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Gone Lawn 26
Autumn, 2017

New Works

Ken Poyner

The Public Decency


The question again is whether the tank should be bigger. It should not be simply round, but should have at least one alcove, and perhaps two. It should be deeper at one end than at the other. There should be shade let languorously out, and natural shade at that — an outcropping, or a tree. And the water must move: it must stir, play and get occasionally agitated.
Not everyone agrees. Some believe it is fine just as it is. Some actually believe it is better as it is than it would be if we did fund and commission all the discussed improvements. It now is little more than a concrete cylinder, with thumping glass making up two thirds of the walls: a tube of water in the middle of a building that would fit into any industrial section of any port city in any nation. The walls are even painted gray.
I, like a lot of our citizens, think we can do better. We have a civic history of respect in how we use the sea. We are a people of cargo, of easy transportation, of flooding, of storm survival. We are a people of bridges and boardwalks and fresh seafood. We are a people of the screw and the rudder. We decorate our homes and yards with oars and oar locks and anchors and anchor chain; and even cheap dives — serving unripe beer, and fifty-year-old bleached easy one-night-stands in overstuffed patent leather pants — have ships' wheels behind their salt leaning bars.
The council meeting will go as always, with the same advocates lining up on the same side, and the new faces on the council having already been lobbied insensitive by the returning incumbents, and everything settled before the public is let into the hall.
The night before this question is on the docket, I go down to the tank, let myself in with my janitor's key, neatly fold and press my clothes onto the raised viewing platform, and quietly slip feet-first into the unfrenzied water. Even though she has seen me drop into her water a dozen times, she still shies to the opposite side of the tank, curls herself as flat as she can against the glass. I bob along the surface, and dive only rarely, proving to her my limitations; and soon she is confident enough to swim under me, to pass around me barely beyond arm's length. The silvery flash of her I catch with the soil-mated back of my eye as she darts close enough to see me in full detail, then retreats when I look directly at her. When I see her wiggle so easily in the cured water, lithe, and bent angelically around the bubbles she makes, I know she can remember the open ocean, remember a time when locomotion could be a straight line, with a varying seascape, a world of unbroken waters to pass through; and perhaps companions, perhaps even live prey.
The next day it is money for pot holes, versus a new tank; money for the high school football team, versus a new tank; repainting the municipal parking lot lines, versus a new tank; lamentation about the reduction in revenue from parking tickets last quarter; and how the real estate tax impacts the bad side of everyone. It is all about how the tank has served us well so far, and is not in need of repair: not nearly in need of repair, yet. It functions. It holds water. It holds our city's symbol.
Unexpectedly, a citizen says perhaps we have kept our mascot long enough. He stands with his hands in his oversized pockets, head held mildly up in expectation. He says that perhaps the tank itself is past its use. His unwarranted hair leaves a ringlet of itself resting on his forehead. He exposes that maintenance of that tank alone must place a penny on everyone's property tax. Perhaps she should be put at the mouth of the river, given back to the elements where she was discovered, and allowed to fend naturally for herself. Now that the novelty has grown thin, and the tourists do not think she is as cute and cathartic as once she was — or once they thought — why would we put so much of our limited resources into that same unchallenging tank, that same once small mermaid, now grown into nearly full maturity? What bleeds out in the cost-benefit analysis?
And so the argument goes, and pot holes win. Yet, there is one resolution. She is older now. Her ballast is drawing more trips from the junior high classes. The boys make gestures of size when they think adults are not looking, hold both palms out in front of themselves like talons, and imagine. Some families avoid the show altogether. So she must now be taught the concept of modesty, taught to wear a thrift store bikini top, or a wet suit tunic: some configuration that brings back a level of public decency. The council will set aside a bit of money. The curator of this small, one exhibit aquarium will teach her how to wear it.
It is a cowardly way of making a point — of agreeing, if only in principle, with the disagreeable.
The paper-loving curator, small and more like a goldfish than a kraken, might fumble with the clothing: hold it at arm's length, sighting through to the mission behind in the tank, to see if it will do the job. He might stand sideways, with the clothing against his own chest, and compare the tool to the object, estimate the best path to utility. He might unwillingly try to imagine how he could do this civic task with but two fingers of each of his hands.
With the doors locked and no one to enjoy the show, he might slip the bra on himself, point to where it should be fastened, to what it should cover. He might smile broadly to indicate his joy at seeing it on himself, and hope that she would so want to please him that she will somehow manage to slip into it, happy ingénue, just as he has dryly illustrated.
But I know that it will be I who must teach her: I, the father of each of her failings. And it is I who must one day take her to the mouth of the river, to swim with her but ten yards towards the ocean and cruelly attempt to instill in her this one thought which fiercely I have been thinking at her all the days of my janitorial supervision — as though my thoughts were more sensible to her than my arid and unintelligible words: half-woman, half-fish, or municipal novelty beyond its time: choose. Choose.



Ken Poyner's collections of short fiction, "Constant Animals" and "Avenging Cartography", and his latest collections of poetry, "Victims of a Failed Civics" and "The Book of Robot", can be obtained from Barking Moose Press. He serves as bewildering eye—candy at his wife's power lifting affairs. His poetry lately has been sunning in Analog, Asimov's, Poet Lore; and his fiction has yowled in Spank the Carp, Red Truck, CafĂ© Irreal.