During the summer between fifth and sixth grade, I went from owning a chinchilla to owning a goldfish. The chinchilla, Kevin, had been my father's idea. But after he took off with the whore from Corona Del Mar, a lot of things changed.
My mom had run a PennySaver ad, and a teen boy with longish blond hair rode up on a bike while movers were loading our furniture, and paid seventy-five dollars for Kevin. My brother, Wayne, helped load Kevin's cage into the boy's backpack, steadied the backpack as the kid put it on, and watched him pedal off.
At our old house, which was two stories and in a gated, guarded community, Kevin had had his own room. Wayne was always begging for a dog, but had never mentioned a chinchilla. I, the big sister, had never heard of one. But our father came home one evening and asked us to help him with something from the car. In the garage, we found Kevin in a wire cage on the passenger seat and a box of pet supplies in the foot well. Our father helped Wayne and me rig it with platforms and tunnels, painting hills and shrubs on the walls, and underground tunnels around the floorboards.
He hadn't told our mom about the chinchilla, either. But he hadn't told her lots of things - that his new convertible's lease was in his name and not his company's; that he was stopping at the bar most nights on the way home; that a good woman with a college degree and dogged devotion to his kids was no longer enough. He never said how he came to take possession of Kevin. My guess is from a divorcing man at that bar.
The housing requirement for Ted, the goldfish, was a simple bowl. We bought him from a pet store feeder tank. Wayne chose him for his black dorsal fin, which looked like a Mohawk. (Your father runs off and leaves, you get a bit of a rebellious streak.) The pet store employee netted and released a dozen fish before Wayne decided on Ted. The guy wasn't accustomed to such feeder goldfish pickiness, and sighed loudly while Wayne searched the tank. After choosing Ted, I slid a dime across the counter and pushed my brother out the door. He carried the balloon-bag home, water sloshing and Ted riding the currents.
Our apartment was in a yellow stucco building bordered by a main street, tract homes, the 91 Freeway, and a strawberry field. When we'd first come to see about renting, the landlord had toured us through a two-bedroom and apologized that it was the only unit available. Mom faked disappointment; we couldn't have afforded anything larger. Wayne and I shared a room and didn't tell anyone.
Along with her new home and new single status, Mom had also gotten a job. She worked at Hallmark, selling unnecessary home goods to her old friends. The store was twenty minutes away and required her to work weekends but never late nights. Still, Wayne and I were usually on our own most days and for dinner. When there was a scheduling conflict, our landlord would take us to doctor's appointments. By then he knew we couldn't have afforded a three-bedroom.
Since Mom wasn't around to ask, we put Ted in her punchbowl that was shaped like a seashell - the kind used for elaborate parties - on our shared pink dresser that had come from my old room. Wayne unwound the plastic bag's rubber band and poured Ted in, who bounced once and drifted in the wake. Then he didn't do much. He wasn't a chinchilla that you could hold and teach to run through tubes or jump platforms. Occasionally he'd patrol the bowl's perimeter. Mostly, he stayed in the back. I'd been in such a hurry to get out of the pet store that I hadn't thought about fake plants or a "No Swimming" sign. On the way home, we'd gathered rocks from the strawberry patch's edge. But the bowl needed something more.
"Got any G.I. Joe's?" I asked Wayne.
He did, but they were still packed up. The whereabouts of his Legos, though, were known and he dropped two men, one with a yellow body, the other green, into the bowl. Then with the aid of his bathroom stool, Wayne reached in and wedged the men, upright, between rocks. Ted cowered.
The biggest chore for Kevin had been a weekly dust bath. He'd nest into a box of ground pumice, shake and roll, his beige fur turning grey and then beige again. For Ted, all we had to do was exchange his water weekly. I'd wanted to get an aerator so it would be a less frequent thing, but was afraid if I asked Mom, she'd get irritated and sell Ted like she'd sold Kevin. Everything I knew was shrinking, and I was trying to hold onto what I could.
Wayne was still standing on the stool, peering into the bowl. He said, "Jack Tripper?"
Ted wasn't yet Ted. I'd said Wayne could pick his name, but I had to approve.
"Too long," I told him from the carpet, where there were boxes of beads splayed around me like a peacock tail, and just as colorful. I was making a matching bracelet and anklet from tiny pink and purple glass beads. We were still adjusting to a shared room, and Wayne had groaned when I'd pulled out my bead boxes and cluttered the floor with them. Back when we'd had separate rooms, he used to come in and make a keychain while I strung jewelry. Now he liked to steal the biggest beads, made of wood or plastic, for slingshot ammo.
"Fido?" Wayne asked. "Pete?"
"Maybe it's a girl."
He glared at me.
"It could be a girl. Clarissa?" She was an older girl who acted in local plays and whose picture, as various characters, was posted around town.
"I'm picking the name," he reminded me. "Happy?"
"Happys don't have Mohawks."
"Ted?" He said.
It was simple. "Ted," I repeated. I liked it.
Wayne grabbed a handful of red square beads and loaded one into the leather pouch of his slingshot. It went ping! off the window.
"Stop it," I told him.
"Do you think Mom would let us paint an ocean on the walls? Fish and sharks and kelp?" He loaded a second bead and dented the wall. With some black paint, the mark could be a whale eye.
"We could ask Trent," I said, who was the landlord. "Mom wouldn't care."
I wondered what the new owners thought of the mural in Kevin's old room. I wondered if my father's whore had any pets that he now lived with. Or kids.
Kevin had always grazed from a tray of pellets and hay that we kept filled in his room. It wasn't until our second day with Ted that Wayne asked what he ate. Wayne was going through the dresser, looking for a tee shirt. The fishbowl's water shook each time he closed a drawer.
We'd also forgotten flake food at the pet store. We asked Mom, who wasn't working until the afternoon. She said Ted could eat frozen peas. I remembered the underwater pictures from Hawaii, my mom and my father feeding peas to the swimming colors.
Except we didn't have any peas. Moving frozen food would have been difficult, so we'd eaten meat and vegetables three times a day our last week in the house, with ice cream-topped toaster waffles for dessert.
The apartment dwellers I'd seen in sitcoms were always going next door to borrow things. Mom said absolutely not. Our apartment was down the street from a shopping center, and she asked us to pick up laundry detergent, too. The basement machine was all out.
We hadn't been to this shopping center much. Since it wasn't near our old house, we'd only gone when on this side of the freeway for another errand. Out on the patio of the Mexican fast food place, I got my first look at the kids I would attend school with in the fall. The group of girls and boys was spread across three tables, eating from red plastic trays. It didn't seem like they'd met just for lunch, but were hanging out. I didn't think my mom would let me hang out at a shopping center with boys all day, and I wondered if their moms knew. The kids had a German Shepherd with them, but I made Wayne keep moving.
The grocery store was different than the one in our old neighborhood. Here, at checkout, you placed your items on a circular belt that spun around to the clerk, who scanned and sent them down a moving belt. You had to bag your own groceries, which Wayne did while I paid.
My soon-to-be classmates were still on the patio when we returned with our purchases. The German Shepherd was lying between a table and the patio's railing, and Wayne handed me the shopping bag and knelt down to the dog. I wanted to tell him to stand up and keep moving, but some kids had already noticed us. The dog's leash was tied to a chair leg, which she'd pulled taut to get closer to Wayne.
"Come here, Marley," a girl called, her feet up on a chair. She was wearing jean cutoffs and a shirt with one sleeve hanging off her shoulder. Marley glanced at her and then turned back to Wayne, who was scratching her chest. The girl dragged a broken chip through the last bite of nacho cheese and popped it into her mouth. Everyone had finished eating except for a boy with a burrito that, not long ago, must have been as long as its tray.
"Marley!" The girl yelled. She got up and glared at Wayne, like he was a bad influence. "Come here," she said with her hands around Marley's shoulders.
"It's okay," Wayne said. "I love dogs. We just got a fish and I wanted to name him Fido. But she wouldn't let me."
The girl looked at me like I'd refused to let my brother use the bathroom. I wanted to haul Wayne off the ground and drag him home, where I'd forget about my new school for a couple months more. But my fearless brother had to ask why so many of the kids were gathered around the boy with the monster burrito.
"He's trying to eat the Super Grande." She pulled the sleeve up over her shoulder. "Five pounds. If he does, he gets his picture on the wall."
"Why would you want to do that?" I asked. I was only twelve and not yet stirred to do something that would make people take notice. I was trying to lie low.
The burrito was two-thirds gone, but the kid was looking full.
"I could do it," Wayne decided.
"No you couldn't," I said. The burrito was only slightly skinnier than his skinny torso.
"Yeah," Wayne had decided, nodding, "I could do it."
The boy's friends didn't think he could eat it.
"You should have ordered a taco, Steve-o."
"We'll be here all day."
Because Marley wasn't listening to the girl, the girl wound the leash around her hand and dragged the dog to another table. Her sleeve slipped down again, and she left it.
"Bye," Wayne called.
I didn't realize it until afterward, but the other kids were slowly clearing away from Steve-o, too. Once he was alone at the table, a boy in a pair of Oakleys made a creek-leaping jump and hot sauce shot out from his feet and sprayed Steve-o.
"Maybe that'll help you eat it," a voice in the crowd said.
Steve-o stood up, the left side of his clothes splattered red. "Dickhead."
The kid's Oakleys were mirrored and reflected Steve-o as the two of them shoved up against each other. Between them on the ground were flattened packets of hot sauce. "Pussy."
Oakleys grabbed Steve-o's wrists, and Steve-o turned his palms up and turned his head sideways to protect himself. Like he knew what would happen next.
Oakleys laughed viciously and let go. He backed away and I thought Steve-o was going to get off with a simple humiliation. But then another kid, the biggest one, stepped up. I'd like to think he, too, only scared Steve-o. But I don't know, because Wayne and I high-tailed it out of there. It didn't take long to get home. We no longer lived in a house behind a gate, where it was five miles of homes and parks and one horse stable to the nearest store.
If Steve-o finished the burrito, all he got was his Polaroid on the wall and ten bucks in coupons. When school started in the fall he was still hanging around these kids, and they were still abusing him.
Back at the apartment, I dropped the detergent on the basket of whites. Mom was dressed for work, and would head out after starting the wash.
"Ted's going to miss you," Wayne called from our bedroom. He'd gone to change his stained clothes, which had been sprayed more than mine since he was shorter. We'd agreed not to tell Mom what had happened, although I don't know why.
"Who's Ted?" Mom asked.
"Our fish," I said.
"Well I'll miss Ted, too. But I'll miss you two more. Can you put this in a dryer in a half hour?" And she was gone.
We took the peas into our room, where Wayne's stained clothes lay in a puddle below the fishbowl. He opened the bag, the peas now slightly mushy, and discovered carrot cubes mixed in.
"Sorry," I said. I had grabbed it while he'd gotten the detergent. I hoped he wouldn't sling-shoot me with the carrots. At least they were soft now. I separated them out while Wayne dropped in peas singularly. They floated along the top, slowly traveling clockwise. Eventually each pea let go of the surface and sank. Ted was, for now, keeping his distance.
"Maybe tomorrow we could eat at that taco shop," Wayne said.
I had separated more peas than Ted could eat in a week, and was starting a new necklace. Three strings of yellow that I'd give to Mom that evening.
Wayne was still dropping in peas. "I've never won anything."
I didn't say anything, just kept threading beads.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Michelle Panik O'Neill. All rights reserved.