THE OPPOSITE OF DROWNING by Reneé Bibby
IT STARTS LIKE ANY TUESDAY: Dr. Emmanuel Lapado arrives at 6:30 in the morning, punches the illuminated numbers of the alarm code to disarm the building, and hustles through the foyer in semi-darkness. He does not get coffee nor reset any chairs left askew by the cleaning crew. He doesn’t put his lunch in the break room fridge nor adjust the arctic cold of the overnight air conditioning. Puffing for breath, he works himself up to a trot wending through the labyrinthine interior of the building.
The bright, blue glow of the tanks guide him to the threshold of his own lab and past the rim of the door; he inhales. Jeff isn’t in sight, but Lapado says, as he does every day, “Hello, friend.”
Lapado is relieved Jeff isn’t pressed against the glass because Lapado is sneaking in a new test item. At the Dollar Store yesterday evening (the only option open late, even though all he needed were some Bic razors and shaving cream and some crackers for dinner), he’d perused the aisles and discovered a plastic blue pyramid in a bottom bin of other mismatched items. An odd shape for a kid’s toy, perhaps, but a distinct shape and the same size as the other items he was using to test symbological association in the octopus vulgaris. That morning, he wrapped a new test item in a small paper bag (the same brown sack he uses for his lunch), for he wants to be sure that it’s properly recorded and tested in water before Jeff sees it.
So it is that Lapado spends the first few minutes of his morning with his back to the tank. He imagines Jeff behind him. With his cartoon eyes, bulbous sloped head, and penchant for twirling his many tentacles like a gleeful child, Jeff cannot speak, but is considered by everybody who meets him to be expressive, almost communicative. Mercurial and playful, Jeff might greet the day any number of ways. Some nights he works hard on a puzzle, a jar, or some simple interlocking loops, and in the morning he will hold up his solutions as if to say “TA-DA!” He sometimes hides in the tank and won’t come out until they place a new toy or test in the water; sometimes he is already at the surface, ready to squirt tank water at them as soon as the team comes in the lab. Sometimes he is twirling about in slow, drifting circles around the bottom of his tank.
That Tuesday, as he photographs the new test item, logs it, and locks it in the material locker, Lapado imagines Jeff flushed maroon, a day of pouting, slinking in shadows and hiding behind his fake coral until Lapado relents with a new puzzle or rubber ducky, the cheap Dollar Store find that Jeff likes the most. Lapado clucks under his breath at Jeff about it, calling him a “silly goose” and a “diva,” but he already has rubber ducky out. It’s not part of the test series and, as lead researcher, Lapado is the one who decided it was okay for Jeff to have a toy and so he is the only one allowed to offer the toy. It’s their thing.
Lapado spins on his heels, rubber ducky ready. The tank is murky, not as if Jeff had twirled up rocks and silt from his tank, but rather as if Jeff had inked himself and the systems of the tank hadn’t flushed it, yet. It’s the first inkling Lapado has of something wrong. He approaches the tank, stands on his toes to see through the murk, and finds a pallid Jeff, bloated and floating at the top of the tank.
Jeff is dead.
Lapado does not accept this. He slaps his palms furiously on the glass and yells, “Jeff! Jeff!” He hops and hops trying to see the octopus over the rim of the water. He catches a glimpse of bruised swollen suckers and the bulge of head, but his agitation of the tank actually pushes Jeff farther away. He considers how he might do CPR on an animal with a beak and no bones. His breathing comes in short bursts, and his thoughts unravel in despair.
Gretchen the lab tech arrives. She slides right up to Lapado and peers into the tank. She taps on the glass with long fingernails and says, “Jesus, is Jeff dead?” Gretchen, like always, speaks cheerily and simplistically at Lapado in a way that could be considered patronizing, if Lapado had ever considered Gretchen at all. For once, her habitually upbeat speaking buoys Lapado. In a brief burst of hope he admits that he doesn’t know for sure, he can’t tell if Jeff is dead, perhaps he is just sick.
A few inches taller than Lapado, Gretchen can see over the rim of the tank much better. She settles back on her heels. They look at each other with widened eyes. Lapado wants her to diagnose a well-known illness, a coma state from which Jeff will recover because of their meticulous care—she is the marine biologist, she would know these things—but she stutters nonsensical words and presses her fingers on the bones under her eyes. Randall, the second lab aquarist, is practically still in the doorway when he drops his backpack and says, “Holy shit, Jeff is dead.”
Gretchen clucks her tongue and folds her arms. Randall asks her if she forgot to feed Jeff. She gasps and steps toward him in a particularly aggressive way, as another man might. Randall swells like a gorilla, and he insists it was her job to feed Jeff. Of course she’d fed Jeff, she always takes care of Jeff, besides which it’s obvious he didn’t starve to death. She gestures with sharp jabs of her hand up at the form of Jeff. Randall curls his lips back in a grimace and even puts up a finger to point at her, but he does glance at Jeff in the tank. He stops talking. Gretchen is right: Jeff’s color suggests he wasn’t well. Should he be the mushroomy color of things left too long in the fridge?
As if the debate about fault is still open, Lapado chimes in: “I fed him yesterday. I always give him a prawn or two before I leave for the day.” He is beginning to sound a bit shrill.
The two lab techs ignore Lapado, stand right against the tank and look at Jeff. They are joined by the third lab tech, Mikael, whose limited English means he contributes little by way of words. Instead, he puts his two hands together to move his fingers much like an octopus, until Gretchen and Randall clap for him.
Lapado is blocked from seeing the tank by the bright white, lab-coated backs of his own technicians. That white blockade is a wall of reprieve from the sight of Jeff. He wonders if perhaps he is dreaming. If he will awake and find it is the start of Tuesday with his morning ablutions still ahead of him. He even puts some of the toys back in the paper bag, as if he can undo the day.
Yet, when he glances over their shoulders, he can see the daub at the top of the tank that is Jeff, and an urgency suffocates him. An urgency that is the opposite of watching someone drown: he wants to push Jeff deep under water and move him away from the suffocating air. While it’s true that an octopus can be out of the water for a bit, the longer Jeff is exposed the risk will be greater that whatever life, however minuscule or microscopic, will waft away like an ember. He’s never been in the tank before, just watched Gretchen go in wearing her waders to clean it, but he decides that this has been a horrible oversight, that he should have gone in and, indeed, he should go in today. He should try and coax life back into Jeff. And for that he will need a stepladder. He goes to the armory of the lab to look for the stepladder. It’s not there.
The technicians have exhausted speculation. “I better go in there and get him out,” Gretchen announces and follows right behind Lapado to look in the usual spot for the ladder. When she discovers it’s missing she says, “What the hell? Who moved my stepladder?”
Randall yells, “I’m on it!” and leaves the room just as other scientists in the building, drawn to the hubbub, begin to crowd in. They are seeking a break to their endless weeks and certainly many of them are hoping to see a spectacular meltdown of someone’s research. They push into the lab, and so it is that Lapado is swept backwards by the wave of excited scientists.
Gretchen hosts the crowding guests, gesturing up at Jeff and narrating the morning’s events, as techs and researchers elbow each other out of the way to look. Mikael seizes the moment—he’s moved on from hand octopus into a more full-bodied interpretation of Jeff. He reveals a street dancer’s skill at muscle isolations that give his arms and body wavy movement, and he mimes wide-eyed delight and smiles in a way that does seem to capture Jeff’s joie de vivre. He starts out rather active and then winds down slowly, crinkling his brow and eyes as if in pain, until he droops in death. Watching the dance, several of the scientists agree that yes, perhaps Jeff wasn’t really well if that was the way he was acting.
Randall returns with a stepladder. As a tiny man, Lapado has no weight to hold his ground, and he is pushed easily back from the tank. He is vaguely known by all of these researchers and technicians, having spent years being the one who disarms the alarm in the morning and scurries out at the same time as they at the end of the day, but he has spoken to none of them. He doesn’t know their names—he’s never had need for names—and now when he wishes to rally their attention, he is summarily ignored. He resorts to using elbows in ribs to try and get the ladder from Randall. His jabbing and curt “excuse me” create little tunnels that allow him to negotiate towards his lab technician.
He makes his way to Randall and reaches up, to his fullest height, to leverage the ladder away from the hulking technician, but oblivious to Lapado, Randall holds the ladder up like it’s the Heisman trophy.
“Randall,” Lapado pleads, but he is cut short by the prodigious bulk of the Director pushing into the lab, jostling Lapado away from the door and the ladder. The Director steers Lapado further into the room on the prow of his gut, firing questions about how they’ll report this to the grant, and does Lapado have any other octopuses up to speed? The questions come too quickly for answers; indeed, the Director is already turning in circles to survey the scene.
Gretchen is suited up in waders to go into the tank, yet it is a doctoral student from the dolphin lab who ascends the ladder, having been nominated for the task by the other technicians for his known willingness to do dirty work. Gretchen, seething, is relegated to watching the dolphin technician fish for Jeff with the wide net, not unlike a giant colander. The dolphin tech is getting splashed with tank water, but he persists. He extends the net as far as he can and snags Jeff.
Jeff looks like pulped paper out of the water, and seeing Jeff airborne and collapsed stuns Lapado. Sometimes, Jeff would seem to disappear from his tank, not just hide in his caves where he could still be seen, but disappear, usually while they had their backs turned working with the other octopi. In the furor of trying to figure out where he had gone he would somehow reappear. For months, he kept up this mystery until Mikael happened to be standing at just the right angle to see Jeff emerge from the filtering tube of the tank, having somehow squeezed himself into the quarter-inch diameter space. This trickery delighted them every time. Lapado turns toward the wall when they lay him on the cold metal table. His ears ring with a tiny dismay.
The assembled scientists turn Jeff over a few times. Well, they speculate, it must have been autophagy. But, here, sheer chance has opened a space between the other researchers, and Lapado manages to get to the table. Holding onto the metal lip of it, he feels as if they are all speaking at once to him, like a Greek chorus, and now that he’s close he can disagree, “No, it’s not autophagy. No, he's all here. None of his limbs rotted off. I would have noticed. He's all here.”
It’s true, the other scientists agree, all his limbs are intact, and the corkscrewing of tentacles is probably just a part of the decomposition process.
“He was young,” Lapado says. “This shouldn’t have happened.”
And they pay no attention to his tremulous voice, agreeing it would have been asymptomatic senesce, so perhaps it’s the tank: lack of dissolved oxygen, low pH, pollutants, mechanical failure of pumps, perhaps?
“No, no,” Lapado keeps saying.
Randall, in the thick of it, pulls Gretchen into the melee to answer the questions. Gretchen has always been militant about the tank’s pH, temperature, pump work—unflappable, she quotes the numbers off the top of her head forcefully and quickly, and her fellow researchers then seem fully reassured that an error of upkeep was unlikely.
But now they have exhausted their nominal understanding of octopuses and the problem, then, persists that Jeff is dead and they don’t know why.
Lapado is not reassured. Not by any of the proceedings. He cannot imagine how it matters what killed Jeff, what cruel whimsy of fate has pulverized everything. Lapado feels as if his entire body swells—his throat constricts and his eyes sting.
The Director is standing in the middle of the discussion, assuming space with his bulk resting on the table, in fresh, taut contrast to the crumpled Jeff. He opens his mouth, ready to start scattering researchers back to their respective projects, but at just that moment Dr. Shepard, who works with nematodes in a lab down by the janitor’s closet, loudly volunteers how he happens to know Dr. Louisa Cheever, an eminent marine veterinarian specializing in rare diseases, who might be willing to do some analysis of the specimen.
They all know about Dr. Cheever, of course. This creates a fresh wave of conversation. They’ve all been wanting to work with her, in some way or another. Wouldn’t this be such a nice way to introduce her to their lab? A nice outré, as it were, if they were to give her the honor of examining a new, perhaps rare, disease in the octopus vulgaris? Doesn’t it make sense to send this specimen off for further analysis? How should they do this? What’s the best way to ship an octopus? Someone should Google this topic.
Lapado does not sense this shift in the proceedings. He puts a single forefinger on Jeff’s tentacle. It’s cool and rubbery. Someone, who knows why, has the temerity to grip Lapado’s upper arm. The firmness of the touch provides an unusual comfort to Lapado. As he turns to commiserate he is squeezed away from the table again. He feels like a rotting plum crushed between the round-shouldered rub of lab coats and he cannot get free.
Gretchen solves the logistical challenge: “Just use one of the ice coolers they use to ship the pipettes and get some dry ice from the pathology lab.”
This is the solution they needed. They are roused. They almost cheer. Randall takes charge, heads out to gather equipment, while someone else uses the office phone to alert pathology and the mailroom about their requirements.The dolphin tech who fished out Jeff is nominated to handle the packing. He rolls up his sleeves and puts on yellow rubber gloves that the others have ferreted out from one of the drawers in the room.
The Director yells about the costs of shipping to New England and what will this woman charge them for an octopus autopsy? Dr. Shepard, right at his elbow, intimates that this is a close friend who will not charge them and may, indeed, turn out to be profitable for them if she finds something worth researching. Dr. Shepard takes out his phone, waving it around, suggesting that he will call right now, if need be, to let her know the specimen is on the way.
Randall returns and, ever the sportsman, holds the cooler and dry ice over his head. White curls of smoke undulate down his arm. Lapado stands almost en pointe in his orthotic shoes and looks around the hirsute neck of an unusually burly lab tech to see the cooler go down, squeak open, and several of the scientists jostle in to arrange the packing of dry ice.
“No!” Lapado yells. Jeff is not living, but Lapado thinks of the arctic cold of the dry ice. The terror of the swirling obscurity of the white cooler. The dolphin tech picks up Jeff as if he were nothing, a wet mop. “I don’t want him—” but the lid is shoved in place with a squeak.
The ratcheting of packing tape is audible over the convivial chatter of scientists pleased to have solved a problem.
Now that everything is nicely taped up, The Director rounds on Lapado, insisting on a report about the status of his research by tomorrow afternoon.
Lapado cannot fathom he will continue with any of his research.
The joviality of the lab has begun to dissipate. Rallying waning attention, Randall lifts the ice chest: “To the mailroom.”
The scientists clap and follow him out of the lab.
The quiet ticks back into place, just sediment of quiet drifting down in the water. The other octopuses come out of their hiding spots with balletic flair. They stare out of their tanks at Dr. Emmanuel Lapado.
On the long silver table, a dark, wet imprint of Jeff slowly evaporates.
Lapado picks up Jeff’s rubber ducky from the floor. He regards Jeff’s tank.
It’s an octopus wonderland, with castles, pebbles, dirt, algae, snails and colorful coral. He strains on tiptoe to put the ducky up on the surface, where it can bob with its cheery yellow, its crooked painted-on red smile. Without thinking, he feels the surge of hope he feels every Tuesday, every day, that the ducky, Jeff’s favorite, will entice Jeff to come out, rushing fast to the surface.
RENEÉ BIBBY is the director of The Writers Studio Tucson, where she teaches advanced and beginner creative writing workshops. Her work has appeared in PRISM International, Thin Air, Third Point Press, The Worcester Review, and Wildness. Her stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes and Best Small Fictions. She is a contributing editor at The Wilds and Assistant Fiction Editor at Atticus Review. www.reneebibby.com