My father splits a dead bream with a long line that zips and zags over the gray belly. He hands me his gutting knife and says to remove each pink coil, as it slowly pops through the incision.
"Just stick the blade in and twist," he says.
"That's all?" I say.
He nods and puts a hand on the Styrofoam cooler to my left. Some of the more resilient fish my father snagged still jumble inside and try to tip the container, like doing so will free them from our make-shift death row and back into Lake Jocassee.
"And if I screw up?" I say.
"It's just perch," he says.
I insert the steel blade, and my father watches as the bream's body empties onto the cleaning table where, after several fish, a small pile has formed. Nervous, I mimic the same motions I've seen him perform for years.
Every Sunday of my life he's walked miles down our road, carrying nothing but a hand-net. His goal, to stay several hours at the nearest pier. When mother lived with us, she and I would wait on the porch for my father to return, sunset enrapturing him and a Lifoam icebox he carried, less than a third of the way full.
Mother always shook her head and said, "There ain't a chance he caught something with just that net again."
But each time, he'd stand in our backyard until the moon rose, while he scaled and filleted each fish and threw its remaining organs to the neighbor's dog. Mother would watch from behind a kitchen window. She'd see him take tan strips of flesh and rinse them under a hose before he threw the pieces into a Ziploc bag for later. When her patience waned, mother would open the glass.
"Come to bed," she'd say.
"When all the fish are cleaned," he'd say.
My father would walk inside an hour later and kiss me goodnight, his eyes full with tears. I didn't know, then, that he caught less fish than he said. Or that his staying up all night and days spent alone were because of something else. Nothing occurred to me until mother rented a U-Haul on my thirteenth birthday and loaded her things inside, a month before she filed the divorce. She came to absolutely loathe my father's fish.
Sometimes, mother would take his bags from the freezer and beat every icy fillet with a spoon. Others, she'd spit on my father's plate when he left the dinner table for the bathroom. She thought he saw the fish as an alternative to her, that my father would rather cover himself in blood and innards. I imagine these moments, now, as he shows me the way to remove sheets of the bream's feathery flesh.
"That's it," my father says. "I think you've got the gist."
I finish the one fish, and he washes the meat with the garden hose. My father finishes, bags the fillet, and walks to the cooler, where the other bream have begun to surrender. I can hear their desperate thumps less and less.
"A live one?" I say.
I watch as he opens the top and tries to grab the larger of the few fish remaining, its back fins unfolded into small needles. My father forces a finger in the bream's mouth and pins the fish to the cutting-board. The silver body presses against his skin. It stares into the sun and the glare of my father's blade as he fits the rubber grip into his free hand.
"When they act like this," he says, bringing the knife down just below the gills, "all you have to do is chop off the head."