“Maybe you should try a different word,” said Zookeeper Durpin. It was Wednesday afternoon and he had dropped by the off-white, windowless office where Allison was stationed to check on the gownfishes’ progress. “Or try the same word for a longer period of time.”
The gownfish swam back and forth in their special tank. The whispy, lace-like extensions that surrounded the back halves of their bodies and gave them their name flowed behind them. They said nothing. If they had said something, the special microphones in their special tank would have picked it up and it would have been broadcast through the special PA system and captured on the special sound recorder.
“Which do you want me to do?” asked Allison. “New word or more of the same word?”
“What word have you been using?” asked Zookeeper Durpin.
“You told me to use, ‘Food,’” said Allison.
“Show me how you’ve been saying it.”
Allison leaned toward her special microphone which was connected to the special waterproof speakers in the gownfishes’ tank. “Food,” said Allison. She waited. “Food,” she said again. She looked at Zookeeper Durpin. He was scratching his beard with both hands. “Food,” said Allison. She was about to say it again when Zookeeper Durpin said, “No, it’s not funny. I was thinking that when the donors come on their tour on Friday it would be funny if the gownfish were all saying ‘Food, food,’ like they were hungry and demanding food, but now it doesn’t seem funny. And even if it would be funny, I don’t think humor is the best way to persuade the donors to increase the quantity and regularity of their donations.”
“So what should I say to the gownfish?” asked Allison. She knew better than to hope for a different task. It didn’t pay to argue with Zookeeper Durpin. His alleged experts had convinced him that there was no reason the gownfish, with their disproportionally huge brains bulging in their misshapen heads, shouldn’t be able to learn to speak at least one word. The special waterproof microphones were supposed to compensate for the gownfishes’ lack of vocal cords in some way that Allison didn’t care to understand.
She wasn’t one of those teenage girls who apply for a job at the zoo thinking they’re just going to be bottle-feeding adorable baby tigers all day. She had expected a fair amount of manure shoveling, landscaping, ticket-taking, visitor-scolding, all kinds of unpleasant work. But this thing with the gownfish was asinine. Allison didn’t care how big their brains were, she didn’t think there was any way they were going to say a word. But Zookeeper Durpin had threatened to fire her if she expressed her doubts in his presence again, and her parents thought that making her pay for her own car insurance would somehow enable her to do a better job of noticing road signs. So she needed the money.
Zookeeper Durpin put his hands on the edge of the tank and scowled down at the gownfish as if they weren’t learning on purpose in order to ruin his life. “New word,” said Zookeeper Durpin. “The new word is…Balance.”
“Yes,” said Zookeeper Durpin. “As in ecology. The word should be positive and inspirational, not comical. No, wait! The word should be Harmony! No, the new word is…” He trailed off, knocking on the side of his head with his knuckles in frustration.
“One syllable is probably better,” said Allison. “Something like Love or Share or…”
“Not Share!” said Zookeeper Durpin. “We don’t want the donors to think we taught the gownfish to beg for us!”
“How about ‘peace?’”
Zookeeper Durpin looked at the ceiling with his hands on his hips. The special PA system transmitted the soft swishing and bubbling sounds that came from inside the gownfishes’ tank. “The problem with ‘peace,’” said Zookeeper Durpin, “is that it could also be ‘piece’ as in a piece of pie.”
“I think they’ll know which peace the gownfish mean,” said Allison.
“All right,” said Zookeeper Durpin. “Peace. The word is ‘peace.’ It’s positive, it’s short, it’s an easy word. Go with ‘peace.’” He glared at the gownfish. “There’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to learn to say ‘peace’ by Friday.” With that, he turned and left Allison alone with the gownfish. The gownfish didn’t give Zookeeper Durpin a second glance.
Allison said “peace” at the gownfish off and on for another hour with no noticeable results. Then she said, “Good night,” into her special microphone, clocked out, and went home.
The next morning Allison arrived at the zoo in a fragile mood. The day had gotten off to a bad start. While she was eating breakfast with her family, the police had arrested their next-door neighbor for reasons her parents either didn’t know or wouldn’t tell her. Mr. Millwell had gone quietly in dress pants and sandals, ducking into the back of the squad car with a defeated look on his face. He’d always been nice to Allison and her brothers.
Allison cried on her way to work. She turned up the obnoxious morning DJs on Shaky 95.5 in an attempt to drown out her own sniffling. They were taking calls from listeners about whether or not some guys are actually incapable of being faithful to one woman. There was a lot of incoherent shouting and laughter and girls calling in to say, “No. Just…no. I mean, do your thing, whatever, but…no.” A consensus had not been reached by the time Allison arrived at the zoo.
The gownfish were hungry. Allison sprinkled their food on the surface of the water and watched as they fought greedily over even the smallest flakes. She sat down at her desk and waited for the frenzy to subside. When the food was gone and the gownfish seemed to understand that there wasn’t any more coming, Allison leaned toward her special microphone and said, “Peace.” She paused. “Peace. Peace.” She suddenly felt very stupid. She couldn’t tell what was dumber: not being able to say one word or spending hour after hour every day trying to teach one word to a fish that would never, ever, not in a million years say one word.
Allison sat at the desk in front of the special microphone for a long time without saying anything. Minutes passed and the gownfish swam back and forth, around and around in their special tank, doing exactly what they wanted to do exactly how they wanted to do it. Without saying anything. Allison leaned toward the microphone, her hands folded in front of her, and started to speak.
“Whatever Mr. Millwell did to get arrested, I doubt it was very bad. He made me a homemade get well card when I fell backwards off the high dive ladder at the pool and cracked my skull. On the front, he drew a row of judges holding up signs with the number 10 on them, and then inside it said, ‘Perfect form! No splash at all!’ My mom thought it was in bad taste because it made light of a serious injury but I thought it was hilarious. I showed it to everyone who visited me at the hospital.”
The gownfish couldn’t have appeared to care less. And why should they have cared? They had no relationship with Allison outside of this daily charade, and on top of that, they were fish.
“Mr. Millwell could have been framed,” said Allison into her special microphone. “The real criminal could have planted evidence in his house and then called in an anonymous tip to the cops. I wish I knew more about law. I’d help Mr. Millwell defend himself. Maybe if his case goes to trial I can volunteer to testify as a character witness. I can bring the get well card to court with me to show the jury how thoughtful he is.”
The gownfish were as silent as gownfish.
A long time passed and Allison felt herself calming down as she watched the gownfish exude contentment. Eventually she allowed herself to consider the possibility that perhaps Mr. Millwell had done something terrible and deserved to be punished. That didn’t mean he wasn’t nice. Maybe he was a nice man who had done one hideous thing. Or even a nice man who regularly did hideous things. Or an awful man who occasionally did nice things, like making get well cards for hurt neighbors. “I hope you never talk,” said Allison to the gownfish. “I hope you never learn to say one word.”
When Allison’s shift ended, the gownfish still hadn’t said anything. To reward them, Allison scattered an extra portion of food on the surface of the water in their tank before she left for the night. As she closed the door behind her, the gownfish were eating frantically, thrashing their tails and flopping all over each other. It was a very unintelligent-looking way to behave.
The next morning Zookeeper Durpin and a group of eight high-profile donors in suits and complimentary safari hats were waiting at the entrance of the zoo when Allison arrived.
“I wanted your special surprise to be the first thing the donors saw,” said Zookeeper Durpin with a smile that seemed to indicate sincere confidence. Allison couldn’t imagine the lengths to which he must have gone to convince himself that the gownfish presentation would be a success.
The donors were intrigued. “What are you going to show us, young lady?” asked one of the donors, a fleshy man who Allison recognized from a picture on the front page of that day’s Interpreter Tribune, though in the picture he’d been attacking a Channel 2 cameraman, whereas at the moment he seemed pleasant enough.
“Gownfish,” said Allison, leading the way to the aquarium.
“What’s so special about gownfish?” asked a donor who leaned on a cane as he walked.
“They’re pretty,” said Allison.
Zookeeper Durpin burst into laughter. Allison could tell the donors were getting excited as she led them down the back hallway to the little room where the gownfish were kept. The donors bunched close behind her and spoke in low voices, always stopping just short of committing to guesses as to what to expect from the gownfish. Allison put her key into the lock and opened the door.
The gownfish were dead. Every single one of them floated upside down at the top of the tank. Their bellies were a slick, sparkly silver. The donors crowded into the room behind Allison and Zookeeper Durpin.
“What is this?” asked the donor from the newspaper photograph. “I hope this isn’t the surprise.” His facial expression was now much closer to the one he’d had in the picture.
Zookeeper Durpin turned to Allison. “Did you overfeed them?”
“Yes. Overfeed. Didn’t I tell you to only feed them once a day?”
Allison looked at the special sound recorder. Its red light was still blinking, recording the silence in the tank. “I just wanted to give them an extra treat,” said Allison.
“Why?” asked Zookeeper Durpin. “Did they say something?”
Allison shook her head. “No. They just swam around.”
“Why would you reward that?” asked Zookeeper Durpin. “They were supposed to say a word!”
“No!” said Allison. “Look at them! They ate themselves to death! Why would you want to hear anything a gownfish has to say? Huh?” She turned to the donors and pointed at the dead gownfish. “If those were alive and they could say the word ‘Peace,’ would you donate more money to the zoo?”
“Probably,” said the donors, shuffling their feet, looking around at each other and nodding. “Yes, probably. I believe so. Mm-hmm.”
“Well, that’s dumb,” said Allison. “That’s not what gownfish do. Even if they can, they don’t.”
“Allison, go get a yard stick out of the Supply Hut and make sure no one under three feet tall is getting on the Dugout Canoe Ride,” said Zookeeper Durpin. “That’s your new assignment.”
“I’m not fired?” asked Allison.
“If I fired everyone who overfed the animals there’d be no one left,” said Zookeeper Durpin.
The donors laughed heartily. Most of them probably had very overweight cats and dogs at home.
As Allison left the room, the floating gownfish said nothing, as was their nature.