Please Pass the Krill

©1990 J. Landman Gay
Originally published in the online magazine Zip Beep.

I’m an I.F.P.—Indifferent to Fish Person. I watch the aquarium in the dentist’s office, with those gaping little mouths going O...O...O and those buggy fish eyes staring blankly through the glass. Their toothless jaws remind me of why I’m at the dentist’s in the first place. On the Cuddly Pet Scale, fish are just under salamanders, and they are capable of only the simplest tricks. Their best trick is the way they slam into the side of the aquarium while chasing their own reflection. Their second-best trick is the way they slam it again when they think their reflection hit them back.

We get ourselves an aquarium anyway. We can’t help it. The small tyrant who runs our household can’t rip his nose off the side of the display tank at Children’s Palace, so instead of coming home with a Little Tykes three-wheeler, we come home with a ten-gallon aquarium, some gravel, a bunch of plastic tubing and some sketchy directions on how to arrange the entire affair into a working environment for animals who have no business being on your bookshelf in the first place.

It makes your refrigerator odd. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

You don’t just fill up a new tank with water and plop in any old fish. We learn this when we try to buy some the next day. The purported rationale is that you have to put in “starter” fish, rugged individualists who can survive terrible environmental conditions, the most gruelling of which is the human idiot who is just learning the ropes. They excrete prolifically while they are being overfed and then belly up from the ammonia content in the water which would make their eyes tear if they could only blink. They struggle and die as they condition the water, molding a world where the right bacteria can thrive and the ecology is balanced. “Conditioning the water” is, of course, a euphemism.

That’s what they say. But the actual reason is that dumping in fish would be far, far too easy and the N.A.F.P.—Nuts About Fish People—want to maintain a mystique around their hobby so that the I.F.P.’s of the world will have a sense of awe and respect for fish. This is reinforced by the use of the word “fishes” as a plural in the manual that came with the tank. “Fishes” subconsciously evokes Biblical images and is intended to further engender respect. Anyone who respects a fish is either hopelessly befuddled, has very low standards, or is face to face with a shark in open water.

At any rate, once the tank is installed at home, the kid who was glued to it in the store has become an I.F.P. himself and couldn’t care less, but by then the adults are hooked, so it all evens out. I decide I want a betta -- one of those iridescent, multi-hued, Siamese Fighting fish. The ones with the fins that go forever, and look a little like the personified notion of a fish in the movie Fantasia, only without the big lips. I get a beauty at a local fish store, which is a different thing than a fish market. At the one you buy tiny live fish, and at the other they’re all big and dead.

The betta won’t eat. Five days later, I become concerned. So I trek back to the fish store, where I can get advice and where my son can once again be fascinated with the display tanks, just because they aren’t the one at home and kids only like stuff that isn’t theirs.

“Won’t eat flakes, eh?” the grizzled proprietor says. “What you need,” he tells me, “is these frozen brine shrimp. He’ll eat that.”

“How much are they?”

“Two-ninety-nine for two ounces.”

I decide it would be cheaper to feed it on sirloin. But I plunk my money down anyway, peel my kid off the glass in front of the redwag moons, and go home with a bag of shrimp. A fish is a living thing and it would be irresponsible to do any less.

We’re getting to the point about the refrigerator now.

So my husband comes home that night and says, “Say, what’s this black gunk in the freezer?”

“Brine shrimp,” I tell him.

“You on some new kind of health food kick?”

Later, I give the betta his shrimp. Everyone else in the tank eats it up in a frenzy of gluttony, wriggling and bumping and shooting through the water like New Yorkers trying to be first into a Macy’s white sale. The betta just watches as shrimp bits float past him to settle into the gravel, where the little catfish go nuts and dig in up to their eyeballs after it.

“Two-ninety-nine for two ounces!” I’m screaming at him. “You eat that right this minute!” Of course, since this method doesn’t work for my kid, I’m foolish to think it might work on a fish. But it never hurts to try, and besides, no one is watching.

So, of course, later I’m back at the fish store. “Don’t let your kid climb into that tank,” the proprietor says, “it makes the fish skittish.” I glance over my shoulder and see my son trying to go for a swim in a fifty-gallon aquarium containing the biggest, ugliest gray fish I’ve ever seen. It’s all alone in the huge tank and it smiles menacingly at him. The label on the glass says “George the Pirhana, Not For Sale”. I follow Childcare Rule 5, Subsection 1, which is for public use, and give him a proprietary swat on the bottom and a stern lecture about amenities which I know he doesn’t understand but sounds good to anyone listening. I’d rather have inflicted a more physical reinforcement of my point but, I reason, if maiming were the goal I could have let the pirhana do it.

Briefly, I outline the problem. I have to be brief, because my son is eyeing the monstrous fish and puffing out his cheeks in imitation. I’m not sure what he’s going to try next and I don’t think he does either, but I want to be out of there before he figures it out. “Well,” says the shopkeeper, “every other day or so, you just give your betta these nice tubifex worms. He’ll like those. He’ll eat just fine.”

Okay, right. I ignore the protestations of my gut and pay up.

It takes a day to brace myself enough to offer this delicacy. Tubifex worms are freeze-dried and they look like bullion cubes, but they still smell like something flat on the sidewalk. I rip off half a cube, shudder, and toss it in the water, where it immediately spreads out into a tangled, writhing mass of filaments, quadrupling in size. The tank goes mad, everybody hauling away at the shreds like they’re playing tug-of-war with a frayed rope. It would seem there’s nothing quite like a good worm after you’ve been eking along on dollar-fifty-an-ounce shrimp.

The betta meanders slowly to the top of the tank and gazes introspectively at the shredded mass. Tentatively he takes in a worm, slowly, a bit at a time, like sucking in a long, long strand of spaghetti. Halfway through he knows it’s too much for him and spits it out, then re-eats it. He half-heartedly eats one more, then he’s back at the bottom of the tank, pacing the length and getting riled up at his reflection.

Meanwhile the gold barbs are swelling up to double their natural size. Their bellies are so distended that you can see their guts through the stretched skin. And they’re still gobbling down those things; I figure there’s too much in there for their own good. I scoop out two-thirds of the remaining mass with a fork and wrap it in Saran Wrap.

I put it in the refrigerator. I figure since it’s been wet it will spoil.

So my husband comes home and says, “Say, what is this curly stuff in the refrigerator?”

“Tubifex worms.”

“You go ahead. I’ll have a sandwich.”

We lose a goldwag moon to gluttony. The refrigerator looks much like something that ought to be wrapped in a spider’s web before it crawls away some night to breed. The tubifex worms vie for space with the brine shrimp; we’ve got plankton, algae, and bloodworms in neat plastic packages nestled up against daphnia and krill. For some reason, my husband has quit standing in front of the open refrigerator, a traditionally favorite place to graze while thinking about life. He is starting to believe that a Swanson Hungry Man TV Dinner is the ultimate gourmet experience, as long as he doesn’t have to shove aside any Saran Wrap to get to it.

He’s beginning to distrust my cooking. Just wait till I buy the mosquito larvae.


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