The shrill song of a child’s voice cuts through the air, but only for a moment. It’s lost in the muddle of screams and yells, punctuated with electronic beeps and trills. The fairground is busy in late afternoon when the sunlight sweeps across the crowd, and there are people pushing and dragging one another in a jumble of elbows and shouting mouths. The child is still pointing, tugging at her father’s pant leg. There’s a game with the prizes swimming out front, in a tank with a stack of plastic bags draped over the side.
It’s one of those games where the player has to toss rings so that they land around the neck of the bottle, catching onto it and whirling like a dancer swinging in circles until they settle peacefully against the glass. Her father still isn’t paying attention, because her mother is speaking. But they are talking about boring grown-up parent things, and she wants a goldfish now. She raises her voice as high as it will go, and shouts for a long breath. Her father turns and his face is angry, and she quiets and looks contrite at once.
He glares for only a second, and then turns back to the mother. They talk for another minute, while the girl sulks by their knees, alternating longing glances at the fish and deadly narrowed-eyes gazes upward to her parents’ faces. Finally they turn to her, and her father says, “Okay, sweetie, what is it? You need to not shout, it’s loud enough here as it is.”
She pulls a frown over her face and snaps at him, “Daddy, I want a fishy. Get me a fishy!”
He sighs, throws a glance at the mother, and crouches next to her to follow her pointing finger, dutifully raised again now that they were looking. He walks over to the booth, casting a baleful look at the girl and her mother as they hang back by the cotton candy – No, she’s heard already. No more sugar. Absolutely not.
He doesn’t get it the first time, but at the threat of a wail he uncrumples another dollar and hurls out the plastic rings again. Once more, and he wins, but the prize – the booth owner is oblivious – the prize is a stuffed animal. Does she want a turtle or an aardvark?
She shouts. She wants a fish. Her father is explaining now, shamefaced, to the man running the game, who peers over at the girl. She gives him her best big-eyed frowny-face until he relents, his shoulders slumping in defeat. The grown-ups are simply powerless against the frowny-face.
Finally the day is over. Her parents are stifling yawns against the backs of their hands, clutching the empty soda cans and cotton candy cones. She’s holding onto the plastic bag so tightly that there will be creases in her pudgy fingers when she lets go. The bag bulges around the water in it, cradling the fish. It’s a beautiful golden creature, flipping its tail as it turns and staring out with big black eyes. She promptly names it Goldie and grins, pleased with her ingenuity.
She doesn’t notice, swinging the bag to bounce against her leg, that the plastic is split. The water dribbles down the taut surface, over the gleam to dangle as one pendulous drop until it lets go and splashes against the concrete. The bag is shriveling slowly, and by the time they reach the car it’s only leaking halfheartedly. It droops from her hand, and she flings it to her mother without looking.
When they get home, the fish is swathed in a plastic shroud, flapping feebly and gasping, tiny gills flaring. Both parents huddle to confer, and the father ushers the girl off to bed. In the morning, the mother makes an early-morning errand to the pet store, and the substitute goldfish is swimming in its bowl as if it has always belonged there by the time the girl gets to her bowl of cereal.