When I was a kid, we had a large fish tank on our kitchen bar counter. This was one of those rectangular, shabby-looking tanks which can also double as a hamster cage, and was mostly populated by the five-cent goldfish that aspiring poor people buy. I’m pretty sure my parents had it as an alternative form of entertainment, being that our television at the time only had six channels – and four of those were letters. No joke. Also, because I had a burst of industriousness at age 6 and decided to “wash” the back of the television, the only colors on the screen were red, white, and black. Mr T from “The A-Team”? He was black. Hannibal was red, though. Even the army green of M*A*S*H was red. To make matters worse, my parents had removed the knob from the “on” button on the set, ostensibly in an effort to keep us from watching a red-colored Benny Hill running around with scantily clad crimson women while they went on their evening walk. Too bad for them my teenage siblings discovered that needle-nosed pliers are a perfect tool for turning on broken sets, and we spent many blissful, stolen minutes watching the delightful Mr. Hill and other shows with corruptive potential, such as “The Jeffersons” or “WKRP In Cincinnati” (Gasp!).
But I digress. In our fish tank was a black fish (I’m pretty sure he cost 10 cents. My parents must have been feeling rich that day) named General Lee. Don’t get excited – he wasn’t named after the tough muscle car of “Dukes Of Hazzard” fame. Nope. He was named after THE General Lee. As in Robert E. My dad is a history buff. Specifically, the Civil War. I know this sounds exotic and all, but if you had spent the bulk of your childhood vacations at Florida’s Civil War sites such as Olustee and Dade Battlefields, you wouldn’t be as impressed. Trust me when I tell you that when you’ve seen one mosquito-infested pine forest, you’ve seen them all. I mean, the park rangers did their level best, but the only emotion I ever felt when I looked at the displays of stuffed Florida wildlife (and what does this consist of, seriously? A raccoon and a turtle? Maybe an anorexic-looking panther? Sigh) was a deep and abiding sadness that I wasn’t born somewhere more, well, real.
At any rate, this fish – General Lee – had an alarming (and entertaining) habit of occasionally leaping out of the tank and onto the counter. I’m not sure how many times he pulled this Greg Louganis move, but at least enough times to guarantee him a spot in our family history. I was reminded of this leaping black fish on Friday when we went kayaking – and while holding a flimsy bait bucket full of live shrimp on my lap, one of those little buggers decided to do a triple sow-cow into the air and land right on my crotch. I would like to say that I had my “Mama-Is-Awesome” face on, that I carelessly flicked it away with a slightly-annoyed look on my face. But, since we all know that liars go directly to Hell, I will admit without shame that I screamed. I screamed in that prolonged, high-pitched bloody-murder shriek that only little girls can do. I mean, seriously, what the hell??? I was already a bit freaked out by the contents of the bait bucket – to be frank, I sort of felt a little out of breath when I opened the lid for the first time and looked inside. There were 24 LIVE shrimp in there. And they all had eyes…which were looking directly at me. Plus, there was some weird ball-shaped grey matter inside their shell which The Dude assured me was a brain but I’m pretty sure was either a) shrimp poop, b) intestines, or c) a little beating shrimp heart (which makes me wonder – do shrimp have brains? Or a heart? Or the sudden, uncontrollable urge to LIVE, Damnit!?). I was also mildly disturbed by the thought lurking in the back of my mind that, mmmm…these guys would look really good in some golden tempura batter with a side of sweet chili sauce.
So the wet shrimp is in my crotch, I am screaming like a psych patient who mated with a Banshee, the kids are staring in silent amazement at their mother’s cowardice, and The Dude is doubled over in hysterics while simultaneously attempting to steer the vehicle and hold the bait bucket that I am about to toss out the window. It was, in short, not my finest hour.
I think, though, that I did manage to redeem myself as the evening wore on. The “General Lee” shrimp ended up on the van’s floor mat until I gritted my teeth and forced myself to pick him up and return him to his salty brethren. Then I took children #2 and #4 out in the kayak – way out, to where it gets kind of deep and creepy and you have the profound awareness that more life is circling below the surface than the human mind cares to contemplate – and enjoyed some quiet talk with each of them (I might add that I used all my best nautical terms as frequently as possible that night – boat channel, tide, prow, windward, poop deck. I mostly just jumbled them up in random sentences. The kids were suitably impressed). Then I returned to shore, dragging my kayak through the muck like Bear Grylls on a good day, and helped the kids fish for seaweed. I did have a brief conversation with myself at the bait bucket (this was witnessed by child #2. Luckily he is just as weird as me, so he wasn’t phased in the slightest) about not letting fear rule my life, it’s just a shrimp after all and it doesn’t even have something with which to bite/sting/mangle me so get your ass together and bait the damn hook already!!!!! And, I’m proud to say, I did it. I reached into that bait bucket, pulled out a shrimp, and stuck it on my line. Yes, it was the smallest, least offensive, and most dead-looking of the bunch. And no, I didn’t catch anything. Except maybe the slightest sliver of confidence that maybe, one day, I can be more of the Mama I always wanted to be.