Joaquin McHugh was born in the engine room of a Danish ship. She was born there because her mother did not want her father to know of the birth. Her father, Captain Jeremiah P. McHugh, was extremely secretive about his middle name, but some rival sailors said it was Patricia; and so out of a twisted sense of social obligation and a great fear of unintentional silences, Joaquin’s mother gave her daughter a boy’s name in the hopes that it would provide the two something to talk about should they ever discover one another.
Joaquin McHugh loved volcanoes. She found them to be unexpected in a way that men were not, and she would often walk along their edges and consider the possibility of dying as a young girl.
Because she was born on a Danish ship outside Juneau, she considered herself Alaskan, but upon uncovering her birth, the engineer had her declared a “Woman of the World” on her passport. This title allowed her to enter most countries without consequence so long as she provided the country with a terrestrial or nautical service within her first 30 days ashore. This is how Joaquin McHugh became a motorcycle acrobat in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Joaquin performed at 5:30 and 7:30, Monday through Friday. 7:30 was the late show when the cruise boat crowd could not attend, so it was mostly drunk townies getting high off eagle semen.
“It’s natural,” they’d say to her. “You’re not from here. You don’t understand.”
“I was born here,” Joaquin would say, and they’d just look at her with their beer-bloated faces and their dog collars in their hands and say, “Do a trick for us.”
Joaquin paid them no mind.
The shows Joaquin put on in the Ketchikan Museum were furious if not short. She didn’t have much space and would sort of pedal around the room with one foot, dragging her motorbike with her. The hardwood floors made it slippery, and photographs of child miners and confused Tlingit Indians surrounded her. She shared the room with a Eurasian Eagle Owl named Hans, who did not care for her humor.
At night, Joaquin would listen for the sounds of otters making love in her backyard before returning to the sea. They chortled as they climaxed, and it made Joaquin lonely and long for the water. She polished her motorbike each night, and her contorted reflection amused her because she figured that was what people saw anyway.
One day, after a particularly rousing show during which three old ladies came up to her and gave her a silver dollar, a man in his mid-sixties approached her. She removed her helmet and her long, reddish-blonde hair lashed her collarbone.
“That was one helluva show you put on,” he said. “How come that owl looks funny?”
“He’s molting,” said Joaquin.
“Well, someone should tell ‘im to quit it.”
Joaquin wasn’t sure what to say, but there was something familiar about the man, so she smiled at him.
“How come you got a boy’s name?” he asked, wiping his nose with the back of his finger. His gray scruff glistened a little in the fluorescent museum light. The Eurasian Eagle Owl flapped its wings.
“My mother said she’d tell me when I got older, but she up and died.”
“That’s funny. I got a name that isn’t right either.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Just don’t fit is all. Nothing wrong with it, I guess.” The man cleared his throat. The room smelled of old gold and newspaper.
“You been to the Blueberry Arts Festival yet?” Joaquin looked down at her red boots. She always felt as if she had particularly small feet. The man’s feet weren’t very big either. Not abnormally small, just petite.
“Nah, I saw a buncha kids racing slugs before.”
“Yeah, that’s it, but there’s also blueberries.”
The man thought about it. “I like blueberries.”
“Well, that’s your ticket. The only one in the world.”
The man shook his head. He turned to leave. “The only one, huh?”
“In the world,” said Joaquin McHugh. “Pick one of the small slugs. They’ve got grit.”
The man smiled. He left the museum. Later, Joaquin stopped by the festival where a pile of Alaskan children traded slugs and snorted Tang when their parents weren’t watching. She looked for him in each blueberry-stained corner, behind the finger painting wolves and Secretary Seward’s shame pole, hoping he might have lingered, but the man was not there. And somehow, she knew she would not see him again.
Matthew Di Paoli received his BA at Boston College, where he won the Dever Fellowship and the Cardinal Cushing Award for Creative Writing. He has also been nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize and won the Prism Review Short Story Contest. Matthew earned his MFA in Fiction at Columbia University. He has been published in Post Road Magazine, Neon, Litro, CURA, Squalorly, carte blanche, Black Denim Lit, and Gigantic, among others. He is the author of Killstanbul with El Balazo Press, is shopping a second novel entitled Holliday, and is teaching Writing and Literature at Monroe College.