for junkpile, however we may find her
It was her tenth birthday, if I remember, and we decided she needed something to take care of. They wouldn't let us have a puppy.
Westwood was a sleepy little town in those days, with UCLA stuck on the north end of it like a pimple you can't help but squeeze. There were little markets and shoemakers, travel agencies, the world's first feminist bookshop and—maybe two doors down—a speculative fiction joint where Harlan Ellison sat in the window with his typewriter and his imagination, guaranteeing a story a day, every day, day in and day out. What a noder he would've made.
That's all gone now, replaced by multiplexes screening crap, psychologists with M.A.'s and waiting lists, and fingernail joints with back-lit signs in Farsi. You can get a pretty good Italian meal for two, with wine, for under a hundred bucks now, but I miss the old days, when John Wooden would bring the second string over to the 7-11 for slurpies after practice.
We decided that what she needed was a little aquarium. She was still in her princess phase and the romance of the light at night, the colorful shimmering forms, to and fro, to and fro, appealed to us. There was a little fish store down the block from Harlan Ellison's window and I bopped in late in the afternoon to take a look.
It was close and warm inside. There were water stains on the old carpet and the place was stacked floor to ceiling with glass that seemed to breathe. My only previous experience with this sort of thing had been in Woolworth's, where they had a little corner of the store stocked with goldfish, guppies and fishflakes. This place, Westwood Aquarium, was like an outpost on the road to the fantastic. Big fish, little fish. Red fish, blue fish. Maybe five thousand gallons of glass and water given over to aquatic plants alone. It felt like a museum. Or Africa.
There was a jovial conversation going on over by the cash register, so I wandered a while among the cichlids and gouramis, along tanks of freshwater eels, past a box-full of turtles, curious striped heads turning this way and that. In the back of the shop, like a treasure at the end of a maze of twisty tiny passages, was tropical fish nirvana—the saltwater section. Truly, I had never seen saltwater fish kept in tanks smaller than an armored personnel carrier. Marineland, Sea World, yes, but here were reef fish from Australia in glass boxes the size of your monitor. One whole wall was in fact set up like a tropical reef, with anemones and clown fish, and exotic angel fish and even living salt-water plants. I was flashing back on some war-time snorkling I'd done when I realized—behind the quiet gurgle of pumps and hum of fluorescents—there was music. Good music. My music. Bob Dylan, singing Visions of Johanna.
"Nice, isn't it?" came a voice from the bright part of the store. Ambiguous then and forever after was the voice and mind of Ed the Fishman. My mentor.
That first time was easy and professional, convivial and comedic. I got a great deal on a little tank, the pump, the heater. Oh yes, the fish too. But I couldn't get those salt-water fish out of my mind, expensive though they might have been, and I went back a week later. Again, Ed was just closing up.
He was about forty. An east coast hippie, ex-Navy, with a red beard and a relaxed idea of personal grooming. I got right to the point: "You know, I don't believe I've ever been in a store where they played Bob Dylan as background music."
The Fishman grinned and produced an expertly-rolled doobie. "We like to give our customers a little something extra."
Thus commenced my post-graduate education in marine biology, modern art, and music. Ed was an autodidact of the highest order. He would grab onto something new and turn it inside out and upside down until you just couldn't look at it in the same way again. And he knew more about Bob Dylan than I did, being fifteen years older and thus familiar with Dylan's antecedents. We listened to Cisco Houston back there in the salt-water room. Elizabeth Cotton. Woody Guthrie of course. Richard Dyer-Bennett and Joan Baez and Josh White and Sabicas. The fishman introduced me to Garcia Lorca, to Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. To Evergreen magazine and the erotic drawings of Picasso. Together, long before Blood on the Tracks, we fretted over whether Dylan would ever climb as high as he did on Highway 61 Revisited. Was Bruce Springsteen really the new Dylan? But it was the kinetic art of reef fish captured and held close, alive and well, that reigned supreme. Ed's was truly another world.
I got the call at eight A.M. on a Saturday. The Fishman spoke, laconic as ever:
"You want a hundred gallon plexiglass aquarium?"
"Unh, yeah. Sure."
"I'll pick you up in fifteen minutes."
He had a beat-up old Ford Ranchero, a truck like a mullet, white, covered in Bondo and salt. You could get to the beach in ten minutes in those days, and we pull up next to what used to be a high-rise hotel, right on the water in Santa Monica. The place was pretty much taken over by junkies and resurrected street people who could afford at least a couple months' rent. A far cry from its former glory.
We head up the elevator, which opens onto a dark dank corridor. The Fishman knows where he's going. He opens a door, without a key, and we find ourselves in an ocean-view apartment that is filled to the gunwhales with fish tanks. The smell is not good. Many of the tanks are lined in an unhealthy growth of red and brown algae. Ed points to the empty one on my right. There's a sign on it: "By the time you read this, I'll be dead."
Near as we could figure, the Fishman's best customer walked into the surf in Baja and just kept going. He owed Ed for the fish and the tanks (I never said Ed was a good businessman), so the Fishman just moved in before the family and the police and the mess-of-it commenced.
He gave me three fish to start my system, after a two-week period of break-in, during which the marine aquarium, a living thing even without fish, goes through its complete cycle of life, death, and life again. There was a pair of blue and yellow damsels that cost about three bucks apiece, and a grand grumpy puffer fish that hovered like a chubby helicopter and was everybody's favorite for as long as I owned the tank.
For eight years those three fish lived in that hundred gallon aquarium. Other fish, expensive and not-so, anemones, crustaceans, and plants came and went, but like my friendship with Ed the Fishman, that original little trinity endured.
We liked to call it karma.