Marvin Shackelford

Fish, of All Things

Sometimes you lose track of the days, even with the calendar marked steady with red Xs for every one you get through work, come home, start again. Your mother makes TV dinners, and you fall asleep in front of the set long after she’s gone to bed. You smoke prodigiously, a word you picked up somewhere around junior high and still like to use when you can, but empty the ashtrays without being asked. She says you’re a good son, you’re all right, you’ll do. Sometimes you spring for good scotch, sip it from an old jelly jar with a handle and think about your wife, wonder what she’s doing and how that’s supposed to make you feel. It tastes like burnt rubber and a campfire, the scotch, but the good stuff makes you feel good about yourself, the magic of a price tag and someone else’s assurances. Sometimes you sleep late and she’s already dropped the baby off, your wife, because it’s your weekend and she has places to be. You find your mother bouncing the child on her knee, cigarette dangling from her lips and the girl grinning maniacally. You don’t smoke around your daughter but don’t say anything. They’ll be fine. You don’t drink, either, you go to work for a half shift, Saturday lunch, and come back to find them unmoved, or still moving. Bounce, bounce, bounce on a knee, cigarette dwindling. Everyone was eating fish, you say. Fish, of all things. You once heard a rich girl declare fish was for peasants and Catholics. You are neither, or at least you aren’t the latter, but you don’t care for the fish. You shower and take your little girl into your bedroom, install her in the pen that encircles your bed and most the livable space. She plays with overly large, dully colored blocks guaranteed to be unswallowable. She tries to fit them in her mouth all the same, end by end and piece by piece, until she’s bored and half asleep. You hook your phone to the stereo and shuffle a year’s worth of music through your speakers. The baby doesn’t mind, naps with the thump of kickdrums and basslines, and you play air-guitar over the occasional solo. But even this you get wrong: Eddie Vedder’s voice makes you think of Soundgarden. You think Juliana Hatfield is Cleo, Letters From. To, you mean. Fuck, you think but don’t say. You don’t cuss around the baby, try not to confuse yourself around her, but this is how you’re doing. You’ve got everything wrong. Before she came along, when your wife was still here, or not here but elsewhere with you, you’d talk at length about the things you wouldn’t do should you ever have a child. First and foremost was the plan never to have a child, but beyond that came the old standards of smoking and swearing and drinking and arguing, all the things you did without the child and still do without her. You make a new list while she sleeps: You will not grow old, or at least older. You will not bring strangers around, not miss work and paychecks, not leave in the night for work or strange women either one. You will not be unreachable by telephone or relegated to the darkness of a blackout in times of need. You will not give up too easily. Not forget birthdays and holidays or even weekdays. You will not be what you are now for long, and neither will she. You won’t dangle her out as bait for a better life or for making you a better man any more than you must, but you will as much as you need it. You will love her. Prodigiously. Sometimes it’s simple as that, you think.