Filthy Mouth Sample Chapter 1

I know for a fact you sexy nerds didn’t come here to hear some lies, so I’m fessing up to everything. I mean everything-everything. Starting with the shocking truth that when I was a child, I killed small animals with my bare hands and giggled about it. At first, my father pretended to be angry with me, but he soon realized my behavior could be used to his advantage (it put food on the table), and he taught me how to hone my skills. How to slice my kills up real nice. How to remove the bones.

It started in Denver in 1976 when I had my first sleepover at age five. I was so excited my very best friend in the entire world, whose name I can’t recall, was spending the night! My mom made sure we had all the necessary makings of a successful sleepover: fish sticks with ketchup, Chocodiles, and coloring books. My super best friend and I bounced on the bed, played on the swing set in the backyard, and did all the normal things that normal children do at sleepovers with their normal best friends. But at some point, we got bored. And as we all know, tiny idle hands covered in Chocodile glaze and crayon residue are the Devil’s workshop.
We were in my room. “Let’s see if we can catch the goldfish!” one of us said. The other agreed this could be fun. My two goldfish, Balcombe and Jonathan, gleefully glided inside their pint-sized tank, not knowing what fate awaited them. My friend caught Balcombe. I caught Jonathan. We held the wildly flopping fish behind our backs while we meandered into the hallway and spoke to my father. “What are you doing?” he asked with grave suspicion and the hint of anger chronically present in his tone. “NOTHING!” we screech-smiled in unison. Jonathan and Balcombe squirmed like crazy, tickling our hands and making us snicker. We returned them to their tanks, laughing conspiratorially.

Then, we did it again. After we did it again, WE DID IT AGAIN. Because it was just so much fun to feel Jonathan and Balcombe’s wriggling bodies feathering our hands. It was way more fun than coloring books and swing sets. We went to bed blissed out and slept dreamily next to the fishes.
The next morning, Jonathan and Balcombe were notably less lively than they’d been the night before. I knew instantly they were dead and that I’d killed them. I felt a deep, nauseating cesspool forming in the pit of my stomach. My father was furious. I still remember the look on his face as he angrily flushed Jonathan and Balcombe down the toilet. My own Jiminy Cricket wasn’t punishment enough evidently. I had to endure the look on my father’s face, too.
But why was he so angry? WHAT ABOUT THE FISH STICKS WE HAD FOR DINNER, FATHER? If it bothered him so much that I’d murdered my fish, why did he soon thereafter teach me how to stick hooks through worms’ bellies, tease the line, and properly gut the fish I’d caught on our weekend trips to the Colorado mountains? Of course, I’m only piecing together the mystery now, 40-some years later. He was probably angry because I’d wasted his money. After all, it’s not like I bought Jonathan, Balcombe, their tank, their diminutive plastic coral reefs, and their food with my allowance. I didn’t even have an allowance yet.
More likely it was a good old-fashioned case of cognitive dissonance. Dad saw the fish sticks in the freezer and the trout we caught at the river as food-fish, whereas Jonathan and Balcombe were pet-fish.

Gertrude Stein’s first draft: a fish is a fish is a fish.

Shakespeare’s first draft: A fish—by any other name—would smell as gross.

Or my favorite example of cognitive dissonance, that Cheers episode, ‘The Tortelli Torte,’ when Carla beats up an obnoxious Yankee’s fan who insults Sam, and he threatens to sue Sam unless Carla is fired. Instead, Carla goes to therapy and learns how to keep her cool under pressure. The Yankee’s fan returns and hurls insults at Carla, but she just stares into the distance and doesn’t respond. The Yankee’s fan leaves, convinced—along with everyone else in the bar—that Carla is a new woman. Everyone praises Carla and asks how she did it. As she’s explaining the technique she learned in therapy, a patron from the back room asks, “Hey, Carla! Where’s that beer I ordered?” Carla hurls a beer at him and yells, “Shut up! We’re celebratin’!” and continues to explain how she’s able to keep her cool.
Good God, did I just write an entire paragraph about a Cheers episode? That totally sounds like me. Whatever the case, I didn’t need my father’s angry face to scare me or tell me to feel bad. It turns out I was not a callous and unemotional child. Not even a little bit. I was a hypersensitive and overly emotional child who happened to kill fish accidentally at times and on purpose other times. I felt a lot worse when I’d killed fish accidentally on that fateful sleepover and for years after when I’d win an already-almost-dead fish in a plastic bag at some random sideshow carnival, because when I later killed fish on purpose, it was with encouragement from my dad and his fishing buddies. I was rewarded for my bravery, which stemmed from the fact that I was not a boy and therefore had to overcome an allele-based squeamishness inherent to my sex. I was proud to kill and gut the fish on purpose.

But Dad’s fishing buddies might have had a point, because despite my pride, I knew deep down I definitely was squeamish. Not about the guts and the blood and all-things-leaking, but about the niggling feeling that maybe the fish could feel the hook in their mouths after all, even though everyone assured me they could not? No. They guaranteed me this was not possible. Fish do not feel pain. I forced myself to believe that catching a fish was like catching some kind of wriggling water potato. I doused my water potato in a choking amount of garlic salt and thought that earth potatoes never smelled this bad and though they could admittedly be difficult to extract from the ground, I don’t recall them putting up as much of a fight once we got them in the basket.

OK. Here’s the thing, my beloved nerds. This story is true, but ‘Jonathan’ and ‘Balcombe’ were not the names of my fish. I have no idea what my fishes’ names were. Jonathan Balcombe is the name of the guy who wrote the book What a Fish Knows, which demonstrates all kinds of cool things about our gilled friends (I said GILLED). For example, they ride bubbles just for funsies! They engage in referential communication, which means they meet at their local fish water coolers and exchange information…and probably some juicy gossip. They feel joy. They seek comfort. They soothe each other by stroking their downtrodden friends with their little fish wings. And they feel fear. To the goldfish in my 5-year-old’s bedroom—who were probably never gliding gleefully at any point in their tiny tank—I might as well have been Ed Kemper.

My vegan self woke up this morning thinking about ‘Jonathan’ and ‘Balcombe’ and feeling that swirling cesspool of guilty nausea all over again. I hope, wherever they are, they are swimming in an endless body of happy water, free from the sharp hooks of eager dads, free from the trawling nets of enslaved fishermen, and free from the over-eager hands of witless children looking for something to do after a dinner of fish sticks and Chocodiles.


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