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Darien Cavanaugh

He tapped the red button to the right methodically, deliberately, strategically: tap, tap…tap,tap…tap,tap,tap…tap. He avoided the fast, frantic flurries preferred by some other players: tatataptaptatatatttatataptaptaptttaptttap - amateurs. He was not like that, not one of them. He was a veteran, a pro. He took the game seriously, with mature pride and dignity.

Pink and blue dots of stars passed beneath his red and white spacecraft.

He came in ninth, which annoyed him. He yanked the joystick hard to the left, then let it slip, springing from his hand: bbbrrrrrrundundundun. He entered the initials D.M.C. in the ninth position. Tap…tap…tap. The initials D.M.C. filled the slots next to every position from 1 through 10, except 4th place. D.M.K. took 4th place. D.M.C. failed in several recent attempts to knock D.M.K. from the rankings.

At the concession stand he ordered a hamburger (plain), french fries, and a soda pop. He put ketchup on the burger and extra, extra ketchup on the fries. He ate quickly, but not fast. The hamburger patty was thin and very greasy.

He dumped the trash from his tray in the garbage and headed for the fish lady. The fish lady rented a "storefront" on the main aisle of the market. It had real walls, glass windows, and a door - instead of chain link fence.


In Corridor 'C', a stocky middle-aged man with a "Proud Vietnam Veteran" cap wore a black t-shirt that read "PLUCK KHADAFFY DUCK" above a caricature of the Libyan president with a duckbill.

American bombers rained death and justice down on Tripoli.

The Proud Vietnam Veteran walked with his shoulders back.

Gene Autry's Here Comes Santa Claus filled the halls of the market from speakers in the ceiling.

The boy walked into the fish store exuding restrained joy and enthusiasm. The fish lady greeted him by name. He responded. He passed all of the dimly lit aquariums with thin layers of green algae along their inner corner edges. Past the Guppies and Mollies, further than the Angel Fish and Neons, even beyond the once great Beta.

There, in their great tank the Oscars sluggishly swam in slow sweeping circles. He admired their irregular orange and grey patterns, their powerful presence. Feeder fish darted to and fro whenever one came near.

After a few moments of trying to decide exactly which Oscar he wanted, he noticed a hulking mass drifting like a piece of rotting deadwood in the next tank. A colossus fish of unparalleled girth, grandeur, and indifference prowled the murky water with royal authority and composure, absent the vaguest haste or concern. It moved even slower than the Oscars.

The fish lady quietly walked up, standing back and to his left, "So, 'djya come to get your fish?" He whispered, "Yeah", without looking away from the plump, scaly behemoth.

"What's this one?"

"Oooh, that's a Pacu!"

"He's big."

"Yeah, he'll get bigger too."

Below deep, dull blue eyes, rows of small pyramid shaped teeth lined the inside of its gaping mouth.

"Man, he looks like a Piranha."

Fish lady chuckled, "Yeah, kinda. He's bigger though."


"Yeah, Piranha are actually kinda small."

"Oh…he eat fish too?"

"Oooh, yeah! He can even eat an Oscar."


"Yup, you put them in a tank together and he'll go after 'em. Eat 'em in about two bites. That's why I put that black divider between the two tanks. If he could see them, he'd keep bumping the sides trying to get at 'em. He'd scare the heck out of them and maybe hurt 'imself."

The boy glanced at the black piece of plywood stuck between the two tanks.


They stood in silence. He watched the Pacu, never looking back at the Oscars.

The Pacu,
as big as his head.
The Pacu,
uncontested master of fresh water tanks.
The Pacu,
gulper and gobbler of all breeds of aquarium fish.
The Pacu,
BIGGER than a Piranha.

"So, did ya decide which one of these you want?" she grabbed a small fish net from above the Oscar tank. The price sticker on the wood above the Pacu read $25.00. He glared the pitiable little Oscars in apparent dissatisfaction, disinterest.

"Nah…I think I'm gonna have ta come back next weekend."

She looked a little disappointed, "OK, hon'". She put the net back. They said goodbye.

He felt ashamed for ever wanting such a pathetic little fish.

He wandered through booths and aisles, looking at toys, hunting knifes, boom boxes with small TVs built into them.

And that was The Chipmunks singing Jingle Bell Rock. You can pick up that album, and hundreds of other great records, at Mike's Music and More in booth 523.

He stopped at a stall selling women's clothing, makeup, hair products, and costume jewelry. As he turned inside, he caught a glimpse of a red Christmas bow, like the ones his mother puts on gifts, attached to an emaciated hand at the end of a puny arm. The arm stuck straight out from a position lower than its length suggested. Several people hurrying and hustling through Christmas time crowds prevented him from seeing whom the arm belonged to.

He looked over silver plated rings with fake diamonds in a small display case next to the counter, just inside the entryway. He decided to stick with the one he selected the week before, waited for the old keeper to finish ringing up an old man who wouldn't stop talking, then handed the ring to him.

The owner awkwardly asked, "Well, is this for a special young lady?"

The boy awkwardly replied, "Yes…my mother."

The owner awkwardly said, "Oh, I see…that's nice."

The owner and the boy awkwardly nodded at each other.

A billowing, obnoxious, imposingly loud voice with a thick New York accent blasted through the air from right behind him. The sound of it annoyed him, making him anxious, almost angry. A large woman with big pillows of puffy hair stretched a blouse hanging from the outside of the shop's chain-link fence to its limits.

"Muriel! I want ya da just look at this. Now, this is just gooorrrrgeous!"

Muriel looked at the gorgeous blouse. She was not as impressed. She mumbled, "Uh huh, yeah, it's nice". Her eyes fell on the blouse for an instant, then continued scanning further down the aisle, pausing briefly here and there.

"Ah! And this skirt. Muriel just look at this skirt." She flipped tags and looked at prices, stepped back for a wider view and slid her tongue across her front teeth, "Mmm nnn mmm."

A floral patterned baby stroller of unusual size sat parked at her right side. Inside this stained, dirty, faded carriage sat a scrawny girl wearing stained, dirty, faded clothes. She was too old, too big for the carriage. She was packed and crammed into it, her pigeon-toed feet touching the floor. On the top of the hand at the end of that scrawny girl's scrawny right arm was a red Christmas bow.

"That'll be $8.40, son."

The boy handed the shopkeeper a ten and looked back at the girl. The girl played with the bow, gently nudging, caressing, and prodding it with the crooked, decrepit fingers of her left hand, bringing it up close to her face for intimate examination, then extending her arm to admire it fully. She softly sang a song she did not know the words to.

Her wrists bent in uncontrollably at permanent sharp angles, bringing her contorted little fingers back towards her inner forearms. He saw people, grown-ups, with their hands like that before. His mother explained it to him once, but he forgot the affliction's name. Her hair looked stringy, unwashed, unbrushed. She seemed his age, maybe even taller than him.

The shopkeeper fumbled behind the counter, looking for a ring box.

The girl held her hand up to her mother, "Look ma-ma, look at pretty bow."

"Uh huh, I know Gina baby doll, it's very pretty, but mama's talking."

Mama wore new clothes - cheap, but new. Thick coats of makeup covered her face. Gaudy gold-colored jewelry hung heavy from her ears and around her neck.

Gina kept her hand held up to ma-ma awhile. Mama never looked. Gina talked to herself.

The boy peeked at her uncomfortably, timidly a few times. She caught him looking and he quickly averted his eyes. Then, like a reflex, he turned his head back toward her. He looked straight at her. She stared back. Their eyes set on each other for a long moment, without comment, gesture, or expression. Her face was milky white with moist pink lips. She had incredible green eyes that defied the rest of her. She was pretty. He wanted to kiss her.

"Here ya go. Thank you and merry Christmas. Merry Christmas to your mother too."

The boy took the plastic bag and walked out. He looked at the girl again as he passed. She held her hand up in his direction. He looked at the bow too.

He unlocked the back door of his parents' car, wrapped the plastic bag tight around the ring box, and stuffed it deep under the driver's seat.

He pulled a small ice chest full of tap water from the back floorboard and dumped it outside the car.

At his parents' booth, actually four booths, he handed the car keys to his mother. He and his mother spoke without looking at each other. She read an Agatha Christie book.

"You put yer fish in the car?"

"Nah, I didn't get it."

"Why not?"

"I don't know. I didn't want to. I'll get it next week."

"Oh. Ya eat lunch?"


"Wadya Have?"

"A hamburger and French fries."

"Oh. Was it good?"

"Yeah, it was good."

They spoke gently in measured verse.

His father stood towards the center of their shop, talking and joking loudly with a customer. Father held a small notepad and pen in his left hand, in case the man wanted to "place" a "special order" - always a very smooth and professionally formal process.

Away from the market father did not like people, never joked loudly with them, but in the shop he liked customers very much.

The boy walked back to the entranceway of his parents' stall and watched people walk by. Across the way, at T-rific, a partial mannequin (only chest and stomach) wore a black t-shirt. A large blue truck with exaggerated chrome trim covered the bottom half of the shirt. Above the truck, three rows of lettering stretched across the fabric. The first line was red, the second white, the third blue. The words read:

My Wife? Yes
My Dog? Maybe
My Truck? Never


Darien Cavanaugh is a journalism and history student in Tampa, Florida. He lives with his girlfriend and their two dogs.

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