By Lisa Lopez Snyder
Logan slumped in the funk of his futon, PBR in hand, and looked over at the glistening tank. Funny how they moved, he thought, as he watched his goldfish flit about in short symphonic bursts. So smooth and undisturbed, much unlike his current circumstances, and the unbelievable and maddening way in which he lost his job at 4:30 that very day.
How it could happen, though, was puzzling, for everything leading up to the Christmas rush at Peanuts & Popcorn had until then appeared without complication. Packing popcorn into tins was not the most complicated thing, but it was enough to keep some cash handy to help with the rent. A full five months after graduating from Kent State, anything was.
When he recalled the incident, he pictured the red melon of his boss Melody’s face as she flew into a rage, and the smirk on some of his co-workers’ faces. A few of them remained mute and stone-faced. He thought in the midst of the chaos someone had taken a quick selfie, a high def or a blurred image, that would have caught Melody’s pasty arm as it flung itself toward the door, when she was screaming at him to leave. Logan had been just four weeks into the job, minding his own business, but focused on keeping the holiday orders filled as soon as he got them.
It all began when he had been in the middle of filling the Zig Zag Ultimate Tower, a selection from Peanuts & Popcorn’s specialty line. The effort involved placing a pre-measured assortment of candy, nuts and popcorn into various tins and cardboard boxes. In fact, he was just starting to get a hang of this snack tin thing. He especially liked the Ultimate Tower, a five-box combo of walnuts, cheddar popcorn, dry roasted peanuts and chocolate-covered pretzels. There was a feeling of power about this, the knowledge that someone, somewhere, would receive this gift with great enthusiasm.
And he was thankful for the job. Melody, the rancorous owner with cigarette breath, had hired him for a full-time position, contingent on his performance during the rush. She had, Logan sensed, seen him as more than a mere recent college graduate, maybe a lifeline of sorts. In just a short time, he had mastered the intricacies of juggling the online and phone orders, and Melody soon put him in charge of the seasonal college hires. Between bites of large, vinegar-drenched Italian subs during short lunch breaks, she tucked in business advice. “Dry snacks are the ultimate gift,” she once told him. “Budget-friendly, but thoughtful. For the giver,” she added, “it’s the satisfaction of a gesture without expectations.”
These supportive talks quickly dissolved, however, once the orders started coming in post-Thanksgiving, at reckless and unforgiving speed.
Melody’s firm voice soon emerged as screams.
“Get the friggin’ eff off the phone!” she’d yell at the college hires when they pecked at their mobile devices in the storeroom.
Logan took her shrieks as a natural part of the business—it was a chaotic time, after all.
This day, however, he was the first in the line of fire.
“You have to go faster,” Melody screamed at him.
Normally, this wouldn’t disturb Logan. This was her business; she had a right to expect the best during the high season. But something snapped in Logan today. It might have been the adrenaline of the rush. It might have been the need to corral some humor into the day, or simply a way to deal with his blistering mouth sore. Whatever the case, in a half-joking moment, Logan had flipped off Melody when her back was turned. The sad fact, though, was that she saw his gesture, a lone dangling finger, in the reflection of one of the solid Christmas tins, the ones that were part of the Happy Candy Cane holiday pack. Maybe if he had just not done it with such a forceful swipe of arm, he’d still be there now—getting overtime—instead of sulking in his apartment sucking down warm PBRs.
Logan stabbed his middle finger up in the air in memory, and grabbed the last of the six-pack on the floor. He snapped the flip top. So much for a college education. He leaned back and stared at the dried water stains inked across the ceiling and listened to the bubble of the fish tank. There was a time he loved aquariums, the enormous ones at the zoo. It might have begun as a child, when the effervescing sounds of the tank in Mrs. Lucas’ fifth grade math class soothed his concerns about calculating variable expressions. He remembered how he first sat there, fingers clenching a pencil, making fake motions over the page until at some point, with the soft bubbles in his ears, his shoulders eased, the ringing in his ears stopped, and the answers emerged on the page in scraggly numbers. After that, he was determined to learn as much about aquarium fish as he could.
Logan tasted the sour dregs in the can and shuddered. The Pabst nipped like an X-acto blade on his cold sore. He sat up, dizzy, and eased himself off the couch. As he felt his hand slowly lift him upright and over to the gurgles of the tank, he wondered about the possible consequence of mixing a single carbonation with another. How he could become a disappointment to himself so quickly was numbing. He tried not to think about the call he’d have to make to his parents about the job, and lifted the half-full can over the lip of the tank. A circle of fish flickered in the haze of fluorescent light, their fins like snipped sails in the wind. Intricate. Satisfying. And horrifying. So terrifying to find out, Logan thought, as he tilted the can forward, its contents nearing the edge.
And yet, so satisfying.
~ ~ ~
As soon as Logan left the store, Melody had walked briskly into her small office and closed the door. There was something. So Adult. About Zantac. It was her first grown-up prescription. Melody had never actually considered herself a candidate for the drug–that was for unstable people with stomach problems—unstable! She shuddered as she recalled TV ads showing happy people with crisp polo V-necks fluttering down a golf course, free from gastrointestinal lurches. It was only after a particularly busy Easter at P&P that her father had suggested she get help—the day none of them mentioned (but whoa, what a story the customers could tell), when the pink popcorn bunnies smashed into confetti onto the floor and Melody spun around the packing tables like one of those globular forms in Ghostbusters. Her mother took her to the doctor after the incident, with Melody feeling like her 12-year-old self rather than a 32-year-old woman with bright possibilities.
Her father had not yet handed over the entire business to her, but she knew she was his last hope. Her younger sister Carrie had graduated from Akron and was working as a legislative aide in Washington, D.C., another cog in the world of crisp jackets and skirts.
“It’s time for you to learn the business.”
The day her father said this, she felt a certain sadness, knowing that he, too, lamented that he had but two daughters, and that they were more likely to seek their fortunes outside and far from the harrowing pace of P&P. Instinct quickly revealed what Pop saw: a single woman with a cat, hairballs flicked to the side or behind the couch (he looked once). She often wished she had left Ohio after she graduated from Kent State. She could’ve moved to Texas with her old roommate, Tammy, who was set on getting a job with the oil industry. “Lots of jobs,” Tammy said, insisting that Melody join her. But a woman named Tammy seemed to belong in Texas. Melody fancied her own name as permanently Midwest, most comfortable in the middle of things. Willing to try something new, but never taking really big risks. Always available, but judicious in her offer to help. Enthusiastic, but mindful of possible consequences.
An image of Tammy and her father’s face suddenly emerged in her mind as two greasy fried eggs floating on a bog. She felt a small disruptive rumble in her stomach. She grabbed her purse and dug into an inside zipped pocket and pulled out a small box. She punched out one of the blue, diamond-shaped tablets from an unopened bubble top and glumly swallowed it.
If only she had moved when she had the chance. And right out of school, too, instead of staying in Middletown, a plucky suburb burgeoning with Ohio State Buckeye and Cincinnati Reds fans, what her business-minded father called “a captive audience.”
She was probably wrong to take it out on the new kid. Logan was actually somewhat a glimmer in an otherwise lonely space. He was the only one who really listened to her when she spoke about the business, his eyebrows raised, nodding in agreement. She could tell he cared. He seemed to, anyway. And the place did need some comic relief. He could make her laugh on even the busiest days.
When Pop eventually gave her more responsibility with the business, she thought about all the reasons it was wrong to do it. She didn’t picture herself as someone who could think about inventory, marketing, customer service, and holiday planning—much less manage people—all in the same breath. Where in the equation did she fit? What did she want?
“Pop,” she said to herself, “what about me?”
She fingered a postcard from Texas Tammy on the bulletin board above her desk, imagining herself on the beach in a successfully form-fitting swimsuit. Melody felt a small sense of glee that at least that she didn’t need to, nor cared to, conform to the fashion of the day. It wasn’t a conscious choice, more one of convenience. It took too much time to systematically peruse tops that went with skirts and pants or vice versa.
She wondered how she could feel so at odds with herself. So many of her college friends had left Ohio, even as places like Columbus and Cleveland were experiencing a renaissance of sorts with their growing insurance, technology, and other “knowledge economies,” a phrase that made Melody cringe.
She sat back on the dingy office couch against the wall. Her friends’ exoduses were eight years ago. Already she felt years older than her parents’ next-door neighbor Sonia, a master gardener with the two kids, house and two-car garage in the suburbs. Sonia was only 28, great God.
It wasn’t as though Melody didn’t care about everyday things, or that she didn’t try. With Sonia’s guidance one Saturday, Melody planted petunias and zinnias in hanging baskets on her front porch, and organized irises and fennel in the yard. She stood back now with the plastic watering can (a great $2 deal from Big Lots) and thought about all the ways she could create a more welcoming entrance. “Curb appeal, Melody,” Sonia said with pointed finger, “it’s all about curb appeal.”
“Gimme a break,” Melody had replied. She saw the quick downward turn of Sonia’s mouth. Damn, here it comes, Melody thought, another admonition about her hasty, curt responses.
“It turns people off,” Sonia said. By “people,” Melody knew she meant “men.”
These instances made Melody want to pour hot candle wax over Sonia’s head. But instead, she smiled and clenched her fingers around the watering can handle. “It’ll scare off the men,” Sonia continued as she nudged dandelion roots from the soil with appropriately gloved hands and a large shovel that Melody bought for $3 at Dollar General. A steal, Melody wanted to tell her as she leaned against the porch railing and lit a cigarette. A steal.
~ ~ ~
The gold color mutation in goldfish was discovered in 300 A.D., sometime during the first period of the Jin Dynasty. But it wasn’t until 700 A.D. that the Buddhist monks finally domesticated the darn things. Over the centuries, Asian collectors focused mostly on aesthetics—color and dorsal variations—rather than the culinary aspects. Still, it wasn’t until the 1600s that standard goldfish were exported, first from Japan to Europe, then to America in the 1800s, becoming what is known in the United States today as the common goldfish.
Over time, collectors naturally bred the fish, increasingly aiming for selective, exclusive, or show varieties. There are your basic, chubby Sakuri Ranchus, which run from thirty to fifty dollars each, and there’s the coveted slender Koi and their varieties, which start at one hundred. Sophisticated markings, type of backbone curvature and feathered fin lengths are just some of the aspects that collectors look for.
Logan was generally proud he had educated himself on the finer points of exotic goldfish. He knew one day he would make a career out of it, studying their behaviors and patterns of reproduction. The idea perked up his parents, who encouraged his goldfish interests in the hopes it would somehow translate into a lucrative degree in the sciences. He did have a thing for technology, so that was something. His mother pinned tiny hopes on his first major, biology, imagining him as a scientist doing field and lab work, or whatever such people do. “Please, any STEM degree would do,” she eventually said during Logan’s junior year, weary of her son’s changing majors. She didn’t understand, though, what it took to get through physics, Logan thought. He tried to tell her once. He recalled logging onto his laptop to make a final decision, scrolling repeatedly through the various options that flashed before him. He hovered over “English.” Indeed, he was a good writer. And his professors did say positive things about his essays.
Logan watched the two large red and white ryukin flit against the glass. A member of the carp family, the ryukin has a fat belly and a prominent hump behind the head, perhaps the most captivating of its features. The fish were a gift from his father at graduation. A quick Google search showed that he must’ve spent almost three hundred dollars for just the one. Logan put his nose against the glass and watched the fishes’ orange-ringed lips smacking “o’s” as they snacked at floating particles.
“Now that’s really going to help him get a job,” he remembered his mother snapped as he and his father set up the tank.
~ ~ ~
When Melody got home, she kicked off her shoes at the front door and threw her sweat jacket over the couch. Today’s youth didn’t understand what it took to run a business. Melody was tired of screaming. It made her feel glum and anxious, like a mother.
Logan was different, though. Sure, he came in with the same air that other college kids did these days—smug, self-consumed, glued to the smartphone. But something set him apart. He actually paid attention to what she said. He unloaded the shipping materials and counted inventory…accurately. He patiently listened when she told him how to order supplies, and helped her set up the new digital inventory tracking system. He even suggested creating a smartphone “app” so that customers could order at just the flick of a fingertip.
He reminded her of Ted, her first boyfriend in high school, a lovable scoundrel who sneaked her into a second movie theater after watching the first film. They made out during the first half of Love Actually. Afterwards, they fed each other thick, crinkle-cut fries at the IHOP.
She withdrew a half-empty bottle of Pepto Bismol from the kitchen cabinet and uncapped it. Drinking from the lip, she yearned suddenly for even a simple, romantic French fry exchange. Heck, just a toke might help, if she even knew where to get some. She considered herself apolitical, but now she wished the state legislature would just get it over and legalize pot. It might help with the stomach problems, she knew. More recently, she had watched a PBS special about the legal clinics in Portland, where people with chronic conditions appeared at newly-established dispensaries with prescriptions for weed varieties that match their medical needs. When will Ohio get its damned act together? She capped the bottle and sighed.
Her cell phone rang.
“– meet with Vince yet?” her father asked. She could hear the distracting crack of peanut shells between his teeth as he spoke. “He’s ready…over the books with you.” Melody felt a pain growing in her belly.
“You can’t…putting this off, babe.”
Melody hung up the phone and looked at her face in the hallway mirror. Vince was due to show up in an hour and she was spent. Dad saw him as a business asset (“on top of his game, babe”); Mom saw him as son-in-law material. He’s a nice boy, her mother once said, brushing back Melody’s bangs (and “that boy,” recalled Melody, was 40 years old). Maybe you should get a nice trim, she had said. “Nice” and “lovely” figured largely in her mother’s vocabulary.
And possibly a nice facial scrub to flush those pores a bit, her mother added.
Melody touched the pockmarks that lined the right side of her face. Okay, so maybe she could make a difference in her life, if she just changed her attitude. Maybe it was like Sonia Quite Contrary said, “curb appeal.”
“Curb appeal!” Melody screamed at her refrigerator.
She picked up her cell phone and punched at the dark angry numbers.
~ ~ ~
Logan woke to cold air and quickly rubbed his palms over his arms. The apartment had become grey and chilled. He heard a low buzzing as he lay with his back on the floor. Maybe the tank was becoming electrified. Maybe a thunderstorm had frazzled the electrical system. He heard the faint phone voice of his neighbor Jerry from across the hall. “Yeah, and load the second one with lots of pepperoni and extra cheese.”
The buzz rang again, and from the corner of his eye Logan saw a nub of flickering light. He turned over on his stomach and crawled over to his cell phone. Three message icons.
Jerry’s voice echoed again from across the hall. “Yeah, yeah, so all three large ones, man. Okay, thanks.”
Two attempts, and then one message. Logan clicked on the last one.
Sorry—my bad Please come back Melody
Logan stared at the simple message. Was it really that easy? He didn’t know. He was too tired, and his mouth felt dry and heavy. He decided he would not call or text her. Maybe he could just show up tomorrow. Overtime was awesome on Saturdays.
“Hey, Lo!” It was Jerry pounding at the door. “You home? I ordered some pizza, man. Come on over. The game’s on.”
Logan stood up and stumbled his way to the door. Tomorrow night was Buckeyes versus big bad Michigan. He remembered the Peanuts & Popcorn rush and looked at his watch. 8 pm. The last of the sport snack orders had long gone out. Logan shook his head as he walked into Jerry’s apartment, trying to make sense of days. Tonight’s game? Oh yeah, the Cavs. LeBron was back. Customers had been ordering the King James Snack Pack ever since they announced LeBron James’ return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Orders had picked up at corporate events across town.
He kept a close eye on the phone for the next two hours while he and Jerry watched the Cavaliers hammer the Miami Heat. Maybe she’d call back. He was still a little miffed that Melody would call him out in front of everyone. At least she was sorry. Better make her wait.
“Kill it, LeBron, kill it!” Jerry punched the air with his fist as King James slam-dunked a ball right before Chris Bosh’s eyes.
As Logan watched Jerry, he realized more than just Cav fans had forgiven LeBron for leaving Cleveland for Miami a few years ago. There were plenty of Cavs fans in central Ohio, too. He calculated future possible sales from just app orders. NBA season had just begun, and whoa, what about the damn college basketball lineup? There would be time to develop fun promos around March Madness. A ‘captive audience,’ isn’t that what Melody once told him?
Logan looked at Jerry, who was a computer genius at Hi-Tech Mechanic, a rapidly growing digital automotive software company. What if Jerry had his company test the application?
“Hey, asshole, watchya thinkin’ about?” Jerry folded a slice and pushed half of it into his mouth, his eyes transfixed on the screen.
Maybe, just maybe.
“Jerry,” Logan said, “I think there’s some good stuff ahead of us.”
“Huh? Whatcha talkin’ about?”
Logan sat back on the couch, and after a long sip of Budweiser, clicked on his phone.
~ ~ ~
“Would you like another glass of wine?” Vince flashed a thumbs-up as they sat at Tony’s Trattoria, a small Italian restaurant in the neighborhood. Outside, the last of the fall leaves lay scattered under the maple trees lining the sidewalk, their bare limbs reaching weakly into the night’s frost.
Maybe Vince wasn’t such a loser guy, Melody thought as she finished the last of her glass. Vince was wearing a dark, if weary, suit, and swiped away a few lines of perspiration from his forehead. From the looks of his fresh haircut, he was trying, or at least he knew of her mother’s desires. Melody suddenly realized he might know her own mother better than she did. She imagined signing checks with a revised name. Mrs. Vince Delay. Mrs. Melody Delay. Mrs. Delay. Ms. Delay.
She could also just keep her own last name.
“Thank you,” Melody said, as the waiter brought another glass. Somehow Italian dinners with a mature man felt comforting. There could be more of these if she wanted.
“How’s your manicotti?” Vince asked. He twirled his spaghetti, fork against spoon, and ladled too big of a serving into his mouth.
Maybe she could make Middletown work for her after all. Establishing trust in a community takes time, and while a bit unsteady, she already had one foot in the door.
“Quite lovely.” Melody’s own words shocked her. She had never once called anything lovely. Was she becoming her mother, or were everyday things or moments, indeed, quite lovely?
Was this her third or fourth glass of wine?
She remembered later that there was some more small talk between she and Vince at the restaurant, and nothing really ever about the business. Maybe that was the plan. Tomorrow or next week, perhaps. She’d have to fill in Pop. He’d want to know. But maybe he already knew.
Later, when Vince dropped Melody off at her doorstep, her hands clutching her coat collar against the cold, he asked, “Do you need me to come in?” The question sounded odd and forced.
It might have been that the night had gone on too long, but in the yellow haze of her front porch light, Vince suddenly looked like a tired 40-year-old accountant. His dark suit was rumpled and he yawned. He made Melody feel like she was 40, too. Melody wondered what ever happened to her old boyfriend Ted, and why the hell she never heard about a class reunion.
When she shut the door behind her, Melody slunk to the floor in the dimly lit foyer. The wine seemed to be sinking her into the ground. Her coat still on, she fumbled through her purse for a cigarette. She lit the Pall Mall and closed her eyes as she blew smoke rings. She pulled out her phone. The battery was low, and the screen was blank. As she sat there, she tried to erase the questions that eluded her. Is this what her Friday nights would become? How could popcorn, which she really liked as a kid, become this kind of obligation? Who cared if it made anyone else happy? Why didn’t she hear back from Logan?
She closed her eyes, letting the wine stupor pull her against the floor and the wall. If she sat there long enough, she would feel better, or better yet—perhaps a Zantac would help. She reached for her purse and punched out not one, but two. Slowly, she popped them into her mouth.
She closed her eyes and imagined her arms and legs spread out from her body like fins, floating on water.
~ ~ ~
During the commercials Logan started to doodle on the blank backside of the pizza box flyer. He drew several fat-bellied goldfish, experimenting with just the right fleshed-out appearance, a solid design for his own app graphic design business. He could even maybe do this as some kind of consulting thing with other companies on the side and he and Jerry could split the difference.
He could call his company “Ryuki,” short for ryukin. An Asian-inspired goldfish name, a simple but memorable icon. He could already picture it on a web site, helping clients like Peanuts & Popcorn and Hi-Tech Mechanic put together a site for Google Play, where users could download their mobile apps in just seconds. He had made the suggestion to Melody once. She just shrugged, but this time he’d go ahead and create a demo for her. “Don’t just work,” Logan remembered his dad telling him, when he was applying for jobs, “contribute to the company. Show the big boss you have something of value.”
Would he have to patent his design? There was a whole list of things he needed to do.
“Hey, man, come on!” Jerry pointed to his flat screen with his empty bottle. “Heat’s got nothing on us! Give it to ‘em, James, baby.”
“Dude, you got a really good idea, man,” Jerry said as he squashed another piece of pizza into his mouth. “I mean, hey, this could help me at work, too.”
“For sure.” Logan didn’t tell Jerry about being fired and then re-hired in the space of five hours, but if all went well, things for everyone—him, Jerry, and Melody—could really take off. He’d even surprise his parents.
“Geez, I’m out of beer – would you mind?” Jerry said. He stood up and pulled out empty pockets from his jeans. “It’s half-time, anyway.”
When Logan got in his car, he realized he shouldn’t be surprised he didn’t hear from Melody. It was Friday night after all. She was probably out with some of her coarse friends who would listen to her bizarre tales and they’d all laugh about the young motley crew at work. He might as well surprise her at work tomorrow—yeah, that would be good—and he’d tell her about his idea for the mobile app. Funny how things can turn around so fast.
He rounded the corner of the block and headed toward the town center grocery store. The town center was one of those precisely designed, pre-planned communities in the suburbs where the “live-work-play” set lived. Restaurants, shopping and living areas all together. It wasn’t for him, but maybe one day. At least get one of those little one-story condos with a front porch and yard. Maybe meet a girl. Lots of promise ahead. As he drove through a green light, he contemplated the future, things that included working extra hours, and then weekends on the patent, and a cool Ryuki design. Who knew something good could come of the goldfish? He looked down at his phone and realized he hadn’t clicked the Send icon yet on his message to Melody. “Shit,” he said to himself, and he looked down for what seemed like just a second.
~ ~ ~
Melody sat up against her front door, not knowing how long she had been there, but maybe she had made a mistake with Vince and with Logan. What were her last words to them? Was Sonia there reminding her to watch her words again? There were too many unknowns.
She’d take one person at a time. If she could just go outside and talk to Vince, yeah, that would be a start. He was probably still outside, waiting in the car. She could at least tell her parents it was a really nice date and that this thing with Vince would work out. He knew her parents really well, and, he could possibly be a mediator so that she wouldn’t have to even deal as much with the business.
She was outside now. A long Ohio winter was around the corner, she could just feel it in the cold breeze. Sad how quickly fall goes. She didn’t even remember the color of the leaves changing. There was something so yearning about this time of year.
From the distance she saw the bright headlights coming toward her. Was that Vince? Maybe he had left and was coming back. Maybe he forgot something. “I forgot you,” he would tell her in that low voice of his, and they would both laugh at their awkwardness. How nice. But the car didn’t seem to be slowing down. Maybe he didn’t see her. She could just wave him down. Her coat was dark after all, and the shadows of the tree branches and dim streetlights threw down illusions.
She walked out into the middle of the street, but in her cold disorientation, as the car neared, she saw the face of the young man as he looked up. Really, it was just his mouth, shocked and open wide, scared, like she was, but she was unable to move before she heard a screaming of tires and the faint pitch of metal somewhere in between.
And the quiet of cold black night.
About the Author:
Lisa Lopez Snyder lives and writes in Columbus, Ohio, where she is at work on a novel and a collection of essays. Her work has been featured in The Raleigh Review, The Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, The Scrambler, Gravel, The 34th Parallel and other publications. Her essay, “In Transit,” won The Chattahoochee Review’s 2011 Lamar York Prize for Nonfiction. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of South Carolina and was named the 2015 Carl Sandburg Writer-in-Residence.