By Rick Kaempfer
I’ve always believed that every child should have a pet. It teaches responsibility, the circle of life, and gives the children something they can love unconditionally. Unfortunately, my kids are deathly allergic to animals that have hair or fur. That ruled out the traditional array of dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, mice, rats, ferrets, or farm animals, and left us with only two reasonable choices; reptiles or fish. Since my wife is part of the decision making process, it left us with only one choice. We got the fish. It was our Christmas present to our two oldest boys, who were 4 and 1 ½ at the time.
From the moment I stepped into the fish store I knew that I was getting into something much more intense than I ever imagined. It was like a college entrance exam. First I had to bring the fish guy water samples to make sure that our tank had the proper PH balance. The first three times I didn’t pass the test and he wouldn’t allow me to purchase the fish. I finally passed his rigorous testing on the fourth try, but when I said I wanted to put some decorative plastic plants in the tank with the fish, he gave me a whole new list of instructions before I would be allowed to bring home the fish.
Each time I went into the store, I held my breath that the fish guy would allow me to spend $2 in his store to buy a few fish. It was two days before Christmas when I was finally, and grudgingly deemed “fish worthy.” But before he handed me the baggies filled with fish and water, he looked me in the eye and gave me a stern look.
“Are you going to take care of these fish?” he asked.
“Yeah sure,” I said, praying I wasn’t saying anything to disturb the fish police.
“How do you put them in the tank?” he quizzed.
“I put the whole baggy in the tank, let them adjust to the water, and…..” I was choking under pressure. I couldn’t remember exactly what to do. The fish guy walked out from behind the checkout counter, toward the back of the store, in the direction of the former fish tank home of my fish. He was apologetic, but uncompromising.
“Look, I’m sorry, but you aren’t ready…”
“Wait!” I said. “You get a little bit of water out of your tank, mix it with the water in these baggies, and slowly let them get used to the water.”
“And then how do you put them in the tank?” he asked. He was now holding them over their old tanks, ready to put them back into the water. He looked like he was cursing himself for letting his guard down around such an obviously un-fish-worthy person like me. What was he thinking trusting me with $2 of fish?
“You grab them out with the net?” I answered hopefully.
“Are you sure about that?” he asked. He was shaking his head doubtfully. It looked like he was memorizing my face for the sketch artist and mentally designing a “DO NOT SELL FISH TO THIS MAN” flier to distribute to all the fish stores in the Midwest.
“Yes,” I answered, this time more confidently.
“Would you willing to bet these fish on that?” he asked.
“I would never bet on the lives of fish,” I said. “They are precious to me.”
That’s when I broke him. I even thought I saw an Elvis lip snarl—not really a smile, but as close to one as the fish guy ever got. He motioned for me to follow him back up to the register, hopped back around to the other side of the counter, and began to ring up the $2 sale.
“Thank you, sir,” I said as respectfully as possible. “I love fish so much. I just had to spread the joy of fish to my kids.”
That stopped his fingers on the cash register in mid purchase. His right eyebrow cocked suspiciously. “Kids?”
“How old are your kids?” he asked.
“Well they’re grown up now,” I lied.
“How old are you?” he asked, doing the math in his head.
“They’re kids from my wife’s first marriage,” I said, continuing to lie. “28 and 26. Good kids, really. Marine biologists.”
That last lie was a little over the top, but it finally sealed the deal. I was permitted to leave with three little baggies, filled with three little fish, worth less than three little dollars. But the fish guy had gotten into my head. On the ride home I was nervous that the fish police were following me. I was sure they were going to set up some sort of a sting to catch me in the act of endangering the lives of these fish. When I finally arrived home with my precious new family members in my hand, I carried them into the house as if the baggies were filled with nitroglycerine.
My wife tried to hug me when I walked through the door. “Step back!” I urged. “These baggies are filled with fish.”
My dealings with the fish guy had totally altered my plan to unveil the fish on Christmas morning. That would have required a tarp of some kind to cover the tank; something that I’m sure that would have set off the fish guy’s fish alarms. I knew one thing for certain. These fish were fragile creatures that could die at the drop of a hat. I had no choice but to carefully introduce them to their new aquarium and then immediately show the boys their new pets while they were still alive.
I was rehearsing my fish care speech when Tommy (age 4) and Johnny (age 1 1/2) entered the room. Both of their eyes lit up. Tommy smushed his face against the glass, and marveled at the bright colors of the rocks on the aquarium floor. Johnny, on the other hand, reached his hand into the tank and tried to catch the terrified fish as they set 20-gallon-tank speed records to avoid him. He cackled with glee as his splashing left hand produced a giant puddle on the hardwood floor. It happened so fast I was unable to stop him.
“NO!” I screamed.
Johnny didn’t stop splashing. He was having too much fun.
“You’re going to kill the fish!” I said.
Tommy was horrified. “Johnny,” he said, grabbing his brother’s hand out of the tank. “You’re killing the fish.”
It stopped the potential fish-icide just in time. I took a deep breath, but I knew that I was never going to stop him every time. Johnny was an unstoppable force. I couldn’t be there every second; the next time or the time after that. I figured the fish police were going to start their surveillance very soon, and it was only a matter of time before I was hauled off to fish court. At first I tried to avoid the inevitable, but any little let down was taken advantage of by Johnny.
The fish police probably still show the surveillance video of the time Johnny put all fifty of his metal Hot Wheel cars into the tank. They probably had fish paramedics standing by ready to knock down our door the time Johnny used my dirty coffee cup to scoop one of the fish out of the tank. I’m sure their records show that we rarely clean the tank and that we once went on a two week vacation and forgot to have someone come in to feed them. But they can’t press charges against us. We have a perfect alibi.
Those damn fish are still alive. And they’re five years old now.
I think they must be made out of the same material they use for the black boxes in airplane cockpits. I’m pretty sure that if my house burned down, those fish would still be alive, swimming in the water from the fireman’s hose. If Johnny and his little brother Sean (now age 2) didn’t kill them with their various different fish taunting schemes by now, they can’t be killed. They are superhero fish.
I feel a little bit more relaxed these days, but every now and then when I go out to get the newspaper in the morning, I think I see a van from the fish store at the corner. And while I’ve never had the courage to step foot into the fish store again, I’m sure a poster of my face is still hanging behind the cash register, with the snarling headline “THIS MAN IS CRUEL TO FISH.”
I haven’t seen the fish guy now in five years, but if I did, there is something I’d want to say to him: You really should charge a little more than $2 for three fish.
What is the price of immortality?This article was written as a Suburban Man, but also appeared in Lake Magazine.