The Smelt Fry

I wanted desperately to go to the smelt fry in town, but Denny was having none of it. Living out in farming country in the Northern half of Wisconsin, there were few things that ever really happened, the smelt fry being one of them. Smelt are tiny fish, that look like salmon, but rarely reach seven inches long. After being spotted in streams by flashlight late at night, the swarming schools are swooped up in nets. The oily little fish are brought into town, floured and battered whole, then dipped in a deep fry and heaped on a paper plates to be passed out to a waiting line of people who each paid their five dollars at the door, each taking a seat where-ever they can squish in, sitting side by side along room-long folding tables with rows of folding chairs, all lined up in the fireman’s hall. Many of my family would be there, including my grandparents, aunts and uncles and a few cousins.

I had sewn a new skirt from remnants I got when I was still working at the Ben Franklin store in a neighboring town before I had Kelly, quitting that job when I went into labor, becoming a stay at home mom. I had saved the remnants to make something for myself that wasn’t a pregnancy muumuu. Kelly was now two months old and my waistline was back to 24 inches and I made a skirt that cinched my tiny waist into 23 inches. The full skirt was light blue, matching my faded blue eyes and had a white ruffle sewn in the bottom. I wore the skirt with a matching white lace vest that fit tight on my tiny hour-glass frame showing off my best curves, which were now plentiful from breast-feeding. My body felt back to its old self again after the long months of pregnancy then recuperation from a cesarean birth, I was ready to show it off a bit.

Maybe Denny sensed the joy I felt in that new skirt and my recently returned figure and felt threatened by that, thinking perhaps I would be swept away by some handsome farm hand with a redneck tan. Or maybe he just hated to see me having fun; because he dug in his heals and flat-out said he was not going. There was no more talking about it. The subject was closed.

I had been stuck out in that old farmhouse we lived in, with nothing but the fields and the garden for company for two months. My only trips into town were to get the groceries and to take the diapers and dirty clothes to the laundromat for washing. It was true that I wanted to show off my returned figure, that I wanted something back from my old self, a girl I still remembered as independent of being a mother and a wife. I loved my new baby daughter beyond a love that I could have ever imagined having, but I was still a young woman, only twenty-one years old, wanting more than diaper changing and grocery shopping.

Maybe if my life as a new wife had some fun and laughter in it, I would have felt differently that evening. Denny turned out to be a solitary husband, coming home from work each day from the factory, not offering up a word, taking up joint, blurring his vision behind red eyes, picking up his guitar, or disappearing into the bathroom for an hour or more at a time, with the door locked, or sitting in front of the TV watching the news, anything to tune me out it seemed. If I tried to pick a conversation with him, he turned his back on me, making it clear that he felt trapped into marrying me, that he only married me because he had to, because of the pregnancy. He was doing his bit working at the factory, paying the rent, paying for the groceries.

Denny also decided that I was responsible for “the kid,” as he put it. I was the one who wanted to have her, he told me. I could not understand, though, after having her, after seeing her as a real live perfectly formed creature, with little fingers and little toes, a person who looked to you for comfort, who relied on you for everything to stay alive, who showed her gratitude with those eyes peering back at you, by nuzzling in and curling up against you, by wrapping those tiny little fingers around your one big finger, how could he not fall in love the way I fell in love. But he didn’t. Kelly might as well have been a hamster in a cage that needed feeding or a cow that need milking. She only represented a mouth to feed, a diaper to be changed, a chore that needed doing. Not that Denny did those things for her. I did all of that. He explained to me that he was the wrong sex to be doing that type of thing. Men did not change diapers. That was all that was to it. Men just did not have the stuff it took to feed or care for babies.

It was a Sunday and I had spent the whole day taking care of Kelly while Denny sat around the house finding ways to ignore the fact of our existence. He knew that I wanted to go to that smelt fry. I told him about it earlier that week and let him know my family would be there, expecting me to show up. I came out to the kitchen to let him know it was time to get ready to go. I had already gotten dressed up, had my blue skirt on and my make-up and hair done. He just said he wasn’t going, said it like he was choosing chocolate ice-cream instead of vanilla. He turned to walk into the next room and picked up his guitar, closing me out the same as shutting a door in my face.

Denny’s guitar woke up Kelly who had been sleeping in the basinet not more than a foot away from where he sat hang-dogged over his guitar. I stood just inside the door watching from the kitchen, waiting to see if he would pick her up. I decided not to run to her like I usually would. Surely if I stayed put, he would see her there, right in front of him, her little crying snivels. How could he not do something for those cries? But he didn’t. He did not halter his playing on the guitar, not even a twitch came to his bony shoulder that stared blankly back at me, even while Kelly’s cries turned from sputters to full-out wails for help, he just kept on playing his guitar, head down, absolutely no reaction, nothing.

What little spunk I had in me would be worn out of me in the two years we remained married, my resolve quietly disolving like a setting sun, but there was still some of me left this early on in our marriage. I looked at this situation just long enough for the steam to build up in me. I exploded into the room with an energy that took over my usual easy-going nature, took over the place in me that could never say no, took over my shy quietness. Through clenched teeth I hissed loud enough to be heard over Kelly’s wailing, in a way that allowed no retort: “I am going to the smelt fry. You can stay home as long as that’s what you want and, as long as you’re staying here, you might as well take care of your daughter. If you hadn’t noticed, she is awake and needs to be changed and given a bottle. The bottle’s in the fridge, just warm it up, make sure it’s not too hot. It doesn’t take a brain scientist to figure this out. You can do it!” With that I left before the dust could settle.

I went to the smelt fry, but the entire time I was gone, I worried Denny was home doing nothing, just letting Kelly cry. After greeting all my relatives and making excuses for Denny not being with me, I went home early. Kelly was fed and diapered and asleep. He managed to do what needed to be done.  I knew though, I could not just leave her with him. She needed someone who loved her.  I would be the one Kelly would turn to in life, I would need to be there. I knew also, that I was trapped in this marriage, I was trapped the same way Denny felt trapped, like a skunk in a cage.

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