Big Al’s Sure-Fire Smoked Fish
by Neil Harrison
Al was out on his porch when I swung into his driveway. In the yard next door some guy in cargo shorts and aviator glasses was trying to keep up with a self-propelled mower. I gave the guy a wave when I got out, but he didn’t acknowledge the gesture. I climbed the porch stairs, pointed a thumb his way and asked Al, “Who’s that?”
I nodded. “Well, I gave a wave, but he didn’t seem impressed.”
“Pretty focused on mowing. I imagine he didn’t see you.”
“Might be he’s a little aloof,” I said. “Could be you got Tom Cruise there under those Top Gun glasses.”
“Yeah?” Al raised his brows and glanced over. “Seems ol’ Tom’s let himself go some.”
I glanced at the spare tire riding the handle of that self-propelled and nodded. “Does seem like he’s left off shootin’ down MIGs and took to shootin’ down beers and cheeseburgers.”
Al nodded. “Regular ace, I imagine.”
I nodded too. “Survivor of many a Big Mac attack.”
“And duly prepared to engage in another.”
When his mower finally pulled the new neighbor out of sight behind his house, Al said, “I probably should be out there mowing myself, but I watered the lawn this morning.”
I glanced down at my shoes, then back at the grass I’d come through on my way to the porch.
“Don’t seem wet.”
Al tossed his head. “Out back.”
“So,” I said, catching a familiar scent in the air, “you get them fish smoked last night?”
“Yeah.” Al reached for a plate on a TV tray behind him and proffered a half dozen dried-out pieces of dark matter. “Try some.”
I tried to picture smoked carp on that plate, but what first came to mind was a far cry from fish. “Well…uh…I just ate.”
“It’s eleven o’clock.” Al gave the plate a shake.
“Yeah…I had a big breakfast.”
“They ain’t bad.” Al took a piece with his free hand. “I’ve been snacking all morning.” He bit off a fair chunk.
“Yeah, they look…alright…just maybe a mite dry.”
Al gave what seemed a series of little nods, possibly just a result of his efforts to chew. “Might be just a little overdone.”
I nodded along. “You follow that recipe I gave you?”
“To the letter.”
I shook my head. “Always worked fine for me. Sure you didn’t diverge some from the recipe?”
Al looked over again at his new neighbor just reappearing alongside his house. “Well…” he started.
And I had my answer right there, but he proceeded, “You know the wind came up at some point last night, and I think things might’a got a little hotter than the recipe suggests.”
I nodded. “If I recall rightly, it said to start at around 140 degrees Fahrenheit and slowly increase the temperature over five or six hours to 180. A little wind shouldn’t’ve made much difference. What happened? Cool down your fire some, so you notched it up a bit?”
“Well, not exactly. I was sticking right to the recipe but, you know, wind’s an act of god. There’s really no way of predicting or preventing some things. You know, I think a lot depends on the smoker you’re using.”
“Yeah,” I nodded, “That’s why I told you to come and get mine. It’s propane, and you can pretty well control the heat.”
“Well, I’d’ve stopped over and got it, but—”
“You ended up using that old charcoal burner of your uncle’s, huh?”
“Yeah, well…something like that.”
“What’a ya mean?”
“Well,” Al began, as his new neighbor moved out of sight again. “I went over to Uncle Henry’s, but he wasn’t home. He’d told me to go ahead and use his smoker anytime I wanted, though, so I got the key from Aunt Martha and went out back to the shed.”
Al turned to me. “You got any idea how much junk a man can stuff into a ten-by twelve shed?”
“Well, I couldn’t find up from down in there. I looked around for ten minutes, and finally, way back against the far wall, I spot this big cardboard box with Original Big Chief printed on the front. So I eventually maneuvered my way back there, got it out and headed for home.”
“That Big Chief’s a charcoal burner. Too hard to control the heat. A stiff wind’s pretty sure to get things too hot.”
“Yeah.” Al nodded. “It sure is.”
I shook my head. “Next time come and get my propane burner.”
We heard a hearty “Hydee Ho” then, and Roy, Al’s neighbor on the other side, waved from his front porch. We waved back, and he headed over.
“How ya’ doin’ Norm?” he said, coming up the steps.
“Good,” I said. “How’ve you been, Roy?” We shook hands.
Roy nodded, “Real good.” Then he turned to Al. “Everything turn out alright?”
“You bet,” Al said, and he reached for that plate again. ‘Try some.”
Roy held up a hand, “Ah, I don’t want to cut you short there.”
“Nah,” Al said, giving the plate a shake. “I’ve had my share. You go ahead. They didn’t turn out bad at all.”
Roy picked up a piece and took a bite. I eyed his demeanor, but there was no radical change.
“Whaddaya think?” Al asked.
“Ain’t half bad,” Roy said. “Way better than a guy’d expect.”
Al nodded, “They’re okay once you get the black scratched off.” He swung the plate my way. “Go ahead. Try some.”
I shrugged, figuring they must be better than they looked. I picked out the smallest piece and took a bite. It was plenty dry alright, but the flavor was all there. “Not bad.”
“Well,” Al said. “Guess I stumbled onto a quicker method of smoking fish.”
“Damn quick,” Roy said with a grin. “Just don’t kick the bucket in the process.”
“And make sure you’ve got a neighbor with a hundred-foot hose,” Al added, clapping a hand on Roy’s shoulder.
They both chuckled. Then Al picked on up on his story where he’d left off—heading home with the Original Big Chief out of his uncle’s shed.
“Well, like I was saying, I finally got that Big Chief box out of the shed and brought it back here. Then I fired up a bucket of charcoal and let it burn down good while I soaked a coffee can full of hickory chips. And I was all ready to go. Just needed a grill to put the fish on and—”
“Wasn’t there a grill with the Big Chief?” I interrupted.
Al shook his head. “Had to use the grill from my barbeque.”
“Surprised it fit.”
“Well, I had to adapt a bit.”
I grinned. “Your Uncle Henry must’ve found another use for the smoker grill and wasn’t gonna try working his way back into that shed.”
“Yeah. He must’ve found another use for the smoker too,” Al said. “All I got outta the shed was that Big Chief box.”
“What?” I said. “A cardboard box? What the hell did you plan to do with that?”
Al held up a hand. “If you think about it, all a smoker really does is hold your smoke while your fish slow-cooks over the coals. So I just cut a couple of slots for the grill, put the fish on it, opened up the bottom of the box, and set the whole works over that bucket of coals with the wet chips thrown on top. Only problem then was not enough draft. So I put a couple of sticks under the box to bring it up an inch or so. And I was all set, fish cooking nice and slow, box holding the smoke real good, everything just the way you’d want.”
“’Til the wind come up,” Roy noted.
“Yeah,” Al nodded. “Then the wind came up.”
“I saw the flames,” Roy said. “Heard a helluva commotion out back and went to the window. Must’a been around midnight.”
“That sounds right,” Al said. “When I saw things flare up, I ran out the back, smack into the bucket of water I’d set out before dark for just such an emergency. And just then the wind took that box up and across the yard.”
I shook my head. “A wonder you didn’t burn the whole damn neighborhood down.”
Roy chuckled. “I saw Al hopping around cussing and thought he’d burned his foot.”
“I was trying to get my toes straightened back out after slamming into that worthless bastard of a water bucket now laying there empty and useless.”
“So I ran outside, got the hose turned on and strung around my garage. Too late for your uncle’s box. It was nothing but a pile of red embers in that yard to the east,” Roy explained.
I looked from Roy to Al and shook my head again.
“Well, it was quick work,” Al said. “Roy got those flaming fish skins put out in no time.”
Roy nodded, “Yeah, I guess things worked out alright. Anyway, your fish came out okay.” He raised his chin to the east, where the guy mowing was making another pass along his house. “Not sure about the new neighbor though.”
Al shook his head. “Saw him run out in his pajamas and slippers to stomp out those embers in his yard. Shot us a wild look, turned and went back inside with nary a word. It’s possible he’s a bit put out.”
I shook my head. “I wouldn’t wonder.”
“Well,” Roy said. “There was no need for him to call the fire department like that. He must’a seen we had things under control.”
“Well,” Al said, “he’s new here. Ain’t got to know the neighborhood yet. Probably a little on edge right now, just moved in and all. No doubt things are a tad different here than in Omaha. I figure he’ll come around once he gets to know us.”
Roy nodded, “I imagine.”
Al shook the plate again then, and Roy took up a piece of fish. I shrugged and reached for another piece myself. It was dry sure enough, but smoked to perfection.
Neil Harrison’s stories have appeared most recently in Paddlefish, Platte Valley Review, and Pinyon Review. His poetry collections include In a River of Wind, Into the River Canyon at Dusk, Back in the Animal Kingdom, and Where the Waters Take You. He formerly taught English and Creative Writing and coordinated the Visiting Writers Series at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska, where he now lives with his third drahthaar, the Happy dog.