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Saving Mr. Gwangi

Posted on Saturday, August 2, 2008 in adventure, Stories, unfinished

Remember how I was telling you about how much I liked fish? Well, here’s the tale of an encounter I had with a very special fish. As to whether or not it’s the truth, what I’ll say is that I’m about ninety percent sure most of this really happened. I might have screwed up some little things here and there, but basically, this is pretty much the gospel. I promise.

I’d met this girl named Randi. I guess she was sort of a groupie or something. She showed up at a reading I was doing at Book Soup, this kind of hippie bookstore in Santa Monica. I didn’t much like the place…it always smelled like patchouli oil and incense. Plus, the people who frequented Book Soup looked like were stuck in some sort of time warp. You know, kind of like they’d just crawled out of a garbage can in Haight Ashbury.

Nonetheless, Book Soup was one of the few stores that always had some of my books in stock. I did book signings there, and on occasion, I’d read some of my work. Spoken word gigs were real big at the time. They were cool, because afterwards people asked for your autograph and stuff. Also, there were always a lot of really cute girls (I still think of all women as girls), which was my favorite part.

That night I shared the bill with Charles Bukowski. As usual, Bukowski had a bottle of whiskey that he guzzled in between stories. Everybody seemed to think that was very hip. Frankly, I didn’t think Bukowski was all that great a writer. I mean, compared to someone like John Fante, Bukowski was definitely second rate.

When Bukowski finished his reading, he was immediately mobbed by a bunch of jerks asking for his autograph. One girl even took off her top and asked him to sign her chest. The lecherous old bastard was all too happy to comply.

But I wasn’t paying much attention to the Bukowski circus. I was watching Randi, who I’d noticed as soon as I walked into the store.

She wasn’t beautiful in the normal sort of way — there was just something about her. She had the glow.

After I finished my reading, I looked around, but I didn’t see her. I could feel my heart begin to sink.

A moment later, I felt somebody tap me on the shoulder.

Bingo! There she was.

“I just had to tell you that…well — you’re my favorite writer!” She blushed a little when she said that.

“I mean it,” she continued. “I think maybe you’re one of the best writers ever .”

Randi had dyed orange hair, cut shorter on one side than the other. In those days, that was the style many young people wore.

“Well, thank you,” I said, trying my best to sound humble.

“I’m a writer, too,” she offered.

Uh oh. Here it comes…

“What sort of ah…stuff do you write?”” I asked, trying to sound interested.

“Oh, short stories … poetry. I write songs too. I’m trying to get a band together.”

Heaven help me. I was in for it now. She probably played guitar, too. I couldn’t stand girls that wrote songs and played guitar. In fact, if I’d had my druthers, I believed that guitars should be permanently outlawed, and that all guitar players should be put in concentration camps.

Moreover, I couldn’t stand poetry of any kind. I could never figure out why everybody made it out to be such a big deal. Poetry wasn’t writing. Everybody knew that.

I got scared that Randi was going to pull out some samples of her work right then and there. Thankfully, she didn’t.

Still, the more I looked at her, the prettier she got. Her face was marred by small traces of acne…but somehow this added to her beauty.

“So, you wanna go get some coffee or something?” Randi asked.

Wow. This girl didn’t fool around.

“Sure,” I said. “C’mon – there’s a place just around the corner.”

Even though it was almost closing time, people were still hanging out in the store. I didn’t want anybody to start talking to me, so I grabbed Randi by the arm and slipped out the back door.

We headed over to Dyle’s, a 24-hour coffee shop located a few doors down from Book Soup.

I loved Dyle’s. It had been there since the ’50’s, and I was pretty sure that some of the waitresses had been working there since then. They had the beehive hairdos – the whole bit.

I ordered blueberry pie with vanilla ice cream and a cup of coffee. Randi got a bacon cheeseburger. Thank God she wasn’t a vegetarian. Those people scare me.

As we talked, I noticed that Randi was staring at my arm.

“That’s the coolest tattoo I’ve ever seen!” she said. “Do you like to fish?”

“Actually, I’ve never been fishing in my life,” I said. I just like fish, is all.”

Quite often, I told people that all of my ink was original artwork. In fact, that was a lie. I’d taken most of the images from a book called Shocking Fish Tales. The incredible renderings had been done by a guy named Ray Troll. an Alaskan-based artist, who, like myself, was clearly obsessed with fish.

I don’t really know how to describe Troll’s work. One could make comparisons with Dali or Picasso, but Troll definitely had a style all his own. Besides fish, he liked to draw prehistoric things — dinosaurs and all that kind of stuff.

I felt kind of guilty. I thought that maybe I should’ve contacted Troll and asked him for the rights before I’d covered my arm with his artwork. Ah, what the hell…he’d never find out.

“I started with this one down here,” I said, indicating a green barracuda on the inside of my left wrist.

“After I got him, I figured that was the end of that. I didn’t plan on getting any more. I’m really not a tattoo kind of guy.”

Randi smiled when I said that. She had large teeth, with just a bit of an overbite — kind of like the country singer, Molly Bee.

“They say tattooing is addictive. That’s definitely the truth.. Two days later, I was back at the shop. This time I got these guys.” I turned my arm slightly, to reveal three brightly colored trout swimming through a sea of blue.

“After that, more ideas kept popping into my head. The thing just kept growing. By the time I was done….well, here…”

I pulled my t-shirt up to my shoulder so Randi could see the top part of my arm. On the inside of my bicep were a sea of warriors, their faces covered by frightening African masks. Each warrior wielded a sharp pointed sitck, capped by a grotesque fish head.

Right smack in the middle of the fish and the guys with the masks was the figure of a Hawaiian shirted man with a terrified look on his face. His arms and legs were akimbo — sort of like he was floating through space.

Hovering above the floating man was a horrible green-eyed devil. He was shooting yellow lightning bolts at the guy with the flailing arms. Directly underneath the terrified guy was a sea of hands which appeared to be in prayer.

The guy in the Hawaiian shirt with the terrified look on his face was, of course, me, though I didn’t know it at the time I’d gotten my sleeve (that’s what it’s called when you have a tattoo that covers your entire arm). Nor did I realize that the sea of hands were praying. In fact, it took me a long time before I figured out that what I’d been doing, was writing a story on my arm. I can’t say exactly what the story was about . I guess it was about a guy who was fighting between the forces of heaven and hell.

Randy polished off her burger – she ate quite fast for such a tiny nothing of a girl–and sat back in her chair. The more I looked at her, the prettier she got. In fact, I sort of thought I might even be falling in love with her.

Randi didn’t say anything. She just sat there looking at me. It seemed as if she were trying to decide whether or not to tell me something.

“It’s kinda weird…I mean that you like fish and all,” she said.


“Well, I’ve got this very important fish in my life…”

I thought she might be kidding me, so I didn’t say anything.

Randi traced her finger along the tip of a tooth, peeling off a tiny shred of lettuce.

“You wanna hear about him?” she asked.


Randy let another beat pass before she launched into her tale.

“One night,” she began, “I was driving around the Valley. I like to drive and not really know where I’m going. It relaxes me.

“After awhile, I found myself in this really crummy neighborhood. You know, tons of graffiti and beat up old cars. Shopping carts all over the lawns…

“I have this sort of, ah…I guess you could call it a learning disorder or something. Only with me it’s geographical. I can never figure out which direction I’m going in. My shrink gave me some Ritalin, but all it did was give me these horrible anxiety attacks.

“I realized that I had absolutely no idea where I was. Then I saw some railroad tracks. That helped me figure out that I was at the North end of Van Nuys– right on the borderline before it turns into Sylmar.”

I was familiar with the neighborhood. Gangbang city.

“Bad hood,” I told her. “You don’t wanna be there at night.”

Tell me about it! Anyhow, it had started to rain, and my windshield wipers were barely working. There was nothing around, and I was getting pretty scared. Then, I saw some lights just on the other side of tracks. I was hoping it was a gas station, but it turned out to be this Chinese restaurant, called Sam Wo.

“I wasn’t really hungry, but I figured maybe somebody could give me directions to get back home. Plus, I wanted to wait until the rain let up before I started driving again.

“When I got inside, there were blinking Christmas tree lights hung all over the place. It looked really corny.

“The place was completely empty…not one single customer. There wasn’t even anyone behind the counter!

“So I’m standing there trying to figure out what to do, and then I see something sitting on a table at the far end of the room.

“When I got closer, I saw that it was an aquarium. Actually, you could hardly call it an aquarium, the thing was so small. It was more like an oversized goldfish bowl. And there was something moving around inside…”

Something that looked like worry crossed Randi’s face.

“When I got up closer and looked inside the bowl …well, it was just totally weird…”

“What do you mean, weird? ”

“It was this gigantic fish! It was all by itself in the bowl. It was so big that it couldn’t move, even to turn itself around and swim in the other direction.

“But the strangest part of the whole thing was the fish itself. I’d never seen a fish like that in my entire life! It had this face that was almost… human. And on top of its head, there was this gigantic lump.”

“A lump ?”

“Yeah, I guess that’s what you’d call it. The thing was undulating, growing bigger and smaller, and then bigger again.”

By now, Randi had me hooked. I didn’t care if she was lying or not.

“So I’m standing there watching this thing, and then I start feeling real funny. I don’t know how to describe it. Suddenly, everything seemed unreal. It was kind of like I was stoned…

“Just then, this Chinese guy comes out of the kitchen. There was something really horrible about him. He looked like the villain in every single Kung Fu movie in the world.

“As soon as I saw the dude, my stomach started getting all knotted up. That’s what happens when I get around evil. I start getting sick to my stomach.

“I wanted to get out of there, but I couldn’t move. It was like I was frozen.

“Then the guy comes over, grabs me by the arm and pushes me over to a table.


“I mean, the guy is standing about two inches from my face, and he’s yelling at me!

“I’m not really hungry. It’s just that I got lost and…”

“YEW EAT!” he screamed, slapping a menu down on the table.

“The guy was scaring the crap out of me, so I just ordered the first thing that came into my head — Moo Shoo Pork and a bowl of wanton soup.

“The guy disappears into the kitchen. The next second I heard a bunch of yelling coming from back there. I listened, and there was only one voice doing all the yelling. I guess the guy was just yelling to himself …”

“The whole thing was totally creeping me out. I wanted to split, but I was feeling much too weird. I wasn’t sure if I could even stand up.

“So I’m sitting there looking at these stupid blinking Christmas lights and wondering if I’m going to pass out. Then all of a sudden, I hear something. Kind of like someone whispering —

“It took a moment before I realized that the voice wasn’t out there…it was coming from inside my head !

“At first I couldn’t understand anything it was saying, but after awhile I began to make out the words.”

“What was it saying?!” I asked. Man, she really had me going now.

“It was saying, ‘Help me! Please, you’ve got to help me !

“I was totally freaked. I thought maybe I’d accidentally taken acid or something. Then, all of a sudden, I realized what was happening.”

“What was it?”

“It was that fish in the tiny aquarium! I don’t know how I knew it…I just did.”


“What’s the matter?” I asked him. Not out loud. I just talked back to him inside my head.”

“Well, for starters,” the fish said, ” I can’t move in this bloody stupid bowl! I mean, this thing was made for a gold fish or something! “Besides that — he’s totally insane!”

“Who’s insane?”



“Edsel Ford Wong!” the fish spat. “That’s his name. Oh please — you’ve got to get me out of this place. The guy is a total maniac. He hardly ever feeds me, and when he does, it’s usually just some old rotten lettuce. And sometimes for no reason, he comes over and starts poking me with his friggin’ chopsticks.

“I’m telling you, the guy is nuts! One time he took all the water out of my bowl and filled it with Coca Cola!”

“Why, that’s terrible! So…how long have you been in here?”

“Oh God, I don’t know. I’ve lost track of time. Months…maybe even years. Listen, I really can’t take it much longer! Please, I’m begging you. You’ve got to help me escape! ”

“OK, OK. Calm down. I have to think…

“Just then, the Chinese guy comes out of the kitchen, carrying a bowl of soup.”

“YEW EAT NOW!” he spat.


“Then he disappears into the back. A second later, the yelling starts up again.

“Are you still there?” I asked the fish.

“Of course I’m here! It’s not like I can go anywhere…”

“So…have you talked to other customers before me?”

“I’ve tried. But most of them either don’t hear me…or if they do, they think they’re making it up. But for some reason, as soon as I saw you, I knew that you’d really be able to hear me. I mean, you are psychic, aren’t you?”

“Yes” I said, “I guess I am. Like, I always know when somebody is about to call me. And a lot of times, when I dream stuff, it comes true a few days later. I used to have it a lot more when I was younger. I’ve never tried to develop it or anything. It’s just always been there.”

“Well…what are we gonna do? I’m telling you, I’m not gonna be around much longer if you don’t bust me out of here!”

“Relax, I’m gonna get you out. But I need a couple of days to come up with a plan.”

“No problem. I’ve been here so bloody long, that a couple of days isn’t going to make much difference.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll come back as soon as I can. But right now I just want to get out of here. But I’ll be back. I promise .”

“God bless you.”

“I looked around. I didn’t see that Edsel Ford Wong guy anywhere. I wasn’t about to wait for him to come back, so I pulled out a twenty and left it on the table.

“The rain had let up some. I was just about to head for the door, but something was bugging me.

“Hey,” I said, turning back to the fish. “I forgot to ask you something.”

“What’s that?”

“What’s your name? It’ll be much easier for me to come up with a plan if I know your name.”

“I could see the lump on the fish’s head growing bigger and then shrinking again.

“Mr. Gwangi,” he finally said. My name is Mr. Gwangi.”

“Then, I was outta there. I got lost a couple of times on the way home, but I didn’t stop. I’m telling you…that place was totally scary. There was some sort of evil in there…”

After she’d finished her story, Randi just sat there staring at me.

“Well,” I said, breaking the silence. “That’s a very, ah … interesting story.”

“So? I mean … do you believe me, or what?”

“You’re saying you had a psychic communication with a fish. What’s not to believe ?”

In fact, I had no idea whether I believed her or not. All I knew was that I loved the story.

“No, really,” I said, trying to sound reassuring. “That’s an amazing story. I mean, we could write a movie about it.”

Randi looked at her watch. “Oh God,” she said. “I’ve got to go! I’m supposed to be home before midnight”

A look of embarrassment crossed her face.

“I’m still sort of living with my parents. They’re cool, though. I’ve got my own separate place in back of the house.”

Thank God for that. I knew I’d be seeing Randi again, and I hated meeting parents.

“Well, we’d better get going,” I said, pulling some bills out of my hip pocket.

“You need some help?” Randi asked.

“That’s cool…”

Randi got the tip. We headed outside, and started walking back towards the bookstore.

“That’s my car,” Randi said, pointing to a dented up old Chevy that was parked across the street from Book Soup.

I walked Randi to her car. We just stood there for a second. She opened the door and got in, but she didn’t start the car up right away. She just sat there, fiddling with her keys.

“You’re really special,” she said. Then, before I knew it, she’d reached her head out the window and gave me a big smacker…right on the lips.

“Here’s my number,” Randi said, scribbling on a piece of paper. “Call me, OK?”

“Hey” I said, as she started to pull out from the curb.

She stopped the car and looked at me.

“His name was really…Mr. Gwangi?”

“That’s what he said. I mean, why would anyone want to make up a name like that ?”

“Beats me.”

Then she was gone.

I just stood there. My heart was going pitter-pat, pitter-pat. No doubt about it. I was a goner.

I loved everything about her – her tomboyish manner, her nervous little laugh, her big teeth.

But most of all, I loved the tale just told me.

Mr. Gwangi…

I’d already begun to write a story about him inside my head…

Then all of a sudden I realized something terrible.

Mr. Gwangi was alive — right this minute — trapped in that horrible little goldfish bowl….being held captive by the evil Edsel Ford Wong!

And now… somehow … some way – Randi and I were going to have to rescue him before the clock ran out.

I noticed that my hands were shaking. I could feel something in the air…something kind of hazy and brown. For a second I thought I heard laughter. Not very nice laughter.

I reached in my pocket for my keys, but my hands were trembling so bad I could barely get hold of them.

Then, shaky legged, I headed for my car, hoping upon hope that I still had that bottle of valium in the glove compartment.

(to be continued)

(c) Stuart Goldman

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