You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
But Iggy ambushes me before I can even set foot on deck. “Glad you could make it, Beretta.”
I almost slip off the gangway into the inky blackness below. It’s a long way down. I grip the cable railing, hunched and wary.
Now a cigar stub glows in the shadows. He steps into the floodlights, his lizard face all scowl. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”
I straighten my jacket and step down to the deck. He throws a skinny arm over my shoulder and leads me along the starboard gunwale toward the lounge.
“You missed sound check,” he says, scanning my face in the jaundiced light. “You look like hell, Rick.”
I want to tell him that I’m not feeling myself tonight, but he’d just give me his lecher’s grin and say, “Then who are you feeling, heh heh?” Only it’s the truth. I haven’t been right since Finny took off. Maybe the isolation’s getting to me. It’s not easy being the last man standing.
I take a deep breath and say, “I feel okay.”
Iggy guides me through the back entrance and into the dressing room. He sucks at his wet cigar, bug eyes squinting against the smoke. An inch of ash dangles from the tip, and I wonder when it will fall onto the matted puke-green carpet. The whole ship might go up in flames. The L’Héritage hasn’t sailed on nightly dinner cruises since before the Cataclysm, anyway, propeller dissolved by toxic chemicals, hull caked with morph-barnacles. Iggy flicks the switch, and the fluorescents blink to life.
“Have you seen yourself?” says Iggy, smoking. “You’re green around the gills.” He flings open his locker and digs around for a moment, emerging with a pair of hangers shrouded in plastic. “This oughta make you feel better.”
The light pulses. Iggy gives me his scaly grin. Murmurs and clinking waft in from the lounge.
I clutch the hangers and pull the bag up. “Oh, come on, Iggy.”
“She’s a beauty, right?”
“Special for tonight,” he says.
I get the bag off and hold the tuxedo up in the light. “I’ll look like a, I don’t know – ”
“Stud, Rick. Smooth operator. Rico Suave.”
Scepticism mingles with fresh nausea. Something’s definitely off. “I was thinking more like a – ”
“Wait till you see the shirt.” He grabs the other hanger from me and rips through the plastic bag with one of his claws. “Check it out.”
I goggle. “Ruffles?”
“Try it on.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding.”
He crushes his cigar in a chipped plastic ashtray. “I’m not asking, Rick. Let’s go.”
So I wriggle into the thing. It’s a snug fit, but that’s the cut. A satiny stripe accents the legs. The jacket’s boxy with enormous lapels.
Iggy gives me an admiring head-to-toe. “What’d I tell you?” he says.
Against my better judgement, I glance in the mirror. “There’s no way I’m going out there like this, Iggy.”
He studies me, still as a stone, for a long moment. Light rain patters on the skylight above. A glass breaks in the bar. Now he forces a smile. “That’s why you need me, kid.”
I feel my face pucker.
“You’ve got no style.”
“This shirt’s completely ridiculous.”
“In my heyday, pre-morph, I would’ve knocked ’em dead in that thing.” He gets this faraway, misty look in his eyes. “Seriously.”
I gawk at my reflection. “I look like a swashbuckling pig.”
“You should be so lucky,” says Iggy. “Now get your head on straight. We’re on in ten.”
Alone in the dressing room, I try to work myself into the right mood for the show. The house is filling up. They’re here for me, mostly. Iggy always puts together a top-notch gourmet set menu, not so easy to find these days, but still, I’m the entertainment. It’s my job to make everyone feel good, even when I’m under the weather. Or wearing a ridiculous, ill-fitting vintage pink tuxedo with a ruffled shirt. That’s what I signed on for: I’m the crooner.
Anyway, I owe Iggy bigtime, so I’d probably go on if I were hacking up a lung. My most recent gig on the L’Héritage didn’t exactly end well. I was already deep into the hooch when Iggy introduced me. Somehow, I made it through the first set without any trouble. But at the set break, I knocked back a couple more at the bar when Iggy wasn’t looking, and the situation deteriorated fairly quickly from there.
That was three weeks ago. I didn’t think Iggy would ever want me back, but he’s been advertising this show for months, and maybe he couldn’t find another crooner. Not a pre-morph freak like me, a hundred percent homo sapiens.
Far as I know, I’m the only one left.
Iggy’s voice through the microphone rouses me from my stupor. “And now,” he says over a piano intro I’ve heard a hundred times before, “please give a warm welcome to the incredible, the unforgettable, Mr. Rick Beretta!”
Applause roars. Now the rhythm section comes in, bass line walking, high-hat snapping. The three of them play a few bars together before the horns slide in, blowing three-part harmony. I peek out from backstage. The place is packed. The heavy smell of martinis drowns the lingering scent of the prix fixe menu: quiche with haricots verts and potatoes au gratin, mixed greens with raspberry vinaigrette, and red velvet cake.
I stand there, studying the audience, though I really can’t make out any faces. Even if I could, I wouldn’t spot the one I’m looking for. Finny’s not out there, sipping tonic water and lime, waiting to hear the lilting melody of my song, the lyrics for her alone. She can’t be. It’s just not possible. Even if she were, it’s not as if the other morphs would let me get anywhere near her. Not at this late date. Still, I can’t help but imagine her seated at a table right up front, emerald sequins of her skintight dress glittering in the low light, thick brown curls piled up on top of her head, an unlit clove cigarette between her fingers.
I’m so lost in my daydream, I miss my cue. Iggy glares at me, and I quickly mouth, “Sorry!” In order to get back around to the opening, the band has to play through twelve full bars. Iggy never stops glaring the whole time, even during his short solo.
But enough’s enough, so I make my entrance a little early this time. I slide-step into the beam of the spotlight, my face lit up with my best cheesy grin. Applause swells. Now I amble a couple more steps, in time with the downbeat, and take a sip from my full glass of hooch. Laughter. I groove to the rhythm for a moment, offering appreciative nods to each member of the band. They wink bulbous eyes, wave scaly claws, and grin from mouths overstuffed with teeth. Just before I make it to the microphone stand, I do a quick spin move, without even spilling a drop of my drink, then point at the audience and cheese up my grin a couple notches.
The set starts off okay. I work through the first few numbers, including “Let’s Fall in Love,” “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” and “Come Fly with Me” without any real trouble. I can’t seem to get my voice warmed up though, so I flub a couple of high notes before I opt to go low instead. Iggy’s face is an angry question mark, but the crowd seems clueless as usual. I don’t have my lungs tonight either, so I can’t hold the dramatic finales to save my life. My breath comes in ragged gasps. I unknot my bowtie and unbutton my collar, then struggle through another number. It’s not pretty. When it’s over, Iggy announces a set break. We’ve only played a half a dozen tunes.
Soon as we’re offstage, Iggy rounds on me. “What is with you tonight, Beretta?”
The rest of the band shuffles off to share a joint and nip from a flask.
He backs me up against the cold steel wall. “You think this is karaoke or what?”
“Like you said, Iggy, maybe I’m coming down with something.” I stare at the chipping paint over his left shoulder.
He makes a show of lighting a stogie.
“This crazy getup you made me wear isn’t helping anything. Must be some pre-Cataclysm synthetic. It’s terrible.”
“Right,” he says through a blue cloud, “it’s the suit’s fault.”
I wipe sweat off my forehead, then scratch my left arm. “The thing’s hot and itchy. I can’t focus.” I make a move toward the dressing room, but Iggy grabs me by the ruffles and slams me back up against the wall. He’s a lizardy little guy, but he’s stronger than he looks. Meaner, too. His bluish tongue flicks at the damp air.
“I hired you back against my better judgement, Beretta. Don’t make me regret it.”
“I’m doing the best I can.”
Iggy glares at me, tightening his grip on my ruffled shirt. His nostrils flare. “That’s not good enough,” he says. After a long moment, he gives me another shove, then disappears down the hall.
We open the next set with “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me,” and the band’s tight. As for me, I manage to hit all the right notes. Despite Iggy’s sceptical glances, I don’t stumble or falter a single time. When I pull off “La Vie en Rose” without a hitch, Iggy stops glaring at me. Then we play knockout versions of “Moon River” and “L-O-V-E.” I’m having fun, almost feeling like myself again. The tension leaks out of Iggy’s bony shoulders, and, at last, the whole band relaxes into the performance. Still, I can’t say my voice is everything I want it to be. There’s a strange froggy quality to it, and I’m still having trouble breathing. Maybe it is the flu, after all – or, who knows, something worse.
When we break again, there’s a different vibe. I pass the flask around with the horn players, and I don’t even think about my restricted breathing. I forget about my hot, uncomfortable tux – though I notice that the colour’s all mottled now, the pale pink splotched green where I’ve sweat on it. No one mentions what happened during the first set. All Iggy says is, “Nice job, kid,” and we leave it at that.
A few minutes later, I say, “Hey, Iggy, let’s do something new for the last set.”
The band perks up. Iggy takes a slug from the flask, then nods and says, “What you got in mind, kid?”
“It’s Valentine’s Day, right?” I say.
The horn section mumbles. The drummer and bass player disappear in a fog of weed smoke.
“Not sure I like where this is going,” says Iggy.
Clinking glasses punctuate the low drone of conversation out in the lounge. I’m overwhelmed with a savage thirst. I reach for the flask but think better of it and grab a bottle of water. It’s the same water that used to come out of the taps back when they still worked, only it’s packaged in sealed plastic and a pretence of decontamination. I uncap it and take a long guzzle. Then I wipe my mouth and say, “How about an open-air set for our grande finale?”
Mumblings from the band: “Oh, man.” “Come on.” “I knew it.”
Iggy gives me his best world-weary look. “You realise it’s still raining, right?”
“That’s what awnings are for,” I say.
The rest of the band chuckles silently. Iggy, too. It’s this thing that morphs can do: Their eyes fill with laughter.
“Anyway,” I say, “I don’t mind getting a little wet.”
“Listen to Mr. Amphibian here,” says Iggy. Everyone laughs, scales dancing in the fluorescent light like sequins. “Who, by the way, still looks like death warmed-over.”
I take another guzzle of water. “I’m bouncing back, Iggy. I feel like a million bucks.”
Iggy sneers and shakes his lizard head. “I know exactly why you want to play out there,” he says.
“Finny’s gone,” say the band. “You wasn’t right for her anyway.” “Let her go, man.”
“You’re hopeless,” Iggy says, exhaling cigar smoke. “We play inside. End of story.”
The bartender Sal’s been keeping the martinis flowing, so the whole crowd’s pretty boozy when we take the stage again. The air’s saturated with the stink of hooch and stale cigarette smoke. Through the footlights, couples nuzzle and smooch. Hands wander under tables. Inebriated giggles erupt and are quickly quelled with muted, boozy shushes.
We open the last set with “Strangers in the Night.” Don’t ask me why. It’s never been one of my favourites. But it’s one we play well, and it’s a crowd-pleaser, too. As soon as I belt out that first line, I can’t stop thinking about Finny. She always loved that song.
But I don’t get bogged down in might-have-beens this time. We sail through our next few numbers, including “Unforgettable,” “Cheek to Cheek,” and “Memories Are Made of This.” I’m flying high – and then I’m not. That’s how quickly it happens. All at once, I feel green, but it’s not just in my gut, it’s more of an all-over nausea. My head throbs, throwing me off-balance.
Most of the band pretends not to notice my rapid decline at centre stage. Except Iggy. When I stammer and stumble through this verse or that chorus, he pounds a heavy, syncopated chord and glares at me. Even in my state, I catch his drift. Not that there’s anything I can do. I’m losing it, right here in front of everyone.
Forget shimmying and gyrating to the beat, much less snapping. By now, it’s all I can do to cling to the mike stand and spit out the lyrics more or less in time. My head’s swimming. I’m sweating through my tuxedo – which has now turned completely green, head to toe. My voice is growing hoarser by the line, so all the lovebirds in the audience might prefer that I forget the lyrics rather than massacre another tune with my croaking.
I clench my teeth, struggling to stay upright, even as I feel like I might puke and pass out. Talk about a buzzkill: It would ruin everyone’s night. But I’m doing everything I can to make it through this gig. (I can barely think that barbed word, much less say it.) My tux is saturated by now, its green deepening. My breath comes shallow and wheezy. Iggy fingers an intricate segue into our next number, trying to buy me some time so I can get my act together. And I appreciate it. Really, I do. But it’s no use.
So I stumble off the stage, careening past the bar and out to the deck. I stagger toward the railing. I think I’m going to barf into the river, but the night air cools me off, and my nausea subsides. Not that I feel normal. Not by a long shot. But at least I’m no longer on the verge of collapsing into a puddle of my own sweat and vomit.
I take one deep breath after another. My skin tingles. I feel myself relax. That’s when I realise I’m standing right where I spotted Finny for the first time. The way the evening sunlight played off her iridescent dress and her brown locks danced in the cool breeze, I thought she might be a fairy. Seriously. After the Cataclysm and all the mutations, anything was possible.
Now Sal, unsmiling, crosses the deck and hands me a cordless mike. Music flows through the outdoor speakers. I try to wave him off, but he sets the mike in my hand and closes my fingers around it. “You’re the crooner,” he says. “So croon.”
An oily chemical stink wafts off the river. I consider chucking the mike into the water with all the corroded car bodies, three-eyed eels, and bioluminescent fish-people. I have my arm cocked when I hear them: frogs. In this weather? I wonder, though everything’s changed since the Cataclysm. Some of them croak, while others chirrup. There’s something beautiful about it I’ve never noticed before.
I take a deep breath and flip the on switch, listening to the changes through the speakers, puzzling out my cue. But then something emerald and phosphorescent catches my eye. A splash. Another. Laughter drifting toward me.
“Finny?” I yell. The mike is live, so my voice echoes back to me through the speakers. I’m sure Iggy’s fuming.
More splashing and laughter, closer now.
I study the water around the L’Héritage. “Finny!” I yell, more loudly this time. I’m too close to the microphone: It distorts everything coming through the sound system. Now I know I’m in for it. I stride across the deck and lean into the doorway. I make eye contact with Iggy, twirling my index finger in a tight circle. He understands. Not four bars later, I launch into the tune, singing, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
Between lines comes more laughter from the water. Without losing the beat, I ease back to the railing and gaze into the darkness. She must be out there, watching, listening. I sniff for her fragrance of lavender and honey, but all I get is the dank stench of algae, bleach, and heavy metals.
By the time I’m through the first verse, some of those lovebirds begin drifting outside, despite the damp chill. They crowd through the door, drinks in hand, and gather on the deck in the drizzle. Forget Iggy’s misgivings. They don’t even seem to notice the weather, lighting cigarettes, sipping martinis, swaying to the rhythm. This is our last number – the way I’m feeling, it has to be – so I dig deep and give it all I’ve got, making my melody as soulful as I can manage.
It happens during the instrumental break. The morphing, I mean. Though more likely it’s been happening all night, and some time before then, but now’s when the process makes itself known. Not that I understand what’s going on exactly, though I feel the changes. My headache disappears, and that all-over achy feeling vanishes. The only trouble is my voice. As I work my way into the final verse, it’s getting hoarse and croaky again. I try to push my way past it, to no avail. In fact, it gets worse. There’s no way I’ll be able to climb the ladder for the dramatic finale.
But that’s really the least of my worries right now. I can see it in the crowd’s faces. They gasp, point, and laugh – though not in a mocking way. After all, everyone here has already experienced a similar, if less dramatic, transformation. Because now my neck grows thicker, my head rounder and more bulbous. My chest expands, and I rip right through the ruffled shirt and green jacket. I seem to get taller with each breath, my legs sprouting so my tuxedo pants are highwaters, then clamdiggers, then shorts. I feel stronger than I’ve ever been.
Still, I make one last effort to finish the tune. “I would sacrifice anything come what might,” I croon, but what comes out is, “Grrribbit!” By now, the music’s stopped anyway. Iggy and the rest of the band crowd out to see what’s going on. When he spots me, Iggy’s lizard eyes go blank. He tastes the air with his bluish tongue, and a grin fans across his face. “Atta boy, Rick!” he says. Then to the crowd he shouts, “I didn’t think he had it in him. He went all the way, too. Drinks on the house!” It doesn’t take long before the hooch is flowing, and Iggy’s leading the hip-hip-hoorays.
I guess you could say I’m happy they’re happy. Maybe everyone will go home inspired and lovey-dovey and ready to procreate. Maybe they’ll people (if that’s the word) this ragged, post-Cataclysmic world with a new breed of resilient morph-children who are ready to clean things up and start anew. Right now, I really don’t care. I scan the dark waters below, intent on movement and sound like never before. Splashing, laughter. Mainly, though, it’s those frogs. I can’t not listen to them, and soon their croaking chorus swells until it’s all I can hear.
“Down here,” they croon.
“Come join us.”
“We’ll be waiting.”
With a quick hop, I’m up on the railing.
“Don’t leave now, Beretta,” hollers Iggy around his smouldering cigar. “The party’s just getting started.”
I don’t know what I’m doing until it’s done. “Thanks for everything,” I say over my shoulder, uncertain he’ll understand a word of it. “And sorry about tonight.” I give the crowd a quick wave. “Grrribbit!” I sing. Then I take a deep breath of damp air and, swollen with hope, I leap out into the night.
J. T. Townley
J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net award. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.