“I’m going to need to return a piranha,” Zeirna Brinck said to the man at Red C Exotics.
“Did I sell you a piranha?”
“Then it’s not a return.”
Zeirna studied the man. Receding hairline. Odd blue dot on his forehead. Wavy gray-blond hair pulled back in man bun. Shoulders like hunchy undifferentiated mounds. No body awareness, none at all. She’d seen the willow-thin twenty-something version of this man slouched languidly in cafes, paperback copy of On The Road fanned open face down before him, a prop for picking up girls. She’d been the girl. Was this what boys like that became? Exotic pet store owners? Failing exotic pet stores, judging from the dim lighting, the dust, the piled up tanks and boxes, the near-total dearth of animal life of any kind, exotic or just ordinary, as if the place had undergone an extinction event. There were, what, five live pets in the place tops?
“I can’t have a piranha,” she said.
He smiled at her, eyes bright with admiration or else a really impressive degree of dislike; it was hard, at first, to tell. “Aw,” he said, head tilted, face contorted with sympathy, then turning icy blank.
“I could trade it for something,” Zeirna said. “Like that bird?”
“This is a $4,000 macaw. A piranha is maybe worth ten dollars.” He gave a wincing smile. “What kind is it?”
“Small. Silver. Eats flesh.”
“So you don’t know.”
“I didn’t say that. Does it matter? Are you going to help me?”
He looked at her for a long time, as if deciding if she were dangerous or just slow, a security risk or an anecdote to chuckle over, later, in his tiny concrete-patch and crushed glass backyard with its DIY fire pit and year-round Christmas lights, sprawled on plastic deck chairs over a bowl of hash with his common-law wife, a full-bodied Earth woman with nose piercings and neck tattoos who wrote poetry and really knew herself. Or so Zeirna imagined.
He could have dismissed her. She expected it. It’s where things seemed to be heading, where things often headed for Zeirna: she was being merely inquisitive while her interlocutor became increasingly, mysteriously hostile. I don’t think you should have a piranha, she felt him preparing to say. In fact, I don’t think you should care for any living thing.
“What’s wrong with your piranha?” he said instead, gently. Or, if not gently, at least neutrally. Borderline polite. She liked the “your.” Your piranha. Like it was her little friend.
“It’s not the piranha, it’s my son. He hates me.” She was instantly mortified to have said this. “It. Hates it.” She couldn’t look at him again and didn’t, just gathered herself and left without a glance. She was aware of him in her peripheral vision: a bank of silence, large and unmoving, a shore she paddled away from.
Dumb. That’s what Micah said when he came home from his dishwashing gig to find it.
A dumb piranha. A dumb idea.
They were both in love with the word “dumb.” She’d been smart once. Now she was dumb. Everything was dumb. Summer was dumb. So was divorce. Her ex-husband was the dumbest of all. She and her son were growing dumber by the day.
OK, so it hadn’t been her best idea, springing a piranha on her 17-year-old son. He had wanted one as a child, and she imagined giving him the fish now would somehow reawaken the childlike part of him. When she saw that a former client, a school secretary with joint issues, had offered up a piranha on Facebook, some college kid’s discarded pet, Zeirna felt a pang, found herself inexplicably moved, almost to tears. Maybe Micah would also be moved to tears when he saw it. He would laugh, perhaps, at the absurdity of the gesture. They would read piranha care blogs together, figure out what the little guy needed. It would bring them together. Possibly she would make a video about the experience for her Feldenkreis: Beyond the Body video series, described by the militant Feldenkreis Gestapo that had driven her from their ranks and all but ruined her livelihood yet who went out of their way, still, to write damning, sarcastic reviews of each of her videos, as “increasingly unhinged.”
“Adopt a piranha and save your family,” she could call it.
“Get rid of it,” her son had said. And he’d made her promise.
She was eating a fried egg out of the pan in her bathrobe when her son came home the next morning. She hadn’t even realized he was gone. “Where were you last night?” she asked. She tried to sound sleepy and relaxed but even she could hear the edge in her voice. How did other people simulate tranquility?
Micah made like he didn’t hear. Ear buds burrowed in ears, white cord snarling into his shirt. Teachers must have hated him. He constantly wore a pissed-off expression, head thrust back, shoulders hunched, looking around with squinty eyes and sharp little head motions like a furious squirrel who couldn’t believe what a pack of dumbasses all the other squirrels were. She remembered him as a boy, falling down sobbing with pity for a cracked foam Donald Duck they’d passed at a tag sale, so worried no one would want it. Of course they’d hurried back and bought the ratty thing. He stopped crying and studied it before tucking it under his arm. “He’s not that cracked,” he told her. It had become a mantra to her over the years. A promise, a prayer. He’s not that cracked.
That boy is still in there, she told herself. Even if she was the only human alive who knew it. It was her fault he was gone. Not gone: cracked.
“Hey,” she said, trailing him to the door of the basement he’d made into his bedroom. His actual room was too small, too bright, he’d said. Too close to her, is what he meant. “Micah.”
“It’s still here?” He spun around in the doorway, blocking her access. “I thought you were getting rid of it.”
“Well, it’s not that easy. It’s a predator. You can’t just give it to anyone. You can’t turn it loose.”
“Give it back to the people you got it from. I don’t care. I don’t want it in my room.”
“I thought you wanted a piranha.” It sounded stupid now. “When you were young.”
“What I wanted was Disneyland,” he said. “I wanted a mother who wasn’t drunk. Who never threw dishes. I wanted a happy life.”
“Happiness is overrated,” she said. Wincing. “Do you want to go to Disneyland?”
“I went to Disneyland,” he spat. “With Dad. Did you forget?”
She had forgotten. It took her moments to remember. It was in the excruciating still-nearly-there stage of her husband’s disappearance, when he’d still been a person in Micah’s and her life. Before he’d quit them completely. New wife, new life. In England, no less. Heralding a period of her life she remembered as “the wine years.”
“Well. If he doesn’t eat he’s going to die. Have you fed it yet?”
“You feed it. I don’t care if it dies.”
“I thought we’d both do it. We could go to the pet store and pick out some goldfish—”
“You know what? I think it’s actually perfect that you got me a piranha. Thank you for my pet piranha. No one could say you never gave me anything. My friends think you’re hysterical, by the way. They don’t mean funny.”
“You have…?” Friends, she was going to say, in genuine pleased surprise, but she froze as hurt flashed on his face. “I’d love to meet your friends,” she corrected, not quickly enough. “You should invite them over sometime. We could—”
“We could all feed goldfish to the piranha and sing kumbaya. Stop, Mom. Jesus Christ. And get rid of the dumb fish. That thing is gone tomorrow or….”
She slumped a little, but waited. That’s what you did with kids. Let them punch it out. Fortify yourself later however you could. Staunch the pain with red wine and TV. Only a flesh wound.
“Or I’ll kill it,” he said, the boy who’d cried for Donald Duck.
The easiest thing would be to move the piranha out of the basement. The living room was the only other option. Or her bedroom? There was a wisecrack in there somewhere. Only you can’t just move a 40-gallon tank full of water, to say nothing of the piranha. You had to keep the same water, too, or else spend six weeks building up bacteria in a tank of new water, if one aggressively serious fish blog could be believed. The logistics made her want to open a bottle of wine.
The second easiest thing would be to kill it.
Things died all the time. Life was a privilege, not a right. Not an entitlement. Who could say the piranha’s life wasn’t already complete? Who could say it hadn’t been worth the ride? Accept loss forever. Who said that, Kerouac? What was one more small loss?
She waited until her son left again, this time for work, and headed down to the basement with a glass of wine in one hand and a bottle of Drano in the other. She didn’t need to consult the fish blogs to know this was likely not the preferred method for painless, humane fish euthanasia, but the piranha by nature was a warrior. It would want it this way.
The piranha was hiding behind its rock, as if it guessed her intentions. “Big Mac,” someone had painted on its terra cotta bridge. That was its name, Big Mac. It glided forward a centimeter and looked at her with its flat tin foil eye, mouth open, seemingly stuffed full of little tooth nubs, as if someone had shoved in a set of tiny dentures. As a specimen it was undeniably ugly. It looked like it had been beaten up, like bites had been taken out of its tail and top fin, but this was impossible since it lived alone. Maybe it had beaten itself up, knocked itself against its own rock.
Could she kill a fish named Big Mac? The idea that someone would name it that and then get rid of it crushed her. Its ugliness broke her heart. It was a service she was doing it, in a way. She could look at it like that.
Carefully, she unscrewed the cap.
The fish revved forward, a gutsy little rush, then zipped back. It thought she was feeding it. The thing was hungry.
Maybe she didn’t need to kill it. Maybe it was dying all on its own, without any help from her. No one gets out of this alive.
Maybe she was just a coward.
“Brief reprieve, Big Mac.” She clinked her glass against the tank.
“I tried to kill the piranha,” Zeirna said.
She was back at Red C, as empty as before. More empty, the place a shambles, actually. Boxes everywhere. The same man was there, as she’d known he would be. He lifted his eyebrows a little when she walked in, tracked her progress toward the counter in a way that rattled her, knocked her off her game, made her jumpy and liable to blurt. Thus the immediate confession about nearly killing Big Mac.
“Oh?” He looked amused and a little wary. He noticed her, anyhow; she felt the full weight of his attention. Then again, she was about the only living, breathing thing in the place. She was dressed a bit like an exotic animal, she realized with sudden shame, with her fuchsia form-fitting T-shirt and clingy dark pants, her dangly spray of silver earrings. Why had she dressed up at all? She felt absurd. Transparent. Predatory. Why had she said something so dumb?
“New theory: I need two more piranhas, so there’s always a referee and no one’s lonely. Two will just devour each other. Look, I read this. I know what I’m talking about. All right. What? You might as well spit it out.”
He’d been making snuffling sounds she assumed to be laughter but were more likely, she thought now, a kind of muffled sneeze, as if erupting under water. Something in his eyes seemed lit up, as with affection or amusement, but was maybe just lit, as with a joint.
“How’s your son?” he said.
None of your business, is what she wanted to say. Your guess as good as mine. “Fine,” she said instead, curtly, but she softened it with a smile. “I could also use some goldfish, to feed him. Big Mac, I mean. Not my son. Do you have any?”
“This is an exotic pet store.”
“How about those little things over there?”
“Those are exotic fish. Rare, difficult to breed. They’re $27 each. You want to feed them to your piranha?”
“Sure? I don’t know. Are they nutritious or just decorative, like plants?”
He put a hand down on the counter. It was sort of like dropping a shot put, like tossing a body off a bridge. She’d never been attracted to a man with so little body awareness. Never until now. It was a good hand, with big square fingers and patches of fine reddish gold hair, neatly curled. No ring. What would it feel like for that hand to touch, for example, her bare stomach?
“Look, don’t take this the wrong way,” he said. “But I don’t think you should keep piranhas. Anyway, I don’t have any to sell to you.”
“Oh.” She should have expected this. Why then was she so let down? “Well, why don’t you just come to dinner, then?” she said. “And…see Big Mac. And meet my son.” She blushed, laughed. God, she was awful at this.
“Come to dinner.” He regarded her, expressionless.
“Yes,” she said. “I mean, you don’t have to, of course. If you don’t want to. Oh, fuck.” She was forever misreading people. Not his fault, of course. She turned to leave. “Bye, now,” she said, smiling with all the cool grace she could muster, her attempt at a polite kiss off.
“Wait,” he said. And then he started talking, hesitantly at first, and then in a torrent.
Later, she couldn’t believe the signs she’d missed. Literal signs, saying “storefront for sale!” and less literal signs, like how both times she saw him he was wearing the same shirt. He lost his store’s lease, he told her, and, in the midst of flipping his house—a house she now realized she knew of as “that crap-filled tear-down across from the middle school”—had bunked down in the Red C, soon to go out of business. He slept on an air mattress under the counter. Later later, with the help of the sometime-therapist with whom she traded services, she would try to sense direction behind her own decisions, to pick a line through the scatter plot that pointed toward stability, toward good intentions, toward being a mother to her son.
“So you probably need a place to stay,” she said, nothing in his depressing confession having shocked out of her brain the image of his hand on her bare skin. Speaking rapidly, as if hoping to finish the utterance before being overtaken by practical thoughts like “what if you’re exposing your teenage son to a sex offender?” and “have you forgotten you have a teenage son, and a fragile one, already damaged, who might have opinions about his mother bedding a stranger?” she went on. “Do you need a place to keep your animals? You’re all welcome to bunk with me.”
“I couldn’t impose,” he said. “Except about the dinner. Tonight, did you say?”
“Who is he?” Micah demanded, standing in the middle of kitchen and speaking too loud, over whatever the hell he was listening to.
Startled, she realized she didn’t know the man’s name. It hadn’t occurred to her to ask. She finished chopping a carrot before answering. “Owner of the Red C.”
“So you don’t know his name. And you’re making dinner for him? God, Mom!”
“Just be nice! Please.”
“I don’t want to see him. Why’d you have to invite him over?”
“Well, he’s homeless.”
“Homeless? You’re pathetic. You’re such a loser!”
“Look, your father’s gone,” she began. Where was she going with that? She knew Micah blamed her for messing up the marriage, for losing the man who was his father. But that man was an asshole who didn’t care about Micah. None of which she could explain. She put down the knife. “Do you want me to pay my whole life?”
“I can’t talk to you!” He flung himself out of the room, out the door, into the night.
“Your son is doing drugs,” Nick Nunes said. That was his name: Nick Nunes. She made sure to ask him before admitting him to the house, as if this constituted due diligence and made her a good mother, or at least a sane one. Now, post coitum, unclothed, stretched on top of him as on a large, inert fleshy surfboard, she began to find him irritating. “That’s why he doesn’t want you in his room. That’s why he objects to the fish.”
“Big Mac,” Zeirna corrected coldly, rolling off of him. Covering herself. “And I disagree. What’s that blue dot on your forehead?”
“Pencil wound,” he said. “I was stabbed in the head by a girl in kindergarten. Every year it sinks down a little further. I use it to measure my hair loss.”
“Yes, but why is it blue?”
He shrugged. “Lead? Look, check his room right now, while he’s out. I’ll help you.”
He regarded her comfortably, as if now certain of her affection, certain he knew her measure, certain he knew the son he’d briefly met. He might even be right. About all of it.
“I think,” she said, “you should leave now.”
In other versions of this story, versions she imagined later, he moved in all of his inventory, all of his exotic strays, and she helped. They talked as they worked, swapping stories as they swabbed floors and scrubbed tanks, hauling the last of Red C’s exotics to her house. The snakes, the macaw, the tiny jewel-like fish—only in other versions of this story they multiplied, filled every room. Mostly she loved the fish. He’d poured everything into the store, had a bad divorce, he sometimes tried to tell her. “Later,” she always said, touching his lips to stop him. She didn’t want to know too much too fast, to wreck what, in other versions of this story, she felt this might become.
“I saw him leaving,” Micah said the next morning, when he encountered her in the kitchen.
“He didn’t look happy.”
“Is he coming back?”
She stared at him, her boy, rigid with fury. Then with exaggeratedly upbeat precision, like a deranged Snow White setting about her woodland chores, she rooted through the cleaning chemicals jumbled beneath the kitchen sink, selected the bottle of Drano, and snapped the cabinet shut.
“What are you doing?” He trailed her to the cellar door. Down the stairs. “Stay out of my room!” he demanded, throwing himself in front of her as she stood in the center of the space he’d made his bedroom, and, stepping around him, switched on the lights.
Big Mac’s tank light was off. She switched it on. Big Mac flinched, showed her its side, as if attempting to look larger than it was. Tough fish. Could it see her?
She opened the top of the tank, unscrewed the top of the Drano, and set the bottle down on the edge of the fish tank table. Turned to face him.
“What the hell are you doing?” Micah demanded.
“You said you want it dead. So do it.”
The air held a stale smell, fruity and uncomfortably familiar, like yoghurt, or unwashed feet. Several plates were stacked on the floor by his unmade bed. Tube socks and dirty T-shirts had accumulated like sediment about the room’s edges. He was practically a stray himself. He was practically feral.
He picked up the bottle.
It was a bluff, she thought. It had to be.
He dumped the Drano in.
Before the fish began to thrash, before he plunged his hand in to save it, she caught her son’s gaze. It scalded her: such open pain.
“Are you happy?” he said. “Are you happy now?”
Ruth Schemmel’s work has appeared in Line Zero and Bellevue Literary Review. She lives near Seattle with her family.