I am not a fish fan.
At the end of July, we go, as we always do, to the Fireman’s Carnival in Laporte, Pennsylvania near the little town of Eagles Mere where my family has spent summers since 1912. We park on Main Street across from the Red and White, walk past the stocks on the corner of the town green. We buy the snake of tickets for rides, folding them into a neat pile in my pocket. My son Atticus, recently turned 11, swooshes down a tall slide in a burlap bag, bounces in a bouncy house, his shadow phantasmagoric, his Converse sneakers, outside, larger than the tiny toddler sandals. He is aging out. It would be better if we had brought a friend, but we were being spontaneous and didn’t think to invite a pal. We gorge on funnel cake and sample deep-fried Oreos, the sweetness of the icing melting on our tongues. To combat the surfeit of sugar, we eat french fries doused in vinegar.
I consider the fair’s slightly tawdry feel—glittery but deceptive, as if it would smear off on your thumb if you rubbed too hard. Old-fashioned, too. This particular carnival seems much as it was when I was a little girl: cake wheels, snow cones, hot dogs with sauerkraut, kettle corn, root beer floats, a muscle tower, a dunk tank. Years ago, when our younger daughter was about eight, in an unanticipated ring-toss triumph, she won an enormous hot pink stuffed gecko. There are fewer rides though, I note, tonight. Liability concerns? We used to spin in giddy delight in The Mixer, but it is gone, replaced by a kiddie train.
Atticus pushes his dark bangs out of his eyes and pitches dimes, winning a number of mismatched goblets and saucers, which he presents to me, beaming. Throwing darts at balloons, eventually he trades up, exchanging several strings of Mardi Gras beads for a neon-green stuffed space alien that he proffers to me. “You like aliens, Mom. This guy can be yours.” I accept his gallantry, squeeze the sawdust-stuffed creature, whose color matches my son’s day-glow sweatshirt. Later, I will place him by my writing desk, a muse.
Several times over the course of the evening, our son inquires about a fish.
“Please, Mom? I’m responsible. I promise I’ll take care of him. Please.”
Imploring layered with resignation, not quite a pure whine, which would be easier to refuse.
“Fish die, Atticus. It’s depressing,” I mutter.
Relentless, he holds my gaze. In his earnest eyes I see the little boy he was giving way to the confident young person he is becoming. Our days of make-believe are on the wane; nighttime plays with puppets and stuffed animals have lessened. His passion for soccer and talent on a hover board supplant imaginary play. Our annual July pilgrimage is a touchstone. I note how my son grows, too old for kiddie rides, not old enough yet for real independence. I acknowledge in a corner of my heart how hard it is for me to let go of his little self. He is my last child, a surprise late-life bonus baby. The sweetness of his babyhood, his toddler years dissolve like cotton candy in the purpling dusk. He is competent, empathetic, a good swimmer, a problem-solver. And he wants a goldfish.
His dad and I shake our heads, distract him with a Ferris wheel ride. The wheel barely skims the treetops. Still, I love this vantage point: strings of lights hung between booths, easy camaraderie. Children squeal. Couples stroll, sharing popcorn and slushies. A teenager has his hand in his girlfriend’s blue jeans pocket. Older people move carefully, chatting with acquaintances, inquiring after grandchildren. A toddler shrieks and bolts away from her tired young mother; a long-haired, bearded father sports an infant on his chest. Cigarette smoke coils up. I can hear the bingo caller: N 56. As the sun sinks, the air cools. The courthouse, a solid 19th century, red brick edifice, observes the fair from across the street. We got our marriage license there long ago. Finally, our car descends, wobbling, and we get out, my legs trembling slightly as I walk. Atticus heads for the fish booth.
Finally, the blow: “The girls said you always let them have fish at this carnival. They told me today.” Defiant, Atticus lifts his chin, glares at me.
The girls. Atticus’ much older sisters, Miranda and Cordelia, 22 and 20. It’s true they used to win fish annually; hence my loathing. It’s true they had each other growing up, had a younger version of me and Seth for parents, had a life in New York City, not Cleveland, had a mom and dad who ran a theater program each summer that meant lots of people to love them and lots to do. Now, Atticus has older, tired parents and nobody else at home. The theatre program is on hiatus. Our three dogs really belong to Seth, no matter that we claim they are family pets. Our two cats come and go as they please, unattached to any family member.
I look at my husband, who shrugs. Instantly, with the accuracy borne of years of delayed gratification, Atticus tosses a ping-pong ball into a tiny glass vase and soon clutches a plastic bag in which a bewildered fish flutters. What would it feel like to have one’s walls give way? We pack our boy and his prize into the car and head home, unused tickets nestled in a pocket that I won’t rediscover until October.
The fish, unnamed, is deposited into an empty mayonnaise jar with carnival water. The next day, Seth searches for the tank from Miranda and Cordelia’s last Laporte fair fish victory. Gone. So, we head to the pet store 40 minutes away, where, at some cost, we acquire a new tank, pebbles, food, and some plastic fronds to deceive the fish that he is in nature. Now that we have him, I am committed to his survival. I hate when fish die, loathe the inevitable conversation with a woebegone child about the fact that all living things must die, worry that if this fish expires, my youngest child will do the math about his much older parents’ odds for longevity. At home, Seth coordinates the new fish’s transfer, insisting that the new water air a bit before we put the fish in. I expect his death to be immediate. Instead, his tail turns black and he floats on his side at a terrible angle, barely hanging on. Atticus is sad, gazing fixedly at the aquarium offering mournful updates.
“He doesn’t even have a name,” I admonish. “How can you be so attached?” But I am sad, too. Such a short-lived triumph.
Seth changes the water each day, and gradually, the fish seems to recover, swimming in circles, his tail orange once more. I say we should call him Lazarus. Atticus decides to name him Shark.
“Don’t feed him too much,” I caution. “That’s why fish die.”
I can’t decide if I’m making this up, but it seems like common sense. I firmly believe other fish in my life have perished due to overfeeding. How does one judge a pinch, exactly? When I was a very little girl, three goldfish flipped themselves out of their aquarium, landing on the carpet of our playroom, where I found them one Sunday morning before church. My mother’s matter-of-factness; her competence in scooping them up with a sheet of shirt cardboard and her casual toss of them, cardboard and all, into the kitchen trash can seemed harsh, unfeeling—no ceremony, no mourning.
Gazing at Shark, I recall Sparkle’s short life; two, maybe three days after the carnival, she floated on the top of her tank and had to be “released” into the lake. I let our girls, then three and five, believe the lake water might revive her. We knelt at the lake’s edge and Miranda said, “Be free, Sparkle. Feel better.” The following summer they searched for her whenever we went out in the canoe. I still feel slightly ashamed that I did not tell the truth. Our friend, Erika, returned to California at the end of another summer and left her fish, whom she had named Hunger, in our daughters’ custody. When he died, as they always seem to do, we felt grim and flushed him. Since then, I have felt an antipathy for the whole fish species. I dislike the short life spans of goldfish and their lifeless corpses; I dislike cleaning out the bowls and rinsing off the pebbles, the putting away of tiny lives.
At summer’s end, Shark makes the five-hour drive home from our summer house in Pennsylvania to Ohio, where we live during the year. He is placed on the counter in our Shaker Heights kitchen. He swims. He becomes part of our morning routine. I begin to talk to him.
“Morning, Shark,” I warble, coming downstairs to feed the dogs, the cats, hoping no dead rodents are left as gifts on the kitchen floor.
“How’s it going?” I inquire, watching him swim to the top of his tank. He seems to wriggle when I am near. I pinch a few flakes, green and red, between my thumb and pointer. Why do they smell so vile? In they go, and he swims rapturously. I move a Dollar Store purchase from last summer, a plastic coconut cup with a straw that looks like a palm tree, close to his aquarium.
“What are you doing, Mom?” asks Atticus, coming into the kitchen.
“Just changing up Shark’s view,” I explain reasonably. “I don’t want him to get bored.”
Atticus joins me in the Shark stimulation plan. We rotate objects—a cereal box, a stone bridge, too big for the tank, a seasonal container of tissues featuring Rudolph. Ridiculous? Of course, but I console myself that the practice is no weirder than carving pumpkins at Halloween or laboriously wrapping presents that are ripped open in moments for birthdays or Christmas.
A few weeks later, I recite Shakespeare to Shark. He is quite attentive. It’s a monologue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My school produced the play, and seeing the performance reminded me how much I liked Helena’s self-pitying soliloquy, “How happy some o’er other some can be . . .” which I know by heart. Atticus catches me as I finish. “What are you doing this time, Mom?” he inquires.
Acting for a goldfish? I can’t say that. So I quickly improvise. “Teaching Shark,” I say casually.
We laugh. And the ritual gains traction. One morning, Atticus teaches Shark the three times tables; earlier this week, I offer a fish version of Ecclesiastes: “There is a time for diving and a time to refrain from diving, a time to eat flakes and a time not to . . .” We offer geography, trivia, science. We keep it light. We do not share with him what happened in Paris or Beirut. After all, he’s just a baby. Actually, we have no idea how old he is and no What to Expect the First Year will tell us if he’s hitting his developmental milestones. He arrived knowing how to eat and swim; maybe he knows all he needs.
Each morning, I check to be sure he is swimming around his tank, feeling dread when I can’t find him immediately.
I know we are living on borrowed time. Few carnival fish have lasted this long in our home, though we remember with pride a cousin’s fish, won at that same fair, who lived for years, absolutely ignored by that cousin’s parents, who never changed the water in his tank. We attributed his long life to their neglect, a flash of gold in a pool of green-grey algae.
We do not want to helicopter-parent Shark, nor do we want to forget to feed him. Against my will, he has become family. I used to think it was dangerous for my children to get attached, thought I was trying to protect them from goldfish rigor mortis. Now I know better. Children adapt to loss and change—mothers, maybe not so much. At least, maybe not this one.
When winter arrives, I warm myself with summer recollections from the carnival: the scent of burnt sugar and possibility, Atticus’ determination to acquire a fish, proof that he is growing older, growing up. Shark feels like a promise, a flicker of orange who beats the odds. I’m glad he’s here for as long as he lasts. Each of his days reminds me that common sense and fear aren’t always my best parenting strategies. Sometimes, our children encourage us to risk, to win a fish, to open ourselves to the possibility of loss, because when we play it safe, we never discover what could happen when we don’t.