Susan Ramsay Hoguet: Little Johnny Winter

Posted:  Friday, February 27, 2015 - 1:00pm

It was 10:30 p.m. in the dead of winter. It was 3 degrees outside and the usual street noise was stifled by hour and snow. The snow was piled up against the living room windowed door, where my boots stood like soldiers waiting for combat, ready for action, ready to stomp out the snow. I was in the kitchen and still dressed in the same old jeans and faded black turtle neck that I had grabbed out of my closet that morning, standing barefoot on a worn Oriental rug that lay thin on the floor. I was tired of snow, I was tired of cold and I had turned the thermostat past 70 degrees. As I stood at the kitchen sink, I was thinking about salmon. Thinking that the warm, fleshy coral would be a much nicer color on the outside of the fish than grey.

This was not a random thought. My white dinner plate that, a few hours ago, held a chunk of broiled salmon, two artichoke hearts and three slices of lemon was sitting on the oatmeal speckled granite between the stove and the sink waiting to be washed. The smell of fish and citrus, lingered in the small kitchen and the round halogen lights over the stove focused on my dinner discards. My thumb and index fingers hovered over the plate and then, like a cormorant or some other seafaring scavenger, quickly dove down to pluck a small bit of pink salmon flesh that I savored before turning on the stove.

As the kettle heated I was thinking that it was too damn late to be shelling peas. Not peas lying in a row inside their cocoon of pod, stiff like a row of orphans tucked in their cots in a long narrow hospital room. Not peas fresh from a garden in a green grass field where the sun is shining and the soil is still cool. Instead, a tablespoon or two of frozen peas already shelled that came bagged in plastic from the supermarket freezer on aisle 12. These peas needed to be pried loose from others, warmed in hot water and carefully pressed, one by one so that the soft squishy split seeds inside pop out intact.

In another room, two rooms away from the counter where I stood barefoot pressing peas, little Johnny Winter was not yet dead. He was named after a famous cross-eyed albino guitarist, but that was where the similarities ended. Little Johnny Winter was neither famous nor cross-eyed, he was just an all white goldfish lying on the pebbles of a large aquarium on my bedroom shelf. I only saw him and the rest of his band late at night or in the early morning because I find that watching fish is brain numbing after an obligatory 15 minutes. For 15 minutes every night I lie under a down comforter and, after settling into a mass of fluffed up pillows, I watch Little Johnny, Golda Meir, Goldie Hawn, Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow, Gorbachev, Goldilocks, No Name One and No Name Two swim up and down, down and up, back and forth, forth and back. It is enough time, I think, for them to feel their worth before I turn off the light and everyone can go to sleep to the incessant hum of the filter.

Yesterday Little Johnny Winter seemed lethargic but he wasn't like Gorbachev with his red splotched forehead, who eats like a pig. Gorbie has a tendency to hog all the food, which causes him to come down with a disease that makes him feel discombobulated and swim upside down at the top of the tank. This in turn causes all the other fish to stay clear of him because it makes everyone, people and fish, uncomfortable to see him in such an upside-down state.

I didn't notice anything was wrong with Little Johnny Winter until he had taken to the bottom of the tank. By 10:30 on that snowy night, he lay with his gills slowly flapping open, like an old man heavily breathing in his sleep. His eyes seemed focused on absolutely nothing as he lay behind the plant where he had hidden himself. He was doubled over, his tail flattened but his belly was full. It was then I realized he had very quietly come down with Gorbie's disease which was medically called Swim Bladder Disorder or in everyday language, constipation. Instead of exaggerating his problem and showing off by swimming upside down, Little Johnny Winter had taken to the bottom of the tank. He needed peas. Peas unblock a fish.

After popping as many as 20 seeds from the peas and carefully putting them into a glass that then wouldn't fit between the cover's opening and the edge of the tank, I came back into the kitchen. I pushed my unwashed dinner plate further down the counter and began transferring all the pea seeds one by one into a jigger, a necessary step since each pea seed clung to the side of the glass and refused to leave voluntarily. I wondered if I had lost my mind entirely. It did not escape my notice that only a few hours had passed since I most happily dove into a well-cooked piece of a perfectly healthy salmon and I was now, in what I considered was the middle of night, mildly hysterical and obsessed over a sick albino goldfish.

The next morning, still in the dead of a Maine winter, I huddled under my bed covers and forced myself to face the tank in the bookcase. Somewhere between turning from the coral color of the wall I was facing and the white of the bookcase where the tank stood, I wondered if giving Little Johnny Winter a name was a contributing factor in my madness. It was undoubtedly true that had last night's dinner been named Salman Rushdie I might have not delighted so in the meal. The peas had not worked. Little Johnny had moved in the night but instead of eating, his little fish mouth just rested on a lone pea seed as if he was just waiting for the right opportunity to eat it.

Over my first cup of coffee, I turned on the computer. I went to Google and looked up dying goldfish. There was advice from many sites, many sources. By the end of my second cup, I had read enough to know that if Little Johnny was to survive I need to withhold food, keep him quiet and in a dark room. It sounded like hospice care but I dutifully covered the tank with a terry cloth towel, closed the door and slept in another room that night.

In the morning, he was still doubled up under the green plastic plant in the bottom of the tank, his gills still slowly going up and down like a respirator in a critical care unit. I began to think of burial sites. I swished the inside of the toilet bowl with Clorox to give Little Johnny a clean start to Nirvana before he was dumped in the whatnot of the town sewer system. I was ready. He was not.

I went about my day, avoiding my bedroom and keeping the door closed. At night, I called a friend who said my burial plan was disgusting and that instead we should bury him in the snow as he would disappear and be part of nature by spring. We? Although her "we" was probably meant to be a singular you, I was not going to let her off the hook. Once again, I slept in another room expecting he would die in the night.

When morning arrived along with the sun, I thought of what kind of shroud would work for Little Johnny, as the thought of just dumping his small doubled up body deep into a 5-foot drift of snow seemed well, somewhat cold. A blanket of tissue paper could work but it might not disintegrate in the next few months and an envelope with some nice bit of poetry written on it would have the same problem. I had a stroke of brilliance. I would snip one of the large and dramatic pink amaryllis flowers off the plant on my kitchen windowsill. I had come to the conclusion that the flower's base, where the stamens began, would pocket Little Johnny's body nicely and both could dissolve together in the depths of a snow bank.

My friend arrived to be a mourner and witnesses. We went into my bedroom, lifted the towel and peered into the tank. Little Johnny Winter wasn't dead. My friend left as quickly as she could before Little Johnny changed his mind. But, before pulling away, she kindly started my car so I could take the long and lonely journey to the pet store to quiz the owner.

"He might pull through and then he might not. Feed them and pull off the cover," was the owner's sage advice as he tested the pH of the water.

The pH was fine. I left the store with a new bubbler in the shape of a burbling baby dinosaur emerging from an egg, a dark pondscape with highlighted white rocks to be taped on the back of the tank, a plaster log with three yellow tinted mushrooms, a bottle of tiny specks of green pellets to take the place of peas and another bottle of tiny specks of food so no one else would get the dreaded Gorbachev disease. I spent most of the afternoon tending to the fish and once again I spent the night in another room.

In the morning, Little Johnny Winter was dead. He wasn't screwing around. He really was undeniably dead with his nose planted in the pebbles next to the artificial green plant. He was so dead that, for the first time in the past few days, I didn't think it would much matter where he was buried. However I was sticking to my plan of the amaryllis shroud and wondered how I was going to convince my partner to be the one to insert Little Johnny into the soft pink petals.

My partner, who for days had been stuck shoving pellets in his stove, raking his roof and plowing snow at his house, finally made it down to mine sometime in the early afternoon. As he stomped his boots by the front door the snow went flying this way and that, he shook his head.

"Why are you going to bury that fish in the snow? It will be like putting him a freezer and he won't disintegrate until spring. Besides that, the dogs will get him," he said.

He had a point. The thought of little Johnny Winter in the stomach of my cocker spaniel or the small jaws of his brown dachshund stopped me in my tracks. I abandoned the idea of cutting off a perfectly good amaryllis flower and did not fuss when Little Johnny Winter was transported upstairs in a green net and sent off to meet his maker in the rarely used upstairs toilet. That night we were back in my bedroom and for 15 minutes as I lay in bed, under a down comforter and settled into a mass of fluffed up pillows I watched eight, not nine goldfish, swim up and down, down and up, back and forth, forth and back. Once again, it was enough time for them to feel their worth before I turned off the light and we were lulled to sleep by the incessant hum of the filter.

Susan Ramsay HoguetSusan Ramsay Hoguet has been a Maine resident for more than 20 years. She is an author and illustrator of children's books, and is the designer and owner of Animal Tile Works.

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