The fish are supposed to be dead when they get to Davi Kell’s department. All Davi Kell is supposed to do is sort through the frozen stock of heaping sea meat, take it out to thaw and once it has thawed, place it in the display window for purchase.
She’s obviously merely the middle-woman for the job between fishing and catching.
Davi Kell is in the process of rubbing her hands together, shivering from the man-made cold. She isn’t sure if she is more upset that her boyfriend is hiding something or that she has to be up and working so early in the morning while he sleeps.
Davi Kell puts her bare flesh hands into a box, digging out the frozen tilapia. She screams in fright when she feels a sinew-like sensation. She gasps when she sees a fully intact live tilapia, saran wrapped and clambering for air.
Paralyzed by the fear of the slimy texture and the irrational fear that it would bite her (she never wanted to work in this department anyway—why couldn’t she be moved to floral?) Davi Kell summons the courage to dig out her keys, hacking away at the clinging plastic. She glances around the freezer area, wondering if there is the occasional manager looking for her.
Davi Kell grumbles as she takes hold of the scaled flesh. The tilapia looks up at her as if to say something, but then huffs, suffocating. Davi Kell shoves the tilapia into her apron pocket, running outside of the freezer to try to find a dingy cup in the break room. Luckily, the old goat of a cashier isn’t there sipping coffee and rambling about illuminati theories at this time of day. She finds a discarded Big Gulp cup and fills it with water. She places the tilapia in it and continues to work.
Davi Kell spends the rest of her day flustered. She wonders how the tilapia managed to be wrapped up alive—not even skinned or beheaded (shoot she didn’t know the real terms). During the busier parts of her shift she forgets the fish, but thinks back to the problems with her boyfriend, and more particularly her boyfriend and “the female.” Davi Kell wipes the fish counter more aggressively. She was fine for Ted before—fine for him these past five years, but ever since he got his degree and his fancy entry-level yuppie job—all he can talk about is the competitor’s business salesperson.
Quitting time comes, and none too soon. Davi Kell wipes off her blood soaked hands on her apron and walks nonchalantly into the break room, where she starts to unlock her locker. She sees one of the slower cashiers at that instant, middling around about to drink out of the Big Gulp. Davi Kell runs to take the cup out of his hand. “Wait!” He promptly spits out the water only for Davi Kell to find that the tilapia is no longer there.
“What’s wrong with you Davi?”
She doesn’t know what to answer.
The drive home is long. It usually takes only fifteen minutes but with the soundtrack of the day’s events playing through her head, Davi Kell takes back roads. She wonders about the tilapia: how did it get so lucky to survive? Or is it still alive? How would it be to lie suffocating in plastic, amongst your dead friends? She thinks about the shipping process: who catches the fish? Would the fisher have as much of a fleeting connection as she did? Or was she only drawn to the fish because it was just out of place?
She turns into her apartment building. Today is one of the increasing many that she is upset she opted to share an apartment with Ted. She begrudgingly walks up the steps, up to the top of the third floor, turning her key into the slot. There is nothing and no one to greet her. She slams her worn nametag and keys on top of Ted’s makeshift bookcase. She wishes there is a section of the apartment where she could go and think about the tilapia in silence. Thankfully with Ted’s new consultant job, he can afford an apartment with a built in laundry room. She opens the door, turns on the dryer and lets the choppy rocking motion calm her down.
Ted comes in a few hours later. Davi Kell can hear him pacing around the apartment, turning on lights. He doesn’t bother to call her name. It takes him a few more unnecessary paces before he decides to open the laundry door. His tie is already loosened. She looks up at him. He comes over to her. He remains standing, not even slinking to get comfortable. He just stands there, in the shadows.
“Have another lunch meeting with the female?” Davi Kell looks at him square in the eye, not accusing, not pouting, not even with a tear in her eye.
“It was a company meeting.” Ted stood still, he doesn’t reach out to her. The dryer starts slowing down its cycle. He leans over to turn the knob over for her.
“There’s just a lot I am able to learn from her,” Ted asserts. Davi Kell nods. She wonders about the early stages of their relationship, when they didn’t talk about work, and then the new post-honeymoon phase, when he inquired about her work with curiosity and as means of being able to talk. Now, he doesn’t bother.
“Well, I guess being stimulated by things other than demanding customers would lead you to learn new things,” Davi Kell adds.
“Hmm. Maybe.” He starts running his fingers across the t-shirt material. She notices this as she notices all his nervous habits.
“How long do you think a fish can live covered in saran wrap?” Her question doesn’t throw him off, she is always thinking of nonsensical things.
“Probably wouldn’t live to have the saran wrap placed on it. You know,” Ted’s arms started to cross. “They do need water to breathe, sweetheart.”
The sweetheart comes at her out of nowhere. She flinches-it feels like what she imagines her manager’s- long sinew-slicing knives coming down on the fish, taking the heads off. Discarding fins.
Ted seems to notice his mistake. He leans toward her and kisses her. It is clumsy and out of habit as well. They both know as their bodies’ angles slacken, that it is only out of the comfort and familiarity with the other that they are doing this. Their sighs are not of happiness or of meeting desire. His sighs denote that he wished he were with a white-collar girl. Her sighs are of figuring out how to escape this trap of love.
He leaves her on the dryer. Davi Kell refuses to go to sleep in a bed that he bought—her credit didn’t extend that far. She closes her eyes and sees a busy traffic street—with Ted on the other side, two blocks up. She is trying to get to him; anything to get to him, but the people, these seemingly throngs of people, walk hurriedly synchronized, the opposite way. She can see Ted talking to a female in an emerald shift dress, talking to the female about Davi Kell, and the female is laughing. The people around her start to lose shape, they became swirls of color. All she can see is the couple laughing and a life she can’t push through to, no matter how hard she tries.
She gets up and pours some corn flakes. She knows it will make a ton of noise-the crackling of the bag, but she doesn’t care. It is 2:20 in the morning. She trudges on to Ted’s room. She sits on her side of the bed. She sits crunching on the flakes, wondering what happened to the tilapia, and what would have happened if she had brought the tilapia home.
“There was a fish. There was a fish Ted. And it was there in the freezer, its poor,” Ted keeps his eyes closed, he is used to her having anxiety attacks late at night, followed by nightmares of flesh-eating bacteria. “Its poor heart, how can it still beat in cling? Oh Ted I was so afraid but it looked like it could have said something…. Its heart just beat on my hand. I should have brought it home.” Her voice goes in and out of the night air quivering.
“Dabs, sounds like a good lawsuit to me—food contamination, animal cruelty and what not,” Ted sputters as he rolls over in bed.
And that’s when she knows he isn’t listening: he hasn’t called her Dabs since year 3 ¾ .
Davi Kell goes to work the next day. Davi Kell goes through all her pre-service chores such as wiping down the counters with disinfectant, putting up fliers of the specials going on, and rotating the meat in the block. She pushes through all these duties, and although she feels that it was juvenile to think that the fish would somehow magically be back in the freezer, she goes there with a religious-like curiosity.
She opens the freezer door’s compartments and looks for the day-old shipment of tilapia. Davi Kell brought her box cutter with her this time. She slices through frozen bag after frozen bag looking for the fish. Her mind goes numb, as it usually does in the extreme cold. She thinks of 9/11, of planes crashing into tall, tall towers that she had never heard of before in a city she will probably never see. She thinks of Mrs. Pfirman, crying, calling into her phone, checking on her kids, while her sixth grade students, Davi included, sat perplexed watching the television. Davi Kell thinks of the femicide posters she and her mom walked by in the mall one time. The girls’ faces juxtaposed with images of corpses. Her mom had ran her past them, before Davi Kell could look at a girl named Esme, missing and presumed dead. She comes back to her task at hand and feels the knife in her grip. She sliced on, making big Xs in the boxes. Davi Kell continued to think-she thought of the time in 7th grade when most of the girls in her class had bragged about being kissed, but Davi Kell hadn’t at the time. She thought of the Spin the Bottle game that they played and how boys kept calculating the force that would be needed to be to not kiss her. Davi Kell thinks of how she paid her brother’s friend three weeks of allowance to spread a rumor about them making it to second base so that she could finally be in the second-most popular girl group at school.
Davi Kell sits down, exhausted. A box falls, and on its tumble down some bloodied saran wrap flies out with it. She picks up the saran wrap and sees the tilapia.
“I always come back,” the tilapia said. Davi Kell looked at the fish in disbelief.
“You’re stuck.” The tilapia added.
“Pfft, you can say that again. I’m 23, I’ve been at this job seven years. I know nothing and I am nothing—unless it comes to retail. My boyfriend hasn’t proposed because he’s ashamed of me. He’s been seeing this female for a while. He says he met her at work, but I think they were in class together. He doesn’t love me anymore, but he hates change.”
The tilapia’s expression doesn’t seem to waver, but Davi Kell doesn’t take offense. She isn’t sure what all it was capable of.
“Take me and leave work.”
“I don’t thin—”
“Just take me and put me in your car!”
Davi Kell looks around for something to put the tilapia in. She finally decides on placing an ice block in her apron pocket, then wedging the tilapia in. She hurries out to her dilapidated car, past one of the cashiers who was busy reading Cosmo.
The tilapia fits on the console. Davi Kell tried to prop it up in the cup holder. The tilapia’s head glazed over at the clock, its fins grazed Davi Kell’s wrist as she holds onto her stick shift.
“Tell me about your boyfriend.”
Davi Kell keeps driving, her fingers tapping on the steering wheel, her left hand holding what seems like her whole world up.
“There’s not much to tell.”
The tilapia looks at her. Just looks. There is no gaze of urging her to go on, nor is there any sort of gaze to ask for a stop.
“Ted is very charismatic. So charismatic that he could probably woo a nun. We haven’t been happy in forever. He works at this job that has cubicle offices and paid luncheon in-services. There’s this girl in a competing company that thinks he’s a big shot. They’re screwing each other. The more they screw the less he thinks of me—and I don’t mean of my feelings. He doesn’t think highly of me, like I’m just some, trash. ” She fiddled with her blinker, debating whether to turn it to left or now.
Davi Kell takes that to mean literally, and she brakes. However, the tilapia just sighs. Her foot descends onto the gas pedal again. She plays with her blinker again and again, until finally noting that that is what she finds the tilapia thinks of as unbearable.
She turns onto her street.
“I have this notepad app, I keep in my phone. I have a goal: do 200 exhilarating things in 52 weeks. The most exhilarating thing I’ve done is watching Rocko’s Modern Life on Netflix. I haven’t been trying, I know. I could blame work—work is always such a sucker of time, but I know that’s not what’s it. I just—I am frustrated because I’m content—I’m perfectly happy with this life. And the life I grew up wanting, I am definitely not happy with.
Davi Kell parks the car outside of her apartment complex.
Davi Kell turns to the tilapia and looks at it, pondering what to do with the situation. “I’ll be right back,” she says gently, putting her hand out as if to pet its scales, but then retracting it back.
Davi Kell treads on the rocks, past the little black kids exchanging Valentine hearts, past the old Euro-Asian lesbian couple on their porch, past the lurking creeper, staring off his balcony. She hates this place, hates it hate it, because she doesn’t deserve this. But she is content in not deserving more. She can feel the heat come up from what felt like a resurging pit in her stomach. She flings open her apartment door, looking for Ted. It is Saturday after all--normal people usually just sit on their asses on Saturday.
“Ted.” She feels the air escape her throat.
Ted comes out of the kitchen, wearing his ‘non-work’ boxers, ones with Mickey Mouse on them.
“I hate it—I hate this all this”
“What?” Ted asks, scratching his left butt cheek and rubbing his forehead with his other hand.
“I hate this feeling. What happened to me? What happened to you?”
This gets Ted’s attention, and he straightens up.
“Yeah, go ahead and straighten up, trying to get a power stance on me. May I remind you I’m the one who paid your bills all through school—the one that wrote every damn important paper in your life, minus writing your name on the actual degree?”
Davi Kell feels the urge to move and to move fast and repetitiously.
“What happened to your view of me? What happened to mine?” Her head feels jumbled as if a concrete completed jigsaw puzzle was just dropped off a high rise. “I need to show you something. Please.”
“I’m really not—”
“Interested? I don’t give a shit.”
Ted stares at her, concerned.
“Ted, Ted please.” She whimpers.
Ted sighs and tries to locate his shoes. Finding them, Ted slips on his loafers. He follows Davi Kell down the steps, down the rock path and to the parking lot.
At the car, Davi Kell sees the tilapia on the console, bigger, fleshier and healthier looking than ever.
Ted sees it too.
“Dabs, I didn’t know you could fish.” He surveys it through the car window. “It looks so good. When can we eat it?” Ted opens the passenger door, about to grab the tilapia but Davi lays her hand on it. She feels the coldness of its gills.
Davi Kell turns back around to look at Ted. She feels close to fainting. Her hands start tapping against the car. “No.” His lungs are pressed against her back, she can feel them through his body, exhaling, trying to keep his questions aligned.
Davi Kell had memorized his body a certain way: Oxford shirt (cerulean, not blue) three-inch wide tie, hair pushed to the side, slicked back. She had forgotten this body—the mole on the top of his right shoulder, the faint scratch marks he has on his neck from his eczema.
“What is it, Davi?”
She says, “I see you in me.”
Opening up her grip, she notices the tilapia has disappeared.
Hailing from El Paso, TX, Christine Peterson is a college instructor and a dual masters candidate within the education department for Language, Literacy and Culture (reading education specialist) and within the English department: Master of Arts in Fiction Writing: emphasis ethnic and border literature at New Mexico State University. Christine’s passions include bridging the bilingual literacy gap in the southwest, writing prose with religious undertones and helping English as a second language and learning disabled students succeed and love literature as well as become writers themselves. In addition to this, Christine is an editor for Tlaa.
Photo taken by Barbara Peterson