The fish tank is there, and nobody knows why, or how, or even when it arrived. I ask my daughter this morning, ask my mother-in-law this afternoon, and the fish themselves not long after. Nobody knows why it arrived, only that it has, that it’s sitting on the white end-table that my wife loved, the one that sat in our first apartment, that sat in her apartment before that, that we carted around three different houses before we settled on this one, choosing it because of the staircase that we imagined our daughter walking down, the yard we imagined her playing in.
I ask one of the moms at soccer what I feed the fish.
What kind of fish are they? she says.
Goldfish, I say.
Just fish food, she says, whatever. They won’t live long.
From the pet store?
Uh-huh, she says. She cheers something at her daughter and puts a hand on my shoulder. And how are you doing? she says.
I stop off at the pet store and my daughter spends time looking at the rabbits while I ask the man about feeding them. He tells me, really, that any kind of fish food will probably do, but also that the expensive one with Omega 3s in it is a good idea. I ask, Doesn’t Omega 3 come from fish in the first place?
And he says, Yes, so can’t you see why they’d want more of it?
And I suppose maybe I can, so I buy that one, and we don’t buy a rabbit but I say maybe we can next time, and we go home.
There are three fish altogether. There’s a bigger one, a medium one, and a smaller one. They seem to eat well enough. I have to ask the computer if they like the lights on or off and find out that nobody really seems to know, or care, so I turn the lights off and tell the fish goodnight.
In the morning, all three are still there. My daughter meanders over, trailing cereal on the hardwood, and dribbles a little milk. I wipe her chin with the back of my hand, then look for something to wipe the back of my hand on. I wipe it on my jeans.
Are they our fish? she says.
I suppose, I say. You really don’t know where they came from?
I lower the ornamental bridge I also bought to the surface of the water, and let it fall. It settles perfectly. I say to my daughter, Look at that.
And she says, Good job, dad.
Her cell phone rings. Her mom hadn’t wanted her to have one until she was at least thirteen, but her principal said other kids were making fun of her and advised me to buy her one. I transferred the files from her mom’s old phone onto mine and gave her that one. She can see her reflection in its sparkly case.
Is it all right? I’d asked her.
Yes, she’d said.
Are you sure? I can get you a new one, I’d said, I just thought you might like it. And a phone like this is expensive.
Dad, she’d said. It’s an all right phone.
Okay, I’d said.
It rings now, some tune I don’t recognize, and she answers it, leaving her cereal on the corner of the table. I grab my own spoon and finish the bowl. She chats in the other room and comes back through when she’s done.
That was Melody, she says.
My friend from clarinet.
Oh. Right. Clarinet Melody. How is she? I say.
She’s fine. She says her mom spoke to you at soccer yesterday.
That’s what she said.
Oh, I say. I suppose she did.
She says she wants to ask you out.
I swallow a mouthful of cereal. When I put the bowl down, the spoon slips out and clatters across the floor. I notice all the milk for the first time. I can’t go out with her, I say.
Why not? she says.
Just because no, I say.
All right, she says. I’ll tell her.
Why is she talking to Melody about it anyway? This isn’t stuff for kids to talk about.
I grab one of the reusable paper-towel replacements we’ve had for ten years, since a time when the end table was probably our most expensive piece of furniture, and set about cleaning up the milk. I trail it all around the room, circle my daughter twice, and finish up right by the fish.
Do you think Melody’s mom is pretty? my daughter says.
No, I say.
I mean. Don’t tell Melody that obviously but—I mean, yes, she is pretty, in like, an objective sense. But subjectively, no.
Am I subjectively pretty?
You’re the most beautiful thing in the world, I say.
That’s not what I asked, she says.
Melody’s mom stands by me at soccer. Our team is winning. I think of it very much as our team. I’d coached them for a couple years but don’t have the energy for coaching right now. Sometimes my daughter talks to me about the speech I gave them before the championship semi-finals and I ask her not to. Melody’s mom has a name, but I’m never sure what it is. She doesn’t tell me anymore, I guess assuming that I remember it from one of the other times, but I don’t. I tell her her daughter is playing well.
She had a good coach, she says.
Their new coach is excellent, I say. Coach Michonne.
I applaud them off the field and ask my daughter if she wants to go for ice cream. She asks if Melody can come. Melody’s mom says it’s all right with her and says she likes ice cream too, and I say, Actually, it’s more of a just-the-two-of-us thing and we go home. I feed the fish. I’m not sure how many times I’m meant to feed them. The little one is doing well, seems bigger than the day before. I call my mother-in-law and ask her again if she left them here.
Why would I leave you goldfish? she says.
I don’t know, I say. For morale?
Morale? she says. I hear the door of her house open, and she says I’ve got to go, it’s my cards night, and hangs up. I watch the three of them together, the fish. They seem good at sharing, like with the little bridge. They swim over it one after the other like they’re on a fairground ride. My daughter pulls a chair up and sits next to me. I tell her they’re good at working together.
They’re like a team, I say.
They’re only fish, she says.
I guess if they’re fish, they’re a shoal? Not a team? Do you get shoals in indoor aquariums? I say.
I don’t know, dad, she says.
I ask if I can borrow her phone and look it up. The internet doesn’t seem to know. I decide they can be a shoal if that’s what I want them to be. I wonder if they have names. I look up if you need to give fish names.
Do you see the middle one? my daughter says.
What about her?
She’s slow, she says.
I look into the tank. My daughter’s right. The middle one is moving slower than the others. I wonder if maybe she’s just tired. She’s not as strong as the big fish, or as nimble at the little one. I try to think of ways to get the fish to slow down. I think of how I’d phrase that as a question to ask the cell phone. The first answer that comes up is a joke, as in ‘How do you get a fish to slow down?’ and I scroll past it.
My daughter kisses me on the cheek. Can you bring my phone up when you’re done? she says.
I say yes, of course. I check the water temperature with my oven thermometer. It’s dusty, so I wash it off in the sink. The water temperature is about what it’s supposed to be, I think, although I’m not sure one hundred percent. I feel worried that maybe something will happen if I leave so I pull another chair up in front of mine and sort of do my best to lie down on them like they’re a bed.
In the morning, the phone is gone. My daughter’s probably taken it back, which is fine. There’s a note on the fridge that says Melody and her mom picked her up, and to remind me that I have to drive to town to get dinner stuff.
And today’s a HALF DAY, it finishes, like I’d forget. I get right up, because I’ve slept longer than I meant to, and drive into town. I have to stop and get gas and the guy in the gas station is someone I don’t recognize. I ask what happened to Rick and he says he doesn’t know a Rick. I feel a little irritated at him, but then, I think, what is he going to do? If he doesn’t know Rick he doesn’t know Rick. After groceries I pick my daughter up. I ask her how her day was.
Picture day’s always grim, she says.
I tell her I didn’t realize it was picture day and ask if she needs anything.
No, she says. They’ll let you know how to buy the picture if you want.
And I say, Right, that’s how it works.
At home, I put food away in the freezer. We’re vegetarians, and eat a lot of fake meat stuff, like the stuff that’s flavored like real bacon, or whatever. I check to see if there’s any meat in the fish food, but there isn’t. I go to feed them and see that one is missing. The bigger one. I shuffle around the tank from all angles, checking if the light has hidden him, and peer under the bridge. I reach into the tank with my sleeve rolled up and pull the bridge out. I call upstairs.
Lilah, I say. We’re missing a fish.
She comes downstairs and stands in the living room doorway. I drop the bridge back in the tank and tell her again.
Which one? she says.
The bigger one, I say. Help me look.
She comes over but doesn’t really help me look. She’s holding her hands together behind her back. I ask her why she isn’t helping me look, and she says, Look where, dad?
And I say, In the tank. Or anywhere.
Her hair is pulled back into the ponytail I give her where I ball the hair up on the back of her head. It helps you see her eyes, which are mostly light brown, with green flecks.
She checks the tank too and on the floor all around it, and finds a bunch of things that aren’t the fish, but that are kind of useful, like the remote for our old CD changer and around a half-dollar in change. Eventually, she tugs on my shirt while I’m looking through the cutlery drawer and I say, Yes, kid?
And she says, I don’t think it’s in with the forks.
I don’t think so either, I say, but it’s worth looking—
I think the middle fish ate the bigger one, she says. She pulls me over to the tank and points out a little piece of fin that’s settled on the multi-colored pebbles beside the bridge, and I admit, it looks a lot like the bigger one’s fin. I’m not sure what to do next. I ask Lilah what we should do, and she says, I don’t know, dad, and I guess that’s reasonable because she’s just a kid, and I don’t know either. I try asking the internet but the answers are all unhelpful, most of them from message boards, and forums, and places where I don’t know if their opinions are worthwhile, and I ask the fish themselves, the middle one, and the little one, what to do. I wonder if the middle one would be trustworthy since she seems to have eaten the bigger one, but who knows why we do what we do? Lilah stands next to me and says something like, The fish aren’t going to answer you, and I say, But they might? and she says, But they won’t, and I hear myself for a second and realize I should probably be doing better here, so I tell Lilah to go upstairs and get ready.
And she says, For what?
And I say, You know, bedtime.
And she glances outside, but doesn’t say anything to me, or go upstairs to get changed. She puts a hand on my forearm, just above my wrist, and sort of leans in, like she’s giving me the idea of a hug, something hug-adjacent, but somehow even sweeter than the real thing, and I say, sort of decisively, I’m going to put the smaller fish in her own tank.
And she says, Can we replace the big one too?
I suppose we could, but have a different idea, and say, Let’s see if one just shows up. And we stand there together, peering into the water until the light dims outside, and Lilah goes upstairs. I follow but don’t make it to my room, still unable to sleep in there but closer than before, and I fall asleep on my daughter’s bedroom carpet, feeling her eyes on me in the dark.
© Sam Asher
[This piece was selected by Sara Crowley. Read Sam’s interview]