Nathan, my first-grader, told me his teacher was giving away the classroom guppies. He asked if he could have one.
"Absolutely not," I said.
I wrinkled my nose just thinking about my first pet - a turtle. I remembered how much it smelled, especially after the three weeks I forgot to feed it. I learned that a turtle wasn't as interesting as the Chinese take-out container it came in.
"Probably not," I told Nathan the next time he asked about a guppy.
Nearly every family I knew has had fish. I've watched as guppies begot gerbils that begot birds that begot rabbits that begot cats that begot dogs.
I worried that my life would be reduced to appointments with veterinarians. That my house would smell like a barn. That the sofa would look like an Angora sweater.
"Maybe," I said when Nathan again posed the guppy question.
I had been thinking about Oscar, the orange tabby I had when I was my son's age. Oscar lay next to me kneading the bedcovers when I was ill. He was the only family member who liked me when I became a teenager.
Finally I told Nathan he could have a guppy. Then he worried one guppy might get lonely and asked if he could have two. Already I was having a "begetting" problem.
We borrowed a fishbowl from a family who'd traded up to cockatiels and German shepherds. The next afternoon Nathan brought home two guppies. We named the little guppy Moby and the littler one Dick.
Nathan tried communicating with his fish. One morning he showed me how he'd taught them to surface on command. I hadn't the heart to explain the connection between his hand signals and the fish food he'd just sprinkled in their bowl. Next he tried to teach them to do somersaults. Then he tried reading their lips. After three months, Nathan confessed that guppies were boring. Cats, he decided, were better pets.
One morning, Nathan found Dick's lifeless body floating in the fishbowl. He put him in a box and made a grave marker out of Popsicle sticks. Then he buried Dick in the garden. For the next two days, Nathan moped around the house.
A month later, Nathan found Moby lying near the bottom of the fishbowl. He tried to coax him to the surface for breakfast, but within hours the guppy was dead. Death lost some of its sting the second time around, though.
Funeral arrangements were still pending when Nathan asked about getting a cat.
I'm still trying to decide what color fur will match the couch.
Jean Francis lives in Lansdale, Pa., with her husband, son, and Ricky, a black cat.
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