Smarter Than Fish
Gail Louise Siegel


Trester says, “Why does the rattlesnake cross the road?” and I assume it’s some herpetologist joke.

We’re wrapped up together on the living room couch, listening to the crickets in the lizard’s cage—the ones it hasn’t eaten—and estimating the air temperature from the chirp frequency. The formula is: number of chirps in 15 seconds plus 39 equals air temperature Fahrenheit. Now I’ve lost count. Besides, the formula is for tree crickets, not the domestic variety, imported to Chicago from a Mississippi cricket farm.

“To get to the other side?” I say.

He uncoils our legs and gropes at the cocktail table for his glasses.

“Let’s take a little field trip.” He’s gone serious, slipped into that academic persona. He eases the wire earpieces on, one side at a time.

“I don’t get the joke.”

“No joke,” he says. “They cross the road in droves. Herds. Whatever they call bunches of snakes. It’s a snake stampede. Down in southern Illinois.”

“Not a riddle?”

“It’s a part of nature we haven’t raped yet. I want to see it.”

He pauses, waiting for something. Maybe an answer.

“So,” he asks. “Want to come with me? Watch the reptiles cross the road? Get to the other side?”

I laugh, wishing it were a punch line. Snake-watching doesn’t sound like a good time. But I’m nodding, Yes, Trester, I’ll follow you into the snakepit.

* * *

I met Trester at the pet store. My sister Marjorie had flown to Milan and left me dogsitting for Bess. Or, as Marjorie put it, Bess was guarding me. Keeping me company, taking me for safe walks along the lake at sunrise. Marjorie always finds an angle to pretend she’s doing you a favor, not putting you out.

Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t mind. I live alone and Bess is a loveable puppy. But the whole favor expanded in typical Marjorie fashion. Driving to O’Hare she said there wasn’t much dog food, could I please buy some? Then I got an e-mail: Hi Dana. Staying two extra weeks to photograph mosaics in Ravenna. Love to Bess :) M.

So Bess and I hit the corner pet shop. Iguanas were napping in the sunny front window; puppies were wrestling in cages. The owner’s cat rubbed up against customers and a small pig was underfoot. Bess and I did a slow circuit of the store, passing the ferret accouterments: harnesses, hairball laxatives, and ear wax deodorizer.

In the next aisle, a lanky guy was knocking crickets out of a cardboard tube into a plastic bag for a chubby boy in a greasy baseball cap. The tube guy smoothed out the plastic, counted the flailing crickets, and tossed in a piece of egg carton for a foothold. He brought the bag to his mouth, poofed it out, and tied it off. He marked 36 on the side and smiled. His green and white name tag said Trester. The fat boy moved off.

“Need some crickets?” Trester said.

I wanted to say yes. “Do dogs eat crickets?”

“Dogs eat everything.” He raised his arms over his head and laced his hands together. He stretched. He looped his fingers inside out and cracked his knuckles.

“Will my sister want me to feed crickets to her dog?”

He scratched his ear above a hammered silver hoop. “Well, my sister’d kill me for a prank like that.”

I liked him. He could tell that right off.

“Where’s the dog food?”

He showed me to another aisle and I reached for Bess’s familiar blue bag. Trester shook his head and ticked off its drawbacks. I didn’t listen; I took him in: kaleidoscopic green eyes, sinewy neck, angular face.

“So, which is best?”

He shrugged. “The red bag.”

* * *

I visited the pet store four more times that week. For a chewie toy, a new tag, a fancy bowl. Trester wasn’t there. Bess was costing me a fortune and she wasn’t even my dog.

It’s not as if I have money. Nobody gets rich counseling drug addicts. You only get headaches and heartaches, recurring nightmares, and an aversion to tobacco. All the addicts smoke like forest fires.

Lorraine is a one-woman tag team, lighting up one cigarette from the last. Still, she’s my favorite client. She’s about my age, funny and smart. Even ambitious, considering—she’s plugging away at business school. If there weren’t strict rules against it, we might be friends. But Dr. North forbids it.

“They don’t want pals,” he says. “They want cash. They want your iPod for their fence.”

As if I didn’t know. My clients are devoted to their drugs the way other people are devoted to their careers. Like Marjorie, welded to a camera since getting her first Instamatic. Myself, I’ve never had such zeal for anything. Not for this job, which I lucked into after meeting Dr. North at a professor’s graduation barbeque.

I’m not like Lorraine. She describes sitting in her kitchen, cutting a huge buy of cocaine into line after powdery line, only to have her roommate spill a glass of water across the formica. There it went, thousands of dollars, dissolving like Alka-Seltzer. She spent the night hunkered over the table, staring at the kidney patterns on the pale yellow surface, waiting for it to dry, to scrape up coke remains with a razor blade.

I don’t want anything to sink such sharp hooks into me.

I shouldn’t worry. I’m not obsessive, not workaholic like Marjorie. I’m too lazy to lock myself in a darkroom overnight, wired on caffeine and anticipation. That’s why people trust me with their troubles; they misread my laziness for being laid back.

I look forward to seeing Lorraine. She doesn’t have my other clients’ defeated air; she’s always got a new angle. It isn’t just that she’s a coke addict. She covets danger. The edge. She gets high and goes sailing. Or takes an exam. Or visits her fiancé’s parents.

That recklessness, it scares me. Lorraine says that’s the whole point. To lean over the lip of the canyon wall. To court falling, and still hang on. “Dana, honey,” she confides, enunciating low. “It po-ten-ti-ates the high.” When she tells me this, I’m betting she’s stoned.

* * *

Two months ago, I made my last stop at the pet store—without Bess—slipping inside minutes before closing. Trester was there, dropping long brown worms into a bag with handfuls of oatmeal. I hung around the lizard cages trying to figure what to buy next.

He handed the worms to an old lady in a fur coat. Then he ran his fingers across the top of his buzz cut.

“Hey, Dana. Need more dog food? Opening a kennel?”

“No. My sister’s coming home. But I’m liking having a pet. I was checking out the lizards.” I pointed at the nearest cage. “This one’s kind of cute.“

He raised his eyebrows. “That’s a bearded dragon. They’re great pets. The dogs of the lizard world.”

I looked closer, trying to spot the dragon. It was pencil thin, just inches long with a wide head and delicate claws.

“How big do they get?” I pictured a retriever-sized dragon, bounding across the living room with my slippers clenched in its fangs.

Trester held his hands about a foot wide. “They thicken up, too. Mine’s about that big, full-grown.”

“You have one?”

He leaned at me. “Want to see her? I get off in ten minutes.”

I felt my head tipping into a nod. “I don’t have much time.”

“I just live around the corner.”

“Excellent.” I laughed.

Trester disappeared into a side room and returned in a fat, patchwork coat, a hat, and muffler. We walked three doors down to a rehabbed six-flat. In the hall, he unlocked a mailbox and a stack of letters spilled out. We chased them across the floor, then climbed two flights of steps.

He held the door and waved me in. The apartment didn’t fit my idea of Trester: slacker-pet-store-clerk. It was more of a gallery. Huge oil paintings, sculptures of reclining nudes, a bust of Zeus in the entry instead of a coat tree. I wanted to drape my jacket over his face.

“Yow. Are you an artist?” Though it made no sense. Trester couldn’t be more than a year or so older than me, maybe 30. There were lifetimes of artwork in there.

Trester followed my eyes. “Oh no. I’m a wildlife biologist. Or studying to be. This is my aunt’s place; she’s a collector. I’m house-sitting.”

“Do you mind?“ I asked. I browsed the room, gawking.

“Take your time. Flora isn’t going anywhere.”

“Flora?” I’d forgotten the lizard.

“My dragon.”

“Right. Where is she?” I scanned the floor.

“Follow me.” Trester pitched his hat, coat, and muffler at the couch. I stared at the pile.

“My eyes itch when I get cold,” he explained. “Especially when I’m wearing contacts.”

We wove through the clutter of pedestals and figures, mobiles and antique kites to a sunroom behind French doors. There, on an oversized marble table was a giant fish tank. It was dry, but strewn with a layer of white sand, rocks, driftwood, and plants. Flora was in the middle, warming herself under a light. She was sand-colored, with pale streaks of orange and brown. Her head was angular, like Trester’s, and came to a point where you’d imagine her nose—but there were just two tiny holes. She gave me a condescending, almost regal look.

“Hey there, girl, did you miss me?”

“She’s pretty,” I said. I tried to mean it.

He grabbed Flora gently around the middle. Her limbs thrashed out, swimming through oxygen. He brought her to his chest and she latched on to his shirt, like a marsupial.

He stroked her leathery back. “Go ahead,” he said. “Touch her.”

I reached out one finger. Her skin was smooth, not slimy. It gave, like warm mesh.

“Nice.” Compared to a fish, I thought. Nicer than petting a carp.

“Here.” He plucked Flora off his shirt. Her claws wresting away sounded like Velcro ripping. Then he planted her on my sleeve; a small, warm weight.

“Sit.” He steered me to the couch. While he sorted mail, Flora scaled my arm. She poked her head up and down, flicking out her tongue.

“Will she bite?”

“She’s just sniffing you.”

Flora crossed my back and I caught her vague, dusty odor. Her claws were tiny pinpricks. She crept over my sweater’s neckline and buried herself in my hair.


He put down his mail. “They like caves. Hiding places. She’s cozy in there.”

“Cozy?” I shuddered.

“Want me to take her?”

“Sure,” I said. I’d had enough. “I’ve gotta go. Thanks.”

He reached up to lift her, but Flora was tangled in my curls. Trester tried not to tug. Maybe he didn’t want to hurt me; maybe he wanted to touch my hair. When he finally recaged Flora, I ran my hands through the snarls, shaking out lizard cooties.

“So what do you think?” he asked.

“I like her,” I conceded, meaning, I like you.

He beamed for an instant, then his brow furrowed.

“Looks like Flora scratched you up.“ He pointed at my neck. “I’ll fix that.”

I craned around to look at the mirror behind Zeus. My neck was covered in red hatch marks.

He held out a tentacle of aloe.

“Here, rub this in.”

“Like a mustard plaster?”

He blinked. “I’ll show you.”

He peeled open the severed end of the aloe arm, and squeezed out its thick jelly. Then he reached up and dabbed it on my clavicle. Cool and soothing. He touched it to a second scratch, then a third.

I willed him to kiss me. I imagined him flicking out his tongue like an overgrown lizard.

He stopped.

“That should do it,” he said, stepping back.

“Thanks.” I shook my head to clear it and hurried into my coat. Trester reached out to shake my hand. His fingers were sticky from the aloe.

I couldn’t let go. I pulled him into my arms.

* * *

When I think about his slick fingertip sparking my collarbone, I still get the shivers.

Now, each day while I put in my 9 to 5, I’m craving Trester. Used to be, my clients’ stories made the hours spin past. Pretty Robbie Berry, with his golden dreadlocks and cinnamon skin, told me about holding his baby sister at gunpoint, forcing her to hand over a piggy bank full of silver dollars so he could score.

Now my mind drifts. Mondays are worst, after a weekend in Trester’s bed, and most of it not sleeping. His mattress sits on a platform with erotica-stuffed drawers. Trester likes to read racy stories to me. It only takes a few pages to pump up my libido like a helium balloon. Sometimes, a few paragraphs.

I always wanted a literary boyfriend, but this is better. This, I can’t get enough of. He calls me at work and confides, “I went to the library today,“ or “I picked up something at the bookstore,“ and I’m liquid with anticipation.

Only Thesme and the Gayrhog got me squeamish. It’s about a woman who takes an alien, reptilian lover, with a fully retractable dick. I have no prurient interest in lizards.

I admit, I’m smitten. Maybe a bit distracted. We spend hours with our bodies flexed in some tantric tangle and I forget to eat, letting sex substitute for food. I sidestep the scale, leery of watching the needle fall below 105, registering gaunt. Purplish circles under my eyes haunt me like ghosts of my addicts, phantoms who’ve traded away sleep, nutrition, and hygiene for a fix.

So I’ve got a Trester habit. I wake in the middle of the night to pee and worry that I’ve invented him, he’ll have vanished when I return to bed. My past seems less like life than limbo—pathetic romps with a borrowed dog, a half-hearted career where I pirate the wacky details of other people’s exploits for stimulation, like a licensed peeping tom.

But am I obsessed? When does craving become compulsion? Yes, I’m passing up Susan Tedeschi tickets for the snake crossing. But I haven’t held anyone’s sister at gunpoint; the circles under Lorraine’s eyes are still darker than mine. It’s hoping it’s love, not an addiction, that has me heading south to see snakes.

* * *

This morning while I showered, Trester packed his Honda: tent, stove, air mattress, tarps, flashlights, fuel. Driving, he lectures me on snakes we might see: water moccasins, timber rattlers, and copperheads. He’s a lode of sidewinder trivia: They’re deaf to airborne sound, but feel vibration. They have six rows of teeth.

I leaf through his field guide. It says the lining of the cottonmouth’s cheeks are white, that garter snakes emit a rotten smell when they’re scared. I read about elastic jaws and venom, and give myself the willies. I remind myself why I’m here—for a dose of uninterrupted Trester. Not to wade through snakes.

The Honda hurtles past an infinity of farms, fields crusty with anonymous vegetation.

“I’ve never been camping.“ I brace for his laughter.

“You’re kidding.” Trester’s knuckles go white as he clenches the wheel. “You should have told me.“

“It didn’t occur to me.” It hadn’t. I realize that he knows my body, but not me, not my history: Like, I’m allergic to shellfish. Like, I get vertigo. Like, during the second grade spelling bee, I peed in my pants.

What if he did know? Would he use it against me? Force-feed me lobster at the top of a cliff until I peed in my pants?

Maybe that’s the trick to his seamless lovemaking: ignorance. It’s purely physical, unadulterated by personal history. There’s lots I don’t know about him. Nearly everything. My mother’s warnings echo through my head: Would you follow him if he jumped off a bridge? He’s practically a stranger. He could be an ax murderer.

Well, here I am. Here I go.

Lorraine would say: He owns you, honey. Great sex is like crack.

What is the line between habit and addiction? Is it straight and narrow, or squiggly, like snake tracks?

I’ve told lies to see him. Last Friday, I was driving to the Museum of Contemporary Photography for Marjorie’s opening, making good on a sisterly promise. Then I changed my mind: I muscled through four lanes of enraged, honking commuters and screeched across Sheridan Road in a U-turn. I stood up my sister for a night with Trester, lying into her voice mail about a flat tire. So?

So I phoned into work sick, after a weekend of sleep deprivation.

So I’ve screened my calls to avoid anyone but Trester, dodging a few of Robbie Berry’s messages. But Robbie’s no jumper. I haven’t had to talk him down off a ledge—not yet.

Beyond the windshield, the landscape fades from bucolic to gray as I add up this evidence of my seeming dependence on Trester. I start working myself up into a terror. Am I about to spend the night huddled in the dirt with a killer? Have I seen weapons in his house? Did he pack any suspicious long knives? Trester interrupts me.

“They’re smarter than fish.”

“What? Who’s smarter than fish?”

“Snakes. They’re smarter than fish. Not as smart as mammals. But smarter than fish.”

“So we’re smarter than fish too.”

“Well, we’re mammals.“ Trester nods at the road. “I sure hope so.”

When we near ground zero, there’s no time to make camp, build a fire, and roast toasties, or whatever it is he wants to cook—no snake on a spit. Instead, we stop at a Denny’s outside of Carbondale. Dusk has settled in with a brisk chill by the time we make camp and raise the tent. It’s slightly worn along the seams and black mold speckles the bottom.

Soon, we’re scrunched down in the Shawnee National Forest, hoping our ripstop nylon hut won’t leak. My toes feel like frozen sausages. We crawl into the double sleeping bag fully clothed and try to heat each other up. It doesn’t work.

“I think the trick is flesh against flesh,“ Trester says. So we bump into each other—elbows into necks, knees into thighs—undressing in our sack. My back is cold; I leave on my camisole. Trester cradles me tight and it’s a dreamy feeling, a childhood feeling, to be held close in the night, the outside looming near, threatening you with its long dark fingers while you’re safe in a protector’s embrace.

There’s no light for a bedtime story. Trester’s tone is soft and secretive, every word a confidence. He says we’ll hike to the snake crossing along LaRue Road in the morning. It’s closed to traffic, to protect the snakes. Locals used to hold snake-flattening derbies during migrations. His voice is a strange lullaby. I am fading away when he nudges me with a hard-on, a coy reminder that he’s awake. “Not sleepy?” I ask.

“Oh no,” he says. “I’m sleepy. But I’m other things too.” He laughs low against my throat and slides a hand beneath the lacy edge of my top. I rustle around to my side and think, This is why I’m here.

Trester and I make love haltingly, listen to owls hooting and critters rustling through brush. They hurry, Wonderland rabbits all. They’re late for mysterious appointments in the deeper woods.

* * *

In the morning, I’m reluctant to trade the downy warmth of our bag for the frigid campsite. But I do. We scarf down granola bars. Then we don’t talk much on the way to LaRue Road. We greet the other snake watchers: A high school biology class from Arkansas, a herpetologist from Kansas, an elderly couple from Memphis with cameras. Everyone walks slow, watching the leaves for signs of movement. Now and then we spy a snake. But there’s no swarm of adders, no cottonmouth convention.

By dusk we’ve covered ten miles and spotted nine measly snakes. A few cottonmouths, a few garters, and a copperhead. Plus spring peepers. We hike back to the tent in silence, not touching. My feet ache and we both act venomous. He broods, kicks at stones. This isn’t adventure; it’s an endurance contest.

Trester shakes his head. “This is all wrong. I thought they’d travel in packs.”

“I know.”

He throws out his arms and shouts at the sky, “I thought this was Snake City.“

I envision a reptile pageant, rosy-lipped snakes clad in bikinis and sunglasses, slithering down a runway.

“No snake parade today.”

At the tent, the crickets have slowed up; it’s colder than yesterday. I pull my hands inside my sweatshirt cuffs. Can I stand five more days of trailing a snake charmer wannabe? I haul Trester’s backpack out of the Honda and toss it his way.

“Make yourself useful,” I say. “Tell me a story.”

He parks himself on the picnic table and shakes books from his bag while I make sandwiches. Weeks of fasting have made me ravenous. Trester rifles through his portable library and sighs.

“I don’t much feel like reading.”

We choke down PB&J’s as the sky blues, purples, and then blackens, a bruised night. Stars pop out and Trester’s counting constellations when I head for the tent. I curl into the sack, clamp my eyes shut, and wish myself back to Chicago, where courtship means chocolates and roses, not vipers and toads. I’m nodding off when he lumbers in, rattling the stakes. As I drift off, I feel his long torso graze my back.

* * *

The night’s long and I only half-sleep. I wake up early and it smells frosty. Trester’s still asleep, his breathing thick. I drag my clothes into the bag—jeans, wool socks, bra, thermal shirt, fleece sweatshirt, underpants. I wriggle into panties, socks, and jeans with marginal regard for Trester’s slumber. My breasts are mounds of prickly flesh—reptilian—as I struggle into my bra. I poke my arms into the shirt and then it happens. Something slides and tumbles down along my arm and drops into my lap.

Something long and squirmy. Something hideously cold.

I am trembling; I am breathing shards of ice.

“Trester,” I scream. I shriek. I yell at the panicky top of my lungs. I struggle to jump out of the bag. My foot is caught. I stumble and fall over. I kick away the bag and leap to my feet and tumble back against the thin chilly nylon tent wall. It buckles. Drops of dew cascade along the rainfly. Rat-a-tat-tat. Where is the goddamn snake?

“Trester, get up. It’s a goddamn snake. Please.” I am scared, pleading, nearly hysterical. Tugging at the zipper. Now I freeze. Where are my boots? They’ll be more snakes out there. “Trester, get up. Please. Where are our boots?”

Finally, Trester bolts up. His back is to me while he feels around for his glasses.

“Calm down,” he yells at me. “Don’t panic. You’ll scare it. Where is it?”

“Don’t panic? Don’t panic? I am panicked! There’s a fucking snake in the sleeping bag. With you. I think it’s a copperhead. Get the hell out.” I am still screaming, yelping. For all I know, there might be foam flying out of my mouth. “Get me the fuck out of here, Trester. Now!”

Trester stands. Naked and pale and vulnerable against the tent wall. He heaves aside the sleeping bag. It hits the other wall and the tent shakes. Dew percusses down the side. Then his voice drops. “My eyes itch. I can’t see anything.” He’s looking at the ground, so I don’t understand. Not until he glances over at me and says it again. “Dana, I can’t see. Everything’s a blur.” His eyelids, they’re swollen up like slugs.

I feel sick.

“This has never happened before.” He’s mystified. “I must have been rubbing them all night.”

I am furious, and then shamed by my lack of sympathy. My gaze drops to his bare feet—it’s too hard to look at his eyes—and I remember. Boots.

“Trester, where are our boots? Please.”

“Look behind the packs. But first calm down.” He’s standing there like a peeled onion, telling me to calm down. “Really, Dana. Just pick up the sleeping bag and throw it outside the tent.”

He’s got to be kidding. I say it: “You’ve got to be kidding.” Then I scrounge around for our boots behind the packs. Now he’s mad.

“Do I look like I’m joking?” He’s booming at me. “Toss it out. That way the snake will be outside. Get it? Snake outside? People inside?”

I pick up a boot and lift a foot.

“And,” he adds, telepathic, “shake out those boots. You can’t know what’s snuck inside.”

I’m fighting tears. I hop around, leg mid-air, to reverse foot direction. I hold my boots away and shake them out.

Trester is squinting. “Dana. The bag,” he reminds me. I look at the bag. I expect dozens of snakes to squirm out.

“Just go slow,” he whispers.

“OK,” I croak. First I finish unzipping the tent fly. Trester, still bare, holds the flap. I hand him his boots. He drops the flap, shakes out his boots, shoves in his feet, and recovers the flap. I tiptoe to the bag. It looks inert, dead, harmless. Maybe there’s nothing inside. I bend slowly and bunch it up away from me. I roll it into itself. It’s big and sloppy. I dash to the tent opening and fling it as far as I can. Nothing spills out—no snake, nothing. The dark green bag looks at home in the patch of dirt where it lands, plaid lining splayed open. I keep watching for movement.

“Can’t you help me find my glasses?” It’s Trester. I hear him push aside his clothes, the mattress, the packs. I’m still waiting for more snakes to slither into view. When I turn around, he’s crawling around on the floor. The glasses are wedged between the foam pad and the tent wall. He fits the metal wires over his ears. Behind the lenses, his eyes shrink to less grotesque. He tilts his head back and looks down his nose.

“Can you see?”

“Sort of. Things aren’t too crisp.”

Take charge, Dana, I think. Then I think, What? Take charge of what? I know the answer—Control your addiction, don’t let it control you. I’m aping my own stale advice. Pablum for addicts. I frown at my nude, life-sized habit and test it out. “Trester, get dressed.”

He looks down at his nakedness. “Good idea.”

As he dresses, I poke around the tent with my boot tips, hoping against turning up snakes. There are none. I smash my stuff—dirty socks, flashlight, cosmetic bag, book—into my pack.

“Dana, what’s the deal?” Trester asks.

“I’m packing up.”

“One lousy snake and you’re running out on me? I paid for a whole week of camping.”

Why should I hang out here? With a man who goes blind in the cold? I’m out of here. I want to go home, rent a movie, sleep in a warm bed. I want a hot shower.

“Look, Trester, the snakes are supposed to cross the road, not my body.” I point outside. “Sorry.”

Trester squints and buttons his red flannel shirt.

“If you want to stick around you can drive me into Carbondale and I’ll take the train,” I add. “It’s up to you. I won’t hold it against you.”

“I’ll think about it.” He scowls. “I’ll let you know.”

I nod while I hoist the pack over my shoulder and duck through the flap. “You do that,” I say. “You think about it.”

I wrench open the Honda, burrow into the passenger seat, and pan the site, from the sleeping bag to the tent. Unzipped, the flap sags open. It’s a depressed-looking tent, off kilter and forlorn. Our bumping around has thrown it askew. It’s a tent I never want to sleep in again. Not sleeping in it is a happy thought, a liberating thought.

My mind drifts to my clients. I measure myself against them. Would Robbie Berry drive 500 miles for a fix? Would Lorraine sleep with a snake to make a score? I think back to the first time I saw Robbie, broken nose swaddled in bandages. He’d been dropping Quaaludes and throwing himself against a brick wall. He felt invulnerable, his body cushioned by a hundred imaginary pillows. Except when he came down, his nose was swollen and crusted over with blood. Now that’s an addiction. My fingers leap to my nose. It’s not broken, not bloody.

Then the tent walls ripple in the morning breeze—a good sign—and a fully clad Trester inches out the doorway. He shields his eyes against the light and shuffles toward the sleeping bag. He kicks at it, then raises and jiggles the corner. Nothing undulates out. I crank down my window.

“Must be gone,” he says.

“Must be. Where do you think it went?”

Trester lifts his lenses and grinds at his eyes. “Maybe he crossed the road.” He considers me grudgingly for a moment, then laughs. “He’s probably nice and safe in a warm little hole he calls home.”

Trester looks at the tent. He unstakes the rainfly and pulls out the collapsible pole.

“So Dana, give me a hand here?” he calls back. Then he pivots and reaches out one arm, horizontal, and then the other. He rotates them from palms down, like a zombie, to palms up, like a supplicant. He’s pleading. For my help, for me.

Excellent, I think. I’m not as cunning as an addict, but lots smarter than a fish.

I don’t budge, not yet. My thighs are welded to the Honda’s bucket seats; my sights are locked on Trester. I’m too warm and comfortable, weighing my options and guessing what he’ll catch in those hovering, outstretched limbs.

Gail Louise Siegel’s work has appeared in Zoetrope All-Story Extra, FictionFix, The Salt River Review (“Sparta to Elroy,” “The Telemarketer’s Point of View,” and “The Lighter Collection”) Brevity, Flashquake, Outsider Ink, 3AM Magazine, Lit Pot, Tattoo Highway, and elsewhere. New work is appearing or forthcoming in the journals Night Train, Salamander, North Dakota Quarterly, and in Big Water, an anthology from Michigan State University Press. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Contact her at


“Smarter Than Fish” altered my approach to writing forever. I finished it for the first meeting of a class with the writer Richard Ford. My young daughter had a lizard and I was fascinated by the pet shop and the teenage boy (much younger than Trester) who sold me crickets, all of which inspired the romance between Dana and Trester. But before I turned it in to the class, in Ford’s opening comments, he mentioned that he always liked to know what his characters did for a living. Mortified, I realized that Dana didn’t have a job. When I rewrote “Smarter Than Fish,” I added Dana’s job as a drug counselor, complicating her personality and adding the addiction themes. Now, I always try to consider my characters’ public, work lives—not just their personal, intimate lives—and how the two work together to give them depth.

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