About A Fish in the Moonlight

It was not a promising beginning.  One little boy, Tommy, in a wheelchair, not wanting to be there in “Charlie”s Corner” in the Children’s Bone Marrow Unit, surely the saddest place in Shands, my university’s hospital.  A dear friend, the brilliant physician John Graham-Pole, who headed the hospital’s new Arts in Medicine Program, had asked me to go there one afternoon a week and read stories to the young patients, part of my job as the Program’s Artist-in-Residence.

“How about one of my daughter Liz’s favorites, “Red, Red, Red?” I asked the sullen little boy.


“Why not?”

“Because … because I’m here and my brother’s home, and he gets to have my mom read him stories, and I’m stuck here, and I don’t.”

“I see.”

“I hate my brother.”

“Oh, come on now …”

“I hate him.  He’s the lucky one.”

Then I reached into what the poet Yeats would call the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”  “Well, you know, I sometimes hated my brother John.”

“You did? Hated him?”

“Yeah … sometimes.”  Then I reached further into Yeats’s bone shop.  “Did I ever tell you about me and John, and the story I call ‘The Baby Blue Bike’?”

“No … tell it.”

I proceeded to tell about quarreling with my brother John when my mother said we had to share a run-down baby-blue girl’s bike with a broken bell. How we got into a fight only to be shocked when the neighborhood bully, having stolen his mother’s car, solved our problem in a radical, definitive way.

When I finished, Tommy, who had now moved his wheelchair close to me, asked, very politely, “Could you tell another?”

I did just that, the story of “Mrs. Ginther and the Steamed Cabbage,” and having won my audience of one would have told a third when the nurse came in to take Tommy back to his room.

The following Wednesday Tommy had brought two friends, and over the course of the next few months weeks the audience of young patients increased exponentially.  Soon, the parents themselves were coming.

I told stories of elementary-school days in the 1940s, of that awkward transitional period in junior high, the 1950s when I got the first signs of a beard and with my buddies did wild and crazy things, discovered girls, and fell in love—all the way to the day I left for college.

With the staff’s advice I began shaping the stories to the special needs and concerns of the children and young people on the Unit—feeling different, missing home, relishing the good times, adjusting to the sometimes surreal world of the Bone Marrow Unit, fearing death.

Two years later, my writer son Danny suggested I write down the stories—I, who had spent a career writing scholarly books on Shakespeare and the modern playwrights, now trying my hand at prose, or what my musician son David mischievously calls “dad’s fictions disguised as facts.”  My wife Norma had the idea of putting a frame around the some thirty stories—namely, my experience telling them to this unusual, special, and, for me, precious audience. Their reactions.  Their comments. Even the dialogue I had with them when I told interactive stories like “Just One Piece of Candy,” where they had to guess the plot’s twists and turns as my brother and I dealt with the repercussions of our stealing candy from two elderly neighbors.

In 2008 the Purdue University Press published my fledgling efforts as a writer: A Fish in the Moonlight: Growing Up in the Bone Marrow Unit.  That “growing up” refers as much to me as it does to my audience of young, sometimes scared, often sad, but just as often happy and joyous and typical boys and girls.  And I have had a reactions from readers all around the country, indeed from other countries, heartfelt, revealing, passionate, always friendly, unlike anything I have known with those less accessible scholarly books.

The stories range from the comic to bitter-sweet to the tragic.  What happened when our third-grade teacher Miss Barndt asked the class to suggest a punishment for Leslie Doober who wouldn’t confess he had left a rotten banana in his desk over Christmas break.  My leaving a note on their farmhouse door, saying we missed seeing them, at the very same time my aunt and uncle were dying in a crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  The barbed wire that tore the pants off my dad as he dove under a fence, chased by a bull, only seconds after he had boasted that he was a “country boy” and knew “everything about the animals.” Working and bonding with Del, an African-American, in the third basement of the Casa Argenio Restaurant, making coleslaw and seeking his counsel in my pursuit of the boss’s daughter.  Getting lost at night in a coal mine with my brother and his impulsive and illogical way of finding an escape.  Jumping into snake-infested waters in Arkansas with two amorous country girls.  My eccentric grandfather, a man of—to put it mildly—bizarre contradictions, and being with him as he died, with a mysterious “Ah” coming from his lips after the fact.

Equally important in the book are the patients, their reactions, how they weave the stories into the fabric of their own lives. What they taught me. The ways they changed my own life, especially my relationship with my brother John, even my perspective on my well-intentioned, but tyrannical mother, and my gentle, loving father, a “soft slipper fellow” as we would say in South Philly, if there ever was one.

Under “Bio” there is the entry “Why the fish?” and here I tell briefly of the story that gives the book its main title. And of a reunion, fifty years later, with a friend who uttered immortal words, “I’m a fish, a fish in the moonlight,” when, lying on his back, half in and half of the water, he was surprised by two Philly cops.