Swedish Fish and the Shape of the Universe
by Elisha Webster
The Great Swedish Fish Craving was not only illogical, but ill-timed. I was three blocks away from my apartment, on foot, lugging a can of NoFreeze in one hand and a jug of gasoline in the other. It was dark and it was snowing. It was cold. But wait; I’ll get to all that. Maybe I should start at the beginning.
The beginning is one hour prior to the Great Swedish Fish Craving. I was on my way to pick up Chinese food for dinner. I stuck my key into the car’s ignition and turned it. The car whinnied. There was a hint of injury in the whinny, a How could you let this happen? A How could you do this to me?
My car’s gas tank was frozen. Not only was I stranded sans Chinese food, but I’d let my car down, too. With an air of contrition, I promised to professionally clean my vehicle and to fix the back brake light for good measure.
“Never again, little car,” I vowed out loud.
It is never good to be on the outs with your vehicle.
The Citgo is eight blocks away from my house. Four blocks north and four blocks east. If I need milk or beer or some other spontaneous purchase, I drive, taking the four blocks north and four blocks east to the station. As for the trip home, I complete the square: four blocks south and four blocks west. The trip’s symmetry is pleasant, satisfying. I like to imagine my apartment and the Citgo strike a spiritually equidistant balance only I am privy to.
I get attached to places. I buy coffee at the Cedar Street Cafe. I get soup at the Three Fish Deli. If I need a new pair of shoes or pants, I go to Stella’s consignment shop. Stella, warm and doughy, lolls around the shop, bumping her hips against displays and mannequins. She yells things like “Girl, you looking sexy in that sweater,” or “Honey, I just got to tell you how gorgeous your butt looks in those jeans.”
I feel obligated to admit at this point, that there is an Exxon, a perfectly adequate gas station, located closer to my apartment. It offers full service and clean restrooms. Still, I frequent the Citgo, eight symmetrical blocks from my house. I know this may sound compulsive, obsessive, or even neurotic, but I will defend myself thus: It’s not like I have to do it. I like to do it. The trip is satisfying. It helps things feel neater.
The night of the Great Swedish Fish Craving was no exception, even on foot. My otherwise incapacitated car had a makeshift thermometer that read negative two, so before setting off on my long walk, I went to my bedroom for some more layers. A set of long johns, a pair of sweatpants, a pair of corduroys, two sweaters, a jacket, a hat, a scarf, a pair of mittens, and a pair of boots later, I was ready to go.
I walked as quickly as I could, swinging an empty gas container in one hand and my purse in the other. My excess in layers limited my speed and the carefree-ness of my swing. The gas container’s plastic scuffed at my jacket. Clamor and clang, here I come. The chill nibbled at my eyes and lips like a playful puppy. It hadn’t started to snow yet, but you could tell it was only a matter of time.
Dougart works the cash register at the Citgo. He is tall, at least six five. He likes to wear striped collared shirts that dribble over his tight black jeans. He usually misses a button or two. Dougart looks like a regular Picasso painting, crooked shirt, crooked glasses, his eyes magnified and floating on his lenses, detached and unreal.
“Hi Dougart,” I said and unwrapped my scarf—which required some concentration since it was so long.
“Hi Sara. You walk here?”
“Yeah. My car won’t start. The gas froze.”
“You shouldn’t let the gas get that low.”
Dougart likes to comment on my purchases. Say, if I were to buy some condoms or a pack of cigarettes, he’d wag his head, run a hand through his greasy, too-long-for-his-haircut-hair and say, “You know you should be looking for a husband soon,” or “I gave up smoking one year ago and never felt better in my life.”
“It’s my fault. I was too cold and lazy to get gas the other night, so I pushed it.”
“Now you’ve got to walk all this way,” he said, superfluously.
“Yup. Oh well. It’s not too bad. It feels kind of nice outside.” Still and crystallized, I thought, but didn’t bother to add.
Dougart raised an eyebrow or rather cocked his head, which gave the impression of a raised eyebrow. He drummed his hands on the counter. “How much gas you want?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Just enough to get the car started and back here.” I hefted my purse onto the counter. I had knit the purse three years prior using purple yarn and pink string. It was the first and last thing I knit. The purse looked pretty good when I first finished it. The yarn was vigorous and elaborate. Watercolor pink cloth lined the purse’s interior. I had found the perfect button, too--a pink clay button, lumpy, whimsical, and perfect, but for some reason or another, I never got around to sewing the thing on. I’m bad when it comes to details. I would make a terrible artist and a worse surgeon.
Now, the least of the purse’s problems was its lack of a button. The lining flapped loosely, in and out of the purse like a recalcitrant tongue. The strap was stretched thin. The yarn frizzled like bad hair.
“Looks like it’s time to get a new purse,” Dougart decided to say.
“Yeah.” I was only half listening. My wallet usually hides out at the bottom of my purse, beneath receipts, match books, cigarette cases, and a book or two.
“You say you made that yourself?”
“Yup,” I said, pulling out a copy of The Purpose Driven Life, a pack of Camel Lights, and a handful of papers. I put them on the counter. A free cigarette must have broken in my purse, because a handful of receipts left brown tobacco droppings everywhere. “Hang on. I’m finding it. This thing’s a black hole,” I said, just as I found my wallet.
“I can’t blame you for holding onto it, though,” he said, meaning the purse. “You know, I made this blanket once when I was eight. It was orange with little white flowers in the middle.” He traced little white flowers in the air and we both stared at the air between us. I imagined the flowers to be daisies.
“It’s relaxing, crocheting,” he said. I thought to tell him that I actually had knit my purse, but reconsidered.
I said instead, “Your mind kind of disappears. It’s meditative.”
“I ever tell you about my fish tanks? Talk about relaxing. I’ve got six or so fish tanks in my living room. They’re all over the place. Vespy and I kill hours staring at them.”
Vespy is Dougart’s dog. I met her once when I ran into Dougart at the laundromat. She is small and black with yellow tufts of fur around her tail. She has the most enormous lips I’ve ever seen on a dog—soft and pink rather than that rubber black you see on most canines. It was a weird sensation having her mouth pushed against my palm. It felt too human. Too intimate.
“We can stare at those fish all day long. Just kick back, with a beer, watching them swim by. You know,” Dougart leaned across the counter. His breath smelled like Doritos and sugar. “Sometimes I think they stop and look back at us.” Dougart’s face assumed a fishlike vacancy. He paused and stared at the wall behind me, mustering up the dramatic gusto necessary to his pantomime: Dougart the fish.
I laughed supportively and began replacing the contents of my purse.
The things that make most people nervous, don’t faze Dougart--take extended eye contact for example, or overly enthusiastic role playing in public places. He rushed into his fish characature bravely, with a seriousness more befitting a theatre student than a gas station chashier. “Sometimes I think the fish are wondering, Hey! Hey! What are they looking at?” The voice he opted for the fish was several octaves higher than his own baritone, but tough in a Larry and Moe sort of way.
“Right. What are you looking at?” I assumed a fish-like persona as well, except I didn’t put my heart into it like Dougart. My voice was more like an uneasy girl laughing and talking quickly.
Dougart smiled. He was Dougart again and not a hostile fish. He took my debit card. “I think five dollars will be enough,” he said.
“Sure. That and this NoFreeze.” I lifted the container so that he could see it. He nodded.
“Have I told you about my idea to make a five-mile long aquarium?”
He returned my card to me. “You can put your PIN number in now,” he said. He had to say that.
“Sure. But five miles?”
“I’ve got all the plans. I’ve made blueprints already. It’s not going to be like five miles down the street or anything. I want it to wrap around itself, and twist. Like a maze.”
For some reason, I thought of intestines.
“Like intestines,” I said. Aren’t they like four times your body length?
“Yeah,” he said, even though I think he had no idea what I was talking about. “I just need money. It’s all planned out. I ran into this guy I know and he was like ‘I’ll pay you one thousand dollars if you can do it.’ And I was like ‘I need more than that!’” Dougart laughed. He laughed for a long time.
“Wow. Ha ha. That’s great.” I said, meaning his interest in aquariums was great. To be honest, I was a little taken aback.
“I think about stuff like that. I got a lot of free time with this job, so I just sit around and think up stuff.”
Over Dougart’s shoulder, I noticed the faint blush of the sky, its slow inhaling.
“Well, I should get back. It’ll be dark soon, and I need to get my car all situated.”
That’s when he offered me the Swedish Fish. He had a super-sized bag of them behind the cash register. “I love these things.” He tossed two of them into his mouth.
But this was pre-craving, and at the moment I was not in the mood for Swedish Fish. I told him no thanks and to have a good night.
* * *
So there I was, waddling home in the dark, two heavy containers of liquid in my hands, my purse strung around my neck, and craving Swedish Fish. Who knew? And this craving was not a Hey that’d be nice if I had some Swedish Fish hanker; this was a full out, must-have dilemma. I was so close to home, so close to completing my geometric stroll, but I had no Swedish Fish.
It started to snow.
It was probably a 25-minute walk back around “the square,” but if I cut through a couple back roads I could make it to the Exxon in under five. I was cognitively dissonant. There was always the possibility of filling my car and driving to the Citgo for the Swedish Fish, but my craving was more immediate. Swedish Fish were imperative to my survival.
The gas can pulled at my fingers and I stopped to adjust the weight. I switched hands, the NoFreeze in my left and the gasoline in my right, not to mention my purse which hung on for dear life around my neck with its threadbare straps. It snowed harder. The flakes were soft, individual and startling. It was the kind of snow you wanted to catch on your tongue or spin beneath, your chin pointed upwards, your throat open. My breath made indistinct the startling contrast between the red black sky and the white white snow.
I decided to take the back alley. I had taken it once before, quite by accident, when I was looking for a record store a friend recommended, and I got lost. I recalled that the alley went on for a couple blocks before spilling out into a wider, better lit road.
I tried to imagine a five-mile long aquarium and how much money that would cost. All the filters, colored pebbles, and coral. I’m sure it’d add up. While I was impressed with Dougart’s obvious passion regarding the whole project, I couldn’t help but be skeptical. A five-mile long aquarium. What was the point?
Aquariums were soothing, I had to admit. My dentist kept an aquarium for a wall in the back of his waiting room. He had every type of fish you could imagine: striped fish, polka dotted fish, silver fish, blue fish. I mean, you name it, he had it. For me though, the thrill of the tank had little to do with the aquatic view, but rather the sound that it made. The sonorous hum of the filter, the silky ascension of bubbles and the buzzing fluorescence--all of it combined to create a reassuring symphony fit for Pure Moods VII.
Come to think about it, my dentist’s office was not a half-bad place to hang out. He had a decent magazine collection, interesting art on the walls, and a friendly receptionist. Sure, he had the typical dentist office tedium: crying babies, polite coughers, and behindhand scheduling. He had the Teen Magazines, the Southern Livings, and the Hunting and Fishings, but he also had Rolling Stone and Discover. In fact, the last time I had my teeth cleaned, I read this Scientific American article that was especially interesting. The article debated the shape of the universe.
As I walked I tried to recall details from the article. I looked up at the sky for help. Just a small strip of stars and snow were visible. The darkness was fluid and thick. Surreal. My movements felt labored. I placed the gasoline and NoFreeze onto the pavement and lit a cigarette. The alley was longer than I remembered. Shortcut, indeed.
These scientists in the magazine said, if I remember correctly, that the shape of the universe is a little like the shape of the earth. The shape of the earth, meaning, that if you start in one place on the earth and continue travel in one straight line, you’ll end up in the same place. After so much travel, you’d end up exactly where you started. These scientists and mathematicians said the universe is sort of similar to the earth, except a little more difficult to wrap your mind around, since it’s got a whole different dimension, and all. The article described the possibility of a space ship starting out somewhere, traveling in a straight line and eventually ending up in the same place. Obviously, this hypothesis had other little intellectual nuggets like parallel universes, black holes, and time/space continuums, but I couldn’t remember any of that now.
My stomach grumbled unhappily. I finished my cigarette and started walking again.
My mind wandered, returning to Dougart and his tank dreams.
I heard somewhere that fish have a five-second memory. If that’s true, what’s the point of constructing a five-mile long aquarium for an animal with a five-second memory? When I thought about it that way, I was outright irritated at Dougart for so willingly blowing money on something so pointless.
I felt as if I’d been walking forever. I considered placing the gasoline and NoFreeze in an inconspicuous area, like beside some back door step or behind a bush. I could pick them up on my way back.
“Almost there,” I said out loud. The puff of white, my words. It felt weird to speak to myself like that. I imagined the white wisp words disappearing, with no one else to hear them.
That’s when my forehead hit the glass.
* * *
I realize the unsystematic nature of that declaration, but the following events all seem disjointed and random. I can’t find a gentle, transitional way to present them.
I was walking. My fingers stung from supporting all that liquid weight. Darkness gathered mass and texture; it fell as quickly as the snow, soft and thick as the snow, until I wasn’t really sure which was falling, which was collecting, which I had to push aside in order to continue down the street.
And then I hit the glass--so clear it was invisible: A wall of glass, rounded in nature. Beyond the glass was darkness.
The street squeezed between a border of buildings, wending alley-like past boarded doors and windows, and then the street stopped. I know that it stopped because I hit my head on the invisible obstruction that stopped it. I stepped back, shaking and stunned.
I approached the place where the street stopped. I placed the gasoline and NoFreeze onto the pavement and lifted a cautious mitten towards the glass. My hand slid smooth over its surface. I ran my hand up and back down its surface. Whatever it was, reached to the ground and then up over my head, curving slightly inward. I removed my mitten. The glass was cold and numbed my hand.
“Glass.” My words formed a puff of white that condensed onto the transparent barrier before me. I ran my finger through the condensation, leaving a black streak through smoky gray.
I felt dizzy. I forgot about the Swedish Fish. I replaced my mittens and flattened my palms onto the glass. This must be some kind of joke. I walked sideways, the width of the alley. The road was completely sealed off. Air tight. There was street and snow and then darkness. A chill prodded the base of my spine.
I turned a full circle. I could see no one. I knocked indiscriminately on doors, but no one responded. The sound of my rap felt muffled and pointless. There was no one. I knew this, somehow.
I thought, maybe I am dreaming.
I approached the glass again. I stood looking at it, or rather at the place where I knew it was. I must have stood there for twenty minutes or so, aware only of my breath and a pulse throbbing my hands.
It was as if all that darkness was water, black water, bottom of the ocean black. The darkness poured in; was pushing my chest slowly closed. I thought I must be dying. I kicked the wall. My foot jerked short. My whole leg stung. I searched the ground for a rock, anything blunt to break the glass.
I realized I was panting.
“Hello!” I yelled. Nothing. Not even an echo.
At my foot, the metal can of NoFreeze. I stepped back several feet and heaved it towards the invisible wall. There was a tremendous rattle and the NoFreeze fell to the ground. The can of NoFreeze looked to hesitate, mid-flight, strike an agreement with the air to cease and desist all travel, and fall.
The snow continued to descend. I looked up. It was a little like being in a snow globe.
I was either extremely angry, sad, happy, or hysterical. I am not sure which, even now. I was somewhere above the spectrum of emotion. Looking beyond the glass was a little like looking over a supernatural precipice.
A cube-shaped pounding began in the center of my skull, as if clearing a space where my head was once soft--that place on my skull where my bones were once open and unfastened, that place where they eventually closed, like a finished jigsaw puzzle over my fully developed brain. My bones were no protection against this pounding, which persisted with its eight points of sharpness--the discomfort was too sharp and multifarious to be throbbing. The pain was unlike anything. It was made of the stuff of brain probes and tumors. I cradled my head and sat down on the frozen pavement, containing the pain with my fingers, but it leaked out between them, and I panicked.
I told myself I was not dead. “I am alive. I am okay,” I said out loud, and the cubed pounding seemed to efface into a circular dullness. I could think around its rounded edges, at least.
I made a plan. Or at least, I found an impulse for action. Forgetting about my No Freeze and gasoline, I ran back through the alley. The huddled buildings stuck out their shadows like legs to trip me, but I jumped over them. The pounding diminished to a tick.
By the time I reached the main road, the pounding was completely gone. I stopped in the middle of the road, looking in both directions, feeling my skull to see if it had changed size.
Instead of running back to my apartment, I ran to the Citgo where Dougart was reading a romance novel and eating candy.
“Hey Sara. How’s it goin?” His mouth was full of red gummies. When he chewed he made loud smacking sounds.
“Dougart,” I struggled to catch my breath. “The craziest thing just happened. You won’t believe it.”
Dougart reached his hand down behind the counter and pulled out a handful of Swedish Fish. “Want one?” He extended his hand to me.
“Sure. Yeah,” I said, taking a fish and putting it into my mouth. As I chewed, I tried to collect myself, and to mentally gather and organize the details of my story.
“You out for a walk?”
“Yeah. I guess I am,” I said, trying to remember why it was I was at the Citgo in the first place. “Hey, I forgot how much I like Swedish Fish. You mind if I have some more?”
“I don’t mind.” He lifted the bag onto the counter and I helped myself. We were both more interested in the Swedish Fish than in each other’s conversation. For the sake of appearances, we smiled and nodded at one another as if we were pondering something the other person had said, but we weren’t, or at least I wasn’t. I was trying to remember why I had come.
“It’s getting dark,” Dougart said.
I followed his gaze out the window. Sure enough, it was dark out. How long had it been dark? Why couldn’t I remember? A light snow fell.
“I should get going,” I said, turning partially, but stopping. “Hey,” I said, hefting my purse onto the countertop. “I’ll take a bag of those Swedish Fish. They’re pretty good. I forgot how good they were.”
As he rung me up, he asked me if I knit my purse. I told him yes, and then he told me his plans to make a five-mile long aquarium. As he talked, I tore upon my purchase and stuffed Swedish Fish into my mouth, one after another.
I nodded and pretended to be interested in what he was saying.
I walked home in a daze. I finished off my bag of candy and tossed the empty bag into the dumpster outside of my apartment. I wasn’t really hungry for dinner now, so I watched a movie, then went to bed.
The next day, a fresh layer of snow covered the ground. The air smelled clean and cold. The earth seemed untouched and new. I got into my car to drive to the Ceder Cafe for some coffee, but the car wouldn’t start. There was something of injury in the car’s whine--something familiar. I sat in my car, turning the engine over and over and listening to its sound, waiting for the memory to come.
The cans of No Freeze and gasoline. The snow. The darkness. The wall of glass.
My hands shook. My engine gurgled and whined.
I peered out the windshield, my jaw slack, forming a perfect and bewildered oval.
I took out my cigarettes and smoked three, exhaling against the car’s windows. I watched the glass fog and then slowly dissolve clear.
A small pointed pounding began in the center of my skull.
I told myself it was a dream. I repeated to myself that it was a dream and that I was okay. I was alive.
It’s pretty easy to forget stuff so important. You’d be surprised. You just have to make the decision to do it, somewhere inside of you. You decide and it’s gone. The memory gets smaller until everything feels normal again, and you don’t have to wonder what it was you saw. What it was you’ve forgotten.
Copyright 2008 by Elisha Webster