“It’s possible,” he said. It’s not impossible.” The property manager rested an elbow on an arm, rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“All the cost will be mine,” Carruthers said. “I’ll pay for everything.”
“And when you leave?”
“I’m not leaving.”
“Everyone leaves,” the property manager said. “Give it time, everyone leaves.”
“I like it here. The views, the location. I can afford to live anywhere, believe me.”
“I believe you. But everyone leaves. We’ll have to work out a deposit to cover yanking it.”
Carruthers ran other people’s money. He took more interest in theirs than his own, in large measure because he made a great deal of it. Far more, he knew, than he was worth.
“No problem. We’ll have to work it out.”
“We’ll have to work it out,” the property manager said. “And the permitting. New York, there’ll be permitting, I can promise you.”
“Whatever you need.”
So the koi pond was built. The townhouse sat by Owl’s Head Park on the edge of Brooklyn’s northwest shoulder. From his living room Carruthers could see the ferry docks in Jersey, the liberty statue waist up, Governor’s Island. From the seating pod the decorator promised on the roof, he’d see lower Manhattan. He planned to cycle over the bridge to work.
The landscaper brought fish. Four comets, goldfish to him, which, the girl told him, were cheap, less than a dollar each. Bred to feed exotics, these had outgrown feeder size, she said, her dark eyes opening to the size of cherrystones. “So you can spend the bulk of your budget on koi.”
“I don’t have a budget,” he answered.
She brought four small koi as well. Lapidary colors, the gold of citrine, gemstone red, a pair that were the blue of a winter moon. The gold was Chagoi, she said, it might grow dark as tea, and the pair Asagi. She pronounced the words carefully, to impress him. To impress her, he was.
“If the Asagi mate, you can sell their fry. They’re valuable. It’s a matched pair, male and female.”
“How can you tell?”
She grinned about the eyes. “The female doesn’t ask silly questions.” She kneeled on a foam pad by the pond, placed two bricks in the water, and across them a slate sheet as a lintel.
“There. They’ll need shelter.”
“From what? Muggers? The flights into LaGuardia?” The smile took to her lips. He thought to take her to bed. But perhaps not this time.
“They’re shy. When the lilies bloom they’ll have cover but for now they need this.”
She floated two clear plastic bags in the pond, folding back their rims as a collar of air. With a finger she tested temperatures and gradually admitted pond water. When she was satisfied, she tilted the bags. The freed fish disappeared under the shelter.
“If I can’t see them, why do I have them?”
“They’ll acclimate.” She handed him a bag of food. “Twice a day until it turns cold. Winter they fast. Feed them a few pellets at first, then more. Whatever they finish in ten minutes. Do it same time of day, same spot, soon they’ll come whenever they see you.”
“Reminds me of a girl I used to know.” She shot the same smile again, hip, sharp as a steak knife. “Except for the fasting.”
Sabine had Gallic coloring, black eyes and hair cut short, brackets about a startlingly white face. She toweled off her pale arms and wrote out a bill.
He felt the appearance of Sabine was preordained. As if he were both audience and actor, the movie with the madman in the hockey mask, and he could warn himself not to go off alone. Knowing that gave him an edge. He could choose not to have her affect his life as she otherwise would.
The sun was setting in New Jersey and the neon of the city began to glow. Like Kilauea—he’d climbed the volcano and never saw lava until dusk. Then, slowly, red veins appeared everywhere, as if the mountain were infected. Phlebitic.
The decorator set out a cocktail table and two all-weather chairs. Every day at dawn and again after the markets closed, he sat in one of the chairs and dropped pellets into the water.
The pond enjoyed long periods of sun—there were low buildings to the east and only the bay to the west—and the lilies filled in quickly. By summer’s end lurid white blossoms opened daily and a dense mob of leaves covered the surface. Lily pads, cloven, hearts imperfectly sewn. New growth fought for space, leaves rose, curled and dark, and once elevated spread out. Their funnels suggested the mouths of chicks in the nest. He pushed away the growth to make an opening, dripped pellets in the gaps, and the fish gathered below.
He considered his life complete. The markets were ever-constant and ever-changing, hands of solitaire. He took his meals in restaurants, women and friends passed through his days transient as rain.
Sabine returned in the fall to clear the filter and crop the lilies. She left him a printed sheet about water quality and winter care and, in the margin, wrote the date for the next appointment and her phone number. He had worked late that day and left a key for her with the property manager.
The fish stopped feeding in November. With the plants cut they hid under the brick lean-to. It was no longer fun. The dimension disappeared, the secret keyhole into a secret world.
When the fish lost interest, he decided to take a holiday. The markets were quiet at the end of the year. There would be an inevitable sell-off and an inevitable recovery. He went to London for Christmas, intending to go to the theatre, but in the first-class lounge he met a woman who traded bonds and they took a suite together. He appreciated the sitting room with its electric fire, though the bed, in the European style, was smaller than he liked. The hotel was expensive, the guests all seemed to be from Houston, the women in Blackgama furs.
They went about the city, he happy to pay. At the National Portrait Gallery she wrote in a notebook as if each painting might be a potential client. She suggested she handle his bond business, and when he told her that his fund owned no bonds, he was strictly equity, they parted. He flew to Paris. She went on to Turkey, where she hoped to see Cappadocia and the dervishes of Konya.
On the morning in April that was set for the spring visit, Carruthers awoke early and agitated. He roused his bed partner. She had worn a Chanel suit, unremarkable but apt for both evening and office. Now she stood next to him, at the far sink in a bikini bottom, making up her face and arguing.
“I didn’t expect to get roused at six without a diddle.” She was the assistant general counsel of a media company. She always awoke combative and remained on edge until her second cosmopolitan.
“I’m sorry, I have a full day.”
“The least you can do is a ride into the city.”
He explained. He had a call at eight. From home.
“How do I get to the city from here? Brooklyn.”
“The train? It stops in Irkutsk.”
He reached for his cell. “I’ll get a car.” He sent a text with a thumb.
She leaned into the mirror, stretching her eyes, and brushed upward on the lashes. At the second sink, he lathered his face and watched through his mirror. A remarkable thing, a woman’s skill with color and pencil. Even for homely women, it was high art; like sidewalk drawings, a determined effort to last at best a day. She daubed a soft brush into powder. When he mentioned his fictitious call, she threw the brush against the mirror.
The brush fell to the bath mat under their feet. “Even Ninth Avenue whores get a Starbucks.” He retrieved the brush, thumbed off his shorts, and got into the shower. When he came out she was gone.
At eight, true to his word, he called his secretary to say he’d be working from home.
Sabine arrived about noon. She carried supplies, chemicals for the water and a bag of larger pellets. An olive-brown tarp ample to cover the pond.
“You’ll need to keep the pond covered Thursday,” she said and nodded to the east. The abutting roof garden was lined with potted juniper trees. “They’ll be spraying,”
“How do you know?”
“It’s us. We maintain the roof gardens.”
They fed the koi together. The fish had more than doubled in size. She complimented Carruthers’ stewardship and he was gratified. The comets had disappeared.
“Hawks maybe, or,” and she nodded at passing floaters on the grey sky, “a gull.”
All the while they watched moving fish. “Why do people like this? What’s the fascination?”
“You’re asking why you feel good?”
“I suppose so.” He amused her. She shrugged. Fish trembled the surface.
“Food drops from above. Whether you’re the fish or their god, what’s not to like?”
He was watching the fish feed and unconsciously pursed his lips. “Bring me more koi,” he said. “You pick. Are there any limits?”
Sabine eyed the pond, figured a mean diameter. “Eight by eight, maybe forty, fifty inches of fish. Koi can grow large. You don’t want to overcrowd, they get sickly.”
“Brilliant. Lots of room to expand. Bigger ponds. I’ll rent next door for its roof. Harvest the trees,
sell them for pulping.”
She knelt to bury fertilizer pellets among the lily roots. Spoke about algaecides and balance. Then toted the bill on a pocket calculator. He had brought a towel for her arms. Since that first time he had thought often about the way she dried them. The color of white asparagus.
“Take a shower if you like,” he offered.
“I’m good,” she said and punched keys to figure the tax.
“Sorry to hear it. I was hoping maybe we could shower together.” He might offer her lunch, though he had nothing suitable, bread, canned soup, cashews.
“Okay,” she said.
Afterwards, “Another woman just left this bed.”
He asked how she knew.
He considered this. He told her the woman worked for a listed media firm. They’ve been talking to a satellite company. “That alone might put her company in play.” She wrinkled her nose so he added, “On the market. No one’s cottoned to them yet, they’re a sitting duck for a tender offer. I like to stay close.”
“That’s damn close. You’re not faithful to her?”
“I’ve never been faithful. Then again, I’ve never been unfaithful.”
She laughed. “You’ll find another before you finish tying your shoes.” It had been a long time since he’d met someone, man or woman, who wanted nothing from him.
She instructed him on the pond. Deadheading the flowers, a second fertilizing in the spring. “Keep working these things,” and she straddled him and pulled the sheet over her shoulders, “or they go dead.”
Eventually they dressed. He carried her chemicals to the door. “Understand, you can’t use what I’ve told you. It’s inside information. You could go to jail.”
“I don’t buy stocks,” she said. “Besides, you didn’t say the name of the company.”
He studied cash positions on his screen. After lunch he called his trading desk. He wanted into the media company for 4.9% of the float. Any more, they would have to disclose.
“What do we know?” the trader asked.
“Just a hunch,” he said. “It has the earmarks of a target. Cash heavy, undervalued. Do it discreetly, don’t upset anyone.”
The new koi quickly overcame their shyness. The fish began feeding as a school. He often stayed home now, to feed at noon and a second at dusk. He decided that the fish apprehended, some inner piscine mechanism. He watched with joy their discovery of the pellets. Mid-day tiny bees appeared in the blossoms, and he occasionally came upon one perched on a lily pad. When a bee drank, small contractions radiated down its body. Damsel flies were attracted as well, and in the warming sun they mated on the lily pads and sometimes in the air, their glassine bodies locked in a glyph, lapis blue. Mating was simple, navigation difficult.
He added flakes. They drifted towards the skimmer through lily pads by a chain of tiny lakes. The water shivered and bent the reflection of the cityscape. Where would the fish choose to rise, the near opening or that furthest from him? Perhaps he’d learn something of fear and affection, about which he knew little. The information was inconclusive.
Mostly he enjoyed the deadheading of the plants. In a ferocious routine every day, he plucked the etiolated leaves at the base of their stem. The expired buds floated just below the surface, he’d find each spent blossom, water-logged and exhausted, and his fingers would trace its stem towards the root. It gave to his tug with a soft and satisfying click.
He went to the office less and less. Weekends, when he could bike. Once, he stopped to shop and came home to a message from Sabine on the phone. He put away the groceries, a Swedish brand of coffee beans he particularly favored, a pint of vanilla gelato, a bottle of Campari, a lime.
“I’ll be over Thursday for the fall clean-up. Ten o’clock. Let me know if you need supplies.”
He smiled and made himself a tall Negroni, which he carried upstairs for the evening feed.
She arrived as promised, wearing a sleeveless V-neck sweater over her T shirt. The air had a monitory chill. “I’ll leave the schedule for next spring’s spraying.” She paused.
“Do you expect me to sleep with you again?” she asked.
“I have no expectations,” he said. “It’s the secret of my success.”
“I’m not sleeping with you anymore.”
He said nothing. “Don’t you want to know why?”
“Motives don’t matter. You’ve become engaged, epicene. You’ve joined an order.”
“That’s just it. I don’t know anything about you. You never talk, I don’t know what you do. Who you like, who you don’t. Me included.”
She placed a pump into the pond and ran the hose to the gutters. She would take out the fish so she could vacuum the gravel.
“Instead of sex, will you have dinner with me?”
“You’re sure you don’t have that backwards?” She had to call over the noise of the motor. They both smiled.
“Lunch,” she answered.
Every other week, he took her to a different restaurant, always posh. She wore jeans, a black jersey. Sometimes she wore turquoise earrings that she stuffed in her pockets when they finished. Everyone took her for a celebrity. His eyes never left her, he watched her like a thief.
Most of these places he was known, they used his name but not as if he’d put them up to it. She guessed his importance from the looks of the people they passed waiting in line. The waiters nudged each other and winked, sensing from his expression what he himself didn’t know.
“So,” he said their first time over salmon. “What I do.”
The clink of flatware, the rustle of linen, wine the color of lemons. “I buy and sell securities. For my account and others. There are no conditions, no ifs or buts. You buy, you hope it goes up, you sell. The person buying from you hopes it goes up, the person I bought it from thinks it’s going down. Motive isn’t important. Whether you like the buyer. Numbers govern the decisions, information times them. I was taught to guard my tongue, not to gossip. Not worry about who people were, whether they like you.”
At their next meeting the maître d’ greeted him in French. He assumed she didn’t have the language and replied in English.
“I go to London every December,” he said. “Come along. It’ll be our next lunch date.” She could not afford it. When he offered to pay, she declined.
“You want me to think you have a lot of money.”
“I don’t want you to think anything.”
“If you’re rich, why don’t you own your own place?”
“Property is a bad investment. It’s static, doesn’t go anywhere.”
“I thought that was the point.”
“And it’s too hard to sell. You need a title opinion, a survey, they need a loan. I sell a position, stocks,” and he touched the pocket over his heart, “I make a phone call.”
He told her about his year. The margin by which he had beaten the market.
“You sound bored,” she said over croquembouche. The cream puffs were like clouds. There are five arts, he quoted a chef to her, painting, sculpture, poetry, music, and architecture—whereof the principle branch is confectionery.
“I suppose I am. I’ve done well. I’m thinking about producing a film.”
“What do you know about making movies?”
“I’ll learn. Would you be in my movie?”
“I don’t know how to act.”
“I’d like everyone to see your face. They’ll fall in love with you.” She would be equally beautiful in her seventies. Her skin would not wrinkle.
Months after that lunch, in the spring, the landscaping company left on his voice mail the date they were to spray. He neglected it. He had learned that morning from his lawyer friend that the satellite company was ending negotiations. Her boss hadn’t released the news yet.
He sold his fund’s position by noon. When he went to the roof, two of his koi were floating on top, dead. All the others, including the second crop Sabine had brought, had snugged down into the rocks, and were barely moving. Hurriedly he changed the water, and threw in what medicines he had for general health. He called the president of the chemical company for an antidote; the man apologized and told him none existed. In the next days, he went to the roof often but the fish were not responding. One by one they developed growths on their bodies that resembled something clinging to the bark of a tropical tree. Reluctantly, he netted them and put their bodies in plastic bags that sealed by running the edges through forefinger and thumb. He froze their bodies to prevent odors, and threw them into the trash.
He telephoned the landscape company to tell them of the mishap. He asked that at Sabine’s next visit, she bring eight koi of her choosing.
The lilies had already begun to bloom. The landscaper called to say Sabine would not be up until May, that if he intended to introduce new fish it was better to wait until the air was warm.
The emptiness of the pond did not prevent him from visiting the roof and watching. Bees came back for the flowers, and he hoped the damsel flies would return. The company that made the pesticide assured him the pond would lose its toxicity. Nevertheless he changed the water several times.
The evening before the spring visit Carruthers went up and took a sandwich and a large drink. The sun hovered to set, and the first lights had already bloomed on the streets. If you’d been looking at Earth from a distant telescope and had come upon Manhattan, you’d conclude it was comprised of galaxies, of gas clouds and star clusters. A robin was bathing in the pool shallows, shaking with pleasure after every dip. A single bee the size of his fingernail was chimmying the first bloom of lilies. Its chenille sweater tucked about its bottom, dull yellow circled in black stripes, it resembled a Gay 90s football uniform. The surface of the pond twitched for the life beneath it. Leaves reaching into the air flinched as well.
On the flagstone that bordered the pond a small bee alit. It adjusted its wings over and over, as a tailor might in fitting a jacket. Then it turned, by moving the legs on one side and anchoring those on the other. An airplane can turn that way: he’d seen a pilot do it, standing on the brakes of one wheel only. It occurred to him that he had been accumulating only information that was useful. The bee eventually flew off. It occurred to him that he’d been wasting his life.
Extraordinary: he felt a twitch inside, and thought of Sabine, the woman who had made this pond for him.
She wore a khaki uniform with the name of the landscaper scripted over her breast. She didn’t mention the dead fish, and instead went immediately to the roof and floated the four plastic bags.
“Next year,” she said, “you should have them separate the lilies.”
“From what?” he asked. And when she smiled but didn’t answer he asked, “You won’t be here?”
“No.” she said.
He watched her go about her work. “I always meant to ask. What is a hedge fund?”
He was nervous, and responded with a pat answer equally overlong and technical. Pooled investment, illiquidity, hedging techniques. Then he added, “That’s what they teach. Me, I think it gets its name because when the man in charge realizes what he’s doing all this time, he wants to hide behind a hedge.”
When she finished, she dried her arms and walked over to him. She ringed those white arms about his neck and kissed him deeply. He looked into her eyes but could see nothing. He led her downstairs to his bed.
They lay in the tempered air. He spoke and traced his finger across her brow. Monochromatic. “You don’t have blood in your veins.” Her skin reflected no blushing, no coloring. “Chalk, maybe.”
“Chalk? Am I inert?”
“God, no. You’re the most passionate person I’ve ever met. Gunpowder, maybe.”
He realized she was stirring to go, but he needed to ask. “Why did you do this? With me again?”
“To say goodbye.”
“An odd way of saying goodbye.”
“You don’t understand, do you.” It wasn’t a question and he didn’t answer. She dressed quickly. “This might have turned out….” She swallowed the last word, an extravagance.
The movers dismantled the pond. They took apart the elaborate decking so the lumber might be used again. The zoning inspector had insisted on a platform to distribute the weight on the roof.
He was packing when he got the news. The grand jury had decided there was insufficient evidence to indict him and his fund.
He put the koi into two garbage bags, to balance the handlebars. Then he pedaled the streets. He loved the old names of this part of Brooklyn, and when he biked the bridge to his office he would seek them out, Boerum Place and Schermerhorn, Degraw and Willoughby, Amity Street. Who would not live on Amity Street? Two blocks from his route was the GreenWood Cemetery with its web of trails and small lakes. Disparate people were buried there, Leonard Bernstein and Horace Greeley, the father of Teddy Roosevelt and the mobster Joey Gallo, murdered in 1972 at Umberto’s Clam House after he’d caught Don Rickles’ act at the Copa. They got him as he finished the fish course.
He left his bike on its side and walked to the largest lake with the two bags. The koi looked seasick, the water sloshing against the sides. He kneeled and made a cuff in the rim. Then with a safety pin he’d brought for the purpose, he stuck holes in the bags and set them afloat. Water began to mix with that of the lake, and as each bag sank, the koi hung at its lip for clearance.
Carruthers turned and walked back to his bike.
Bruce Ducker’s most recent books are Dizzying Heights, a comedy of manners, and Home Pool, a collection of fly fishing stories. He’s written eight novels, and has won the Colorado Book Award (Lead Us not into Penn Station), the Macallan Story Prize, and nominations for the American Library Best Book Award (Penn Station) and the Pulitzer (Marital Assets). His poems and stories appear in leading journals, including Poetry Magazine, the New Republic, The Yale Review, The Southern Review, The Sewanee Review, The Missouri Review, The Literary Review, The Hudson Review, and PEN America. Ducker lives in Colorado. You can visit his website, here: http://www.bruceducker.com/