“Dad, look what we won! Look what we won!”
My twins were racing through the school, ducking around other parents and students. It was a carnival night and I felt like correcting them; we were not winning anything, we were investing vast sums of money on handmade games of chance, in exchange for trinkets that would be in the garbage before the sun rose.
I said nothing, squinting to see what they held before them in each hand. Was it water balloons?
They each had two small plastic bags. Inside each bag appeared to be one very seasick goldfish.
“Hold em, hold em,” the twins said, thrusting four bags into my hands before scrambling away to the cake walk.
I held up the bags for inspection: two large goldfish, one tiny goldfish, and a runty brown goldfish. Other parents avoided eye contact as they gave me a wide berth, so putting the fish up for immediate adoption appeared to be out of the question. For the briefest moment I considered dumping the fish in the school bathroom, flushing them out of their misery. Instead, I took them home and put them in a kitchen bowl.
“That doesn’t seem right,” my wife said when she walked into the kitchen.
“I know, right? We spent all that money on their little carnival and they send us home with something we’re obligated to keep alive.”
She tipped her head toward the small table where I had placed the fish. “I meant that bowl is too small. You cannot treat them like that.”
“They were delivered to us in sandwich bags. That bowl is a mansion.”
A month later, even though the fish were thriving in their tiny home, I found myself perusing the pet aisle at Wal-Mart. Maybe my wife was right. What I eventually bought was nice enough. About the size of a globe, with water cascading in from the top, and I threw in some rocks and a couple of things to put in the bottom. Not exactly a penthouse for fish, but we weren’t putting them on the ground floor either.
I have to confess here. Over time, something surprising had happened. I had gotten into a little routine with our four goldfish. As I fed them each evening I started talking to them, telling them about my day, mainly because I could do so without the interruptions, screams or fisticuffs common in my house when you tried to verbalize a complete thought from one person to another. I began eating lunch on their little table, staring at them swimming through the clear water while I ate. I could only imagine what the curved glass of their aquarium made my meal look like. Perhaps they thought me a glutton. Maybe that was what began it. After all, I was eating so much, and they ate so little.
It wasn’t something I meant to do, but, at some point, I think I began feeding them too much. At least that is the diagnosis I’m going with now. The water levels might have been off. I might have done something wrong when I cleaned out the tank; that weekly ordeal of transferring them back to the small bowl, not unlike a condo, while the main house was being cleaned.
“Look! That big one is relaxing,” I heard my daughter say one morning.
“The term you are looking for is called belly up,” one of the twins said.
“He’s dead?” my daughter said.
The twin was already in the den, headed out to play basketball. He yelled, “That sucker ain’t doing the backstroke.”
From there, I lost complete control of the little perfect water world I had built on our kitchen table.
The kids could have cared less. So why was I upset? I had not wanted the fish in my home in the first place. They had been pushed on me by educators looking to buy a Smart Board and some shady guy who dumped low end aquatic life on unsuspecting children. But I had embraced the fish. I had grown attached. Sure, I could not pet them. I could not kiss them. But they could not ask me for things, either. They could not scream for help when there was no clean underwear. They could not say there was NOTHING to eat in the WHOLE house! They couldn’t even leave peanut sized reminders that my daughter had neglected to let out her little Shitzy-Maltz before bed time, again. But, despite my best intentions, ever so slowly, my little fish utopia had become a concentration camp.
“At least clean out the dead,” my wife said one morning. Two were gone. We had two left, although it didn’t take a doctor to see that they were struggling.
“Another one is dead? Maybe it is hiding behind a rock.”
“Our fish is crying for help?”
Then I heard it. The sound was not unlike a record playing way too slow, if the person on that record was underwater and saying the same thing again and again.
“It sounds like Wayne Newton is dying in our fish bowl,” I said.
My wife did not look up from where she was unloading the dishwasher. For some reason, it was my fault the kids “won” the fish, and it was also my fault the fish were dying. In her mind, clearly, ours was not a family designed for raising fish. “Short of Wayne Newton stuffing himself into your little gallon sized Shangri-La, I wonder what else could make that noise?”
I put my face close to the glass. The water was so murky I couldn’t see from one side of the globe to the other. How had it gotten so dirty so quickly? My fish were living in a freaking ghetto. There was probably a crawfish hidden down in the bottom selling a different kind of rock; or maybe a Calico Goldfish who floated on the corner and turned fish tricks.
Then I spotted Brownie. His little body was wedged into the air intake for the pump, preventing the flow of water up to the top and producing that deep rumbling of an underwater crooner.
I fished him out with my little net, or what was left of him. The pump had torn him up pretty good and it was chunks of Brownie that were making the water so murky. My wife was tying up an overflowing trash bag. She waited as I held Brownie over the opening, then unceremoniously dumped him among the empty Pop-Tart wrappers and milk cartons. Nothing else was said. Nothing else needed to be said.
There’s only one goldfish left now. He still doesn’t ask for anything, but I no longer take my lunches at his side. I feel like he is looking at me through the curved glass, his big eyes and my bigger reflection making me that much larger of a loser.
In my own mind I tried to put a positive spin on his solo existence. He doesn’t have to fight the crowds for food. He can eat at his leisure. There are no disagreements with others and no more swimming through someone else’s mess.
But nobody’s stuck a name on this last one yet. The whole family suspects that he’s living on borrowed time. In a house full of chaos, our last prize of a goldfish stands alone, the silence of the glass surrounding him no longer cherished or desired.