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Fish & Chips
(a Replay Essay from Thunder Pie/ 2017)
For Henry David Bielanko on his 6th Birthday. I wrote this for you on the morning of Feb, 23rd, 2017, man, after you went over to Grammy's because you are home sick from school for the third day in a row. Someday I hope you read this and smile.
Sick on your birthday.
I love you so much.
PS: I also got you a Hot Wheels track.
I pick the fish sticks up with my fingertips and that moment happens between when you pick a thing up that you know is hot and when you actually feel the heat. I try and pop them down on the plate before I cross over but it doesn't work. I do the thing/slam them down/raise my hand back high above my head and whip it through the air like that'll cool things down. It's stupid. There's a spatula two seconds away. But I do it this way. Like I always do.
The kids are watching cartoons as I dole out the food. Three plates, two cups with straws, a sippy cup, three blobs of ketchup, three mounds of nuked frozen corn, three stacks of fries, and fish sticks rationed out according to age/size/consumption history. Six for Violet. Five for Henry. Four for Charlie.
Two for me. I already ate them.
It's not my best dinner but whatever. It's a deep album cut from life, this meal. You can't shake your judge-y stick at it. This stuff has been keeping kids alive for a long time now. Does it make them crazy in the head? I don't know. Does it make their bodies go into some kind of hyper state of carb kinesis, hurling them around the room against the angels of their better mercy? I don't know. Probably. Who cares? Tonight I don't give a shit. There are nights when you make fish sticks and fries for your kids because you know it will get the job done when you aren't feeling up to the job at all.
20 minutes or so.
Use your fingertips.
Squirt the chocolate in the milk.
Paper towels, boom, boom, boom.
I did it.
Come eat, you little bastards.
I use the SEARCH thing on YouTube on the Apple TV. I fumble around with the remote until I've managed to type out SCOTTISH MUSIC. Then I scroll down maybe two or three videos until I come to one with a bagpiper playing by a castle along the sea. I can't argue with that. No one can.
Themes are my jam at dinner time but tonight is a stretch, I'll admit. When I buy these new Street Kitchen kits from Walmart they kind of come with a theme. I buy Thai Green Curry/I YouTube Thailand music. I buy Malaysian Satay Chicken/I YouTube Malaysian stuff. Then I cut off Curious George mid-sentence, I don't give a fuck, and I serve the food in a haze of chanting desert sounds or ancient pan flute jams that sound like snakes rising from baskets. Theme Night, you see?
Tonight I scrambled for a minute with that. Fish sticks, What do I play them? The Guess Who? Synyrd? Rumors? Something that reeks of the '70s when I was growing up and my blood was 80% fish stick? They won't get it/too obscure. Plus I don't feel like listening to classic rock right now. I'd rather suck a live grenade than jam that shit into my YouTube history so I have to see it tomorrow morning when I sit down at quarter to six, before the kids, sit down for ten or fifteen minutes with my oatmeal and my coffee to watch another home video of a dude fly fishing in New Mexico or Montana, a strange way to start the day, maybe, but it's my way and I'm broken in weird ways you would never understand. I don't want any part of that. I don't ever want to see the words 'Steely Dan Rare Backstage Footage 1979' on my YouTube screen. It's just a little promise I have made to myself. A little pact, a little pledge.
In the final moments before I shut the oven down and have to make a choice, I say the words out loud. 'Fish and chips'. It rolls out across the kitchen then, the evening tide. Me and my brother standing there on a dock near boats. Near a ferry? The wind incessant. The boats have faded but the wind hasn't. The grey clouds pushing swift out along the cobalt blue; the sound of the gulls; Americans unaccounted for; the freedom of knowing no one knows where you are at that second. The sun in Britain is a magical beast, appearing unexpectedly, throwing girders of light/hard slashes of beam, beautifying a dark sea or a sheepy hill in ways that will send you straight to the pub for a pint because the only way to describe the moment of natural glory you have witnessed is to describe it to fail yourself with words. No mortal human can get it right. You can can only approach speaking of the British sun with the first glowing sip of ale in a pub. First sip. No words. There you are. There it goes. Forget it. I nearly had it. But there she goes again.
We found a fish and chips place looking out over the water, me and Dave did. We were waiting for a ferry, I think. I don't know. We were on a tour. Were we headed to Ireland? To Denmark? I don't know. It doesn't matter. The fish and chips were scalding, oily, coned in newspaper. I remember I was so hungry that afternoon. I remember that I could not believe that we had stumbled into this opportunity for food in such a remote part of the world. It seemed a dream. The skies, the sea, us out there so far from home. The gulls squawking. The wind pounding away at everything like it surely had been for the last fifty trillion years. A wind older than time. A wind that hadn't stopped blowing since there was no day, just one long cloudy night of never ending darkness.
The fucking wind of winds.
And there we were. Eating fish and chips snagged from God's personal stash. I burnt the roof of my mouth on the very first bite. Vinegar pain. It was among the best feelings I have ever had. Out the chippy door, across the sunny street, the gale up my nose, the dock under foot, the warmth in my hands, the swift sky unable to stop, the creak of the boards under my brother's feet behind me, the land in the gleam, the sea in the shine.
Why do I remember that day when I forget so much else?
Why do I connect it with now, with me thumping down fish sticks and fries on my plastic Target dishes?
Why does the connect come so naturally, without even trying, you know?
I was on YouTube.
Then I was somewhere else.
It might not have even been Scotland. It might have been Wales or England. I wish I could remember. But I can't.
Come eat, you little bastards.
It sounds like a state trooper's funeral in here now. Pipes blaring. They sit in their seats and I watch Violet and Charlie dig in. Henry pokes around, drags his fork across the ketchup, Pollocks the wide white corner of his oversize plate. The food is nothing like that day on the docks. Different galaxies. But they'll have their chance, I figure. Someday. I hope.
"Eat, dude," I holler at Henry through the bagpipe jungle. "You're not hungry?"
He looks at me.
"Maybe I don't like this dinner because you make it every night."
Which is bullshit. I don't. Maybe twice a month. Maybe four times a month. But not every night. That would fuck with my themes. There are only so many fried fish themes. I tell him about the British day long ago. Me and Uncle Dave on tour. We were so hungry. The sky was magic. Yes, I was young then. Or younger. Yes, we were happy. Yeah, the food was good. So good, man. I wish I could give it to you now. I wish I could throw it back up perfectly onto a plate and let you have it, bud. I would. I would share it with all of you.
He smiles at that, eats a fish stick. Eats a fry, a chip, if you will. Ignores the corn.
After a minute or so I come back to him.
"Henry, eat some corn, dude. This is corn country we live in. Remember that. You're part corn. You have to eat it to keep the valley going."
He thinks about this for a second as his brother and sister gobble their food, ignore their corn. Then he lays it out for me.
"Corn Country, Butthole Country!" he exclaims.
I just look at him and smile. I understand him perfectly. As the bagpipes cascade down off the TV and over our tired heads, I understand what my boy is saying even when I don't really have a clue.
I hold Henry's little hand out on a dock in my mind. Clean blue sky, warrior wind. One cone of fish and chips to share. I let him hold it, one arm pulling it tight/warm to his chest. The sun is forever, even in Britain. Especially in Britain. Especially on days like this when sunshine sparks off the tips of weak waves and the seagulls ride the sky for centuries on end without ever flapping their wings, or ever dying.
Poets take that first sip of ale in the pub, chasing the words just up ahead.
The woman behind the counter in the fish and chips place looks out the window as she towels off the crumbs. There they are. Two lads in the sun.
She turns away, drops the fish into the hot oil. It hisses.
She looks back up.
The lads are gone.
Thunder Pie is Serge Bielanko’s reader-supported publication. To receive my new essays and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Hey there. I took a break from writing this week because I needed to. I hope you liked this older essay. It’s one I’ve always wanted to share with more people. I’ll be back next Friday with a brand new piece of writing. ‘Til then/ have a great week.
Edited by Arle Bielanko
Photos: Serge Bielanko
“Many writers, especially male ones, have told us that it is the decease of the father which opens the prospect of one's own end, and affords an unobstructed view of the undug but awaiting grave that says 'you're next.' Unfilial as this may seem, that was not at all so in my own case. It was only when I watched Alexander [my own son] being born that I knew at once that my own funeral director had very suddenly, but quite unmistakably, stepped onto the stage. I was surprised by how calmly I took this, but also by how reluctant I was to mention it to my male contemporaries.”
- Christopher Hitchens
Thunder Pie is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.