Fillets

Posted on May 7, 2015

0


      First published in Two Thirds North, 2015

Snap!

Like a popup on an internet page: colors vivid, knives

flicking jewels of sunlight as they slash, slabs of fish

still twitching, the overpowering smell of recent

death. I’m there on the jetty, the acrid tang of the sea in my

nostrils, the squawk and swoop of pelicans white against

the sky’s arduous blue, raucous laughter of shirtless,

sweating locals filleting the morning catch. Transformed

against my will, thrust back three years, I lurch towards

them, hear the scream—always, always the same.

You’d think it would slide away like other memories,

merge into the murky waters of what was, the sting

diminished, the details vague. But it doesn’t—and I can’t

escape it. As though with that scream my life broke in

two and what I’m living now is a severed stub cast aside

and the little that’s alive within

me wants—needs—to go

back, reattach, live from that moment forward, forgetting,

discarding, these three years that shouldn’t have occurred.

The scream amputated me, not the boy.

Snap!

Loreto had changed since I’d last seen it—it was

larger, like the rest of Baja. Streets neatly swept,

shop signs precisely lettered in English and Spanish,

a spread of walled villas and condos flanking the sea. But

the attractions they pretended to offer were mere scribbles

on the surface; the savor, the

duende,

of the isolated beach

town pinned against desert outcroppings, sand-tinted,

swatched with scraggly growth, dominated. It was as

though the tourists, the yachts, the air-conditioned beach

resorts were mirages, temporary, slides flicked across the

eternal, glimpsed then gone.

Like marriage

, I thought that morning. Human

relationships that vanished as though they’d never existed.

Reality was the staunch gray of crags behind the town,

wind-whipped, permanent, enduring the centuries and the

miniscule irritations that whisked across their surface—

animals, people, hurricanes.

Snap!

“T

his time it’s final.” The blue in her wide-set

eyes darkened.

“And the school?”

She smiles. Despite our differences, our arguments,

she knows me well—too well. I push aside my emotions,

revert to logic as I had to do growing up, a gawky clumsy

boy in a body too big for its instincts, unable to run or

fight except with words, with watching, understanding,

controlling how I dealt with the world around me.

“It’s not about the school. It’s about me”

I want to reason but there’s no reasoning in her eyes.

“You’ve thought it through? Decided?”

She nods. For an eternity we stand looking at each

other. I reach for my glasses, pull them away from my face,

push them back into place. Her schoolteacher voice raspy,

didactic, she recites logistics: rent a car, drive to La Paz,

from there fly back to San Francisco, stay with her friends

Mary and Barbara. I nod. I am logical but my mind is a

slow, comprehensive machine separate from my emotions.

“There will be a lot of details to work out.”

“There always are,” she says.

Snap!

The glare makes it hard to see. That and not sleeping

well. No segues from one thought to the next, one

visual image to another. At a streetside stand I buy

coffee, fumbling with paying because the woman’s blurry

English escapes my comprehension. The sea air smell

draws me towards it, away from the spasmodic traffic,

the tourists with their floppy hats and oversized purses.

A few feet onto the jetty I shield my eyes from the glare.

Look north along the beach where fishing pangas have

been pulled onto the glittery sand. Barefooted fisherman,

pants rolled above their knees, untangle and spread their

nets to dry. Behind them, at long cutting tables, a dozen

or more filleters slice flesh from bone. Laughter, curses,

insults ricochet among them. One of them waves to me.

Sometimes, customers buy directly from the filleters.

I hesitate, then shamble awkwardly off the jetty onto

the loose sand, a drop of half a meter, maybe less, but I

stumble, almost fall. Those nearest laugh at me.

I recover my balance, shrug.

Snap!

At first I wondered if it were real: Candace leaving

me, the marriage over. As though I simultaneously

stumbled off the jetty and stumbled out of the

troublesome togetherness she and I had shared. Two knife

blades flashing: one in the hand of the filleter, the other

in hers. Candace. She was the one who got the franchise

for the school: Montessori, many children of immigrant

indocumentados. We both taught. It was us—the school.

Us but it wasn’t us: It was like those movie scenes where

transparent forms emerge and slide together while the

physical forms stand apart. Transparent happiness.

Transparent sharing.

Snap!

I remember when I was ten leaving one afternoon

through the liquor store doorway into the alley—a deal

I have with my stepfather. He doesn’t want me coming

in or going out through the front door, not because of the

police but because customers might think he was serving

minors. It’s dusk, that thick sooty San Francisco twilight

that makes one’s eyes feel grainy, forces one to squint. One

step past the garbage cans I hear a snarl, high-pitched,

electric. A flash of something bright. A figure all in

black except for a bright red stocking cap lurches towards

another. Again the bright flash and the red stocking cap

hits the asphalt, the figure who’d been wearing it tumbling

on top of it, writhing, twitching. I want to move but can’t;

I see the attacker’s face jerk towards me—his mouth seems

huge, his teeth broken. He kicks the twitching form beside

him, turns and runs.

I tell my stepfather. I am trembling; he is calm. “Watch

the register,” he tells me. He’s gone only a minute or two;

when he returns he calls an emergency number, then puts

his hand on my shoulder.

“It happens,” he says. “Don’t let it bother you.”

Snap!

A rock. She gives me that impression. Unassailable.

In control. As though the Candace of our marriage

spray painted herself solid silver like those

performers who pose in Union Square

as living

statues and the Candace inside, a caring, convivial,

argumentative Candace, wouldn’t come out.

She smiles. I hide my inner congestion with an

expression I learned in high school: pushing my lips

forward, letting my glasses slide down my nose so I

appear to be peering over them. The voice emitting from

the living statue is Candace’s, deeper than that of most

women, the end syllable of each phrase curiously lilted,

almost a question. Though she won’t be teaching she will

remain on the governing board of the non-profit, the voice

says. “I would ask for a recommendation but really I don’t

need it. Montessori is very small world.” Irony. The living

statue’s lips pull inward, an amused-at-herself smile.

I push my lips further forward. I want to break through

the statue’s patina but instead of her I hear the squawk

of pelicans, shouts, the gush and splatter of blood. My

fists close—not to do harm but to thrust myself past the

scream, the face ripped apart with shock.

“Delmon? Is something wrong?”

“No.” Fist still closed I push my glasses back against the

bridge of my nose. “The arrangements, the arrangements

a re f ine.”

Snap!

He’s thin as though from an under-nourished

childhood. But dexterous. The flaying knife jerks

his hand and arm along with its movements like

a baton responding to music. Again someone laughs. I fist

my glasses hard against the bridge of my nose. The dorado

fillet as the teenager slaps it alongside others is white,

pristine. Two gulls dart past. One wheels, snaps at a bit of

fish that someone throws. Half of it falls from its beak. I

duck as it swoops to grab it and my foot sponges into soft

sand. The knife blade whips past my eyes as I thrust my

hands forward to catch myself, elbow hitting the flaying

table, shoulder colliding with the boy. He screams as my

head bangs against the table’s cement edge, my glasses fly

off, a tumult of shouting, again the boy screams. There’s

blood everywhere—my hands, my face. Slumped against

the edge of the table, half-blind, I see only a dangling arm,

white bone. I try to cry but others are screaming. The boy

sags down beside me. The knife glistens on the sand.

Snap!

It. I can’t get rid of it. So clear, so vivid—always the

same. Then like a movie that suddenly stops. Darkness.

I try to paw through the residue. Remember curses.

Threats. Fishermen intervening. Police. A translator.

The hospital. Women praying. Scrubbing blood off my

arms and face in a bathroom cubbyhole. Wanting to tell

Candace, needing Candace to talk to, but Candace is gone.

I try to mosaic the events into intelligible form but

missing shards leave jagged edges. The boy’s mother—or

was it his aunt? I’m not certain, my Spanish is too poor

to accommodate details, but she’s consoling both the

teenager and me. At the hospital I ask her for help to

explain that I will pay for whatever the treatments cost.

Though medicated I wake up in the middle of the night

startled, gasping, as the knife flashes past my face. The

next day and afterwards, in San Francisco, refusing to

tell Candace. Why? Because It comes back and with It an

image of her standing in front of me responding, “Details

to work out? There always are.”

Snap!

Feeshing sir? Good place to eat?

Three years have passed but it seems like nothing’s changed.

The same pizza place. The same Todo que necesitas para pescar

sign dangling at an angle over the bait and lures shop. I start

to comment, aware of someone beside me. Candace with that quirky

little smile twinkling across her lips when we started to

make love.

Only for a moment, then she’s gone. But the impression

so vivid my brogans scuff the curb and I almost fall. I

grope towards her even though she’s no longer there. But

she seems to be there, the three years since “This time

it’s final” insubstantial, a wisp of time, the spray-painted

statue an illusion.

Snap!

I locate the teenager through the aunt to whom I sent

money for his medical bills. Older now, the adolescent

puffiness gone from his cheeks. I stiffen against the

sight of his arm that ends in a rounded stub. The aunt told

me, He didn’t take care, infection, gangrene, it had to be

amputated halfway between the elbow and the wrist. No

te preocupes, he tells me, don’t worry about it.

Now he’s a fishing guide, not a filleter, he says. He thanks me for the

money I’ve sent. Then shrugs.

“It’s funny,” he says. “If I don’t look at it I feel like it’s

still there.”

“I know,” I say as I grope for Candace´s hand.

First published in Two-Thirds North, 2015

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Posted in: Fiction