Gus Number Five
Jenna and Cindy filled their mouths with watermelon seeds, spitting them fast and hard until the air swarmed with seeds like shiny black dive-bombing gnats. “My seeds are winning,” twelve year old Cin yelled, her thin body tense and urgent with victory.
Jenna just kept spitting seeds. Eight years old, she already knew the seeds that flew the farthest would be Cin's no matter what.
Jenna puckered her mouth preparing for another losing bombardment. Suddenly she paused, lips plump and pouting as the mouth of a painted candy box cupid. Spitting the seeds into her palm, she stared at them for a moment, chewing the end of her pigtail. Then anxious with inspiration, she trotted into the house and minutes later reappeared hugging a fishbowl.
Carefully placing the bowl on the steps, she solemnly stared at the rattled goldfish who darted and wiggled his copper penny of a body. But when Jenna scattered her handful of watermelon seeds into the water, the goldfish paused in his wiggling, struck still by the shadows above.
“Seeds,” Jenna explained.
Sensing the shadows were food, Gus started to suck pink juice from the seeds, the seeds too long and hard for him to swallow.
“Look Cin,” Jenna triumphantly informed Cin, her short stubby fingers flapping excitedly like grubby little flippers. “He knows what to do with them.”
Startled by her voice, the girls’ father looked up from his weeding. Before she had left for the grocery store, their mother had fixed him with a stare. “Make sure they don’t kill one another,” she had said in her measured dry voice and then she smiled, a small private smile. Then a pause, and a sly glance at her husband to see if he understood her joke. But he didn't. They never did.
"Jenna, don’t," her father yelled as Jenna started to cascade seeds to an expectant yet puzzled Gus. “You’re going to kill the poor thing."
"Gus is too smart to eat the seeds," Jenna answered, her fingers slippery with watermelon juice, her face rapt and content.
Gus is too intelligent. His small mouth industriously puckered and swallowed the pink juice like a perpetual motion machine, leaving the seeds stripped and glossy.
“He’s not smart,” Cin burst into the conversation. “And neither are you to think he likes seeds. You’re stupid, stupid as a...a...goldfish,“ she crowed, her pale brown eyes so hot and bright, they glinted like bottle caps.
"Stupid as a goldfish, stupid as a goldfish, Jenna’s stupid as a goldfish."
“Hush, your sister’s not stupid,” their father interrupted. “And Gus is just a poor fish.”
His voice wavered, bewildered by whom he should protect: Gus from Jenna, Jenna from Cin, or Gus from the slight against his reputation. Their mother could had stopped them with one word, her mouth loosening into a slight smile none of them understood. Still it struck them dumb with anxious pleasure. They never understood why they made her happy just they could.
But their mother wasn’t there so Cin just kept talking, oblivious to her father’s gentle voice, her own voice thin and blunt as a jabbing finger.
“Stupid as a goldfish. Stupid as a goldfish.”
Their father sighed and stood surveying his daughters. Cin's fair freckled skin flushed with righteous annoyance while Jenna just stared at her sister, her almond shaped eyes hurt yet accepting.
But soon Cin would grow bored of her own voice. After a few minutes of sulking, she would remember she needed Jenna for some new game, and Jenna would say “yes”, her hurt carefully boxed and buried.
And if Gus ate a seed and died, then Gus ate a seed and died. They would buy another goldfish, and Jenna would christen him Gus.
Jenna named all her goldfish “Gus”. Sometimes her father would call her "Cindy" in a fit of confusion, and Jenna never wanted to hurt any of her goldfish’s feelings by calling them by another’s name.
The current Gus was number five in the series, bigger and plumper than any that went before him. Sometimes at night, their father would sit in his worn chair and watch Gus swim, his small body disappearing into the shadows of a plant or china turtle. His wife never noticed him slipping out of their bed, her soft breaths even as piano scales.
He was glad he didn’t have to explain. He felt a kinship with the ever present goldfish, their presence so blurred, one name fits all as though each fish transmuted into the next, gold into gold, a Philosopher’s stone of obscurity.
“Jenna,” their father started to say, the weeds pricking his fingers and fraying his mood. Then he saw Jenna's intent delighted face, Cin’s name calling forgotten, her fingers calmly dropping seed after seed into the water. She looked at her father and smiled reassuringly. He reminded himself goldfish were as plentiful as weeds or seeds.
Jenna smiled at her father hoping he would return to his weeds. She knew Gus Number Five would never die from eating a seed. Her goldfish were not stupid, just reserved and full of secrets like a watermelon with endless seeds.
When they did die, it was always something indefinable and unknown that killed them, nothing as tangible or simple as a seed. It was always something unseen that left them floating like small waterlogged balloons on the water’s surface.
Jenna planted her goldfish cemetery beneath the pepper trees that lined their garden. With her father’s trowel, she clumsily poked a patch clear of sticky brittle leaves and there she buried their slippery bodies in cardboard jewelry boxes.
“Another one,” her mother would say, whenever Jenna appeared, a dead goldfish cradled in her hand. “I should be worried about you catching some disease playing with a dead fish.” Then she would stare at Jenna and smile.
She would give Jenna a box from her stockpile of white boxes, jewelry boxes that once held glass beads, copper disc earrings and creamy stone cameos: “little gifts” her mother bought for herself.
Jenna always knew her mother would have a box, but other than to serve as dead fish caskets, she didn't know why her mother kept the boxes. But it didn't matter, they were the perfect size for quiet little fish.
At each funeral, Jenna would surround her departed fish with memorial music and weeping. Gravely she would deliver an eulogy of goldfish virtues and mark each grave with a headstone of pebbles and dandelion heads.
Jenna visited her dear dead fish two or three times a week. Kneeling in the dirt, she would sniffle, blink and cross herself. Jenna had only seen Catholics on TV so her hands would simply fly all over her body, haphazardly patting forehead, shoulders, belly and thighs.
“You’re weird,” Cin once told her, watching Jenna keeping her ritual. But there was a question in her voice as though she was waiting for Jenna to deny it.
Jenna just ignored her. “Patient,” she said continuing her list of goldfish virtues, “quiet, umm ah, shiny.” Then she stopped searching for more goldfish virtues. Then she smiled at Cin with a radiant dignity. “Weird.” She had preserved Gus’ honor. Cindy didn’t smile back and after a few seconds, she simply left. She never went near the goldfish cemetery again.
“Here Gus,” Jenna whispered, her mouth so close to the water’s surface she could have touched the seeds with her tongue.
Her shadow frightened Gus. But he soon accepted this eclipse of the light as an irrevocable element of his world. Once again he gathered around the seeds, his tail shivering with delight.
Cin defiantly resumed spitting seeds into the air, but it wasn’t the same without Jenna. She glanced at her father. Didn’t he see how weird Jenna was, talking to a goldfish? But their father kept weeding, whistling a tune that wobbled from note to note.
“Time to go back inside,” Jenna told Gus and then carefully picked him up, the bowl filling the circle of her arms.
“What do you want to do now?” she asked Cin when she came back out, squatting on her heels and rocking. Cin’s taunting never bothered her that much.
“My little Teflon pan,” her mother would say and then kiss her on the forehead.
Which always puzzled Jenna since she looked nothing like a pan. But her mother said things no one understood. Jenna knew Cin was mad because Jenna had been ignoring her. Unlike their mother, there was always a reason for why Cindy did things.
Cindy taunted her only when she wanted Jenna's attention, like running up to someone, hitting them, hoping they would look and then pretending you didn't care if they did. Jenna would pay attention. Eventually. And eventually Cin would tell her the reason for why she was so mad at Jenna.
“What do you want to do now?”
Cin just kept ignoring her and spitting the remaining seeds into the air. Shrugging her shoulders, Jenna trotted off to play in the garden while Cin sulked, her eyes growing milky and sullen with the heat, seeds peppering the air.
Jenna didn’t care. Cin would eventually stopped pouting. And Jenna loved exploring their father’s garden. She would crawl, poke, sniff and watch the spinning of webs, ants gathering bits of potato chips. She would rescue dusty moths from spider webs, leave sticky Popsicle sticks to excite the ants.
Jenna saw the garden as a Chinese box with each pleasure opening onto another pleasure, a leaf narrowing into a caterpillar, a branch folding into a Daddy-long-legs.
To Cindy, their father’s garden was her stage, ripe and empty, waiting for her to fill it. Slippery and lithe as a minnow, she would scramble up trees, hurl balls and sharpen sticks into knobby arrows. Jenna was her audience, companion and servant to all this invention and motion.
Jenna quiet and contained as a nut would play every role Cin gave her. She was the evil dowdy stepsister, the hunchbacked henchman, the weak soon to be eaten Stegosaurus. Whatever Cin wanted, Jenna would try to do. Cin would order her to fetch sticks, sharpen stones, hide slices of bread until they turned green as grass.
Cin always had what she called a practical reason for everything they did no matter how silly or unfathomable. That was a constant in Jenna’s world.
“We need the arrows to fight off the bandits.”
“If we have a flood, you will have to know how to jump from branch to branch.”
“What if Daddy dies, and we have to take care of ourselves and Mom.”
Jenna always wanted to hear these reasons. Although she doubted if her mother ever needed anyone to take care of her. But if she learned to understand Cin’s reasons, she would learn to understand the world. She would know what was and what would be. That knowledge would protect her from pincher bugs in her bed, from recess teasing and monsters, from car accidents, fear and death. She would understand her mother.
Then she could wander through the world as easily as she wandered through her father’s garden, her skin glowing with pollen, half healed scratches and tiny brown spider bites.
“What will grow will grow,” was their father’s philosophy. Every spring, he cascaded seeds, haphazardly, unthinkingly, marigold tangled with young corn. He was too worn from holding down two jobs, mailman and janitor, to truly plant.
He wanted a garden for his daughters, proof he was more than a slumbering shape in a worn plaid recliner, that he was more than a word in the sentence, “Wait and ask your father when he gets home.”
His two daughters did wait, keeping each other company with riddles and games of jacks, hopscotch and double dutch. But they were often asleep when he finally did stumble into the house, his hands poppy red from scrubbing sinks.
So he grew them a garden where they would be safe, where he could protect them, a fitful random tangle of irises, watermelon plants and prickly leafed weeds. On Saturdays, he would weed and listen to his daughters play, listen to them bicker and make up new games.
His wife would sit on the porch and smoke, watching him weed and tie tender vines to poles. Occasionally she would ask him to buy certain seeds, poppies and nasturtiums.
“Nasty babies,” she called them. She never helped him in the garden as though she knew the garden was his gift to his daughters with no touch or taint of her.
Cin kicked her heels against the stone steps, and watched her sister from the corner of her eye. “Jenna’s just a baby,” she thought, “a baby with a stupid goldfish. I don’t want to play with her anyway.”
Cin stared at her gawky long colt legs. There were times when they didn’t feel like her legs, as though some childhood monster had stretched her legs while she slept, twisting the wheel and rack.
Once her mother had looked at her and then looked at her legs and said, “You may have to start shaving soon.” Cin looked at her legs and saw hair sprouting into dank tangled thickets. She felt feral and prickly, and she wanted to cry.
Nothing seemed right anymore, as though something was pulling her taut, making her clumsy, raw and disjointed.
“You’re going to look like your mother,” her father would tell her with a wistful puzzled look on his face. But she didn’t want to think about that now.
So she glared at her sister. “Probably going off to play with her dumb fish,” she thought.
She then glared at her father. Didn’t he realize Jenna was going to grow into some strange kid with no friends. Everyone would look at her and wonder if there was something wrong with Cin as well, having such a weird sister.
Jenna kept peering at a spiderweb she found in the orange tree, humming to herself. Their father kept grasping weeds, twisting them out of the ground, tearing the fragile stems and leaves. They acted as though Cindy was extinct, trivial and insipid.
With a guttural sob, Cin pushed herself off the steps and threw herself into the house. There was nothing to do inside so she stomped into the kitchen, each foot hitting the floor with a determined thud. But nobody paid attention to her, no one called her back into the garden. Not knowing what to do next, she peered into the refrigerator and saw two cans of beer, still caught in their plastic rings, her father’s indulgence.
Her mother drank pale drinks, gin and vodka she poured into jelly jars. “Tastes sweeter,” she would say to the girls. Unlike their father, her voice never stumbled when she drank. Instead she would linger on each syllable, sharpening the consonants until the words snapped apart in the air.
“I could always drink you under the table,” her mother would say affectionately to their father. They would both laugh even he never understood why they laughed. Listening to them, Cin would imagine her father under the table snoring, curled around their mother’s feet.
Cin touched one of the cans leaving foggy fingerprints on the aluminum cans, then she ran a finger down the frosted glass of her mother’s bottle of vodka. Their coldness was so different from the hot concrete steps outside. She popped open a can and tentatively sipped the beer.
At school, some of the older kids bragged in anxious voices about how many beers they drank each Friday night, how they scammed beers off dumb clerks with fake ID’s and siphoned vodka and gin from parental stashes of liquor.
Cin didn’t recognize the things they bragged about; but she knew they lived in an enigmatic land, frightening and mesmeric, no father’s garden.
She took a swallow from her mother's vodka bottle and held it in her mouth, her eyes widening with bewilderment. How could anything so cold, burn. But she swallowed. Like Alice in Wonderland’s potions, the alcohol would shrink her or make her a giant. It would transform her. She wouldn’t need Jenna or her father anymore.
She would fulfill her father’s words and grow up to look like her mother. She and her mother would sit on the porch, magazines sprawled on their laps like limp cats. Sean one of the cutest boys in school, would pick her up in his car. She would never stammer, blush or feel awkward again.
Her hand wavered between the open beer and the vodka, but she was going to be her mother’s daughter so she took another swallow of the vodka and almost gagged. The older kids talked about being buzzed and after another gulp, Cin felt a rough humming in her head, a cache of bees, and she swallowed again. Then she stared for a moment at her father’s beer. Vodka was for her and her mother only. Beer was meant for Gus and her father.
Gus Number Five shivered with anticipation as Cin held the can of beer over his bowl. Shadows meant food. His world always made sense, and he darted towards the first dark drops of beer. But the drops dissipated, leaving nothing to nibble and suck.
He soon realized the beer was not flakes of fishy delight. So he stared at the growing dark stain with an unblinking complacency, waiting for whatever was next. He knew it would never hurt him because nothing had ever hurt him before.
Cin didn’t hate Gus. Sometimes she would watch him as he swam in and out of his castle, fanned by ferns and other sea plants.
Once, sleepily stumbling, searching for a glass of water, she found her father sitting in his chair staring at Gus as though he was waiting for Gus to answer a question he had just asked.
That night Cin shyly stood in the doorway never entering the living room. She stood and watched her father watch Gus until he slumped into sleep.
Cin didn’t hate Gus, but today the sight of his glassy doll eyes and rounded belly panicked and pinched her.
“I can tell the other kids about it,” she told herself, picturing the older kids listening, then laughing. She would feel at home in her skin again, no more gawky angles and a restless unknown yearning.
She felt bad as soon as the first drops hit the water; but she kept pouring, shrugging off guilt. “It won’t hurt you,” she whispered to Gus, “it doesn’t hurt Daddy. He likes it. He likes you.” But a part of her knew she was hurting Gus.
She watched Gus as he stared at the cascading beer. She didn’t know what was going to happen. Still she poured.
It was as though her hand was possessed by some evil spirit like the hand in that horror movie their father didn’t want them to watch. She could hear her voice saying, “Take that,” each consonant sharp and clipped.
Then a small shape careened across the room as Jenna yelped and ran towards the fishbowl. She didn’t grab Cin’s arm, just glared at her, hot and amazed. She didn’t know how to stop Cin from hurting Gus, from hurting her.
Jenna had never before tried to stop Cin from doing anything. Anxiously she stood, waiting for the beer to turn into water, waiting for what was to unravel into something that never was.
She waited for Cin to see her, to tell her why she was doing this to Gus. But when Cin looked at her, her eyes were bewildered and detached, round and wide as a goldfish’s eye.
Cin kept pouring, transfixed by the enormity of what she was doing, by how easy it was to do. She poured startled by Jenna’s intent eyes. Jenna had never stared at her that intently before.
“I’m sorry,” Cin said, but she didn’t stop.
She poured until there was nothing left, and Gus swam, lost in the walnut brown water like a car in fog. He bumped into the bowl’s side a few times; but whether that was because he was drunk or because he simply couldn’t see would never be answered. He wasn’t really that intelligent. Gus Number Five was simply a little rounded gold thing.
Some experts say goldfish had such limited memories that by the time they circled the bowl, they had forgotten everything. The world was born again every three minutes.
The world was born again for Jenna in the three minutes it took Gus to die. She stared at Cin as though she had been transformed into something alien and puzzling, a monster from under the bed. Jenna gently plucked Gus’ still body from the beer soaked water. She cradled him in her hands, her cupped fingers trying to protect him from Cin’s eyes while she patiently waited for Cin to give her a reason.
Cin kept staring at Gus’ diminished body, no longer so rounded and shiny. Jenna was too short to properly protect him from her gaze. “The beer didn’t kill him,” she said over and over. “He must had cracked himself against the glass. The beer didn’t kill him.”
Cin kept trying to convince herself and Jenna that Gus died because he collided against the hard glass of the goldfish bowl, even pointing out where he must had hit himself.
But Jenna knew that Gus had died because of the beer, and Cin didn't have a reason for why she poured the beer. She was like their mother. There was no place to put this hurt. There was no reason for it, there was no reason for anything. The world was as indefinable and random as death. Anything could happen, and it would. Jenna realized there was no refuge, that monsters could roam anywhere.
Their father just shook his head when he found the bowl of beer, the opened bottle of vodka, when he found Jenna cradling a very dead Gus, his poor limp body shingled with fins. He had been in the backyard, seconds away. Why didn’t Jenna yell for him, run and find him?
He was their protector. They would be sheltered in the garden he planted for them. They should have known he would had done anything to preserve them. But they didn’t believe in his power to guard them. He was as innocuous and impotent as a fish to them. All he could do was scatter seeds.
He said he would punish Cindy, no TV for a month. He said he would buy Jenna a new Gus. Neither of them heard him nor looked at him so he finally fell quiet. He knew what his wife would say when saw the fish.
“Another one,” she would say and hand Jenna a white cardboard jewelry box. She carefully saved them, kept them in a bottom dresser drawer. She knew how easily fish died. He didn’t know why he felt like crying. It was just a fish.