Fish and Whisky by Elizabeth Knauss

In the supermarket the gray-haired father frisked the green-butter lettuce heads, and at the moment of nomination the vegetable sprinklers, timed to go off, showered satiny mist on his round hairy hand. Evan was standing beside him and snickered behind his teeth, realizing that grocery shopping with his father would not be as awkward as he originally thought.

“I needed a shower,” his father said, wiping his hand on his fat thigh. 

“I'll see if there are any deals on salmon,” Evan said. He half-smiled and walked toward the fish section. 
Approaching rows of salmon slabs and shrimp bodies memorialized on crushed ice, Evan looked back to see his father, Joe, packing the damp lettuce in a plastic bag with care. In that ephemeral moment, Evan felt solace that he and his father were together, let alone combing through grocery deals.

“There's a sale on the Alaskan wild-caught,” he said to his father who edged next to him. "Thirteen dollars a pound." Closer than they had been in years, Evan looked up to catch his father's burnt soggy eyes as his mustache lips said, “A'right son,”

Meanwhile, Joe's wife Katherine was writing in her notebook. Miles away she sat on the wood-planked floor of her outdoor patio. A snug yellow towel supported her rear. Her deck chairs were soaked with puddles from the weekend's rainstorm, but she felt obliged to take advantage of the day's eighty-degree weather, the first warm day of the season. I hope no one can see me, she thought as she opened her legs to welcome in the solid breeze. From a distance she looked like a goddess with yellow hair swinging over her shoulders and breasts like grapefruits resting inside an auburn tube top. Her glacier blue eyes hid beneath a jeff-cap, which was the color of dead grass. Upon closer inspection, she had stress lines in her brow and brown freckles on her arms; so many it looked like someone had grated pepperoni over her limbs. She gripped her notebook as though it were the handle of a knife. Katherine sat, staring. She blinked into the sun's ghostly glow and then back down to her notebook where she finally wrote:
April 25, 2011

Joe is saved.
Leaving the supermarket with a light load, Evan and his father commented on the day's surprising heat. Reaching the car, Evan scratched a clump of white bird droppings off the door and then unlocked it. His father squeezed into the seat and Evan breathed in, still stupefied. Driving back to his apartment where he would prepare their meal, Evan could feel the feces making a home underneath his fingernail.

“Music?” he asked.

“The game!” Joe said.

Scanning the radio, Evan stopped once he recognized the sounds of baseball. His anxiety diminished as his father slapped his hands together upon hearing the score. Evan drove on listening to his father's cheerleading; the old man fussed like a seashell caught in the break of waves.

Katherine paused from writing and started playing with her lip. Caressing the bottom lip, she thought about all the things she could write. However, she kept staring at her own pen marks—“Joe is saved”—and wondered whether she was going insane or if it was so.

“Shall I give you the grand tour?” Evan asked. He hated himself for spewing such a clich├ęd offer into both their memories. But the gray-haired father seemed to enjoy it. Evan entertained his father's comments on his collection of nutrition-related magazines, which were compiled on a coffee table, stacked in perfect order and perpendicular to the table's width. Evan could tell his father was scanning items like dumbbells, exercise balls, and yoga mats, each methodically tucked away, like they were alien instruments.

Evan and his father were poles apart. Evan, twenty-seven, wore black square glasses, was skinny as a flamingo's neck, and chuckled after sentences assuming his words were too weak without a closer. He appeared sleepy, and he might have been, but he never said so. His father was no-nonsense, unequipped to perceive sarcasm—a surly-looking man whose belly seemed to provide a portable airbag if he ever were to trip. His beard was clean, but his clothes were stained. He liked flannel. He was smart. He knew exact dates—month, day, and year—of every American war. He could spout off every state capital and he could multiply double numbers without a calculator. He appeared miffed by society and vice versa. But he wasn't. Not anymore. He was changed. “The Lord saved me” he would explain to anyone who gave him an ear.

“You lift?” his father asked pointing to the 50-pound weights peaking out from underneath a bookshelf.

“I try to,” Evan said. And then he chuckled.

Katherine made a wrong turn in her thoughts. She re-played the night that Joe came home inebriated, with speech like heavy liquid. He was in a sloppy good mood and slung his hairy arms around her, almost waking the baby who lay burrowed in her orange arms. Aroused, he tried to remove the baby to reach her body. She pawed at him to stop. As he yanked more she whisper-yelled for him to stop. Stop, stop, Joe, STOP! she hollered. As her girlish voice turned into a fierce yelling one, his hand came back at her with the force of a tree arm falling onto a family of lavender buds. She remembered her face burned afterwards, like the sting of a grandmother's violent cheek pinch long after the party. She remembered Evan crying as she walked to the sink, furtively, to wash her face. She hated those hairy hands and arms.

Flat sentences were exchanged in the apartment. Evan explained where he got a few posters and talked about his only house plant. “It's a Maranta. It means prayer plant.” Then for a few minutes they discussed some of Evan's curious tchotchkes which lined the sills. “There's an awesome thrift store on Lauras Ave,” and Evan could feel his father's strained interest. Only until Evan showed him a framed picture of Stephen Stills smiling, his arm resting on his shoulder, with a doodle on the photo's corner representing Stills' autograph, did dialogue begin to crest.

“How did you get this?” his father asked.

“Me and Mom saw Crosby Stills and Nash in concert awhile back for her birthday.”

“She always had a thing for Stephen.”

“She made me quite aware of that. Ha!”

Evan continued in detail explaining how they got backstage and the two smiled strange but pleasant smiles. Whenever Evan suggested his parents meet again, the gray-haired father would respond with “I doubt she'd want to see me,” and would look away as if his square goat eyes saw something completely nonsensical in the distance like a ballet taking place on a football field.

A horn blasted from the street and Katherine heard someone yell, “Are you kiddin' me?” The racket jerked her mind back to her notebook. She clicked her pen on and continued where she had left off.
He's been “saved” for a year now, making his apology rounds. Who will save me? Evan has been kind to him. He doesn't deserve kindness. Evan shouldn't trust him.
Evan leaned over the stove. He pressed the steel spatula into the salmon like he was strangling a victim; the smoke piloted up to the vent. Evan moved quickly about the stove and heard his father mosey into the kitchen and ask if he needed help. Although Evan and his father had seen each other in snatches throughout the year, this was the first time they were in such an intimate setting with undefined roles. However, Evan had taken the helm as leader, and in a subtle manner at that. From the first phone call, Evan had been very supportive of his father's ambition to become sober. After he received the call and heard phrases such as “I'm so sorry son” and “I'm done with it, I'm clean” and “Your mother didn't deserve this,” he cried in the shower and moaned Thank you God, Thank you God, Thank you God.

Throughout their one year rekindling Evan had introduced his father to Maribel, his Brazilian girlfriend who had chunky ebony hair that felt like summer grass and smelled like hot chocolate. She worked as a sales manager of a large organic food company. She taught Evan about eating raw foods, flushing toxins out, taking probiotics, exercising. It was Maribel who suggested that Evan prepare a healthy meal for his father. She said it would be good to “lead by example,” and “show him that you are an upstanding man.” Maribel knew all about Evan's unstable upbringing. She got along well with his mother, bonding over celebrity gossip and the best practices for leg shaving. She would watch Evan's mother explain with large hands how they left it at the climax of his drunkenness, at the height of his poison.
He hasn't contacted me. I only knew he was sober from Evan. God, why am I even grueling over this? Evan says he's losing weight in his face. He says he's patient and peaceable. That he's agreeable and has become obsessed with baseball. He says that he must be back to his old self, before he drank, placid and gentle, the way I loved him.
Evan situated a rectangle shaped salmon on a pink plate and wiped the fish juice off the sides with his bird poop finger. He placed the dish on a modish black dinner table at which his father was sitting with his belly pushed up against the edge. Evan flipped his laptop open and put on a droning mix —the kind of music where there may be no music happening at all, but then the clicking of drumsticks arise, and it's like the sound of a stone falling down a stairwell.

Evan cracked pepper atop both their filets and poured lemon pulp over them. He hoped his father liked his cooking. A metallic calm filled the room. Evan eyeballed a bottle of wine resting on top of his cabinets and wished he could enjoy a glass. Then, his father let out an “Mmm!” and commented on how the fish's crust was delicious.
I'm not sure if I would forgive him anyway. If I saw him I would surely shudder. He probably knows nothing about me, except whatever Evan has revealed. I hope he's said good things. I almost wish Evan could have told him I have another man in my life, but that's not the case. I hate that I miss him. But I do miss him.
Katherine clicked her pen off and glanced at her phone realizing she still had Joe's number memorized.

“I'm going to ask Maribel to marry me,” Evan said with salmon in his cheeks.

“Son, that is wonderful news.”

“This means you will have to see Mom.” Before his father could answer, he prolonged his case: “and I think it will be good for you both, and for me, and for Maribel. She wants kids. And grandparents who get along will be good for our kids.”

Evan's eyes awoke as he watched his father slop his silverware down and swivel around the table to sweep his gangly body into his wooly arms. A handshake combined with a hug took place and his father said, “I will do whatever it takes,” and he sounded as adrenalized as a man whose parachute has opened just in time.

After dinner they discussed the success of the meal and exchanged goodbyes. “That's really great son," his father said as they stood at the door. "She's wonderful." And without making plans to see each other again, the father and son parted, and Evan locked up.

Evan grabbed the white laptop from the kitchen and dangled it to his bedroom. He tunneled himself inside a sanctum of blankets littered across his bed and propped his smooth tool on his lap. Maribel had emailed him a link. Waiting for the link to open, he attempted to bite his nails but was soon diverted by the website's arrival. The link led to a video titled “Simple Exercises That Can Banish Your Bulging Belly.” He was not sure what to think of this. He clicked play. The video featured a muscle-man named Darien who was puffing heavily while standing on his hands, feet propped against the wall, bending his elbows to perform upside-down push-ups. She wrote in the email: “New workout to try!”

Evan let the video play while he toddled into his kitchen where the ghost of his father was still eating fish. He reached for a bottle of Scottish whisky in his cabinet. He could still hear Darien puffing from the bedroom. Evan downed the drink like a nursing tot. He began cursing at the dirty dish his father left. He could still hear Darien who sounded like he was in labor. He glided his hand under his shirt. Squeezing his belly, which poured out over his black jeans like dough, he fondled his stomach skin until Darien's canorous guidance lulled him back to the laptop. He decided to respond to Maribel and her link. He wanted to write a derisive email, something about how Darien was a meathead idiot, but he forgot to after a few more swills of the glorified yellow water.

Dozing off, he dreamt he was swimming in a gold-colored sea where his breast stroke bumped him into a large ugly fish without eyes. Swimming away from the sea creature, he muddled in and out of sleep, mumbling curiously. Meanwhile, his laptop awoke from its sleep mode and flashed an ad for “100% Natural, Chemical-Free Protein Powder,” and Evan fell asleep to the wind singing like a wolf putting a baby to bed, his pale tongue marinating in fish and whisky. In his dream, he extracted his eyeballs from his own face and stuck them to the fish's sludgy head. Blood rushed from his sockets, but his dreaming mind still saw the scene like an angel might, and he harpooned the fish's body with a coat hanger until its belly met the sun.

Elizabeth Knauss is a a woman of average height who reincarnated in her lifetime as the grandmother of the late Chief Broken Tooth from the Chippewa Tribe.