Guarding The Fishes


By A. M. Stein

Photo by Gerard JJ Hopuu on Unsplash

“the thrum of the lake water, lapping, in hypnotic pulse, at the lakeshore”

I have had a lot of jobs conducive to writing. William Faulkner wrote his gorgeously lyrical novel, As I Lay Dying, in six weeks, while working the night shift, as a security guard, at a power plant. That is what I mean by “conducive to writing.”

I, too, once worked a security guard midnight shift (which, technically, started at 11:30 p.m.) Saturdays through Wednesdays, on a ferry boat dock in Burlington, Vermont, on the shore of Lake Champlain.

I was “guarding the fishes,” as I thought it to myself, but in fact I had been hired to “keep my eyes open.”

“Can you do that?” my soon-to-be boss asked bluntly during my job interview. “Can you keep your eyes open? The last night guard could not do it. She might have had that sleeping disease, whatchamacallit, but if she did, she hadn’t informed us of that up front, so to us the sleeping on the job was pretty much as it seemed to be. Are you with me?”

“Narcolepsy?” I suggested, to show I had been following.

“Yes, that is what she was claiming afterward,” agreed my soon-to-be-boss, “when we found her asleep, among flotation devices, in a storage closet. So, you can understand how I might be interested in your answer to my seemingly over-simple question.”

One midnight shift, around 2 a.m., few months into my employment, a silent alarm must have gone off, because there was a pounding on the glass door of the dock’s modular office building where I was sitting at my work desk drawing in a notebook.

The noise startled me. I was made further insecure, when I went to investigate, by the sight of a serious-faced police officer shining the thick beam of a flashlight at me from the other side of the glass door and rapping it insistently on the glass.

Once I had let the officer inside, she examined my badge. “Are you on duty?” she asked, shining the flashlight directly into my face, scrutinizing my blemishes, as I supposed. 

My duties were minimal but I was on them, so I said, “Yes.”

I guessed she was asking why I wasn’t wearing some kind of identifying uniform. I had a good reason, but I didn’t volunteer it. The reason had to do with the money bags I transported from the ferry docks to a nearby commercial bank at the end of each shift.

Next, the officer investigated my work desk where my notebook lay open. I had been drawing a dragon flying over some sort of temple. The dragon was a dragon, but it was also a symbol I was trying to unpack. So, for that matter, was the temple.

Almost immediately, upon beginning my solitary night work on the ferry docks, I had begun having sweeping and specific visions of a monastic grounds near a meadow. Full of waterfalls and haiku insect life. Maintained by a cadre of beatific and begowned monks.

Maybe it was only the thrum of the lake water, lapping, in hypnotic pulse, at the lakeshore, but something had triggered my imagination. I caught brief sightings of unfamiliar (yet, somehow, familiar) persons and places. I frequently heard snatches of phrases and even, long, distinct conversations, riding in on the lake winds.

Part of this was, probably, just the entering, of poetry, into my subconscious.

Drawing from the A. M. Stein Archives

“You drew this?” the officer asked, of the drawing.

“Yes,” I acknowledged.

“Are you writing a kid’s book?” the officer asked.

I didn’t want to tell the officer I was working out a new, visionary poetic, so I agreed that, yes, I was.

“My kid identifies with Max from Where the Wild Things Are. You know that book? You remember Max? Sailed away from family and home and became king of the Wild Things? Let the wild rumpus begin. Max was the one who said that. My kid says it every day. Every single day she says it to someone.”

“Max became king of the Wild Things by taming them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once,” I offered.

“That’s right,” the officer agreed. She shined her flashlight beam, once more, around the office. “Might have been a squirrel,” she suggested. “They sometimes trip the alarms. God knows they have nothing better to do.”

Next, she radioed some code to a dispatcher who returned the favor with more code.

“You have a safe rest of your night,” the officer said, departing.

I locked the door behind her. 2:25 a.m.

I sat back down at my work desk.

The drawing meant something, there was no doubt about it. But what? It was crying out for my discernment.

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