Fiction Literature Olivia Van Guinn


1. Our favorite part of the zoo was the aquarium. We were both scared of water. Never swam or got close to the beach. Being blue-skinned between the water tanks got us close as we ever got to being fish. Me and Jack. I remember, we found the ugliest fish we could that reminded us of each other. He was an arowana, which is a big, long, orangey fish with a pinched-up nose, and it has lazy eyes and chubby cheeks and a noticeably protruding bottom lip. I was a turbot, which is one of the sand-colored flatfish with a lopsided face that sits belly-down disgruntledly on the ocean floor. We liked those names for each other. Also found those words funny. Arrow-wanna. Turb-bot. One kind of sounds like moaning. The other sounds like a belch. Funny little words like that keep kids entertained for days.

2. Jack. We became friends for a reason. He had a big, loud, vicious dad and no mom at all. Didn’t help when Alzheimer’s shredded his grandpa’s brain like dry chicken. Me and Jack knew each other for years before we liked each other. Sometimes people enter your life and just idle there because they’re going to be important to you—just not yet. But when the time is right, the weather is ready, and the poles align, you catch their eyes in the light one day and wonder where they’ve been all this time. With Jack, he’d been rolling around me forever. Then one day, I opened up, and he just fell in.

3. Jack—when he smiled—had little wrinkles under the eyes that looked like the letter V, and as soon as I realized, I knew I could write some kickass poems if I could only figure out what V stood for. But Jack wasn’t any of the V words. Not vile, not vicious, not vast. Not victorious because in every game, he never tried hard to win. Not vain, not viral, no one’s Valentine. I wished the wrinkles could spell something else, like a B.

4. Outgrew my fear of water around this time. Jack didn’t. But on a chance trip me and my sister took to Dammar’s River at the end of high school, I came to realize anything that kept the fish so safe couldn’t be that bad.

5. In college, Jack and I had sex three times. Once because we were drunk. The second time to see if any real feelings were still shiny without the apple whiskey. The third time to confirm that they weren’t. And all of it was good but none of it was amazing. Neither of us cared that much for it. Eventually, I came to learn I didn’t feel much during sex at all, and Jack just didn’t think about it. We would have made an awful couple. Driven each other to tears.

6. Jack. He was fucking frictionless. By that, I mean he would go wherever you wanted him to go. The slightest little nudge in any direction and he would shoot off there. Slipperiest soles in the city. He was just happy to be going anywhere at all. And he got into rough spots in college, but I did too. It’s not like we didn’t learn from them. We didn’t call each other Arowana and Turbot much anymore. Maybe twice that year, just to make other people feel unwelcome, because those were our names.

7. After college, our paths diverged. We tried volunteering together at the library so we’d see each other once a month, but it was a priority for neither of us and eventually we both ran out of room for it. It wasn’t sadder than outgrowing a pair of jeans, really. With his English degree, Jack paid his dues on editorial boards and entertained journalism for a while before landing a chair with one of the provincial publishers. He signed off on the pulpy crime novels they unload on grocery store shelves. During this time, he got married to a bartender he met one night, and the pair had a handsome baby daughter. Moved away but sent postcards. The first photo I ever saw of his daughter, she was laughing. Inherited the V’s Jack had under his eyes.

8. And me? If you can believe it, I became a marine biologist. Guess the aquarium really stuck with me. My shrink might call it a safe space or what-have-you. Or maybe I just liked fish. Liked how the plural was fish so you couldn’t tell if I was talking about one or ten. Bachelor’s got me a job at the same zoo I went to with Jack, except this time I was monitoring water quality and eating habits, crunching numbers, feeding the machines. Don’t tell anyone, but I named one of the arowana “Jack.” Just because I had the chance.

A couple years tending to the zoo fish eventually paid for a master’s that had me researching the Dammar’s River trout. I loved those trout. Loved their little eyes and crocodile mouths, and the polka dots on each one like freckles. I don’t think anyone in this industry ever outgrows the urge to point at fish like in a picture book and gawk because they’re so freaking cool. But then everyone’s got something like that. Something that satisfies the hunger to love wholly, unconditionally, unafraid, and without reason. Mine just happened to be fish.

9. Made me realize I was a zoo nut though. Loved naming the fish and checking up on the same ones every day like open-mouthed friends. Hated tagging a trout and letting it go. Hated letting go in general. To cope with the change, I’d have a couple names at once like Lucy, Ricky, Jet, and Jules, and every trout I stared at too long became one of those four. Crafted whole personalities this way. It was the latent writer in me, the part of me I shared with Jack. Lucy was the speedy one. Jet just wanted love. Ricky did nothing but float all day. When I was in a bad mood and a dead trout washed up on the rocks, I’d say that trout was Jules, and I would mourn for Jules. Made the lab guys wonder what the hell was wrong with me.

10. I never got married. Never got the appeal. I’ve loved, but never the way you have to for marriage. I’ve starved for love, but dates never helped. I think all that romance stuff is a temperature at which most people lounge but is so sweltering to me that I can hardly move. Nah. Had my mom. My sister. Even when my grandma died, Alzheimer’s-ridden, I had plenty of bodies to lean on. Plus all the beautiful fish.

11. Forty years later, Jack was back and wanting to reacquaint himself with the city, and that included a coffee get-together with me over the holiday weekend. I said sure. I’d be mad at myself if I didn’t. As long as he was buying, and they had good decaf.

First thing Jack asked me at the front of the coffee shop on that dusty afternoon was, “Do you remember us going to the zoo?” and I’m not sure I knew what he was doing; maybe ignoring every day between our sit-down and our college days made it easier to talk, and stopped me from kidding about how we suddenly had a lot less hair. I did joke though, and it made me think Jack had the right idea because instead of playing catch-up for three hours, he showed me sweet photos which made me do crappy voices which made him guffaw.

12. Daughter picked him up that day. Nice girl. Practically what you expect from a daughter of bitter divorcees but with a kind voice. From what she said, Jack was at this coffee shop every single weekday at four, paid two seventy-eight for green tea, and sat far away from the window by his comfortable lonesome. Stayed there for a few hours, got picked up when his daughter returned from work, and then walked back the next day. Made him happy, I guess.

13. So I was there every weekday at five. Thought he’d still enjoy his solitude for a while, and I wouldn’t have to speed all the way back from the river every weekday. See, seeing Jack again reminded me that Jack was fucking frictionless. Nudge him any direction and he’d shoot off there. You’d be chasing him down before long. So no way would he object to my regular appearance at the shop. On the first run-in, we vowed to try everything on the menu at least once, implying at least that many coffee dates. Baristas got to know both of us by name. Soon, Jack started bringing checkers and chess and cards, and in doing so, pissed me the fuck off because he would chuck his chances of winning in the bin just to make a joke or see what I would do. Fucking bastard. Easy to love, though. Didn’t fight you on it like most people.

14. We were halfway through the menu when his memory started going. I didn’t even have to ask. Same thing as my grandma, and the moment I remembered his grandpa had Alzheimer’s too, it was only a matter of time. Fuck Jack though, for being himself. Started losing words mid-sentence. He’d stop, look around the floor for the words he’d dropped and when he couldn’t find them, he’d shrug and mosey on. If it had been me, I would have found those words even if it took hours. Even if it took days of furiously stamping about, I’d figure out where those words rolled off too. Picked them up. Blown the dust off them. Make them good as new. Precious little things.

15. One day, he forgot the rules of chess. Couldn’t tell the difference between his little white soldiers. That was fine. We played checkers instead. Bastard never knew all the rules of chess to begin with.

16. Jack asked one day, “Are you still afraid of water?” and I said, “No. Couldn’t be.” “I always was,” said Jack, “and still am to this day. I never even set foot on a boat, though I would if I weren’t so damn scared.” I sipped my coffee, diluted with half-water because straight-up is too strong. “I’ve been on plenty of boats,” I said, “and there’s nothing to fear. The fish are my friends. They like me, and they travel in schools. If I ever fell off, they’d catch me. Lift me back up. It’d just be up to me to get dried off.”

17. Three-quarters of the way through the menu, a barista started looking for trouble. Chubby little kid. Black hair. Fourteen. Cool as a kid could look. He’d just started out and never knew who Jack was, so just stared open-mouthed when Jack went up to order. Jack knew what he wanted, just forgot the words for it. And this kid was asking so many questions. Medium or large. Room-for-milk or fill-it-up. To stay or to go. It’s too goddamn much. And the line starts getting frustrated, and the kid starts getting frustrated. Soon he’s calling the manager who’s as sorry as a motherfucker can look, but by then I’ve taken Jack away. We never went back to that coffee shop. Never finished the menu.

18. “Remember college?” I asked. Jack nodded; “Of course I do.” “Do you remember what we were drinking that one night?” “Yeah—apple whiskey.” I nodded, walking Jack into his bedroom. “Do you remember what we did that night?” I asked, “Drinking all that apple whiskey?” “I—” Jack started, and then his eyes fell away, and his lips became flat, and he was looking at something else entirely now without a clue we ever went to college. “That’s okay,” I said, “it’s the apple whiskey.”

19. Sometimes I asked myself what the fish would do. Ricky, Jet, Lucy, and Jules. Fish are a lot smarter than people, I think sometimes. You never catch a fish hurting itself.

20. Every weekday, I arrived on the doorstep of Jack’s house and his daughter walked him down from his room to the couch. Jack never looked at anything anymore. He saw, but never looked. You had to do a little dance in front of his eyes, be the most exciting thing in his view, and then he would notice you and say hi. Then I would ask him what my name was. He seemed puzzled, like you’re puzzled when someone mumbles as they walk past and you think that what they said wasn’t that important but then start to wonder if it was. His daughter would help. She’d have the shape of the word on her lips, and shepherd his thoughts back to me when they strayed too far. And then he would say my name. Act like he knew it all along. Then we’d cook dinner and watch TV and get dressed up whenever his daughter brought out the candles so we could pretend it was a fancy night out.

21. I brought baked goods from home often. And casseroles and pastas I had popped in the oven, all covered in foil, ready for the microwave. My sister showed me how to make them. My mom pointed me in the direction of new recipes in the papers and online. New foods made him happy. Made him feel like he was learning. Growing. Still growing, and not wilting away.

22. When Jack didn’t recognize me at all, I felt the kind of violence I thought dried up and fell out in my fifties. I thought I’d never feel that kind of anger again, but it swelled up like a cyst and bubbled. “Of course you know me; you’ve known me forever. I’m the one who turns on the TV for you every goddamn day. I’m the one who brings the motherfucking casseroles even though I’m running the fuck out of tin foil! I’m the only guy in the world with the patience to love a pale forgetful fucking idiot like you for this goddamn fucking long!” But Jack just stared at me. Like he didn’t even register me as human. Like I was some strange collection of fungus screaming its fucking face off at a cloudy-eyed old man who couldn’t tell the days apart.

23. But it was me who held Jack’s daughter while she cried half the night, all the while astounded at how such a small girl held such a deep well of tears which never grew cold. Her face had the glow of a candle. I supposed I was considered a member of the family now. I didn’t object. I hadn’t seen my own family in ages. And while she cried enough to douse the sun, Jack was sound asleep next door, probably oblivious to what the sound even was. We pretend we’re all understandable, our emotions universal, our feelings attractively deep. But really, when you’re half as far gone as Jack was, the sobbing of your daughter just sounds like some faraway bird.

24. Jack. Never cared where he was going. He was just happy to be going anywhere at all. Always picked up games but never tried to win. What about me, Jack? Goddamnit, I’m trying to play too.

25. As usual, the river brought clarity. It was Jack’s daughter’s idea to go, to get some fresh air and pretty views into Jack before the time for that had passed. It was one of those muggy days that makes your hair feel disgusting. The heat kept people clustered beneath elm trees and by the riverside. Sun kept your eyes turned to the ground. I set up a picnic by the dock while Jack’s daughter helped him onto a paddle boat. Some helpers strapped a life vest on him and lifted him off the dock and into the thing; all the while, Jack muttered friendly words with a big fat smile. I watched from the cloud-shaped shade and wondered—had Jack never told his daughter that he hated water? He never seemed particularly ashamed of the fact. It had just never come up in conversation, maybe. Or maybe his daughter was finally acting on an understanding that I should have come to long before—that this old man was not Jack.

26. Because commitment is an awful thing. An awful, evil thing, to decide how you feel once and then stick by it. Living on promises to a younger self. Living on promises to the dead. I never committed to a thing in my life. I asked myself the same questions every day. Am I happy? Do I love what I do? And if the answer was ever “no,” then I’d change. Everything goes wrong with the slightest bit of commitment. Like my commitment to calling this old bastard “Jack.” But this bastard doesn’t know crime novels. Never went to college. Doesn’t play chess or cards. Doesn’t care that I love him. He was out there having the time of his fucking life gawking around at the shimmery rolling water that he could drown in. He was just one of a thousand old men who looked like Jack but were not Jack. Like one night, the aliens came and plucked Jack’s soul out of his body and absconded with it, and through all of outer space I would never get it back, because that would be like trout trying to understand where their tags came from.

27. So I had the thought in me that day to roll up our picnic lunch in the tablecloth and chuck it all in the river. Let it plunk through the water’s surface and explode so that the lighter stuff bobbed on the blue and the heavy stuff sank. Make Jack know I was up there so I could scream obscenities at him that no one’d thought about in the past thirty years. Let him know how much I hated him for stealing Jack’s body. Eating all the food. Drinking up all that devotion and love when all this time, he couldn’t even taste it. I had the thought, alright. Lying there in the shade, I had the thought.

28. When Jack’s daughter dropped me off back home, I saw my sister and mom for the first time in a month. They had no idea about the Jack business. I didn’t want them to. They thought I’d been busy with work, and now I wasn’t, so that night we had dinner together. Went out for burgers and ribs that cost way more than expected, but that was fine. We chatted about sports and fish and my sister’s upcoming marriage. Nice to spend a while with some people who actually know that I’ve told them my name.

29. I honestly, truly have no fucking clue what brought me back to Jack’s place one more fucking time two months later just to pick up the Tupperware I’d forgotten. I could’ve bought more. Dollar store was on the way but I cruised past it. Maybe I wanted to say goodbye to Jack’s daughter, who wasn’t a daughter to me but a friend who deserved a farewell with some finality. But that’s a lie too. Didn’t even check if she’d be home. Maybe I’m a fucking idiot. Owed Jack one more visit to repair the damage I’d thought to do at the river. Leave us at zero.

Jack’s daughter answered the door but was in a rush, so she scurried back up to her room to finish her makeup. I was lonely in the house. Even with Jack upright in the armchair, I was lonely. Hard not to be when he’s flat as paper, engrossed with the carpet before his feet. Couldn’t lift his saggy, half-circle eyes off.

I came down to stand in front of him. Take him all in, this wrinkled, liver-spotted sack of shit. He hadn’t changed since I left. Hadn’t moved, probably. Unrecognizable from the man who’d go anywhere you took him. And now I felt as ridiculous as if I were trying to talk to some half-melted candle; any word was more than it deserved. And maybe this ridiculousness prompted me to utter the most ridiculous word I could think of, out of spite—just to do it. “Arowana.”

Then Jack’s eyes lifted from the carpet. His leathery cheeks folded up like curtains uncovering a sunshine smile with those V’s under his eyes I could never figure out. And he shouted out in a voice unchanged from when we were kids—I guess we all find ourselves back at that point. “Turbot!”

And I fucking bawled. I staggered backward like a gust of wind had whistled through my bones, I crumpled, and I cried. This motherfucker just won’t let me go.

Olivia Van Guinn (they/them) is a poetry and prose writer currently studying English at the University of Calgary. They are a 5’6” Sagittarius/Cancer/Cancer who gets frequent nightmares, cooks good rice, believes Mothman exists but Bigfoot does not, and supports the lesbian community.