McCorkle’s short story “Fish” is something of a memoir, capturing for the reader particular events in the lives of the narrator and her dying father. While the narrator’s theme is resurrection, her method is memory. The sequence of memories is not strictly chronological, and this story does not pretend to be the narrator’s autobiography. Autobiographies tend to be more committed to spanning the history of a person’s entire life. Memoirs tend to be more topical, consisting of bits of experience, selected to illustrate a particular theme. In this story, the narrator characterizes her now dying father by remembering scenes and experiences with him from her childhood. Through memories she shows his courage and quick action in saving his cat, his pride and compassion in carrying his drunken father home, his thoughtfulness in keeping the relationships between his children and his grandfather free of his own issues with his father, and his struggle with depression that challenged him until he succumbed and had to be saved himself. Despite the obstacles in his life, he seems to have been a positive person and a loving father. When he finds out that he is dying, he only says, “I am sixty-four years old and I have had a good life.” He is relatively young to be dying, but he has overcome so much and lived a life rich in love. Through her memories of her father, the narrator shows her love for him, and she keeps his humble and affectionate spirit alive.
Memory is evoked through the physical senses. Smell is, in many ways, the strongest memory inducer because it is complex, thorough, and visceral. Particular smells can bring back memories and connected emotions. Sometimes the memory is unconscious until a person encounters the smell that brings the memory to consciousness. The narrator recalls, while thinking about her grandfather: “I fell in love with a boy who smelled like him only to later realize that the treasured memory I carried of your father was one of straight bourbon and cigarette gone to ash.” Bourbon and cigarettes are not necessarily nice smells, but the narrator has connected them with her grandfather, whom she loves, so for her those smells bring on good memories and feelings. This association of smell with the grandfather also reveals the significance for the narrator’s father of having a father himself who was an alcoholic.
The eleven-year-old son of Jeannie, the narrator’s sister, has his fond memories of his grandfather tied up in word and sound. He is the narrator’s nephew, her father’s eldest grandchild. He remembers all of the stories that his grandfather told him while he was growing up. He sits by his grandfather’s bed as the older man is dying, remembering those stories and telling them back to him. The narrator says that her father and this boy have a similar ability to remember details: “It is a secret he shares with you.” The stories the boy tells to his grandfather are a comfort to them both, a sign of their intimacy. Like the narrator with her memories of her father, the nephew retells these stories; telling them is his way of keeping his grandfather alive. All of his grandchildren have been given stories, and they now come to their grandfather with secrets and kisses to make him smile. The narrator can also connect to her father through a story he read to her. Her favorite fairytale as a child was Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” The story made her cry, and she liked crying because she felt it prepared her to lose people she loved such as her father (to depression) and her grandfather (to throat cancer). Many years later, watching her father slowly die, the narrator sees herself again as the match girl, and she concludes, “every word, every image is a match struck in an attempt to hold on.” “Fish” is the narrator’s metaphorical box of spent matches.
Trying to remind their father of better times, to bring him comfort, the narrator, Jeannie, and their mother sing to him even though he is past being able to respond or even blink a reply. These songs are like stylized memories of happier days. They sing his favorite songs, popular love tunes from the 1930s such as “Blue Moon” and “All of Me.” This music is also a comfort for the women. Even though he cannot reply, they continue to sing, feeling close to him through the music that he loved.
The narrator has a vivid memory from the summer of 1963 when she was five years old and her sister was nine. She remembers the tactile experience of cleaning red Play-Doh from the braided rug of their rented beach cottage in South Carolina. The work and the repentance involved in cleaning that rug struck her even then, young as she was, as having the potential to be an enduring memory.
Memory is notable for its unreliability when held up against fact. So much of what people experience through their senses is ultimately colored by a partial understanding of events, by emotion, prejudice, preference, even by attention span. Given all the filters, the actual facts concerning an event can be drastically altered as they are housed in memory, making memory a potentially unreliable way to collect history. But memory is important to one’s self concept and one’s sense of personal history. As emotional and subjective as memory is, it is the retrieval mechanism people have by which to revisit the past. In her memories, the narrator stores her love of her father, love that can be communicated to others when she reminisces.
The memories relived in “Fish” range from small, almost trivial events to momentous occasions. The narrator remembers how her grandfather held her hand when they crossed the street. She thinks about how her father freed his cat and how he carried his drunken father home. She recalls her As emotional and subjective as memory is, it is the retrieval mechanism people have by which to revisit the past.” father in the hospital being treated for depression and how she and her sister visited him, wanting him to come home. Given the emotional nature of memory, not all recollections are momentous. It is what the memory comes to signify that matters most. The narrator recalls going fishing with her father. He helped her cut loose a toadfish that had swallowed her hook and threw the fish back into the water. The narrator recalls her father clearly— the gaiety and laughter overlaying a shadow of old disappointment. He told her, “just think of the fishtales he’ll have for his children and grandchildren. He will always be the one that got away.” This fish served as a metaphor for her father; both the fish and her father had a close escape from death. His stories have now become his daughter’s memories. The narrator draws on these memories as a way to keep her father’s spirit alive, to figuratively resurrect him from his deathbed. On the outside, she sings to him his favorite love songs, playing to his own sense of memory in order to comfort him. Inside, she relives her memories of their lives just as her nephew relives his grandfather’s stories by reciting them back to him. Their recitals are a requiem, or lament, for the dead, except for the reoccurring theme of resurrection and for the narrator’s dreams at the end of the story. Through memory, she has found a part of her father—the stories of his life—that is still vibrant and alive. Although her father dies, she has not given up on his life. “You are my heart,” he tells her, “that’s all that there is.” A few days later, she replies, “I’ll be looking for you.” The narrator’s father will always be there, captured within his daughter’s memories of him.
Carol Ullmann, Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Jill McCorkle, Published by Gale Group, 2006