by Jesse Sanders

With the house unfurnished, we didn’t have to yell. With each item packed away, each article of clothing pressed into the corner of a fruit box, absence progressively grew: hallways losing their sources of light, bathrooms growing unnaturally sterile, walls losing their frames, and in their place, inordinate dustless squares took shape. And in this roofed vacancy, our voices felt awkwardly powerful, stiff and cold, like they traveled too far and too fast. So we opted to talk with our faces, messages on a whiteboard, with gentle knocks, and soft appeals:

“Should we get something delivered tonight?” she asked from the top of the staircase,

“Evening walk (?)” we left permanently written in black expo marker,

“Where’s the cat?” we asked through mirrored confused faces,

“Are you still upset?” I cautioned with a hesitant door pulse,

“Can we just stay this way forever?” we silently implored while looking out the many open windows,

“Of course not,” the incessant engines of the neighborhood’s moving trucks answered back.

Boxes stacked atop boxes and soon the living room walls became an ongoing game of Tetris, with her controller placed into port one. The cat ran into the conglomeration excitedly in search of new hiding places, while I spent more time than I’d like to admit hiding in the excavated rooms lying on freshly vacuumed carpet and staring at the popcorn ceiling. Sometimes I’d sit in the corners with my back against the wall, my legs tucked into my stomach, my arms wrapped around my knees, and I’d survey the rooms: this is the maximization of potential, I’d think in the barren upstairs bedroom; this is an island unto itself, I silently remarked while opening and closing the vacant kitchen cupboards; this is constant renewal, I notioned while watching water flow from the deserted bathroom’s faucet.

But the ever presiding weight of our past and future, organized into a massive heap on the main floor, never left me, and tracing her location by following the melody of her singing, the rhythm of her quiet humming, or the tone of her talking (on the phone, to herself, to the cat) I’d find her, sit in front of her, and ask how I could help.

“The wiring back here makes no sense,” I remarked to her, while trying futilely to unravel decades of tangled power cords behind a garage shelf. I hear the sound of metal clinking in the expanses of a garbage bag.

“The beer cans just don’t stop!” her eyes squinted steadily at the ground as if the cans would suddenly hide into a new crevice if she looked away for even the briefest seconds.

We opened the garage doors and let the sun’s heat propel us into the afternoon. We cleaned and cleaned. We moved tables and shifted gardening tools. We took lunch breaks and sat with our legs crossed on the back porch facing the street. We felt like statues compared to the constant motion never ceasing on the other side of the fence. We cleaned our dishes and I went back to the garage while she did some more packing.

I decided to organize the metal shelves bordering one of the walls of the garage: put all the tools on one side, reunite all the scattered light bulbs, group up all the different types of nails, etc. Almost every item laid over three levels of shelves belonged to a set or, at the very least, had a pair tethered to it somewhere; all except for this lone black container on the second level. I pulled it out to better determine its fate: recycling or trash; item-taken-with or item-left-behind.

It was a fish tank, filled to the brim with an opaque, sludge-like liquid, with an emerald green rancid tint. My face grimaced. I really don’t want to clean this. The longer I inspected it, the more repellent it became—dead moths floating idly at the top, grime collecting on the frame, and buildups of cobwebs across the top corners. Just dump the top layer into the dumpster, then pour the rest out into the weeds out back. Justgetitoverwith. I reached out to enact my plan when suddenly movement sparked within the tank. My eyes flared. I stepped back and then stepped forward and prepared myself to witness some out-of-habitat deep sea monster or maybe some trapped mouse or rat swirling about the murky mess.

What greeted me through the tempered glass, at a small portion of it less morose and slightly more transparent than the rest, was a small, minium scaled goldfish. His tail frayed at the edges and his body nearing skeletal structure, he looked at me with his black voided eyes, then turned and swam back into the heart of the tank.

The contrast of the fish’s effortless nonchalant swimming with the weighted water surrounding it made me feel like I was witnessing something immensely meaningful. Like a bird taking flight from an undergrowth of thickets, or a small deer making its way through the busiest of intersections. But pushing all that aside, I headed inside to share my discovery.

“I think—” I paused, and looked again at her astounded face and then back to the fish swimming inside the catacombic body of water, “I think it’s been feeding on the dead moths that flew into the tank.”

We both winced.

“Kaitlyn and I had been taking turns feeding it for a bit,” she paused, perhaps to try to measure my face for hints of judgment, “And we kind of just forgot about him…”

The fish continued to swim around unrestrained and unburdened. If you focused on his movement you almost forgot the terrible environment that surrounded him: the filter having been left shut off, toxic nitrites permeating the water’s expanse, ammonia poisoning his gills. While we were at a loss as to how he was surviving, the golden glimmer of his scales and the lively movements of his tattered body made it seem like his being alive was not only tranquil but also plainly obvious. We looked at each other and held a steady glance, and all in our minds, the lawyers were called, the papers laid out, and custody allocated over.

I placed the goldfish into a large vase, his transitory home now matching my own in emptiness and bareness. I filled the vase with half of the water from the previous tank and the remainder with new clean faucet water matched as well as I could in temperature, so as to not shock the fish’s internal system too drastically. He appeared unfazed, unfettered, and active. He swam endlessly along the curved walls. I felt terrible for him. I decided a new start should mean a new name, and as the scales refracted the light from the kitchen, I decided on Gamma.

In the backyard we dumped the tank. The green water flowed into the dirt bed perimeter of the green lawn and then I hosed the plate glass until it once again shone translucent.

“You can totally reuse this tank,” she said while examining the water runoff running alongside the convergence of concrete terrace and topsoil, “there’s no damage and it’s all clean and everything!”

I stared despondent at the tank. “Yeah… maybe.”

Goldfish are notoriously fickle: a handful of degrees too warm or too cold, an imbalance in a pinch of food distribution, a misstep in the nitrogen cycle, the overcrowding of space, the under crowding of oxygen-releasing plant life, the smallest misalignment in the aquatic parameters and their bodies will overturn and head upwards. You can also do everything properly and correctly with no errors and they’ll still randomly be found floating lifeless, their bodies leaving no markings or farewell inscriptions as to what it was that went wrong, withdrawing you to obsess in search over what aqueous sin you committed so you can repent and start anew.

And so the tank sullenly sat in its purgatory on the back deck, its historical precedence of transgressions (perhaps not leading to death but certainly providing the environment for it to take place) underlying its newfound bright and cleansed appearance. And as the days continued and I slowly and progressively cycled out the old water from the new floral vase, my distrust of it grew until I finally relinquished it to the scrapyard.

The days continued and our moving date grew closer: new rooms becoming tapered off and the remnants of them joining the clutter in the living room, new research as to how best to transition Gamma into a proper tank with fixtures, new meals being eaten along the stairwell, new movies displayed on the television as we sat wrapped in blankets like sailboats on the ocean of perpetually carpeting waves. Gamma swimming cyclically in his elongated container joined me in the basement as I recorded an album centered on blooming, decay, open and closed doors, and various hues of light; the light of his namesake emitted from the grounds of radioactive and decaying atoms.

And then suddenly, it was over: the whiteboard erased, the counters cleared, the beds laid bare, the album finished, the moving truck packed, driven, and unloaded, the keys handed over, tears shed, letters written and given, embraces ended, until I found myself driving back to my actual house, my actual bedroom, and my actual specifics of life with Gamma, in his vase containing only small remnants of the malignant water of old, safely placed alongside me in the passenger seat.

Gamma fit into the crafted chaos of my room perfectly. The smallest bedroom in the house (roughly the size of three, maybe four standard sized closets), I prided myself in how compactly and efficiently I used the space. Various hung instruments lined the walls—, photos, posters, and art pieces acted as wallpaper, mounds of collected recording equipment provided bulk and horizontal extension, an abysmally small closet vibrated on the brink of exploding in a florid color spectrum of sleeves, pant legs, socks, shorts, and shoes—, a cascading entertainment center fixed with hundreds of records lay perpendicular to the barely-fitting futon functioning as a bed, and atop my organ keyboard that I used as a desk, I set Gamma’s vase proudly and with deliberate proclamation.

The subaqueous receipts could have easily covered the roughly eight-by-two-foot rectangle of brown carpet left spared from weight and presence: a proper aquarium, a freshwater LED light (capable of growing live plants), fish flakes, moss balls, water filters, water conditioner, an ammonia test kit, an aquarium net, a ph test kit, a nitrite test kit, decorations, plants, and pebbles to act as substrate. Most of the items were set to be delivered in just a few days. Gamma swam in circles. I fit myself back into cluttered living.

I read article after article, subscribed to maritime publications, and watched Gamma swim from the end of my bed in anticipation. Oftentimes I’d listen to music and watch him carefully enough to notice when he reversed his trajectory. Gamma had an immensely unassuming face, and eyes so black and round it seemed he was without pupils. This made him easy to talk to. And with only a handful of nights until packages were beginning to appear, I continued to wash and refill Gamma’s vase with new water every few days or so, the lasting fragments of the original tank’s murky water gathering compactly at the bottom between changes.

Sterile water is almost immediately made toxic by the introduction of goldfish. Goldfish turn the food they eat into ammonia (and the food they don’t eat also decomposes into ammonia), and given a small amount of time, ammonia is converted into nitrite. Nitrite is heavily toxic to goldfish, and can easily kill them. So, for an aquarium to safely harbor a goldfish it must go through the nitrogen cycle: you introduce nitrogen (fish flakes, ammonia, unsterile water, etc) to the tank and it’s sterile water and then slowly (can take anywhere from weeks to months) the nitrite that would kill goldfish will be broken down by bacteria and converted into nitrates, which are less harmful to goldfish, and act as fertilizer for live plants. In this post-cycled environment, Goldfish can thrive.

And so, with the parcels arrived, unpacked, and put aside, I filled the new tank with water and threw in some fish flakes. And for added measure, I did my best to syphon out the remaining water remnants of Gamma’s first home from his makeshift vase of an aquarium. Dispelling that noxious water to the new tank, the mistreatments and sufferings of Gamma’s past would now promote a cycle of renewal, oxygenation, and florescence.

“Well Gamma,” my sleeves rolled up and my wrists wet from submerging the testing strips into the water, “It looks like today’s the day.”

Gamma answered back with his cyclical swimming and his naive face. His tail seemed to be getting better and he had started to acquire some weight. I caught him in the net, lifted, and then placed him into his new home.

He looked so small, and for the first time since I had met him his perpetual swimming ceased. He looked around slowly, as if taken aback by the replacement of rounded edges for sharp 90 degree corners and flat walls. He floated in place and swam just enough to keep himself afloat, until finally hiding behind one of the coral decorations and swimming stiffly in place. While I was prepared for and had read about an acclimation period, I was still nervous if I had gone too far: perhaps the temperature wasn’t right, or maybe he was thrown off by the sound and vibrations from the ever present filter, or maybe the furnishings led him to feel trapped and pressed into spaces he didn’t want to go.

I calmed myself down and tried to take in the beauty of the crystal clear water, the verdant moss balls and plants reflecting along the roof, the reassurance of the filter and the bubbles it propelled that Gamma was in the most nourishing space I could provide, and inhaling the purest of oxygen within the water passing through his gills as he stationarily swam.

Soon after, on a day full of affixing furniture, preparing decorations, and relentlessly swinging doors open and closed, I shuffled through the clutter flowing through the hallway, walked into my room, and found Gamma floating motionless.

He was dead, of course, and I spent hours testing the water, reading articles, and trying to figure out what I did wrong, of course. And after exhausting every crevice and possible problem, examining each layer of water for toxicity, and digging through the substrate for ammonia composition, everything came back clean, healthy, and perfectly fit for golden living—of course.

I sat on the edge of my bed and stared through the glistening motionless water, with the faint sound of footsteps, incessant shouting, and congested rooms passing through drywood. I pushed my sheets aside and tried to create an uncommitted space. I fished out Gamma with the net.

After sending Gamma off, I turned the faucet on, but it wasn’t the same. I closed my door, turned off my light, and shut myself off from the party. I laid on the carpet, but instead of expansiveness, I only felt constrained. And looking up to the lamp still illuminating the empty aquarium, I wondered if all processes of blooming and restoration demanded the death and decay of something else.

I cried twice for Gamma: once, for him, and again for the small subset of people, who, like Gamma, when given raised ammonia levels, decaying relations, poisonous air, stiffened surroundings, and harmful tones, they thrive, they flourish, they turn the other cheek, they readily claim burdens, they walk carefully within borders, they hear out entreaties from friends with unassuming faces, and they keep swimming.

But if given a secure home, balanced nitrates, a secure picket fence, an oxygenated filter, a loving spouse, then it’ll all inevitably break apart and slowly burst at the seams, and onlookers will watch as the house burns down, the scaffolds sink beneath the substrate, and their bodies turn upward and slowly head toward the surface.


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