J.R. Carpenter
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter

Lynne and her mother lived in half a clapboard house that had long ago staggered, stooped and settled where it fell, alongside a salt-parched road that backed up a hill and away from a fishing village called Brooklyn. Not the real Brooklyn; Brooklyn, Nova Scotia. No one fished from the wharf at Brooklyn anymore. No one lived in the other half of the clapboard house.

No one Lynne knew had ever been anywhere. Except for her mother, but she didn't count. Lynne's mother grew up in Queens, New York. The only place she'd ever travelled was to Brooklyn, Nova Scotia. She and three friends had rented a beach house one summer. Lynne's mother had liked Nova Scotia so much she'd stayed.
Why couldn't you have gone to Paris? Lynne complained.
Love at first sight, was her mother's only explanation.
Whether she'd fallen for Nova Scotia or for
Lynne's father, Lynne wasn't sure.
Either way.

Winters, Lynne froze in Celsius in half a clapboard house a few minutes walk from a white sandy beach. Summers, she suffered her city cousins in Fahrenheit in an air-conditioned apartment in Queens. By now Lynne knew everyone knew that it was supposed to be the other way around.


Enter a temperature.
Click outside the box.

Even the soil is richer in the States,
at least south of where the glaciers got to,
in places a dark mixture of three

million years. Loam, sweet loam. Hardwood,
gnarled and hard as history itself: hickory,
many kinds of oak, flowering trees as old

as dinosaurs. If bluegrass came out of such
places, and Creole cooking, and the ancient,
crumbling institutions of race and class,

it is no surprise. In cold Canada the harshness,
like the soil, is a thin cover over everything,
so our music is sadder, elemental and low.

Just the red soil of the Cypress Hills is rich, because
it stayed above the glaciers, and is too deep to know.

Robert Allen, Standing Wave
    Luck-key, Lynne's school friends said when she told them she'd be spending her summer vacation in New York City. Again.
    Is New York bigger than Halifax?
    Room for me in your suitcase?
    I need a break, her mother said when Lynne asked if she really had to go.
    Sure! We'd be happy to have her! Her aunt and uncle enthused over the phone.
    So, a visit to the Big Apple, a heavily made-up stewardess said, handing Lynne an eggcup-sized glass of orange juice, somewhere over the Atlantic.

CityFish || J. R. Carpenter

Lynne didn't see what the big deal was. She had flown unattended minor plenty of times. She'd spent a dozen summers in New York City already. What more could there possibly be to see?

Two weeks down, one to go.
What more there could possibly be to see so far included: a man peeing himself on the 7 Train, a car crash on the Long Island Expressway and the bones of Lucy, the oldest woman ever, on display at the Museum of Natural History. Now all subway cars smelled like urine. The expressway was boring without the flashing lights. And Lynne went to bed worrying that bored Museum night watchmen might rearrange Lucy's bones in the night.

On the plus side, Lynne escaped having to climb the 345 steps of the Statue of Liberty for the third time in her life thanks to a family funeral, at which, Lynne knew no one. By Lynne's aunt's calculations, the dead woman was Lynne's mother's second cousin once removed. A blood clot in the leg, they said.
Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village... the rhythm the rhythm - and your memory in my head...
Allen Ginsberg, Kaddish, 1961

CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter

If Lynne's aunt and uncle were indeed happy to have her visit, they had funny ways of showing it. The aunt's idea of a good time was an overcrowded street festival in what the uncle kept referring to as "the old neighbourhood" even though, as far as Lynne knew, her family had never been Italian.
The uncle was Lynne's mother's brother. He was so skinny the rounded ends of his backbones showed through his shirt. He had a weird habit of holding his head in his hands when he spoke.

Lynne's mother was fat and spineless. She clutched at the back of her neck when she spoke.

Lynne hoped to take after neither of them.
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
The pennycandy store beyond the El
is where I first
                    fell in love
                                        with unreality
Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom
of that september afternoon
A cat upon the counter moved among
                                        the licorice sticks
                    and tootsie rolls
          and Oh Boy Gum

Outside the leaves were falling as they died

A wind had blown away the sun

A girl ran in
Her hair was rainy
Her breasts were breathless in the little room

Outside the leaves were falling
                    and they cried
                                        Too soon! too soon!

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
A Coney Island of the Mind, 1955.
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
If the cousins were trying to impress Lynne, they had yet to find a way. Fish sticks were their idea of sea food. Coney Island was their idea of a beach.
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
"This is just a kind, glad feeling which is not a vacation, it is an awakening.
They don't anticipate it until they are down in it and when they get home
they have lost it. It is only for those few hours that we don't count."
Djuna Barnes, The People and the Sea
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
Take today, for example. An hour on the 7 Train. 98 in the shade, only there wasn't any. And now here they were. The uncle, the aunt, the cousins and Lynne, walking around and around Chinatown looking for a restaurant that didn't want to be found.
    It's Chinatown, the uncle said. The cousins laughed.
    It stinks, Lynne said.
    She doesn't get it, the cousins sniggered.
    I get it, Lynne said. Maybe she did and maybe she didn't. She practiced limping for later; a blister already blooming on her left heel.
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
They filed past purses of every description, hanging under storefront awnings like bats from the roof of a cave. Lynne clutched her new over-the-shoulder purse, its plastic parts gone soft in the heat. They marched on: the uncle, the aunt, the cousins and Lynne, always in that order. Past stacks of scarves, belts and umbrellas; past armies of watches, faces turned to the sun; past heaps of leafy greens, spiky fruits and regular old oranges. Past scaly banks of dead fish piled atop long sloped ice-packed tables. Stench spilled out into the street.

    So fresh, the aunt said.
    They're dead, Lynne said.
    Now Lynne honey, the aunt squinted at nothing-or-other through the upward-spiralling smoke of her king-sized Kool. Noon was not her best light.
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
    Here it is, the uncle exclaimed.
    A real hole-in-the-wall, the aunt beamed at the long-lost restaurant.
    Authentic, according to three column-inches in last Tuesday's New York Times.
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
For the next hundred years or so, they lunched.
    Do they even have restaurants where you live? The cousins asked without asking.
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
    They should talk. Where they lived barely even counted as The City. A place called Flushing. Something a toilet does.
    The cousins stuck the hole-in-the-wall restaurant's cheap plastic chopsticks up their noses and ate their New-York-Times-certified Chinese food with forks.
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
CityFish || J. R. Carpenter
That Lynne lived up the road from a fishing village called Brooklyn, that was not the real Brooklyn, was a sad fact the Flushing cousins would never let Lynne live down.
    How far away is it? They taunted.
    Farther than Far Rockaway?
    It's farther than Fulton Street, where the Chinatown fish comes from. It's farther than you can see from the torch arm of the Statue of Liberty. Lynne and her mother lived up the hill from the far edge of a raw grey ocean that spread out for days and days.
Through the web of red Chinese words on the hole-in-the-wall's one grim window, Lynne watched a man across the street spraying a swath of ice-packed sidewalk-display fish.
"Their swarming mass is an innumerable collection of singularities. Their intertwined paths give their shape to spaces. They weave places together. In that respect, pedestrian movements form on of those real systems whose existence in fact makes up the city. They are not localized; it is rather they that spatialize. They are no more inserted within a container than those Chinese characters speakers sketch out on their hands with their fingertips." Michel de Certeau, Walking in the City

His wishing-he-were-somewhere-else rolled off of him in waves, like stink off shit, like dead off fish. He couldn't escape the street, the flies and the endless shoppers, their plastic bags bumping him as he stood - too hot, too tired, too wet - lost in enormous rubber boots, furious, alone with his limp green hose.

His hands swollen to almost twice their normal size, any cuts he gets they never bleed, his hands all day in salt and water. Like Lynne's father's hands once were. When boats still fished from the wharf at Brooklyn.
    The one that got away, Lynne's mother said of him.
    Or of herself. Depending on the day.
CityFish || FishWing

The fish stand man's eyes darted down the sidewalk and back, quicksilver - like the sun once was, glitter on the fishes' backs as they thrashed and spat when first pulled from water.
What fish
they must have been,
fishes' fish,
blue and wall-eyed
in deep cold water.
Fishs' thoughts inside their heads:
everything food or death,
for food is living.
Never still,
until netted
and hauled in.
Until then,
whole lives in motion.
Versatility is one of your Outstanding traits.

Lynne shrugged, attempted to blend in. Her back turned Chinese red; her teeth rice white, her face Formica golden. If only her school friends knew. How hot it gets. How loud. How horrible the cousins. They wouldn't beg: Room for me in your suitcase? If the heat didn't get to them first, the city cousins would eat the school friends alive.
    Don't buy them!
Lynne has taken to silent screaming. At the cousins. At the waiter. At the sirens in the distance. At the shoppers streaming past the hole-in the-wall's one grim window.
Dead and stinking. Laid out unceremoniously, one on top of another. What an embarrassment. Even though they're all the same sort of fish, in the ocean they'd never touch like this, fall in a heap like this, offer themselves up en masse.
    It just kills me, Lynne said.
    What does dear? The aunt absentmindedly crinkled and flattened, crinkled and flattened the cellophane wrapper on her Kools soft-pack.
    Did you know that, when they're alive, fish can change the colour of their backs? They do it to blend in with their surroundings.
    That's chameleons, the cousins said.
Room for me in your suitcase?
    Hey let's have fish for dinner, the middle cousin said. God, how Lynne hated the middle cousin. A rat fink. The oldest: a snitch. The youngest: a dirty rascal.
    The cousins shared a room when Lynne was visiting. They locked themselves in with the television. Lynne bunked with the cat, whose name was The Wiz. Nobody Beats The Wiz, the cousins kept saying. Lynne didn't get it but wouldn't admit it and bet it had something to do with her mother not allowing her to watch television back home in Brooklyn.
After a brief but heated discussion between the aunt and the uncle about what to tip at a hole-in-the-wall, they were out on the sidewalk again, shopping for fish for dinner. The uncle poked and prodded at the fish as if at melons. As if he could tell them apart. He picked at them with the dead skin of his city hands. The aunt refrained from touch, left everything up to the uncle. The surly sidewalk man abandoned his hose to help him. To help himself. He knew just how dead each fish was at any given moment. He knew their subtleties.

A small, live crab jumped from a basket and made a break for it, a renegade sideways dash along the grimy, broken sidewalk. Would the movement catch the uncle's eye, startle him to distraction? Could the push of the crowd or the heat of the moment repel the cousins, ricochet them all away from this spectacle, off into the day?
    No. The uncle reeled his catch up from its icy fibreglass casket.
    No promises, the fish said.
The fish rides the subway home with them, in a plastic bag at the uncle's feet. Underwater, underground, under the East River. Lynne reads the back of someone's newspaper: an oil spill off the Ivory Coast, four dead and twelve wounded in - place name obscured by manicured fingers.
    Jesus, Lynne says.
    Now Lynne honey, says the aunt.
    My last name's not Honey, Lynne grumbles. Not for the first time that day.
Standing-room-only on the five o'clock 7 train. But someone backs up anyway to give the uncle room. Breathing room. Someone steps on a cousin's foot. A cousin steps on Lynne's foot.
    Stinks of fish, a random kid says.
    Well no, it's death that stinks, the fish says. The smell of it seeps into the other groceries. The fish stares, blind, into the eye of a neighbouring potato.
    It's only been this way since I've been dead, the fish explains to the lemon.

Go ahead, the fish glares up at the aunt when they get home. Cut me open on your cluttered counter top, faux marble, air-conditioned room, while you talk on the telephone sipping chardonnay and smoking the day's one-hundredth Kool.
The uncle hops into the shower before anyone else can use the facilities.
    Take your time, the aunt yells through the bathroom door at him.
Lynne and her plastic purse retreat to the youngest cousin's room to review her Chinatown purchases. Gifts for her school friends. Paper yo-yos for the boys to break in two minutes. Paper fans for the girls forget about in five. Hello Kitty pens all for herself.
    Hello Kitty, Lynne jokes around with The Wiz.
    And where were you today? The Wiz sniffs at Lynne's blistered heal.
Gradually the air-conditioner gains some ground. Cool air circulates Kool smoke and fried fish smells.
    Lynne honey, come and set the table.
    My last name's not... How come the boys don't have too...
Lynne stage-limps into the dining room.
    Say anything you have to say and say it now, the fish calls out of the frying pan.
    In case, at dinner, you get caught with a fishbone, hook in your throat.
"All that is told of the sea has a fabulous sound to an inhabitant of the land, and all its products have a certain fabulous quality, as if they belonged to another planet, from sea-weed to a sailor's yarn, or a fish-story. In this element the animal and vegetable kindgoms meet and are strangely mingled."
Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod
[return to beginning]