Fish Legs


"Of course Chico would die. Her poor son didn’t know anything about the lifespan of goldfish."

Fiction by Nancy Ford Dugan, Summer/Fall 2016


Eva’s chunky calves had fish juice on them. She was cleaning the fish tank for the first time. The fish, her son’s recent birthday present, was flapping in spilled tank water on the kitchen floor.

“This is disgusting,” said Eva. Her lower legs felt violated, filmy, and damp. “I have fish water on my legs. Why am I stuck doing this?” She’d told her son under no circumstances would she have any time to deal with a fish when she got home from work. It was his fish and his responsibility.

“But Mommy, the tank is too big for me!”

This was true, Eva had to admit. She had got him the wrong size tank. He couldn’t manage it. She could barely manage it. She was a terrible mother.

Her son jumped up and down, worried about his dirty fish, the dirty water. “I don’t want Chico to die, Mommy!”

“OK, calm down. Stop jumping or you’ll slip on the water. Be careful.” Eva sighed. Where did he ever come up with that name? She found some tongs her sister had bought her. After several tries, her son screaming all the while, she scooped up the flailing fish and tossed Chico back into the tank.

“Well, these tongs can never be used again,” she said as she pitched them into the garbage. “Your father can carry the tank back into your bedroom when he gets home. And this weekend, we are going to buy a smaller tank you can handle, and a self-cleaning one. Got it?” She patted him on his head. “We’ll do homework and fix dinner after Mommy cleans up.” Why, Eva wondered, did parents talk about themselves in the third person?

“OK, Mommy.”

The bathroom was the only place in the apartment where she could find any measure of peace. She turned on the faucet, even though taking a bath now would significantly push back dinner and homework. She didn’t care. She wanted the oily skim of fish filth off of her. She looked forward to the very large glass of wine she’d enjoy as she cooked; that would mellow her out enough to deal with all of her son’s math questions and, later, all of her boss’s after-work emails.

Her doctor had recently advised her to cut back on her wine consumption. Apparently she was now borderline diabetic; the doctor also hinted she may be borderline alcoholic, since she’d admitted to having eight to ten glasses of wine a week. Since when was that a big number? It must be like blood pressure, Eva thought, where they kept lowering the numbers that were risky, with pretty much everyone now having a dangerous reading. She slid into the tub. She should have brought a glass of wine with her into the bathroom. Then she’d really relax.

Of course Chico would die. Her poor son didn’t know anything about the lifespan of goldfish. It was his father Dale’s big idea to get him a pet. The fish seemed less intrusive than the other options. Tell her calves that. She sudsed them up in the tub. Fish grossed her out, but so did most animals. She hated taking her son to the zoo. She must be a terrible mother. Dale could take him.

Dale thought the fish could keep their son company, since he spent so much time alone and was always bursting to tell his parents everything. Dale thought he needed someone else to talk to.

When Eva was single and living in Manhattan, every day she’d walked by a tiny dry cleaning store. The non-smiling woman who worked there had intimidated Eva; Eva had always felt an undercurrent, that the non-smiling woman hated her job and possibly hated her customers, including Eva. Was she sneering at Eva’s suit jackets and work clothes, and Eva’s overfriendly conversation? Eva was just trying to be pleasant while she politely waited for the spirally purple receipt to be torn out of the machine by the miserable woman. Despite the convenience, Eva had stopped dropping her clothes off there, walking farther to another block where multiple dry cleaners at least pretended to welcome her business. But Eva still had to walk by the non-smiling dry cleaner to get home. She always tried to avoid eye contact, but occasionally Eva, lost in her thoughts, would forget and look up to see the woman scowling at her through the glass.

One night, Eva had passed by when the store was closed and the lights were dimmed. She had seen the woman smiling, leaning over the top of a fish tank by the window, her face shrouded with blue light. Eva had never noticed the tank before but suspected it had always been there. The woman was talking to the fish, animated and yet relaxed, as Eva had never seen her. She imagined this cheerful ritual as a highlight of the woman’s day. Eva had been delighted for her, yet looked away quickly to give the woman some privacy in what seemed an intimate moment.

Maybe Dale was right. Maybe their son would find comfort and conversation with his fish. Maybe hope was a thing with fins and gills.

Eva sank deeper into the warm water and wiggled her toes. Smacked up against the end of the tub, her plum-painted toenails looked crowded but orderly, like jammed, quaint houses on a postcard of a scenic Italian hillside.

Last night she’d dreamed that she was on some kind of road trip with the actor Bobby Carnavale. She had no idea why she had dreamed about him. She didn’t even know what he’d been in. Maybe she had seen him online? Or in a GAP ad in the subway? Who knows?

In the dream, Eva was sitting behind the driver’s seat, behind Bobby, who seemed to be a decent driver but very tall, blocking her view. There was a screen behind the driver’s seat, like they have in NYC taxis, spewing stupid ads, fake news, and clips of mindless talk shows. But the taxi screens in real life were on the other side, not behind the driver. During the dream, Eva was puzzled by where the screen was situated and recognized it as odd. It was particularly disturbing because there was someone else in the back seat with her and this woman, whom she did not recognize, kept leaning over to Eva’s side to better see the screen. Eva wished that the screen placement in the dream matched the screen placement in real life so this babe wasn’t crowding her so much.

Bobby was driving them from Washington DC to Manhattan and making good time. Bobby told Eva she was funny, a phrase guys who did not really know Eva frequently said.

Eva had luggage in the trunk, which was stuffed with Bobby’s crap, including a bunch of guitars. Well, at least two. Was he one of those actors who wanted to be a musician? Eva felt kind of bad for Bobby when she saw them.

When they reached Eva’s stop, which in the dream seemed to be a fancy residential area that bore no resemblance to her neighborhood in Queens, Bobby got out to stretch and opened the trunk for her. Eva had an overwhelming desire to make circles of her two hands and put them over Bobby’s comically large brown eyes, like eyeglasses made of flesh. But instead, she yanked her suitcase out of the trunk, thanked him, and seemed to be about to head home when her 5:00 a.m. alarm went off, ending the dream and waking her up.

In the tub, Eva wondered what the dream meant. Work had been busy lately as her company faced yet another merger. The subways were a mess with chronic delays and infrastructure issues, making her late for work, late for her family, always running late, disappointing everyone. Was she yearning for a needy actor with bushy eyebrows to drive her around with a mysterious back seat companion who hogged Eva’s territory? Driving Miss Eva?

Eva pulled her heels in closer to her butt, raising her knees out of the cooling bath water to air her formerly fishy legs.

“Mommy, are you about done? I’ve got a lot of homework!” Her son’s voice was up against the bathroom door, pleading from the hallway. He was always pleading.

Maybe Eva and Dale could get their son a few more goldfish to pack the new tank, just in case something happened to Chico, post the trauma of the kitchen floor incident. Maybe there’d be some safety in numbers, Eva thought. Maybe she could even help him name the new fish.

“OK, sweetheart.” Eva lifted the drain stopper and the water started to suck out of the tub. “I’m coming. Mommy’s almost done.”


Nancy Ford Dugan's work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize (in 2012 and 2013) and has appeared in over 25 publications. She lives in New York City and previously resided in Michigan, Ohio and Washington DC.

Image: The Goldfish Bowl, Henri Matisse

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