I don’t remember when I bought him. I don’t even think I did – it was one of those “toys” that had always been in your life, like a plush animal you don’t recall ever owning but at the same time realizing it must have meant something at some point. They were rather fleeting too. I remember everybody at least had some experiences with a Billy Bass. It was so simple; basically, an automated mechanism mounted on a plastic plaque made to resemble a freshly caught fish, if also baffling. When confronted with sudden sound or a press of a button, it would sing one of three or four common songs that have escalated beyond the status of humming and had actually entered into the subconscious. Everybody knew them. I’m sure they varied by region, but the premise was the same. I remember the first time I saw it, I was at my grandparent’s house and they took great joy in clapping on their way out of the kitchen, eventually keeping rhythm with the tone. It never got old to them, and even as a child I must admit I found it amusing. The humour quickly wore thin however, as its appeal was limited.
Years and experiences passed, and while my grandparents were in fact still alive, the artifacts and relics of their old house had been left with the dust. I went to visit them to offer help in clearing out some of the more dilapidated items. In long forgotten boxes, I found strange commemoratory cups and plates from events you’d be hard pressed believe had any sentimental attachment in the first place. I found him again wrapped in newspaper and chuckled at the thought of this particular fish kept that way, almost like it was being sold with a side of vinegar-heavy home cooked chips. I blew a fine layer of dust from the speaker and it croaked into life, almost in gratitude. It struggled with a song and I grinned, recalling how this was my grandmother’s least favourite. She would roll her eyes and remark how it seemed to know she didn’t like the song because it always played when she sat down with a magazine.
I took it with me, along with a few books. I had just moved into a new place myself and thought it would be nice to have a mixture of old and new. As well as introducing a fresh flair to my home, I wanted things that reminded me of childhood. Billy took pride of place in my bathroom, because even in my mid-20s I found the idea of him singing to me whilst I was on the toilet amusing, more so than I had sat at the dinner table and being scared half to death by this crooning fish serenading my choices. A fair few months trickled by and my grandparents grew ill together. They wouldn’t have had it any other way. In between health updates, I began to notice him singing when nobody was in the room. I was always surprised, as I had never changed the battery. That wasn’t to say his singing wasn’t slightly tortured. I always felt bad hearing him from the other room and put his sporadic outbursts down to his age. Every now and again he would skip words or cut off half way through, only to resume his next line a few minutes later, note for note. I admit I grew unnerved when I would go to the toilet and he would cock his head sideways to meet my eyes for the brief minute I was in there. I compared it to paintings where eyes seemed to follow you around the room but I paid it no mind.
Soon after my grandparents died. First my grandmother fell making dinner, and I assume my grandfather soon followed due to malnourishment at the hands of a broken heart. I was suffering myself and almost couldn’t bear to look at Billy Bass for the time being. I got home from hearing the news and burst into tears on my bed. I found the timing inappropriate when he burst into jovial song, the most energetic I had heard him in weeks. It was wrong to think, but this inanimate fish almost seemed to be celebrating. I took him down promptly afterwards, and packaged him in an old shoebox sans newspaper.
My nights were restless following. Stewing from a mixture of twilight heat and grief, I had a grim week. I would find solace in the bathroom, where cooling tiles underfoot seemed soothing. Sometimes I sat on the toilet, not needing relief, but still I would hear him. Billy was muffled through two or three walls but his tone was unmistakable. He seemed tired, but still passionate. More weeks passed, and people at work seemed to notice a change in me. My eyes grew heavy and my soul weary. It felt hard to admit, but at this point the thought of the fish bothered me more than my grandparents’ passing. I had dealt with that naturally with the support and kind words of others, but I couldn’t confide in anyone when it came to a singing fish that seemed to taunt me whenever I got home and threw my keys on the table. Despite the love from my family, friends and colleagues, the one thing that was intended to serve as a warm reminder to my grandparents was now a bitter memento.
One night I drank myself into a hole, watching bad television and thinking heavily. As I grew more flushed from alcohol, my rage towards the fish built. It felt so stupid but I couldn’t stand it. Its singing was infrequent; sometimes I would go days without hearing anything, to the point I almost completely forgot and things felt good again. Things wouldn’t last however, as sure enough he would croak a jingle, often strained and haunting like a beckoning villain in a horror film eager to be found. I snapped after three too many – I marched into my room and kicked the box he was housed in. I half expected a tune then but Billy remained silent until I gingerly lifted him out.
At that point he turned to face me and rather than a once-dulcet ditty, a shrill hiss fell out of his now failing mouth. He was nearing the end as my grandparents had and I had to admit I laughed at him. No more would he torture me and I could move on. I wondered why it took me so long and proceeded to throw him across the floor. He hit the wall with a sickening crunch and fell to pieces. The plaque completely came away from the fish and tore parts of the tail with it. Inside, a black box housing primitive wiring exposed itself like a sandwich filling. I heaved a labored breath, as if it had taken all my energy to do it. With burning relief came a chilling wave as I noticed that no battery was connected to the wires. My eyes traced the remains in sheer horror as I noticed barely any of them were still working, even despite the recent destruction. I let my face fall onto Billy’s and sunk to my knees as I watched his head rock back and forth, repeating one single word from a limited song bank.
“Leave. Leave. Leave. Leave. Leave.”
He skipped an L occasionally, almost deliberately, trying to mask his message.
“What?!” I yelled, almost in disbelief that I was now shouting at an animatronic singing fish, “what do you even want me to do?” A few seconds of silence followed before he slowly cocked his head for the last time. It felt like days.
“Take your batteries out.”