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Flash Fiction: The Common Place

Joe’s head is in the fish tank.

I stroll into The Rusty Bucket at the same old seven-o-four I fell into the habit of strolling in at when I was sixteen and a quarter. But as the front door squeaks on stiff hinges that haven’t been oiled in a good sixteen years (and a quarter), Molly P. doesn’t whistle me her usual Hey, boy and Oliver T. isn’t at his piano in the corner, skillfully skipping over sheet music that’d require any one of its four broken flat keys. The barroom is empty—its chairs are still flipped upside-down and resting on dirty table tops, the overhead lights that illuminate late-night comedy acts on its makeshift stage are dark, and Good Golly Gee, no one’s chosen a liquor to put on the tonight’s special display shelf.

That, and Joe’s head is in the fish tank.

If I’d been walking any faster and in any more of a liquor panic, I’d have missed him. But when I dart toward the bar to peek through the half-open kitchen door—you can’t forget tonight’s special, fellas!—the fluorescent fish-tank light reels in my gaze instead. The fish tank is a nasty old thing, set up across from the one-stall bathroom at the end of the love hall (a regular hallway, christened with an irregular moniker when two high school brats snuck in with fake IDs and had a quick fuck in a quick shadow while drunk out of their minds).

I don’t know what kind of fish are in the tank now. It goes through phrases. Tropical fish every color of the rainbow one month. Poisonous sea plants every now and then. For a week last year, it was full of standard river fish I’m sure Joe caught himself in his patched-and-patched-again boat handed down through three generations of shitty fisherman. Whatever is in the tank now is either dead from shock or happily munching on Joe’s face.

Since his head is in the fish tank.

He’s dead. That doesn’t need checking. He might have been alive when I first walked in a few minutes ago, and I might have been able to haul him out and give some of that CPR crap I always see on prime time medical dramas, but now he’s still and breathless and lifeless, and his eyes stare blankly at the bathroom door. The tank sits on a short enough stand that Joe’s chest rests on the ledge and his head bobs up and down in the water with the pressure from the never-cleaned filter pump. Did he fall? Hit his head on something, slip, and end up face-first in his beloved fish tank? That’s a stupid way to die and way too fucked up for a normal goody-two-shoes guy like Joe.

I fumble for the cell phone dear little Debbie gave me when she went off to college and got herself some new fangled touchscreen contraption, flipping it open and dialing 911. There’s not a damn thing any cops or scrubs can do for him now, but I got to report his death through the proper channels either way. That’s what upstanding citizens do, according to Ma (rest her good soul).  My thumb taps the send button a few times without actually pressing it, and I wonder if I shouldn’t take poor Joe out of the tank first. The man would be hell-a embarrassed if a bunch of fellas he knew and resented for their notoriously bad business found him like this. And being Joe’s friend, I should be embarrassed for him.

With a pinch of resolve, I stick my phone back in its pocket and maneuver around Joe’s body, searching for the best place to wrap my arms around him and haul him out. Don’t want to drop him by accident. He might be watching. Not from here but from someplace above. Only thing he sees here is the door of that damned dirty bathroom where—

Where the toilet flushes.

And somebody walks out.

***

Joe’s head is in the fish tank.

At least, it’s in the fish tank in your mind. While you sit on the bus next to a seven foot brute with a buzz cut (who smells like month-old milk), you picture Joe’s head splashing around in that fish tank until it goes still, until the little air bubbles stop rising to the surface. That low-life fuck stole your hard-earned money with a cheap up-his-sleeve trick during poker last week, and your electricity just got cut off because you couldn’t foot the bill. You spent the night sweltering in your bed, and you can’t run the washing machine to clean your sweat-drenched clothes until next Friday’s paycheck rolls around.

So you want Joe’s head in that goddamned fish tank.

When you called him last night to demand your stolen cash back, he chuckled, said tough luck, buddy, and hung up as soon as he made sure you knew you’d been on speaker phone the whole time and the whole bar had heard your ass-whipping loud and clear. So you decided this issue is better taken care of in person, and after a milk-less cornflake cereal breakfast and a plastic water bottle bath, you hopped on the next bus to the edge of town.

Buzz Cut eyes you as you jump the three bus steps and land hard on your heels in front of The Rusty Bucket. As the doors are closing, you crane your neck to peer over your shoulder and flick the bastard off with both hands. He thinks your going to go drinking in the middle of the afternoon, and he thinks he has the right to judge you for it. The hell would he think if he knew you were going killing in the middle of the afternoon instead?

Joe’s always been the talk of the town. The bad talk. He’s got his allies and his friends, but they’re all chumps. He’s a swindler, a cheat, and an ass, and if Betty C. from Carlisle Street tells the truth in Sunday mass—and you can bet she does because she fears God like thirteen-year-old boys fear inadequacy—Joe’s also an assailant of some flavor or another. In other words, he’s a common place, as Dead Old Dad used to call people who like to pretend they are what they ain’t.

It really doesn’t take much to drag Joe off his high horse. He’s sweeping when you walk in, a pair of head phones blasting music through his brain from the twenty-year-old cassette player in his shirt pocket. Easy-peasy prey. Before he turns to sweep a pile of dirt into the tray, you grab the today’s special bottle off its shelf and bring it down on the tip-top of his head. He drops like a brick. You stick the bottle in your coat pocket—a celebratory gift for later—and drag Joe’s limp form to the fish tank, dropping him in head first. He wakes up about thirty seconds in, but he’s too weak to even need restraining. So you stand there and watch him watch you through cloudy fish tank glass while the last few air bubbles rise to the surface. Satisfied, you back into the bathroom to take a nice piss before your return trip to the bus stop. While you’re zipping up, a catchy phrase starts repeating in your mind, and you mumble it out loud as you flush, open the door, and walk out:

Joe’s head is in the fish tank, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

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