Copper, the Psychologically-Damaged Carnival Fish

Black, impending doom. I looked at the water-filled plastic baggy in my hands and suddenly saw my future. The Grim Reaper would be approaching soon, dispensing swift justice in the form of the scythe-sharp tongue of one very angry mom.

I peered at the small golden prisoner in the bag, who flinched-- as if sensing my terror straight through the plastic film-- and glugged at my magnified eyes with fear and wonder.

It seemed impossible to believe that just two hours before, I had been so happy, so carefree! Strolling the annual fireman's carnival fund-raiser with a friend...

Reveling in the neon colors as amusement rides twisted and spun...

Surrounded by the buzzes and dings and cheers at the gaming midway.

I hadn't even planned to do it. Tossing that ping-pong ball into the goldfish bowl had been the last thing on my mind. I'd raised enough allowance money for my entrance ticket-- maybe a bag of cotton candy.

But then my friend Sarah's mom and aunt stopped. And Sarah, too. And in seconds they had placed their quarters on the counter and gathered their little white spheres. And one by one, they took their chances...

A miss!-- Too much wind.

Another miss!-- A mis-calculation.

And then a third toss and....

A hole in one!

The piscine prize was poured into a baggie and handed to Sarah who grinned and poked at her new pal.

Then Sarah's mom nudged me. Three white ping-pong balls had been set up for me.

"Oh, I can't," I said, unsure whether it was because I'd already glimpsed my demise at home, or simply because my over-hand was terrible.

"Go ahead."

And maybe it was the warm lights shimmering off that fish-bowl tower...

Maybe it was the heady smell of popcorn and spun sugar and funnel cake that skewed my better judgment...

Maybe I was just swept up in the thrill of competition. Or maybe... maybe... I just wanted to see if I could.

But I picked up those balls. And tossed them. And in a fluky twist of fate... the second one went in.

As the attendant handed the bagged up fish to me, triumph lifted my spirits. It was almost impossible to believe. I had won. And of all things-- my first pet!

And then depression crashed down like a Warner Brothers anvil. Winning was fleeting, but death would be eternal.

We had a No Pets Rule at my house.

And rules, with my mother, were not just guidelines. When you're an only child with parents who truly mean business, it's not like there are exactly a lot of distractions to smooth things over when you try to test the ol' boundaries. It's not like you can hide behind some brother or sister and hope they'll take the heat.

I mean, if something goes wrong, oh, it's you. It's always you. So, you learn pretty quickly to suck it up and face the consequences.

And it's not like your parents exactly have any barometer for what misbehavior is, either. There's no first-born to shift the bell-curve in your favor with weekend raves and missed curfews and green hair. No youngest to set a standard of broken knicknacks, smuggled stray puppies and tense teacher conferences.

Nope-- small things tend to get... magnified.... and treated accordingly. With consequences like groundings, and no TV and no phone and, why, Mom had a talent for Not-Talking to me for days.

I think now she may have been Amish. She was really good at spurts of strategic shunning.

Of course, the No Pets Rule was also there because Mom didn't want to have to maintain some finned or furry friend herself. And in all honestly, that's likely what might have happened.

So to flagrantly ignore the rule and come home with carp-in-a-bag? Well... anyone could see that this would not be pretty.

Sarah's mom must have realized it right about the time I did.

I don't know what Sarah's mom told my mother, but I could see the porch-side conversation from a safe distance on the sidewalk. There was gesturing, low voices, and then... Sarah's mom motioned me forward.

I recall apologizing the second I stepped in the door. I had a nice speech prepared to explain how I'd gotten swept up in the moment of Chance and Competition and Fish Fate.

But Mom just got me a water pitcher and said the fish could stay there for the night. And that was how Copper came to be a part of the family.


Copper was neurotic. Because of weeks of having ping-pong balls tossed at her, Copper would flinch and retreat any time a shadow passed over her bowl.

We realized this about four days into my being a Fish Owner.

The good news was, the fish's unexpected nervous condition seemed to have won my mother over-- something I certainly hadn't seen coming that night my life had flashed before my eyes.

Mom peered at the shimmering little creature with a sympathetic frown. "She's scared of everything," Mom said, and after a pause added, "Maybe she just needs some company."

Subscribing to the Only Child theory, that made a whole lot of sense to me.

So, enter Goldie-- from J.J. Newberry's five-and-dime. Goldie was frilled and self-confident, and made herself at home in what was now a bigger tank. Goldie had no time for fish filled with self-pity and twisted with bad nerves. She swam. She enjoyed her gleaming reflection in the glass. She did a little turn on the catwalk.

And pretty soon Copper came to see what all the fuss was about.

A week into it, Copper was swimming around, too. No longer retreating every time someone would step into the dining room. Or turn on the lights. Or cough.

It was a happy time under the sea for them. A happy time for me, too. I'd come home from school and, okay, so maybe they didn't greet me at the door, but there were logistical reasons for that. I, at least, decided they were glad to see me as they'd blow bubbles and follow my trailing finger.

And then one morning, I came downstairs to breakfast. "Oop! Gotta feed Goldie and Copper," I exclaimed, getting up from my eggs.

"Er... no..." said my mother solemnly.

"No?" Had mom already fed them? Because, this, I thought would mean she'd really taken to the little fellows.

But when I went into the dining room, Goldie and Copper weren't swimming.... and they weren't admiring their sleek, shiny reflections. They were doing the backstroke in their tank.

Something to do with their last change of water had done them in.

Well, we put them in a baggy-- oh, how things do come full-circle sometimes!-- and said a teary goodbye with the Monday trash pick-up.

Copper seemed to enjoy those fleeting few weeks, at least.

And after all, what's it all about if you spend life trembling at the bottom of the tank-- and you forget what's it's like to really swim?

A special thanks to Kathy of The Junk Drawer for reminding me of my first pet story.
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Da Old Man said...

Copper, we hardly knew you.
I find it hard to believe fish survive in the wild. I had many pet fish, and just looking at them could cause them to die.

Jenn Thorson said...

Da Old Man- Yet carp seem to survive in spite of virtually everything. I mean, our three rivers have carp in them, and those rivers are NOT clean. And okay, so the carp may have evolved to have three heads now, but still.... they still make it.

Anonymous said...

I had a Goldie when I was a kid, won at the local Strawberry Festival. I don't even remember what I did to win her...
My Dad loved that fish, as did I. He cleaned her once a week and the fish became so used to us and the cleaning schedule that all Dad had to do was put his hand in the tank and Goldie would come and lie it it. He would lift her into the spare bowl, clean the tank and then pick her up (with her cooperation) and put her back into her home.
We had that fish for about 7 years...and she was beautiful and big with a long double fin tail. She was a family member who loved when you visited with her. She would nibble the tips of my fingers that I placed in the water each night before I fed her. She was an amazing fish.
But then, the New Jersey water company discovered an issue with the water and, instead of warning everyone they went ahead and slyly added extra fluoride to the system, thinking no one would notice. Thousands of fish were killed in pet stores and homes all across the state. Goldie was one of the victims.

I've had many other fish since her, but none ever behaved quite that tame or friendly. To this day I miss that damn fish. My father always did too...she was his pet more than mine, I think.


Jenn Thorson said...

Sue- (sniff) That was a lovely little story. I have never heard of a goldfish behaving like Flipper before. :) I'm sorry for your loss. Goldie sounds like she was one remarkable fish.

DeadRooster said...

This story is so close to my own. I won two gold fish at a carnival too. Their names were Goldie (what a coincidence) and Mike.

I remember we had Mike for a long time but Goldie took an early, silent journey down the toilet tube where she would "maybe come back to life after being washed into a river somewhere."

Jenn Thorson said...

DeadRooster-Aw, I bet Mike was heart-broken at the early demise of Goldie. I'm trying to think now what cartoon I remember seeing a few years ago with a goldfish who died and went down the toilet, only to be resurrected and haunt the owner. Maybe something on "Courage: The Cowardly Dog."

I just recall this silent, levitating dead goldfish spirit...

Better keep the lid down, Rooster. :)

Jay said...

Aww.... Poor Copper and Goldie!

I won a fish at our local travelling fair when I was a kid, too. Luckily for me, since it wasn't a troublesome pet like a dog, there were no problems keeping it, but there was no way my parents were going to have a tank in the house. I still remember my Dad sweating and swearing as he dug a pond in a hurry! ROFL! But the fish survived and lived many years. We bought others to keep it company.

The thing about goldfish and tanks is that a lot of people just think they're 'easy' pets and don't address their needs, one of which is for well-aerated clean water, and another is for temperature control (which might only mean shade plants). I guess that's why they survive in rivers, but not necessarily in homes.

And yeah, they really don't like too many chemicals. Such a shame about the flouridation of that water supply. :(

Jenn Thorson said...

Jay- The backyard pond was a great idea. With our tough winters here, I'm afraid that would have been a fishsicle death sentence for poor Copper and Goldie. :)

Glad to year yours had a long, happy life!

Ken Armstrong said...

I have a goldfish, if you'd ever care to have a look:

yours is a super story, I *so* enjoyed it :)

Jenn Thorson said...

Ken- That's a terrific story-- And I have to say, I was bracing myself for quite a different outcome... in spite of your post title. :)

Olga, the Traveling Bra said...

Great fish story!...I dont think those dang carnival goldfish are meant to live more than a week...I can't tell you how many we have been flushed down our toilet!

Jenn Thorson said...

Olga- Hey- COOL! Then Copper and Goldie, having toughed it out, like, a month or so, actually did pretty well! Yippeee!! :)

chyna said...

We used to have tanks and tanks of siamese fighting fish (betas) and they were some of the nicest fish. Oh they were murder literally to the mollies or any other unsuspecting fish that crossed their fishy paths but they all had their own personality. We even let them pick out their mates. Realy and truly they each picked a different one. There were the most amazing creatures we'd ever had. We even had one batch of babies once. Talk about a circus. Imagine clear plastic cups far as the eye can see. LOL We kept one that my dh taught to hit his finger to release his nuggets. And he would dance for you (or maybe that was one of the females). You could sway in front of the tank and she/he'd follow. One day we'll resurrect the tanks and bring back the fish but right now we have no good place for them.

Jenn Thorson said...

Chyna- You can tell how little I know about fish, because until you said it, I didn't realize betas and siamese fighting fish were one and the same!

Hysterical that they were so active and involved with you all. Better than Sea Monkeys, it sounds like! :)

Anonymous said...

My brother was always fascinated with fish tanks when he was a kid - he'd stare for hours and never get tired.
Once we were visiting an old aunt who had a large tank of goldies. Then he happens to spot a big can of fish food. The next thing we know he's emptied the can into the tank.


Chat Blanc said...

oh I LOVE this story! I'm a sucker for any type of pet. Well, except snakes. Anyway. . .yay for Copper and way to go Goldie! :D

~Static~ said...

Well they are in a better place. Sadly, I keep swimming head first into my glassy prison. Damn humans, always trying to trick me. Then they flush me down the toilet. Yeeeaaaaarrrggghhh!

BunkmonKee said...

I remember having one of those fishes myself. Now I think they also have lizards too.

Jenn Thorson said...

Jaffer- And thus was the start of the all-you-could-eat buffet for goldfish. :) I'm sure your aunt was thrilled.

Chat Blanc- Goldie and Copper would have appreciated your support. :)

Static- Here's hoping someday you make it to the ocean.

BunkmonKee- I'd imagine the lizards would be harder to keep contained. But maybe they also have a longer shelf life.

Kathy at The Junk Drawer said...

Jenn -- My, oh my, can you tell a story! My first pet was a hermet crab who made a lot of noise motoring around his little tank on top of a bed of gravel. The night I stopped hearing noise was the night I knew he wasn't sleeping, but rather had met his maker. Sad day.

I love this line: "And after all, what's it all about if you spend life trembling at the bottom of the tank-- and you forget what's it's like to really swim?" Words to live by.

Great story, Jenn!

Private EYE said...

OMG! The almost identical thing happened to me when I was a kid, except my carnival won goldfish attempted suicide one evening by jumping out of its bowl. My older sister saved this fishes life by placing its lifeless body back into water and swishing it from side to side until water got back into its gills. That crazy goldfish lived for almost 2 years after that!

VE said...

Nice fish story. I always wanted a Sloth for a pet. 20 hours without moving. Only they could beat my record!!!

ReformingGeek said...

Good story. I was thinking of Nemo. You can tell I never had a goldfish. I think our first pet had "to go the country". I don't even want to think about it.

Jenn Thorson said...

ReformingGeek- Oh no, well, here's hoping he's swimming freely in some country brook-- a large carp now-- happy and, um, scaring the bejeebers out of local stream fisherman.

"Good lordy, Clem, did ya git a look at that there orange whale?"