It is dead upon arrival. As soon as Jimmy is home, he tears the box open, cuts through the matching brown tape with the sharp edge of a key. Inside, the carcass. It is lying in a thin thread of water. The deflated plastic bag, like a balloon past its prime. Encasing all this, a styrofoam interior to insulate against any sudden changes in temperature. The case is nearly overflowing with the water that had leaked, dyed blue from the conditioner used to remove the traces of ammonia. Jimmy can clearly see that the fish had once been a beautiful specimen—a solid body of slippery gold. Its mosaic-patterned scales still somehow glisten under the basement fluorescent lights. Its eyes, a pair of precious stones, and just as lifeless.
“That’s a big fish,” Granny Ngin says. She is on her toes, tries to catch further glimpses of the fish from behind Jimmy’s broad shoulders. “And so gold.”
“It looks as if it must have been very expensive. How much did you pay for it?”
Jimmy won’t say. He doesn’t know how to put it to a woman who’s worked over thirty years as a seamstress at a garment factory in Chinatown. She had made nickels and dimes by piecework.
“Oh God, that much, huh?” Granny Ngin says. “For all that, why didn’t you just buy real gold?”
“Aiya, Granny Ngin. It wasn’t that much.”
“Ah, but it is still, a waste.”
Jimmy doesn’t quite know how to explain that golden arowanas are technically illegal in the States. Unlike its evolutionary counterparts—the silver or the Australian or the black—the golden arowana is the only species of the fish that is presumed endangered. It is a kind of misconception. He knows what most lawmakers won’t bother realizing—that golden arowanas are being heavily farmed in the rain forests of Malaysia. There, one can find gargantuan pools brimming with them. There are pictures on fish forums online: bodies swimming upon bodies, a golden orgy of domestication. How they seem to dazzle under the tropical sun like a bounty of treasure. It is nothing short of alluring. The fish are then shipped to fish keepers all over Southeast Asia. To Europe. Even to Canada. But alas, not the US. For here in Brooklyn, golden arowanas are practically an impossibility. Unless smuggled in, somehow.
He had meant for the golden arowana to be the pinnacle of his collection—nine tanks in the basement of his family’s two-family home. Tanks of various sizes, holding various fish. All of the exotic variety: cichlids, gouramis, rays, and plecos. But not a single goldfish occupies the tanks. Goldfish are for dabblers, fair-weathered hobbyists. Jimmy is a self-proclaimed aficionado of fish, like Hemingway to bullfighting. In addition, a pair of three-foot-long silver arowanas dominates the largest of the tanks. And yet, next to the idea of the gold, the silvers only exude the essence of second best.
“Excuse me,” Jimmy mutters. He pushes past Granny Ngin. She’s rarely seen him in such a huff. As he throws the cardboard into the trash with such brutality, he startles Benny, the family’s Pekingese. Jimmy can’t help blaming himself for not being home in time for the delivery. He blames the delays on the N train. The cold weather. His calculus class for running over time. He even blames fate. Above all, he blames UPS. One can write “fragile” a thousand times on the box and still count on the shipping company to handle without care. The injustice of it all. How many species of fish have inadvertently perished at their careless hands? For Jimmy, dozens upon dozens. If someone were to tally up the losses of all the fish keepers in the world, one could possibly fill an ocean. Or rather, re-fill one.
“You should ask for a refund,” Granny Ngin suggests. She follows behind him, slippers that shuffle against the floor. Her tiny hands are locked in anxiousness. She abhors waste. It is the village ideology of her ancestors not to waste anything. She even considers eating the fish for dinner. “Isn’t there a guarantee that the fish must come alive?”
“No guarantees, Granny Ngin.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Can you ask again, just to make sure?”
* * *
A refund is out of the question. But Jimmy’s contact offers something far better: another arowana. Just as golden. And alive, too. Jimmy snatches the opportunity before someone else beats him to it. With fish, one has to seize the moment. Good deals disappear quickly.
Jimmy decides to take matters into his own hands. He will pick up the fish in person. He will make the seven-hour-long drive from Brooklyn to Pittsburgh. His parents won’t exactly be thrilled by the idea of letting him borrow the family’s black SUV, to drive so far just to acquire yet another fish, but his grades are in good standing, so they must hold up their end of the bargain. Jimmy saves the news for the last possible moment and springs it upon his parents at their most vulnerable—dinner. At the table, his mother and father pause mid-bite. Both their mouths droop in speechlessness, chopsticks dangling in mid-air. Bowls of rice, steaming too.
“It’s too late,” Jimmy tells them, just as he rehearsed it before the bathroom mirror only moments prior. “Already paid for. But I can assure you, it’s a very good deal.”
Jimmy spends the rest of the evening avoiding his parents’ eyes, narrowed stares of disapproval. Their arms are crossed as tightly as they are. He wonders how they can still breathe.
There won’t be a receipt. Only a certificate in Malay, to prove the arowana’s authenticity, and even that isn’t failsafe. His contact emphasizes discretion, for authorities have recently been cracking down on illegal arowanas all over the tri-state area. His contact knows a guy whose entire collection had been confiscated. The fish keeper had spent the night in jail. All his awowanas, donated to a zoo. The horror. The fish keeper’s mug shot had even crossed the front page of community newspapers.
“These are dangerous times,” his contact warns. “Phones may be tapped. Emails read. Every precaution must be taken.”
Over the phone, Jimmy is instructed to speak only in code: “Goldie” with no mention of the word “arowana” or “fish” or “smuggle” or “Canada.” They act as if they are speaking of a golden retriever instead.
“Is Goldie of a good size?” Jimmy asks.
“Oh yes, very good.”
“And is Goldie very gold?”
“Oh yes, very gold.”
“And is Goldie eating properly?”
“Oh yes, very properly.”
“Crickets and worms?”
“ . . . . . . . . . Why, yes.”
The morning. The SUV is warming up in the driveway. Smoke exudes from the exhaust, the waft of gasoline fills the air. It is February. They are in the midst of the most frigid temperatures all winter. Jimmy’s stuffed a wad of bills into the hidden pocket of his jacket, money that he’s amassed from his part-time tutoring jobs: algebra and biology at a high school on the Lower East Side in between classes. He loads an empty Rubbermaid into the backseat. Inside, a heater, a makeshift filter to keep the water moving in order to supply enough oxygen for the fish’s ride back. He leaves the car to open up the black iron gates that guard the driveway. The metal scrapes against the pavement. Upon hearing this, his mother appears at the window, donning pink rollers and a blue sweater. She makes one last plea for Jimmy to reconsider.
“Such a foolish trip!” she cries. “Too many fish already! No room for more of the same!”
More of the same? But Jimmy has no time to explain the intricacies of his pastime.
“Don’t you worry,” he assures her with a flick of a wrist. “I’ll be back by tomorrow morning, in time for breakfast.”
His mother grunts. But to his relief, she disappears from the window. He is home free. Or so he thinks. Upon returning to the car he cries, “Granny Ngin!”
Granny Ngin smiles up at him from the passenger seat. She is comfortably bundled up in a violet bubble jacket. There is the scent of her favorite vanilla perfume, which she reserves for special occasions, and it permeates the interior. She is wearing the sky-blue hat that she wears when she leaves the house to visit the senior citizen center, or the neighborhood Italian markets. It’s to protect her head from the cold, though she wears it during the summers, too.
“Granny Ngin, what are you doing?”
“I’m coming with you, of course, what does it look like I’m doing?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t come.”
“Do you expect me to let you go all the way by yourself?”
“Aiya! I’m not going that far.”
“Do you even know the way?”
Here, Jimmy hesitates. It is difficult to explain GPS to a woman of another century. “It’s a long trip, too long for you to handle.”
To this, Granny Ngin takes offense. She sits up. She proudly lifts her chin, points to the general direction of her beating heart. “Young man, I alone know what I can and cannot handle.”
He watches his grandmother lower her hands on the armrests. She has already pushed the lock down on her side of the door. Her dark eyes are directed straight ahead at the garage, and her gaze is determined, unfazed. Weight wise, she is barely anything, only dry skin, fragile bones, ashen-gray, frizzy hair. But Jimmy knows that she will not budge, and that there is a sacredness to his grandmother’s conviction that he will not allow himself to defy. And time is of the essence. He is determined to get to Pittsburgh before sunset.
* * *
The drive out of New York City is stagnated by dense, dense traffic, bumper against bumper. There are remnants of dirty snow on the side of the roads, a polyphonic chorus of mass beeping—the music of impatient New Yorkers and New York-bound commuters ring in their ears.
“I think the gods are trying to tell us something,” Granny Ngin says. “It’s likely a sign from the celestial heavens.”
“It’s not,” Jimmy replies.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes Granny Ngin, this is just a toll booth.”
Then they are cruising down I-80. It should be smooth sailing from here, but they take a wrong turn when they stop for gas, then an incorrect exit, and then drive down a street that takes them in the opposite direction. Jimmy is constantly being redirected by the GPS, a robotic voice, which after a while, starts to sound as if it’s berating him.
“What’s the matter?” Granny Ngin asks.
“I knew I should have consulted a fortuneteller beforehand.”
“It would have been an unnecessary expenditure.”
Granny Ngin is thoughtful for a moment. Then she says, “There is a saying I’ve learned at the senior citizen center: pot caught in the kettle black. Do you know what that means?”
They speed past pit stops, more gas stations. There are miles and miles of farmland. Granny Ngin stares out the window, at the scenery. Endless grass, fields. From time to time, she points out the herds of sheep, bands of horses, windmills. Jimmy drives on, his goal at the forefront of his mind. Granny Ngin looks ahead at the sparse roads, the hypnotic cars speeding by. Moments later, she is asleep. When she awakes, they are still on the road. She gazes up at the sky, takes in the gray clouds, amassed and threatening precipitation.
“It’s going to rain,” she says and rubs her left knee.
It doesn’t rain. A trickling of snowflakes begins to blanket the highway. They drive higher and higher, up the mountains, escape the majority of cars and trucks. Then it’s as if theirs is the only vehicle left on the road. The snow thickens like batter. Pretty soon, all they can see before them is the heavy, heavy fabric of whiteness, and above them, a dark and unforgiving sky, the color of bruises.
The tunnels they drive through only provide momentary sanctuary. The radio signal gets lost, becomes its own snowy static. They emerge to more flurries that attack the windshield, as if each gusty flake is doing its utmost to prevent them from reaching their destination.
“This is bad,” Granny Ngin says.
“Okay fine, I know.”
Jimmy drives slowly, severely below the speed limit. His head, crouched down at the wheel. His wide eyes, even wider. Darkness descends. What should be minutes feels like hours. Streetlights are sparse. The car’s headlights are practically useless and only reflect back the white and cold uncertainty. For miles, they pass nothing, and nothing passes them. It’s as if everyone had already decided to stay home to wait out the impending apocalypse. The heat is on full blast. Then Jimmy admits, “This is scary.” There is a slight waver in his voice.
“Do not worry,” Granny Ngin assures him. She reminds him of the wars and droughts and famine their family has endured. The fall of the nationalists. The rise of the communists. Mao. “It is in our blood to survive this as well.”
“You always say that,” Jimmy says.
“It doesn’t make it less true, does it?”
Then a sudden flash of brown and fluffy hair darts in front of the headlights. Jimmy presses his foot down on the brakes. They heave forward as the car swerves sharply, and slip to the side of the road, coming to an abrupt halt, flanked by a pile of snow.
“Are you all right?” Granny Ngin asks. Her arm is already before him. He turns to see her face, full of worry, sees the whites in her eyes.
“Yes,” he says. “I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
They inch forward, patiently over the ice, with all the hope of survival. It feels colder. It is darker. Granny Ngin has resorted to closing her eyes. She is humming a folksong that Jimmy recognizes from his childhood, days when Granny Ngin would carry him around the house, to look out the front window, taking in the view of the subway tracks at the end of the block. The singing is a surprising comfort to him. She has not let go of the armrests. Her protruding knuckles resemble the smoothness and whiteness of porcelain, and are just as delicate.
They arrive at their exit: Pittsburgh, and cross a bridge to what feels like safety. The GPS echoes, “You have reached your destination.” To Jimmy and Granny Ngin, the voice now possesses within it the glow of an angel.
“We’re here,” Jimmy says. He watches Granny Ngin open her eyes and blink. She wipes the side of her fogged up window with the bottom of a clenched fist. Outside, they can see the abandoned, sloped streets. Snow that’s accumulated several feet on the ground. The sides of the wet roads, like trenches, cars buried beneath. It is late. It is past midnight. Finding parking is another nightmare.
Jimmy has managed to reserve a room at a hotel through a last-minute deal from a booking site where an animated William Shatner had to wrestle with a swan in order to guarantee the price. The young clerk at the front desk is surprised to see them. He tells Jimmy that the hotel is mostly empty due to the inclement weather, and offers to upgrade them to a room on a higher floor.
They make their way through the lobby. There is a hanging crystal chandelier, a pair of staircases that spiral upwards. The eggshell-white, marble floors gleam with cleanliness.
“I didn’t know hotels were so fancy,” Granny Ngin whispers.
They ride the elevators up to the seventh floor. The smooth metal of the closed doors reflects back exhausted faces. Then they make their way through a quiet, desolate hallway with mirrors and flowers in vases over cabinets.
“There are nothing in the drawers,” Granny Ngin says.
“Aiya, leave it alone Granny Ngin.”
They reach their room. Jimmy unlocks the door with the swipe of a card. He flicks on the lights and instantly, his grandmother’s dark eyes brighten as she gasps in astonishment. Before she enters, she removes her wet shoes and scurries inside. She makes her way to the nearest of the two twin beds, places both her cold hands atop the duvet.
“Look at this bed,” she cries. “It’s so big. And these pillows. They’re like clouds.”
Jimmy tosses his wallet on the desk while Granny Ngin shuffles to the bathroom and turns on the soft lights, gasps upon seeing the “his and her” sinks. She inspects the toiletries, the tiny bottles of shampoo, the rose-shaped soaps, plush white towels. One by one, she lifts the soaps to her nose and breathes them in.
“How wonderful,” she says. “Like a garden.”
Then Jimmy realizes that it is the first time his grandmother has ever stayed in a hotel of this caliber. She had told him how she built her own house in her village out of a mixture of stone and mud and cement. She had raised pigs and chickens, scavenged for firewood in the forest to sell in order to buy supplies. But it is this hotel room that impresses her—the fancy furnishings that she herself has never had, and would never know how to want.
By then, the hotel restaurant is already closed, as are all the others in the area. Only a bar, populated by a few rowdy Carnegie Mellon students, is still open. They find a nearby 24-hour Rite Aid, and dine back in their room. Polly-O String Cheese, slices of Wonderbread, cartons of juice, and for desert, snack-sized chocolate pudding. Afterwards, they lay in their beds, still hungry, longing for proper nourishment.
“Are you awake?”
“Yes, Granny Ngin.”
“I will soon.”
“Are you excited about getting the fish?”
“Your Granpa Gong Gong would have really enjoyed seeing how big your collection got.”
“Remember your first fish?”
“Yes, Granny Ngin.”
“Your Granpa bought it for you.”
“Yes, it was a goldfish.”
“Remember how much your Granpa loved to feed it? All those colorful flakes? You have such fancy fish now.”
“Yes. But I don’t remember. What ever happened to that fish?”
Granny Ngin laughs in the darkness. “Well, one time, your Granpa Gong Gong fed it too much and the fish ate until it became so full that it died. You know how your Grandpa would always encourage you to ‘eat more, eat more.’ It was the same with the fish. He couldn’t help himself. And you were just a boy. He didn’t know how to tell you, so he bought you another just like it, hoping that you wouldn’t know the difference.” She laughs again. “And you didn’t.”
“He did that?”
“And when that fish died, he bought another, and then another. Your Grandpa Gong Gong loved you very much.”
“Let us sleep. We have to wake up early tomorrow.”
* * *
Jimmy isn’t comfortable sleeping in a bed that isn’t his, and after a night of tossing and turning, he wakes before the alarm. The sun is rising. There are streaks of light that creep into the room from behind the purple velvet curtains. He hears his stomach rumble and telephones for room service. Half an hour later, there is a knock at the door. This wakes his Granny Ngin. She sits up on her bed and rubs her tired eyes. Her feet dangle slightly above the floor. She can’t believe what she sees. Rolled in on a cart, the breakfast: a feast—eggs sunny-side up, ham, bacon, sausages, pancakes dripping with butter and syrup, blueberry scones on a triple tier, clotted cream and strawberry preserves, steaming bowls of oatmeal. There is an array of red and yellow juices. A separate tray of coffee and loose-leaf tea, cups and saucers made of the finest china.
“Is this all for us?” Granny Ngin cries, springing up.
“Yes it is,” Jimmy says. “Let’s eat.”
Granny Ngin applauds the plentiful spread. She takes in the sweet and warm smells.
“How beautiful,” she says. Her smile seems to lift years off her face. Her wrinkles diminish, and she reveals a set of perfect teeth, cemented over what was once broken.
“It’s too much,” she cries. “Much too much.”
“It’s all the hotel had on the menu,” Jimmy says.
In truth, Jimmy had ordered everything on the menu. He knows that there is no chance they will ever finish, that Granny Ngin will insist on taking the leftovers for the ride home, wrapped in napkins and stuffed in a Rite Aid shopping bag. But at that moment, Jimmy can see that the woman deserves it all. She deserves far more.
They dine on the mahogany table beside the window, take in the view of the city. The sun glares over steel bridges and the river. Flocks of birds fly past buildings and land on naked tree branches. Traffic crowds the streets. The industrial metropolis burgeons with life.
“I didn’t know that Pittsburgh was such a beautiful place,” Granny Ngin remarks.
They drive past pie stands, past farmers markets. Jimmy’s contact lives at an address deep in a suburb, a large brick house, hidden by even larger evergreens. They pull into a long driveway that is convoluted and rocky, and can hear the scratching of gravel underneath.
“Who would want to live here,” Granny Ngin wonders aloud. “There’s nobody around.”
“Someone who’s serious about fish, of course.”
“Is that healthy?”
A barking Belgium shepherd greets them at the porch, its dark and poufy tail wags excitedly. Jimmy is petting the dog when his contact appears behind the screen door and opens it.
“Well hello there,” he says. His voice is throaty. He is thick and wears dark aviators. His blonde hair, tied into a nappy ponytail. There is a curl in his upper lip. He is dressed in red flannel and jeans, littered with paint stains all over. He extends a workingman’s hand, shakes Granny Ngin’s hand first, ever so gently. Against Jimmy’s it is rough and coarse and dry. He introduces himself as “Bismarck,” but insist that they just call him “Marc.”
“That’s what my friends call me,” he says.
Marc leads Jimmy and Granny Ngin down the creaky steps and into the enormous basement, which Jimmy estimates is likely five times the size of his own fish room. From wall to wall, rows of pristine tanks, illuminated by pink ultraviolet lights. Glass so clear, water so pure, it almost looks as if anyone can walk right through and appear on the other side, dry as sand. Droves of fish populate the tanks. Spotted blue Jack Dempseys, black-and-white convicts, scarlet plecos. Hundreds of them, from the most common to the very rare. The schools of fish follow them as they pass, amass near the very top of the water, mouths agape with every expectation of being fed. Jimmy is beyond impressed. He takes a moment and considers that this single room and all its exoticisms would be the envy of any aquarium.
Marc is proud to give them a tour of what he refers to as the “facility.” They amble up and down the rows of tanks. He boasts that he had built most of it all himself. The tanks, custom made, as are the racks that hold them. Even the filters, all personally designed by him, in order to ensure that they are indeed the very best.
“My, my,” Granny Ngin says to Jimmy. “Somebody actually likes fish as much as you do.”
Then Marc leads them to a tank concealed behind a dark drape.
“And here we are,” he says. He removes his aviators, unveiling pale blue eyes that emanate a kind of delight. “The main attraction: meet, Goldie.”
The stern looking arowana swims back and forth like a guard on duty, entirely unaware that it itself is the treasure.
Jimmy crouches down, his face practically pressed against the glass. His dark eyes move with the swimming of the fish.
“I don’t get what’s the big deal,” Granny Ngin murmurs. She then says in English, “It is just a fish.”
“Just a fish?” Marc answers. “This is actually the crème de la crème of fish.”
Jimmy turns his attention back to the tank, watches the arowana’s long prehistoric body glide across the glass. It’s simply remarkable for him to see one actually swimming in the flesh. Up until then, Jimmy had only experienced this vicariously through videos posted by owners on YouTube. Now he looks more closely. The initial shock of the blinding gold diminishes just enough for Jimmy to notice that one of the arowana’s fins has been slightly damaged. Still good, he manages to convince himself. But then he notices that its mouth is somewhat unsymmetrical. And that its whiskers are also somewhat uneven. And then he realizes that on the whole, the arowana gives off a sickly and distressed appearance. Its left eye is drooping slightly towards its reflection on the mirrored floor. Jimmy worries that it is suffering from drop eye, a common affliction for arowanas in captivity, because in the wild, they’d always move upwards toward the light of the sun in order to hunt and would never have to worry about searching the glass floor for human-administered food.
“It was difficult to smuggle in from Canada,” Marc explains as if he’s reading Jimmy’s mind. “You know the drill. Things happen.”
Jimmy turns back to the fish and continues his inspection. He finds a scar below its eye as well. But the fish is indeed very gold.
“Look, I know: it’s not perfect,” Marc says. He leans against a rack with his arms crossed.
“No, it’s not,” Jimmy says.
“But you came all this way. Why leave empty handed?”
“Tell you what, I’ll throw in the water for free.” Then he laughs.
“What’s he saying?” Granny Ngin murmurs from beside him. Jimmy gazes back at the fish, and then considers its novelty. He can almost imagine being the anonymous envy of fish forums across the country, and it is enough to give him the rush of inspiration to reach into his inner pocket and pull out a fistful of bills which he begins to unravel, twenties, fifties, hundreds.
Seeing this, Granny Ngin’s jaw drops open.
“That’s a lot of students you must have tutored,” she can’t help saying, and then can’t help noting that the price of the fish could easily feed a family in her village for weeks. Several families, with plenty of fish.
“Now wait just a minute,” she cries. She pushes her slight body between the two and gazes up at Marc, who towers over her like a Goliath.
“Granny Ngin, what are you doing?” Jimmy blurts out.
“You tell him what I say,” she says, wagging her finger in the man’s face.
“This . . . fish,” Jimmy echoes, “Not . . . So . . . pretty! Look . . . It’s . . . damaged. And . . . I expected it to be . . . even more gold. Now . . . I know. You sir, sell . . . ” Jimmy turns to his grandmother and says, “I can’t say that, Granny Ngin.”
“You say it,” she replies.
“What?” Marc says.
Jimmy sighs, glimpses down at his sneakers. “You sell damaged goods.”
“Now hold on there,” Marc responds to the woman. “What do you mean by ‘damaged goods?’ This is how the fish came. I swear!”
Jimmy delivers the info to his grandmother and then reiterates what she says.
“How . . . Do we know . . . that you didn’t just send us a dead fish on purpose . . . to cheat us?”
Marc gapes at her. “I don’t cheat nobody.”
“We . . . Went through a lot of trouble . . . Getting here. We . . . could have been stuck in the snow . . . Killed by an avalanche . . . Buried alive . . . And for what? . . . Damaged goods sold by some fishmonger, hidden in the middle of the woods? . . . No thanks . . . We’re . . .”
Jimmy turns to his grandmother, “We are?”
“Yes,” she says. “We go. Now.”
“You can’t be serious,” Marc says.
Jimmy looks at his grandmother with pleading eyes. Her eyes are pleading as well.
“You don’t need this fish,” she says to him. “You know that.”
But Jimmy remains still, too stricken to move. The thought of passing up the fish sends a numbness throughout his body.
“Come on,” his grandmother urges. She tugs at his jacket.
Then Jimmy takes one last longing look at the fish before he says, “We have to go.”
“Are you serious?” Marc cries. He grabs his own head with both hands, crumples his blonde hair.
Jimmy nods. “I’m afraid so.”
“I don’t believe this!”
“Neither do I. We’ll see ourselves out, thanks.”
Jimmy’s grandmother takes the lead. She stomps up the wooden stairs. Jimmy follows close behind, taking two steps with every stride. They approach the screen door. When the Belgium shepherd sees them, it stands up and wags its tail. Marc runs ahead of them.
“Now wait just one minute!” he cries. “Let’s not be too hasty, okay? Let’s talk about this. Maybe we can work something out.”
At the screen door, the old woman pauses and turns to face Marc.
“You talk with me,” Jimmy translates.
Over the next couple of minutes, Jimmy’s grandmother bargains with Marc over the fish as if they are at a marketplace, and she is merely shopping for tilapia or salmon.
“We’ll give you half of what you ask!”
“Are you crazy lady? No way.”
“Fine, a little more then.”
And from there, they meet somewhere in between.
“It’s still a lot of money for a fish,” Jimmy’s grandmother says. She looks at Jimmy, sees his earnest eyes and her face softens, as if she realizes at that moment, he will always be a boy to her. Then she clears her throat and says in the lowest voice she can muster to Jimmy, “But if it’s all right with you, then it’s a deal.”
Jimmy is speechless. He stares at his grandmother with a newfound wonder. She stands firm, not a trace of weakness betrays her. Not her arthritis, her backaches, nor her propensity for getting cold. She’s even taken off her hat, and is clenching it in her hands. Finally, Jimmy says, “It’s a deal.”
“I appreciate family,” Marc replies, shaking on it. “See? I don’t cheat nobody.”
* * *
Marc fills the Rubbermaid with water and transfers the arowana into the bin via a plastic bag. Then he helps Jimmy load the bin into the backseat. They lift it on the count of three.
“All set,” Marc says. He slams the door. At the window he says, “And remember: you were never here.”
“I don’t care about its imperfections,” Jimmy declares as he pulls out of the driveway. “It’s still a beautiful fish.”
“It is,” his grandmother agrees. “Must be lucky too.”
The sun is warm. They remove their jackets. The snow around them melts like a miracle. They speed along the highway. Water splashes to the roadsides. From the backseat, Jimmy’s grandmother presses down firmly on the cover of the bin.
Jimmy glances into the rearview mirror. “Granny Ngin, you don’t have to do that,” he says.
“Of course I do! This one must survive the journey.”
They arrive back in New York City, back to potholes and the compressed Manhattan skyline that suddenly makes Jimmy feel a bit more claustrophobic. It is the afternoon. They cross the Brooklyn Bridge and find themselves in familiar territory. Nathan’s, a bagel shop, pizzerias. As soon as Jimmy pulls into the driveway of his home, his parents throw open the front door and rush out in panic.
“We were so worried about you,” his mother cries. “What happened? Why didn’t you call?”
In reply, Jimmy lifts the cover of the bin. The water glistens under the dense afternoon sun like stars. Underneath the ripples, a bristling gold. Gold that’s riveting. Gold that moves.
“Aiya!” his parents respond in solidarity, neither of them the least bit impressed. “Too big! No room! How much did you pay for it?”
“Relax,” Jimmy’s grandmother says. She pushes herself into the fray, and turns to Jimmy, “Let me take care of this.”
Jimmy hears the exchange of angry whispers as he goes through the motions of tending to the fish. From the corner of his eyes, he sees flailing arms, pointing accusatory fingers, but after a heated and lengthy discussion, his parents manage to restrain themselves. They give one last reproving look at the bin before heading back inside the house and slamming the door.
“They’ll live,” his grandmother says.
“What did you say to them?” Jimmy asks.
His grandmother shakes her head. “Do you think that you are the only one in this family who’s ever wanted something that their parents have strictly forbidden?”
“Granny Ngin, you didn’t have to. I don’t know what to say.”
“Don’t bother,” she replies. She gives him a look of affected chagrin. “Of course I must! If you didn’t keep fish, I would never see you. There would be no reason for you to ever come downstairs.”
“You know that’s not true.”
Granny Ngin giggles. “It better not be.”
* * *
They were on the road. The blinding sun in their faces. Jimmy’s grandmother, in the backseat. One arm pressed against the top of the bin, even though it started to tingle, like a million prickling beads, she’d said to Jimmy. In her other hand, she held the blueberry scone that she’d occasionally nibble at to stay awake.
“Are you okay back there?” he had asked.
“Yes, yes,” she said, “don’t worry about me.”
Then she couldn’t help noting how brilliant the day was, the vast blue sky, its intermittent clouds.
“It’s as if a season has passed overnight,” she said.
She watched Jimmy nod, glimpse at her from the rearview mirror as she continued to point out the enormity of the verdant fields. There was a barn, there were windmills, more farms, a kind of endlessness that eluded comprehension. Only the essence of things, only the spirit endures, she thought to herself. These things, they are surely worth more than any kind of gold. She hadn’t meant to mutter it aloud.
“What did you say?” Jimmy asked.
“Oh nothing, nothing. Keep your eyes on the road.”
She glanced out the window and recognized the roads that would lead them back home, and she was surprised that a part of her wished they would stretch and stretch, toward the glowing horizon, toward foreverness.
William Pei Shih is currently a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop under the Dean’s Graduate Fellowship. His stories have been recognized by the U.K. Bridport Prize, the Alice Munro Short Story Competition, the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, Narrative Magazine, Glimmer Train, Writer’s Digest, the Hemingway Short Story Competition, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop/Hyphen Magazine Short Story Contest, and by storySouth Million Writers Award for most Notable Story. His work has been published by the Bridport Anthology, Carve Magazine, and Hyphen.