Feeding the Fish

Our neighbors were on vacation. I had to go next door to feed their betta fish.

Kenny couldn’t wait to tag along. You’d think we’d never had a betta ourselves, one Kenny hadn’t been nearly as excited to feed. Pets can be like toys; you like them better when they belong to someone else.
Our neighbor’s house had been updated, and the front door keyhole was just like the updated one had been at our NH cottage rental on our own vacation – with a little swinging door over the keyhole itself. And it was just as hard to unlock.
“What if we can’t get in?” Kenny said. “The fish will starve. It could die…”
I was a little panicked myself.  What if their one and only pet did die on our watch?
Actually, except for a single fish. these are not pet people.

At least Mary isn’t. Her daughter had been eager to see our new gerbils. “I really, really, really love my fish, but I really, really, really want a dog.” Ana had been peering at the gerbils gnawing on a toilet paper tube.  “But my mom won’t let me. My mom said a dog will poop on the rug. And she’s afraid of cats, I don’t know why…” 
“Gerbils poop too,” Kenny had said.
They do poop. A lot. But hard little round nuggets that I can sweep up, after their exercise workouts on our kitchen floor.
I’d been in our neighbor’s house before, but nothing like being in someone else’s house when they’re not home, when there’s that space to notice details you might not otherwise.
There wasn’t much to notice. The house was spotless. Clutterless. I saw why Ana’s mother wouldn’t want a dog pooping on their living room rug – it was cream-colored.  To match the cream-colored couch. 

A trio of framed reproductions of perfectly shaped green leaves, (ones too perfect to ever actually exist in nature) hung above the fireplace. A birch wooden bowl of birch wooden fruit on the coffee table was the only other detail of even mild note.
The fish was in the kitchen, in a girlish pink plastic tank, on the corner of the granite counter. A completely cleared-of-clutter counter; I don’t even remember seeing a toaster. Certainly no pile of worn school folders, stained cookbooks, clutter baskets and messy penholders you’d find on my own counters.
There was not a handprint to be had on the stainless steel double-door refrigerator that Kenny peered into like a mirror. “Don’t touch,” I said as I remind him in museums.
“Why don’t we have one of these? Look, it even has an ice maker.”
“Ice makers break. And besides I wouldn’t let you touch it.” Then I’d have to wash it. Just as I never get around to washing our windows, the ones he draws on with window markers.
“Their house is big,” Kenny said. “It’s bigger than ours.”
“It’s the same size,” I said, though I certainly couldn’t compare the square footage. And why should I sound defensive? I couldn’t care less whether they had a bigger house.  I just didn’t say what I knew, that it seemed bigger because it was pristine and entirely uncluttered. Not a Lego, dirty napkin, book or reams of scrap paper on their coffee table.
Granted, I’m sure Mary was like me, preferred to return to a clean house after vacations. But our house, even when clean, is still cluttered. Cleaning the clutter, I admit, can be simply rearranging it into a neat pile, like my folders on our ungranite, old Formica counters.
This could never be a gerbil house. Not with these new wood floors, as reflective as the stainless steel refrigerator. Their tiny toes might actually leave hairline scratches. This was a fish house only.
The fish didn’t look too good. He sat on the bottom. His head was hanging out of the princess castle.
“He’s dead,” Kenny said.
Even after I turned on the tank light, he just lay there. That’s how our own betta had died, in his little hut.
He moved! He’d just been sleeping. I don’t remember our own betta ever sleeping that soundly.
He took a long time to wake up, and as we waited for him to eat a couple of food balls, I glanced out at their backyard. Pristine. The mahogany deck was freshly stained; I’d seen Mary out there that spring, on her hands and knees, brushing on the stain herself. All the chairs were pushed in nicely around the big deck table. The centerpiece, a lush pink geranium in a blue-glazed pot, bloomed brilliantly.
“Wish we had a big house,” Kenny said as we relocked the door.
“Our house is big enough. It just seems smaller because your stuff is all over the place.”
Thankfully, the house was easier to lock than unlock. Walking down their steps, I couldn’t help envying the pots of petunias on their porch. How does anyone get things grow like that? The white Adirondack chairs were clean. And white.
I found some solace in our neighbor’s taste not being mine. But walking back to our own very unpristine house, I was bothered – as soon as I walked up the front steps. The morning sun shone at that precise angle to highlight the cobwebs in all their dewy splendor; I hadn’t swept the porch all summer. There was one sad ivy plant, and it was only there because it was sick; I didn’t want its disease to spread to my other houseplants.
Before we’d left to feed the fish, I’d thought I’d been leaving behind a clean house.  Now I knew it depended on your definition of clean; yes, I had vacuumed and dusted just the day before.  And rearranged, if not gotten rid of, actual clutter. But the boys’ “stuff” was everywhere already; Legos dumped again, making it easier for them to seek out tiny pieces they can’t find just by digging through the box. Scraps of paper littered the living room floor, as Ryan had been cutting and taping paper spear heads.
And dirt. Damn. I really hate when the sun falls so precisely, to highlight even the dust along the baseboards.
I glanced out our window at our own backyard deck. No nice large table with pushed-in chairs. Just a second-hand glass one. With no chairs.
Though I noticed the table now had a centerpiece. No flowering pot, but I appreciated it all the same, if not more, as it was the ingenuity of my boys:

And if our house were pristine, I would have to wash the windows, as I have seen Mary doing, sometimes first thing in the morning, maybe even before her first coffee. I would have to wash away Kenny’s scrawled purple dragons and silly faces. And if I had stainless steel appliances, I would not have the heart to wipe away those small handprints – truly more splendorous than even the dewiest of cobwebs.

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About Sandra

Author;editor of The Woven Tale Press at thewoventalepress.net; mother; weaver
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18 Responses to Feeding the Fish

  1. Wylie says:

    Love this story!

  2. lovely story, and I hear ya on the house we leave that we think is clean, only to visit another one that is pristine, then return home and think, oh not so clean I guess.
    Enjoy it I say!

  3. Suzanne says:

    Toy clutter + kids = happy,creative kids ! It will be there for years but take different forms…it’s the only sense of “home” I have left after my fridge door “clutter” got lost forever due to my wood covered fridge now…embrace it and don’t look back!! My youngest is off to college on Saturday and I might just miss her clutter a little bit…

  4. Laura says:

    I love seeing a house like that, clutter and dirt free, like something photographed in a magazine. I admire people who can keep it that way. They must be very orderly and disciplined. It’s wonderful really.

    It will never be my life. But, it is a wonder to see. Beautiful really. I hope they are having happy lives and not wound up too tight trying to make everything so perfect. But, those I have known are happy as well as tidy. Visiting them is like stepping into a posh magazine. You might think it’s a bit stressful but I think it’s carefree to step into that uncluttered perfect world for a visit. Like a break from the chaos I’ve got to go home to again. lol

  5. Lovely stuff here, Sandra. And you have all kinds of ways to cross-market the writing and weaving!


  6. I have no kids, but I am my own clutter-monster and two things I hate more than anything is hoovering and ironing! Well, housework, per say. Just loathe it. But then, I always feel uncomfortable round peoples houses that are ordered beyond belief. My sister tidies around her visitors, and her baby boy. She stands waiting for him to drop a toy so she can show him where it goes when he’s finished with it. Arrgh!

    Great post and thrilled to have you with us at weekend creation blog hop. Shah. X

  7. Home is where the heart is, even when home is where the mess is.

  8. ElizOF says:

    I grew up in your neighbor’s home (my mom was the ultimate clean freak), and mine is cozy, comfy and a tad cluttered… My children and I love the carefree lifestyle and piles of books, magazines and art we enjoy with our crazy cat.
    Home is truly where the heart is; the rest is staging…
    Thanks for the comment you left on my Blog Farm post.
    Have a great week ahead!

  9. ElizOF says:

    Re-reading my comment, I felt I should clarify that what I meant is that I grew up in a similarly pristine home… 🙂

  10. I aspire to have the clutter free home. Alas, I too live in the real world…sand, junk mail, books galore. A lived in house has personality. Very nice sentiment about the imprints we leave!

  11. Am sure your house is not as messy as you might think ~ Enjoy ~ the dishes can wait ~ time speeds by rather quickly ~ Great story! namaste, Carol ^_^

  12. Very insightful post and funny too. My stepson just got a betta. He named him Klaus. His mother is not an animal person, but we are at our house. We have a whole zoo of cats, lizards, a snake, and a turtle. I can’t imagine having a sterile life. I am a very clean person, but my house does look lived in. If you look like you live in an Architecture Digest, you have a few control issues and are missing out on life or you just have a housekeeper. But still, I always feel like I’m in a musuem when I go to someone’s house and it looks like that. And that I am a bug under a microscope or an organism in a petri dish for their inspection. Bleick!

    I love your table photo. Very creative and humorous. I am a writer as well. I write dark fiction. I hopped over from Shah’s Weekend Creation Hop. I really enjoyed your post and your weaving is gorgeous. Thanks for sharing.


  13. Jayne says:

    Oh Sandra- This made me laugh (and I can so relate). We lost two Betta fish under the watch of babysitters while away on vacation. It wasn’t the sitters fault of course, those fish are always dying. They never look too good!

    And my house will always appear cleaner when I know someone is coming for a visit or watching a pet while we’re away. Otherwise, I try not to worry about the mess too much. 😉

    Btw- Fantastic centerpiece. Creative boys you have!

    Thanks for stopping by and joining in the conversation at Suburban Soliloquy. 🙂

  14. I loved this too! I actually long to have a fish only home, I just don’t want to be the one to maintain it. 🙂 Though I’d like to keep just a little clutter so it could feel like home.

  15. All I have to say Sandra is I love Laminate (formica) counter tops. As I am married to a remodeler who could put in whatever I want, I choose Laminate cause it inexpensive,many colors and patterns, and no guilt if want to change it. Your house sounds Great!

  16. Re read again. You are my kind of woman!

  17. LOL Sandra, I eat cookies on your couch you may eat chips on mine. Everyone else does. Drinks are acceptable too and if there is an accidental spill it will blend in with the others 🙂

  18. Sandra, your comment on my blog made me laugh. I have a nicer couch now (in dark blue btw). But my Hubby’s and my first place, a teeny, tiny duplex, was furnished. I could live with the black vinyl recliner, but the bright orange vinyl couch was another issue!
    It is 1979 so most of the couch covers I found were floral patterned. Didn’t matter. Had to cover that orange couch. Thank goodness we only loved there 5 months. Uggg!

    P.S. Your couch could tell some wild stories I bet 🙂

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