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a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society

Section 3: Absence

Kara Norman

The Hitcher

Derkin wore two casts. The first stabilized his lower back and the other forced his one remaining arm to strike out from its socket like a plank perching over the dark sea of his employer’s carpet. His thumb pointed to the black ceiling of the office, which itself hung as the crown of the aquarium’s two-story atrium.

“Have a seat,” the director said, staring into the empty shark tank across the atrium. Normally at his back if he was working, it glowed now as the man faced it, watching its empty water.

Derkin squinted, adjusting to the dark room. The director rarely turned on a lamp. He didn’t like visitors to become aware of his office above them.

“Derkin,” the director said, turning around finally and sitting behind his wide lacquer desk. He looked slightly more alive than the last time Derkin had seen him, the night before the accident.

“I don’t need to tell you how valuable you have been all these years,” the director began.

Uh-oh, Derkin thought. “I know you’re not firing me,” he said.

The director turned sideways. He looked out the window, as if willing the massive tank to speak for him.

Derkin had worked as a shark trainer at the aquarium for the past eight years. He hated the sight of all that blue in the tank now, devoid of circling animals. “Did you talk to Jimmy?” he asked.

The director didn’t answer.

“You should talk to Jimmy,” Derkin said.

“Jimmy agrees with me.”

“And what do you think?” Derkin asked.

“I think you’re lucky to be alive,” the director said.

“And what else?” Derkin asked.

“I think it’s time for you to find another job.”

Derkin thought about this. Two weeks before the accident, he had slept in the director’s office after a company party and also, after having sex with the director’s assistant, Annie, on the floor. The director had not forgiven Derkin for any of it: the sight of Derkin behind the couch the next morning, where Annie had covered him with a flip-pad for decency before leaving, or for getting anywhere with Annie at all, for whom the director was a dry, constant irritant. The director had sent Derkin home when he found him, his body slung across the carpet like a drowned man tossed to shore. The room smelled, overwhelmingly, of alcohol, but it also smelled of Annie’s perfume. The director found a scarf that belonged to her behind his chair and deposited it on Annie’s desk, a silk admonishment waiting for her when she got to work that day.

Derkin stood and walked to the wall of glass behind the director and peered into the activity below. A middle school field trip wandered the blue carpet, kids with mittens and bags trailing their limbs. A man with a child on his shoulders tapped the lionfish tank. The water snakes made laps around their synthetic tree but no one was looking at them. Everyone came, eventually, to stand in front of the tank that anchored the corner of the aquarium and used to host the neon reefs, bent-nosed eels, and jerky, slit-eyed sharks with which Derkin previously spent all his days.

The tank’s unobstructed light waved over the carpet, along the fabric walls of the aquarium, and all the way into the director’s office, transmitting Derkin’s failure across everything.

“Who’s gonna hire a one-armed trainer?” Derkin sighed.

“There are signs one cannot ignore in the animal world,” the director said. “You may not be safe in water anymore.” The director rocked back and forth in his smooth black chair. Derkin watched a small, metal dolphin on his desk swing around a magnet, moving in time with the director.

Derkin groaned. He marched to the door and waved his stiff fingers at the handle. He could not grip it, but that didn’t stop him from trying. In the end, he straightened and waited. The director pressed a button beneath his desk. The door opened.

“You’re too old for her, anyway,” Derkin said to the director, and then turned to face Annie, who escorted him out of the building.

* * *

A man in a navy-blue suit who, by the look of things, wouldn’t know how to pick a pocket if he had a two-month course on it, helped Derkin to the payphone down the block. Derkin needed to call his daughter, Clarice, because in addition to having one arm taken off by a shark, he had spent all his savings on medical bills. Getting canned meant he could no longer pay his rent. Annie had offered to take him to the payphone, but Derkin declined. He didn’t actually know Annie that well. Before they got drunk at the company party, she had asked him out several times. He had always said no, because she was very young, still in her twenties. But after they slept together, and Derkin was sent home the next morning, she felt ashamed and stopped bothering the man.

His daughter picked up on the first ring. “Tree Top Suites. This is Clarice. How can I help you?”

“Hi sweetheart,” Derkin said, wriggling his body to keep the phone tucked between his neck and shoulder. He gave the man in the navy suit a thumbs-up to indicate it was okay to leave.

Clarice was silent. He could hear her typing, though, so he knew she was still on the line.

“It’s me,” Derkin said. “Your father?”

“What do you need?” Clarice asked.

“Do you think you could find a place in that big old building for me? I could pay in, oh, I don’t know, probably a month or two?”

“Daddy, these are recorded lines. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t get me fired.”

Derkin pinched his face. He waited for Clarice to suggest something.

A horn blazed behind him. “Daddy?” Clarice said.

“I’m here, honey.”

“I have a break coming up. Come on in, if you want. But don’t stand me up.” She stopped short of scolding her old man. She was not a cruel woman. She did not want to be one, anyway.

“Is your arm okay?” she asked.

Derkin looked at his fingers poking out of his cast, toward the traffic pouring down the busy street. “It hurts, more than I’d like to admit. But, hey, at least it’s still there. I used to have prayers. Now I just want to make it to fifty with one arm.”

He was hoping for a laugh, but Clarice was typing again. “Let’s meet on the corner by the fountain.”

“You bet. I’ll be the one waiting to buy you lunch.”

“Just be the one standing there,” she said.

Derkin dropped the phone by releasing it from his neck and turned to hail a cab. His thumb, he liked to think, now perpetually hailed the world.

He also liked to think Clarice was in a period of sulking about life, but she had been in that period for as long as he had known her. Was it his fault somehow? He had seen other children idolize their fathers, but Clarice had picked up her mother’s habits of peering at him: suspicious, disappointed, angry even. Okay, so he hadn’t exactly been faithful to her mother, but the woman hadn’t been a peach herself. Bitterness had been a cornerstone of their marriage, but he loved his little girl. Even so, shadows had poured from her walls when he went to kiss her at night. Her eyes were watery moons floating in the pool of her dark, curly hair. She looked like a street urchin waiting for something to believe in. She looked open and hungry, but jaded too, like she would not have believed in goodness if it had climbed into bed beside her. If it had bought her cuddly things and tucked them along her warm little bones. If it had told her it loved her and loved her, she still would not believe.

A taxi coasted up to him. Derkin smiled and stood at the back door. When there was no response from the driver, he rapped the door lightly with his foot. “Yoohoo! Need a hand here,” he shouted into the window.

The driver scowled, came around, and opened the door. “Nobody kicks my cab, pal,” he said. He held Derkin by the hip and guided him into the cab so his head didn’t smack anything.

When he was back behind the wheel, the driver asked, “You okay?”

“Of course I’m okay,” Derkin said. “Do I look like a man who’s not okay?”

The driver shook his head. “Just asking. No offense.”

“Alright then. Let’s roll.”

* * *

Derkin struggled to his feet, gaining momentum once they were planted on the sidewalk. He paid the driver by suggesting how much the man should take from his wallet. There was nothing left after that.

He was late getting to the corner where Clarice said to meet. The fountain rushed noisily over head. A pretzel stand steamed. A flower cart trembled in the light breeze, delirious neon carnations like a row of twittering prom queens. A kid with slicked hair leaned against a streetlamp reading a magazine called Huzzah Huzzah. He wondered if the magazine was foreign or just stupid trash. Derkin kicked at a crack in the sidewalk. She hadn’t waited.

He walked a long block around the hotel before pushing against the revolving door. The cold air felt great. He made his way across the golden lobby to the operator’s desk in the back. Clarice sat in a swivel chair with her legs crossed. A newspaper spread across the keyboard at her desk. She held a mug in her hand, lipstick stamped across its rim. She was reading the comics.

Derkin kissed her cheek. “Morning, sweetheart,” he said.

Clarice pushed back to get a better look at him. “You look good. Considering.”

“Thanks. I’ve been trying to do sit-ups but it was a little difficult in a hospital bed. And with,” Derkin nodded at the cast. “You know.”

“Are you hungry?” Clarice asked.


Clarice drew a square of tissues from her pocket and unfolded them. She pulled a twenty-dollar bill from the middle of the square. “Here,” she said and pressed the sagging paper to Derkin’s hand.

“Honey,” he said, pinching it between his fingers, “I don’t want your money.”

Clarice bypassed the formality. “There’s a pancake house around the corner,” she said. “Out of this world hash browns. Don’t get the juice, though. A hairy lady in the back squeezes it. Every glass I’ve gotten had extra fuzz in the pulp.”

“Thanks for the tip. Don’t you want to come?”

Clarice put her hands on her hips. “Someone has to stay here and sneak in a secret room reservation, don’t they?” she said.

Derkin winked and backed away, tiptoeing across the geometrical shapes of the lobby’s carpeting. He would have put his finger to his lips, pretending to hush himself for their little secret, but his hand would be far from his face for a while longer yet, he guessed, and it fluttered with Clarice’s money anyway. Everyone knows not to put money on your lips, he thought. That stuff is filthy.

* * *

After years of working together, Derkin had considered Jimmy his best friend. He had trained Jimmy to the best of Jimmy’s abilities, which weren’t perfect by any means, but he was good with visitors and someone agreeable to talk to everyday. After the decades-long chill of Derkin’s former marriage, which had eroded so immediately after the wedding that neither his wife nor himself knew what to do about it except have a kid, after all their fruitless dances around each other, working in the shark tank with someone he liked to see every day was not something Derkin took for granted.

His divorce had come in the middle of his tenure at the aquarium, and the animals, once fascinating on their own, shifted into the background. He didn’t notice the change in his affections at first. The reef sharks eddied around him in the tank and he still rubbed their noses with his glove. He let them sink onto his lap one at a time as he felt them breathe against him, falling into a trance similar to that of whatever shark he was hugging. But when a sand tiger shark in a Korean aquarium ate a smaller banded houndshark over the course of two days, and Jimmy showed him a picture of the houndshark hanging out of the sand tiger’s mouth, Derkin said, “Well, yeah.” He didn’t care what newspapers had to say about the event, and he couldn’t muster the same guffaws and snorts Jimmy made about how awkward it would have been to watch such a thing.

A couple months after the sand tiger ate the houndshark, Jimmy had spaced out on the job while Derkin dove for rogue seaweed. The long plastic greenery sometimes upended itself and wound awkwardly around the fake coral. As shark trainers, the two men were also shark tank decorators. Out-of-place seaweed made them look bad.

Normally, Derkin would not have been in the tank so long, but he was cleaning the reef for a special occasion. The next day, a public access show was going to film at the aquarium. There were going to be cameras and a television crew. There was going to be – and this part sort of hacked Derkin off – an interview with the director. Not an interview with him or Jimmy or any of the other experts who routinely cared for the animals, but an interview with that self-satisfied, back-stabbing, administrative jerk.

Derkin was lucky to be alive, and he knew it. He yelled at Jimmy, but doctors kept coming in and out of his room at the hospital. Plus, Jimmy looked like he might leave if Derkin kept it up. Clarice hadn’t been to visit once, so Jimmy got off easy.

“Seven years wiping scum off everything from fish butts to bulletin boards and
this is how I end up,” Derkin had joked to Jimmy, who kept himself busy eating hospital sandwiches, flirting with Derkin’s nurses, and rifling through the drawers of medical gear across from Derkin’s bed.

If Jimmy had been where he should have been, in the wing waiting for Derkin’s signals, he might have been able to call the sharks up to feeding. Instead, Jimmy was talking to an intern, trying to impress the young woman, when a cantankerous sand tiger unofficially named Rufus started nudging Derkin as it circled past. For most sharks, nudging was a simple form of bullying and asserting dominance. You’re not tougher than me, pal. That sort of thing. According to some, it had inadvertently been the source of the houndshark’s misfortune in Korea: he had bumped the wrong sand tiger that day. But Rufus’ nudging had escalated recently and, the day before the accident, Jimmy and Derkin had visited the director to complain about it.

What was there to tell, really? Instead of circling the tank, Rufus had circled Derkin. Caught up in his annoyance about the interview, Derkin batted the plastic seaweed around, trying to anchor it. His focus returned when Rufus slammed him against the reef, crushing his back. As Derkin kicked toward the surface of the tank, Rufus followed and crunched into his left arm. Derkin was almost at the top when Rufus slammed him into a piece of suspended reef, took a bite from his right arm, and made off with the whole thing.

* * *

But now, Derkin ruminated, propped up in Room 412, things were finally starting to look up. He leaned against a handsome cherry oak headboard, although it wasn’t actually wood, he knew. It was probably plywood covered with dyed plastic, but it looked good. Sure, life had handed him a few setbacks, but his cast was coming off in a week. He was feeling better every day and beginning to believe he would get a job soon.

Screw those idiots at the aquarium! he thought. I get to see my daughter every day. He looked at the bag of cheese puffs on the comforter. She even brings me snacks, he thought. She won’t, though, if I order another nudie film. He shook his head. Not gonna try that again, he told himself. Not for a while, anyway.

There’s nothing I can’t rise above. Except that The Price Is Right is on again. Damn those broadcasters! Don’t they know real people watch TV in the day, too? Not just drooling geezers with ear lobes like chicken waddles, old farts that can’t tell their claspers from their big toes anymore?

A clasper was the anatomical term for a shark’s penis. Derkin had learned it long ago and latched onto it forever. It had driven his ex-wife crazy, to hear him talk about their bodies in aquatic terms. To hell with her! he thought, although this was not a new thought.

“I ought to write these TV people a letter,” he said aloud to the long curtains guarding the window and to the orange faces on the screen. The faces bobbled in response, armed with diabolically white grins.

“Dear Mr. Sirs,” he dictated. “I am tired of your crap. Whatever happened to Viking documentaries, and underwater shots of shark sex? I know that maniac, Sting, is up for another ocean soundtrack. I like that guy. You also ought to look into comparing the human body to different parts of the shark, and I have always thought we could use another cartoon about a village of half-fish-slash-half-people people.”

There was a knock on the door.

Derkin looked at the wall with the thermostat and the framed picture above it of frontier men carrying rifles. “Do you think it’s an angel?” he asked. “If you’re an angel, come in!” he shouted.

A woman with black hair and one arm full of pillows pulled her cart into the room. For a minute he though she was Annie, but she was older. She was also the maid. She did not speak English, Derkin thought, but she didn’t say anything in a different language, either. She just waved her hand in front of her face and pinched her nose. She turned to the cart and picked up a metal can with a green top. Spraying deodorizer into the air, she circled the bed, walked to the window, and finally pointed the bottle at Derkin, spritzing the end of the bed with short pumps, her smooth face twisting into a smirk.

“That stuff reeks like a gym locker!” Derkin yelled. “Whatever happened to flowers and lemon-scented pine?”

The woman slung the bottle back into its canvas pocket on the cart. She held up some fresh towels. Derkin nodded and she tossed them toward his lap.

“Watch an old boy’s clasper,” he said, curving over and blocking their fall. “Could you help me out here?” He motioned to the pillows with his head.

She walked to him and picked up the pillow, holding it up with her eyebrows raised. He nodded. She pushed him forward, a little roughly, he thought, but it felt good to have a hand on his back. When she had stuffed both pillows on top of the one that was already there, she pressed him back, her hand soft and warm on the skin below his neck.

She laughed when she saw the arc in Derkin’s pants. He jerked his knees together but there was no hiding anything. “It’s funny, is it?” he said. “Laughing at an invalid? I thought you were my angel. You’re no different from the rest, I guess.”

The woman went back to the cart and drew out a fresh bath mat. She disappeared into the bathroom and whistled at the mess. She came back to the cart for the deodorizer and sink cleaner and spent several minutes turning the faucet on and off and dumping stringy towels into the side belly of the canvas on the cart. When she finished in the bathroom, she walked around the wall and shook her finger at Derkin.

“Come here,” he said.

She raised her eyebrows.

“Come here,” he repeated and she walked to the bed. He wiggled his fingers from the end of the cast. “Give me your hand,” he said.

She looked at him, then lifted her hand to the chalky fingers dancing for hers. Her skin felt soft and warm to him again. “You must wrap these in jelly at night,” he said.

She shook her head and smiled.

“Thank you,” he said, his head lunging toward the end of his cast. He would have rubbed her hands on his face if he could have, but he just hung his neck over his shoulder like a wind-blasted scarecrow too far away from the house for anyone to care, to go out and prop him up when the deformity was finally noticed. I’m too far, he thought. Too far from the lady’s hand.

The woman squeezed his fingers and let go. She patted his knee before leaving entirely. As she wheeled her cart away, Derkin watched her glide from the room, away from him and the bed with its itchy, hot blanket. Her cart was a slick canvas raft around her. Her hair waved behind like a parade of curling tendrils, the arms of the billowy cell of a pumping jellyfish. Bound for black waters, for the cool depths of sea, she left him there, on an island with the television burning.

Kara Norman has an MFA in creative writing from University of North Carolina Wilmington and lives in Michigan where she is a freelance journalist. She writes about reading, motherhood, and modest adventure at


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