by MIKE HIXENBAUGH
illustration by WES WATSON
I’m speeding through Portsmouth in a minivan. My hand hangs out the window, clutching a torn plastic bag in the winter air. In it, two bulging-eyed goldfish flop around in a few ounces of lukewarm tap water.
My son, Ezra, is in the back, frantic, repeating for the 10th time, “Are they gonna live, Daddy? Are they gonna live?”
I slow to stop at a red light.
The boy is four days shy of his fifth birthday.
He tells me to gun it.
A couple hours earlier, my wife and I had loaded our three young kids into the van and headed off for Ezra’s pre-birthday surprise. After enduring months of begging, we’d finally given in and agreed to let him get a pet.
At the store, he made his choices quickly: A 1-gallon tank with colorful lights, neon-colored pebbles, some green plastic plants – and two small goldfish.
As the clerk scooped them into a bag, Ezra announced their names, sounding like a proud father.
The orange one: “His name is Orange-ero.”
The one with the silver belly: “I’ll call him
He smiled as he carried the bag to checkout. He held it up to his face for a closer look, jostling the tiny swimmers.
“Ezra,” my wife said, wrangling the other kids, “you’ve got to be very careful with that thing.”
Hubris led us to stop at Chick-fil-A, and eat
inside, on the way home.
Ezra led the way across the lot, gripping the plastic bag at his side. I followed, holding 2-year-old Ellie’s hand. Bethany was behind us, carrying newborn Milo.
We hadn’t gotten much sleep in the 10 days since he was born; this was one of our first outings as a family of five.
I propped up the fish bag on the table while we ate. Between bites of chicken nuggets, Ezra studied his little ones.
“Orange-ero is … really orange.”
“Silver-er is beautiful … and kinda shiny.”
“They’re not babies, you know … but they’re not grown-ups.”
“They’re like little boys.”
“I love them.”
After lunch, we packed up and headed for the door.
I stood at the exit with the older kids at my side while Bethany maneuvered Milo back into his car seat.
“This bag is kind of heavy,” Ezra might have said. I wasn’t really listening. I think I heard him repeat himself. Then, a second later …
Water pooled around my feet. Ezra stood frozen, eyes wide. Strangers stared.
I looked down: Silver-er flopped wildly on the tile floor. Orange-ero was trapped inside the clear plastic.
Startled, Ellie rushed toward me, then slipped, falling butt-first into the fish water, soaking her pants.
As she wailed, I scooped the silver fish into the busted bag and headed for the restroom, weaving through the packed lunchtime crowd. Ezra trailed close behind.
Dammit, Chick-fil-A. Only hot water flowed from the men’s room faucet. I looked at the fish flopping around in the empty bag.
“Ezra, this water might kill them, but it’s our only hope.”
We’re talking about a pair of $2 Walmart goldfish. Who cares if they lived or died?
I imagined a therapist asking Ezra that question one day.
I glanced at the traumatized fish as we pulled away from the restaurant. This time I held the bag.
“Why didn’t we ask for a foam cup filled with chilled water at the restaurant?” my wife asked.
Parenting small children often requires swift decisions, sometimes under pressure, usually on very little sleep. We don’t always make the right ones.
As we approached that red light, the fish were looking rough.
I rolled the window down and stuck out my arm, figuring the cold air might cool the water and buy us a few minutes.
Home. Ezra and I rushed inside. I dumped the fish into a jar of cold tap water and went to work assembling the tank. The water in the jar must have been too cold.
“Daddy?” Ezra asked. “Are fish supposed to make that face?”
“What face,” I said, unfolding the tank’s 12-step instructions.
He pried his eyelids open extra wide and made a gagging sound. As I fumbled with the water filter and the tangled cords, he implored me to move faster.
But. Of course. Parts were missing.
I dialed customer service in Arizona. On hold, I noticed one of the fish had stopped moving altogether. Ezra noticed, too.
“You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?” he said.
Arizona picked up. The rep told me the missing parts would ship immediately – and arrive in five to 10 business days.
I decided this wasn’t the time to tell my son I’d never had a pet fish.
We finally got the tank set up – mostly. The water was now treated and temperature-controlled, and even without the missing parts, the goldfish perked up.
Though, the silver one seemed a bit … off. After it repeatedly ensnared itself on one of the plastic plants, Ezra decided to rename him: Silver-er Stuck-er.
He got his toy sharks out and showed them to his new pets through the glass, waiting for a reaction.
“They’re not even scared!”
I watched my firstborn press his nose against the tank. He eyed those fish – his fish – with such pride and wonder. It was his first taste of responsibility for another life and the rush of emotions that comes with it.
Excitement. Fear. Panic. Joy. Irrational worry.
Before bedtime, he asked if he could sleep downstairs. He wanted to be near his fish.
“What if something happens to them?” he said. “What if they need me?”
I know the feeling, buddy.
May these fish live forever.
Two days later both fish were dead.
Now Ezra wants a cat.