Fish Story

By Susan Lewis

I am not a fish person. So I wouldn't have let my three-year-old son try his luck with the goldfish game at the church fair.

"I never thought he could actually throw the ball in the bowl," my husband explained as he showed me four fish wriggling in their Baggie ponds. "Anyway, it'll be good for the kids to have pets."

I didn't consider a fish a real pet. When I was growing up, I had a cat and then a dog. Cats and dogs have their problems, but at least they act like pets. They have personalities - and legs. You can't nuzzle a fish. You can't play with fish.

A kid can't even take care of fish. You feed them too much, they die Feed them too little, they die. You change the water, they die. Don't change the water, they die. And then you have dead fish - and questions about death. I'm just not ready for this.

Later that day, I walk into the dining room, and there they swim in a plastic bowl in the corner. "They look bored," I tell my husband. "There's not much for them to look at. Maybe we could prop family pictures around the outside of the bowl."

The morning after the fair, it's my turn to sleep beyond the 5 a.m. wakeup call. Around eight-o-clock, my husband comes upstairs to take a shower as I go downstairs to grim faces and fewer fish. "Two of them died," squeaks the five-year-old.

"Oh," I say quietly, getting ready for serious talk about mortality.

"And Daddy made blueberry pancakes!" she shouts.

"What? Oh. Maybe we should bury them in the back yard."

"Daddy already put them down the kitchen drain," blurts the seven-year-old, smearing syrup all over his pancake with a fork.

I stop in mid-thought, horrified at what I think he might have - couldn't have - MUST have done. I race upstairs and pound on the bathroom door. A wet face appears in the crack.

"How could you put them down the garbage disposal?" I demand.

Dripping, he stares at me. "They're fish."

"But we named them! You can't put anything you NAME down the GARBAGE DISPOSAL!"

I am sitting at my computer in a quiet house. The older kids are at school; the baby is with the sitter. I have a pile of projects to tackle, and I'm thinking about fish. Every time I pass the bowl, I feel guilty. The ones still alive don't look happy. I don't think the bowl we provided is good enough for a permanent home. A vacation, yes, but not a REAL home.

"Ours are in an iced-tea container," says my sister on the phone. Her husband let her kids play the goldfish game too.

"Really?" I say, making a mental note not to drink iced tea at her house next summer.

I go and look at our fish. One is peach-colored, the other orange. "So where's the aquarium with colored shells and fancy plants?" say the looks on their faces.

"Sorry, guys," I mutter, "this whole thing wasn't my idea. Be glad you're not in an iced-tea jar."


It's hard to take fish seriously. It doesn't make it any easier when they get diseases that sound like a Dr. Seuss rhyme. Nevertheless, when my sister's fish died of ick, I decided that it was time to take preventative action.

I step into a pet store and announce, "We need an aquarium. Something very simple. I mean, we're not really into this fish thing."

The owner grins the grin of a fisherman who is about to hook the big one. He shows me the basic ten-gallon tank. "And here's the kit with pump and filter," he says.


"The gravel's by the window."


"The plants are in the middle aisle."


"And the ornaments are here."

"Ornaments? Why do fish need ornaments?"

"To give them hiding places."

Choosing the basics is more complicated than I'd imagined. First, it seems to me the gravel should, well, complement the fish. I choose navy blue. Gold fish and blue gravel. My college colors.

The selection of ornaments includes a sunken ship, a life preserver with NO FISHING ALLOWED written on it, and a hollow tree trunk. Thirty dollars later, I lug my apparatus home. "Tomorrow, guys," I say to the fish, "you can move in."

The next morning it looks as if there's been an oil spill in the tank. "Hello, fish man?" I say into the phone. "Something's turned the water black. And the motor on the filter sounds like a buzz saw. You can hear it all over the house."

"Well, it's a bottom-of-the-line filter. You should expect to upgrade."

"Upgrade? Isn't upgrading something you do after a few years, when you decide you really like this fish thing? You think I should upgrade after 24 hours?"

"If the noise bothers you."

"How much is a quiet filter?"

"Eighteen dollars."

"Is there anything else I need?"

"Well, you might want a hood."

"A hood?"

"To prevent evaporation. And it keeps the fish from jumping out."

"Jumping out! How much is it?"

"Eighteen dollars. Unless you get a Plexiglas lid for $9."

"Plexiglas sounds fine. What's the difference to the fish?"

"The Plexiglas doesn't have a light."

"A light? Why do I need a light?"

"For plants."

A new filter, additional gravel and two plastic plants later, the fish finally settle in. That is, the one fish that survived. I found the orange one wrapped around the intake valve of the upgraded filter one morning. And so, having spent $67 on a mansion fit for a kingfish and having only one goldfish left, we bought two more. Now all three are on antibiotics, but they're doing fine.

The funny thing is, these fish really act like pets. They hang out together, hiding behind the trunk or nibbling at the leaves of the plastic plants. When I walk over to the tank, they race to the glass, wagging their little bodies as enthusiastically as a puppy wagging it's tail. There is one in particular I kind of like. She darts with a graceful nervousness, and stares at me with tiny, black-button eyes. I sit mesmerized, bonding, watching and being watched in the silence of early morning.

Feet pound down the stairs: the kids are awake, and the goldfish go wild. They respond to sound, leaping for their food. Which reminds me - I really do have to get that lid. And maybe a light.