by Jon Mau
The air in the town was sour. It was the sort of smell you could taste on the edge of your tongue, which made you feel there was some sort of invisible substance behind it. The sourness lingered in your nostrils, stronger some days than others, but never quite disappeared. The townspeople never mentioned it; it was a fact of life in the same way that potholes or junk mail was a fact of life. Each morning it was just there. Presumably, the smell came from the factory, since the men who worked there came home with the sour smell mixed with their musk and sweat from the day, and since the smell (sometimes) grew stronger, proportionately, as you grew closer to the factory itself.
Elijah worked at a gas/service station on the opposite end of town. He had applied to work at the Ernest Organics® factory, twice. Once, at sixteen, when he received his work permit, and the second time when he graduated high school, finishing firmly in the bottom third of his class. The application form was printed on Ernest Organics company letterhead, which depicted the well-known figure of Ernest, a paternal, pony-tailed, bearded, blue-eyed organic-looking fellow who smiled without showing his teeth. There was no true-to-life Ernest, as Ernest Organics® itself was a subsidiary of a larger grain-based mega-farm/corporate conglomerate, but the name was accurate insofar as the instant oatmeal produced at the plant was completely preservative- and chemical-free.
Elijah, biblically named, his parents had told him, was not called back for an interview at Ernest Organic's, twice.
The gas/service station was mainly light-service (e.g. oil changes and tire rotations), and never even presumed to be able to handle more nefarious car-noises and engine trouble. Likewise, Elijah's days were fairly slow unless a customer unwittingly pulled into a full-service fuel pump, which most locals knew well enough to avoid.
Elijah, after work, would stop by Orson's Mega-Convenience Mart® to stock up on food and other essentials. He purchased large quantities of Ernest Organics Instant Oatmeal out of both a small bit of civic pride and as a concession to his limited culinary skills. His tour of Orson's Mega's departments always followed the same route: Groceries, Home Goods, Sporting Equipment (Bicycles, mainly), Greeting Cards and Stationary, Cleaning Supplies, Pet Supplies, and Men's Fashion, in a counter-clockwise path around the cavernous store.
Extra time was always spent in the Pet Supplies section, where he lingered before a wall of twenty-gallon tanks, each stocked with a different breed of fish. The tanks glowed blue and green, fluorescent lights reflecting off the faux-nautical backgrounds inserted into each tank, setting an eerie pallor across that specific corner of the store. The tanks were stacked six-high, and thus an immersive experience; Elijah would feel as though he had momentarily left Orson's Mega and the city of Bellwood entirely, had sunk down to the bottom of the sea.
The southernmost windows Elijah's apartment opened upon empty fields and, approximately three miles out, the Ernest Organics® factory. The sour factory-smell saturated the building, buffeting through fans in the summertime and wafting from heating vents in the winter. Elijah sat in a leather lounge chair he had had delivered from Orson's Mega, and watched a small television which sat on a bookcase. He ate Ernest Organics® Mountain Grains Instant Oatmeal Qwik-Paks™, heated in his microwave with water. Often Elijah would nod off, slouched awkwardly in his recliner, the television blinking in a dark room, fish swimming just beneath his eyelids.
One August evening, far later than usual, Elijah climbed the stairs to his apartment. In his arms was a ten-gallon glass tank, filled to overflowing with the contents listed on the Orson's Mega receipt in his pocket: one Tetra® "Whisper Power™" Filter, two bags (32 oz.) purple Sea Stones, one Medieval Castle Bubbling Ruins, one Deep Sea Diver B, one Large Bubbling Treasure Chest, one 4 oz. NutraFin® Multi-Fish Flakes, and one plastic bag containing two large (female-looking) Rasboras, with blood-red fins and wide, unblinking eyes.
Elijah's hands shook with excitement as he set down the tank on his dresser, having relocated his television to the floor next to his bed. His head buzzed with the fish, and he couldn't help laughing as he watched the Rasboras darting back and forth in the twistie-tied bag. Elijah hadn't eaten dinner, but felt energized, indefatigable.
He layered purple Sea Stones along the base of the tank, and positioned the castle, deep-sea diver and treasure chest by nestling their bases into the stones. In the kitchen, he filled his largest spaghetti pot to nearly its brim. The water swished and spilled on his floor and jeans as Elijah carried it across his living room and dumped water slowly into the tank, repeatedly, until it was filled. He inserted a new, clean filter, and clipped the "Whisper Power™" onto the back edge of the tank. Once plugged in, it gave off the soft whir of an electric motor and began aerating the tank's contents via a small waterfall.
The pair of Rasboras, named "Sonny" and "Cher" on the car ride to his apartment, were emptied from a plastic bag into their new home. After devouring a few Multi-Fish Flakes, they explored their novel new environs, taking stock of the castle, their piles of golden treasure and their amiable, bubbling neighbor (Deep Sea Diver B). They then turned to Elijah and gave a contented nod—what Elijah took to be as close to a smile as fish could muster.
Elijah flipped on the tank light and settled into his recliner, basking in the attention of his two new friends.
The next morning, Elijah awoke before the sun, and the tank appeared to be empty. He peered behind the castle, walking around the tank, hunched, inspecting the interior from every angle. In order to flush out the castle's chambers, he took a wooden kitchen spoon to rattle inside the royal grounds, from above. But there was no need. He found his Rasboras as soon as he opened the tank's lid. Sonny and Cher each floated on their sides, at the top of the tank, bodies bloated and fins limp.
Elijah's throat was tight, his jaw firmly shut, as he used a slotted kitchen spoon to retrieve their bodies. Each was carefully deposited back in the original bag, which he had pulled back out of the trash, and sealed with a twistie tie.
The fish had been sick, there had been some type of fish disease at Orson's Mega, in their tanks? Sonny and Cher were on their last legs, so to speak, when they reached Elijah's apartment, and, well, at least they died in a comfortable environment with a caring owner—but maybe there's more he could have done, if they had received the proper care, might they have lived, perhaps?
After deciding against burying them, Elijah took the bagged fish bodies and his receipt and drove back to Orson's Mega. Having produced the deceased fish and a receipt within seven days of the initial purchase, he was entitled to a pair of replacement fish from the pet department. Elijah returned to his apartment that night with a completely new pair of Rasboras, from a new tank, from a new shipment, and newly christened "John" and "Paul."
Elijah left the plastic bag floating inside the fish tank for over an hour before he removed the twistie tie and set them free into their new home; this was to ensure the water inside and outside the bag was exactly the same temperature, to avoid any kind of physical shock that may greet the new fish. Elijah watched them skeptically. The Rasboras swam around the tank without much purpose, but really no differently than they had in the pet department. He fed them a pinch of fish flakes and sat in his recliner until it grew dark, with the small incandescent light left on in the tank's lid, until he fell asleep to fitful dreams of his own eventual demise.
John and Paul were dead. Not the next morning, but the next evening when Elijah returned home from work. Their corpses lay sideways on the surface of the water, with a white film over their eyes and pale bodies. These fish he returned to Orson's Mega that same night.
Over the course of the next several weeks, Elijah was drawn into a depressing cycle of exchanging the lifeless remains of old Rasboras for new ones. The initial excitement about the fish had transformed into a sort of mania, of unblinking eyes studying their color and movements, of shaking hands dropping flakes into their tanks.
After the second set of Rasboras, Elijah had emptied the tank and re-filled it with purified water, from ten separate gallon jugs, each with the image of laughing baby on the label. With the third set of Rasboras he purchased a pH testing kit and electronic tank thermometer, and monitored the water carefully over the three days these fish lived. Constant adjustments were needed to get the pH to an acceptably neutral level, and he adjusted the heat in his apartment to ensure the tank was at an optimal 77° Fahrenheit. After the fourth pair, Elijah bleached and sterilized the water filtration and aeration systems and castle and treasure chest, and then, thinking better of it, purchased an all-new set of fish-tank peripherals.
When the fifth set of Rasboras died, Elijah had to pull over his car on the way back to Orson's Mega, having been faced with a tremendous tightness in his chest. He gripped his shirt in his fist and pulled it away from his body, trying to relieve the pressure. Elijah shuddered and convulsed in a way that approximated a kind of painful-looking dry heave. Once he regained his composure, he returned to the road and promptly extinguished the episode from his memory.
The ninth pair of Rasboras found themselves in more austere environs than their predecessors. The Sea Stones, castle, treasure chest, deep sea diver and artificial plants had been cleared from the tank. The only adornment to the tank was the absolutely-necessary electric filter and aerator. The water had been purified, adjusted for pH, and its temperature was maintained by an electric heater attached to the bottom of the tank. There could be no chances, no mistakes.
The ninth pair of Rasboras was unnamed; it was the first pair Elijah couldn't bring himself to name. He stared at them warily as they explored the tank, staying up past midnight in his recliner, bags gathering under his eyes, watching his fish. Before sleep could finally overtake him, Elijah stood to add a few flakes to the water.
The canister of Multi-Fish Flakes was empty, was missing even a dusting of food. And through the opened window Elijah could smell the sourness of the factory, feel the sourness in his clothes, in his lungs and all over his skin. It hung like a sickly fog, tainting everything it touched, seeping into every surface of his apartment, into his body, down into his bones.
And Elijah knew what was poisoning his fish.
Elijah pounded his fists against the wall, and then let loose a long wordless yell, the sound of a some animal crushed between the gears of a giant machine. He bent his knees and fit his hands underneath his recliner, and quickly extended his legs to flip it over. The television Elijah easily heaved across the room, where it glanced off a doorway and tore off a chunk of plaster. He swung the neck of a tall halogen lamp into the air, and when the plug was torn from the wall, the apartment became instantly and completely dark. Elijah then stood still. From the window, the factory lights blinked, and steam billowed from smokestacks across the cloudless night.
Entering the kitchen, he rummaged through the cupboards as would a sleepwalker, with emotionless, unrushed deliberation. Though his mind was numbed by fatigue, he felt a grimace of mental pain when he unearthed the only suitable fish food in his apartment unit. Standing above the tank in his darkened living room, Elijah emptied a single Qwik-Pak™ of Ernest Organics® into the water, and the fish rose to the surface to take the oatmeal into their tiny, toothless mouths.
Jon Mau is an aspiring suburbanite, currently residing in Des Plaines. He owns two young children, who daily brighten his life and give him reason to watch "Thomas the Tank Engine" without feeling that weird, creeping shame he used to feel. He reads the back of cereal boxes, which uniquely qualifies him to act as a founding contributor and occasional editor for Untoward Magazine.