Me and Jeff had been running the carnival for 12 years, thereabouts. It wasn’t like one of the old-time carnies, of course, not even up to the state fair midways these days.
Once, the Ringling Circus had a freak show that you could really sink your teeth into – not just the fat lady and the tall guy, but an alligator-skinned man and monkey woman (I think they were husband and wife) and real sword swallowers and people with deformities that made you laugh and squirm at the same time. These days, the Ringling sideshow, if they even bring it along, is just the leftover fake animals that Barnum made up by sewing different parts together. The hair’s falling off.
At the state fairs, some of them, you can still get maybe a guy pounding nails up his nose and a midget. One midget I saw, it was a Thai lady sitting on a lawn chair down inside a hollowed-out log of a big mother redwood. A funny idea. And what was she doing? She was knitting! But she’d talk to you like almost an old friend and had not much accent. I liked her but thought she could have been smaller. But down in there, from where you were looking at her, it was hard to tell.
Jeff (my brother) and me pulled a somewhat sad load of trailers around, most of it them cheap games that any midway has. You know – they look easy, knocking bottles over or breaking balloons with darts, but they ain’t. Takes skill or really luck. Lots of places, they fix the games, half gluing the bottles together, but we never done that. It’s hard enough just the way it is. Try it some time in your back yard. Use a real soft ball, and it just doesn’t want to knock over those old milk bottles, which are a lot more weighty than they look.
Everyone wins a prize, sure, but let me tell you, not one of them prizes, even the big ones, match the money the chubs put down to play. They don’t cost dog shit by the bushel.
What happened with this that I’m telling is that I was sitting in my office – I call it that, but it’s a battered tabletop full of crap in one of the most beatup trailers, because I wouldn’t ask our performers to travel in anything in that bad of a shape. There was a knock at the door, unusual enough because I don’t ask or expect anybody to knock. I grunted, because I was online through my laptop.
The door opened slow and a stooped fellah come in and stood and nodded. He wasn’t more than half in the door which was making a draft in the middle days of spring as I recall, and I didn’t appreciate the cold. I waved him on. “Yeah?”
He still didn’t move, kept nodding like a bobblehead doll. It was getting on my nerves.
“You got somethin’?”
That seemed to get him going. He stepped in, even straightened up, and nodded harder. “I do.”
He was carrying a big leather or what looked liked leather container hanging from his right hand that weighted him down to that side. I’d seen people carry loads before, and I could see that it was normal for him to be doing so, that he had carried this particular load for awhile, and probably in a lot of places.
“Can I do somethin’ for ya?” I was beginning to get interested.
“I can do something for you,” he said. It puzzled me – not the words, but that I couldn’t place his accent. I’ve dealt with enough oddball people in my profession that I’m not surprised by much of the noise that comes out of people’s mouths, but this was different. East European? Middle East? Maybe.
“Huh.” (That was a placeholder noise on my part.)
“Would you mind if I place this on your desk?”
Hell of a question, considering what my table looked like, but it showed that he had done this before and thought about consequences.
“Yeah. Go head.”
The container came apart at the top and the sides folded down. When the parts lay flat, what was exposed was a fish tank, a rectangle, about half full. In it was a a bit of sand at the bottom and a single fish, about I’d say five inches long. I looked at the fish and the fish looked back at me. I mean it really looked at me, like I was was important and should be paid attention to.
I didn’t say nothin’. When somebody pulls a stunt like this, you sit back and let it play out.
“Ask him a question,” the guy said in that whatever accent.
“How you know it’s a male?”
That gave him a half-second pause fore he said, “I can sex fish, and you would anyhow just have to listen to him to know.”
Why should I ask a fish a question, I thought, so I said, “Why should I ask a fish a question?”
Ever seen a fish look pissed? This one did, a stream of bubbles come out of its mouth, rippling up to the surface, but of course no sound.
“He really gave it to you,” said the fish owner.
“Did you not hear what he said?”
“I didn’t hear jack-all.”
That set the man back a bit but didn’t seem to rattle him. Probably it was par for the course. He pulled up a folding chair from the corner and sat down.
“Do you believe in reincarnation?” he asked.
“How people die and come back as somebody else?”
“Not just people.”
“In some cases.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t believe. Not with people, not with fish.”
“I do not either.”
I guess that put us on a more even keel, and as such we sat there for a couple minutes just looking at the fish. The fish looked disgusted with both of us. The situation was stupid, if not ridiculous, but I was inclined to try something.
I leaned forward and looked dead center at the fish. “Tell me your name.”
The fish backed off toward a corner of the tank and shook its head. I hadn’t been expecting this, but it might be something fish do all the time. I had little experience communicating with fish.
“He does not like to do that,” the fish’s owner or agent said.
“Tell somebody his name?”
“It has sacred meaning.”
“Why don’t you just wrap your fish up and take it back out.”
“You should listen.”
Well, it was ten in the morning and I hated doing the accounts in Excel, all those little cells to fill in that showed we weren’t making enough to get us through another year. I could turn on the local country station, which was as bad as any other country station, or I could listen to somebody who was crazy or doing a scam, or I could talk to a fish. What difference, much, did it make?
“If he’s in the water,” I said, “I can’t hear him. And if you take him out of the water he can’t breathe or whatever a fish does.”
For the first time, the man smiled. “There are ways.”
I hadn’t been sure how to advertise it. On the radio, I could have the fish say a couple words, but who would believe it? Could be anybody. In the newspapers, you couldn’t get the feel of it across. I could make a video on Youtube, but everybody would think it was just CGI shit. They’d play it a couple million times, but they wouldn’t come to see the show, and that wouldn’t make us any moolah. We needed the money, bad.
I should tell you something about Jeff, so you don’t think I do all the work. Jeff’s two years older than me and quiet. He’s beyond quiet, close to mute. It’s odd as hell to be living with somebody all your life and not know if he could talk a full sentence if he wanted to. Jeff’s never said a whole phrase, but the doctors who looked at him claim there’s nothing physically wrong, nothing to pinpoint that would stop him from talking like a normal person. Me, I think he just decided early on that it wasn’t worth it. He might be right, but I wouldn’t want to live that way.
Jeff takes charge of the games and shows, I take care of the planning and the money and dealing with people on the outside. Given how it’d been going those last years, I’d say Jeff was doing a sight better job than me.
Right off, Jeff didn’t like the fish. I don’t know why, but he took one look at it, then back at me and I knew. He wouldn’t even eat it on a platter, and Jeff likes seafood more than me. The fish didn’t like him any better. They had what I’d guess you’d call a mutual animosity, like Russia and the U.S. I wasn’t that fond of him (the fish) myself, but I put up with him because he was the genuine article, not a scam. He could talk, he was smarter than at least half the people who came to laugh at him, and he carried on a good act.
The main problem was he had a dirty mouth. He’d talk about a skinny woman’s private parts or tell a two-ton lard-beat that a whale would be ashamed to be seen in his presence. You remember the Pogo comic strip? The fish was like Porky Pine, who didn’t like anybody, an equal opportunity kick-your-butt. One pissed-off customer threw a shoe at the tank and cracked it because the fish called him too short to reach the toilet seat. But of course that give us headlines and brung more people in to watch the show.
I think the fish was a grouper. If so, he was small for his breed.
How it worked that he could talk is, his keeper put a waterproof microphone into the tank inside a little suction thing. The fish would stick his head in there to talk, then back off to be in the water again. It was close to a press conference, but with better prattle.
People would ask him the damnedest things. Some thought he was like a medium and they wanted to know what their dead wife was doing. You shouldn’t hear what the fish would tell them. Others felt that he had a particular knowledge of the wider world, that he could solve the ills of civilization and the like. And he did come up with some good ideas at times, but it seemed like he was working against himself when he done it. He could twist his mouth up so that you’d see that he wished he hadn’t said what he’d just said and that whoever had asked it could go to hell.
I got more and more so that I wanted to know what his name was. Not like it was important, but that he was holding back and I wanted to get it out of him. Nondrice, the owner – or that’s as close to his name as I can come in spelling – kept telling me to leave off, that there would be trouble. I believed him, but I couldn’t stop the itch to ask. I’d rag on the fish just to get him riled up. I mean, he’s in the tank and I’m outside and I’m his employer, so what could he do?
We split the take. Nondrice got a third of what the fish’s show brought in and ten percent on the rest of the total take, figuring the fish was dragging in at least that much extra traffic, and that still left us enough to get out of the hole that the last few years had dug. But you could see that Jeff still wanted the fish gone. A gentle guy otherwise, Jeff foamed and shook almost when he was in the room with the fish.
We moved on to Medville, a somewhat pissant town that was one of our regular swing-throughs, with the cash flowing in again, but I was wondering how long that could last. The attention span these days, you know. We played it up big in the local weekly paper – no dailies in these rural nowheres – and the locals ate it up, passed the word along. Word of mouth is all that works in towns like Medville.
The trouble started when a local lady come by with a little tank, not more than three gallons, with a grouper (if that’s what it was) even smaller than ours. She said she thought it would be nice for her Lila to “visit” with the talking fish. Me, I thought it was hooey, but it wouldn’t hurt anything (so I thought) and might even bring out the fish version of human interest. So I said, “Sure,” and why not leave the tank off for until the end of our run, plenty of room?
Can you guess? Our goddam fish fell in love. I can’t find no other way to put it. He pushed his nose up against the tank and stared. That went on for over an hour. It was in the afternoon, before opening, so it was OK with me as long as he was ready for his act in the evening.
Unh uh. He was still staring by 6 pm. The other fish – with the name Lila most likely a female – paid not much attention. She never said a word or blew any of those bubble streams. Probably as dumb as a run-of-the-mill garden-pond goldfish. After a good three hours, our fish finally figured out he wasn’t getting anywhere. I would have thought, being the ornery lug he was, he’d turn tail and give her a blast from the rear. Instead, he got misty eyed and sailed around the tank like an Ice Capades skater.
He looked a little better by showtime, and the first chub asked him a question he answered it straightforward, none of his usual snarky crap. I wasn’t unhappy to hear that. But then he started drifting. His answers stopped fitting in with the questions. One guy asked him the capital of Idaho (you’d be surprised how often that one got pulled, doesn’t anybody know how to read a map?) and the fish said, “Ceylon,” or maybe “Sail on.” It kept up that way, answers that flew in from left field or the other side of the earth. It got laughs, sure, but not the kind you look for. You want them laughing with you, not at you.
That was the the way of it the first night and the second. Then all hell broke loose. Instead of answering the questions, the fish started singing love songs. Anything from “I Love You Truly” down through that Whitney Houston forever-number-one that I can’t stand. It was like being stuck at a wedding run by a justice of the peace.
I talked to the fish, leaned on the table and made like it was everyday to hold a conversation with an animal that doesn’t have legs. I asked him to tell me what was going on, could we make it better? He wouldn’t even stick his head in the mic holder. I could tell (you recognize these things when you’ve been around somebody long enough) that he wasn’t about to change course. It was going to be the same as the last two nights or worse.
What to do then, close up the show, take a breather? We couldn’t afford it. I got people working for me, depend on me, I owe them. Maybe it was a passing fancy with the fish, if he didn’t do in the outfit first.
We hung up a sign to apologize that the fish was sick, but the word had already got out what was really going on in the tank. More chubs than ever come by no matter the sign, and they all got pissed because we wouldn’t produce the fish. They wanted to hear him sing.
Where was Jeff in all this? As I said, he’d kept away from the fish from that first day, but now he’d look down into the tank and gloat.
“Jeff,” I said, “that don’t help. He’s our meal ticket. Let him alone so he can get over it, recover.”
“Recover? His scam? Fuckin’ fish.”
“You think you can replace him? Stick you down in the bottom of the tank, your head in a mic, bring in the trade?”
“Try this,” he says, laughing, smirking really, and leans in, his mouth up against the glass, makes the longest speech I ever heard come out of him at one time. “Hey fish. I ate your mama with tartar sauce.”
The fish snaps back like somebody’d yanked his rubber band, then he’s shaking so he’d blow his scales off. I don’t know if he’s scared or so goddamned pissed he wants to bang through the tank and rip Jeff’s heart out.
What the hell am I spose to do? I run next door and wake up Nondrice, the fish’s owner. (Him and me didn’t talk much those days, he took his cut and stayed in the background except for watching the fish’s shows in case something went haywire.)
“Get over here, this is bad,” I said. He didn’t argue, got on his slippers and slapped along behind me.
By the time we got in my trailer, the fish was slamming his nose against the glass. I don’t know what my brother’d been up to to make it worse.
“Jeff, stop the shit,” I said. I may be his brother, but I was in charge of the outfit, so he quieted.
I asked Nondrice, “Any idea what’s what here?”
He looked at the floor, the ceiling, me, the tank. “Jeff has to talk to him.”
“To the fish? That’s the problem, not no solution.” from me.
“Fuck that!” from Jeff.
“He’s got to apologize, explain.” from Nondrice.
“Do it.” from me.
Jeff looked like a stuffed cushion that didn’t know how to get sat on. “Hell I’m spose to say?”
“Nondrice?” from me.
“Ask the fish what he wants.”
“What the fuck you want?” from Jeff to the fish.
The fish stopped dead, just his tail flicking. He didn’t say anything.
“Answer him,” I shouted.
“Not that way, yelling, he won’t say.” from Nondrice.
“Mr. Fish,” I said, “you’re never told me, told anybody your name. How to talk to you about what’s important when we don’t know you, who you are? How can your love-fish talk to you at night? You think swimming’s enough, makes everything equal? Let me tell you, it don’t. Nah, I don’t swim except in them damned chlorinated pools, but it’s the same everywheres, I’ll bet you. You want to talk to your love, your friends, the ones here could help you, then damned well you learn their language or them learn yours or at damned least tell them your name so you got a common way. Maybe I treat you bad? You think? I could set you loose any time, you’d float down the stream, the creek, out to sea and there’s nobody would help you, sharks eat you up, there’s Chinese would catch you and fry you on for supper. I don’t know how you think it is here, right now, but you tell me your name and I swear things will change for you. It makes you a real guy we can work with. It’s the way the world goes when we’re all singing the same tune. Jeff don’t hate you, just thinks so. Jeff thinks a lot of things that ain’t so true. Everybody does – people, dogs, cats, fish. Sure, fish are people too – you know what the hell I mean. Things will change. Tell us your name, can’t say which way it will change, but trust me, it happens. I’ll put your love in with you, in the tank. And I won’t look when you’re together alone.”
So I talked to the woman who’d brought the lady fish (her name was Sylvia – the woman, I mean; as I told you, the fish is Lila), and after a bit she said OK to leaving her with us, putting them together. Plus I got Jeff to clam it. Turns out he was just jealous of the attention the fish got.
It was kind of heart-throbbing to watch them, you don’t see something like that, I mean, we don’t normally think fish feel that way. As I’d said to the fish, I didn’t look in on them except at show time, when they would sometimes answer questions together, or it sounded that way, though when they talked separate, I could never pick up anything made sense from Lila (nor no one else could either).
So that’s the way it went with the outfit, until I got into other things. They got a home somewheres else now. I don’t know how long groupers (if that’s what they are) live. I hope a long time. And all what happened (or mostly all) come straight out of him giving me his name…
…hell no, I wouldn’t tell you that. That’s private to the fish and Lila.