Champion Fish

A friend of mine has a habit of fishing for sea bass in the days leading up to the NBA Finals. He’d take his rod, bait, an ice-chest, and some beer out to the pier or a beach. Since he has to work during the day, he’s usually there by sundown and until the beer runs out. With any luck, he’ll catch all he needs in one sitting. Otherwise, he’d go back the next day, and then the next. He’s never not caught enough fish.

On the day of the game, my friend would have a few guests over to watch and serve fish as a kind of offering. Some would even show up early to help with the cooking. At first, he’d just grill the sea bass. Over time though he became skilled at other techniques: oven-roasted, steamed, sautéed, even soups, sometimes whole, other times not. There seems to be as many variations of preparing a fish for ingestion as there are of human death. With each passing year, as his skill increased, the meals became more extravagant and the fish more delicious. It was as if the fish sensed their predicament and prepared themselves just for the occasion.

The event itself is always a modest hit. The guests would place bets on the game, or debate the relative greatness of one of the teams. When the topic turns to food, they’d compliment my friend’s fishing ability, sometimes his cooking.

The fish are never as enthused as the guests though, to put it mildly. The entire process of being caught by a fisherman is frightening for the unprepared. Immediately after taking the bait, the fish has to commit its entire being to escape. To improve its odds of survival, its brain pulls blood away from its unsuspecting digestive system and into its muscular one. They’ll risk ripping their mouths off just for a chance to warn the others of the impending terror. Most don’t make it back. If they do, they die early from blood-loss or from shock.

Some resign themselves to their fate better than others, a few even going so far as to believing it an honorable way to die— a sacrifice to be made for the sake of the vast unknown. Or, in this case, the final match of the playoffs.

It’s always these enlightened fish that taste the best. Alex knows this, and routinely uses it to his advantage during the preparations. They’d be served on a large platter, surrounded by vegetables and seasoning, always during half-time and after the disciple fish have already been dismembered and devoured. Worthy treatment. Usually someone would go for the belly, cutting down and into its guts. Another would break off the head and offer it jokingly to the girls.

“The eyes are the best part!” He’d tease. Then he’d gouge them out for himself to eat.

The first time I came over was the year Kobe won his fourth championship ring. It was also the year that Alex learned the recipe for braising a fish whole. Dry it out. Lay it in a heated wok with oil and ginger. Add scallions, sugar, vinegar, wine, and soy sauce. It was red, like a statue made of bronze, or like it was lying in its own filth and blood. One glance and you could tell just by its severe posture that it was without fear and had been prepared to die. It was the best sea bass I’d ever eaten.

If you looked closely though at any ordinary fish, you’d sense despair, regret, but bravery nonetheless. Its meat tastes the way it does due to the desperate twisting and folding before the rigor mortis sets in.

With their various body parts disintegrating inside our digestive systems, we could focus our attention to the rest of the game. Shot-clock. 5, 4, 3, 2, … and then the presentation of the trophy, the roaring stadium. Soon after, everyone would return home.

Back at work, the thought of the fish would find its way to the surface of my conscience, like ghosts, distracting me from servitude for a moment. Who knows what kind of life they each had led? It would then return from where it came as effortlessly as it had appeared. After about a week, I’d forget about them completely until the next round of playoffs.