The Goldfish Parable

“The Goldfish Parable,” New Era, May 1986, 44


The Goldfish Parable

It’s easy to be a hero in a house on fire. But the real test may be in handling something simpler, like a fish flopping on the floor.

The house was a raging inferno.

“It’s no use,” the fire chief muttered, watching the flames leap high into the air. “Pull back!” he shouted. The fire crew moved back from the searing heat.

“Help!” a girl suddenly cried out from a second floor window.

“Oh no,” the fire chief mourned.

The girl’s parents, who had just returned from a movie, were quickly ushered over to the fire chief.

“Help me!” the girl shouted.

“Please save our daughter,” the mother pleaded.

“I can’t ask any of my men to go into that tinder box now—it’d be suicide.”

Randy stepped from the crowd. “Don’t worry, I’ll save your daughter.”

Before anyone could stop him, he ran toward the house, paying only slight attention to the crowd’s horrified gasp as he rushed into the flames.

It’s a good thing I’m wearing this action jacket, he thought as he kicked the door down. Inside, the stairs were still intact, although fire was licking through several of the steps. He covered his face with the jacket and bounded up the stairs.

On the second floor landing, because the jacket was still over his face, he tripped over a tricycle in the hall, but quickly recovered and hurried to her room.

He opened the door and saw her. She was in one of his classes in high school. She had long hair and nice eyes, although for some reason he couldn’t make out any details of her face. Maybe it’s the smoke, he thought.

She threw her arms around him. “I knew you’d come,” she cried.

A loud crash shook the house.

“What was that?” she cried.

“The staircase caving in,” he said calmly.

“How will we ever get out?”

He thought for a second then said, “I have a plan.”

Running to what was left of the hall, he grabbed the tricycle and hurried back to the room. He pulled an adjustable wrench from his jacket pocket and undid the front wheel. Then he kicked out the rubber from the wheel, leaving just the metal rim.

“Anyone else in the house?”

“No—my brother is spending the night at our uncle’s house.”

He hurried to the window and kicked out the screen and looked out. Just as he had noticed earlier—a telephone cable ran from the street pole to within a foot of the window. He leaned out, placing the rim of the wheel over the cable, then asked her to hand him the rest of the tricycle, which he refastened upside down onto the wheel again, the forked brace holding the wheel rim in place on the cable.

It was ready. He motioned for her to climb next to him on the window ledge. Putting one arm around her waist and holding onto the handle bar with the other, he jumped out into space.

They rolled gently down the telephone cable like a miniature cable car, leaving the house just before it broke apart. The crowd below roared its approval.

“Oh, Randy, you’re wonderful,” she sighed, hugging him.

A minute later they were on the ground, surrounded by a TV news crew and several newspaper reporters.

A newsman from the TV station stepped forward, microphone in hand, and asked the question on everyone’s mind.

“Hey, kid, whataya think you’re doing?”

That’s not the right question, Randy thought.

He looked again at the reporter. Somehow he had changed into a store clerk.

“Look at this window!”

Randy came back to reality. He was standing in front of a men’s clothing store. In front of him in the display window was a mannequin wearing a light jacket. There was a poster which read, “Men of action prefer Brock Jackets.”

“Just look at this!” the clerk pointed. “You’ve got fingerprints all over my window. What if everybody put their hands on it, hey? What then?”

“It’d get messy,” Randy answered philosophically.

“Don’t get smart with me! Look at this mess! You smeared ice cream on it too, didn’t you?”

“That wasn’t me.”

“Well somebody did.”

“It wasn’t me.”

“Who do you think has to clean up this mess anyway? Me, that’s who. So quit mucking up my display window!”

Randy reached down and picked up his trumpet case and walked away.

He was on his way to a music lesson.

Mr. Janowski’s living room had a high ceiling and a cracking linoleum floor. Stacks of music cluttered every table and chair. Even the fishbowl, complete with a small goldfish, sat precariously on top of a stack of music on the coffee table.

Randy ran through the trumpet exercises while Mr. Janowski sat back in an ancient overstuffed chair with one hand over his eyes. Randy often suspected that Mr. Janowski slept through part of each lesson, except that whenever he made a mistake, Mr. Janowski would call out, “Flat!” or “Sharp!”

The doorbell rang. Randy stopped while Mr. Janowski answered it. A father and his daughter appeared in the doorway.

“I’m Mr. Reynolds. I talked to you on the phone about starting my daughter with flute lessons. We just moved into town.”

“Oh yes, I remember. Come in. What was your daughter’s name?”


Randy whispered the name to himself. It was the most beautiful word he’d ever heard.

As they came inside, Randy stood up, hoping for an introduction, but Mr. Janowski ignored him. “If you’ll come with me, I’ll explain how we work the payments for the lessons.”

The two adults left the room, leaving Randy and Michelle alone. He watched while she took the flute out of the case and assembled it.

A minute later she happened to drop her lesson book. He lunged across the room to pick it up—knocking over the music stand, which hit the coffee table, causing a large stack of music to slide to the floor. The fishbowl nearly fell too, but he grabbed it at the last second. Finally he reached her book on the floor and handed it to her.

“Thank you,” she smiled. “Now let me help you pick up things.”

On hands and knees they picked up the scattered sheet music. He was close enough to sense a delicious smell. He closed his eyes and sniffed.

When he opened them again, she was staring at him.

“Probably my shampoo,” she said.

He nodded his head and went back to work.

When they finished, she walked back to her flute.

He followed, staying within sniffing range.

She picked up her flute and, unaware he was so close, quickly turned around.

He had to duck to avoid being hit by the end of the flute as she swung around. Falling sideways, he crashed into the coffee table, knocking over another stack of music. The fishbowl fell to the floor and shattered. The goldfish flopped helplessly on the soggy music.

He scooped it up in his hands and desperately looked around for some water.

“I’ll go find a bowl in the kitchen,” she said, then left.

Time was running out for the goldfish. Then he saw the open bathroom door.

In the bathroom, he closed the drain to the wash basin, turned on the water and gently dropped the fish in. Then he looked in the mirror and practiced saying the word Michelle.

She returned with a large soup pan. He plunged his hand into the water, splashing water on himself, but coming up without the goldfish.

“Maybe if we let a little water out, it’d be easier,” she suggested.

He placed his hand on the drain mechanism, preparing to open it a little at a time.

At that moment Mr. Janowski and Michelle’s father returned to see the floor covered with water-soaked music, the fishbowl broken, and Randy and Michelle looking with great interest into the wash basin.

Randy began to gently ease down the drain handle.

“WHAT ARE YOU TWO DOING?” Mr. Janowski yelled.

Randy’s hand jerked downward. He looked over at the two scowling adults. When he looked back at the wash basin, the goldfish was gone.

“Young lady, I want an explanation!” her father said abruptly.

“We leave you two minutes,” Mr. Janowski raged, “and look what you do!”

“It wasn’t our fault!” Randy said. “If there hadn’t been so many stacks of music, it would never have happened!”

Mr. Janowski picked up the broken fishbowl. “Where’s my goldfish?”

“It’s not dead,” Randy said.

“Then where is it?”

Randy looked sadly into the empty wash basin. “On a long voyage.”

“You dropped my goldfish down the drain?” Mr. Janowski asked.

“It wasn’t our fault! We were trying to save its life. Besides, it’s only a goldfish.”


“What about next week?” Randy asked.


Randy shrugged his shoulders and returned to the music room to put his trumpet in its case.

“It wasn’t my fault!”


That night at supper, sandwiched between a lively discussion by his brothers and sisters, Randy quietly announced, “I won’t be taking lessons anymore from Mr. Janowski.”

“Why not?” his mother asked.

“He kicked me out of his house and told me to never come back.”

His father raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”

The phone rang and it was for his father. Randy quickly finished eating and went to his room to study.

An hour later he brought the hall telephone to his room, looked up Michelle’s number, and phoned her.

“Hello,” her father answered.

“Is Michelle there?”

“No—would you like to leave a message?”


“What’s your name?”



“I met her this afternoon—at her music lesson.”

“Oh you,” her father said, sounding angry again.

“I’ll just call back.”

“Don’t call tonight—it’ll be too late by the time she gets back.”

“Maybe tomorrow then.”

“Suit yourself, but she’s very busy with school.”

There was a long frigid pause. “Okay, bye.”

At eight thirty his father came in, sat down on the bed, and said, “I’m interested in knowing what happened at your music lesson today.”

Randy told him the story.

“It might be nice if you went back and apologized to Mr. Janowski.”

“Dad, he doesn’t want to see me again. Besides, it wasn’t my fault—it happened because of his messy room. If I go back, he’ll just get mad all over again and start yelling.”

“Maybe you could buy him a new fishbowl and a goldfish.”

“It wasn’t my fault. You should’ve seen where he had the fishbowl. It’s a wonder it hadn’t fallen off before. I’m not apologizing for something that’s not my fault.”

His father looked at him for a long time, then said, “Okay.”

Randy was puzzled. It wasn’t like his father to give up so easily.

His father stood up to leave, then asked, “Hey, aren’t you hungry? How about if we go for a pizza.”

A few minutes later, they sat down in the restaurant and ordered a pizza.

“What happened to you today,” his father began, “reminds me of something that happened on my mission. Our mission home was in New York City, across from Central Park in a very exclusive neighborhood. My companion and I were working in Long Island. On one rainy day, we had to go to the mission office for supplies. Somewhere between leaving the car and walking into the mission home, I must have stepped in some mud.

“When we got inside, nobody else was in the office. I saw the material we needed and walked over to get it. On my way back, my companion pointed out the mess I’d made with my muddy feet. I remember thinking they should have a throw rug at the entrance so that wouldn’t happen.

“We were in a hurry to get back for a meeting, so we left. That night after our meeting we got a call from one of the office elders. He told us that President West, our mission president, had seen the mess and told the housekeeper to leave it. He wanted us to go back the next morning and clean up our muddy footprints.

“I tried to explain we’d been in a hurry, that it wasn’t really our fault, that they should have had a throw rug, but it didn’t matter. They wanted us to drive all the way into the city through all the traffic and clean up our mess.”

Just then the waitress brought the pizza.

A couple of slices later, Randy asked, “What happened?”

“The next morning we drove into the city again, got a pail of water, cleaned up the mud, and went home.

“The next time we had zone conference, President West talked about what had happened without mentioning our names. He told us that in life, try as we may, we all leave muddy footprints. We don’t mean to, but it happens. He said there are three kinds of people in the world—those who absolutely refuse to do anything to clean them up, those who will only clean up when they are required to, and those who see the mud and voluntarily go about cleaning up. I always remembered that. He called it the Parable of the Muddy Footprints.”

“You still want me to go back and apologize, don’t you?” Randy asked.

“And you still feel you shouldn’t have to, don’t you? Let me ask you a question—under what circumstances can you ever imagine yourself apologizing to anyone?”

“When I’m in the wrong.”

“You mean when you’re entirely in the wrong. When there’s nobody else you can point to and say it was partly his fault too—when you’re 100 percent in the wrong.”

“Yes,” Randy said, “then I’ll apologize.”

“It’ll never happen.”

“But why should I apologize for something that isn’t my fault?”

His father looked at him for a long time, then asked, “What do you know about Mr. Janowski?”

“He teaches music lessons.”

“Does he have a wife? Any children or grandchildren?”

“I’ve never seen anybody else at his house.”

“So maybe he lives alone.”

“I guess so.”

“Maybe he never married, or maybe he was married and his wife died.”

“Maybe—all I do is take trumpet lessons from him.”

“He’s not a young man, is he? Maybe he’s been alone in that house for 20 years. Does he have a dog?”


“I wonder why he kept a goldfish, don’t you? Did the fishbowl have a filter system on it?”

“No, it was just a bowl.”

“That means he had to change the water every day. Why do you suppose he went to the trouble?”

“Dad, I don’t know.”

“Well, let’s just imagine. Maybe he kept it for company. Maybe it gave him something to care for. Maybe he imagined the fish liked music. Maybe sometimes he talked to it, or had a name for it. On Christmas maybe he dropped a little extra fish food in the bowl. But now it’s dead.”

“Maybe not—if it can swim through the pipes to a lake.”

“But it’s gone. I wonder if he’ll buy another one, don’t you?”

“They don’t cost much. He could afford it.”

“Maybe he’ll decide not to bother—then he’ll be completely alone.”

Randy sat and looked at his last slice. He wasn’t hungry anymore. They left.

“You really think he cared about a goldfish?” Randy broke the silence on the way home.

“I don’t know—but he could have. One thing though—he knows you didn’t care about it very much.”

Several blocks of silence passed by.

“Dad, I can’t apologize to him,” Randy said painfully.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Buy him a new fishbowl and a goldfish and knock on his door. Two words, Randy, that’s all I ask—I’m sorry.

“But that’s admitting it was all my fault.”

His father sighed and shook his head.

“What’s wrong?”

“We go through life pretending that somewhere a grand court is convened with every misunderstanding, and that it issues an official decision, ‘He was in the wrong’ or ‘It wasn’t his fault.’ And we play out our life for that imaginary court, making our defense before it every day of our life, justifying our mistakes, minimizing our errors. Well, the court doesn’t exist. And much of the heartache in the world comes, not only because of sin, but also because we hurt each other’s feelings.”

Randy thought about Mr. Janowski changing the water every night for the goldfish. Did he really talk to it?

“Randy, there’s no loss to your manhood to say you’re sorry. It’s not even admitting guilt. Go ahead and learn to lessen the hurt of those around you. That’s what the Savior would do—you know he would.”

They pulled into the driveway and sat for a minute. Finally Randy grinned. “The pizza was just a plan to talk to me, wasn’t it?”

His father laughed. “How can you argue with me when I’m paying ten dollars for you to gorge yourself?”

The next day after school Randy went to a store and asked the clerk for the happiest goldfish they had. After 15 minutes of trying to please Randy, the clerk reached in with a net and pulled out a fish. “This is the happiest one we have,” he announced with an air of finality.

“Are you sure?”

“Trust me,” the frustrated clerk said.

An hour later, Randy knocked on Mr. Janowski’s door.

“I told you never to come back here again!” Mr. Janowski fumed.

Randy thrust out the new fishbowl with a goldfish swimming around in it.

“Mr. Janowski, I’m sorry.”

He watched the anger melt on Mr. Janowski’s face.

“Come in.” They went inside. Mr. Janowski cleared off a place on top of the piano for the fishbowl, got some fish food, and scattered it in.

“I think I’ll call him Otto.”

“Otto that’s a good name. Does he look happy to you?”

“You’re right. He is happy, isn’t he?”

That night Randy knocked at another door. Michelle’s father opened it and scowled. “What do you want?”

“I’m sorry,” Randy said.

Mr. Reynolds looked at him strangely. “You came to apologize?”

“Yes, I’m sorry.”

“Michelle,” her father called out, “we have company.”

When she showed up, he said it again. “I’m sorry.”

She smiled warmly at him. He stayed for popcorn, and they invited him to go waterskiing with the family in the summer.

There’s magic in some words, he thought as he walked home. For instance, take the words I’m sorry—and also the word Michelle.

As he walked home, he began to think.

The house was a raging inferno.

“Help!” Michelle cried out from a second-floor window …

Illustrated by Bryan Lee Shaw