Student Showcase: Nick Miller

Electric Nothing

Inside the house with the red door, Oliver sits in lowlight counting the take out loud. Each bill he skims off the stack and sets onto the table, calling it by its name. Twenty, twenty, fifty, ten. He makes marks in a notepad, impulsively crossing out old figures and re-adding the sum. Cigarette smoke wafts from the cracked bathroom door. From time to time, when the hairdryer clicks off, he can hear Leslie singing. Since the latest concussion she sings always. At first he was very afraid. She’s mostly back now even though from time to time there’s trouble doing one thing for too long and she still hasn’t been back to work at the pet shop. The singing is a good sign though. When she remembers entire verses, Oliver feels soothed like above him the sky is completely empty and nothing is blocking him from the way-out-there everything-else. He’d teased her the night they unloaded the knifefish into the tub that, when Chance bucked her off last, she must have landed on a ringing rock. It must’ve busted song into her skull. Her voice sounds like the things he thinks of when he says her name or just rolls it over his tongue. Leslie, velvet, wine, smoke. Soft things like clouds. Out the window behind him, an unbroken one hangs over building tops, and, when he looks up, Oliver can see its featureless reflection across the fish tank.

He feels a quiver in his chest each time the leftmost digit goes one higher. When he adds an extra zero, he remembers his grandfather who died of a heart attack at thirty. He sums up the final figures, slips two hundred into his wallet, and tucks the rest into a box labeled Freshwater Salts. Tonight they’ll do it all: deep fried pickles or calamari to start, he’ll get a steak, each their own dessert, and drinks the whole time. One splurge he can afford. He senses, looking into the white haze on the tank glass, a splurge they desperately need.

He runs his hands through his hair. A fish tank is a thing of delicate balance. There’s inhabitant type, biotype agreeability, ph, lighting, filtration, salt water and fresh, predator and prey. In the same notebook he has scrawled definitions of aeration and oxygenation. Species too aggressive or too foreign can lead to stress-death. Oliver wrote it down when the leader of his night seminar said, “Electricity won’t flow through the endoskeleton and their hearts will stop.” At night, when Leslie pinches food into the tank, he holds her by the elbow and makes sure she doesn’t add too much. Together they watch fish with round mouths pluck flakes from the surface.

Another two days, with luck three, before the fish start to belly up. Horace is driving down from Missoula with a couple tanks and contacts for buyers. He’ll need Horace to help him drain it, to get the Tiger Barbs away from the Swordtails and Angelfish, to get the Shortfin Squid out. The squid are too active, darting in and out of the hairgrass like ducks fleeing a birddog. The real work will be with the Moorish Idol. It’s quick as lightning and easily stressed. Oliver worries about this fish, with its long black barbels, yellow spotted lateral line and dorsal. It’s a heavily-decorated and arrogant beauty. Worth three times as much as the others.

Half of the take will go to supplies, the rest to bills. He needs to stock up on tanks to spread out the fish and sell, some filter types, more water conditioner. Maybe even some polo shirts with a name printed over the pocket to look real. If she can, Leslie will help him come up with a name. She had talent of that sort. The only woman who could do her hair with two knifefish in the tub. The fish are nocturnal and soon will start to squirm.

Oliver gets up and walks to the bathroom. He takes the cigarette out of the tray and puts what’s left between his teeth. Leslie in her pick robe sits at the edge of the tub, reaching toward the water.

He rushes her, grabs her by the wrist and pulls her from the tub. His cigarette falls to the floor.

“Gymnotiforms are electric,” he says. Her face is heavily made up, birchbark pale with outlined lips, cat eyes drawn on.

She looks back at him confused, her razor eyebrows pressed.

Oliver loosens his grip on Leslie’s wrist, and places both her hands on his hips.

“I don’t want the fish to hurt you,” he says, stepping the cigarette into the tile.

Her lip quivering, she nods up at him.

“Okay, Oliver,” she says. “I won’t touch your fish.”

He holds her there for a minute, gently, then tightly, so tight that her white make up smears wet against his shirt as she presses her fingers into his back and in the tub the knifefish know that it is night and begin to stir and if he holds her there long enough running his hands through her hair Leslie will begin to sing and he will see the muscly black bodies of the knifefish jostle in the tub as if it is not a tub but a wide cold river in Argentina woven between mountains so tall that, if you got to the top, your hands could cup lightning and you would be as much part of the sky as of the earth.

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