Fish Kaddish – Lois Rosen

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After the party celebrating my promotion to the sixth grade, Mom and I returned to our apartment. I hurried through the foyer and shut the multi-paned glass door to the living room behind me. Mom called it “a French door,” as if we were leading some oo la la life in Paris like Gigi in the movie musical. I planned to play “Bye Bye Love,” my newest Everly Brothers 45, and sing along before she ordered me to turn off that racket and roped me into helping with dinner. As I headed to the phonograph console, I spotted my solid orange goldfish, Glimmer, on the carpet. Sinking to my knees, I put my ear close to his chest and listened for his heartbeat.

Silence.

Oh no! Dear Glimmer was one of two fish my friend Molly’d given me after the Yonkers Jewish Community Center Purim Carnival. The holiday was about surviving death threats. Many friends’ fish from carnivals lasted only a few days, but I learned in the library that they lived decades in warm water changed every other day and fed only fish food. His orange body lay dead-still. How could that have happened?

I wished Goldie, my speckled black, white, and orange fish, could tell me. Thank God, she was still alive, swimming in their bowl—about a foot wide, but still a teensy space to swim in. The fish lived like my family in our cramped apartment, always having to turn sideways to pass each other, bodies bumping. Maybe Glimmer leaped out on purpose.

“Help!” I screamed.

Mom came running. “Harriet, are you okay?”

Kaboom! Glass covered the carpet as if a bomb had exploded.

“Goddammit!” she screamed, pulling her right arm, gushing blood from her hand to her elbow, away from a jagged French door pane. I ran toward her to open the door, but she pushed it open, and stepped toward me. Her arm, with glass sticking out of cuts, dripped blood onto her party dress.

Sickening sweetness of cupcake frosting rose in my throat. Weeping, I grabbed my hanky and thrust it toward her. “Here. Take this.”

“Stay where you are!” Her good arm reached for the hanky.

“Let me help you.”

“Don’t move. You want glass in your shoes?” That arm must have stung like a zillion needles. She pressed her wounded arm against the dress’ yellow bodice.

“I’ll call an ambulance?”

“No!” she shook her head. “What the hell were you screaming about?”

I pointed at Glimmer.

She dabbed gashes up to her elbow with the hanky. “A stikin’ goldfish! I slash my arm, ruin my best dress over a fashtinkina fish. Are you completely nuts?

“I didn’t mean to scare you.” Blood smeared the bodice and folds of her dress.

“We’ve got to stop the bleeding!”

“Why do you always ruin things, scaring the life out of me with your screeching?”

“How was I supposed to know you’d crash into the door? Glimmer’s dead! Would you have been happier if it was me on the floor?”

“Some thanks I get, running like crazy to save you.”

“Let me get you some gauze and mercurochrome.” I moved toward the door.

“Don’t come near me. You’ll step on glass. You’ve caused enough trouble for one day.”

She dashed out of the living room. The bathroom door slammed. I slumped into the armchair closest to Glimmer. I thought about my record, “Bye Bye Love.” It ended with something like “…feel like I could die-aye.” What if mom collapsed from losing too much blood? Had I made the fish water the wrong temperature? But then wouldn’t Goldie have died, too?

I smelled mercurochrome. From the foyer, Mom leaned into the living room. A bloody towel circled her arm. “I need stitches.” She winced. “I’ll walk to Dr. Klein’s.”

“Mom, I’m really sorry. I’ll sweep up the glass.”

“No, all I need is you to end up slashed. I’ll clean the mess later. Flush that fish down the toilet. You want your dad to see it lying there dead?”

Upsetting Dad was the last thing I wanted. He’d been in remission a dozen or so years after his face-and-jaw-cancer surgery, but the surgeon warned him the cancer might come back. What if Dad saw the fish, who’d looked perfectly healthy, dead? Would it make him think about his own death?

At the door, Mom said, “Lock the door, and don’t let anyone in without looking through the peephole.”

What was I, an infant? How many million times did she have to remind me?

After the door banged shut, I knelt and put my teary cheek on the carpet beside Glimmer’s. His mouth didn’t move. His fins were still. I ran my fingers along his scales, just barely touching them. They felt stiff. I started to lift him, but the bottom fin broke off. I placed him back on the carpet, fin at his side.

I got up and turned toward the fishbowl. I usually fed my fish after school. I picked up the fish food container and shook half the usual amount into the bowl though Goldie probably wouldn’t want to eat after the loss of —her companion? friend? brother? husband? Maybe they didn’t have a relationship besides being stuck in that bowl. Goldie swam to the top right away, pursing her lips, sucking food in as if this were a normal day. “How can you eat at a time like this?” I asked.

It shouldn’t have surprised me. Years before when my Grandma Sophie on my father’s side died, fruit baskets arrived, boxes and boxes of Baraccini’s chocolates, and neighbor women with noodle kugels and casseroles. The adults said, You shouldn’t have. Dad’s sister, Aunt Fran, said, “I’m stuffed. I couldn’t eat another bite,” as she gobbled God knows how many pieces of herring while she, and Dad, and their sisters sat on wooden benches, the traditional Jewish custom. Though all our mirrors were covered with pillowcases and our family had torn rips in our collars to prove we were in mourning, we feasted. I ate so much I got a stomachache. It was the first time I’d ever taken Alka Seltzer.

I heard Dad’s knock like the rhythm at the start of “Dragnet”—Dum, di, dum dum. Oh no! How hard would it be pick Glimmer up by the middle and stick him in a napkin?

Dad stormed into the living room. “What the hell happened with the door?” He set his briefcase on his desk. “Where’s your mom?” Grabbing the side of his desk with his trembling hand, he steadied himself.

“At Dr. Klein’s.” I pointed to the busted pane and stood in front of Glimmer to block his view. “Watch out for glass. She got cut.”

“How bad? You okay?” He hugged me fast then let go.

“I’m fine.”

“How’d this happen?”

The truth was going to come out. I had to tell him. I stepped aside so he could see my fish. “I found Glimmer dead on the carpet and screamed.”

He backed away from me and glared at the corpse. “Your mother’s hurt because you screamed about this dumb goldfish?”

Glimmer was my pet, not any old fish, and he couldn’t know if it was dumb. I bit my lip.

“Then what?”

“Her arm smashed through the glass in the closed door. It bled. She wrapped it in a towel and ran to Dr. Klein’s.”

“Stay the hell away from the glass. Guttenyu, over a fish. I’ll go get her.” He left.

Weeping and gripping a couch pillow, I stared at Goldie circling and stiff Glimmer on the floor with the fin broken-off.

Minutes later, my brother Al, the Young James Dean with his ducktail hair and tight chinos, got home. “Ran into Dad on the stairs. He said you scared Mom, but she’ll be all right. What’re you boohooing over, Haricari?” Al knew I hated that nickname. I stuck out my tongue.

“Glimmer died. Look there.”

“Oh, so that’s the dearly departed.” He messed with my hair as if I was a dog.

“Quit it. Have some respect for the dead. You cried your eyes out when Tarzan died.” His hamster had snuck out of his cage and roasted to death behind our radiator. The burnt fur had stunk. “Why do you have to act mean?”

His torso rocked forward and backward like when we prayed on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. “Haricari, you better get this fish off the floor before Mom comes home and has a fit.”

“Don’t call me that! Glimmer needs a coffin, so I can bury him. I was thinking of one of your cigar boxes.”

“No, Daddio. No can do. They’re filled with my baseball card collections. I’ll get a cardboard box. You draw the star.”

From the bedroom, he brought me a cuff-link box with a black velvet lining. I placed it on the coffee table, got crayons and drew a Jewish star, showing Glimmer in the middle while Al swept up the glass. I took a handkerchief from my dresser drawer, wrapped Glimmer and the fin, and closed him in the box, then put the box next to the bowl.

Goldie kept swimming as if she couldn’t care less. It had to be the worst pain you’d feel if someone you loved died. Maybe fish didn’t have feelings. If Glimmer’d been my only friend and died, I would have banged myself bloody against the bowl. But even with my ear close to the water, I didn’t hear a squeal, a peep, a tiny sob.

Glimmer should have a proper funeral. But Orthodox Jewish girls couldn’t lead one, so I had to ask Al. “I want you to bring your prayer shawl and prayer book. After we dig the grave behind the building, you lead Kaddish, and I’ll repeat after you.”

He smirked. “A strictly kosher fish funeral. Well, at least we don’t have to worry because fish isn’t milk or meat. Maybe its name should have been ‘Gefilte.’”

“Stop it. It isn’t funny.” We needed a digging tool. I grabbed Mom’s big serving spoon from a kitchen drawer.

“Okay, okay.” He carried his tallis and siddur downstairs in an A&P bag. God forbid one of the cool chicks forever fawning over him might see what he carried. Guys he hung out with might give him a hard time about being a rabbi at a funeral for a fish.

When we came out of our apartment building, girls rushed toward him giggling and calling, “Al,” all gushy just because he was the DJ at Jewish Center dances, and they thought he was some kind of hipster. He hid the bag behind him and told me to hurry up.

We hustled behind the building to the vacant lot. The bushy area smelled leafy. We took turns digging in the hard dirt with the big spoon until it bent. Dirt streaked Al’s loafers and chinos, my dress and patent leather shoes. Mom would have a fit.

Al said the prayer on the tallis and draped it over his shoulders. I kissed the picture of Glimmer in the star and laid the box in the shallow hole. I said, “Glimmer was handsome, an excellent swimmer, graceful, and calm. May he rest in peace and remain happy ever after in a Heavenly Pond.”

Al covered his mouth like he wanted to chuckle but controlled himself. He opened his prayer book for the Kaddish: “Yiskadol viyis kadash shmay rabah.” No fair a girl wasn’t allowed to lead a prayer she knew by heart. I wouldn’t act like it was funny.

I added, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Walking in the valley of the shadow of death I won’t fear evil for Thou art with me. Amen.”

We covered the grave the way the men did at Grandma Rabinowitz’s funeral, each heaving a shovelful of dirt on the coffin, a sound like slapping. What could be worse than shoveling dirt on your parent’s grave? I’d never seen Dad cry so much. Al must have been thinking about it, too. His eyes looked damp.

I said, “Stones.” That was all I needed to say. We hurried to the gravel parking lot. To finish, I placed the biggest stone at the head of the grave. As Jews did at cemeteries, we each put a pebble on top of the stone to show we’d been there.

“Nice funeral,” Al said and even hugged me. I hugged him back.

When we went upstairs, Mom was sitting at the kitchen table in her bloody dress. Her face looked more ghastly than mornings before she had her coffee and cigarette. Dad sat beside her holding her left hand. Bandages covered her right arm. She winced maybe from the pain of her wounds, maybe from the sight of me.

“Look at you. It’s not bad enough my dress is ruined, you’ve got to cover yours in shmutz?”

“It’s only dirt,” Dad said. The cupcakes I’d saved for him were still at his place untouched.

“Five stitches! Thirty-nine dollars for my best dress down the drain, and who knows what it will take to scrub dirt from her clothes and off those shoes! I told her to flush the fish down the toilet.”

She turned to me. “Harriet, Harriet, will you ever listen to anything I tell you?”

“We buried Glimmer the right way, the Jewish way. Al said Kaddish.”

She let go of Dad’s hand and reached for a cigarette Dad lit for her.

He stood, put his arms around me, and hugged me close. “Yes, the right way. You’re a good Jew.”

He, at least, forgave me. I leaned my cheek against his smooth shirt that smelled of sweat and sweet starch from the Chinese laundry. His chest rose and lowered as he held me, listening to his reassuring heartbeat.

 

I lead the Trillium Writers and the Institute for Continued Learning’s Writing Group at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. The Willamette Writers’ awarded me the 2016 Kay Snow Prize in Fiction. My short stories have appeared in journals including: Calyx, Raven Chronicle, Timberline Review, Alimentum, and Clackamas Literary Review. My MFA in Fiction and Debra Tall Memorial Scholarship come from the Rainier Writing Workshop. My poetry books are Pigeons (Traprock Books, 2004) and Nice and Loud (Tebot Bach, 2015).

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