Getting lost in new places was the only thing Frank cared to do anymore, and he arrived in Pittsburgh that cold fall morning to try it there. He had just hitch-hiked his way back down from Maine after spending some time up there as a bartender to re-coup some money. He now walked along the off ramp into the city. The skyline was unfiltered in the daylight, not like at night when it would all be lit up. Any city can look good at night if it’s big enough, but to get the real feeling for a city you’ve got to look at it in the early morning. That’s when you find out the important stuff, Frank thought, ignoring the horns of groggy drivers just trying to get to work. There was a gas station in the distance and Frank started jogging toward it. It was a mom and pop operation by the looks of it, but he couldn’t really read the sign due to the fact it had been sun bleached to the point that it was illegible.
The doors to the gas station were the automatic kind, surprisingly, and they slid open as Frank approached. Immediately inside on the far wall was an old man with spectacles whose lenses were perfectly square, and thick as ice cubes. He held a double barrel shot gun and had his eyes glued to a small T.V. on the counter that was playing an episode of The Price is Right. He had a t-shirt on that had a picture of a cartoon pig that was apparently the mascot for a brand of breakfast sausage. Frank nodded at him, and he didn’t notice, so he just continued into the store. He walked over to the coffee machine and made himself a cup. It was when he began adding the cream and sugar that the old man approached him. Frank became nervous, like he often did before meeting someone new, but it didn’t stop him from breaking the silence.
“Good morning. It’s pretty much ideal sweater weather out there. Am I right?” Frank said stirring the coffee in his paper cup. The old man didn’t say anything and just leaned against the counter. Frank’s stirring became more rapid.
“I don’t know nothing about sweaters.” The old man replied. “But it definitely feels like deer season.”
“So you’re a hunter, that’s neat. My name’s Frank I’m just in from up North to check out the city.” Frank said while awkwardly trying to snap the lid onto his coffee cup.
“Up North huh, are you one of them Canadians?” The old man asked while he reached into his pocket and pulled out his chewing tobacco.
“No, actually I was living up in Maine for a while, but now I’m traveling again. That’s sort of what I do I’m kind of a traveler.” The old man placed a wad of the brown leaves into his face and bit down.
“That’s great, listen I’ve been around the block a few times, and I’m not the most in touch with the modern age. I have sense enough to admit that. You, however, look pretty knowledgeable about what’s cool these days. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?” Frank took a long sip of coffee. What the fuck is this guy talking about, he thought.
“I mean I’m thirty-two so that technically makes me kind of young if that’s what you’re saying?” Frank replied trying to reason out where this was going.
“Yes, this is good. You’re young enough to know about how things are, and old enough to be able to reasonably speak on it. I have a question for you.” The old man said taking a second to spit into one of the empty coffee cups. This made Frank stop mid sip.
“My granddaughter, she just turned nineteen, and she wants me to pay for this chest tattoo she wants, I’m not really sure if I should or not. It doesn’t seem like the kind of gift a grandfather should be arranging for his granddaughter; you know?” Frank didn’t really know what to say but he knew it would be rude to just run out of the store like his instincts were telling him. So he decided to just roll with it.
“Yeah, I agree with you that is kind of inappropriate. Why would she ask you specifically to pay for it?” Frank said, amazed he was able to come up with anything to say at all.
“It’s because I have this friend from when I was in the service who’s a tattoo artist and he would do it for a really generous discount.”
“Okay, see, that makes more sense then. Why not just call in the favor? I mean, she’s nineteen she’s gonna get one whether you pay for it or not.” The old man sighed and put his hand on his forehead.
“It’s not the fact that she’s getting the tattoo that’s bothering me. If I call in this favor I’ll have to go with her when she goes to get the tattoo, because I can’t just not go see my friend if he’s doing me a favor he would never forgive me, and my friend Lou, the tattoo artist, is literally just as old as me. The tattoo she’s planning on getting is covering areas on her chest including parts of the upper breast, and I really don’t want to have to sit there and watch my old war buddy fondle my granddaughter’s tits.” Frank inhaled some of his coffee and started coughing violently. The old man patted him on the back and it made him very uncomfortable. Frank eventually composed himself and the old man continued to speak. “So basically I’m asking you. What should I do?” Frank replied without thinking.
“Why not just leave when he starts doing the actual tattooing?” Frank asked.
“Because at that point the picture will already be in my head and that could actually be worse.” The old man replied.
“Maybe you should just get her a puppy or something. Then she’ll be so excited and distracted by how cute it is. She’ll forget about the tattoo.” The old man gave Frank another pat on the back.
“You know what, that might actually work. I’ll catch a bit of heat from her dad for getting her a pet without telling him, but he isn’t gonna do anything. He’s an accountant or some shit. Thank you so much. What did you say your name was again? Was it like Stan or something?
“Well Frank as far as I’m concerned you’re the best Canadian I’ve ever met.” The old man then walked back to his chair, sat down, and put the gun back across his lap. Frank made his way to the front of the store. “Where do I pay for this?” He asked, pointing to the cup in his hand. Without even looking at him the old man waved him out of the store, and Frank left.
Walking across bridges was one of Frank’s favorite parts of going to new places, and the one he crossed that day was a happy bridge. He crossed very few happy bridges in his time on the road. Most always had some kind of sign dedicated to the people who had jumped, but this one didn’t have anything like that. This one just had little flowers painted on the railing. Frank imagined that they were painted by a group of third graders, probably in art club or something. A bad thought seeped into his head. What if all of those flowers represented all the different people who jumped? That seemed like something a community might do as a tribute. Maybe this bridge wasn’t happy after all. Maybe it just pretended to be.
When he came to the end of the bridge Frank saw two kids, both boys, standing around an old storefront. They couldn’t have been older than twelve. He didn’t pay them much attention, but after he passed them he heard the patter of their shoes behind him. The one on the right eventually tapped him on the shoulder and said something.
“What the hell kind of grown man, like you, doesn’t have a car, and a place to be on a day like today?” He asked.
“That’s a pretty complicated question for ten in the morning, and to be coming from you. You’re like twelve years old, what makes you wise enough to assume those things about me?” Frank replied continuing to walk.
“He didn’t assume anything you clearly aren’t employed because It’s fucking Monday and you look like you haven’t changed your clothes in days. Not to mention, no one walks across that bridge unless their killing themselves or they don’t have a car.” The other boy said.
“Wait so people have jumped off that bridge before?” Frank asked now stopping and looking down at them.
“Well duh, what did you think all those flowers painted on the railing represented?” The first boy said now smoking a cigarette, to Frank’s surprise.
“Shit, I was hoping that wasn’t the case.” Frank said punching the air in defeat.
“What did you expect? A nice community art project? Here’s a bit of truth for you, no bridge that hasn’t been a high dive for some loser’s last jump has ever been noticed enough to have anything like that painted on it.” Said the boy with the cigarette.
“That’s actually not true.” Frank replied swiping the cigarette out of the kid’s mouth and tossing it on the ground. “Now what are your names?”
“Marcus.” Said the smoker. “Bert.” Said the other. The entire street was empty except for them, and there was a streetlamp above them that was malfunctioning and hadn’t switched off even though the sun had been up for hours.
“Your parents really named you Bert?” Frank asked thinking Bert was a name better suited for a puppet.
“Well my name’s actually Robert, but I think the name Rob is kind of douchey.” Bert replied.
“Then why not just go by Robert? Never mind, what do you guys want? Or was your only objective to ruin that bridge for me?”
“We’re mainly just bored.” Marcus chimed in. “Our school got like, condemned, or some shit. So we’ve been on break for like half a month, and we’ve kind of run out of things to do?”
“How the fuck did your school get condemned?” Frank asked suspicious of their claim.
“Well the Mayor said it was isis.” Bert replied. “But I’m pretty sure it was just that racist asshole Carter with a ridiculous amount of M80s.”
“Some kid tried to blow up your school? I fucking doubt it.”
“No he didn’t try he succeeded they are literally rebuilding parts of it right now.” Frank leaned against the nearest building, and shook his head.
“Listen we know you’re like a bum, or whatever. People like you come through this town all the time. We know you have stories so can you just tell us one? Then we’ll leave you alone.” Marcus said lighting another cigarette.
“Tell me something first.” Frank replied, this time swiping the cigarette, and taking a hit. “Did either of you know anyone who jumped off that bridge?” There was an awkward silence and Frank could tell by the looks on the boy’s faces that they both did.
“There was this car accident out there once. This woman named Mary Tran looked away from the road to pet her French bulldog in the passenger seat next to her. During the micro-seconds that took, her car drifted into the middle divider ramping the vehicle over it sending her car into the oncoming traffic on the other side. Mary’s car crushed a mint green Buick Skylark, and killed the entire Fredrick family. Both parents, a son, and a daughter. Mary climbed out of the wreckage, herself and her dog completely unscathed, and saw everything. This included all the blood and guts from the dead family. She screamed like she had lost her mind, picked up the dog, and leapt over the railing that the city didn’t even bother making more than three feet high.” Marcus said looking down at the ground as the story concluded.
“She took the fucking dog with her, that’s fucking terrible.” Frank said speaking way louder than was appropriate.
“Yeah.” Marcus replied swiping the cigarette back and taking a long drag.
“That must have been a pretty big deal if even you can remember all the details like that.”
“Mrs. Tran was our second grade teacher.” Bert chimed in rocking back and forth on his heels with his hands in his pockets. “We got a lot of time off school that year too.” Both boys then turned around and started walking back the way they came.
“Wait a second don’t you want to hear one of my stories?” Frank called after them.
“No, we’re depressed enough.” Marcus called back, not even turning his head. An unsettling image of a French bulldog skeleton floating through the murky water below the bridge flashed in Franks mind. He wiped his eyes and continued further into the city.
Things became strangely pleasant once Frank had moved into the newer parts of the city. Sports bars and clothing stores filled the lanes, and happy people moved from one place to the next in nice clothes. Frank stuck out around here in his unwashed hoodie and jeans, and with his huge hiking backpack, but no one payed him any attention. They were all pre-occupied it seemed.
After some sightseeing, and loitering Frank saw a sign for an aquarium and decided to pay a visit. He’d only been to an aquarium once and he couldn’t remember it because he was so young at the time. The building looked a lot like an old library or a fancy museum. It had these marble steps that lead up to the door and just walking on them made his steps feel more important.
The exhibits were free so there wasn’t anyone out front to greet him or anything. The building seemed empty to Frank as he walked through the lobby and into the first exhibit, which was all about starfish or something. The starfish were boring to him because all they did was lay around slowly eating things you couldn’t see because they were lying on top of it. The next exhibit seemed more interesting though. It was this dark room with a tank that was all around it and in the tank was a single cuttlefish. It really creeped Frank out with it’s weird mouth tentacles. At one point in watching it almost gave him a high five. After a while Frank began to get bored with the cuttlefish so he went to leave, but stopped when he heard a voice.
“You consider yourself a hermit, right?” Frank turned around and saw only the glowing cuttlefish floating in the tank opposite him.
“Hello?” Frank asked looking around the room. No one was there.
“Don’t be such an idiot I’m looking right at you. It’s obvious I’m talking to you.” Frank looked right at the cuddle and walked aggressively over to it.
“Was that you? Can you speak? Are you seriously talking to me?”
“Yes we cuttlefish are actually highly intelligent. I also speak Spanish.”
“Really? Can you show me. It’d be really cool to hear a cuttlefish speak Spanish.”
“Uh, well. Okay fine I don’t actually know Spanish. Are you happy you humans just always have to make every other species look stupid don’t you.” Frank laughs.
“I wasn’t trying to trick you I was genuinely curious.”
“There’s a two-way speaker above you and the camera is in that corner over there. Thanks for playing along. Most people just tell my manager and my pay gets docked.” Frank looked up and saw a P.A. speaker above him, and there was in fact a camera in the corner of the room.
“I knew it.” Frank said. “But I would never have told on you the old talking cuttlefish bit is a classic.”
“Isn’t it though? My name’s Natalie what’s yours?” Natalie asked.
“It’s Frank, and yes by the way.”
“Yes what?” Natalie replied as the cuttlefish disappeared deeper into the tank.
“The question you asked me earlier. If I consider myself a hermit. I do.”
“Oh, I hope that wasn’t an offensive question it’s just with the backpack and the clothes and all you looked like someone who traveled a lot, but you didn’t strike me as a bum.” The cuttlefish changed colors to match the light of the florescence above it.
“That’s good, at least I don’t look like a bum. So is spying on people and doing cuttlefish impressions your whole job? Or do you also feed the dolphins and stuff?” Frank asked leaning against the tank.
“Oh my god no. I don’t go any where near the dolphins. Almost all of them are rapists.”
“I have heard that.” Frank replied.
“I really just mostly wipe down tanks and supervise school field trips. But there hasn’t been a lot of those lately since one of the biggest schools around here just got blown up.”
“Are you kidding me? That’s actually true?”
“Of course it’s true they finally admitted it wasn’t isis though.”
“Well that’s a start at least.” Frank replied. “Can I ask you something?”
“What?” Replied Natalie.
“What’s your favorite part about working at this aquarium?”
“Besides my cuttlefish joke?”
“Yes beside the cuttlefish joke?”
“Hmm, smoking weed in the back alley during breaks is pretty nice. It makes cuttlefish monitoring a whole lot more fun.”
“Well the jokes on you because I was an undercover cop this whole time. I’m here to arrest you for abusing the highly addictive and deadly drug, marijuana.” Frank said doing a bad impression of a 1960s detective.
“You caught me Natalie replied.” “Now it’s my turn to ask you a question. What’s you’re favorite thing about being a hermit?”
“Hold on now I never said I was answering any questions.” Frank replied.
“But you have to. I answered yours.”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on if you don’t answer I’ll have security throw you in with the dolphins.”
“That’s a pretty serious threat I guess I have no choice now.” Natalie laughed.
“So answer.” Frank thought for a second.
“I don’t know being a hermit isn’t really anything like a job it’s more like a way of living; you know? Asking me my favorite part of being a hermit is like me asking you what’s your favorite part about being middle class?”
“That’s not hard I can answer that, my parent’s pool.” Frank laughs.
“Shit, I guess I have to think of an answer then. I guess it would have to be the freedom. Being able to do whatever you want is pretty great. It’s funny because I was just thinking about this earlier. I think that there are secrets that are revealed to people that travel on foot. Especially when they’re alone. It’s like your brain starts filling out all the space around you and you can look up and see all the constellations clearly without any reference, and open spaces become familiar. Then all of a sudden you feel like you’re going somewhere. Even though you’re not really going anywhere.” Frank said now sitting on the floor leaning back against the tank.
“That sounds more frightening than exciting. Don’t you ever get afraid you’ll get lost out there in all that space?” Natalie asked.
“Not really. I’m mostly just scared I’ll get trapped. Was that a good answer?” Frank asked looking up at the camera.
“It was more thought out than mine was anyway.” She replied. The two of them laughed and then fell silent. Frank stood up and took another look at the cuttlefish. Him and Natalie watched as it swam around and changed colors. Fading in and out of view with its camouflage like it was a traveler coming and going as it pleased.