The Rents Don't Like Fish

Charley had blown his entire paycheck on tropical fish, and he knew his parents were going to be pissed. For one thing, he was twenty-four years old, a grown man. Simple as that. He was an adult and he was buying fish? No. That was not good.

Nonetheless, his parents would be used to that. He was twenty-four and still living in his childhood bedroom, still eating their food, watching their TV. They were prepared to accept the fact that he had spent a lot of money on fish. Fine. But now that they had begun to charge him rent, rent he had failed to pay for two months in a row, there were new considerations. Don't you have better things to spend your money on? Before this rent situation, they may have known the answer, but not specifically. Now they knew for certain.

You owe us rent.

You have all these fish.

You cannot stay here.

He stood outside his parents' house, holding over a dozen plastic bags filled with all kinds of tropical fish. A fish collector would have been impressed but his parents were not fish collectors. Actually, he was not a fish collector. He didn't even have a place to put these fish, no bowl or aquarium. But here they were, in his hands, and he knew he could not go inside the house.

He had wasted money so many times before, but he had never felt this kind of guilt. The other times he'd blown his paycheck, there was nothing to show for it. He'd lose all his money at the turtle races behind the laundromat. He'd drink beer, lots of beer. He'd buy 30 hamburgers at the drive-through and try to eat them all in one sitting. Once he came back home though, the moment was gone and he could pretend it never happened. Now he had something to remind him of his stupidity. All these fish.

His mother came out onto the front porch and found him there. She saw the fish. He remembered a time as a child when he had taken a piss from atop the high dive at the public pool. She was making the same kind of face now that she had then.

"What are those," she asked him. "Fish," he said quietly, "all kinds." He was sweating so much. He wanted to drop the bags of fish on the porch and run, come back in a day or two. Instead, he lied. "I got a second job delivering fish for that pet store. People call up and I take them over to their house. Like pizza."

This was not working. She was still making that face. "I won them," he then said. "I won them in a raffle." He didn't think she would believe this either. He never won anything. "You owe us rent," she said. "Your ass is in debt to your father and I. Don't bring home fish. It's just mean."

He walked back to the pet store to return the fish, but the place was closed. He wanted a drink, but he had no money left. These fish were starting to get on his nerves. One of the bags was leaking. The left side of his pants was now wet, but he couldn't tell which bag was responsible. His hands were damp and red and aching. He walked back home and hoped for the best.

His parents were eating when he got home, but he didn't say anything, ran straight to the bathroom and shut the door. He started filling the tub with lukewarm water and then, one bag at a time, dumped the fish into the tub. His father called for him on the other side of the door. He felt sure that his mother had mentioned the fish.

He opened the door and his parents walked into the bathroom. "See," his mother whispered to his father. His father asked him where his paycheck was for this week. Charley pointed at the tub. One of the fish was already dead and floating.

"Okay," his father paused and took a deep breath. Then he took another one. He was going to take another breath but instead just came out with what he had to say. "You owe us rent, but instead of paying us, you got these fish. Is there anything else you want to add to that?" Charley shook his head. He guessed correctly that there was nothing he could say that would help. "Honey," his mother said, "we love you. You're our son. That's the way it works, and I'm amazed sometimes that it still works but, nonetheless, we love you. You owe us money though."

Charley told them that he would pack up his stuff and move out. He understood. "No," his father said. "That's not what we mean. You hurt us sometimes. We don't know why you can't try harder. We want you to try harder."

Another fish floated to the surface of the tub. It was bright blue with yellow stripes. "You can't keep them in a regular tub," his father said. "I think they need the water to be up or something. Bubbles." His mother rolled up her sleeve and started gently punching her hand into the water. His father stared over the lip of the tub, intent. Charley couldn't stand to watch the two of them. He thought he was going to cry, he felt so lousy.

All night, they took turns punching the water every thirty minutes, making bubbles. A few more fish died, but the others seemed strong enough to make it, at least until they got an aquarium or something. His mother named each fish, even the ones floating on top. Each time she named one, she would look over at Charley until he nodded his approval.

Charley wanted to be good. He didn't know how he was going to do it, but he promised himself that he would. There was nothing he could do about it now though. There wasn't anything to do except watch the fish, the way they moved so effortlessly through the water. He felt his parents kneeling beside him, watching.

About the author:

Kevin Wilson is a student in the MFA program at the University of Florida. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Oxford American, Shenandoah, Carolina Quarterly, and Other Voices.