My mother turned up at my door with a huge hunk of fish wrapped in newspaper. She rarely stopped by the house even though she lived right down the street. “My friend Dale caught it,” she said. “It’s fresh.”
Dale was a married man she was seeing although my sister and I could not imagine why. He was overweight, balding and supposedly sold buffalo meat for a living. He’d been incarcerated too. A real winner.
I was a seafood lover, adored fish, but was wary of this one’s size. We were a family of five but that included a finicky toddler, colicky infant, and teenage son (from my first unhappy marriage) who rarely joined us for dinner. And none of us were particularly big eaters. This looked like enough to feed the extended family. On both sides.
“What kind of fish is it?” I asked.
My mother plopped the huge slab down on the counter. “I don’t know,” she said. “Are you going to look a gift horse in the mouth?”
I was hesitant but I had not gone to the store in a couple of days and had no plans for the evening meal.
“Rudy will love it,” she added, in her usual sure-of-herself fashion.
Actually, fish was one of my husband’s least favorite foods. But he’d been coming home later and later from work. Worse yet, whenever I’d call him begging him to come home and give me a break, it seemed I’d always caught him in the middle of a great joke.
He’d be laughing whenever he answered the phone, which really rubbed me the wrong way as I went crazy trying to keep up with the laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning, never-ending visits to the pediatrician—all with a crying baby soundtrack. Yes, fish would be the perfect thing to serve.
I unwrapped the fish and poked at it. It was astoundingly large, meaty, and felt a tad rubbery.
“It’s not shark, is it? “ I asked.
“Heaven’s no,” my mother exclaimed. “I don’t know what it is. But it’s fresh.”
I walked around it sniffing and poking. “How do you cook it?”
“I don’t know,” my mother said in an exasperated tone. “How do you usually cook fish?”
That was just it. I didn’t. The only fish I prepared on any kind of a regular basis came in a can and was served between two slices of bread.
I frowned and turned on the computer which my husband built into the kitchen cabinets in a desperate attempt to get me to spend more time in that room. I was not much of a cook. Every year for Christmas his mother and sisters gave me recipe boxes, cookbooks, pots and pans all of which were destined to remain pristine with the exception of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking which I’d used just once—to kill a bug. I threw the tome in the trash afterward. While I surfed the internet looking for inspiration my mother looked around nervously.
“Where are the girls?” she asked. She’d repeatedly told her own children that she “never wanted to be a mother” and given her level of involvement now, it seemed she’d harbored no fantasies of being a grandmother either.
“Sleeping,” I said. Miraculously, I’d gotten them both down for a nap at the same time. A stirring sound came over the baby monitor. My mother claimed to be in a hurry and abruptly left me and the enormous filet alone. I listened for a minute. The baby must have just turned over or kicked off a bootie. No cries, thankfully.
I plopped the fish on top of a foil-lined broiler pan and baked it at 425 degrees for what seemed quite a while. I checked on it but couldn’t tell if it was cooked enough so I baked it some more. I went back to my computer. Trout Almondine? No, this was definitely not trout and I had no almonds. Onion-crusted tilapia? Nope. This fish was way too meaty to be tilapia and why would anyone ever want a vegetable that made you cry? I didn’t need any help in that department, thank you very much. I scrolled through countless fish recipes, none of the fish pictures looked anything like the giant slab steaming up the glass of my underused oven.
After an hour or so a couple of things occurred to me. First, that the babies were still sleeping. It was a magical day! And, that the fish must be done. I took it out of the oven. It was piping hot but still didn’t flake apart when I stuck a fork in it. Was it undercooked or overcooked? I had no clue. Either way, it smelled completely revolting so I decided to just chuck it.
Obviously, I couldn’t just throw it in the trash. I grabbed a large jagged knife, the one I wished I’d had handy the other night when Rudy woke me talking in his sleep. He was grinning.
“Sen-or-ita” he said stretching out the syllables lasciviously. Who was this young woman he was dreaming about? There were a few comely candidates working in his office. I’d noticed the lustful glances at the nonprofit’s fundraising gala. Even after a good hard jab, he was still smiling.
I plunged the knife deep into the fish. It wasn’t easy to cut—what the hell was this—whale? I chopped and hacked at it and broke it into pieces about the size of small bricks and one by one shoved them down the garbage disposal.
I turned the water on and flipped the switch. The machine screamed louder than ever as it struggled with the fish and then it just stopped. It smelled like something electrical burning. I ran more water, flipped the switch several times but it seemed to be clogged.
I trudged into the bathroom, grabbed the plunger, loudly cursing my mother as I rinsed it off over the bathtub. In the kitchen, I cursed her, her boyfriend and the father of most of my children, as I jammed the plunger repeatedly into both sides of the sink. I ran the water full blast, flipping the switch for the disposal one more time. That did the trick!
For better or worse. Smelly water and bits of fish surged up into both sides of the sink.
Then a pipe under the sink came loose and fishy water and chunks of fish spewed out into the cabinet and onto the tile floor. I covered my nose and mouth with a dishtowel, gagging as I surveyed the mystery fish catastrophe.
I looked at the clock. Rudy should have been home by now but I’d caught him sneaking his golf clubs into the trunk of his car one morning recently before he left for work. This, after I’d told him I was losing my mind staying home with a baby who only stopped crying when she was sleeping. Which she rarely did. I turned off the water. Turned off the disposal and turned away from the kitchen. I’d let him handle this disaster. Yeah, mom. Rudy will love it.
Photo credit: By Ocdp and enhanced by Sheryl C.S. Johnson
Kimberly Diaz studied creative writing at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Montana Mouthful, Eckerd Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Sunspot Literary Journal and some anthologies. She’s currently working on an essay collection, a pandemic journal, and maybe a novel.