Not long ago I was living in Minneapolis in the same crowded apartment that I rented as an undergrad, years earlier, in a building that smelled like socks and pot. In my apartment books and boarding passes piled everywhere. A dead spider plant lived hanging from the kitchen ceiling. I even kept the landline set up, although only marketers called there. I worked as a purchaser for Nichol's Sons, a regional chain of specialty groceries, where I was employed for years, starting when I was studying history with every intention to leave the job, and the city, to go to law school, but I kept getting promoted and the prospects for lawyers then (and now) weren't so hot, so I pushed back leaving. I was on the road for my job too often to be in a steady relationship, but I was still hung up on Rainbow, a woman I dated in college, anyway. We dated for years, and she moved to the apartment across the hall to be near me, but left for good without a 'Goodbye' or 'I'm leaving you, Tom.' That was the worst.
Her best friend Suzie surprised me one wintery day, five years after Rainbow took off, by walking into the Nichol's Sons where I kept my office. I had harbored a small crush on Suzie, which I hid from Rainbow by calling Suzie a squid behind her back since she was tall and thin, with limbs that went on forever like tentacles and long, inky hair. When she ran into me, I was standing in front of our cheese case taking stock of the Lancashire and blue cheeses I had brought back on a buying trip to the UK.
"So you're the cheese man now?" she said.
I shook the clipboard I was holding at her. "Purchaser," I said. "I order things and travel around finding exciting new products. I haven't seen you in ages. You look great." And she did. She had cut off most of her hair, baring her neck. She wore a chain with a human molar that had been fit into a setting. "Is that your tooth?"
"Oh, this. Yeah. It is. It got pulled out last year. Had puffy cheeks for weeks. You would have laughed. You look good too."
"Did it hurt?"
"Nah. They put me under. I don't even remember the drive to the dentist."
"Lucky," I said.
"Hey. It's funny that we ran into each other," she said, "because I have something to show you back at my place." She dug through her purse for a pen and wrote an address of an apartment on the back of my hand. "Come see me soon. Tonight or tomorrow. No need to call. I'll be there in the evenings."
I left work early. At home, I opened a bottle of wine. The address Suzie gave me was near my apartment, and yet I hadn't seen her since Rainbow left. I wondered how long she had lived there. I didn't know what she could have to show me. Maybe there was nothing. Maybe the crush I had on her was a mutual one, and she wanted an excuse to invite me over. I thought about kissing her long neck and running my fingers through her hair. I hoped she had something to tell me about Rainbow, though. It killed me not to know why she had left, and it still depressed me when I thought about what I must have done wrong or what I was lacking.
I stood in my bathroom, glass of wine in my hand, looking at a painting on the wall that Rainbow had made for me when we started going out. The painting was a watercolor that looked like an upside-down tulip painted dark blue and purple, hanging inexplicably from a stem that came down from the top of the canvas. It had been in the bedroom, but women I brought over always asked what the painting was about while we cuddled. I couldn't tell them that it was from the happiest time in my life and that if they continued to see me they would likely be competing against my memories of Rainbow, so I tried to lie to them, but my hemming in the vulnerable post-coital state I was usually in when they asked only made things worse.
I'll even tell you that I didn't get rid of the landline because it was the number Rainbow had for me. I didn't want to miss her call if she ever did.
It was a short walk through snowy sidewalks to Suzie's, but my nose and ears felt as if they had been bitten off by the time I made it to the apartment. Damn cold. Suzie let me in when I knocked. We had tea in delicate white teacups with thin wheels of lemon floating atop the tea.
After a few sips, she told me to hang on for a minute while she stepped into the back room. I looked around the mostly unadorned apartment. Aside from the chairs at the table I was sitting at she had some milk crates that maybe she used as chairs, next to which was a stack of journals. One was spread open in front of a crate. She may have been in the middle of an article when I knocked. The only other thing in the room was a tower of five cinder blocks on top of which sat a round bowl with a lone fish that seemed to be looking at me.
I cupped the tea in my hands for warmth. I bristled with expectation about what Suzie might reveal. It all felt unreal. I was a time traveler, hearing voices from the past. Anything was possible.
Suzie returned with a binder that she placed on the table before sitting back down. She held her teacup in one hand and blew on the liquid to cool it. She tapped the fingers on her other hand in a way that made it seem like she was weighing what to say.
"Is your tea all right?" she eventually said. "I'm sorry. I don't keep milk or sugar. I always forget other people do."
"Yes. It's perfect, actually. I'm still a bit frozen from the walk. I didn't know you were so close to me. I'm surprised we never ran into each other all these years," I said.
"I haven't been here that long," she said. "Just a few days."
"That explains the furniture. By the way, I left work early because I couldn't stop thinking about what you wanted to show me."
"Oh Tom. I'm sorry to leave you hanging like that." She pulled a sheet out of the binder. "Here. Look at this."
She pushed the page over to me. On it was a draftsman's drawing of a round fishbowl and equations like xF=Q[i]*(x[i+1]-x[i]+x[i] and the names of chemical compounds (ITO: 90% In2O3, 10% SnO2) that I didn't understand.
"I saw your fishbowl. It looks pretty ordinary, though." I turned my head towards it. The fish was still looking at me.
She passed over another sheet. On half of this page was a drawing of a man spread out like Leonardo's Vitruvian man with lines marking the symmetry of the human form. On the other half was a fish diagrammed similarly.
I looked up at Suzie and tried to make eye contact, but she didn't return the glance.
She handed me another sheet. This one had the torso of the man from the previous drawing. Two lines were drawn at an acute angle to point at the center of his head. At the ends of the lines was a drawing of a brain. On the other side, again, was the fish from before, accompanied by another drawing of a brain. Between the human and the fish there was a not-equals sign that was crossed out. Underneath was penciled in an equals sign.
"This doesn't make much sense, Suz," I said.
"Do you remember Rainbow?" she asked.
I balked. She would have known that it was impossible for me to forget Rainbow. I sought Suzie's advice when planning special occasions for Rainbow. They had been college roommates when I met them, both majoring in biochemistry and in fierce competition with one another—Rainbow was the top student in their class, Suzie number two. Suzie had often seen me come to pick Rainbow up, or to disappear sheepishly into Rainbow's bedroom and she was the first person I called when I didn't hear from Rainbow for two days in a row. Suzie told me that Rainbow was all right, but she wouldn't say anything else.
"Of course I remember," I said.
"She's here," Suzie said. "Rainbow's here."
"She's in town?" A year after I last saw her I heard the smallest bit of gossip that she had left the state. My informant wouldn't say how he heard, but he did tell me that's all he knew.
"No, here," Suzie said.
She pointed at the fish bowl. I looked at her dumbly. She gestured with her hand that I should go take a closer look, so I walked over to the bowl and stared at its inhabitant, an orange-colored carp about three inches long, whose eyes turned towards me.
"I don't get it," I said.
"Tom. Rainbow's a fish."
"A fish? What is this? Finding Nemo?"
"No, it's true. I couldn't lie about this," she said. She stepped behind me and put her hand on my back.
I felt stupid. Foolish. All the hopes I had before coming over were dashed. I was being tricked. Cruelly. Suzie knew how heartbroken I was at the time. She had heard my distraught voice on the phone. And now she stood there mocking me, I thought. Taking secret joy out of my suffering. It was more than I could bear.
I grabbed my coat from the chair and bolted out the door. I walked all the way to my apartment without even putting the coat on. I turned on the hot water to fill my bathtub as soon as I reached my place.
"Stupid. Stupid," I said. "What the fuck."
I pulled a bottle of whisky from the top of the refrigerator and grabbed a glass off the counter while the water ran. The phone rang, but I let it ring like I always did. The answering machine picked up. I paused to listen, but the caller hung up. I got ice from the freezer and I poured three fingers of whisky into the glass. Once again, the phone rang, the answering machine picked up—but no message. I took off my pants and shirt and stood there in front of the refrigerator wearing just my boxer shorts, taking sips from my glass.
The phone rang a third time. I went and answered.
"Is this Tom?" a female voice said.
"Yeah," I said.
"This is Suzie."
"You're a real lunatic, you know."
"I know it sounds absurd. I should have realized that and explained everything that I could. I just didn't think you'd storm out. There are still some things I need to tell you. Well, I need to ask you a favor. Could you come back?"
"So you can make fun of me some more?"
"This isn't a joke."
Neither of us said anything. I took a drink. The phone's receiver was so damn large. Like holding a VW bus against my head. I couldn't believe I used to use it every day.
"Tom," she said. "How do you think I got your phone number?"
"Didn't you have it from before?"
"Maybe I had it once. But it's been a long time, you know. I got it from Rainbow right before I dialed."
"Yeah? She there? I'd love to talk to her. Can you put her on?"
"It's not that easy. Just come back."
"Why? Why should I?"
"She'll talk to you. Rainbow will talk to you."
I hung up. But talking to her was what I wanted most after all those years. I drank the rest of my whisky. I turned off the bath water. And headed back out, shaking my head.
"The bowl has a touch panel. I bought some parts online and put it together by looking at some big name patents. You draw on it and Rainbow can see whatever you write. Then she has her own touch screen on the inside. She can't speak and can't really hear so this was the best option. There are a few cords behind it that run to this smart phone." Suzie pointed at the space in the cinder block below the bowl, where there was, in fact, a phone. "I found a freelance programmer to put together the whole thing for me without knowing what it was for. It's a little crude but it works. Try it."
Looking again at the bowl I noticed the top half of the side facing me had a thin, translucent layer over it that was hardly noticeable except for the seam on its edges, which must have been the touch panel she was talking about. I moved my finger along it but nothing happened.
"Poop," Suzie said. "I forgot to turn it on. Hold on." She reached behind the bowl. The glass on the upper half of the tank began to glow light blue. The fish, I think, wagged its tail at me.
"You can write on the glowing part with your finger or there's a stylus next to the bowl," Suzie said.
"And she'll be able to write back to me? She has no fingers."
"Her screen has a keyboard overlay that she can peck."
"Do you talk to her? You talk to this fish?"
"Yeah, I do. She's as sharp as ever. Her brain is smaller, but you know how smart she was before. She lost about a quarter of her memory though in the transfer."
How much of me was gone?
"The transfer?" I said.
"We—well, she, mainly—took things too far. It'll take too long to tell you everything. She wants to talk to you. Look at her."
The fish swam up and down like it was nodding its head to say, "Yes, yes, yes."
I put my finger to the bowl. Underneath my finger it glowed yellow.
"Do I have to write backwards?" I said.
"No, the bowl will mirror it on her side."
I took a deep breath and I moved my finger along the glass surface of the bowl. "HI!" I wrote. The fish swam over to the glass. It tapped its head against the glass five times and the word HELLO appeared.
"It's a neat trick," I said to Suzie. I regained a sense of reality. "Do you fool a lot of people with this one?" I said.
"C'mon," Suzie said. "Be serious. Talk to her."
I decided that if I were being duped, I would at least have a little fun.
"U R Rainbow?" I wrote on the bowl.
The fish smiled, although it's hard to tell with a fish. Three head taps. YES.
I tapped my nose three times. Y. E. S. Oh yes.
"Can it say anything more than Yes or Hello?"
"You can ask her whatever you want, Tom."
"If she's so interested in talking to me, she should ask me something."
Eight head taps. WHAT UP?
"I thought she couldn't hear," I said.
"She can't. She's being polite. Have some patience."
I picked up the stylus. "Actually," I said. "Could you leave me alone here for a minute?
Suzie agreed and went to the back of the apartment. I still cupped my left hand over what I was writing, just in case. I thought I could end this scheme by asking the fish questions that only Rainbow would know the answer to.
"What did U paint 4 me?" I wrote, thinking of the painting in my bathroom.
UN COEUR the fish tapped.
The French word for heart. Rainbow had written, on the back of the painting, "Les grandes personnes pensent que c'est un tableau d'une tulipe à l'envers," which referenced les grandes personnes who saw a mere hat in a drawing of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant in her favorite book, de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince. In her painting, most saw an upside-down tulip, but she made me look at it until I saw what it really was. "Un coeur," she cooed. "Our secret."
I asked the fish a few more questions—what instrument she played; where I bought my undershirts; what was her favorite animal—some of which she had forgotten, but it was only the answer to the first question I needed to be sure it was Rainbow.
I pressed my face against the bowl to get my eyes as close to the glass as possible. I wanted to see as much as I could. I saw no strings or wires on the fish. She appeared to be real and live. The smart phone that was running the contraption may have been running the whole show, transmitting my questions to another location, but I didn't know how the fish would know when to tap. I was nearly convinced it was Rainbow; I could not imagine someone pulling such an elaborate joke or the motives for doing it.
"Que suis-je pour toi," I muttered.
I asked Suzie to come back from the other room.
"If this is Rainbow," I said, "then how did she get like this? What happened? This doesn't seem possible."
Suzie looked at me, but didn't respond.
"So you are putting me on," I said. "You and Rainbow have gotten together and you're trying to—"
"No. It's not that. There are things I can't say. People I'm supposed to protect. The research got a little hot. You can trust me, or you can not trust me on this. I need someone that Rainbow and I trust to help us. You can talk to her all you like, if that will help you believe me, but I need you to either help us, or get out of here."
I looked back at the fish. Her eyes were hopeful in a human way. If the fish were in fact Rainbow, I had so many questions that extended beyond the trivia that I had been asking her. How is your mother? Have you been in love again? How is it to be both human and fish? I thought of the things she would be able to tell me about human existence and animal consciousness. Maybe, even, the very nature of God and what it's all about. These questions swirled around my head while I stood there with the stylus in hand, but all I managed to write was, "How is the food?"
FLAKEY, the fish wrote and laughed bubbles.
I knew that I had nothing to lose except some pride if I agreed to whatever Suzie was going to ask me to do if the fish was just a fish, but if the fish were Rainbow, and I did something to help her in her fish state, to comfort her a little, bring her some joy, if I did this, then maybe she would. . . I wasn't sure exactly. Getting back together with her seemed out of the question, but stranger things existed. She could live on my kitchen table where she could watch me eating breakfast and reading the paper, like a married couple. Or maybe she could encourage Suzie to date me and we could form a family of a sort, the three of us. Mom and dad and goldfish too.
"What do you need me to do, Suzie?" I asked.
"Take her to Kansas."
That was not what I was expecting. Kansas is a landlocked farm state, the home of Toto and Dorothy, not a place for bleeding-edge biological experimentation.
"What's there? And why can't you take her?" I said.
"I can't drive. Don't you remember? And I have to stay here, anyway. We have a shipment coming that can't be missed. But Victor is in Kansas and he finally finished the equipment we need for reversal. We were there for the longest time waiting, but Rainbow wanted to see her mom again, just in case we failed, so we came back. She hadn't seen her in over a year. The whole story is a tragedy. Super FUBAR, if you ask me. So we came back on a Greyhound, which was almost a disaster in itself. Her mom doesn't know a thing and don't blab anything to her either. I've been inviting her over under increasingly weird auspices and Rainbow gawks at her like a shy boy does his playground crush. Meanwhile, her mom thinks Rainbow's teaching RNA duplication to orphans in Bolivia without an internet connection or a post office. If she knew about this she would flip."
"So when would you need me to go?"
"Soon. The day after tomorrow. Or the next at the latest. I'm afraid the window of opportunity is narrow."
I left for Kansas two days later. I wasn't traveling for work for another week, so it was easy to get time off. For the drive I bought the audiobook of Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World and REO Speedwagon's album You Can Tune a Piano But You Can't Tuna Fish. I met Suzie at her apartment where she gave me the fish in her tank with a lid, and said, "You'll only have to feed her once today and then Victor's people can take over. Just don't overfeed her when you do. One pinch, like this." She opened the bottle of fish food and dipped her thumb and forefinger in. She held a pinch of fish flakes up to me and then scattered them. They fell like multi-colored snowflakes. "She's human, but she still has the fish instinct to gorge herself to death."
I sat the fishbowl on the passenger side seat of my Volvo, strapping it in with the seat belt. I shook hands with Suzie. She turned it into a hug and said earnestly into my ear, "Godspeed, Thomas," using my full name for perhaps the first time. She stood there in front of her apartment building, touching the molar around her neck, while I got into the car and drove off, waving at her.
Rainbow and I were going to Kansas City–the heart of America. There was a storm warning in effect, but on I-35, heading south through Minnesota, the sky was clear, the sun bright. On each side of the interstate, the land was covered with cornfields. The remnants of harvested corn stalks poked out from under a layer of snow. We passed windmills. I pointed at each one and said, "Windmill!" which Rainbow used to do on our roadtrips when she still had fingers. The REO Speedwagon music put me in a state of elation. I felt good.
"Rainbow. I can't believe you're in my car again." I looked at her; she looked at me. "I thought you were gone for good. Do you remember when I first got this car? How we drove around wearing shades, playing at being ambassadors because you said it looked like it was from an embassy? That was fun. And how you made me lemon cookies once a week because they were my favorite, even though I always ate too many and couldn't sleep from the sugar rush, which was bad for you since you said you fell asleep best to the slowing down of my breathing while I held you. I felt safe with you, Rainbow. I would have been with you forever if only—" I started to feel again the great weight that came over me whenever I thought about her leaving. How it hurt. How I wanted to do nothing but look into her eyes, her human eyes, again. I normally would choke up a little when thinking these things, but I didn't want to lose composure in front of the fish, even though it seemed unlikely that she could hear me. I turned the music up to change my mood. I couldn't keep quiet for long though; there was so much to say. "You know, I bet to you that it might look like I haven't done much since you left, but I have. I still work at Nichol's Sons, but they promoted me. I don't have to wear their polo shirts any more. They send me all around. I've seen ewes giving birth in Killarney. I've eaten pink dragon fruit and durian in Vietnam. Durian smells like a dozen corpses but tastes like butter custard. I puked more than I thought possible while on a spice tour of India. I've seen some women, but none of them meant anything to me. I can tell you about them if you want. I still have the cursed spider plant, as you called it. I can do the Friday crosswords without cheating. A weird German guy moved into your apartment. He always has old women over but they don't stay the night. You'd get such a kick out of that. My sister had a baby that she named Mackenzie. I think it's a dumb name. The kid's cute though and she had a great first birthday party. God. I wish you had been there with me for the past five years. Or that I could have sent you a damn postcard at least."
It started to snow when we reached Ames, Iowa. Lightly at first, but by the time we reached the Missouri border, the snow fell hard. I couldn't see anything that wasn't immediately ahead of me and it didn't look like it was going to be clearing up any time soon. I left the interstate at a town named Bethany, where I checked into a room at a Super 8. I unloaded Rainbow from the car. Inside the hotel room, I sat the fish bowl on a table next to the window. I turned the television on to The Weather Channel. A blur of white was expected to cover the country from Canada down to Oklahoma. It was going to be a long night. I sat down on the mattress. Snow fell steadily outside.
I called Suzie on my cell phone.
"You have to get back on the road. You can't stay the night," she said.
"It looks bad out there, Suz. I can't risk it. I don't think I'll be able to get out of here until—" I looked out the window again. "Tomorrow evening at the earliest. If the snow clears up. If the snow crews have it together."
"She has to be there today. It might already be too late. How long have you been off the road?"
"Just a few minutes. You said I could leave tomorrow the other day. What difference would it make?"
"That was then. This is now. You need to go," she said and hung up.
I dropped the phone on the bed. I thought about whether or not I was going to go back out there. I thought I should ask Rainbow. I dug through my coat to get the stylus.
I realized, however, that it was the first and maybe only chance I had to talk to her alone.
"U were perfect 4 me," I wrote on the bowl. "Why did U leave?" The letters lingered, their lambent gold glow reflected on the table. There was no response from the fish who didn't even make eye contact with me. I watched the letters as they slowly dimmed and eventually disappeared. I thought the question might have been too much for her, so I asked her how she was. Then if the drive was going all right for her. I wrote out her favorite joke, even—What did the biologist wear to the party?—but she didn't respond.
I needed a drink, but decided against it, lest I start writing even more embarrassing things on the fish bowl. I got the food out to feed her. After I did, I tapped some of the food into my own palm to put into my mouth. Yeah, flakey. I flipped through the channels on the television. It was mid-afternoon and there was nothing to do. I took my shirt off and began to take my pants off, but then I remembered the fish. I zipped back up, went into the bathroom, and closed the door behind me. I turned the shower on. I imagined Rainbow's legs, her breasts, her hand on my penis. Her new fish mandible and maxilla, her piscine mouth shaped in a perfect circle: those soft-tissue o-ring lips.
When I got out of the shower, the hotel telephone rang.
"Is this Thomas?" It was a man with a deep voice who pronounced my name Toe-moss.
"You haven't left yet."
"Who is this?"
"It doesn't matter. Get dressed and get on the road. With the fish."
I was wearing only a towel. I looked out the window, but there wasn't a soul and my car was the only one in view.
"Where are you?" I asked. "Are you Victor?"
"You have ten minutes to leave."
"What if I don't?"
"Let's not find out."
I picked up the stylus after putting the phone receiver back into its cradle. "Should we go?" I wrote on Rainbow's bowl. No answer. I didn't understand how she could be so aloof, so unconcerned with her own fate. "They say we must go, but snow's heavy. What 2 do?" I wrote, waiting for the letters to disappear before writing each new line.
She made no effort to reply to my queries. She was playing the role of "just a dumb goldfish" perfectly. And maybe she was. Or maybe something had happened between that day in Suzie's apartment and the day of the trip. The window of opportunity closing. How was I to know? Suzie wasn't telling what was going on; she just mushed me like a sled dog. And Rainbow was no longer breaking the human-fish communication barrier. I couldn't tell if I really needed to get out there in the God forsaken snow to—to what?—save the fish? Save the girl?
"C'mon. Talk!" I said out loud, pacing around the room. "Why won't you just talk to me? Do you want to be a fish forever? Is that it? Are you even Rainbow? Are you quiet because you're just a dumb fish and I've been had? Is the window closing? Are you slipping away? If you were anyone else, I wouldn't be here. You know that, right? Talk to me again, you damn fish. Like you did the other day. Talk to me again like you used to. When you'd come home at night and tell me about hydrocarbons, or that you made remoulade sauce but nothing to put it on, or that you loved me, because you said that too."
She looked maybe sad, but it was hard to tell.
The decision of whether to stay or go belonged to me alone.
Just shy of an hour later, after letting the telephone ring on and off for nearly twenty minutes, I turned on the Volvo and stepped back inside the hotel room to wait for the car to warm up. I wound the fishbowl's cords around the smartphone and did a final check to make sure I had everything. I took the fish to the car. We drove off. The road was slick and the visibility low. The sides of the road were lined with cars that had slid off, a warning to those who drove onward.
The car was out of gas two hours later. I turned to get onto an exit ramp to go to a station. It was then the Volvo careened. I held down the brake pedal to no avail. Into the ditch we went. I ran the car dead spinning the tires, trying to back out of the snow bank.
The heat in the car quickly dissipated. My cheeks turned red; my fingers numbed. We needed to get inside. The gas station was nearby, just a bit off the exit ramp the sign had said. I got out of the car after I buttoned up. The wind stung. I popped the trunk to get some towels I kept in there, a bath towel and some white shop towels.
"Sorry these are dirty," I said as I wrapped the fish bowl in the towels—the only means I could think of to keep her warm. I set off with her curled into my arm, but it wasn't long before I felt her slipping. The puffiness of my coat made it hard to keep a good hold. I switched to gripping her bowl both arms but once again, the solution seemed short-lived: my arms began to tire after a while. I didn't see the gas station anywhere, although I couldn't see very far. I walked along what I thought was the road, but it was impossible to tell at times what was road and what was field. We may as well have been in Siberia. I wanted to go back to the car, where it might be easier to flag someone for a ride, but when I turned around all I saw was white. I couldn't even see my tracks on the ground. The wind had blown them away.
"This is bad," I said. I stood there without a clue as to which way to turn.
The fish brought her head above the surface of the water. When I looked down at her, making eye contact, she dove back under and started to tap at her keyboard.
"Fine time for you to speak up," I said.
The fish tapped some more.
"You're not plugged in, dummy."
My arms had become too tired to hold the bowl. I didn't know how long I had been out there, but it felt like I was weakening faster than normal. My body must have been fighting against the cold. I thought to fashion a sling with the bath towel and carry her over one of my shoulders, which looked simple enough in my mind but it took three tries to execute. I stood there, with that fish secured, feeling like Saint Christopher about to carry the child Christ across the swelling river.
I started walking but made it only a short distance—fifty feet, one hundred yards, half a mile, who could tell in this storm—before the bowl dropped to the ground and shattered.
The fish flopped on the snow amid broken glass and the snow now slushy from the water. I packed a snowball in my hands, and placed her on top. I knew that fish could get frozen in ponds and spring back to life when the thaw came in the spring. Perhaps I could put her in a similar stasis until we got somewhere.
"I hope this is the right thing to do," I said.
She flopped off. I picked her up again and she started to calm down. The cold was starting to get to her or maybe she knew this might be the only way she could survive. I watched her gasp for breath, her whole body puffing out. I marched forward with her in my upheld palms, with all the hope I could hold onto.
A few minutes later a tow truck pulled up next to me, barely visible except for the glow of its headlights. I realized then that I was still on the road. The driver yelled at me over the sound of the running engine for me to get in the cab. I balanced the fish in one hand while I opened the door with the other.
"What've you got there?" he asked looking at what I held.
"A fish. I dropped her bowl out there and it broke completely. My car can't be far from here, so if you want to just go get it—"
"I just passed it. It's not far at all. But there's no towing today. The county has closed the roads to towing. Might not be able to get any of the cars out here 'till tomorrow, but the way things are now it's probably going to be two or three days before we can do anything. The sheriff asked us towers to look for stranded travelers. Easy to catch hypothermia out here. Is that a goldfish? Man, those things go for a quarter at Wal-Mart."
"Not this one," I said.
The driver picked a large Styrofoam cup from the caddy between the two seats and tossed its contents out the window.
"Put it in here. Should be better than holding it. It alive? Can it live on ice like that?"
I dropped the fish and the snowball into the cup. She looked drained. She was now a pale yellow, like the lemon floating in the tea at Suzie's apartment.
"I don't know if she can. It was the best I could do," I said.
"You live around here?" he asked.
"No. I'm from Minneapolis."
"I'll take you to a hotel in Kearney, then. It's not far. You can warm up there and stay the night."
I called Suzie from the hotel room.
"Hey. It's Tom. I'm at a hotel with, uhm, Rainbow. We crashed and a guy in a tow truck gave us a ride here."
"You're stopped again? This is bad. You should have driven more carefully. You can't even be that far from Kansas City. Can you rent a car? Is there a rental place? It looks like you're thirty miles away on the map. Can you hitchhike?"
"Hey, Suz, you don't know how it is out here," I said. "The roads are closed to towing. They're sending rescue squads out, which is how I'm even here right now. The people on the radio are telling people to stay inside to drink cocoa and look at their Christmas garland. Anyway, I've been thinking. If this trip doesn't work out, maybe you and I could move in together with Rainbow and live like a family. A couple and their goldfish. I think she'd like that."
"A family? Are you absolutely— Nevermind. You're right about the roads. You were right when you stopped at the hotel this afternoon. Whatever. How's Rainbow doing?"
I told her about dropping the bowl and carrying her in on a ball of snow.
"I can't believe this." She raised her voice. "Do you know how much that bowl cost? We can't just get another one off the shelf. You know that right? We're fucked. Jesus. Okay. It's okay. We might not need it for very much longer anyway. Sorry. I've been beside myself since you called last. Our package didn't show up today. Everything's going wrong. Where is she now anyway?"
"In an ice bucket. I filled it up with water and a lot of ice so as to not give her cardiac arrest from the temperature change," I said. "She swam around a bit. Sluggishly, though."
"Water? Like tap water? Straight from the faucet?" she asked.
"Yeah. From the tap."
"Did you—? But everyone knows—"
There was silence. I thought for a moment that I had lost the call.
"Hello?" I said. "You there?"
"Oh Thomas. She was your first love, wasn't she?"
I looked over the edge of the bucket at Rainbow, but she was already dead from the chlorine. Even my best effort wasn't enough to save her. I curled myself on the bed, cradling the phone at my chest, listening to Suzie's tiny voice. Then it was spring and the tulips broke through the earth, reaching upwards to the sky, and a woman named Amy, who later took me to Berkeley with her, thawed me completely with a song she wrote on her guitar about the northern lights and the blue skies in my eyes. I had been let go.