Bagpipes and Pan Fried Smelts
by Ted Radakovic
During March and April, men line the shore of Lake Michigan and cast their nets into the dark cold waters for small fish called Smelts. Spring nights can be cruel reminders of Chicago winters. Icy winds race across a hundred miles of Lake Michigan and arrive angry, and all the raging fires in fifty gallon steel drums offer little comfort.
When he was young, Leo Carnovsky’s father dragged him along. “How could this be fun?” he wondered. Cold, hungry, tired and no end in sight. He vowed that if he had a son, he would never subject him to such an ordeal.
“I’m hungry. Are you hungry? What do you feel like eating?” Leo asks. Before I can answer he tells me, “Jimmy Dupree caught a pile of Smelts and dropped them off last night. You feel like having some Smelts? They’re already cleaned.”
“Jesus, I’d love some.”
“Sure you don’t want to stretch out for a while?” he asks. “You look beat.”
He grabs the pot and warms our coffee. “Lewis thinks grief promotes the appetite.”
“Me too,” I agree.
“You don’t think its too early?”
“For what?” I ask.
Bowls with beaten eggs, flour and bread crumbs spiced with salt, pepper, cayenne, garlic and oregano line the counter. Leo starts by dipping the fish in eggs and flips them into the bowl of flour. I swirl them around and toss them back into the bowl of eggs like I used to when I was a kid in this very kitchen. Leo removes the Smelts from the eggs and drops them in the bowl of bread crumbs. Then into the oil. In minutes, that familiar smell fills the room. With every deep delicious breath comes a rush of childhood memories. While the fish sizzles in hot oil, he slices tomatoes and lemons and whips up a batch of tartar sauce. Just fish, tomatoes and bread. Perfect.
It’s crazy ... the things that pop into your mind at times like this. I don’t usually pay much attention to shoes, but I can’t help notice Leo’s. It’s the first thing that catches my eye when I see him this morning. “Nice shoes,” I say.
“You like those?” he asks.
“Yeah. They look comfortable.”
“Lewis bought them for me.”
“Lewis bought you shoes?”
As I’m lamenting the fact that I never did something like that for my father … buy him a pair of comfortable shoes, Nathan Saulky walks into the kitchen one step behind his knock. For him, casual dress means a loose tie. But even in his fine tailored suit, silk tie and hand made Italian shoes, he looks terrible. Tired and drawn. Since Anna Vukovich’s father died, Nathan stepped in and looked after her. If she got a traffic ticket, he went to see Henry at the ward office to be sure it didn’t go on her record. He even went to court with her. Nathan couldn’t have been a better friend. He helped her arrange her entire funeral, from flowers to the memorial dinner. She insisted on leaving enough money on account with him to pay for it all. “I don’t want to owe anything … especially for my funeral,” she told him. Her funeral. He never thought … .
“Smelts,” he declares and drops his brief case before squeezing the air out of me. Leo pours a cup of coffee as Nathan dips a fish into the bowl of tartar sauce and devours it.
“Nobody makes Smelts like you Leo.”
But even Leo’s fried Smelts aren’t enough to make us feel better. Nathan gets up from the table and walks out to the back yard to collect himself. In a few minutes he returns. Crying is like laughing ... infectious ... once one person starts ...
“She want’s pipers,” Nathan says.
“Bagpipes?” Leo asks.
“Yeah. Anna loved bagpipes. She once told me the Scots were the only people who knew how to go to war ... ‘naked and greased down in the middle of a chilled night behind the sounds of pipes.’ She said at one time, the English banned bagpipes in Ireland because they felt they were too provocative. She had a favorite quote. I’ll never forget it: ‘Their mournful cry has led many men to their death and lifted the souls of those left behind.’ Jesus these Smelts are good Leo.”
“Thank you. Lewis is gonna be pissed that he missed out.”
“Don’t tell him.”
“Of course I’m gonna tell him. He should have been here.”
“Sax, is that your car in the driveway?” Nathan asks.
“It’s too good for him,” Leo grumbles.
“I know,” Nathan agrees. “I didn’t see any french fries and pop cans on the floor, that’s why I asked if it’s his.”
“You have to take care of an automobile like that Sax.”
“I know Leo.”
“I know who’s driving to the cemetery,” Nathan says.
We finish one more round of Smelts, straighten up the kitchen and pile into my car. A new Mercedes Benz convertible. There’s a story behind this car but not now. The service at Saint Savas Serbian Orthodox Church goes on forever. Finally we pile back into the car and head up Lakeshore Drive. It’s a perfect day for a funeral ... damp misty air chilled by stiff breezes. Huge mud colored waves crash against break waters.
We follow the procession through the gates of Calvary, an enormous sprawling cemetery that rests at the northern-most edge of the city. The damp icy wind and painful strain of the pipers accompany Anna to her final resting place. Nothing prepares you for this part. Our farewells.
As we walk back to the car, Lewis reaches for my car keys and asks, “what time’s the memorial dinner tonight?”
“Seven,” Leo says.
“Seven. Jesus. I’ll starve by then,” Lewis complains.
“You should have stayed home and had Smelts with the rest of us,” Leo scolds.
“You had Smelts?”
|Ted Radakovic was educated at the Art Institute of Chicago, Goodman Theatre and the University of Memphis. Home is Tarpon Springs, Florida where he cooks and writes.|
Photo used under Creative Commons.