Miss November

Rebecca Boyd

When I was twelve, my father brought me home a Koolie Loach to add to my aquarium. He’d stopped at Harold’s Fish Nook on his way from O’Hare airport after being overseas for twenty days and when he walked in through the door, he raised the plastic bag towards me like a trophy—like a prize.

Mom didn’t turn. She stirred white powdered flakes of instant mashed potatoes into supper at the stove.

My father set his vinyl suitcase down beside the ivory coat rack he’d brought home from Zanzibar and tugged the belt of my school uniform. “C’mon,” he said. “Let’s set this baby loose.”

I looked at Mom, who looked right back at me, wide-eyed, and shrugged. I followed him into the den where odds and ends that he’d collected from his trips were meant to make the room feel African. He’d draped a leopard skin across the back end of the couch and up above it hung two ivory tusks criss-crossed upon the wall. My father lifted up the lid to the aquarium and set the plastic bag—still tied—adrift out on the surface of the tank. He let it float for several minutes until the Koolie Loach grew anxious, bumping with its nose against the plastic corners to get out. He said, “Time’s up,” and twisted off the rubber band to pour the eel out, swirling—like a cocktail—down into the waiting gulf of its new world.

My father bent down, concentrating, close up to the glass. I felt myself grow smaller next to him and almost disappear. “Look at that,” he murmured as he watched the Koolie Loach, whose long, lithe body undulated in the light. It seemed to flirt with him, its shiny blue-green colors shimmering amid the fancy coral he’d brought home from Zanzibar.

The light from the aquarium made his face blue. Lit up like that, he looked like someone else: less harried, younger, far away. He must have wanted something to remind him of his travels, something different and exotic, challenging to keep. The other fish-—the big Black Molly, Neon Tetras, Swordtail, and the pair of Angelfish—swam endlessly around the glassed rectangle, bored, it seemed, as if their lives would never end.

My favorite was the catfish, who poked in among the grits of gravel at the bottom of the tank, his whiskered face dunked downwards. When I pinched the flakes and scattered them along the surface of the tank, the other fish raced up to gobble them, but my wise catfish waited, busy and indifferent, for the flakes to settle slowly in the gravel where he’d happen on them casually, engulf them, spit them out, engulf them once again.

The filter’s motor buzzed below the bubbles, mumbling and rising, bursting lightly on the surface. “Watch it move,” my father said. “You see that, Lee?”

My name was Leena. “Cool,” I said. I went into the kitchen where I helped Mom scoop out rounded spoons of mashed potatoes. “Mom,” I said. “We eat like fish.” I pinched potato flakes from where they’d spilled out on the counter top and sprinkled them into her open mouth. She looked at me, wide-eyed, and smiled, handing me the steaming bowl of mashed potatoes to bring to the dining room. She’d placed the special plates out, ones with solemn soldiers marching with their bayonets around the edges, readying for war. She followed me into the dining room with pork chops and the salad, then she sat beside me, shifting the pink plastic flowers slightly to the center of the table. We waited wordlessly. Finally my father joined us, sitting down and flipping out his napkin before tucking it inside his shirt.

He focused on the pork chop waiting on his plate. “How’s school?” he asked, and sliced his dull knife through the pork chop hard enough for it to slip and squeak across his plate. Mom mixed her mashed potatoes in with peas, and when I didn’t answer soon enough, he said, his mouth full, “Modern dance. How’s that?”

I hadn’t taken modern dance since summer, so I didn’t say a word.

He had no choice but swim his eyes across the table at my mom. “What’s new with you?”

She didn’t look him in the eye and went on stirring peas into her mashed potatoes till they made a different thing, then scooped a spoonful of that different thing and sucked on it, as if it were a taste she couldn’t live without. When she looked up at him, her face looked hurt. “We haven’t seen you in a while,” she said. “You go.”

We listened while my father talked about the same old thing; the way the spice business was booming and how on the next trip, he would make a killing and we’d all go on vacation somewhere afterwards. He swept a roll across his plate to soak up gravy.

“Where?” I said.

My father looked at me as though he couldn’t think of where he’d met me. Then he stopped his jaw from chewing. “What’d you say, sweet pea?”

I swallowed the big hunk of pork chop I had in my mouth. “Vacation, Dad. Where to?”

The world’s a big resort,” he said. He twirled his glass in circles and then lifted it and took a swig of wine, swirling it around his mouth before he swallowed hard. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

Mom stood and cleared her plate. My father shook his napkin out and said, “I’m beat,” and headed up the stairs to sleep off all the hours he had lost in flying home. We cleared the dishes. While Mom washed, I dried, and then I went up to my room to work on something for the science fair: a Sense of Smell test, made with spices brought from Zanzibar.

And three days later, when my father was away again, the Koolie Loach hung limply on the surface of the water, dead. I scooped it out and carried it, still dripping, down the hallway to the bathroom where I flushed it down.

Mom never cleaned the hallway bathroom. Since my father had changed jobs and started in with spices and the traveling, she’d moved his things out to the bathroom down the hall. Scum lined his shower stall. Discarded razor blades and emptied bottles of shampoo lay scattered on the sink. My shoes stuck to the yellowing linoleum as I let go the Koolie Loach and watched it spin past hairs and circle clockwise in the bowl.

When it was gone, I closed the toilet lid. My father kept a stash of magazines beneath the sink. I sat down on the lid and flipped the top one open to the centerfold. The naked woman, Miss November, had white skin. She lay next to a blazing fire on a rug and raised a glass of white wine in her hand. The index finger of her other hand—its perfect oval fingernail—was gently pressed up to her lips. She smiled at me.

I’d memorized her Profile with its loopy handwriting—the i’s she’d dotted with an open circle. She loved horses, archery. The snapshots of her as a girl were cute—as a high school cheerleader, and holding up her cat.

I hated cats. If I were asked to be a Playboy bunny, I would have to lie. I’d have to fake my handwriting and sports I played, like tennis, or photography, or tell them that my family owned a stable where I rode in horseback shows. But Miss November was my favorite, and because she held a finger to her lips, it felt as if we shared a secret. I knew she’d had to lie about her profile, too.

That night, my father called and asked to speak to me from Zanzibar. “How is that Koolie Loach?” I heard a distant crackling on the line.

It’s dead,” I said, and waited.

The crackling came again. I heard my father’s voice. “Hello? Hello?”

I listened to him say Hello a few more times and when I’d heard enough, I said, “Can’t hear you, Dad,” and placed the phone back on the hook.

My smelling test was coming along fine. It wasn’t really science, but my teacher said the spices added a rare touch to the whole fair. I’d glued ten different patches on a board so people passing by could scratch and sniff each one. Mom helped me attach Velcro labels to the board that you could switch around. If someone could correctly match a label to its swatch, they’d win a postage stamp from Zanzibar—my father’s contribution to the fair.

My father never let us know from day to day when he’d be home, so ten days later when he walked into the science fair, I wasn’t so surprised. He walked up to my booth and sat down next to me. No one had stopped to scratch and sniff the board. Mom walked around the auditorium and looked at all the other projects.

“Check this out,” he said, and pressed something into my palm. I opened up my hand to find a plastic treasure chest whose lid—if hooked up to the filter pump—would spit out tiny bubbles from its trove of shiny rubies, coins, and pearls. “It makes the fish feel special,” he said, moving closer to the board to “Let an expert try.” He sniffed and switched the Velcro labels till he almost had it right. He must have seen Mom working her way back to us, because he stopped and tapped the spice board nervously. He said, “I gotta run,” then hurried from the auditorium, his vinyl suitcase knocking at his knees.

That night, he sat in his reclining chair and drank a vodka, straight, in front of the TV. “The Gold Diggers” came on. The women who popped on and off the screen with jokes and winks showed off their thighs in gold and shiny high-cut costumes that shimmered in the TV lights. I tucked my flannel nightgown down around my knees and felt self-conscious, laughing at Dean Martin’s jokes when he did, not knowing what to do instead.

Mom came into the room, pronounced but silent, busy rubbing out the ashtrays with a rag. I stayed until the show was over, not because I liked it, but because I wanted him to know that I could stick it out. Mom snapped the lights off and I went upstairs, unsure of what it was Dean Martin and the women on TV had done to make my father laugh.

In bed, I stared up at the ceiling where I’d made a constellation out of stick-on stars. The fish in Pisces chased each other in an endless circle, head to tail, and then the notes—the early ones—of what my father played on our piano down below began to reach me, slow and mournful, like a lullaby. I tried to picture how his face looked as he played, but I could only see the slivered ice cubes, melting, shifting noiselessly inside his glass.

When I awoke on Saturday and came downstairs, I found my father in the den, alone. The morning light was watery and pale, and cast a silver sheen throughout the room. I watched him as he leaned in towards the fish tank, moving his lips silently, as if in prayer.

“Dad,” I said.

He startled, flushed, and backed up from the tank as if he’d been caught peeking through a keyhole.

“You miss the Koolie Loach,” I said.

He laughed, but awkwardly. “I didn’t know you could miss fish.” He ran his fingers through his thinning hair to make sure it was smooth. “You think we need another one?” he said.

I pictured how the Koolie Loach, its belly pale and bloated, had spun swirling down the toilet bowl. “Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

Mom came downstairs. My father backed up from the fish tank so she wouldn’t see him. She went off into the kitchen, humming something from the radio, and opened drawers, the freezer door, a bag of frozen coffee beans. She ground them up, then held the coffee pot beneath a rush of water from the sink and banged the cupboard doors to get a mug. When it was quiet, I could hear the busy dripping of the coffee through the filter and the shuffle of the paper as she sat down at the table and read every word.

My father went out to the yard.

I went straight to the attic, slipped the lid off of the fish food canister where I had found them first: the bunch of Polaroids my father kept that showed a naked woman posing, and a man—my father—smiling from a hotel room. I moved my eyes along the body of the woman who was plumper than my mom. Her skin was chalky white—pale enough to make her seem a ghost; her hair was dark and short. She glared at me, as if she dared me not to break a promise. I wedged the pictures back inside the canister. The sun had clouded over. I expected rain. I went downstairs to watch TV.

Bob Barker stood among his costumed audience and asked a woman dressed in a white rabbit suit which door she’d choose for the grand prize. She picked door number two. A couple dressed like vegetables chose number three. Their curtain opened first, exposing a huge stack of Campbell’s soup cans. The audience let out a sinking groan.

I switched to mute. The woman in the rabbit suit jumped up and down about the car she’d won behind door number two. The silence of the darkened hallway made me miss the sounds my parents didn’t make: Mom's rustling of the paper, my father's lullabies. The sounds were stuck inside my head though, like the way the next song on an old familiar record gets inside your mind before it even starts. 

I pictured Miss November’s and my secret safely tucked inside her magazine, an oval fingernail pressed to her lips. I concentrated hard and heard the faint but steady garble of the bubbles popping on the surface of the fish tank. I thought about how cool the Koolie Loach had looked while undulating for my father, and I realized then how much he must be missing it. I missed it, too: the way its long, thin body had displaced the water once—a spectral volume I could picture now, as real as if it were the ghost of the next song.

Author Portrait

Rebecca Boyd received her MFA from Bennington's low-residency program and has been a fiction editor for Post Road Magazine since its inception in 1999. Her work has been published in Harvard Review, Mississippi Review, The Sun, Pif, and elsewhere. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.