Earl’s Special Red Snapper

Illustration by Mike Lee

Earl wore overalls — as roughly 40 percent of Earls do — but kept a corncob pipe in his breast pocket, which elevated him to a rarefied status enjoyed by just three in every 100 Earls. Some people are born with the name Earl, but it doesn’t really matter. Where I come from, no matter what name you’re given at birth, if, after you retire, you wear the same pair of overalls every day, keeping the pockets rattling with a pound of loose change, a big ol’ wad of keys and a Buck knife, you’re legally required to change your name to Earl.

Or so I’d heard. This was, in fact, the first Earl I’d ever met who actually wore the standard-issue Earl uniform and spoke Earltalk: “Boy, I tell you . . .” and “Is that right?” and something else I can’t recall right now (not “Hoo-doggies” but something just as intense).

“A British nobleman ranking between a marquess and a viscount,” the Oxford English Dictionary insisted, but to us he was just Earl. Earl the Handyman, the Lawnman, that Yardfellow. Earl was the landlord’s friend who took care of the yard — just mowing the lawn, mostly; maybe uproot a weed or prune a branch every few months — at the small house my girlfriend and cat and I rented in Venice. His services were included — free! — with our rent.

Until the day when Earl announced that he would no longer be taking care of the yard. He did not say why. The lawn, however, continued to grow, so Earl said we could borrow his lawnmower as long as we brought it back when we were done. Every week or two, one or two of us would drive the mile or so to Earl’s apartment, stuff his hearty Toro lawnmower into our sedan, drive home, mow the lawn, stuff the lawnmower back into the sedan, drive back to Earl’s, listen to Earl talk about Earl for no less than 20 minutes in his incredibly hot and stuffy living room, then drive back home and recover with gin and with tonic, with lime.

One of these hot afternoons after we’d dropped off the mower with Earl and were hoping — please, God, just this once — to leave immediately, Earl asked us if we’d like to know how to make the best red snapper he’d ever tasted. Owing to Earl’s hollow, wide-eyed glare and substantial collection of chain saws (part of the whole Earl mystique), such offers were not to be even politely turned down.

Sometimes the grass chute would get clogged, but Earl’s stories were consistently the most toilsome part of mowing the lawn. The last time, it had been would we like to know why and how he re-upholstered the couch, who he got to advise him, how much the materials cost, how long it took him to raise the money, the name of his bank, which branch, the traffic on the way to the bank, finding a parking spot, the line inside, this one lady who really let the smart-mouthed teller have it and so on.

“Yes,” I said. “We would like to know how to make the best red snapper you’ve ever tasted.”

“Well then, what you want to do,” Earl began, reseating us on the couch and hunkering down intimately beside us (where others perch, Earls hunker down), “is, first you set your oven to 350 and just let it warm up and reach temperature. Then you take your fillet and wash it in cold water.

“Then you put it in a pan with some salt and pepper and a little bit of butter.

“Then you put the pan in the oven and leave it there for about 10 minutes.

“And when you take it out — boy, I tell you. That is the best-tasting red snapper you will ever have.”

* * *

By the time most of us retire, we won’t. Instead, Americans will be kept alive, like it or not, via monthly DNA-splicing procedures, which will supersede Social Security checks and keep us useful to our beloved corporations for 60 hours per week until death, at which time we’ll reduce to part time (with no benefits). Then, and only then, will we have time to cook a decent meal once a week or so, and Berkeley’s Searchable Online Archive of Recipes, with its thousands of explicit, free food-grooming instructions, will keep our corpses fit and our spirits happy.

The Toro Co., manufacturer of nature-tweaking devices since 1914, has created a convenient cartoon Earl to help you tend to your summer-roasted lawn. Earl, the Yard-Care Answer Guy, is prepared to tell long stories of grass, bugs, soil, weeds and watering, as well as answer most lawn-care–related queries with Ask Jeeves– style obliquity.

Properly tiled, a lovely red snapper —appearing neither happy nor sad, neither dead nor alive —JPEG from Dockside Seafood in North Palm Beach, Florida, fulfills the federal desktop-background requirement for Earls.


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