The Shrimp Man's using his pocketknife to push the fish around in the skillet. It's the same knife that he used to cut the bait into strips and to jimmy open the door when we were done fishing and came back to his house, and that's just one more reason I don't want to eat here. The fish aren't much bigger than what we usually use for bait, so small that my father and the Shrimp Man just scaled and gutted them without even bothering to cut off the heads or the tails. My mother's biggest fear is that one day she'll wake up and nobody will be able to tell her from the fat, dark-skinned women who sit on old kitchen chairs and pull fish up onto the banks of the canals, so when my father and I go fishing alone, we fillet and skin our dolphin or grouper into perfect white strips that we lay out on clean ice for the ride home because, because my mother won't allow a piece of fish in her house if it still looks like it came from a fish, nigger food she calls it.
The Shrimp Man picks up his beer and drains it, tilts his head back and keeps it there, and if I don't look at the sunken and snotty-looking sockets where his eyes used to be, then it looks like he's trying to read something written on the ceiling. My father gets three beers from the refrigerator, one for each of us, but I don't take mine because I'm still nursing my first. It's the first beer I've drunk in front of him, and I don't want to seem too used to it. But when he offers me a cigar, I take that because it gives me something to do with my other hand besides pulling at the stuffing that's sticking out from a hole in the Shrimp Man's couch. My father sits down at the table sits with both beers in front of him and rolls his cigar between his teeth, and everything is quiet except for the hiss of the gas burner and the bubbling of the oil in the skillet. The stove and the couch and the table are all crammed so close together that we could all reach out and touch each other if we wanted to. The room is big enough to spread things out some, but there are old newspapers and magazines and strange-looking reports stacked up everywhere, and it's like all of that yellowed, roach-eaten paper grew so big that it pushed all of the furniture to one side of the room.
The grease is smoking, and I can smell the fish starting to burn, so I figure that the Shrimp Man can smell it too. He can do some amazing stuff for a blind guy—can move a knife around a fish even faster than my father and can put his hands on a sputtering outboard and tell you what's wrong with it. But it's like he doesn't notice what's happening in the skillet, and between the grease smoke and the cigar smoke, everything starts to seem even more unreal than it already is. If my father isn't going to say anything about the burning fish, I'm sure as hell not going to. I try not to speak to the Shrimp Man unless I have to. I still haven't gotten over seeing him stick the tip of a Phillips head screwdriver into his eye socket when I was eight. He tilted his face down at me, and with his big, toothless mouth open from laughing, knocked it around in there for a while, and if I think too hard about it, I can still hear the thudding of the screwdriver like it's happening in my own head. I'm not afraid of the Shrimp Man anymore, just wary. You've got to watch out for anybody who thinks showing that to an eight-year-old is funny.
The Shrimp Man pushes the fish around in the skillet some more, and takes a few swigs of a his beer before he finally stabs the fish with his knife and takes them out of the grease, dropping them onto a paper plate. He carries the plate to the table, and as he puts it down he says, "You can get them cots from out the shed after we eat." I picture my mother sitting alone in our living room, her feet tucked up under her and her shoes still on, feeling like all of the neighbors that we barely know can see through their walls and ours too, feeling like they are all just looking for proof that she hasn't risen above anything, and I want to call her to tell her where we are. But my father has started setting the table with paper plates and plastic forks, has brought out hot sauce and more beers too even though none of us needs them.
"Let's eat," my father says, and I know that I need to sit down to eat the fish and forget about calling my mother. I know that if I call before he wants me to, it will be a long time before he offers me beer and cigars like this, and he might never again put a piece of fish on my plate and tell me, "I think this is the one you caught," before looking up at the ceiling and reciting the closest thing to a prayer that I have ever heard him say: "Thanks to the fish and to him who caught it."
Manuel Martinez earned his MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Florida. His stories have appeared in The Sun, The Literarian, The Los Angeles Review and other publications. He splits his time between Gainesville, Florida, where he teaches at Santa Fe College, and Brooklyn, where he is unemployed.