Goldfish & Women

“Two couples out for a friendly breakfast try to find purpose in their lives.” || Originally published in Penumbra.

We hadn’t heard from Big Ray in over a year.  Big Ray had been my husband Jake’s tennis buddy from the Rose Garden, and the person who’d introduced me to Jake. Not that I’d been much of a player back then—after a set of lessons, I’d kept myself to the wall, hitting the ball over the wall and chasing it like an imbecile.  Center court was where the so-called good players—or jerks—played, guys who hit hard, entered and blew local tournaments, and screamed “fuck” when they missed a shot or got a bad call.  Some worked jobs; others didn’t. A few still lived with their mothers. In the small world of the Berkeley Rose Garden, a multi-tiered amphitheater of rose bushes, flagstone, and bay view, they’d become stars. Both Ray and Jake had played center court long before I’d made my appearance, and it was Ray who first approached me at the wall. Then, after a few dates—dinner and not much else—one day at the Rose Garden he introduced me to Jake, and after the three of us hit the ball around we went for pizza.  And that’s how I ended up switching—marrying Jake at the Rose Garden, of course, a cheap rent for a weekend wedding.  All the guys on the courts that morning who weren’t invited ceased fire at the net, racquets politely lowered as we spoke our vows, thou shalt no longer waste endless hours playing tennis at the Rose Garden being one of our most profound.  One of the unintended results of that vow, though, was that Jake and Ray had mostly lost touch.  A month after the wedding Ray had stopped by to drop off t-shirts, gifts from a trip to China; after that we never heard from him, and for some reason Jake never called him.  But now, after a one-year silence, Ray had rung us up, giddy and in love.  Did we want to meet for breakfast?

The following weekend when we pulled up to Ray’s two-story duplex, one of many buildings his parents owned, we spotted Ray at the back of his driveway, standing by the garage.  He was wearing his usual silky green tennis shorts, and he had his hands on his hips.  His black hair, tinged with gray, was sticking up static-electricity style, and there was no sign of the woman.

 “Hey, Big Ray!” Jake said, halfway up the driveway, reaching out his hand.

Ray met him halfway, Ray short and stout, Jake tall and lean, the bush and the tree what the Rose Garden regulars had called them.

“Jake, buddy boy,” Ray said, slapping him on the back.  “Long time no see.”  Ray scrambled back to the garage, picked up a racquet, and swung a quick backhand.  “When we going to play?  Double or nothing.”  Ray’s eyes twinkled.  He put down the racquet, then looked at me.  “Sarah” slid out of his mouth like a question, the rah rising.

“Ray,” I said, peering at the toothy ramparts snaking across his t-shirt, the same Great Wall t-shirt he’d given Jake and me.  He’d come back with a thousand of them to peddle at flea markets.  Fluorescent green, the shirts were supposed to glow in the dark, but mine never made it on my body and Jake’s had disintegrated in the wash.  Now I could see that the other 997 shirts piled on a lawn chair in the garage corner amidst the wreckage of other failures: piles of twisted clothes, stacks of paperbacks—25 cents each—and old record albums.  Naked babes, not for sale, were strewn on the floor still glossy on the covers of dog-eared Playboys.  Stepping into the garage, I walked over to an open carton, in it his best invention—the Ray Wang Panic Box, a rectangular gadget dotted with multicolored buttons, each emitting a noxious sound—siren, bark, horn, scream–when pushed.  Its purpose was to ward off the dreaded mugger or lurking rapist.  The problem was, though, the buttons were so sensitive they’d go off by accident, scaring the hell out of you and everyone else.  That’s why I’d never used mine.

“What’s all this?”  Jake said, standing on the driveway near some hedges.

I stepped back onto the driveway and went over to Jake.  “My god,” I said, looking down at the plump iridescent bodies of goldfish, their heads shorn off.  There must have been a dozen of them scattered along the far side of the driveway.

“Oh,” Ray said, the smile slipping from his face, “we had a little accident here last night.”   He looked back at the garage.  “That’s why I moved the tank in there.”

I looked back at the garage.  Off to a left in the corner on the garage floor was a shallow wooden crate, a bizarre, make-shift tank.  

“Cats?” Jake said.

“Coons,” Ray said.

I put my hands on my hips.  “Jack the Ripper I’d say.  Why didn’t you just buy a real fish tank?”  I looked at the dead fish again, their lovely, scalloped fins shriveled up and bloodied. 

“A family,” Ray said.  “They’ve been getting into everyone’s garbage.”   He shook his head.  “God, this is terrible.  I need to get these out of here before Ginny comes down.  She’s taking a shower.  She’s a vegetarian.”  Crouching down, he started collecting the bodies and chucking them in the garbage.  Between fish, he glanced up at me, blinking his eyes nervously.  He knew I knew something about fish—I’d raised tropical fish as a child—and gambling from my bankrupt father.  That kept the dates going for a while since Ray gambled too.

Feeling sick, I walked back into the garage to the tank, which was lined with plastic.  Squatting down, I peered into the water, the oxygen softly bubbling, and wondered what it would be like, fins propelling my body through the inky water, the undulating moon suddenly shattered, shredded.  Likely they didn’t feel anything.  Still, I shuddered.

Ray came into the garage and, squatting beside me, brushed his arm against mine.  “Look,” he said. “They didn’t all die.”

A fantail with silky red and white fins floated by obliviously.

Ray smiled.  “She’s a beauty, isn’t she?”

“She is,” I said, peering at the other survivors.  Huddled down deep in the corners, they looked ghostly.

“Where’d you get them?” I asked.

“That trip to China.  My parents sent me to find a wife.”

“Doesn’t this shut?”  Jake asked.  Behind us, he was trying to pull the garage door down.

Ray stood up and turned to a large piece of cardboard leaning against the wall.  “See, I’m building a barricade, a wall.”

I stood up and peered at the collage of cardboard he’d taped together. “Ray,” I said, “that won’t hold.”

“Hey.”  A high-pitched voice came from above.  Standing at the top of the back steps was the woman, the love of Ray’s life, a Caucasian mermaid, her long strings of wet hair hanging over her shoulders, staining her blouse, her right arm in a sling.  Barefoot and skinny, she looked young and girlish, but as she came down the steps she seemed to age, eyes puffy, skin saggy, face a little crooked.  I couldn’t help but stare at a pink gash across the bridge of her nose as she slipped her good arm around Ray and smiled pleasantly. “Did Ray tell you what happened?”

Waiting for our names to be called, we milled among other couples outside Sammy’s, a popular diner sandwiched between the bay and the warehouse district.  The neighborhood, a no-man’s land a year ago, had gone through a renaissance, spruced up by boutiques and cafes and weekend shoppers with shopping bags.  In the distance, a train was blowing its whistle mournfully.   When it was out of earshot, I said, “Jake grew up near the railroad.  The whistle reminds him of his childhood.”  I didn’t know why I’d said it.  I looked over at Jake, and he laughed.  “Whatever you say, hon.”  Shrugging, he man-glanced over at Ray knowingly.  I recognized that look:  What will she think of next?

Nevertheless, I blathered on.  “In the corner of our bedroom is Jake’s boyhood dresser.  He won’t let me throw it away.  He wants me to refinish it.”

“Ginny,” Ray said, jumping in, “wants to tear up the front yard.”

Ginny rolled her eyes.  “Tear up the ivy jungle, put poppies in.  What a crime!”

“That would be pretty,” I said, “lots of orange and green.”  I eyed Ray—he was smiling, loving it—in love for the moment.

A girl in a Sammy’s t-shirt stepped through the door, onto the sidewalk and shouted my name.  The diner, a spiffy 50’s style place with black and white tile and red booths, was buzzing with chatter.   Girl/boy we slid into the booth and cracked open the menus.   Everything here was large and overpriced, but the food was good.  The jukebox blasted Elvis, and even if you weren’t happy when you walked in, you couldn’t help swinging your leg to beat.  Beneath the table, my knee bumped time against Jake’s, and he rested his hand on it, making it stop. The waitress, a cute blond in a tight white outfit and one of those tiara-type visors on her head, pulled out her order pad and we ordered away.  Then Jake said to Ginny, “Ray told me about your fellowship at the lab.  Congratulations.”  He was referring to Lawrence Berkeley Lab, up in the hills, among the eucalyptus groves, where no one knew exactly what they did—supposedly secret government work.

“Thanks,” Ginny said, “but actually I’m still trying to get my dissertation finished.”

“Ginny’s on the twelve-year plan,” Ray said. “Her cyclometer keeps breaking down.”

Chuckling, I pronged a wedge of pancake, the word sounding funny coming out of Ray’s mouth, and I wondered if Ginny knew about Ray’s neat piece of physics, the male version of the Ray Wang Panic Box—a little black gun he kept in the freezer behind the Rocky Road, for protection in case he won big at Pai Gow, his favorite card game.  He’d said it was a 22.

“It measures revolutions of particles, the cyclometer,” Ray said, egg quivering on his fork, en route to his mouth.

“An accelerator that propels particles in spiral paths,” Ginny added.

“Sarah took physics for poets in college,” Jake said, placing strips of salmon on his bagel.  Skinny as he was, he was getting the beginnings of a tire, so he was bulking up on fatty acids or something like that.

“Actually,” I said, “I took horticulture.”  But I didn’t know any more about plants than I did about physics or guns.  I was going to say something about fish, about mollies and the kinds of diseases they get, how you should never mix them with other fish, but our waitress was at our booth. “What else can I get you?” and when no one said anything, she plunked down the check, and the topic changed, Ginny telling about her accident a few weeks ago, a fall off a bike, a broken jaw, fractured shoulder, how the paramedic had said, Hey, what are you crying about—you’re not that hurt.  That’s when Ray’s hand turned all snaky, tangling and untangling his fingers with hers. “That bastard,” Ginny said, and Ray leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.

I tried not to but kept looking at the pink scar on her nose and out of my mouth popped, “Will you be making nuclear weapons after you get your degree?”

“Sarah!” Jake reached for my shoulder, but he caught his glass and sent it over the edge of the table, to the floor where it broke with a crash, and I almost started laughing, Jake always complaining how I manhandled everything, how once I opened a cabinet in a fancy store and the door snapped back and the ugly vase on top tumbled to the floor, shattering.  The truth was Jake was worse than me.  A serial breaker, he practically broke a glass every time he did the dishes.  I could never keep a set of four in tact.

A week after our breakfast, on my way to the post office, I detoured past Ray’s place.  Jake was at work, and I wasn’t working.  Time on my hands, six months according to my obstetrician, I had just hit the first trimester mark, but I hadn’t told Jake yet.  After miscarrying the first one, I didn’t want to jinx this one.  In front of Ray’s place now, it was still the eyesore of the neighborhood, the lovely 1920s building peeling, its veranda rusted, its face stripped of its wooden windows replaced by aluminum ones, the driveway even messier than last week, cluttered with janitor-style garbage cans on wheels, a flying saucer-shaped hot tub, odd pieces of wood and an old lawn mower, and Ray’s old two-seater car.  I walked up the driveway a little and peering around his car saw him in the garage tearing down the wall he’d cobbled together for the surviving fish.  As I made my way toward him, I said, “The primary aid in fortifying a fixed position is to erect a physical barrier that can not be suddenly over run and that is strong enough to enable the defending force to hold the position for a period of time.”

“What?”  Ray said, turning toward me.

“It’s from The Great Barriers of Civilization, chapter three, ‘The Myth of the Great Wall.'”  I had a photographic memory, but no one ever believed me.

“Right,” Ray said, turning back to his wall.

“The Great Wall is not a single continuous structure.  It consists of a network of walls and towers that leave the frontier open in places.

“Is that what you came to tell me?  You know I’ve been to the Great Wall.  I’ve walked it.”

“You’re lucky,” I said.  “You know you ought to turn this place into a museum.”  Then something caught my eye, something of my own among the heaps of garage-sale junk, an old biddy black velvet dressing gown with gold tinsel sleeves I’d won in a raffle at Macy’s where I used to work.  It was swirled up on a folding chair, and atop it was a sleeping albino cat, a real one.  “Jesus, Ray, what’s happened to it?”

“That’s Snowy.  He’s a runaway.”

“I mean his ears?”

“Cancer.  Ginny and I split the cost of amputation.”

“That’s gross.”  I touched my ear, then bent down and picked up a bookmark.  On it was a shot of a girl in a bikini top.  I waved it at him.  “Hey, you never made a go of this, huh?”

Ray laughed.  “No, but me and Jake sure had fun doing it.”

He was referring to a time long before I’d come into the picture, before I’d ever been to the Rose Garden, when he and Jake, young and stupid, had cruised the U.C. Berkeley campus secretly snapping pictures of co-ed’s body parts to be put on bookmarks and laminated.

Ray stepped away from the wall and squatted down beside the tank, mulling over his fish.  “They’re still skittish,” he said.

“They’ve been through a lot,” I said, squatting down beside him.

“I’m putting a screen over the tank at night now.  So far so good.”

“Their claws are so agile.  They can pick locks, unbutton dresses.  They’re vicious.  I’ve seen them.”  I wiggled my fingers.

Ray considered my hands then grabbed a bunch of fish pellets and tossed them into the tank.  “Hey,” he said, “watch these guys.”

We watched the pellets float; the fish, though, kept to their corners.

“They’re still traumatized,” I said.  I looked over my shoulder.  “Where’s Ginny?”

Ray tossed in more pellets.  “Oh, come on you guys.”  He pleaded with his fish.

“Oh.”  I pressed my hand to my stomach.  I felt a twinge of something, and I thought of the bloody mess floating in the toilet, of clots of fish matter when a long time ago as a child I’d let tank water get too warm and cooked a litter of baby angels.

“You okay?” Ray asked.

“You know it’s only a matter of time before the raccoons get through the screen.”

He studied the tank for another minute, then reared back on his heels and plopped down in an empty lawn chair.  “Ginny left.”

I stood up and walked over to the carton of panic boxes.  I pulled one out, still a sleek, nifty thing, with a flashlight at the top and all its colored buttons set in a dial like a cycle of birth control pills.  “You know I still have mine,” I said.

“Really?”  He lifted his eyes.  “You carry it with you?”

“I’m pregnant,” I said, then pushed a button.  A siren pierced the air.   The cat sprung off the chair.

“Hey, you must be happy,” Ray said.

I pointed to where the cat had been, to what had been beneath it.  “What’s that doing there?”

Ray reached over for the gun, the little 22, and before I could say anything he pressed it to his temple and pulled the trigger.  “Piece of junk.  Never even worked.”   He tossed it over to the lawn chair, the 997 t-shirts breaking its fall.