Goldfish

He is five years old again. He has only ever been five. The sun is bearing down upon his Brooklyn block. You could fry a knish on the pavement.

He has collected his baseball cards, all seventeen of them, into a small pile and is sorting through them, admiring each in turn. At the bottom of the pile is his Joe DiMaggio, scuffed on the edges from all the times he brought it to school to show off. Far as he knows, he is the only one on the block with a DiMaggio. The envy of his schoolmates is gratifying, though in a way he suspects his mother would disapprove of.

A breeze starts to build around him. It is very hot, and he thinks it feels nice. He stands up and closes his eyes. The breeze grows to a gush of wind, and he lifts his arms, letting the cool sensation tickle his sweaty armpits.

The breeze passes, and the stillness of the heat sets back in. He opens his eyes. The baseball cards are scattered across the pavement. He walks along, picking each one up, inventorying them. There are only sixteen; his DiMaggio is nowhere to be found. Suddenly he is very scared. He wants to call out for his mother but he holds the feeling inside, and the tears are hot on his face. The storm drain is open. He kneels and looks down the empty chasm, sticking his child-sized head under the metal.

Another gush of wind, this one forceful and deliberate, aimed directly at him. He is falling down the chasm, and his body is shrinking.

He plops at the bottom, small and pathetic. The cement is cold and wet. His card is nowhere to be seen. A giant figure looms before him, chewing tobacco. He lifts his bat, readying for the swing. His pinstripes are white and blue, so this must be a home game.

There is no pitch. Joe DiMaggio swings, and knocks him in the head. He swings some more, beating him into a bloody pulp. The light from the open storm drain closes out. He lies down and takes it. There is only the noise of the bat, smashing his face into the cement.

 

Mort Brontfman is lying in bed. It seems he has kicked the sheets off in the middle of the night, because the air conditioner is breathing chemicals on his arthritic old legs. The ceiling fan is spinning. Someone is knocking at the door, the sound of a baseball bat on cement. He creaks out of bed, puts his feet in his slippers, which he always sets out the night before. It has been many years since he was five, and they all flood back to him now, all of his regrets and mistakes.

He puts on a robe. There is a matching one hanging next to his in the closet. It has been some time since that one was worn by anyone.

He opens the door and Boca Raton sunlight streams into his dark apartment. Gertrude from next door is standing in his doorway. She is a spry 60, with a pretty smile and dyed blond hair that doesn’t come off as desperate. As far as he knows, she is the only gentile in his building of crotchety, retired New York Jews. He is suddenly embarrassed for his appearance, his balding scalp and bare legs.

“Oh jeez,” she says. “Did I wake you up?”

“That’s okay. I don’t mind waking up to you.” Immediately he regrets saying this.

She laughs it off. “Do you have a minute?”

He sticks to a basic response this time. “Sure.”

“Why don’t you invite me in and make me a cup of coffee?”

He wishes he had thought of that, but stands aside wordlessly, lets her in. She sits down at his kitchen table.

“I can’t drink much coffee anymore,” he says. “It’s my heart. You want tea?”

He realizes she is not paying attention; she is looking at her phone and smiling. “Sorry,” she says. “Kimmy texted me something.” Kimmy is her granddaughter. Mort’s memory is very bad, but he remembers this. She turns her phone around to reveal a picture of an art project, a snowman cut out of white construction paper with pipe cleaner arms.

“Cute,” he says. It comes out forced.

He boils the water left over in his rusty kettle and takes out his plastic container of pills. It is divided into seven compartments, labeled M T W Th F S Su. Monday through Wednesday are empty. It must be Thursday. Berthe, the Haitian woman whom his children pay to check on him once a week, organized his pills in this manner. He sits at the table with Gertrude and counts them out.

“You don’t mind, do you?” He thinks this is a good thing to say, a polite thing, a neutral thing.

“Not at all.”

There is a silence as he swallows the first, a little yellow one, the one for his eyes.

“So,” she says, in a way that indicates she is about to reveal the purpose of her visit. “I’m going to visit my grandkids this weekend in Forth Worth.”

He has forgotten the part where she walked in, and is suddenly confused as to why she is here. “Oh.”

“I’m going to be there tomorrow and the next day.” From his pill case Mort knows this is Friday and Saturday. “And um, this might be silly, but I have nobody to feed my goldfish.”

Her goldfish. He remembers this, and can feel his brain laboriously making the connection. “Arthur?”

“Yes, Arthur. Do you mind feeding him?”

He is filled with elation that she has entrusted him with this task. She could have asked Esther, the cranky seamstress who lives on the other side of her door. But she has asked him. “Not at all. I love fish.”

She laughs at that, but he didn’t mean for it to be funny. “Thank you thank you thank you. I’ll tape the instructions to the tank. Keys are under the mat.” She gets up.

The kettle sings. He forgot all about it, goes to retrieve it. She is standing by the door.

“Your tea,” he says, turning off the stove.

“I gotta run but I come back Sunday morning, so let’s have tea then.” She opens the door. “Bye now, Mort. Thanks again.” His shuttered apartment is flooded with light, and then it is very dark again. He goes back to his bedroom and writes a reminder to himself. Feed Arthur. Friday and Saturday. Then he turns on the TV to CNN, lets his eyes glaze over.

The pills are left on the kitchen table. He forgets all about them.

*

That night, without the haze of medication, his dream comes in lucid and clear. Gertrude is wearing his wife’s robe. They are on a beach. He is standing ankle deep in the ocean, wearing his socks. She approaches and wraps her arms around him. They fall under the waves. A school of goldfish swarms around them, carries them out deep from the shore. He is in ecstasy.

When he wakes up he is confused. His sheets are sticky. When he puts his feet down on the ground his slippers are not there. The confusion grows. The note is there, Feed Arthur. Friday and Saturday. His wife’s goldfish Arthur. Where is she? Her robe is in the closet.

His pills are on the kitchen table, waiting for him. He recognizes them. Monday through Wednesday are empty. It must be Thursday. He counts out the pills, takes each of them, starts to feel a little better. The yellow one is missing. He decides that Berthe must’ve forgotten, and takes one from the pill bottle.

He gets his mail, opens a check from social security. His son calls him and sounds like he is scolding him, but he is not sure for what. Halfway through the conversation he forgets to whom he is talking. He hangs up.

The day goes on like this. He reminds himself of the details. Arthur is Gertrude’s goldfish. She lives next door. Tomorrow he is to feed the goldfish. She’s going to visit her grandkids.

He passes out in front of the TV at 6, and doesn’t remember his dream.

*

The next morning when he wakes up the thought is fresh in his mind: Feed Arthur. Friday and Saturday. He takes the Friday pills, goes next door, enters Gertrude’s apartment.

It is strange to be alone in her space. He looks through the knick-knacks she has assorted on her coffee table, a porcelain cherub baby and a vase of fresh flowers. There is a picture of she and her grandkids at an amusement park, and a picture of a man with a strong jawline. They are at a restaurant. She is kissing him on the cheek.

The fish tank is against the wall, but he cannot see the goldfish. She has taped the instructions to the glass, backlit by the LED light. She wrote them in cursive on personalized stationery, and there is a heart next to her name at the bottom. He smiles, peels the instructions off the tank.

Arthur is floating upside down. “No,” he hears himself say aloud. “No. Feed Arthur, Friday and Saturday.” The tears are hot in his face, and he wants a woman to cry to, though whether it is his wife, his mother or Gertrude he is not sure. He sinks to the ground, rocks back and forth on the floor. He forgets where he is.

*

When he wakes up it is dark outside. His back is in pain, and he is splayed out on her purple carpeting. The smell of the fish hits his nose. Arthur. It is decomposing.

Mort stands. His joints ache, and he can’t remember if he took the pills for his arthritis. The blue and white ones. He scoops the goldfish in his hands, goes to her bathroom, which smells like French perfume, and flushes her beloved pet. Its cold eyes stare at him the whole time it spirals down into the pipes.

He sits on the floor of the bathroom, thinks. He has to replace the goldfish. He’s not supposed to drive anymore, he remembers that. Berthe is coming on Monday to take him grocery shopping. That’s when they go. He has to find where she put the keys. He goes to the kitchen, scrambling, confused. Where are the keys? This is not his kitchen. This is his mother’s house in Brooklyn. Why does it smell like rosewater, and not horseradish as he remembers it?

Joints quaking, he steps out into the night, where a warm rain is falling. This is Florida. He has passed from Brooklyn to Florida through the doorway. He is sure of this. Next door, 11B, is his apartment. The door is open, and the floor is wet. The clock on his microwave glows 8:43 pm, 11/25/2016. Saturday.

Has he slept for an entire day?

Feed Arthur. Friday and Saturday.

She comes back Sunday morning, and they’re going to have tea then. He needs to replace the goldfish tonight. Kleinman’s Pets on East New York Avenue is open until 10. It’s right next to Aptheker’s Drugstore, where he buys his baseball cards.

The keys are hidden in the cupboard where he keeps his cups. They are in a dusty white mug. He takes them, goes out the door, finds his Audi in the parking lot. He could walk, but it would be easier to drive. The traffic won’t be so bad at night.

He doesn’t turn the headlights on, because he can’t remember how. He makes a right, then a left. He is on a busy street, and he can’t tell if he is moving or not. The other cars are honking. Maybe Kleinman’s Pets is on Atlantic Avenue, next to the florist.

He makes a sharp turn. A pair of headlights hits him in the eyes, and he can’t see. Did he take the yellow pill? There is a terrible noise as he lurches forward, metal grinding against metal. Suddenly his face is smothered in an airbag. His joints no longer ache. He can’t feel anything.

Joe DiMaggio is in the passenger’s seat. Mort doesn’t remember him getting in the car. His pinstripes are gray and white, so this must be an away game. He shakes his head, as if disappointed.

The fire department arrives and pries open the car doors with their huge electric pliers. They put him on a stretcher. He tries to tell them that it’s okay, that he can walk to Kleinman’s Pets, because it’s open until 10. They don’t listen.

*

He wakes up in a white room. He tries to kick the sheets off, but can’t move his legs. Arthur is flopping around on the floor, gasping for air. Next to him is a small Ziploc bag of items. His Joe DiMaggio card is stained with blood. He takes it in his hands and holds it tight and lets himself cry. He doesn’t remember why he’s crying, but he is deeply sad. He wants his wife. He wants his mother.

Joe DiMaggio reaches down, takes the card out of Mort’s hands, places it on the table. Then he raises his bat and swings.