A Twist in the Tale: The Age of Aquariums


By Jenny Kalahar

One of my good friends, Jerry, is still living the groovy lifestyle that he adopted in the 1960s. Last week he invited my husband and I and a few other folks over for an evening of relaxation, fondue, and finger food. Jerry played his guitar and sang Pete Seeger and Jorma Kaukonen songs for hours, strolling above us as we reclined on giant floral-patterned pillows on his floor. Black light posters seemed to glow on the walls and ceiling in the fragrant, dim room, but a yellow light shone from an open doorway down the hall. About halfway through the evening I got up from my purple paisley pillow (with some effort) to discover the source of that light.

In a closet-sized space next to the bedroom sat an enormous aquarium on a bulbous, metal flake orange fiberglass stand. The room’s walls were covered with colorful vintage macramé artwork, and a high shelf held three yellow smiley face cookie jars with love beads draped around each neck. Jerry joined me in the doorway and then he took off his guitar to step inside the room to sprinkle feed on the water above his family of assorted fish.

“This is amazing!” I said, leaning closer to the tank. About twenty fish glided through and around a fantastic display of all things hippie. A neon tetra dashed between the two open fingers of a red plastic hand that was making the peace sign. Nearby, a pair of glowlight tetras browsed in a miniature City Lights bookshop where tiny volumes by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were displayed in the front windows. A zodiac chart was suction-cupped to the rear of the aquarium over plastic daisies blooming in an avocado-green vase. Rock band “posters” were half-buried in the multicolored rocks at the bottom, and a reproduction of Woody Guthrie’s famous guitar leaned against a handmade sign that read, “Make Love Not Warships.”

Several dainty white cloud fish darted in and out of the holes of a large pile of purple stones. A banner above the stones read, “Jerry’s Commune.”

“They get along swimmingly,” Jerry said, glancing at the tank’s digital temperature reading on one of the few modern items in his entire house. “They give peace a chance. We should all have a harmonious aquarium to tend.”

I nodded and thought about our harmonious community of cats at home, and about how our rambunctious Terrier had been thrown into the deep end of their pool when we’d rescued her. I guess not all communes start out as perfectly peaceful collectives.

I peered into the tank again. At the left of the bookstore was a model of a surf shop, “Ken’s Tiki Tacky Boardinghouse.” In front, next to a line of tropical-design boards of various heights, a Ken doll in a glued-on tie-dyed shirt and green swim shorts seemed to pause in his work of waxing a surfboard. As I was examining the shop’s bamboo roof and palm leaf window curtains a tetra rested atop the board Ken was waxing, as if he might be thinking of taking it topside to catch a wave.

Just then, a new member of this household, a black and white Chihuahua, trotted between us into the room. As he excitedly padded around and around the orange tank stand, I realized that I didn’t know the dog’s name.

“I’m a big fan of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, of course,” Jerry said, lifting his acoustic guitar’s fringed strap over his head.

“Of course,” I said, bending to let the pooch sniff my hand.

“But my wife is not. So … we compromised. We named him Ferlin Husky. I call him ‘Ferli’ in honor of Ferlinghetti, and she calls him ‘Husky’ as a sort of a play on his non-husky size.”

“Far out,” I said with a smile.

I patted Ferli/Husky for a moment and then, when he stood up in a beg, I carried him back to the living room. There we shared a paisley-patterned pillow and a little melted cheese, both singing along with Jerry’s altered lyrics to a Woody Guthrie song: “This pad is your pad, this pad is my pad, from the comfy front porch, to the garden out back …”

At home, Pat and I got into bed and turned on an old movie until we were ready for sleep. Weegee dog jumped up between us, turned around three times, and then settled in for the night. Callie, our calico, hopped up beside the pooch and was soon joined by Tiger and Busby, Callie’s sons, until there was barely room for our legs. The movie ended, but before we turned off the TV I waited to find out what was coming on next. “Hair.”

We didn’t watch the film, but I was awake for many long minutes as these lyrics circled and circled my brain: “This is the dawning of the age of aquariums …”

Jenny Kalahar, her husband Patrick, and their pets live in Indiana where she sells used and rare books and writes novels and poetry. Her two novels about fostering cats are Shelve Under C: A Tale of Used Books and Cats, and The Find of a Lifetime: Another Tale of Used Books and Cats. Her collection of nostalgic and humorous poetry is One Mile North of Normal and Other Poems. For more, visit her blog, Bookselling and Writing with Weegee.

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