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Toi Derricotte

On the reasons I loved Telly the fish

Why would I say I was
“pathetic,” when talking about my
life, why would I think of it as
“little,” my “little” life, I said,
as if, looking back
at what kept me alive,
what I constructed to make my own
success, to regard that with
tenderness &
understanding—as something even
sweet &
insane. Then maybe I began to
love Telly—
really nothing in the
grand scheme of things—the way that lady, when I told her that
I paid 100 dollars a month for someone to come in &
feed Telly when I was away, said—“but, Toi, how much
did Telly cost? $1.98? Well then why not just
flush him every time & get another?”
Whatever I said
to myself, whatever
I felt & did, that
kind of care was
nice, but, well, you know,
crazy, the way, when you grow up &
understand the great
things, a fish’s life is
nothing, as if (& probably they can’t
think or feel) there are much more
important things to
do to think about to
love & dedicate ourselves
to: there are
doctors, great
poets, there is
fine furniture, clothes, children, true
love, god, for
god’s sake, there is everything to
remember, everything to be
worried & concerned about, as if I could
find it if I just kept
looking, something really
real out there always just outside of what I could
take in. & this was how I
stayed alive.

       My aunt took me to
her job from the time I was about
3. I’d go down to the
basement where she was
head of the mail department—first black woman to have such an
executive job in Detroit, even though it was
in the basement—I’d take up a little
desk in the corner & do whatever she said, open
the flaps of envelopes by the box—500 in a box, maybe
20 boxes a day for 10 cents a box &, with each box, I’d
compete with myself, each day,
to make more
money, & make enough
to buy my own
lunch, a corned beef sandwich at the
Broadway Market with
two halves of a new
dill & a fruit
punch, & sit there at the
marble counter enjoying
the warmth of meat,
the slop of mustard,
& the way the
rind of the bread was
just a little tough to
tear with your teeth.
I worked without
away from the grown-ups, able to
make my own
way & feel
competent, as if I had a
place & something I could truly
do without making somebody
mad or un-
happy. &, just looking
back on myself, as if I was an eye
looking from a high
place, seeing that little
girl, counting the envelopes, boxes, making her
fingers go faster,
counting the boxes over & over because she’d
forget & had to make certain,
enjoying how many boxes were piling
up, how, yesterday, she did a box in 10 minutes &
today she could do more than
2 boxes in 20 (there was always a way to
try harder & give the day a good

When I looked back
on that little 5 year old, 6, 7, 8, 9,
it was as if I was a little
busy fish being watched by an
interested & even caring
owner—as if I had finally
bought myself.

Prairie Schooner, Vol. 82, No. 3 (Fall 2008), p. 24

Toi Derricotte

Toi Derricotte’s most recent book is The Undertaker's Daughter (U of Pittsburgh P). Previous books include Tender, Captivity, Natural Birth, and The Empress of the Death House, all of which were published by the U of Pittsburgh P. The Black Notebooks (W.W. Norton) was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her honors include the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, two Pushcart Prizes, the Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts Award from the United Black Artists, the Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers, Inc., the Elizabeth Kray Award for service to the field of poetry from Poets House, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. With Cornelius Eady, she co-founded Cave Canem Foundation.

She writes of her childhood jobs, “My first job was when I was about five, and it's described in a poem, I think. Working in the mailroom where my aunt was in charge, opening envelopes and stuffing them. When I was seven, eight, sometimes I answered the telephone and the door when people called about funerals in my grandfather's funeral parlor.”