Few places in this solar system are less habitable for human life than Austin in July. The average temperature hovers around 101, on a good day, and the humidity is so high that jogging and swimming are basically the same thing. On the plus side, you have Austin itself. Despite being disguised as one of hell's subbasements, it's a wonderfully strange city with the unofficial motto "Keep Austin Weird." While it probably wasn't intended as such, that slogan can sound a lot like a challenge if you're in the right frame of mind.
I found myself in just such a frame of mind over drinks with my friend Patrick a few summers back. We were nursing our second freezing cold glasses of Whiskeyaide (don't ask) when he mentioned that he'd never had the chance to hit a man in the face with a salmon. And then he mentioned that he'd always sort of wanted to. As it happened, so had I.
It would be easy to blame that decision on the whiskey, or heat stroke, so that's what I'll do. What's harder to explain is why we still thought it was a good idea the next morning, when we met at the giant air-conditioned MT Supermarket on Lamar. The MT was the largest Asian grocery store in the city, which meant they had a great selection of fish. They had the standards, like trout and salmon and bass, but they also stocked crazy things like monkfish and eels from time to time.
Patrick and I had settled on a few basic rules for our fish fight. First, each contestant was required to wield two fish to increase his stage appeal. And second, the only protective equipment allowed was a skirt.
Now would be a good time to remind you that Austin begs you from thousands of bumper stickers and T-Shirts to keep it weird. We were just honoring a request.
Both of us chose salmon for our main-hand weapons. But we were allowed free choice of the fish market for our off-hand. Swordfish javelins and lobster poniards were considered and discarded. Catfish were debated on and agreed against by mutual treaty. In the end, Patrick chose a monkfish, because its broad, bony head would act as a shield. I went with a belt fish, which worked surprisingly well as a sort of ersatz whip.*
The location was a public park in Austin. We arrived around noon, just as the "soggy blast furnace" part of the day was cooking off. The battleground was green and lush thanks to near-criminal overwatering. In the middle was a generic plastic playground set, with swings adjacent. Behind that was a cluster of tables filled by some students having a barbecue.
Seeing at least a handful of attractive young women made me temporarily regret the fact that I was wearing a skirt, but Patrick took this as an excuse to chat them up. They were surprisingly polite as he explained what we were doing here, and how the monkfish had required some alteration, since the inside of its throat was lined with rows of sharp teeth. Accepting an invitation from the skinny kid working the grill, we were poured two fingers of whiskey in red Solo Cups. Patrick and I saluted the group and then one another with a gulp of dark, peaty whiskey, walked a respectable distance away (if there is such a distance) and squared off.
I can't quite explain how one half-baked desire to slap a man in the face with a fish evolved into a contemporary pescatarian gladiatorial reenactment. Sometimes life is just like that. You have one idea, and then another idea and then you're bleeding in a field from dorsal fin punctures while an adorable 22-year-old girl squeals in terror.
The first thing you learn from a fish fight is that fish fins are basically made up of sharp little bone spines. When flung or slapped at people, they can easily puncture skin. I learned this as soon as my salmon connected with Patrick's forearm and left it bloody. He returned the stroke and I parried. The noise was a little like what happens when a water balloon hits a pail filled with Jell-O.
The second thing you learn from a fish fight is that monkfish are made of teeth. Entirely out of teeth. So when you overthrust and accidentally punch one in the face, the skin on your hand gets cut to ribbons.
The third thing you learn from a fish fight is that belt fish make awesome whips. And they give you reach, which is crucial when you're going up against a man armed with a monkfish.
We battled across the park, through a game of touch football, and finally, in a thrilling climax, we duked it out on both levels of the little playground fort. The duel came to its end on the sort of grassy knoll that other parts of Texas are so famous for. All the fin wounds had stiffened our fingers beyond reason.
As we dragged our fish out the way we came in, one of the girls from the barbecue ran up to me and asked, "What the hell was that?"
I answered, "That, my friend, is how we have fun in Austin."
"That didn't look like fun at all."
I laughed, "No, but later tonight, when you meet up with your friends on Sixth Street and tell them what you just witnessed, it will be freaking hysterical."
And I like to think it was.
*Please note that the fish purchased for this fight were all cooked and eaten. The meat was extraordinarily tender.