Daddy said the sun stopped burning when the baby died. Momma said it rises in the East.
Daddy says when a boy sees death for the first time, it makes them a man, no matter what. He said words like heartache and pain, and explained they’re devils who come to collect the best of you when you meet loss, and you’ve gotta fight them till forever to get just a little bit of the good back. He said most people lose, while others pretend to have won, when really they just changed convincingly enough to make believe they’re back to normal, when really, that normal’s been destroyed forever, and that makes boys grow up too fast, and men lose their way. Momma says I’m eight, and I won’t be a man until I’m at least thirty-seven, God willing.
People ask where the baby went, and that makes Momma sad. She never seems sad until people ask about it, but Daddy cries all the time, and if he isn’t crying, it’s cuz he ran out of tears, so he stares ahead like he’s looking at me, but Momma says he couldn’t see me if he wanted to. She said he’s trapped in a place called the Out There, and when he talks, and it makes sense, that’s when we’ll know he’s back. She says he’s been to the Out There before, many years ago, and he promised to never visit again. Daddy says promises tend to fall off the table, when babies grow to die. Sometimes when he’s mad, he asks why she isn’t right there with him. She told him it’s cuz I’ve never visited before, and it shouldn’t be a place for kids if they can help it; somebody had to stay home, for me.
Daddy said I should’ve been sadder, and it was okay to be, if I was just hiding it. Momma asked if I even understood it. I told her I was supposed to have a brother, and I did for six days, and then one day I didn’t. I cried when she said the baby left. But I didn’t know him long enough, to miss him.
“Mackie! Mackie!” Mom calls, and I rush down the steps, to the living room, to find her, holding a big glass bowl against her tummy, as big and round as her belly was before she had the baby. She sets her warm brown hand along the face of the bowl like she used to do to her tummy, and wraps her warm brown arm along the underside of it. It’s filled with water, and in the water’s a bright orange monster, zipping back and forth.
“What’s that?” I ask, pointing to the bowl.
“McKinley Yates,” Momma scolds me, setting the bowl on the glass coffee table. “Don’t act like you’ve never seen a fish before.”
“What’s with all the screaming?” Daddy mumbles, in the way Momma told me was unbecoming of a young Black man, when I mimicked him on purpose. You won’t be anybody’s Dr. King, moaning and groaning like that Mackie, Momma scoffed, holding her hands on her hips. She said Daddy gets to do it cuz he’s forty-two and old, and anybody who’s flown a plane over the Germans and lived to sulk about it got to talk however they wanted.
“I got Mackie here a friend,” Momma smiles, getting on her knees to look the fish in the beady eyes. “Ain’t he handsome, Rufus?”
“Maureen,” Daddy scolds, and I almost think he’s shouting, till I realized it’s the first time he’s talked in a normal tone since the baby. “Maureen,” he scolds again, holding his hands against his hips like Momma does when I’m in trouble. “Why would you bring that wild animal in this house?”
“Doesn’t look wild to me,” Momma smiles. “Come here, Baby,” she waves to me.
I bury my knees into the deep blue carpet, and press my side into Momma’s, and rest my elbows on the table. I get so close to the bowl, I start seeing double, and I back up just enough to see the little thing swimming in front of me. He’s short, but he’s fat — Momma says that’s usually how it works with most things — and his skin’s as orange as a peel, but it shines like Momma’s old jewelry. I think fish are ugly. But I don’t tell Momma that.
“Do you like him?” she asks, squeezing my shoulder.
“Mmhmm,” I nod.
“Maureen,” Daddy scolds. “Maureen—.”
“You’ve gotta feed him once a day, Mackie,” Momma says, running her hand over my head, back and forth. “You’d better promise to do it, or he’ll die. Do you promise?”
“Mmhmm,” I nod.
“Maureen,” Daddy calls. “Maureen, he ain’t gonna feed him. Maureen—.”
“Good,” Momma smiles. “What are you gonna name him?”
“Tommy,” I say. “Like the baby.”
“Maureen that boy must really hate me,” Daddy told Momma when nighttime came. I could hear them through the wall, from my bedroom. “Rufus, everything is not about you,” Momma scolded him. “You don’t spend time with him anyway, so you won’t even notice the fish, or remember his name.”
“I’ll hear it,” Daddy argued.
“Is hearing it worse than thinking about him, every second, Rufus?” Momma asked.
“Well, why don’t you think about him ever?” Daddy asked.
“Find me the time to, Rufus,” Momma spat. “You don’t work anymore, so I work for us both. You don’t cook, you don’t clean, you don’t tend to Mackie, you don’t do the shopping, you don’t do anything, anymore, Rufus. Even if I wanted to weep every minute, I do not have the time to both cry and keep us off the streets.”
“You found time to buy the fish,” Daddy said.
“Screw you, Rufus,” spat Momma.
. . .
Daddy said the fish would be dead in seven days, and he was glad to know it. But then he changed it to five, afraid the fish would live longer than the baby did, and that would make everything worse. He hasn’t said a word in three days— so far, the fish’s lived nine.
“Mackie,” Daddy calls, and his voice shocks me. He waves to me in the kitchen, from where he stands in the living room, by the coffee table, peering down at the fish. “Mackie come feed this thing.”
“He’s a goldfish,” I say, hopping off the counter-stool, and coming through the archway.
“Don’t look gold to me,” Daddy says.
“Carassius auratus,” I say, when I’m closer.
“You learning another language, boy?” Daddy asks.
“It’s scientific, for goldfish,” I say, screwing the lid from the fish-food jar. “I got a book from the library, about fish. Momma says we’re throwing him a party tomorrow, to celebrate ten days. She says you don’t have to come if you don’t want, but we’re gonna be real loud and happy about it, to bother you if you don’t.”
I didn’t tell him she said the party’s cuz the fish lived double the time Daddy said he would.
“Are you gonna come?” I ask.
“What’d you call this thing again?” Daddy asks.
“Tommy,” I say.
“Not that, Stupid,” Daddy growls, and I feel tears come to my eyes, but I don’t wanna cry in front of him, cuz I know he’ll make it worse. He’d be the maddest, if I cry over a name, and not for the baby. So I try to hold it in, and I think of who he used to be, before he went to the Out There.
“What was the other thing?” Daddy mumbles.
“C-Cara—Carassius a-auratus,” I stutter.
“Hmm,” Daddy says, and he takes his hands, and wipes the sides of them against my eyes, taking my tears in his skin. He rubs my cheeks in the way he used to do before he went to the Out There, and he takes my chin in his strong grip, and wriggles it back and forth. “That’s real smart of you, Mackie,” Daddy says, and he rolls his spare hand over my head. “Keep up that reading, and you’ll be just like Dr. King. He’s gonna change things around here for us, one day, you know.”
“Are you coming to the party?” I ask Daddy, when he lets me go.
“Your Momma better not spend a dime on that damn fish,” Daddy says, and for the first time in seven months, I laugh with my father.
Momma bought a cake from the baker, ten candles from the party store, paper decorations, party hats, and brand new glass plates, to celebrate the fish, and Daddy sulked about it for two hours straight. Momma and I laughed cuz he looked silly sitting there, wearing a big frown and a party hat at the same time. It was the most fun, when Daddy blew out the candles to spite the fish, and threw chunks of the cake at Momma and I, hitting us each in the nose. The fish swam back and forth in his bowl, following whichever way the cake flew, when Daddy declared all out war. Momma giggled the most— but she said we’re never doing that again.
The next morning Momma called and told her boss her car was stolen, and her husband was kidnapped, and that’s why she couldn’t come into work. Daddy hasn’t left the house in seven months, and to think he’d do so just out of the blue was outrageous, cuz Daddy hasn’t talked to outsiders, mowed the lawn, trimmed the hedges, waved to the neighbors, or left the house for seven months. He was kidnapped, Momma said — she nearly fainted when she saw him walk through the front door.
“Rufus!” Momma scolded, hanging up the phone before the police could pick up their end of the line. “Rufus, where — What is that?” Momma asked, pointing to the big glass box in his arm.
“Maureen, that thing is a grown man,” Daddy said, eyeing the fish in the bowl. “He needs a house, not a soup container.”
Daddy put the edge of the big box on the countertop, and slid it slowly onto the surface, knocking off all the picture frames, keys, and bowls onto the ground, and he told me to go and get the bag out of the car.
“How’s he supposed to fit in here?” I asked, holding up a little house, from the bag.
“That’s just decoration, Boy,” Daddy said, taking it from me, and putting it in the bottom of the big glass box. “Give me the plant.”
“This plant ain’t real,” I told him, handing him the big stem, with purple and yellow leaves.
“That means it’ll live forever,” Daddy said, taking the plant, and putting it in the corner. “Now go fill up a bucket— We’ve gotta fill this thing to the top!”
Momma made Daddy get a job cuz she said he wasn’t using his allowance for anything productive, and the fish was running out of room to live anyway, with all the toys Daddy kept buying him once a week. Daddy works at the power plant again, and now Momma doesn’t need her second job anymore. Daddy said it’s funny how the world works. Cuz now they go to work and I go to school, all at the same time, and we all come home, and we all eat dinner, and go to sleep at the same time too. Momma says Tommy did it, pulling all the strings in Heaven, so we could spend more time together. Daddy got mad, and said he hated the way she tried to find the good in everything. Momma said the alternative of not looking for the bright side of things, is to live in the dark forever. Daddy didn’t know what to say next, so he cried.
“Mackie!” Daddy called when I’d finished crossing off yesterday’s date, to find today the first of March. “Mackie!” Daddy calls, and I rush downstairs to find him standing in the living room, holding a big plastic bag in the air, filled with water and a little blue thing, zipping back and forth. When I get closer, I notice the white stripes traveling horizontally across its body. “The man at the store called it a Zebrafish— what’s that called Mackie?”
I grab the book we’d forgotten to give back to the library, and I flip through the pages, searching for zebrafish. “It’s called a Danio rerio,” I say, turning the page around so he can see it. “It comes from freshwater; it’s originally from Asia.”
“Would you look at that?” Daddy smiles, pinching the bottom corner of the bag, dumping the fish into the aquarium. “It’s exotic. Come over here, Mackie, and give this thing a name.”
“Hmm,” I think. “Domino,” I decide.
“Domino, it is,” Daddy smiles. “Hi Tommy,” Daddy says, waving at the little golden thing.
. . .
Daddy goes to the fish store once a week, and he brings a new fish home once every two. He and the owner are on a first name basis.
“Mackie!” Daddy calls, and when I run to him he slips a party hat over my head, and pops the elastic string under my chin. His eyes are so bright, I nearly forget how dim they used to be. He grabs my hand and he drags me to the kitchen holding a hand over my eyes, and he sits me down at the table. When he uncovers my eyes, there are nine bowls of fish in front of me, swimming in circles. “Happy birthday!” Daddy cheers, and Momma shakes my shoulders in her hands. “Nine, in 19-50-9,” Momma smiles.
“This one’s a Betta splendens,” I say, pointing to the blue betta at the end. “He can’t go in the tank, cuz he’s aggressive. And that one’s a Pethia conchonius,” I say, pointing to the rosy barb on the left, “and so is that one,” I point, to the fish in the middle.
“I’m telling you, Maureen, that boy’s a genius,” Daddy smiles, sticking candles in the cake.
“Well, what do you wanna do today, Einstein?” Momma asks.
“Let’s put the fish in the tank,” I say, and Momma nods.
Daddy sets the last candle down on the counter and brushes off his hands, before grabbing two of the tanks, as Momma and I carry one each against our bellies.
Momma bends over to look at the tank, holding her bowl tight against her belly, squinting her eyes at each of the fish already set in place. Daddy said Tommy must’ve eaten some of them, because there’s supposed to be fifteen in total, but there are only eleven, and Tommy’s gotten fatter. Daddy and I dump the fish into the tank, and Momma stands there still, until there’s just hers left to empty.
“Momma,” I say. “Momma, it’s your turn. What are you looking at?”
“Ooo,” Momma coos, turning around slow to me. “I’m sorry, Baby. . . But I think Tommy’s gone.”
“What?” Daddy asks, pushing us gently out of the way. I try hopping to see over his shoulder, but I end up crawling under his arm, to find Tommy laying on the gravel on his side. Suddenly, he’s rising up and laying at the top. Daddy walks away when Momma calls out to him, and he locks himself in their bedroom, and we didn’t see him for a lot of the day. Momma watched me blow out my candles, and she gave me a picture signed by Stepin Fetchit, and she told me Daddy must’ve knocked himself out in the room hitting his head on the dresser, and that’s why he couldn’t come to dinner.
At nighttime, I heard them talking through the wall, and Momma told him he should talk to me. I heard him say he didn’t mean to miss everything, he just got trapped in the Out There. She told him she wasn’t blaming him; but he needed to talk to me. I jumped down to lay on my bed when he came to my room, to pretend I wasn’t standing with my head pressed to the wall.
“Hey, Mackie,” Daddy says, slow and steady, and I feel the weight of him on the foot of my bed.
“Hey, Daddy,” I copied, and he smiled a little, and pulled me in close to his side.
“Are you sad at all, Mackie?” Daddy asks, and I shrug. “It’s okay to be, if you’re holding it in,” he says.
I shrug again. “Do you remember what Reverend Burke said, at the baby’s funeral?” Daddy nods, a little. “He said,” I say, “that all good souls make it to Heaven, and that babies have the cleanest ones. And Tommy’s never did anything bad enough to miss Heaven, so, I think he’s there too. If Heaven’s the place everybody wants to go, then shouldn’t we be happy when the people we love make it? It’s sad cuz we can’t see them anymore, but, that really means we’re only sad for us. And if we’re just sad for us, then. . . isn’t it okay, not to want to be, too? Do you believe in Heaven and stuff?” I ask.
Daddy nods his head slow.
“Then how come you’re sad, all the time?” I ask.
“Hmmm,” Daddy sighs, breathing a long, steady, stream, from his nose. “Well, Mackie, one day you’re gonna grow up real big, and you’re gonna move someplace so big, and so pretty, you’ll laugh remembering where you came from. And even though you’ll be in a better place, your Mama and I’ll probably cry every second, missing you.”
“That’s silly, Daddy,” I laugh. “One day you’ll see me again.”
“That’s true,” Daddy giggles, tapping my nose, before tucking me into bed.
“Daddy,” I call, when he turns out the lights. “Do you still think the sun burned out?”
Daddy breathes hard from his nose. “It rises in the East.”