The scum-sucker is staring at me. He’s hovering underneath the fake pink and green sea foliage, gills furiously slapping against his body, top fin arched high over his beady little orange-rimmed eyes, glaring at this decidedly unaquatic monstrosity peering down at him.
“Doesn’t this THING understand that the sole requirement of scum sucking is absolute sanctity of space? By the way, when’s that next flurry of Tropical TetraMin (the packaging of which is punctuated by the catchy, if grammatically incorrect, slogan: “TheRichMix”) coming? I’m getting a stomachache from this putrescence I’ve been imbibing all day.”
It is an irritable bugger, probably suffering from untold numbers of fishy psychoses, not an unusual quality among my family’s pets.
I guess we shouldn’t blame it. Whatever cruel karmic twist of fate landed this sucker in the position of cast-off connoisseur in a tank in the middle of suburbia surely entitles it to a little mealtime privacy. Besides, it’s not really the worst of the lot.
Enter: The snail eater. Every time I look over from my desk at the tank, I find myself thinking about the bit of conventional wisdom that claims that people and their pets usually look and act in similar manners. And I wonder how this particular fish reflects on the Siessegers as a whole. First off, it cost $15. The fish is less than three inches long. For $15 my parents and I could have had 6 oz. of fresh Norwegian salmon or five packages of Gorton’s fishsticks. (Perish the thought!) Secondly, the snail eater seems to be wholly deficient in its sole existential purpose: eating snails. Two months ago we had roughly 200 snails living in our 10-gallon tank when my father made this solid fish investment. The woman at the pet store promised him that this creature would relieve us of that problem in no time flat. She was wrong. Instead of a clean and aesthetically pleasing home aquarium, we have a paranoid freakshow of a clown loach … and several hundred snails.
Our clown loach has taken up residency inside a shell and seems to have almost as much interest in coming out of this hovel as did its previous occupant, a hermit crab I affectionately called Smash. Smash the Crab croaked more than 13 years ago, but it took us a month or so to figure that fact out. In death he was only slightly less active than he had been in life. He just didn’t require any additional peanut butter (Skippy was widely rumored to be the equivalent of TetraMin for hermit crabs).
Dead fish are a bit easier to identify inasmuch as they tend to float. So when our 15 smackeroos worth of clown loach suddenly disappeared less than 24 hours after its debut in the tank, my father started to wonder. Then he began an all-out fishhunt.
Had the fish jumped out? It wasn’t behind the bookshelf. Had it been eaten by the other fish? Not likely, as the clown loach was about twice the size of everybody else. That it might be in hiding seemed a distinct possibility, but the scum sucker seemed to have usurped the only spot that was really big enough for it, a crevice under the piece of decorative driftwood anchored to the bottom of the tank. This had suddenly become a dilemma beyond the scope of any normal suburban household. Jaws (on an admittedly smaller scale) had met The Twilight Zone, and the final scene did not look as though it was going to be pretty.
Much to our hyperactive three-year-old golden retriever’s distress (the Siesseger zoo harbors a pair of mammals, too), I abbreviated her evening stroll around the block that evening in order to join my father’s crusade to find the feckless fish. In an attempt to thwart, and perhaps disorient, the miniscule pseudo-brain inside the head of our fishy foe, we devised an elaborate scheme of turning the lights inside the tank and in the room off and on at sporadic intervals, in the hope that the crafty clown loach would be fooled into thinking that we’d retired for the evening and would decide to emerge from hiding. Apparently, his mini-brain managed to decipher our Morse code charades because instead of finning gleefully out into the darkened waters and getting caught, when we flipped the lights back on, one orange-and-black striped tail smacked the edge of Smash’s erstwhile shell. With his scaly head firmly lodged in the conch shell cavity, the slapping tail seemed to be a direct affront to our supposed evolutionary superiority. The fish was laughing at us. My dad claimed victory (at least we knew that the search for a clown loach carcass could be abandoned) and went downstairs. I sat and stared.
A few days later, I got a phone call from my father.
“I finally opted for the chemical solution over the natural one, so all the snails are gone,” he said. “Now the clown loach looks hungry.”
“Hmm, too bad.”
Le petit fish and chips, anyone?