What I’ll Trade for the Halibut by Nathan Hill

 

The fishmonger wants to know what I’ll trade for the halibut. He doesn’t have enough to go around, is the problem. So impress me, he says.

I tell him I’ll trade my shoes, but he’s not interested. Got shoes, he says. So I tell him he can have my watch too, and my shirt, and a hat.

Pbbth, he says through his thick white beard. Why do I need a hat?

He tells me his time is limited. He asks if I know how many people are in line behind me. I say I don’t and his eyes go wide. Hundreds, he says, of thousands.

The line stretches out the door: people waiting, agitated, hateful, scowling, hoping they’re the ones to get the halibut. The fishmonger crosses his arms.

Well? he says.

Have I mentioned the halibut looks delicious? It looks so delicious. There, behind the glass, a perfect halibut, a great yellow sapphire in a rubble of ice. It looks smooth and soft and sort of inviting. How would it feel to eat it? It would feel like waking up on a freezing-cold morning to find someone has covered you with warm blankets in the night. It looks like that, that tenderness, that love. I have never tasted halibut, but I know many who have, and they become new and better people. They carry themselves differently. They have that quiet, reserved confidence of people who have done exactly what they’d always set out to do. I touch the glass lightly with my fingertips and realize I've been staring. The fishmonger says Keep dreaming pal. He clucks his tongue and laughs at me. He lifts the halibut off the ice and says This fish could change your life.

I tell him I know that.

So? he says. I’m waiting?

I tell him word of the halibut reached me from far away, and I traveled days and days to find it.

He says Cry me a river.

I tell him I have nothing else to offer but my shoes, my watch and so on, but he doesn’t believe me. Surely I must do something back home, I must make something.

I tell him I don’t make anything.

Nothing?

Nothing real.

Whaddyamean?

I tell him I make up stories, and his face brightens. Now we’re getting somewhere! He says he’ll trade a halibut for a story, and my heart leaps. Yes, I’ll make that trade! That would be a bang-up, blue-ribbon trade! So I tell the fishmonger a story I’ve lately been kicking around:

Period piece. Victorian drama. A servant’s son spends all his time in the stables forging powerful, quiet, transcendental connections with the animals. He’s a poor boy and bad in school, made fun of everywhere, cast out, etc. But as his colleagues grow up to hate their rigid, formulaic lives, they look with envy to the boy’s simple sylvan existence on the farm. It’s ostensibly a story about horses but really it’s about the human condition and nature and the aristocracy.

When I finish telling the fishmonger about it, I stand there proudly and triumphantly waiting for my halibut.

But he simply sniffs at the air, picks at his teeth. He’s thinking about it, and thinking about it, and finally says Too tame.

Sorry?

Yeah. Too quiet, too diffuse. Can you do something, you know, bigger?

Bigger, yes, sure. I think for a moment and then try this one:

College girl moves to the city. Campus buzzing with riots (because it’s the Sixties?). She meets the publisher of an underground newspaper and they fall in love. Oil and water, those two. Like Pride & Prejudice meets Woodstock. Our boy is the brash impulsive type who secretly just wants to be loved. And she’s the shy meek type who craves adventure. Then they march on Washington!

The fishmonger stops me. He smiles diplomatically. Maybe too political, he says. Maybe too coming-of-agey. Can you do something, he says, more accessible, maybe with important life lessons?

You bet I can! I begin again:

There’s a man (outrageously handsome, evocatively mysterious, maybe he’s a thickly disguised autobiographical me) and he has many characteristics we find flawed but lovable. Guarded, closed off, damaged, wounded, heart of gold, waiting for the right girl. We feel emotionally drawn to the character, connect with him in certain oblong ways, feel bolts of recognition when he is rejected, victimized, broken, unloved. And we pity his circumstances, his background, his going from place to place, his jobs, all that demeaning labor, his family—oh Lord his weird, distant, abusive and unfathomable family—and we root for him to overcome. Then he overcomes! He ventures forth, triumphs, learns something important about life and love. Learns to accept his family (only one he’ll ever have). Learns about himself (all it took was believing). Learns about the world (it’s not so bad).

If that story’s not halibutable, I don’t know what is.

But the fishmonger says he’s seen all that before. He demands something newer, fresher.

What do you mean? I say.

Something now, he says. Something hot.

All right, I say.

Setting: Louisiana backwoods. Time: antebellum. Person: Mr. Roscoe. Who is he? Drifter from up north, classically trained, beautifully dressed, last name unknown. (He’s a vampire!) Things go missing, people found in ditches etc. The whole town unites, pitchforks and stuff. Burning crosses and stuff. Turns out? It was the stable boy all along. Roscoe solves the crime and the town accepts him for who he is. It’s a story about the consequences of stereotyping so don’t stereotype. Also a murder mystery. And also vampire lore. I’d trade a halibut for that.

But the fishmonger simply sits there, arms crossed, like a demon. He’s not buying it. I’m getting desperate. I tell him that a story with accessible life lessons and believable characters and a fast-moving plot might even be worth two halibut. For example:

Xavier is a lifeguard who cares only about his ripped abs. One day he saves a girl from drowning. She’s a retard. They become friends and she teaches him the real meaning of life. Bam! How’s that for realistic? How’s that for fast-moving?

Because we’ve all known a Xavier, right?

The fishmonger yawns and looks at his watch.

I don’t think that’s worth a halibut, he says.

Why not?

I just didn’t feel it.

Feel what?

Connected, he says. To Xavier?

He tells me he has no doubt another fishmonger might enjoy that story very much. He says he has total confidence another fishmonger might trade that story for a salmon, maybe, or a butterfish.

And I wish you the very best of luck in that endeavor, he says.

I wonder how it is the fishmonger ever developed such exacting, tyrannical standards. I want to be angry with him, but I can’t. He is the one with the halibut. It’s true that beggars can’t be choosers, but the flip side is that choosers can be kings.

So I try again, and I’m despondent now. I begin launching stories like missiles:

The inspiring true tale of one woman’s quest to save the world one petunia at a time.

Or: I’ll do something outrageous every day for a year and blog about it.

Or: Oregano! The Spice That Changed America.

Or: A young girl’s broken family is a little bit country, a little bit rock-’n-roll.

Or: The story of a marriage told from the point of view of a pair of pants pockets.

Or: A rough-around-the-edges cop retires from the force, but not before settling one last score.

Or: A brilliant cardiologist learns how to cure heartbreak through surgery, but what about the consequences?

And now the fishmonger’s just looking past me, bored, waving at the next person in line. I tell him I’m sorry. Then, letting my anger get the best of me, I tell him there is no story ever told that he’d ever trade for that halibut.

Okay, look, he says, irritated with me. How about we simplify things? Just give me a sentence.

A sentence?

One good sentence. That’s all. Just one. Okay?

And I sense the expectation in the room, the tension. The fishmonger, the customers behind me: everybody is waiting. I close my eyes, shut out all my other thoughts, and try to remember the finest sentence I’ve ever written. But I see all these sentences before me, spread out like rocks in a field. How can I choose? I try to imagine what the fishmonger wants, what he might respond to, and I decide it has to be something flashy, something bold, a sentence that couldn’t have been written by any ordinary guy. It should be obvious the sentence was written by someone with training. Advanced training. It should have a good vocab word in it, and a fascinating comparison, a simile that cuts right to the truth. And it shouldn’t be a long sentence either. It should be direct. Straight to the point. And it should not be about mundane things. It should stand up to the occasion; it should be timeless; it should be about the timeless things: love, beauty, and all that. And I’m thinking about all these elements and I hear the feet shuffling behind me, the fishmonger’s labored breathing, the click of the cooler as it comes on, and suddenly I see the sentence in my head. Like a tongue of fire. Like a green flash of sun on the ocean. I see this sentence, glittering, dancing silvery in the air. I clear my throat. I begin. My voice bites cleanly through the gathering silence, and my sentence emerges like a goddamn falcon:

 

“Her eyes glowed like rubies at the bottom of a pellucid pool.”

 

Oh, mercy, no! the fishmonger says. That’s all wrong!

The crowd hisses and boos and people shout That’s terrible! Get out of line!

But I don’t understand! Why?

It’s just dreadful, the fishmonger says, and all the customers nod in harsh agreement. The woman behind me, dressed in a severe black suit and a wide-brimmed hat, looks at me reproachfully, and I agree that yes, I suppose it was a pretty bad sentence.

Was it the ruby? I ask. Too much? Was it “pellucid”?

The fishmonger shakes his head in a slow, aching, pitying way. You’re not even in the ballpark, he says.

I’m sorry, I say. I’ll leave.

I brush past the woman behind me and she clutches my shoulder. It’s about damn time, she says. If that fish has gone bad, it’s your fault.

I tell her I’m sorry.

Do you know, she says, adjusting her massive hat, what spoiled halibut tastes like?

I think it’s a rhetorical question, but I answer her anyway. I say no, I don't, and for that matter I don’t know what fresh halibut tastes like either.

What’s that you say? asks the fishmonger. Don’t know how it tastes?

That’s right, I say. I’ve never eaten halibut.

Never eaten one! says the fishmonger, slapping his hand to his forehead.

That’s right.

But why do you want it so much?

I don’t know, I say.

How do you know you’ll like it?

I don’t.

But you could hate it!

Yes, I suppose that’s true.

So why go to all the trouble?

Well, I tell the fishmonger, I don't really know. It looks delicious, I guess. And everyone says it's delicious. And everyone seems to want it so much. But I suppose, for me, it's because it reminds me, a little, of home.

And the fishmonger’s eyes narrow. Go on, he says.

Go on with what?

With the story, he says.

Fine, I say, exhausted. And I tell him how the halibut looks so smooth and soft and inviting. I tell him about the tenderness, how it feels like love. And then I realize it’s quiet in the shop again. The fishmonger leans on the glass case. Go on, he says. Keep going.

So I keep going: The halibut was perfect, I say. Like waking up on a freezing-cold morning to find someone has covered you in the night with warm blankets.

Yes, the fishmonger says. And now some of the customers sit down to listen. Others sigh loudly and abandon the line. The woman behind me takes off her hat. The fishmonger runs his fingers gently through his beard. The halibut, I notice, is shivering in the ice.