Wednesday, January 29, 2014
In the fall of 1973 I bought two goldfish for a quarter at the steamy tropical fish store on H Street in Chinatown. For another quarter I bought a box of goldfish food. The fish, no bigger than an inch, found a new home in an old two-gallon tank I had around the apartment. I named one Bix after Bix Beiderbecke and the other Hooey after the favorite expression of my Far Eastern history professor. I fully expected to enjoy their short lives.
I had owned goldfish before and none had ever celebrated the first anniversary of its becoming my pet. But I didn't mind the brief acquaintance. Goldfish lived quietly, and died quietly.
In the fall of 1974 Bix and Hooey thrived. Not only did I buy a second box of goldfish food for 39 cents (for a one-ounce box) but I invested in an air pump so I wouldn't have to change the water in their tank every two weeks. I feared that the air pump would be noisy. To my relief, it sounded like a babbling brook - the quietest sound in the universe. I even moved the tank into my bedroom. The sound of water, I found, was conducive to sleep.
My second box of goldfish food didn't last a year. It fed my fish for 10 months and seemed to have more effect than the first box. Hooey grew a tad longer than Bix and began bullying his companion. At least their contretemps were quiet.
To give Bix a chance I bought a five-gallon tank and placed a little rock garden complete with a little Buddhist temple at the bottom. If the symbol didn't quiet Hooey, Bix could at least hide behind it.
In the fall of 1975 I began bragging to friends about my goldfish going on three. I didn't knock on wood. Bix came down with red blotches on his fin, tail and body. I prepared for the end thankful that fish don't whimper.
Then a friend told me that science had made medicine for fish. I bought eight 250mg tablets of tetracycline hydrochloride for $1.99, popped them into the tank and cured what I learned was probably bacterial hemorrhagic septicemia! Well, cured for a a few months at least. The dread disease broke out regularly and just as regularly responded to medication. I began calling the bane "goldfish acne."
Another test came for me.
My pet store stopped carrying the 39 cent boxes of goldfish food. Instead of those crunchy concoctions of cornmeal that reminded me of the "sleepy sands" I found in my eyes after a good night's sleep, the store carried goldfish food flakes. These large oily wafers that actually smelled fishy cost $1.69 for a 3/4 ounce box. That's $37 a pound. The label argued why. Engineers or chefs had combined 10 ingredients including cod liver, kelp and dayfly eggs into flakes that carried a guaranteed analysis of 30 percent crude protein, 3 percent crude fat and 10 percent crude fiber.
I solaced myself with the belief that my finny 4-year-olds would never live long enough to devour a pound of that ambrosia. But all that crude did not go for naught.
I have not kept a journal of my growing relationship, financial and personal, with my fish. I can give evidence of their ravenous appetites. I have a growing collection of empty $1.69 to $1.89 boxes. Friends can attest to Bix and Hooey's remarkable growth, which is not to say that it pleases me that the first thing said upon entering my bedroom is, "My, your fish have grown!"
Only I can attest to the nightmares. The crescendo of high boot goose steps! The Gestapo wasn't after me when I awoke. Bix and/or Hooey were rolling their Buddhist temple over their rock garden,
I bought a 10-gallon tank hoping that liberal doses of flakes, which float, would keep them from rooting around the bottom in sacrilegious racket.
Not long after, I dreamed of thrashing water, screams of men! The sinking of the USS Indianapolis, and I was there as the sharks feasted on hundreds of men. Quint, of "Jaws" fame, was there!
It was only Bix and Hooey scrimmaging at their soggy salad bar. In the morning I put a finger in their tank. One of them bit it. They're both big, both gluttons, both mean. Neither has outgrown acne. I can't tell them apart.
While the quiet relationship between me and my goldfish has ended, friends tell me I am lucky. I have goldfish with personality. They always wiggle... for food and more food at $37 a pound! And don't forget their $453 a pound tetracycline hydrochloride habit, and their propensity to reinterpret my dreams.
Proud as I may be of my two five-inch 8-year-olds with personality plus. I still keep a copy of Melville's Moby Dick by my bedside, just in case.
Published in Washington Post Magazine, September 27, 1981, as Bedroom Leviathans. Drawing by Leslie Kuter who fed them half the time.
R.I.P. Bix and Hooey died the summer after I wrote the article. We let friends of friends use our apartment and also care for our goldfish. When we returned the fish were dead and the stricken caretakers said they kept giving them food even though they seemed dead which, of course, made the tank an awful mess. So even in death our once dear little goldfish lived large, running up their tab until the bloated end.