Charlene sat in the backseat, in a bucket, as i crept up the street, searching for the address. I found it and unfastened my seat belt. This was one of those houses with a gate that offers privacy to the occupant but obscures the view for a visitor. When I see a house like this, I always wonder what could possibly lie inside, how wonderful it could be. The promise of a garden or a terrace, meant only for select eyes.
How would Charlene feel knowing that I couldn’t provide her with a stable home? What arrangements would her new family make for her transition? Perhaps one day she would understand. But as the gate opened, I knew that Charlene and I were about to end our journey together, and emotions cascaded over me.
The chain of events that led us through that gate began with an ill-conceived do-it-yourself landscaping project. Just two years ago, I met my neighbor John while digging a hole in my yard.
“What are you up to?” he asked while peering over the edge of my hole.
A chunk of black clay fell from my brow. I was horrified that anyone besides my husband should see me this dirty. “Well,” I said, “I decided that I wanted a pond in the front, with a fabulous water feature, so—”
John listened intently and nodded gentle affirmations as I pulled out a sheet of graph paper on which I’d drawn a crude sketch of my project. He said, “You know, I have a pond out front. Why don’t you come over and take a look-see?”
I tossed my shovel aside and climbed with great difficulty out of my 2,000-gallon crater.
My house was in Fairview. You know, near Allen and McKinney? Town motto: “Keeping it country”? As with all houses in areas that were once “country,” there were challenges. Snakes, field mice, giant miscellaneous bugs (my least favorite being the red velvet ant), tarantulas, coyotes, possums, raccoons. I even found a crawdad in my pool. The animals were there first, I knew. John and I were interlopers.
John’s pond was absolutely gorgeous, like everything else in his Georgian house and organic yard. The pond was small, formal, perfectly square, and, well, perfect. The only problem was, I couldn’t see the fish. “Lily pads,” he explained. “They protect the fish from possums and raccoons. I even saw a heron out here one time.”
I finished my pond and stocked it with koi, pond comets, and even some tadpoles. It didn’t take long before I noticed a problem. I immediately went over to see John.
In his workshop, I sniffled, “Can you come over and look at my pond? I have some fish missing.” John was carving a peg or something. That’s what he does. He’s known for antiques restoration.
“Sure, let me finish this,” he said. “Say, you might want to move over—”
I was leaning on a pair of side tables in his garage shop. “Oh,” I said by way of acknowledging that I realized my clumsiness. For the first time, I looked at the little tables and said, “Those are so cute!”
“A truck just delivered those,” he said. “They need some work. A collector just brought those back from Scotland. They’re maybe 400 years old.”
Most of my furniture came in flat boxes. I was trying to act casual, savvy. “If you don’t mind my asking,” I said, “how much is something like that worth?”
“Oh, probably 300, maybe as much as 5, if you have the right buyer.”
Wow! It was like a real live Antiques Roadshow! I pictured the cute little tables in my living room. “John, I would love something like those. And, you know, you can barely get out of Pottery Barn for under 500 bucks a pop. Do you think—” I trailed off when I saw the expression on John’s face.
“Thousand,” he said, wiping his hand on a red shop rag. “Three hundred thousand for the pair.”
“Oh, well, sure, I was just saying, you know.” I was beet red. “Wanna help me with the pond?”
Mine was the polar opposite of John’s perfect pond. His was a fish paradise. Mine was the aquatic equivalent of Section 8 housing. I had trouble right from the start, but after several months of tweaking, the pond and I had finally reached a compromise of sorts. It wasn’t as glorious as I had dreamed it would be. But as long as I cleaned the filter and fed the fish, the pond didn’t turn into the Black Lagoon. John took one look at it and determined that the pond was being besieged by raccoons. The little black-faced bandits were feasting under the cover of night. My pond was a cafeteria for local wildlife.
The first to meet St. Peter had been Goldie, an orange pond comet and my daughter’s second-favorite fish. One by one, they were picked off. Sometimes just a cartoonish skeleton remained. Most of the time, they simply vanished. I added more lily pads and put in stone structures to give the fish hiding places. I began with 30 fish. The koi were babies when I got them, just a few inches long. Eventually only two remained. They were at least 18 inches long, big. Larry, my daughter’s favorite fish, was black and yellow, sleek. And then there was my girl, Charlene. Her beautiful white scales were tinged with blue and orange. When I saw her as a fingerling, it had been love at first sight.
John promised to make some calls to find alternative temporary housing, foster families, for my fish while I made plans to “fix” my pond. It was dusk by the time he made his way back across the street.
The next morning, I awoke to unspeakable horror. Larry was floating near the surface, and when he saw me he drifted toward the feeding ledge. As his little yellow face broke the water, a cloudy shadow surrounded him. There were two sets of distinct claw marks down the length of his back. He must have fought off his attacker, but now, in the morning sun, Larry was bleeding to death in my pond. Charlene must have sensed what was going on. She cowered under her stone hideout, refusing to come out. As I transferred Larry to a bucket, my husband frantically scoured the phone book for a vet that could help. Within a few minutes, though, Larry was dead.
John put me in touch with Loyd Taylor and Paxton Gremillion, the noted Dallas designers and antiques dealers of Loyd-Paxton fame. They had a wonderful pond at their home in Oak Lawn. After a brief phone call, during which I determined that neither Loyd nor Paxton would eat Charlene, we all decided it would be best for her to have a new permanent home.
I couldn’t even enjoy the splendor of their house, I was so upset about Charlene’s adoption. Through my grief, though, I could see it was everything I thought it could be, that house behind the gate. Everywhere I looked there was something even more wonderful than the last thing I had just admired. The master suite overlooking the back patio was so beautiful that I had to latch onto Loyd to keep from diving into the bed. I was so caught up in the glorious furnishings that I almost forgot why I was there.
I returned to my car and hoisted Charlene’s orange Home Depot bucket out of the backseat, the same bucket that only hours before had held Larry’s lifeless corpse, and carried her to the backyard. Loyd and Paxton had converted their swimming pool into a pond, and it was incredible! It was very Asian, and the pond was flanked by giant pottery like I have only seen in magazines. The secluded paradise put the some of the gardens at the Arboretum to shame. Hundreds of fish danced through the water and happily fed as Paxton tapped the edge of the pond. Charlene, I knew, would be happy here.
Paxton readied for Charlene’s debut. “She’s a small-town girl,” he said, “and our pond is like New York City for her.” We added a little of their water to Charlene’s water and waited. Then we added a little more. I wanted to bolt back into the house and soak in the Loyd-Paxton-ness of it all but did my best to stay focused on the task at hand. When the time came, Charlene darted from the bucket toward the throngs of fish. She immediately took up with a handsome zipper fish, as any pretty girl fish in her situation would.
Loyd hugged me. From over my shoulder, Paxton cried out, “She’s a diva fish! You go, girl!”
Amanda Tackett’s last story for D Magazine, in September, was about cockroaches. Write to her at [email protected].