I watched my blood trickle bright and red under the heavy fluoresence of the CIA fish room. The gills of a fish—a sea bass, in this case—are heavy, crude syringes, livid with bacteria. There’s nothing on them you want introduced under the skin. I’d been scaling the fish; I’d been careless—it was 6:15 and my alarm had gone off at 2:36 AM—and the spikes punctured deep into my thumb. I dropped the scaler to the red tile floor, stepped away from the sink, and barked an obscenity. In five minutes my hand would feel like it had been drenched in acid. Minute by minute the pain graded up. Before long, it was exquisite, total. My eyes watered. A little drum of nausea beat in my stomach.
A friend walked up to me, pulled my hand in front of his face, whistled, and said, “Prepare yourself—that’s going to hurt like a bitch.”
This was the 11th day I had gotten up not too long after midnight. I’d driven morning after morning from Saugerties with a head full of cement, semi-delirious, my heart clutching and coughing from too much caffeine. I’d drink the coffee outside, on the porch, under a spray of stars, listening to the whistle of the freight trains that ran all night right near the house. I’d move pawns and rooks through the upcoming year, through the program’s endpoint, trying to figure out what I’d do when it was over. I’d be at school at 4:30, to cut up fish.
The chalkboard on one wall would have a list of all the required fish. Whatever was cut up in the morning was sent out to all the student kitchens. You got the fish out, scaled it, and fabricated it. The fish kitchen is in the basement of the CIA, is always frigid, the red tile floor is always damp, and room stinks perpetually of dead seafood. And you needed to pay attention to what you were doing.
The protocol for injuries in the school kitchens is to, first, assess the damage. If there’s no risk of death, clean the wound out, put on a glove, and keep working. At this point, everyone can laugh at you. There were no gloves in the fish kitchen. I doubled up on Band-Aids, and moved to the center island of plastic-topped tables where the bulk of the butchering was done. I started cutting the fish. Most everyone—13 of us—was too busy to have laughed, or even noticed the injury. The instructor—invariably called and referred to as “Chef” at the CIA—was walking the room.
Bass are hard-boned fish; when filleting them, you use a cutting technique called the “up-and-over.” This is supposedly the hardest cut to learn. Cut from behind the gill plate through the head. Roll the knife, cut back to free the fillet. Slice down the back to the tail. Flex the knife over the spine. Finish by flexing the knife over the ribs. Make sure the fish is “swimming” to the right. Make sure the dorsal fin is towards you. Their eyes stare at you the entire time.
Since the class started, most of my fillets had been looking like road kill.
And then the Chef—a man my age, of obvious and fearsome intelligence—took a moment from his rounds to stand at my shoulder and ask, “What the hell are you doing?”
I squirmed, just a little bit. What the hell was I doing? I had a cold fish under my fingers, and scales stuck to my forearm. I had a knife in my injured hand. I’d just started cutting away the flesh from the bones. I was also so tired I couldn’t recall my middle name. I was angry, because I was so tired. I was full of ire at being made to feel uncomfortable, and, with this man at my elbow, beginning to feel frayed. My mind had gone tabula rasa; there was nothing there. What the hell was I doing? I went for honesty; I just said, “I don’t know.”
He stared me down. He was about six inches from me; I could feel either heat or hostility radiating off of him. He kept staring. I noticed that his eyes were seriously blood shot. I forgot completely about my hand. His lips pursed and he looked like he might spit bile. His breathing picked up speed. He said, “Yeah—no kidding you don’t know.”
When this guy cuts a fish, the flesh seems to just swim away from its body. The bones and ribs are bare, and you can hear a chorus of mermaids and sirens singing through the mists. But I was the one cutting and, now, he was glowering at me and all I could hear was the sound of everyone else’s knives. I shot a look around; I had never seen my peers as focused on anything as they were right then on their fish.
He began speaking a mantra: “Fish to the right. Fish to the right. Fish to the right. Fish to the right.” Every syllable was a drill right into whatever confidence I owned before class started. “Where’s your right hand?” he asked. I had no idea. My head buzzed with static. I moved a hand. He pushed it away. “No, not that right hand. Your other right hand. Come on. Oh, for God’s sake, come on. I said, ‘to the right.’”
I felt different emotive sparks start to flicker all through my head. I wanted to turn and grind the fish in his face. I wanted to drop under the table and crawl away. I wanted to fall to my knees, kiss his hand, and beg him to leave me alone. I wanted to cut the freaking fish correctly. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to remember where my right hand was. All these things in turn, in reverse, simultaneous.
I started flopping the fish around. At some point, I must have gotten it right because he walked away. My hearing came back: I heard him yell at someone: “If I ever see you pick up a fish by its tail again, I swear I’ll stab you.” And then to someone else: “This is a really easy technique if you know what you’re doing. Which you obviously don’t.”
My hand had reverted to a high alarm of pain.
I know everyone has a role they play. His was to be the Idi Amin of this chilly, fishy Uganda-in-a-basement. He wore scales instead of medals. My role was to be cowed and terrified, and to grope around my guts for some kind of grace under pressure. Strike the last one. I got the first two down, though. I knew he wasn’t like this outside of the room. Probably. He had told the class he’d followed the Grateful Dead around for four years, endearing himself to me immediately, and had just gone to see Bob Weir (the Grateful Dead’s rhythm guitarist, for those who don’t know) play a few days ago. “It was amazing,” he said. But for me and everyone else: what I was in the classroom is what I’m like outside it, only distilled. Ever done anything you’re ashamed of? Something rotten you surprised yourself with? You wonder how you could have sunk to doing it. It’s not so dissimilar to the feeling of seeing your masks dismantled and getting a good glimpse of the sun-deprived skin underneath.
Every day in meat and then fish class, which runs for 14 very long days, you are evaluated on your performance. You don’t know when, but you’re being watched, weighed, and judged. Once in a while, well before the fish gill incident, I’d notice a little inexplicable tremor in my knife hand as it approached the fish.
Outside on a break, I watched the sun come up. A tug boat moved slowly up the Hudson, away from Manhattan. My hand throbbed. I was thinking that I’d really like to watch The Killing of a Chinese Bookie again. And I thought of my two novels, and the short stories. The fish, the writing, the film: they were stitched together.