Tony is a betta and therefore cannot have a girlfriend. Then again, his owner, Mrs. Kim, assumes that he is a “he” because of his color – blue.
(Tony is blue; Tony is a boy.)
Mrs. Kim found Tony on the counter of her store, Candy’s Fashions. He was swimming in a Solo cup. When she first saw the red plastic cup, she thought trash, just trash. But before she could fling him into the plastic-lined can, she looked inside and found him staring at her with globules for eyes. He released a bubble from his mouth. And then he did it again. He wiggled the violent spines of his fins like a peacock on the prowl.
She licked her lips. She drove him home, squeezing the cup between her nyloned thighs. Whenever she steered the car to the left or to the right, she felt the tiny splashes of his water on those thighs. In her kitchen, she poured him into a flower vase, tall and mildew-spotted with a fluted edge.
She stared at him; sometimes, he stared back.
She had not paid for this fish. It was not hers … yet. Maybe she could create a lost-and-found ad, she thought. But the ad would’ve said, “Tony the Fish – Found!”
The next day, after finding Tony, Mrs. Kim went to the pet shop, La Jungla, a dark place littered with bird droppings, filled with the high-pitched sounds of cockatiels and parrots screeching. One parrot, vivid green with white and red eyeshadow around its black-lined eyes, even screamed, “Help me,” in both English and Spanish. Mrs. Kim bought Tony a container of flakes.
Every morning, Mrs. Kim shakes him some flakes and watches him eat. Every morning, she notes that Tony swims toward the top of the fluted vase, eager for his food. She watches him eat, kissing and swallowing each swab of pale color. Then she goes to work.
As the cash register clinks, as the material surrenders to folding and packing in plastic bags, as the customers, all women, argue for lower prices and walk away, as the customers reappear apologetic and compromising, as they laugh and hold Mrs. Kim’s hands and kiss her on the cheeks, Mrs. Kim begins to worry about Tony. What does he do all day? Maybe he needs a hobby, like soap operas or sudoku, or some vegetation to delight him, to bring him joy? She goes to the pet store and for ninety-nine cents buys him a single vein of false algae, a Ziploc full of black rocks.
Tony doesn’t seem to care for the new digs. He swims around the lock of algae; he tries to eat the rocks.
And after just one week, Tony swims tilted on his left side. Tony is dying, she thinks, Tony is dying!
She imagines Tony slipping out of his miniature, dead-end life without her. What happens if she comes home one day and finds Tony upside-down, eyes dull, eyes vapid, eyes dead?
She shares this image over the telephone with her two adult daughters. They laugh. Lousy daughters.
At this point in her life, she has heard enough from her two deadbeats who live elsewhere and laugh when she suggests that they move back home. They make fun of her silly accent. They make fun of her silly clothes. They make fun of her Tony. Those lousy girls, she thinks, those lousy girls.
Their lousy father died, too. She found him vapid too – a single greasy strand of his mousy hair smoothed down his forehead like a crack. Lousy girls. Who knew? Maybe one day she’ll slip and crack her skull like an egg and she’ll be dead. And she’ll rot alone in her old house and they’ll find her – floating upside down, eyes vapid. Tony will, of course, be dead, too.
The next day, in the car, Mrs. Kim squeezes Tony between her thighs within his fluted vase. At work, she plants him on the counter on top of a red crocheted trivet. She wipes the glass of the counter around him. She cleans the mirrors. She wants to buy some flowers or perhaps a new sprig of flora for his home. She doesn’t want Tony, floating tilted on his side, to die alone.
A late Saturday afternoon, the sun burns blood-red in an orange sky. She can hear a mariachi band tune itself in the distance, checking microphones in a nearby church square where weddings, funerals, quinceañeras happen.
A little girl – dark hair, dark eyes, pink dress, a cartoon of a little girl with white patent-leather shoes walks by the store, looks in through the dirty window. Her eyes open wide and she runs inside.
That’s my fish.
No, that is Tony.
That’s my fish.
Mrs. Kim shudders. That’s Tony.
I’m going to tell my mom on you.
The little girl runs off. The little girl wants her Tony.
She looks inside the vase to see him, tilted almost entirely on his side. His left eye skims the surface of the water.
Tony, you wouldn’t choose that little scum over me, now would you? Who gives you premium flakes? Who gives you premium flakes?!
Tony releases a bubble from his mouth.
Mommy! she can hear the little girl cry. She looks around and wonders what God thinks and looks at Tony who blows another bubble. Mommy! She hears the cry again. Mommy! My fish! My fish is over there. My fish is over there.
The violent shade of blue floats. That’s all it is – a swatch of color.
And when the little girl returns alone, face tear-streaked, vengeance and evil stomping out of her little feet, Mrs. Kim picks up the vase.
(She parts her lips; she swallows him.) •