Read Happiness of Fish Online

Authors: Fred Armstrong

Tags: #FIC000000, #FIC019000, #Canadian Fiction

Happiness of Fish





100 Water Street
P. O. Box 2188
St. John's, NL
A1C 6E6

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Armstrong, Fred, 1947-
        Happiness of fish / Fred Armstrong.
ISBN 978-1-894377-25-6
I. Title.
PS8601.R584H36 2007      C813'.6          C2007-904808-0

Copyright © 2007 Fred Armstrong
Author Photograph © Greg Locke

The characters and incidents depicted in this work are fictitious.
Any resemblance to real people and events is coincidental.

We acknowledge the financila support of The Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing activities.

We acknowledge the support of the Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation for our publishing activities.

. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the publisher or a licence from The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). For an Access Copyright licence, visit
or call toll free to 1-800-893-5777.

Printed in Canada

To Elizabeth.

“I wish you'd write a book,” she said.


I should like to thank the Writers' Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador for its support of this book through its mentorship program. As that mentor, Ed Kavanagh deserves my heartiest thanks for his critical eye and helpful suggestions as he hacked his way through early drafts in the winter of 2005. Finally, thanks go to my editor at Jesperson, Annamarie Beckel, for what still seems a surreally gentle final treatment of the manuscript and its author.


A gentle snow is starting to bury the orange extension cord that leads to Gerry Adamson. The cord begins at a plug on a post in a boatyard by a quiet, black little river that swallows the snowflakes before the sea swallows it. The river is starting to freeze along the banks.

The cord runs past a dark, boarded-up clubhouse, around and under cradled boats, their summer personalities mummified in plastic tarpaulins, netting and old tires on ropes. Back by the dark spruce trees at the corner of the yard, the cord comes to a boat that has had its tarp cocoon partially peeled back. A ladder is tied to the rail and a snow shovel stands in the corner of the cockpit. Like scat or new-dug earth around a burrow, they proclaim that this boat is inhabited.

The cord leaves the snow and snakes upward and onto the boat. Secured to a cleat with a bit of line, it dives through a tape-muffled notch in a hatch. Inside, it is joined by three other cords. One leads to a small ceramic heater that looks like a hot radio. Another powers a small table lamp. The third, with an adaptor, is hooked to a laptop computer on the tiny galley table. Sitting on his sleeping bag with a cup of sweet tea beside him, Gerry Adamson pokes the keys.

The boat's cabin is small and Gerry can reach out and touch most of what he thinks he needs just now. The kettle on the galley alcohol
stove is close enough beside him that he's aware of its heat. His bed is one of the cabin seats. He has piled one gym bag of clothes and another of papers and small red and black notebooks in the V-berth. A shit, a shower or a telephone call is an outing, an excursion down the ladder, through the wintry yard and into the silent clubhouse with the ghostly notices of last summer's barbecues gibbeted on the bulletin board.

Gerry shuffles through the notebooks or scrolls through the electronic guts of the laptop. He wonders and tries to write down how, in the last year or so, he's managed to get his world this small.


The woman on the telephone is on the cusp, somewhere between a nanny-ish desire for precision and ethnic cleansing. “You're not from here, are you?”

“No. Not originally,” Gerry admits, wondering how far he should go with this. After all, this is somebody trying to jump the queue on an open-line show by calling an office number. He doesn't actually have to produce his papers or pedigree. Just put her through to bother the technician and have her say about offshore oil revenues or Churchill power. “But I've been here for thirty years or so.”

“I knew it. You're not a Newfoundlander,” the woman says fiercely.

“Would you like me to put you through to the studio?” Gerry asks, deciding that it's better to roll over and play dead.

“Do you think they fly the Canadian flag in the Quebec House of Assembly?” she demands. “Where are you from anyway? Where do you belong to?”

“Sort of all over the place,” Gerry says, rustling papers to make a distraction and going for busy-jovial. “I've got another call coming in now. I'll put you right through.”

Gerry pushes a couple of buttons on the phone and hopes he's inadvertently (or not) cut the old hag off.

Old hag
, except she's probably younger than he is. You can't count on crotchety people to be older than you are when you're pushing sixty and have still managed to avoid getting a grown-up job. Once upon a time he could have been confident that she was a cardigan-draped pillar of the altar guild, a million years older than he was. Now he's not so sure, and besides, her question rankles. Where is he from?

When Gerry was a child, he liked books with maps of where the characters lived.
Winnie the Pooh
House at Pooh Corner
had maps on the inside of the covers. They showed the topography of the Hundred Acre Wood and Eeyore's Gloomy Place. The North Pole, as discovered by Pooh, was helpfully indicated.

Wind in the Willows
was the same, with the river snaking past Toad Hall and Rat's and Mole's houses and the Wildwood and the town in the background. Pan's Island split the river in that circumspect way maps have of not giving away the sacredness of what they show.

Gerry mentally designs the map for the inside of his personal book covers. There is the town wrapped around the harbour behind the palisade of Signal Hill and Gibbet Hill. The south-side is the other doorpost of the secret seaward entrance. A couple of times Gerry has approached the city from the sea, and he is always surprised at how secret it is, the narrow entrance opening only as you bring the range lights on the wharf and the church-toothed hillside into line. Inside the harbour, hanging like laundry from the washing lines of the map contours, are the places Gerry mostly lives.

In the pigeon canyon of Water Street are two coffee shops. On good days they are the drawing pins that anchor his mornings to his world. On bad ones, they're the nails, crucifying him on the street for premeditated idleness. One coffee shop is comfortably unkempt and all its employees seem to do something else as well. They disappear from time to time to be in bands or to have photographic exhibitions or to read their poetry in bars.

Gerry calls the other The Coffee Shop of the Debutantes From Outer Space. It has enormous, slightly mouldy looking, velveteen armchairs that are hugely comfortable. The girls who work in it are improbably beautiful. They seem to speak Earthling as a second language. However, the space debs sell you your second, and all further cups of coffee, at half
price. The first coffee shop offers no half-price arrangement, although from time to time a coffee becomes entirely free. The system is entirely random. The chairs are also hard. Gerry suspects it may be some kind of levy on those who want their caffeine in a bohemian milieu.

Up the hill from the coffee shops is the radio station where Gerry is fairly frequently employed. It is a large grey building that sticks up out of the jumble of clapboard row houses like the stone you would choose to hop to in crossing a brook. It looks broad enough to land on safely. Many times through the years, Gerry has hopped back onto it, but, as is the problem with comfortable stepping stones, he finds it difficult to hop to something else. He sometimes feels he has been standing paralyzed in midstream for years. Only the rush of the current around him gives his life any sense of movement at all.

In other wrinkles and folds of the rocky town are the other places Gerry lives. There is his house in what was suburbia forty years ago. It's on a street of forty-year-old trees. Thirty years ago a younger Gerry Adamson lived in the downtown and walked through his future neighbourhood, scorning it on his way to work.

“Little houses made of ticky tacky...” He would hum the old Malvina Reynolds' song. “All made of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.”

In those days the trees hadn't been planted long. It still amazes Gerry, if he takes a walk on a wet fall night, how grown-in and leaf-tunnelled the neighbourhood has become.

Over a brook, in one case, and some low hills in another, are two shopping malls where Gerry has been known to dither, hide, scribble in endless morning notebooks, or shop for presents and peace offerings. Many of his presents are peace offerings.

Beyond the malls the spruce and bog make forays into the strip malls and the subdivisions. Tim Hortons coffee shops dot the scrubland, guard towers on the frontier of Suburbia. In summer Gerry sometimes ventures farther. He leaves the sea of the harbour mouth behind to discover the other sea of The Bay, behind the town and 'round the corner. It's a smaller-yet-bigger world, like the world's best imaginable electric train set with miniature harbours interspersed with adventures of sensible scale.

Beyond that lie the places that can only be flown to: Upalong, Away, and The Old Country. Gerry comes from Upalong. He has visited Away and The Old Country, but the jury is still out on where he belongs.

In a dim late-fall afternoon, when the open-line show has been herded off the air, Gerry sits in the coffee shop of the space debs. He's got the cryptic crossword from
The National Post
and a little black and red Chinese notebook. He buys the notebooks from a bookstore that also sells pewter wizards and dragons, Tarot cards and tin toys from Taiwan, knock-offs of toys Gerry had fifty years ago. He keeps a sporadic sort of journal in the Chinese notebooks and stows them in bookshelves and desk drawers against the time he needs them to help write the novel he says he's going to write.

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