When I was a young boy I had a most remarkable pet. It was a fish, except that it had teeth. Big teeth.
I got Joe at a pet store downtown. The man who sold him to me was named Sal. At the time, Joe was no bigger than a Ping-Pong ball, and he lived in an aquarium all by himself.
The first time I saw him, my heart skipped a beat: There he was, blue with a red belly, big eyes, and grayish-white teeth that hung out all over the place. My parents had given me permission to buy a fish for my empty aquarium at home, so I dug into my pocket and gave Sal all the money I had in the world: $4.95.
Sal tried to fetch Joe out of the tank with a nylon net, but Joe just tore through the net with those teeth of his. Sal finally got a metal net and put Joe in a plastic bag filled with water. Then he put that bag into a second bag, and that one into a third. Finally, he put the three plastic bags into a paper bag. And then he turned to me. "You want some advice, kid?" he asked.
I nodded. "Sure."
'Wait a minute - he has teeth!'
I ran all the way home while Joe worked at the plastic bags with his teeth. Just as I got to the tank in our living room, I felt the paper bag filling with water. But I was quick and got Joe into the tank before he wound up on the floor.
Joe was a bit excited at first, but soon settled down behind the rock I had set in the tank. When my parents came home from work they asked to see my new fish. I pointed to the tank. Both my mom and dad bent down and looked through the glass. Then their eyes popped wide open. "Wait a minute," my dad said. "This fish has teeth!"
"Yeah," I said, bursting with pride. "He's a piranha. His name is Joe. Joe Piranha."
"What does he eat?" asked my mom, looking very, very doubtful.
"Chopped meat, steak, pork chops," I said. "Any kind of meat."
"Sounds like an expensive pet," Dad said.
"Don't worry," I said. "I'll share my food."
My parents soon got used to having a piranha in the house. And Joe was really no bother at all. He mostly stayed behind his rock and fanned his fins.
When I came home after school, he'd swim to the glass and look me over with his big round eyes. I'd throw him a piece of hamburger and watch as he chased it down, opening his mouth as wide as could be before the big gulp. He swam with grace and style. He was poetry in motion. And he was mine.
One day my mother came home to find a line of kids at the door. I had put a sign up that said, "Feed the Piranha! 5 Cents!"
"What's going on here?" Mom demanded.
"Joe and I are in business," I said.
One by one, my friends came in and bought a little piece of steak from me. As soon as they plopped it into the tank, Joe would swim out from behind his rock and dart after the meat. Then he'd go back behind his rock to rest. It was the perfect business: Joe got fed, I made a pocketful of nickels, and my very best friends got a thrill.
Things went on like this for about two years. Joe never seemed to get tired of chasing pieces of meat, and I could sit and watch him for hours, even when he was doing nothing. I thought about him all the time; I even dreamed about him. I was the only kid on the block - maybe in the whole world - with a piranha!
The thing was, Joe grew mighty fast. Maybe it was the steak. I don't know. But he was now as big as the sole of my shoe, and it was getting harder for him to swim in the aquarium. He had to sort of tilt his head up to turn so he could get from one end of the tank to the other. I wouldn't admit it, but I was starting to feel sorry for him.
Sorry, Joe, time to go
My father finally talked to me about Joe's future. "What you have here is a river fish," he told me one day as Joe stared from the other side of the glass. "He's used to a lot more water than you've given him."
I felt a lump in my throat. "A bigger tank!" I begged.
"No," said my father. "We don't have room. I think that Joe has to go."
In my heart I knew my father was right. Making Joe live in a little tank was like making a person live in a phone booth. I put an ad in the newspaper: PIRANHA FOR SALE, CHEAP.
The next day, a man with a kind face bought Joe. I could barely watch as my pet, my friend, was netted and placed in a heavy plastic bucket.
"He'll be just fine," the man assured me.
I never saw him again.
Sometimes I think about Joe and how his life went after that. A lot of people get tired of having a fish around. If that's what happened to Joe, then I am filled with hope. Maybe that kind-faced man did the proper thing and took Joe back to the wide and noble waters of the Amazon River in South America. That's where piranhas come from, and probably where they belong.