"Smoked Fish," by Pete Stevens

Pete Stevens

Pete Stevens

Pete Stevens is the fiction editor at Squalorly. His work has appeared at SmokeLong Quarterly, Copper Nickel, Split Lip Magazine, Beecher’s, Hobart, Yemassee, and Gigantic Sequins, among others. Currently, he is teaching and living in Minnesota with his wife and basenji.

Smoked Fish

I’d been staying with my wheezy-necked father outside Escanaba because it was summer and my mother didn’t want me down south. She’d driven me the four-hundred miles from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula like she was chewing on lemons, all knuckles and accusations. Lazy bastard, she’d say. Can’t lift a finger. I’d say, No, Ma, he’s sick. Three years back, the smoke took his voice, health, and seemingly, his motivation. Now the two of us would sit around his living room and watch action movies from the eighties. I’d watch him smoke through a hole in his neck. He had a buzzing throat box, what he called his vibrator, but wouldn’t use it. So mostly we sat in silence. Sometimes, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar would fill the void, or Joplin, or Jefferson Airplane. We’d watch rock concerts from the sixties and seventies, like Woodstock and Monterey Pop. I’d be transfixed by the energy, the overwhelming sense of joy. 

During the ride up, my mom didn’t let me play my music. She said it was druggie music, old music, that it was warping my brain just as it had with my father. We passed through the northern towns of Michigan in a blink. Soon, the Mackinac Bridge loomed before us, its support beams tall in the distance. Crossing over the bridge always pulled at my gut and made my palms sweat, as if our car could be swept over the side with one strong gust of wind. Once over the bridge, and into the U.P., we saw signs along the road for pasties, fudge, and smoked fish. On one, a cartoon fish wore a red blazer and smoked from a pipe. In another, two fish smiled and puffed on fat cigars. My mother couldn’t resist. She pulled over for smoked chub and a wedge of pecan fudge.  

“Don’t even think about it,” she said.  

“I won’t.” 

The store was a wood-paneled trailer on a gravelly patch off the road. First, I checked my pockets, made sure they were empty and ready. The clerk, probably the owner, eyed me from the register. I walked the aisles and browsed: bottles of maple syrup, walleye carved from wood, maps, fishing gear, jars of local honey. My mom went to the counter for her fish and fudge, grabbing the clerk’s attention. I took a bottle of honey into my hand, the glass cool to my touch and shaped like a beehive. I glanced over my shoulder and slipped it into my back pocket, then went out the door.  

When my mom got back with her stuff, I was waiting by the car. She looked at me with narrowed eyes. “You behave?” 

I told her that I did.  

The days before my father’s surgery had me freaked out. I’d thought, Dad, Dad, come on, you can do this. They said the risk was low, that this wasn’t a surgery people died from, but I couldn’t escape the image of knives cutting into his neck.  

We reached his property by sundown. Mom put her head against the steering wheel and let out a sigh. I didn’t want to see her that way.  

She gathered her lighter and cigarettes, stuffed them inside her purse. “After I leave I want you to tell him that he’s always welcome. It would be nice if he came down south now and then.” 

“Why don’t you tell him,” I said. 

She opened the door. I collected my backpack and suitcase from the trunk. When I looked up, my dad stood in the open doorframe. He was taller than me, over six-foot, and he had me beat by sixty pounds. We used to wrestle and I was never able to pin him. He’d press his knee to my chest and laugh, his face turning red. 

“Hello, Francis,” my mom said when we greeted him at the door.  

He responded with a nod, then handed my mother a piece a paper with his writing.  

“That’s fine,” she said. “Take care of our boy.” 

My father again nodded his agreement and she got back in her car, reversing down the driveway, leaving us alone. I followed my dad to the living room, where The Terminator played on the TV, the part where Arnold used a scalpel to cut around his eye, exposing the glowing red center. My dad eased back into his recliner and took out a Marlboro. He tapped the filter end on the box before bringing it to his neck, lighting, then inhaling with the sound of wet valves being opened and closed. He was like Arnold: half man, half machine. Or maybe he was closer to one of the pipe-wielding fish on the signs along the road, just happy to have a lungful of smoke.  

After Arnold’s living tissue was burned from his body, leaving only his metallic skeleton, I pulled the bottle of honey from my pocket and handed it to my father, told him it was a gift. He held it up to the light, angling it back and forth. Then he grabbed his notepad and wrote me a message: Did you get caught? I shook my head, no. Good, he wrote back. Never let your mother catch you

I saw things, wanted them, and took them. I remembered stealing candy as a child. I’d pocket a Blow Pop or a packet of gum. The thrill of deceit and success was a feeling I couldn’t replicate anywhere else. It was what the rush of a drug must feel like, what Hendrix must’ve felt on stage with his guitar in flames. 

“Let’s watch Monterey Pop,” I said.  

We did. The DVD spun and Hendrix’s guitar wailed out. I closed my eyes and pictured myself in the crowd, paint on my face, maybe a flower in my hair. My dad once told me about when he was sixteen, when he was my age, and when society was different, more accepting. He said that the hippies had gone away, but the love was still there. He’d told me stories about how he used to eat LSD and look up at the stars. People didn’t bother you, he said. You could be free. 

Our days passed like the first day. We’d wake and eat, usually eggs and cereal. Next, we’d watch movies or listen to psychedelic rock. Each day I asked my dad about his Buick Regal. Even though I didn’t have a license, I didn’t think driving would be a problem. Then, four days into my stay, he ran out of cigarettes. 

I need you to go to the store, he wrote. I need a carton of Marlboros and we need more eggs and orange juice

I asked if he was going and he shook his head, no. “What, then? I’ll need to take the car.” 

Take the car. He opened his wallet and handed me a five-dollar bill.  

“This isn’t enough. And they won’t sell me cigarettes.”  

He closed his eyes and scratched at his overgrown beard. The collar of his white t-shirt was stained yellow from the leaking fluid at his neck. When he opened his eyes, they looked tired and glassy.  

Use the money to buy the eggs and juice. Steal the cigarettes. Before you get to the store, remove the license plate

Living off disability didn’t leave my father with much money, but I still thought he could afford the cigarettes. I took his direction as a challenge.  

Outside, the sun lit patches of grass and the keys to my dad’s Buick felt warm in my palm. Some of my friends at school had already started to drive. They told stories of loud music and the windows rolled down, late-night tacos and open stretches of country road.  

My dad’s Buick wasn’t much to look at: a black eighty-seven Regal, its wheel wells rusted, as was the rear bumper and driver’s-side door. Thirty years of Michigan winters had eroded any beauty that it once had. Yet, when I turned the key, she came to life with a roar and smoke from the tailpipe. Smiling, my hand on the wheel, I saw my father watching from the front door. He gave a thumbs-up before retreating back inside.  

Out on the straight lengths of road the driving went smoothly. The parking lot of the grocery store proved more difficult. I nudged the front of the Buick into a parking space, between an SUV and a minivan, pumping the brakes. I considered it a success. Quickly, I found the eggs and juice, purchased them with the cash. My plan was to get the cigarettes from a small gas station on the way home. Back in the parking lot, I used a screwdriver to remove the rear plate. Now came the rush. Now the back of my neck began to itch. 

I’d stolen candy from the gas station before and knew there’d only be one attendant on duty. Usually, an old man with his radio tuned to the weather sat behind the counter. There were times that I thought he caught me, giving me a look, but he never called me out. 

Steering into the empty lot of the gas station took less adjusting than at the grocery store. My confidence had grown. I took my time to back into a space at the front of the store, hoping the attendant wouldn’t notice my missing plate. Fluorescent lights bounced off every surface inside, every cellophane package. A girl, no more than a couple years older than me, stood behind the counter. Under different circumstances she might be the kind of girl I’d want to talk with, or the kind of girl I’d be too chicken to talk with. She had her blonde hair in a ponytail and her eyebrow was pierced with a black ring. 

“Could I get the key for the bathroom?” I asked.  

She handed me the key, which was attached to a stick of wood the size of a carrot. The bathroom was located in the back corner of the station, accessed by an exterior door. Ten minutes I spent outside by the door, kicking gravel, questioning my actions. A year back I got busted at the department store lifting jeans. I had three pairs on at the same time. When the security guard clapped his hand on my shoulder I didn’t think life was real. Reality didn’t click into place until my mom came and she cried, saving me from juvie.  

When I walked back inside, the girl was stocking cans of oil by the door. “Hey,” I said. “Outside, by the bathroom, there’s a wounded dog. I think it might be dying.” 

She left without asking any questions. I went to the counter, leaned over, and grabbed a carton of Marlboros from the racks above. I’d never stolen cigarettes, didn’t know how to conceal the rectangular box. Without hesitating I decided to leave, and as I opened the door the attendant pushed through. 

“There’s no dog,” she said, before seeing the box in my hand. “Hey!” 

I ran to the car and got inside.  

“Stop! Stop!” she said.  

I checked behind me, at her, as she pointed and yelled, then I turned the ignition and took off, slamming the side my face against the steering wheel when I hit a concrete pillar separating the pumps, the eggs and orange juice falling to the floor in a mess. 

“Fuck!” I said. “Fuck!” 

The girl came next to the car and asked if I was okay. Her eyes looked as if they were going to pop from her skull. 

“Go,” I said. “Need to go.” The car still ran and I reversed it. 

“Stop!” she said. “I’m calling the cops! I’m calling the cops!” 

I didn’t stop until I reached home. The front bumper had been bent inwards at the middle, so it looked as if it was smiling. My dad inspected the damage with a hand at his chin. I told him I hit a light pole in the parking lot at the grocery store. I told him I didn’t get caught.  

He used the nail of his thumb to split the seams of the carton. His movements were that of a man who had performed the same action countless times before. I’d never asked him for a cigarette but I wanted one now. I wanted to taste my reward. Instead, we settled in and I made chicken tenders from a bag in the freezer. He smoked half a pack that night, and using a small collection of q-tips, had to clean his valve twice. 

Another week went by in a series of action flicks and world tours. We fixed the bumper with a hammer and mowed the lawn. We ate pizza and went fishing at the lake.  

“Mom, hi,” I said. It had been two weeks since she dropped me off. I cupped the phone to my ear and left the room, not looking back at my father.  

“How are you? Is everything okay?” she asked. 

“Yeah, of course, everything is great.” I didn’t tell her about the cigarettes or the car.  

“I just miss you so much.” 

“Sure,” I said. “Me too.”  

Our conversation didn’t go anywhere. She reported on events from Detroit and I didn’t care. I wanted to make sure that she was okay, that nothing had gone wrong. She said she was fine and we said goodbye. Back in the living room, my dad held a note: What did she say? Is she upset?  

“Why would she be upset? She’s not mad at all. Relax.” 

He responded by grabbing my waist, giving me a hug. I heard his throat gasping and clutching. It sounded like he was trying to speak, like he had something to say. I never knew what. 

The next day, my dad handed me a newspaper folded in half. He pointed to an article and tapped. I read about a man in Marquette who collected LSD. The DEA had arrested him four times and still he wouldn’t stop. He’d gotten off on technicalities, claims of the acid being art. The man was seventy years old. I looked up from the article and my dad motioned me to continue. For most of his life the man lived in San Francisco. In Michigan, the authorities were not as lenient. He’d transported his collection across the country in a U-Haul, all ten-thousand tabs. His house was a museum of psychedelia. Most of his acid was in square sheets and framed along the wall. The article talked about Owsley, a famous LSD chemist who made a signature batch for Monterey Pop in 1967. Legend claimed that Hendrix had two tabs of Monterey Purple in his headband when he went onstage.  

I tossed the paper on the couch and my dad handed me a note: He has the Monterey Purple. Go get it.  

“No way,” I said. I didn’t want a repeat of the gas station. My dad insisted with his eyes and wrote another note: You won’t get caught. And when you get back, we can take it together

We spent the next half hour going over details. I’d have to drive for an hour and a half north. I’d have to break into a house under the cover of darkness. 

That night the sound of cicadas was loud. I couldn’t sleep. The breeze coming in through the window blew across my chest and between my toes. In the distance, I heard cars driving on the highway. When I sat up I saw headlights through the trees. In three days I’d be driving with them, heading north, out on an errand for my father.  

On the night of the run I was ready. My dad prepared me. He taught me about how to be sneaky, how to break a pane of glass with my fist wrapped in a towel. At one a.m. I left. Without a cloud in the sky, the half-moon shone bright. Not many cars were on the road and the drive north went well. Still, the signs along the road called out to me. I’d never had smoked fish and didn’t understand why it was such a big deal. I again thought of my father as one of those smoking fish, the hole in his neck like a chimney. For long sections of road there were no lights, houses, or businesses of any kind. When I reached Marquette it was nearly three a.m. and the directions to the guy’s house were exact.  

I waited down the street. I had a pair of gloves and a bath towel. Our research revealed that the Monterey Purple would be just that: purple squares of paper, smaller than postage stamps. My dad told me to keep an eye out for anything else of value, or curiosity, anything worthy of taking.  

Double checking the address on the front of the house, I crept through the grass to the back. The back door had a pane of glass separated into nine windows. I wrapped my gloved fist in the towel and punched, broke one of the panes, then reached in and unlocked the door. Stepping into the kitchen, I moved on the balls of my feet, cat-like, trying to remain silent. There was just enough light from the moon slanting in through the blinds to navigate. Right away I saw the walls, covered in framed art. There were way too many to grasp what was what. I saw framed sheets of LSD, the individual squares coming together to form a picture of the Mad Hatter, or tongues, or the dancing Grateful Dead bears. I saw psychedelic concert posters, t-shirts, and a framed guitar.  

“I hear you. Who’s there?” 

I froze. The voice came from another room but I couldn’t tell where. Slowly, I began to retreat, retracing my steps. 

“Hey,” the voice said, coming closer. “Who are you?” 

“Don’t turn on the lights,” I said. 

He agreed not to. He again asked who I was.  

“I’m sorry. I just wanted to take some of your art.” 

The man continued in my direction, now in kitchen, and I saw in the moonlight that he was indeed old, his body thin and frail. I knew I was strong enough to break him. 

“Leave now and I won’t call the police.” 

“Fine,” I said, but I didn’t want to leave, not without the Purple. In haste, I snatched a frame off the wall, then another.  

“What are you after?” the man asked. “Why are you here?” 

I backed up against a counter. I felt trapped. “Don’t make me hurt you,” I said. 

The man stopped at the edge of the kitchen. His robe hung loose and open, and I saw the bones of his chest. “My phone is in my hand,” he said. “Don’t take another step.” 

“I’ll leave, I’ll leave. Just give me the Monterey Purple.”  

I heard the man whistle, then chuckle. He told me to wait where I stood, not to move. A photo of Jim Morrison looked down at me with dead eyes. The Beatles laughed. 

When the man returned, minutes later, he held a small frame in his hands, the size of a cell phone. He set it on the countertop. 

“You know, back when these hits were fresh we wouldn’t be robbing and stealing. We had different values.” 

I apologized once more and told him that my head wasn’t right. 

“Those tabs in the frame are in fact the Owsley Purple,” he said. “Some of the best I’ve ever tried. But they are now fifty years old. You know what happens to lysergic acid diethylamide after all that time?” 

“No, what?” 

“It fades.” The man coughed and pressed his fist to his chest. “Those tabs haven’t been active for decades. Now they’re dead, just little pieces of paper, a memory.” 

“I’m still going to take them.” 

He said, fine, fine. “When I turn around and return to my bed, I expect you to leave and never come back.” 

I dropped the other frames I had gathered and took the small one with the Purple. Inside the frame, under the glass, a strip of ten tabs was centered and held in place. It felt like history. It brought back Hendrix at Monterey: his sweat-soaked bandana, his pink feathered boa, the flames licking off his guitar. Before leaving, I cleaned up the broken glass and shut the door.  

The frame rested in my lap the entire ride home. Somehow the night was darker than before, a different shade. My mother would be waking soon. She’d be getting ready for another day at the cleaners and not thinking about what I was doing, not worried. 

When I got home it was nearly five a.m. and smoke hung thick in the living room. My father sat waiting on the couch. Commando played on the TV. I saw the bottle of honey out on the coffee table next to one of my dad’s notes: I got nervous for you. Hopefully everything went okay?  

I handed him the frame. He turned it over in his hands, a look of wonder on his face. Then he brought it down against the table with a sharp crack, breaking the glass. He gave me another note: I thought we could take this together. It should come on as the sun rises. After we place the tabs on our tongues, we can chase them down with the honey. Monterey Pop or just music?  

“Just music,” I said.  

He pressed play on some Jefferson Airplane and cut the strip in two. Sunlight was just beginning to filter in through the trees. Together, we placed the paper on our tongues and let it settle. We each tipped back the bottle of honey and filled our mouths, swallowing. I didn’t know what to say to a father who couldn’t speak. 

Thirty minutes went by as we listened to the music. I almost fell asleep on the couch. 

My dad handed me a note: Are you feeling it yet? Is it coming on? 

“Yeah,” I said. “It feels wonderful. I’m way up in the clouds.”