March 14, 2012 by The Citron Review
My father pulls the footstool I made in woodshop last year to the edge of the counter so I can learn how to de-bone a snapper for avgolemono, and my heels are squared on the pointe shoes I’d painted in pink acrylics. His hands are leathered from years of work in diner kitchens, their rough edges making noise when he drags them against something soft like a blanket, though now they glisten, his knuckles reflecting the overhead light, his fists 75 watts of fish guts. Nancy, his mistress, shuffles behind us to the fridge and turns with a refilled glass of White Zin, a straw peeking over the rim globbed with fuchsia.
My father’s gaze swaps fish for hips as Nancy walks behind us, and the corner of his mouth curls like an apostrophe. “Do you need anything, babe,” he asks her, and I stare at Nancy’s pocketbook slung over the back of my mother’s chair at the kitchen table where her checkbook is still open from paying the month’s bills at breakfast. Nancy taps me on the head, and it feels more like she’s petting me, like she thinks I’m a pretty, show pony. Her wrist leaves a puff of sweet perfume as she lowers her hand from my head and raises it to scratch my father’s back. She says, “I’m bored,” and whines the words like the spastic kid in my gym class who cries every time the ball comes near him.
“Oh, now that’s nice,” my father says, leaning his neck back into the scratch. “Twenty minutes and we’re gone.”
Snapped fingers in front of my face. “Anna. Hey,” he says, “with some fishes like this you have to get the insides out or they can be poisonous.” With his right hand, he lifts half of the fish wide, its body a slimy smile. “I put them in a bag so the cats can’t get ‘em. Got it?”
“Yup. Guts in the bag.”
“Good. You know, you’ll need to know how to do this for your husband someday.”
I roll my eyes at this. “Not me.”
“You’re not getting married?” he laughs, and his dark curls shake.
“Nope,” I say, lifting onto my toes like we do in the dance class my mother teaches.
“And why not?”
I have so many answers for this. The cooking. The yelling. Not being allowed to go out with my friends or have an opinion. Being lied to by everyone, by my own daughter because she’s too afraid to speak. But more than anything, I just want to yell, “Nancy,” want to scream it in his face and point at her and jump up and down like an angry monkey. Instead, I shrug my shoulders and sigh, aiming at nonchalance, my insides boiling.
“Pshh. You’ll change your mind.” He flips the fish over so the head is pointed away from me. “Ok, you wanna rotate the knife so the blade is against the backbone. Make sure the sharp part’s toward the tail. Wait. Can you roll up my sleeve?”
I reach over, taking the cotton in my hands, folding the shirt neatly over itself and look at his watch. I wonder if he’s looking, too.
“Check this out.” He holds the body of the fish with his left hand and gently saws, the fish rocking back and forth against the weight of the blade as he makes his way from head to tail. When he finishes, he turns it over again, and hands me the knife. “Think you can handle that?”
I nod and he squares his arms around my frame, his hand wrapped over mine, guiding the knife. After making our way to the tail again, he says, “Watch. This is the trick,” and he tears the spine in one motion. “Why don’t you go ahead and pick out the bones. Back in a flash.”
The sound in the living room is half Nancy’s bubbly singsong, half murmurs of bass from him. Most of the bones come out clean, easy to spot in the fleshy center, and I remove these with ease, but there’s one closest to the head that gives me trouble because its width is thinner, like a surgical staple instead of a bone, and my fingers slip when I try to pull it out. I bang against it when I go back in, the invisible sharpness pricking at my tips. The task seems so simple, and Nancy is laughing, carrying on as if she’s being tickled, and all I want is to get the damned bone out, to do one simple task without messing it up, to have it be less complicated. I feel for the bone again and when it drives under my nail, I bite my lip, fighting back tears.
When my father comes back, he has pliers in one hand. “Guess these would’ve helped, huh,” he laughs, and heat piles on my cheeks. “Lemme get that for you.” He goes to work on that stubborn bone, his face just inches from its insides, and I slip off of the stool with the bag of fish guts that I bury deep in Nancy’s gold pocketbook. Within seconds, I am back on my perch.
“OK. Done. Now we chop it and add it to the pot. Can you stir this while I take her home,” he asks, bobbing his head toward the other room.
“Don’t let it burn—just keep stirring. Be back in an hour.”
“See ya, sweetie,” Nancy says from the doorway, smiling.
As soon as they leave, I turn the flame up high and listen to the gas hiss against the metal pot. Slumping down against the stove, I spot my mother’s black pumps under her chair, wiggle my way to them, and slide my feet in while I wait for her to come home, certain that at the very least, she never smells like stinking fish guts.
Lisa Nikolidakis lives in Tallahassee, Florida where she has just completed her PhD in Creative Writing at FSU. She won 1st place in Press 53’s 2010 Open Anthology Award in Creative nonfiction, and her other work has appeared in Harpur Palate, River Styx, and Night Train. She has just finished her first memoir.