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“Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish” by Joyce Carol Oates
Card picked: Jack of Hearts
From: Wild Nights! Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway
Thoughts: Did you know that in his later life Samuel Clemens had a club of honorary granddaughters? They were all girls between 10 and 16 years-old. It was called the Aquarium Club and the girls were “angelfish.” Supposedly, this was all very innocent and well chaperoned; an old man without grandchildren, who liked children, was giving these smart youngsters the opportunity to have a good time. But for us as an audience, it’s maybe a little odd.
Not surprisingly, this is the situation that Joyce Carol Oates uses for this story. Nothing technically improper happens between Clemens and his latest angelfish, but through the use of letters written between aging Clemens and, well, aging Maddy Avery, we’re shown how destructive this situation can be. You see, the Samuel Clemens of this story abruptly severs contact with the girls when they reach age 16.
Lots of themes of aging, obviously. From Clemens’ POV, he is in the twilight of his life and career. He’s having a hard time writing and he’s outlived his wife and his one of his daughters. The angelfish make him feel young. From Maddy’s side, she realizes that she’s more valuable as a girl than as a woman. Maybe only to Grandpa Clemens, but maybe to the wide world as well. As is usual for JCO, this is not a comfortable story at all.