This house has never had a mortgage, and it never will. Whatever else I say about my husband John, he earns.
This isn’t minor. The women in my family have been drawn—maybe ‘chained’ is a better word—to men who drink, screw around, spend their paychecks too soon when they have jobs at all.
My father? Classic case, with his second wife. She lived six miles away—Dad wasn’t motivated enough to leave the county—and they were together since I started high school, when he told us he had to start working nights. They married sometime around my senior prom. He didn’t want to, but he was no good at saying no.
When my mother told me all of this, it made sense for a moment that everything in our house, including the house itself, was crap: he was spending his money on a stranger. But that would have meant there was a job, and a night shift. Really, Dad just wandered, coming to rest where he could. He wasn’t supporting anybody.
Mom knew about this for years. Dad wasn’t much of a secret-keeper, at least not with her. She put up with it because it meant she didn’t have to put up with him, mostly, because he was away. And when he was around, she had a trump card. She told me about it all the night before I went to college. It was her way of making sure I didn’t get homesick, a loving shove into the world.
Mom’s late-blooming truth-telling habit took root in me, and now I enumerate John’s faults with a regularity that gets both of us down. Here’s the thing about your father, I tell my kids, when they’re sleeping and it’s marginally less likely I’ll damage them for life. Here’s the thing, and I let fly about his misadventures with the toilet seat, his leaving the TV on all night, the way he lies about flossing. We have a girl and a boy, and I never know which to focus these lessons on. Should I wait until Anna’s five, ten, fifteen, before telling her about the disaster of men? If I tell Josh, adorable Josh, why his father’s hopeless, will he decide it’s okay to grow up to be hopeless too?
Mostly I like John. He’s very likeable. He relies on this when he does things which aren’t likeable at all.
Two weeks ago, he wrote a letter to the editor. Our county’s mostly concerned with speed bumps, but sometimes they’ll take a crack at redressing the evils of history too. That’s what they did when they started a program at the Ed Outreach Center to train women in the building trades, where we’re unsurprisingly underrepresented.
John, of course, decided his taxes shouldn’t go to this odd little outpost of affirmative action. His letter’s title—“High Heels, High Steel”—was annoying but catchy, and he’s entitled to his opinion. But he also mentioned his “wife Elizabeth, who knows that the satisfaction of caring for our kids will always trump installing bathrooms for strangers.” This is printed, without even a single typo, in this week’s Arlington County Courier.
“Honey,” he says, holding up the tabloid, “I’m famous.”
I have to smile. John’s hair has started its inevitable migration off his head, and getting my arms around his waist now involves gut-sucking and head-turning. But he’s still boyish, proud of what he’s wrestled from the world.
It makes me sad for a moment that we can’t share this joy. Of course, what would you expect from his wife Elizabeth? She doesn’t sound like a joyous type. “They printed my name.”
“Okay, we’re famous.”
“Now I’m attached to this Neanderthal BS.” I’m a step below screaming, and the kitchen seems a lot smaller than it did a moment before.
“The kids’ll hear.” His go-to weapon.
I tear the page into halves, quarters, eighths, with a mind to make confetti. It gets old before the pieces are small enough.
He stands with his hands on his hips, maybe a little afraid. Like my mother, I chose a man I could pick on, one I knew I’d have to pick on. “It’s just my opinion. And anyway, it’s true, right? More or less. You can see the truth in it.”
“The only thing I see,” I hold up the shreds, “Is my name.”
“Excited to be in print, huh?” He winks, convinced that this has the opposite of its true effect.
“Mister,” I say but don’t scream, “You are in big trouble.”
“C’mon, honey. Nobody reads the Courier. Nobody believes the paper anyway.”
I imagine this transmuting itself in his mind into liberal media truth-twisting. I’d like to storm off. But John’s late for work already, so he goes instead.
He drives an hour and a half in each direction, from our far-out suburb to the far-out suburb where he works. I followed him once. I couldn’t believe anyone would voluntarily travel so much for work. He did, and I felt guilty for mistrusting him, and then, stuck in traffic, I just felt annoyed.
I’m going back to work myself next year, when Anna starts pre-K. John says I don’t have to, meaning he doesn’t want me to. Too bad. In between Spongebob episodes I’ve kept up as well as I can with the new graphic design programs. Construction was never on my radar. But I’ve got a point to make, so I check the Ed Outreach website. My little joke used to be that Ed Outreach sounds like the name of an incompetent molester. But then John pointed out that I shouldn’t make jokes like that, especially in front of the kids.
The next morning, John leaves a fossilized convenience-store rose for me on the kitchen table, sitting in a pile of shredded newsprint. It would be nice if his apology weren’t the same as a fifteen-year-old boy’s idea of foreplay, but it’s a start.
Next to the rose is a one-word note: “Ziggy.” It’s a reminder that things can always be worse.
Ziggy is a fish. Unlike Louie and Brownie and Goldie and Fishie (last one out of the bag), he hasn’t been doing well. Last week Josh grabbed my arm and rushed me to the tank. Ever since he left his idyllic world of kindergarten for the pressure cooker of just-finished first grade, Josh takes no chances with time and rushes everywhere.
Anna was waiting for us. She pointed at Ziggy, hunkered in a creepy suburban patch of sunken houses and algae lawns. She announced, “That one exploding.”
Josh shares his vocabulary with her, and not everything either of them says can be taken at face value. But Ziggy really was exploding, tiny chunks of fish-stuff coming off him and diffusing into the water.
“Gross,” said Josh, fascinated. “He’s, like, spawning.”
“Do you know what spawning means?” I asked.
“Yeah.” Josh looked offended.
“He hungry?” said Anna, eager to act out her manna fantasies with the food flakes.
“Sorry, sweetie,” I said. Ziggy flicked around, obliviously trailing a comet of himself. “It’s starve a cold, feed a fever.” She nodded seriously, echoing this diagnosis.
For a few days after that, he seemed fine. Then Josh hit me with another summons. The other fish were attacking Ziggy, hemming him in, dashing in to peck at his fins. I let Anna pour a pinch of flakes to distract the tormenters, and then Josh had to have a turn too. While they fought over the morsels, Ziggy swam in a weak circle, sunk into his own troubles.
We moved him to a bowl of his own. He started shedding again, and because we have only one water filter his new home became a nasty sphere of murk. He disappeared for hours in brownish skin-clouds, surfacing suddenly to snap at the air as if evolving lungs were his only hope.
Now John wants to do something about this. Not today, I think, the same thought that’s sustained me each day since this started. Today, I have class.
When I open the door to Molly the babysitter that evening, Josh screams, “Yes!” and Anna does a little dance of appreciation, clapping hands and kicking feet near the carpet-edge in a way that promises falls, skinned knees, concussions. I assume Molly unblocks the TV, gives them candy, tells them ghost stories. She’s the best I can find, and is in no way good enough.
At the Ed Outreach Center handwritten signs point to Tae Kwan Do, Intermediate Programming, Flower Arranging. A giant papier-mâché knife hangs from the ceiling: Commercial Cooking, Kitchen 1A. The one area of calm is the information table, staffed by three old guys eyeing each person who zips by and avoids their would-be-helpful stares. I grab the one on the left; he seems the least desperate. “I’m here for the Building Up Women course.”
I shrug. “What you got?”
I shake my head. He looks sad.
“So then nothing. There’s a waiting list. You could sign up for the next session.”
I’m impressed; I didn’t think the county had so many women who wanted to wear hard hats. “I need to be educated right now. What else is there?”
He smirks in triumph; he’s got a live one, not just somebody asking where the water fountains are. “Well, what are we in the mood for?”
“Cattle rustling. Spitting. Ignoring stuff that’s dirty. Something mannish. I need to prove a point.”
Suddenly, he’s not so sure he’s lucky. “Well…” he consults the sheet in front of him, “There’s Intro to Latin.”
I shake my head. “How about ninja skills?”
“All the martial arts classes are filled.” He flattens his palms on the table. “What point are you trying to prove?”
“Long story,” I say. “And you might sympathize with the other side.”
“Tap dance? That’s only four sessions.”
“Beading?” He shakes his head. “No, of course not. How about music theory?”
“Already took it, believe it or not. Years ago.”
The way he smiles makes it clear that he doesn’t believe it.
“Ah,” he says, “Ah. The sonnet.” His eyes gleam with challenge.
“There’s something for everybody in poetry.”
“Not for manly men.”
“For them, too.” He crosses his arms. He’s a manly man himself, suddenly.
“Have you taken the sonnet?”
“I just work here.” He shrugs. “Or, technically, volunteer. I love the sonnet. It’s underappreciated.”
I chew on this a moment. “I can relate. Sign me up.”
I’m not proving my point, I think while I wait for the elevator. But I’m still at least a little excited. I realize, when the ground floor bell finally dings, that I’m hoping it doesn’t turn out to be so great that I have to tell John all about it.
Room 437B is tiny, but still too large for the group: four women in striped blouses—three have enormous pastel-lensed glasses, too—in the front, and a solitary fifty-something guy with an amazing bouffant eyeing them from the back. His expression says he’s dreamed of this day for a long time. I take a seat in the middle row, blocking as little of his view as I can.
We sit in silence for five minutes. I can’t take it and stand up to leave and at that precise moment the teacher walks in. He’s about twenty-two, has a mustache that looks like a starved mouse sleeping on his upper lip, and a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. He’s the idea of a professor, if you’ve only seen them in bad movies.
“I’m Bob Wickas,” he says and blinks slowly, like he’s practiced blinking but doesn’t have the hang of it yet. He counts us with his index finger, declares “Six,” and sighs. “If there were five, we’d have to cancel.” I am still standing. I cannot crush the dreams of Mr. Bouffant and the Quadruplets, at least not yet. I sit.
For forty minutes, Bob talks very slowly. He writes keywords on the board, hands out photocopies, recites sonnets like he’s chewing dry turkey. Mr. B raises his hands and attempts a limerick, and Bob explains that we won’t be covering those. We get a ten-minute break and I bolt, not sure I’ll come back.
It’s quiet on the first floor, but the three wise men haven’t left their post. The Kitchen 1A knife sits on their table, trailing a broken string. A fourth man stands in front of them, making them laugh. I get closer and see that it’s John.
“Hey, babe,” he says, leaning in. “Tracked you down.”
“So I can’t go out on my own now?”
“I wanted to apologize. Figured that was worth finding you for.”
I let him kiss my cheek, nothing more. “How do you know I’m not taking karate to practice on you?”
“Because Neil here—” he gestures at signup guy, “told me it was full up.”
The kids are sleeping or pretending to when we get home. John’s bought candles—he thinks they’re romantic—and the house fills with some chemist’s idea of the smell of vanilla. He’s trying.
I declare a truce until after dinner. When he’s cleared the dishes and before I can rearm, he puts his hand on my shoulder and makes his serious face. “Josh is worried about Ziggy. Anna doesn’t completely get what’s going on, but she’s starting to.”
This makes me angry. Pet stores should only sell Galapagos tortoises, pet rocks. We shouldn’t invite the Grim Reaper into our homes like this. In the next moment I’m proud of my children, of what they understand even though they shouldn’t have to. “You think Ziggy gets it?” I hear the rising ends of my words, the extra breaths I’m taking. This makes me even angrier, because why should I care about a fish?
John says, “I’ll take care of it.”
“You got me a rose. You’ve done enough.” I remind myself that, faced with the prospect of a dying pet, my father would have headed for the nearest bar. Of course, he also wouldn’t have written letters to the editor while he was there.
“Really. I’ll do it.”
“You think I can’t handle killing a fish? That it’s, what, a man’s job?”
“No. I know you can handle it. I don’t think you think I can, though. This is my big chance.”
I’m defeated by this, and I can tell by his cheek-chewing smile that John’s trying not to show that he knows it. I’m grateful he doesn’t play poker. He doesn’t have any of the normal bad habits.
“But listen,” he says, “Maybe we can use some of your stash.”
Josh had a bad cold last winter, and the expired remainder of his codeine pills lives in my dresser. Predictably, this makes John nervous. “No way.”
“One pill in the water. I’m sure it’ll work.”
“So would aspirin, I bet. Or Campari.” I read later that kids shouldn’t get codeine, and screamed at the doctor for an hour. Then we switched pediatricians. I don’t know why I keep the pills; I just do. Some of the neighbors do a busy trade in extra meds, a happy exurban black market that’s not for me. In any case, the pills are mine, and mine alone.
“Please,” John says.
He sighs. “I’m a little disappointed.”
I shrug. “You said you could handle it.”
“And I will.” He claps his hands and pushes himself up. “I’ll call in sick. Stay home, make pancakes, kill pet.”
I want to point out that his blue moon breakfasts make my daily cereal look bad. But everybody likes pancakes and anyway, he’s amazingly offered to take the day off. The miracle of the fish and the loafer.
“You can write a retraction letter too. You’ll have time.” He nods at this, but I can’t tell whether he’s agreeing.
The next morning, I lie in bed and listen to John take care of the kids. It’s such an unusual treat that they’re stunned into being good at first. Then I hear something crash, followed by the giddy laugh John has when he wants to swear but won’t let himself. I get up a half-hour later; the kitchen floor is suspiciously clean and Anna isn’t wearing what I laid out for her the night before. Josh stares accusingly at me. “We weren’t going to wait.”
“But you already ate.”
“For Ziggy,” he says, frustrated at my opacity. “We were gonna start without you.”
They assemble in the living room, Josh heading up the column with Ziggy’s bowl pressed to his chest. Behind Josh is Anna, on whose head John has fastened a cardboard fast-food crown. John brings up the rear, a roll of paper towels in his hand.
John starts to hum a solemn march, and they move to the front door. I glance at the other fish, Ziggy’s compatriots and antagonists, unaware of the cosmic themes playing out ten feet away. I run ahead of the parade to open the door and stand aside, saluting each in turn as they pass. I decide not to go any further than the front steps. John is handling it.
They’re gone a long time and I imagine improvised rituals, speeches, giggling. I wonder what poor Ziggy thinks of all this, if he can think. I look at my pile of smudgily-copied sonnets and feel the undergrad dread I’d completely forgotten.
In they come, bringing warm air and dirt. Josh hands me the empty bowl, and I put it in the dishwasher. Anna trails behind me, a confused look on her face. She’s unraveled the crown and grasps it like a sword. “Ziggy’s happier now,” she says, quietly. Her mind catches up with the meaning of this, and she offers a bright smile. “Happier.” I realize she’s trying to comfort Josh, who’s started crying, doing the boy-thing of standing perfectly still with head down, imagining we won’t notice. I grab them both in my arms. From the kitchen doorway John raises his eyebrows, wondering whether he misses this catharsis every day he’s in the office. He joins us and we hug until my shoulders are stiff.
Two minutes later, Josh and Anna are watching a DVD and I decide to check out Ziggy’s grave. It looks like something dug by a particularly lazy squirrel: a shallow little crater with Ziggy, almost uncovered, at the bottom.
He isn’t still. His tail taps against the soil, and he gasps at the air. I sprint back into the house.
“You guys, what the hell?” I yell.
John looks up from the couch. “Whoah,” he says, “Whoah.”
I wave him to the kitchen and we huddle. “Ziggy’s alive,” I hiss. While John digests this I remove Ziggy’s bowl from the dishwasher, refill it, throw in some chemicals. I point at the children, and he nods. Josh watches me creep across the living room with the bowl, but he just shrugs and turns back to the TV. His sister doesn’t even look up. The trauma of a few minutes earlier is already vanished. I’m amazed. Where did they get this from, this toughness?
In the books and pamphlets and pet store staff admonitions, keeping fish alive is a matter of exact pH, precise temperature, endless detail. Death by accident seemed inevitable. But now Ziggy has survived in nothing but air and sun. I scoop him up and toss him into the bowl. He shakes himself, casts an incurious, bugging eye at the great outdoors he almost became part of, and starts swimming lopsidedly.
In a few days, who knows what’ll happen to him? In less time than that, John will start pestering me about my stash again, and I’ll start pestering him about writing a retraction letter, getting an earlier start on our July 4th plans, a dozen other things. Everything will be back to normal. But for now, as I walk back to the house holding the rescued fish, I just have to think of a way to explain Ziggy’s resurrected presence.
Maybe it’s a job for poetry; I could say it in a sonnet. Everything can be put to use. And of course it’s a great annoyance, but a greater comfort, to think that they might not even notice.
AHARON LEVY's fiction has appeared in The Sun, Ecotone, Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and is working on finishing his first novel; concurrently, his first novel is working on finishing him.