Fish Story

About my father, as constant thought

On a separate page of a family picture album—centered, by itself—there’s

one of my father squatting on a rickety wooden pier, his hat tilted back on his head,

holding the fanned out tails of two big fish.  Even in that old black and white photo,

the fish gleam silver and white, reflecting the slippery sign of water, the sheen that

wears off when rot sets in.  Fish eyes so still, my father’s glinting with pleasure, it

was the prospect of bringing home so much good eating fish that half would go into

the deep freeze, already full of meats, a rusty freezer chest almost as big as a car,

parked in our garage, my mother’s Depression-proof stockpile.  More than anything,

it was the promise of a fish story, told all around, in forgotten and recalled orbits

around the table, clockwise for the living, counterclockwise for the dead.


Passing it around friends, that picture spawned another story, a story not of the

fish but of its image, the telling of it.  Normally wordless, toothpick-sucking, grown

men were moved to speak, marveling at the fish, the happy wreath of sun wrinkles on

the man’s face.  As a surprise, my father’s friend Blackie stole the photo (with my

mother’s permission) and gave it to his friend Sammy, a police artist.  Sammy said

he’d do it for nothing but Blackie insisted on a case of beer.  Just when my father was

missing the picture, poised as he was to tell the story again to an innocent visitor with

virgin ears, Blackie brings over the photo and a larger, framed charcoal drawing of it. 

Somehow the rendering of it by a stranger’s hand turned out to be a masterpiece.  If

the photo was a capture of hauling in two big fishes in one happy day, the drawing of

it seemed to suggest how fleeting that moment was, the stroke of the artist’s hand

looked like a breath, released on one motion, trailing a soft, shadowy tail, lifting off

the page, disappearing before our eyes.  How could a stranger see what we had not

seen?  My mother said that police artists are trained to draw quick sketches that are

almost as good as photographs.  But if Sammy knew Blackie but not my father, if he

wasn’t at the pier on that day, how did he catch the wet gleam off the fishy skin? 

How my father’s face breaks out in a huge grin, reversing his usual scowl?  How that

grin will fade as soon as the camera’s shutter deliberately clicks?

Looking at that police drawing now, I see something else.  All the true-to-life

details seem like familiar hat tricks, a competent artist at work.  What the black

strokes on white paper seem to show is its negative image:  take away the two fishes,

take away the man:  what’s left is a flood of clear, filtered light.  At the end of the

day, a wash of dusky light on an old pier:  the stage is empty, the light the lasting


Fish Story (2)

On the nature of bottom fish

After a long winter of eating, drinking, laughing my head off, I made a resolution

to get rid of the 3 P’s—my pooched out belly, my pudgy upper arms, my overall

pear shape—by going to the gym, not the Old World gymnasium of naked,

wrestling men but the unisex warehouse of pants that fit like gloves and shoes that

look like race cars.  Not the glove type, I spent most of my time looking at the

bulletin boards:  what to eat, how to count calories, how to measure truth and virtue

(truth = facts, virtue = exercise).


Then Ramon came to my rescue.  He said reading does not burn fat, that he was a

professional trainer, and there was a last-minute cancellation for his next time slot.

I said that it was my first time, that armchair reading is an extreme sport, and I don’t

like to sweat.  He said, I understand.

On a regular basis, I met Ramon at the bulletin board:  pear = warning or caution,

apple = early death.  In a matter of months, I was doing 3 sets of 12 reps, pressing

almost all of my body weight; the scales were sliding downward even as my dense

muscle cells were bobbing, weaving, jabbing at my lighter fat cells.  On upper

body rotations, my pear parts felt like sleek, waxed cucumbers, on lower body

rotations, like pencil-slim carrot sticks.  Whole circuits were grueling, Ramon putting

his hand on the small of my back as I struggled with the final set, whispering

accusations in my ear, that I was cheating, not pushing for a full range of motion. 

Love is strong but hate is stronger than love.  Eating, drinking, laughing their heads

off, my lighter fun-loving cells were losing ground to my mean, glowering dense-

pack cells, each one with a heart as tiny and hard as a pip, and a clanging pair of

steely balls.  Ramon says that if you put a bit of man into a woman, it heightens her

fight, eventual surrender that much sweeter.


After weeks of bragging about his okra stew, he started in about his fried catfish.

I told him that my mother said catfish were unclean to eat, bottom fish that

ate garbage, anything at the bottom.  He said he fished at a stocked pond, water

filtered through a grate.  He told me the story of farmed fish, how each one starts as a

fertilized dot, the dot turning into a red eye floating in trays of milky gelatin, each eye

sleepless at night, multiplying and dividing around the clock into a small fry with

discernible spiny bones.  When the fry start to wiggle on their own, trapped in the ice

cube compartments of their trays, numbered and stacked according to date of

fertilization, there’s a small sound that emanates.  Less a sound than a sine wave that

escapes the stacks and enters the ear of the fish technician, a young boy who cannot

read books but likes the smell of water, far away from his father’s eyes that read

“waste” and “trouble.”  That trembling vibration works its way into the boy’s inner

ear, a tintinnabulation of distant bells, the eye that wants to be a fish, the fish looking

for evidence of himself, his father’s jism.  On signal, the boy technician pulls the

trays (a clean jerk collapses the dividers) (for a moment, all small fry are mingled, but

without a sense of congregation, hardly behaving as a school of fish), peels off ID

numbers, sticking them onto his clipboard log, tilting, releasing the small fry into the

greater waters of the pond:  it’s a free fall, the splash like a sharp slap upside the head,

the fish momentarily stunned, floating as if dead.  As the waters continue to swirl, the

stronger ones re-animate and nose their way below the surface.


As a gift, Ramon handed me a paper plate covered with aluminum foil.  When

I got home, I shook off the shiny foil and found two fillets, already casting greasy

shadows of themselves on the paper plate.  The sets and reps that day had been harder

than usual, my stomach an empty, stubborn knot.  Without whiskers or head or tail,

catfish look remarkably tame and edible.  I ate fish with my fingers, first tasting, then

really eating, stopping only to grab a cold beer.  In no time, I was licking my fingers

and sucking the last drop from the bottle.  It occurred to me that my aversion to okra

had to do with its sticky, slimy feel in the mouth.  Maybe I don’t know okra like I

don’t know catfish.




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