A Goldfish on the Kitchen Counter

(Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on 8/31/07)

It was a cool, clear fall night and my daughter and I were burying her goldfish in the back yard. The trees rustled and creaked around us like they were talking to each other, and we realized that soon winter would be here. You could smell it.

This wasn’t just any ordinary goldfish. This was Swimmy, a goldfish among goldfish, a pet that had lived in silence on my kitchen counter for eight years. He (we assumed it was a “he” although we never really knew for sure) was the palest tangerine color, with a translucent white underbelly, and he spent his days swimming in circles in a large, round goldfish bowl. There were colored pebbles on the bottom of the bowl, pebbles of light and dark blue, maroon and white. Just the pebbles and water.

We got Swimmy in a way that now seems antiquated – we won him during a Labor Day picnic at our swim club. The lifeguards emptied a big tin washtub filled with hundreds of tiny goldfish into the enormous swimming pool. Young children sat perched on the edge of the pool in breathless anticipation, clutching small white plastic cups, waiting for the signal to jump in.

Then splash! Dozens of laughing, squirming bodies were in the water, followed by their slower, lumbering parents. They too held cups. The goldfish hunt was almost comical to watch; the swim club members peering through the water’s blue depth for a flash of orange, then scooping it up with the cup. Then holding the cup aloft in the sunlight like a trophy. The captured fish were brought to the side of the pool where the lifeguards stood by with a de-chlorinating solution.

My son and daughter caught three fish altogether. We stopped at a pet store on the way home for goldfish bowls, a green net for scooping fish, colored gravel, more de-chlorinating solution, and goldfish food. Our “free fish” no longer seemed like such a good deal. But I couldn’t help getting caught up in the excitement.

My children set up their goldfish bowls in their bedrooms, but in the way of most goldfish caught in this manner, two of them went belly up within a few days. My daughter decided to move Swimmy to the kitchen counter so that he would have my company during the day, with the thought that that might prolong his life.

A goldfish is a strange sort of pet. I often felt sorry for Swimmy, just circling day after day through unchanging scenery, with no stimulation. Other days I felt a kinship with him. I even found myself greeting him at times, and asking his opinion on certain things when no one else was around. He would just blink and do this weird thing with his mouth.
Swimmy lived on that counter for three years. Then our family was transferred across country. Swimmy traveled in my airline carry-on bag in a mayonnaise jar with holes punched in the top. In our new home we searched through the boxes right away for the goldfish bowl, and set Swimmy up on his new kitchen counter again, by the sink. Clueless, as far as I knew, he circled happily in his new quarters, sometimes diving to the gravel, sometimes heading up toward the light. I taught my daughter how to change the water, and eventually Swimmy came to the green net, instead of darting away.

We went back to our normal routines in our new home. My children ran out the door to make new friends, my husband went to his new job, and I swallowed hard and hoped we would all adjust.

Three more years passed. I continued to change Swimmy’s water once a week, often wondering if he had achieved some sort of record for goldfish life expectancy.
However, it did seem that Swimmy was growing paler. His tropical orange color had a tinge of gray to it, and his white tummy no longer shone iridescently, but became dull and dingy. He swam rather listlessly about, except during water-changing time, when he would perk up and approach the net with his old vigor.

We tried to prepare ourselves for the inevitable. After all, he was just a dumb goldfish. You can buy a thousand like him any day of the week.

But soon there came a day when he was doing that sideways thing with his body, and then a few days later he was floating with one pale eye staring at the kitchen ceiling. We left him for a day, thinking maybe he would recover, but then I went out back and dug a hole near where the daffodils come up in the spring.

My daughter and I stood together at sunset and said goodbye. No longer a little girl who chased a goldfish around a pool, she was as tall as me and serious about her task. I left her and went inside to do the dishes. It was awfully quiet.

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