From the archives: The Aquarium (short story)

Dear readers,

For those of you who missed it: my story from an event the MFAs at Irvine held for MFAs and Ph.D. candidates alike. Our assignment was to write something about a car crash, either as a poem, or as a story.

For those of you who were there, and already know this story, here’s the other blog post I was going to write. I’ll give the title: “I Don’t Believe In Evil.” C-r-a-z-y! Metaphysical!

Have fun this weekend. I’ll be updating this blog, doing class prep, and reading exam materials, so you better have enough fun for us both. Story follows.



The Aquarium

He had fallen asleep at the wheel after a long intermediary period where he was turning onto the wrong streets, muttering to himself, and flirting with the idea of the steering wheel as a pillow. The steering wheel was pretty well ready to be a pillow, as it had rabbit fur glued onto it in a haphazard and shocking way. He also had fuzzy dice, although these were not directly involved in the accident – irony had taken a blowtorch to the car. When I say he I’m referring to the guy named Steven who fell asleep and crashed into the house of a woman with whom he had had an affair back when he was called “Steve” and listened to records about cars. The wife still lived there; so did her whole family.

There were several layers of construction material between the outside, which was painted a blue-grey color, and the inside, which was tastefully off-white. The construction material included pasteboard, which disintegrated on impact, and layers of plaster that crumbled. The plaster made the whole catastrophe wintry. The car was utterly wrecked, although it didn’t catch on fire. The lawn didn’t recover. The lawn was shaven and tarred and stayed that way a long time.

Men and gods had their say. The gods staged a red sunset that was like a painting about blood and fire. Sixty fishermen saw it, and went out for the most fruitless voyage of their lives, trolling in the dark for things that didn’t glow and might be cookable with garlic. Steven, needless to say, was writing letters in his dining room on his computer with the shutters drawn. Even if he had seen it, the omen wouldn’t have struck him as a personal one; he was terrifically unassuming. That night thousands of bored demons tempted Steven to sin, warm milk, and the advice section of the newspaper, all of which made him tired as he tried to drive. Angels with small, pale hands, and the freckles of God, saved him from certain death. They folded him inside the crinkled car like a cherry surviving inside chocolate.

The family made Steven pay for everything, which wasn’t impossible for him. Nobody was seriously hurt, although Steven had a breathing pain. The family had all been sleeping; where Steven went through the wall was just a dining table, plain brown, and dishes, white with green slashes of undercooked asparagus. He paid them everything he had and stopped going on cruises. The wife looked at him – she had a name, too, Irma – and bit her lip, and said sensible things to her husband when Steven wasn’t looking. She and the husband had married over common principles. They were both merciful.

The local newspaper covered it. The local television station went there with a crew. AAA wouldn’t touch it, but Steven got the fire department to pull the car out of the dining room. At one point there was a fire engine, a television van, and a lemonade stand (unrelated, but refreshing) which made the street impassable. The Wallace family – Irma, Valiant, and the two children Rex and Sunshine – hired a huckster to sell them a scheme for rebuilding the wall. He didn’t look like a confidence man. He had big, trustworthy horse’s teeth, and wore modern suits. All the same, Valiant had hired him on the basis of the following statement: “Walls are for morons.” He convinced them to replace the wall with a gigantic piece of transparent Plexiglass.

The house became famous and the local newspapers dubbed it “The Aquarium.” There was nothing avaricious in the family’s nature, so they did not charge money to be observed, though fifty people came every day and night. The lemonade stand prospered and made dark compromises with artificial flavors and impure waters. The street became a single congested lane, and Steven had to drive by in his new car very slowly, in deepest fear of being seen. He had a green sedan with all the windows covered in a very thin tinting made out of plastic, the tinting peeling slightly, like the labels on bananas.

He could not understand his fears. The family knew about him – after all, he paid for the fourth wall, and there was a great deal of paperwork and phonework.

The family started to change. They stopped having fights, all at once, as if by secret ballot. The old tensions were there – Sunshine was still listening to alienated music which has to be played loud – but now the fights were fairly choreographed, happened at about eight every evening, and were managed in a gruff, friendly way by Valiant, who was really starting to resemble Alan Alda. Valiant would say something to Sunshine, she would respond by writing commentary backwards on the inside of the glass, the crowd would cheer, Steven would bleat his horn, and Valiant would raise his eyes comically to the still-opaque ceiling.

Sunshine wrote things on the glass with a dry erase marker, and Rex would erase them with soap and water in order to earn his allowance. She wrote things like “Cereals and Sodas are Designed to be Painful,” capitalizing nouns freely. She also wrote questions, such as “What is the nature of the cheetah?” and a painfully shy girl who looked up to her, and had access to school supplies through a sympathetic teacher, would write the answer on large poster: “A proud, intermittent solitude.”

When the family would leave their house to go to work, people would talk to them familiarly, and Steven began to feel that he had been forgotten. He went back to work, where he was cubicled but idle, and from his computer returned to writing letters. Once a week he wrote a letter of apology and encouragement to Irma and Valiant.

After a few weeks, he received a reply from Valiant, counter-signed with a crown, a sun, and Irma’s loopy script, inviting him to dinner. “We have so few visitors, or friends,” the letter began. Valiant assured him that he knew about the affair. Irma wrote in the corner, “I didn’t know he knew.” Valiant suggested Steven wear dark eyeshadow, and rouge, as this looked better through the Plexiglass, which wasn’t as transparent anymore, and dreadfully expensive to maintain.

The dinners were a great success. Steven, Valiant, and Sunshine would play a game where they would pretend to talk about one thing, using their hands, and actually talk about something else that none of the bystanders could hear. This frustrated their son, who had ideals, and provoked Rex to write letters to the editor absolving his family of their hand gestures. Irma smoked a pipe and read the paper. Steven went back to listening to his old records about cars because they reminded him of his salad days. At the same time, he stopped driving his own car. Every Thursday, when it was dinnertime, he would walk about five miles through the purple summer dusk to the aquarium.

Sunshine wrote on the wall, “He no longer drives.” The crowd outside murmured in approval, and Steven’s family was relieved. He was, in fact, a terrible driver. Sunshine’s protégé wrote on a poster, “Sacrifice is noble.”

Steven continued to write letters of apology and encouragement, even now that he knew the whole family well. “I am giving up my car,” he wrote to Valiant, before anyone else knew. “I cannot drive.” He added, “It seems I have ceased believing in roads.”