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A Writing Prompt #4
Fish are people, too
You seldom forget where and when a good idea occurs…
On the tour for Rant I got stuck in Chicago for a weekend. The flight that was supposed to get me back to Portland for a weekend’s rest, well, it sat delayed on the runway at O’Hare for four hours because—get this—the little bottles of water hadn’t been delivered. While waiting for water our flight crew aged out or whatever they call it when a crew will be forced to work too long a time. Now we were awaiting a new flight crew, and passengers started to get raucous. The lead flight attendant grabbed the microphone and began to preach to everyone about the New Testament, going so far as to read passages from the Bible. Amid the shouting and the amplified sermonizing, I pressed the button to summon someone and asked to deplane.
As it was, I’d have only a few hours in Portland before I’d be flying east to Toronto, so why not stay over for the weekend? Besides, I’d somehow wandered into a ludicrous Tom Wolfe novel. As the cabin attendant quoted the words of Jesus to us, I simply explained that I was having a mild heart attack and needed to return to the gate. I would’ve said anything to get off that lunatic flight. Back at the boutique hotel in downtown Chicago the desk clerk smiled to see me again. He asked if I’d changed my mind about accepting a fish.
Hotel gimmicks. At one point every legacy hotel had an author’s suite, which was cool because you could flop in bed and watch cable porn knowing that David Foster Wallace had done the same in the same bed. His book was in the shelf. The shelf was a history of who-all had slept in this bed. Jane Fonda, David Sedaris, Paula Deen, Jonathan Lethem, and me. In every author’s suite, the bed’s provenance was right there in the bookshelf filled with books inscribed to the Alexis Hotel in Seattle or the Brown Palace in Denver. After that, every hotel had a haunted room and usually a ghost tour. After that, it was the fish. Some marketing guru said business travelers felt lonely and needed a companion, so ritzy hotels ought to give each guest a goldfish in a small bowl in their room.
A small fish trapped in a glass bowl is not the comforting metaphor someone imagined. The last thing I needed to see was a little creature as helpless as I felt, so I declined the fish. For as long as the fish thing lasted, I declined taking a fish to my room. During the day in such hotels, you’d see the Housekeeping carts parked in the corridors, packed with little fishbowls and fish being shuffled between rooms.
I had to wonder what those fish had witnessed. What sexual trysts and drug deals and crying jags and suicides had those poor little fish been forced to watch? The juxtaposition of animal innocence and human drama seemed appalling.
That weekend in Chicago I wrote the short story Bait, the title story of the coloring book by the same name. The story of a fish that had witnessed a murder and was being used to lure the killer out of hiding. You see, a fish psychic could supposedly sense the killer’s identity, so the killer would be forced to kill the fish before it would testify. All that because my stupid flight was stuck on the stupid runway because the stupid bottled water had not been delivered.
Which gets us to the writing prompt…
It’s always interesting to juxtapose the innocence of an animal with the evil of humanity. Think of the small poodle, Precious, in The Silence of the Lambs. Think of the tiny lap dog of Nicole Kidman, adopted by the hit man at the end of To Die For. On a very mild note, consider how Erma Bombeck always worried what her dog would think if it saw her step out of the shower naked.
Which naturally brings us to Jeffrey Dahmer
Last weekend on a true crime podcast I heard how Dahmer had an aquarium. Sure there were human skulls everywhere and vats dissolving flesh in acid, but the detectives who searched his apartment were impressed by how nicely the fish tank had been maintained. I’ll let Dahmer explain:
“It was nice, with African cichlids and tiger barbs in it and live plants, it was a beautifully kept fish tank, very clean… I used to like to just sit there and watch them swim around, basically. I used to enjoy the planning and the set-up, the filtration, read about how to keep the nitrate and ammonia down to safe levels and just the whole spectrum of fish-keeping interested me… I once saw some puffer fish in the store. It’s a round fish, and the only ones I ever saw with both eyes in front, like a person’s eyes, and they would come right up to the front of the glass and their eyes would be crystal blue, like a person’s, real cute… It’s a fun hobby. I really enjoyed that fish tank. It’s something I really miss.”
What became of those fish? Cichlids can live up to twenty years. They seem like the perfect non-cuddly pet for Dahmer, but where did they end up?
An idea is an idea, but the way you proceed into the idea is crucial. The fish would be an innocent pathway into a horrible story. In The Silence of the Lambs we see Buffalo Bill’s last would-be victim adopting the poodle… but who adopted the Dahmer fish?
Likewise, in the short story Red Sultan’s Big Boy, I speculated about what became of the horse trained to make whoopee with the infamous “Mr. Hands.”
Your job is to make horror more frightening by juxtaposing it with beauty or innocence. Make the unbelievable real with commonplace objects. Or house pets.