Brett Kaplan

Posted on January 15, 2018


Editor’s Pick

A Goldfish Memory

I haven’t thought about my goldfish, Frankie, in a long time. I was six-years-old when it happened, and at the time I had no idea what death was. So, when I woke up one Summer morning and found Frankie floating at the top of his bowl I thought he was playing a practical joke. I remember poking him and telling him to quit, saying it wasn’t funny anymore. Of course, now I realize how silly it was to tell him to do something like he would understand me, but at the time I couldn’t help it, I was just a kid and I was scared too! Some would still consider me to be a kid, but I don’t know, I don’t feel that way. Anyways, when he wouldn’t budge, I sprinkled in some food at the top of his bowl because I knew he surely wouldn’t deny himself a meal. And so, when he still wouldn’t move, I knew something had to be up. 

            I called downstairs to my mom and shouted my suspicion loud enough for the neighbors to hear. She came upstairs and told me that he was dead. Dead? 

            I said, “Does that mean he’s gone forever?”

            My Mom said, “Unfortunately, it does. I’m sorry.”

            “Are you sure he’s not going to come back one day? Why would he just leave me?”

            “I’m sorry, Bud. Sadly, all things must end, and it was just Frankie’s time to go.”

            “Does that mean you’re gonna die one day?”

            “It does.”

            “What about Dad?”

            “Yes, honey. Dad, too.”

            “Everyone I love? But that’s not fair.”

            “No, it’s definitely not. But, that’s just the way it is.”

            “How about me? Am I gonna die?”

            “Yes,” my Mom said, “but not for a long, long time.”

            “How do you know?”

            “Because you’re young and healthy and you have your whole life ahead of you and you have nothing to worry about.”

            “But one day I will. I know I will. You just told me.”

            “Yes, but there’s no use in thinking about it now.”

            “Why not?”

            “Because now’s your time to enjoy life. Your friends, your family—Grandma and Grandpa, your Dad and I.”

            “But what’s even the point if one day all of you will be gone?”

            “No one is going anywhere anytime soon. I promise.”

            “I wonder if Frankie knew he would die. If I knew it would happen to him I would never have asked to get him in the first place. Death is sad.”

            “You did nothing wrong. This would have happened whether he was yours or not, and you gave him a good life.”

            “I’m gonna miss him.”

            “You’ll always have his memories.”

            “Am I allowed to keep him?”

            “Not here in your room, but we can bury him in our backyard.”

            “Bury him, why?”

            “When someone dies it’s what we do.”

            “But why?”

            “We give them back to nature.”

            “I don’t understand.”

            “It’s hard to explain.”

            “But if it’s hard for you to explain then then how will I ever know?”

            “Because one day you’re going to be big and strong and smarter than me.”

            “I don’t see how that could be possible.”

            We wrapped Frankie in toilet paper and buried him in the backyard next to a tree. Afterwards, I had the urge to tell my friends about it. I wanted to find out who knew about death and who didn’t. And then, I wanted to tell the people who didn’t know about it what it was and see what they thought about it. Sure, I guess it may have been a little mean, but I don’t know. If I didn’t know about it I think I’d want to know what was coming. I mean, one day we are all going to be in a very bad position.

            I hoped on my scooter and scooted around the neighborhood searching for someone to tell. 

            The first person I saw was a kid I didn’t really play with—a boy named Pete. Pete was a little weird, but so was I so I don’t know why I never gave him a chance. That day when I saw him he was sitting on the sidewalk with his legs crossed, poking the ground with a stick.

            “Hey, Pete.”

            He said, “Hey,” and didn’t look up.

            I said, “Do you know about death? That one day we’re gonna die?”

            “Of course, I know about death. What do you think I am, some kind of moron?”

            “No, I just wanted to tell you—”

            “Let me be,” he said. “I’m busy.”

            So much for Pete.

            I scooted down the block and saw a group of kids who I always wanted to hang with, but they never wanted to hang with me. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because they were older, I don’t know. There were four of them and they were playing basketball in the street in front of one of their houses. I tried to get their attention, but they wouldn’t so much as even look at me. When they finally acknowledged my existence, they laughed together as a group and then went back to their game. 

I scooted down the street until I reached the end of my block and came to a point I wasn’t allowed to pass without asking my Mom for her permission. I stood there for a moment and thought, Today is different. Mom would make an exception for today. So, I went on ahead. 

            The next block was full of kids who were my age or just a grade or two ahead. I watched some of them chase after each other while others just sat in their driveways speaking to each other. I scooted further down the street and saw my old friend Tony throwing a tennis ball against his garage. Tony and I used to hang out a lot, but I remember one summer we just stopped speaking to each other. I don’t know why it happened, it just did. 

            “Hey Tony.”


            Do you know that we die?”

            He caught his tennis ball and stopped throwing it. “What do you mean we die?”

            “One day we’re gonna vanish and never be heard from again.”

            “You’re kidding.”

            “Nope. My goldfish died today, and my mom told me he’s gone and he’s never coming back.”

            “But he’s a goldfish. Maybe it just happens to them.”

            “I don’t think that’s the case,” I said. “From what my mom said, it happens to us, too.”

            “But what about heaven? My mom’s always talking about how we have to be good because one day God’s gonna decide who gets in and who does not.”

            “I don’t know anything about heaven, Tony. All I know is, we’re all gonna die and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

            Tony started to cry.

            “Don’t be sad, Tony, it’s not gonna happen for a long, long time.”

            “But that still doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen,” he said, wiping away his tears. “Did she say if it’s going to hurt?”

            “She didn’t get into any of that, but, Frankie—my goldfish—he didn’t look like he was in any kind of pain. But don’t ask me. What the hell do I know?”

            “Oh, God. Why does this have to happen? Why! It isn’t fair.”

            “That’s what I said. What about, you ask your mom, she seems to know something.”

            “I can’t ask her that, she’ll have me killed!”

            A few kids on bikes drove by me and Tony. 

            I asked him if he wanted to hang out. 

            “What’s even the point?” Tony said. “We’re all just gonna be dead.”

            “All right,” I said, starting to scoot my way back home. “See you later then.”

            It was weird to walk in and not see Frankie in his bowl. Even though he didn’t make noise or anything, it was still comforting to know that he was always there for me. Like that time I got in trouble for spilling grape juice on the rug in the living room. My mom yelled at me and said I was in trouble and told me to go to my room. And even though I did something bad, Frankie was still excited to see me when I got there and didn’t care that I was in trouble.

            The other cool thing about Frankie was that I taught him a bunch of tricks. Well, two tricks, but I still thought they were pretty great. The first one was simple. All I’d do was run my finger across the bowl and have Frankie follow it and when he did I’d sprinkle some food and he’d swim up to the top all excited. I even got him to swim through a hoop which I thought was just amazing. He was a great fish.

            Later, after my dad got home from work, we all had dinner together. It was spaghetti night, which I always looked forward to. Just as we were about to eat, the doorbell rang, which was unexpected. My mom went up to get it, while my dad and I sat at the table and waited patiently. We could hear the mumblings of a voice that came from the other side of the door, but couldn’t tell who it was all the way from the kitchen. Then, a moment later, my mom yelled out my name. She was mad. My dad gave me a look that told me I’d better go over and see what it was. 

            The person at the door was a woman, a stranger who looked about the same age as my mom. When I got there, she gave me an angry face like I did something wrong to her. But how could I do something wrong to someone I’d never even seen before? It didn’t make sense. But when she started talking I put together who it was, and what she was so upset about. 

            She said, “We haven’t spoken to Tony about death yet, and now, thanks to your son, he’s asking us all kinds of questions. He asked my husband what the point of going back to school was if all he’s going to do is die one day.”

            My mom gave me an angry look, but didn’t say anything.

            “Now my daughter knows about it, and she’s only four. Your son has given us all kinds of trouble, and now I’m in over my head because I don’t know what to do. They’re not supposed to know about this.”

            “Well,” my mom said, “you have to expect that he’s going to hear these kinds of things in school and with his friends. They’re a lot faster than we were.”

            “I understand that. But death? Shouldn’t they be learning and talking about nice things like God and Heaven?”

             “Honey,” my dad said, calling out to my mom from the kitchen. “Is everything all right? I’m hungry.”

            “Look,” my mom said to Tony’s mom, “I don’t know what to tell you. We’re just about to sit down for dinner. Is there anything else we can do for you?”

            “I want some kind of an apology here! My son has gone through a lot today. I’m the one who has to go home to my kid and explain all of this.”

            Tony’s mom looked me in my eyes and told me to speak up.

            My mom said, “That’s enough. My son doesn’t need to apologize to you because he didn’t do anything to you. I’ll talk to him about things he shouldn’t say, but as far as I’m concerned, discussing the harsh reality of life with our kids is more the right thing to do than keep them hidden from the world.” 

            Tony’s mom was speechless. 

            My mom said goodbye, shut the door, and we went back to the kitchen table and enjoyed dinner as a family. 

            I haven’t thought much about death since then because it doesn’t mean much to me now. I’m only twelve, so that gives me some a little while before things get serious. Still, it was nice to reflect on Frankie. He was a great goldfish and I’ll miss him forever. We have a dog now. His name’s Spot, but, he actually doesn’t have any spots because he’s a golden retriever. But I always wanted a dog named Spot, and after spending some time wearing my parents down (something I’ve gotten pretty good at) they finally gave in and said it was okay. I’m gonna miss Spot when he dies, but for now we’re having fun enjoying each other while we still can.


Brett Kaplan lives and writes in South Florida. He received his MFA from Florida International University where he recently completed his thesis, a collection of short stories entitled, Existential Bebop. His work can be found or is forthcoming in Adelaide, Boned, and The Scarlett Leaf Review.  
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