At my height of aquarium hobby, I used to got to this place called "Home Aquarium," where their motto was simply, "Get a wet pet." Never before or since did I ever go to such a ... colorful... place as this. It was in a rather obscure corner of a shopping center on the edge of "Little Vietnam" in Falls Church next to a Jiffy Lube. The front was pretty bland. But once you stepped behind the dirty, humidity-fogged windows... you saw...
... a really bland interior. I mean, this place was no frills down to the bare cement walls and floor. The multitude of aluminum metal racks that held up identical 10 gallon tanks were filled with all manner of aquatic beasts. As most happily swam, crept, or lurked around in mostly unlabeled tanks, the views of the fish were unobscured by complications like castles, fake coral, gravel, plants, or any sort of decor whatsoever. Those who have filled an empty tank know the prism effect makes the clear bottom a mirror, and shelves of these tanks looked like giant crystal cubes filled with dark shapes swimming above a layer of drifting fishy poo.
In one corner of this vast communist-era cement minimalism was a bright blue fish pond. It looked like a large version of a child's swimming pool, complete with a bright blue waterfall backdrop. The ragged and broken edges suggested it might have once been part of something larger, like a display in a children's park, perhaps stolen in the middle of the night. Water came from two sources: the top of the waterfall and a "fountain" in the middle. Both were powered by what looked like garden hoses sloppily spewing crystal clear water in chunky bursts. In the "pond" swam brightly colored koi of varying sizes: from as small at your thumb to as big as your forearm.
But dammit if every one of these fish were 100% healthy. No packs of ick-laden fish swimming amid a corpse or two. No ragged tails streaked with blood, or scales puffed out like an artichoke. To what did they owe their magnificent stamina? Was it the food? Not sure. Once, I saw a roach fall into a chiclid tank, and an Oscar the size of a dinner plate lazily turned around and swallowed it in one gulp. Good selection or care from the owners?
Doubtful on that last one. In fact, the two guys that worked there were the least likely fish enthusiasts behind a cardboard display of Tetramin you could meet at the counter. The main guy looked like he was in his 80s, and might look more at home manning a gas station in the middle of Nowhere, Pennsylvania. He wore flannel, jeans, and had a John Deere cap. His massively wrinkled face puckered in at two small eyes that faded into his skin like oily dots. His mouth was lined with an uneven picket row of tobacco-worn teeth where red gums barely clutched what was left of a supporting row. His silent partner dressed the same, but had more meat on his bones, and sported a heavy and oily black beard. Might have killed a guy. As early as last week. I never knew their names, so let's call them Frank and Ed.
Frank had next to no manners. His most common response to any questions was an angry stare amid silence. That was it. Like "How dare you bother me? I hate people!" Once in a while he'd bark back an answer like he was shouting at an empty field. He was always smoking, and sometimes he'd let his long cigarette ash tip into the koi pond or some tank he was servicing.
I recall once I bought koi (ornamental carp). Small koi. They were having a "catch your own koi for half off!" special, but gave you the common small green fish net you can get at the dollar store. The one with the green wire coat hanger for a handle? Yeah, I got 3 small koi, which was about all one could catch with that net. Oohh... half off... $3.50... Yeah, no way I would get the $500 ones that were solid muscle and probably had lobed fins and an apatite for some quick evolution on my ass. I asked him what they ate.
He stared at me.
"Like... regular goldfish food or--"
"NO!" he said like my stupidity had just trodden upon his corns with the weight of a 13-hand mule. Without moving his gaze from mine, he picked up a plastic canister, like one might get takeout egg drop soup in, burped the top off, and tossed the contents of pellets into the fish pond. What happened next was extraordinary.
The roar of the water erupted as an orgy of black, orange, gold, and white fish scrambled like piranha over one another until they were a squirming pile about a foot out of the water. Mouths gaped for morsels of koi pellets while their wild unblinking eyes slid among their brethren like a panicked horse during the Biblical Apocalypse. This writhing feeding frenzy lasted a scant few seconds before the food was gone, and the fish quickly dispersed, energetically swimming about and trying to find more morsels, but alas, only fishy poo remained.
Frank slammed down a filled plastic container of the pellets labeled with nothing more than a sticker with their "Home Aquarium: get a wet pet" tagline and a phone number. And that was his sales pitch.
Ed was usually sent to fetch fish out of a tank for you. If your hand got to close to him or the tank with pointing, say as in the motion to say, "That one! No, THAT one!" he'd slap it and stand up with an annoyed grunt, gazing at you until you got the hint. Then he would go back to getting the one HE wanted you to have in what must have been a blissful return to silence.
One day, I was gazing among some absolutely gorgeous dwarf gourami when exactly the wrong customer for this establishment came in with what looked like his son. The man was small, wore a sweater vest with a shirt and tie behind it, and hid behind his bushy red mustache and glasses as if to say, "I'm an adult, gosh darnit! Respect me!" His son looked about 7, and sported a crew cut and WASP docility that spoke of exactly one year of cub scouts and equestrian riding (sorry shuttergal, that WAS mean, I owe you some wine). They came to purchase one of those "new" (for the time) overhanging filters (now you can't even get corner filters without special orders).
At some point, there seemed to be this... "disagreement" between the mustached gentleman and Frank. Because this happened:
Man: So, son, you put in the filter cartridge like this--
Frank: [frustrated, grabs the filter, yanks the cartridge out, flips it the other way, jams it back in forcefully, and slides it back to the man]
Man: [pause] [disproving scowl peers above glasses] No, I believe the carbon side goes this way. [starts to reverse the insertion]
Frank: Bull- SHIT!!!? [takes the filter from customer, walks off like one might remove a sharp object from a toddler]
Man: Wh-- well! I shall never grace this establishment!
Frank: [doesn't say or do anything to indicate he notices the man is still there]
Man: [walks off, and probably finishes the day with a sub-par ham from Safeway's deli]
Another day, this occurred:
A man, wearing camouflage pants and combat boots comes in.
Man: Yeah, hey, you got any piranha?
Frank: NO. Piranha are illegal in this state.
Man: Yeah, well... I got some piranha, and--
Frank: Are you a dumbass? Piranha are illegal in this state.
Man: [pause] Okay, well, you got any food I can have?
Frank: I don't feed no illegal fish.
Man: [frustrated] You got any feeders here, or don't you?
Frank: [thumbs to feeder tank] Over there, by the gar! Jarhead...
Man: [sheepishly walks to feeder tank] I want--
Frank: ED! Give this man some FEEDERS! Get this, he's got PI-RANA! Damn, son.
Oh, yes... the gar.
In the three years I shopped at this place, there was a large 50 gallon tank in the back. In this tank was a gar, and while I never did figure out how big it was, it was big enough to wrap around the length tank at least once like the letter J. It was about 50% longer than the tank itself, and the main part was thicker than my leg. I never saw it attempt to swim or anything, and how could it? It just sat there and breathed like a slowly panting mastiff. It looked as if it started to thrash, it would have definitely torn the tank apart or at least flung the cheap plastic hood off the tank. I always wondered what it was doing there? Why didn't they get a bigger tank? Did they own it?
Or did it own them?
In my own fantasy world, I picture some cruel ichthian master, brooding in his tank, commanding the elderly pair to do his evil biddings. Perhaps he snatched these two old men from their fishing boat, and commanded their souls to go on land and open up an aquarium so it may spread its spawn into unsuspecting homes. Like some 1800 carnival show got out of hand and the freak exhibit ran the ringmasters. In those dreams, I also imagine ornate gold trimmed mahogany... everywhere!!!
One day, I went to that place, and saw to my dismay it was closed. It was replaced by a Mitsubishi car alarm shop. But no matter what might have been the story behind this most unlikely of shops, despite how brief their business was, and no matter how rudely they treated patrons, they had some of the hardiest, healthiest fish I ever bought in my life. Most fish lasted a year or more. Prices were dirt cheap, too. It was a shame to see it go, but something that fantastic couldn't have lasted.
I still wonder what happened to the gar.