Bad news: they found small white aphids on the Pearl Calico Shebunkins that morning. These were the moneymakers. The right kind of customer would ogle them while they darted around their tank and mumble, hypnotized, “How much?”
The value was in their color, their shine. Goldfish fins refract light, Faye told the employees when they arrived at Faye’s Fins, outlining a tail with one stubby, unpolished nail. These fish required constant exposure to high-powered lights to keep their colors from dulling. If left in the dark, the fish would eventually fade to gray. Then there’d be hell to pay. It had happened once during a power outage: twenty Telescope eyes big as carp and smuggled in from China had gone from vermilion to gray, tropical fruit to gruel, koi pond to grocery store sushi, in less than eight hours.
Someone asked, “Did they sell?”
Faye snorted and drew her finger across her throat.
It was a bloodier business than Paul had expected. Consider the guppies. Male guppies, in particular, had beautiful, salsa-skirt tails swishing around in a blaze of red and blue and green. They were gorgeous. They were also pansies. Paul once watched a male angelfish bite the tail of a particularly floaty guppy, who trembled and hid behind a plastic tree, terrified but alive, as the angelfish hung out chewing around the tank gravel. It was the fish store equivalent of a middle school gym class depantsing.
Paul had mistakenly put them in the tank together when he wasn’t supposed to. That was when he’d first started at Faye’s Fins. Faye had called him in. “What possessed you?”
“I didn’t know.”
He’d been turned down for the history department’s sole postgrad research fellowship, intended to be his bridge to grad work. Then his parents had pulled out on him when their retirement savings took a stock hit. He’d needed the job, and he’d needed it badly.
Faye shook her head in wonder. “What possessed you?” Her voice was soft, yielding: did he know the damage he’d done, putting those two creatures in a tank together? He’d better consider it, then give it some thought as to whether or not he really wanted to work at Faye’s Fins.
“You respect the fish,” she said. “You do what you have to to keep them alive. Mouth to mouth if you have to.”
Paul considered it. Figured the odds of accidentally eating a guppy while attempting CPR were high. Didn’t say so.
Paul’s friend Grady worked at a horse farm. His job was to whack thoroughbreds. He got high with the Mexican day laborers and shot horses. There were at least a few every spring. Broken leg? Take him down. Advanced pneumonia? Take him down. Once, he’d been ordered to secretly execute a mare who’d put on weight she couldn’t take off. “She had a bunch of foals, man,” Grady had said. “Just had these saddlebags she couldn’t get rid of. Little horsie thunderthighs.”
“And you did it?”
Grady had shrugged. “It’s my job.”
Paul thought about that when Faye was pushing him to his limits. Grady’s job was definitely worse. Horses were beautiful. Long, lithe fairy people. Whether or not you could go to hell for offing horses was a gray area.
When the shebunkins started to rub themselves against the tank walls and shimmy against the plastic ferns, Paul called Faye. They watched in horror as the fish began to jump sporadically out of the water, wiggling helplessly in the air before falling back into the tank. “Sorry, guys,” Paul said, closing the tank lid and opening the vents. He crouched, peered in. The aphid spots were a clean, bright white, looked like they had some texture. They were truly going apeshit. It was all pretty gross. Paul shredded some pity lettuce and dropped it in for them.
Faye came in after nine, pissed, demanded her Earl Grey. There was water on the floor by the shebunkin tank. “Somebody better clean that up,” she snapped. “Pronto. I’m done pretexting here.” Then she disappeared into her office to call distribution.
Paul set her tea down, patted the scald out of his palms. “These goddamn people,” she said. “They overcharged me for infected shebunkins. Didn’t even care the fish would die.”
“We sealed the tank,” Paul said.
She grimaced and waved her hand at him in a shut-up motion. “Hank,” she said. “Guess what I walked into this morning. A tank full of impending death.” She laughed falsely, loudly, pointing her mouth toward the receiver. There were lilac patches underneath her eyes; a fine, tight sheen to her cheeks. “Any idea how that might have happened? Oh come on. We both know these fish are from California. Not fucking China.” She arched her eyebrows under her bangs, making her entire face seem squat, ready to pounce. “Aphids. They look like they’re having a revival in there, they’re rubbing against the tank so hard. How am I supposed to sell them if they’re infected?”
There was some mumbling at the other end, something that sounded like a laugh. “I can what? Sell them as a delicacy? Say they taste like chicken. Why don’t you take a nibble at my testes and tell me if those taste like chicken, dew drop.”
She took the single Sweet ’N Low packet, the two Splendas, the two cane sugars Paul laid out for her, stacked them, ripped them open, dumped. A specific formula that, if denied, would draw out a Piss Funk Special until lunch time. White sugar would be shoved into the floor. She handed the crumpled packets to Paul, who tossed them into the trash, then rubbed at an itch on the back of his neck. He scratched it, felt Faye’s eyes on him. Stopped. Sensed his bowels shift. Took a deep breath.
“I’m getting short,” she said, “because you sold me sick fish. It’s not only the fact that you sent me bottom of the barrel and thought I wouldn’t notice. They are clearly fucking ill, Hank. I’m done pretexting here.” She glanced up at Paul. “What?”
“What the hell do you want?” she yelled. “I’m on the phone. God you’re rude. Get that water mopped. I want that floor bone dry.” She glared at Paul as he backed out. “Yeah, still here,” she said into the receiver. “I want a refund. And then an apology.”
He hadn’t been so keen on the idea of working in a pet store. An entire life ago, before he’d been a failed grad student, he’d been a failed pre-vet student, kicked in the shoulder by a cranky mare. He was thereafter left with the inability to raise his hand above the elbow level and an instant fear of large, haired animals.
It had signaled a shift in his method of living for sure. Stopped washing his hair, let holes grow in his sneakers, smoked more pot. Read Wittgenstein on the toilet. He changed his major to history. He tried to be philosophical about it—violence was the way of the world, he’d never had any misconceptions about the cuddly nature of beasts—but somehow, it was hard for him to reconcile an animal hurting him like that. He found himself dwelling on the kick at odd times. Felt a jolt of panic at large dogs. Visiting the zoo was out of the question. He preferred his brutality theoretical: reenacted on the History Channel, detailed in a thesis.
Paul pulled his hair into a ponytail and borrowed Grady’s dress shoes for his interview, during which Faye asked him about his history thesis, an account of farm geography in the hog belt, and listened to his outline with a small, amused smile. “Nice to have someone educated around here.”
Paul shifted uncomfortably.
She leaned forward. “What’s the lifespan of a common guppy?”
“The lifespan of a guppy. Go.” She leaned back in her chair and folded her arms across her chest. Behind her hung a blobby art deco rendering of a fish with fins spread out, eyes rolling back.
“I can’t say, exactly,” he stalled.
Faye rolled her eyes, crossed her legs ankle over knee. She wore khakis cinched at the waist with a braided belt. Had he seen her shoes, he would have seen laces tied tight. “Then say approximately.”
“Um.” Paul scratched his cheek, put his hand down. “A year?”
He felt his armpits go moist.
“The lifespan of a guppy, given average to good care, is two years. Anything less would indicate mistreatment or unforeseen disease. Understand?”
“I only tell you this in case some dumbass buys a bunch of guppies, kills them, then wonders why he can’t get a refund. It happens three times a week, minimum. We will not support stupidity and cruelty here.”
He nodded again. She seemed satisfied. “Okay,” she said. “When can you start?”
After much internal debate, he would finally decide that the fish in the picture was being crucified.
It took him a while to get used to the fact that Faye treated everyone like shit. She regarded Paul, a college boy, just as she regarded Alvaro, who was illiterate and cleaned the bathrooms.
But the place was not without fascination. It became clear that Faye was a fish whisperer. She began each morning with a scalding Earl Grey, which she blew and sipped while doing something with a calculator at her desk. When finished, she went to the bathroom. Then she complained to Alvaro that the mirrors were streaky. He made clear that he did not know what “streaky” meant. She yelled, “It’s dirty, man. Dirt-ee.” Pantomimed a streaky mirror by wagging her hands at him.
Then Faye made the rounds, walking a slow circle around the tanks. She stopped at each port, nodding good morning to the guppies, smiling thinly at the silver mollies, admiring the glow of the ghost shrimp.
Paul had considered the fish a brainless, sensual creature; experiencing the world through dull, non-intellectual gills. When he cast a shadow over the tanks at feeding time, they hid behind the plastic ferns. When Faye stood over them, they swam to her, mouths puckering in fishie approval.
He’d gotten to know them. He had no choice; they sold nothing else. Specialty tropicals, hot and cool water varieties. His favorites were the goldfish. They were the doomed show dogs, forcibly mated in attempts for greater brilliance, brighter color, fuller tail. A group of goldfish together was not called a school, but a trouble.
He identified with the Zebrafish the most. Big fat nervous dudes with potbellies and little lidded eyes, weaving around like they’d had a few. The Zebrafish liked their warm little apartments and watching Battlestar Galactica by themselves. When frightened, their eyes goggled and their mouths fluttered. They freaked in a way that was very human. There were others—the Bobby Knight, a specialty fish some displaced Hoosiers fan had developed somewhere out west that had to be kept at eighty degrees at all times to preserve its cream and crimson stripes. The Knight could dart and zag with incredible speed. It also liked to eat guppies. There was the Gold Turkish Delight, a gooey, candy-soft breed so fat it appeared to have swallowed a plum. It was also in those shaky early stages of species stabilization. The earlier generation had some weird defects. A bunch had eyes that had popped out of their sockets and ran amuck, panicked, eyeballs hanging out by sinewy little strings. There were the Undertaker and the Macho Man Randy Savage. Macho Man was bright green, a showboating muscle fish. The Undertaker was gray and sullen and lean. They didn’t wrestle, but Paul wanted them to.
Paul learned early to feed them only the amount they could eat in the first minute and no more. Goldfish did not have stomachs; they had a short, slim intestine that couldn’t handle more than the bare minimum of fiber or protein. When they overate, a long, feathery strand of shit trailed out their behinds, following them as they sailed across the tank. For highly specialized inbred varieties—the bulbous Telescope Eye, or the five-hundred dollar Jumping Jehoshaphat—all that inbreeding created a GI track that was a tangle of thread, slender and convoluted. Overfed, they could literally bust into pieces.
Paul once made the mistake of referring to this as the “fish butt.” Faye stopped gloating over a new shipment of black diamonds. “What was that?”
“Uh. I dunno.”
“Yes you do. Fish do not have butts.”
“It is,” she said, “the cloaca.”
Faye snapped her fingers at him. “Say it with me. Cloaca.”
“All right then.”
The clientele was a pretty particular pain in the ass. The easiest ones were little kids with their parents, first-timers purchasing aquariums they would abandon after six months. Most people didn’t like cleaning up shit, even their own, and goldfish produced a lot of shit. Short life spans didn’t engender a lot of love, either. Parents got pretty testy when kids were introduced to death before they were ready to explain it to them.
The more the buy was rooted in love, the more treacherous it made sales/client relations. The guy who bred the Bobby Knight had told Paul of his obsession with developing the world’s most voluptuous goldfish. “I just want it to have boobies, man,” he’d said.
Paul stopped cold in the middle of feeding the mollies. “Why.”
“Cause it’d be awesome. Come on. A goldfish with titties? It’s insane.”
Then there was the professor who tried to mate a shebunkin with a temperamental imported Candy Stripe. The day he came in to pick up the Candy Stripe—whom he called Candy, cooing, “Candy,” through the tank—he looked like he was about to shoot off in his pants. But Candy produced no babies. And after the first freeze, no more Candy.
“I told you,” Faye said. “They’re a sensitive breed. I have trouble keeping them alive with round-the-clock insulation. And you dropped her in a damn koi pond?”
The prof said sharply, “How was I to know Candy couldn’t take a freeze?”
“Because I told you so.” Faye looked him square in the eye. She shamed him out of the store. Paul felt a slight, secret approval of her.
The edict came down at lunch: they were to put the Pearl Calico Shebunkins to sleep.
One of the new kids—young enough to have one of those nineties suburban names like Connor, or Tanner—dumped the fish in a bowl and headed for the door. Faye snapped her fingers at him. “Hold on. What do you think you’re doing?”
“Putting them to sleep?”
Faye let her hands flap to her sides, shaking her head. “What’s wrong with you,” she said. “Bring them back here. Right now.”
It was a sore spot for Faye. She loved the fish so obviously, with such intensity that many of the employees came to hate the fish in tandem with hating Faye. They’d taken the brunt of employee anger before. Faye had once snuck up behind a girl whose pants hung too low below her mandatory Polo and hitched them up for her in full view of the entire store. The girl accused Faye of fondling her. Faye laughed in her face. The girl threatened to press charges. Faye told her to get bent. The girl snuck back in later that night, palmed a large peach Creamsicle import on retail for four hundred and slammed it on the concrete in front of the store. Faye refused to leave her office the entire day after, sticking her head out only to call for her Earl Gray.
Faye waved everyone in. “Okay. Mandatory euthanization clinic. Right now. I’m done pretexting. We do it once, we do it right.”
Everyone gathered around the infected tank while Faye went to the front register and removed a couple of bottles. One was clove oil. The other, a flask. She held a plastic cup and washcloth.
“You have a duty,” she said slowly, “to euthanize fish in a way both effective and humane. I catch anyone doing something stupid, like throwing it or stabbing it with a pencil, their ass is grass. Understood?” She went around the room, making eye contact with each of them.
“If you are forced to, you will follow these instructions. Fill the cup with tank water. Net the fish, place the fish in the cup. Add three tablespoons of clove oil. Clove oil is a fish anesthetic. It numbs them. Do not perform this task without clove oil. Respect them enough to care for their comfort. Drape the washcloth over the container to darken it.”
Faye placed the cup on the table, poured in the clove oil, then covered the cup. Watched with her hands on her hips. Sighed deeply. “After—” She sighed again. Leaned on the table. Closed her eyes. The room was silent.
She opened her eyes. “After ten minutes or so, add the vodka. It will kill them within a few moments. Watch for gill movement. No gill movement for sixty seconds—one minute, use your watch to time it—means death.”
“You are not to freeze, drop, or flush the fish. You are not to chop, stab, or squeeze the fish. Any piece of crap willing to do any of the above doesn’t need to be within fifty feet of me or this store.”
Toward the back, Connor-or-Tanner snorted. Faye’s head flew up. “Excuse me? What was that?”
Connor-or-Tanner gave a lengthy sigh. He’d been there two days, tops. “Fish can’t feel pain,” he said. “This is pointless.”
Faye straightened. She was dressed as she always was—khakis cinched at the hips, polo tucked in. When she put her hands on her hips, she became a monochromatic power wall. The kid folded his arms across his chest, started doing a nervous little dance. “It’s been proven,” he whispered.
“By whom, please?”
He looked at the ground, slowly losing his balls.
“You can’t tell me? You cannot tell me who has proven this theory of yours.” Her hand went into her pocket. She slowly brought up a hook—small but sharp. Connor/Tanner’s eyes went wide. “Fish don’t hurt,” she mused. “Interesting. I’ve been in this industry for, what, twenty-five years now? Longer than most everyone in this room has been alive.” Connor/Tanner swallowed, big junior-year Adam’s apple bobbing on his neck. “And here I am learning it was a waste of time.”
Faye put the fishhook by his mouth.
“Fish can’t feel it when a hook goes through their lip? Pulling them against their will by a hole gouged in their flesh? How about I put this hook through your mouth? Do you think that would hurt?”
“Do you think. It would hurt.”
“It would hurt.”
Faye stared, fishhook swinging. “All right then,” she said finally. The kid straightened his collar and nodded when she told him he was fired.
The salesgirl Maria, a bitter failed architect, came alongside Paul. Muttered, “That bitch.”
“I dream about taking an entire case of Alka Seltzer to this place.” Maria pumped her arms above an empty tank, scrubbing. “I’d like to see her cry.”
“What about the fish? They didn’t do anything to you.”
Maria stopped, looked at him blankly. She once swore that she saw Faye dump tank water into her tea and drink it when she thought no one was looking. “Man, fuck these fish,” she said.
“Does Faye look like she’s lost weight to you?”
“What could you possibly be talking about?”
That night, Paul had another IBS flareup. These weren’t new, but they’d lately gotten worse. His bowels swung between cramped and dripping, all the time. When he wasn’t housing bricks, he was shitting rivers. His doctor was sympathetic. Asked after his job. Seemed pretty fixated on Faye. “I know the market’s tough,” he said, “but there are other jobs out there.”
Paul himself was fixated on Faye. Hers was a hard voice to wipe out of your ears at the end of day.
He had trouble looking her in the eye, he reflected as he put his head in his hands. He was on the toilet, a copy of “Yes I Can” by Sammy Davis Jr. over his knee. It hurt his pride, but it was hard to look at her when she demanded confrontation. Something inside him just shriveled under Faye’s eye contact. The kid, that day—he’d been seventeen, at best. What did she have to prove? If you’re going to have some sort of contest where the first guy to look away is giving an admission of weakness, at least have the grace to ensure your opponent isn’t a teenager. What were you thinking? I’m done pretexting. I’m telling you.
Faye was in a good mood the next day. “Paul.” She snapped her fingers. “Haul yourself over here.”
He came alongside her. Her hands were on her midsection, rubbing. “Take a look,” she said. “Just shipped up from Florida.” The fish was blue and white, plodding bored along the tank bottom.
“Huh,” Paul said.
“Wait.” Faye put her hand, thin and hot, on his arm. He froze. Watched as the fish suddenly upended, and propelled itself in a spin to the top. Leapt out of the water and dove back down.
Faye beamed. “He’s called the Kentucky Wildcat. Goes for five hundo. One of a kind, unless we can breed him.” She let go of his arm. Kept staring at the fish. “He’s beautiful.”
Paul shifted, swallowed, looked for water he could mop up. “Uh. Yup.”
Outside, Maria was bumming a cigarette from Alvaro. She saw Paul and hooted, “Hey loverboy.”
“You two were looking pretty cozy there.”
“I mean it, Maria. Just shut up.”
She grinned at him. “Reminds me of my theory about Faye. Ever seen that Simpsons episode where Marge’s sister marries the actor with the fish fetish?”
Alvaro smiled dreamily and crooned, “Selma.”
Maria said, “That’s right.” Gave Paul a large, thin smile. He felt like punching her in the face.
He spent a solid hour on the toilet that night before he felt emptied out enough to safely stand. In the living room, Grady jiggled a Ziploc bag of pills at him—special K, easy for him to get at work.
“That stuff eats holes in your brain,” Paul said.
“Does wonders for the green apple splatters, baby. Come on. Come over here and take your medicine.”
“Pass.” He settled shakily into the couch. Grady threw him a controller. They played Super Meat Boy for the next hour. Paul reamed him. Grady was a little guy—wiry, wrists big around as a prepubescent girl’s. Freshman year he could get screwy on two beers. His pupils were round as pie plates.
He turned to Paul. “Wouldn’t mind smoking up right now.”
“Okay.” Paul rose, looked for his jacket. It was missing. It hit him that the day had turned unexpectedly warm, and he’d left it at Faye’s Fins.
“Let’s go get it,” Grady said.
“You mean I can go back and get it. There’s no way you’re driving.”
“You’re making me sad. You all depressed. Smelling like fish ass.”
“It’s called the cloaca.”
It was dark. Grady insisted upon playing his Frank Zappa Thingfish CD on the way, giving Paul kissy-trout face while he danced.
Paul parked at the curb. “I’ll be back in a second.”
He used his key to crank open the front door. He failed to see the light on at the back, and jumped when he heard chair legs scrape against the floor. “Hello?”
At the back, Faye sat in darkness, neck and shoulders illuminated by the light of the black diamond tank.
Paul stepped forward, lifted his hands. “Hi. Just came back to get my jacket.”
She stared at him for a moment, mouth slightly open. “Sure.”
He found his jacket on its peg by the breakroom, felt for the baggie in the side pocket. Still there. He returned and Faye was still by the tank, chin in hands, elbows on knees. From this angle, he could see each ridge of her spine outlined through her shirt. Deep shiny pockets of darkness under her eyes. She blinked.
He realized that he had not had one outside conversation with her in the entire year and a half he’d worked there. He cleared his throat. “Is this what you do on Friday night?”
She smiled. It looked strange on her. “Yep. Just hanging out with the Kentucky Wildcat here.”
“That’s a cool fish.”
“Think it’ll sell?”
Faye’s smile widened. She leaned forward and sighed, nose nearly to glass. The flask from the euthanasia clinic sat by her chair. “He’ll sell,” she said. “I have no doubt.”
Faye rocked forward, smile waning. It was too dark to see her eyes. Paul put on his jacket.
“You liked seeing him jump today,” she said.
“It was a pretty good trick.”
“Thought you’d appreciate that.” She sat back, wavering slightly. He could smell the vodka now. “Not everyone who works here would. But I figured you would. You are interested. Engaged.”
The sadness struck him with a force that lifted the hairs on his arms. Getting drunk with the goldfish. That’s what this woman was doing. He could feel a pull sucking everything down from here, sensed it with something a layer underneath his skin, and knew he needed to pull out before it took him under, too.
“Well, sorry to bug you. My buddy’s waiting outside, so I guess I better. Ah.” He shuffled toward the door. “Have a good night.”
“Glad you came by. Have a good weekend.”
He backed out of the store and found Grady peeking in, hands cupping around his eyes. “Dude,” he said, “your boss looks sick.”
In the car, they eyeballed the weed and agreed. More than a pinch was missing.
That night they fired up his old NES and had a two-person party fueled by a palmful of hoisted Ritalin, SoCo and warm Sprite, and firm tokes of rescued weed. Paul kept thinking of Faye in the dark store, alone.
Monday morning, his head felt like it was being mashed by two gigantic hands. He got up just long enough to throw up neatly into the toilet, then dial up Faye’s Fins, get the answering machine, and tell Faye he was sick, and he’d be there tomorrow. He spent the day watching a Welcome Back Kotter marathon and eating a large, sticky order of Pad Thai noodles. He felt liberated. And that night, he had a large, lovely bowel movement, and felt completely clean and empty for the first time in months.
Later that week, he arrived at Faye’s Fins to find the place shuttered, dark save for a few tanks still lit and the shadows of goldfish shimmying the water. There was a sign on the door:
Closed until further notice. –FN
Paul walked around back, where Alvaro was putting old tanks into recycling. “My friend. How are you doing,” Alvaro said, holding out his hands.
“What happened? Why are we closed?”
"Faye is sick,” he said. “She went to the hospital yesterday. She fell on the floor. Ambulance came for her.”
And later that week, Paul received a letter from Faye that included his last paycheck. Dear Employee: In no small part due to mitigating personal circumstances, I have decided to sell Faye’s Fins to an outside interest. It would be unconscionable to retain employees in this time of uncertainty. Please consider this a written notice of termination. Find enclosed your last paycheck from Faye’s Fins, Inc. Best of luck in your future career endeavors, Faye Lee Nobb.
Handwritten below that: Paul, thanks for all your hard work. Best wishes, F.
Grady offered to get him put on at the horse farm, but Paul refused. Got a job waiting tables at a restaurant downtown. Only passed Faye’s Fins when he was taking the bypass road to the interstate, slowing only slightly to see the signage beginning to fade and curl on itself.
He applied to grad schools, got into a few, accepted an offer up north, and began to pack up his life to move elsewhere. On one of his last nights in town, he was at a bar with college friends and ran into Maria the failed architect. When he tried to pretend he hadn’t seen her, she grabbed him by the sleeve. Said, “Did you hear about Faye?”
“Yeah.” He stiffened at her tone, the way she said it, like she was almost happy about it. “I have an aunt who works at Saint Joseph’s. She had ovarian cancer. Like, the really fast moving kind. She probably knew about it a month before it killed her.”
“That is horrible,” he said. “She knew? When she sent out that letter?”
Maria wrinkled her nose. “You mean the thing with our last paycheck? I guess.”
He went home that night and sat in his apartment filled with boxes and he stared out onto the street of the city he was about to leave and he thought about Faye, and the way her face had looked in the tank lights, and how lonely she must have been, and whether or not there was anything he could have done, and he felt his stomach began to churn. And not for the last time, he wondered what happened to the fish.