Only Sharks and Punks

I can’t tell you about what’s happening to me. My experience is singular; it’s the absurd reality that I see and wells from within me, influenced by what’s around me. But his life, I can talk about that. It was right in front of me, the unfolding of reality as surreal as fiction.

He spilled hot coffee grounds on his feet while cleaning the French press. Steaming, set on his foot like an iron on a shirt, it scalded his skin. He stared at it as if it were as matter of fact as the floor under his feet. Scream! I thought. React! Prove that you are living by responding to the stimulus. He didn’t; he wouldn’t. There was simply too much that was happening to him. And he just looked at it all the while his skin melted. Time. Time would cool the coffee grounds. It would heal his wounds. Real time, scorched earth, flesh, life.

Ow? I thought. Nothing. He said nothing. “Did that hurt your foot, Joe?” I had to ask. I was reading a book on the couch about the ethics of industrialized agriculture—the dearth of ethics. I was studying for a master’s degree in agricultural policy. Living in a city, detached from the reality of this study, made me feel like a crazy person. The chemicals! The injustice! Parity! They need parity! No one was listening, especially not now.

“I can’t afford to be bothered,” he responded with his monotone Australian accent. It was difficult for me to understand. I’d studied in England and still couldn’t decipher his words. Half the time I wasn’t so sure that I really understood English as a language. I could read it. I could write it. But when I spoke to the various members of the English speaking community, I felt that their emphasis was on different parts of their thoughts. Joe would say, It’s fucked. My roommate in London, For fuck’s sake. My American classmate, We’re fucked. Each gave different weight to who or what is fucked. So, no, I couldn’t understand English. I could only speak it.

“Well, mate,” I used his favorite familiar name, “doesn’t it burn?” He looked at his foot again like the coffee had simply landed there of its own volition. It was fucking him. What was he going to do about it? Would it hear his scream? No, no, no. Of course not. Nothing hears our misery. Miserere mei. And yet, we’re burned over and over. And it doesn’t stop. Never. We ask an entity for mercy or simply attribute motive to the inanimate. The coffee grounds landed exactly as the earth’s rotation and gravity would have it. He looked at me and said—eppur si muove—“Yes.”

We couldn’t escape the insanity-inducing, rat, rat, rat, tat, tat, tat, pause, rat, rat, rat, tat, tat, tat, pause, of the jackhammer. New restrictions on mobility, the new normal, life, if you will, would not allow it. I sat in our kitchen reading about how to halt deforestation for grazing lands in Brazil while Joe wiped the coffee grounds from his feet, whistling some Spanish tune that he couldn’t understand, while a jackhammer blasted the sidewalk in front of our apartment—take your pick, fine particulate matter suspended in the air, coronavirus, chlorinated water, freon-laced air-conditioned air, mosquitos, or lead from century old pipes. “We’ve gotta get out of here, mate.” He’d say things matter of fact. It was just so. Get out. But we couldn’t. “Where are you going?” I asked disaffectionately, distantly, unbothered. We, the adults of the world, go where we will.

He didn’t respond. He went to his room, put on his Nikes, walked to the door, and said, “I’m going for a walk.” I didn’t look up from my book. I just said, “Right.” The door slammed; the keys turned the lock; his footsteps moved further away, patters in a departing train. One. Two. Three. I jumped up from the couch. I slid into my flip flops, grabbed my keys, facemask, and hat, and rushed out the door to follow him.

Let me explain. A few months before that, Joe told me that when he arrived in Barcelona, he was walking down La Rambla with his roller bag—a tourist straight off the plane. Also, let me explain again. You’ve been to Barcelona. We’ve all been to Barcelona. Your favorite city in Europe, just like everybody else? Well, this isn’t your Rambla. This is the psychedelic Rambla of the future. All the stalls are closed. All the restaurants are closed. The music hall is closed. There’s a line outside of the Carrefour grocery store—masked people two meters apart, liberally applying hand sanitizer. A man without legs sits at the door. It’s an amazing tactic—not his, but ours. We ignore reality as it sits in front of us with its missing legs. We don’t have anything. We go into the grocery store to look at things and to increase our exposure to the virus. But without fail, ninety percent of people walk past the legless man at the door (and the schizophrenic American homeless woman mumbling as she rocks against the wall behind him) and say that we don’t have anything. Meanwhile, the same Pakistani, Marroqui, Turkish, wherever they come from men are slinging those light up tourist traps into the sky so that their friends can rob you as you look up like an idiot going Wooooow. This Rambla is empty. There are only sharks and punks. The punks skateboard through El Raval to the MACBA. The cops scatter them systematically every hour or so. Along La Rambla, all those sharks are just waiting. Lining La Rambla are the Mossos, Guardia Civil, Guardia Urbana. But guess what, none of them can do anything. If one of those guys takes your purse with your iphone and two-hundred euros cash, nothing. They will say, I’m sorry. Let’s write a report. And the sharks keep swimming, because until they accidentally kill someone, they are free to hunt. So, Joe was walking down La Rambla expecting it to be just like last time, simply without tourists. And he’s right. It’s just like last time sans distraction. Now the sharks can see you clearly. And they’re patient. They’ll follow you if they have to. But you’re dumb enough to stand there looking at a building edifice that doesn’t resemble anything you’ve ever seen. And they slip up and get what they’re after.

But now, it’s different. The sharks are hungrier than they’ve ever been.

Should they go home? Is home any better? No one knows. So, we keep meandering around these places hoping that eventually everything will feel normal again. And Joe continues seeking that jetsetter, nomadic lifestyle he has become accustomed to. He showed up to Barcelona ready to hit the clubs, ready to dance with Russian chicks, ready to let loose. But the world was coming at him harder than ever—eppur si muove.

Joe told me that he was casually walking down La Rambla enjoying how vacant it was. A group of Moroccan teens jumped him. They stole his bag. He managed to keep his wallet and phone. Idiots. They were idiots. Nobody needs clothes, toothpaste, and shoes. All we need is money. He eventually found his way to our apartment where I was already living and where he’d rented a room. He showed me slash marks on his wrist and shins. He told me he’d been mugged. I asked him what he did about it. He said that an armored police vehicle was about fifty meters away and did nothing. Who were they policing if not teenage Moroccan gangs, I wondered. Joe seemed like he might be a little mentally off—p’alla as said in Barcelona. He was out there. At the very least, he was non-responsive. I loaned him some toothpaste. He brushed with his pointer finger. The next day he went out and came back with three new sets of clothes, a bathing suit, toiletries, and a bicycle.

A week after that, he was walking down La Rambla. Going out there alone again was hard to believe considering what happened to him before. But there he was, swimming amongst the sharks and the cops. I don’t know where he was headed, but he said he was standing waiting for a pedestrian light to change. There were no cars, few taxis, and a handful of motorbikes. An overweight Latina woman nearly ran over his foot with a scooter. For some reason, he stood waiting to cross. A man with a dark leather face accented by beady black eyes and a jet-black mustache appeared at his side and said (in English, always a bad sign because you’ve been spotted), “Buy a ring?” Joe said that he looked at him and said, “Nah, mate.” Well, here come those police. Maybe it looked like a drug deal. Maybe it’s a severe crime to sell aluminum rings under the pretense being gold from Nigeria. The cops asked what was happening. Before Joe could speak up, the little leathery man said (in Spanish, much safer if your story needs authenticity), “He tried to sell me this ring!” The cops told Joe to give them everything in his pockets. He unloaded them. A smartphone. A packet of Manitou organic tobacco. A wallet with sixty euros, two Visa credit cards, a debit card, a driver’s license, and a few business cards from various vendors. His passport. They told him to take off his hat and put all of the contents in the hat. Hand it over. He did. Suspiciously, the leathery man had slinked off into the night. More suspicious was that Joe didn’t have pockets full of stolen jewelry—those had already slipped into the Gothic Quarter with the leather man. Nonetheless, the cops told him not to sell jewelry. Joe said that he wasn’t selling jewelry. They told him to be careful of scams too. Joe’s Spanish was horrible. All that he heard was “No.” He took his things back and left the scene.

Well, that wasn’t it. Somewhere in the mix-up, Joe’s passport had gone missing. It had gone missing. Joe wasn’t upset, maybe confused, but what could he do? It was gone. He came back home and told me that the cops stole his passport. He had to go to Madrid to get a new one. Madrid, the city of bodies lined up on ice-rinks and freezer trucks.

Joe told me that they chained him to a hospital bed so he wouldn’t escape. Flight risk. Young male. Tested positive for COVID-19. It seemed so unlikely. What were the chances? And that’s when I realized that they were pretty high.

Now more than ever, there’s no story untouched by the untouchable.

Our living arrangement didn’t lend itself to being too worried about roommates. It was more like a room-for-rent scenario than a Jack-John-and-Joe’s house setup. We didn’t share friends. When I had an ex-girlfriend over for drinks one night, Joe didn’t even talk to her. He waved, slammed his door, and probably spent the rest of the night on Reddit looking for sub-Reddits that were stranger than reality, to no avail. I had no choice. I would never meet someone new while everyone was scared to get a virus from a stranger. At the beginning of the pandemic, articles littered websites about “when will it be safe to have sex [with strangers] again.” My thinking was: never. The consensus was that viral transmission wasn’t happening from seminal fluids or vaginal moisture. It was happening from kissing. This was the death of kissing.

I laid in bed that night and wondered if my last kiss would be memorable to me as I lay dying chained to a bed in a foreign country. I started having sex with a lesbian friend from highschool, woke up, and remembered that I didn’t have the virus. And she would never have sex with me.

Weeks later, Joe reappeared, no worse for the wear, and said, “Mate, crazy trip to get my passport.” Right on, tell me about it. I used all of the colloquial phrases that I knew. That’s unreal. What a disaster. Yikes! A shit-show. Man, glad you’re doing alright now. Were you afraid you might die? He said, “Yes. My pants were full of shit. I had needles in my arm. And my Spanish is shit. I thought I was dead.”

Joe stood before me with scars on his shins where the Moroccans had kicked him, scars on his wrists where they had chained him to the bed in Madrid, and holding a temporary passport that gave him seventy days to leave the country. There were no flights to Melbourne (which had recently relocked down). He asked me if I wanted to smoke a cigarette. I said it seemed like a foolish time to risk it. He responded that it was a risky time to be an “uptight cunt.” I wasn’t really sure what he said. I said, “I’ll stand with you.”

I’d started volunteering at a farmer’s market for a few weeks. It’s closed again now. But I’d go out a few days a week to work with the people that I wanted to support by spending too much on organic groceries. One of those market days, I rushed out the door. On the way out, I noticed that Joe’s bike wasn’t in the hallway. It looked like a nice day to take a ride. I thought nothing of it. I put my mask on and went out the door.

That week the restrictions had been tightened again. The farmer’s market group was meeting so we could discuss our plans for the coming month. I’ll spare you the details. Basically, it seemed like going forward was difficult. But we’d adjust; we’d weather this storm. The earth was still out there getting abused. If we treated the earth better, we figured we had a better chance of survival.

After the meeting, a friend from the group, Laura, and I went to get a drink. We talked about the group, farms, farmers, soil, rain, the ocean. We had another beer. We talked about urban farming, governmental assistance, governmental restriction, organic clothing (silly or brilliant?). I felt like Laura was interested in me. We were talking so intimately. It was a dangerous time to be so intimate. Then I realized that the conversation had turned from food etc. to her ex-boyfriend etc. Red flag. Not interested in me. I felt the blood letting from my veins. I was less invested in the conversation now that I knew there was no chance of getting quarantined with her. She mentioned that she had to be up early the next day for work. I thought to myself, what a shame to get up for anything right now. Seems healthier to let reality continually wash around you. Good night.

I texted my ex-girlfriend. Still in Barcelona? Yeah, yeah. We met up. It was easy. Why not. We had all the same germs—maybe. I went to her place. We drank a little bit. Then she said she had to work tomorrow. I said me too. Nothing happened. Went home.

Joe was in the kitchen making a pasta dish and smoking a joint. It was three in the morning. “Mate, you’ll never guess what happened.” And I thought, you’re right. I can’t ever guess what’s going to happen again. I can’t believe that anything that’s happening is happening. It’s fucked, for fuck sake; we’re fucked. So, I listened to one more story that seemed unthinkable. “The cops. Again, mate.” Not really surprised. While everyone else’s eyes are turned to the disaster in the USA, Spanish cops allow robberies and assaults, steal passports, and round up groups of African men, easy targets. “They stopped me on my bike. Two-hundred euros for not wearing a mask. I asked them,” he made a motion of running, “they said no mask needed. I said,” he made a biking motion, “they said yeah mask needed. I said well that’s fucked up.” I couldn’t believe it.

So, I had to start following him. And that morning when he spilled the coffee grounds on his foot, I thought, what fucking shit. Everything bad happens to this guy. I have to witness this firsthand.

I bolted out of the door just in time to see which way he turned. The streets were pretty sparse. So, it wasn’t too hard. Towards La Rambla. What an idiot, I thought. Our neighbor with the reptile head (skin tattooed green and scaly, ridges on top of head, no ears) asked, “Que tal?” I said, “Bien, bien.” And walked on. My friend Jose shouted to me from the bar next to our apartment: “Hey! Don’t be out past midnight.” I told him I knew. Another curfew.

I caught up to Joe on La Rambla. He was walking towards the Estatua de Colón.

Blue lasers shot through the air. Little bits of light up plastic that make us feel a brief moment of rapture before they fall to the earth again. The men with darker skin say, cerveza, birra, cola. The men with darker skin say, weed, coke, weed. The men with the darker skin say, coke, acid, girls.

Joe walked past it all. He turned towards Barceloneta. He walked past the sailboats. They were lined up like the niches on the side of Montjuic. Our days of exploration, the days of Columbus, are over; we are embalmed, lined up, incapable of resistance. A young teenager straddled her boyfriend on a bench under a shaded wall and thrust into his crotch as she plunged her tongue into his throat. I noticed Joe smile to himself.

We passed through Barceloneta. Someone shouted “Jose!” Joe turned around and nearly saw me. I ducked into a side street. I was surprised that he even knew his name was Jose in Spanish. I caught up with him as he crossed the road onto the beach. I hung back and watched him sit in the sand.

He sat with his legs crossed, back erect, and looked out into the ocean. He held a soft smile on his face. Then he closed his eyes. For an hour, he sat like this. The waves crashed. Tick tock. People laughed. Tick tock. Cerveza, beer! Tick tock. The sun set behind Montjuic. Tick tock. The air cooled.

That was the first time that I knew who my roommate was. This world was not a chess board; it was a petri dish. And if it grows, it can live. He was growing, but the world was growing up around him. And one of the most potent adaptive tools in nature is the urge to survive. Joe was trying to calmly exist. But now, more than ever, he was surrounded by survivalists. The punks resisted being squashed by the man, and the sharks nipped at our heels.

I tried to stare into the sea to see what he saw. My belief in something moving that sea other than gravity was waning. It’d been so long since I sat next to my grandmother in church wondering: who is she singing to?

My main preoccupation was that because of global warming, sharks were hunting in different waters. They were following the prey as they migrated to colder water. A sixty-three year old woman was killed by a great white shark in Maine. First recorded in Maine’s two-hundred year history. Declared dead after being dragged to the shore by kayakers. Her daughter was present.

The world was warming and problems were evolving with the warmth. The sharks want to survive.

Joe’s meditation ended. I followed him back to El Raval. He smiled at the beautiful, masked women of Barcelona. They didn’t even meet his eyes. The beer hawkers approached him, but he said no.

He turned onto Joaquin Costa. I was a hundred meters behind him. And now I was certain: we meditate because there is something immaterial that never punishes this body of ours and so it fills us with peace. As he smiled, reeling from the ecstatic freedom of his moment on the beach, a group of Moroccan teens approached him, one of the gangs of minors roaming Barcelona like reef sharks, homeless, in this or that country, and they delivered the vengeance that I never believed came from anywhere but right here on this sordid planet doomed to destruction.

I hit them because I hated the injustice of it. I hit them because it felt wrong. I saw a group of sharks ripping an old woman to shreds. So I had to do something about it.


Gresham Cash is a musician, filmmaker, and writer from Atlanta. Aside from his own creative pursuits, he’s worked as an editor for Fall Line Press and an online journal called The Seed & Plate. With his first short story accepted by Eunoia Review in 2020, he labors towards publishing more of his fiction.