The Goldfish Man

I live in my car.

It’s both worse and better than you’d expect. It’s an old Subaru hatchback so I can put the back seat down and sleep. I have all my stuff in the back but I have a space where I can lay.

The place where I park is, like, the unofficial place for homeless people. If you cross the main drag, Venice, you’re in Culver City and the cops there are death on homeless. They move you along, threaten to take your stuff. But this side of Venice is Los Angeles proper and apparently the cops have decided to ignore us for now. It’s a side street beside a grocery store and there are some people in tents and these three people, a shaved-headed Latino guy and his wife, and the guy’s brother, who have a camper. They repair bicycles.

Besides the bike repair crew, there are three tents on the sidewalk with a couple of folding chairs where people can sit like it’s their front porch or something—Oswaldo and Gloria are in their sixties and sit out in the evenings, usually drinking beer.

There are five cars, including mine. I don’t like the shaved-headed guy because he takes some drug and it makes him get angry easy. Meth? I don’t know. His brother sleeps in the driver’s seat of the RV. I assume he sleeps in the back with his wife. I thought about telling the brother about my tent trick, but then I decided it wasn’t rocket science, and I really don’t want to draw attention.

There’s this one guy, I think his name is Lane. If you saw him you’d never think he was homeless. I don’t really think of myself as homeless, more like my home is also my car. I am aware that’s pathetic. I don’t want to hear about it. Lane’s shelter is a cardboard box, sleeping bag, tarp for if it rains kind of guy which crosses some line in my head for really homeless. He’s white-ish, got dark hair and he wears Henleys and his jeans never have that filthy-at-the-hem look. You know? Street people have dirty ankles.

He talks to the tent people and sits with them and he buys stuff—I don’t know where he gets money but he runs into the grocery store and gets iced tea. He buys people coffee from the Starbucks. He also sometimes just stands there and he does this thing with his mouth, making an “o” and opening and closing it. It looks like a goldfish, you know how they do that thing. Pah pah pah, with their mouth? It’s like that. He’ll do it for a long time, just standing there.

Being homeless can mean you have a lot of time on your hands. But most people don’t spend a lot of it just standing there.

I watch him, sometimes. Today, he was doing it, and it was like he realized it because he closed his mouth like, pop, very decisive, and frowned at himself.

I’m a ceramicist, a potter. I used to teach classes at a place called Great Earth but in this year of the plague, the studio can’t offer classes. I had a great sublet from a woman who is a post doc doing geology and was in Utah for a year. She told me that she had a place there and she didn’t know when she would come back and as long as I covered the rent on the studio apartment I could stay there, but then they shut down whatever it was she was doing, and she had to come back.

I had a little bit saved up. But I had no income, and I burned through it in an Airbnb where I rented a bedroom from a gay guy in Silver Lake. And then the car.

I sell pottery on Etsy. Linda, the woman who owns Great Earth, lets me throw whenever I want. She says no one else is using the space, so I might as well. Charity. I am soooooo not proud.

I let myself into Great Earth. The room smells of clay and paint. Linda is there and I stop. I’m wearing my pandemic mask, but she didn’t know I was coming so she’s not. I should have called. I’ve surprised her.

“Sima!” she says. “I didn’t expect you!”

“Sorry!” I say. “You want me to come back later?” I’m just going to throw some dog treat cookie jars. They aren’t very inspiring, art wise. But right now, they still sell, which is something.

“No, no, let me get my mask,” she says. “What are you making today?”

“A couple of commissions,” I say. A dachshund and a Samoyed cookie jar. I have pictures of the dogs on my phone and I’m thinking about making the dachshund so it’s sitting up.

“I’m just doing paperwork but I wanted to get out of the house, you know?” she says, and then realizes that I don’t have a house. “Oh, God, that’s—I’m sorry.”

I shrug. “It’s okay, I wanted to get out of my car.”

“You let me know when you want a night on my couch,” she says.

“I will, but so far, it’s not bad,” I say. I plug in my phone and my phone battery to charge. Linda is trying to help me. She lives in a place? House? with her husband, her nine-year-old son, and her 84-year-old mother. There’s no way I’m going to take my homeless, possibly plague-ridden ass into her house. She’s let me use the studio to work, to have a place to go inside, to use the bathroom—which is a toilet and sink but it’s running water—so I can at least sponge bathe. What if I gave this to her mother? What if I killed her mother? It’s not worth it. Although there have been times when it was really tempting. My feet get so cold at night.

They’re talking about a vaccine. Maybe if I can get vaccinated, I’ll say yes.

Before everything went to hell I was making double vases. That means I throw a pot and then throw another pot around them. I was carving shapes into the inner and outer pots, making them like ceramic lace—well thicker, because wet clay would collapse if it was too thin. When I put a candle in them, they would throw shadows and light on a wall and I had been experimenting with that. The shadows they made were angry, or frantic, jagged and arching up the wall onto the ceiling. I had started making big ones, 24 to 36 inches and when they cracked in the kiln it was hours and hours of work gone, but the ones that came out were, well, strong. They were art. I wanted to get a portfolio together and see if I could find a gallery that was interested.

So much for that.

I kneaded my clay at my end of the studio, slapped it onto the wheel and centered it. I may have been making something cheesy but there is something so centering about throwing a jar.

“When do you want to fire?” Linda asked. She had put on her mask.

“I want to get six. I’m going to make a couple of labs, those sell eventually. No sense in firing up the kiln until we’ve got a load.”

Linda’s husband is still employed. She’s been throwing bowls and tea pots. I’ve got a golden retriever teapot on Etsy. The dog’s ears make the handle and the spout. I’ve got it listed for $60 but it hasn’t sold so maybe I’ll lower the price. The things that are selling are mostly minimal, artsy looking things.

I want a drink. I haven’t had one in eight years. I think about it at night when I’m under my tarp in my car cave, how if I had vodka I could sleep. I want to go to an AA meeting but I can’t quite bring myself to do an online meeting. It just feels—I don’t know. I didn’t think of my sobriety as delicate, but now I think it is. I’m broke, homeless, and terrified all the time. It would be nice to give in, to let go and say “fuck it” and get drunk and not feel anything for awhile.

So far I haven’t.

I have a terrible weakness for McDonalds. Big Macs. I get a meal at the drive thru, and park my car back in my spot. I have to leave my engine running because my phone, as always, is almost out of charge but I’ve been thinking about buying a pint. Just a pint. Of bourbon. When I was in my twenties, I used to dab a bit of bourbon behind my ears like perfume because I thought it smelled so good. Sad, I know.

The meeting is on Zoom which is so tiny on my little phone, but when we recite the Serenity prayer, I feel a sense of relief. I dig out my Big Mac while someone reads from the Big Book. “Neither could we reduce our self-centeredness much by wishing or trying on our own power. We had to have God’s help.” I have an uneasy relationship with my higher power. In my first group, one woman’s higher power was her black Lab, who she said lived in the world without expectation and with joy.

I was doing really well before the plague. I didn’t feel as if I needed meetings much. Now I’m right back in the mire of trying to figure things out, day by day. Back to trying to figure out how to trust in a universe where I don’t believe in a god.

But the rhythms of the meeting help. The meeting is about Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. People are sharing how lonely they are even though they are locked down with a partner 24/7. How angry they are at people who deny that the disease is serious.

When I take the first couple of bites of my burger, that’s when it usually tastes the best. About halfway through I usually remember why I don’t eat McDonalds very often. I’m listening, and really, my burger doesn’t have much taste. The car is stuffy and listening to people talk about how tired they are, I just want to take a nap. I close the app.

Am I sick?

I’m not sick. I mean, the meeting is about being tired. Everyone is worn down. I crawl into the back of my car. Lane is standing on the sidewalk across the street. He waves at me and I give a kind of half wave, then pull the tarp over.

I wake up later and I can’t pretend anymore. I’ve got chills and a nasty headache. Fuck a duck, I can’t deal with this so I carefully turn over in my little crawlspace and try to go back to sleep.

My crawl space is narrower than my pillow so my pillow gets a little wadded up. I can’t get comfortable on it—where it’s flat it feels too hard and where it’s uneven it presses against my forehead and my temple and my head hurts. I twist, and drift…those moments when you’re falling asleep and your thoughts are going in weird directions. I try to think about the potting wheel, about centering the clay and the way that my finger and knuckle hurts when I’m pulling up a big shouldered jug. About the weight of the clay. I think about the pattern of light through bare branches and the guy at the gallery that was interested in my portfolio. About the Friday art walk in downtown LA and the white walls and clean floors of the galleries. About the way the guy had me bring in some pots, and we talked about the way light moves through transparent glazes. I went to dinner with him and he put his hand in the small of my back and steered me to our table and I knew that he felt no compunction about owning me. He was Albanian and he asked me to call him cowboy. I thought about having sex with him anyway. I wanted a break so bad.

I think about how he told me that the gallery had decided to move in a different direction, how ceramics were a secondary art. I went out with him knowing I wasn’t really interested in him, because I wanted him to show my work. I did that and he probably never intended to. I sold out and it makes me sick with shame. I wake with my fist clenched against my chest and my head pounding.

My head hurts so much.

Someone is calling. “Hey! Hey! Are you okay?”

I push aside the tarp so I can see.

It’s Lane. He’s standing on the sidewalk beside my car holding a half-grown stray cat. The pain is in the front and sides of my head and the daylight hurts. My eyes water.

“Hey, are you all right?” Lane asks again. The cat has yellow crude crusted at the edge of one eye.

“I’m sick,” I say.

“What?” he asks.

I almost tell him to go away but my stomach is roiling and I pop open the hatch because I don’t want to throw up where I sleep and I hurl McDonalds into the gutter.

“Wow,” Lane says. “Are you sick?”

“Yeah,” I say.

“I’m gonna get you water,” he says and puts the cat down next to me. I don’t want the cat. But now I have to pet the cat so it doesn’t take off while he’s getting me water.

I take the water. “You should go away,” I say. “Take your cat.”

“I’m immune,” he says.

“You’ve already had it?” I ask.

“I’m not from here.”

First of all, no one is from here. It’s Los Angeles. I mean, people are from here but it feels like everyone I meet is from somewhere else. Second of all, that doesn’t make him immune. I flop back and the cat jumps down but I’ve had enough. “Thanks for the water,” I say.

It’s cold in LA, at least by Los Angeles standards. The first night on the street—well, in my car on the street—was weird. I drove around my block until I found a spot near but not under a streetlight because I thought I wouldn’t be able to sleep with that much light. I crawled into the back and made a space between boxes and garbage bags, like a nest, but there were cars going by. I kept hearing people walking. I would close my eyes and I’d think I heard something and I’d have to sit up and check that someone wasn’t scoping out my car.

There’s a learning curve to living rough. I drove around for a while trying to figure out what the best place was. Industrial areas didn’t have much traffic but I felt like I was too obvious, a car parked in an empty row of parking spots. I think it’s a little easier for guys, maybe. I was sleeping in a neighborhood for a couple of weeks, but I had to move every day because people notice if you park outside their house. Or at least I would. I have a dream location which is, like, somewhere in the canyons on a dead end road where I can pull my car off into the bushes or something but I drove Laurel Canyon once and then kind of gave up.

Now I sleep wrapped in a blanket and my comforter, and I make a tent of one of those plastic ground sheets that I used for painting my old apartment. I have my clothes in two boxes, and a bunch of kitchen stuff, and then on the other side I have my other boxes with my food and my toothbrush and towels and, you know, the stuff for everyday life. I put my bedding down between them and then cover it with the plastic over the boxes and it makes a kind of tunnel. No one can see me and it blocks the light.

It’s darker than my bedroom, so I could sleep late if I could sleep. (I don’t ever sleep late because I sleep for shit.) It’s narrow. I have to kind of wake up to turn over. But it’s really not that uncomfortable. I’m thinking that when I can I’ll buy some of that foam that campers use. But honestly, it’s not that bad.

It’s awful. I’ve had the flu and honestly that was pretty bad, but this is so much worse. I wake up at night and I can feel the headache throbbing with my heartbeat. Ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum. Everything hurts, and I have chills and my teeth chatter. I realize one night that I’m going to die. I pee my blankets. I don’t care.

Lane checks on me. I should make him keep his distance but I’m too sick to care. He shows up with a couple of blankets and some wet wipes. Wet wipes are impossible to find these days. He makes me get out of the car and then he hauls some pieces of cardboard over to make a dressing room and makes me take off my peed-in clothes and wipe myself down. I dig out clothes and take the blankets and crawl back in.

There’s a laundry at the corner of Venice and Robertson, a couple of blocks east. He tells me about how he does his laundry there when he brings back my blankets and sheets. “I’ll give you money,” I say. “You should get away from me. I’m contagious.”

“Don’t worry,” he says. “I brought you soup. I told them you were sick at the grocery and they said chicken broth was the best so I brought you organic chicken broth. You should drink it.”

It’s a carton of chicken broth. I drink it and it stays down. It helps that I can’t really taste anything.

“Where’s the cat,” I say.

He shrugs. “I dunno. Wherever she wants to be, I guess.”

“She needs a vet to clear that eye infection.”

He shrugs again. Not his problem. Unlike me.

“You’re going to get sick,” I tell him.

“I can’t,” he says.

“Did you have it already?”

“I’m not from here,” he says.

“The virus doesn’t care where you’re from,” I say. He has an American accent, like Midwest.

“Yeah, but I’m not a human,” he says.

“What are you?” I ask.

He shrugs. “I don’t know how to explain it to you.”

My life is dependent on a crazy guy.

I wake at night and the brother of the bicycle repair guy is in the front seat of my car. Maybe he doesn’t know I’m here. I want him out of my car, but I’m so sick I don’t have the energy to do anything. Maybe he’s tired of his brother and his brother’s wife having sex in the camper while he sleeps in the driver’s seat. Maybe he thought I died and he came here for the privacy. I should be scared but I’m too sick to care.

He’s driving and I can feel the rumble of the wheels on roads. We take curves and my nausea rises and falls, rises and falls, and finally I say, “I’m going to be sick,” and push back the tarp. The car is parked where it always is but it still feels like it’s moving. There’s no one in the front seat. There was never anyone in the front seat. I wonder what my delirium says about me. I throw up water and chicken broth on the sidewalk and feel vaguely guilty.

I get better after a couple of weeks.

I email my eBay customers with apologies. One wants a refund. The other three are nice and one of them buys a little $40 raku piece off my website and sends a note saying, “Glad you’re okay!” I go into the studio to get things ready for the biscuit fire. I’ve texted Linda and she’s waiting for me, sitting at her desk, awkward.

I am shaky and walking from my parked car to the studio has worn me out. I don’t know how I’m going to do any work.

“Oh, honey,” Linda says. She’s wearing her mask.

“I’m not contagious anymore,” I say. I’m wearing my mask even though I don’t think I need to. “I got tested and I’m negative.”

“Oh, of course,” she says. Then she hugs me. Linda is huggy and I don’t mind but this time it feels so good. Linda is soft and squishy, but her arms and hands are strong from throwing. She’s warm and I’m cold all the time. I tear up.

“You should have told me,” Linda says. “I can’t believe you were all alone.”

“This guy from the encampment brought me soup and water. He even did laundry for me.”

“Sit down,” she says. “I brought you lunch.” Linda makes the best hot and sour soup. I can sort of smell it. I’ve been looking on line to see how long it takes for people to get their sense of taste back and of course, it varies. Some people haven’t gotten it back at all. “I know you love spice, but I thought you needed something mild.” It’s something Chinese, vegetables and meat over rice. The texture of cooked meat is weird when I can’t taste it. It is weirdly dry. I’m really aware of it. The vinegar from the hot and sour soup is a spark of smell and flavor. “Oh, Linda, thank you!”

She watches me eat, smiling. The sunlight pours in through the window. I’m so lucky that Lane was there, so lucky for Linda. This will be over, eventually, and I can start teaching again. I’ve been doing ceramics forever, teaching classes, getting by, waiting for my break to really be able to make a living at it. This whole ordeal has been a life lesson. I think it’s time to grow up, to get a job. I can still teach ceramics on the side. I’ll get an apartment, maybe over in Echo Park which is getting really nice. I’ll meet someone, maybe. I don’t want kids, I’ve never wanted them, but it feels as if I’ve been living like a twenty-something for far too long. I’m thirty-six. I can be practical.

Linda makes me sit while she loads the kiln for the first fire of my pieces. She’s got pieces from other people. There are people who throw but use her kiln. It’s a big, beautiful professional kiln. Linda has a knack for firing. Every time you fire something, you place your life in the hands of the kiln gods. You don’t know what can happen. Things crack, break, sometimes explode. On the other hand, sometimes you fire a glaze and what comes out is something unexpected and beautiful.

“Sima,” Linda says. “I have to tell you something.”

There is something to fear in her voice.

“I’m selling the studio,” she says.

I don’t understand here for a moment. But of course. The studio has been closed for almost nine months. She’s still paying rent, utilities. It’s never been super profitable, but it made enough money for her to keep doing it because she loved it.

She’s saying something about talking to Kathy Wilson who will let me use her studio. About moving to Michigan where Rich, her husband, has family.

I am trying to think about what to do. I can do delivery, Uber Eats or Grubhub or something. I haven’t wanted to because my car is seven years old and you put a lot of miles on a car doing delivery. I don’t know what I would do if my car died. Live in a tent next to the grocery?

I’m a marginal person, relying on the kindness of strangers.

“What does that mean?” Lane asks.

I know Lane is mentally ill. He thinks he’s a vampire or something. Not a vampire. I don’t know what he thinks he is. He always just shrugs. He’s odd. Like when he asks me what it means he is looking at me. He doesn’t take his eyes off of me. I couldn’t figure out at first what made me a little uncomfortable around him but that’s it. When you talk to people, they look at you, they glance away, they look thoughtful, or they laugh.

One time I tried just maintaining eye contact with him for as long as he would. It turns out he will maintain eye contact for forever and I started feeling as if I was in a staring contest. There was a study (I read it in Wikipedia) where a psychology researcher had people look at other people in elevators and it turned out to be really stressful. Lane is like that.

“It means that I’m going to have to drive to West Hollywood to use a studio, and I don’t know Kathy that well, although she says she wants me to teach when the pandemic is over.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Lane says.

“Linda is my closest friend,” I say. I feel goddamn tears welling up. “I’ve been sick and I don’t even know if I can throw and now Linda is going to move and,” I do that hiccough thing of a sob. What am I doing? “And I’m homeless and I hate it.”

“It sucks,” Lane says, agreeing. He pets me on the head and that makes me cry more.

“My dad’s dead, my mother is a narcissist and she threw me out and, and, and, I don’t have anyone,” I cry. Waterworks. I can’t stop and pretty soon I can’t talk and I shake and cry forever. Lane sits listening as if this is just part of the conversation.

I cry a long time. There’s a big hole full of cry in me and it takes awhile to empty it out. Afterwards I am spent and I take a nap.

My hips ache and my back aches when I wake up. Since my personal bout of plague I have a lot of aches. When I crawl out of my car cave, I don’t see Lane, so I go to the grocery and buy something to eat.

Lane shows up around dusk. “Hi Sima.”

I pop the hatch and we sit in the back with our feet in the street. I can lean up against a box. My car smells like someone lives in it. I hate that smell, like a bedroom smell. I’m so tired of living in the car, of everything being hard. I want a shower. I want to have a decent place to go to the bathroom without slinking through CVS to their bathrooms. To stop thinking about it, I tell Lane about how when I was feverish I thought that the bicycle repairman’s brother was driving my car.

“Pancho’s okay,” Lane says. “Chuck does meth and Pancho is on parole so he doesn’t. But he’s afraid he’ll get in trouble because of Chuck.”

“Which one is Pancho?” I ask.

“The one you thought was driving your car.”

“I think I’m going to live like this for the rest of my life,” I say, because you can say anything to Lane.

“I like it,” Lane says, “but there’s this place I’ve wanted to see and I couldn’t go but now I can.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“I’m going to head there next week.”

“You’re leaving?” I ask. I think, I can’t take this. Linda and Lane? I’d be dead or something if it wasn’t for the two of them and now they’re leaving? “Where are you going? Most places won’t even accept Americans.”

“Oh, no,” he says, “I’m leaving the planet. I mean, it’s cool, really, really cool. I like it because it’s so off the beaten track, you know? Unspoiled. But there’s this place that is incredible. And I know someone who’s heading that way and they can take me.”

“Oh,” I say, because honestly, what else do you say. “I thought you were a vampire or something.”

He laughs. “I don’t think there are vampires.”

“I don’t think there are aliens,” I say. I mean, it’s rude.

“Lots,” he says.

It’s such a weird conversation. “Your English is really good,” I say, to make up for the not believing in aliens.

“Thanks, but I didn’t learn it naturally,” he says. “I cheated.”

I imagine what it would be like if what he was saying was true. That I could pick up and take off. In AA we call that the geographic cure. You think you can solve your problems by going someplace new. I’ve certainly done it. But the problem is, anywhere you go, there you are, and you’re the problem.

But leaving humanity. That’s different.

“Do all aliens look human?” I ask. I don’t know if you’re supposed to agree with whatever delusional beliefs a crazy person has.

“None of them,” Lane says.

“Except you?” I ask.

“I don’t look human,” Lane says serenely.

“You do to me,” I say.

He shrugs. “I know.”

“How come you look human to me?”

“It’s really complicated,” he says. “You know, you see light. But you don’t see, uh, x-rays, or microwave, or gamma waves. I, well, I guess you’d calling it seeing, I see a different set of wavelengths than you do. I don’t even know how to tell you what I look like because it’s like describing colors you don’t see.”

“But why do I see you as human?”

He sighs. “Because we only see a little bit of things, because reality isn’t very useful. They do something to reality so you perceive me as human.”

“They?” I like this. It sounds fun and smart.

“I don’t…you could say I’m not a very technical person. I mean, do you know how your phone works?”

I haven’t a clue how my phone works.

“Could I go with you?” I ask.

He looks surprised. “Ah…no. No. That’s a bad idea.”

“How come? Because I’m primitive?”

He shakes his head. “No, it’s just, it doesn’t work out well. A lot of the time. You belong here, and there are all these things like, I don’t know, protein structure you need and shit. I don’t know how to explain it.”

“Could you take the cat?” I ask.

“What? No. It’s the same thing.”

“So, no pets traveling the galaxy.”

He nods. “Yeah, that’s a good way to think of it.”

I don’t expect Lane to leave. I expect he’ll just say that something happened and the other alien couldn’t or that he changed his mind. I’ve pretty much forgotten about it when Randy shows up. Randy is a big white guy with a beard and lots of red hair. He looks like he could be a wrestler or something. When I first see him, he’s in the parking lot of the grocery store talking to Lane and Lane is practically levitating.

Lane is so…even. But now he’s on his tiptoes, gesturing above his head as he talks. He looks bizarre with his arms waving around. Randy has his head tilted way back, staring at the sky.

“Sima!” Lane calls. He introduces me to Randy. “Randy is giving me a lift!” he says.

“Who are you?” Randy asks.

“I’m Lane’s pet,” I say. “Like a cat.”

Lane smiles. I realize he doesn’t really laugh.

“I wish I could go with you.”

“It’s a bad idea,” Lane says.

“You want some In-N-Out before you take off for other dimensions?” I ask Randy. In-N-Out is a cult in California. Like, people are insane about the burgers.

“It’s not another dimension,” Randy says. “They’re all curled.”

I have absolutely no idea what he means.

We get In-N-Out. I haven’t had a burger since I threw up my McDonalds and I’m a philistine who prefers McDonalds to In-N-Out, blasphemy in LA. (In-N-Out has limp fries.) But In-N-Out has the best milkshakes. I tell Randy about the secret menu. He’s never had In-N-Out. He’s a big guy so I suggest a 3 x 3 which is just a hamburger with three patties. We eat at the picnic table by the grocery. It’s under a big overhang so it’s in the shade.

“Where are you from?” I ask.

“It’s hard to explain,” he says. He stares up almost the entire time except when he eats. What is with these guys.

“I’m worried about you,” Lane says. “What’s going to happen to you?”

I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it. I’ve been up to talk to Kathy Wilson and she’s not ready to give me a key to her studio, of course. So if I want to work, I have to let her know and make arrangements. It’s not as nice as Linda’s. It’s a store front in a strip mall so it’s dark .

I still get short of breath when I do stuff. I tried throwing a bowl and got worn out fast. Kathy says she’ll let me know when she’s doing a kiln firing, but Linda and I used to plan that together.

It seems like things are closing off.

I tell myself that in a year, they’ll have a vaccine and this will all be over and I’ll be back to life like before, but I’m thirty-six and I have no health care. Who would even hire me?

I shrug, just like Lane does when he asks me a question.

He looks mournful.

“This guy,” Randy says, staring at the ceiling. “He always tells the locals. I never say anything.”

“I don’t like to pretend,” Lane says.

“How many places have you been to? Have you been to —–?”

Randy said something but I couldn’t tell you what he said. I mean, it was like there was space for a word but there wasn’t really a word. But there was something like a word.

“Yeah,” Lane says.

“I’ve always wanted to go there.”

“It’s okay. Over-hyped.”

I shudder. A goose walked over your grave, I think. It’s a saying for when you get that weird feeling.

Randy stares at the ceiling and Lane looks a little sad. Lane does that thing he does with his mouth, the goldfish thing. I realize I haven’t seen him do that in awhile.

He sees me staring, “Yes?”

I mimic him, doing the goldfish thing with my mouth.

Lane looks embarrassed. “I try not to do that.”

“It’s okay,” I say.

“It’s a presentation artifact,” he says. “It’s because of something we do naturally. I try not to do it.”

“Are you a fish?” I’m hanging on to my understanding of things. Lane is mentally disturbed. Randy is his weird mentally disturbed friend.

“Sort of,” Randy says. “Not really. He kind of swims in gravitational waves.”

Lane looks at Randy.

“You told her that you’re an alien,” Randy says.

“That’s not true, what you said. I’m not a fish.”

Randy, god damn him, shrugs.

Lane digs out his wallet. “Here.” He gives me seven twenties and a bunch of smaller bills.

“You’ll need this,” I say.

He shakes his head. “Not anymore.”

“But while you’re driving to the spaceport or whatever.” I am still clinging to the notion that they are going to get in Randy’s car and, I dunno, drive to Vegas or something and Lane will be homeless there. Maybe he’ll come back in a few weeks.

He pushes the money at me.

Randy stares up.

After a moment I take the money. Maybe I can stay the night in a hotel. Take a shower.

God I want a drink. Get into a clean bed, drink bourbon, watch television. It sounds like heaven. My eyes well up. Since I’ve been sick it’s like a dam broke and I cry at the drop of a hat.

“You shouldn’t have pets,” Randy says to Lane.

“We just break your heart,” I say.

“You want to take her, I don’t care,” Randy says.

“What would I do with her?” Lane asks.

Randy shrugs.

We finish our milkshakes and I walk with Lane and Randy to Randy’s car. It’s just a normal car, a silver Honda. “Is it a spaceship?” I ask.

“It’s an Accord,” Randy says.

“How do you leave?” I ask.

Lane looks at me, shrugs, and opens his mouth but I cut him off.

“Don’t tell me, it’s hard to explain.”

I hug Lane and it’s the first time I’ve done anything like that. He feels like a normal person. Skin and muscle and bone. Warm, normal.

“Come back and get me if you change your mind,” I tell him. “What do you want to do with your stuff?”

“I gave it to Lois,” he says.

Lois is a tent person.

Leaving is always awkward, right? Randy and Lane get in and I wave and they drive off. I remind myself that people who are mentally ill are more likely to be homeless because safety net, stigma, yadda yadda. I watch the car sitting to turn onto Venice Blvd. It’s going to turn right and head towards the ocean.

The car does a U-Turn and comes back.

“Sima?” Lane calls. “Get in.” He reaches back and opens the back door.

It’s just a car.

Part of me is pretty sure I’ll be sleeping in my own car again tonight. A tiny part of me is worried that I’m going to end up in the Pacific Ocean. But there is something that says to me this is true. This is a moment.

I get into the car.

What happens next is impossible to explain.


(Editors’ Note: “The Goldfish Man” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 45A.)


Maureen McHugh

Maureen McHugh has written four novels and two collections of short fiction. Her first novel, China Mountain Zhang, won a James Tiptree Award (now the Otherwise Award) and was a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula Awards. She teaches writing courses online as part of Story Kitchen Studios. She is at work on a new novel.

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