Cleaning Brook Trout

by Jerry Johnston

Cordo Seeger could trace his name back to a species
of prickly Mexican artichoke. I can’t tell you
the species, but I can remember Cordo’s nephew,
Manuel Seeger, teaching me how to say the word “alcachofa’
while we sat at a plastic picnic table. “Al-ca-cho-fa,’
he said, “means artichoke.’
Before Manuel and I cooked two brook trout whole,
before I hooked the bend of the cleaning knife into the fish
until they split and yawned open,
before I swept out the pink ropes and sacs from inside them,
and before I watched Manuel scratch against the grain of their scales
with the blunt edge of his pocket knife,
shattering emerald flakes across the cutting board,
before all of this I was telling Manuel about his uncle Cordo
and how by accident I’d once opened his shoulder
with a box-cutter outside Holly Star Lanes.
There, a man was sitting slumped against a curb,
drinking wine from a box and shaking his head.
When the man saw us, his back perked up
and he threw his box of wine at Cordo, just missing him,
so then I took that man for someone needing a grin
shanked across his stomach. The accident happened
when Cordo stepped toward the man and right
into my downswing.
What I didn’t tell Manuel was how the man was smiling
the whole time and how bad that had messed with Cordo.
Ten days after Holly Star Lanes, Cordo said he couldn’t
go to work anymore because it was all he could think about;
he would just close his eyes and count the man’s teeth
until something took him to sleep. I didn’t tell Manuel
that’s why Cordo had moved back to Guadalajara
to work as a street sweeper. I didn’t tell Manuel
that sometimes I see the dead guy now, passing me on the street,
turning when he sees me like he wants to follow me,
or wants me to follow him, but then he just stops
and keeps on grinning or turns into someone wearing a fedora.
Yesterday he was a kid in a Pistons jersey.
Yesterday I thought I saw that kid pointing at me
like he was trying to count my teeth.
I didn’t tell Manuel that Cordo had written me a letter
from Guadalajara saying that all that had happened
was proof that God exists. I didn’t tell Manuel much that day.
I learned a few more Spanish words, and Manuel and I ate
and listened to the sounds of car horns on Hackberry Street
and of TVs chattering through opened windows. We ate the fish’s eyes
and we ate the shards of ribs when they cracked underneath our teeth,
but we gave the heads and spines and grit to the dogs
that had begun to gather under the table.