by Jason Watt
Miller unwraps the biggest of the catfish from newsprint and holds it by the gills. “Cut here first,” he says, drawing the blade behind the head. The prep cook’s too-close-together eyes narrow to the size of coin slots. Miller, taking what he can get, takes this as a sign of comprehension and continues talking through the peeling of skin and yanking of guts, pointing out the olive-like bladder. “Don’t break this, whatever you do. Common sense rule, just like don’t spit on, nor stick your dick in, the fish. It’s not pussy. If for whatever reason you are confused on this point, please seek professional guidance and career alternatives.” The kid sort of nods, then reaches into the cooler for the rest of the catch. Miller wipes his hands with the Daily, informs the headwaiter of tonight’s special, then takes his position in the lobby, his hands black with yesterday’s news. It’s Chico High’s homecoming, and zitfaced couples walk side by side through the restaurant’s heavy oak doors. Boys in crisp suits, carnations tagged to their chests like spit wads. Girls in gowns, hair piled high, the odd lock dangling wormlike over bare shoulders. He and the hostess do the greet and seat, Miller the picture of politeness until Val enters, unchanged in twenty years. Same hair, same scowl, same outfit he last saw her wear: old Levis and the beige grandma bra. She doesn’t look at him as she steps out of her jeans, as boobs leap from confinement, as pink underwear puddles around ankles. She eases sideways into the claw-foot bathtub. In his arms, Miller finds his baby daughter, also nude. He shifts the infant to his left arm. Her shock of downy orange hair tickles his cheek like a sunrise. He closes his eyes. The room swims. He assures himself the bathtub, the baby, and the ex are just tricks of the eye, bad memories. But he feels the child’s pleasant weight, smells her baby smell. Bread, hot from the oven and a hint of dirty diaper. When he looks again, nothing’s changed. Val reclines in the tub, the faucet stirring clouds of bubbles. Behind him, the sounds of the Hungry Hunter: scrapes of silverware, soft jazz performed by a live band, a hundred conversations pausing only to chew the fat off a ribeye. His new suit feels hot and scratchy. Behind the bathtub and his buck naked wife the restaurant door swings open. The man wears a cowboy hat. His snapbutton shirt is tucked into black jeans tucked into arresting, green boots. Some exotic leather. Not snake, but similar. The cowboy holds the door for an elegantly dressed woman. Cradling her purse, she steps carefully into the bathtub. The cowboy follows, milky water sluicing over his boots. Val sponges her neck and terrific tits. The cowboy tucks his thumbs around a formidable silver belt buckle. “Thought these didn’t interest you,” Val says. “Is that why I have a boner?” “Como say what?” asks the cowboy. Appear plausible, Miller thinks. “Those boots. New?” “New? Nah.” He kicks out a bit, the boots’ scaled leather a thrashing fish. “You know I hate that word, Miller. It’s juvenile. Say ‘hard-on.’ Say ‘prick’ or ‘erection’ or anything but.” Miller tugs his tie, pearls of sweat dotting his forehead. “For two?” he asks. “There’s just us,” says the cowboy’s girl, worrying her purse clutches. “Give her here,” Val says, extending her arms for their child. “Or are you joining us?” Miller can’t recall the last time he bathed with his wife. That bothers him. That and those cowboy boots. Ostrich, maybe? Miller has a damn similar pair of boots. Or had some. Either way, he wouldn’t get into a tub ruining them. But the tub isn’t here, he tells himself. You need to step into the office. Have a drink and consider these developments in private. Something stabs his sternum, jolting him. A fat finger in his chest like a dart. “Yep, we’re still here,” says the cowboy. “Are you?” “Sorry. It’s an hour wait, without a reservation. High school dance.” He gestures at the crowded tables behind him. “Room at the bar, though. Full menu.” The cowboy whispers to the woman. Marie, Miller’s baby, wraps her tiny, flawless fist around his thumb. “We’re right at home on a barstool,” says the cowboy. His date spanks him with her purse. Miller delicately plucks the baby’s fingers from his own and trades the child for two menus. Val dips Marie into the water. Their wet skin glitters in the lobby’s soft lights. “I’m off to the Food Lion,” Miller says. “Food Lion?” the cowboy asks. Miller explains his brain is melting. It’s mush. He straightens his cuffs and leads his customers past the packed tables. It’s the hostess’s job to do this, but he likes the crew to see him working. Thinking back, he worked like hell prepping for tonight, harder than he’d ever worked for any boss. Probably he just needed a day off, a decent night’s sleep. A week of long nights, who doesn’t start seeing things? After seating John Wayne and his lil’ lady, Miller returns to the lobby. His former family and former bathtub have gone back to the same nowhere from which they’d come. The Hunter’s padded benches, the podium, the hostess’s exhausted smile assure him all is right in the world. Then, in Val’s voice, the hostess cries out, “Do you want know why I fucked him?” “If you’ve got something to say, say it.” “Say what?” the girl asks. “Say when this night’s going to end,” he tells her. “You need me, I’m in the office doing payroll.” “Sure, chief,” the girl says. “You ok?” No tub. No wife, no baby. The high schoolers stab their food and manage to get most of it into their mouths. The band plays its soft jazz. The hostess at her podium, the padded benches, the oak doors. “I’m fine. Just losing my mind.” ***
The kitchen’s greasy heat clings to him worse than any August. Silver utensils flash in the cooks’ hands as they tend the grill, meatfat crackling in its flame. Beside towers of dirty dishes the industrial washer-dryer hums to itself, its operator AWOL. “Where’s Brent?” Miller asks, the question a loyalty test the cooks fail by shrugging. He knows his dishwasher is out back, cultivating lung cancer. Were it any other night, he’d tell the kid to stay on break permanently. Instead, he steals into the office and locks the door against the mess and demons beyond. On the office wall hangs the calendar from his Fish and Fly subscription. In the calendar’s picture a man stands in a skiff, a largemouth in one hand, rod in another. Miller moves the calendar aside, spins the combination on the wall safe behind it. On the bottom shelf, stacked envelopes and deposit slips. On the top shelf, wine bottles point cork-forward at his chest like a firing squad. Miller always begins work with a bottle. His more observant employees know this secret. They can live with it, and he can live with that. On a slow night, he leaves when the bottle is finished. On a busy night, he opens a second bottle. This is his third. The safe swings shut and the calendar rocks side to side, the fisherman and his tiny boat in for a hell of a ride.
When Miller left his family, he never looked back. He fled Virginia and its tired hills, drove west until he hit ocean and plunged into a new life. He was free. Sure, he’d have jobs to work, bosses to disappoint, leases to break, but he could come and go as he pleased. Play hooky, for the rest of his life. His restaurant life meant he could work anywhere, as often or as little as he liked. That was the best part about the food business: the hungry do not check the cook’s references. He worked restaurants up and down the coast. He cooked, he bartended, he managed. He traded in his Toyota hatchback for a Ford F-150 with a shell. Always in the camper were a tent, rod and reel. There in the West he fished the pure rivers and lakes that had once been pure fantasy. Standing in the cold, clear waters of the jagged newborn Rockies, in that vast expanse of raw nature, he wondered why he hadn’t always lived this way—obliged only to himself, an empty creel, and a can of beer. Then on a hot day in Utah, Miller’s last line snapped. He was fishing alone. The sun bore down as he opened his tackle only to find the lures rusted, the bait dried to crust. The Ford’s tires were bald as his head. A great weariness settled upon him, and, on cue, came the visions. Bits of old life surfaced. For the rest of that day and the weeks following, memories flopped and tugged, looming before him not as images but wholly physical things. The back pages of Boy’s Life magazine, the little ads for stink bombs and survival knives. Commercials for dish soaps long vanished from stores. A forty-pound block of shortening, white and melting glacially into the fryer he’d commanded as a teenager. There were important things he couldn’t remember and worthless things he couldn’t forget. He filled his creel with whisky bottles. His stomach grew fat. He showed up drunk to work and for the first time in his life, instead of walking out on a job, received his walking papers. After losing the manager position, he served, he cooked short order, he bussed, he went bust. On a bad day’s drunk, he didn’t know California from Carolina. Dishwashing hung over at some greasy spoon, up to the elbows in bracken, it dawned on him: You got to get your own place. He felt like he’d gone mad searching for his car keys, only to find them in hand: he’d just needed some direction, a goal. Having one changed him. Cured him. The visions tapered off. He switched from whisky to wine, supplemented his savings with a loan and, two weeks ago, purchased the Hungry Hunter. Now that he had a future, the past let him off the hook. Then she showed up.
In the privacy of his office, Miller pours from the bottle. Slivers of cork bob like timbers of shipwreck in the dark red wine. While sorting timecards he senses Val in the room, her presence itself an accusation. His fist tightens around the stem of the glass. Think of something else. Those cowboy boots. Miller has those exact same boots. Had them, anyway. Maybe in a box somewhere. What were they, reptile? “Thought these didn’t interest you,” Val says, crossing her arms over soapstreaked breasts. Glass empty, Miller chugs from the bottle. His toes curl, his heart quickens. His body makes the old decisions all over again. Don’t you answer, he tells himself. Don’t you say a thing. “Is that why I have a boner?” “You know I hate that word, Miller.” There’s a knock on the door. He hands the baby to his wife, delicately plucking Marie’s fingers from his own. “I’m off to the Food Lion,” he says. At the door Brent looks near tears or very stoned. “I fucked up.” “You fucked what up?” “Dryer. I thought another platter would fit but . . ” “But what?” “But it broke. And a bunch of other dishes broke.” Miller shoves past Brent into the kitchen. In the dryer shards of glass wink among pieces of what used to be plates. Miller bends down and peers into the wreckage. Stems of broken wine glasses hang from the top drying rack like icicles. “It was a chain reaction,” Brent says. “A chain reaction.” Miller reaches inside and delicately fishes out a single, intact coffee cup emblazoned with a marijuana leaf. He hands it to Brent.
“They just kept breaking and breaking.” “So is my heart, Brent. How many clean dishes do we have?” “We’re almost out.” One of the cooks turns a steak, a tongue of flame giving chase. Miller can’t remember what he ate for dinner. If he ate. He should eat. Beside him, Brent picks glass from the racks. “No time for that. Get towels. We’ll wash and dry by hand.” Miller rolls up his sleeves and jets hot water into the sink. He adds detergent and sanitizer, dying the water a murky green.
On the night he left, they’d had a late dinner. Val made some kind of casserole and when he came over to the table she noted his beer, “Is that going to be enough, or are you already working with a buzz?” Her voice sounded thick. He was about to ask if she’d been doing some drinking herself, but she shot him that look, a face full of fight. She lit a Pall Mall, something she hadn’t done since before the baby. “You’re going to need to drink, after hearing what I have to say. Maybe go get your Jim from the garage or car or wherever the hell it is you’re hiding it now.” “Val. Can we not do this tonight?” “This? What else do we do but watch you get so drunk you can’t get it up? No, tonight we do things different.” She snatched his beer and chugged. He went to the fridge. “I’m ready for another,” she called He came back with four cans. “Since you’re on a roll.” “Line em’ up,” she cackled. “We’ll have a contest.” “Val, I’d drink you under the table.” “Maybe that’s where we’ll find your long lost erection.” If he wasn’t holding the beer, he’d have smacked her. He sat and sipped and for some minutes they each stared each other down, some warped version of the lovers’ gazes they’d exchanged in high school. Then she scooped a blob of casserole on his plate and said, “I had an affair.” He forked the yellow blob. “All you had to do with that salmon was stick it in the oven.”
It was someone she used to work with. He listened from far off as she explained. They’d just done it once. Not an exactly affair… her sentences streamed together, a meaningless gargle. He forked the yellow casserole into his mouth. At some point, she went silent. He went for seconds, then thirds. His tongue knew no taste, his stomach no bottom. When there was nothing more to shovel down, he brought the mottled Pyrex to the sink. She followed.
“Do you even want to know why I fucked him?” “If you’ve got something to say, say it.” This, he immediately regretted. Val screamed a laundry list of complaints from which he gleaned that she’d fucked this guy because he, her husband, the father of her child, didn’t make her feel loved, didn’t love her, hadn’t said he loved her as often as she deemed appropriate. “Didn’t realize there was a tally.” “You never say it!” “Love you. Say it again if it makes you happy. We can put a chalkboard on the wall and keep count if it makes you happy.” “It’s been forever.” Her voice softened. He could barely hear her now and wondered if she were talking to him or herself. “Every day I ask myself, how did we get like this? How do we get out?” “What do you want me to say, Val? I’ll pitch in. I’ll go get the damn groceries right now.” She shot him a venomous glare. Food Lion was going to close soon and here he was, trying to make the effort. “We can make the list together.” He submerges the casserole dish and works at it in the warm, sudsy water. “We’re out of Gerber, lunchmeat…” “Like, roast beef?” Brent asks, appearing beside Val with an armload of towels. The kid couldn’t have worse timing. “Do you even care?” “Can we please just make the goddamn list?” “You want me to write something down?” Brent asks. “You don’t even care,” she whispers. He scrubs harder at the dish. Crusted with cheese or something. “Do you?” “I love you,” he says. The words come out light, so different from the heavy rage winding in his core, a twist away from snapping. “So I’ll just start drying these off,” Brent says, taking a plate from the stack. “Fuck you,” Val whispers. She’s crying. She fucks somebody, breaks a holy vow, and she’s the one crying. The vein in his forehead throbs. He’s this close to snapping. And he knows she knows it. What she doesn’t know is how close he is to cutting out, for good. No more wife, no more daughter. No more bullshit or ass wiping. Just days to call his own. A thought he can almost taste. “Why did I marry you?” “Anytime, baby,” Miller says. “Love you.” His teeth clop together as knuckles glance off his jaw. “Enough!” He yanks his hands from the sink, slinging a spate of dishwater. Brent cries out. “My eyes!” “Enough!” Miller seizes Val’s flailing body. She kicks as he shoves, and they both go down. Dishes cascade around them, shattering. The baby starts to cry. They release each other and fall silent. The fight’s over. They listen to the baby cry. Miller touches his mouth and the hand comes back with blood. Oddly, he doesn’t feel a thing. The cooks stare, mouths agape, spatulas suspended above the grill. “Dude, what the fuck!” Brent says, writhing on the ground, pawing his eyes. “That shit has bleach in it.” Around him, a scattering of white towels, several chrome pots, fragments of plates. “I didn’t even do nothing.” “The steaks are burning,” Miller screams to the cooks. “It’s my eyes are burning,” Brent says, dabbing a towel onto his red, swelling lids. Miller pulls him to his feet and the two sway like sailors. “It’s just dish soap. Plain old soap. No bleach,” he says, hoping it’s true. “Shit freaking hurts!” “Come on. We’ll flush it out in the bathroom.” Miller leads him from the kitchen, but before taking him to the washroom, he checks on the crying baby. Half of Marie’s room has yellow wallpaper with balloons. The other half has wood paneling and extends a hundred feet into the restaurant. There’s a bar, dining tables, a band playing soft jazz. Marie stands in the crib, holding the bars. A waitress passes by, hoisting a tray above her head. Seeing Miller, Marie’s shrieks intensify. “What’s wrong with the baby?” he coos. “Fuck you, man.” Brent breaks Miller’s grip and storms off. Marie in his arms, Miller follows. In the bathroom, Brent leans over the sink and palms water on his face. Miller draws a bath. In one of the stalls, he spies the green cowboy boots. “Hey. I have a pair of those exact same boots,” Miller says. “Excuse me?” The pointy boots move closer together. Miller senses Val enter the room. “I’ll give her the bath,” she says. She stands near the urinals wearing the jeans and grandma bra. She doesn’t look at him as she undresses. She’s still mad, but a different kind of mad. A kind that accepts apologies. “Hey there,” Miller says. “We can discuss the boots in a minute, buddy. Right now other business needs tending.” His wife places her hand on his shoulder, balancing as she steps into the tub. She lathers soap on her neck and terrific boobs. She sees him staring. “Thought these didn’t interest you.” The toilet flushes. “Now I’m not saying you don’t have boots like these, but these are Nocona sharkskin boots.” “Is that why I have a boner?” Miller finds himself flat on his back, mouth tingling. His blurred vision fixes on a silver belt buckle. The cowboy wrings his right hand, then rights his hat. “You got a real problem, buddy. And you just bought yourself a couple specials.” Val splashes. “You know I hate that word, Miller. It’s juvenile. Say ‘hard-on.’ Say ‘prick’ or ‘erection’ or anything but.” When the cowboy leaves, Brent comes over. “Damn, that’s one fatass lip. Dude mixed you up.” “Give her here,” Val says. “Or are you joining us?” Miller can’t recall the last time he bathed with his wife. But he recognizes a move he can make in this situation: he could put the baby to bed, could get into the tub. Val would resist at first, then he would touch her. Val’s shoulders would drop, the tension easing, and his mouth would find hers and she would give into him. He could see it, both of them in the water, and how the business of their marriage would continue as usual. He’d live his life here in this house, in this marriage. He might even get good at it. He hands over the baby, plucking the tiny fingers from his own. “I’m off to the Food Lion,” he says, straightening his cuffs. “Might want to wash the blood off your face first,” says Brent. His wife bounces the baby in the bathwater: “We’ll be nice and clean when Daddy gets back, won’t we?”
He walks out, never expecting to see this old life again. But here in his office, Val is already waiting. She sits naked at his desk, dangling a cigarette over his checkbook. “Tonight we do things different.”
“Tonight, we sure do.” When he opens the safe for a bottle, she tells him to bring another but he’s already cradling four. She laughs her witch laugh. “A contest.” “Val, I’m going to drink you into the ground.” The cork pops. His tongue knows no taste, his stomach no bottom. Like a fish he drinks until, like a man, he sinks.
He woke shivering in the car, his mouth aching to the touch. The windshield had misted over in the night, but now a dim light crept along the pane and dried the edges. The predawn opalescence stirred him. A Food Lion bag lay on the floorboard. In his lap lay a half eaten sandwich, the bread dented from his fingers. He’d driven hard into the night, pulling off at some rest stop, not knowing how far he’d gone from home. He stepped into the chill morning. His favorite time of day. That brisk, quiet hour when you cast your first line. The dawn lightened to the color of his daughter’s hair. Beyond the road, low hills rolled toward infinity. He could go back. Just tell Val he’d needed a night away. Time to think. He touched his lip and felt his heartbeat in the wound. He rested against the hatchback. He’d need something bigger. A truck that could get into the countryside, to the rivers and lakes of Colorado, Utah, California. He’d always wanted to see California. A pattern in the western horizon caught his eye. Streaks of high, fleecy clouds. Rows and rows of them. More appeared with the brightening dawn. The yellow sun warmed his back. His doubt dissipated the way morning fog burns off a lake. The West pulls him. He welcomes it. He gives in to the mackerel sky.
JASON WATT, in list form: fiction and nonfiction, various places including Puerto Del Sol. Height: 5'8" and change. Weight: 145. Current beard status: hirsute. Number of tats: 2. Location of tats: none of your business. Charm rating: louche. Pushcart nominee. Recipient: Joseph M. Bresse Memorial Award for Fiction. Use of award money: car tires. Co-founder, former editor of Ninth Letter Magazine. Current reader, special guest editor: One Story. MFA, University of Illinois. MA, Hollins University. Apartment in Brooklyn. Occupationish: TV/Film producer, freelance writer. Current obsessions: galoshes, Anna Karenina, Nabokov's Lectures on Russian Literature, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds's Dig Lazarus Dig. Perpetual obsessions (fit for print): pierogi, searching for good tacos in NYC (a town uncelebrated for its tacos). Obsessions unfit for print: use your imagination, or, failing that, the internet.