short story #1

Mr. Fish

April 5, 2000
Father, his white hair sunlit, sits before the window in the seat of a wooden chair that I once called my throne. But I’m thirteen now and I try to describe things by the right names because an older girl should. So you see, I’m no longer Little Anna May Adams. Just Anna’s fine.
            I lay down in the shadows, across from Father, wedged in the airy pillows of the couch. My cloud couch! There I go exaggerating what things are again. The couch is plain stuffed velour. Father says that I’m dramatic that way. I prefer to think of myself as imaginative. I get my imaginative strength the same as Sampson did: through my hair. It’s a fine golden hue and it pours off my head in curls like Mother’s used to. Father’s hair is light as the the room’s walls, and smells like our fish tank used to:
            Mr. Fish! We thought, then, a year ago, the cat got him:
            But the room began to smell. I looked through the glass fishbowl, hairs growing up the walls, the water alive and fuzzy and stinking. We had a little plastic red ship, sunken, torn in half, that rested in the bottom with fake seaweed as a kind of shelter and decoration. I pulled it up and green rocks tumbled from its sides. Then I pulled free Mr. Fish all slipperish in my fingers. Where I touched his body, gray scales peeled off like wet dust. I flushed him. Poor Mr. Fish—trapped in the ship meant to brighten up his home. I scrubbed down the bowl—it’s been fishless ever since—and then I said to Pop, the cat, “Darling, you didn’t eat Mr. Fish. I’m sorry for scolding.”
            The fishbowl still sits on the windowsill where Mother put it before she died, behind my chair, behind Father. It’s like a glass halo behind his head. A smell’s still strong in the air, but it’s the untidy smell of soiled clothes and trash and not of a molding, rotting fish. The laundry consists of piled socks and skid-marked underwear that belong to my father. His white hair, razzled like the light of an eclipse, is far lighter and cleaner than the underwear. He’s thrifty in the worst way, which is always.
I try not to lie to my father when I speak to him—I try to be blunt, but sometimes my imagination or my dramatic tendency or whatever you want to call it gets the best of me. Outside, through the window, the pines are blowing in the wind.
            Neither of us ever sleep much these days. Maybe that’s why I’m always lounging on the couch, but I don’t think it is. It’s fun to squirm in the big poofing pillows. The upholstery—you’ll love this—does not uphold me and I sink way down.
            “Daddy,” I say because I’m bored, “I’m tired.”
            “You can sleep.”
            “No. Oh no. Daddy, if I sleep do you think the house will clean spontaneously?” Spontaneously I just learned in English class. “Do you think it will put itself back together neat and tidy, like oil does when the water burns away?”
            “Like oil?”
            “Yes like oil.”
            He looks at me, eyebrows arched and forehead wrinkled, with that beaten, supercillious face that means he wants me to shut up. His fingers work along the serrated edges of the morning newspaper, but he rolls his head along the chairback, his face searching the ceiling, the squares of shadow and pale light that look so much, to me, like Rothko panels. My mother always liked Rothko as far as painters. She made stained glass windows, herseslf.
            I sink into the couch cushions, big, white, and puffy like the backs of swans. Now I am tired.
The very cold 20th of February, 1994
It’s my seventh birthday and what I don’t like about birthdays is that I have to wear a dress all the time and stockings. And pink plastic jellies. The stockings are white and stitched with red roses and the roses bulge. My dress is white and has a little blue ribbon at the waist. The bench I’m on is green velvet. Like Scarlet’s curtains in Gone with the Wind. That’s Mother’s favorite movie. In the pew in front of me is a red leather Holy Bible.
            I say as fast I can, “Red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather,” but I can’t say it real fast. I’m saying “yellow yeather” on accident. Mother tells me to shush.
            The other people on the bench are old or very young. One man’s head is bald and spotted. I don’t like ugly things. I don’t like the room. It smells like a lemon basement.
            In my basement, one yellow light glows when I snap the light switch at the top of the steps—steps’ top: the snap is high and echoes. I
                                                                             snap back
                                                            and snap forth.
In the daytime, turning on the light doesn’t make the basement much lighter, but I still click the light switch to listen to the snap. In the basement are boxes of wrinkled magazines and books. Sometimes earwigs cross the carpet and I squish them with pens. The ink and old pages and dust  make me sneeze. Church smells a lot like my basement, except for the lemon smell. Lemons are supposed to smell fresh my mother says. And real ones do. It’s the fake lemon smell that’s so awful.
            The stained glass windows in church show pictures of men with long robes, straggly beards, crowns. They show pictures of men with halos and bare white feet. Mother says, “They weren’t white like us, but they’re always shown white. They are pictures of Christ and his disciples.”
            Her own stained windows hang from threaded silver wires. They look like see-through spiders in our house. One is a circle with a sun in it. Mother titled it The Sun. It sits on an iron stand on the coffee table in the middle of the living room. I like to pick it up and take it to the windowsills. The Sun is clear and pale yellow and white and sometimes I’m not sure it’s a sun, just shapes. I look through The Sun and the window glass and watch the people outside. They get all warbly like fingers. When I put The Sun up to the real sun and look at it Mother says not to. She says don’t ever at the real sun because it will boil my eyes. I know it isn’t true.
            She sits next to me in a dark blue dress that is so dark it’s soft and I smile looking at her, but she is not so pretty now. I can see her nose bones. I tell her I can, and she says they’re cartilage, not bones, and it’s not polite to talk about peoples’ noses. Her mink coat is piled up between us because Father is parking the car and he needs to sit somewhere. Wouldn’t it be nice to sit on the mink? It smells soapy. Everyone is talking.
            Mother ducks her face right to mine and I can see her wrinkles behind her blush. She whispers, “Do you like church?”
            I shake my head no. “It’s very ugly.”
            “I don’t like it either.” She pulls her black shiny purse to her lap and takes out a wrapped butterscotch. “Did you know your Sun Sign is Pisces, Anna? That’s your sign.” She smiles and tells me it means I will live in dreams. “Now don’t tell your Father—he doesn’t like me talking about that.” When she wraps the mink around my face the fur is soft. “You’re very pretty,” she says. “You look like royalty.”
            “I don’t like tea.”
            “Isn’t she adorable?” says the woman next to me, all folded and wrinkled. I can’t see her eyes because light is shining on her glasses, but I can see msyelf all stretchy.
            Father sits down in time to hear us. He has a beard that’s brown and gray. His skin, under his beard, is dented. Pocked, Mother calls it.
            “Anna is adorable,” he says. “But someday she’ll grow up and then we’ll just have to see.”
            Mother whispers, “You won’t ever grow up anymore will you? I like you like this.” She touches my cheek. Her hand is cold. “Promise me now that you will never get older.” Her fingers are pressing on my cheeks.
            I don’t want to promise. I push my hands under my dress, under my legs, lifting and wriggling in the mink. “Daddy,” I say, “do I get to open my present after church?”
            “Only if you don’t get any older—if you get even a day older you will be too old and then you’ll have to wait another year.”
            “But church is only an hour.” 
            “How old are you?” the crumpled woman asks.
            I peek at her from beneath the mink. “I’m seven. You look very old. How old are you?”
            Mother tells me I’m being impolite. She says sorry for me.
            The crumpled woman adjusts herself. “Well, what did you ask for, Anna, for your birthday?”
            I want a cat and tell her so. Then the minister talks. His voice is wet and he wears green robes and stands in front of a tub that sometimes he puts people into. I don’t think I want him to put me in. Sometimes he comes to our house with his wife and eats with us. I would like for him to eat his wife. She is very boring, and boring and ugly are pretty close. She talks about people I don’t know. If the minister ate her, maybe he’d have enough food and would stop coming to dinner.
            Everyone stands and starts singing. Not me. I’m hiding in the mink, looking out through the long hairs that are like needles on a Christmas wreath, and the light is soft and I feel soft. The people stand in rows like dumb soldiers. They sing long and dull songs, songs with Hallelujah, songs with Him. The H is a capital and I know it. They end them all with Amen. The voices tick tock the Amens. I want my present. Tick tock tick tock. Amens, Bibles open, Bibles close. The minister tells us to pray. He says Mrs. Alabaster. He says Mr. Harrington’s brother. He says Mrs. Adams and I look at Mother, and he says other names but I don’t pay attention. He always says Mrs. Adams and Mother always smiles with her lips closed. She never closes her eyes and I don’t, but Father closes his. She blinks and takes my hand and squeezes it. 
The present is wrapped and round. I frown at Father. He smiles sort of in his beard. Sometimes he tells me he didn’t always have a beard. But I tell him that Mother says he always did. He says he didn’t have one before he met her. At night he takes me outside and tries to put my hand in his and points at stars with his other hand. Constellations he calls them. I can see the Big Dipper but the rest just look like stars. He tells me that he does something called astronomy and it’s the closest thing to studying heaven. I ask is it closer than the Bible, and he tells me I’m a very sly girl. He ruffles my hair with his hand.
            Mother is with him now and she says, “Open it.” She touches his shoulder, puts her arm through his.
            I put my fingers between the gold and white striped wrapping tissue, in the seam. Something hard is beneath them. I pull at the strips of scotch tape. The wrapping rips and I rip all the tissues and it’s a glass bowl. It’s a fishbowl, and a single goldfish flips his fins in the water. Tears are in my eyes and I’m saying, “But I wanted a cat.” I turn to Father and tell him, but he walks away.
            “Anna May Adams,” Mother says. She kneels beside me and pulls me close to her with her arm around my waist. “Anna, you know we can’t have a kitty.” I am looking at Father, at his dropped eyes and at the beard hiding his mouth. I feel Mother’s arms brush across my dress and she sits back on her heels, holding my wrists in her hands. I see her veins bulky in her arms and the skin spotty and freckly. My skin is clean. She shakes me in her hands, and I’m crying. “Anna! You know we can’t have a kitty.” She stops and closes her eyes very tight like I do when I wish for things like crowns. “And goldfish are prettier. And the bowl—see how pretty the glass is? Kitties don’t get glass bowls. They drink from dirty ones on the floor. Isn’t this prettier? It can go in the window so the sun can shine through it.” She picks up the bowl and the fish and puts them on the windowsill. Light is in the water and on the fish, making lines. 
            “It’s pretty like your windows,” I tell her. I walk to the bowl and look closely at the fish and press my face up against the glass and wonder what the fish thinks. He must think, Anna May Adams, your eyes are puffy and ugly and red. And he’s right. I can see them in the fishbowl, and it makes my nose look wide too. My nose is not wide but it bumps up at the end a little. The fish darts in the water, to the other side, then swims back and darts again. It’s a stupid fish. I step back and put my hands around the base of the bowl and tilt it.
            “Anna!” Mother says.
            I shake it back and forth and watch the water spill up over the sides and watch the light swell with the bubbles.
            “Anna!” Mother runs to me. She presses the fishbowl down from the top and I can’t shake it anymore. “Don’t you ever do that again,” she says. Father has left the room. She says, “Don’t you ever, ever shake your fish like that.”
            “Thank you Daddy, thank you for the goldfish.” I say it loud, at the room, and smile. I like being a sly girl. “I’m going to name him Mr. Fish,” I tell my mother. 
Mr. Fish and I swim through the days watching the house bend with the glass where it’s thick. Mother’s skin is loose and it wags from her arms and falls from her face. She’s filthy. Sometimes she goes to the hospital for the day. Mostly she stays at home and works on her windows in the garage, in her studio. She works on one red window a long time. Copper wires and lead and glass pieces are everywhere in the garage. There’s a light table, too. Sometimes I sit on it with the light turned on and it warms my bottom and I feel like I’m all lit up. But it hurts my eyes when I look down between my legs.
            The minister comes to dinner, still, and it’s always when I don’t want him to. When he does I sit in my throne at the window and talk with Mr. Fish. “Mr. Fish, you are very smooth. You have no hairs.” Mr. Fish is handsome that way. The minister is not. He’s hairy and I dislike like him because when he thinks I can’t hear he talks about cancer. But of course I can hear because they all get quiet. People must think I’m dumb. Maybe I’m dumb. But one night Mother says to the minister she doesn’t want pity and tells him to leave. He doesn’t come back, and she stops going to church. Father still goes though with me. He says that maybe I’d like to be baptised. That’s getting put in the water. When the gold trays with little clear cups of red dark liquid pass he lets me drink one. It tastes like grape juice. I don’t know why grape juice is a big deal.
            Mostly we stay home. And I go to school, too, but I don’t like it. When my best friend Sarah comes to the house, we walk around looking at each other through the stained glass windows, and one time she looks like a penis and I tell her, so she cries. She says it’s a bad word, but that’s how she looks. I know it because boys have showed me pictures. I told Mother boys had showed a dick but she said it’s a penis and not to touch it.
            When it’s Christmas, Father and I buy her a black velvet bathrobe. She takes it in her hands and rubs it over her cheeks. She wears it all around the house with her hair up in a bun at the back of her head. She looks like a queen. I say, “Mommy, come sit in the throne with me and Mr. Fish.”
            “Of course.” Her eyes are wide and dark. “We can make Daddy run around the house and fetch us things. We’ll make him bring us chocolates.”
I hear the word cancer still, through my bedroom door at night. Mother and Father think I can’t hear them say it, but they’re stupid. Not me. I hear them and it makes me hate them. “It’s the lux,” she says. That’s the stuff in the windows that sticks the copper together. She showed me once. 
            Father doesn’t talk much anymore. He passes and pats my head. He squeezes my shoulders. Sometimes he looks at me a long time like he’s trying to remember something that’s hard. Maybe he’s trying to remember how to spell Saskatchewan.
It’s January of the new year, and Mother has finally finished the red window. I call it Red. It’s a circle of red shapes that get darker and darker at the center, all stuck to each other with thick black copper. She hangs it over her bed. I prefer the whites of The Sun, and really Red looks very like The Sun but it is so dark red and the lines are so much thicker and blacker. Father asks her to take it down but she won’t. Mr. Fish is jealous of it, I think. She used to look at him with me but now she stays in her room.
When I visit her room she’s cloaked in bed covers. We both look at Red hanging over us.
            “It’s pretty Mommy. But The Sun is my favorite.”
            “I’m glad you like that one best.”
            “Don’t you too?”
            She looks at her dressers and the lines of photographs on top and her jewelry. Her mink coat ruffles out of the closet. “Would you like to wear it?” she asks. “Go put it on.”
            The sleeves hang over my hands. Mother pulls at the collar and rubs it in her fingers. “I want you to have it. Promise me you’ll keep it.” She says, “Anna, you know I love you.” She pushes up the sleeves and holds my hands in hers. I feel her velvet robe on my skin. Sometimes I imagine she’s just the robe, so soft, loose. I run my hands along it and over her wrists. I feel her veins through her skin.
            In the morning the snow’s piled up in heaps. It looks like the yard is covered in giant marshmallows. Mother is in the shower and Father tells me to shovel the walk. Usually he shovels, but today he’s lazy and I tell him so. He helps me dress into snow pants, pulling them up around me and pressing my tummy. They’re bright pink. I wear a white coat and a white hat with mittens, and I feel all puffed like a marshmallow too, except for the pink.
            The outside smells clean. Cold things almost always smell clean. I wander in the snow with the shovel, pushing it in zig zags for us to walk through because it’s more fun that way. I look at the sky, and the sky is gray but the snow that falls out of it is white, and isn’t that strange? It’s still snowing when an ambulance comes, moving fast. Wouldn’t it be awful if it crashed because of the snow? Ambulances are always moving fast and always going somewhere, but I never see where, except that I know they go to hospitals. But this ambulance stops in front of me, in the street. Men run out and slip and run up the sidewalk and mess up my zig zag. I follow them back into the house and try to follow them to the bathroom, but Father stops me. He tells me to stay in my room. I am very hot inside in my winter things and the snow is melting on me. I listen to the voices and the sounds the men make walking and moving, and when I don’t hear anything I pry back the door and go down the hall that glows yellow even though the walls are painted white. Some yellows are pretty, but this is more gray and brown like a squash. My mother likes things beautiful, so I don’t know why she doesn’t change the hall. And I’m looking real close at the painted wood of the bathroom door when I open it. 
            Father pulls me away, but I can still see the room in my head, the bathtub full of red water, and I’m crying. He says we have to go to the hospital and then we can see Mommy again and she’s okay. But he’s so stupid, just like Mr. Fish.
Mother does not get better, and I’m not allowed to see her. The doctor tells me she moved on, but I hear what they say when I leave the room. They think I’m so dumb that I can’t hear. Maybe they can’t hear. They say she took aspirin and cut her wrists.
            When we get home I walk into Mother and Father’s room. I swing Red against the wall and smash it and the glass falls on my hands and arms. A few pieces get in my skin, but I don’t bleed much. Father runs and takes me away, and he pulls out the glass with tweezers and pours peroxide on my hands. I like the way peroxide stings.
Everyone’s nice to me afterwards. Very damn nice, Father says. He says he wasn’t planning on it but gives me a kitten when I turn eight. Mother was allergic but he isn’t. The kitten smells a little the way socks smell. He jokes that I should name her Virgo, but won’t tell me why it’s funny. I should name her Pisces if I’m going to name her after a stupid constellation because I’m a Pisces, but he says I’m a girl and a person and signs are made up. He’s an astronomer, he says, not an astrologist, and there’s a difference. But I don’t understand. And I don’t understand when he tells me to pray for Mother.
            I name my kitten Pop, and when Sarah comes to see him we hold Pop up to the fishbowl and watch Pop watch Mr. Fish. Sarah calls it playing but I think it’s boring. I say we should throw Mr. Fish back and forth and keep away from Pop, but she won’t. She has clean arms. They’re too clean. I try hard to keep mine dirty. I scrape them along desks, along fences. I write math on them and play tic tac toe, hangman, and practice my cursive. I cover them in mud and let it dry. When I scrub them off they turn red.
April 5, 2000
“Daddy, I want a new fish,” I say. “I miss having a goldfish.”
            He crinkles the newspaper in his fingers.
            I’m scrunched up like an N in the pillows, and he sits at my feet and sighs, regarding the ceiling again with a deadish gaze. He rests his right hand on my knee, rapping my jeans, pressing firmly with each rap. When I place my palm on his hand to stop him, he slips his fingers along the curve under my thumb. He says, “But aren’t you tired?”
            “I don’t want to sleep. I want a new fish.”
            “You’re very damn spoiled, aren’t you?”
            “Am I?”
            My hair cuts and curls in front of my eyes, flaxen blurs that fade to soft browns at the bottoms where they grow long. The sun bleaches my hair lighter the higher up you go in the summer. In the winter, it’s really much duller. More uniformly wheatberry, I suppose, but in the summer people are always telling me how pretty it is. Angelic is a word I hear a lot, and it’s not one that I like. I watch Father’s fingers trace the lines of my kneecap. I pull my hand from his and drop it in the pillows. “I just want to get a fish,” I tell him. “It’s not like I’m asking for a horse or a fucking car.” I slouch deeper in the cushions. “Just a fish.”
            Pop strolls around the couch purring and hops up because he wants attention. I plop him in my lap—such a darling kitty, such thin long fur, even softer than my mink—he looks at me cross-eyed, then pushes his head against my nose. If I pet him too much he’ll paw me, and if I don’t stop he’ll scratch. Silly Pop.
            “Come on.” I slip onto the floor with Pop in my hands, arms outstretched. His legs splay in the air. Super kitty. “Come on,” I sing to Father, “let’s get a new goldfish.” I turn to Pop. “Let’s all go. Pop will come too. He can paw at which one he wants.”
            “We’re not taking the cat,” Father says. “And please don’t speak like a child.”
            “Ob, but you like me like a child,” I say, using my sophisticated voice. It’s my little way of giving him what he wants.
            “Don’t speak to me ever like that.” He grabs my hands, and I drop Pop to the floor. He arches his back and rubs against me. I dig my nails into Father’s skin. His eyes are placid and so flat. “Don’t ever,” he says.
            “We’re all going, Daddy. We’re getting a new fish.” I watch him for a long time, until Pop gets bored and starts to bite at my toes. I say quietly, “Let go.”
It doesn’t matter so much about the goldfish I want—that it’s spotted and ugly—I know it can’t be Mr. Fish. I actually ended up loving Mr. Fish, but I don’t think I realized it until he was dead—poor Mr. Fish! To die trapped in that ship! So maybe I can’t love this fish but I don’t plan to. That’s why Father won’t buy just the one, though. He buys two—because I have to let one go. Because if I let the only fish go and we bring home no fish then I’ll want another fish, and still another, and he’ll have to keep driving  me. Sometimes the man, old as he is, understands a situation remarkably. Even a slippery one.
Pop romps around in the car searching for a place just dark enough to pretend everything’s okay. He hates driving, and I’m sorry I insisted he should come. He wasn’t any help picking out fish, anyway.
            “You know it’s silly to let that fish go,” Father says. “It won’t survive.”
            I smile and lean forward with the seatbelt pressed between my breasts, which exaggerates them, which is fine. I run my fingers along the steering wheel and drag them to his hand, to the river. His hair is very white and his beard gone. There is only the dented skin now and the faint stubble. He squints across the dash as I curl my fingers into his. I feel the old scars, the hairs, the place where his fingernails run into the skins. I feel the heat of his fingers in mine and the cool of the fish in my lap, swimming round and round in a plastic bag. The world passes to the country, to wheat fields and cottonwoods all green and brown like decaying broccoli. I’m a bit hungry and wouldn’t mind broccoli, steamed.
            We stop in the wheat fields that span the valley of the Paradise River. Close to the river are the trees and the pricks of fence posts that probably used to hold up barbed wire. There’s cow shit in the weeds by the car, and I smell it strongly. Along the fence runs an overgrown dirt road, leading to an old bridge of iron and rotted wood.
            Outside the car I hold the fish in my right hand and say in my kindest voice, “Daddy, you know I hate you.”
            “You love me,” he says.
            The bag sparkles with flashes of yellows and orange. I hold it at my chest and laugh and begin singing some nonsense about chapels, and then I realize it’s that old song by the Dixie Cups and my version isn’t half as good, but I don’t care too much. I’m walking and twirling down the road. Father follows, Pop in his arms. We all go in procession toward the trees and the bridge.
            The shadows of the cottonwoods spread like blood vessels across the dirt and the mud and the slow, heavy water that pulses and pulses. I tuck the fish beneath my shirt and call out my song and the notes are perfect now. I like the world outside, the clean smell of the grass and the moving river. My two fish are close to my breasts, the bag cold and squishy, and I’m running and I can hear Father behind me but I reach the bridge first. I take off my clothes.              
            “What are you doing?” he calls. Maybe he thinks it’s okay, still.
            “I don’t want dirty clothes,” I say. I shuffle my jeans off and step in the water in my underwear and squinch the mud in my feet. Each little toe. And I look for glass. Beer bottles are broken in the dirt, but I don’t like brown glass, so I walk through the mud until I find a clear triangular scrap. I pick it up with my right hand, careful not to drop the fish with my left, and run it under my nose and smell the earth. Maybe it belonged to a rum bottle once, or a vodka bottle. I slit the top of the fish bag just an inch, and twist it so that one fish is trapped beneath the other, and I wade to my waist in the river. The water pushes me a little bit up with each step as I lift my feet, as if I’m walking on a liquid moon. “Is that what moon river means?”
            Father doesn’t answer. He’s running up the bank, his reflection flickering at the edge of the shore.
            I pour the top goldfish from the bag and tell it goodbye.
            Father is still holding Pop, petting his head but he’s scratching at Father’s arms and at the air.
            “Won’t you come out now?” Father asks.
            I don’t know exactly. I like the water buoying me about, so cold. The current rises and falls at my waist and I feel the cold climb my legs from my knees, and pull at my crotch, and fall away and run thick and flat into the big swirl holes. The bridge’s pine boards above me are marred with burned sap and tar. They are bound and strapped and stitched with rusted iron beams and iron bolts, but they’ve warped apart and the light of the sun needles through. I wade through the shadows in zig zags and toss the other little fish to Father when I’m close. The sack lands on the ground and untwists and the little fish flops and flops in the mud. I bet Pop would love to wriggle free of his arms and eat up the little fish, but Father holds him tight. Unshakeable man. “Oh Pop,” I call. “You are just hysterical.”
            When I step out of the shade the sun warms my skin. I sit down in the river. I drag the glass through my left palm and between my thumb and forefinger and over the top of my hand. I only bleed a little and it sort of stings, and the edge of the glass is red. I hold the glass to the sun so that the line of red is full of light, and it’s beautiful. Father runs into the water and begins to pull me, his fingers digging in the skin under my arms. He’s finally dropped the damned cat. I thrust my head into the water, before he drags me out, and for a moment my eyes are so wide beneath the waves, and I’m there with the fish, seeing the rocks and the sand so clearly and the shapes of light at the top of the river,  just like them. 
– Evelyn B. Hirschworth
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookEmail this to someone