Mrs. McClane bought a goldfish when Mitch’s pet shop began having financial trouble. It was a usual morning, otherwise—her husband and sons were in the field, her daughter tending to the chickens, pig, and cows. She had gone to buy soap and fabric for new curtains, her leather coin purse lightening as she went, store to store. A floral pattern was on sale, so she with the extra money she decided to treat herself to a professional haircut, only the third or fourth she’d ever had. Well, business had been good. Her children had been good. She deserved it. And her husband would love it!
“How are you, Mrs. McClane?” asked Mitch Healy from the pet shop as she walked by its open door. She knew him from church. He spit tobacco into an empty beer bottle he produced from behind the pet shop counter and invited her inside.
“Hello Mr. Healy.” Mrs. McClane peered around at the small shop. Two dogs gnawed on one cow thighbone in a cage. A cat napped on the counter. Goldfish lined the back walls, and three birds hung from cages in the ceiling. “How are you both?”
Mr. Healy said, “Good,” then added, “Been better.”
“Oh, business is slow. Tends to get that way before harvest, you know. Kids are at that growing phase and between food for the animals at home and the animals at work I’ve barely enough money to feed myself!”
Mrs. McClane felt the weight of the coin purse tied on her wrist. She approached the fish tank. The ten or so goldfish were the strong majority, with only two hermit crabs and an angel fish for company.
“But, well, that’s a story for me and my Missus,” Mr. Healy said, smiling and folding his hands on the counter. “Never mind it, never mind it.”
Oh, sugar. Well, Mrs. McClane always was good with a pair of scissors. The ladies at church were growing it out longer anyhow. She gazed around the store for a price list—no way could they feed a dog. Maybe a cat, with all the rats in the horse barn, but she needed all the milk the cow gave for her kids and her cooking. She was terrified of birds, and the angelfish looked…expensive.
“I’ll buy a goldfish, Mitch,” Mrs. McClane said. And she did. She was halfway home with the thing held at arm’s length in a shining plastic bag when she realized she forgot to pick up blue thread for the curtains. Well, they’ll have to be in brown. After buying the fish, the bowl, the food, and the pebbles she didn’t have the money for it anyhow.
Her husband wasn’t too fond of the seventh mouth to feed, but after seeing how little the mouth required he began to warm up to it. The kids liked it too, and the four of them would poke sticks in the water, trying to get it to chase it like a dog. Little Bradley would giggle uncontrollably whenever he caught it pooping. Mary took to feeding it every morning before she went out to help with the chickens, and she began trying out names for it—all female, which the boys rejected. Dinner became a secondary activity to watching the table’s centerpiece circle around its home. Even Mr. and Mrs. McClane would find themselves watching the bright orange fins flutter around in the bowl.
Soon, as is apt to happen, the only piece of orange in the house faded to a sickly white. Fifteen days after Mrs. McClane came home with the goldfish, she was burying it in the backyard.
“I thought it would be a good present…it must have been sick. No wonder his pet shop is going under,” whispered Mrs. McClane to her husband as her kids said their final goodbyes to a shoebox labeled ‘Goldfish.’
“Mitch said his shop is going under?” her husband asked. “He’s has been pulling that line since the beginning. He guilts you into buying things, because he says he’s low on cash.”
Mrs. McClane sighed, and wrapped a strand of splitting hair around her fingers. She stayed outside as the boys pushed dirt over the shoebox, all but James holding back tears. Mary plucked a clover blossom and placed it on the grave, then ran into her mother’s skirt, weeping.
“Oh, my Little Miss Mary,” Mrs. McClane cooed, lifting her daughter by the underarms and placing her on her hip. “Honey, it’s okay. He lived a good life, and now he’s in heaven.”
“He didn’t live a good life,” said Mary, her little peach-colored face blotchy with tears. “He swam around in stupid circles all day and now he’s gone!”
Mrs. McClane rubbed Mary’s back. She wasn’t sure who to blame, Mitch or herself, so she settled on blaming the goldfish. God damn that goldfish and its tortured, circling soul for making her children weep and wasting her husband’s money. Godforsaken goldfish.
Late at night, she sat up in bed as her husband slept. She held her ear to the wall behind their bed and could hear her children chattering in whispers they thought she couldn’t hear. It was no surprise that the goldfish was a main topic of the late night chat tonight.
“Mom said he’s in heaven,” said Mary, after Bradley asked where he went.
“Nah, come on,” said Ernest, her eldest. “That’s dumb. How could he be in heaven if he never prayed?”
“Shut up, Ern,” said James.
Her husband rustled, then turned and smiled at his wife.
“You eavesdropping again?” he whispered, lifting the blanket for her to slide back under. She snuck in and held him tightly, silently crying into his chest.
“Am I a bad mother, Harry?”
“Not in the slightest.”