Saving the Fish Tank

by Jessica Keener

So beautiful and lonely here in the house.

Our black maid, Dora, made the rounds upstairs with the vacuum cleaner. She opened and closed Mother's bedroom door and when she plugged in the machine it punctuated the silent morning like a backhoe digging up a tree root. Back and forth the noise scooped under and around furniture as Dora, short and square-bodied, pushed the vacuum farther into Mother's dressing room. Dora vacuumed so long, the whining pitch seemed like a new version of silence.

I lay in bed wondering what to do about the family beach outing. Certainly, I did not want to go.

"Sarah! Robert, Elliot!" Father called up from downstairs. "Get your swimming suits on!" His insistence on a Labor Day trip to the beach, one we took every year, almost made me forget—that delicious wisp of forgetting before remembering—that Mother had died six months ago.

No one answered except for Dora who turned the vacuum off. Now the house itself seemed to listen with me. A few minutes passed and he called again.

"Let's go! Everyone up!"

Dora turned the vacuum back on and the reverberations washed through the house. A grid of shadows from the sun and windowpanes cast a fence on my bedroom wall. I watched it carefully to see if it moved.

My youngest brother, Elliot, would want to go. At eight years old, he liked the beach with its glut of sand flees, crabs, stones, shells, and circling gulls. Elliot was not one to refuse anything. That was not his way.

Robert opened and closed his bedroom door.

"Not coming!" he called with a slam.

Again, no one responded but the mood had been set.

"Everybody goes!" Father called up again after a short delay. This was followed by thudding footsteps.

He knocked on my door and opened it abruptly.

"I'll stay with Robert. He doesn't want to go," I said.

I propped up on my elbow. Father looked around my room. Unlike his office downstairs, I kept my bedroom neatly tucked in; my clothes stacked in careful layers in drawers, the way Mother liked it.

"Robert is coming. I will see you both down in twenty minutes."

Father went to Robert's room and opened the door to a hurricane of objections. My thirteen-year-old brother threw something against a wall, a small object like a sneaker. Another object hit the wall. Father slammed the door again and charged downstairs.

Hearing this, I resigned myself to the trip and got dressed. I put my bikini on under a yellow cotton sundress. I slipped into leather sandals.

Dora headed back downstairs, the vacuum thudding on the carpeted risers. She would go to the living room next, then the dining room—she liked to work the enclosed rooms first, finally ending up in the front hallway before wrapping the cord up and storing it once again in the downstairs coat closet.

Then I heard my father's girlfriend, Sherry, quietly padding upstairs from a night of staying over in father's pull-out couch in his office, her feet light as a guest's exploring a new friend's house for the first time: toes politely touching the floor, legs moving quickly but with measured distances so as not to appear anxious or over eager. Then she opened and closed my parents' bedroom door.

I peeked out my door and went into the hall to listen. Robert was silent in his room too, except for something scraping on the floor. I moved closer to my parents' bedroom door until I heard shower pipes cranking open in the master bathroom, the swishing of the water behind closed doors. How dare she! With the shower going full blast now, I knew Sherry would not be able to hear me sneaking into Mother's dressing room. I stood, forehead pressed against the locked bathroom door while Sherry hummed "Begin the Beguine" by Cole Porter, a favorite of Father's. The humid, warm air crept under the door. I felt little breaths of moisture on my toes, the smell of minty soap.

I opened Mother's closet, still filled with her dresses in plastic wrap, and took a beach hat—straw with a green ribbon—from the shelf next to a box of shoes. I put it on and viewed myself in the full-length mirror on the closet door. Sherry stopped humming; suddenly, the water turned off. Frightened, I snuck back out, forgetting to close the bedroom door. I hurried downstairs to the kitchen.

"That's your mother's," Dora said.

I touched the hat rim and stood taller. If I were going on this beach trip with Sherry, who had the audacity to use Mother's bathroom, I would take Mother with me to keep that stranger in her proper place.

"I know."

I opened the refrigerator and took out a carton of orange juice. Sherry entered the kitchen, her cheeks red, flushed and moist from Mother's hot water. She wore a long purple skirt wrapped tightly around wide, bony hips. Her bare midriff had a small curl of fat. Breasts, her crowning jewels, pushed out of a matching scarf-like cotton top. I wondered how many times she had fucked my father.

"You look smashing in that hat, Sarah," Sherry said, shiny lipstick framing her square, thick teeth. She smiled handsomely, then turned to Dora for collusion and agreement.

"It's my mother's," I said.

Dora poured a cup of coffee and grudgingly handed it to Sherry.

"Cereal is in there," Dora said, pointing to the cupboard over the counter. "Did you eat breakfast?" Sherry asked me. She looked at me in a way that said, "Please give me a chance. Don't kick me in the face."

I shrugged and looked away.

"Robert doesn't want to come," she said. "I'm sure he doesn't want to go with me. You, too. Sarah. I know you don't like that I'm here."

Her honesty stunned me. For a moment I softened toward her.

"Robert doesn't like excursions," I said. "Well, any kind of change really."

She nodded and sipped on her coffee, leaving a half moon of lipstick on the cup.

"Could we try nonetheless?"

Nonetheless. I was listening to her until she said this. None the less?

Something hit the ceiling, an object much larger this time than a shoe. Dora and I ran over to the stairs and looked up. Robert's door was closed but Father was standing outside it, pushing on it.

"Stop. You'll break it!" Robert shouted.

Dora started upstairs, punctuating the carpeted steps with her commando feet, until she got to the top. Then I followed. Before I got to the top landing, Father managed to shove Robert's door open and the bureau that Robert had pushed in front of the door toppled over. Robert screamed.

"Murderer! My fish! My fish!"

He screamed again, as if someone were poking him repeatedly. I ran into the room. The bureau had caught the corner of the fish tank, cracking the glass. Water streamed out in a thin line, soaking the carpet. On the floor, Robert rocked on his back. The bureau had knocked him to the ground but I quickly saw that he was not injured. He flailed his legs, hollering.

"My fish! You're killing my fish!" He jumped up and hugged the fish tank; the water level had plummeted to half while the fish—all six of them—blue and red tetras circled wildly in the shrinking pool.

"Get a pot! Save them! Help! Help. Help! Help! Help!" He wouldn't stop.

"Please, everyone, stay calm," Sherry said at the door.

The fact that she had the audacity to enter a riotous family scene silenced us all. She stood tall in the doorway, embracing a large lobster pot. "Let's pour the water in here. This will hold them until we get another one."

She put the pot on the floor, then looked at me for assistance. I took the end of the tank and tilted it. The water gushed over the corner and spilled into the lobster pot. The half dozen fish spun over the edge like splatters of bright blue and red paint then collapsed into tiny, two-inch drops of color again. They swam erratically as they tried to orient themselves in the black speckled lobster pot.

"The pet store is open today," Sherry said. "We'll drive down and get a new tank. Will you come with me, Robert? I'll need your help."

Elliot stood quietly in the hallway.

"You too Elliot," she said.

Robert knelt next to the lobster pot. His shorts, wet from the spilled tank, stuck to his wiry legs. A dark hint of hair shadowed his upper lip. He had grown inches over the summer. At five feet, four inches, he and I were equal in height now. His bent legs looked gawky but the angles in his face surprised me in the morning light. Elliot looked a foot shorter than Robert, soft, round and vulnerable; whereas Robert had become physically threatening, his shoulders widening like a shield, his jaw cutting a sharper line. Robert talked into the lobster pot, moaning. "Don't die."

"I'll watch them," Dora said.

By now Father had crumbled into a tiny pile of himself. But it was hard to tell if he felt sorry for what he had done or simply sorry for himself, a state he coddled since Mother died, as if he were a bottle of wine that needed occasional turning but otherwise did best in chillier temperatures or benign neglect.

"Len, we'll be back," Sherry said to him. "I'm not going to worry about the beach. All right? We have all day." She turned to him and passed on a private, silent message to him, a lover's promise of reward if he behaved himself. My father deferred, his shoulders sagging now, his lip turned down into a defeated pout. I wanted to shake him when he did this, tug and yank him into a person that I could respect and like.

"I'm going to clean up this mess," Dora said with renewed confidence. "You go. I'll be right here. I'll add more water."

"No, don't!" Robert barked. "You can't meddle with the nitrogen process. We've got to hurry. They need to be reintroduced."

Elliot and Sherry followed Robert down and impulsively I decided to go too, last in line as we filed down to the driveway where Sherry had parked her car.

"Robert, sit up front with me. I want to understand what we need to do and I won't be able to hear you from the back."

Once again, her words had effect. Robert stood by Sherry's small hatchback and waited for her to open it for him. I sat in back with Elliot.

Sherry cupped her hand around the gear shaft and reversed out of the driveway. "Here we go."

"What's going to happen to the fish?" Elliot wanted to know.

"Nothing," Sherry said. "Fish are hardy creatures."

Robert rocked in his seat to ward off random misfires in his body, neurons spitting emotions haphazardly inside. The morning sun drilled a hot tunnel through the open windows. It was summer's last burning before fall would set in. I leaned my head out as Sherry started down the small hill, easing around the corners until she fed into the main street that led to town.

A car behind her honked impatiently. She ignored it, sticking her left arm out the window and waving them around her.

"Speeding won't get you there faster, Buster," she mumbled.

Robert kept his eyes on the road. "Charles, Neon and Dimension, don't worry." His fish had names: Blue tail, Angel, Flutter.

Pet Planet, located on a dead end street off the town center, was empty when we walked in except for a tall, thin young man who wore his hair in a ponytail. The dim lights of the aquatic animals lit up one side of the room. Other small cages were grouped by animal type: birds at the farthest end, hamsters and gerbils in the middle and a litter of Labrador puppies sleeping in a furry gnarl in the front window.

The room was air-conditioned but fans blew from all four corners, roiling up the smell of shredded newspaper and puppy urine. The odor was a tangle of life—threads of eating, shitting, pissing, and breathing. Mother had not wanted a dog or cat, fearing the messes they made. Only after Robert had badgered her for months, did she finally relent to fish.

"So long as you clean the tank," she said. "Dora has enough to do."

Thrilled by this, Robert took out stacks of books from the library, books about aquarium care and maintenance.

On the short ride to the pet store, Robert said: "Fish waste products break down into ammonia, a highly toxic poison. But the natural biological process produces bacteria that convert deadly ammonia into benign nitrogen components. The cycle requires the right combination of water temperature, food, and monthly replenishment of new water." He breathed hard and continued "The exact concentration at which ammonia becomes toxic to fish varies among species; some are more tolerant than others. In addition, other factors like water temperature and chemistry play a significant role." He talked as if he were reading from a movie screen in his mind. His brain photographed passages from books and if you interrupted him in mid-sentence, he would start over, as if the paragraph couldn't fully emerge in his mind unless it popped up whole.

"You know," Elliot said, "they're not so different than we are. They have five senses. They smell, hear, taste, see, and feel."

"They pick up vibrations in the water, electrical impulses. They're subtle. Highly sensitive," Robert said.

"I think they're better than humans!" Elliot said, his eyes opening to this idea. "They feel things we can't feel. They're super animals!"

"They're fish," Robert said.


In the store, I inspected different tanks of fish: ones filled with tetras, Mollies, goldfish, catfish. I tried to imagine their liquid world. A printed sheet on goldfish explained that goldfish were intelligent, could recognize the person feeding them when the person approached the tank. Elliot stood near me, placing a finger on the glass and staring at the graceful loops of fins. In one of the more crowded tanks, one fish nipped at another fish's fins until the chased fish fluttered to another corner of the tank.

Initially, when Robert had set up his tank, Father tried in his usual annoying and pedantic way to be philosophical about them.

"Why domesticate fish? What's the fascination?" he asked Robert at the dinner table.

"To pretend we're God?" my older brother, Peter said, half-closing his eyes. Peter with his blond hair and smooth face looked purposefully arrogant, arching an eyebrow. "So we can be masters of their tiny universe?"

"Quiet. It's living history," Robert said. "It's evolution. Fish are our ancestors."

Remembering this made me ache for Peter, the ironic observer who three months ago graduated high school, packed a duffle bag and drove to California to sing folk songs on street corners. Maybe that's what I would do when I graduated next spring.

I moved along the fish wall, passing shelves of small aquariums arranged according to their origins—fresh or salt water, warmer or cooler climates, and stopped at a cluster of small glass bowls, each holding a single Beta fish, also known as Siamese fighting fish. The data sheet on the tank said Betas had an extra breathing organ called a labyrinth. The labyrinth allowed them to sip oxygen directly from the water's surface. In their natural state, Betas lived in shallow puddles commonly found in rice fields in Southeast Asia. The puddles had limited oxygen supplies, thus the labyrinth gave them that extra boost to thrive.

Sherry came over and said, "Labyrinth organs. Can you imagine if humans could do that? Breathe in and out of water?"

I bent over and stood close to one glass bowl. The tiny, blueberry colored Beta fins flowered at the sight of my approach. The fins splayed and rippled to warn me away. I stepped back. The Beta relaxed.

"People like fish because they're beautiful," Elliot said.

At the back of the store Robert engaged with the attendant, and discussed details of purchasing a new 15-pound tank, new pills to de-chlorinate the tank water. The rule of thumb, the attendant told Robert: one inch of fish to one gallon of tank.


When Robert first set up his fish tank in his bedroom, Mother liked to stand at the tank and observe.

"Did you notice that Domino likes to stay near the bottom right corner, Robert? Why is that?"

She leaned over the rim and watched until her neck ached, her narrow frame shadowing the lighted tank.

"I believe I'm growing attached," she said, surprised by her own revelation. Robert freshened the tank every two weeks. He did this by draining a portion of the water using plastic tubing, siphoning it out into a mixing bowl. One time the old water spilled on the kitchen counter top and left an odd, dank smell. Mother, who dressed as if she might be photographed for a fashion magazine, scrubbed and scrubbed that spot. She needed everything to smell right and look right; her compulsion to rid the house of stains and streaks ongoing. She tried every new countertop cleaning liquid. Products that sprayed and wiped off, scrubbed, soaked, dissolved came home in the weekly grocery bags. She walked into rooms, bending and turning on lamps in search of streaks on the wood furniture. "Dora," she said, pointing to the dining room tabletop. "This needs to be wiped again. Look—"

Together, she and Dora leaned back their heads, convening in earnest over another imperfection in the house.


At Pet Planet, I tired of fish watching. Though each fish had a unique path, a distinctive way of feathering across the watery plain, these fish had what they needed. I walked over to the four puppies available for adoption. They slept soundly in the arms of God waiting for someone, like me, to take them home.

"Come on, Sarah," Robert said, the edge returning to his voice. "We need to get my fish home."

A new fish glistened in a water bag dangling from his hand.

"What did you pick?" I asked.

"A Tetragon, Tetra for short. That's what I'm calling him," Robert said. "I have room in my new tank for one more." He marched out the door.

Sherry followed with the new tank and filter in hand, a big smile on her face. Elliot carried a bag of food and tank scenery made of green plastic. I left the sleeping puppies. I wanted badly to touch one but didn't.

In the car, Sherry said, "What did you think about the puppies, Sarah?" She talked to me in the car's rear view mirror.

"What?" I didn't want to answer her. She had caught me aching for something. "Cute. What else?"

In the front seat, Robert cuddled the plastic water bag on his lap. "Easy. Don't bump. Watch it. Yikes. Low, low, low, easy. Sorry, Tetra boy."

"How do you know it's a boy?" I asked.

"He told me."


At home, our procession inched back up the stairs to Robert's room. Dora had kept watch, as promised.

"Everyone's fine. Swimming like fish are supposed to do."

Father had retreated into his office downstairs, though he didn't have any college papers or student exams to correct. School had not started yet. Robert prepared the new tank, and added chemicals to balance pH levels. He placed the tank on top of his bureau, away from the door. The mirror behind the bureau doubled the fish tank and reflected light. This pleased him. He rarely sang but the sonorous clarity of his speaking voice, its clean tone and projection echoed in his room as he sang the Beatles' Good Day, Sunshine.

Sherry's lobster pot rescue gave her a sure grip on Robert's slippery slope and easily won Elliot's devotion—Elliot who wanted to please, born with a readiness to be loved, embraced her from that moment on. We didn't go to the beach. Instead, Sherry coaxed Father out of his office and managed to get Dora, despite my silent disapproval, to unload a stack of hamburger patties and hot dogs from the freezer for an early supper barbecue in the backyard. The small round base of the grill sat on a tripod stand with wheels, which Dora rolled to the back porch steps so she could keep an eye on it from the kitchen.

While Dora squirted the lighter fluid in zigzags across the top of the charcoal, I sat on a chaise longue and plucked on Peter's old guitar. I worked on easy chord changes and thought about taking a cross-country bus to California to visit my brother.

Dora struck a match and dropped it into the basin. The fire charged, leaping up in twisting fins of heat. Elliot and Robert flapped back and forth on the swing set, though Robert had clearly outgrown his swing. Father turned the stereo speaker from his office so that it faced the open window screen. Out came the popular song, "Little Green Apples," it don't rain in Indianapolis in the summertime. Apparently, our family happiness or the appearance of it managed to attract our neighbors, the Fineburgs, who sauntered over to join my father and Sherry for an impromptu, neighborly glass of wine.

"How quickly our children grow up," Mrs. Fineburg said to Father. She was a pleasant, comfortable looking woman who favored sneakers and tennis skirts in warmer weather. Their son had been away all summer in Europe, junior year abroad, they said. "Why, look at Robert. He's unrecognizable," she said.

Father stood close to Sherry, his elbow touching hers. The Fineburgs smiled a lot, as if seeing Father reconnected as a couple returned him to a world they knew.

The charcoals in the grill glimmered red. The smell of burning grease, the sweet and sour scent of ketchup and mustard imbued the yard with odors of suburban normalcy. While all members of my family, except Peter in absentia, even Dora appeared relieved, pleased with the results of the fish tank fiasco, I sat on the porch step nibbling at my hamburger bun, not hungry for food, chewing on a morsel of suspicion that Sherry in her optimism and hope had won something from us, but in the process taken something away from me.

Jessica Keener is a fiction editor at Agni magazine. Recent fiction has appeared in MiPOesias, The Wilderness House Literary Review, Heat City Review, Elixir, The Huffington Post,and Fiction honors include publication in The Pushcart Prize under '100 outstanding writers', Redbook magazine second prize in fiction, and a Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in fiction. Additionally, she co-hosts Backstory, a weblog featuring novels and memoirs. Jessica recently finished a novel set in Budapest, Hungary and is working on a memoir.