Like a Terrible Fish by Hannah Ledford

So that’s it. I am walking out the door with the junk that has managed to collect itself into stacks on my tiny desk throughout the years. There were some squished stress balls, a copy of one of my first company reports; I even found some old pictures of Andrew and me, one of us on our honeymoon wearing Hawaiian shirts and hula skirts. I had forgotten about that night at the bonfire until today when I started dumping things into the trash, getting down to the solid wood under a mass of papers. And there, I found myself almost twenty years ago, with a giant smile on my unwrinkled face, holding hands with the love of my life. The picture was a bit sticky from spilt coffee and stuck to an old napkin. I kept it anyway.

My boss has apologized profusely because it’s not me after all, “it’s the economy.” The economy has decided that I should no longer have a job at Howard & Sons apparently, though Vicki Prescott, that skank from HR gets to strut around with 5 inches of poofy hair over her incompetent brain.

“I’m so sorry to hear about the lay-off,” she says to me squeakily as I haul my things through the glass door.

“Thanks, Vick,” I say with a smile, ignoring the bubblegum pink lipstick smudged on her teeth. I’m a real peach about it all. I bite my tongue as she clacks away in her leopard-print heels.

“You’ll be sorry!” I want to shout back as I walk across the parking lot, but probably they won’t be. Probably they will be perfectly content and forget all about the scrawny brunette that used to sit between Ralph and Nancy. “What was her name?” they’ll ask Nancy, “it’s been bugging us all day.” If anyone would know, it would be Nancy.

“You know, I just can’t quite recall,” she’ll say sweetly.

I drive home after picking up some groceries. I march around the house putting things away and humming a song. I can’t remember what it’s called; I can’t even remember the words. It’s stuck in my head, but then it’s gone. I feed the cat. I snap the tags off of the apron that I just bought and pop open a bottle of wine. I am officially a housewife I say to myself. Hoorah and a few sips straight from the bottle until I locate a glass.
The lasagna is burnt by the time that Andrew walks through the door. “And what are you up to in here?” he asks. His eyebrows are raised and he must smell the lingering smoke.

“Well I tried,” I say.

He snorts. “Doesn’t look like that was quite enough.”

I throw the whole pan into the trash and whip off the apron. He catches me as I stumble forward. Somehow I’ve ended up on my second bottle of wine.

“I’ve retired,” I slur, the kitchen wallpaper spinning around my head.

“You’re 38.”

“You’re a genius with numbers.” My knees are buckling beneath me. Andrew starts to drag me to the couch.

“You’re a wonder, Catherine,” he says, and then I am out.

***

I wake up with my face pressed to a cushion and my head pounding. When I finally manage to crack open my eyes I find that the clock says 9:00 and I think that I must be late, but then I remember that I have nothing to be late for. There is a note on the fridge from Andrew. “Take some Asprin. I’ve left the paper so you can look for jobs.”

I let out a little growl. Of course Andrew would already be preparing me for the next step in life. He’s like a boy scout decorated in life achievement patches. But then again, maybe he doesn’t want to be the only thing that I have left. Maybe we are both afraid that somehow he will be a disappointment.

My joints feel stiff and achy so I drop into the sofa. I fall back asleep until I wake up. I watch TV. I hated that job at Howard. I was on the brink of quitting, but before I could, they decided that I wasn’t so worthwhile after all.

Andrew comes home early. He says it’s to check on me.

“I heard all about the layoffs,” he says. “But you have nothing to worry about, really. I’m sure you’ll find something else soon. Or even if you didn’t want to I make plenty of money at the firm. You could stay at home and we could try again–”

“I’m not having a baby,” I say. “I told you.”

“But maybe if you changed your mind…”

“I’m sorry, Andrew.” I can tell he doesn’t believe me, but I am. “I’m just not sure. And that’s something you should be sure about.”

“You said that, I know. But you used to talk about having children. I thought it was something you wanted.”

“I thought so too,” I say, but I don’t feel as if I’ve ever changed my mind. And I can’t help but wonder if Andrew only wants a baby so that there is someone else in this house. “Hey, Andrew, what if you stayed home for the rest of the week, and we just hung out with each other?” I feel as if maybe I should punch his shoulder, a gesture that we are buddies, teammates.

“I know its hard losing your job, Cath, and I wish I could, but there’s so much going on this week.”

“Right.”

“You know what we should do though? Plan a vacation. Soon. Before you have a new job.”

“Yes, that’s a nice thought.” I remember the honeymoon picture in my purse, and it’s hard to imagine that anything could be the same.

“Well, why don’t you start looking up some places?”

He starts to walk out the door.

“Andrew, I love you,” I say, and I can hear the desperation in my voice.

“I love you too,” he says, but then he’s gone.

***

I pretend that I am looking for jobs. I dress up in nice outfits, and I leave the house, then go to Wal-Mart and buy some cat food or nail polish or gum. I tell Andrew that I am still hopeful and that I think my interviews went well, and he smiles, reassured that soon our life will be back to normal, and I’ll be just as busy and distracted as he is all of the time. Perhaps I hope this as well, but another stupid job does not seem to be the answer.

The ladies from my bridge club call to check up on me, to say that their husband works at this place or that, maybe they could get me a meeting with someone. They are all housewives, of course, but they have children and important things to worry about other than soap operas. I thank them, but I don’t take any meetings. I wish that I could talk to them, but they all seem so perfectly put together. I wouldn’t know how to talk to them about something messy unless there was some club soda on hand to clean it up.

When Mary calls, I am in the kitchen mopping, pretending that I am Cinderella, that I am on the brink of my fairytale ending. If anyone could shatter those delusions, it would be Mary, the leader of the neighborhood pack.

“Hello, Catherine, dear. Now that you are not working,” she says the last two words in a sympathetic whisper, “I could use some help from you. Normally, you know, I would ask Andrea, but after the disaster of Halloween, I think she really is no good to me.”

“What do you need, Mary?” I ask, almost frightened.

“Well since Rebecca has gotten the lead in the Christmas play, I volunteered to make the costumes. It is a great amount of work though, not that I couldn’t handle it, but I thought maybe you would like to help.”

“Well, Mary, I’ve been so busy with all of the interviews and everything, I don’t think I could find the time.”

“Oh,” she says. I imagine her pursed lips on the other line, just like they were when she tasted my baked brie the last time I hosted bridge club.

“You didn’t even go to the interview that I set up for you, Catherine.”

“The job wasn’t quite what I’m looking for.”

***

It gets cold, and I start to stay in my pajamas. I sit on the couch and watch Christmas movies with the cat and a cup of hot chocolate. I’ve been losing track of time lately, but I know what day it is today. I wish that I had a job to distract me from it. I decide to check the mail, and I find that it’s snowing. The cat has come outside with me to discover it’s freezing, so I try to rush us back in from the mailbox. Ronald, however, takes off running, and I chase after him in my slippers.

From the street I call to him, but he keeps going. He seems to know where he is headed, but I do not. I am lurking through backyards, frozen grass cracking beneath my feet.

Mary Jacobs’ back door slides open and a tall boy—almost man—with blonde hair and bloodshot eyes stares at me. “Hey” he says, “this your cat?” Ronald is at his feet.

“Bad cat,” I say scooping him up into my arms. “Thanks,” I say to the boy.

“You look cold.”

I realize that I am shivering.

“You can come in and warm up if you want.”

I hesitate, debating between awkwardness and weather, but I’m so cold that I agree. We walk into the dark house and he offers me a seat on the couch downstairs. There are clothes all over the floor, empty coke cans scattered throughout the room, a couple of pizza boxes, and a big TV with a game system.

“You must be Mary’s son,” I say, wishing now that I would have just run home.

“Yeah.”

“Is she home?”

“No she’s out. Who are you? Friends with her?”

I’m relieved. I don’t want to know what Mary would think if she saw that I was running around in my pjs and hadn’t brushed my hair today, though I can’t imagine that she would descend into this disaster of a room.

“We play bridge together. I’m Catherine Hastings.”

“Mark.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“You know, I think I heard of you. The one that got fired, right?”

“Laid off,” I say, though it doesn’t matter much. “And you’re her son in college?”

“Sophomore.”

“How do you like it?”

He starts to tell me about his classes, his friends, his girlfriend. I add anecdotes from my years in college, picking out the ones that I think that he’ll like best, like getting chased by the cops or punching a guy in the face at the club. He laughs like I know his mother would not.

The conversation gets a little serious when I ask him what he wants to be. It turns out that he has no idea, that he somehow has none of the direction that his mother has been working to give him for the past 19 years. He looks genuinely concerned about his future.

“What should I do?” he asks me.

His face is stern, so I feel a little bad about laughing. “You’re asking me? You and I are on the same boat, my friend. But you have much more time to decide.”

“You’re not that old,” he says.

“Thanks,” I say sarcastically, and he smiles. He has Mary’s smile, but it looks better on him, the way his small pink lips curl up at the corners.

“You have kids?” he asks.

“No.”

“How come?”

I arch my eyebrow at him, trying to determine if he can be trusted. “I don’t want to have them. Is that horrible?”

He doesn’t know what to say to that, and I can’t say that I blame him. I’m wondering why I ever even opened my mouth. I look around for where Ronald has got to, thinking that it’s time to go. Now that I can feel my legs again, I want to get out of here.

“Wanna smoke some weed?” he says before I actually make a move.

I’m stunned and silent at first, and he looks nervous, but then I start to laugh.

“Oh God. I mean, well, okay.”

***

I can’t seem to stop laughing. Mark is making faces at the cat. He’s twitching his nose and every so often he yells, “You plump little fluff!” The world seems to have shifted slightly off angle, and my lungs hurt, but I take deep breaths to inhale the pain.

“What the hell kind of a name is Ronald for a cat?”

I’m laughing, doubled over on the couch, but I can’t quite recall what is so funny. I feel as if I am wasting away.
“Mrs. H!” Mark is calling, but he sounds like he is too far from me. I imagine that I can feel everything, the blood running through my veins, the jolt from every tick of the clock on the wall, the rotation of the earth in endless circles. None of it matters at all.

Mark is floating in space before me. He moves his arms as he swims around the coffee table toward his glass of water. He glances at me and starts to giggle again. I imagine the dazed look that must be on my face.

Ronald bolts across the room, and we shout at him gleefully. “Ronald! Ronald! What’s wrong with you, you little fool?”

***

I’m still a little baked when Andrew gets home from work. I’ve brushed my teeth five times or so in hopes that my husband will be close enough to me to smell my breath. I’m still and silent as he moves around the house removing his tie and his shoes. As he sidles into the room I have an image of him dressed up as Tom Cruise for one Halloween in the 80s, when he slid around in his socks all night wearing Ray Bans. I think he still has the same white dress shirt that he used, but now he always wears it with pants.

“Cath,” he says seriously. “Are you okay?”

I stare at him, intending to nod. He comes closer and he kisses me on the forehead. “And how is the job hunt going?”

“Wonderfully.”

He looks doubtful so I smile bigger. “You know Minnie Lewis just got a new job at Wright. It can be done.”

I think he is trying to be encouraging.

“Will you work on sending out the Christmas cards, though, since you have a little extra time?”

“Of course,” I say, imagining the loopy letters that will provide messages of holiday joy for all of our acquaintances. “Have to get out those cards, right?”

Andrew wraps his arms around for a moment, pleased with my acquiescence. I hold onto him as tightly as I can. I press my head against his shoulder, press my lips to his cheek. I remember when we first starting dating and he listed his ten favorite things about my body in order. My lips, my eyes… I want to beg him to tell me again. “And maybe you should get a new dress for the Lake’s party this year,” he says as he lets me go.

***

Mark is on the couch like a patient in a shrink’s office with a joint between his thumb and index finger. I’m almost positive that it is a Wednesday, but Mark insists that it’s a Tuesday. Either way, he will be leaving to go back to college soon. He might be excited if it weren’t for his horrible classes.

He’s just discovered The Ramones, and “My Brain is Hanging Upside Down” is bumping from a speaker in the corner.

“You should watch the movie Rock and Roll High School,” I tell him.

“I don’t know what that is.”

My sigh is a symphony of disappointed instruments.

It’s strange to me that he doesn’t know about things that I love, that he’s never seen Saturday Night Fever or read Flowers in the Attic. I want to feed him my memories, to give him spoonfuls of Johnny Cash lyrics and my mother’s voice, of the taste of my first kiss.

“I think I might just change my major,” he says. “I won’t even tell my mother. I’ll just change it to something ridiculous like philosophy or poetry.”

“I think those are both admirable things.”

“Okay then. You can tell my mother.”

“Shall we have a talk about poetry today?” I ask. “Or perhaps have a great philosophical discussion?”

“One fish, two fish. Red fish, blue fish.”

I am laughing. Thank God this kid has read something. He continues quoting. I clap when he is done, and we sit in silence for a moment.

It’s my turn then, I suppose.

“In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.”

Mark is nonchalant. “That doesn’t even have any made up words. What is it?”

“Sylvia Plath.”

“Who?”

“Why do I bother?”

“No, no. Say it again.” I do, and he is contemplative. “That’s dark. And super weird. But what’s it about?

“Getting old, I suppose. Nothing you would understand yet. But I don’t know if I agree with Sylvia. It might not be so terrible.”

“Well you let me know when you get there so I can be prepared.”

We laugh together, and I remember how long it has been since my laugh has been real.

“My mom has been driving me crazy,” Mark says, interrupting my thoughts.

I wonder if I should tell him that I think she might be crazy, that her perfect curls and her vacuumed cushions terrify me. “I’m sure she means well.”

He laughs sadistically. “You don’t even know her. You only know how bad she is at cards.”

***

Andrew is on the couch. The television is humming, but he isn’t looking in that direction. His eyes are fixed on the wall, glazed over, but I imagine that he is staring dreamily at the wedding picture that dangles from a rusty nail. Without a word I walk into the room and straddle him, press my lips into his, cling to him. This time I will make him feel it. Outside the rain pours down, and we are flooded. We are surrounded by a whirlpool of debris, our heads just barely above water, but still I cling to him, never bothering to move my arms or flail about. Never trying to swim.

He lets go of me and comes up for air. “You sad, strange little thing,” he says softly. I sink deeper and deeper until I realize that I am drowning.

“What shall we have for dinner, dear?” he asks.

***

Mark has been packing. He is leaving for school tomorrow. I’m foolishly sad about it, though I’d never let him know that. Andrew has been on my case about where I am always wandering off to in my sweats that never get sweaty. Luckily, Mark keeps a stock of Febreeze in his closet.

Mark tells me of his plans between puffs of smoke. He tells me that while he still doesn’t know just what he wants to do, he wants it to be something beautiful. He goes on and on until his words all blur together, and I forget where I am.

“There’s something wrong with you, isn’t there?” he says suddenly.

I am silent. It’s so wonderful not to think.

“Mrs. H?”

I smile at him.

“So mom’s hosting bridge tonight,” he says after a while. “Are you going?”

I wish that he was my kid, and that Mary wasn’t such a grump. Does she know that she has such a great kid? I want to ask him, and to tell him that he’s wonderful and that he can do anything if only he actually does something.

“I’m going,” I say. “What else have I got to do?”

I see pity in his eyes.

“I think you’re my best friend,” he says softly.

“You sap,” I say as I exhale.

“We could do something tonight,” he says. “On my last night in town. We should do something.”

“Like what?”

***

Mark’s eyes are bloodshot, and there is chocolate icing all over his hands. We had spent about an hour trying to figure out something spectacular to do. Mark suggested donating his mother’s pound of make-up to women in need, I wanted to fill up balloons with confetti and shoot them down, sprinkling a celebration all over the neighborhood, but we’ve settled for this: chocolate fudge brownies with chocolate icing. We have made a mess out of my kitchen while Andrew is gone. Mark has a knack for baking though; I think Mary would be proud if she knew. He licks his fingers in satisfaction. “They’re delicious,” he says.

We’ve made them for the bridge club, for Mark’s darling mother and her friends and acquaintances, myself included.

“Should we add silver sprinkles?” Mark asks.

“Don’t over-do it. These brownies are classy.”

We wrap them up in plastic and giggle at each other like mischievous children.

***

Andrea Lake seems to have forgotten about gravity. She teeters out of her chair and smacks onto the kitchen floor, her cards spilling across the tiles. She bursts out laughing, and then the rest of the women laugh as well, chocolate smudged around their lips and on their teeth. Alice Peters says that she hasn’t felt this light in a million years. She starts to tell a story about when she was a little girl, but breaks into giggles. Next to me, Jenny Sparks grabs my hand. “You’re beautiful, Catherine,” she grins. Andrew would be so pleased to see them admiring me, especially because I’m not sure that it’s ever happened before.

Mark comes into the kitchen for a glass of water, and we make gleeful eye contact. The ladies fawn over him as well. I feel powerful and magnificent.

“Why didn’t you go to that interview my husband set up?” Alice asks me, trying to gain some control.

“I want to start over. I want to be something different.”

They look at me with puzzled faces.

Unfortunately Mark’s mother has given up sweets, and when she comes back in from the living room she is shocked to find the state of her friends and her kitchen.

“Andrea, why are you on the floor?” she asks.

Andrea looks up at her dreamily. “You’re floor is wonderful. It’s so clean, it smells like lemon!”

Mary is baffled. “What’s happening?” She looks to the rest of us for an answer. Everyone laughs.

I sneak to the basement to laugh with Mark. I know he has been listening to all of this, that he has been enjoying seeing these uptight women that he has know his whole life without their normal composure. I collapse onto the couch, grinning.

“Perfect,” Mark says.

But his mother is not far behind me. She marches down the steps to interrupt our laughter, her face scrunched up in anger.

“What the hell is the meaning of this?” she yells.

Mark and I are frozen as Mary continues screaming.

“I’ve always known that there was something wrong with you, Catherine. I was nice to you in spite of it all. But now you’ve gone too far. I want you out of my house before I call the cops, and I want you to know that I will have Henry call Andrew the second I’m back up those stairs. Does he know that you haven’t been going to any interviews? He will now, I assure you. You are no longer welcome here.”

“Lighten up, Mary,” I say, but she points to the sliding door.

“I’ll deal with you later,” she says to Mark before marching up the stairs.

***

“So you mean this whole time you’ve been out at all hours of the night smoking pot with the neighbor kid?” Andrew is pacing the living room.

“He’s my friend.”

“Are you a child, Catherine? You’re unbelievable. What is wrong with you?”

I let my knees buckle, and I sink to the floor. In my mind I beg him not to simply step over me, not to go to a different room in the house, not to live a separate life from mine. I remember that Mark is leaving, that I am all alone.

“Catherine, what happened to you?” Andrew asks. His face softens, and he’s pleading with me. He bends down and searches my face. I feel as though I could ask him the same question, but perhaps he’s always been this way. Perhaps it is me after all.

“Remember when we bought this house?” I ask. “We filled the Jacuzzi and stocked up on champagne and sat in that tub until we were wrinkled all over and could barely see straight.”

“Catherine,” he says.

“Yes?”

He puts his arm around me and we lie on the floor in silence. I stare straight up as if looking at the stars, but there are only plain white squares on the ceiling.

“Am I different now?” I ask. I feel old and worn out.

“I think maybe since you lost your job. Maybe you’ve just been a bit antsy, a little stir-crazy.” He looks at me hopefully. “You were happy, right? Before all of that?”

It’s hard to remember ever feeling anything before. “You know, I just can’t quite recall.”


Hannah Ledford lives in Knoxville, TN where she is currently working toward her MA in English and Creative Writing. Outside of the classroom, she is an editorial assistant for Grist Literary Journal. She has been writing fiction since childhood, when her stories chronicled the adventures of snarky elephants and hippopotamuses.