“Some fish!” my tall boss Mike said.
He was admiring my new desktop war-and-peace fish bowl—a ginger jar containing a single Siamese fighting fish topped by a peace plant. Mike often said say some this or some that whenever he was impressed. Charlotte’s Web was a childhood favorite, he once confessed.
I smiled agreeably. When you work for someone six feet, six inches tall—the size of an NBA power forward who donned a power suit—agreeable grins tumbled from your lips.
In this instance, the fish célèbre was a young betta the color of a blue agate named Robert. Mike and I stood in awe as Robert navigated a web of white plant roots dangling from the neck of the ginger jar while fluttering his iridescent-blue fins.
I began keeping a fish planter on my desk at my previous job, a real serenity buster. I watched my first-ever betta Anthony, named for Saint Anthony, dip and glide all day long, my worries melting away, until facing the next crushing deadline and until my saintly fish passed on at the ripe old age of two.
I missed having an at-work fish. So, I dug out the ginger jar, cleaned it up, added fresh gravel and a leafy plant topper, and went searching for a new tenant.
While inspecting rows of bettas swimming in individual plastic cups, a blue one turned to me and puffed out his gills, as if to say, “Are you talking to me?” I snatched him up, named him Robert D. Nero, and transported him to his new home atop my cherry wood desk where he has resided ever since.
Mike was intrigued by Robert and his flashy dominion. Were the plant roots were part of the fish’s eco-system? Mike had asked. How often did Robert need his water changed?
Mike was suffering from acute betta-fish envy for which there was only one cure.
“It’s the nicest present ever,” Mike said the following week, while cradling his own war-and-peace planter. I chose Cornell colors, those of his alma mater, for the design: black gravel complemented by a small red fish that Mike named Li’l Red.
Li’l Red grew quickly, like he was on hormones. That’s because he was on hormones, something we discovered when Li’l Red developed a rapidly-growing tumor in his upper torso, giving him a barrel chest.
“Apparently growers give bettas hormones, so they reach maturity faster,” I explained, having done some Internet research, “to sell more fish.”
Every day the tumor increased in size until Li’l Red looked like he would soon burst.
Mike pounded one fist into the palm of his other hand. “We have to give this fish a fighting chance.” When someone taller than Abraham Lincoln says anything with conviction punctuated with a closed fist, people listen.
One website had photo documentation for a betta whose tumor had been lanced by its owner. I jotted down the supplies suggested for the surgery, chief among them, a beading needle, which I picked up at the craft store. The next day, my co-worker Linda brought in a triage kit since she volunteered to be the surgical assistant. Mike gloved up while I collapsed in my upholstered chair. Linda held Li’l Red in the palm of her hand while Mike poked the needle into his tumor.
Mike had been digging around in Li’l Red’s torso for what seemed an eternity.
“He needs to go back in the water now,” I said anxiously, no longer able to watch the procedure.
When Li’l Red returned to his bowl, his tumor had been lanced but so had one of his vital organs. Clear fluid poured from his chest. Immediately he began listing in his bowl. He went belly up the next day.
Soon after Christmas, I bought Mike a new fish from a different pet supply place. This one was five shades of red—from maroon to magenta. Mike named him Li’l Red II. For a few days, the new betta seemed a happy inhabitant until he tried to commit suicide. Unrelentingly.
“That crazy fish,” Linda said as I arrived one morning. “He’s jumping out of the water right into the plant roots and getting stuck. He’s trying to kill himself.”
While Mike was traveling on business, we were responsible for Li’l Red II’s care and feeding. I hurried into Mike’s office to assess the situation. The new fish had leapt up and buried himself in a thicket of plant roots again. Several times that day I nudged him back into the water.
“He didn’t make it,” I reported to Mike over the phone the next day, feeling miserable about having introduced a tragic undercurrent into a formerly mostly peaceful work environment. I was trying to give my boss the same experience of peace and beauty that Robert had accorded me, and Mike had realized none of it. At what point would he resent me for bringing such unanticipated sorrow into his life?
This foray into fish ownership couldn’t end in a downward spiral. I’d owned two betta fish in my lifetime; neither one had given me any problems. How many more things could possibly go wrong with a fish as big as my thumb? If a third fish’s life story devolved into tragedy under my watch, then and only then would I give up.
Holding onto my quest to find one enduring fish, I found another cherry red betta with fins so generous that he’d wrapped them around himself in his see-through pet-store cup. At Mike’s request, I printed a small placard for the new indweller, “Li’l Red III,” and set it in front of his bowl, to impart that he was part of a fish legacy and needed to persevere.
Perhaps it was the power of the placard. Maybe I picked a healthier fish this time. But Li’l Red III is flourishing. He blows nests of bubbles along the surface of the water. His long red fins billow like miniature crimson sails as he gracefully wafts around his jar.
You don’t have to be a betta expert to discern that one small red fish plus one contented tree-of-a-boss equals a happier workplace, readily appreciated by all the short people in the office, too. Charlotte couldn’t have said it better herself: Li’l Red III is some fish.
Author’s note: I no longer work with tall Mike. But I still have a ginger jar planter and betta fish on my desk at Millersville University. The fish is named “Blue.”