The Dead Fish
My neighbor’s neighbor just came by to “see the fishtank.” I stood in the doorway with my bathrobe on and smiled and blinked. Really I couldn’t believe he was standing there asking to see my fishtank, and he was wearing a smug look. His look said, “I know you don’t have a fishtank requiring a snow shovel, I know you were just being nasty.” He was just smiling and blinking, but that look was there, between the blinks. I spread my smile a little broader and responded, “Oh…didn’t you hear? I thought M would have told you. The fish died. That was why I needed the snow shovel, well eventually that was why I needed the snow shovel. Not at first. They weren’t dead at first, but after the incident…well…they didn’t survive.”
Oh yes, that smug look just sort of…leaked off my neighbor’s neighbor’s face. I could see his wheels spinning. He was thinking of something to say, and I was ready. He doesn’t know who he is dealing with. I am a novelist, a professional liar.
Now this neighbor? He is not among my favorites. First off, he never waves hello. Ever. It leaves you feeling like you have germs. And I don’t have germs. And a few months back, I was watching out my window for my son to come up from the bus and this neigbhbor drove by and I saw him slow his Volvo stationwagon and lower his window and I saw the boys, who had congregated on my lawn, all turn to face the car, and I saw their faces turn fearful. I opened the door as the neighbor drove away and called down and my boy and his friends ran up to the house to tell me that the neighbor had admonished them not to throw gravel at the street sign that he paid for with his tax dollars. And here’s the thing: I am not a supporter of vandalism of public street signs, but if they were throwing gravel, I didn’t even notice it and I was watching.
Since then, I’ve been waiting to put some sand in his underpants.
He said, “Your fish died? Convenient, isn’t it?” I just stared at him and my smile faded; I was just blinking now.
“Convenient? What could you possibly mean?”
His eyes turned steely and his mouth was tight. “You know what I mean. Isn’t it convenient that when someone comes to see your purported giant fishtank with who knows what manner of aquatic beasts within, that they have mysteriously died and are not available for viewing?” He raised his eyebrows. “Convenient.”
My mouth dropped open. He thought he had my number, but again, he doesn’t understand that I have created a story where 5 enormously fat girls are the greatest sex symbols of our time, and where an ancient Brahmin curse can fell one child in every generation. I found my penchant for grandiloquence coming on, but I held it in check in favor of a more punchy dialogue.
“First off, Mr. K,”
“Please, call me J”
“I’d rather not, I find that I do not like you.”
“Excellent, because I do not like you either, Mrs. Hampton.”
“You were saying, first off?”
“I do not need reminding of my place in the conversation.”
“Continue then, please. I’m all ears.”
“You are not all ears, that would be far more innocuous. You are mean and heavyhanded. Coming to my house to mock me in my grief, are you not aware that there are small children here? Do you know what it takes to raise Trevally from the Great Barrier Reef in your own home? It is a labor of love Mr. K. A labor of love.” (Now the Trevally I got from my novel, there are Trevally in there, so it was right on the tip of my tongue and I had already done a bit of research in case of questions, and I figured if he read my book, he might understand why I would have put them in my novel, being that I owned a pair, even though I didn’t really). I then brought up some tears and turned my back.
He was silent for a while, but I did feel he wasn’t done yet. And he wasn’t.
“What were their names?” he asked suspiciously.
“Polly and Delilah.”
“Unusual names for fish.”
“Unusual? Sir, please tell me what usual names for fish are?”
He was silent. Because his comment was stupid.
I continued, “Polly comes from Penelope, her name was actually Penelope but we called her Polly and Delilah…well…she was a powerful woman. Penelope too. I named them for powerful women.” I turned around dramatically and pushed my hair back from my face; I was hoping that my eyes were shining in the light from the front door. There was still snow on the ground so the light was particularly bright but not harsh. Good light. I had noted this earlier in the day. “You know, Mr. K, I have a love of naming things. Well…I guess you wouldn’t know this. You don’t really know me, but I think that is one of the best things about being a novelist, I get to name everyone and everything.” I sniffed lightly and wiped my eyes, “I do miss my fish.” I swallowed.
Mr. K, in the doorway, unprepared for Trevally and Polly and Delilah and the Great Barrier Reef just blinked and stood. He didn’t believe me, but he wasn’t sure.
“Where did you put the tank?”
“Well, I had to have a special pick up. It broke…you know…during the incident.”
He coughed and hemmed and turned to walk away and turned back. Haltingly he asked, “What…actually..you know…happened?”
I looked him straight in the face and answered. “Polly was larger and more aggressive, she always was, but this time when I threw in the chum, she was at the bottom of the tank and Delilah got there first. Well…something snapped. In Polly. I mean mentally. Emotionally, you know. She came up from below and ran her teeth along Delilah’s abdomen. I had gone to get the snow shovel because my own feeding jug had a little crack in it. I had thrown in the first bit of food when I noticed and I didn’t want to make a mess, so I went to M’s to borrow the shovel so I could finish feeding them, and when I got back…well… it was a red sea of pain in there…and I tried to use the snow shovel to break them up but…well..Trevally are strong, prehistoric creatures. They have seen worse than snow shovels.” I gathered my lips together and turned them in. I thought it probably looked like being strong.
“Oh my GOD!” Mr. K was overwhelmed.
I nodded and sighed deeply.
“Is there anything I can do? For you? For your family?”
“Oh no, no thank you. We are doing well. I might get some new ones eventually. Not yet. When we have recovered and are well again.”
Mr. K turned and walked down my front steps. He turned at the bottom and looked up at me, “Look…I’m sorry for coming over here like that. I just…sometimes I get wound up.”
I smiled and waved like it was nothing.
“Okay then,” he continued. He waved. He waved. “Good bye. I’l see you soon.”
“Good by J.” I called him by his first name. He turned around and his eyes were tearful. “Good by Sujatha,” he replied, and walked out of sight.
I closed the door and turned back into my house. My reputation was safe. I was still crazy in a good way.