Oscar the Fish

My “April Challenge” day number six. This one is hard for me to post. It was even harder to write.

Good fiction, in my opinion, is grounded in reality. Be it a tale about dragons, a story from 20,000 leagues under the sea, or a simple piece about nothing much at all (like this one), the best lies must be believable.

I lost my dad when I was very young. Though I think about him all the time, I hardly ever talk about him. My mom is wonderful, and I am so, so blessed to have a new dad (two actually, now that I’m married). They make it easier every day, but so does writing. This story is mostly real, with sprinkles of fiction to fill in the blanks.

 

 

I only remember two things about my father. I’ve always had a terrible memory, but either way these two things will stay with me until the day I day. Maybe longer.

Oscar, the silver dollar fish. And a Mickey Mouse computer game we’d play together on rainy days.

They aren’t much, but they’re better than nothing. Enough to grab around the edges and cling to whenever I feel myself slipping between the cracks of the world. Some of my friends have disappeared into those places, so I guess I’m lucky for having that little harness.

Oscar was underwhelming. In the right light, his silver scales had a blueish sheen to them that made him look diseased, and bubbles plop-plopped from his mouth in a constant stream like steam from a locomotive. I thought he could, I thought he could, I thought he could. He darted from one side of the tank to the other, obscured in the corners by an ever-thickening layer of scum and doomed to a short life of monotony and short-term memory loss.

Until we introduced Oscar II.

I convinced my father Oscar was lonely, thinking of the days and nights, the long, long days and cold, cold nights, when my parents would be at work. I paced the confines of our townhouse, blowing spit bubbles just like Oscar blew his, and losing myself in the cobwebs that grew in the corners. Always checking for signs. The roar of my father’s 1969 Mustang. A clatter in the keyhole. Even the sound of an argument late in the evening.

Anything, really. Because those anythings were everything.

After I dropped Oscar II into the tank, my father and I sat cross-legged on the floor. He wrapped his arms around me; I rested my head on the steel-wool of his shoulder. We watched. The fish’s friendship played through my head in splendid stop-motion. Oh, the adventures Oscar I and Oscar II would have.

They’d embark on a quest to free the Algae Knight who, tethered to the floor of the tank, bobbed and swayed. They’d dig tunnels of pink and green through the neon stones lining the tank. They’d blow bubbles as they swam back and forth, weaving around each other in choreographed, fishy harmony.

Instead, Oscar I nipped at Oscar II’s sides, mercilessly stripping him scale by scale until there was nothing left but pieces stuck to the Algae Knight and floating on the surface. I think that was the only time my father cleaned the tank, and I cried the entire time. Not because Oscar II was dead, but because Oscar I was all alone again.

This had also been my first encounter with Death. My Father was sleeping, as he’d left his boyhood innocence behind a long time ago, and these things no longer phased him. His badge, his gun, those wicked people I heard him tell my mother about. The cigarettes and amber whiskey he washed them all away with. He’d left his wonder behind in a ditch somewhere.

But not me. I didn’t know any better. After watching the fish, I thought if something new came along you were supposed to tear it to shreds and keep only the pieces that made you feel closer to whole.

Mickey taught me another lesson. Mickey taught me how friendship was supposed to work.

In the game you had to plan a day trip. This was before Mickey ruled the world, when he only had control over mine. Every time we played, my father let me pick. He read the words on the screen to me so many times, I imagine they haunted his dreams at night and that’s why he could never find happiness for himself.

“We pick where we want to go,” he said. “The shopping mall, Pluto Beach, or the Enchanted Forest?”

“Who do you want to go with?” he asked. “Donald, Goofy, or Minnie?”

The number of options were mind-boggling. I didn’t know you could do all of those things. I didn’t know you could be friends with that many people.

To the beach with Donald?

A shopping spree with Minnie?

Picnicking with Goofy?

That was it. That was the whole game. My father would select my choices, an animation would play, and the characters would enact whatever I told them. This had a profound and lasting effect on me.

I can see each setting, hear each sing-song jingle playing in the background. I can almost recite word for word the dialogue between the characters, and the way Mickey laughed, “Ha-ha”, after everything he said. I can barely remember doctor’s appointments, but I can envision scenes from that stupid game as clear as a mirror.

My father’s always a part of the scenes. He’s a bit further down the beach, catching some rays under an umbrella. He’s lurking behind a tree as pixelated lettuce sandwiches are passed around. He’s behind the register selling Minnie a pair of pink, star-shaped sunglasses.

The sand makes my legs feel heavy, and no matter how long I run, he stays the same distance away. I worry he’s hungry, so I get up off our checkered blanket to offer him a bite, but he’s behind that other tree. Or that one. Or that. When it’s my turn at the register, he’s gone, replaced by Clarabelle Cow.

And I know he was there, listening to the same 8-bit songs over and over again, clicking through endless, repeating dialogue until I was satisfied.

He was there… He had to have been.

But now he isn’t. And all I can remember is a silver-blue fish and a goddamn computer game.