I asked my father about the fish. It was the only thing Mom didn’t take with her when she left us. We hadn’t talked about her all day, Dad and I. Not a word since I explained to him last night how I’d found her cramming the last of the bulging Hefty bags into the back seat of the minivan when I got home from school yesterday; her driving off without a word.
She’d bought the fish nearly two years ago and kept it on the kitchen counter where she would sprinkle little flakes of food into its bowl every day and talk to it in a sing-song voice, as though it were a small child. Dad said, “Fuck the fish.” He warned me not to feed it, said to just let it die.
After a couple weeks the water in the bowl had clouded to a brown-gray. I could barely see the bright blue fish gliding sluggishly through the murky liquid, spending most of the time at the top of the water. I imagined he, too, must be wondering where Mom had gone. I asked Dad several times why he didn’t just get rid of the fish, flush it or something, but he would shrug or grunt and walk away. It occurred to me that he might be holding out hope that she would be coming back for it.
Dad took a long sabbatical from work. One evening, during a break from filling out college applications, I found him in the den staring at the television. The TV was tuned to ESPN, but the sound was muted.
“Dad,” I said, standing next to the recliner, “she’s only going to be more pissed off if she comes back and finds we tortured her fish.”
He didn’t take his eyes of the screen; a soccer game was being played somewhere in Europe. “Actions have consequences,” he said. “Even your mother knows that.”
Two weeks later was my Spring Break. I drove down to Myrtle Beach with my two best friends, but I called Dad every day. Our conversations, if you can call them that, lasted no more than a minute and consisted of me asking him how he was and him telling me he was fine. On the night before my return, when I made my usual call, he answered with “I found the fish food in your room,” then hung up.
Dad was in the kitchen when I got home. He held out his right arm, the hand clenched into a fist. He unfurled his fingers to reveal the dried body of the dead fish, its long, flowing fins shriveled and curled like tiny blue commas.
“That’s that,” he said, before turning and dropping the shrunken carcass into the sink. He flipped the switch to start the garbage disposal and its roar replaced the awkward silence. Dad stood angled to me and I could see him staring down into sink, his mouth moving, but I was glad I couldn’t hear what he said. I walked out of the kitchen, out to my car to get my duffle before trudging upstairs to my bedroom. Even after I closed the door, I could still hear the rumble of the running disposal. It was a long time before it stopped.