Do the Fish

Marcus Pactor


Describe your first understanding of manhood.

While backing out of the driveway in his waste-filled, overborne pick-up, Dad flattened a German shepherd. He determined that the dog must have wanted this end, as more head than body opened onto the tire path. Clumps of fur and bone were carried downslope by technicolored ooze. I fetched Dad's gloves. They were military grade, suede and triple-stitched, meant for gripping lumber and sheetrock. Dad said to put the dog in the receptacle. We had not yet solved the maggot problem therein. To my knowledge, I was the only one calling it a problem. They slimed around and atop bags of old meat. Dad said to leave the gloves with the dog. He'd have to buy another pair. His tone conveyed my fault. Then it was off to the scrapyard, where he pocketed thirty-seven dollars, tax-free.


Connect the past to the present.

How that life could have spiraled into my daughter, I don't know. But my wife was gone, and Terri spent too much time in overalls. She, an eight-year old, once told me that she would "evolve into a dude." That's when I retired from the back porch. I returned with a whiskey sour and a pink note card, from which I read platitudes on the topic of dads loving their girls as is. She wasn't having that lameness. She meant to be otherwise.


Define her in greater detail.

She had robot toys that are today called vintage. She did not collect them. She played with them. It was no use explaining to her that boys of the Reagan era generally agreed that Go-Bots were junk knockoffs for the aesthetically dumb. She made me invest real dollars in Breez, who bent into a ceiling fan. As a robot, he had a single foot that might double as a rhino's steel penis.


Say "Freedom."

Easy enough.


Do it.

Freedom. Happy?


Offer tangential details relevant to your dealings with Terri.

Soon after that conversation, I began to date a man who identified as a woman. Olivia was pre-op, and his original parts were still intact. But, under hormone therapy, he was beginning to grow breasts. Also, he was a habitual exfoliator. He applied creams to his legs, pits, and crotch. Our caressing, you can imagine, was a greasy affair.

Four years prior, he had quarterbacked his way to the Class-A state championship, which sounded like the third qualification I sought in a lover: a parental lead.


Illustrate their relationship.

You'd think he'd have found Go-Bots campy in that gay way, but you couldn't talk to him about gay, and when Terri showed off Cy-Kill, he said what almost anybody conscious knew: "Those things suck."


Recall your daughter's response.

She said that she wished these were biblical times.


Recall your response to her response.

None of us, not even her, wanted to hear that sentence's missing "because."


Surprise us.

If, given the dog anecdote and the tension between Terri and Olivia, I told you that my lover was enamored of tropical fish, and that he had moved his aquarium into our living room and made it the centerpiece therein, set atop a coffee table on which my daughter played regularly, would you know where this story was headed, and would you be disappointed by that knowledge?


Justify your choice of a bedmate.

The first qualification was that he could not make me a two-time father.


Advance time.

That autumn, we operated as well as we could in a situation meant to comfort me, if no one else, until the school summoned me in regard to my daughter's writing.


Detail your hopes.



Detail, we said.

A father hopes that when he is called about his child's writing, he shall be commended. Perhaps a third party shall describe a contrast between his parenting and that of his departed dad's. Perhaps he shall sit stoically during this description—or shall he instead bask in the glow of social affirmation? But he knows that his original hope, like all hopes, is sadder than any school system. Teachers have no time to praise.


Name the officials present.

Principal and Teacher. I cannot be more specific.


Gauge them, sexually.

Genetically ill-favored. Bag bodies, downturned mouths. Their forebears had driven ancient men to flagellant hate of their bodies.


Summarize the officials' attack.

They were willing to tolerate her tomboyishness a far stretch. They would accept the popular use of her nickname, "Truck," on the playground, but an historical record of gender-bending ambition could not be allowed. Soon the students would share their work, and she would be mocked by her peers. In short, a girl could not say that when she grew up, she wanted to be a father.


Defend her.

I did not say this to either official present, but grammar and punctuation posed Terri no challenge. The subjects, verbs, and objects in that paragraph had been well-chosen. Her prepositions, long her bane, were appropriate. Every word had been arranged for maximal effect: every sentence ended with a ka-pow.


Outline your actual response to their attack.

  1. Studied my right thumb's lengthy nail.
  2. Determined to clip the nail before bed.
  3. Made real and imaginary words by rearranging the letters of "yellow."


Include your lover in this scene.

It could not have ended otherwise. Wherever he went, people were drawn to him. In that way, he reminded me of dead old Dad, who said that "people hardly matter, especially you, which is why you need me to tell you how to go." Olivia's white skirt rode high up his thighs. He crossed and uncrossed and recrossed his legs in the same Sharon Stone homage he had used on me that summer. It had, I knew, a brain-sloshing effect.


Take as much time and space as needed to finish the scene.

Principal said this could not work.

"What 'this'?" Olivia said.

"This. This." She waved her hand generally.

We stood. Teacher's eyes were directed past us, toward crown molding above the door.

"That?" Olivia said. "That works. It's the best part of the room."

"No," Principal said.

"What then?"

"This." Her arm fell limply though she meant to point it at him. Words like "stability" and "maternal figure" dribbled out of her, but they lacked predication. We stood in a square around a desk running over with ballpoints and memos. The heap was topped by the paragraph disclosing my daughter's little dream. It seemed that a moral of tolerance was about to be unwound, but Olivia simply took up his purse. He flashed his teeth. They were model-quality white. He was justly proud.



It is true that almost anybody conscious knows that Go-Bots suck. I roomed outside that "almost." Some mornings Terri would wake to find her Cy-Kill other than where she had left it. I would joke about a poltergeist, but I had been nostalgic again.


Keep going.

Dad shared none of his scrap money with me, so I had to shoplift for toys. Cool boy Transformers were too large, boxed, and well-guarded, but Go-Bots practically begged to be stolen in their easily ripped open packaging. I suppose I must have been caught on camera dozens of times, like when I swiped Cop-Tur from the drug store. His blades made my pocket look home to four pitiful erections. I can see why management gave me a wide berth.


Contrast the two brands of toy.

While a Transformer required ten to fifteen moves to make a race car into a smartass with guns, even my favorite Go-Bot, the aforementioned Cy-Kill, took five total. Moreover, Go-Bots had neither elbows nor knees. They were shabbily designed so, for instance, one of Jeeper-Creeper's wheels became his ear—a single ear with no corresponding wheel-ear on its head's other side. Fortunately, they had the Last Engineer.


Say what is in your hand.

Samples of Olivia's hair. Facial, I believe.


Continue the contrast.

Okay. I'm talking about the story behind the toys and what makes it work. In the midst of a civil war, the Last Engineer developed the technology to transfer his dying world's heroes into mechanical bodies, thereby ensuring the survival of their best men. But the bad guys got hold of new bodies too, so the conflict was upgraded. Now, if you're thinking that the writers of the Go-Bots imagined the singularity, well, no, but in the finest sci-fi tradition they rigged the future of science to their literary purpose. Anyhow, the Go-Bots had to find this Last Engineer who, presumably, could restore them to their lost flesh, complete with bending limbs.


Tell us how you rigged their story to fit your purpose.

What I wanted, what every Go-Bot quest I played out in the kitchen before Dad came home and asked me what the hell I was doing at fourteen with those dork toys that he thought he'd gotten rid of with the dog, was for the Last Engineer to extract the last bit of consciousness from us both, as it was exhausting, these brains and hearts that led us to pretend love. We'd be left a pair of family machines.


Tell us about freedom.

Couldn't I describe further a well-refined though peculiar teenaged nihilism?


Tell us.

You put a corpse or love in its appointed receptacle and announce that it has been stored. You cover it. Later, you look inside, discover even the maggots have gone.


Surprise us with an item in your closet.

Given abundant time in an empty house, I have stitched together a compellingly accurate Cy-Kill costume. Every color and detail is correct, down to the voided yellow eyes. Its wearer can bend his arms and knees. However, that wearer cannot become a thick-wheeled chopper.


Elaborate on the emptiness of your house.

The house still contains what houses must contain to support modern life: dishwasher, nukable meals, and porn sorted by fetish. On the other hand, it is newly lacking in Go-Bots and Sharon Stone skirts. It will never lack for shed hair.


Explain what led to that emptiness.

In an effort to bring Terri and Olivia together, I brought my daughter outside. Before all those bugs and trees, I recounted my lover's heroism vis a vis school. She nodded. She said that "heroism" might be too strong a word, though she admitted that Olivia had acted in her defense. She could respect that. Something was missing from Terri's assessment. I knew that much.


Set the hair atop the coffee table, beside the aquarium.



Go to your room.



Put on the costume.



Resume your position on the couch.



Continue the explanation.

Okay. Neither of them was particularly interested in legal rearrangements, and I lacked the energy for pursuit. They left a single note, with Olivia's name scratched beneath Terri's cursive. It was a scramble of platitudes which described a feeling of love for me, or rather a "Love, but" feeling which I knew well. In my life, I have not always been lonely, not even often lonely, because no one will leave alone a man willing to be led. I had learned that with many loves came many buts.


Recall your lover's feeling for the aquarium.

His feeling was not so much for the container as for the fish inside, especially the zebra fish, with stripes that looked painted on, and whose stupidity could not be metaphored. It sometimes ate the phony shells lining the bottom. He would study it for hours on end, with a face all dreams.


Provide a reason a fish so beloved might be abandoned.

Is it not clear? Every love is pregnant with a but. The child was born.


Describe the appeal of Cy-Kill.

He does not feel.


Recall the second qualification.
I cannot.


Define your daughter in greater detail.

She was not that solid rock of a kid you might compose by the writing of sentences, but whatever crawled beyond the words in your throat. Of course, she spit out words like "evolve," and almost knew what they meant, so you couldn't fool her for too long, though I had hoped otherwise.


Connect the past and present.

Few commands are so dumb. It brings to mind the oldest insoluble problems of cause and effect. You want to piece together who trashed which dog, while your daughter has taken a pre-op for a mom, herself for a boy, a word for a dad, or as though the "who" and the "which" have a distinctive, one-way relationship, when they're really running their trucks over each other as a bit part of a fifty car pile-up, and taking great pains at their work.


Describe an understanding of manhood.

It requires a fish brought into open air. It requires the fish to do its floppy best to convey the oncoming end, and it requires that communication to go on ignored. It requires a receptacle of any size, so long as it has a bottom. It does not require watching the fish flop on defrosted pasta I could not eat, though it is acceptable. It requires the wearing of any costume to fail. A Cy-Kill costume, for instance, gives the appearance of voided eyes, but before the fish quits flopping, you will see too much.



Tell me what to do next.