Whiting has been called the “hot dog of the sea” because it’s so cheap. But fishermen love this tasty sport fish because it grabs the lure hard and puts up a good fight.
My father said, “Every Sunday morning while your mother lies across town dying, I will make you fried whiting, grits, and cat’s head biscuits to make up for telling a judge that you weren’t mine. Something to fill your thirty-three-year-old belly for that time I tried to pass you off as my little sister to my new girlfriend, when you were three. A hearty breakfast for those times when you were in grade school and I took you to bars and fed you french fries with ketchup, as you fed quarter after quarter into the pinball machine while I drank bottle after bottle of pink Champale. Some Southern hospitality for asking you to call other women Mama. A home-cooked meal for that time I got you a car but didn’t make the payments so the repo man tracked you down at college and took it back. Something to stick to your ribs for those times when I said I would come pick you up, take you to the fair, give you lunch money, but didn’t.”
My father said, “I already buttered the grits and the biscuits for you. You know how to pick the bones out the whiting, don’t you?”
I do the math, the brittle calculus that this fatherless girl has learned: Take the value of the car my father did not actually buy me, subtract 33 percent rage because the repo man kept his gun holstered. Add five figures in unpaid child support, then carry the time he bragged to me, “I got me a white girl.” The answer equals exactly six Sundays’ worth of breakfasts, a fraction of what it cost me to gather up the pieces of a girl, shattered like broken seashells gathered from the sands of the ocean floor.
My father said, “This is your inheritance. Spread it like a balm on your broken heart: some fried whiting, some grits, and cat’s head biscuits. You know, they call them cat’s head biscuits because they are as big around and fluffy as a cat’s head.”
I did not know that.
For thirty-three years, I put up a good fight. But my mother lies dying across town. Cancer rages and, believing that I must always be looked after in this world, my mother has asked my father to make things right with me. And she has asked me to let him.
She does not, however, give us a blueprint for this.
So come Sunday morning, I eat breakfast at my father’s house. I come again and again until my mother dies one August morning. Then I travel a thousand miles back to my other life, the life I left behind to be with my mother as she transitioned while riding upon wave after wave of our laughter spiked with Dilaudid, from this world to the next, after fifty-two short years.
I go back to my life with two wide-eyed daughters and a soon-to-be-ex-husband, a man who is a prized blue marlin of a father.
By December, my father will also be dead. A massive stroke. I don’t know this during those six Sunday morning breakfasts. I simply enjoy. I close my eyes and tell myself this is what love tastes like. Every bone in the whiting is an apology. Every grain of the grits, an apology. The cat’s head biscuit, a mound of apologies. Everything my father does not say.
Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the 2020/21 Story Prize, and the 2020 Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies focuses on Black women, sex, and the Black church, and is being adapted for television by HBO Max with Tessa Thompson executive producing. Deesha is also a Kimbilio Fellow and the 2022–23 John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. More at deeshaphilyaw.com.
This essay originally appeared in Slush Pile Magazine #23 (2018).