Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Scales of Justice.

My existential dilemma began, as so many do, in PetCo.

Actually, the first hint of this dilemma began at a school fair. With Daughter currently home-schooling, I’m an ideal candidate for being talked into attending the school fairs of others; there’s nothing like several months of not having to attend fund-raising committee meetings to make a person enthusiastic about a fair. Metaphorically, this was the sausage made by others which I could enjoy in sweet ignorance.

And it was a fine fair. The weather was bright and pleasant, the booths numerous, the food copious and fried. We easily located Daughter’s friend and her mother and I sent Daughter off with a twenty-dollar bill and a warning that the money would not be replaced by more money when she and her friend used up her scrip, so plan wisely. Daughter, confronted with the equally novel experiences of being allowed to walk around a fair with only her (older and far more reasonable) friend and a crisp Andrew Jackson crumpled in her hand, dashed away. I settled in to my portion of the day, which was to hang out with the mother of Daughter’s friend — a lovely woman in her own right — while she served time as the monitor of the Silent Auction. This mostly involved dissuading people from opening the sealed paper around the donated cookbooks. Every twenty minutes or so, Daughter and her friend would come flying in, brandishing some new fair-triumph.

“We made a candy necklace!” Daughter announced, half of the necklace hanging from her mouth reminding me of the time I found our cat, Lulabelle, eating a lizard. I waggled my fingers in support, shouted “Great!”, and went back to watching no one bid on the trip to Hearst Castle.

They came back a while later and Daughter hiked her sleeve up her arm to reveal an electric blue flower.

“Tattoo!” she sang out in delight, flexing her bicep.

“Lovely!” I caroled back, “And it goes so well with the jelly-bean stuck to your hair!”

Daughter, nearly giddy now at this new mother who didn’t seem to actually do any parenting, dashed off. I toyed with bidding on a day-trip to the Santa Anita race track, but then remembered I’m wildly allergic to horses and losing money. By this point, I had entered that best of all states of perfect boredom where all thoughts have equal weight and nothing seems impossible and nothing seems worth moving from wherever it is you are standing. Time passed.

Daughter sped in, carrying something. She thrust said something into my hands: a small bag. I looked down.

“I won us a goldfish!” she shrieked.

“Oh…”, I said dumbly. And then, thinking I could improve upon it, I added, “Look.”

She grabbed back the little container and said, indicating her patient friend, “I’ll put it with Annabel’s stuff, on her desk”, she squealed breathlessly and raced off towards the classrooms. I sighed and stomped over to my friend, who was separating another mom from a sealed cookbook. “It now seems we own a goldfish.” I said bleakly. “A school-fair goldfish. Well at least it won’t last long.”

I knew of which I spoke. I had won a few of these in my childhood, the thrill of winning only eclipsed by the gray sensation of scooping a stiff, twisted fish-corpse out of the tank with a tea-strainer. One magical morning, I stepped barefoot on a pinky-sized corpse after the fish decided to escape its prison and walk home. No fair-fish ever lasted longer than a week.

“Don’t be so sure,” my friend said darkly. “We’ve had Pizza for two and a half years.”

I hoped she was bragging about how rarely she cleaned out her fridge, but no, it seems they have a school-fair goldfish that is one month away from joining the AARF. I sighed and glanced at a hot bidding war for a mother who would bake your classroom snacks for a year, but the responsibility-free feeling was gone. Daughter raced back in, carrying a small box. She held it up in triumph.

“I won us another fish, so they can be friends! And a holder, so we don’t have to worry about getting them a tank!”

Some combination of overwhelming love for this sweet kid and the good time she was having and a certain dull resignation that we were now in the fish business kept me from screaming, “Oh dear God, enough with the fish!” I did suggest that respected goldfish-behaviorists recommended that two was the ideal population, which she accepted, before going off to move both fish into their new digs. New digs which, while slightly more spacious than a plastic bag, were created of some unholy mixture of Saran Wrap and Kleenex and leaked water from several seams. I mentally erased Drive in a leisurely manner home from school fair and relax into couch from my afternoon plans and wrote in Drive like maniac while blotting water from car seat, leave fish and child at home and go to PetCo to upgrade housing. Somewhere in the back of my brain, a voice said firmly, “And then we get a margarita”. I know better than to argue with her.

Which brings us around to where we first found me, standing in the fish department of PetCo, contemplating the peculiar responsibility of goldfish-ownership. I knew I needed a bowl big enough to keep two goldfish comfortable, but what does that mean? When your entire life is dedicated to eating and aimless wandering, how much room do you need? Believe me, I’m not slighting eating and aimless wandering; I could also call those two activities “Quinn: 1997”, but was I slighting the fish by not giving them enough room to unroll a yoga mat?

I found a bowl which seemed about the right size for under ten dollars, but put it back because it lacked a lid and without a lid on the tank, the cat was going to view this as nothing more than a to-go cup. A lid meant a water-filter, which now put us into the fifteen-dollar camp. The water purifier and the food brought us in at twenty-four dollars. I held the can of goldfish food in my hand; it was about six inches high. There was no smaller size of food. The instructions said to feed each fish no more than about two flakes of food per feeding, twice a day. This food would serve us until, conservatively, the earth spun into the sun. The fishes would probably be dead before I remembered where I put the back-up house keys.

I wondered. Did the very brevity of their lives give them meaning, causing us to contemplate our own short-lived span upon this earth? Did the fact that I’d probably be trying to pull their carcasses out of the water-filter before “So You Think You Can Dance?” is over render their—and, by extension, our—lives meaningless? More likely, I am just making sure I'm prepared the next time someone requests a donation for a fund-raising garage sale. A full fish-tank set-up should net about fifty cents. I’ll throw in the lifetime food supply for free.

I shrugged and said “Oh, well” out loud, startling a woman standing next to me comparing prices on plastic deep-sea divers. I grabbed a bag of festive blue gravel and headed home. The big questions needed to be contemplated, but first I needed to purify some water, move a couple of fish, and mix myself a drink.

11 Comments:

OpenID jenontheedge said...

You are so much nicer than I am. I would have dumped the fish in a Mason jar and let it go at that. 20 years later, one or both of my daughters would end up telling her therapist about the time Mom killed the goldfish through sheer apathy.

9:14 PM  
Blogger Michaéle said...

We also had a school-fair goldfish that lasted well beyond its welcome. Then the school got wise and started handing out "Good for One Free Goldfish" coupons instead of the actual fish which, interestingly enough, always got "lost" somewhere between school and home.

And GAWD!!! I had one of those kamikaze fish also that committed suicide by leaping out of the tank. Luckily I saw it before I actually stepped on it...it was silver and the carpet is dark green or else I would still be fetal-positioned in a corner somewhere.

11:06 PM  
Blogger margalit said...

My kid won 5 freaking goldfish at a school fair. I headed to petco where I got a 5 gallon tank with heater and gravel and filter and lord only knows what else was in the package. Brought it home, set it up, put the fish in their new $40 home, and watched them all die, one by one, in a week.

We have a beta fish now, Fishy, that has been alive for a full year in a vase from Marshalls. THe vase is filthy. Fishy won't die.

11:10 PM  
Anonymous NoL said...

Yay! I love it when my coffee is accompanied by a new QC post!

Note to self- avoid school fairs.

2:59 AM  
Blogger CDP said...

My son's goldfish, won at a church fair with his grandmother, lived for 6 months. At her house...mwah!
(and nothing good ever comes from ignoring the internal voice that demands a margarita)

7:36 AM  
Blogger panda said...

I had a community fair fish that lasted 4 years, grew a tumor that turned it into a crescent-shaped fish, and still lived two more years. Six years. A goldfish.

And, being a lazy kid, I almost NEVER cleaned the tank.

I was thrilled to have the fish so long. My parents, not so much.

1:56 PM  
Anonymous Nell said...

Uh huh. *My* daughter had a 4th grade project on Lakes and decided to stock her lake with trout. Real trout. The lake was only 2 feet long, blue-painted papier mache, with sand glued on for a beach. Oh yeah, it was a work of art. The best she could do was those tiny little "feeder guppies" for trout.

Two hours later, I got a panicked call from the 4th grade teacher telling me that DD's lake trout were going belly-up on the beach. Tearful DD ended up with a 10-gallon tank, filter system, lighted tank hood, etc. etc. etc.

The fish lasted three days. We still have the tank, 15 years later.

Petco knows a sucker when they see one!

8:43 PM  
Blogger landismom said...

Aiiee, and I thought we were the only ones who forked out big bucks to keep the school fair goldfish alive! We started with four a month ago--now down to two--not sure what happened to the other two. I suspect some kind of goldfish cannibalism.

7:05 PM  
Blogger Chatty said...

Look on the bright side. At least those adorable little turtles with the red spot that you could buy at Woolworth's (or win at fairs) are no longer available. I won enough of those in my youth to necessitate 3 plastic bowls with plastic palm trees and little "islands" in the middle of the bowl.
On the down side, several of those turtles (AND two of my goldfish - "won" in 6th grade)were still around when I graduated from junior high. On the other hand, maybe that's not really a "down" side. It certainly taught me a lot about taking care of things smaller than I was.

4:06 AM  
Anonymous Erica said...

Okay...I have you all beat; my daughter (now 17) decided that for her 5th grade science project she would raise tadpoles into frogs. We got the whole set up and four tadpoles, appropriatly named Drip& Drop, Splish & Splash. It wasn't so bad when they were tadpoles...the trouble started when the critters began to transform into FROGS!!! I was sure that they all would die..no, no...not so much. My daughter religiously video-taped the growth process every day. Needless to say, that by the time they were frogs, it was a toss-up as to what would lead to their demise first: me, who was grossed out by them or one of my 3 cats who I am sure viewd the slimey beasts as either unwanted intruders or an impossible to catch Happy Meal. The end of this tale is that we set the froggies free in a stream in back of our house. I was pleased to be rid of them and never again have any type of "aquatic" life trespassed in my home again.

1:01 PM  
Anonymous La BellaDonna said...

Oh, man. I'm sure we had the occasional kamikaze fish - mostly minnows, trying to return to the brook whence we had obtained them - but mostly I remember the ONE night my Nana stayed overnight with us.

That was the night when our ENTIRE TANKFUL OF TADPOLES became frogs. Overnight.

Nana was the first to discover this. She never stayed overnight with us again.

2:24 PM  

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