I never told you about the time I ate Fred the goldfish. Fred was Karl Needlemeyer’s goldfish, who we usually only watched swimming around his little goldfish bowl as a kind of silent protest whenever Karl’s mom told us that we were getting “too rambunctious” and it was time to go outside and play. One day I saw some college kids on TV swallowing live goldfish, a kind of strange fad that the TV guys couldn’t really understand or explain. Since Karl was the only guy I knew who had a goldfish I asked if I could come over and swallow it and maybe I could be on TV, or maybe both of us could be on TV since it was his goldfish.
I went over to his house after school and we fished out Fred with the little net they had for fishing him out, and I grabbed him by the tailfin while he wiggled frantically and I tried to imagine that he was just like a giant sardine, and leaned my head back and dropped him down my throat and managed to swallow him whole without gagging, which was pretty amazing now when I think about it. I wish they had camera phones back then so that moment could have been immortalized for all time, and I could look back upon it today and see what an insane goofball I was. What I remember was Karl laughing and laughing, and then being really queasy because it felt like Fred was swimming around inside my stomach, and running for Karl’s’ bathroom and not quite making it, and his mother coming in and asking what was going on and seeing Fred flopping around on the living room carpet in the middle of the mess I just made and letting out this shriek that sounded like something from a late-night horror movie. I guess that’s what I remember the best, Karl laughing and his mom shrieking at the same time.
The funny thing was that Fred wasn’t dead, and despite being freaked out and shrieked out, Karl’s mom had the presence of mind to pick him up and drop him back into his goldfish bowl. Fred looked terrified, or I imagine as terrified as a fish who has a face that always looks like a fish face can look. Happy, sad, excited, it’s really hard to know what a fish is feeling. But he was swimming around in circles a little faster than we were used to seeing.
Each time I visited after that Karl dared me to swallow Fred, but I had no interest in ever experiencing that feeling again, and besides his mom would hover over us when we went into the den, which was where Fred lived, until we’d get tired of looking at him and go outside to throw elderberries at each other, or catch bugs and try to stick them down each other’s backs.
Amazingly Fred managed to live for another year before Karl found him floating belly up and got to watch his dad flush him down the toilet, which was the preferred method of goldfish burial back in those days. I’m thinking now that Fred’s story is a little like the story of Jonah and the whale, only instead of a man surviving being swallowed by a fish it’s a fish who survives being swallowed by a man, or at least a ten-year-old boy.