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How'd You Catch This Thing?

By Tony Whiteside

It was a beautiful fish, even an eleven-year-old could appreciate that. A giant rainbow trout with delicate flecks of red and gold. Had to be twenty pounds. Jamal's father brought the monster home from a fishing trip and the boy couldn't take his eyes off of it. This was on a Sunday toward the end of summer.

"Whoa," Jamal said. He hadn’t bothered to take off his baseball mitt. His mother strained to lift the giant fish out of a Styrofoam cooler. When she dropped it on the Formica counter, it sounded like old luggage. A plastic fan strained to cool the tiny kitchen, but barely made a breeze. His father stood grinning.

"Zach, how’d you catch this thing?" his mother said. Jamal didn't like the look on her face. It wasn't happy.

“Marcy, what a story. You aren’t going to believe this,” his father said. He sat at the table, the metal chair squeaked beneath his weight.

“Who all was there again?” she said.

“There was me, Mickey, Ray-Ray and his brother.”

“Couldn’t you have taken Jamal with you?” she said. She pointed to her son who’d finally gotten his mitt off and was staring into the lifeless eye of the fish.

“Marcy, this was grown up stuff. You understand, don’t you little man?” his father said.

“I would have gone,” Jamal said.

“I know you would have, son,” the father said. “Anyway-"

“Anyway,” the mother said.

“Anyway,” the father said, “first day out, the only thing we caught was a buzz from Ray-Ray’s 40s. Next day, same thing. By noon, I swear we were about to head back, and that’s when I felt it: a tug. No, it was more like a big yank. I thought my arm would come off.”

“Did you get scared, Dad?”

Jamal’s father looked at him the way one would a crazy person. “Hell no, this is why you get on the lake in the first place,” he said. “Right, Marcy?”

She didn’t respond and instead turned to her son. “Jamal, you never watched me cook before,” she said.

“You’ve never cut up a big ol’ fish before,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah.” His father spoke louder, trying to regain his family’s attention. “So, I fought this son of a bitch for an hour. I mean this sucker was strong. It was like a movie. He’d run, I’d reel. Back and forth.” The father was gesturing wildly. “But I finally got that big boy in the boat. The fellas even gave me a round of applause.”

He waited -- for congratulations at the very least.

“That’s quite a tale,” Jamal’s mother said. Then she picked up the knife.

She positioned it just behind the gills of the great fish. In one downward motion, she cut off it’s head. It reminded Jamal of a comic book.

Jamal's mother grabbed the fish by the tail and then said, "Your office called."

"On the weeked?" the father said, "What'd they want?"

"Didn't say." She pointed the sharp edge of the knife away from her, across the body of the fish, and began to cut toward the head (or at least where the head used to be). "They said they couldn't find you or that Barbie Doll partner of yours," she said.

She cut into the belly of the fish with the forceful grace of a warrior, removing slippery entrails. The magnificent trout opened like a book. Two hunks of meat held together by graying skin.

"Madison. Her name is Madison."

"Okay, Madison. No cellphone?"

"No reception," the father said.

"Jamal," she said, "you've really never seen me skin a fish before?" The boy had been through enough of these moments to know his mother meant something else by that question. Something he couldn't be entirely certain of until four years later, when he and his mother were living in Aunt Celie's airy house, three states away. He quietly assured her that this was indeed his first fish skinning.

"They didn't say what they wanted, then?" his father said.

"No Zach," she said, inserting the knife between the skin and flesh of the fish. "But they were sure anxious to find you. They even sent Neil out to get you."

"They what? Neil?"

"I thought it was odd, too. Of course, he couldn't find you."

"There's no way he could have," the father said. He was tripping over his words, as if there were one too many sticks of gum in his mouth.

She cut slowly, careful not to slice all the way through the skin. She rotated the knife so that the blade lay almost parallel to the cutting board. With a gentle back-and-forth sawing motion she cut all the way from the tail to the missing head, pulling the skin tightly as she went.

"He even checked the trout farms," she said. "He was funny. He says you don't even have to be a fisherman to catch trout at these places. They keep them in big tanks. All you have to do is bait a hook and they practically jump on."

The fish had been skinned and filleted. Jamal thought it looked just like the tidy cuts of fish on ice at Kroger.

Jamal's father tapped the bottom of his wedding band against the kitchen table, not saying anything at all.

"Hell," he said finally, "trout farms are cheating."

"Only to a purist," she said, stirring a concoction of flour and spices. The mother and father were at opposite ends of the kitchen. Jamal stood halfway between them.

"I suppose I better call the office."

"Good idea," his mother said. "This fish is just about ready for frying."

Jamal's father slipped into another room. His mother's expression became something softer then, something fragile. He watched her dip the fillets into the breading for a moment. She smiled and told him to go back outside and play. There was still time left for Jamal to play.