Mark C. Hull
EVERYONE AGREED WITHOUT a word that, because the man was well-tailored and missing an arm, he knew what he was talking about.
“Bull sharks don’t just attack,” he announced. “They go through a process. If they’re interested in eating something they’ll give it a bump first. Sharks are some of the smartest creatures on the planet, I’ll have you know.”
Yes, he was right, we all decided, because his right arm was conspicuously missing from his torso and his jacket had been tailored to accommodate the disability. His plaid sport coat and the dead-end sleeve hemmed into the side of it with such careful consideration implied a man whose wealth was vast and whose wisdom was well-earned through the painful ordeal of limb severance. He must’ve lost it on a scuba expedition to Roatan, perhaps, or while studying the migratory habits of White Tips in the Bahamian Sea. Doing something noble right before it was rent from him, most assuredly, although decorum prevented anyone from posing the question outright of how he lost the arm. It was obvious the man was wealthy and it’s unwise to insult the wealthy for fear of the consequences that money can levy when a wealthy man senses offense like a shark senses blood in the water.
There were about ten of us, all strangers to one another for the most part, being ferried up to the top of the mountain in a glass gondola. We coasted high above the Rockies in the salubrious air with the plicated forest floor far below. It was a rich and rarefied environment and we were atop the world, literally and figuratively and every other way. There was a lookout restaurant at the top, and we were going to an afternoon cocktail party.
It was because of me that the subject of sharks had come up in the first place. I’d been humming the lyrics to Mack the Knife, specifically the part about the shark with its pretty teeth. It was a random snippet, part of this scattered jukebox in my head that will play no more than ten seconds of any given song, repeat it four or five times, then shut off as abruptly as it started.
I’d given voice to the fragment, and in no time the lecture commenced about the feeding habits of sharks from the one-armed sage who’d probably sacrificed his arm rescuing a child from being devoured after the kid had received the ominous bump from the sea predator to appraise the level of edibility.
I wondered what would’ve happened if I’d absently sung the lyrics to Summer Wind? Would the man have started a lecture on the meteorological consequences of the prevailing westerly air currents during perihelion? Most likely, because when a person has that much money they know a lot about a lot of things because they can buy all sorts of exposure.
Well, hell, it’s time for a confession. I’m lying, and I hate that it’s even come to this. There were ten of us, that much is true, except we weren’t on an airy gondola headed to the top of a windswept mountain. Instead we were seated on a city bus, trudging along the expressway in bumper-to-bumper traffic with nary a mountaintop in sight but plenty of dirty rooftops and angry drivers honking their horns at nothing and everything.
It was summertime, the air was sticky with the kind of heat that radicalizes folks and the bus’s air-conditioning system was only partially working. I should be forgiven for my momentary reverie of being in the mountains and airlifted to a cocktail party as a reflexive coping mechanism. I was headed to a job I hated.
There is a vein of truth woven through every fib, though. The man with one arm had boarded the bus and seated himself close to me, a bit too close considering the bus was mostly empty. There’s an unspoken rule of city-bus entropy which states that travelers will position themselves as far from strangers as possible and only converge as the seating area gets more crowded. It serves as a warning, like a shark bump, when a rider violates the rather Newtonian law of public transportation and prematurely plops down too close to another passenger.
I could tell he had one arm from the way one sleeve of his shirt had been sliced off at the elbow with a pair of dull scissors and then cinched with a rubber band. His one hand had been carrying a tote bag filled with dry sponges. He tried to sell me ten of them for five dollars.
I had been singing Mack the Knife, because no lie is without its adornments of factuality, to which the one-armed solicitor, in a rather unsolicited manner, told me, “Ten drops of blood in the water and a shark can smell it and track it from a half of a mile away.”
I gave him a look that suggested just because I happened to be singing a song didn’t mean I’d signed up for a lecture. The man was probably full of shit anyway with his shark trivia—just a couch potato watching ocean documentaries, collecting sponges and awarding himself an honorary doctorate in marine biology.
“Sharks are incredibly smart,” he said, which made sense for him to want me to think that, because if his arm had been severed in the murky water of some public beach by a bull shark he would want it to be a smart bull shark because there’s nothing worse than being maimed by a dumb one. There’s no dignity in losing a limb to, say, a three-toed sloth.
“Yup, damn sloth just lazily crept out of the tree and attacked. I should’ve known he was coming for me, because it took like fifteen minutes for him to reach me from seven feet away and another three minutes for him to pluck my arm off like a grape and stuff it in his fool mouth. I tell you, that was the smartest dumb three-toed sloth I’d ever seen.”
I wondered if I’d been absently singing the song Summer Wind would the one-armed sponge salesman have told me about the time he farted in August? I’m sure he’s an expert on that subject, too.
In every situation, be it gondola, half-broke bus or otherwise, there’s a moment of reckoning, and I suppose it’s now time for such a squaring of accounts. I wasn’t riding public transportation, and I certainly wasn’t in a glorious mountaintop sky tram, although either of those two scenarios would’ve been preferable to the one I was actually in, which was a crowded room where we sat, all ten of us, waiting to be called in for our monthly meeting with our respective parole officers.
I wouldn’t blame a single soul for not believing me at this point. I’m a liar and a cheat and a conman, made official by our modern court system. I’m on my way to rehabilitation but obviously not quite there yet and I will say that the best at the art of deception are those who can wield these fictions from some firm foundation of truth.
The man only had one arm, sure enough, although I hadn’t noticed it at first because in this place everybody ought to mind their own business. He’d sat next to me in the last empty seat. He had a bit of a pong about him too, a creeping odor that I thought it best not to turn toward for fear that it would only get worse if my nose had been oriented in his direction. I was humming Mack the Knife, and he started humming along with me and that’s when I glanced over and saw his severed arm because it was hanging out of his tee shirt sleeve with the skin at the bottom sewn up like the butt of a sausage.
“A shark can actually smell muscular movement in its prey,” he told me.
I gave a polite nod even though I’d be damned if I was going to believe a deranged lunatic who’d probably lost the shank of his limb in a robbery gone bad. Armed robbery? Not anymore. I was sure that the only sharks he was familiar with were the ones in the alleyways, dressed in full leather, throwing dice against the wall and talking double-fast about a real easy score, because they’re all easy until they turn out to be a setup. In this place everyone is scamming everyone else, and if they start fast-talking in some sub rosa street code it’s because they want to pull a guy in, see what they can get from him. They’re the sharks and this is the bump right before the attack, and how the hell can anything smell movement and so he was a straight lying grifter who probably wanted to recruit me because I had twice the amount of arms that he had.
If I’d been singing Summer Wind would he have told me about that time he was stealing automobiles in August with the windows rolled down doing a hundred miles an hour with the pedal to the floor? After that he would suggest we partner up for a few scores because since the doberman took his arm off he’s been unable to steal anything with a stick shift and that’s where the real money is because sports cars tend to have standard transmissions. He’d suggest we go fifty-fifty because he had the connections and I had the arms, and so how about it?
“Bull sharks don’t just attack,” he said. “They go through a process. If they’re interested in eating something they’ll give it a bump first. Sharks are some of the smartest creatures on the planet, I’ll have you know.”
“Lying-ass convict,” somebody muttered.