As we enter the season of untrammeled purchasing, which some have embraced for months as others grimly postpone as long as possible, I would like to offer a little parable. It’s a bit of a shaggy fish story but there are lessons in there somewhere. I think.
Over the summer my daughter and I inherited a fish then known as Pretzel. The provenance of the fish was collegiate, having been brought home to Baltimore by rising sophomore Ella G. when she moved out of her dorm in New York. With Pretzel came a hamster known as Dumptruck.
As her mother, Mrs. G., had her lovely Roland Park home on the market at this point and had been gripped by a massive case of OCD housecleaning and staging, and also because Mrs. G. is very sensitive to smells (note to faithful readers: this is the same person whose toilet I broke three years ago in the infamous 2013 plumbing disaster) she immediately handed poor Dumptruck and Pretzel, both of whom she found unacceptably malodorous, to the next two people who walked in her door. Pretzel went to our mutual friend Strawberry Shortcake.
Strawberry has had quite a lot on her plate this past year, so though while she accepted the fish and its paraphernalia — food, some water-purifying drops and a bag of little blue aquarium pebbles — dutifully taking it home and stashing it in her daughter’s bedroom, she did not assume a role in his or her welfare. When Mrs. G. and I attended a dinner party at Strawberry’s a few weeks later, she went upstairs to check on the progress of the adoption. She was horrified to find the water an opaque milky gray with no sign of the fish at all. “Help,” she screamed. Because I am known to be a person of great fortitude and little squeamishness, with a rather democratic sense of smell, she screamed specifically for me.
Mrs. G.’s fear that Pretzel had died of malnutrition and poor hygiene proved unfounded. And though he or she almost went down the drain in the ensuing emergency cleaning, before long he or she was swimming in crystal clear water around her aquarium objet, which is probably meant to look like a hunk of coral and sea plants but actually looks like a bush with dozens of slender red-tipped penises.
Because I am known to be an animal lover with a lot of time on my hands, Mrs. G. thrust the bowl at me. “Please,” she begged. And since neither Strawberry nor her children had any objection (actually, I believe the little one said something like, “We have a fish?”) Pretzel left Rodgers Forge for good and moved to Evergreen with Jane and me, where her name was immediately changed to Leslie Knope, after Jane’s favorite television character. We are not certain that she is biologically female, but she seems happy with her new gender assignment.
Leslie Knope, I must now reveal, is no ordinary fish. She has talent. Whenever she notices someone in her vicinity, and she definitely does notice, she swims to the front and does a charming little hula up and down the bowl, her diaphanous, peach-colored caudal, dorsal, pelvic and pectoral fins sashaying as she fixes her visitor with a frank and unblinking gaze.
Soon Leslie Knope had insinuated herself into my affections, but I couldn’t offer her much of the company for which she seemed so desperate. So I hatched the plan of getting her a bigger bowl and a friend to swim around with. Maybe even a new objet, or different colored rocks.
And so Jane and I went to a pet superstore, where we were directed to a large, overwhelming fish department. At the rear of it, in front of a wall of aquariums, stood a pair of underage salesgirls in royal blue polyester bib aprons. One was straight out of the Nightmare Before Christmas, an unhealthily thin youngster with limp brown hair, sunken cheeks, and dark, hollow eyes. Her partner was a veritable Cabbage Patch Doll, puffy, pink and topped with yellow curls.
I approached them and stated my mission. A bigger bowl, and a friend for Leslie.
They gave each other a look which even at the time seemed ominous. “How big is the bowl you have now?” asked Nightmare.
“Oh, you know,” I said, “like this. A goldfish bowl.” I gestured with my hands.
Another look was exchanged and the two of them marched the two of us into the tank aisle. “Even if you just have one goldfish,” said Cabbage, “you need at least a twenty-gallon tank, and that’s the bare minimum. You have to have a filtration system and —“
“What? You’re kidding. How much will all that cost?” I asked.
By now the pair had backed us up against the shelves and were not about to let us get away without apprising us fully of the torment we were inflicting on Leslie Knope with our substandard set-up. There was no doubt that we were in for at least a couple hundred bucks. Goldfish, we were informed, are meant to grow to as long as 8-10 inches, which they cannot do so if their environment hems them in, stunting their growth. “But,” said Nightmare, “their organs are still growing anyway, and eventually it kills them. So instead of living their normal twenty to thirty years, they die after a year or so max.”
“You mean … they explode?” I asked in horror.
The girls exchanged another one of their looks. “They might,” said Nightmare, clearly the dominant of the two. “So in any case, we can’t sell you a larger bowl, or another fish, unless you get a tank and a filter. Because you are already basically killing the one you have.”
I had gone from fish rescuer to fish murderer in minutes. Unfortunately, I had come to this place prepared to spend twenty bucks max. Meanwhile, my eyes flicked over to a display of bright-colored fish in bags. “I couldn’t just get one of those fish there?”
“Sure,” said Nightmare, “if you want your fish to be dead by sundown! Those fish eat other fish!” Still the two girls had us pinned against the shelves, a retail gambit which I wondered if they had come up with themselves or if they had learned and practiced at some kind of sales seminar. In any case, as I am known to be a person with a stubborn anti-authoritarian streak and a tight clasp on her handbag, their methods did not work on me. At a certain point I simply stepped through the barricade.
“We’ll need some time to process all this,” I said, grabbing Jane’s arm. “We may be back.” The girls watched us leave, presumably making sure we did not attempt to purchase any prohibited items. But as soon as they turned and went back to their original post, we skulked back into the department and sneaked off to the central cash register a bag of green rocks and a new objet, feeling we all could use a break from the gently waving penises.
Jane argued that everything the girls said was probably true — they were trained pet store employees after all. I found it hard to believe. I am kind to animals! How could this happen!?
I immediately phoned Ella G. to find out how the heck I accidentally became a fish torturer.
Ella G. reported that she was given the fish by her boyfriend, and it came in a plastic bag with no accoutrements. So she had gone to Wal-Mart, where there were no consultants of the sort I encountered, and used all her babysitting money to purchase what she assumed was a lush crib.
As I listened to this explanation with the phone tucked under my ear, I carefully cleaned Leslie’s bowl and put in her new rocks and objet, which was a miniature, flower-entwined Eiffel Tower. I sent a picture of the fish, now doing a kind of legless can-can, to her former owner.
“At least she’s dying in Paris,” said Ella G. philosophically when she received the picture.
While I have avoided looking into it any further until now, I just learned on the Internet that except for the exploding part, Nightmare and Cabbage pretty much had it nailed. Goldfish are capable for living several decades under the right conditions, the record being 49 years. “The reason why so many die at a young age,” says the website, “is due more to the conditions in which they are kept. If goldfish are a fish you wish to keep, prepare yourself for a long-term commitment.”
I think I just did. But no way I’ll go back to those piranhas at SuperPetz or whatever it was called. Tis the season of online shopping. Let the sleigh bells ring and the search engines blaze.