From: The Inman Review Volume 2: Spring 2010

 

Fiction

 

Fish Tanks
by Jahn Sood

 

Two human beings are like globes, which can only touch at a point, and, whilst they remain in contact, all other points of each of the spheres are inert; their turn must also come, and the longer a particular union lasts, the more energy of appetency the parts not in union acquire.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

In the morning, she asked him where her Grandmother lived. He looked down, and pushed her hair away from her face and said nothing. Then he put one hand on each shoulder like all good fathers do, twisted her around and shuffled her out the door.

It was only a few blocks up Washington to her school, but he walked with her everyday. She knew the way already and told him so.

Ba ba, I’m a big girl now, and J.J. from Mrs. Sue’s class says that big girls walk to school by themselves, not with their parents.”

“You are a big girl,” he said, “but not too big to hold your daddy’s hand so that he doesn’t get lost on the way to school.”

“But you don’t go to school!” she protested, then giggled and let the conversation end.

As they went past the subway station and the emergency hospital, McDonalds and the bank, people swarmed, opening and closing doors, sipping coffee in paper cups, dropping newspapers and spare change, speaking loudly into cell phones. They wore leather gloves; scarves wrapped up around their necks, and pressed wool coats ran down to their knees.

Over Eric’s shoulder, strangers stepped out of the way as an ambulance pulled to a stop in front of the hospital, sirens bawling. The doors flew open in all directions, out of the ambulance and the building above, and people ran about announcing their existence and calling out directions.

“I’m here!”

“Blood pressure!”

“Open the door”

Eric rarely spoke above a whisper.

He put his arm around his daughter and led her down the cross walk. He wished he could show her where her grandmother lived.

The city is cold, this time of year. When you are far from home and there isn’t anybody to tell you how to be a good father, carry you off in an ambulance or hold your hand while you walk to school, the wind chases you. It rushes around corners and in and out of the buildings and cuts holes in your coat and in your pants. Then it swoops down over all five floors of New England Medical Center and into the grates in the street as a subway car zooms underground.

He let her walk in front so the wind would bite his back and let her go free. When they made it to the South Cove Lower School, he opened the heavy door and she ran in, backpack flopping. She bounced up the hall to her fourth grade classroom, pulled off her hat and mittens, looked back to say goodbye and marched in.

When she was gone, Eric’s face hardened, and his warmth escaped. He looked at the concrete walls and the barred windows. This was no place to be a child. As he pulled through the door he waved to the school secretary, Ms. Lin. She nodded dismissively and continued to ramble on in Cantonese. They had told him that this was a good place to send his daughter.

“All of the administrators at the South Cove Schools speak Chinese Mr. Gao, you will feel very much at home,” they said, but he was not at home. Before he left home, Hong Kong seemed as far away as Boston. He had never even met a person who had been there until he left, and he didn’t speak Cantonese.

 

At 9:32, Eric arrived at the restaurant where he works.

“Delivery Boy late again,” the teenage cashier announced from behind the counter. Eric was a grown man, but they still called him Delivery Boy.

For the next forty-eight minutes Eric sat at the table near the door across from the counter watching the large goldfish swim around in their glowing fluorescent tank. There were two. One was orange and sparkled in the artificial glow and the other was white with just a few orange spots. They swam together most of the time. The orange fish would lead, with the white fish close behind nipping at its tail. Then, all of a sudden it would swim hastily away and sink to the opposite corner of the tank leaving the white fish alone to nip at the bubbles as they floated up from between neon rocks. He chased the bubbles as if they were his only chance to breathe, but he couldn’t catch them.

There was a picture of the ocean floor on the back of the tank facing inside as if it was intended to trick the fish into believing that they weren’t imprisoned. Eric thought it was cruel. There were never any calls before ten, but they made him come in anyway.

“Fourteen seven-nine. It come twenty minutes,” and the boy slammed the telephone into the receiver and looked at Eric.

When three packages lined up on the counter, it was time for him to go. He slid the brown paper bags to one end, picked them up and pushed the door open. When he was outside again, the sky laughed and rubbed its belly. Eric felt pathetic in comparison. He dropped the bags into the wire basket hanging off his handlebars, fumbled in his pocket for the receipts and ordered them by address.

 

Roberto Vasquez Morales sat for forty-one minutes in Chinese class coloring in all of the white spots on his composition notebook. When his pen ran out, he kept scratching until he made a scribbled indent in the cardboard cover. Then, frustrated, he threw the pen across the room. It sailed under the florescent lights and hit one of the Chinese girls in the front row smack in the head.

“Hey! You got one Robbie!” Mickey congratulated.

Robbie pretended not to hear. He looked at the desk and pulled his flat-rimmed Red Sox hat down over his face so they couldn’t tell when his cheeks got hot. Then he shoved his hands into the front pocket on his big hooded sweatshirt where he felt the three quarters that he had decided not to spend on school lunch. He thought that if he saved his lunch money now and again tomorrow, on Thursday after school he could go to the Store Twenty-Four on Church Street and buy a Coke on his way home. His stomach made a fist and punched at the walls from the inside, just once, but hard enough that he could feel it with his eardrums.

“Mister Vasquez,” Ms. Sue said sternly. “Please pick up your pen and return to your seat; I would like to speak with you after class.” Robbie ignored her and flipped the coins in his pocket.

“Have you done your homework, young man?”

“Mister Vasquez, I would like to see your assignment on Chinese action words.”

“Mister Vasquez, can you hear me?”

Robbie opened his composition book to the first page, which he had filled with pictures of Chinese letters yesterday, when he was at home, but he didn’t want to give them to her. He didn’t want her to see. If she saw his work, she would only tell him he was in trouble or that he had to work harder. He ripped the page out of the book and crumpled it up into a ball and threw it at the teacher’s feet.

 

At 12 o’clock, the lunch bell rang as always and Julie Gao slipped quietly out of the classroom to wait for J.J. in the hall. J.J. almost always had to talk to the teacher when class was over, but Julie waited for her anyway. They were best friends now, and J.J. said that that is what best friends do. So, ever since last Thursday, when J.J. asked Julie if she wanted to be best friends and Julie said okay, she waited outside Ms. Sue’s class until J.J. came for lunch. Julie had never had a best friend before.

They walked together, down the stairs through the stream of fourth and fifth graders to the cafeteria, picked up their lunches on brown plastic trays and went to the corner table in the back of the room. J.J. had decided that it would be their table, since all best friends have to have their own cafeteria table.

“I hate that fatso from the back row,” J.J. spurted as she unwrapped her plastic-sealed school food, French bread pizza, and let the microwave steam out so it wouldn’t burn her tongue.

Julie didn’t answer since her dad had taught her not to say mean things.

“He threw the pen right at you. Didn’t he?” J.J. continued.

“I don’t think he meant to hit me,” Julie whispered.

J.J. bit into the pizza too soon and burned her tongue badly, but she didn’t say so. Julie saw her squint anyway, since she was watching closely and pushed her milk carton over by Julie’s tray, not because she thought best friends had to do that, just because she wanted to. J.J. accepted the milk carton silently and sipped it while the cafeteria roared. The cafeteria never did this when it was empty, but somehow, when the whole room was filled with students it roared so loud they were all scared. No one ever told the students at South Cove Lower School that they were the ones who made the sound, since you had to be a child to hear it anyway. So, it just went on roaring. J.J. swallowed and pushed the little milk carton back to Julie’s side.

“Did you find out about your grandma yet?” Yesterday, J.J. had said that best friends know all about each other’s family. Her grandmother came from Dorchester, but had moved down here when she married Grandpa. Julie was supposed to find out about her Grandma too.

“I asked my dad, this morning,” Julie said.

“So?” J.J.’s pizza was cool enough now and she chomped away.

“Well, I don’t know,” Julie said, trying to sound as grown-up as she could. She had forgotten all about her Grandmother on the way to school and she didn’t know what to tell her new best friend.

“He didn’t tell you, did he?”

“I think maybe he forgot.”

“He forgot where your Grandmother lives?”

“Yea,” she said hesitantly.

Chomp, chomp, chomp.

“You know what that means don’t ya?”

“No.” J.J. always seemed to know more about everything than her.

“It means she’s dead,” J.J. said bluntly.

Julie was silent.

“It’s true. When they don’t tell you where grown-ups went it means they ain’t coming back.”

The pizza was gone and J.J. rolled the plastic up into a little ball and threw it at the boys’ table. Julie looked at her quietly and very concerned.

 

In fifth period gym class, Robbie stood on the edge of the pool in his bathing suit and t-shirt looking down at the splashing water. All of the other students were already in the water now. They ran out of the locker room and lined up straight on the edge of the pool and jumped in when the teacher blew her whistle. Now they were splashing around kicking and chasing each other and yelling “Marco Polo” and “not it” kicking water in the air. Mickey made a tidal wave with his arm and spun around so that all the girls had to wipe the chlorine out of their eyes. J.J. screamed out that Mickey was a jerk.

“That’s enough, ladies and gentlemen,” the teacher pronounced, “Mr. Vasquez, would you like to join us today?”

Robbie tightened his stomach. He felt uncomfortable, almost naked, standing on the side of the pool where everyone could see him. He wanted to go back in the locker room and find his big sweatshirt and put it back on. He had looked into the cracked bathroom mirror earlier, after all of the other kids ran out to the pool, and looked wrong. He hated gym class. He had put his t-shirt back on and squeezed in his guts from the inside, held it for a minute, then, when he ran out of breath, sucked in a mouthful of air and his stomach swelled up again. He was hungry, but he wished he wasn’t. He had turned towards the door, walked slowly out and stood by the edge of the pool.

Now, he was the only one out of water, the only one in a t-shirt and he knew he looked wrong anyway. The teacher was standing at the other end of the pool, blowing her whistle and calling out directions, and the other kids were all swimming up and down the pool in rows. Robbie felt his armpits start to sweat and his cheeks grow hot. He closed his eyes and pretended that things were different and that school wasn’t so mean and that he looked skinny like everyone else. He squinted hard and tried to forget that he was standing here almost naked, the only one in a t-shirt.

He pretended Ms. Sue hadn’t told him his behavior was unacceptable, and pretended his mom hadn’t said he was going to have to repeat the sixth grade. He closed his eyes so hard that his cheeks scrunched up into big red lumps and they were burning hot. He pretended he was standing on the balcony outside apartment on the fifth floor of a red brick building, way up in the sky. He pretended there was nothing below him and the only thing behind was a wall of bricks; he couldn’t turn around and run back to the locker room to change. He squinted so hard a tear came out and he jumped.

 

At 2:17, Eric pedaled across the Longfellow Bridge. His chest was cold, but he was sweating under the edge of his black knit hat and he pedaled harder and harder. In the wire basket that flew forward in front of him, there was a package. It was square and thin, wrapped carefully into a red and white plastic shopping bag and it peeked over the edge of the basket since it was too tall to fit comfortably. Inside were pictures, pictures of China, the only way that he could show his daughter where her grandmother lived.   Twelve pictures over twelve months that would all be like this. He would hang them on the wall like the picture of the ocean floor behind the fish tank.

Ashamed, he pedaled harder and harder, his bike weaving in and out of luxury cars and moving trucks, minivans and taxicabs. He raced them all, every last one, shooting forward on his rusty bike, and most of all he raced the wind. It chased him back over the river from the towering university steps where he had delivered a bag of hot grease that didn’t remind him of home and it chased him in and out of the bookstore where he had paid seven dollars and eighty-four cents for a glossy fish-tank calendar. The wind came across the water from both sides and he pedaled to push through it. He knew that if he slowed down it would wrap around him and he couldn’t stop it. It stung through the leather of his cheeks. A Red Line subway train exploded from underground and screeched still between the pouring rows of traffic. Eric held out his arms in full wingspan and looked up tempting the train and the traffic to run him down. He pedaled and pedaled.

When Eric pushed through the heavy glass doors of the Lower School at 2:36, his cheeks burned, but he couldn’t help smiling. Julie was there, sitting on the bench in the front office with J.J. from Mrs. Sue’s class.

“He’s here,” Julie announced and gestured to Principal Ng that Eric was by the door. Then she stood up, waved goodbye to J.J. and went over to where he was standing. She waited until they turned around the block, and when she was sure J.J. couldn’t see anymore she took his hand.

He decided to wait until tomorrow to show her where her grandmother lived.

At home, in the red-brick, fifth floor apartment, Robbie took out his notebook and drew pictures of Chinese letters on the first page while his brothers, Carlos and Alan, chased their baby sister, Maria, around the table with a basketball and a couch cushion. He rubbed his finger down the notebook’s inseam, pushing the saw tooth edge of the page he had ripped out this morning into the binding. He tried to remember which one of the funny drawings meant “to play”.

“Help me, Robbie!” Maria squealed, and Alan tripped and tumbled over the cushion that he had hoped to use as a battering ram, but Carlos kept after her. Just as Robbie looked up from the mostly blank notebook, the whole chaotic scene froze and he saw Carlos with basketball over head aiming to let it fly and Maria crouched on his side of the table looking excitedly through the back of the chair at her brothers. Then, everything snapped into action. Maria reached out and grabbed onto Robbie’s hand and Carlos hurled the ball across the table where it knocked down a cup full of water and rolled over the edge towards Robbie and Maria. Robbie sat up and swatted the ball away so Maria wouldn’t be hit, and the water from the cup flowed across the table and under his notebook.

¡Roberto Vásquez! ¡Basta ya, chicos!” His mother hollered as she ran into the room, unbuttoning the second button from the top on her white collared shirt and scooping Maria up from her hiding place at Robbie’s side.

“Robbie, I need you to look after your brothers, not to start trouble. You are the man in this house and you need to start acting like it. ¡Boys, escuchame! I have to go to work right now, but I will be back by dinnertime. Robbie is in charge, and there will be no bothering your sister, comprende?”

“I want to go to Papi’s house,” Robbie protested. “I like it better at Papi’s house.”

“Then who is going to look after Maria?” Robbie’s mother put her free hand on Robbie’s face, but not long enough to console him.

“We need to work together here, Robbie.”

“Robbie, don’t go! Look after Maria,” Maria echoed

“Baby!” Carlos and Alan chanted in unison.

“Hey! I’m not a baby,” Maria made a huge playful frown, and looked at Robbie for support. They all knew that she liked being the baby. Her mother set her gently down on the ground and she crawled back under the table to safety.

“Okay, I’m going. Be good, mis hijos. Robbie, don’t forget what we talked about.”

Then, she went back into the bedroom, put on a blue blazer with a gold nametag pinned over the left breast pocket, and walked across the living room to the door. She waved bye-bye to Maria, opened the door and left, locking it behind her. When she was gone, Robbie looked down at his notebook again. The water had soaked up into its pages and they were soft and wavy. He closed the notebook and pushed it across the table so hard it went off the other side.

 

At 8:34, Julie lay in bed with one bedside lamp lit and watched the little bumps at the end of her blanket move around as she wiggled her toes. When Eric sat down on the edge of the bed and pushed the hair across her forehead with his fingertips, she looked up.   He looked back at her and wondered if this was how he had looked when he was young and his mother used to sit by his bed before he went to sleep. It had been almost thirteen years now since he came here. No hand had touched his face like this for a long time, and he couldn’t remember what it was like to be on the other side.

Ba ba, tell me a story about when you were little,” Julie said.

“It was a long time ago xiao hai-zi,” he told her gently. More than anything else, Eric feared that Julie would find out where he came from and ask to go there and he would have to explain to her she couldn’t, and it was because of him. He had thought if he walked up lonely piers and hid in ship bottoms all the way across the ocean he would find everything he didn’t have at home. Now he was here and home was gone and there was nothing he could do to show his daughter where her grandmother lived.

Julie held her breath until her cheeks got red and wiggled her toes a little more. Then she thought of Grandma again and it welled up in her and she wanted to let it out, but for some reason she didn’t understand, she thought she should stay quiet. It squeezed her stomach and tapped at the inside of her teeth nervously. Then, she blurted it out.

“Dad, if you don’t know where a grown up lives, does it mean she’s dead?”

Eric looked down and let the words turn over in his head. He hadn’t heard from Julie’s mother for five years.

“Julie, why would you think something like that?” he said.

“J.J. said so.”

“Julie, sometimes people say that they know a lot of things even if they don’t know very much at all. You shouldn’t worry too much about everything that J.J. says.”

“Then how come you didn’t tell me where Grandmother lives?”

He froze.

 

Robbie rolled over in his bed and pushed his face into the pillow. He could hear Carlos and Alan fighting through the wall. He had told them to go to sleep, but they never listened to him since he was their brother. He didn’t want to be a grown-up anyway. He was sweating and his head hurt, and he wished that his mother would come home. He squinted hard and thought that if he went to sleep, it would all go away. Then he opened his eyes again and held them open with his fingers since he knew that if he fell asleep, he would have to go back to school and stay there all day alone.

 

Eric sat quietly and held his hand on his daughter’s cheek until she fell asleep. There was nothing he could have said. When she rolled over and her back started to rise and fall, he knew it was safe to go. He stood up and walked back into the kitchen where he found his hat and coat and put them on. At 10:14, he locked the door of his apartment and slipped down around the winding stairwells to the street.

When he reached the bottom, he pushed through the thick glass door and stumbled out into the cold. Washington Street was lonely now and most of the stores had gone to bed. The sky was dark and hollow. Eric turned the dial to unlock his bike and pulled it away from the rack. His skin stung when he pressed his fingers around the steel crossbar. When he had turned the bike in the right direction, he climbed on and rode down the empty street under blinking red traffic lights and looming towers.

He got to the restaurant early this time. Three minutes before his ten thirty shift began. When he opened the door, the neon light burst around his body; he squinted while his eyes adjusted. Inside, the kitchen heat enveloped him. He felt clammy and unreal.   The restaurant was different now. The teenage cashier was home in bed and the kitchen staff was reduced to one older cook who answered the late night delivery calls. The room buzzed with the hum of the machines and the steady bubbling of the fish tank.

Eric looked up to find a young woman with dark skin and darker eyes sitting at the table by the tank. She was hunched over a carton of rice, sifting through with a plastic fork, her straight brown hair across her face as if to hide it. She forked some rice into her mouth, straightened her back and let her shoulders rest heavily against the chair. She looked up into the fish tank and let it drape its iridescent light across the chest of her blue blazer. Eric stepped slowly into the room and up to the counter where he found his first set of orders for the night.

 

 

Jahn Sood is twenty-three years old and just learned, for the first time, where his Grandmother was born.

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