“Masterplans” by Nick Almeida

Sheena sits beside Sid on the waterbed and dictates an essay on the panoptical impulse behind deer blinds. It occurred to her last week, during a phone call with her brother Frank about his most recent population-control hunting trip: How ethically-inclined hunters consider themselves the wardens of the natural world (some even use the word warden), and how those ridiculous tree houses for grown men are structurally akin to watchtowers in prisons. Because Sheena has only one flesh-and-blood arm—the other: a transradial prosthetic that attaches below the elbow and features a stainless steel hook—Sid thuds out her words on their shared laptop. This is their nightly ritual. Finger by finger, Sid uses the hunt-and-kill method of typing, locating each key before pressing it, while nibbling a cinnamon-sugar Pop-Tart.

A few crumbs spill from his mouth when he asks her to define calamitous.

“Ah,” he says, bolus of Pop-Tart showing, “as in, your professor’s party was calamitous.”

It really was. Before all else, Sheena is learning in her new role as a literary studies doctoral candidate and aspiring ecocritic, she must always make clear that it’s okay to shake left hands, or to skip handshakes altogether. She’s not wild for hugs. She’d prefer you don’t find a way to enlist her in the dinner prep, because, no, there isn’t a task that’s particularly breezy with a hook. She cannot dice the onion, and, no, that’s not a decision she’d like to negotiate—she’s accepted the finality of cannot. She cannot shave the fennel. She’d rather cross her legs and smalltalk while you grapple with the recipe. She can pour herself a second glass of wine, no problem.

Why the hook? Are there not robotic hands, here in the future? There are, yes, and she’s looked into them, but when she can hardly afford a dental cleaning on her grad school insurance plan, how do you propose she pay for a bionic arm that’ll let her drum the bongos? So, it’s the trusty hook, which she’s been using almost all of her life and can rely on.

In her old circles, Sheena never had to lay out ground rules. Old school friends held barbecues and marijuana-intensive potlucks in rented cabins. They used her hook as a blunt-pinching device, had her remove the prosthesis, peel off the sweaty sleeve, and they passed her artificial arm around like a forceps, the silver hook pinching the blunt trailed by its thin slip of smoke. Not her new colleagues. These people required drag-out transparency, every interpersonal hangup expressed, then accommodated, until an evening of rustic grain salad and lambswool sweaters felt more like pirouetting through one of those only-in-the-movies laser beam security systems—Do not trip the alarm. They wanted to know the rules, the framework of how to be around someone with a hook, but out of spite or laziness or any number of less obvious indecencies, Sheena wouldn’t address it, hasn’t. It might do them some good, she’d thought sitting with her wine, to have a little rub against the unknown.

All night at the party, Sid was no help. Never a chute out of social awkwardness, Sid; rather, he was a trapdoor into it. He found her colleagues neutered and funny. Tonging himself a second load of greens, he announced to the table that he was thinking of applying to their program, too, that he was mapping a dissertation on feline anality.

“You think Freud was ass-obsessed,” he’d said, “you should meet Pickles.”

Sid isn’t sure why he said this, except that it occurred to him, and he has lived long enough and worked hard enough to say what he pleases. As he types Sheena’s essay, he can’t help but feel like her outlook is the exact opposite, that she’s learning a whole new language from these academic stiffs, one that’s annexing continents in her brain. It’s a language, of course, he cannot speak, and he senses this nightly homework typing is some kind of regimented exposure to the fact that she’s evolving right past him: Sheena holding his head in front of all he is not and cannot be.

When he shares this sentiment with her, she doesn’t respond.

Homework lasts until bedtime, when he moves her laptop to the floor, unbuckles his Wranglers, and tackles her back onto the waterbed. They like to start each romp with a gasp, and this time Sid gets one, a moment later, as he attempts a rolling bra-removal that plunges Sheena’s hook into the liner of their waterbed.

For a moment they lie there, backsides becoming wet. Water pools around them. Dimly, it gurgles. The usual quietness of their house is replaced with the gurgle. Their clothes begin to soak.

Like any sharp metal object, Sheena’s hook has always possessed the potential to destroy. She has accidentally destroyed curtains, book jackets, and once, a television screen. At her cousin’s baby shower, the fox terrier jumped into her lap and foolishly she reached to halt it with the wrong hand. She had to excuse herself, and as she scuttled out the whole room followed her with their eyes. But the waterbed was supposed to be different. For years they’d taken priestly care not to do exactly this, the simple math of hook plus bed obvious. She removes the hook to sleep. She removes the hook to have sex. She removes the hook from the waterbed liner, and water comes more intensely from a dark green gash. It spills over the bed onto the closed top of her computer.

“Is it, like, hooked to a hose or something?” Sid asks, agog. “It keeps coming.”

Sheena rushes to the bathroom and starts up the blowdryer to save the laptop. Sid empties the linen closet, the laundry baskets, every dishtowel and grease rag, bathmat, and at the last second, a chair cushion, and forms a turret around the bed. He wonders if they’d overfilled it somehow. A mess he would’ve expected, but this? Calamitous. He feels it’s his responsibility to repair their feelings, to ply the air with jokes; he hollers across the room, “Didn’t think I’d get you this wet!”

Over the whir of the blowdryer, Sheena cannot hear him, and this, he thinks, may be for the best.

* * *

Frank Gilkey sleeps in his Dodge. This will be the night of the waterbed incident. But before that there’s the truck’s grumpy idle, the heater, the sports talk radio through the speakers: a story about the third-string weakside linebacker, the university he attended, the courage he derives from overcoming a stutter.

Jersey Lilly is Asian fusion, saké cocktails and heady, salty soups. Humongous rooftop electric water lilies cast a blue haze over everything; the blue light in gauzy tangents stretches across on the truck’s windshield. Before he fell asleep, Frank felt like he was inside an egg.

Sleep: the day’s only reward. More and more, Frank feels life has broken its promise with him, the one that says: with time comes an expanding of things, plurality, relationships, grandchildren, et cetera. Instead, the opposite is true. The older he gets, daily, the fewer things he has to access. There’s his work—a suddenly boutique contracting company, since mega-developers have shouldered into the county—and there’s his favorite restaurant with its pho and ramen, there’s his sports radio, and there’s his sister Sheena. Sloppy, near-midnight meals are unrepresented in the grief cycle. No one told him. No one said, “Charlotte will die and mourning will be talk radio and tables for one. That is how you’ll get to sleep.”

The combination is killer. Edamame and two shaken saké cocktails, then soup and a cold Tsingtao. Add in the local sports radio station and you’ve got an especially sedative brew. Booze, salt, and nonthreatening arguments—all the passion and none of the consequence. Repetitive topics, teams Frank knows with expert intimacy. The hosts range from piggish to over- exuberant⏤that had been Charlotte’s position anyway. Why listen to this? How can you like this? Questions she never vocalized but intimated with a shrewd downcast of her eyebrow whenever she climbed in his truck and the radio came chittering to life. Sometimes, at the end of his commute, he’d change the dial to the classic rock station before killing the engine, just in case he and Charlotte needed to take a nighttime ride to the grocery store for some forgotten ingredient. Now he rarely cooks. Another offcut, another facet of daily life lost in the narrowing.

His phone wakes him with a resounding ping. It’s a text from his sister, then a call from her live-in boyfriend, Sid. They’ve sprung a leak in the waterbed. He uh-huhs his way through the conversation, fiddles with the volume knob on the radio, scratches electric-yellow mustard off his jeans. Sid describes a flood. Sometimes they find excuses to enlist him in this or that, he knows, to distract him, to get him out of the house. But he doesn’t have the energy to pick around for truths, so Frank agrees to stop over and take a look.

* * *

Water has spread from Sid and Sheena’s bedroom all the way to Frank’s feet at the door when he enters without a knock. It arcs off the bed in all directions. He notices the water does not rush out the open door behind him but instead resists the doorway, pooling in the center of the room—is the floor bowed? Some trick of surface tension? There isn’t time to measure. He hurries in with his wet/dry vac, the one he’s repaired four times, and does not greet his sister as she taps the keyboard of a non-responsive laptop. He places the vacuum down next to Sid, who is on his hands and knees trying to contain the flood.

“Is this you?” Frank asks. “You did this?”

Sid points to Sheena and says, “Yargh.”

The force with which water pours from the bed mesmerizes Frank.

“Did you replace the liner?” Frank says to Sheena. “You have to replace the liner every year. Six months, even. You can’t overfill it.”

“We didn’t touch it,” Sheena says, “except when we popped it.”

Frank lays his hand on the mattress and gives it a press; it feels fully plump, like a belly or a biceps. “I told you to replace it. Every year, I said. At least.”

Sid starts up the vacuum and guides its floppy hose along the bedposts.

“There was nothing wrong with the liner,” Sheena says. “How many years old is it?”

“I don’t know how many years!” Sid says.

Frank hurries outside to his pickup and digs through the heap of junk in the bed for anything, anything at all. Tape. In the truck bed is a hodgepodge of gear, mostly the components of an airplane kit. He moves aside the chalky tip of a carbon-fiber wing flap, the unassembled gears of a captain’s chair. His rubber waders hide amidst the junk. Charlotte wouldn’t have allowed his truck to get like this. Charlotte was raised by her father, a docent at the Eldred World War II Museum, a mothball of a man whom Frank sometimes meets for lunch when he’s out toward Turtlepoint. Her childhood home was utterly museum-like, a haven for spillover exhibits, maps and artifacts awaiting rotation. Frank liked how Charlotte brought a backbone of cleanliness to their own home, that by law of their marriage all of his tools had a predetermined place. It was moneysaving too, the organization she inspired. Charlotte kept the books for his contracting company, and under her scrupulous accounting, their bottomline limped out of the red. When Frank turned forty-five, they’d been able to afford their first vacation, a trip to Turks and Caicos where they spent as much time on the humid beach, in their hotel Jacuzzi, as they did in a wobbly little Cessna, flying from island to island. Frank watched Charlotte stare down at the ocean going by, her forehead pressed to the window and headset mussing up her hair, and he knew she was transcending somehow, that she’d found something in that small machine in the sky.

As he trudges back inside, Frank has the once-a-day realization that there are so many aspects of Charlotte he’ll never get to discuss with anyone: enough wine and she’d sing, the dimples over her bum, the smell of a certain sea salt product she sprayed in her hair.

The water has risen. It’s a wading pool contained, somehow, by the house: The physics of door jambs, air vents, cracks in the floorboards do not apply. A tide rising. Still, the mattress appears completely full. Frank scratches. Doesn’t make sense. Leaning over the bed, he tries to patch the hole with tape, but the water dampens the adhesive. He peers into the gash. It’s too opaque to see into; water flows steadily.

He cannot seal the bed. He cannot fix an unfixable thing.

On hands and knees, Sid works the vacuum, water approaching his thighs. He wonders how much the vacuum’s tank can hold, how long this whole episode will take, still a little hazy from the missed opportunity to make love and worried Frank can read that on his face. He thinks, Prince or P-Funk, something with a strut, the whole episode better if set to music. It could be cinematic.

Sheena has begun removing valuables from the bedroom—books mostly, fat with peeling barcodes, these books she needs more than a car, a toothbrush, although she really only has time to read the introductions. Before her admittance to the university, she managed a regional team of cleaning women and oversaw the disposal of nine hundred fifty pounds of paper towel in less than a year. One foggy and humorless morning she came across that figure in her purchasing spreadsheet and dropped egg salad in her lap. For weeks she begged her team to fold each paper towel before using it to wipe up, but they just thought she was being cheap. Her admissions essay was on interstitial suspension, using the metaphor of the folded paper towel to represent the conceptual space between humans and a way-out-there everything else, the unreachable environment. Looking back, the paper was embarrassing, clunky, just enough to get her in, and although her stipend is breadcrumbs, she loves that she will never again have to contact another homeowner and recite the lost property clause, she will never again demand to search the purse of an employee, she will never have to come home after dark, hair smelling like turpentine, to scrutinize the trash can for compostables while Sid watches, liable at any moment to call her insane.

“Is it possible it’s coming faster?” Sid yells over the vacuum.

“We can move the bed out,” Frank suggests.

The men squat on each side of the bed and try to lift it. They cannot. The waterbed is so much more voluminous than Sheena ever knew, and because of her hook, she has no choice but to help in the least helpful ways. She delivers Frank a bottle of water, and, looking at what she’s done, has to leave the house to keep from screaming.

The night is familiar with stars. None of this makes any sense.

Hypothesis: Humans map their miseries upon a graph of space and time, so when a single unfortunate event takes place, other data-points nearby seem to co-relate. Our sadnesses appear to group when, most likely, pain is random, but we cannot resist the urge to make it constellate, so our lives might mimic the natural world, the shapes made by stars.

Frank doesn’t see it that way. Sheena knows he doesn’t, and she resents him for it. To him, everyone has a single and definitive trauma, and life ripples out from there. When she was seven, Sheena was bit by a snake in the woodsy swamp behind their grandfather’s house in St. Augustine. Thirty minutes before, Frank had declared they’d go exploring, and though forbidden from crossing the backyard line, he gladly trooped straight into the archway of spruce pine armed with a single sharpened stick. They spent the afternoon searching for snakes. The horrific news was that they found one: a cottonmouth tucked in a palmetto thicket. Frank staggered back as if pulled by a string; Sheena went right up to it, entranced, and reached for the most authentic thing she’d ever seen. She said I’m sorry, Frank⏤Frankie, I’m sorry⏤as they felt their way back through the swamp, flinching at every stick that snapped underfoot, Frank’s belt tight around her biceps. By the time they emerged, Sheena’s arm was the color of jacaranda blooms. It was the defining trauma of her life. And, for a time, this too was Frank’s, but it would be replaced. He would be forty-five. Charlotte would be taking a flying lesson at the Doylestown Airport. He would get a phone call while driving, while listening to arguments about sports. After, he would sleep more than he could’ve predicted: blackly, utterly, a step outside the slipstream of time.

His whole graph would rearrange.

* * *

With Sheena outside, Frank considers a series of possible solutions, patches, ways to put it back together. Plans. Plans have always been his curse. In grade school art, he was a disaster. He never found pleasure in movies—how do people sit when there’s so much to do? It was Charlotte’s position that his ability to repair things was an art form, though usually it felt like a malfunction in his brain. Honestly, it was easier to think about ways to repair inconsequential things: the molding around the kitchen ceiling, the Eagles, ways to improve their run game.

In a few minutes, when she returns, the water is high enough to touch Sheena’s shins. Still it gushes, it flumes. She eyes her brother. Does Frank somehow know the bed was punctured in a bout of friskiness? She wonders if his loneliness makes this a crime, that asking him over to help was an aggression too micro for her to realize. The bed had belonged to their parents, and, most likely, had been host to both of their conceptions. Some nights, the idea of sex with Sid on it makes her queasy. She thinks this might be the Freudian link, that as the sexual throne of their parents drains, she subconsciously wants to be with Frank, to be in the presence of family. But she’s never read Freud, and if she doesn’t get all her books off the floor, she’ll never get the chance to.

She carries a stack of books to the kitchen table, the bottommost dripping. Heart of Darkness looks as though its fictional river has overrun its pages. She watches down the hall as her brother and Sid try once more to lift the bed, wonders how all this water can keep coming, and blinks, as if the right number of blinks will make everything as it should be.

Only a queen mattress, and still, somehow, all this water. What kind of conservationist, she begins, but will not allow herself to finish the thought. She can see the impossible overflow is a missive, the laughing universe with one more tragedy for her to decode.

Sid carries the vacuum outside and dumps its contents. Frank paces in and out of the room until Sheena catches his eye and they look at one another helplessly, his hands tucked behind his head. Until three years ago, Sheena’s life had been the considerably more tragic one. She’s been the sufferer, the one with the identifiable trauma. Frank managed to age into a rocky, handsome man and married an irresponsibly svelte woman who was ass-over-elbows in love with him in all his sawdusty glory. Sheena, on the other hand, bounced from shipwreck boyfriend to boyfriend until she met Sid, who she’s been with for  half a decade and loves in equal measure to good guacamole. Instead of a wedding, they spent their savings on this house in the woods, which is quickly filling with water.

The men trade positions, try to lift the bed once more, but cannot. Frank works the vacuum while Sid grabs trash from around the room—tube socks, an unfinished crossword, a bag of spent Burger King he’d hid under the bed—and tries to plug the hole with it.

“Don’t do that!” Frank hollers above the vacuum. “You’ll tear it open!”

“I dunno, man, these are unconventional times!”

Sid tosses the trash and holds his hands over the hole. Water geysers between his fingers. Although Frank has always presented himself as superior, Sid knows what he’s doing. Sid admires his own confidence. His intuition has always been his gift. He knew Bush would level Baghdad, he felt a tingling on his neck the day Philip Seymour Hoffman died, and he somehow predicted that he himself would blow the lead in the final inning of the final game of the ‘88 Little League World Series, that he’d return with his silent teammates to a hotel in Williamsport, Pennsylvania while one room over Team Japan roared in delight, that he’d have to watch himself repeat the mistake—a hanging fastball, just above the batter’s belt—on ESPN feeds for years, each time looking into his own childhood face, and wondering, Why? What now? and, Will I ever move on?

But using hands to plug the hole cannot stop the water.

The flooding is almost above the low windowsills. From outside, the house resembles an aquarium in-progress. Why it isn’t leaking out, escaping beneath the doors, no one knows. Sheena must fight the urge to design a thesis in her mind about the commerciality of a bed made to mimic the impossible sensation of sleeping on water, how the body yearns for a simulation of what might seem natural but could never be.

“Any other ideas?”

“We can try to reroute the water. You have a garden hose?”

“Round back,” Sheena says.

“Get it, Sid,” Frank says.

“Why Sid?” Sid says.

“Get it, Sid,” Sheena says.

The older you get, the more things you can fairly describe as haunting. The loss of Sheena’s limb, in Frank’s mind, has always been an unfixable problem. He’d been the older brother by fifteen months, and where he could’ve pulled her away from the palmetto thicket, he’d stayed back, frozen, and watched. He hated himself for that stupor, the way his legs locked, as they would again decades later at the mailbox when he received the first piece of Charlotte’s Piper PA-34 Seneca, wrapped in packing paper with sharpie notes on folded schematics. The package was from a lawyer in Harrisburg who wanted Frank to participate in a multi-district litigation. He unwrapped it: a chunk of steel and hose. First Frank felt its heft in his hands, then the crush of realization: This thing had been so close to her in her last minutes. It outlived her. For weeks the chunk sat on the kitchen table. It smelled cindery. He felt it staring at him as he had his morning coffee, its sooty face watching him when he came in late from Jersey Lilly and flopped on the couch. Once, very late at night, a little tipsy, Frank arrived home and could’ve sworn he heard the piece of motor chime, as if accusing him of something. Of listening to too much radio, of drowning out the onslaught of his own brain. He hadn’t heard it speak, not necessarily, but there it was, on a bed of newspaper on the table where they used to eat, illuminated by lamplight, demanding something.

Frank studied a few webpages and learned about kit planes: small, DIY assemblages of parts and plans to construct an airplane. Perhaps the answer was to buy one, to someday take a cathartic flight that traced Charlotte’s last. But that was too expensive, and too easy. He had no desire to go back into the sky. Not ever. He waited to see if additional pieces would come from the lawyer’s office. The legality was fuzzy to him. Were bits of Charlotte’s plane not evidence? Why were they sent to, of all people, him? He phoned the lawyer’s office and sat listening to hypnotic jazz for twenty minutes before deciding the entire thing was a ruse.

When he mentioned all of this to Sheena (and, by proxy, Sid) they formed their own theories, but none were satisfying. It seemed sad at first, pathetic next, then a little insane. But when the next part arrived, and as he compulsively read Internet articles about its function, Frank began to consider himself capable of building something, of resurrecting something. It was a loop: lunacy, wonderment, meaning. He discovered that the first piece on the kitchen table fit between the fuel line and timing chain; the second piece was a scorched scrap of bulkhead. When he understood the useful purpose of each part, Frank felt a feeling he could not describe, like putting down a heavy suitcase he didn’t know he’d been carrying. Then there was a stretch of only bills in the mail. It seemed to Frank that the lawyer had given up, moved on to other husbands, widowed wives. He moved both airplane parts from the kitchen to the shed.

Then a package came. A shred of instrument panel. The next week, a landing gear stay. Frank trembled at the impossibility, the stupid way he felt he had to keep this all a secret. But it was also impossible not to wonder which bit of machinery slid into which, and which piece, for Charlotte, had been the culprit, which point of schema had gone wrong. One morning he blew off work and spent the day in his shed attempting to link whatever he could, brake piston to pressure plate, wing bracket to scorched fuselage. Charlotte was never a Jesus person, but she had the habit of uttering inspirational little aphorisms whenever their lives felt hairy and sad. “There’s some purpose to this,” she’d say, or, “Wait and see how it works in the long run.” But Frank couldn’t feel the long run, not anymore. In God terms, the airplane, the snake in the thicket, the lawyer were all steps in the masterplan. But Frank wondered if the lawyer was placed in his life as a patch, a temporary and immediate fix, God delivering a mystery to keep him from sticking his head in the oven. He hauled all the lumber out of his shed to clear space, buttressed sawhorses with cinderblocks to make a plywood table. Deep into the night he tinkered or read until he was too hungry to keep on. He’d drag himself out and before unplugging the extension cord to the shed’s work light, glance back at his framework of aircraft. Some nights it looked to him like the bones of a dinosaur, excavated, a creature flight. Sometimes he recognized the altar: the steps, the canopy, the table, the gearwork of a saint. Then he’d tug the cord from its socket and make it all go black.

* * *

Sid stops before reentering the house to take his turn looking up at the sky. Constellations: ask Sid, and he’d tell you he couldn’t name one, would rather make up his own. He wasn’t one for memorizing mnemonics, invisible shapes, other people’s gropes at controlling what’s unknown.

The muddy hose is snaked around Sid’s limbs, and, because he knows Sheena reads the world more closely than others, he coils the hose to make it look less like a snake. The work dirties his hands and takes a while, but it’s fine. It’s fine to take a while, he has learned, in doing almost anything. The hole in the bed is not going to be fixed, not even by whatever magic Frank thinks can be accomplished with a garden hose. Sid knows that Frank is, truthfully, not tremendously skilled in the field of mechanics. He is much better at working with wood. Still, Frank is constantly fiddling under the hood of his Dodge, or rewiring the guts of a vacuum, and Sid sees nothing wrong with that. People need to fool themselves. They need to waste time. He’s done it. There is a windowless massage parlor on Lower Stump Road where he goes to sometimes feel love. He knows it’s fake.

He knows that Maxine, with her two bearlike hands, also knows the love she provides is fake. And in their mutual knowledge there is silence, there is agreement, and Maxine serves as provider of distraction. All people need this, Sid knows. He just knows.

“What now?” he says when he comes inside, the hose neat in his arms, and the water, unfathomably, still gushing. Soon they’ll have to leave or else drown.

“Put one end through the window,” Frank says, “the other in the hole.”

Sid pops out the window screen and drapes the hose over the sill. He plunges the other end into the mattress hole. It doesn’t change a thing. The water is almost at their knees, and each, though it is unspoken between them, is becoming too tired to care about this mystery, too confused to suss this out. Previously unseen things float on the surface: a mousetrap, a mini-golf scorecard, a destroyed printout of Slow Violence And The Environmentalism Of The Poor.

“Do you think we’re being punished for something?” Sid asks.

No one responds.

Frank’s mind wanders to The Phillies: Will they make any moves at the trade deadline? Sheena considers the difference between blackholes, which absorb, and this hole, which exudes. Sid watches these people, his cobbled family, in their distraction, and repeats the question only to be ignored again.

This always happens to Sid, either at the office or at home. At some imperceptible point in the day, everyone stops listening to him. They cease to acknowledge anything he says. But Sid doesn’t just suspect they’re being punished. He knows it. Because he knows things. He just does. For instance, he knows that the bed will keep overflowing, that in some way, their time has come. It will never stop. He knows that they’ll pack for the night and follow Frank back to his house where they’ll park behind the shed. He knows, peering in on that skeletal assembly of airplane, he will see that Frank does not yet have a steering wheel, that no propeller is bolted to the nosey tip.

Sid will rip the steering wheel from the neighbor kid’s ATV, will hit the junk shop where they sell lawn-ornament windmills for a rusty prop, and when he greases them up a bit, when he hits them with a torch, they will look authentic, and Frank will find another box at his doorstep, he will open it, and he will be stolen from grief. He will think there’s an answer.

Nick Almeida’s writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Pleiades, American Literary Review, The Southeast Review, Waxwing, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. He is a PhD candidate at University of Houston and holds an MFA from The Michener Center for Writers. His chapbook, Masterplans, is the grand prize winner of The Masters Review’s inaugural Chapbook Contest in Fiction, selected by judge Steve Almond, and will be available this fall.


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