Volume 26, Number 3

Shark Fin Soup

J. R. Gerow

“I’m gonna tell you a joke,” he says as I slip the pillowcase over his head. “The joke goes that this guy in Hong Kong wins the lottery. And so he’s very poor, so the first thing he decides is that he’s going to only eat the most expensive thing he can think of from now on. That’s what he goes all in for. That’s his principle. So it’s shark fin soup every meal of every day for this guy. Shark fin soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

I yank the duct tape back into a strip, wrapping around the neck, pulling the pillowcase in tight like a cinch so that it doesn’t slip around. “And so within a month, he’s dead. Mercury poisoning. Now his last words were, ‘I know that it’s killing me, but the worst of it is, I simply crave a dumpling!’”

I pull another strip of tape back to wrap around the wrists. Tight, behind the back, bound unevenly. It likes it to feel unprofessional.

“That’s the joke. It’s not a very good joke, from the ha-ha perspective. But it’s something else, you know. It’s something to think about. Everybody thinks that good jokes come from the funny ha-ha types. I don’t think they understand what a joke is. A joke isn’t a smiling baby. A joke isn’t have-you-heard-the-good-news, you know. A joke is a survival mechanism. A joke is the neurological release valve on the mounting tension between the world as it is and the world as you intended it. Jokes are the human brain’s failsafe capacity to find hilarity in disorder, in case all else fails. Every piece of humor requires a state of disorder as its operative component. The worse things get, the better the brain gets at laughing about them. If you want to hear a good joke, talk to someone who requires them.”

I give it a kick in the ribs. It coughs, rolls over to its right, letting out a long moan that concludes with a deep hack of spit. It rolls back up again.

“I can laugh at myself,” it goes on. “I do it all the time. That’s how you make yourself tolerable, you know. I know too much about myself to put up with him if I couldn’t laugh about it. I’ll tell you the big story about my father. My father had a thing like this. Only maybe his was worse. They found him dead in the garage one day with the noose around his neck and his pants around his ankles. He had a canister of WD-40 in his anus, and he’d drilled a little hole in the bottom so he could attach the power drill and rotate it slowly up there. That was his thing, anyways. Apparently. Or, who knows, maybe it was the most hilarious accident I’ve ever had the privilege to witness. Jokes. When my grandma opened the garage we found him there, mooning the neighborhood. It was the Fourth of July. Everybody on the block putting picnics in minivans. The drill came unplugged, so it was just kind of hanging there, like a monkey tail. You know, rather than spinning. I guess that made it better. I remember noticing it after awhile and being thankful. It just made the whole thing a little less embarrassing.

“Maybe that’s where I get it. Genetic determinism. See, I can laugh at that, because I can laugh at my father. What a way to go. If you have to one way or the other, why in the honest fuck not? What do you care? Have a big screaming laugh about it. I respect that. Some people respect their fathers because they worked a job that turned their brains to shit stoically for forty years, but I respect my father because he died with a can of homecare product in his rectum while practicing autoerotic asphyxiation. That’s brave. Even if he didn’t mean to do it, that had to be one of his last thoughts, right? The knowing, the acknowledging that this would be how they found him, and I think even just knowing that makes a person a little braver. Fuck it, I think brave people are mostly just products, they’re mostly people who don’t have a choice about facing something terrifying, and, for about five minutes, then, that was my dad.

“That’s about how long it takes to asphyxiate, five minutes—if the rope doesn’t snap your neck. Now, nobody’s conscious for that whole time. That’s going to depend on person to person. But five minutes is how long it takes to start killing brain cells. So even if you’re in a dream state for most of that time, something is kicking around up there, right? You get to have some four-minute dream. Hopefully you dream about getting fellated by a pink dolphin in the Amazon river or a young Joan Rivers. Then you start losing brain cells, and the dream gets simpler and simpler until there’s not even language or ideas in it, and then it’s just the color red, and then, well.”

I push it supine back against the board, letting the head smack against the base. With the face covered, it no longer sees anything coming. The pillow lets out a little gasp but nothing else. With one hand jacking the chin up, I pull the leather strap tight across its horizontal chest so that the constricted flesh pinches white. I close the buckle. Getting back up, I drop one knee into the lower stomach, almost like an afterthought, which forces the arms to pull back into the body reflexively, allowing me to grab the wrists and pull them tight into the arm straps. The pillow resists this part, at least a little, at first.

“So am I subconsciously or otherwise trying to close the loop on his cycle? See, that’s what a doctor told me once. I said fuck him. Therapy did me more harm than good. They’re all so insufferably Protestant. About five percent of human sexuality makes sense to them. This is what helps. This is good. Every choice we make in life is creative destruction. There’s no free ride, you get consequences with everything. The important thing is that you choose them.”

It quiets down then for a little bit. It is waiting for the first part, but it’s no good to reward the apprehension, so I have to take a little longer. Everything ought to be unexpected. I go to the kitchen and get myself some water. After awhile passes in silence, I finally cock the board back. A spring goes off, and the feet shoot up at a fifteen-degree angle to its head. I hold the forehead with one hand and press the absorptive towel over its covered face. Then I begin pouring.

Waterboarding requires the body to lie at about this fifteen-degree angle so that the head remains lower than the lungs at all times. That way the water stays in the head, filling the trachea, mouth, and sinuses. The lungs can't fill up with water, so the subject can't asphyxiate. The entire upper respiratory system, however, simulates the sensation of drowning. If the subject were to reorient flat, it would die.
I say nothing during this time. I just pour and then wait, pushing the cloth in against the teeth, while it spits at it and tries to say something, pour and then wait. Glub, glub, glub, it goes. After about two minutes of this I remove the towel and allow it to turn its head to the side. It coughs, gasps and spits repeatedly at me over the side of the board, trying to clear water.

“Obviously,” it says finally between gasps, “started during the Bush years. Great time to go crazy. Everyone who wasn’t crazy during the Bush years had something deeper wrong with them. Great time to come of age, because you knew exactly where you stood. Our complicity was transparent. Self-alienation was at an all-time high. There was this zenith moment in the self-expression of capital. They took our holiest commodity from us, and so our national response was to replace it with additional consumption. Nobody needed their conscience salved, and nobody tried to. They told us to buy, and we bought, they told us to support, and we supported, they told us to look the other way at dudes with electrodes clamped to their dicks, and we did. They took over a fucking country so they could award oil contracts to corporations that had them on the goddamn board. It was so hysterically above-board it was inspiring. There was no smiling face slapped on the invasions. There was just the White House Press Correspondents dinner where W pretends to be looking for WMDs under the dinner table, and the crowd laughs nervously. Hi-lar-i-ous. Jokes. It was like performance art on the scale of national regimes. And in rebuttal the only mantra coming out of the left was its ingrained self-loathing, yearning for a Clinton to make them feel like men again. They nominated a guy with a literal horse-face in ’04, like a projection of their inner despair. It was psychically devastating. The Great Freedom Marching Death Machine is out waking up early and whistling, liberating shopkeepers and schoolhouses from the earthly coil, and we can’t even get our pants on because we’re arguing with Swiftboat about whether Kerry was sufficiently anti-gook in the ’70s. It was a real, real time to be alive, just to see it.

“I respect that now. That took balls. Now we’re still doing it, just without the balls. Everything’s much better packaged. Everything’s more Hallmark. We enjoy the feeling of the weightlessness of it now. Now it’s the same drone that attacks the streets of Chicago, too, and so in a sense, we’re all complicit, and we’re all victimized. And there’s a kind of justice in that that we’re happy to embrace. We want to be victims, too, you know. It makes us feel better. It makes us more comfortable with ourselves. Why shouldn’t we do to Baghdad what we’re doing to New York, we can say. That’s a nice question to be able to ask. It takes an obligatory absurdity and makes it sound so reasonable.

“That’s what took me out of TV and into politics. It was the knowing that the whole thing was so much easier on this side. If I could serve people whatever made them comfortable, it was as good as—it was decisively better than—whatsoever understanding what I was actually doing. Never understand things better than the people you’re trying to understand them for, Martha. You’re just going to make them uncomfortable. That’s the American voter. That’s the key to the whole thing. When you get that, when you can disappear into what people want to see in you already, you’ve got the whole thing. Print money. Don’t go trying to change three hundred million fucking hearts and minds. That TV’s job. And I was mediocre at TV, so this was perfect.

“It’s dreadfully bad entertainment by design, politics. People don’t want to be responsible for the actual, lived-in world. They don’t want to think about a world with stakes. Save that for fiction. People will accept that kind of shit in fiction. Maybe fiction is the last thing that has the power to make people change something they believe. Not the written word, fuck that, but on screen, at least.”

I am waiting with the towel and bucket, one in each hand. The trick is to let it go just long enough that it gets lost in its thoughts again. You take it by surprise. I smack it knuckles-bared across the jaw, the head reels off to the side and lies there. I grab the mandible and straighten it back out, torqueing the neck upwards. I push the towel back onto the face, and begin again.

The chest gives little convulsions while it’s down. The mind knows that it is going to live, but the body does not. This is what the pillow likes.

Glub, glub, glub glub glub.

When I pull the thing off, it gargles incoherently at me, “right?” as though concluding a thought we’d been sharing all this time under the towel. “If not my father, then what, huh? Just the customary, manic-depressive, disaffected, self-loathing, masochistic white American male? So much majority that he can’t even maintain the idea of his individuality anymore?” I let its head lay sidewise to drain, and it spits anemically off the side of the board. “God, I hope not. I’ve been around and around that, Martha, this is something else, you know? I have to believe that. I hope you believe that. I hope you do because if you didn’t believe that this would all just be so tragically clichéd. I mean, not that it would be the worst—you make money from sodomizing coked-out stockbrokers in front of their wives, your whole life is a fucking cliché, but I despair at that, you know? I hope you get something out of this more than that. I don’t want to just pay for the privilege of boring you to death.

“I did some porn when I was in college. Did I ever tell you that? Start there. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t bad. You take some drugs, you do a million hours of fucking yourself blind until everything feels like it’s about to fall off. You master how to never ever cum. Ever. They take this and distil it down to four minutes. It ruined women for me. I can’t do it anymore. They take the agony of your ecstasy, and they get it down to four minutes that represent your digitally filed and catalogued zenith as a sexual being. I shouldn’t have watched it all afterwards, at any rate, but I did. Once you start, you can’t stop. You cue in on every little vile thing about yourself. The only thing you can stand to watch are the dick shots. Not even with my hands in the shot. Just the girl and my dick.

“I liked that. There’s something so profoundly honest, something fundamentally decent, about the erect penis. It makes you feel better about the country. There’s nothing obscure in it, you know? There’s no such thing as a coy erection. It doesn’t represent. It is. It’s the significance that other things refer back to. You could send it out on the campaign trail like a Clinton to lend other folks credibility. I loved that. I thought I might be gay for awhile, but turns out I wasn’t into it. Every guy has the same sick shit going on.

“I did a lot of drugs after I stopped cumming. That was my cumming then. It was exhausting because you’re always waking up at the end. You keep coming back to your old brain like some nag of a wife after a week at the whorehouse. I’d feel so horrible about it at that point that I’d have to go back. I wished I could make it my real, final brain, but that requires a certain abandonment to the cause that I couldn’t quite muster. So I stewed around the edges habitually. I got lonely and brought my friends. I got filthy and contagious, I’m spreading my filth around like it’ll lower the average depth of filth in my personal radius. It’s kind of perversely Puritanical, if you think about it, in the judgmental sense. You loathe the sin so much you want to dilute your ownership in it. If you can make enough other people as filthy as you, you know, maybe you can depreciate the gate price into heaven. It’s basically American macroeconomic policy, in terms of currency. Which is sound doctrinally, at least. Technically. On paper.”

The wet pillow looks straight up as though someone is standing there over it. “The American macroeconomic system has too many externalities, though. You want to be a closed ecosystem, Martha. Internalize all costs back onto yourself. You know? That’s the joke. There it is again, right? That’s the dream. You internalize all the costs of your principle back onto yourself. For one lucky guy in Hong Kong, at least, he gets it. That elusive thing. All he leaves behind for other people to deal with is about ten million dollars and a hundred fifty-pound sack of mercury poisoning. Which is to say, a great man.

“Give me that, any day. That’s the brave thing: living with all the costs of your own behaviors. Nobody has the balls to do that. Everybody says they do but the truth is it terrifies them existentially. Even just knowing all the costs of our behaviors, that would be too much. If you could look down that well, you’d see straight down all the way through fiery hell to Satan’s grundle: bright red, moist and evil. Licked by a thousand serpents. Few men dare to even look upon it.”

It waits.

“I don’t know if you can be a good man anymore. There’s too many externalities. But I think you can be a brave one. I think you can control that much.”

Now the pillow has gone deep and passively into itself, the foreshadowing that it is almost ready. I take it again, and this time, it starts to vocalize sobs and produce a stubborn erection. I lean an elbow into its bowels to heighten the pressure. The body thrashes up and down on the board, but it can’t get enough momentum in the straps to even leave a bruise.

After a bit, I begin to level off the board. Ten degrees. The little flailing rhythm in its chest begins to pull the water down. It vocalizes louder, but everything it says is still glub glub this, glub glub that. I wish it would stop. The most expressive part of the body are all the extremities—the fingers, toes, the way they curl, stretch and contract manically and knead the air, like they’re conducting some atemporal cosmic orchestra, trying to grasp something that isn’t there.

I let this go on a minute or two. Not long enough to lose consciousness. I remove the towel. Quickly, I let the shoulder strap out just enough that it can turn partway onto its side, heaving and gargling and eventually pulling up enough of water to breathe again.

“I’m going to fucking kill you,” it says finally between gasps. The voice is cracking. “You let me out of these straps, you bitch. I’m going to fucking kill you. I’m gonna put your head on the wall with formaldehyde like a fucking deer. I’m gonna fucking stuff your pelvis and let the neighborhood boys at it. I gonna peel off your fucking nails with pliers and shingle my roof with them.”

It gasps over and over. I can hear it sobbing. It has no control left. It does this for a little while.

“Don’t you ever do that again. Do you hear me? Don’t you ever fucking do that again, Martha. Okay? What do I need to pay you? Martha? You want me to pay you more? Do we need to go down this road? Let me out of these fucking straps. Let’s talk about it, all right? I’m not gonna fucking kill you. I said I was gonna fucking kill you, but I’m not. Listen to me.”

The damp pillow imprinted with a face bobs up and down, ballooning a little at the mouth with each breath.

It has an odd home. It’s so spotless it could almost be a model. The major pieces of furniture are all here, so it doesn’t feel precisely empty, but all of the little things are missing. There are no pictures of people. A couple of pieces of suspiciously conventional art—sailboats at a harbor, a field of flowers, that kind of thing. Only two plates in the cabinet. The few books on the shelf are spaced conspicuously to make it look fuller than it is, and they never move, week after week. There is nothing but the board that would make you think that it even lived here. I wondered sometimes if it didn’t. Perhaps this was just a staging area.

“You know what I think the joke is about?” I say. It stops the noises then because I never speak to it. “Comfort. I think the joke is about comfort. You pursue all these little comforts until they add up to something terrible. They seem totally necessary at the time. Until one day you don’t even really enjoy them anymore and you know what they’re adding up to.”

The pillow leans back against the board thoughtfully. It says nothing for a while. I wonder how brave it wants to be.

“Sometimes when you do it to me, I feel terrified,” it says, “and then sometimes I don’t. I get that. Hey, sometimes all you want is a fucking dumpling, you know?

“That makes sense.”

I do not tighten the shoulder strap again. I push it back down, and the fight is exhausted out, or it is restraining itself now. Apply the water. This time, it is free enough that every time the body throbs up into my arms, it forces the water further back down into the chest. The gagging takes on a new urgency now, recoiling against the oxygen deprivation. The thorax heaves back and forth like a sail in a windstorm. After about thirty seconds, it begins to soften.

It might be dying soon, I note with some interest. It’s such a process to observe. Perhaps there is a moment, singular, when the soul leaves the body, but as for the body itself, it only comes apart by degrees. A sequence of failures must all align in order, from the lungs to the heart to the bloodstream to the brain and then throughout the central nervous system to every last twitching muscle. You could isolate these components of the ultimate failure, videotape them, I imagine, play them back in reverse to create the illusion of a biologic miracle, a thousand dominos pushing each other back up in order.
The throbbing in the chest is now attenuated, like the moment when the storm has passed, and the ship grows stiller and stiller. At this point anything is possible. I want to believe it will be happy with my choice either way. You can’t really tell the consequences.

You just can’t. If it even matters.

I release the cords. I pull the towel back off the face and turn it, put a knee into its chest to giddy up the heart and push out water at once. The floor is soaked already and sticky. The first time its body just spits up for it mechanically, like a squeezebox, but the second time, it is back, vocalizing its heaving. It is no sooner pulling up the water again than it is crying also.

I wait just long enough to see that its body is doing the shake from all the internal cooling. Then I leave it like that on the board. It won’t get off the board for awhile. I go to the wallet on the mantel by the front door and take out five hundred dollars. Two-hundred-dollar flat fee. Three hundred bonus for pushing it closer.