I had just poured the one-percent milk on to my carefully crafted bowl of cereal -- cornflakes on the bottom, rice crispies on the top, layered with bananas, strawberries and blueberries -- when RunningHammer came up to me, somewhat breathless.
"Daddy, Dennis has his tail caught in the rocks."
Dennis is the name he gave a goldfish he won at a school carnival two months ago. We bought a good-sized bowl, some goldfish food and some pretty marbles so that he would have a nice home. A full-blown aquarium was not in realm of the checkbook the afternoon he won the fish. On the way home from the pet store where we claimed the fish, I talked to Hammer a little about how sometimes goldfish die suddenly even though you love them and feed them. He seemed OK with that, although I don't think he was really listening. He was too busy holding the bag with Dennis in his lap, beaming in his booster seat all the way home.
"He's a good little fish, Daddy."
Dennis surpassed all our longevity expectations. He swam around and ate and tolerated us when we cleaned his bowl. I honestly thought that when Hammer said his tail was stuck, it was really stuck.
He swayed at the bottom of the bowl like an empty swing, tail indeed between two marbles.
"See? His tail is stuck."
I got a spatula and gave Dennis a little nudge. His tail came free but he didn't swim anywhere. Carefully I ushered him to the top of the bowl. His gills and mouth opened and closed, but nothing else moved on his body. He just drifted to the bottom again.
"I think he's sick, pal."
"Maybe he just needs some rest and more food."
"We should be quiet and come back later."
I conferred with Vix about a course of action and how to handle the eventual truth. "There's no way you think he's going to get better?"
"Dearie, fish do not lie on the bottom of a tank to sleep something off. Dennis is on the way out."
"Not so loud, you moron. What if he hears you?"
"We've got to break it to him sometime. His room will start to stink after a while."
I went back to the kitchen, washed the spatula, dumped my soggy mush, constructed another grain-fruit-milk masterpiece and hoped some miracle would happen. One of these days the little guy will have to learn about life's comings and goings. However, I feel it is one of my jobs as a parent to keep my child's innocence alive as long as possible, allow them to believe that the world is welcoming and full of wonder. One in which their favorite goldfish on the entire planet does not die.
At least not yet.
We checked on Dennis periodically during the day. His gills and mouth kept moving, but I had the feeling that this was just a nervous system reaction, like headless chickens running. "Boy, Daddy, Dennis sure must be tired."
Late in the afternoon, we checked and found he had curved more, sunk closer to the bottom and his eyes had become dull.
I looked over at Hammer and saw his nose grow red and his eyes fill with tears. His mouth bent and he slumped in to me. "I think he's dying," he said.
I knelt and he buried his face in my shoulder and threw his arms around my neck. Vix came in and rubbed his back as I hugged him.
He sobbed. I picked him up and the three of us sat on his bed, and I gently rocked him back and forth. When he caught his breath, Vix said, ""What do you want to do, Bear?"
"Can we leave him for a while in case he gets better?"
"I don't think that's going to happen."
"Can we try, please?"
We went in to the bathroom and I washed his face with a warm washcloth. He and his brother and cousin went out front to kick the soccer ball around. Vix went to run an errand. As I started preparing the weekly smorgasbord of chicken nuggets, spinach ravioli and quesadillas, an idea quickly and seamlessly took shape in my mind as clearly as if it had been written in the coils glowing on the stove top. Dennis could be saved.
Small puddlings of tears punctuated the evening. RunningHammer would be laughing with his siblings one minute, then walk in to his room for a tub of Legos the next and come out sobbing. He had already decided he wanted to bury Dennis in the vegetable garden where last summer's peppers and tomatoes had been.
"Can we do that tomorrow?"
"Of course," I said as I kissed him goodnight.
"He's a good little fish."
"Yes, he is. Goodnight, my sweet boy."
Vix met me in the hallway. "You're up to something, aren't you?"
"You know me too well, missy."
SweetFaceBoy was fixated on a Shakira video (how come I didn't have someone Shakira-esque when I was 12?) so I turned off the TV. "You're coming with me."
"You're going to be part of a Christmas miracle."
We drove to the same pet store where we got Dennis originally. In the fish department, I handed SFB Dennis' identical bowl and the identical marbles. I picked up a vial of tap water conditioner. Then it was over to the tanks to select the new Dennis.
"You think we can find one just like him?" SFB said.
"Yes. I know we can. We just need to find one with a little black on his top fin and his tail."
The swirlilng mass of orange in the cloudy greenish water did not give me great hope in finding a lookalike, but we kept searching, unbothered by any of the closing staff.
"There he is," SFB said.
He was right. Nearly perfect. "Keep an eye on him."
I found the fish guy sweeping an aisle over by the fancy saltwater tanks. He came over, filled a small bucket with water from the tank, deftly nabbed the desired fish from the scattering school, flipped him in to the bucket and carried him to table where he double bagged Dennis II with enough air to keep him alive until we got home. I explained to him what happened.
"They really need a tank with an air pump," he said. "I'm surprised he lasted as long as he did. Basically, he suffocated."
"Way to go, Dad."
We made our way to the checkout. Standing in line -- eight lanes, one open -- I was chatting with SFB when I saw the end-aisle display. It's brightness burned all else away, and trumpets of discovery drowned the surrounding chatter. "Look," I said.
We stepped out of line. There, stacked six high, five and 10 gallon Starter Goldfish Tanks, complete with gravel, pump, water conditioner, fish food and a plastic plant. Twenty bucks for the five-gallon set. "We've gotta get it, Dad."
I looked at the items we juggled along with the fish. "Do the math."
"My math teacher told me there would be days like this." He read each price tag. "For an extra four bucks we get all this plus the pump, better water stuff and a not really lame plant."
We put the other things back, paid for Dennis II and the starter tank and drove quickly but safely home.
As I put the tank together, SFB performed a reconnaissance mission to find out where the closest outlet was in relation to Dennis I. We didn't want to be fumbling around when we hooked up the new tank.
New tank rinsed -- check.
Gravel rinsed and installed -- check.
Plant expertly placed by son -- check.
Pump affixed -- check.
Tank filled with treated room-temperature water -- checkaroonie.
Pump on and aerating successfully -- checkaroontoonie.
I made sure to float the SS Dennis II in the new tank to acclimate him before I set him loose. "Swim free, little friend."
And he did, with glee.
I took the bowl with old Dennis out of RunningHammer's room. His little gills that struggled earlier were now still. New Dennis fit perfectly, if a bit snuggly, in the same spot. The pump hummed. A tiny string of Christmas lights on the small tree in the room reflected off the tank, and in the hallway, SFB and I did a silent high-five.
"One last duty," I said.
SweetFaceBoy carried the bowl out to the garden. I brought the shovel and dug a deep hole. I scooped him out from the bowl by hand and held him toward the moon. "Farewell, Dennis. You were a good little fish."
I placed him in the hole and covered him up and packed the loose dirt with my feet. Then we went inside for ice cream.
The next morning, I heard RunningHammer explode in to the room and run around to Vix's side of the bed. "Mommy Mommy Mommy Dennis is alive and swimming in a new tank! He got all better!"
"I guess he just needed a new place to live."
He ran around to my side, and with his nose against mine said, "Come look come look Daddy Dennis is all better in a new home come look."
"Be right there big guy." I heard the sound of his little feet racing to his room.
I stood in the doorway as he and Vix watched Dennis swim around the tank. He fed him a few flakes and waited until he had eaten it all.
I went to the kitchen, flipped on the coffee and brought down cereals from the pantry and fruit and milk from the fridge. A bigger bowl was in order. And extra fruit.