Sunday Stories: “Swamp Country”


Swamp Country
by Travis Dahlke

Fenn leaves the permission slip for his field trip to the Mystic Aquarium inside my purse so I’ll remember to sign it. We eat dinner in front of NCIS. We’re almost positive the killer is a nervous day trader who goes by Grandma. When Fenn was young, he called his blanket Grandma and cried if it touched the floor. I look to him every time the suspect is mentioned, to see if my son remembers somewhere within his subconscious. He shovels spaghetti into his mouth without looking away from the screen. You used to have a blanket named Grandma, I tell him, and he says he knows that already.

After loading the dishwasher, I’m alone on the porch to drink and review my OkCupid notifications. The only messages I have are from other parents on Fenn’s Class of 2027 Facebook group. Half of the sky is still the afternoon, while the half that’s dusk is starting to flicker with bats. Every night our upstairs neighbor plays KD Lang’s “Constant Craving” for every single person in the neighborhood to hear. A mosquito lands on my phone’s glow. Another draws blood. I walk back inside on the pads of my feet because our deck is splintering apart little by little and attaching itself to us like deer ticks. Fenn’s permission slip has been moved next to the Keurig. A bold caption at the bottom warns of a tropical fish-born parasite. After two glasses of wine, I check the box marked CHAPERONE.

The Mystic Aquarium keeps a famous baby alligator named Sam. A kid from school convinced my son that Sam was rescued from a cocaine lord who decapitated people on video. I sit next to the teacher’s assistant on the bus, who complains about her student loans while all the kids scream about the alligator. A handsome dad extends his legs from wide-mouthed khaki shorts into the aisle. I can tell they’ve been Naired smooth. He scrolls through the assistant’s Instagram on his phone and doesn’t think anyone notices. 

The aquarium smells like decaying pool toys. We see jellyfish, mollies, sharks, seahorses. Seahorse, sea Hell! The kids chant. We learn there are four critical aquatic ecosystems. We don’t learn which is the most important because everyone wants to see Sam, who, according to a screen in the lobby, is fed one live trout every day. When we get to the tank, it’s empty.

“The octopus ate him,” Nair dad’s daughter says. “Now that coked up octopus is gonna kill us all forever.”

“That’s not quite correct,” the handler says into their headset mic. “Sam’s just in her second habitat. She’s there while we clean her tank.”

Fenn goes quiet. He follows the coral reef pattern on the carpet, lagging behind his class. He wipes his sleeve across his face. I ask the handler if Sam was really owned by a drug lord. He clicks a button on his headset. “Sam’s been dead for years,” he says. “We just cycle her out with new alligators.” I read the entire placard anyway. 

On the bus, I tell Fenn the truth about the alligator. I tell him the aquarium had to put Sam to sleep because she ate someone’s face clean off their skull. The second part is made up. Fenn takes a moment to process this information, looking out the window toward the office buildings he might work in someday. For dinner, the bus stops at a Friendly’s which according to a marquee out front, has exactly twenty days to live. Fenn orders off the adult menu. We take our quesadillas and steak fries and strawberry Fribbles to some picnic tables in the nearby office park. I let Fenn pick dried bird shit from the wood, watching the bus driver smoke a cigarette while he paces around the front of the bus, pausing to scrunch his brow in the chrome of the fender. 

“Aren’t you hungry?” I ask. 

“I don’t care anymore,” Fenn says. 

“About staying alive?” 

Nair dad and his daughter approach us from all sides. The dad asks if I’m saving the table. Fenn shows his teeth to them, letting molten ice cream ooze down onto the Lil Nas X shirt he had begged me to buy. In terror, the daughter recedes behind her father’s shorts.

“Fenn, that’s incredibly rude,” I say. 

“It’s ok,” the dad says. “It’s been a day. These guys are all wound up on rock candy.”

Fenn returns to his bird shit. The Nair dad and his daughter eat their patty melts with labored breath. He says he personally knows the contractor who will be turning this Friendly’s into a 24-hour clinic and that he wouldn’t stand beneath those cheap beams if you paid him a hundred dollars. I ask if he would for two hundred. He finishes the rest of his daughter’s fries, and our kids wander off toward a fountain sculpture made of black glass. In the center is a cube balancing seemingly on nothing. Juice from the Nair dad’s burger is isolating into beads. Their own individual land masses. 

 “I don’t see you post in the Facebook group much,” he says, glancing toward a growing commotion at the fountain. I let the entire Fribble run down my chin, waiting for him to turn his head and see me like that.  


Travis Dahlke is the author of “Milkshake” (Long Day Press) and “Mount Summer” (Out to Lunch Records). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Joyland, HAD, Juked, and The Longleaf Review, among other journals and collections.

Image: Shelly Collins/Unsplash

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