fish tank 31
All throughout Melbourne ice-creams melt, running down the sides of cones to make fingers sticky. In sleepy suburbia in the South-East, Helayna Cotton is without an ice-cream, sitting slumped up against the red-rusted garage door to her family home. The sixteen-year-old protects the skin on her back from the sizzling steel with a dirtied pillow that has seen more nightmares than dreams. She’s wearing a tacky pink bra that she pinched from K-Mart, and her small sweaty breasts ride outside of the cups like two dogs poking their heads out of the window of an old car humming along a busy road. Her ghostly white skin is lathered in baby oil because just a few days earlier she’d been watching a program on Channel 9 that showed bikini-wearing babes strolling squeaky sands with swollen chests and tanned skin. Completing the blonde haired-army were men who had sculpted bodies that were indicative of quiet social lives and fragile egos, all gloriously waxed on the surf beaches of coastal Australia. But Helayna is in Melbourne—a misdirected torpedo away from such hollow utopias. And her auburn mop is dazzling in the sunlight flowing beneath her shoulders much like searing lava running down the side of a volcano. The dotted freckles on her nose and shoulders sharpen in the sun’s gaze as she slowly turns red sitting beside two items: a cassette player which is playing distorted opera that would be useful in torturing prisoners of war, as well as a cheap plastic drinking glass filled to the brim with warm Fanta. She doesn’t pay attention to either, however. Her focus is set on crumpled yellow pages of handwritten notes.
Helayna’s father, Bruce, is perched at the table of a poorly lit dining room with a pile of bills unopened bills before him. A small stream of sun breaks in behind him through a narrow window fit for a prisoner. His features are oversized, and he has a slight gut with thinning arms and legs; the body of a beetle. His wispy hair went grey over a decade ago. Above his red nose are dark brown eyes that seldom wink, overseeing the carnage. Wearing a once white tank-top and unfitted brown suit pants that his hairy bare feet poke out of, he stares at the fish tank that he plonked in the middle of the table several months ago, where a bowl of fruit might usually sit.
One of the fishes is upside down, floating at the surface, while three others of varied sizes are swimming aimlessly beneath. At the bottom of the tank is a treasure chest, though the fish do not seem to realise the significance of it, darting off in any other direction.
Four BMX wheels skid to a halt on the blemished footpath, not disrupting Helayna’s focus on the handwritten pages. Two pre-teen boys have paused their journey to the milk bar at the sight of her exposed breasts—they’ve never seen a female’s nipples before. Eventually noticing their presence, Helayna launches upright, knocking the glass of Fanta over, before charging at the boys with raised fists and flailing nipples, blaring indistinguishable obscenities at the BMX bandits as they narrowly escape.
Over in the next room, the phone rings. Bruce ignores it, opting to drum upon the glass of the fish tank instead which the fish seem unbothered by. “Where are the sharks?” he whispers in his thick South African accent that has effortlessly survived his relocation to Australia. “I want to see the lions of the ocean, like in the documentary program on the television. That really was such a wonderful program. Where man befriended the magnificent creatures and swims with them at the depths of the glorious ocean. I think that would be my dream, a truly exceptional dream, to swim with sharks in the mysterious ocean.” He halts tapping upon the glass, falling silent but for his heavy breathing as he reclines back into his wooden chair, resigning his dream to merely that: a dream.
There are ants drowning in the Fanta as it surfs down the cracks in the bricked driveway.
The front door slams then Bruce’s hairy feet march across the yellow lawn to where Helayna bakes against the garage door reading the yellow handwritten pages, her nipples still exposed.
“What are you doing?” asks Bruce, startling his daughter.
“What, Dad?” she begins. “They’re just breasts. I mean, it’s like you say: they’re just silly calcium squirters!”
“No, you idiot! I mean what are you doing with my letters?”
“They’re not really letters though, Dad. You’re just writing some stuff about Mum. If it they were really letters, they’d say, Dear Someone… at the start of them, but—”
Helayna halts her sentence as Bruce attempts to rip his musings from her sweaty grip. The sun is beating down upon the two of them and their violent tango over the letters. When Bruce emerges with the sheets, they are crumpled and ripped, but not destroyed. Helayna’s mouth is bleeding.
“Why can’t you be useful to this family for once?” Bruce growls before marching inside.
A colony of seagulls sail through the crystal blue sky, circling beneath the sun, before coming to rest on a grass knoll in the middle of a busy park. Bruce does not notice them, however, with his focus steadied on salting a pre-peeled hardboiled egg just after he has tossed the empty sachet to the ground where it lands by his feet. Other feet that do not belong to him walk past the sachet, as it tosses and turns in the trivial breeze. Next to Bruce rests a Tupperware container filled with another five hardboiled eggs, all of which are already peeled. After finishing his first egg, Bruce reaches for another, though he clumsily knocks the container to the ground, causing the eggs to bounce away from him like days on a calendar. On all fours, he scrambles about to pick them up, muttering his embarrassment to the faceless owners of the bypassing feet, with the cheap hope that they might actually stop to offer him assistance, though the feet flout him, until a man dressed in a cheap devil costume who usually stands nearby to the park’s main entrance welcoming people in, for no adequate reason but for the civic duty he has thrusted upon himself, walks over and renders aid. “Thank you for that, so much. Thank you,” says Bruce, before offering, “Would you like an egg for yourself? As a token of my appreciation.”
The Devil looks at the dirtied egg on offer and shakes his head. Patting his stomach, he says: “No. I filled up on Burger King about half an hour ago, still a bit full. Thanks anyway though.”
The Devil walks away, leaving Bruce and his eggs to stare out at the day.
Thick clouds hide the stars of the night sky, and far beneath them an off-white 1984 Camry jerks into an otherwise empty driveway and settles in for the evening. Helayna’s thin, brown-haired and pimply-faced brother Greg, emerges from the vehicle, wearied from labouring on a construction site all day for $15 an hour, as he does six days a week. He slips inside the dark home and beelines to his bedroom, where his orange and red lava lamp provides low-level visibility, though enough to showcase a variety of posters of oily wrestlers such as Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, as well as a conveyer belt of nameless bikini babes. From a veiled spot beneath his bed, he pulls out a magazine and flips through it to a pre-marked page and beginning stroking his penis to a photograph of a muscular man performing oral sex on another man with a similarly muscular build. After about a minute, Greg climaxes, then wipes away the mess with his bedsheets and returns the magazine to its hidden tomb, like burying a lifeless body.
The repetitious sound of a thud, followed by a whimper, can be heard throughout the quieter moments of the opera music that Helayna is playing in her bedroom. The thud is the sound of her fists sinking into her stomach. The walls around her are painted dark blue and littered with posters of Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, Five, and S Club 7. Her tears slowly compile, as punch by punch the mark on her stomach continues to redden as the atmosphere of the bedroom reaches a violent crescendo. Outside a thunderstorm rips through platinum clouds, scolding night walkers and drenching them in the day’s exhaustion. Noticing the storm, Helayna stops hitting herself and moves towards the window to dance ballet.
Distorted American rap music blasts through the speakers of a cheap CD player as Greg flexes in his bedroom mirror, smiling at his chiselled abs as he alternates different poses while making comments to himself like, “Oh yeah, you like that?” and “Yeah, that’s fucking hot, ain’t it? Yeah, suck my dick bitch.” Then he gets down and does another set of sit-ups, burning his back on the dirty carpet.
At one end of the grimy tank, frenzied fish are feeding upon the mushy banquet of tiny wafers that Helayna has sprinkled in. At the other end of the tank, the upside-down fish does nothing.
Sitting down to join Bruce and Greg at the table for breakfast, Helayna watches the fish feast as she digs into her bowl of rice bubbles. “Helayna,” begins Bruce. “I have been thinking of a possible business plan for this family, if you do not find a job soon.”
“Yes. Your brother Gregory needs help.”
“What about Jack and Talia?” says Helayna.
“Don’t be so stupid. We do not even hear from Jack and Talia these days. Anyway, the other day when I was in the waiting room at the Doctor’s surgery, there was this section in a magazine, I forget its name, but in it there were these great big fat women who were projecting body positivity to empower others.”
“But I’m skinny, Dad?”
“Please, Helayna. Call me Sir while we are discussing business.”
“I’m sorry.” Bruce glares at Helayna, before she adds, “… Sir!”
“Yes, you are skinny in this moment, of course. We will have to beef you up with a nutrition plan first.”
A silence falls but for the bubbling of the fish tank.
“… But can we afford all of that food, Dad?” asks Greg.
After brief consideration, Bruce looks up from his soggy rice bubbles and responds, “Perhaps not, no.”
“Well, the house next door to the one I’m working at has three chickens couped up in a pen in their backyard, and it’s cruel to keep animals locked up, so maybe I could try to take one—they probably wouldn’t even notice,” suggests Greg.
Staring at the fish, Bruce slowly begins to nod. “This… you have the smarts. This is what they call entrepreneurial spirit— you are like a young Harry Oppenheimer! Bravo!”
Greg smiles at his rice bubbles.
“How long was that?” asks a puffed-out Greg, red-faced and hunched over with his sweaty hands on his sweatier knees in the middle of the living room, as Bruce sits on the couch, leaning forward with a stopwatch in his hands.
“Thirty-two seconds for the slow-coach,” says Bruce. “You run much like your sister. Like a little girl. You need to be more invigorated with some intensified ferocity, like a man. No, no—like an animal!”
“Let me see that!” responds Greg, extending his hand to his father.
Bruce shakes his finger at him. “Only the world champion of the course has the right to hold the stopwatch. When you beat my time, you can possess the stop watch!”
“Dad— c’mon! I counted twenty-one seconds in my head!”
“You are lying to yourself because you are ashamed! Maybe this is why no woman will sleep with you? Because of the shame that you carry around, slowing you down and making you sexually unappealing!”
“Alright, Dad,” says Greg.
Sensing that he may have taken things too far, Bruce puts the stopwatch down, walks over and places his hand on his son’s back. “This is important. Activities like this. They turn you into a winner. They turn you into a man. I want my bloodline to continue to be strong and successful, that is why I let you drive the car to your work, meaning that I have to take the bus with the peasants—it is a sacrifice. For you. I am investing in you as a man.”
“Let’s go again. Press start.”
“Okay, if you want to embarrass yourself. Get into position. On your marks. Get set. Go!”
Greg takes off out of the room. After him, Bruce screams, “RUN LIKE AN ANIMAL, GREGORY!”
A hazy sunrise peeks its head over the distant office buildings that Helayna is cycling towards. She’s wearing a pink singlet and mini denim shorts that ride up high, and according to her father look like virgin underwear. Her thick auburn hair spreads out beneath a bulky black helmet that has no chinstrap, rendering it useless but for a scheme in which to evade fines for riding without a helmet. A symphony of roars from highway engines, both small and large, fly past Helayna. Though despite the volume, she continues to sing opera both loudly and badly. In the back pocket of her virgin underwear is a list of places that were advertising for employees last month.
In a shady spot beneath one of the park’s overgrown trees, Bruce sets up a portable desk with a chair either side of it, as well as a handwritten sign that reads: BRUCES FORTUNE! On his desk is a newspaper, a coffee mug filled with pens and highlighters and a Thermus filled with home-made iced mocha. Bruce begins spitting on his glasses before rubbing them clean on his old t-shirt and finally, he places them to rest upon his face. With a yellow highlighter, he begins highlighting parts of the astrology section that he has before him, though the marker quickly runs dry. Tossing it over his shoulder onto a grassy area, he begins to babble: “Yellow… yellow, you are such a stupid colour. My least favourite of the primary colours. Useless.” Then he selects a green highlighter out of the coffee mug that reads: STOP THE BOATS, and says: “Mr Green. You are the chosen one. What can you deliver for me today?” and carries on highlighting parts of the astrology section.
The grass is shamrock green and luscious, Mother Nature’s retort to a baby’s bottom. Three fat men wearing polo shirts tucked into their shorts are playing golf on it. One of them drives the ball down the middle of the course. “Doesn’t get any better than this!” he says, with his pearly white teeth glistening in the morning sun.
The dull voices of ageing males come from the radio behind the counter. They’re saying obvious things about the current heatwave. A small Chinese man turns the volume up. He looks kind. Helayna is slowly walking down the aisles with her backpack, waiting for the right moment to slip a Snickers bar underneath the bike helmet that still rests atop her nest. After finding the right moment, with the chocolate securely concealed on her head, she approaches the counter. “Excuse me, Mister, but do you have any jobs?”
The man shakes his head. “Sorry, not at this moment in time.”
“Thanks anyway, Mister,” says Helayna, before walking out into the squiggly lined waves of intense heat.
A hippie-looking remnant from the sixties taken a seat opposite Bruce, wearing nothing on his feet. “Shoes are for drags, man,” he tells anyone with ears. Though he’s not in his usual preachy mood, his eyes peeking through thickly framed glasses with sweaty apprehension as Bruce speaks: “I don’t really love the forecast for you today. In fact, I find it to be astonishingly dangerous. Were you planning a trip to the shops today?”
“Yeah, man. In my kombi van—I call her Flowers. I was going to grab a bottle of Pepsi and some Tim Tams on the way home. It’s movie day at the dude ranch!”
With his eyes closed, Bruce says: “Do not do it. You will die in the most violent car crash that a human could possibly imagine. Instead of making it to the store, you will be flung through your car’s windscreen and tossed with the featherweight of a precious newborn baby into oncoming traffic, where you’ll be rolled flat by dashing vehicles. A gargantuan truck much too large for the road will crush your skull, leaving it misshaped like a raspberry pancake that has been destroyed by razor-sharp razors. You will die a horrible death. It is a very bad idea to go to the shops today, I am sorry to say. Perhaps you should wait until tomorrow.”
Silence slowly fills the space like a subtle gas leak. Then with a quivering bottom lip, Hippie Remnant finally speaks: “… But it’s okay to drive home, yeah? Just not to the shops.”
Realising what’s on the end of his fishing rod, Bruce shakes his head. “You should leave your keys with me overnight, and the car where it is.”
With one eyebrow raised, Hippie Remnant asks: “I thought it was only bad if I drove to the shops, dude?”
Bruce pauses. “If you want to die an utterly horrific death, then okay. But the vision that I had was along this very strip surrounding the park. Your skull was crushed, your—”
“—Okay, okay!” Hippie Remnant interjects. Sliding his keys across the desk to Bruce. “Are we done?”
“Can you pay by cash?”
“I’ve only got coins.”
In a small and near-vacant cinema that stinks of melancholy, Helayna files her unpainted nails with belligerence. A 52-year-old morbidly obese man sits with her, nursing an oversized bucket of well-buttered popcorn on his flabby gut, which hangs sideways over the armrest, invading Helayna’s personal space though she doesn’t seem to notice. He’s the driver of the school bus that she once took to school, and he’s sneaking in a movie between his two daily shifts. His breaths are shallow. Hers are unnoticeable.
“Can I have some popcorn?” asks Helayna.
“You should have got your own,” responds the bus driver.
Pulling up to the window of the drive-thru in a yellow kombi van with peace symbols painted on the sides, Bruce begins to scan the menu frantically before glancing down at the bunch of silver coins in his hand.
“Welcome to McDonald’s drive-thru, how can I help you today?”
“One Oreo McFlurry, please.”
“That’ll be $3.65.”
Beneath a streetlight not far from the Cotton household, a young female busker with a thin frame and jet-black hair is playing the guitar while singing a song:
True love will find you in the end
You’ll find out, just who is your friend
Don’t be sad, I know you will
But don’t give up until, true love will find you in the end.
Helayna slowly cruises past on her bike, sucking the now-melted Snickers bar out of its wrapper, her face is coated in chocolate. As she passes the busker, she begins to sing opera over the top before cackling with laughter into the distance. The busker smiles in her lone confusion.
Dusk has settled upon the scene. Greg is directing his old Toyota into a parking space at the back of a parking lot located behind a quiet petrol station still coated in the day’s sweat. He leans over and opens up the passenger door, and in slides a transvestite woman, shifting from the glow of the street lights into the veiled darkness of the car’s interior.
“Hello, I’m Shirley,” says Shirley. “What’s your name?”
“Hi Shirley. Ugh, it’s Bobby. How about you?” responds Greg.
“Bona to vada your dolly old eek, Bobby! You’re just a filly aren’t you! Hun, I must ask, is there something in the boot? I heard a strange sound, like a fluttering almost.”
“Nope,” says Greg.
“Alright then, hun,” says Shirley, with suspicion.
Greg nods, searching for words out of awkwardness: “Yeah. How are you?”
With a smirk and a shake of the head, Shirley launches into a harangue: “Oh, you know, hun! Just bonaroo! No, no, no, in reality I am god-tired of this fucking shithole. Nobody wants anything here. They don’t want anything at all, anywhere! It’s all screech. Did you know that you’re the first person that I’ve spoken to today? Talk about broken dreams—most people stare through me as though I’m a ghost, an evil ghost at that! I mean, come on— when they look at me, they see a six-foot-four man dressed in high heels and a dress for Christ’s sake. You certainly see me coming—no pun intended, dear!”
“Ah, that sucks.”
“It sure does, hun, but drublub to them! You know, I try to tell myself that the opinions of others don’t matter, though that’s easier said than done! And I don’t even do this full-time. This is not like a career for me or anything. In fact, I work at an aged care facility two days a week and I love it there. Old folks are special, Bobby. Old folks don’t care about trivialities anymore.”
Uncertain of what drublub means, or of what to say about old folks that he doesn’t know, Greg offers a puny smile.
“Anyway, Bobby, you don’t need to hear about my problems. I’m sure you’ve got problems of your own!”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Oh, nothing much. I just mean to say that everyone has their problems, and they don’t need to hear about anyone else’s.
“Well, I don’t—my life is just fine.”
“Your life is just fine?”
“Hun, if your life was just fine. You wouldn’t be about to buy sex off me out the back of a vacant parking lot.”
Instead of responding with words, Greg opts to grunt. He then turns his head to stare out the window, contemplating abandoning the date. But he feels Shirley’s hand on his thigh, caressing the insides of them with sharp fingernails, making him harden. “Now, do you want to know prices?”
He nods, “Yeah.”
In an automatic breath Shirley responds, “$50 for me to blow you—$30 for you to blow me—and sex is $150—whether you give or take it—but we need to find a cottage for that.”
“A cottage?” he swivels his head back.
“Public toilets, hun.”
“Well, what’s it going to be then?”
From his wallet Greg removes a $50 note and passes it into Shirley’s free hand, then reclines his seat back into the depths of the evening.
From a small black television in the corner of the room the film, The Sound of Music blares. Helayna and Bruce are seated on either side of a three-seated dust-covered couch with bowls of cereal in their laps. Helayna begins singing along, misquoting every second word.
“What are you doing?!” exclaims Bruce. “Your singing is a foolish disservice to the entertainment industry!”
In that moment, Helayna is saved by the cold metallic shriek of the telephone. Bruce approaches it with rage, ripping it from one wall and slamming it into another. “They won’t stop calling me!” he exclaims, before storming off to his bedroom and locking the door behind him.
Upstairs, Helayna is crying on her bedroom floor as Greg trudges past. Hearing her cries, he opens the door and enters, picking her up from the floor and holding her from behind, gently swaying their bodies from side-to-side.
At the dining room table Bruce sits in the darkness, with his chin resting in his hands and his elbow resting on the table. The fish are barely visible as they swim about. “Why don’t you find some direction?” Bruce asks the fishes. “Why don’t you find some fucking direction?!” he repeats. The fish continue to swim about aimlessly, and he continues to watch them do so into the early hours of the morning.
Lying in bed, Greg is softly whimpering with his knees tucked up, coddling a dead chicken as if it was a baby.
The sun has just peeked its head over the horizon, casting its first glow across an expansive park filled with luscious soccer fields and cricket pitches, flanked by large green trees that house small birds. Helayna is naked but for a pair of black runners, as she runs and jumps in puddles and sings loudly to herself:
Mum, mum, you’re number one!
Mum, mum, you’re so fun!
Mum, mum, you’re number one!
Mum, mum, it’s so fun!
A yuppie couple jogs by in the opposite directions, feigning conversation with each other in a weak attempt to avoid contact with Helayna. They’re luckless— she spots them and begins running along next to them, her limbs flying about like undomesticated garden hoses, yelling at them: “Faster! Faster! Faster!”
At the altar of a small church, an elderly priest is finishing Matthew 8:1-4: the story of Jesus cleansing a leper. “See that you don’t tell anyone,” the priest reads from the Bible. “But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them. And yeah, that’s the story of Jesus and the leper everyone. Cheers for listening. Amen.” As the rest of the churchgoers mumble amen in response, Helayna lets rip a: “Whoop! Whoop!” to which both Bruce and Greg turn their heads to flash her down with scornful looks, though the rest of the church appears unbothered.
Then a man with a guitar starts singing a song about a donkey.
The fish jolt about the tank at random. Helayna and Bruce are seated at the living room table. They’re rehearsing for Helayna’s job interview at an aged care facility that Greg helped to arrange.
“Okay,” begins Bruce. “Now you be you, and I will be the customer. I am, let me think… I am a man who has just been in a horrific car accident and I am coming into the aged care facility to receive care, because I cannot be cared for by my wife… who is a midget.”
“But why can’t your wife care for you if she is a midget?”
Bruce pauses and glances over at the fish as if they’ll give him the answer. “Because… there are stairs in the house that she cannot carry me up. It is a big mansion that we live in. Too big for an injured man and his midget wife.”
“Okay,” says Helayna.
“Change of plan,” says Bruce with dissatisfaction. “I’ll be the interviewer instead. Perhaps we can leave the customer interaction until you have the job. Yes, then we can rehearse that then.”
“Okay,” says Helayna.
“Good, okay. Now let’s get into character,” says Bruce, closing his eyes to seemingly enhance his focus. “Are you in character?”
“I thought I was just playing myself? I think I’m already in character.”
“Yes, of course,” says Bruce, irritated. “But you need to be more serious about it. Don’t sit back in your chair all slouchy pouchy like that. Lean forward. Yes, lean forward. You must lean into your customer to show them that you are a serious employee that respects good business.”
Leaning forward in her chair, Helayna confirms: “Like this?”
“Yes, good work. Maybe there is hope!” says Bruce. “But perhaps just lean back an inch or two now to get it right.”
Helayna leans back an inch or two.
“Okay, excellent. Now what would you say to me, the customer?”
Searching for answer, Helayna ruffles her hair, a non-verbal way to say, “Umm…”
“You have to say something really witty and intelligent, like Winston Churchill. He was such a proud man full of life and highly respectable accomplishments. But he was always saying witty and intelligent quotes as well. Did you know that there once was this terribly ferocious woman and she said to Mr Churchill… just let me think of it for one moment… she said that, If you were my husband, I would give you poison to drink, and in one millisecond or perhaps even less, Mr Churchill replied, If you were my wife, I would drink it!” laughs Bruce, clapping at his own recollection. “You need to say something like that! Something extremely witty and intelligent to really wow them. When you wow them, they will have no choice but to give you the job!”
Helayna is gazing silently at the fish tank.
In the yellow kombi van Bruce weaves through traffic with the radio blasting. He disregards the red and yellow lights, streaming straight through their airy gates after finding crack-sized gaps in stunned traffic to shoot through. As he drives, he gulps down blue cough medicine straight from the bottle as if it’s Fanta.
Three fat men are sitting on one side of a desk. All of them are dressed in polo shirts and have them tucked into their pants.
“Good morning, Miss Cotton,” says one of the three men. “Thank you for taking the time to interview for the position of nurse’s assistant this morning.”
“Howdy doo,” says Helayna.
Another one of the men then asks, “So tell us, Miss Cotton, why do you want to work here at St Michael’s Aged Care?”
Helayna leans forward and says, “There is a woman who wants to give me poison. And if she’s my wife, I will drink it.”
The sun beats down upon Greg and Shirley sitting side-by-side at a cemetery, overlooking the death and the day. Greg is swinging his legs.
“What was she like anyway, Bobby?” Shirley asks.
“She was beautiful,” says Greg.
“How do you think the interview went today then, Helayna?” asks Bruce.
“I’m not so sure, Dad.”
“Were you witty and intelligent?”
“I think so, Dad.”
The trio are seated around the living room table eating roast chicken without any sides. They’re chewing in the gentle glow of the candlelight, which is shimmering just enough to showcase the fish humming around the tank.
Ethan Garraway is a writer from Melbourne, Australia, currently living in New York City where he is completing a Master of Fine Arts (Fiction) at Columbia University.