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Something Fishy

by Roberta McReynolds

Some folks still enjoy sending and receiving letters by old-fashioned ‘snail mail’ and I happen to be one of them. It’s possible my postmarked obsession gets its obstinate roots from all those thank you notes my mother insisted I must write over the years, expressing my deepest gratitude for gifts of cheap puzzles, paper dolls and flannel pajamas two sizes too big from well-intentioned elderly relatives. The notion of having a pen pal was a later discovery. Learning a school chum was about to move away brought the hope that letters would be exchanged on a regular basis. Most children, however, dislike writing of any kind, and my mailbox remained empty.

Patience brought its reward in adulthood: I finally have a few pen pals in my address book who keep the art of letter writing alive. They do not own computers and I consider their friendship worth every cent of postage it takes to stay in touch. I am thrilled each time an envelope addressed to me does not contain advertisements for some product "no home should be without" or worse yet, a bill. There is something so substantial to those pages of pretty stationery held between my fingers. Additionally, the process of reading a friend’s letter and answering it feels like that person has just dropped by for a visit.

I had just answered one of those delightful letters and prepared the envelope for mailing. It was placed on the kitchen counter with the rest of the outgoing mail. The following morning I dropped it all in the mailbox, picked up the newspaper from the driveway and started my morning routine. I fed my Zebra Finches and walked over to feed the goldfish and . . . the jar of fish food was missing. It is always kept right beside the 10-gallon fish tank. I looked on the floor, thinking a certain mischievous cat may have knocked it off the counter top, but she was innocent this time. No fish food. I wandered around the small kitchen. No fish food. Bear in mind, the jar is made of reddish-orange plastic, so it’s not like it would blend into the surroundings of a mostly white kitchen with neutral toned accents.

Now the fish were frantically beating their rubbery noses against the glass in an effort to communicate how hungry they were and that I have apparently overlooked them. (I try to avoid making eye contact with six pairs of unblinking dark orbs.)

I walk through the house glancing in the bathroom, sewing room, and bedroom. I peer into the cabinet where I store the bird seed. I retrace my steps and glance at the aquarium again, sending the goldfish into a renewed nose-banging frenzy.

After dressing, my husband comes down the hall and sees I appear confused. I confess to him, "I’ve lost the fish food." The two of us search the house. He checks the refrigerator and freezer. Since I had recently thrown out the hand-held can opener along with an empty can of Italian stewed tomatoes, I decided it would be prudent to look in the trash. My only discovery is that Mike had dumped the trash into the garbage can the night before and taken it out to the curb. It’s garbage day! I dash outside and begin digging through the 55-gallon trash can like a homeless person after soda cans. No fish food.

Out of ideas, I search everywhere again. Finally, I inform Mike that I will buy more Enriched Goldfish Flakes to ensure "enhanced coloration, growth and vitality with protein and vitamins." Meanwhile, the starving fish get whole wheat bread crumbs to tide them over. I now feel I can sit down to my own breakfast in front of them without guilt. While spooning cereal mechanically into my mouth, I try to recreate the events that led up to the disappearance of the reddish-orange jar. I know I fed the fish yesterday afternoon. These are large, hungry goldfish who seem to live under the delusion that they are part piranha. Usually, about 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon I give the birds fresh water and give the fish another pinch of food. I remember that when I stepped up to feed the fish, they were already eating and it stuck in my mind that I had apparently fed them without realizing it. I was clearly distracted, but beyond that, I couldn’t figure out why or what I had done.

A replacement jar of fish food is purchased, as promised to both husband and fish, yet I am still bothered by the mysterious event. When the afternoon feeding comes around, I ponder the notion that if I focus on each step, maybe some enlightenment will come back to me. I take a step closer to the aquarium and the nose-banging begins anew. I pause a moment, followed by another step. The letter to my pen pal had felt heavy in my hand and I remembered thinking it might weigh more than an ounce with all the newspaper clippings and cartoons I had enclosed. Step. Slowly, I turn my head and look up at the top of the bookcase where the postal scale is kept, recalling that when I put the scale away after weighing my letter, it didn’t slip all the way back. It hit something. I asked myself at the time, "I wonder what that is?" But of course I didn’t investigate and promptly forgot about it.

As I walk around the counter top to the bookcase, the fish swim to that side of the aquarium to watch. I reach up, standing on tip toes, and pull the scale down. Next I reach back behind a stack of books where the scale is normally tucked away and my fingertips brush lightly against a smooth plastic surface. Fish food!

Bewildered by the brightly colored jar in my hand, it slowly begins to dawn on me how hard I had to work at the series of events to make that happen. Somehow I managed to feed the fish, walk around the counter top before setting the container down, reach up for the scale with one hand (as the other hand steadies me against the bookcase while I stretch upward), set the scale aside, pick up the fish food again, reach up and push it behind the books, before weighing the letter.

I could make feeble jokes about age or menopause, but I know that even as a youngster I managed to misplace only one of my shoes at a time or couldn’t remember if I wore a sweater to school that day. I was habitually lectured by my exasperated mother with that time-worn sermon about ‘losing my head if it weren’t attached.’

Today, I share my life with an understanding man who is just as likely as I am to suffer from what he calls an attack of B.F.S. (But First Syndrome). Each episode begins innocently enough; "I need to weigh this envelope, but first I’ll feed the fish." The routine gets interrupted and, as demonstrated, anything can happen from there.

I can’t wait to write and tell my pen pal about what happened after I finished my last letter. It will make a great topic and I should write it down before I forget . . . but first I better feed those fish.

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