It was my son’s third birthday and he got a little fish tank.
Both the wife and I grew up with fish tanks so delving into the issue of having a pet with a fish seemed like a reasonable idea.
Of course, we do have a proper pet - a cat named Ginger who has been with us since the early ‘90s. We got Ginger while we were living in Los Angeles. You see we had these friends who were real animal lovers. They lived in Tujunga, a small neighborhood above Glendale in the San Fernando Valley. And these people rescued just about any animal that they could; they had birds and cats and dogs and snakes and fish and hamsters and shit if you told me they had a flea circus I wouldn’t have been surprised.
So Ginger was rescued by them as a kitty from the netherworld streets of Los Angeles. She became ours by proxy; she was the only cat that ever warmed up to me and would always come to me whenever we were at their place. It was a no-brainer that when our group house situation dissolved in Glendale, that we would have this grey, short-legged Burmese come live with us in our Los Feliz apartment.
As the story goes, she was found by a dumpster near a Ford dealership in Tujunga. She turned out not to be neutered like we thought so we got her fixed. But that was after we discovered an infected sore underneath her fuzzy hair and had to have surgery for the nasty abscessed thing. She would also survive the great big rumble that was the Northridge earthquake and even traveled with us in our car during our exodus from Tinseltown and has been warming our hearts in North Carolina ever since.
But when the kids came along, she made herself scarce, occasionally showing her face after they went to bed. Friends and relatives often debated that she even existed becomes nobody but us ever saw the cat. They’d see the litter box in the bathroom or the food bowl in the kitchen and be like, “You guys have a cat?”
So to say that we didn’t have a pet would be a disservice to her.
Anyway, Spencer got one of those 2-gallon hexagon fish tank set-ups and we were off and running in pet fish land. I began to dream of a school of African cichlids brooding about in a wall-length aquarium but was quickly steered back to reality by my own memories of sticking my G.I. Joes’ in the family fish tank “scuba diving” only to contaminate the water and kill all the fish.
There was no way I was going to shell out top dollar for a bunch of fish that would be dead in a month’s time.
We tested the waters with some goldfish, but I don’t remember them lasting very long. We turned to a beta – the Japanese fighting fish. The fish had simple needs and could handle life as a loner. Spencer named him Blue, because, well the fucking fish was blue!
Blue had a good run of several months, maybe even half a year before he died during a 4-day trip to Maryland because we forgot to get someone to come over and feed it while we were gone. God bless cats, man. You just leave out some food, a little water and some fresh litter and they are good to go.
When Blue bit the dust, we had our first major trauma of having a pet: death. We had opted to flush the first batch of dead goldfish down the toilet to the Great Big Aquarium In The Sky, but with Blue Spencer wanted nothing to do with that – he wanted to give Blue a proper burial. He dug a hole, made a marker out of popsicles sticks and we had our moment of silence for Blue.
For a good year after that, every time Spencer drew a family picture he would include Blue. Of course the thing he scribbled on the paper looked nothing like a fish and I’d have to ask him what it was. “That’s Blue, dad,” he’d say emphatically.
I decided maybe we should get another beta for the kid. So we went to the local pet store and got a marble-colored beta for him. Spencer named him Lots Of Colors. He must have some Native American blood in him I thought after finding out the name of the new fish. I mean my wife was adopted so anything could be possible when we get to talking about bloodlines.
Lots Of Colors didn’t last very long. Spencer was older now and I didn’t supervise the feedings quite like I used to with Blue. I’d catch him feeding the fish three to four times of day, not the little pinch of flakes as instructed. We were talking gobs of food. The tank started getting dirty and green with algae. The fish would hide amongst the meager plastic plant and singular sea shell. This would cause Spencer to tap on the glass to see “if he was okay.”
Lots of Colors joined the other side a few days later. He lived long enough for us not to be able to get our refund back but short enough that we decided to bail on the idea of having a pet fish.
By this time, Spencer’s younger brother Cole had come along and Ginger sightings were more prevalent. I guess she started to figure out that if she wanted to get some attention she was going to have to come and get it.
In the mornings, both the boys would lay down with me in the morning on the floor of the family room and chill out to some Sesame Street. Ginger would waltz out from her nesting area under our bed and lay herself down next to us, allowing the boys to pet her while she groomed herself.
One day the phone rang.
I answered it.
It was some telemarketer and I quickly hung up and placed the phone back in the kitchen.
I came back into the family room and Cole was nowhere to be found. I called out his name. He didn’t answer. I went from room to room looking for him but didn’t see him anywhere.
I did this twice.
A slight panic set in.
I heard a noise in my bedroom. And again I walked in to find no child there.
“Cole, where are you?”
And then I heard a noise under my bed.
I figured it was the cat since she pretty much lives under there almost all day long every day. But then I saw a tuft of hair by the bed frame and under it a smiling face. And I realized that Cole had “followed” Ginger under the bed. I don’t know how he managed to get under there – it appeared I was going to have to lift the frame of our king size bed to help him get out because they was no way he was going to navigate his big head through it. Yet he did.
So he apparently chased the cat down the hallway and followed her under the bed to her secret safety zone.
I haven’t seen the cat in weeks and I’m thinking it’d be best to wait until the boys are a little older before talk of getting another family pet comes up again.
* a version of this essay originally appeared in Raleigh's The Hatchet.