This short story was inspired by a recent trip to the mall:
The mall was choked with shoppers returning Christmas presents and looking for end of year deals. My sister had gifted me an unsuitable sweater and I’d come to return it. With the refund tucked into my wallet I worked my way to the mall exit. The aisles were jammed with sullen children, screaming babies and tired parents. Maneuvering around them required patience which at that moment I was sorely lacking. I dodged into a pet store to calm my nerves and build up energy to slash my way through the jungle of shoppers to reach my car.
A rude young boy pushed past me with a crinkled dollar clutched in his hand. He pressed his nose to a tank swarming with goldfish advertised at a dollar each. An older man approached to wait on him. They didn’t appear to notice me and I was well positioned to hear their exchange.
“Can I help you, young man?” he asked politely.
“Are you Chinese?” the boy blurted.
“My parents were born in China, but I was born in San Francisco.”
The boy appeared to think about this for a moment, and then said, “I’ve spent all of my Christmas money ‘cept for this dollar. I guess I’ll take one of these crummy goldfish.”
“Have you owned a goldfish before? They require care to thrive, clean water and of course fish food.”
The boy rolled his eyes. “My sister got one for her birthday but a couple a days later it was dead. She said I could have the fishbowl and what’s left of the food.”
“I see,” the man said. “Do you know anything about goldfish?”
“I know they’re pretty darn cheap if you can buy ‘em for a buck.”
The salesclerk showed remarkable patience with the kid. “Goldfish are originally from China. Early Chinese fairy tales from around 700 B.C. refer to a goldfish leaping from a well to signal the end of a drought.”
“Can these fish jump?” He didn’t look as disinterested as he had a moment earlier.
“No. But imagine what must have happened a thousand years ago. Can you imagine how long a thousand years is?”
“King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table lived a long time ago. Was it around then?”
The man nodded, oblivious to others impatient to be waited on. “Back then someone spotted a little grey fish with a fleck of gold on it in a creek. The fish was scooped up and placed in a pond with another fish with a single golden fleck and before long babies were born with two spots of gold. The process continued until, after much careful breeding, a fish was created that was completely gold in color. So you see it took ages to create the first of these tiny miracles. It’s true that today they aren’t expensive, but they certainly aren’t cheap.”
The man carefully netted one of the fish and placed it in a plastic bag with water. Before handing over the fish he leaned toward the boy and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. “You might want to keep it a secret, but these fish are special in another way. They possess the magic of good luck. Take care of it; feed it properly and keep its bowl clean. The longer this fish lives the stronger the magic.”
“What happens if it dies?”
He pretended to shudder. “Let’s not think about that. Besides, I have a feeling you’re
going to take good care of this fish. Aren’t you?”
The boy nodded. After visiting the cash register, he left, carefully cradling the bag containing his new pet.
I smiled at the salesman and searched for a nametag. He wasn’t wearing one. “That was clever of you,” I said. “That fish didn’t stand a chance until you fibbed and told him it was magical.”
“I didn’t fib,” he explained. “That little fish is going to teach our young man responsibility, patience and kindness. What’s more magical than that?”
A few weeks later I again found myself in the mall. The post Christmas crowds were gone. I remembered the man in the pet store and decided to pay him a visit. I passed by the yapping puppies and meowing kittens, grumpy parrots and disinterested rodents until I came to the fish tank still advertising goldfish for a dollar apiece. The clerk without the nametag was nowhere in sight. When another salesman approached I said, “I’m looking for an older Asian fellow who was working here a few days after Christmas.”
“I’m the manager,” he said, “and no one on our payroll meets that description.”
“What about seasonal help?”
“Sorry. Maybe you’re confusing ours with another store.”
“Is there another pet store in the mall?”
“No. Maybe you were at a different mall. But since you’re here, is there any way I can help you?”
I shook my head and turned to go, but I was halted by an impulse fluttering through my mind. “Yes, there is something you can do for me. I need a goldfish.”
Coming soon: Goosie & Bonkers: A tale of Two Goldfish…..