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The Goldfish Variations

On my 21st birthday Mom invited me
To The Wolverine Lodge for venison steaks
And Irish whiskey. I was introduced to her cronies
And business associates, like Muffinchops,
Her duck blind buddy and Señor Toupee,
Her canasta cohort. To be honest, my mother
And I weren’t what you would call close.
When I was a kid, she was often at work
Or down at the Wolverine, leaving Dad and me
To our TV dinners and forensic investigations.
So this was a great birthday gift: to see Mom’s world.
Who knew that her friends called her The Duchess
Of Malfi? In the weedy hours we found ourselves
At the bar, sipping cognac. “Ho, you’re a good son,”
She said, “and someday I hope you can join me
Here, and become a solitary carnivore, ‘Gulo! Gulo!’
Bartender, two more for the road.” Sunlight
Made her fake eyelashes look like twin spiders,
The good kind, the kind whose poison you milk
For vaccines and blow-darts. “Of course, I’ll have to
Toughen you up. You always were a dreamer,
Believing in Santa and the Easter Bunny way past
The expiration date.” We laughed. She wasn’t so
Wrong. “Yes, but give me some credit. I know
You swap-out my goldfish.” She grabbed my tumbler
And downed my drink. “C’mon Mom! Do you
Really think that I believe that Mr. Fins
Is 20 years old? Jeesh! You must buy a new fantail
Every few months.” She took my hand. Her leather
Mittens were damp. ”Son, we should have told you
Years ago. I guess we’re ashamed. Or maybe,
We’re ashamed for feeling ashamed? You see, Fins
Isn’t a goldfish; he’s your brother.” I laughed.
“Is this part of some initiation ritual?” I looked
Around for cameras. She removed a mitten.
Her bare skin touched my face for the first time
In years. She was serious as an airborne
Pathogen. “My brother is a goldfish?”
“No, of course not. No, your brother just looks
Like a goldfish.” “Ma, how is that possible?”
“There are more thingamajigs in tequilas
And peyote, Horatio, than are dreamt of
In your pharmacopoeias.” We filled the gauche
Silence by watching a replay of Candlepins
For Cash
. I know what you’re thinking: Yes,
The twelve pins and small ball are wyrd
And symptomatic of a mislaid America, but
Did the news of your brother leave you more flabber
Or more gasted?
Neither. Nor was I founded
Or dumb. Actually, the info cleared up several
Mysteries, like the seahorse and Lexus keys
That appeared in Fins’ tank when he turned 16.
Now I knew why Dad insisted on using
A water and Fins-filled acrylic baseball every time
We played catch. And I appreciated that
The reason my parents sent Fins to France for spring break
(The same break I worked at the glue factory)
Had nothing to do with creative tax loopholes.
I kissed Mom’s hand and excused myself.
I pretended to walk to the men’s room, but instead
I used the payphone to call my sister, the feral
Cat. “Remember that deal we had? The one
Where you leave Mr. Fins alone? Nevermind.”

Peter Jay Shippy’s most recent book is the verse novella, How to Build the Ghost in Your Attic (Rose Metal Press, 2007). His work has recently appeared in The American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, and Shenandoah. Shippy teaches at Emerson College.

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