First Person / Big Fish

It’s Lent, when the cod hits the fryer

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A pink-haired punk kid rocks the fryer at Keith Heinritz Catering in Trafford, Pa. It’s Lent, fried-fish season. The frozen cod stacks up like bricks.

Three hours away in Erie, dead fish pile the State Street dock after high tide. The good people of Trafford pile up at Keith’s, spill onto Brinton Avenue, like salmon reeling upstream.

Keith works the register, oxygen tank on the counter, a canula strapped to his nose.

“Are you all right? Are you all right?” his wife asks, but Keith swats her away.

Keith doesn’t look all right. Face flushed, sweating, he rings up extra buns, hot sauce, the last of the lobster bisque. The pink-haired kid breads the fish, flops it into flour, whips filets by their tails.

The good people of Trafford don’t eat meat on Lenten Fridays. They give up hopeful things — chocolate, beer, the lottery.

Keith’s place is cash only. The tip jar is an old coffee can covered in grease thick enough to write a name in. The grease has been building up for years. I don’t know how long the pink-haired kid has been working today, but I think a long time.

I worked the fryer at The Trafford Polish Club when I was 12 and stayed until I went to Erie for college. I came home smelling like smoke and grease and fish.

“What is it with you people and this fish?” a friend from South Africa asks me.

This is his first time in Pittsburgh. He’s puzzled by our signs. Big Fish, Giant Fish, Great Big Fish, Biggest Giant Fish Ever.

“What kind of fish do you people grow here?” he wants to know, as if there is magic in our rivers, which of course there is.

A little while back a giant rubber duck floated on these rivers. The duck was a visitor, too, created by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman.

“The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers. It does not discriminate and does not have political connotations,” Mr. Hofman said.

The duck had round-the-clock security, a press corps. It cost many thousands to make it, I’m guessing.

Keith Heinritz is rich, I think. His catering business has been going for years. His fish is the best in Trafford, which is saying something.

I don’t know if it was his dream to run a catering business. I’ve never seen him happy. I don’t know where he goes on vacation or if he takes one.

I hope he does.

I hope he has a house in Florida, which was my father’s dream and the dream of nearly everyone I knew growing up.

“God’s Waiting Room,” people call Florida.

Everyone I know is tired of waiting and dreaming.

I used to dream of leaving. I did that. Now I’m back.

“Do something with your life,” my father told me, and I hope if he were alive he’d think maybe I have.

I hope he’d think all the things I’ve failed at are balanced by the one or two things I haven’t screwed up yet.

I wonder if anyone ever thinks they’ve done anything useful in this world.

“The friendly, floating Rubber Duck has healing properties,” Florentijn Hofman said. “It can relieve tensions as well as define them.”

I wonder if Keith ever looks up from the cash register at the line of people rolling through his door and sees anything other than money.

“I’m not cooking tonight,” my mother would say on Fridays during Lent. Then she’d whirl a dishrag over her head and do a little cha-cha across the kitchen to show how free she felt. My father would pick up fish from Keith’s. He’d get the extra bun and hot sauce. He’d get a side of crinkle-cut fries.

Lenten take-out from Keith’s was one of the few things my parents agreed on. They’d split a sandwich, one giant fish more than enough for two, and it would wipe away a week’s worth of sorrow. For a little while, my parents, together at a table, would be happy and I would believe we'd be together like that forever and ever, amen.

The kid with the pink hair whacks the fish over and back, then drops it into the fryer. He sings “We’re Not Gonna Take It” — Dee Snider, Twisted Sister — and punches the air with his one free hand.

I think he means it, even though he sounds joyful. He’s not going to take it anymore. He throws another fish in, and another.

“I can’t go on. I go on,” Samuel Beckett said.

The punk rock kid is beautiful. The most beautiful thing.

His hair is a poppy blossom in the thick gray light.

Lori Jakiela is an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh’s Greensburg campus and teaches in the MFA program at Chatham University ( Her collection of mostly narrative poems about her former career as a flight attendant is titled “Spot the Terrorist” (Turning Point Press).

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