TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 2

What Otherwise Good Girls Should Know About Goldfish

 · Fiction

Marianne didn’t know what to do with the body. A proper burial in the city would be too complicated, cremation too elaborate. The obvious answer was flushing but that seemed, well, too callous somehow. It was just there on the floor of Doug’s bedroom, curling as it dried.

He would arrive from his exhausting trip to Phoenix, jet-lagged and business-worn, complaining about the stress of trying to strike the perfect balance of relaxed fit with ready-to-kill business casual.

She would meet him at the gate in something pink or maybe yellow — colors that he said made her look so pretty and feminine.

He would ask what was new while she drove — or no, he would want to drive after not having driven for so long. A week was a long time for Doug to be away from his car and he would want to see if she’d put gum in the ashtray or left straw wrappers in the front seat.

She might pull down the sun visor to adjust her lipstick in the mirror, as she absently said, not much.

Hip-to-hip, they would enter his condo, he setting his bags down, she touching his shoulder because she was so glad to have him home.

He would call to Leia who would not come, but then dismiss it because cats have minds of their own. He would frown at the light she had left on in the kitchen, tightly reminding her that electricity was expensive. He would be pleased to see his five-page list of instructions right by the door, where she surely had checked it every day while staying at his apartment.

She would ease the heavy bag off of his shoulder, kiss him and say, I’ll take that into the bedroom.

He would wait for her to leave the room before inserting his finger into the dirt of his Boston fern to check the soil moisture. Finding it damp but not soggy, he would follow her into the bedroom and go straight to Elwood, his fish of nine years, as a way of welcoming himself home.

The fish being in the bowl — not flushed down the toilet — would be a good sign, and he would smile, perhaps fingering the side of the bowl lightly with affection. The water would sway slightly. Elwood would move with the serene motion of the water and again Doug would smile. The smile baked on his face as the fish continued to move with the rolling water, rolling on its side, then bobbing, one white eye looking up to the ceiling, one breathless gill flapping no more.

Overwhelmed with a wave of emotion, as he often was with waves of emotion, he would look around for some meaning to this senseless act — and there she would be, pretty in pink or daffodil yellow, just like she would always be in a time of crisis, the perfect antidote to life’s injustice. Just as she would be there for their children when they lost championship football games and suffered rejections from their reaching schools.

She would smooth the hair over his ears and wipe the secret tears from the blades of his cheeks.

It would bring them closer together.

He wouldn’t think to ask why she hadn’t answered when he called the night before.

A well-crafted plan, except Doug wouldn’t be home for four more days. Even Marianne, with her casual attitude toward housekeeping, recognized that the stench of a rotting fish would be a telling sign that things had been amiss while he was away. He would ask questions: You didn’t feed him, did you? Because I put the feeder in there before I left. She had not. And you remembered to feed Leia, right? She had: wet food every other day and the bowl of dry food always full. You didn’t spend the night with a guy that you met at happy hour instead of coming home to care for my fish like you promised, did you? For this she had no answer. She would never lie to Doug.

She tried to put it back into the bowl but the body had hardened and it sunk to the bottom of the bowl like a rubber eraser. Still unable to accept flushing as the final solution, she wrapped Elwood’s wilted body in a piece of waxed paper, put it inside a pizza box, and threw it in the trash.

In the bathroom she examined her body: stubble-burned cheeks; hair a little dirty but not as bad as other days; a thin scratch on her hip, probably from a zipper or maybe the pressure of keys through a bulging pocket. Otherwise, she looked the same, maybe even a little more beautiful with the leftover adrenaline and gin plumping up her complexion to a rosy blush. After a shower, nothing would be different. At least nothing had to be different.

Leia was on the still-made bed, kneading a pair of panty hose and rubbing her mangy gray and white hairs on Marianne’s favorite black sweater. She was fat and hale, showing no signs of imminent death despite her eighteen years. This week was Doug’s idea for them to get to know one another. He was very interested in compatibility as a way of judging the potential longevity of relationships. Marianne, despite her intense aversion to the cat, had agreed, hearing in Doug’s request the potential for a far grander request if things worked out.

She pushed the cat off of the bed. She examined her panty hose for holes and, finding none, dressed. Leia spread her fat hairy body on the carpet, watching Marianne prepare herself for a day. It would have been nice to call a friend from high school to find out the name of the red-haired boy. It was something famous-sounding, maybe Troy or Lance. She had forgotten his name, but not the way that he said rah-ther instead of rather, or the way that he always removed his socks before lovemaking or the ever-present taste of cinnamon on his tongue from the gum that he chewed. But then the friend might ask, What made you think of that guy? Marianne would hesitate. After two years with Doug, you didn’t sleep with a guy you met in a bar just because he reminded you of the kid from high school, did you? But she hated lying to her friends even more than lying to Doug, so she did not make the call.

She glanced at Elwood’s empty bowl before leaving the condo.

Like Leia, Elwood was, or had been, a holdover from a different part of Doug’s life. He had won the fish at a fraternity rush party during his freshman year at Penn State. In spite of the fact that he had not been invited to join the fraternity, Elwood’s bowl stayed on his dorm room desk all through college, then all through law school, for the two years later in a squalid group house, and now finally in the condo that he would someday share with her.

* * *

Marianne stopped by a pet store on her lunch hour to buy a new fish. The store was completely devoid of human sounds. Birds chirped. A bubbler on a tank glugged. A hamster in a wheel made a noise. A cage for kittens or puppies was empty. Large bins of various feed girded one wall like sentries. The air smelled of cedar chips mixed with guinea pig musk. There were no other customers in the store but midweek, midday, midwinter was not the ideal time for pet shopping. She wandered around, anxiously looking for fish.

Rounding the corner of the pet treats aisle, she saw another person. It was a man with a long ponytail and a blue and gold parrot perched on his shoulder. The bird’s balance was perfect as the guy walked; it was so silent that she thought it might have been stuffed. He smiled. She noticed that one of his arms hung flaccid, possibly from trauma, possibly from malnutrition as a child, Marianne couldn’t tell. The other was strong and bulging at the bicep through his T-shirt. His handlebar mustache was a much redder shade than his hair, and it was pinched and waxed at the ends. The curled ends moved as he didn’t as much smile as wince. Marianne was strangely moved to see that they were about the same age.

When she asked for a goldfish, he said, “A feeder fish?”

She said, emphatically, “No. Not a feeder fish.”

He motioned with his good hand for her to follow him. They walked past the wall of tanks of tropical fish. The tanks were lined against the wall, back-lit with eerie blue screens meant to simulate life under the sea. Pretty fish with exotic and happy names: angelfish, kissing fish, lemon tetras. The clerk bypassed the serenity of the tropicals as if to show her what she could not have. He finally stopped at a wide tank set on the ground, swarming with goldfish. She crouched down to look in. He crouched next to her. Marianne imagined the parrot’s conflicting emotions: the delight of Elwood’s lingering aroma and the fear of Leia’s predatory scent. She stared straight into the tank.

She had not anticipated the incredible variety of goldfish. So many different colors, different lengths of tails, the variety of sizes and shapes. It would be difficult to match Elwood’s exact measurements, especially because she had not truly looked at the body before throwing it away. They swam around frenetically: some big fat ones, some with long tails and fins, some with white spots, some with black.

After a moment, the clerk said, “Well?”

“It’s so hard to choose. There are so many.”

He looked her up and down, twisted one point of his mustache. “Is this for your kid?”

“No. For a friend.”

He smiled and raised one eyebrow. If they had been wearing shorts, his leg hairs, but not his skin, would be brushing against her knee.

“A beta is better,” he said.

“It has to be a goldfish.”

“Betas are more hardy.” He pointed to a shelf of ribbony blue and red fish in plastic cups. Except for the occasional flutter of a tail, the little swishes were as still as Elwood had been earlier in the day.

“I’m sure they are, but it needs to be a goldfish.”

A few of the bigger ones hovered near the surface plucking at the air with their gaping fish mouths. A little one darted around and under the bigger ones.

One kept bumping against the glass with its nose. She pointed to it.

“You sure that’s the one that you want?”

She nodded. He stuck his hand into the tank and grasped. He shook his fist, then plopped the fish into a clear plastic cube. He handed it to her. She wasn’t sure what exactly he wanted her to do. Perhaps this was like ordering wine in a restaurant, something else that put her ill at ease. She held it to the light and looked at the fish. She smiled, and then handed it back to him.

At the register he poured it into a bag, spun the bag to tighten the seal and handed it over.

She quickly said, “I’d like to pay cash for this.”

He punched a key and an old-fashioned flag popped up: 50¢.

“Make sure you float the bag in the tank for a while before you release him. Give him a chance to get acclimated to his environment.”

“It’s a bowl.”

He scowled.

She tried to sound calm, not defensive: “The other fish lived in a bowl for nine years.”

“They can live for twenty years in a bowl under the right conditions. Just that a tank would give him more room to grow. Two fish in one bowl is kind of cramped, if you know what I mean.”

She did know what he meant. “It will only be one fish now.”

“I see.” He sighed and looked down. “My condolences.”

“Things happen.”

With nothing else to say, she looked at the fish as it bumped against the sides of the plastic bag.

* * *

As she drove back to work, an image settled itself into her brain: an image of an Elwood look-alike rapidly expanding in a tank, filling the whole space with its glittery body until it had to swim perpendicular to the rocks to breathe air from the surface. Or maybe it would not grow, just stay the same size for the next twenty years. She envisioned Doug, bald-headed, hairy-eared, as he bought their firstborn son his first legal beer at the country club where he would be so proud to belong. That son, a strong, tall blond boy with good teeth and a cleft chin like his father, would ask for some advice, some worldly wisdom. Doug would shrug with false modesty and say, Slugger, I’ve had that fish for thirty years. I must be doing something right.

* * *

It was still a little too cold out to leave the fish in the car, even in the parking garage, and she didn’t want to take any chances of losing this one. She concealed the bag inside her jacket as she went into her office. The fish looked out of place on her desk. She made sure the bag was tightly knotted before laying it in the middle drawer where she kept her spare makeup, breath mints, extra panty hose, tampons, thank-you notes, and instant soups.

Driving home, she listened to a radio program about a group of anthropologists in the Galápagos Islands. The calm voice of the lead anthropologist made her think of the pet store clerk. She thought of his mustache. She had always thought that facial hair made men look deceitful and cruel but somehow that mustache made him seem more honest, naked in a way. Then she remembered the fish in her drawer and went back to her office to get it.

* * *

She had followed Doug’s instructions about rinsing her dishes and putting them in the dishwasher, but she had forgotten to empty Elwood’s bowl. She put a strainer in the sink, the one that Doug used while rinsing pasta when he made his famous spaghetti. The blue rocks clinked against the metal strainer. A flurry of stringy fish turds colored the water. She had to use a vegetable brush to erase the slimy white line that had marked the water’s edge. Leia sat on the table as Marianne cleaned the bowl. She yawned once, her mouth gaping wide like an alligator flexing its jaws in the sun.

She filled the bowl with tap water and floated the bagged fish in it. She stuck her finger in the bowl. The water seemed room temperature so she opened the bag and pushed the bowl back far on the kitchen counter, turned off the light, and went to bed.

The next morning, she woke up to find the new fish that she had named Jake floating sideways and bent at the top of the water. Marianne suffered a strange emotion of defeat more than any kind of remorse or pity for the dead fish.

On her way home from work that day, she stopped by the pet store. She noticed again that she was the only customer. Knowing her way, she walked directly to the tank of goldfish. Before wrapping Jake, she had taken careful notice of his shape and markings. Even if she could not find an exact duplicate of Elwood, she would be able to find some triumph in matching the fallen Jake. She bent down to get a closer look into the tank.

She heard the loud beating of wings and turned quickly. The clerk was standing over her. The parrot’s blue-green chest feathers puffed out artificially. The clerk held a plastic bag and a small net that was dripping wet. “Hello, again.”

Marianne nodded. “I need to get…”

He held up the net to silence her. “No need to explain.” Then he squatted down close to her and peered into the tank. After a grave and reverent silence he said: “Change is hard on these little guys. Sometimes they just don’t make it.”

She pointed to one of the larger ones that were breathing air at the top of the tank. He leaned over and skimmed the surface of the water with the net. Some of the fish actually swam into the net. He suddenly turned to her. “A beta would really be better.”

“That one will do fine, thank you.” She put the pad of her finger to the glass. He waved it away with his net before scooping the fish.

At the counter she pulled a dollar bill out of her wallet. He curled her hand in his own and gave it a squeeze. “That won’t be necessary.”

She smiled a thank-you and left the store.

* * *

Page four of Doug’s list of instructions indicated that she was to take the trash out to the curb on Thursday. This was good, because three dead fish were too many to keep in the kitchen.

* * *

She called the office, explaining that she had a dental appointment that she had forgotten about and that she would be in later. She looked in the phone book for other pet stores in the area. None were within the driving distance of a dental appointment. The receptionist went to the same dentist as she did, so unless she was having oral surgery the girl may be suspicious, may ask if everything was all right, may ask, You remembered to float the bag in the bowl, right?

* * *

When she got there, the clerk was out front fiddling with his keys. Instinctively she offered to help, but he shouldered her away angrily. “I’ve got it.”

She followed him in as he went directly to the covered cage, lifted the hood off with a flourish and addressed the parrot in soothing tones. She stood behind him for a second but when he did not turn, she walked casually back to the fish tank.

She had no interest in the careful selection or naming of the new fish. She decided on one quickly. The clerk took his time to come back to her and when he did he was all business. The kindness and warmth of the previous two visits was gone. She pointed to one and he bagged it. He held the bag for a moment before giving it to her.

She followed him to the register.

“Cash?” he said with a cruel irony in his voice.

She nodded and placed two quarters on the counter.

* * *

The next day, Friday, the day before Doug’s return, she drove past the pet store. The lights were on and she could see the clerk was talking to someone, wildly gesturing with his good arm. He seemed to be telling a story that was unbelievable but true. Then the blue and gold bird broke her gaze as it landed on his shoulder.

Marianne thought about the new fish, Willie Mae. True, she had done everything right, but what if she got home and it was dead from fright? Then the store would be closed, not opening again until eleven the next morning. There would be no time to dechlorinate the water, adjust the temperature, and create a hospitable environment for the new fish. But if Willie Mae did make it through the night, then there would be two fish, each drawing attention to the difference of the other and to the difference between themselves and the long-gone Elwood.

The chimes rang as she pushed the door open. He looked at her, sighed and then crossed his arm over his T-shirt. “You again.” He closed his eyes and shook his head. He pulled the net from his belt loop and said, “Well, let’s get on with it.”

He didn’t give her a choice this time, just scooped up a fish and bagged it. The two quarters felt warm and sticky as she handed them to him.

At the door, she turned swiftly. The water gurgled in the bag.


He sighed. “Listen, lady. It’s none of my business, but I see people like you in here all the time.”

“You don’t understand.”

“Yeah I understand you — you and people like you. People who live important lives with lots of meetings and obligations, but can never seem to find the time to have a meaningful relationship with a pet, like say a dog or a bird. So you come here and get a fish, an easy-care goldfish. Cheap and pretty. You just grab one and forget about it. And if they die, well, you just come in and buy another one. Who gives a fig about the rain forest, right? Yeah, I know you.”

“You have the wrong idea about me. They aren’t my fish.”

He leaned over and put his elbow on the counter. If the bird had been on his shoulder it would have been eye level with her. The point of his mustache twitched.

“Sweetheart, whose fish do you think they are?”

She twisted the top of the bag, felt the heaving of the water against her side.

“Just leave,” he finally said.

When she got home, she eased the new fish out of the bag into the bowl with Willie Mae. The two fish swam around the bowl and each other. The new one had a longer tail and bigger eyes; it dug in the rocks while Willie Mae breathed air from the surface. Two fish in one bowl did look like too many. The heat clicked on quickly, startling her. She sat on the edge of the bed, watching them as she listened to the sound of warm air rushing through the vents like wind over feathers.


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