by Lou Allin
“Tanks for the Memories” was originally published in an anthology ten years ago.
“Mercy killing” hardly described Myrna’s flipping the tiny hatchet fish off the deck. “Never felt a thing. I’ll put money on it,” she said, wiping scales from her hands. “And you’d better not drop any more puny fish in with my boys. Get your own tank, you cheapskate.” Bill ran his hands through his thinning gray hair and sighed. It had started with one innocent ten-gallon aquarium, which he had set up to surprise Myrna on her fiftieth birthday in hopes that the hobby might provide some mutual entertainment. But the tank soon multiplied.
“These discus need their own hex tank, Bill. Their spectacular colors disappear in the clutter.” And so did four hundred dollars. Then the breeders had to stay separated: mollies, swords, catfish, characins, and angels. The fifty-gallon tank was reserved for hungry Big Mac, the African knifefish. Under Mac’s watchful eye, Bill’s own dime-sized fish had either vanished or become so shredded that they begged for euthanasia.
Left to his own devices for meals, Myrna ate TV dinners when watching her fish feed, Bill learned how to cook a few simple dishes. He had been raised in Brownsville and loved Tex-Mex, though he could never coax his wife to serve anything but gray meat and indigestible potatoes. “Flaunting poverty. Imagine a cuisine based on tortillas and beans!” she snorted.
One night he tossed together a hot chili: pintos, tomatoes, onions, jalepenos, and a handful of five-alarm powder. The redolence filled the house and he was stirring up home-made cornbread for the feast when a shriek came from the living room. “You idiot! Look what your stinky food is doing!”
He put down his Corona beer bought for the occasion and inspected the tank. The fish, normally passive at night, were swimming up and down. “Don’t think they can’t smell that foul air when the pump is spewing it all over. That wretched stuff is driving them nuts. It’s got to go. You can have Kraft dinner.”
She rushed to the kitchen, grabbed the bubbling pot and hustled it outside where she dumped its contents contemptuously into the garbage can. Then, she arranged a portable fan and opened all of the doors. After anticipating the chili, Bill didn’t feel like anything else, so he took another Corona and sought refuge in The Luck of Roaring Camp. Too bad they didn’t live near a major dam site, he thought. Flash floods had possibilities.
Later, Myrna decided to entertain Bill with her fish imitations. While he read, she peeked out from behind a chair and then retreated when he looked over. “Guess who?” Spot, of course, the shy catfish. Then she rubbed her knuckles over Bill’s close-cropped head like Mac scratching himself on the coral. Most disconcerting was her pantomime of the meanest small fish in the tank, the bumblebee cichlid, aka the Terminator. After a few sherries, she rushed at Bill and butted him in the chest, cackling like a demented parrot.
Myrna rarely spoke to Bill except about the daily problems with the fish. “Mac is chasing the hooks. I’ve got to get him his own tank,” she wailed as Bill limped in from the 100 degree heat. Busses had broken down, the fans were off at work, and his ancient Aries needed new ball joints.
“Give him back to the store. Maybe they’d trade for that needle catfish you’ve been wanting,” he offered, picking up the paper and tidying the living room. It was stifling in the house, but Myrna wouldn’t allow an air conditioner to alter the tropical conditions. Tonight was his washing and ironing night, he remembered with dismay as he stripped off his wet shirt.
Myrna dipped into a small holding tank for Mac’s supper. “Are you kidding? Even if he is bullying the others, he is the king. Oh, that man of mine.” Bill saw the mammoth jaw of the 21 inch long leviathan vacuum up the feeder guppies and thought of his innocent hatchet fish.
The costs escalated with Mac’s new hundred-gallon fortress. The lavender gravel alone cost a day’s pay. Myrna had to have the latest bionic filter system, which required constant monitoring for weeks to establish a proper chemical cycle. He would come home to her stunned face peering at a murky test tube. “Not more ammonia! He’s swimming in a toilet, Bill. It’s time for another water change.” And out snaked her Python syphon hoses to drain and refill the tank. No bath for Bill until midnight. And if it wasn’t ammonia, it was too much chlorine or iron. She ordered spring water delivered by the week. Subscriptions to Freshwater Aquariums and Tropical Breeders littered the coffee table. That was where she learned about the fluval, a costly refinement which sold so rarely that the pet store owner made a mark on the wall when one left the shop. “Now I can relax at last,” she said. “This baby will filter out anything!” And the new toy hummed away.
Everything hummed day and night. And Bill, who was never a heavy sleeper, lay tossing for hours, Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” running through his mind. Some nights when he got up for a glass of milk around one or two and switched on the kitchen light, Myrna was crouched in the living room inspecting her nocturnal feeders by flashlight. “Douse that, jerk!” she yelled. “I just got the boys and girls settled. The reflection is confusing them. Look at Mac gone behind the condo, just as I dropped down his favorite tiger shrimp.” A grinning plastic skull bubbled up water as its teeth met and parted.
Deciding on a drink instead, Bill overturned the ice cube tray into a tumbler, added a double thumb of bourbon, then took a long swallow. Several minutes later, he was relaxing in bed with The Outcasts of Poker Flat. Blizzards, he thought. Convenient, quiet. Easy to run off the road in the mountains, leave Myrna, go for “help.” How long would it take to drive to the Sierras from Stockton? Couple of hours tops! The Blairs next door were always going “up to the snow” for skiing. Suddenly he gagged. “What is this?” he yelled as he pulled some bits of ragged flesh from the glass.
Myrna appeared in the doorway, a smile flickering. “Silly Billy. It’s cod I froze for Mac. Slow release. Won’t hurt you.”
A few weeks later, when Bill tried to use his VISA at the Sunoco station, it was rejected. Myrna, responsible for paying the accounts, blamed an oversight. But then he found the letter from the tax department and handed it to his wife, who was crumbling some white mosquito larvae. “So what,” she said, tapping on the glass at an inquiring discus. “Only a late charge, and besides, do you know how long it takes a bank to foreclose? Nearly two years. By then you should get your pension settlement.”
“Myrna,” Bill said, a catch in his voice, “you know that I intended part of that money for a fly fishing trip to the Rockies.” He couldn’t help noticing her new fifty-dollar oranda with its soft bubble head like an exterior brain. It was lurching around the tank, gobbling up whatever came its way, its red body accented by a black painted mouth. He considered Myrna’s henna hair, her sculpted eyebrows with that perpetually surprised look. Only Lucille Ball ever got away with that lipstick line.
When Bill watched Myrna flipping through Getting Started in Salt- Water Aquariums and making a list of supplies, he could see his last dollar sinking faster than the Lusitania. And when the nursing home called to tell him that they hadn’t received the monthly check for his mother’s care, he felt his head begin to pound. Mother’s trust fund! Sweat ran down his face and his chest pumped like the Aries going up a hill. “Did you send out Mom’s payment?” he asked.
Myrna clipped some romaine lettuce to the tank for Annie the ancistrus and hummed a little tune. “Now just don’t you worry your head about that. I saw a lawyer and he told me that everyone’s doing it.”
“Doing what?” Bill gasped.
“Liquidating, of course. That way the government picks up the tab quite nicely. Medicare for indigents kicks in.”
Bill jumped up. “Indigents! You mean you told them Mom is broke? It meant everything to her to pay her own way! She trusted us!”
“Don’t be a fool. She doesn’t even have to know, but she will have to leave her semi-private for a quad. Give her more company anyway.” She attached the Python hose and began to suck up Mac’s tank. Swirls of fish debris made little tornados.
Bill felt dizzy. As Myrna started to refill the tank, he saw the dangling electrical cord for the immersion heater. He had connected it all and knew the dangers. What would cause Myrna to be careless? The death of one of her favorites? Mac? Yet Bill hated to see even a guppy suffer. It would have to be a fish that looked like Mac in the dark. He heard Myrna open the front door. “I’m going to Popeye’s for some Fung-All,” she called. “The barbs have been scratching.” The door slammed and the Aries groaned into action.
Bill searched the basement freezer. There it was, a nice medium sized Pacific salmon languishing through the months since Myrna had stopped cooking. He gently removed the wrappings and scrutinized it from all sides. It resembled Mac, or would with the tank light off for an instant.
Back upstairs, he removed the cover from the big tank, disconnected the main electrical cord and set to work. First, he dipped down with a big net and hauled out Mac, placing him in a full bathtub. Then, with some dark thread the same color as the fish, he tied the salmon into some of the heavier plants just under the large heater tube. He connected the thread to the tube and unscrewed the heater until it rested perilously in place. “CAUTION: Do Not Immerse Beyond This Point!” it warned. Finally he replugged the main cable and waited, turning off all the lights in the house.
As soon as Myrna opened the door, he yelled, “Come here! The power’s been off and there’s something wrong with Mac! He might be dead!” Myrna rushed over, bugged out her eyes, and plunged her hand into the tank, pulling the heater element with her. “Mac!” was her last word.
In the ten minutes before the police came, Bill shut off the main breaker, chopped up and flushed the helpful salmon and thread, and restored Mac to his home. “I guess she saw Mac on the bottom for a minute and panicked,” he told everyone. “He was her favorite.” Bill was given the week off to make arrangements for the funeral. And of course, he included a note with the obituary that in lieu of flowers, donations could be made to the Friends of African Knifefish.
Back from a weekend of trout fishing, he remembered to check the tanks. Time to return his charges to the pet store. The tanks might make good terrariums for Mom’s nursing home. Then Mac dove into view. The large, placid fish had missed his guppies and was staring out through the glass, his clown dots undulating along gray velvet folds, eight on one side and six on the other. He really was handsome, Bill thought, counting the dots as he felt his heart rate slow; for the first time in years the tight metal coil disappeared from his chest. Mac swam so gracefully…and so sadly, it seemed. With an underslung jaw and limpid gimlet eyes, the fish could have been pouting. Bill went to the fridge and returned with a Corona and shrimp bits. “Don’t worry, Big Guy, and the rest of you, too,” he said. “Daddy’s home.”