So I Don’t Have a Fish Now

Hiya! Need a manicure?
Hiya! Need a manicure?

Well, that was fast.

It seems like only yesterday that Audrey the six-line wrasse was flitting around her tank, ignoring the friendly overtures of Fosse the cleaner shrimp as if he was the Anthony Michael Hall character in a John Hughes movie.

And then, without warning, she kicked the brackish bucket.

These things happen, of course – and, to be honest, it’s not like the Tropical Fish Guy didn’t warn me.

“Are you new to salt water tanks?” he asked.

He found my son, Alex, and me in the aquarium annex, a dark, serene, drippy place where visitors seemed compelled to keep their voices at a whisper, just loud enough to be heard above the orchestra of blurbling filters.

A moment before Tropical Fish Guy appeared at my elbow, Alex pressed his greasy index finger against the glass. “That’s the one I want.”

The anal retentive part of me wanted to say, “don’t touch the glass. Someone has to clean that, you know.” But I only nodded. For I wanted that fish, too. She was The One.

I was so enamored with the wrasse I hadn’t entirely heard Tropical Fish Guy’s question. “Oh. I’m sorry. What did you say?”

“Are you new to salt water tanks?” By the way he said it, it was clear that he already knew the answer.


“How large is your tank?”

“Eight gallons.”

“OK. Ah. Well, a wrasse…” He trailed off for a moment. “It may not be a good starter fish. They aren’t that hearty. Now a clownfish might be a good bet.”

I glanced at Alex. Alex glanced at me. We shared the same sneer. We held the same thought:

A clownfish?! Who does this guy think we are? We’re not getting a tropical fish because we just Netflixed Finding Nemo. We are serious fish buyers and this six-line wrasse is a seriously awesome fish!

“I don’t think we want a clownfish.”

“You should consider them,” he urged. “Clownfish are tank raised. They are equipped to endure the changes common in small tanks like yours. Temperature spikes. Increases in salinity…”

Alex scrunched up his face and, in the politest possible way, shut the conversation down. “A clownfish is a little too much of a cliché.”

I nodded, not only because I agreed, but also because my nine-year-old properly used a word that might end up on the PSAT.

So we bought Audrey who lasted about three months. This is not an impressive lifespan by any measure, but it’s still 30 days longer than my childhood goldfish, so I’ll just chalk it up as a personal best.

Fosse, on the other hand, is as healthy as ever.

When Audrey was queen bee, Fosse pretty much stayed in the background, content to do his jazzy hands and nibble on feces. But with Audrey gone, Fosse has come into his own. He was always a flamboyant fellow, but with the run of the tank, he flutters and scampers about with abandon. Whenever one of us enters The Fish Room he presses his shrimpy face against the glass and follows our every movement. Whenever one of us puts our hand in the tank, he leaps upon it, and checks every wrinkle and fingerprint whorl for dead skin cells to nibble upon. He is especially fond of my hand, as my cuticles are a mess.

Letting Fosse go to work on my digits is perhaps the closet I will ever come to a spa day.

Still, Alex and I figured Fosse might be lonely. His only tankmates were a couple of snails. I don’t know what snails talk about, but it’s probably something dull, like the weather. Since every day in the saltwater tank is a 76 degrees and wet, their conversation would get very tedious very fast.

A snail can be seen at the top of the pic. Notice how Fosse is walking away, not wishing to discuss the humidity.
A snail can be seen at the top of the pic. Notice how Fosse is walking away, not wishing to discuss the humidity for the millionth time.

“We should probably get Fosse a couple of clownfish,” I told Alex. “They’re heartier.”

The boy reluctantly agreed.

But one morning we discovered our tank had new visitors. Two starfish.

We never bought starfish. We had the tank in operation since July and we had never seen starfish. But there they were. Just hanging out on the glass.

“Where did they come from?”

“They probably came out of the living rock,” Alex mused.

Saltwater tanks don’t use regular rocks. They need living ones. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with this idea. My squeamishness was not for nothing; six months after I plunked that rock in the tank a couple of starfish crawled out of it. Starfish are a welcome surprise, but still…

“What else could be lurking in that rock?” I muttered.

Alex shrugged. “Maybe another wrasse?”

The idea was absurd, of course, but it was enough for me to hold off on throwing more money at more fish that would probably end up dying in a few months. Besides, why bring in something new when something much heartier might crawl out of my creepy rock at any moment?

“Maybe you’re right,” I replied. “We’ll wait and see.”


87 Replies to “So I Don’t Have a Fish Now”

  1. Okay, I totally want living rock just to see what comes out of it. What else could come out of it? Another wrasse, maybe some coral, a seahorse, a pygmy whale? Can you buy living rock and a tank and just see what happens? I have never heard of this, and it sounds like the most amazing thing EVER.

    1. It’s a pretty expensive proposition to set up a tank for only a rock, but sure! It’s like an icky box of Crackerjacks!

      My brother-in-law, who also has a saltwater tank, had sea worms and a crab come out of his living rock.

      I prefer the starfish.

  2. Mike, I’m sorry for your loss but it seems that every cloud, or should I say every living rock, seems to have a starfish lining. And who knows, maybe it’ll have shrimp too!

  3. Mike – you and Alex have quite a thing going there with the aquarium. So fun.

    What’s up the starfish though? Are you locking the front door when you’re away? Are you guys going to give them names?

    Your writing is excellent. So enjoyable.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Bruce.

      The starfish did blow us away. Both of them are pretty reclusive, though. Sometimes a day or two goes by without seeing either of them. Here’s hoping they put that wallflower thing behind them soon.

      No names yet, but I’m thinking about it.

  4. RIP Audrey. Is it okay to laugh at a memorial post? You and Alex are a hoot. Yep, good idea to hold off on Ginger and Fred and give the starfishes a bit of a start. That’s pretty cool that the little critters were hitch-hiking on your living rock. I sense a kids’ book in the works here.

    1. As much as we liked Audrey, not a tear was shed after she passed to the great beyond (the toilet). I just had a slight ache in my wallet.

      I think you’re right about that kids’ book idea, by the way! I’m gonna give it a go!

  5. RIP Audrey.
    I must cite the oft-quoted Peach from FINDING NEMO
    “Isn’t there another way? He’s just a boy!”
    “Find a happy place. Find a happy place.”
    “Look, scum angel.”
    Don’t know why but she’s always struck me as the funniest in the tank.

  6. So sorry for your loss. I do like the idea of a kid’s book about the living rock and all that could conceivably live on, in, around it. It could be a serious nature story or a humorous OMG what is that?! story. You write it and I’ll review it. Looking forward to that day.

  7. Balancing a saltwater fish tank is a production, but you were brave enough to take on the task. I’m sorry for your loss and hope that, however creepily they may have emerged, your starfish bring you solace.

  8. Wow… what a cool thing for the star fish to show up! I am not familiar with salt water tanks or living rocks. Did you buy them when you set your tank up? I’m so sorry about the wrasse but these things happen. Maybe a couple of clown fish would still be cool or at least another shrimp to keep Fosse company. I didn’t know you could put you hand into the water and they would jump on it. I love that! I’m learning all kinds of cool stuff today! 😉
    ps.. love Fosse’s name. I also know who he was. One of my favorite movies was All That Jazz with Schneider. I thought he did an excellent job playing the great choreographer.:-D

    1. I’ve been learning a lot with this tank, that’s for sure.

      When you set up your tank you need living rocks and living sand. And special salt water (so you can’t just toss some Morton’s into a bottle of Polish Springs). And you also need this special distilled water to accommodate for evaporation. It is a big hullabaloo, but I’m digging it.

      1. It sounds like it is! And a great thing to do with your son! Maybe some day I will have a tank, but I think I will hold off until I can afford to have someone else take care of it!! LOL! Which will be… oh I don’t know.. never? But one never knows! 😉

  9. I loved this post! I’m an aquarium enthusiast myself, but never saltwater… you are brave! But now all I have are two African dwarf frogs left to me after my daughter returned to college… but they’re kind of cool and easy to take care of. Oh, and sorry for your loss 🙂

      1. I don’t think so – they are always underwater but come up to the surface for air. I don’t really know of any crickets small enough for them to eat! I just feed them dry pellets of some kind for amphibians. They really are hearty little creatures, and fun to watch. They will greet you when you come up to the bowl – no filters or anything is required… just keeping it clean, which I guess makes them good pets for kids. So now that you know everything you ever wanted to know about these little frogs, I really should add that it’s nice to meet you! LOL! And I agree about saltwater tanks – they are beautiful, and I love anything to do with sea life, but the work and expense involved always kept me away from pursuing it, even though I would love to have one someday! I literally seek out aquariums in every city I am in, because I like them so much! I missed my calling as a marine biologist! 🙂

      2. My wife, Ellen, is also an aquarium devotee. She also suggests checking out the fishy displays in every major city we visit. Alex and I are less enthusiastic about these aquarium field trips, yet he and I are the ones eternally futzing with the little tank in our house. Strange.

        And it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance as well! Don’t be a stranger!

  10. I WANT A LIVING ROCK!!!! There’s something extremely hopeful and yet frightening about the concept. Please keep us updated with what crawls forth from your amazingly wonderful aquatic world.

  11. You know, fish tanks with those bubbles, and nice rocks are pretty soothing without a fish….we found a pretty realistic fake one that lasted far longer than the live variety (” a little too much of a cliché.” – got a real laugh over that) Great story….and what is lurking…. waiting…

  12. The starfish were an awesome surprise. All I get around here is mice. Ick! It wouldn’t be as bad if I could train them and they would eat the junk I throw out from the fridge, but that’s not working out too well.

  13. I’ve never heard of a living rock, this is a great story, with the star fish emerging after all that time, wow! I think you did pretty good for 3 months with that tricky fish, it’s not like it flipped and floated within the first 48 hours, so I think you must have been doing things almost right.

      1. Yep. The aquarium books call them “sea stars,” too. But I’ve decided that you’re both wrong. It’s starfish. Live with it.

        On the day I wrote this post, Mr. & Mrs. Starfish were in hiding. I will provide photos soon for you, though. Does that suit you? Hmm?

        Sheesh. Go arrange your spice rack.

  14. “Kicked the brackish bucket.” That is classic Mike Allegra at his best. You do amuse. Still, I’m looking for my clarified lemon butter to go along with Fosse.

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