Writing: J. Ryan Stradal
It was time to teach my son about death, so I took him to a pet store in Chinatown. I told Cynthia we were going to do “guy stuff.” I knew if she came along she’d want me to buy Jack a puppy, and that’s not happening. He has to learn to understand the temporary nature of things, right now.
Chinatown is no place for a kid. The streets are filled with assholes on bikes and the trash in the gutter has broken glass in it. There are too many red signs and things that smell like fish that aren’t fish. Everywhere it costs money to park. We parked at a meter and I put in enough nickels and dimes for twenty-eight minutes. That would be enough.
Jack, thank God, isn’t easily fascinated by weird expensive shit. He held my hand as we walked down the sidewalk. His hands smell like apple juice and are not miniature versions of my own. I kept him moving past stores that sold stereo equipment and dried seafood and Chinese movies.
The only time he paused was in front of a newsstand. He was looking at a Chinese newspaper that didn’t even have any pictures on it, just all writing in Mandarin or whatever. Nothing that anybody could make any sense of. But he was staring at it like he was reading it. I just stood there and watched him.
“Hey chum,” I said. “We only got like twenty-six minutes.”
He held up his right index finger without looking at me, as if to say, “Give me a minute.” He must’ve learned it from Cynthia. We only moved into her place eight months ago, but he’s known her since he was about three.
“It’s all propaganda,” I said. He continued to stare back at the newspaper as I pulled him forward.
I had already researched the pet store online. It sounded cheap and shitty, and sure enough, C & Y Pet Supply looked like a crap place to buy a lifelong animal companion. They had a rusty powder blue sign, probably from the Eisenhower administration, and the windows were cracked and smeared with who-wants-to-ask.
The inside of the store smelled like sawdust and lemon deodorizer. There was a large wet stain the shape of Greenland on the concrete in front of the cash register. In the middle of the stain was a yellow plastic sandwich-board style sign reading DANGER – STICKY FLOOR with the image of a black figure tilting on its side.
Jack’s the right age to get the straight dope on the hurts and dangers of the world so I asked him, “What’s happening on that sign?”
My son stared at the small black figure. “He’s dancing,” he said, and looked at me. “Maybe he wants to be on Dancing With the Stars.”
“Nope. He’s going to slip and fall and kill himself. And do you know why?” I pointed to the wet stain. “He stepped where it was wet. You step on a wet floor and BAM, you’re done.”
“What was his name?”
“Nobody knows,” I said. “He’s the unknown soldier.”
I took Jack’s hand and led him to the fish section.
Thank Christ the cheaper fish were in the bottom row. Most of them looked half-dead already. One tank actually had a fish floating in it. But that doesn’t count. In order to prove my point, I needed something that would die on my son’s watch.
I pointed to a neon tetra that was limping a jagged oval around a tank. The thing had hours to live. “Look at that one. Let’s call him Limpy. No – Mr. Limpet.”
But my son had already decided. He was staring at a small, fat, almost perfectly round goldfish.
A skinny teenage employee with wispy black chin hair and a backwards baseball cap reached into the tank with a small green net. He dropped the goldfish in a plastic bag filed with tap water.
“So, is that it, man?”
“Definitely,” I said.
My son pointed to the tank. “But he needs his windmill!”
I looked at my watch. “We have fourteen minutes. That’s not enough time to buy a windmill.”
“But he needs it.”
The teenage employee looked at me and shrugged. “It’s only four dollars, dude.”
Only four dollars. That shit made me want to remove his chin hairs with a belt sander. Four dollars is lunch. For two people, if you know where to go.
“Okay,” I said. “But then that’s it, we’re going.”
The teenage employee led us to the register. He set the windmill and the goldfish next to a stack of brochures advertising organic vegetarian dog food. What is the world coming to? I’ve seen dogs eat vomit and be perfectly happy.
“You have a bowl at home?’ the teenager asked.
“Ugh,” I said. I slapped the counter and a couple of the dog food brochures fell on the floor. This whole venture was spiraling out of control. I didn’t want to wither into insolvency just to teach my son a life lesson that some kid in Bangladesh probably learns several times a week for free.
“How much is the bowl?” I asked.
“And you’re gonna need fish food, right?”
“Only one bottle.”
“They’re over there,” he said, pointing to an aisle lined with rows of bright yellow bottles that read “Tetra-Fin.” I took me a while to find the smallest, cheapest one. Pet stores don’t make life easy for the economy-minded shopper.
The teenager took the fish food from me and looked at it as if I had just handed him a urine sample.
“This isn’t ideal for goldfish,” he said.
“But they’ll eat it, right?” I asked.
The teenager shrugged. “It might not live as long.”
“Perfect,” I said.
We got back to the car with only three minutes to spare. My son sat with the plastic bag on his lap and an empty bowl containing the cheap fish food at his feet.
“His name’s Seacrest,” he said. “Seacrest the Unknown Soldier.”
I looked at my son. “Well, if he’s unknown, he can’t be … well, whatever. Call it whatever you want.”
I told Cynthia that I wanted Seacrest the Unknown Soldier to live in my son’s room, where the welfare of the fat orange thing would be his sole responsibility.
“But Seacrest looks so picturesque, with the windmill and everything,” she said.
She insisted that we put him on top of the low bookshelf next to the wood-carved anteater her sister brought her from Colombia.
“OK,” I said. “But when the thing croaks, my son has to deal with it.”
For the first week that Seacrest the Unknown Soldier lived in our house, I never once reminded my son to feed it. I know he did, at least for the first couple days, but once he was able to pass the new living being in our house without acknowledging it, I didn’t remind him of any responsibility for its stewardship.
Two weeks in, a thin layer of dust had started to form on the lid of the Tetra-Fin container. My son was sucked back into his PlayStation and had pretty much forgotten about the little round fish that depended on him. I knew it would be a matter of days.
It was a Saturday. I was on my hands and knees in the bathroom, attempting to install a new peel and stick tile floor, when I heard Cynthia call out to me from the living room.
I knew it was the goldfish. I sighed in advance, trying to affect an air of concern. But Seacrest the Unknown Soldier looked fine. A little bigger maybe, but alive.
“Yeah, what’s the deal?” I asked her. “I was busy installing tile.”
“Steve, just look at something for once in your life.”
“What do you expect me to see, just tell me and I’ll say it.”
“Just look at it.”
So I looked at the fish bowl. Something small and red was floating on the top.
I squinted. “It’s a piece of the windmill.”
“So where’s the rest of it, then?”
I looked all around the bookshelf, behind it, on the floor near it, and I saw nothing. I called my son in from his room.
“Where’s the windmill, chum?”
Jack just looked at me.
“Well,” I said. “It looks like he ate it.”
“I’m sorry,” Jack said. “I forgot to feed him.”
“Okay,” I said. “He eats plastics. I’m wondering if he eats anything else.”
Finding random objects to feed the fish became the afternoon’s activity. We put three different things into the fish bowl: A red plastic hotel from a Monopoly game, a souvenir shell casing from a Civil War re-enactment, and a piece of Iceberg lettuce. The three of us sat there for ten minutes and watched. Seacrest didn’t acknowledge any of the new items.
“It must still be full from the windmill,” Cynthia said.
We got bored of waiting for the fish to devour something unusual and went back to doing the things we were doing before. By the time we went to bed, none of the three new items had even been nibbled at.
The next morning, Sunday morning, the lettuce and the Monopoly hotel were gone.
“At least we know it doesn’t eat metal,” Cynthia said.
“We get a few more of these fish,” I said, “and we’ll never have to take out the garbage again. We can just put a big fish bowl under the sink and dump all of our trash in there.”
My son ran in from the kitchen with another piece of lettuce and clumsily stuck it into the fish bowl. I grabbed him under the armpits and yanked him back.
“Don’t stick your fingers in there!” I said.
Cynthia looked at me, worried. “Do you think that it …”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t want to know. For now let’s just feed it plastics and green leafy vegetables.”
The following evening was Jack and Cynthia’s TV night. They made a bowl of microwave popcorn and during the commercials, they tried to throw the kernels into Seacrest’s bowl from the couch.
Jack stared at his fish. “When are we going to see it eat something?”
“We know neither the day nor the hour,” I said, wincing at it. Seacrest was growing larger, but not uniformly. One eye bulged out, one fin was twice the size of its counterpart, and its tail was growing longer, like an eel’s. It circled its tank, whipping the food inside around in a slow, ugly tornado.
Their show came back on, and as soon as the on-screen host opened his mouth, I heard a quick, strong, sucking sound, like someone using a wet-dry shop vac to clean out a cereal bowl. We all looked at Seacrest. The popcorn in his bowl was gone.
“I gotta go to work,” I said. “Let’s not feed him anything else for a while.”
As I walked to the door, I saw that Seacrest was swimming in place, its eyes scanning the floor, looking at all of the popcorn that Jack and Cynthia threw toward the bowl and missed. While I thought of a more plausible excuse for punching in late, I grabbed the Dustbuster from the hall closet.
That Tuesday afternoon, when Cynthia got home from her job at the clinic, she walked straight through the house to the porch, where I was busy putting Clamato in my beer.
“Where’s the anteater,” she said.
“What anteater?” I asked.
“You fed Seacrest the anteater. The anteater my sister brought back from South America.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t feed him anything today.”
“It must’ve been you, because when me and Jack left this morning, it was still there.”
I stood up and walked into the living room. Seacrest was over twice his original size.
“Christ, he’s big.” I said.
“You asshole,” she said. “You hate my sister. You’re jealous of her success in the arts.”
“I’m not jealous of her success in the arts,” I said. “When did I ever say I wanted success in the arts?” I stared at the delicate, oblong shape on the bookshelf, formed by the lack of dust. “We’re just going to have to accept the likelihood that the fish left the bowl and ate your sister’s anteater.”
Cynthia touched anteater-side of the fishbowl. Her hand came back wet. “Oh, Christ.” she said. “I don’t know about having this thing in my house anymore.” That was her way of saying that she wanted it gone and didn’t care how.
“It’s alive, I don’t want to kill it,” I said. “Besides, look at it. It’s way too big to flush down the toilet now. And what if it’s some sort of endangered species?”
We stared at the fish together. It didn’t look like a fish anymore. It was the size and shape of six-inch Subway sandwich, but with a fat squashed fish-face on it. When it breathed, it throbbed like the plastic wrap over a microwaved Hungry-Man dinner.
Cynthia spoke last. “I don’t care what it is,” she said. “It’s outta the house.”
We decided that the best thing for Seacrest and ourselves was to put it in the backyard. She found an old oval-shaped steel tub, filled it with water from the garden hose, and I dumped Seacrest into that. I tossed in a handful of scallions and one of my son’s toy water guns.
“That oughta tide him over,” I said.
That night we were awakened by a loud thrashing sound from the backyard. Someone or something was shaking Seacrest’s steel tub.
“It doesn’t like being outside,” Cynthia said. “It wants to get back in.”
“I’m not going out there in the dark and dealing with that fish,” I said.
“I can’t fall asleep,” she said. “I gotta see what’s going on.” She got out of bed and walked out of the room without putting on any clothes. She doesn’t cover her nipples or pubic hair anymore when she walks around naked, like she used to.
The Venetian blinds in the bedroom glowed as Cynthia flicked on the backyard light. I heard her scream, and I knew if I didn’t get out of bed to comfort her, it was the beginning of the end.
I know my son will miss Cynthia. I don’t know yet how I’m going to explain it to him.