Tender Fish

“Take the horn shark eggs and hang them in that tank, the one by the moon jelly hatchery. We don’t want them to get infected so they can’t be touching anything, not the sides and not the bottom. That’s why they have to hang.”

“Do they float?” I asked Willy.

“No they don’t. Take some fishing line from the supply closet in the back corner and rig up some kind of noose to hang them down from the top of the tank. Not too tight.”

“They hang from strings in the wild?” I was being kind of a smart-ass.

“In the wild they’d lodge between rocks or coral in the shallows and the current would keep them clean. You’ll have to brush them. There should be a toothbrush with the fishing line. And maybe find a stick long enough to lay across the top of the tank to hang from.”

The bucket looked like it had just a couple of pounds of water (when you get used to hauling buckets of water around you think more about the weight than the volume) with three caramel brown horn shark eggs bobbing around the bottom, bizarre looking dumplings with fleshy spiral fins winding around the outside like an organic drill-bit. I understood how they’d wedge between rocks or twirl in the water like Willy had said.

“They aren’t that important,” Willy told me. “Those sharks haven’t produced fertilized eggs in years.” I guess he said that so I wouldn’t feel bad if they died. He retreated to his backroom office, leaving me in the bubbling wet sounds of the concrete-walled lab with a bucket of eggs. I always watched Willy Gartland as closely as I could because I didn’t know anything about who he was and where he came from and it felt like he didn’t want anyone to know. He was tall and gaunt and always tired, it seemed, with his face roughly shaven and mustache untrimmed. He knew everything about the aquatic life in the marsh. Willy didn’t know birds or snakes or lizards or anything dry, animal-wise. The nature preserve where we worked had other people for the birds. Willy was the fish guy.

“When you’re done with that,” said a voice from a hair-cracked open door in the corner, “feed the jellies. Siphon too.”

I found the fishing line and tied the eggs one by one in the tank as he told me, three little pods suspended from a thin pole across the top of the tank, my hands pink and cold from working in the water. It seemed like important work, carefully stringing up the weird little delicate pods and tying them tight enough to stay put without hurting them, but like Willy said, it didn’t matter that much. They’d rot through in a few days. When we cut them open out back, they oozed down the ground drain and stunk like all heck and I hoped he was right about them being unfertilized. That’s why we cut them open, to see what was inside. But there was nothing in the gunk.

Afterwards I was cleaning the big moon jelly tank in the visitor’s center where people came to look at the animals. It was a cylinder, five feet tall and a few feet across, and I was standing atop a step ladder with a thin long pipe connected to a rubber tube, siphoning out dirty bottom water with all the floating bits into an industrial-sized bucket on the ground. Willy taught me how to start a siphon by sucking the water through the tube with your mouth and then putting the full tube of water down in the bucket and letting gravity do the work. The height of the siphon gave it a fierce suck. I thought about Willy in his office doing I don’t know what, and about why he might be so thin and defeated, and thought there are quite a lot of reasons he could be that way. Maybe he had a white whale he never caught and now he was just cleaning tanks at the dumb aquarium. The white whale’s a metaphor but frankly it could have been a real whale too, considering.

My mind was wandering too much and it was dumb to have a wandering mind when you were dodging jellyfish with a vacuum tube and cold, numb hands. I didn’t know if jellyfish were the kind that sting you. I didn’t ask. If something’s dangerous you can use ignorance like armor. But my hands brushed against the jellies a couple of times while I was working in the water and nothing happened; all I felt was cold. I liked to think I had a special power, or I was a rare genetic anomaly that could touch jellyfish. Something to brag about.

I only sucked a few tiny jellies up with the siphon, accidentally, and poked a hole right through a big one but I didn’t tell Willy Gartland about it. There were always plenty of jellies growing in the backroom tank and it’s hard to have sympathy for something without a brain. A school of jellyfish in the open ocean, their magic pink floatingness breathing and eating sea with the light going through, can be one of the most beautiful things you’ll see, but they don’t feel alive like something with fur and bones. They’re more like a flower.

I let the bucket get too full of muck water and bits of jelly flesh and it was too heavy when I tried to lift it, so I dragged it on the ground and got splashed all over the front of my pants. When the girl assistant came by and saw me, she made some jokes and we had a good laugh, but I was just pretending to laugh because I was too busy thinking whether or not to tell her about my jellyfish immunity. I didn’t.

Willy thought it was funny too even though he didn’t usually laugh. He offered me some paper towels but I didn’t bother cleaning my front because it was nearly time to close and no one was in the aquarium anyway.

Sundays were the quietest and emptiest and the best days for real work. There weren’t any school kids running from tank to tank to watch you make a mistake, to suck up a fish or drop a scrub brush in the sandy bottom of a deep tank, too deep for arms. The kids were scarier than the jellies. I preferred the quiet sound of bubbling water with no one but the fish to talk to, though the goby were not very gabby. I made myself laugh when I was alone sometimes.

I was cleaning out the horn shark tank in the back while Katie, the other assistant, was chopping squid for feed, and we were talking.

“I think something’s wrong with Willy. I think he’s sick,” I said to her.

“Sick? Why? Because he’s skinny?” She looked down at her cutting board as she spoke, careful-fingered, sliding chopped squid to one side in neat piles, her small hands covered with gooped stomach innards and ink.

“Besides that,” I said, “he always looks defeated. I don’t know.” I stopped my absent-minded scrubbing. “Like a man who knows his own end.”

She kind of laughed. “That sounds like a movie poster.”

I started scrubbing the tank again. “Oh hey! There’s another egg in here.”

“Did you know today is Easter? How appropriate.”

“Looks deflated though.” I could tell the egg was nothing but shell, just some detritus at the bottom of the tank drifting softly back and forth.

Then I watched as she fed the chopped squid to the rays and leopard sharks. They were nose-headed flying, curve-drawing bodies of slick soft skin—you could put your hands in the ground-level tank and feel them. They knew they were about to be fed and the bat rays would come flap-flapping along the sides, along the waterline, smelling and feeling for food with their ocean wings, thwack-flapping the water and the walls of the tank, and they’d glide under your hand smooth and wet. I was fond of them because they seemed to have a sense of humor about themselves. Or maybe they were just stupid. The little sharks were different. They never bit anyone but I didn’t trust them or like them as much. And when it was time to lock everything up for the night we’d cover the tank with a round tarp that looked like a trampoline. It was always easier if Katie was there. Sometimes I had to fumble the big circle onto the tank all alone because Willy Gartland never did the work himself; he was all cerebral in his office.

“Maybe he has a tragic love story,” I said. “His fair maiden was swallowed by the sea on a research expedition and now he waits forever for her return, every fish a reminder of what will never be.” I said it like a thespian and it was silly but I sighed hard because it made me sad.

“That’s cute. I don’t think I’d ever want someone to think of me when they saw a fish.”

“Did I ever tell you I’m immune to the jellies? I touched them and I’m fine.”

“That’s stupid.”

I guess that meant they weren’t the stinging kind.

“Tim,” Willy called from the door, “Do you drive?”

“I’ve only got a permit,” I told him.

“All right. Get an empty bucket. We’re going to collect some kelp for the snails. I’ll drive.”

We went in his white van across the bridge to the thin strip of beach that enclosed the bay. I turned and looked at Willy and he was Willy as always, thin-skinned, sharp-boned, and probably a marathon mind, I would guess. There was a baseball card with some kind of Buddhist or Hindu symbol in the corner of the windshield.

“Hey Willy?”

“Yeah.”

“Hey Willy, where are you from?”

He took a second, either to remember something or decide what to say.

“Up north, from Salinas originally.”

“Oh. That’s garlic country.”

“No, you’re thinking of Gilroy.”

“Oh. Yeah, that’s Steinbeck country.”

“Not really.”

“Got kids?”

“Just the fish.”

He asked me about my future plans but I didn’t have any so we didn’t talk more after that. But it was just a fifteen minute drive. He parked along the beachfront sidewalk.

“Go near the water and look for any washed-up kelp that seems fresh. Wet and shiny. There should be plenty.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll be here.”

“Ay’ll be bach,” I said like Schwarzenegger, but I don’t think he got it. Not even a courtesy chuckle.

The next week I got to the aquarium a little late and Willy Gartland was out front at the trailhead where the nature walk started, and he was looking out over the fields of brush and grass that hid little streams, looking over the marsh and out into the bay, and I went to see what he wanted me to do.

“Hey Willy.”

“Oh. Hey Tim.”

He looked like a man with heavy thoughts. I half expected him to collapse into a puddle or go jump face first into the bay. He looked at me with those milky green eyes from under camel lashes and his old woolen sailor cap. His eyes were too young for his scraggled face, I always thought. Looked like a lost baby, scared and open mouthed. Maybe I was projecting.

“Slow day—just the usual. Siphon whatever looks dirty.”

“Hey Willy—you doing alright?”

“Sure. Getting cold though. I can feel the cold coming in.”

“Yeah. Not too cold though. Nice breeze.”

“Easy for you to say,” he snickered.

I didn’t know why the cold would be easier for me, aside from being young, but I did know he always wore thick layers of undershirts over his flesh-stretched body. Poor old Willy, cold and longing for his long lost maiden, or whale, or something.

I stood out there with him for a while longer. We watched the rusted machine boats far out in the bay, slow and heavy in the water, and the large unmoving blocks of cargo freights. The wind got cold like he said but the sun felt good just standing still. You could feel the hot point in the sky without looking—that meant it would be plenty warm further inland.

Sometimes a little fish would hop out of the water in the marsh and you’d hear a small guh-wop, and even if you could see the water running low between the bushes, you’d never see the fish. At best your eyes would be motion-struck on the periphery and you’d hear the glop again, but you’d never see the fish straight on. Never. Like a shooting star.

“Okay Willy. I’ll be inside. The usual.”

I walked through the exhibits and tanks and there was a group of small kids speaking Spanish and running from tank to tank and they stopped at the eels. I didn’t like the eels. I thought they looked like pug-faced demons, things from a child’s bad dreams. The kids smudged the glass and I went to find something to clean it after they ran to another tank.

When I passed the ray and shark holding tank I saw something strange on the bottom, something white and unmoving. There was a dead bat ray, upside down and ever sad, tender white belly up, vulgar mouth wide and gaping, drifting little inches when another ray would glide by. Saddest thing I ever saw. The scales of most fish make them impersonal and machinelike, but rays aren’t like that. Their soft skin and little head humps get to you. Makes them vulnerable, valuable, almost infantile, like you just want to care for them.

I went to Willy’s office but he wasn’t there, and found Katie prepping some brine shrimp for the jellies.

“Do you know where Willy is?”

“Probably in his office.”

“No. One of the bat rays is dead.”

She was measuring something in plastic beakers and didn’t look up. “Oh?” she said, like I had just told her some sports scores or something. “That’s a shame.” I thought she’d be shocked. I hadn’t noticed till then that she was a few years older than me.

“Should I get it out of the tank?”

“Ask Willy.”

I went back to the tank with a bucket and a net on the end of a long pole and found Willy leaning on the edge and staring into the water.

“What do you think happened?” I asked.

“Nothing really.”

“Nothing?” He could see I was upset.

“It just happens. I’ve been doing this for a long time and it just happens. No matter how close you watch them. Something just gives and there’s nothing you can do.”

“That’s it? No autopsy or anything?”

He laughed. “No. Go ahead and fish it out. Easiest fishing you’ll ever do.”

“Jeez Willy. That’s it?”

“Sure that’s it. What else?”

“Don’t you think it’s sad?”

“Sure is.”

It wasn’t as if I had cared for that ray or that I had a special thing with the bat rays. It just got to me. Part of the trade is not letting it get to you because things die all the time.

I asked the front desk lady about Willy and she just said he used to work for a university and now he worked here. Maybe his white whale was tenure. I knew it was a mistake to try and figure out what made Willy the Willy that he was. Every person has a whole life behind them and you can never tally it all up to find out the whys. You just get a sense of who a person is from all the glimpses over time, added together.

On a grey, rain-sprinkled day, I was setting up a new batch of brine shrimp in the lab while Katie was chopping something up for feed. Making brine shrimp is like making cocoa or gelatin. The eggs are a dark brown powder and you’ve got to mix it and some other things in the right amounts and I’d done it enough to ignore the number lines on the beakers. Kind of stunk, even in the normal fish smells of the lab. I got to thinking and I realized that if I could smell it, I had probably breathed some of the eggs, and there might be a few tiny shrimp hatching in my lungs. Not really but I thought about it. I thought about different occupations and wondered if someone who works in a bakery had cookie crusts and bread bits in their lungs.

“Hey Katie—you think a baker has breaded lungs?”

“What?”

She looked slender-necked like the herons, the proudest birds in the marsh, and among the only birds that weren’t camouflaged against the muted greens and browns of the low-lying vegetation.

“Never mind. Hey Katie—you want to go do something after work?”

“I’m gonna go do something with my boyfriend probably.”

“Yeah that sounds fun.”

She was practically an old lady anyway.

Then Willy came in with a pair of lobsters. Crustaceans are another kind of creature that are hard to sympathize with. Real ugly I thought. But it was kind of funny. The tank for the new lobsters was near the entrance to the aquarium and it looked like we were running a high-class sea food restaurant. Exotic food too—you could get some sand rays, morays, maybe some tartar sauce. I even made Willy laugh with a bad French accent I did when we were trying to get the lobsters into their tank.

“Magnifique!” I said. “Willy—get me zeh buttar!”

They were a real pain though, the lobsters. The two of them were in a five gallon bucket and I had to get them out with a small net on a pole. They were wild lobsters, as lobsters tend to be, and they might snap at me if I tried to grab them. Getting them out of the bucket wasn’t hard but getting them untangled from the net and into their tank was the tricky bit. They were prickly-shelled with delicate antennas, and all of that would get caught up in the net. I couldn’t thrash it too much without hurting them and I couldn’t reach in and untangle them without hurting myself. So I stirred them around in the big tank like it was a boiling pot and the net was a ladle until they fell loose, and we laughed about their ugly faces. Willy seemed to be in a good mood, warm despite the cold outside.

That was the end of my time there. Those lobsters were one of my last projects at the aquarium before I left for college.

The same grey day I found another horn shark egg, another brown corkscrew dumpling in the water, but this one was different. It was thick and ripe and full. It seemed clear that it was a real egg with a real shark in there—a beautiful little spotted fish, full-futured. We got it out of the water and Willy held it up to the light the way you’d hold an envelope with a letter you weren’t supposed to read, or maybe a vegetable you were sizing up at the grocer’s, and he smiled, all of him, and his mustache practically danced, and his jade green eyes flashed, and we both laughed the way you might laugh when you get some real good news, or you see a precious old face from long ago, and you just laugh because what else is there to do.

I’ve been meaning to go back and count how many horn sharks they’ve got now because I strung up the egg just right.


A story based on my time volunteering at the nature center in the Sweetwater Marsh in Chula Vista, CA. The people are fictional, but the fish are real.

2 thoughts on “Tender Fish

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