You first noticed how father and son crossed the street: holding hands with the boy struggling to free himself from this grip while the father held ever firm, telling the boy in a low gruff voice to quit clowning around. You next noticed how the two looked nothing alike. The boy’s sandy blond hair and bright blue t-shirt and Hawaiian style shorts compared with his father’s black hair, his flannel shirt and mud-spotted blue jeans and mud-caked work boots. In fact, upon reflection to call them father and son seemed a hasty assumption, though their handholding and the fishing poles the father carried under his free arm seemed proof enough.
Yes, the father was very aware of their distinct physical differences and every day for eight or nine years he’d asked himself if there was anything to it. However, in his heart he believed the boy his or else he would not have chided his wife daily for those eight or nine years about bringing another man’s son into the world.
On that opposite side were various shops and bars and the boy lagged behind gazing into these shops, the candies and power tools and dresses. The material world seemed an impossible delight to the poor child and every encounter with this delight swelled his heart. He was not greedy in his poverty, no, only enchanted by the unknown, as the unknown once enchanted great men. To the poor child everything acquirable was part of the same mysterious ambition—the shop window the threshold of the unknown. Because the explorer is bold, in one part of the heart the child believed someday he will own all those things, but because the explorer must have awareness, in the rest of his heart he understood his father’s lot was generally his.
“You coming?” his father shouted from the end of the block.
The boy nodded and went running to catch up only to stumble over his loose sneaker laces, his momentum carrying him limply to the sidewalk like a freed puppet. His father came running, his voice almost motherly with concern until he saw the problem, his blue eyes sharp.
“Tie them right can’t you?” The boy fumbled with the laces enough so the father’s face softened some and he began to stoop. “You probably don’t know—”
“I know how to tie my shoes!”
“Then do it right!” He stood straight while giving his son a playful swat across the back of the head. The boy bent over and double laced them and tried triple lacing but this failed and soon they were moving along again with the boy lagging.
“Why are we even walking?” the boy said.
“It’s ridiculous to not drive,” the boy said stringing out the syllables as rid-i-cu-lous.
They stopped walking outside a pet shop and the father looked down hard at his son. How much has she told him? Puppies wiggled and yipped in the glass behind them as he squinted, leveling the gaze right into the boy’s eyes. The boy smiled almost cockily.
“That whole business,” the father said. “That whole business probably went down a little different than what you heard.”
“I heard you broke the car.”
“Against a tree.”
The father licked his bottom lip and then again. Cars passed slowly.
“That is also true,” the father admitted. He held up both his hands. “You got me.”
“How do you even do that!” the boy said with genuine sounding awe.
The father told the boy how he’d been in the country and hit on a loose patch of gravel and how he was gonna write the county and maybe sue their asses—
“You liar! Mamma says you were tanked.”
He took his son’s hand a little roughly and they walked toward a brick building with black tinted windows advertising “Beer-Bait-Tackle-Cheese.”
“Why’re we going in here?” the boy asked with a crumpled up face as if he smelled something putrid.
“You need worms to catch fish, knucklehead,” and his father feathered up his hair with another playful cuff on the back of the head.
Inside was dark and quiet and cavernous with a pool table and a bar. The bartender watched the Brewers on a muted television above the bar. It seemed the only light came from the television and the florescent light throbbing over the fish tank filled with green water and semi-belly up minnows at the end of the bar. At the far end of the room stood two glass refrigerators filled with red and yellow wheels and half-wheels of cheddar and Colby cheese and if one went closely they realized the white wheels were plastic containers filled with maggots and grubs in sawdust.
The father took his son to the bar. The bartender gave an almost inaudible grunt when he saw the father.
“Dale,” the bartender said as if preparing to reprimand and then he noticed the boy and said, “Whatever it is, make it quick.”
“A box of nightcrawlers and a Leinies—”
The bartender began to object.
“And a root beer here for my son. The kid is flat-out parched. You’ll do him the favor, won’t you Harley?”
The bartender grunted and then stooped below the bar before coming back up with a large Styrofoam cooler. He opened this with a slow, almost religious care, fingered the black dirt and glistening brown bodies packed tight before scooping them bare-fingered into a smaller Styrofoam container. He tied this with twine in a neat bowtie and set this on the beer-smudged bar top. His fingers peppered with dirt, the bartender opened Dale’s Leinies before wiping them on a wet rag and opening the root beer. He slid them both across the bar in an easy flick of the wrist.
“Also,” Dale began, “we need ourselves a bucket.”
“A bucket,” the bartender said flatly.
“What the hell you what a bucket for?”
“The fish, you dumbass.”
The bartender straightened up. “You want to get the hell out my store?”
Both hands up then and Dale apologized as if to the Queen Mother. The boy sat and watched all this with wide amused eyes while tipping back the root beer for a long easy gulp.
“There’s no buckets for you here, that’s for sure,” the bartender said.
“Then where we gonna put those fish?”
Tipping a wink to the boy, the bartender hunkered down and then came up with a plastic zip-lock bag of medium size and tossed this onto the bar.
Without answering, the bartender added five cents onto the total for the bag and told Dale to pay up, finish his beer, and clear out. Then the bartender returned to his baseball game.
Dale took the bag in his hands. “Christ,” he said. “It’s all fucked up.” He looked at his son. “You sort of need a bucket.”
The boy’s eyes lit up. “Then we can’t go?”
“We’ll make do.”
“Why are we even going? This is so dumb!”
The bartender cheered at a double play and Dale watched the replay while seeming to consider his son’s opinion.
“No,” Dale finally said. “You’ll see. It’ll be one of the best times of your life.”
His son snorted and said that was dumb.
“You—” Dale paused with hand in midair and then wrapped it back around the bottle now warming. “You watch yourself,” he said before tipping it back. “My dad took me fishing the first time when I was about your age. A little younger.”
“Yeah?” His little fingers peeling at the root beer labels and then flicking at the paper. Dale didn’t much notice the mess his son made. He was talking again.
“Sure. And it was maybe the best time I ever had. We caught a couple whoppers—a couple real maneaters you wouldn’t believe—boy they don’t make ‘em like that anymore—those suckers must’ve been ten pounds each.”
The bartender cast a quick amused glance at Dale and then returned to his game. The boy caught this glance and said, “You’re full of it.”
The slap came as a cold sharp crack dealt without warning or thought and the boy’s eyes lit up with shock.
Dale started saying something about knocking the boy into next week but the bartender’s hand was on his arm now.
“You’ll want to clear out of here,” the bartender said. “You okay kid?”
The boy nodded.
“He’s your father though?”
The bartender considered this for a moment with his hand locked onto Dale’s bicep. Dale said nothing. Something squeezed his throat and he struggled to breathe. The bartender told Dale if he came in there again he’d take personal pleasure in tossing him out. And he said something’s about how Dale was lucky he didn’t give him what he just gave his kid and that grown men had no business messing with kids and he’d been raised like that and it made him sick to see spineless bums picking on their kids. Yes, he said a lot of things Dale didn’t much hear. Instead, he focused on the squeezing in his throat and the barely lingering tingle in his palm from the slap.
The boy watched without a word. He didn’t massage his cheek or indicate in any way he’d been struck, other than a stray tear he wiped quickly. Not that his father had never struck him before. But to be struck at home, observed by no one, or only his mother at least, seemed natural. Struck in public and his father admonished over the matter? Overpowered even? What to say of this? He blushed, but for whom he couldn’t have said.
The two left the bar. Neither said a word. The boy wouldn’t even look at his father, out of tactic or genuine hurt Dale wasn’t certain. Anger and remorse commingling in his belly, Dale reflected on the nature of the boy’s weakness. Yes, in his way the kid was tough, a toughness born of obstinance mostly, but most the boy cultivated around himself an easy and coddled skin, much time spent in books and comics and locked in his room. Coddled skin is skin easily abused. There was talk of his needing glasses already from all that reading. Nothing against education, of course, but the boy’s grades weren’t exactly setting the world on fire either. No genius, just a loner, a puny thing who needed his father to guide him toward something like masculinity. In the real world you are either born of the struggle or swallowed by it. There are no coddling bartenders when you are a man. There is only hurt and –well, look at Dale! His wife was tossing him out without thought or reflection for their happy past. Hardly buried a week before some new man showed up and patted the fresh dirt down with a healthy stomp of the boot?
Each night since the old girl chucked him he dreamed of the conversation: this new man, the phony he, coming to Dale saying, “Listen here, we been talking Loreen and I, and we’ve been thinking maybe it’s worth considering—now don’t take it the wrong way—but maybe I was thinking of adopting the kid there.”
Of course, in these visions Dale cracked the asshole good and then gave a steel-toed boot to the ribs (he saw the man, who had no clear face really, but he saw his expression of hurt and fear and his eyes expressed this fear in the way all living eyes open wide like a trout so their entire soul shouts with absolute terror). And maybe he would kill the son of a bitch then. Maybe not. Maybe he’d go back to the can. Maybe not. Anyhow, the end was coming for these two, father and son, and now was time to make last amends and to bestow a few lasting memories.
“Listen, kid,” Dale said. “Some day you might look back on this day as one of the most important days of your life, you know? Who knows maybe… maybe we won’t… you never know, kid, how much time any of us got left in this life.”
His son looked up at him, his full attention fixed on his father. Now was the moment, Dale realized, to make some permanent mark.
“I told you about my Pa and me fishing? Well sometime after that he got himself shot to hell in the war. I never seen him again. That one day is all I have to hold on to.”
The boy started saying something about how grandma said grandpa run off.
“Yessir,” Dale said quickly. “A bon-a-fid war hero.”
They were walking again at the same brisk pace as before, the zip-lock bag folded up in Dale’s jean pocket. Yes, he thought again, a real hero, though if he’d searched himself honestly he’d know that he didn’t know one way or the either if his father had run off or if he’d gone into the war. He knew only that one moment from somewhere in his boyhood. The pulse of the live fish in his hands, the greasy slickness of the scales, the sharp edge of the fins. Other than this—even down to the cleaning and frying of the fish—all details had been added over the years, and with delicate care. But to Dale the importance was the truthfulness of the foundation.
He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder as they stopped at a railway crossing. The black and white guard lowered slowly with much flashing ceremony. Several hundred yards distant, beyond the bend just out of sight, the coming locomotive blew its whistle.
“Remember to wave to the caboose,” Dale said, giving the boy’s shoulder a squeeze.
“You always want to give him a wave,” he said confidentially “And if you’re lucky, he’ll wave back.”
The boy forced a smile. “Sure, dad,” he said. Dale looked away. Forced the enthusiastic commentary, “Boy she’s a good looking train ain’t she?”
As the train approached, Dale considered ducking under the railing. If he timed it right they’d never know to slow and he’d be gone easier than a bug on a windshield. No pain, just the darkness or the harps and angels or whatever you got.
Yes, it’d sure take the boy’s breath away, wouldn’t it? Better than dreaming about some deadman rotting in a jungle. At first the kid’d maybe even take it hard. Seeing any man, much less your father, obliterated (would they even find him but a mashed up mess on the train grill?) must do terrible things to a young mind. He’d always feel it, whenever there came a train whistle or stopped in traffic or going over those tracks, he’d remember the sight of his father just before the crash and the feel of his old man’s hand on his shoulder—even as the years dulled the pain he’d always remember his father on those occasions the way folks who broke bones years ago complain of an ache at odd twists in the weather.
Better his remembrance than nothing at all. Better knowledge of the truth and remembrance of pain, even if hateful, than the sort of cozy nonsense his mother set him up for.
This thought made Dale smile even as the train blew past.
“You didn’t wave,” his boy said.
The boy just looked at him.
“I was waiting for you,” he answered.
“Well then,” Dale said, the railing rising. “We both missed out, didn’t we?”
They were the only two at the pond. Surrounded by pines on all sides, they couldn’t see the town though passing cars were heard as an undertone to the rocking of waves against the mossy rocks.
“I used to come out here all the time when I was in high school,” Dale said, crouched down, the rocks shifting under his heels.
“Smells like dead fish,” the boy said.
“Well it would, wouldn’t it?” He’d been running his fingers through the muck and now he stood, wiping them on his jeans. The kid rolled his eyes but didn’t say anything. Dale set about showing the kid how to fix the worms over the hooks, blackish guts spurting, and then the nice easy cast, twenty, thirty feet off the shore. “Just like that,” he said. “It ain’t chucking a football. It’s a flick of the wrist. You want it nice and easy.”
The boy nodded as he took the rod, his eyes focusing on the bobber, a black dot really on the grayish waves. But he was an impatient kid and soon he was reeling it in for another cast.
“You can’t do that,” Dale said. “Any fisherman worth a lick needs patience. You keep reeling it in and casting it out and you’ll lose your bait.”
“Then I’ll put another on.”
“That ain’t the way to do it.”
“All right. Jeez.”
Soon the bobber was reeled in and the boy cast this time, a herky-jerky motion that sent the worm flying off the opposite direction as the hook.
“I know! Jeez!” Soon another worm was double knotted over the hook, the bobber bobbing dimly. By now Dale was casting his own, to the opposite side of his son’s. A bird circled briefly overhead.
“You see that bird?” Dale asked.
“A bald eagle.”
The boy looked at the sky.
“Well it’s gone now.”
The two were silent from then on with the cars passing in the distance and the gray waves bobbing the bobbers gently. Then one disappeared.
“Dad!” the boy said, “What now?”
“Let him—now, reel it!”
And without any rhythm the boy reeled and reeled, the pole bent over, his eyes growing big.
“It’s gonna be a monster,” Dale said.
Soon the heavy sunfish was hanging from the line. The redness under the gills. Desperate eyes.
“Fill that bag some,” Dale said, taking hold of the fish. He pulled the hook free and stared into those eyes, felt a fullness in the fish. “I think maybe,” he said, his son returning with the bag half-full of green flecked water. “Think maybe we’re gonna have a treat.”
“Is it a good fish?”
“Real good. Think we might get some eggs out of this one.”
“Sure. Real good fried up.” He held the fish up to nose level. “Ain’t you gonna be real good fried up?”
The boy was silent a few seconds before he said, “Now what?”
“We put her in the bag and catch us a couple more.”
The boy looked at the bag, his brow scrunched. “Dad? Dad?”
“This ain’t enough water.”
Dale shrugged. “Like I say, you sort of want a bucket but you sort of want to keep it fresh is all. We ain’t keeping pets.” Now he held out the fish. “Put her in now. That’s a good fish you caught and you should put her in.”
“I’m gonna throw her back.” The boy reached for the fish, tentative at first, then with sudden conviction and Dale not comprehending, started to nod until he saw the little hand clawing at the air. And it seemed to Dale he’d been struck in the belly because all the air was gone and he tried breathing more in but just this desperate flailing, through this he held the fish higher in the air. The boy goggling up him until Dale sucked the air through his mouth, a mad desperate wheeze though his clenched throat. He put his hand there. It throbbed under his touch.
“Dad?” The boy suddenly concerned.
“What did you think … we came out here for?” his hand clenching his Adam’s apple.
The boy shook his head. What did he know? And he could only stand mute as his father tore his hand from his throat so he could snatch the zip-lock bag and slide the fish in. The water hardly covered half its gills. Freed from Dale’s grip the fish struggled anew, as if sensing this was the final chance for escape. This stirred the boy’s heart, though he couldn’t understand the purpose of the flopping. Perhaps it scented the pond so near and believed it could flop to the water. Perhaps the flopping was merely a convulsion caused by the suffocation.
Dale set the bag onto a rock, and the bag flopped off, spilling the rest of the water. The boy started toward it.
“Don’t you even think it,” Dale said.
The boy looked at his father and then at the fish, his little throat catching as he inhaled a gulp of air. He started toward the fish and Dale put his hand to the boy’s chest.
“You don’t touch that fish. You gotta learn. You gotta learn how it is.”
“But—” the boy’s voice higher, his eyes welling at the fish, the goggling eyes and the gasping mouth, the gills working slower as the flopping nearly stopped. Dale put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. Squeezed. The boy began trembling.
Yes, his boy. So young and frightened then in the midst of death. All the boy’s terror rose up in his own chest and Dale nearly cried himself.
“Oh Dad,” the boy wept. “Oh Daddy please don’t… please don’t make her die.”
“You have to know,” he said. “This is how it is.”
The boy watched, wiped his nose, and kept watching. Dale squeezed again. How long until it was dead? He felt the boy beginning to back away, perhaps involuntarily.
“Is it done?” he asked, his eyes on the boy’s still trembling lip.
Does it matter? If not then, it would be soon. Take heart Child! Out beyond your father in the restless gray pond exists more, something far more, and from this world your little fish began and there he would have ended. Yes, out there in the gray, the weeds collect near the surface in scummy sheets, tangled with plastic wrappers, bottle caps, a condom even. We must travel deeper.
Floating below in the still-darker world is a new dead fish picked apart by passing and returning fish, their gaping mouths have a power down here. Knife and scoop with ease, stray flecks of flesh and blood pass into the dark. And further down then we travel into the absolute darkness. In the jellied muck of the floor lie the skulls of birds and fish and more than one man and sunken bottles and a car too and more and more rubble we have not room to list. Traveling through the house of death is life, always life, jostling blindly, dumbly you would think, through this world. Not so! And you would think too these creatures kill out of idiot animal stupidity, a hunger exists so they must quench it. Perhaps but we must divvy out some credit?
After all, they continue you know, through the millennia, no different than we, really, jostling and colliding and chewing and floating and surviving, yes, for all the brutality. Life until they are pulled, one way or other into death, natural, pollutant, caught by man and killed or most terrible of all they are killed and are devoured then by creatures of greater hardness, cunning, vitality, and ultimately, right to the flesh. Again, Child, take heart! Down there flesh is quickly returned to the flesh—down there flesh is never long without a home.
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