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Short Story: "Fish Bowl"

By Micaela Myers

                Clifford Steel was born on May 9, 1996, and today was May 9, 2004. It seemed an awfully long time ago: 1996. He didn’t remember it being 1990-anything. He wondered what things were like in the 1990s. Did he and his mom have the pool back then? He shut his eyes and puckered his lips, diving underwater pretending he was a fish. He tried to swim sideways like the fish at the aquarium that had one eye going up and one eye going down toward the sand. Clifford bumped into the leg of his mom’s boyfriend. Leo was sitting with his hairy legs in the water. Clifford surfaced and puckered his lips open and closed so that Leo would know he was a fish.

          “I always hated fish,” Leo said, flicking water at Clifford.

Leo got up and walked toward the patio table. He lifted his leg and farted on the way, laughing. That’s how Leo was. He’d taught Kris, Clifford’s friend, well friend-for-a-day, how to belch really loud, and Kris thought Leo was cool. But Clifford couldn’t belch on purpose. Then Leo taught Kris how to cannonball off the diving board, which always rushed water up Clifford’s nose since he had to hold onto his legs and not his nose. Clifford had gone inside and watched them from his room. After that, Kris said Clifford was a sissy and didn’t want to play unless Leo was going to be home. Not wanting to watch them play without him, Clifford always told Kris that Leo was gone.

His mom came out carrying a tray in one hand and working her cigarette in the other. Clifford thought she could have been in the circus the way she could carry things. None of the other waitresses where she worked could balance plates and trays like she could, and she’d never dropped anything, not once.

“Time for cake and ice cream, birthday boy,” she called.

Clifford reached his back feet out of the water and splashed them down like a whale’s tail. He couldn’t answer her, so he blew water up in the air.

“Fish out of water or no birthday surprise,” she said, flicking her cigarette over the rose bushes that wouldn’t flower.

Clifford hadn’t seen any packages, so the mention of a surprise made him leave his fins behind and head for the table, dripping a splashy trail.

“Will you swim with me after?” Clifford asked her.

“No,” Leo said. “It makes her hair stink like chlorine.”

Clifford did remember his mom swimming with him when he was younger. Maybe it was before Leo because he remembered just the two of them in front of a mirror afterward, maybe in the bathroom, and they were laughing because their hair was green. He liked the smell of chlorine; it made him happy. Now she always smelled like cigarettes and the perfume she sprayed all over herself.

She threw a towel over his head and ruffled his hair with it. Leo grabbed her breasts from behind and pulled her down on his lap, taking a drag of her cigarette. She batted him away and said, “Time to sing.”

She was the only one that sang. Leo kept dipping his finger in the chocolate icing, making her voice waver as she slapped his hand. They were trick candles, and Clifford had to blow and blow, dripping spots of water all over the cake before Leo shoved him away and squeezed the candles out with his fingertips.

He handed Clifford a black box.

Clifford popped it open to reveal a pocketknife, only it didn’t have all sorts of gadgets, just one big folded blade.

“I’ll show you how to open it.” Leo took the knife and opened it, turning it from side to side, admiring his reflection. Then he handed it back to Clifford.

“What do I do with it?” Clifford said.

“Cut things!” Leo took the knife and shoved it into the cake. “I can teach you to throw it too.”

“Go clean this off,” his mom said, pulling the knife out. “And don’t lick it.”

Clifford ran into the kitchen and held it under the faucet. As he turned around to find a towel, he saw a fish bowl on the counter with a bow on it. He left the knife on the counter and went to it, lowering his head to stare in at the beautiful blue fish, with a long flowing tail and fins that looked like scarves under water. Clifford waved his arms in imitation, then carefully carried the bowl outside.

“Is this for me? Is this my surprise?”

His mother nodded, and Clifford pushed his plate out of the way to set the fish down in front of his seat. He watched it make leisurely circles as it looked out the bowl at each of them.

“Where’s your knife?” Leo asked.

“I don’t know. Look at the way he dives down and picks up a rock. I wonder if the rocks are heavy for him?”

“You had it two seconds and you lost it?” Leo said. “That was mine when I was a kid. You better not have lost it.”

“It’s in the kitchen. Is this a she fish or a he fish?”

Leo got up.

“It’s a boy, sweetie,” his mother said. “Boy fish are most beautiful—just like you.”

She went inside, too, but after awhile she called to him that it was too hot for the fish and to put it in his room. His mom showed him the drops to put in the water when it was time for changing it and feed pellets to shake in twice a day. Clifford cleared a spot for the fish bowl on his desk, watched him for a few moments, then went for one last swim before dark. He wanted to try to imitate Rocky’s fins. That’s what he named him: Rocky, because he was a boy and liked rocks.

Clifford relaxed his body and put one arm up and one arm down, which was tricky. Then he swayed them gently. But he didn’t go anywhere, so he moved his legs—together of course. Finally, he figured out that if he bent at the knees and pushed his legs down, he’d go forward. It wasn’t quite what Rocky did, but close enough.

He was practicing his circles when he came face to face with Rocky. At first Clifford smiled, amazed and happy to be swimming with him, but then he wondered what he was doing there. As he reached out his hands, Rocky darted away. Clifford came up for a breath and saw Leo standing over the pool with the half empty bowl.

“There, now you have someone to swim with,” Leo said laughing. Then he turned and went back inside.

“Is the pool water OK for him? Mom said he had to have drops for his water…”

Leo was already gone.

Clifford figured even if he ran to his room and put the whole bottle of drops in the pool, there wouldn’t be enough to make the water OK for fish, so he set out to catch Rocky, who seemed to be getting slower. But he saved all his strength for not letting Clifford catch him. He’d sit perfectly still, slowly moving his fins until Clifford was right on him, then he’d dart away. It was getting dark, and Clifford could barely see. He ran out to turn on the pool lights, and when he got back he couldn’t find Rocky. The lights made certain places full of shadows, and Clifford took deep breaths to swim down to them, opening his eyes wide until they stung. Finally, he noticed Rocky floating on his side by the turned off pool vacuum.

He scooped him up and put him in the few inches of his bowl water that were left. Rocky didn’t move. Clifford shook the bowl, but it only made Rocky’s long fins sway in the water, no mouth opening or body movement. He dipped his fingers in to give Rocky a gentle push, but it did no good. Clifford bit his lower lip and headed for the house as fast as he could go without making the bowl shake too much.

He pulled the sliding glass door open and called for his mom, but she was asleep on the couch. Leo was watching TV and didn’t look up, just told Clifford to “Shut up.” Clifford took Rocky to the kitchen and poured more water in his bowl, added some of the drops his mom showed him, but he knew it was too late.

Clifford wanted to wake his mom up, but Leo would only yell at him, and he didn’t even want to look at Leo. He knew you were supposed to put dead fish down the toilet. A girl from school had to do that to her goldfish, but he didn’t want to do that to Rocky.

He saw his knife by the sink and remembered the little box it came in—just the right size for Rocky. He took the knife and the bowl back to the patio table and laid Rocky inside the lined box, gently straightening his fins, so he looked almost alive and still very beautiful. Clifford pushed some dead leaves away from the base of the middle rose bush and dug the knife into the dirt, forming a straight line and then another until the dirt was cut in a rectangle, like a piece of birthday cake. But it wouldn’t come out of the ground so easily, and he had to scoop it bit by bit, using his hands and the knife blade. When it was cleared, he eased the box in; wanting to say a prayer but not knowing any, he replaced the dirt. He stuck the knife in up to its handle at the top of the grave, kind of like a gravestone.

Clifford could see the TV lights flickering through the glass door and Leo on the couch laughing, so he walked back into the pool slowly. Instead of jumping in, he took the steps, like he did when he was a little kid. His hands were dirty, and he watched the brown flakes float away in a slow circle. He took a deep breath and practiced floating, relaxing every part of his body, until his legs and arms sunk just below him and nothing in the pool moved. I’ll stay like this, he thought, I won’t breath or move until someone finds me. 

“Fish Bowl” was originally published in City Works 2006