Of Tarts and Children/2
The Lochton Aquarium was neither tourist trap nor local gem: it succeeded at being nothing more than a darkened hallway barely wide enough for an adult and a half, where floating fish and filtration bubbles cast fluorescent-lit shadows. This was the third time in as many weeks that Amanda and her mother were here, and Jack, the ever-present host behind the cash register, had begun to think that this lady had an interest in him.
Elizabeth was peering into tanks placed from her waist downward - the large shoulder bag draped over one arm, and the iced coffee clutched with her other, prevented her from lifting Amanda to see the higher positions. She’d point here, attempt a giggle or a feign of amazement, then “OooOh” over to a neighboring tank. Her secret and devious parental plan was to get Amanda to fall in love with a selection, in hopes she might be a little more lenient with casting it in her own Milky Lagoon. Amanda wasn’t having any of it, but once she saw Jack leave the counter and head their way, she suddenly became enamored with good ol’ protopterus dolloi, the African Lungfish.
“So, Ms. Bowen, what can I do for you today?” One couldn’t see the leer in the light, but you could certainly hear it.
She didn’t turn her head. “Our little Dickens had an accident this week, so I’m looking for something a little sturdier... something that could keep going if I forgot to clean the bowl for a week or two.”
“Mmm. I’m afraid I don’t know of any that could stand up as well as a pet rock.” The humor had an opposing effect on Elizabeth’s lips. “Perhaps you’d like to sign-up for our weekly caregiver service? It’s just like paying someone to mow your lawn, only we ensure quality living environments for your friends.” Jack nodded to a brightly colored starburst sign tacked to the wall, proclaiming the best of managed care for only $19.95 a week. “Mmm, right. Well, if you’re not interested in that, I suggest you stick with our medium reds here. They’re cheap, we’ve got plenty in stock, and they’re nicely colored.”
He was lying, his thoughts originating from a good deal lower than his head. He knew the bowl she had at home, the one barely big enough for any self-respecting fish to call it a “lap” as they swam in circles. With the amount of toxic crap that a goldfish is well-known for making, and a bowl that size, a missed cleaning would hasten death, not delay it. That meant more visits from Elizabeth Bowen. That meant more chances for him to fling his woo. Which, granted, he hadn’t a clue how to do, but he knew it started with opportunity.
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right. We’ll take one!” She stabbed a finger at a mass in the back of a tank, half-expecting Jack to ask for clarity, but not actually caring which she got. Shape, size, color, attachment, none of it really mattered, but she watched with a stupid grin and that little shrug of her shoulders to Amanda, as if to say “Isn’t this exciting! What a risk we take, with our purchase of Ersatz, the pet goldfish!”
Elizabeth had begun naming the fish alphabetically with Cloretta, after having to flush Simon and Rouge, also victims of a dairy overload. Simon, Rouge, Cloretta, Dickens, and now Ersatz. Amanda wagered she could get to L before her mother stopped the charade. For as much as it became a show to flush the fallen and purchase the ‘placement, her mother never really seemed to dote upon them. She fed them daily, cleaned their bowls on Sunday but, barring that, she rarely stared wistfully into the bowl, or chatter to it as if it could understand. They never had pets in their old house, and Amanda sincerely hoped this wasn’t some attempt to sweeten the new house on her: she’d much prefer any of the dozen toys currently being advertised.
Ersatz bagged, Jack led Amanda and her mother to the front, offered an alternate business card that included his home phone (“in case you wanted the weekly service”), and cashed them out. Amanda could feel his eyes on their backs as they left, their own eyes squinting to adjust to the blaring sun.