Jess woke up sad. It happened sometimes. She’d open her eyes feeling clammy, like she’d been covered in too many blankets for too long. To keep the sadness from growing heavier, she had to spring into action right away – blankets and feet on the floor, glasses off the nightstand. But this morning, there was a big smudge on her glasses where she’d accidentally grabbed them by the lenses. Jess sank back onto the bed, looking out the window through the blurred lens.
The smudge took her back to when she was seven and found a pair of sunglasses on a picnic table in the park. The aviator frames had originally been fitted with cool blue lenses, but when she put them on the lenses were so scratched it looked like the world had been rubbed in gravel: Gritty and gray – sad. Like today.
On the way to work, Jess noticed abandoned toys thrown on the side of the freeway, saw all the flyers coming loose from traffic poles calling attention to missing dogs, or cats, or children, and watched a pile of lost nametags floating away in the wind like manufactured leaves.
“Hello, my name is . . .”
“Omar,” she said aloud. His name caused her heart to beat with happiness or anxiety. Maybe both. Omar either loved her or he didn’t and she wasn’t sure what part to feel sad about.
“Congratulations. You almost made it to work on time,” Luis said, tapping the side of a Charlie Brown bobble head he kept on his desk. They both watched until the motion stopped.
“It’s 8:04,” Jess said; “And we watched your bobble head for like two minutes.” “I’m just saying,” Luis said; “We workers gotta work.” Jess’s cell phone rang and she dismissed Luis with an eye roll, “Hey,” she said, in a soft voice.
“Omar?” Luis mouthed, with an exaggerated “O.” She shook her head yes.
“Hey back. Listen, I got called to Tucson for a few days. Some bank is having connectivity issues between branches. Anyway, nothing exciting, but I need to ask you a huge favor.”
“Shoot,” Jess said. Luis, having heard nothing to interest him, began to type on his keyboard.
“My sister Alicia brought a fish home from school because Fall break is here and it’s her turn to babysit. Anyway, my mom’s idiot husband won’t let her keep it at their house, so I have to watch the fish. Can you come by while I’m gone and just give it a pinch of food every day? Please? I’m really sorry to even ask.”
“Of course, I can. Not a big deal at all. Except, Omar, I don’t have a key.”
Luis stopped typing while Jess listened closely for any sign of hesitation from Omar. She would have to have a key so she could feed the fish. How could that be a big deal? “Yeah. I left the key with my neighbor across the hall in case you said yes. You met him before, I think. Daniel. Big guy. Has the little dog with the flat nose.”
“The pug,” Jess said. Luis tapped on his keyboard again.
“Anyway, he has the key for you. I’ll be back on Friday. And I forgot to feed the stupid fish this morning. Can you go by this evening?”
“Does the stupid fish have a name?”
Omar laughed, “I didn’t even ask. Let’s call him Pepe, okay?”
“Pepe. Sounds good. Be safe.”
“Yeah,” Omar said, “You too.” She wasn’t sure what the “you too” was in response to, but he had already hung up.
“I’m taking care of Omar’s little sister’s school fish,” Jess told Luis.
“Which little sister?”
“Alicia,” Jess said; “Keep up, Luis.”
“Oh, there is no way to keep up with that family,” Luis said; “But you finally get a key, huh?”
“I guess so,” Jess said; “Temporarily, anyway.”
Luis flicked the bobble head again and returned to typing. Jess figured it wasn’t Omar’s mom’s newest husband who didn’t want the fish at the house. Raymond seemed pretty chill about most things. He would have to be though. Omar was the fourth of eight children his mother had given birth to with five different fathers.
Omar once told her a story about the Christmas his mother announced she was pregnant with Esperanza, the youngest child. Omar’s oldest brother, Felix, had jumped up from the couch and pulled off his shirt.
“Moms,” he said, “I already got tattoos of all these kid’s names on my arms. I need it like a cheat sheet, right? But I’m running out of flesh here.”
“When you pay all my bills then you tell me how many kids to have,” his mother said, missing the joke.
Marisol missed a lot of jokes. Omar’s mother was a serious woman. Her tight jaw-line scared Jess to death. Marisol was an attorney who specialized in pharmaceutical lawsuits and, her children joked behind her back—marriage
Most of the time Marisol ignored Jess, which made Jess happy, but last Easter Marisol had cornered her in the TV room, “You and Omar serious?”
Jess wondered how Marisol defined serious, “I guess,” Jess said.
“You’re here every holiday these last few years,” Marisol said. “But you just guess you are serious with my son?”
Jess felt like she was six and back in Catholic school. Once, during silent reading time, she’d sneezed so hard a booger flew out of her nose and landed on the back of the chair in front of her. Several of her classmates laughed.
“Booger blower,” she heard from behind her.
“Jessica Salinas,” her teacher said, “If you must make noise, please go stand in the hallway so the rest of us can concentrate.”
Jess could still feel the stares as she walked out the door. She thought she should say something, but knew, even at age six, the futility of standing up for herself. She had already been labeled disruptive by her teacher and a booger blower by her classmates. Saying anything would just make things worse.
“My son never brought anyone to the house before,” Marisol said, as if daring Jess to argue with her; “To me, that’s serious.” Jess nodded. Marisol’s face was long and thin, like the rest of her.
“Listen,” Marisol said, placing her hand on Jess’s shoulder. “I’ve never made a mistake when it comes to my family. I’ve been serious about every vow I’ve taken. Once we give up on marriage, society is lost. You get what I’m saying?”
Jess smiled but wasn’t sure what else to do or say. Marisol kept looking at her and when she finally broke eye contact Jess felt like she’d been released from a rope. Until that day, Jess felt comfortable sitting somewhere neutral in Marisol’s life, like an old purse stuffed in her closet that she had once liked but had forgotten about.
As hard as it was being called out by Marisol, it was preferable to spending even a few hours with her own mother on holidays. The only holiday her mother even acknowledged anymore was Christmas. Jess asked every year if Omar could come with her on Christmas Eve, but her mother always said no. There would be no discussion. Even when her father was alive, Christmas had been celebrated on Christmas Eve. But now, as soon as presents were opened, Christmas was packed away like a completed chore not to be thought of again until the next year.
“To the two of us,” her mother would say, holding up her glass of vodka and lime. Jess held up a tamale her mother had ordered from the old lady down the street; “Just the two of us again, right Jessica? Always the two of us.” Jess would nod, knowing that out of the ones not at the table, Jess would be her mother’s third choice.
Luis stopped typing and tapped a Snoopy bobble head with the eraser of his pencil. Once the head stops, you start working. Deal?”
Jess watched the head go back and forth. She liked Luis, but if he left tomorrow and was replaced with someone else, she’d miss the bobble heads more than him, “I had to have a key, right?” Jess said once Snoopy stopped moving.
Luis sighed dramatically, “Do you really have to ask? A key after four years. Come on, Jessica.” The sadness returned like a name suddenly remembered from long ago.
After work, Jess drove to Omar’s apartment. and knocked on the door across the hall. There was a lot of moving around inside and a muffled, coming before the locks began to move and the door opened. Daniel was huge. She had not forgotten that.
Daniel kept his foot between the pug and the door and looked at her like he was torn between scorn and kindness. Jess waved her hand toward Omar’s door, “Oh yes – the girlfriend. Sorry. I was watching a movie and kind of got lost in it.”
“No problem,” Jess said, but Daniel and the pug were already gone behind the half-closed door.
“Here it is,” Daniel said, holding the dog and the key in the same hand. Jess liked how Omar’s apartment had a little foyer to pause in before walking into the living room. She placed the key on the hall table and was surprised to see a picture of her and Omar there. It had been taken at a birthday party a few weekends before. When had he bought the frame and placed the photograph here? She had to look twice to make sure it was even her with her head on Omar’s shoulder like it belonged there. She liked how green her eyes looked and how her hair waved gently across Omar’s chest without a hint of frizz in it. If she saw this girl in a picture with Omar, she might be jealous.
Her mouth was closed in the picture, which Jess regretted. The first time she’d met Marisol and the rest of Omar’s family, there had been an argument at the dinner table. Marisol yelled at Felix’s wife in Spanish, then Felix yelled back at his mom, then everyone stormed off into different camps.
Jess had been left alone at the table. When she found Omar, he was on the front porch. She’d touched his back, not sure of her place in the strategic planning happening all around them.
Without turning around, Omar said, “I’m so glad you only open your mouth when you have something to say, Jess.” Sometimes his words came back and resonated in her ear, like an unseen mosquito in a room.
Her cell phone shook and Omar’s picture popped up. She checked the text message: “In Tucson. Thanks again. See you Friday.”
“At your place now,” Jess texted back. She was going to take a picture of the fish to add to the text, but decided against it when she saw it floating on top of the bowl.
Daniel answered the door and smiled down at her, “I think you’re supposed to keep the key.”
“Can you come look at something with me?”
Daniel put the dog down and followed Jess across the hall, “It is dead,” Daniel said; “That is the official report from this coroner.”
“Are you a coroner?”
Daniel laughed, “No. I just play one on TV. But the fish is dead. That much I know.” Jess began to cry. She had been five when those words had been spoken in her own home.
“But I fed him at two this morning,” her mother had screamed, clutching the arm of the man in the blue uniform, “He can’t be dead.”
“Ma’am,” the paramedic said; “I’m sorry, but the baby is dead. That much I know.”
“Are you sure?” her mother said, pulling the man’s arm down as if she wanted him to disappear into the earth with her; “Are you really sure? Can’t you do something?”
Jess stood at the doorway watching her father bury his head in his hands and slide to the floor with his back to the wall, “Delia stop,” he whispered.
“Oh no,” Daniel said; “Don’t cry. It’s not your fault. These are cheap fish. They never live long. You can buy another one. There’s a Wal-Mart within walking distance. No one will ever know.”
“I had to take care of one thing,” Jess said, “One thing and I failed.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Daniel said, not sure whether to hug Jess or pat her back; “The fish was already dead when you got here. I’ll vouch for you if you need me to.”
“No,” Jess said; “No one will be mad at me. It’s just so sad.”
“It is,” Daniel agreed; “It sure is.”
“Will you come with me to get another fish?” Daniel hesitated, then nodded yes.
On the walk back from Wal-Mart, Daniel started talking. He told Jess he was in computer security and he’d met Omar through a job they once had together, “Even after working together for six months, when I saw him across the hall one day I was surprised. We found out we’d lived across from each other for over a year. That’s modern disconnect,” Daniel shrugged; “Our generational woe.”
“Seems that way,” Jess said. Daniel was kind with deep brown eyes and patches of dark skin on the side of his cheeks. It looked like a child had eaten chocolate cake, then held both sides of his face.
“I look like your uncle, right?” Daniel said, noticing Jess looking at him; “I always look like some girl’s uncle or cousin.”
“Actually, you look like my dad,” Jess said, watching the fish swim in the plastic bag she carried.
“Oh,” Daniel said softly.
“Can you carry the fish?” Jess said, stopping and holding out her arm to Daniel; “I’m afraid I’ll drop it or something. I’m clumsy like that.” Jess decided not to look at Daniel again so she would not cry. After her baby brother died, her father did, too. Though it was eleven years until his car accident, he was as dead then as he was now.
“Daddy,” Jess said one night after he tucked her into bed, “Please don’t leave me. Please don’t go away.”
Her father stood by the light switch in her room. His eyes were dark. “I would never leave you on purpose, Jessie-bell. Never.”
“There was an accident,” she remembered her mother saying. Jess somehow knew there would be. The car accident was not on purpose just as her brother’s death was not on purpose and her mother’s drinking was not on purpose and the fish’s death was not on purpose. Accidents happened, but they also seemed a convenient way to avoid purpose.
On the Easter Marisol cornered Jess, Felix’s wife brought Jess a glass of wine and the two of them sat outside alone, “I saw her catch you,” Celia said. “Girl, don’t let that happen too often.” They clinked glasses. “Damn, I only saw that lady rattled once. Marisol was surprised when she got pregnant with Esperanza,” Celia said. “She talks a big game about how everything in her life is planned, but Esperanza was an accident. I heard her on the phone when she called the baby daddy. ‘Please,’ she said to him. ‘Please be kind. This is my last baby.’ It was the only time I heard Marisol sound soft.”
“Who is Esperanza’s daddy?”
“We don’t know,” Celia said. “He’s the one who got away, I guess.”
Both women giggled, but later Jess felt bad about laughing at Marisol. Omar’s family felt like an old blanket to her. There were so many people it was easy to get lost, but with that many people you were also never alone. And whenever something broke, replacement parts were easy to find. Felix had a new wife now and Jess couldn’t even remember for sure if Celia was the name of the one she had laughed with.
“Jess,” Omar said one night as they stood beneath a tree in his mother’s back yard. His eyes were brown and moist, like a puppy she had wanted when she was little. “I’ve felt lonely my entire life, but even when you aren’t here, just knowing you are alive makes me feel warm.”
Jess believed that was the most perfect thing she’d ever heard. Replacing the fish was the easy part, Jess thought. Her only regret was that Omar had named it. Pepe. Pepe was dead. This new fish would not be named.
At the door to Omar and Daniel’s apartments, they both took out their respective keys. Jess heard the pug sniffing under the door.
“Shit, Jess, I have to say something here. Please don’t hate me for this, but you just seem like such a nice person. Omar brings other girls here. I’d hate for you to get hurt.”
Jess nodded and took the fish from Daniel. “Thank you for letting me know.”
Daniel stood for a few seconds, then bowed his head like a waiter after an order has been taken. He put the key in his lock.
Back in Omar’s apartment, Jess scooped out the dead fish, flushed it, and put the new fish in the bowl. She took a picture, texted it to Omar, then looked around the apartment. There was his unlocked computer playing music at a low volume. He had forgotten to shut it down. Had Omar left it on by accident? She could easily know so much more.
After she locked Omar’s door, she knocked on Daniel’s door again, “Hey,” he said, pushing the pug behind him as he walked into the hall.
“Please don’t hate me for this,” Jess said, twisting Omar’s key onto her key ring, “I appreciate what you told me and all, but you will see me here again.”
“He’s a douche,” Daniel said.
“Yeah,” Jess said, “It’s just so much easier to play when you know the rules.”
Denise Tolan's work has appeared in journals such as Lunch Ticket, Hobart, Apple Valley Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and others. Her submission in 2018's Best Small Fictions was long listed for Wigleaf's Top 50; and was a finalist for the 2018 International Literary Awards, Penelope Niven Prize in Nonfiction.