The other day my wife bought a painting at a thrift store. It’s a fish. It’s a fish underwater. It’s really a good painting. It’s nice. It’s a goldfish. It’s the idea of a goldfish, it’s blurry like you were underwater with the fish. It’s hard to make it out, but the second you look at it, you know it’s a goldfish, and it looks straight out at you. It’s very well done. Whoever painted this thing has real talent. Anyway, by extension—if you follow the painting—you are a goldfish. I am a goldfish. You’re two goldfish looking at each other, caught and trapped, bug-eyed and blank. That’s the idea of the painting, that’s how I took it. I don’t see how you could look at it any other way. She just says it’s pretty. That it doesn’t mean anything.

She came home and hung it on the empty wall across from the entryway. The second you walk into the house, you see this blurry fish staring at you. I like the painting as a painting, as a well-made and handcrafted thing. It’s good. I want to be very clear about that because when we argue about it, I think she thinks that I’m making fun of the painting, but I’m not. That’s not my issue.

I just think it’s weird to walk in and suddenly be confronted by this fish. So I’ll come home and go, “oh my god, a piranha” and sometimes I’ll jump on the couch, or run back out the front door, or if she’s in the room, I’ll go “Look out!” It’s not passive-aggressive. Maybe it’s a little passive-aggressive, but the kids really go for it, think it’s hysterical. She’s a little tired of my whole routine in general, I think. She won’t say so but I know so. I can tell.

I think if we hung it somewhere else, I’d be fine. I think I’d be fine with it—even if we put it in the kitchen, you know, so that when we’re eating food we could at least pretend this dumb fish is staring at us because it wants what we have to eat. That’s fun. That’s a fun fish game. That’s not a trap. Nobody is imprisoned in a small bowl in that scenario.

I don’t know, it’s all blurry.

If you were seeing the fish clearly then it’s just you looking at a fish in its tank, but it’s blurry so it must be that you’re also underwater. There’s just no way of getting around that. But maybe you don’t have to be in the fishbowl? Like in a lake or something. A sunny day in a lake, maybe. But there’s — No. It can’t be. And even if it were!

Look, if you were swimming in a lake and you came face to face with a goldfish that big you’d get out of the lake. Your fun sunny day would be ruined. You’d be terrified. It’d be the same size as you—based on the perspective of this painting. It’d be a human sized goldfish, and you’re right back to “AHHH RUN!” I don’t know what goldfish eat, but something that big can eat whatever it wants. I’m sure it could take your head clean off; your whole head would fit in its mouth easy. Easy. Also, goldfish don’t live in lakes. They’re exclusively a bowled creature at this point. She won’t move the painting, is my point. That’s my point.

You walk in and it’s like a threat. If you look at it like, you’re a person under the water, there’s the fear of being eaten—that’s almost fine. Not fine, but I like that better, it’s more natural and over more quickly. If you’re also a fish, there’s this immediate idea of being trapped with this other fish. You’re this stupid little fish in a stupid little bowl and that’s your dumb life, and just that’s it, just eating flakes and bopping into each other, against the sides. I know all this might sound nuts, but I think it’s important that I be completely open and honest about the many layers on which I have come to hate this painting.

It just creates more questions than answers. Five bucks at a thrift store, so she says. Why did it speak to her so much? Which fish is she, and in which scenario? Is she drowning? Is she trapped in this glass bowl? Am I a terrifying murky figure? Does she think she’s trapped? Is it about the kids? They seem fine! Every day I come home and the first thing is this painting and “Welcome to the Fishbowl.” I’ve asked her what she thought it meant, and she just says it’s pretty. She likes the colors. And again, she’s not wrong, it’s pretty as hell. But what could it be in her head that makes a thing like that important enough to hang where she hung it, and also, after I voice my concerns about the layers of meaning and it being right in front of the door—why not just move it for my sake? Right? Why not just go, “ok he’s having a weird reaction to this, let’s move it in the bathroom” or literally anywhere else. I would glue it to the ceiling, I’d have stapled it to the hood of my car. Anywhere but right there. But she says I’m overreacting. And sure, she’s right, but this fucking fish. It’s killing me.

And also she’s right that it doesn’t look like a piranha. And I don’t think she’s a piranha. But sometimes it does look like a piranha. Do you know about piranha? Do you know why they’re so scary? It’s because they live in a place where there’s a very rainy season and then there’s a very dry season. Extremes. During the rainy season, you could poke a piranha in the eye and it wouldn’t do a thing. But then it gets dry, and there’s still a lot of piranhas but not a lot of food and the river dries up and creates these puddles of starving piranha. If some poor creature steps in the pool, it’ll lose its leg. Frenzy. They have a feeding frenzy. Just the smallest morsel to work over and they go mad. You can’t blame them, but they swarm and spin around whatever is in the water until it’s gone. Just a churning nightmare, until the puddle dries up and they die anyway. All that frenzy for nothing. Butt! A for effort, piranha.

I don’t know what the hell is going on, but I’m this close to burning the house down. I don’t even like art. I’ve been to museums. I’ve never once had any reaction to any painting in my life. I am completely dead inside when it comes to paintings. Fuck paintings. Maybe I hate fish? Move it. Or get rid of it. I just don’t want it by the door. It’s like she’s trying to say something with it but then the more I ask, the less she says and the more she insists that it’s just pretty. It’s moderately pretty. It’s got some color to it but who cares.

Last week I couldn’t sleep and I had an idea. I got a bunch of posters. Like the kind, you’d hang in a dorm room. I told her they were important to me, that they were just pretty and didn’t mean anything. I hung them in our bedroom. I wanted to buy ten or fifteen of them and put them all over everything, but that’d be too much. She wants to be subtle? I’m Mr. Fucking Subtle. I got three. One is a magic eye poster, one of those ones where you have to cross your eyes to see the secret image. Get it? The secret image is a horse. I can’t actually see it, I never learned how to do those things, but the internet said it was a horse. It’s up on two legs. The horse is freaking out and it’s hard to see. You see what I’m saying? I’ll put layers on layers on layers too, if she’s so smart.

I got two others that were just big open fields, covered in wildflowers. Two on each side of the room and then the secret horse is on the wall at the foot of the bed. Open space. Lots of open space, and then BAM! Secret message horse! And he’s free, right? First thing you see in the morning. Galloping. Nobody on his back. Just out there doing horse stuff. If you connect all the posters it’s like he’s covering ground, you know. he’s marching through the meadow and in the middle, he realizes just how free he is, and how much of a horse and he just goes up like “Yeaaaaah!” That’s what that horse is all about, to me anyway, I’m new to art.

Anyway, she hates it. She can’t see the horse, so I had to tell her that it was a horse in there, even though I can’t see it either. Neither of us can see the horse, and if you can’t see the horse it’s less of a fun trick and just kind of a digital fuzz that’s kind of hard to look at. I don’t blame her for hating it, but it’s not about the painting, right? It’s about the message buried in the painting. That’s what art is, which I’ve only just recently learned. That dumb fish taught me to appreciate art, and then to hate it again almost right away.

“What’s this all about. I love you!” She says. Exactly! Now who’s playing games? She’s been like this since I lost my job, on and on about ‘everything is fine don’t worry about it’. And I don’t disagree about the posters, the posters are a mess. It was hot this week and they curled on the corners and got ripples in the middle. The fish is fine, it’s always fine, it’s on canvas in a frame. The posters are a cheap plastic and the tape comes off the back real easy.

By the time she took them down, I didn’t even care anymore. She came home from work one night and I was just upset in the entryway and staring at the goddamn fish. Sad more than angry. It’s hard to be this worked up about something and not even know where she’s at with it. With anything. She won’t even allow that I might be right about the fish.

It occurs to me now that maybe she painted it. Or had it commissioned and hid it in the thrift store and was just like “oh, isn’t this pretty,” like a trick. I’m not certain of that, but I’m not ruling it out. I don’t think she knows how to paint. Unless she does? How can I know something like that? Maybe she’s great at painting, who knows what she’s got locked up in that head of hers. I check her clothes for paint spots when I do laundry. I check the accounts to see if there were any checks written that I couldn’t account for. But there isn’t. Unless she has a secret checking account or paid cash. Maybe she squirreled cash away for a while to pay a painter in cash. How should I know, she’s the painter. What is it? What’s it cost? What’s this all cost?



About the Author

Dan Sanders is a writer of short fiction, essays, vending machine repair guides, a coffee table book about flowers sold on QVC under the name Susan Butterworth, and lots of those help pop-ups that appear when you hover over a question mark icon. His work has appeared in lots of places he didn’t expect it to. For example, his first book The Loop won the International 3-Day Novel Contest. He can be found online at


Image by Hung Diesel from Pixabay