This short story was published in the Spring 2013 issue of The Laurentian Magazine.
The Fish Bowl
by Chris Biles
I keep my goldfish in one of my bongs. The bong doesn’t hold much water, to be entirely honest, but it’s enough. And don’t worry; I don’t smoke from the same bong. The little, light yellow glass bowl is solely my fish’s home – I wouldn’t want to kill it, after all. When I do light up and smoke, I sometimes sit there in my room on the prickly, puke-green couch, staring through the tinted glass at the little, more-orange-than-gold creature resting on the bottom of the bong. I watch the long elegant fins slowly swaying as it looks back at me with black, bulbous eyes; eyes that see but don’t understand anything, even though I want to believe that they do. I sit there looking at my fish as a grayness enters the rim of my vision, as the world slows down around me to a pace I can actually handle, as my lungs feel tight and cramped with the pain that the thick air revives. I wonder if my little fish would like to join me in that other state of mind.
I named my fish Cadence. Why? Well, for one thing, it’s a gender-neutral name, and only God knows the sex of a tiny goldfish like mine. And for another, I like to sing. I’ve become a pretty decent singer over the past few years. When I moved out of my father’s house and into my aunt Carol’s, I started to learn how to play my aunt’s old guitar, and began to sing along as well. Carol used to play when she was in college – when she was my age – but stopped when she got together with my uncle. And even when he left her, one month after their wedding, she didn’t pick it up ever again.
She told me once, after I had finished playing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” “Josie, you remind me of myself back in the day. It really does bring me some joy when I hear you.” I certainly enjoy singing like she used to, and I enjoy it even more when I can add some tonal variation to a song; some changes from one pitch to another; some feeling; some meaning – when I can take it into my own hands and make it my own.
What would life be without some cadence every now and again, right?
Sometimes, when I smoke alone, I talk to Cadence, tell it secrets that I can’t tell any human. And the fish just stares back at me, resting on the bottom of the bong, one protruding eye growing larger as the other one shrinks, and then vise versa – such a good listener. I talk about my childhood, how I never really felt safe or relaxed at home because my mother and father hated each other; how I despised their yelling at all hours of the day, especially at night when the darkness outside gave me no hope, like the sun could, but only a cold loneliness. I realized at an early age that the stars do not have the ability to bring you warmth, and the moon often shines in mockery. I talk of the times when my father would drink beer after beer, throwing the cans into the corner of the room for my mother to pick up, and then switch to his bottle of whisky, which was always full, as if by magic.
And I told Cadence the story of the last fight they had; when I was eight; when my father ripped my mother’s shirt from her shoulders, tore off her bra – that last bit of armor – and grabbed her breasts to shove her against the wall. When she resisted, he beat her, punch after drunken punch, until she sank to the dirty carpet unconscious. I had stood in the doorway of their bedroom, watching wide-eyed. He turned on me after she fell, walked over with broad shoulders and crazed eyes, then bent down to my flinching form, breathing beer and whisky into my face, and said, “Go fuck yourself, you son ova bitch! You’re a goddamn bitch yourself!” I ran to my room crying, hardly understanding what had just happened, then closed myself in my closet until morning.
My mother was gone by the time I gathered enough courage to venture out from my hiding place – never to return. My father was hardly ever at home from that point forward. I managed on my own.
He owned a restaurant, a seafood place, which always did relatively well, having been located on the shoreline at the outskirts of Rockport, Maine. We lived in a touristy area with a constant flow of new faces, especially in the spring and summer months. But that was good for business, good for moneymaking. My father was always competitive and was extremely so when it came to making money. When there were a few bucks on the line, you had to obey his strict commands. There was no other choice. He took advantage of his employees, blackmailing them with threats to dock their pay, to fire them, to tell any other possible employer that it would be a mistake to hire them. He was the boss and if people hoped to earn some money and make a living, they had to respect him and do exactly as he said. He liked to rough people up, to flex his muscles and push people around. I hated being his daughter.
It happened during summer vacation three years back when I was going into my senior year in high school. It was the end of summer, a day when I prayed that the sun wouldn’t shine any brighter because if it did, I certainly would’ve gone blind. The air was pleasantly thin, not in the least bit humid, and the temperature perfect – just warm enough for it to be easy to cool off in the shade. On a day like that, I was of course outside, wandering about the streets of Rockport along the coast. The sounds of tourists filled my ears and turned to white noise in my mind, soothing rather than irritating.
By the time the sun had almost finished setting, I had ventured down the coast and found myself nearing my father’s restaurant on the quieter side of town. I stopped walking when The Fish Bowl came into view down the street. I stood by a green chain link fence staring out at the last of the sun over the rippling water, hearing the movements of the Atlantic this time, rather than the tourists. But another sound soon drew my attention.
I heard raised voices, a man’s and a woman’s, coming from the direction of The Fish Bowl. A nauseous feeling began to grow in my stomach and I caught my breath and held it: that was my father yelling in a harsh, angry voice. I knew the tone well. I found myself compelled to search out the sound and see who had earned his scolding, but I stood still and listened at first, becoming more and more worried. The woman’s voice was pleading, begging my father to stop, to think about what she had already done for him.
“You haven’t done shit for me, Jenine, don’t flatter yourself. You still owe me and there’s no getting out of it,” my father said. “I’m coming over tonight. You will pay me back.”
“Well I won’t be there,” the woman said quietly.
“You won’t will you?! Well if that’s the case, then I’ll just have to do something about it right here right now!” There was the sound of frantic shuffling, and then frightened squealing, like a piglet that just had its tail chopped off.
The woman screamed in a shrill voice filled with genuine fear: “Stop, stop!”
“Shut the fuck up!” my father shouted. There were a few thick thumps and I heard the woman start to whimper. My father’s breathing was heavy. I had started running by that point and reached the alley that hid my father just in time to see him draw back his foot and force it into the stomach of the woman who was laying curled on the ground, back against the wall.
He knelt down and lifted her into a sitting position. Her head lolled to the left, limp at the neck, and her painted eyelids fluttered, half open. There was blood on her swollen lower lip and her right cheek was bright red from where he had hit her. With indifference he tore open her plain, light pink blouse, pearly white buttons falling to the pavement. Then he pulled her bra down off her shoulders and ripped open the clasps, letting the lacy white padding descend to lay beside the buttons. My mind spun back to my parent’s bedroom when I was eight. I saw my mother in front of me. The fear from that night was revived and I stood trembling in the middle of the alley, unable to move.
He grabbed her breasts roughly, like he had my mother, and pushed her up to stand against the wall. The woman gasped and tried to push my father away. He slapped her hard on the side of the face and pinned her standing between his legs. With one hand he held her wrists against her chest, with the other he unzipped her pants and popped the button. Then he threw her skidding to the ground. She landed on her back, hitting her head on the pavement when she went down. She could only lie there. She whispered, “Shit… Oh, shit…” to herself in a weak voice. My father unbuckled his own pants. With his back to me, he straddled her.
I turned away and vomited. Then I glanced up again at the scene before me and retched once more. Everything in my stomach found its way out through my throat and mouth. After dry heaving for a minute, I staggered to the wall on the side of the alley and raised my head. My father was looking back at me. I heard his heavy breaths, imagined I could feel the moist warmth of each strong exhalation on my face. I could smell the stagnant scent of beer and whisky, a scent familiar to me since childhood. I would not let him near me.
I needed to find a closet to lock myself in. Before he could stand up, before he could make any move, I darted away, not feeling my feet hit the ground.
I made it back to the house out of breath, and darted upstairs to my room with sickness still lingering in my stomach. I grabbed the giant suitcase beneath my bed and put the essentials into it, then filled the rest of the space with my favorite things: a few Billy Collins poetry books, the Lord of the Rings DVD set, my leather journal, the mix CDs I had once made… I wrote a note, short but to the point: “If you don’t look for me, I won’t tell.”
Then I threw my suitcase into my father’s rusty jeep and drove away. I knew where I was going as I pulled out of the driveway: south, to the Finger Lakes region of New York – to my aunt Carol. Carol is and has always been an eccentric, with chin-length frizzy brown hair, long flowing skirts of earthy colors, and a love for hundreds of smelly candles lit all at once. When my mother left after that one fight, never to return, knowing full well the nature of my father, Carol told me that I could come to stay with her anytime I needed to – no questions asked. And so, I drove to New York.
She didn’t ask for any details when I arrived, as she had promised. She just looked me over to make sure that I had not been injured – physically at least. I could tell she knew what had happened, or came very close to guessing the actual truth. We didn’t talk about it. After living with her for a while, she started to offer to talk things through. She would call me over at random moments and attempt to prompt me into some sort of confession by saying something like, “Hey, Josie, come here. Listen. I know sometimes we see things that we don’t fully understand, or things that can horrify us beyond belief. Sometimes we try and hide from things we don’t understand. We try to escape the one question we can’t answer: ‘Why?’ But we can’t always do it all on our own. We need to talk it out with another person, get the images out our head and make another person see.” I would nod and say nothing.
She would also warn me at times about keeping secrets: “Holding secrets inside can be dangerous. You begin to live your life with a mask on, trying to hide what you fear most, putting on an air that everything’s alright when it’s really not. Other people can help you see your fears from a different perspective. If you share them, it makes them easier to take on and deal with.” But I didn’t talk it out. I simply tried to ignore it all, to forget about it. Carol would read quotes to me to try and help me understand the necessity of facing the truth. She would randomly say, “I came across a really awesome quote while reading this afternoon, Josie. Want to hear it? I wrote it down.” One that I remember well was from a poem by William Carlos Williams: “It is ridiculous / what airs we put on / to seem profound / while our hearts / gasp dying / for want of love.”
I grew frustrated with Carol’s prodding. And while I hated to acknowledge why, I understood it was because I knew she was right. Yes, Carol, I put on a goddamn mask, an air, because that’s just what I do when it comes to these things. Yes, I wanted to get it out, to have another person understand, to be comforted… But it’s just what I do: pretend all is well, put on a smile…
I didn’t have to face it if I didn’t want to.
I quickly enrolled in a local high school near Carol’s house, and when the year began, I focused hard on my studies. I made no effort to make new friends, but instead tried to appear confidently absorbed in my work. That way no one would question my new life. I figured that if I appeared confident, like I knew what I was striving for, like I knew what I did and did not want, then no one would ask questions, and I could go on hiding whatever I thought necessary. No one would think there was anything wrong with me.
But there was something wrong with me.
The images that I never spent the time to try and understand returned to haunt me. My nights were filled with dreams of memories made more horrifying by my own manipulating mind: The vision of my father raping faceless women – in the woods, in my old bedroom, in the halls of my new school… I was always there to see it. The dark hours of the day were difficult to make it through, and the light hours were a race to escape resurrected dreams.
But naturally, Rockport, Maine grew further and further away, the past growing dimmer and easier – or maybe just more routine – to ignore.
Life with aunt Carol became happy. I completed my final year of high school, and then began taking courses at a local community college. I found a home with Carol that I had never known. There was a sense of security there, even comfort. She cared about me, in her own quiet way. And that was just what I needed. Everything was going to be fine. Just fine. I was making it through. I was moving on.
As I sat on the green couch in my room, rubbing my hands back and forth over the rough worn surface, it occurred to me that I had been speaking out loud, telling the story while reliving it in my foggy vision. I glanced at the yellow bong. Cadence stared back like always. I smiled. At that moment, I decided that Cadence needed a new place to live. I went down to the kitchen and found a clear glass vase that my aunt must have used frequently at one point in her life: small and old, yet clean. I filled the vase with water, adding the appropriate amount of water conditioner, then poured Cadence into a little net, and transferred the flapping gold creature into the fresh water. I gave it some flakes of food, and it swam about, exploring the brighter, cleaner world. To my surprise, Cadence looked much happier in its new home, and it now appeared to me more gold than orange. I smiled to myself and brought the vase up to my room to replace the yellow-tinted bong on the little wooden coffee table in front of that puke-green couch. I sat down with Carol’s old guitar, leaned back against the itchy fabric, and began to strum, humming my own little made up melody. Cadence swam up and down, dancing. Apparently free.