Happy Birthday Kenny C.
By Stacey Levine
Today is Kenny’s birthday. Let’s muster some empathic vibes for him. Two days ago, his now-ex-partner locked him out. After driving to work yesterday to fetch his spare apartment key, he completed a small sad chore: letting himself in and gathering the last of his belongings. Brutal.
They hadn’t been living together fully. Kenny always kept a microapartment on the hill. As he collected his things, the ex’s piqued voice pitched inside Kenny’s mind, narrating the dented arc of their relationship. Not exactly—the words were Kenny’s, though the voice was the ex’s. Which still sounded sweet to Kenny’s ear, a little breathy and full of space as it told how his remaining possessions—a towel, a set of stacking tiffins, and a 5-gallon fish tank—were stupid objects to own.
The towel was stained in the middle with a dun colored, roughly rectangular shape, dating from the time he, Kenny, had gone to the ER (vomiting spells after a meal at L’Ecole Culinaire). The tiffins he had purchased in a mood of naïve assumption that the couple would have a bustling, functional kitchen teeming for years with parties and food. And the fish tank: if you’re going to have a tank, why not a 10-, 15-, or 20-gallon? A 5-gallon is cruel and cuts the fishes’ lives’ experiences to nadirs of squeezed disappointment.
As the couple fought in the apartment last week, someone, maybe the ex, screamed, “I’d rather have scleroderma than live with you!” as Kenny bolted outside for air. Then the ex locked him out. Kenny’s keys were inside. He slept on the neighbor’s couch with that infamous torn-hole feeling in his chest.
On Saturday he received a text: “Yr fishtank a holy mess. Dumped the water gave your fish to Chrissie. Come get yr shit tomorrow. I won’t be home.”
Sweaty Kenny’s disappointed face over the empty tank which his ex had drained. A ledge of dried gravel inside. Atop the gravel, Kenny saw a damp plastic bag, and upon the bag: a dead ghost shrimp. This is a small, transparent creature, a bottom feeder, scavenger, algae eater.
Kenny did not know how it had died, near-invisible thing. He thought it probably escaped the ex’s notice while he collected all the fish and poured the water away. Kenny wouldn’t have thought anything worse. No one, in his mind, would murder a delicate aquarium creature.
The dead shrimp’s antenae and forelegs extended lax on the bag. The tiny midgut: spotted with inky dots, previous meals visible within. We all carry half-digested chyme inside to keep ourselves alive.
Kenny touched the shrimp. Dry. It resembled those in grocery store packages. Kenny reached for the kitchen faucet to scoop water onto the dead shrimp. Then more water.
How full of hope he is. Kenny likes to see things live.
Of course the shrimp came back to life. It lived. These outsized-good things, small yet big things, always happen to Kenny with his ethereal, unearthly core. Carrying the plastic bag across the room carefully as if it were a crystal carafe. Down the stairs and out the apartment door. Aquatic creatures can’t tolerate chlorinated water, everyone knows. Kenny on his knees, grasping the grass’s dew with his fingers, flicking that paucity onto the shrimp. Running to the rain barrel in the neighbor’s yard. Gushing the shrimp with the water—not so cold.
The shrimp’s digestive tube pulsed as Kenny watched. His little smile upticked. The shrimp kicked. That was the song it sang. The shrimp loved the bag.
Kenny has always moved forward every day, leaning into the wind. He called to tell me he’d come collect the rest of his fish. At home he restored the fishtank and dropped the lone shrimp in, transparent creature that never needed to learn how to die and live.
The ex texted Kenny: “But for three years you were my oxygen.” Kenny thought this might be an apology. Gazing to a framed photo on his wall that contained an image of the back of the ex’s head. All that curly hair. Billowed upper layers, deep tracts of undercurls, gold, solar-bright. The ex had been mean and jibing more often than not. Kenny had put up with too much.
Happy birthday Kenny.
Special thanks: PKL
Stacey Levine is the author of The Girl with Brown Fur, Frances Johnson, Dra---, and My Horse and Other Stories. Her fiction has appeared in Fence, Tin House, The Fairy Tale Review, The Washington Review, The Iowa Review, Yeti, and others. She has contributed reviews and articles to the American Book Review. She teaches and lives in Seattle. |
(Updated Aug 2014)