François Bereaud

Tom Franco

      Simi sat on the Food 4 Less loading dock pulling nicotine into his lungs and watching a rat eat the reminder of a bean burrito. Could the rat feel anxiety? Doubtful. The creature acted on impulse just as he used to do, whether in the middle of a stream or on the wrestling mat. Impulse which short circuited doubt.
      “You got the eyes, boy,” Eric would tell him. The eyes to read the river for trout. The eyes to see an opponent’s move before it happened. But the 4H ribbons and medals were in the past. As was Eric. A brain aneurysm at 42. As gone as the dad Simi never knew. Now, at 23, Simi knew the overnight shift stocking shelves. He knew taste of bile when the assistant manager, a kid his age, called him out for misshelving the seasonal candy. As if Halloween was in August. Simi knew his older sister’s couch, his childhood bedroom rented out. Yet, much of his paycheck went to his mom, her rent payment gone to the latest boyfriend or bottle.
      The cigarette nub warmed his fingertips letting him know break time was almost over. A pallet of bottled water lay ahead. He looked back at the rat.
      Enormous wings created a tsunami in the night air. The rat disappeared in shadow then reemerged with a scream as the owl’s talon skewered its side. Simi flashed back to being eleven when he’d kicked at a trout for being too small, it flopping in the dirt, the barb of his hook piercing its mouth. “Stop,” Eric had said, his voice low but angry. 
      In the rays of the security light, Simi watched the owl ascend. The rodent cried again, then fell silent, a life extinguished.



      Junior year, regional final, 158 pounds. Winner goes to State. “Shine at State and a college scholarship is in the bag,” Coach said. His opponent was a kid he’d beaten twice already. The kid was scrappy but, midway through the second period, Simi had two take-downs and a comfortable lead. Then, right then, it began.
      His eyes blurred and he missed a lunge, take-down for his opponent. He worked his way out, but his legs felt heavy then numb. He struggled to keep upright as they locked arms. A trout blocked his vision. A trout? Then his legs gave out, the kid jumped on. Pinned. Match over. 
      Coach helped him up. “There’s always senior year.” He stood and felt the trout slide down his throat and settle in his stomach. He staggered out of the gym, shouts behind him. In the parking lot, he vomited greasy yellow matter behind the dumpster. He heard footsteps and stared into the viscous pool, the fish was gone.
      Tests revealed nothing. Severe anxiety the only possible diagnosis. There was no wrestling senior year, no scholarship, no college.
      Simi flicked his cigarette butt into the dumpster and felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. Only one person would message him in the middle of the night.
      Get a life. Take the class.
      His friend Mona. English 101 at the community college. One class, she’d told him a million times, just one class, gotta start somewhere. 
      His slid the phone back in his pocket and shook his legs, fearful just the thought of school would bring on the numbness. 
      An owl hooted. Another responded. He wondered if the rat was being shared or fought over. He turned and went back into the store.



      Simi walked toward the Humanities building, notebook in hand, hot and uncomfortable in his khakis. The bus was late and class started in one minute but he wouldn’t run. Students in bright colors walked in all directions. Most stared at their phones, a few smoked despite the “No Smoking” sign he passed. Some laughed. They belonged. Shiny happy people. An old boyfriend of his mom’s used to sing that song. He wanted a cigarette.
      Mona had hugged him when he said he’d go and, again, after she guided him through the online registration process. The course and health fee came to $148 which he had, but it was tight. “It’s worth it, Prof Denise is the best,” Mona said, kissing him on the cheek. Prof Denise? 
      The class was on the second floor and Simi felt his head spin and stomach drop climbing the stairs. It’d been years since school. He stopped at the top of the stairs then moved slowly down the hall, wary that a hallucinatory trout would appear. He looked at his watch, four minutes late. He approached the door and heard a woman’s voice. He peeked in and saw a full class. No way was he going to interrupt.
      Simi listened from the hall. Prof Denise asked the students to take out their phones and Google “Buzzfeed Pirate Evans.” Weird. It was a story which they read aloud. A woman becomes a pirate librarian and travels around promoting banned books. Then she gets banned for being Black and loses her marriage and kid. Crazy but good, like nothing he’d ever read in school. He almost wished he could be in the class. Then he dropped his notebook and heard footsteps. He grabbed it and hurried off, wondering what he’d tell Mona.



      “You lied to me. You didn’t go to class.”
      “How do you know?”
      “I know.”
      “You talked to Prof Denise about me?” Through the phone speaker, Simi could hear Mona breathing heavy. “You had no right,” he said, his voice rising.
      “Whatever. You should have gone.”
      “‘Whatever.’ That’s great. You don’t have anxiety. You don’t see fish–”
      “Get over it, Simi. You think you’re the only person who gets anxious?” Now Mona’s voice rose. “Or not. Work at fucking Target the rest of your life.”
      “‘Get over it?’ Fuck–” She hung up on him. 
      Simi sat on his sister’s couch. The living room was dark and sparse, the only other piece of furniture being a mostly empty bookshelf with a blue vase on top. He thought about the librarian pirate and how he didn’t come from a family of readers. And how many times he had thought to bring his sister flowers but didn’t. Maybe he was a fuck up. Ten years ago he’d been a wunderkind, traveling around the state doing fly tying demos. Five, no six years ago, he’d been the third ranked wrestler in the state. Now. Now, he had just enough time for a frozen burrito before heading to his overnight Target shift.

      During his 11 PM break, an email:
      Hi Simi. Missed you in class today. I’ve attached the syllabus and a link to a story we read. Tomorrow I have office hours in the campus library from 1-3, maybe you could drop by. See you in class Thursday. Prof Denise
      Simi closed his eyes. “Never miss a day on the river,” Eric always said. The metaphor was obvious, even to him. 
      “Simi!”  – the manager, his break ended a minute ago.



      Simi saw the red bag, one of those cloth bags everyone takes to the grocery store, on the path to the library. Next to it was a wrinkled monthly bus pass, much like his. He picked both up to turn in at the front desk. The bag was light but not empty, the weight of few notebooks. He didn’t bother to look inside.
      The librarian gave him a bored look. “We don’t have a Lost and Found here. It’s probably best to take it to the campus police, they’re –” Simi knew he was being rude but he turned from her. His face felt hot, he was getting angry. He shouldn’t have come. He stepped away quickly and jerked to the left to avoid bumping into a student heading to the desk. The bag slid off his right shoulder. It hit the tile floor and several magazines skittered out. Incredibly a fish stared at him from the cover of the top one. It looked like one of the magazines he used to devour, Fly Tyer or something. He blinked several times. It was real. He leaned over, picked it up, and began leafing through it in one smooth motion. Middle aged white guys wading in scenic streams, multi-colored flies, and ads for reel sets covered the pages. Simi became twelve again, a cute, brown-skinned, gap-toothed kid with boundless enthusiasm. Then someone brushed his shoulder. He returned to the present and looked down. A man with a very erect penis looked back at him from the next magazine. Fuck, porn. He dropped the fishing magazine and started to run, his face now burning.  Close to the door he slowed to avoid a couple holding hands.
      He froze, the voice was vaguely familiar.




      She followed himself outside and they stood under a tree next to some curved wooden benches. She could have been one of his aunties, his mom’s younger sister maybe. Skin tone like his, hoop earnings, jeans. Not what he imagined a college professor might look like, but what did he know. 
      “Those weren’t my magazines.” Why did he say that? His face was hot.
      “Did you read the story I sent you?” Professor Denise sat down and motioned for him to do the same. 
      “Yes.” Simi sat at the opposite end of the bench.
      “What did you think?”
      “I liked it but don’t think I understood it.”
      “What do you think it was about?”
      Simi looked across the quad. Students filed into a building with “MATH” in block letters on the side. He looked back at Professor Denise. “Banned books? Race maybe?” She nodded, unsmiling but friendly.
      “That’s a good start. Students wrote a 250 word response in class. You can send it in reply to my email. I should get back inside, see you in class tomorrow.” She left.
      Class tomorrow? An assignment? He didn’t even ask her how she knew it was him. He sat for a while. He had the next few days off and no plans. How long was 250 words? A page? He tried to imagine going to class tomorrow. Professor Denise did seem really cool. He thought about Mona. He owed her an apology. His phone vibrated as he pulled it out.
      I need your help. Brian is off. His mom. Brian was the latest boyfriend. He had a temper.
      Simi stood, his pulse quickened. He closed his eyes, afraid of what might appear if he opened them.



      The front door was open and he could hear Brian’s voice from the walkway to the house. The sounds were loud but more sad than angry. His mom sat in the front room, spinning her phone in her palm. “If you can’t calm him down, I’m calling 911,” she said, pointing to the kitchen. 
      Brian stood, back to Simi, shoulders shaking, pounding his fists on the counter. The cries came from deep in his chest and he hit the counter so hard, the kettle rattled on the stove. Simi paused. Brian was wiry strong but Simi had bulk on him. Instinct kicked in. He grabbed him from behind, immobilized his arms, and then executed a take down with his right leg. They landed with Brian half in Simi’s lap. Simi maintained his bear hug and, to his surprise, Brian’s body deflated, the shouts became sobs, and Simi felt Brian’s tears on his hands. Then his mom’s hand on his shoulder. “You can let go, he’ll be okay now. He has anxiety too.”

      Simi walked the three miles to his sister’s apartment, his head full of unanswered questions about a man he hardly knew, a teacher who seemed to care about him, and hallucinatory fish.
      Alone at the apartment, after eating a frozen burrito and rereading the Pirate story, he took out his notebook. What did he have to say about a story he hardly understood? After an hour, there were half written pages scattered across the floor. He messaged Mona. 
      Can I borrow your laptop? And I’m sorry.
      She responded right away.
      You should be.
      Ok. But can I borrow the laptop?
      I’m taking Prof Denise’s class. I have HW due tomorrow.
      ☺ I’ll bring it over. Fix me food.
      Simi’s hands shook a bit as he grated cheese for Mona’s burrito. Now he was committed. He had to take this class. He couldn’t lose this friendship. He couldn’t lose this opportunity.

      He closed his eyes, hoping to see something. Anything. Anything but the life he knew. Certainly, anything but those damned fish.



François Bereaud

François Bereaud is a husband, dad, full time math professor, mentor in the San Diego refugee community, and mediocre hockey player. His stories and essays have been published online and in print and have earned Pushcart, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fiction nominations. He serves as an editor at The Twin Bill, Roi Fainéant Press, and Porcupine Literary. “The Counter Pharma-Terrorist & The Rebound Queen” is his published chapbook. In September, Cowboy Jamboree Press will publish his first full manuscript, “San Diego Stories,” which is the realization of a dream. “Eyes” first appeared in The Argyle Literary Magazine.

Tom Franco

Tom Franco is a ceramicist and fine art sculptor (using found objects). His art has been shown internationally. He is the director of the Firehouse Art Collective a series of community run art studios. Along with close collaborators he has developed public art programs, mural installations, live art happenings, and documentary art films. Franco also works with his wife, the producer Iris Torres, to develop feature length narrative films.