“At the Fish Tanks” by Louis E. Bourgeois

Editor’s note: “At the Fish Tanks” was nominated for the 2010/11 Best of the Net Awards.

Illustration by Stephen Smith
Illustration by Stephen Smith

Cora left a few days earlier, abandoning me on the outskirts of town in our twenty-year-old house trailer with the burgundy wainscot around the windows. It hadn’t even been a year since the car accident turned me into a cripple for life. I somehow got accepted into college right before Cora left town, and now I was waiting for all the months to pass until the first day of school. For now, Time was a kind of enemy to me which I was hoping college would somehow help me defeat. This Time, this whatever it was, was bringing me real close to killing myself almost every second of the day. I spent my days walking the dusty roads at the edge of town, and masturbating at the edge of the marsh under thick willow trees that gave off a thick humidity like Cora’s cunt did whenever I’d go down on her, but enough about Cora, enough has already been said about her. Today I want to talk about how I would spend an absurd amount of time walking for hours in circles on the outskirts of town with no content, no society to live by. I wanted so badly to write in those days but I did not have the words to do it. I did at this point write rather bad Heavy Metal lyrics with titles like “Evil Messiah,” “Death is Better than Life,” or, “To Love You is to Kill You.” Thrash Metal bands occupied most of my thoughts when I wasn’t thinking about Cora or about losing my left arm months earlier.

At this time, I was excruciatingly poor and all my clothes were faded into a kind of not-really-a-color-at-all. I wore oversized sleeveless cotton shirts, usually without collars. The idea was to have so much shirt that somehow it would drape over my stump in such a way that no one would notice my amputation. It was a weird thing to attempt, but if I did wear the right shirt in the right way and was able to pull the empty sleeve in just the right way, the fact was no one would notice my missing arm, or at least not as much as they would if I didn’t go through all these precautions, but once again I’ve completely gone off track. I don’t want to talk about Cora or my missing arm, as if the two were mutually inclusive. What I want to talk about isn’t too special of a thing at all,
just a little thing that happened that was so awkward and pathetic that it might amuse or frighten you.

On one of these outskirts of town days, I somehow got across Lake Pontchartrain to hang out at my grandmother’s fishing marina. Yes, I remember now, my cousin took me because he wanted to borrow some money from grandmother. In any case, I was pretending I was a kid again going from skiff to skiff checking the live wells like I did as a child hoping some fishermen left behind a fish to look at or even eat.  In one of the skiffs that my grandmother rented out to fishermen for $7.00 for the whole day, I found a small gar swimming to and fro nervously in the dark live well—I snatched the gar up out of the well with my hand and nestled him close to my chest so that he couldn’t leap overboard, then I took one of the green plastic buckets and filled it with soft rain water from one of the two cisterns in the back yard and tossed the gar into the bucket where he swam frantically in circles. When my cousin was ready to go, I put the bucket between my feet and stared down at the gar the whole way back into Slidell. My cousin kept asking me what I was going to do with the gar, Why did I bring him at all? Then, when I wouldn’t respond to his questions, he said, You’re a cripple now. That means you got to watch yourself that you don’t go crazy! Why do you keep looking at that stupid gar? I still wouldn’t respond to him, for, after all, what could I really say to that?

My cousin dropped me off at the end of the road where I lived. I watched as he drove off and huge drifts of dust hung in the air. I was dressed in a worn plaid green shirt two sizes too big for me. It was so worn through that it was nearly transparent. The marsh wind blew my empty sleeve all around my dead shoulder. I didn’t walk back to my trailer but went toward the end of the road right before the road ended and turned into swamp, where some large willow trees hung peacefully over a dozen or so long wooden below ground tanks, the remains of an old fish hatchery that was once used to breed tropical fish when they weren’t even sold in pet stores. In those days of the fish hatchery, if you wanted tropical fish you had to get them directly from the hatchery or order them to be shipped to you from out of town. The water in the ancient tanks was dark and had the appearance of being deeper than the actual three feet. The willow tree branches reflected in the water. I often came here to the fish tanks to talk to myself and try to think how to piece together my fragmented life. In the distance, was the sound of golfers putting their balls and talking in a quiet way. I would watch for hours as their balls flew to and fro through the air. I would sometimes watch for so long and so hard that I would begin to wonder if I wasn’t already dead and that I was really in some kind of dream where I could see the world and the people in it but they couldn’t see me, or something like that. I was dead, I’d think, really dead, but then one of the golfers would make a really good shot and yell out in excitement and wake me from my death-like trance, saddened and nostalgic for my former life as a Whole Person, who could have swung a golf club as easily as the next guy. I took the gar out of the bucket that was a living nightmare for him for the past couple of hours and tossed him into one of the long wooden tanks. I said out loud to the gar, There! You can live safely in the tank for years and years with no trouble at all, you will eat the small minnows that are born there from the eggs of osprey and fish crows, among all kind of other birds that carry fish eggs around to all pockets of isolated and abandoned water. I went on to say to the fish, Un-like me you are not already destroyed, and unlike me, you will live a long time before you die.

Then, I threw the tall bucket into the tall marsh grass and turned around instantly to see if I could find the gar in the dark water. Sitting alone at the side of the tank, I watched the gar swim back and forth in the murky water until the last golfer went home for the night.

Louis flowersLouis Bourgeois is the Executive Director of VOX PRESS. He lives, writes, and edits in Oxford, Mississippi.  His Collected Works is due out in 2015.