The Dead Fish Museum

Stories

by Charles D'Ambrosio

The Dead Fish Museum

Hardcover, 236 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $22 | purchase

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Book Summary

In eight unforgettable stories, five of which previously appeared in The New Yorker, a son confronts his father's madness during a camping trip, two drifters share a ghostly vision of a young girl lost in an Iowa cornfield, a young writer battles for his sanity in a hospital psych ward, and more. By the author of The Point. 25,000 first printing.

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Dr. Abraham Verghese is the author of the book 'My Own Country.'

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Dead Fish Museum

The Dead Fish Museum

The High Divide

At the Home I’d get up early, when the Sisters were still asleep, and head to the ancient Chinese man’s store. The ancient Chinese man was a brown, knotted, shriveled man who looked like a chunk of gingerroot and ran one of those tiny stores that sells grapefruits, wine, and toilet paper, and no one can ever figure out how they survive. But he survived, he figured it out. His ancient Chinese wife was a little twig of a woman who sat in a chair and never said a word. He spoke only enough English to conduct business, to say hello and goodbye, to make change, although every morning, when I came for my grapefruit, I tried to teach him some useful vocabulary.

I came out of the gray drizzle through the glass door with the old Fishback Appliance Repair sign still stenciled on it, a copper cowbell clanging above me, and the store was cold, the lights weren’t even on. I went to the bin and picked through the grapefruits and found one that wasn’t bad, a yellow ball, soft and square from sitting too long in the box, and then I went to the counter. The Chinese man wasn’t there. His tiny branchlike wife was sitting in her chair, all bent up. I searched my pockets for show, knowing all along that I’d be a little short. I came up with twenty-seven cents, half a paper clip, a pen cap, and a ball of blue lint. I put the money in her hand and she stared at it. By the lonesome sound my nickels and pennies made when she sorted them into their slots I also knew that the till was empty. I looked behind her through the beaded curtain to the small apartment behind the shop. Next to the kitchen sink was an apple with a bite out of it, the bite turned brown like an old laugh.

I held my grapefruit, tossed it up in the air, caught it.

Where is he? I asked.

She was chewing on a slice of ginger and offered me a piece, which I accepted. In the morning, they chewed ginger instead of drinking coffee.

Husband? I said.

She blinked and spat on the floor. Meiyou xiwang, she said. Meiyou xiwang.

She folded her hands, tangling the tiny brown roots together. Meiyou xiwang, she said, touching her heart, and sending her hands flying apart. Her singsong voice beat an echo against the bare walls. Her hands flapped like a bat. I shook my head. Meiyou xiwang, she insisted. Huh? I said, but I knew we could go on forever not making any sense. She hugged herself, like she was cold. I didn’t know what to say. She’d traveled all this way, she’d left China and crossed the ocean and come to Bremerton and opened a little store and put grapefruit in the bins and Mogen David on the shelves, but she’d gone too far, because now she couldn’t tell anybody what was happening to her anymore.


I had two projects at the Home. I was reading the encyclopedia, working through the whole circle of learning available to man, as the introduction said. I’d started with Ignatius Loyola, because I’m named after him, and the Inquisition, and this led me right into the topic of torture.

My other project involved learning Latin so I could be an altar boy. I got the idea one morning at Sacred Heart while I was staring at the cold altar and the Cross and winking at the nailed-up Christ to see if He’d wink back. Our priest said that he didn’t go for the vernacular because it was vulgar. If you were God Eternal, he said, would you want to listen to such yowling? He said that everything in the Church was a sign for something else, and a priest was a man who knew all the signs, but an altar boy knew a few of them, too. I looked around the sanctuary. With the snowy marble slab of altar, the gilt dome of the tabernacle and its tiny doors, the chalices and cruets, the fresh-cut flowers, the sparkling candlelight, the sanctuary was like a foreign country, and if I knew the language I could go there.

Several times I read the Missal as far as the Minor Elevation, the part of the Mass just after you pray for the dead. Per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen. World without end. Amen. But I was trying to learn Latin with phonetics—the Missal was Latin on one side, English on the other—and, needless to say, my comprehension was zero, and I was always finding myself back at the beginning, starting over. Per omnia saecula saeculorum, amen!

Most of our schoolwork focused on how to get into Heaven. Sister Eulalia, the catechism nun, taught us about sin and the opportunities for salvation. She was a short, wide old woman with thick glasses and blue eyes that drifted behind them like tropical fish. She kept calling Jesus the Holy Victim and the Word Made Flesh and the Unspotted Sacrifice. She said that sacrifice didn’t mean to kill but to make holy. We are made in the image of God’s great mystery but through our ignorance and despair our vision is clouded. Salvation, she told us, is our presence in a bright light where we at last become the perfect image and reflection of our Creator.

We saw a slide show on the scapular. A boy was riding by a gas station on his bicycle. A man was pumping gas and a family was waiting in a car. Then the gas station was blowing up and the boy was flying through the air. Everybody died but the boy, who was wearing his scapular. Sister Eulalia passed around blank order forms and said to fill them out and bring $2.50 if you thought it was prudent to have a scapular for yourself. I’d spent all my money on grapefruits, though.

At night, in bed, I practiced my prayers. We had to memorize so many at the Home: Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, Act of Faith, of Hope, of Love, of Contrition. Praying either put me to sleep or made me think of girls. Once, I passed a girl a note during class and Sister Josephine, the discipline nun, intercepted it and said someone my age doesn’t know the least thing about love and shouldn’t use that word the way I did. That kind of love is special, she said. It’s a rare gift from God, it’s the consummation of a union, and it’s certainly nothing for children. Sister Josephine called it The Marriage Act. It’s embarrassing for me to admit, but she made me cry, she was yelling so much. I never sent another note. Still, I attached a vague feeling of hope to different girls, a feeling of, I don’t know, of whatever, that came out, some nights, when I said prayers.

We had to learn the prayers because we prayed for everything: we prayed for food, we prayed for sleep, we prayed for new basketballs. Three times a day, Sister Catherine, the food nun, took us to the church cafeteria for our meals. Volunteer ladies served us—they were all old and kind and had science-fiction hair, clouds of blue gas, burning white-hot rocket fuel, explosions of atomic frizz. I loved the endless stacks of white bread and the cold slabs of butter. When the nuns said I was underfoot, I went downstairs and studied the encyclopedias or read Latin or went outside and shot buses with my pump gun. Buses passed the Home every twenty-six minutes. I built up my arm pitching rocks at a tree until a circle of pulpy white wood was exposed in the bark. One afternoon I planted a sunflower in a milk carton.

I longed to go somewhere but there wasn’t anywhere good that I knew of. Then one day I found the public-school yard.

What’re you doing here, you stupid shit? asked one kid, a pudgy boy with skin like a baby.

He and some other boys pushed around me in a circle.

The pudge said, Who are you?

When I didn’t answer, he said, You’re one of those orphan bastards, right?

The boys crowded in closer and I was afraid to speak. People could tell you were from the Home by your haircut. We were all shaved up like the Dalai Lama.

Finally I smiled and mumbled, If you say so.

What? the pudge said. I didn’t hear you.

The circle of boys cinched like a knot. Their looming heads were way up in the sky.

Yeah, I said.

After that I sat below the monkey bars and chewed a butter sandwich and watched pudge-boy and his gang over by the water fountain with some girls and I knew I was going to have to kick his ass sooner or later. Everything else was new and strange but this seemed predictable and something I could rely on.

That spring the pudge had the nerve to try out for base- ball. He wore brand-new cleats and threw like a fem and his mitt, also brand-new, very orange and stiff, wouldn’t close. He might as well have been standing in right field with a piece of toast. He dropped everything. The second day of practice, we had an intrasquad game and I nailed him three times. I just chose places on his fat body and threw the ball at them. Eventually, pudge-boy was afraid to stand in the batter’s box. The coach thought I had a control problem but I didn’t. My control was perfect.

I whiffed nine guys and made the team and the pudge was cut. He walked away, crying. I ran down the hill and jumped on his back. I hit him in the face and the neck and beat on his ear over and over. You hear that? I shouted. You hear that, you fat fucker? Now that I had him alone I was insane. The pudge rolled away on the grass, holding his ear. Blood was coming out. He was bawling, and I hawked a gob of spit right into his black wailing mouth and said, You bastard.

That night, I was asleep with the encyclopedia pitched like a tent over my nose when Sister Celestine, the head nun, came in.

Why weren’t you at dinner?

I could hear the polished rocks of Sister Celestine’s rosary rattling as she worried them between her fingers.

She pulled the encyclopedia off my head.

Won’t you talk? Sister said.

She tucked a dry, stray shaft of hair back beneath her habit. Maybe you’d feel more comfortable making a confession?

I picked at the fuzzballs on my blanket.

I just got off the phone with that boy’s mother, she said.

She touched a cut on my lip and took a deep breath. She said, You called him a name. Do you know what that name means?

I shook my head.

She took off her scapular and put it around my neck. Two small pieces of brown wool hung on a cord, one in back, the other in front.

I rubbed the wool between my finger and thumb.

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