Feb 082017

abigail-allen-500px-may-be-replacedAbigail Allen


I was in a pet store looking at the fish. I had stopped in for no other reason than to look at them. I was standing before a tank full of tiny, almost microscopic, goldfish. They were the smallest ones I’d ever seen. Small creatures, the ones that are the tiniest versions of whatever they are—have always fascinated me. When I read about the discovery of the skeletal remains of thumb-sized monkeys some years back, my imagination was piqued. I couldn’t stop thinking about these animals, which had existed long ago, somewhere in Asia, I think. They couldn’t venture out of their hiding places during the day for fear of being eaten by something bigger, something the size of one of the mice I had seen in a cage a couple of aisles over. The thumb-sized monkeys had to sneak out at night to look for small insects and seeds to eat. Even at night they were prey to owls, which ate every part of them except their bony little feet. Their feet must have had so little meat on them that the owls didn’t bother with them, leaving the miniscule bones—the phalanges and metatarsals, the cuneiform, cuboid, and navicular bones, as well as the talus and calcaneus bones (all so small they were barely visible)—jumbled together in little piles for the archeologists to discover eons later. I thought about the thumb-sized monkeys as I stood in front of the tank full of these infinitesimal fish. I had come in here for the express purpose of looking at the fish, and these were the ones I had settled upon. I had made my way past tanks containing larger goldfish and other fish. I remember looking at black angelfish and mottled angelfish, as well as catfish, tetras, and guppies, none of which especially interested me. There was one really ugly fish called a loach. It was in a tank all by itself and looked like a miniature eel. I had stared at it for a few minutes before going on to the tank with the smallest goldfish in it, where I stayed for the remainder of the time I was in the store, about ten minutes, twenty at the most. I wasn’t bothering anyone. There were few customers looking at the fish that morning, and none of them wanted to look at these—almost microscopic, as I’ve said—goldfish.

You might wonder how anyone could possibly stare into a tank containing a few fish the size of grains of rice for that long, but the truth is I wasn’t really looking at the fish after the first few seconds, after my amazement at stumbling across such small creatures, which, as I said before, put me in mind of the thumb-sized monkeys I had read about years ago and, thus, stirred my imagination. As I stared at the aquarium, I saw my reflection—the reflection of a small woman with brown hair—and then I saw a driveway, the long, winding gravel driveway that leads to my garage. As I stood there, staring at the fish, I felt as though the tank were a crystal ball and I could see into the past or into the future. I seemed to be seeing into the future at first, watching an angry man rush along the driveway toward my house, screaming obscenities, kicking at the gravel like a maniac, and then I remembered that this had really happened, not that long ago—a few months ago, maybe, certainly less than a year—but apparently long enough ago that I didn’t realize, at first, that this—or something quite similar to this—had already happened to me, and I became more and more alarmed. Then, as I said, it had gradually dawned on me that this—or something approximating it—had already happened, and I remembered this red-faced man rushing up my driveway screaming, much as the man I had been envisioning was doing as I looked at the aquarium, seeing my reflection but not seeing it, knowing my reflection was there but not paying any attention to it, seeing instead the angry man, who was too far away in my reverie for me to be sure whether he was the red-faced man who had visited me before, the man who had sprained or broken his ankle—I would never know which because he’d been taken away in the ambulance I had summoned and I’d never seen him again. The red-faced man had sustained his injury when he went to the aid of an owl he had seen lying on the side of the road as he was walking along, and the owl, which the man thought had probably been hit by a passing car, suddenly regained consciousness, and just as he was about to touch it, the owl flew away, frightening the man, causing him to jump and land in the ditch with his ankle bent under him, or so he said.

At first I was relieved to remember that unpleasant occasion, the red-faced man coiled like a snake on my driveway, holding the plastic bag of ice I had brought him to his ankle before the ambulance came and whisked him, still cursing, away. It was a relief because I thought the scene I had just imagined while gazing into the aquarium where the tiny fish were swimming around, some hovering near the bottom and others drifting through the windows of a little castle at one end of the tank, was a scene from the past and not a prediction of a future event, necessarily. I breathed a sigh of relief and then noticed my reflection in the glass again, the fish moving behind and through it, and I was struck by that, by the image of the fish, tragically small fish, swimming not only behind my reflection—the reflection of my face, my head—but through it. It was while I was staring in awe at this optical illusion that it dawned on me: I had switched images. I had replaced the image of an angry man coming toward me on my driveway with the image of that earlier angry man, who had been limping and whom I had perceived to be limping even from a distance, and having replaced the angry man I had imagined at first today while staring into the tank of the smallest goldfish with that red-faced man who had actually existed, there was no way I could recapture the one I had first imagined, no way to rewind the workings of my imagination to see whether or not this man was limping, as the red-faced man had been. I had a feeling he was not limping because I distinctly remembered him kicking angrily at the gravel in my driveway before I replaced him with the memory of the other man, the red-faced man, and so there was still a danger that what the fish tank—the crystal ball—had been showing me before I switched images was the future and not simply the memory of a past event.

I left the store, thinking vaguely about the possibility of another angry man appearing in my driveway, went out to the parking lot, and got in my car. I was parked next to a white SUV with its motor running. The same woman was sitting there, the same one who’d been sitting there when I went in the store. Maybe she was waiting for her dog to be groomed, I thought, but she was wasting gas, polluting the atmosphere with the fumes from her gigantic SUV. It could be she had to be alone so she could think. Maybe she had troubles and could sort things out only when she was in her car. I remembered a sad time in my life when I had gotten up in the middle of the night and driven around, going no place in particular, just driving. It had a calming effect on me. Then I could go home and fall asleep.

Right after my husband left, I tried to be an artist. I thought it would take my mind off my failure as a wife. I bought all these paints, oils and pastels, brushes, canvases. I was always pretty good at drawing things, but I found out I couldn’t paint. Not only did everything I tried to paint look one-dimensional, like a child’s effort, but I was so messy. I got paint everywhere—on the floor and the furniture—and even though I wore a smock I got paint on my clothes. My clothes were ruined. The smock didn’t cover my entire body, so there was purple paint on the cuffs of my shirt, yellow paint on my jeans, and I even ruined a pair of canvas shoes by spilling paint on them. I gave up after a few months. I had tried really hard for those months, but I had to admit I was no good at it. I still like to draw, though.

There was once a voyeur in my life, but now he’s dead. He was killed in a tractor accident on his family’s farm. He came around every night for a while. The first time I saw him I was sitting in the living room in my nightgown, watching TV. I looked away from whatever I was watching, wondering whether I’d locked the front door, and saw the shadow of his head slowly rising behind the lace curtain on the window in the door. This was right after my divorce was finalized. It was only much later, shortly before his death, that I found out who he was. He came by every night and scraped his fingernails over the screen in my bedroom window, but I had begun closing all the drapes and shades in the house after I’d seen him at the living room window. I don’t know why he kept coming around. I guess he figured I would slip up and forget to close the drapes sooner or later. He was a young man, ten years younger than I was, yet he wanted to stare at me the way I had been staring at the tiny fish today. Maybe he thought it would help him think.

Once I went to a party in an antebellum mansion near Marksville. I had been in a play with the woman who was giving the party, and she had invited everyone who had been involved in the play to the mansion, which was a home her husband’s family had owned since before the Civil War. I enjoyed going to the party and seeing the wonderful antique furniture in the house, along with the other people who had been in the play, which was set during the American Revolution. I had a small role in the play, and this woman—the one who was hosting the party—had had the starring role. It was a musical, and she had a lovely soprano voice. We stood and talked, eating hors d’oeuvres and drinking punch in one of the main rooms of the mansion (I think it was the living room or the dining room), and then we went outside and strolled around the gardens, which were beautiful, as you would expect the gardens of such a grand place to be. I remember there was a gazebo, and the hostess, whose husband was upstairs watching a baseball game or something on TV, came out of the gazebo and went around kissing everybody, talking in an exaggerated Southern accent, calling people “honey-chile” and things like that, as though she were living in the time of slavery, and the more she had to drink the more obnoxious her behavior became. I had arrived with my cousin Patty, who was also in the play, and we left early, claiming Patty had to pick up her daughters from their grandmother’s house.

I wish the voyeur hadn’t died. If I had remembered to close the drapes and blinds before I attended a much-anticipated concert with my friend Larry, the voyeur might still be alive because I wouldn’t have seen him peering in through my bedroom window when we got back, when I went in the bedroom to kick my shoes off and put on some slippers while Larry was looking through the liquor cabinet (We had planned to have a drink and discuss the concert, which we had both been blown away by). If I had remembered to close the drapes and blinds before I left for the concert, I wouldn’t have screamed and Larry wouldn’t have rushed into the room and gotten a glimpse of the voyeur’s red shirt. He wouldn’t have insisted on phoning the police, and I wouldn’t have told them a man had been peering in at me and had been coming by trying to do so for months. I wouldn’t have alerted them at all because the drapes would’ve been closed, as they had been all the other nights since I’d seen him at the living room window. He wouldn’t have startled me, and the cops wouldn’t have caught him running through ditches and across fields, trying to get back to his car. The next day they brought me his picture, and I recognized him, but I didn’t press charges. His father leased some of my land and planted hay on it. I couldn’t bring myself to press charges, and now I think if I had pressed charges maybe he would still be alive, maybe things would have played out differently and he wouldn’t have been working on his family’s farm that day, wouldn’t have been driving the tractor that had fallen over somehow, near a small ravine, and crushed him—or maybe the tractor had run over him first, after he was thrown from it but before it fell over on him.

My neighbor, Larry, the one I’d attended the concert with, came and told me about the voyeur’s death. I still think of him as “the voyeur” even though I now know his name was Brian. Larry sat me down on one of the rocking chairs on the front porch, and he sat in the other one and took my hand. He said he had bad news, and I was afraid something had happened to Larry’s mother, who is getting old and frail, but it wasn’t his mother. It was Brian, whose father leased part of my farm. Larry broke it to me as gently as he could, rubbing my arm, I remember. He’s such a kind person, always was, even when we were children—I guess people don’t change much—but I wasn’t thinking about his kindness at that point. I was thinking about the voyeur, his head rising so slowly behind the lace-curtained window in the front door, and wondering what had run through his mind when he saw me sitting there in a faded pink nightgown, having recently gotten the news that my marriage was officially over, when he saw me getting up and running toward the door, yelling at him to go away. Did he notice his reflection in the glass or did he ignore it? Maybe, in the few seconds he was standing there, he stopped seeing a distraught woman in her living room and began to envision something altogether different, not knowing whether it had already happened or was yet to come.

—Abigail Allen

Abigail Allen grew up in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana. Her work will appear or has been published in Big Muddy, Columbia College Literary Review, Valley Voices, The Louisiana Review, Birds Piled Loosely, Big Bridge, Pilgrimage, Coup d’Etat, Xavier Review, Mississippi Review, Mid-American Review, Confrontation, and others. She has also published work in New World Writing, Many Mountains Moving, Forge, and others under the pseudonym Hiram Goza. Her novel, Birds of Paradise, was published under that name in 2005.



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