Bad Fish Day
It was a Monday when I tried to remember the happiest time of my life. I had called in sick that day and was lucky enough to speak to the one co-worker whose company I could tolerate. We had very little in common other than a stagnant hatred of our jobs; we liked some of the same movies, and he harbored a muted lust for me, but beyond that we were bound only for our dislike of the place we worked.
"I won't be in today, Wil," I told him, not troubling myself to sound ill.
"Bad Fish Day?" he asked. Normally our co-workers referred to this sort of bogus sick day as a 'Mental Health Day', but Wil and I hated such novelty-mug banalities, so we called them 'Bad Fish Days'—a reference to the comical frequency with which we told our bosses that we'd been nauseated by some bad fish we'd eaten over the weekend.
"Yeah," I said, my mind already drifting away from the phone. "I'll see you tomorrow. Or maybe Wednesday. It was really bad fish."
I had no particular reason for calling in sick. I didn't have anything pressing to do at home; I was caught up on laundry and housework, I had no projects to do or errands to run, and I wasn't even feeling a great deal of stress, despite having a number of deadlines at the office. It was just one of those common Mondays where the thought of going to work was unbearable. I can't remember what inspired me to recall the happiest day of my life; it may have been boredom more than anything else. Most decisions of this nature are driven by boredom. Then again, it may as well have been triggered by hearing some phrase on television, or reading a likely combination of words in the newspaper. By ten o'clock, at which time I normally would have been at work for several hours and would be starting to fade already, I determined to scratch around in my memory and see what I could see.
From the very beginning I was operating on the assumption that my happiest memory would be something from my childhood. People tend to think of childhood in an idealized way, perhaps in the belief that one's emotions are felt more intensely, not having any intellectual or social filters to blunt or lessen them. Besides this I could not recall ever having said, or even thought, "this is the happiest day of my life" as an adult. It seemed like an odd thing to say, more a bad line of dialogue from a movie or a dull television show than words someone would actually speak. I could, of course, remember days from high school up until now that had been better than others, but nothing that could really be called the best, or the happiest, of all times. So naturally I began thinking of what had made me happy as a child.
It was at this point, already late in the afternoon, that an anxiety began to set in. I had become quite enamored of this idea, and was truthfully a bit surprised that the memory did not just leap to mind. One's happiest memory should be sitting there, immediately obvious, like a dictionary on a shelf Ð not something as instantly accessible as one's name or phone number, but easy to get to, like the circumstances of a bad breakup or where you went on your first family vacation. My inability to find anything that could fit the bill began to nag at me, and I started to doubt the worthiness of the whole idea. Still, out of sheer determination, or, I suppose, stubbornness, I pressed on.
One problem was that most of my coherent childhood memories, or at least the ones that didn't involve trauma or sadness, were built around people or material objects to which I had no easy access. The first action I took was to build a little fort out of couch cushions, as I had very fond memories of doing this with my younger brother Charles as a girl. This proved to be less than ideal, since such jury-rigged structures are a lot more labyrinthine when you are three feet high than when you are a fully grown woman, and Charles' absence (he was a dozen states away, in medical school, and not likely to interrupt his studies for one of my whims) largely obviated any enjoyment I might have gotten out of the whole affair. While attempting vainly to squeeze myself into a small corral made of couch and chair cushions, I began to think about other things that made me happy as a child, and was disheartened by how many of them involved toys: my long-gone collection of Barbies, my See & Say, and a Hot Wheel track I owned during a pre-adolescent fixation with Shirley Muldowney. Aside from the philosophical problems I had with realizing how much happiness I had derived from things rather than people, it was next to impossible to lay hands on these things on short notice. It was conceivable that I could leave the apartment and travel to some antique shops and vintage toy stores looking for them, but was I really willing to go to that much effort? When I left home, would I still want to pursue this project, or was it sustained by magic that would be dispelled after opening the front door? If I actually managed to get these toys, would I still enjoy them once I got them home and started to play with them? It sounds terrible to say it now, but I don't even know how I would 'play' with a toy now. I can't imagine what I would do with a Barbie in each hand, though I obviously knew when I was eight. The whole thing seemed problematic.
By now I was growing obsessed with the notion of isolating and re-creating my happiest moment, the way one does at work sometimes when one is completing a task Ð you don't really want to do it, and it's already ten after five, but now you're determined to finish it out of pure bloody-mindedness. My childhood had come up craps; I found this distressing if for no other reason than I have a more than usual recall of my younger life and I had just assumed that, in all those memories, I would find something upon which I could hang the title of best-day-ever. Despite my initial resistance to the idea, I began to probe my college years and my mid-twenties; most moments of sustained pleasure there, though, involved fucking or taking drugs with a select group of people who were, again, not immediately accessible to me. And was that really worth considering? There would be more weed, more pointless vacations, more fucks. I would feel foolish pinning a gold star on something as commonplace as that. The situation was becoming dire.
Out of desperation, I considered calling my mother, which is what I always did in these moments of arbitrary crisis. I was warned off it by the sure knowledge that were I to ask her if she remembered the happiest moment of her own life, she would answer with a situation-comedy response about it being the day I moved out, or turn it into a guilt-inducing "It will be the day you give me a grandchild", or something equally horrid. When I began to consider that this, right here, by way of the process of sitting around recalling all of my fondest memories, was the happiest day of my life, I realized that I had either gone insane or was really scraping bottom, rationalization-wise. Whichever the case, the project had reached its useful end.
The next day, Wil and I ran into one another in the conference room and he asked how I'd spent my Bad Fish Day.
"I spent all day trying to remember the happiest moment of my life," I told him.
"What was it?" he asked.
"I couldn't think of one," I answered. "I spent a couple of hours sitting in a pile of sofa cushions."
"Were you trying to build a little fort?"
"That's a good one. So," he said, "was it worth it?"
I didn't have an answer for him. I still don't.
About the author:
Leonard Pierce lives and writes in Chicago, IL. Lately, his work has turned up in the Chicago Reader, McSweeney's, the High Hat, Opium, Uber and Hobart Pulp. His Web site, the Ludic Log, is to literary humor what a hand grenade is to a birthday party.