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Bite Me

A Fish Story

Five minutes, okay?"

"Five minutes. I'll just run in and run out."

"Okay." I fiddled with the radio, trying to get something good on the vintage-'70s push-button console.

Matt got out of the car, two plastic bags full of Styrofoam takeout boxes in his hands, then leaned back toward the passenger window that never went all the way up. "Turn off the car, all right? You'll wake the kid up."

I scowled, but turned the key. Wake the kid, I thought. Jesus...

It was the winter of 1998, and I was back in Rochester, my home town, after a disastrous turn through the kitchens of central Florida. A year before, I'd headed off to Tampa with a fiancée, two cats, my health and a career that I thought was really starting to come together. Now I had none of that. Ostensibly, I'd come home because my father was sick, but, really, I just had nowhere else to go.

Since returning to the nest, as it were -- showing up unannounced on my parents' doorstep two days before Christmas -- I'd been trying to reconnect with old friends, the ones who'd never left town after high school. My tactic was to show up early at one of the half-dozen neighborhood bars where I figured they all still drank on Friday nights, stake out a stool with a good view of the door, and lie in wait for someone I recognized (however dimly) to come walking in. Really, it was more like stalking for slackers, because I didn't have to actually get up and follow anyone anywhere. But it had a certain air of sleaziness and mystery that I liked, and I lived for those moments when I'd finally corner someone I'd said maybe ten words to during high school, and they'd guardedly ask, "So, what have you been up to?"

Needless to say, I was not the guy you wanted to run into back then. I wasn't the guy you wanted to be within a hundred yards of unless you had a couple of hours to kill and were willing to fill them with the angst-dappled whining of a half-bright utility chef living in his parents' spare bedroom and edging dangerously close to thirty.

Anyway, that's where I was headed: to the Rose and Crown on Monroe Avenue with Matt, one of those aforementioned high school friends who already knew my whole story, word for word, didn't much care for it, but appreciated the wounded-barfly aesthetic. I thought he was the perfect wingman for nights like these. He was a solid drinker, flush with cash and terminally heartbroken from a bad split with a girl he'd never gotten over. Matter of fact, it was the house of the girl in question that I was parked in front of -- the car's engine still knocking long after I'd switched it off -- slowly freezing to death while he was inside doing God knows what.

Five minutes of waiting became ten before I got bored and went to the door. It was open, so I let myself in, and through the prism of leaded glass in the door between the breezeway and the girl's living room, I could see the two of them and the kid (not Matt's, but the only good consequence of a fling between the girl and a young suitor doing county time at that point for breaking and entering) sitting on the thrift-store couch in her one-bedroom apartment. They were talking, laughing and digging into the coleslaw, soggy fries and Friday fish-fry special from Mark's Texas Hots that Matt had come to deliver.

The kid was sick, he'd explained when I'd picked him up earlier. And the girl couldn't find anyone to watch him while she went out and got something for dinner. So he'd given me a choice: Either we could make a delivery run, or we could sit and watch the kid while she went out. Since I knew the girl and saw a very real possibility that she'd leave and never come back, stranding Matt and me in a David Lynch version of 3 Men and a Baby minus one man, I'd chosen the first option.

And now, standing there looking in, what I saw stunned me: The girl had pulled out the good china (meaning the stuff that wasn't plastic or disposable). The kid was on Matt's lap, with a look on his face like he was trying to explain the finer literary points of an episode of Blue's Clues. And Matt -- whom I'd never known in the course of his life to do a single mature or responsible thing -- was looking down, grinning, happier than I'd seen him in years and paying rapt attention to every word.

While it wasn't the most Ozzie and Harriet scene I'd ever witnessed -- what with the TV blaring, the room looking like the epicenter of an exploding toy factory, and Matt still high since he and I had killed a bowl before he headed inside -- there was no doubting the fact that he was a dad. Biology aside, he looked the part. He was the one who was there, with the kid on his knee and Friday fish fry on the table, and that (to me, anyway) meant way more than car seats, soccer games and the name on the paternity test.

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