I went to the fish store because I do not fish and wanted to see about the fuss. In my modern village where the houses are one, men spend Sundays on the reedy bank, reaching into the water with invisible hands. The walleye either see them or don’t, just as Jean-Paul Sartre could not gaze straight at a camera but saw all of Nothingness.
I was once a surrogate philosopher preaching the beauty of doubt. My apostles—surly undergraduates, all—doubted the beauty. So I quit my job a wise fool and on my way home stopped by the fish store.
The door didn’t ding and no one emerged from the cavernous backroom to be my guide. I browsed the fish, all of them hanging on hooks, still wet from the river, their fins adrip on placards displaying their family names and conservation status: the enormous tautog, vulnerable with delicate white flesh inside. The clownfish threatening behind a mask of death. The harelip sucker and gravenche, the Lake Titicaca orestias, thicktail chub and Tecopa pupfish, the Galapagos damsel—all newly extinct and hanging like products.
The local section, some self-caught, stood by the register, stocked with boring fish every North Dakotan knows about—your common carp and brown trout, blah blah, the schoolhouse paddlefish, the crappie tee hee and fry-whole zander, the northern pike, the sauger and saugeye, second cousins removed, together and always, always and ever the walleye.
I figured I should start with what I knew, build river cred from there, so I dropped a few walleye in my hand boat and rowed to shore, my strokes a bit nervous with fish flopping on the floor, gasping for forgiveness.
Jean-Paul had warmed the hearth for me, saved in his second death from the hell of other people. He was engaged at last in this honest labor of seeing to my comfort, and no longer did he look both at the world and beyond, making interviews awkward. Though he still talked of Nothing, he sometimes recalled with a smile the respectful prostitute and nauseating tree in the park. I found him good company in my defeat.
We ate fish till dawn, cleanly picking out the bones and tonguing the flakey wounds. The fire crackled with scales and popping eyes, the andirons glowed and burbled the merlot—and oh, I thought, how sweet this life of loss can be.