By Henri Feola
The betta fish are the worst. They ship them out to us in those little plastic cups, their bodies dark suspensions, very still. I have to line them up on the shelf, arranging them like color chips for optimal attractiveness: silvery white next to blue, a dazzling red beside aquamarine. I don’t know where they come from—Mark said some warehouse out in Kent and apparently considered my question answered. It staggers me that there is this network of living things, that there are people who run the breeding tanks and people who box the fish and drive the trucks and then people like me who sell them and drop the shitty little pieces of food into the air holes twice a day. And none of us, I don’t think, can be wholly responsible.
Mark says I should stop caring about being fucking responsible. You tried to tell me the same thing, I think, only in fewer words.
Twice a day, we check the shelves for the dead ones and take them to the back. By the end of the night shift there’s always a stack of little plastic cups waiting by the work sink. Number one rule, don’t dump the fish down the sink, Mark always reminds us. It’s one of Mark’s many number-one rules. They’ll clog up that fucking drain like nobody’s business.
So when the store is finally quiet, only the faint buzzing of the overhead lights and the trickle of cars down the freeway outside, I pick the little bodies out and throw them away. Technically we compost them, as part of our new eco-friendly initiative, but I’m sure they end up in a landfill anyway. One of Mark’s other number-one rules is just do your damn job. And that’s what I think of as I hold those soft dead things briefly in my hands, as I turn the lights off and drive back in my little empty car to my little empty house without you in it—I was only ever doing my job. Not evil, not intentional. Just easier.
So many of our fish die; we even have a script in the event that a customer sees a dead one and is distressed. It’s quite common that the fish are defective or sick when they arrive here. Don’t worry. We can’t say I’m sorry, never I’m sorry, because according to Mark, that implies company liability. Only that it’s very common and would they like to see another fish?
Every day it gets a little harder to pass them off to some chubby-cheeked kid or semi-committed twenty-something couple. There’s always a predictable spike around Valentine’s Day and Christmas, and I eye those seasonal customers with extra suspicion. What are you trying to prove? I want to ask them. I wonder if anyone ever bought a betta fish out of spite—or is it only love that needs such excess to keep itself alive?
You would tell me I have a grim view of things, that I can’t look at a goddam sunset without thinking about dead people. I’ve never seen a dead person, but I don’t think it would bother me half as much as the fish do. A fish never did anything good or anything wrong. It’s like snuffing a candle—quiet, everyday. No one allowed or expected to care.
You would reply that this is exactly the kind of literal thinking that turned you off me.
One time a group of teenagers came through the store, looking like they all played the guitar and had sex with each other. They stopped in front of the betta display. “That’s fucked,” one of them said. “That’s so fucked.” And they glared at me as if it was my fault.
Am I cruel? I wondered in the car that day, hands smelling of the disinfectant we have to put on so we don’t get salmonella from a dead fish and cost the company money. And yes, I can think of some times when I’ve been cruel, and you can probably think of more. But really I’m not so much cruel as bored. Bored as anyone in this long chain of rules and routine deaths and no liabilities.
Maybe that was what you sensed in me: that boredom, that quiet. You didn’t leave me an address or a number to call, but I guess this is what I’d say if I could. This, and I’m sorry.
I’m so so so sorry.