Mr. Liem’s Pet Shop
By C.S. Austin (Guest Blogger)
I think on Christmas one of the cousins dumped half a can of fish food into Fluffy’s tank by accident, Fluffy being a goldfish that my small brother brought home once, to the consternation of parents. The water was murky and the major landscape elements – pagoda, bamboo frond – had already been extracted and scrubbed. New water waited in a giant stock pot and Fluffy gaped and closed his mouth in a regular staccato, looking forlorn.
We were having coffee. My sister had just packed; Dad would deliver her to the airport on his way to work. As a kid, post-holiday letdown involved grief that the anticipation built by sparkling lights and ready stockings had devolved into only memory. As an adult, I hate to see my people go again after too little time. My sister was grumpy but struggling not to inflict it for once, saying only, “I should have stayed for longer.” Conversation gets harder when parting is coming; there’s no longer time to argue about Nepal plans for the spring, probe after the nature of her relationship with the new guy, or find the courage to spill my own indiscretions. We make logistical small talk between toast munching, lunch packing, and flipping through the newspaper.
“Mr. Liem’s pet shop was in a fire.” She adjusts the paper and reads aloud, but I am already walking the narrow aisles of memory, lit only by the blue flicker from uncountable tanks. Mr. Liem could have named them all, but to me they are finned facets of one great mystery. I recall bending over as though the ceiling were very low, but I think it only receded into darkness and I wanted to see the fish in the bottom tier as well. The only warm, terrestrial spots were the tumbling fur puddles of baby hamsters and gerbils, once or twice pulled from their shavings to go home with us. The whole labyrinth smelled of salt and damp and fish food with a heaviness I somehow associated with the herbs of Chinese medicine. Mr. Liem himself, awe-inducing despite his small stature and the smile crinkles at his eyes, presided like an omniscient deity.
I didn’t want him made human, told by the fire fighters he could only reenter the condemned building for five minutes to retrieve business papers, as the blackened upper stories on Maynard Alley loomed and creaked. Didn’t want him turning a stricken face to the newspaper cameras saying he didn’t – hadn’t wanted to see into the darkened aisles. I turned off my brain, walking through a perfunctory goodbye, my sister prompting me: “Do I get a hug?” and went about cleaning the detritus of Christmas, scrubbing rocks and tank walls, pouring Fluffy back into his translucent home.
C.S. Austin is a writer that lives along the river.
We hope to have her visit often and share adventures from the river and beyond.