It could be argued that I am not the most nurturing person by nature.
My earliest pets, box elder bugs that I collected from our yard and kept in a metal Band-Aid box, died almost immediately. I once killed a cactus.
One time, I chaperoned a high school activity for a half hour, and within the first 10 minutes, a boy got a concussion and another broke his nose. To this day, I still don’t know how that happened. And the thing was, in every case, I tried really hard to be caring and responsible.
I am convinced the only reason my dog is still alive is that my mom watches him while I’m at work. She raised four children, so she’s got to know a thing or two about keeping things safe and living.
But every so often, I forget how bad I am at keeping things alive. When my sister’s two frogs died after happily swimming around for three years or so, and she was throwing out their fishbowl, I had a brilliant idea: I would take the bowl and get goldfish and take them to work. They would spruce up my desk and keep me company as I wrote.
The next day, I brought in a freshly-washed fishbowl, a new bottle of fish food and five colorful new friends. Because I’m so dedicated to my job, and I cover Grantsville City Council meetings, naming them was easy: Mike Johnson, Mike Colson, Tom Tripp, Neil Critchlow and Scott Stice. Mayor Brent Marshall lost out on getting a namesake fish because I wasn’t sure the bowl could support six fish, even if they were small.
At first, things were going swimmingly, if you’ll pardon the pun. I wasn’t sure when the little guys had been fed last, so I sprinkled just a few flakes of fish food on top of the fresh water. Boy, tell you what, that Scott Stice just swam right up and started nibbling. They all looked so happy.
But within hours, there was trouble. Near the end of the day, I noticed Mike Colson floating belly-up. Tragic, just tragic, but I had expected the move from their childhood tank to their new home on my desk might be stressful.
Reverently, I got a new plastic fork out of the breakroom, wrapped the little fish’s body lovingly in a napkin, and flushed him down the toilet.
Before I left for the evening — to go, in fact, to a meeting with the real city council — I sprinkled a few more flakes in the bowl and whispered goodbye to my little councilfish.
In the morning, I expected four wriggly little tails to happily greet me. Instead, I noticed Mike Johnson was still asleep in the decorative plastic plant. When I tapped on the glass, he didn’t move.
“Fish sleep, right?” I asked my coworkers, looking for reassurance. “I mean, he could just be sleeping.”
Their grim faces didn’t help with my denial.
As soon as I could accept the fact that Mike Johnson, too, was gone, I went back into the break room for another fork and napkin. This time, Transcript-Bulletin photo editor Francie Aufdemorte wanted to take pictures of the sad occasion, but complained that there wasn’t enough light at my desk for decent photos, so I gently moved the bowl near the window, careful to make as few waves as possible.
After Mike Johnson was flushed and I moved the bowl back, I peered down at the remaining three councilfish.
“You guys can’t die now, all right?” I told them.
Scott Stice did a little flip in the water and vigorously swam around the plant, which I’m sure is fish for, “No problem, girlfriend.”
That was ironic, because not an hour later, Scott Stice had sunk to the bottom, eyes glazed over, tail limp. This time, I had thought to save the fork — more ecologically friendly, you know — and just needed a new napkin.
When I got back from my third flushing in 24 hours, I hugged the fishbowl as tight as I could, my voice thick and my eyes pricking with tears.
“It’s just us three now,” I said, choking back a sob. “Please don’t leave me alone.”
Neil Critchlow pecked at a bubble, while Tom Tripp just swam in a lazy circle. I wanted to believe they understood me and were agreeing to my plea, but I was jaded by broken dreams and false hope.
So it came as no surprise when, the next morning, Tom Tripp was gone. That afternoon, Neil Critchlow followed. That weekend was one of bitterness and sorrow.
I postponed their double-funeral until Monday, so that everyone from the office who wanted to attend, could be there. That morning, I found a hand-crafted, flushable fish coffin and a spray of flowers on my desk, tokens from my equally bereaved coworkers.
The service was standing-room only, and people spilled out of the biggest office bathroom and into the hall, a testament that, although they had only been with us a short time, these little goldfish had touched many. The powerful lesson we could learn from their short lives — how they all just kept swimming, cheerfully, even as they all died one by one — comforted us as we commended their bodies to the Tooele City Wastewater Treatment Plant, and then, undoubtedly, to the Great Fish Bowl in the Sky.
It’s been several weeks now, but their fishbowl remains empty. I have grieved and their faces no longer consume my thoughts, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to buy more fish. The wound is still too fresh, too raw.
Perhaps someday, I will be able to pick out a new group of desk friends, and name them after, say, the Tooele County Commission. But I’d hate to write another column like this with the headline “How I Killed Shawn Milne.”
So I work alone, that spot on my desk bland and empty. I know that one day, I will forget about how I killed five goldfish in less than two days, and I will try again — an example, I suppose, of the triumph of the human spirit. But today, the memories of those joyful hours, before they all died, are enough for now.
Editor’s note: No city officials were harmed in the making of this column. Not so for the five fish who had the grave misfortune of being purchased by Christensen.