The Golden Fish
She exited the doctor’s office in a rush, heels clicking on the stairs. The doctors advised her to cultivate a renewed connection to life, set goals, seek companionship. Family, friends, pets. They told her to eat regular meals, gain weight, and they gave her a prescription for little white pills that would help her sleep because sleep was essential.
But if her body didn’t want to sleep, she wouldn’t force it. Sleep came in tsunami waves, rare yet submersive. She didn’t tell the doctors that after sleeping, she awoke gasping, hands to her throat as if choking herself, tears spilling from her eyes into her ears, clogging them and making her panic that she was under water. Beside her, the bed was empty, the presence of absence tangible in the dark. He was gone. Gone-gone. The memories left her racking for breath.
No, sleeplessness wasn’t the problem. Waking was. The doctors would never understand. She stuffed the crumpled prescription into a shiny metal trashcan near the exit as the automatic doors slid open.
In the parking lot, frigid winter wind made her shiver as she fished around for the keys in her purse. To her surprise, her fingers dipped into three inches of lukewarm liquid. She opened the mouth of the tangerine-coloured purse and looked inside.
Her thermos of coffee had toppled over, and its contents had fled. Resting on the bottom of the brown sea were her car keys and phone. She pulled out a spiral-bound notebook, its pages soaked and wavy. The first doctor had told her to write down her thoughts, so she had. Len. Len. Len. The pages were full.
After retrieving the phone and keys, she held the purse to the winter sun. Coffee sloshed within, but on the outside, not a blemish of brown, not a drop. The orange purse was entirely orange. She looked into its unzipped mouth. Yes, inside coffee pooled.
She clicked the unlock button on her key, but the car did not respond, so she opened the door manually and set the purse upright on the passenger seat.
As she drove, gripping the steering wheel at 10 and 2, she contemplated the miracle at hand. What a lining. She coasted into her driveway, entered the quiet home, stuck her phone in a sealed bag of rice, and dumped the coffee into the sink, coins clinking as they hit the basin, wadded receipts landing with soft plops.
She rinsed the purse, rinsed it until the water ran clear, and then she filled it again, six inches instead of three. The hours passed and yet the water did not leak. It was a miracle, miraculous, an orange capsule fit to hold all things liquid. She eyed the purse, admiring its robust form. From the outside, one would think it simply full. Full of what, one wouldn’t know. She grabbed her keys and returned to the car.
Winter had set in fiercely, hemming the yard with snow, and if it were not for the kind neighbour and his snowblower, she would be trapped in the house.
She drove in silence to the nearest pet store. Get a companion. Fine, she would do just that. When she saw the doctors again, they couldn’t complain that she ignored their advice. Get a companion. She would.
In the store, a bin of flashing feathers drew her gaze. Parakeets–blue and green and yellow—hopped around a pile of wood chips. There was no enclosure above them, which made her wonder why they didn’t take flight. Perhaps the birds were broken, defunct of wing or soul. The image of a parakeet falling from her grasp into a dark abyss, the bird flapping madly but unable to fly, came to her, and she backed away, careful not to look the birds in the eyes. She was not here for them.
A child wailed, “Not fair!” and broke into hysterical crying as his mother knelt down, whispering frantically for the boy to stop.
She had never wanted children, but even as the boy cried, she paused to watch the mother place a tender hand on his shoulder. Now that having Len was not an option, she wondered if a child would suffice. A renewed connection to life. Goals. Companionship.
At the edge of the store there was a glass wall, and behind it were cages of cats. Rescue cats, as the sign read. The cats stared at her with hypnotic, knowing eyes, and she felt tears come to her own. No, the cats knew too much and that would never do.
There were no dogs in the store. No yippy, jumpy dogs, and she was fine with that. Dogs needed so much attention that even the idea of a dog made her want to crawl into a closet and hide behind her clothes, though the dog would surely find her there, nose snuffing along the floor.
She came to a wall of fish four aquariums high and six long. The possibilities were endless. There were many fish. Pink and green baby fish darted in a school. In solitary tanks, beta fish—black and red and blue—swam with their ample fins waving like flags in a breeze. She walked along the row and stopped at the final aquarium where an orange fish swam. Goldfish might be the name, but this fish was the colour of a carrot. His companions, who drifted aimlessly in the back of the tank, had white splotches on their orange sides, but the orange fish was entirely orange. He stared at her with black unblinking eyes, and she swore that she heard a muffled, Hello.
She put her hands to the glass, pressed her forehead and nose to the tank, getting as close as possible. The fish swam in a quick circle but didn’t speak.
“Can I help you?” a strange voice asked from behind.
She jumped back.
It was a pale, pimply boy in a blue vest with a name tag that read: Ernie—You Ask, I Help.
“I need this fish. This fish is mine.”
The boy cocked his head to the side as if his brain needed to be at an angle for the words to compute, but after a moment, his head levelled, he nodded and got a small blue net. Through an opening in the front top of the aquarium, he retrieved the orange fish. The fish, for his part, made the transfer difficult. She didn’t blame him. People in vests were hard to trust.
The boy placed the fish in a clear plastic bag bulging with water. She took the bag from him and held it high, staring in upon… Lenny. The name came to her in a flash as if the fish had sent it via mental express. Her heart ached.
My name is Lenny, the fish said to her within her mind as she approached the checkout line. A coincidence or a miracle, she did not know. Len had never gone by Lenny, but still, would he be offended if he knew?
The girl behind the register had decorated her face with bits of metal: a ring in her eyebrow, two studs in her nose, a ball in the skin above her top lip that looked like a mole, a hoop on her bottom lip, and many rings and studs and balls and bars along her ears. She was like an evenly ornamented Christmas tree. There was a thoughtfulness to the glints of metal on her face.
The girl sighed and rolled her eyes. “Are you listening?”
“I want to buy the fish.”
“Yes, I know. That’s why it’s in a bag.”
“That’s why he’s in a bag.”
The girl rolled her eyes again. “I asked, do you have an aquarium at home, or do you want this?” The girl held up a small square-shaped glass container. It was no more than six inches long and four inches wide. It didn’t have a lid. “It’s free,” the girl said.
An apartment for Lenny. “Yes, I’ll take it. Thank you.”
For the small fee of $1.74, she drove home at sunset with her companion, Lenny, in a plastic bag resting atop a blanket on the passenger seat, his apartment on the floor.
At a stoplight, she looked into the rearview mirror and found, for the first time in months, eyes staring back at her. The woman in the mirror had dark eyes and dark hair that looked tussled by wind and rain. She had the distinct feeling that this woman was not her while at the same time knowing very well there was no one else it could be.
The car behind her honked twice. The light had changed. She drove home, catching only greens. Once parked, she rushed Lenny inside, not wanting him to get cold, and set him on the counter. The orange purse waited. She unzipped its mouth and was careful not to let Lenny touch the zipper’s jagged teeth as she dumped him inside.
Lenny swam quick circles, bumping against the orange fabric, and he flipped his tail, exclaiming, My home!
“You like it?” she asked.
Lenny swam affirmative loops.
She brought Lenny to her favourite spot in the house, a bench built into the wall beneath a window on the second floor. It was a nook, her nook that Len had made. She kept the lights off and stared at the full moon. Lenny seemed to appreciate the moonlight upon his scales. Have you ever seen the moon? she asked him in her mind, and he said, I am the moon. She didn’t know what to make of that, but the moon, the tides, the water, the fish, they were all connected.
Tell me a story, Lenny said, and the only one that mattered came to mind. She shook her head, It’s too much.
Lenny swam, flipped his tail, the moonlight dancing on him. Tell me.
So she began.
They’d spent the night in Chicago, so Len could wake early for the triathlon. The day was windy and bright. Over nine thousand people competed in the race. They pressed through the crowd on their way to the lake. At the check-in station, he kissed her on the cheek and said, “See you on the other side,” and went to find his heat.
In groups of fifty, the swimmers dove into the water, buoyant in their wet suits, and navigated the waves. There were so many bodies moving in the lake, arms pulling, legs kicking, heads facedown, twisting to the side and gasping for breath. She surely wouldn’t see him in the pack of swimmers, so she went to the spot where athletes pulled themselves from the water and ran to their bikes.
The time for his heat to take off came and went. Ten minutes passed, fifteen, twenty, half an hour. Her phone buzzed, but she didn’t recognize the number and declined the call. She scanned the faces, the dripping wet men and women pulling off their swim caps but, in all of the faces, she did not find his. The unknown caller phoned again, and she sent it to voicemail. The minutes piled into an hour. He did not appear, and she wondered if she’d missed him.
As the bike racks thinned, she spotted a blue bicycle with a neon orange helmet hanging from its handlebar. His bike, it had to be, but where was he?
She saw a man in a yellow vest labelled Volunteer. “My husband is not on his bike,” she said.
The man led her to the first aid tent, saying he might be injured, and he left her with the medic, a grizzled woman with a sharp jawline and pointed nose who was beautiful in the way of weathered rocks and windblown trees. “Your husband, Leonard Smoke?” the medic asked, eyes widening.
She felt trapped by the medic’s gaze until a doctor in a white coat made her sit on a metal folding chair. She heard roaring as if conch shells were pressed to both of her ears, their volumes cranked intolerably high. Though she sensed the roaring was trying to communicate something of life past and present, now was not the time to listen, and she told the shells to shush.
“What?” she asked loudly over the noise.
The doctor told her that they’d tried to call, that she was listed as Leonard Smoke’s emergency contact.
The rest was blurry. Somehow she moved from the tent to a hospital. Somehow she stood beside Len, who lay motionless on a bed. His nose was oddly swollen and red, and his eyes were blackened as if he’d been punched in the face. His skin felt cold, and she wanted to tell the doctors that no, this wasn’t him. He didn’t feel like this. But her mouth opened and shut like a fish out of water, not making a sound.
The doctors swarmed her, thrusting papers at her, asking her to sign on the line. They told her he’d been kicked in the nose. High traffic in the water, lots of bodies, a real tragedy.
The conch shells roared.
With the story done, teardrops hanging from her jaw and falling to her lap, she sat in the nook beside Lenny and below the moon wondering if the man who kicked Len in the face knew someone had drowned, if he had felt the crunch of heel against nose, if he saw the foot in his shoe as weaponry. She tucked her feet up and hugged her knees to her chest, feeling the familiar ache.
I’m here now, Lenny said, and she nodded. It’ll be all right, he said. I’m here.
He swam from side to side in the orange purse. What a beautiful fish. A perfect orange fish. The best fish in the world.
The doctors were right, she thought to herself as she set Lenny on the bedside table and wished him sweet dreams.
She hovered in a hazy space. Vivid images moved through her mind’s eye—an ice cream cone, the sidewalk in Chicago, a taxicab—and the images settled into a movie of Len beckoning her to swim. It’ll be all right. Come on, Kip. He liked to call her Kip. What that meant, she didn’t know, but she hadn’t heard the name in months and it felt good to hear him say it. The water was cold, but he held her hand, and they swam deep into the lake, going further and further down. They didn’t need air. They could swim for eternity. Beside them appeared a bright orange fish, no bigger than her finger. Lenny swam a quick circle. This is Lenny, she told Len, and he grinned through the water and replied, Great name for a great fish.
Smiling, she woke to grey light edging into the room. She crawled over to the nightstand and peered in upon Lenny who swam patiently in the purse as if he’d been awake for hours. “Sorry I overslept,” she said.
Not a problem, Kip.
So, he’d been in the dream, too.
She brought Lenny to the kitchen, transferred him to his apartment and set him on the windowsill, so he could survey the dawn and the snowy yard while she made coffee and put fresh water into the purse.
As she stirred creamer into her cup, she wondered if Lenny could connect to the fish in the lake within his mind as she connected to him. After downing the coffee, she dressed. Her stomach gurgled as she pulled on her coat, and she thought of the doctor’s admonition to eat, but the granola bars were out and there was nothing quick to grab. Eating would have to wait. She gathered her things, including Lenny in his orange purse, and got in the car.
The lake was near enough, and within an hour, she stood on the water’s edge, snow and ice beneath her feet, cold wind whipping through her hair and numbing her face. The lake stretched to the horizon and beyond, all the way to Chicago where wind gusted through the city and ice lined the streets.
They would have to be quick. She unzipped the purse, letting the cold sunlight in. The winter chill would cool his water, which was supposed to stay above 50 degrees, but they had only just arrived and she’d left the car running with the heat on for a speedy escape.
A wave crashed against the ice and sprayed a fine mist in the air.
Ask them, she urged Lenny within her mind. He flicked his tail just so, saying he would try. Granted it was a large lake, and the fish who had swum with Len during his final swim were far away, but they were all fish in one lake, and one could ask another, ask another, ask another until a response was found and shuttled back through the fish telephone.
She crouched low to the ground and closed her eyes, not wanting to rush him, but longing for the fish to rush. If she could speak to Lenny within her mind and Lenny could speak to the other fish and those fish had been witness to Len’s last thought, she could finally know what Len had said for goodbye.
It’s cold, Lenny said.
Yes, we’ll only stay another minute, she replied, wishing he’d focus.
No, Lenny said. It’s cold. That was his last thought.
She stood straight as a rod, the water jostling in the purse. Are you sure? That doesn’t sound right. Ask again.
Lenny swam in a circle. He would.
She pictured Len in that final moment, face turned to the deep, staring into bottomless darkness, a heel flashing through the water, hitting him square in the nose. She pressed her lips tightly together; the world blurred with tears. It was cold.
Stop, she told Lenny.
He looked at her dolefully.
It was a mistake, she said, hastily walking to the car, her feet crunching through the snow, trying to outpace the sadness clawing at her throat. The fish are too far, their memories dismal. Rushing, she slid on a patch of ice and nearly tumbled to the ground. One orange strap slipped from her hand. Water splashed from the purse, soaking her pants and the concrete. Lenny swam quick circles in his diminished tank. She baby-stepped to the car, not letting her heels off the ground, and drove like a maniac to her house where she quickly replenished Lenny’s home.
After hours of lying horizontal on the couch and checking Lenny at random, she felt an odd tightening in her gut, a slight burning. Her stomach gurgled for the second time that day.
She rifled through the cabinets and found stale Cheerios, mouldy bread and an unopened bag of croutons. An idea dawned upon her, one she had not considered after Len, or before Lenny.
“We’re going out!” she said. Lenny flicked his tail in delight.
In her closet, she rummaged through the clothes, throwing hangers to the floor, and she settled on a plum velvet dress that she hadn’t worn since college. She donned pearl earrings and a long pearl necklace. She pulled on black silk gloves that came to her elbows, technically items from Halloween. They felt just right.
The sunset turned the sky a dazzling pink, and she drove in awe to the restaurant where she and Len had many a date. She circled the parking lot—five, ten, fifteen times—until a car pulled out, so she could park close to the restaurant’s entrance. Heels like these were not meant for walking. She moved nimbly through the slush, the orange purse a comforting weight on her shoulder.
In the restaurant, Italian music played, and Lenny said he liked the melody.
The hostess had black hair pulled into a low ponytail, perfectly manicured eyebrows and long dense lashes.
To Lenny she said, I admire her hairs. To the hostess, she said, “Table for one. It’s a special occasion.”
The round table had white linen and a floral centrepiece. She set Lenny on the chair beside her, keeping the mouth of the purse zipped, hiding their little secret. Lenny chuckled. She smirked at the men and women around her, telling Lenny of their pompous hair and ridiculous ties. Lenny retorted with comments like, He sounds as bald as an orangutan, and, Her nose must rival the aardvark’s, which made her giggle. She once caught the waiter staring at her from across the room. She waved. He turned away. Lenny laughed.
She ate bread dipped in seasoned olive oil, an arugula salad dusted in cheese, a bowl of spaghetti with red sauce, two meatballs the size of her fist, and a scoop of dark chocolate gelato. She drank a well-poured glass of red wine that made her feel hot and delightfully tired. All the while, pressing two fingers to her torso, she checked her stomach for density. She hadn’t eaten this much in months. Her stomach grew firmer, but she didn’t feel full until she stood at the end of the meal. Standing brought an intense dizziness, a feeling of vertigo, and a fullness that took her breath away.
Oh, Lenny, she moaned as she put on her coat. My stomach.
Easy does it, he coached from beneath the zipper. One step at a time.
She took a mint from the hostess’ stand on principle and stuck it in her coat pocket for later.
“Do you need some help?” the hostess asked.
“I’m fine.” She grimaced.
Outside, the cold hit her at once, bringing goose bumps to her skin. Her untrimmed leg hairs stood on end and brushed the dress in a tickling way that she found distracting.
Let me see the moon, Lenny said.
I don’t feel good.
Just while we walk, he said, and she unzipped the purse.
Pulling the car keys from her pocket, she dropped the mint and decided it wasn’t worth the bending retrieval required. She clicked the unlock button on the keys. The beeping horn and flashing lights did not come. After clicking repeatedly, urgently, incessantly, she remembered the key’s fatal dip in coffee, and she groaned. Too full for this, she waddled carefully toward her car, trying not to jostle her innards, and she only saw the man as he wrenched the purse from her arm with one hand and yanked at the pearl necklace with the other.
She felt the pull of the necklace like a collar forcing her to bow, to bend forward and crunch in upon the food until the necklace snapped, searing pain on her highest vertebra, and the purse pulled from her arm, caught on her elbow, her wrist. She held firmly to the strap, but the man was stronger and he ripped the purse away, water flying through the air, soaking him, spraying her, and he yelled, “What the hell?” The pearls hung limp in his hand, beads falling to the ground like lost teeth.
A goldfish flew through the air. Lenny arched high above their heads, crossing over the moon, a swimming silhouette. She ran for him, ran to catch him, but the man was in her way, and he swore as she collided with him. Lenny landed on the ground with a thump, and as the man stumbled back, trying to get out of her grasp, there was a sickening crunch. She gasped. The man’s eyes widened, and she saw in them the other man, and she grabbed her orange purse from his hand and smacked the purse hard against his face, hit him one, two, three times. He stood frozen throughout the onslaught. When the third blow struck, he dropped the necklace and ran, his feet leaving prints in the slush.
She knelt to the ground. Icy water soaked her dress. Pearls lay atop Lenny’s golden head. She gathered his perfect body, now crushed, into her hands. The moonlight glinted upon his scales. He was cold.
“Are you all right?” the hostess from the restaurant asked. “That man. I called the police.”
She tried to speak, but the words were lodged deep beneath an outpouring of food. Gelato, meatballs, spaghetti, arugula and bread—all soaked in a nice red wine—came hurtling out of her mouth. The hostess whimpered, “I’ll get the manager.”
Alone in the parking lot, she raked her hands through the slush, gathered the fallen beads and put them in the purse. “He killed my Lenny,” she whispered as she lowered Lenny in among the pearls.
Elizabeth Droppers is a fiction writer and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist living in Grand Rapids, MI. She has an MFA from Pacific University, and you can find her in the mornings working on her debut novel with her dogs, Bruce and June, lying at her feet. By night, she dances to the tunes of Jack Droppers & the Best Intentions because that’s what committed fans do.