Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Sun Perch

Santee Frazier
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Winter 2012)

for Karis

It is late, but outside the night is glowing with snow & streetlight, quiet but
for the occasional growl & skid of the plows. Winter, Syracuse, where the
feinting snow fusses & scatters until it collapses roofs & power lines. And
now sitting in that gauzy light, nothing but the sounds of sleep, my son’s
cublike snore, I am reminded that most of my childhood was spent walking
in another city, alone, a boy who knew evenings only by the gradual
blackening behind buildings, electric poles humming like bugs, from the
street curb hearing the clink of dishes, chuckles of supper, a fish staring
blankly at me from the center of a round plate rimmed with almond-eyed
bluebirds—wings extended, midflap—the fish, perhaps lightly steamed,
then wok fried, charred along the belly, fins crisped, mouth open from its
last breath, fossilized in a reduction of fish sauce & honey—next to the
plate, a bowl of steamed rice. I sat at the table waiting, not knowing how to
eat the fish or rice with chopsticks, smiling as best I could while in Vietnamese
John explained to his parents how I lived three blocks away, that I
had been home alone for days. His father looked at me as he left the
kitchen, wearing the shirt of a machinist, ‘‘Paul’’ stitched above the right
pocket. Later, I would learn he worked three jobs, and on his only day off,
Sunday, after mass, he would drive his family to some faraway lake outside
the city, where they would reel in sun perch & net them boatside. As I sat at
the table, smells of cooking oil & aromatics fading, John translated for his
mother who asked me to spend the night, and I said no thank you, smiled,
and walked home to whatever misfortune awaited in that dark house,
where the plumbing was empty, my bed a palette of blankets on the living
room floor. I said no, not out of shame but because I wanted to lie down
and remember how I used my fingers to scrape flesh o√ bones—skin tearing
with it—how I trembled when I was asked to eat the eyes, fins, & tail. I
remember now, how my wife once looked at me in the throes of labor, how
she gripped my hand when the pain ruptured up, and how through it all,
behind the brown webbing of her pupils, there was gentleness. When our
son finally came, he could not breathe, he was blue, motionless. I remember
the midwife rushing him off, and minutes later hearing a gasping bawl.
I didn’t know what I saw, as my son shivered, hands gnarled, locked in cry,
still blind from birth, breathing underneath a plastic dome. When I think
of it now—the drive to that faraway lake, my first catch flopping in the boat,
and later jerking the hook from its mouth—the perch must have been
surprised at the sudden uselessness of its gills, and as I watched it gasp
helplessly against the hull of the boat, I wished what all boys wish for, a way
of remembering how air rushes from your body after being socked in the
gut, to sit in the dark, alone, when streetlight is just enough for a boy to
make shapes with his hands, a play made of light, light made of snow.