Jesse Waters

Clown Fish

A while before the whole Y2K thing, Jan, Lewwie and I were at the office. We’d been volunteered to monitor all the computers and coke machines to make sure they wouldn’t freak out and set the office on fire. I had the keys to the drink machines. It was ok—we’d brought fried chicken and champagne for later, and even some vodka and a bit of whiskey. We all work for The Latah Valley Countenance, a little newspaper. At least Jan and Lewwie do, and I do too, but I just deliver papers. They write articles. I’d just met them. I’ve known about them, seen their names and read their articles, but until tonight, that night, I didn’t know them.

I come back from the bathroom and there’s this woman on the local news, and she’s saying, “In a few minutes, Dan, we’ll know for sure just what kind of chaos the new century, the new millennium, will bring, and it’s just so amazing, people here are excited, totally thrilled, Dan, one woman called it the greatest day of her life,” and I can see she’s in some big city, it’s not New York, not the big ball dropping, but it’s somewhere else that’s got a huge crowd of people all bundled in thick coats and wool hats looking up expectantly, and I guess it was supposed to make you feel like you were seeing New York, and I have to admit I did. Then Jan says, “Anyone for a shot before we pop the cork?” and he gets up to dig through the ice in the cooler, and as he rises I see the back of his hand rub just a bit on Lewwie’s outside thigh, and against the one hand resting there. It’s important because I’m really attracted to Lewwie, but not really in that one way. I just mean when we lock eyes there’s something there, I can just tell. I’m a man, but I like men. Sexually.

“I’ll do one,” I say. I hate the taste of whiskey, but I like the way it smells and feels, sharp and dark.

“I’m not really nervous,” Jan says, “but I am a bit excited. It’s like something new is going to happen, forget good or bad, for better or worse we’ll be living in new times.”

Jan hands me a paper cup with whiskey. I could see a white little band of pigment around his ring finger that stood out, like his hands had been to a tanning booth. When he sat down and handed Lewwie the same thing, he draped his arm over the back of Lewwie’s chair. “Cheers,” he says, and we drink back the liquor.

“Well—forget all this two thousand craziness—everyone’s going to die soon enough, on a paleolithic scale, I mean, and I hear there’re meteors about to smash us to bits—I say let the machines eat us alive, we deserve it. Who ever heard of Diet Water? You bet, we deserve it.” Jan covers local high school sports in M._____. He’s in his forties, I think, and he’s got a big red beard. Earlier he’d been telling us how for the past couple of months he’d been drinking only diet sodas (and water, I guess), and eating tuna fish straight from the can because, he says, it’s good instant energy, and the sodium in the tuna and sodas together kills any radium or arsenic the government might be putting in The Food Supply. I wondered if he really ate nothing but tuna straight from the can, but I decided it was one of those things that people say, but probably just do halfway. I would’ve bet he ate about a can of tuna a day, maybe, but not at all meals. I have a small Clown Fish at home, in a pretty big tank. You’re supposed to have them in pairs, but one died a few weeks ago and I keep forgetting to buy a mate. They’re funny little fish. Seriously, though, they jump around, and do twirls, and play with their food. I’d named them Erin and Vivian, but I didn’t know which one died. The woman on the TV was now standing in front of several people waiting in line to use an ATM, and I wondered what was in my wallet.

Lewwie changed the channel, and another newsperson, a young guy with blond hair, is interviewing a guy who is trying to get a kangaroo dressed in a tuxedo. But I guess that guy could’ve really been trying to get the kangaroo out of the tux.

“People get weirded out by time all the time,” Lewwie says, “They had a report on this show the other day about how at the turn of the last millennium people were twice as freaked out. They thought the earth would sail off the edge of the universe, or blow up, or boil away.” I’d seen the same show. Lewwie put all the chicken back in the college-dorm-sized refrigerator on the counter shelf. “I’ve been looking forward to this day since I was about eleven.”


“Because I knew in the year two thousand I’d be a certain age, and that the year would have all zeros, and that it would feel like starting over no matter where I was, or what was happening to me.” The kangaroo on the TV was stretching his neck almost straight into the air, and was pawing at his loose bow tie. The wind came up a bit then and rattled the front office door bar in its little lock that was just a bit too wide. Lewwie and Jan just sort of looked at me, so I got up to put a bundle of old papers against the door so it wouldn’t rattle.

Back in the other room, Jan was talking: “Loreen and I had just bought one of those two-person bikes.”

Lewwie grinned at me. “Jan’s telling us about his greatest day ever.”

 “Maybe not the absolute greatest—”

“That’s what you said.”

“—but it’s one day from a long time ago that I’ve always thought was great.”

“You’re going to talk about your ex-wife?”

“Hey—you asked, and I’m not going to bullshit you at the turn of the century—who knows what’ll happen, right?”

Lewwie elbowed him. “Hurry up so we can get to me.”

“So Loreen and I had just bought this big two-person bike, and we’re trying it out for the first time. Believe it or not, it takes some practice getting those things to balance right for long enough to really get a good ride—even just getting on is tough, one person has to lean all the way over when the other person mounts up so the bike won’t fall over. Anyway, we spend a Saturday afternoon riding around our driveway and cul-de-sac for awhile ‘til we get it down, then on Sunday we head out into the neighborhood.” Back on the office TV, a guy in a back medicine commercial was wincing as he got out of bed. “We’re about three or four blocks from the house when I see another couple riding a bike like ours. Loreen points them out, and we ride over to say hello. It turns out the woman is some sister of a guy Loreen dated in high school, and yada, yada, yada, the next thing I know everyone’s talking about riding together—Glenny  or Jerry, I think was her name—says they know these paths back off the road where there’s room for both bikes to ride side by side. The guy, her husband, smiles and introduces himself, Bernard, I think—and I say hello, and shake hands, and off we go.” The back commercial guy, having swallowed a few pills, was putting on a hard hat, and walking out the door of his big house. My watch read 11:49:33.

“Just as we reach the path by the woods Gloria—wait, no—I think her name is Glenda, yes, that’s it, because I remember thinking Wizard of Oz. She says, ‘Why don’t we switch—girls with the girls and boys with the boys’ and Loreen’s like, ‘Yeah, great idea!’ and Bernard and I just sort of look at each other, and the next thing I know I’m leaning the bike over so he can climb up. We start biking through the woods, Gloria and Loreen are chatting away not really pedaling—”

 “His name is Gerard—and this is your best day? This is so stupid!”

“That’s right! How’d you know?”

“You told me this story about four months ago, remember? And I said, ‘I know Gerard and Georgia,’ that’s her name—we went through this whole thing—”

Now Jan does the poking. “OK, Ok, you’re right, I remember now—but let me finish, big mouth.” It’s raining a bit—the roof is tin, and it sounds like whispering. Jan takes the top off the vodka bottle and pours us each a shot.

“The path is pretty great, there’re trees hanging all over the place, it’s cool and dark, but it’s hard to bike through because the path is just wide enough for both bikes, and I’m not used to Bernard’s weight—the bike moves differently under him, and it takes me a bit to get adjusted. I look over and see Georgia isn’t really going through the same kind of thing with Loreen. It was the greatest day, smart-ass, because I knew I could leave Loreen and not fuck either of us totally up. It was like she had a whole other world I knew nothing about, and that we could kill a little bit of each other and still walk away clean.” I feel like wallpaper.

“And how you got all that from that is, like I said, stupid,” but they were both sort of smiling, and I didn’t think it was anything like it sounded between them, almost rehearsed, but still stumbled-up. Lewwie caught my eye and winked. “Here’s a best day—I’m nine, and about to be baptized.”

“Wait, wait, wait—I didn’t say why, you didn’t let me finish.”

“Like that needs a finish—you saw the weight of the balancing metaphor—the  feel good story of the year. What more do you want?”

Jan just rolls his eyes. “What about you Gary—what’s your best day?”

“Hey! What about my baptism story?”

But it was OK, I say, I couldn’t really think of much right then, even though my heart had jumped a bit. The TV switched to New York for real now, and the big ball wasn’t dropping yet, but the camera was focused on it and I could tell it wouldn’t be long. “Go ahead, Lewwie.”

Jan rolls his eyes again, and wiped off the still-wrapped champagne top with the lip bottom of his shirt. Lewwie leaned back. The heat of the HVAC system kicked on.

Lewwie said, “No—it’s not that good, really. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“It’s just that when I was nine and got baptized my little brother had just been born, and I was going through this whole separation thing. I was afraid my parents were going to forget about me. He was so helpless for two years, it felt like. One night I hid under the ping-pong table in the basement for six hours—six hours—before someone wondered where I was. I even had dreams of getting left places, the zoo—museums. So I’m standing there in line, and everyone in the church is watching, and I suddenly see that as the guy doing the baptizing—”

Jan smirked. “Uh—the preacher?”

“No, no—that was the weird thing, I don’t remember who was doing it, but I do remember that it wasn’t the preacher, or pastor or father, or whatever—the church was between leaders, or something, and someone else had to do it. All of us kids, about eleven of us, didn’t know the difference, and it was a small community, I don’t know. Maybe I’m remembering it wrong. But the thing I do remember is that as he’s dunking the little girl in front of me, just as he’s about to lift her up out of the water, I see him look over to me—it’s like I was more important than the person he was with, like I was the focus of everything.”

Outside the rain picked up and beat time on the roof. “What’s so retractable about that?” Jan asked. A commercial for an upcoming football game showed two helmets. One had ram horns on the sides, and the other had a black falcon wing, and they crashed into one another and made a big explosion.

“Nothing—it’s just that right as he pressed the little towel over my mouth to lower me in, I could see he was already looking back at the next kid, that it was just a time thing, and that he wanted to hurry up.”

“Maybe he had someplace important to be.” I know it was stupid, but it was all I could come up with. What an idiot I was. “I mean, you know, you did say he wasn’t even the preacher—maybe it had been like an emergency kind of thing, and since he’d just stepped in—”

“It wasn’t an emergency thing, Gary—it was just a little weird is all. Jesus.” Jan and Lewwie looked at each other the way two people do when they’re in a room with one other different person.

The TV picture flashed back to Times Square. The ball was starting to drop. “Look” I said, “it’s time.” The ball dropped, or it already did—nothing happened, and that’s what was confusing, and disorienting about the moment. The computers didn’t even blink, and the three of us just listened to the rain and looked around at each other. I walked to the big plate-glass window out front. The stoplights on the street were still on. “Shit,” I heard Jan say, “I totally forgot the champagne. You and your baptism story.” There was this pause, and then he called out, “Anyone still want some?”

I said I felt light-headed enough, and Lewwie said no, that the drive home would be a long one, and Jan sort of grunted something about a door lock, and leather I think, and pushed himself up. It was quiet for a minute or so while I got up and kind of wordlessly put on my green windbreaker. I knew the two of them would stay behind to write their columns about nothing happening, but for a second it looked as if they were going some place, both of them standing there—I wondered what they’d write, but then I knew the morning edition would be down from Y.____ in four hours and I’d see for myself.

“Maybe one of us should buy a soda, you know, just to make sure the machines still work and all.”

“Go ahead.”

The two of them were still just standing there. It reminded me of two boxers at the middle of the ring doing the stare-down thing right before the fight, only they were looking at me. I dug some quarters out of my pocket and bought a Mr. Pibb. It rattled to the bottom, I said goodbye to the both of them and walked out to my car.


I drive the paper route unless it’s beautiful out, and then I ride a beach cruiser with a big metal basket on the front.  

But even the rain’s OK by me—delivering newspapers in the a.m., even in the snow, has to be one of the best things. The bags take a bit longer than a normal day, but I wouldn’t trade it for any job out there. It’s like only one world’s awake, the people who really need to be, or who want the news as soon as they can, and I get to make that possible. Five hours a day, three fifty a week. Cash.

I usually carry a thermos full of hot coffee or chocolate, even in the summer, in fact, it’s sometimes the best thing to drink hot stuff in the middle of a hot summer, especially early in the mornings of the summer months when the sun is up really early. I try not to eat anything because it makes me sleepy, and the route is long, about 400 papers, and I like to do a good job, and get people what they need when they need it. It’s surprising to some people, but people who get the newspaper simply don’t not pay their bill. They want that paper. I can make that stop, but I don’t like to do that, I always imagine that the person couldn’t pay, not that they didn’t want to. For some people the newspaper is all they get.

About three years ago, I’ll never forget it, I was coming home from delivering the papers and decided to get a couple of Egg McMuffins from McDonald’s for breakfast, and eat them while I watched a little TV. I got home, let out the dog into the back yard, turned on the TV, and as I‘m about to take the first bite, a commercial for McDonald’s Egg McMuffins came on. Aside from the fact that it’s the best breakfast sandwich in the world, I was reminded that I’d always been a little frustrated when I’d see an ad for something that I wanted, that I didn’t have, and I’d do this little bit of imagining, then, seeing myself with it, saving for it, buying it, whatever—from Big Macs to Land Rovers—and there I was, one step ahead of that situation. I just don’t think it’ll ever get any better than that.

I thought of that last night when I was back at the office with Jan and Lewwie, but you can’t tell that to someone, can you? I mean, how gross, the best day of your life is getting a fist around your appetite, getting the timing right—whether by luck or purpose. That’s why I’m leaving Vivian, or Erin, whichever, to just fight it out alone in the big tank. I could have the little fish sexed, and make sure everything works out, but what a pain in the ass for a pet fish. You’re not supposed to keep same-sexed Clown Fish in the same tank without at least one other sexed Clown Fish present—at least I think that’s how it goes. It makes sense to me. When you go back behind that tiny treasure chest, or between the green rocks, don’t you expect to either find someone, or have someone waiting for you when you get back? I like going places when I know there’s someone there waiting for me, or waiting for me to get back. This is the kind of thing I’m thinking about on the first day of the new millennium, in the rain, delivering new newspapers sort of happily, but a little wearily, I guess. A few blocks after McDonald’s with the window down I could smell someone baking their own bread in the new, new world, and that was good enough for me. And it reminded me of something I needed to do: I picked an ink pen out of the car’s center console, turned over one of the napkins from the bag and wrote, Rocks and Flakes For Fish, and underlined it twice. I love it when I’m thinking about one thing and it reminds me of something totally different that I need to remember. I love that feeling.

Jesse Waters

<em>Edit Fiction</em> Jesse Waters

Runner-up for the Iowa Review Fiction Prize and Finalist in the DIAGRAM Innovative Fiction Prize, Jesse Waters is currently Director of the Bowers Writers House at Elizabethtown College, Jesse's fiction, poetry and non-fiction work has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes, and has appeared in such journals as 88: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry, The Adirondack Review, Coal Hill Review, The Cortland Review, Cimarron Review, Concrete Wolf, Iowa Review, Plainsongs, Magma, River Styx, Slide, Story Quarterly, Southeast Review, Sycamore Review and others. His first book of poems, Human Resources, was released by Inkbrush Press in February of 2011.