, and I lift myself onto the platform.
It takes a lot of time and negotiating, movement. I keep myself strong.
The captain says this catch is no slouch. At least a hundred pounds.
As I work, I finally see the shark up close: his shape, his fins, the jaw. I feel a gale. I see teeth, the hook, the bait like an apple. I kneel, putting my hand in.
Interview with Kim Chinquee
Shuddhashar: When did you know you wanted to be a writer/translator? How did you come to this realization?
Kim Chinquee: After separating from the Air Force, and going to college, I took a creative writing class because it seemed interesting. I fell in love with it right away and knew it was my passion.
Shuddhashar: What impact do you think contemporary political reality has or should have on short fiction?
Kim Chinquee: There should definitely be an awareness, whether the politics makes its way on the page, or not. I believe it’s the writer’s responsibility to be aware of the contemporary political reality, as should any artist. It’s kind of like voting, yet to a much bigger degree.
Shuddhashar: If you were to recommend one writer or collection of short stories to a reader, who/which one would it be? Why? OR Tell us about a single short story that moved you to tears!
Kim Chinquee: I love Lydia Davis’s Break it Down. It’s such a great study of language, and provides such a unique lens. I’m also a. big fan of Lydia Copeland Gwyn–her work is so poetic and moving, and brings me to tears. Her last book You’ll Never Find Another is one of my favorites.
Shuddhashar: What, to you, are the key elements of a great short story?
Kim Chinquee: Surprising language, interesting characters–and in some cases the language can be the character. And those that resonate. There are a ton of great stories out there, but the unique and surprising ones are unforgettable.
Shuddhashar: What is one thing that the art and practice of writing/translation has taught you?
Kim Chinquee: To keep practicing and writing every day even if I don’t feel inspired. Sometimes the stories can take shape and form in unexpected ways.
Shuddhashar: What are you working on right now? Tell us a little bit about your current project!
Kim Chinquee: My debut novel Pipette was launched on October 31, 2022. So I’ve been doing some readings. I’ve just revised one novel I Thought of England and am revising another novel, Pirouette. Am also writing one new flash fiction every day. And working on a book on teaching online.