Plague Diary, Part 2: “Don’t come crying to me for any fish”

April 10, 2020

The first couple weeks of quarantine, I went out in the woods every day. This isn’t something specific to the pandemic; whenever it’s warm, I walk the parkway path to a patch of woods and murky creek near my house. I track deer, sometimes working my way close to the group of does that congregate down the hill every afternoon—a fact I learned a couple of years ago when I first started hanging around this part of the woods. Only one of them stomps, swings her head up and down at me; the rest stay where they are, legs folded, lying under low trees they stripped of bark in winter’s hunger.

In the woods, everything is normal. The rest of the world doesn’t exist, or appears only in trash clinging to branches and rocks in the creek. Everything back here has always felt post-apocalyptic to me: many parts of the Cleveland Metroparks were formerly landfill, and vintage shards of glass and china plates push their way up through the soil just the same as roots and reeds.

In the woods by my house is a spot I call Trash Bend. The creek twists away from the houses on the opposite hill and pushes against the property line of a nearby church; here, the garbage of the past is abundant. Big fragments of blue and white enamel mock the dull, overcast sky as they decay in the creekbed. Brown and green and cloudy-clear bottles litter the soil, accidental terrariums of moss and worms. Bricks lie helter-skelter, wedged into the mud. Half submerged in the creek and overgrown with thicket brush is a green car, vintage, crushed and busted. The taillights stare at me like fish eyes.

. . .

            One week into the social-isolation-shutdown-situation, my dad knocked on my side door. I opened it and he said, “You want a fish?”


He walked toward his car, and I followed. He was parked at the end of my driveway, the trunk of his powder-blue Mercury already popped. He pushed it up, rummaged in a bundle of plastic shopping bags, and pulled out a fish.

It was two feet long, fat and shimmery, with a streak of blood running from its mouth down the length of its pale belly. Even in death, it looked stunned: wide eyes, open mouth.

“So?” Dad prompted.


“You want me to put this in your freezer?”

“Honestly… No?”


“I don’t know what to do with it,” I said. “I don’t know how to like, cut it up and cook it.”

Dad shrugged and tucked the fish back into the bag. “OK then,” he said. “But in two weeks don’t come crying to me for any fish.”

“Why in two weeks?” I asked.

He didn’t answer. Instead he said, “Usually I don’t keep. Just catch. But there’s no meat in the stores.”

“Yeah, I know.” I crossed my arms in the chill. My dad was layered in fraying flannel, cargo pants, and a cap, as usual. A toothpick hung in the corner of his mouth, poking out beneath his gray cop mustache. I reminded him, “There’s more ways to get protein than just meat, you know. Anyway, you wouldn’t, like, die after two weeks as long as you had some kind of food.”

Dad shrugged again. He mostly subsists on hard boiled eggs, smokies, and sludgy bowls of pork and beans. Sometimes he eats a spoonful of mustard and turmeric and admonishes me that it’s good for the heart and that we should all be doing the same.

“Well,” Dad said now, “I guess there are plenty of wild critters we could eat. The deer in my backyard? I told your mom I’m gonna get my crossbow, and”—he squinted and motioned as if loosing an arrow—“phew!”


“Hey,” Dad asked, “You got a gun in the house? Patrick have a gun?”


“Hm.” He glanced around. “We’ll have to fix that.”

           . . .

            My dad’s grandma would have known exactly what to do with a fish. In her postage-stamp yard, my dad says, she’d grown an abundant garden of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. In the fall, she’d take fish guts from my dad and his cousins’ catches, sprinkle them with lye, and bury them in the garden rows. She knew how to dress, butcher, and cook any wild game the boys brought her, mostly squirrels and rabbits and unlucky mourning doves, the meat of which—my dad told me once, extending his thumb to demonstrate—is only so big. “But still,” my dad had said, “they’re good.”

The same afternoon my dad told me about the mourning dove meat, I wandered through cattails by the river and almost stepped on a dead deer. At first I jumped back because my foot had almost touched its open, exposed ribcage. Then I noticed it had no head.

I ran out and called Dad over to look.  “Do you think it was coyotes?” I asked.

“Ehh.” He leaned over it. I stood back so I wouldn’t have to look at it again. Sometimes my dad showed me cicada husks, flies keeled over on the windowsill, a monarch butterfly that had flown into our basement and died, wings splayed open, behind the computer desk. This time he didn’t force a closer examination. “Could be. Or people.”

On our way out of the woods, he showed me how to walk quietly on the twigs and leaves by rolling my footsteps from heel to toe. We practiced, listening to the noises of the woods around us and the distant swish of traffic along the parkway.

Something darted out from beside me: a rabbit. My dad leapt back. As the rabbit fled, I noticed he’d drawn the pistol he always carried on his hip. “Startled me,” he said.

. . .

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