Walgreens is an impulse shopper’s dream. Like CVS (formerly Eckerds), they’re far more than a “drug store”. They understand people will run out of toothpaste, get a sudden craving for chocolate or need a sheet of yellow construction paper even when they don’t have a prescription to be filled. When that happens, the store’s more than happy to help.
At 9 p.m. on a Thursday night, when I’m suddenly in need of this or that, I’d much rather run over to Walgreens than head for a grocery or discount store. For one thing, it’s closer. For another, it reminds me of the variety stores I so loved as a child. As far as I know Walgreens isn’t stocking metal cricket-clickers or wax lips, but their end-caps are straight out of the 1950s.
You can count on the staples being there: chewing gum, Almond Roca, batteries and Chapstick. There will be a few seasonal items – fleece throws in winter, flip-flops and straw hats in summer. Always, there are toys. Before Easter, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a wind-up chicken that clucks and lays jelly bean eggs. Halloween has its creaking crypts, Christmas its stockings and candy. Now and then, you’ll find inexplicable treasures.
Two years ago, in the spring, I was cooling my heels in the checkout line when a flash of orange caught my eye. It was a fish, swimming for all it was worth inside a tiny bowl. It wasn’t alone. An extraordinarily blue friend was circling in hot pursuit, and both were giving me the eye. Beyond the pair of apparently crazed plastic fish, six tiny plastic bowls lined the counter. Each held one or two plastic sea-creatures – crabs, lobster and more varieties of fish – crawling, swirling and climbing over one another as though possessed.
Mesmerized, I asked the clerk (who was watching me watch the fish), “How do they do that?” ‘I dunno,” she said. “I know it takes batteries, and the manager gets, like, really mad at us if we forget to turn ’em off at night, ’cause then the batteries die and they have to change ’em.” I picked up a box that claimed to contain One Bowl One Base Two Assorted Fish and looked at it. From what I could tell, a pair of AA batteries and some water would do the trick. I had both.
Ten minutes and $3.95 later, I also had my very own Pet-Quarium, complete with a clown fish, a parrotfish, and a “textured rock base”. I headed home, to see if I could persuade my fishies to swim.
It wasn’t hard. The two AA batteries tucked into the bottom of the base, the bowl was filled “ONLY to the INDENTATION for fish to function properly THANK YOU“ and two drops of dishwashing liquid were swirled into the water. A little experimentation revealed the Pet-Quarium people knew their business. Too much water or no dishwashing soap meant a serious lack of action. The fish simply bumped along the bottom instead of swimming happily around their bowl.
Once I had the bowl up and running, I sat it on the window ledge next to my desk. After a day or two, I no longer heard the faint hum of the motor or the clicking of the fish against the boundaries of their world. It was rather strange. I knew vibrations from the base were making the fish move, but it was easy to be tricked by the illusion of life.
They certainly fooled the cat. She’d sit for hours, watching them swim. One night, I woke to plaintive murmurings in the doorway. Obviously distressed, DixieRose led me to the living room, where I discovered the problem. Like a forgetful teen-age store clerk, I’d left the fish “on” too long, and the batteries had died. The fish weren’t floating at the top as good dead fish do – they’d sunk to bottom, where they lay motionless in their plastic sand. When I put in new batteries and flipped the switch, the fish did their thing, the cat purred as loudly as the motor, and I went back to bed.
One afternoon, glancing at my motionless fish, I realized I felt a little sorry for them. Bringing them to life with a flip of the switch, I watched as they circled the bowl. On impulse, I flicked the switch off. They fell to the bottom and glared at me from their fake plastic seabed. “You silly things,” I said. “You’re not real fish. You’re faux-fish. You don’t do anything unless someone gives you a nudge. See?” I flipped the switch for a third time, and vibrations rising through the water stirred the fish back into action. But it only was action, not life. No matter how often I changed their water or how carefully I added the drops of soap, those fish weren’t going to move on their own.
Contemplating my poor, awkward bits of fish-shaped plastic, it was clear they had nothing in common with the first parrotfish I met while learning to dive. It seemed as though every hue of the Carribean had been painted onto that one extraordinary creature: azure, turquoise, cyan and sapphire – all brushed with magenta and lavender, touched with emerald and highlighted with yellows as pure as sunlight.
In fact, that Caribbean fish seemed lit from within. Glowing and pulsing with life, it set its own course through the forests of coral and stone, coming and going as it pleased through its watery neighborhood. No one needed to throw a switch to make that fish “go”. It was a go-fish by nature, a chip off the old pelagic block, a creature perfectly attuned to its environment and constrained only by the limits of its nature.
The parrotfish was only the beginning, for the variety and abundance of life on a healthy coral reef is astonishing. There is beauty, of course. But there also is curiosity, sociability and responsiveness. When the Sergeant Majors appear, flocking to bread crumbs like pigeons in a park, they seem as attuned to one another as a flock of birds, wheeling and spinning through the water in great, flickering waves. They also seem to like divers, and will swim alongside humans with no apparent anxiety, casting half-humorous glances at their lumbering companions as if to say, “This is our life. Isn’t it great?” And indeed, it is.
Today, I don’t turn on my Pet-Quarium quite so often. The cat’s lost interest, as cats do; a bit of the novelty’s worn off for both of us. In the depths of winter or the unbearable heat of summer, they’re still a fun substitute for the real thing. But in a season of open windows, on fragrant spring evenings or cicada-heavy summer nights resonant with the slap and shimmy of mullet, the sounds and memories of real fish always satisfy far more deeply than faux fish.
Remembering Caribbean pools, the Sergeant Majors schooling over the reefs and the pouting, irridescent parrotfish, the quick flash of yellowtail and the grace-filled flights of angelfish, I think about the gulf that separates reality from artifice, the “go fish” from the “faux fish” sitting on my desk. Sometimes I turn and look into the kitchen, where an old picture sits propped next to the coffee pot. A little tattered, still in its original frame, it looks much as it did when it graced a corner of my father’s desk. It sat there in my earliest years, and it was there at the end of his life, and sometimes, when the faux fish are quiet and the ceaseless obligato of a million silvery minnows washes through the window, I sit between two worlds, reading words enough for a lifetime: