When I was 22 I stumbled into a job as a fish caretaker at Stanford University. I was also taking a creative writing workshop. For the writing class I wrote a short story that gave my job to a lonely guy obsessed with a prostitute. A story I pretentiously called The Last Of The Great Existentialists. I thought I would print a serialized version of that story , but upon rereading it I’m a little embarrassed by it, and so I took out the prostitute subplot and will instead post the parts of the story that detail that job. Below is Part 1…
At a university lab there were three rooms filled with aquariums holding African fish. Every day I was to feed the fish, replenish their water, and scrub the algae off their tanks so the scientists could observe them in a naturally controlled environment. I nodded my head all throughout orientation. A German scientist showed me around her laboratory. I only retained half of what she said. Her thick accent didn’t make things any easier. Yah, if a fish is swimming sideways, you must take it out of zee tank. You take zese scissors and cut zee fish like zhis. It is tough, but it is better than letting it live like that. If you like you can medicate zee fish, so it won’t feel a thing.
Later another scientist gave me more instructions. My mind wandered during his class. His genuine love for the fish made it hard for me to relate. Do you see the bright, colored fish in the back? He’s got his own territory and he’ll chase out any other male. If a male fish isn’t the biggest fish in his territory, he won’t produce sperm. Oh and see that little fish with the bloated jaw? She’s pregnant. The mothers keep the eggs in their mouths. Make sure you take a pregnant fish into a separate tank. Otherwise when she opens her mouth, and the babies swim out, the bigger fish will eat the young.
It didn’t take long to find a Zen to my new routine. I emptied one tank into another. As I waited for the second tank to be replenished, I began feeding the fish. The fish ate two types of food. One was a hard brown pebble, the other food were soft green and red flakes. I hadn’t bothered to learn what it was I was feeding them. I assumed it was some mish-mesh of brine shrimp, but all I knew for certain was that they liked it. They liked the food so much I had to be careful how much I fed them. If the fish had their way they would eat and eat until their stomachs exploded. I added salt and baking soda to the second tank and then I fed that water to the aquariums. The rest of the day I could spend as I saw fit. I could clean the tanks or I could not. As long as the fish didn’t start dying I was told I could keep the job for as long as I pleased.
There was a radio and cassette tape in one of the rooms. The music lessened my isolation until I found my first dead fish. The German scientist thought it might just be exhausted from being chased by the bigger fish. I isolated it in a private bucket and fed it oxygen through a tube. For a minute it came back to life, but an hour later the fish was ready to be flushed down the sink. My heart ached at the sad duties of a fish caretaker. Yah, but don’t let it stop you from trying to save other fish. Sometimes you can save them. I took notice of the kindness obscured by her Third Reich accent.
On that day I was taught how to persuade a mother to release her young. The German woman pointed to a female fish with a dark lump in her throat. Yah, she is ready. With a net she hoisted the fish into a private bucket. Fish don’t have eyelids, so she rested her thumbs against the mother’s eyes to lessen the shock of being a fish out of water. Yah, a fish can live out of water for ten minutes so you can take your time. She opened the mother’s mouth with her strong fingernail. Inside I saw what looked like little worms. She lowered the fish back into the water and massaged the jaw with her fingernail to coerce the babies out. Ven ze babies are not ready, you can still see ze yolk of the egg attached to the body. It vill sink them to the ground and mold will grow all over them. One after another little gray aliens swam into life. I wanted to smoke a cigar. Instead I congratulated the German scientist. Earlier that day she announced to the lab that she was eleven weeks pregnant with twins. A feat made less remarkable by the brood of eighteen that came out of a mother’s mouth. But nonetheless she was proud and it’s hard to fathom that at that point I still did not believe in coincidences.
My forearms dyed green as I scrubbed the glass with a recycled sponge. To fully clean the fish tanks I needed to use this motorized filter which I plugged into an electrical outlet on the ceiling. The filters were cheap, frustrating pieces of equipment and I was a lazy, careless worker so in hindsight it’s surprising that it took so long for me to feel my first electric shock. It didn’t make my hair stand up nor was the voltage high enough to slam me backwards. It just felt to my fingers the way the sound of fingernails scraping blackboards do to your ears. I needed a break so I walked around the floor. There was a smell of curry in the air. On the first floor of the building there was a little Thai restaurant run by a Vietnamese family. Their kitchen was on the fifth floor, right next to the rooms where the fish were kept. I spoke with one of the cooks about the great weather we were having. He kept coughing violently so I excused myself and got back to work.