Printer’s Ink and Fresh Carp

“Could you not. . .?”

“What?”

“You know. Would you mind if you didn’t. . . . sort of . . . like. . . you know?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

I let her go ahead and wrap it. I’d bought of bar of holistic/designer/artesian/goat’s milk/lavender-scented/rather ugly soap at an antique mall, and true to the old traditional ways the clerk was about to wrap my purchase in a sheet of newspaper. That’s okay. I like newspapers. But she was going to wrap it in my Source column. Somehow that didn’t quite seem right.

As she wound my words around the bar of soap I thought of Meredosia. When I was young we’d travel to Dosh to buy fresh fish at a little market just south and east of the bridge. My parents had traveled with brother Keith and I to all 48 contiguous states just to say we’d been everywhere, but none of these far-off destinations could match the pure awe and magic of the Meredosia fish house. It was a wonderland of sights and most especially, smells. The place didn’t just smell of fish, the aroma exploded in our young nostrils. And right there before our adolescent eyes we could look down into the big steel water tanks and see the monsters swimming around. . . bullheads, largemouth bass, saugers, crappie, catfish, and most gloriously the giant buffalo that had to be held in their own special tank for fear they’d terrorize all the other fish. I liked fish, sure, and Mom knew just how to fry them up, but no taste of fried fish could match the thrill of standing there with my eager eyes over a tank of these Illinois River monsters. Mom or Dad would point to the fish they wanted and a heavily tattooed Doshburger would stick his bare hand into the water and pull out the fish, still wriggling. At this point the customer had a choice of taking it home alive or subjecting it to the blunt end of a hammer. We always begged Dad to let us take it home still wriggling, but Mother would have none of that so we stood there while Mr. Fishmonger sent Mr. Buffalo to glory. . . or wherever fish go.

Then the fish man (Dad thinks his name was Edlin) would wrap the recently deceased catfish or crappie in newspaper and I got to hold it in my lap all the way back to Perry with that heavenly smell permeating the car, my shirt, and a good deal of the north end of Pike County. Blissful. Fantastic. And this was the only time I ever really read a newspaper at that age. I’d sit there looking at the odiferous parcel in my lap and see how many words I could read before the liquid residue from the Illinois River and the carp’s brains had soaked the newsprint into a black oblivion, secretly hoping that the fish guy hadn’t conked the thing hard enough and that he’d start wriggling again in my lap.

There are those of us who remember the days when nearly everything purchased at a store was wrapped in newsprint, and if you’re like me, you miss that. T-bones, tomatoes, pork chops, stalks of celery. Sure, you might have to wipe a bit of the funny pages off your roast before you put it in the oven, but to my elementary taste buds that only hyped the deliciousness.

Years later the newspapers gave way to butcher paper, those large brown rolls that hung above the head of a your local butcher. Harry Read could reach up without even looking and snap off a chunk of exactly the right size, then with the speed of a magician wrap the four sirloins, reach up again to snag the gigantic coil of string, do a double knot and snap the string in the blink of an eye. It was a work of art, a lost art. Today’s plastic bag thingies that now litter our highways and choke our turtles are a sad substitute for a hank of paper and an arm’s length of string. Last summer I went into a store at St. Louis’s Laclede’s Landing to buy a pair of red socks. You can’t get size 12 red socks just anywhere. As I went to check out the clerk snatched a page of the St. Louis Post Dispatch and wrapped my purchase then tied it with butcher’s string. It nearly brought tears to my eyes.

So it was with mixed nostalgia and angst that I watched the lady take the page from the Source and wrap my last column around a bar of soap. I guess it could have been worse . . . a fish.

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