May 28: “Flounder” by Ted Sanders

Good to be here, Story366. It’s a beautiful day in Chicago. In case you’ve been following my posts the last couple of days, you know that my sister had some surgery, so I thought I’d give and update on that situation first: Everything is A-Okay, my sister feisty and recovering, heading home first thing tomorrow. Again, thanks for the kind words that have been sent out. All’s well that ends well, and things have ended very well.

Before I stopped by the hospital to find out this good news, I did vend ten cases of Budweiser products to the eager fans at Wrigley Field today. Yesterday was my first day back this season, and that was fun. Today, though, I woke up pretty sore, remote muscles aching from use when there had been any use for months. I countered that with some Tylenol, the great pain equalizer. For this afternoon’s game, I for some reason decided it would be a good idea to work in the upper deck. I like the upper deck, like the guys who work up there, but there’s one catch: Working in the upper deck is harder. The stairs are steeper and smaller, and there’s always the implication that if I tripped going down the stairs, I could technically fall over the edge and into the lower deck—fans have fallen over the years and none have survived. By the second or third inning, I’d gotten my upper deck legs back and was bouncing around like normal. By the seventh inning, though, I was dragging a bit, and by the time I was outside the stadium, I could feel a deep burn on the front of my thighs. Here I sit, typing today’s entry, and that burn, waning, still calls to me.

Thigh burn aside, I also got the chance to read from Ted Sanders’ excellent collection No Animals We Could Name, winner of a Bakeless Prize and released by Graywolf  a couple of years ago. I’ve read three stories so far, all of them pretty great, including “Obit,” a story not only written in newspaper column form, like an obit, but also in future tense, in case you’re teaching and need an example of a future-tense story. This piece earned Sanders an O. Henry to boot. I also read “Jane,” a shorter story about a ghost, a story with an interesting point of view, interesting perspective and distance between the narrator and its subject.

I’m writing about “Flounder,” however, a classic fish story that’s told in not-so-classic fashion. The story begins with a halibut, the description of that halibut, how it lies at the bottom of the sea, how it conducts itself, how it is a halibut. The voice here, in a distant third person, acts almost like a narrator of a TV documentary instead of a short story, some Jacques Cousteau thing, Leonard Nimoy in my ear as the voice. The details are meticulous and exact, casting the slightest hint of judgment, practically a deconstruction of what a halibut is and does instead of exposition to start a short story.

After a couple of pages with the halibut being a halibut, we shift to a man on a boat, a big touristy fishing boat, the kind that rich guys pay to take them out so they can catch a trophy fish. The man—that’s all he’s called throughout the story—has a line in the ocean, just as a bunch of other guys have their lines in the water, too. Boat employees in coveralls—dubbed “men in coveralls” throughout—make sure they catch a fish (and don’t fall over the side). The sections with the man are told in the same documentaryesque voice that the halibut bits are told in, making the man just as much of a subject of this flat-sounding fact dealer as the fish he’s trying to catch. It’s no Old Man and the Sea, but it has the same story,  the same conflict, at its core.

In the middle of the man and the halibut, literally, is an octopus, an octopus that finds itself wrapped around the man’s fishing line, an unwilling and surprising player in this epic struggle. We get some really interesting facts about octopi, how smart they are, how they might be the most intriguing creatures on the earth. Sadly, the octopus’ story does not end happily.

Most of the story, though, is the back and forth between the man and the halibut, and again, this is literal, as each character is at cross purposes. The man wants to pull in the halibut, have his trophy fish and fish story, while the halibut wants to return to its halibutness. There’s a struggle. There’s a victor. There’s disappointment. There’s irony. For anything more specific, I recommend you read the story yourself. It’s a great story.

I really like the stories in No Animals We Could Name because they’re told in such unique ways. Ted Sanders has a gift for unique vantages from which familiar and unfamiliar stories are relayed. I’m not sure if every story in Sanders’ collection is like the three I’ve read—there might be traditionally told tales in there as well. I’d like to find out, though, as so far, this is an excellent book.

Ted Sanders

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