A Good Day for Nudnik Fish
I prefer my Tel Aviv from the vintage days – before the upper crust skyscrapers disturbed the eyes and the hype the ears, and most of all, before the arrival of the glitzy marina. I berth my skiff wherever I find a bit of sand on the shore that hasn’t yet been taken for private development. Nobody disturbs the boat — it’s been around so long they know it’s mine — vintage, like me. I make it a point to fish with my back to the skyscrapers, facing the horizon.
Usually it takes me a while to catch the first fish. But that day as I sat in the skiff on the sea, they simply weren’t biting. Changing bait, changing fishing spots – gornisht. “Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook?” asks Job. I would settle for a fish far smaller than leviathan, I mused — and then the fish jumped into the boat. I pounced on him before he could jump out of the boat. “Wait long enough and they come to you,” I shouted triumphantly the old fisherman’s wisdom.
He turned out to be a disappointingly small fish, though a pretty one – a type I had never seen before — with gold scales that put those of your aquarium goldfish in the shade. I picked him up to toss him back. He was too small for frying.
“Don’t do that,” the fish pleaded. “Not before using your three wishes.”
A talking fish. Trouble. If you tell people a talking fish jumped into your boat, even bait-sellers will give you the fish eye.
“I thought that was a goyishe legend,” I told him.
“Not in your case, he said.
I was in a bad mood since I hadn’t caught any fish that Molly, my ‘life partner’ for the last two years of my life, could fry up. Molly traditionally threatened me before I went fishing to brain me with the skillet if I failed to bring back fish to fry. She never did but her biting comments if I didn’t made me smart. In short, I lacked patience even for a reverse-schnorrer. “Get off my back,” I growled at him.
“That doesn’t count as a wish since your ‘I’m not on your back’ is a metaphor. Precise phrasing is all-important.”
His chutzpah earned him a juicy Yiddish curse.
To my surprise, he replied in Yiddish: “A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult.” After a pause, “Ditto a prudent fish.”
That he knew Yiddish mollified me. He seized on my softening, and said, again in Yiddish: “Nu, when fortune calls, offer her a chair.”
I countered with: “If you have nothing to lose, you can try anything.”
I vaguely remembered a bubbe meiseh about a fish and three wishes which I was told as a child. “I have three wishes before you get your tuchas out of my boat? Is that it?”
Essentially, yes. Although your somewhat synoptic version leans toward the pre-modern era of legends. The traditional ‘magic fish’ was somewhat cruel. We contemporary piscatorial wish-granters are a different breed. We see psychiatrists. We suffer guilt. If I jumped out of the boat without granting you three wishes, I would suffer angst and have to sit through too many sessions of remedial therapy. In short, you are the beneficiary of three wishes.”
On the ropes from his spiel, and worried about Molly’s reaction to my not catching a fish, I mumbled, “I wish I caught a good eating fish today.”
Suddenly the biggest mackerel I had ever seen was lying in the bottom of the boat.
“Sorry,” said the golden fish. Not to me, to the mackerel. “I’m only a conduit. The legend, you know.”
With the last of his strength, the mackerel nodded, sadly it seemed to me.
“Live in water, die on land,” my fish tried to ease his passing.
This wish business actually worked. Too bad I wasted a wish on the mackerel, though he was mouth-wateringly meaty. Must have weighed fifty pounds, at least. My 30 pound test would have snapped with this hombre. Too bad I wasted a wish on him, though. Still I had two big ones to use.
“How long have I got?” I asked the golden fish.
“To use your wishes?”
“Yeah. Not ’til I turn belly up.”
The fish frowned, maybe disturbed by my dead fish . . . metaphor. “There is no statute of limitations – no time limit. But you could give some thought to me. I cannot complete the carrying out of my task until you use your last two wishes.”
“You jumped into my boat, I didn’t jump into yours.”
“I am not authorized to go into the reasons for the form and purpose of our meeting. Let us say that the fact that you always toss back undersized fish and remove the hook gently out of the fishes mouths have not gone unnoticed.”
With all the gab, I didn’t notice the wind spring up and the water turn rough. Before I knew it a storm bore down on the boat. And of the three of us in the boat I was most at risk. I was a poor swimmer. “If a man is destined to drown, he will drown even in a spoonful of water,” I reminded myself. My companions didn’t have a problem. I looked up at the rain coming down in sheets. The words of the song, ‘Fisherman on a Cold Wet Day.’ came to me:
Every fishing rod has two ends
At each end, the wish to live
There only remains the need to know
Which of the two will live
The boat was filling up with water. “I wish I was back on terra firma,” I murmured.
I was. I slapped my forehead with the palm of my hand. Wish number two – gone. When you fish alone you talk to yourself. I had long since given up on trying to get Molly to come fishing with me.
”Together with you in a two room apartment is more than enough,” she would say. Or “Your dinghy is not my idea of a Love Boat.”
For some time Molly had been urging me to take her on a cruise, but what good was sitting on a big boat if you couldn’t fish from it. When I told her that, she refused to talk to me for a week. The adage admonishes, “Show her the tiller, but don’t let her steer the boat.” I knew better than to show Molly the tiller, let alone let her steer the boat.
I schlepped home the mackerel tightly gripped under my arm. In the other hand I carried the golden fish in a bait jar of water. I feared he might try to jump out, head for a sewer or something, but the golden fish, who could read thoughts as well as grant wishes, raised slightly a cautionary dorsal fin.
“I’m under contractual obligation to you.”
“Until the third wish is granted.”
Soaked to the skin, I headed for the modest apartment which I shared with Molly, who I met working behind the counter in ‘Fish Tackle for Your Mackerel’. Molly claimed she had nothing to do with the name, but it smacked of the style of one, who, in her words, “tried her hand” at poetry and liked to read books.
When I kidded her that she was named for a tropical fish, she would say she identified with a Molly Bloom from a book. “Why her?” I asked.
“She made do with the men in her life,” she replied. Molly was a cynic. Not someone that you came to with a tale about three wishes.
How did Molly end up with me? “I reeled him in, so to speak,” she would tell anyone who asked how we met, and then explain how we met in the ‘Fish Tackle.’ She usually added, “My ex was a falafel seller. He called himself ‘The King of Falafel’ – I was the Queen — but I was getting too fat . . . on fish you don’t get too fat.” This last a bow in my direction. Yet despite her cynicism, Molly was enough for me. There’s nothing lonelier than being a long-divorced man living in a cramped apartment without a woman.
On the way, I fantasized on which wish I would use my last wish. I considered wishing for another woman, younger and prettier and gentler than Molly. But then I told myself, You’re used to Molly. Best not to fish in troubled waters. No, I would not use the wish to wish for something for me alone. I would wish for something for Molly and me, if that was permitted.
“Permitted if you phrase the wish jointly; that is, collectively; that is –”
“I wish you would stop with the legalese,” I cut him short. Human lawyers were more than enough, I didn’t like to have a fish lay down the law for me.
“Easily done!” he said joyfully. “And that is your third—and need I add, last — wish.”
“You did that on purpose!” I thundered.
“Well within the parameters of the legend,” he said before he disappeared in a golden flash. “Zie gezint” (go in good health), I said under my breath.
I resolved not to tell Molly or anyone else about all this. I’ll just give her the mackerel. We’ll dine off it for a month, at least. Some would say a wasted wish, but they won’t have tasted it. And Molly will stop threatening to leave – at least for a month.