WHITING by Deesha Philyaw
WHITING HAS BEEN CALLED the “hot dog of the sea” because it’s so cheap. But fishermen love this tasty sport fish because it grabs the lure hard and puts up a good fight.
My father said, “Every Sunday morning while your mother lies across town dying, I will make you fried whiting, grits, and cat’s head biscuits to make up for telling a judge that you weren’t mine. Something to fill your thirty-three-year-old belly for that time I tried to pass you off as my little sister to my new girlfriend, when you were three. A hearty breakfast for those times when you were in grade school and I took you to bars and fed you French fries with ketchup, as you fed quarter after quarter into the pinball machine while I drank bottle after bottle of pink champale. Some Southern hospitality for asking you to call other women “Mama.” A home-cooked meal for that time I got you a car but didn’t make the payments so the repo man tracked you down at college and took it back. Something to stick to your ribs for those times when I said I would come pick you up, take you to the fair, give you lunch money, but didn’t.”
My father said, “I already buttered the grits and the biscuits for you. You know how to pick the bones out the whiting, don’t you?”
I do the math, the brittle calculus that this fatherless girl has learned: Take the value of the car my father did not actually buy me, subtract thirty-three percent rage because the repo man kept his gun holstered. Add five figures in unpaid child support, then carry the time he bragged to me, “I got me a white girl.” The answer equals exactly six Sundays’ worth of breakfasts, a fraction of what it cost me to gather up the pieces of a girl, shattered like broken seashells gathered from the sands of the ocean floor.
My father said, “This is your inheritance. Spread it like a balm on your broken heart: some fried whiting, some grits, and cat’s head biscuits. You know, they call them cat’s head biscuits because they are as big around and fluffy as a cat’s head.”
I did not know that.
For thirty-three years, I put up a good fight. But my mother lies dying across town. Cancer rages and, believing that I must always be looked after in this world, my mother has asked my father to make things right with me. And she has asked me to let him.
She does not, however, give us a blueprint for this.
So come Sunday morning, I eat breakfast at my father’s house. I come again and again until my mother dies one August morning. Then I travel a thousand miles back to my other life, the life I left behind to be with my mother as she transitioned while riding upon wave after wave of our laughter spiked with Dilaudid, from this world to the next, after fifty-two short years.
I go back to my life with two wide-eyed daughters and a soon-to-be-ex-husband, a man who is a prized-blue marlin of a father.
By December, my father will also be dead. A massive stroke. I don’t know this during those six Sunday morning breakfasts. I simply enjoy. I close my eyes and tell myself this is what love tastes like. Every bone in the whiting is an apology. Every grain of the grits, an apology. The cat’s head biscuit, a mound of apologies. Everything my father does not say.
DEESHA PHILYAW is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written with her ex-husband. Her fiction and nonfiction writing on race, parenting, sex and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, Brevity, Apogee Journal, Catapult, The Rumpus, Cheat River Review, dead housekeeping, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Essence and Ebony. Deesha is a past Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People.