Fiction · 03/22/2017

The Truth About Goldfish

On Saturday Daniel Morgenthau decided to stop eating. He made no formal announcement; he was not one to make a fuss. He’d quit smoking almost fifty years ago much the same way. Didn’t finish his pack but left it on the kitchen table, forgotten, until Muriel smoked them herself and complained at their taste. She preferred Parliaments. Now Daniel stood in front of the open pantry, then the refrigerator, closed each for the last time, and went back to the Times crossword.

What’s an eight-letter word for Milton’s unwilting flower?

Muriel didn’t answer. She only read the horoscopes, cutting each one out with her kitchen shears and smiling whenever a prediction went awry. She had no time for bullshit. Virgos will find fresh perspectives outside and positive changes. Travel and new beginnings await.

We’re staying in today, she said.

Daniel frowned. He’d hoped to be out when their daughter called. She would ask him if he was eating well, and he’d feel obliged to tell her he’d given it up, and she’d say, Not this again, and he’d have to distract her with questions about the grands, about whether they were still wetting the bed or if they’d killed another pet. Last month it was their hamster, Hammy, and a chewed power cord. Who comes up with those godawful names, he’d ask, and his daughter would say, Stop changing the subject, Dad. She exhausted him with her constant probing, her insisting he go in for a checkup. She still didn’t believe he’d given up breathing six months ago.

It was either that or sleep — anything to stop snoring, stop Muriel complaining — and he liked sleeping too much. You should give it a rest also, he’d later told his wife. The house was much pleasanter now without his shrill nose whistle piping tunelessly.

You just want me to quit smoking, she had said and lit a cigarette and then another and another until she was puffing on five, six, seven cigarettes at once. Smoke wreathed about her then drifted toward him with tendrilous fingers. He could no longer inhale her fragrance of tobacco and cloves, of sauerkraut and sweet onions, of chemical perms. He couldn’t recall whether it was pleasant or not. He was lucky if he caught a faint redolent ribbon drifting across his olfactory cells, like scattered petals of some forgotten flower.

AMARANTH: eight letters.

You should have known that, Muriel said, and Daniel agreed. He was the gardener of the family. He had arrayed three tiers of potted plants above a brick-lined koi pond. The ferny plantings strained against their ceramic cages; their leaves drooped in perpetual frowns. Below them the scum-covered pond was full of their discarded leaves. Daniel couldn’t remember if he’d fed the fish or not, or if he’d even seen them in days or weeks or whether they were carp or goldfish.

Loss of smell triggers loss of memory.

Nonsense, Muriel said, and to their daughter: He chooses to forget, you know, then makes excuses. Just like he chose to stop cleaning the bathroom these past seven months. Your father’s turning into a schlub.

You haven’t gone to the bathroom in years, Daniel called.

Muriel cupped the phone in one hand and said, That’s not the point.

Don’t mind your mother, Daniel said. She’s not been the same since she stopped sleeping last year. I thought she’d take it up again after I stopped snoring, but she says she likes the quiet. Now when I wake up, she’s taken the scissors to everything in the house. At first it was just coupons, sorted by item and expiration date. Next it was junk mail, the bills, my newspaper, all our books — all cut into paper ribbons. She shredded all my ties, never said why when I asked — not that I wear them anymore — and those chenille curtains, the ones with the floral print. She even sliced up her hands pretty bad, not that there was any blood. She hasn’t bled a drop since her pulse stopped last —

Stop it, Dad. Just stop, said his daughter, the line humming angrily in the pause that followed. There was a sound of rustling cloth or sniffling and then one of the grands said in her tinny voice, Hello Poppa. Daniel could never tell them apart. Dakota would talk about her new goldfish Goldie. Mirah would babble about some video game or other. Now one of them was asking — was being coached to ask — if he and Gram would be coming to visit soon.

Has Goldie died yet? Daniel asked, and a burst of tears crackled across the line. Must be Dakota.

Daniel continued: Don’t worry. Goldie isn’t really dead. Goldfish just pretend, like possums. They long to swim in the ocean, so they turn all glass-eyed and float on their backs until some unwitting parent flushes them down the toilet, and that’s when they make their escape. They’re quite clever. More clever than humans, who think sticking an animal in a bowl the size of a grapefruit will make it happy and not drive it to desperate measures. And no fish is as desperate as a goldfish. The truth about goldfish is that they never die. They are immortal, and so are you, if you want to be. Most people don’t after a time. In the end they grow too tired or bored or are just too stupid to continue living. Then they off and die and leave your parents with a fat wad of debt instead of an inheritance. But don’t let me worry you. Your gram and I are like goldfish. We’re even planning a trip to the ocean.

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Joshua Jones is a writer and animator residing in Maryland. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Tishman Review, Right Hand Pointing, Bartleby Snopes, Juked, and Cleaver Magazine. Find him on Twitter: @jnjoneswriter.