Goldfish God is the second place winner in SNHU’s 2015 Fall Fiction Short Story Competition.
by Michele Meehan
“The goldfish is dead.”
“What? Are you kidding me?” I asked gripping the phone tightly.
“I went to feed it today and it was belly up,” my mother replied. “What do you want me to do?”
Great, I thought. Our first family vacation and it’s marred by tragedy.
I quickly walked onto the balcony of our hotel for privacy and was instantly thankful we paid extra for an ocean view. Staring out into the calming blue water I delivered the directive with the cool calculation of a seasoned mob boss, “Go out and get another one. They all look alike. She won’t know the difference.”
The only thing Maddie wanted for her third birthday was a goldfish she could carry around in a bowl like Stanley did in her favorite cartoon. After bursting her bubble with the fact that the fish would not speak with a British accent, nor could she tote it about with her everywhere she went, she seemed content with a mute, non-portable fish. She doted on her pet, singing it songs and drawing it pictures which she would affix to the back of the tank. She didn’t even want to leave it to go on vacation, until we convinced her that grandma was a competent care-giver. Now the fish was a floater, confirming her worst fears and making grandma look like a fraud.
We arrived home from vacation two days later and Maddie rushed to her room to greet Big Papi (my husband was brain-washing her at a young age to be a Boston Red Sox fan.)
“Mommmmy!” she cried. “Big Papi looks funny.”
“Seriously?” I muttered under my breath, “The kid can tell the difference between two 99 cent feeder fish?”
I went to her room hoping Big Papi the Second had not gone to that great ballpark in the sky. I didn’t want to have a discussion about death right after such a nice family trip, or ever really, but to my surprise he wasn’t dead. No, there he was in all of his glory, a goldfish with the biggest bulging eyes imaginable. It was as if someone stuck a straw in his fish rump and blew him up like a circus balloon.
“What’s wrong with him?” Maddie asked apprehensively as she walked around the tank checking Big Papi from different angles.
“I – I don’t know honey,” I answered honestly while trying to stifle a laugh. It really was the most ridiculous looking goldfish I had ever seen. Where in the hell had my mother found this aquatic freak show?
I sent Maddie downstairs to get her stuffed bunny from my carry-on bag while I contemplated the situation. My husband walked by and saw me staring intently at the fish.
“What the hell?” he asked, peering into the tank. “It looks like Igor from Young Frankenstein.
What was that guy’s name?”
“Marty Feldman,” I absently replied still concentrating on a creative explanation.
“That’s it! That’s a god damned Marty Feldman fish!” he laughed as he left the room oblivious to the crisis at hand.
Waiting until Maddie was down for a much needed nap, I called my mother. “Hi Mom, we just got back from the airport a little bit ago. Um, what’s up with the replacement fish?” I asked.
“Oh no! Is that one dead now too?” she asked.
“No, but it looks like someone shoved Skittles into his eye sockets.”
“Oh, the eyes. Yes, I was wondering about those. I went to the pet store and that was the only kind they had left,” she replied. “Some school carnival cleaned them all out of the cheap ones.”
“Okay,” I said. How could I get annoyed with a well-intentioned grandma who sprung for an upgraded fish? “Well, thanks for taking care of the problem. We’ll see you this weekend,” I hung up the phone wondering how I could convince Maddie that this imposter fish was her beloved Big Papi. Luckily I was dealing with a three-year-old and not Jacques Cousteau.
When Maddie awoke we chatted about how people change when they grow up and maybe that’s what happened to Big Papi. Maybe his dad had big eyes and he was going to have big eyes now too. I used it as an example of how we need to appreciate people for their differences. She seemed okay with this theory and I was pretty damn proud of myself for not only pulling it off, but for also including a great life lesson regarding diversity. Parental win.
Two weeks later while Maddie was at nursery school I was putting away her laundry and there was Big Papi the Second doing the immobile back stroke with his big bulging eyes staring lifelessly toward the bottom of the tank. Shit.
Obsessed with shielding my innocent daughter from the cruel reality of death, I set out to get Big Papi the Third. After driving to two different pet stores I was running out of time and had to purchase a regular goldfish, as apparently the special bug-eyed variety was nowhere to be found. Panicked, I called my husband who was busy at work unaware of the escalating goldfish drama.
“Big Papi died,” I said breathlessly into the phone.
“WHAT?” he shouted. “Oh my god. When? How?”
I thought for a moment that he was acting a little too traumatized about the fish when I realized he thought I was talking about THE REAL Big Papi, not the one who up until this afternoon had been living with us.
“The fish, Maddie’s fish died again.”
“Holy hell Jess, you stopped my heart. The Sox actually have a chance this year,” he replied, clearly relieved that Big Papi would remain on the roster.
“I can only find regular fish. I called my mother to find out where she got the bug-eyed one, but they were sold out.”
“You really need to calm down; you are talking about a goldfish.”
“I know it’s only a goldfish, but I’m not ready to have the death talk. I’m just not,” I said on the verge of tears.
“Ok, ok. I get it,” he said with a sympathetic tone. “Why don’t you tell Maddie that you took him to the doctor and they deflated his eyes?”
“Are you serious? You want me to tell our daughter that I took Big Papi to the goldfish doctor for an eye job? I already told her we needed to celebrate his differences!”
“What do you expect Jess. I’m at work; you are the one keeping this goldfish eternally alive for our daughter,” he said. “This is the extent of my participation in playing goldfish god.”
“Ok, you’re right.” I took a deep breath. “I am being a little nuts about this. Eye doctor it is. Thanks hon.”
When Maddie got home that day I delivered the lie with performance that would have made Meryl Streep proud. I told her Big Papi was swimming funny so I took him to the fish doctor and they fixed his eyes. She was totally amazed that something like that was possible and grateful that he was okay. We still decided to celebrate his differences seeing that the rest of his family still probably had the bug-eyes.
Both Big Papi the fish and Big Papi the baseball player made it to the World Series that year. Big Papi the fish died peacefully at the ripe age of a year and a half which in people years has to be about a hundred and twenty. Maddie knew right away when she saw him upside down in the tank that he was dead. She was almost five now and had a better grasp of the world around her, as did I. At his funeral she dropped a flower in the toilet along with a goldfish cracker to keep him company on his journey and gave him a solemn flush.
“Mommy, I have a question,” she said once Big Papi disappeared from view.
“Of course honey, anything,” I said, wrapping my arms around her and waiting for the inevitable questions. Why did Big Papi die? Are mommy and daddy going to die? Was she going to die? I braced myself for her tears and her fear of death. The day I dreaded was here.
She looked up at me with thoughtful eyes that were surprisingly dry given the weight of the occasion and said, “Fish are soooo boring. Can I get a puppy?”
Michele Meehan earned her BS in Journalism from Ohio University and is currently working on her MA in English and Creative Writing at SNHU. She lives in Fairfield, Connecticut with her husband, two kids, a cat, a 190-pound English mastiff, and of course, a goldfish.