Thursday, December 4, 2014

Back Door Men

“You will not eat that in this house.”

I froze in place, my finger still tucked under the sardine can opener. I looked at Mom. I looked down at the can, as if to verify that that was what she meant. I looked back at Mom.

“It’s okay—it’s food,” I replied hopefully.

“I know what it is. You’ll spill it. They stink. You’ll stink up the whole stinking house and the stink will never stop stinking. We will not live in a house that stinks.”

She was right. Earlier that summer I got hit in the mouth by a bluegill and the fishy taste didn’t leave my lips for days. Sardines are worse. Still, I was crestfallen.

Dad was undeterred. He took the tin out of my hand, tucked a sleeve of Zesta saltines under his arm and grabbed a fork. “Outside, Moose. Back porch.”

Dad built the back porch a few years earlier. The original tiny cement steps were now underneath a roomy four foot square of thick redwood. I liked sitting on its long steps, as strong and reassuring as my father. Each step was a good height, I thought, as I wrapped my arms around my gangly legs and pulled my red Keds up tight. Dad’s legs arched over two steps.

Dad was conservative at the dinner table, but certain bold foods delivered him to a drooling delirium. Oysters. Rocky Mountain oysters. Sardines. Occasionally he’d bring home a tin of sardines packed in oil, tomato sauce, or mustard—my favorite—and scan the room with a look of unmistakable “who’s with me?” He used to enlist one of my older brothers or sisters, but they were all beyond that now. I got the nod. Back porch. Just Dad and me, the way I liked it.

He let me open the sardine tin, which I did with great ceremony. Each can came with a key that peeled up the face and rolled it away like sheets off a bed. The inside of the can glistened green and copper, precious oil dripping back onto the neatly stacked fishes inside.

The sardines were perfect. Uniform. Identical. This bunch still had their heads—sometimes they don’t—and the eyes looked up at nothing, a row of stoic soldiers before their king.

With a shrug of his palm, Dad let me go first. I broke the perfection, lifting the first sardine out gingerly, trying not to break its soft body or tear the delicate skin.

Once I bit a sardine in half so I could peer inside, to see the guts and bones, perplexed that they all taste and feel just like the flesh. But it was better not to look, and I didn't want my uneasiness to show.

I carefully laid the slick morsel across its cracker bed like Dad had taught me, handling it lightly as nitroglycerine, my mom’s words in my ear.

I ate the whole sardine: the tiny head, the black eyes, the limp fins, the soft bones. It was smaller than my pinky. 

We didn’t talk. I was aware of the quiet crunch of saltine, listening to the sound of chewing inside my head. The salty cracker stung atop my tongue, soothed by the comforting sardine oil. Without thinking, I wiped the back of my hand across a small drip on my lip, then realized I couldn’t rub it on my pants. I left it, careful not to touch anything.

A neighbor’s car drove by, crunching through the alley gravel. We waved sheepishly. We were the Outside Guys. The Back Porch Club. 

I kept an eye on Dad’s hands, watching every gesture in case I might need it one day. I smelled his after-shave. I selected another sardine, careful not to spill a drop lest I forever stink up this moment.