By Lon Young
Lon Young’s work has appeared in Notre Dame Review, Cimarron Review, Dialogue, and other publications.
And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man and beast and the creeping thing and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them. But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.
—Genesis 6: 7–8
MICHAEL KEILLOR RETREATED into his unlit studio and closed the door behind him. He drew in a long, deliberate breath as his eyes adjusted to the fluorescence blooming from his aquariums. There were six of them, equally spaced around an executive chair he kept in the center of the room. These aquascapes, as Michael had taken to calling them, were nothing more than fish tanks, but in the dark room their wrought-iron stands disappeared against the paneled walls, giving the impression that the tanks were floating in the ether of space. Michael moved towards the chair and sat down. He raked his fingers through his hair and then massaged slow circles in his temples.
Through the door, he could still hear his son, Little Copper, in the kitchen, whooping and hooting, clanging pots against pans and spoons against lids. Michael knew he would have to confront the chaos—to engage, as Connie so often put it. But this was Thursday night. He glanced at his watch. She’d be punching buttons at Walgreens for a few more hours. That gave him time. He eased back into the chair and tried to focus his attention on the thrum of aquarium pumps, water trickling back into the tanks, the hum of fluorescent bulbs.
Then, much as a potter sets the stone flywheel into motion, Michael nudged his chair into slow circles. One by one, the bright tanks sailed past Michael, luminous as planets. He pushed off with his foot again, harder, hurling himself into a wild spin. Drawing up his knees, he pressed his bare feet against the edge of his seat and continued to spin. He hugged his arms around his legs and shut his eyes tight. Something in the pit of his stomach knotted up and for a moment he was seven again, trapped on the merry-go-round while blurring faces of boys jeered and taunted. He imagined himself a god, sitting with equipoise at the center of a wheeling galaxy, and the knot loosened.
The chair slowed and stopped. Michael remained hunched on his seat, his hands still locking around his legs. He lowered his forehead onto his knees and followed his breaths in and out, ignoring the jangle of lids clanking in the kitchen.
FISH WERE AN unlikely hobby. Michael had never cared for animals. As a boy he’d been given a puppy by his grandfather but could never get used to the bounding and slobbering. He shed no tears when, a few months later, the dog was run over by his grandfather’s Lincoln Continental. He was equally unattached to his family’s succession of cats, though they calmed his nerves.
In those early years, before they’d adopted Little Copper, Connie had begged him for a pet. For fun, one day he agreed—on the condition it come from a taxidermy shop. So they were both surprised the day he came home from Great Lakes Packaging Solutions where he worked carrying an empty aquarium. Their newly hired human resources director had clicked into the break room her second day on the job, cleared her throat, and announced that other companies had reported dramatic gains in employee morale and significant declines in health care costs after the introduction of aquaria to their workplace environs, and that she was gratified at the opportunity to facilitate a reduction in employee stress at glps.
Before the day shift punched out, she’d swapped out all the ashtrays from the break room and supervised the installation of a 55-gallon aquarium. By the end of the week, fish that weren’t already dead were languishing under a swirling logjam of cigarette butts. By the end of the month, the director had secured a position in another company and Michael, who had a one-month-old at home, found himself schlepping a 55-gallon aquarium up the steps to his front door.
“What are you thinking?” Connie had asked him. “We have a brand new baby and you’re planning this?” Connie was still adjusting. They both were.
“I thought it would be fun. You know, create a little space we can enjoy.”
“How ’bout creating a little space called our baby’s nursery!”
“I told you I’d have it fixed up this weekend.”
He still remembers how she turned her back on him and stomped into the hallway.
STILL IN HIS CHAIR, Michael scooted in front of Aquascape #1. His eyes scanned the tank, scrutinizing each fish, inspecting their fins, checking for signs of listlessness or any erratic movement that might indicate parasites or fungal disease. When he was satisfied, he shoved off to the next tank and repeated the process. He moved to the third tank, and then the fourth and fifth until he came finally to his favorite—a 55-gallon tank he’d filled with gourami, angelfish, shimmering schools of neon tetras and cardinals, platys and swordtails, and an exquisite male Betta splendens.
Michael’s attention fixed itself on the Betta splendens. He remembered the guy at Noah’s Ark, Oscar, flashing a mirror in front of one of the males. It was supposed to trigger a fight or flight response. He’d bragged that sales had tripled after they switched the sign from “Bettas” to “Siamese Fighting Fish.” And Michael had to admit he had found himself both repulsed and enthralled at that display, crimson fins snapping like battle flags as the fish charged its own reflection. Michael remembered how the guy had pumped his fists as the betta rammed into the glass, a fury of scarlet.
But Michael had not introduced a Betta splendens into Aquascape #6 for blood sport. And as he studied that betta now, in his studio, it was more with the eye of an artist—a choreographer tracing the line of movement at a ballet rehearsal, or a sculptor scrutinizing a slab of marble.
Michael leaned in closer until his nose nearly touched the glass. The betta darted behind an outcropping of slate. As Michael moved to the corner of the tank, his reflection disappeared and then reappeared, doubled, on opposite walls of glass. Now he could see the betta poised behind the slate, its fins spread like sailcloth. He admired this poetry, this perfection, and nearly trembled in the presence of such grace.
Then Michael drew his hand up over his eyes and peered deeply into the tank. He shifted his focus minutely, like a scientist adjusting the diopter of a microscope. He zoomed in. Along the length of its tail fin, Michael detected a fine tear, like rent silk. Dammit. The betta drifted away from Michael, the scarlet of its fins spilling loosely from its body. There was no denying it—the fin was torn, halfway up. That flawless tail. Michael leaned back in his chair and dragged his fingers through his hair. He watched the betta charge a yellow swordtail then stop short—its flowing tail a cloven tongue, mocking the tank’s perfection.
With a sigh, he reached for the green fish net.
MICHAEL KEILLOR HAD plans to set up a seventh aquarium in what he’d begun calling his “studio.” Connie hadn’t loved the idea of him taking over the spare bedroom, but Michael reminded her that she’d already trounced his artistic ambitions by making them move back to Toledo from New York City. He needed this, he told her, and she caved. After all, Connie could appreciate what he was trying to do aesthetically—each aquarium was a unique composition, a striking biotope against which tropical fish drifted like one of those mobile abstract sculptures by Alexander Calder. She hadn’t even smirked when Michael remarked in passing that his seventh aquascape would be his “most ambitious work yet,” though even Michael thought the words had made him sound like a pretentious ass.
MICHAEL PLUNGED the green net down into the water. A moment later the net came up, streaming with water. Inside, the dark clot of a fish flicked and glistened. Michael caught a few drips from the net in his left hand and brushed them against his trousers. He rose and strode out of his studio, not bothering to shut the door behind him.
He stormed through the hallway and into the kitchen, still holding the dripping net aloft. Copper stood on the edge of the counter waving his pot lids, buck-naked. Marinara sauce plastered his face.
The boy grinned. He splashed a foot in a puddle of milk. Several strands of spaghetti dangled from his shock of red hair. “Daddy! I jump!”
Michael’s eyes clamped shut when the boy thudded to the floor. He swore under his breath and continued walking. It would be another hour and a half before Connie’s shift ended. He would get things cleaned up by then. And deal with Little Copper. Peals of laughter trailed him out the back door.
It was a beautiful night. The air smelled of apples and freshly mown grass. He flipped the mesh net over and the fish dropped soundlessly onto the concrete of the porch and flipped once. Michael watched its gills open and close. He walked around the corner of the house and returned with a leftover patio brick. He pressed the side of the brick into the fish until he sensed a little bursting pressure, like the skin of a grape collapsing in on itself, and felt the fish give way, and then he stopped.
He stood up. With the edge of his toe, Michael Keillor flicked the smudge of a fish into the dogwood shrubs. He stared out at the expanse of sky, charcoal dark and crisscrossed by telephone wires. It was too bad about the betta, he thought, but what he had done was no different than the painter who scrapes up an ill-formed brush stroke, or a sculptor who recasts a misshapen leg. A drip of cool water landed on his bare foot. He walked the brick back to the pile by the side of the house and then went back inside to pick spaghetti strands from Copper’s hair, the net still in his hand.
BEFORE HE REACHED the kitchen, Michael discovered the boy’s clothes discarded near the coat closet. He stooped to pick them up and caught the sharp whiff of ammonia. He cursed under his breath and tried to figure out if this was the third or the fourth time Copper had wet himself this month. Always under his watch. Michael could hear drawers banging in the kitchen. He kicked the wet clothes into the corner and stomped up the stairs to the bathroom sink. He rinsed the mesh net, tapped it dry, and set it aside on the toilet basin to dry while he drew a bath for Little Copper. A flash of naked boy giggled past the bathroom doorway.
Another glance at his watch. Still more than an hour before Connie came home. She had said she took the job because they needed the money, but Michael knew the truth. She needed to get out. For all her talk about family, she was going just as nuts as he was. He could hear the boy clinking some toys in his bedroom. Maybe Cooper would collapse into sleep on his own. No, if Connie found him asleep, smeared from head to toe in spaghetti sauce, there’d be hell to pay.
He reached down and tested the water with his hand. Too hot. He dialed down the faucet, sat down on the closed lid of the toilet, and kept his hand under the stream, waiting for it to become just right.
When he’d met Connie in art school they both swore they’d never sell out, never let practical cares displace their dreams. Even though she had been dismissive of his “ichthy-kinetic” sculptures, she had fallen deeply and madly in love with him. They decided to make a go of it in the New York art scene. And now, here they were back in Toledo, with Connie working at a drug store and him distributing corrugated cardboard for his father-in-law’s company.
The stream through his fingers became too cold. Oh, Mike, she had whispered just last night, weren’t we such bohemians back then! He leaned from the toilet seat enough to make another adjustment and then plopped back down, his elbow resting against the porcelain lip of the sink.
Michael couldn’t look back with any nostalgia. Distributing cardboard boxes was about the most meaningless work he could imagine. Yes, it was the most responsible thing to do. Yes, he’d promised to take care of her. Michael watched the water splay through his fingers. But don’t expect me to feel like I’ve done something with my life. Don’t expect me to somehow see myself as anything but a failure. There was something consoling in the warm gush of the water, the current surging through the pipes and then out, headlong, into the tub.
It wasn’t about the money, he decided—they had enough to squeak by. And it wasn’t the prestige; his kid brother was graduating from law school in the spring and Michael didn’t mind hearing his parents gush about it. No, for Michael this was about marking off a space—if only a few cubic feet—where things stayed in their orbit, where perfect things stayed perfect. Paradise in a snow globe.
He called out to Little Copper. If he cleaned him up now, the boy would be in pajamas before Connie got home, reading books in the recliner with Daddy. That would earn him some points. And the mess in the kitchen? Well, that was another issue. Maybe he could get that cleaned up too, most of it anyway. “Copper!” he called out again, over the sound of the gushing faucet. “Your bath’s ready!”
Little Copper appeared in the doorway, still naked. Daubs of marinara sauce streaked his face, his hands, and the soft paunch of his belly. He spied the green net on the top of the toilet and reached for it, but Michael stopped him.
“No, Copper. That’s yucky. Germs.”
The boy withdrew his arm. “Bad fishy.”
Michael shot a stream of Sesame Street Wet Wild Watermelon into the roiling water and half smiled. “No. Not bad. Just . . .” He scooped up Little Copper by his armpits and swung him into the tub. “Here you go. In the water.”
Little Copper squealed and settled in. Before long, the child was ensconced in a rising billow of foam. Michael mopped a washcloth across the boy’s legs, across his back, over his belly. He lathered his hair, massaging shampoo into the patches of crusted pasta sauce until the shampoo foamed orange. The boy poked at a strand of spaghetti drifting by.
“Big breath,” Michael said, paused a moment, then dumped a toy pail of bathwater over the boy’s head. Little Copper’s fingers became pudgy windshield wipers, swiping away at the film that streamed down his face. The dried scabs of pasta sauce on his cheeks softened, bled into the bubble soap, melted away. Michael took a corner of a washcloth and began scrubbing away at a patch of color behind the boy’s ear.
Michael seemed not to notice. He just kept scrubbing away, mechanically, at the spot behind his ear, a blotch of wine-colored skin that curved towards his throat like a gill. The stain was not coming off. It was never coming off.
The boy shifted, writhed, cried out, “Hurts, Daddy. Stop!”
Michael stopped. He pulled his gaze from the port wine stain and looked at the washcloth clenched in his fist. He slackened his grip and let the rag fall back into the tub. “Okay,” he said to Little Copper, his voice breaking. “Out of the tub.”
A few minutes later, having sent Little Copper to his bedroom with nothing more than a bath towel, Michael stood in front of the mirror, washing his hands while the last gurgles of filthy water drained from the tub.
WHEN HE CAME home from work the next day, Michael walked around to the back door instead of coming in through the front. He wanted to avoid Connie, who’d still be hanging out with Ellen in the living room. He thought about how she’d come home last night to find Little Copper curled up on the kitchen floor, shivering under a wet bath towel; how she burst into the studio, her eyes wasps. He’d been tucking in the plastic roots of plastic plants. There was nothing to say. Before she turned and left, he saw her heat turn to ice. She didn’t even slam the door. When she came back a minute later, it was to toss a pillow in his general direction. He spent the night curled up on the floor with only the cold fluorescent light for a blanket.
Now, as Michael was about to push open the gate into his backyard, he could hear Little Copper jabbering softly. Michael paused, listening. It sounded as if the boy were talking to someone, consoling them. Michael didn’t know who it could be; there were no children Copper’s age on Sycamore Court, and with school back in session, Connie wasn’t watching her sister’s kid anymore. As Michael listened, he could hear no voice answering back. He peeked through the cedar slats of the gate. Little Copper was sitting on the edge of his vinyl kiddy pool in his swim trunks, ankle deep in stale rainwater. He held Pooh Bear on his lap. Michael could only make out bits: “. . . it’s okay . . . fix you all better . . . won’t show Daddy . . . no bye-bye.”
Michael crouched to set down his lunch box and work gloves and continued watching through the gate. One of Little Copper’s hands was fingering a button eye; with his other he smoothed the fur on Pooh Bear’s head. His voice became a song, a lullaby. “. . . don’t be sad . . . it’s okay . . . don’t be sad . . . I still love you . . .”
A late August breeze rippled across the pool. Sunlight spilled over the boy’s shoulders and copper hair. In that sweep of light, everything about the boy was beautiful to Michael, the Kool-Aid grin, the smudge of dirt on his cheek. Michael’s eyes lingered for a moment on the boy’s birthmark—a port-wine stain splashed across his neck—and he was surprised to feel no repulsion, no need to turn away. The thought came to Michael that he’d been watching life through the wrong end of a telescope. Now he sensed the distances collapse.
He pushed through the gate. Little Copper saw him and sang out, “Daddy!” Michael dropped his gear and scooped his son and Pooh Bear into his arms. Cool water from the kiddie pool dribbled off Little Copper’s toes and soaked into Michael’s pant leg. He didn’t mind. There was sun left in the day.
From the kitchen window, Connie’s voice called out. Michael let Little Copper squirm out of his arms and watched him trot into the house. He would patch things up with Connie; would make it right. He stood there, summoning his nerve, thinking of what he could say that wouldn’t sound like more excuses.
After a few minutes, Michael went in. Connie was wiping crumbs off the kitchen counter with a dishrag. She did not turn around at the sound of him approaching, only said, “Michael, don’t start. I can’t do it today.”
He’d raised his hand to touch her shoulder when he heard a tremendous thud from down the hall, followed by a sharp cry. She spun toward the sound at the same time he did.
“Copper!” Connie called out, dropping her rag.
“The studio,” he said, and they both bolted down the hallway. Michael pushed past his wife and rushed into his studio.
Little Copper was sprawled out on the carpet, his legs pinned under a fish tank. Aquarium gravel, artificial plants, and a couple dozen red and orange platies were strewn from the overturned tank like wreckage from a tsunami. The carpet foamed with water. As Michael dashed towards his son, he was cognizant of fish being crushed under his feet. Little Copper moaned. Connie knelt at his side now, holding his hand.
Michael stood astride his son. “Hang on,” he said as he hefted one end up a few inches off Little Copper’s legs. Even dumped of water, Michael figured the tank was close to 100 pounds. He nodded for Connie to drag Little Copper’s legs free. When she did, the boy howled in pain. Michael glanced at the boy’s legs. The edge of the tank had landed squarely, just below the hem of his swim trunks, and the skin there was mashed and pulpy. Michael dropped the tank with a thud and knelt next to Connie. She was running her hand over Little Copper’s hair and soothing him. His face was pale, lit by the sputtering fluorescent tube that dangled from the wrought-iron stand. A thin cough shuddered through Little Copper’s body and Michael saw something out of the corner of his eye. It was the green mesh net. The cough must have jiggled it from Little Copper’s grasp.
“Michael,” Connie said, “look at his eyes.” Michael looked. They had gone unfocused. He’d stopped shivering.
“He’s in shock.”
Connie said, “Call 911.” She ran out to get some blankets while Michael fumbled for his phone.
WHEN THE PARAMEDICS arrived, they braced his legs and draped a Mylar thermal blanket around his body. Connie reached out, tucking and smoothing the foil until it looked like the boy was wrapped in silver scales. He cried for her, but the medics carried him out of the house. Michael and Connie followed the ambulance to the emergency room.
Connie stayed at the hospital, but when Copper, groggy from sedation, begged for Pooh Bear, Michael drove the twenty minutes from St. Anne Mercy to home, slowing down only once as Sylvania Avenue crossed Jackman. The quick drive left Michael ample time to replay in his head his conversation with the doctor.
—Yes, it is within the realm of possibility that your son will have a limp, but we’ll do all we can.
—A limp, Doctor?
—He’s fortunate. A similar trauma to the abdominal cavity might have been fatal.
Michael remembered the way Connie had shut her eyes and sighed in relief. She had thanked the doctor and he’d walked away.
“A limp!” Michael had fumed, and her eyes shot back at him.
“It’s a fair enough trade to be alive,” she had countered.
A FAIR ENOUGH TRADE to be alive. Michael rehearsed that line now in his mind as he downshifted, turning into his neighborhood. To be alive.
THE STUDIO CARPET was still puddled with aquarium water. Michael left his shoes by the door and sloshed barefoot into the middle of the room. Most of the fish lay motionless, but here and there, in one of the footprint-shaped impressions, a tail raised itself up and collapsed again.
Michael untucked Pooh Bear with his floppy button eye from under his arm and placed him gently on the swiveling executive chair. Then he dropped slowly to his knees, the carpet foaming against him. He closed his eyes, drew in a long breath and let it go. The syllables of a prayer he had learned as a child formed on his lips. And in the silent space between breath and language, he heard the pip of a fish, and then another, pip, pip, as delicate as the popping of soap bubbles.
He kneeled a moment longer, then stood. Moving to the tank Little Copper had toppled over—Aquascape #6—he hoisted it back onto its wrought-iron stand. Then he topped it with the fluorescent hood, which glowed a warm lavender.
Michael stooped down and cupped a pearl gourami into his hands. “This is what you do,” he said. He lowered the little fish into the dry tank. He stooped down for another, and another. Some were dead, mangled where they’d been stomped on, but a few still flickered with life, gills heaving. Michael returned them all to the tank.
He left the studio and returned with a bucket of water. He tilted the bucket over the edge of the aquarium, letting the water tumble out. As it poured, Michael chewed at his lip. He saw he’d need another bucketful just to rise above the gravel line. He left and returned again. More water flooded into the tank, sweeping up fish off the gravel and swirling them around like leaves. Michael looked in, still holding the bucket with both arms. He knew that many were dead, but he found life, too: at least three ruby platies, a pearl gourami, a swordtail. They were pale and listless and their fins were torn and tattered. But they were alive.
Michael turned away from the salvaged Aquascape #6 and scanned the sodden carpet. He took a few steps, reached down, and picked up the green fish net. Taking it in both hands, he bent its wire frame until it was unrecognizable. He dropped it into a wastebasket, gathered Pooh Bear under his arm, and drove back to the hospital.
THREE DAYS LATER, Michael and Connie brought Little Copper home from the hospital. At first the boy needed a wheelchair, then crutches. The pins were removed, but it was still weeks before Copper could take even a few steps without terrible pain, and so his father carried him wherever he wanted to go. Up the stairs, down the stairs, out into the back yard, even to the kitchen floor where Copper would clang on pot lids and giggle at his daddy’s wincing face.
And so life went back to normal. Connie went back to her drugstore job three nights a week, and on those evenings she was gone, Copper still left a pile of pee-soaked pants somewhere in the house. And Michael still swore too much when he found them.
But after Michael cleaned his son up and got his teeth brushed and his pajamas on, he would lift the boy into his arms, belly-side down, and float him down the stairs, through the kitchen and down the hall, and turn left into the studio full of fish tanks. They would dim the lights and sit together on a short stool drawn close to the glass. They always sat at the newest tank, Aquascape #7, filled with sick and flawed fish, and Little Copper would trace the rise and fall of the fish against the glass with his finger. And in Michael’s mind, the tank was a cathedral, and the rising and falling of those fish, those imperfect fish, was the rising and falling of a beautiful and endless psalm.