We are gathered here today to remember my pet cleaner shrimp, Fosse.
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?”
“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.
“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.”
She is a six line wrasse. I named her Audrey because she has the grace and elegance of Audrey Hepburn.
And because Audrey – like all living things – needs to poop on occasion, I also got a shrimp to, ahem, clean up after her. The shrimp is named Fosse – as in Bob Fosse. I named the shrimp Fosse because his waggling antennae reminded me of jazz hands. I also chose the name because, if memory serves, Bob Fosse (the person) drank Tab. If you don’t remember Tab, it was a diet soda that tasted like poo. So there we are.
And no tank is complete without a snail. He has yet to exhibit enough personality to warrant a name. I am, of course, willing to hear suggestions.
To be honest, Audrey, Fosse, and No Name Snail don’t belong to me. They are my son’s pets. He just let me name them.
Alex was always fascinated with saltwater fish. Ever since he was about three, he would leave me in the dust the moment we entered a pet store. Off he’d race to the tanks along the far wall.
He must have picked up this behavior from my wife, Ellen, who also has a habit of abandoning me in pet stores. She, however, would dart in the opposite direction, to the furry critter section, and act as if it was her personal petting zoo.
I would’ve preferred to have followed my wife to the critters; I am a rodent person, after all. But you can’t let a preschooler wander off to a distant corner of a huge, busy store alone, because, you know, blah, blah, blah, bad parenting, blah, blah.
I also couldn’t ask Ellen to watch Alex because she would always have her hands full. Literally. She would be cradling three chinchillas in her arms saying, “Who’s adorable? Who’s adorable? You are! Yes, you are!”
So off to the fish tanks I would go. Alex would talk to me endlessly about how beautiful the fish were. How graceful they were. How awesome the tanks looked. How much he liked the pump that blurbled air bubbles into the water.
Then he’d ask me which fish was my favorite. In response I’d point to the 89-cent goldfish, because I had a pretty good idea where this conversation was going.
But he never asked for a fish. Perhaps in his young mind he thought they were for display purposes only.
So Alex and I just talked and watched the fish as we waited for the PetSmart employees to shoo Little Miss Grabby Hands away from the rodent cages. When Ellen no longer had anything in her arms to pet, we were allowed to leave.
As Alex got older he and I still lingered in the fish section of the pet store, but our discussions shifted to questions about fish care. And when his questions got too complicated for me to answer, we’d chat up an employee. Alex knew my philosophy of pet ownership: If you’re not willing to take care of it, don’t bother to ask the question. This philosophy had held him off for years. By the time last Christmas rolled around, however, he was weighing his options. Maybe he did want to take care of a fish.
And maybe I did, too. After all those times of standing in front of those tanks, I began to awaken to their appeal. No, fish aren’t as cuddly as rodents, but they sure are beautiful, aren’t they?
At Christmas, Alex got his aquarium. And this past month, Alex picked out Audrey. Much to my chagrin, Audrey is not an 89-cent goldfish. And much more to my chagrin, Audrey costs much more than an 89-cent goldfish.
And did you know that you have to pay for salt water? You can’t just throw sea salt in tap water and call it a day, apparently. And you need living sand. Not just any old sand. The living kind. That also goes for rocks, too. You need living rocks. (The idea that the rocks and sand are alive unnerves me slightly.) You also need a heater and a thermometer and a thing that scrapes the slime off of the glass. And those poo-eating shrimp aren’t chump change either. And please don’t get me started on how much that bitty eight-gallon aquarium cost.
When I was a kid, I had a goldfish. I won him at a fair. It lived in a glass bowl with colored (non-living) rocks and a plastic castle. It was dead in two months. I wasn’t exactly sad to see it go. Neither was my mom. The investment was minimal. The bowl, rocks and castle probably cost three bucks.
But I will do everything in my power to keep Audrey alive and happy. I’ve spent way too much for her not to be happy. And alive.
Besides, ever since she came to live with us, not a day has gone by when Alex and I haven’t pulled up two chairs to watch Audrey glide around the living rocks, Fosse whip out the jazz hands, and No Name Snail do nothing. We watch and we talk. And those moments are well worth any investment.