Bonnie Proudfoot lives in Athens, OH. She has published fiction and poetry. Her novel, Goshen Road, (Swallow Press, 2020), was long listed for the PEN/ Hemingway award and received the WCoNA Book of the Year Award. Her book of poems, Household Gods, is forthcoming in the summer of 2022 (Sheila-Na-Gig Editons).
“I felt free and therefore I was free.”
Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac
We pooled money and food stamps,
bought the largest turkey we could,
also, cigarettes, baking potatoes,
Jack Daniels and Mateus, because the bottle
made a cool candle holder. Someone
had a blue and white enamel pot,
and since the bird was frozen,
we kept the lid on. Someone else said
turkeys were best roasted slow,
so we turned the oven on 300,
put in the potatoes, set the table for four.
Four hours, five hours, the room
starting to smell like dinner,
though with each stab we saw
the bird had refused to thaw.
The potatoes were hot and good,
and off we shot into the icy night,
streetlights glazed and hazy
the whole silent city tucked behind
glowing blinds. On the swings
in a playground near railroad tracks,
we shared cigarettes, passed the bottle
of Jack, gazed up at Orion,
the glow of Bethlehem Steel edging
the southern sky orange.
Someone remembered the turkey.
Parts of it were done, in a dry sort of way.
We ate with our fingers, never
found the wishbone, played scrabble
and drank wine until the sun rose
over the Trico plant, letters and words
strung across the board like constellations,
every cluster a new story about to be told.
Take a kid who grew up in a city,
and put her next to a pond with a pole,
and soon enough, she will catch a fish
and not know what to do with it.
I was 24, a Popeil Pocket Fisherman
and a catfish as long as my arm,
a dream of living out in nature,
the closest fish market hours away,
I couldn’t afford to shop there anyway.
What would my mother do, I thought,
as a girl needs to look to tradition,
which felt right and felt wrong,
because this fish had been swimming along,
and I was the one with the red plastic reel.
I remembered poached salmon,
and stuffed flounder, neat filets
on crushed ice under bright lights.
The Joy of Cooking, my new
instruction manual for my new life,
stated, “Clean and skin: one catfish.”
But how? I knew the universe had staged
another obstacle course, that failure
meant mortification, or worse,
a Greyhound bus back to Queens.
I wanted to put the creature
out of its misery, the only way
to decrease my own. I didn’t know
whether to begin at the head or the tail,
quickly learned that the “whiskers”
were sharp barbs, that the hard bony plate
protecting its neck defied the serrations
of my knife, or how long a catfish
could survive out of water, thick gills
flapping open and shut, that
it wouldn’t stop staring at me.
It took over an hour to move that fish
through the stages of being a living thing
to a meal on a plate, while the night
folded in on itself, while my lungs burned
with every breath. The cutting board held
the reek for weeks. There are some things
no book can teach, how not everything
that is given to us is free, not even a
bottom-feeder from a farm pond gone
to cattails, not even a snapped together
plastic rod from a faraway uncle
who probably never expected it to be used.