Inside a plastic bubble, tied at the top with a rubber band, the goldfish swims and swims and the desert woman whispers to him. She straps him in to her pick-up truck. At the carnival, she also won a large stuffed rabbit and a hat in Mardi Gras colors; she has a strong throwing arm and uncanny aim, a real knack for winning games. These prizes are tucked around the goldfish like bumpers, to keep him safe. He swims and stares into the black glassy eyes of the blue rabbit.
Some nights, she kneels in front of the window over the sink, where he swims in a large glass bowl, one that her own mother used to beat eggs into cake mix. She kneels and prays, her hands folded. She kneels until her knees are red and raw.
The goldfish, if he is, as she whispers, God (“amen, amen”), recognized in his bulging eyes and his pouting mouth, only cares about shapes and shadows and noises. He doesn’t care about mumbled prayers. He likes the morning soap operas, the orchestral music that vibrates and hums through the glass and water of his bowl, thrumming through him pleasantly.
I drink too much, says the desert woman, momma wouldn’t like it. She does, and the brown bottles that smell sharp gather around him like alms. Alms for the poor, she says, when she takes a swig. She pulls down a heavy dictionary that belonged to her momma and reads aloud to him, alms: from the Greek eleemon; it means compassion, mercy.
Sometimes I feel like I don’t know who I am anymore, says the desert woman to the goldfish. I’m smart, I was smart once, and I could play the piano, and I could jump rope and read books for fun and when I ate a bar of chocolate, every bite was magic, holy. Then the desert spread a crust of dust across my skin, and it seeped into my blood, making those platelets start chugging slower and slower. Now I feel like I move through a fog, like every carnival ride or soap opera episode is an inevitable series of events, something that was always supposed to happen or happened before. I am gone, I am hiding small in a cupboard, curled up around a casserole dish, forgotten in a game of hide-and-seek that my mother forgot to finish. And my body grew up without me. I’m just swimming now, but I don’t go anywhere.
Sometimes the desert woman drinks so much that she falls asleep on the floor in the kitchen, and the goldfish swims and swims and watches her and waits for her to wake up. He would miss her if she were gone. Every morning, like mass, she feeds him and praises him, worships him, adores him. A communion.
Swimming swimming swimming swimming swimming swimming swimming.
The desert woman has left the sink on too long and the kitchen is flooding with water. She uses the spray nozzle to drench herself in water, and she laughs and laughs, moving her arms through the air like fins. She pretends to propel herself around the kitchen, stumbling into walls, tripping on the wet floor, and stabilizing herself on the kitchen table.
Praise be to the godfish, says the desert woman. Praise be to him who is safe, who is nurtured. Praise be to him who is kept and fed, whose memory shall not last longer than three months, as is foretold in the encyclopedia. Amen, amen, I say to you. Drench me in water and dunk me in a casserole dish, so that I can see the world through a beautiful glassy filter.
She is not drunk. She is not crazy. She is lonely, lost. She sits down in the water, and rinses her face, the religious fervor draining out of her.
This’ll get the dust off of me, she says to the goldfish. Praise be.