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Punchafish - A Blue Collar Moby Dick Story of Man vs Nature and Himself (Cliff Notes)

Copyright 2023 Paul Hawkins



It was a big, brutish, ugly fish that might as well have been from another era. It swam in a big glass-walled cell that spanned from floor to ceiling in the local rundown municipal zoo's aquarium. No one knew how long it had been there. You could see its photo in old news articles dating back to at least the 1930's. Other fish had come and gone. The big fish might have helped with that. The zoo itself had never been in the money but limped along on an 1/8 of a penny sales tax and never got shut down for some nostalgic reason or another although most people didn't like to go to that part of town anymore.

 

But George Miller did. He lived there. Oh he used to live high, but his wife left him and the economy tanked, and he had lost hope and just stopped trying and before he knew it he was living in that shabby part of town and wasting his days and then his cable got shut off and so he spent more time than he'd care to in that rundown zoo cuz if nothing else it gave an excuse to get outside and smoke. He somehow still had smoking money.

 

And when he went to that zoo he always saw that big smug ancient fish. Not a gar precisely, not quite a sturgeon, but kind of like both, with a the long full body of a catfish but scaly and grey with an ugly wide head. And when George look at it it looked back at him, and swam a little ways off and then would come back and look at him, and almost sneer or laugh and show supreme, sublime disdain, as if George were less than nothing and it were an elemental force.

 

"God," George said. "I'd love to punch that fish!" He often cocked back a fist and barely stopped himself from hitting the glass. The fish just laughed.

 

A nearby janitor overheard him. Like George he looked run down and also like the kind of guy who never made enough money legitimately to meet his illegitimate needs, and so he leaned over while pretending to sweep and whispered in George's ear. "Hey buddy - you serious?"

 

"What?"

 

"Would you like to punch that fish?"

 

George looked at the man but the man pretended to be absorbed in sweeping, though he lingered. George was for a moment flummoxed, but then all the rage and frustration and hatred welled up inside him like a long suppressed volcano.

 

"Yeah," he said. "I'd like to punch the hell out of him."

 

The janitor nodded. "Then meet me back here tonight. Gate will be open. Bring twenty bucks."

 

"But..."

 

"No 'buts'. The stuff you need to get in there and punch him will be ready. You just show up."

 

George said yes and then the man was gone, sweeping in another corner. George felt like he had just been through a crazy dream but then he looked back up at the ancient grey fish. The fish seemed to know that something was up. It swam by with increased disdain and extravagance. It seemed to say that it had done all this before, and that George would simply be its latest victim.

 

That made George mad. He went home and then went at an old heavy bag that hung in the empty bay of an abandoned filling station down the block. The more he thought about the fish the madder he got, and the madder he got the harder he punched. Dust flew from the bag as he punched and thought about the fish. It may have bested other men, but it had never met George.

 

*

 

He showed up at the zoo that night and the gate was unlocked like he'd been told and he made his way through the dark to the aquarium and was surprised to see that an audience was already there - a room full of toughs, down-and-outers, sneering laughing smoking men. They had known to come here. Apparently it was a not an uncommon event. A moment later he recognized the janitor, who called him over. "Go in that room over there and put on the wetsuit. There's oxygen in the tank. You get five minutes in the ring with the fish."

 

It was happening faster than he could think about it. George was a big man and could barely squeeze into the black slippery suit, but he zipped it to the top with one final supreme sucking in of his gut. Then he pulled the goggles down over his eyes and put the breathing tube thingee in his mouth and marched his flippered feet back into the aquarium room.

 

"Okay buddy," the janitor said. "All good? I got money on you - I'm that only one that does. I seen something in your eyes. You ready to get in there and punchafish?"

 

George nodded that he was, but just then the ancient giant fish leered at him through the glass, and he began to think that this was all a terrible mistake, and fear welled up inside of his as they lowered him on ropes into the tank.

 

*

 

The fish's assault was quick and brutal. From the moment George was in the water the leviathan was on him. It butted him savagely into the wall. George swung a lazy punch at him and missed. The fish came at him again - it knocked from behind the knees and onto the colored gravel. George tried to rise and it pummeled him. George back against the wall and inched his body upward. He felt a trickle of blood flow from his swollen lip. He looked through the smeary goggles and saw the fish waiting a few yards away from him. It had a savage countenance. It leered, it derided.  It let George get up just to have the fun of knocking him down again. It regarded him as nothing.

 

George took many blows, blow after terrible blow, until his legs were jelly and his whole meager measly life swam in front of him. He felt like nothing, like less than nothing,. He almost gave up, but then some small spark of hope welled up inside of him. Of hope maybe, or defiance. He was a man, damnit - he felt the tiny spark of human dignity that makes man a spectator to his own life, both a part of and a lord of nature - a king and a beggar and a mystery all at once, It was a dignity that no man should be denied, however tough things get. And in that moment he remembered how he and his old man had watched the Ali-Foreman fight way back when he was a kid, back in the day, and how Ali had hung on the ropes for eight rounds, taking everything Foreman could dish out, taking more punishment than any normal man could take until Foreman was exhausted, and had then come back to knock the titan out. "Rope-a-dope" he'd called it. It was his only hope.

 

George dragged the back of his hand against his bleeding lip but then raised his arms to protect his chest and head while the fish went at him. Head butt here! Tail lash there! The fish moved in to finish George off. But George just hunkered up and took it. He took it for the wife who had left him because of his own damned fault, he took it for the two kids he never saw anymore, he took it for all the shitty hours he had worked and the shiftless foremen who had never done a thing for him but live large on his dues. He took it for the rusting factory where folks like him had used to have good jobs. He took it, blow after blow, he took it in for all the ways the world had gone to hell through everybody's greediness and his own many, many faults. He took it and he got stronger. As the fish sensed his defiance it began enraged and pounded and pounded the poor man with everything it had until George nearly gave up, but in the last few blows he could sense the fish was weakening. He took a few more hits then George rolled out.

 

He landed a solid right to the fish's snout. A left to its leering eyeball. He smacked it in the gills. The fish recoil and charged, but its exhausted form lumbered past and missed him. It was then that George decided to go for the finish. He grabbed the leviathan by the tail and began to swing. The crowd, which had been rooting against George, now rose from their chairs in awe. George held the tail tight and swung and swung, faster and faster. Cigars fell from open mouths. George swung and swung. "Damn you fish!" he said. "Damn you for all life's miseries and woes! Damn you fish for all you've done to me - to us! Damn you fish - here's some payback from the little guy!" It was a stirring speech, but all the crowd heard was a series of bloops. Still they gaped as George released the tail and the fish sailed across the tank and hit the wall and sank, dazed. After a few lazy moments it righted itself and looked at George. There was something like awe and wonder in its ancient eyes. Fish looked at man and man looked at fish, and something like a great respect passed between then. Then it swam away behind a fake castle and a rock. It had given up. It would have nothing more to do with George tonight.

 

Ropes pulled George back up from the water, out from a world of silence to a world of sudden roars and cheers and laughter. He took off the goggles. It was all too much. The whole crowd cheered for him. George raised his hands but then his body wilted and shook with emotion. Tears welled up and fell from his eyes. George had done it. He did not even know exactly what he had done. But his whole body shook as with a great awakening, a great rebirth.

 

*

 

George never talked about that moment - he let that great heroic triumph fade quietly into the background of his memory. But he was a changed man from then on. He straightened up and got an okay job while always on the lookout for a better one. He called up his ex-wife and they agreed to try to make things work again. He saw his kids again and realized just how much they needed a dad and just how much he had missed them. One day he took them to the library and as they ran off happily to the kiddie section George's eyes chanced to fall upon the cover of "Moby Dick." He didn't pick it up. Nobody read anymore, and certainly not George Miller. But as he slowly followed in the wake of his children he had the satisfaction of knowing that he did not need to read the book to understand it. He knew all too well the eternal struggle of man with nature, and in particular with fish. Other men had read the book but George had lived it. George had won his fight with nature and himself. George Miller had punched a fish and won.

 

The End

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