Fiction from NER 42.2 (2021)
ne summer, as part of his campaign to win their mother back, their dad took the three of them down the Sacramento River Delta on a houseboat. It was breezy on the water. Their craft, a thirty-five-foot, diesel-powered RiverCoaster, trailed smoke as they chopped along between banks of farm fields spread like quilts under a vast, bleached sky. Marshes rustled. Trees nuzzled isolated houses. “Look,” Shelley said, “a horse.” It stood in an empty meadow, as if helicoptered there.
Dad, wearing a captain’s hat with his usual beat-up combat boots and Bermudas, a cigar clamped in his teeth—like a man who’d boated all his life—throttled up, throttled back, maneuvering smoothly around a jug bobbing in a snarl of wire. The kids argued over beds—who got which one bolted atop each other on two walls of their floating motel.
A miracle of efficiency, it offered everything they’d need for a week. Besides those sleeping berths—which were to be their one scrap of privacy apiece—they had a closet-size bathroom and an alcove kitchen Dad called the galley, crowded with bags from a Stockton market. A dinette with benches doubled as a lounge. On its Formica table, they’d laid out a deck of cards and Dad his Carefree Angler and Life on the Mississippi. He loved Twain, loved water and boats, had always promised to take Joey fishing—Joey, now ten.
He whistled for quiet and assigned the bunks, which, anyway, Shelley thought, weren’t worth fighting for. Each had a porthole and a cushion that would work, the boatyard manager had explained, for flotation, “just in case.”
Outside, there was a foredeck and a roof deck, where, this same manager (long-haired, tattooed, missing a pinkie) had promised, they could “sleep out under the stars.” A CB radio (“emergency hooter”) hung in the captain’s nook beside the wheel, which was wood-spoked and buttoned in the middle by a horn.
Dad tooted it as they chugged across the blue-glass stream, which, he informed them, was full of sturgeon and bass, seasonal salmon and shad.
Was it the season?
It wasn’t. But the other fish ran all year, according to the Angler.
Lizzie, the eldest, who’d brought a Delta wildlife guide so she’d know what she was looking at, said, “You shouldn’t fish for fun, Pops. Only to eat. Otherwise it’s cruel.” Big, square sunglasses covered her eyes. Her straw–blond hair was straight like their mother’s, her face red from sunlamp treatments. Tetracycline, also for acne, had whittled down her appetite and she had almost no hips, plus long legs tapering to wide, flat feet—her only, besides her skin, bad feature, which she exaggerated, Shelley thought, by painting her toenails pink.
“Oh, we’ll eat ’em, Liz-Wiz,” Dad assured her, “Miss Fish-and-Game Police.”
“Oh yeah,” echoed Joey, “Miss Fish-Witch Stupid Hag-Face.”
“Not me, Pa,” Lizzie said.
“Not me,” Shelley echoed. They bumped fists.
Six rivers converge on the Sacramento Delta, according to the brochure Shelley had picked up in the boatyard’s shop. The water pours south a thousand miles to San Francisco, slowed by dams and islands, swirling past Gold Rush towns and marinas, narrowing here and there to quiet lakes called tules and loops and trickles
that don’t show up on maps. Where you decided to go depended on what you were “into,” the boatyard manager had explained, ticking off on his three good fingers, Fishin? Swimmin? Watchin birds?, which drew attention to the stub.
Dad had winked at Shelley (Who was this clown?) and taken a seat in the makeshift office of the shop, which sold gear and snacks and reeked of fuel oil and fish. Some scratchy, hidden speaker played “Something Stupid” by Frank and Nancy Sinatra. While the manager scribbled notes on a map, Shelley, Lizzie, and Joe sipped Cokes he’d all but forced Dad to buy (“Kids look thirsty”) and Dad had called “cavities in a bottle” as he dug for pocket change. Fishnets draped the walls with hand-lettered signs: I’d rather be crayfishing. Big butts drive me nuts.
Lizzie, unable to resist the written word, frowned.
Then they were off, chugging across the marina, Joey reading names off boats.
“Goldy-Locks, Lake Tahoe! Giddyap, Whiskey Creek!”
Muscular with tides, glittering with light, the water churned in spots and split with the vees of paddling ducks. A canoe knocked against a dock. Lilies unrolled their yellow turbans in the sun. Dragonflies, like small, inquisitive UFOs, buzzed close and zipped off.
Lizzie, clipping her hair against the wind, asked if sometime—not now—she could drive.
“You betcha,” Dad said genially.
“Me too!” Joey shouted.
“When you’re fifteen and have a learner’s permit.”
“Who says life’s fair?”
Shelley retreated to her bunk, familiar with this conversation and where it led. She let herself sink into her cushion, imagining the liquid tug that might carry her downstream on it, away from this boat, this family, Dad, Mom, all the talk, talk, talk, all the phone calls and restaurants, where Dad took one of them each week for dinner.
How are you? How is she? Are you being good? Helping? Keeping busy?
Dad suspected that all hell was breaking loose behind his back. Mom suspected he had started dating. (Handsome single man? Of course he is!) She was the one, though. He still wore his twenty-year-old Marine Corps boots. She’d bleached her hair and bought new clothes. She’d wanted him gone. Now she was jealous!
Shelley closed her eyes and let her mind drift to the boat manager’s ropy arms, one of which bore the tattooed words “Quick to Strike” beside a coiled snake. She wondered what had happened to his hand. Beside him, Dad had looked short and polished, like a doll version of a man. A toy captain. “Pops,” as Liz had taken to calling him, somewhat ironically, and he disliked.
“Joe-Shell-Liz!” he shouted above the engine noise. “Who’s cooking tonight? Do I have a volunteer?”
Lizzie’s legs dropped from the upper bunk.
“Who’s on cleanup? Let’s make a list! Shelley-Bell? Where’s the map? Let’s see where on God’s green earth we’re going!”
For dinner, Lizzie boiled hotdogs and opened SpaghettiOs and a bag of Oreos, food Dad frowned on but let them have because it didn’t spoil or need much cooking.
Shelley, helping him drop the anchors, one “fore,” one “aft,” questioned whether they needed both.
“Probably not. But what would Mom do if something happened?”
On the front deck, leaning into a rail, she saw a swaybacked barn and sprinklers ticking across fields. The late sun wobbled on the water. Long-legged birds waded. Fish jumped in watery rings.
Who would’ve known all this was here? At home, on walks she took around her neighborhood, she had this feeling peering in people’s windows, smelling their barbeques, hearing music. All this. Someone sometime had built this barn, maybe still lived beyond those trees, in a world she’d never, till this minute, imagined. She breathed a grassy, minty sweetness.
“Beautiful, isn’t it? Peaceful. Nearly perfect.”
Dad bumped her, as if he somehow wanted credit.
Soon, though, they were climbing the clanging ladder to the roof, Joey whistling like a canary, the three of them spreading cushions and blankets. The sky was deep blue with an orange flush, the breeze was up. Overhead, the first stars showed, with a smile of moon, faint, as if glowing through water. The boat rocked against the ropes and moths fluttered as Dad, settling into the lawn chair provided, took up his Twain.
The Mississippi, he said, was the longest river in the world—and also “the crookedest.” He puffed his cigar, reading about its early explorers: Marquette, who, ignoring warnings about water demons, set out in a canoe and was rammed by a giant catfish; LaSalle, who smoked a peace pipe with some Indians, then claimed their land for France.
“A catfish?” Joey interrupted. “A catfish?”
“Nobody smiled at these colossal ironies.” Dad chuckled at Twain’s names for the French king: Louis the Putrid and the Sultan of Versailles. He revealed Twain’s boyhood fascination with the steamboats churning past his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri.
“Hannibal,” Dad repeated, blowing smoke rings. “Hear that?” He glanced up. “Peepers.”
“Fish,” Joey declared. “Pescados.” Showing off his summer-school Spanish.
Lizzie lifted a finger. “Hawks. Listen. Like crying babies.”
“Mosquitoes.” Shelley slapped her neck.
The deck was toasty from the sun. Dad tipped his chair and hung his foot on the rail, beyond which rose the silhouettes of trees, the slumped barn, the reeds, like tossing hair. The water gurgled, a nonstop, insistent chorus.
“Go on, go on, go on. Mas, mas, mas,” Joey chanted. He stretched his arms and yawned, his T-shirt riding up. All his clothes were too small. He’d grown two inches, though he was still a little kid.
Dad read about Twain setting out at last on the river, traveling in “ancient tubs” and “stately craft,” learning to be a steamboatman. Dad made up voices for such “river rats,” exaggerating the tantrum of an angry mate (“You . . . split between a tired mud turtle and a crippled hearse horse!”) and the pilot teaching Twain his trade (“You are the stupidest dunderhead I ever saw or heard of, so help me, Moses!”).
Joey rolled on the deck, laughing, and Dad slammed his boots down, shaking his fist and roaring at the sky.
It was all suddenly magic, that apoplectic captain, that crooked, fantastic river, this river with its sparkling, reflected stars. Shelley had never seen so many stars, bands and washes, entire oceans! One streaked across the corner of her eye. Mosquitoes sang around her ears.
“I’m getting eaten alive,” Lizzie whispered.
“Me too. Look at Joe.”
All at once, he had fallen asleep, his mouth open, his chest rising and falling, one leg resting on Shelley, one arm on Lizzie, as mosquitoes swarmed around singing.
“Leave him,” Dad said gently. “Take his stuff. I’ll carry him down.”
Shelley woke to the slap of water, her nightie sticking in the heat. Through her porthole she watched the barn emerge from the pinkening mist.
“Smelly-Belly,” Joey whispered. He poked her. “Buenos dias.”
The hair stuck out around his head, growing out from the crewcut Dad had given him but Mom nixed when kids teased him. More noticeable now was the patch of lighter blond that crowned him like a halo and made him look, in his long sleep shirt, like an angel on a Christmas card.
Shelley brushed it with her palm.
“You pooped out. Pa finished the book. There was a shipwreck. They had to eat each other.”
“Liar.” He eyed her uncertainly, hoisting a foot on her bed. “Can I get in?”
She and Liz had promised Mom they’d be nice. Surprisingly, given how hard Dad was on him, he’d taken the separation hard. But Mom wasn’t here.
She pushed him off.
His head popped up. “What did the triangle say to the circle?”
“Play with me,” he whined. He held up the deck of cards.
“No you’re not.”
He put his mouth to her ear and screamed, “You’re pointless!”
“Hey!” Dad’s voice growled, thick with sleep.
Shelley rolled away, ripping at her mosquito bites. Through the window, she watched the morning—the greens of grasses, the liquid blues—develop like a picture on a screen.
Her whole skin itched, as if it didn’t fit. Since Dad had moved out six months ago, she’d turned thirteen and lost ten pounds. The Beatles had released Sgt. Pepper. She’d cut off the braid she’d worn since second grade, gotten contacts, and had her braces off. That same day she’d made out with Charley Cook, a boy she had a crush on, and it was like being sucked on by a squid. Nothing was what she expected. Her shorter hair immediately went curly (hormones, Mom said), and she had to straighten it on rollers. Her nose got bigger. She had no curves except a pot belly.
“Life’s long!” Mom declared philosophically. “Thirteen’s like five minutes! You’ll look back on this and laugh!”
Dad was the opposite. Life was short. Time was running out. “Focus on your mind,” he urged. “Self-discipline. Self-improvement. School.”
In the fall, she’d start at the girls’ school where Lizzie went and wear a pleated skirt and a green tie that identified her as a freshman. Mom, a softie in other ways, had sided with Dad. The clothes already hung in her closet. She’d toured the campus, visiting a French class, American history, and PE: a surprisingly vicious basketball game in which girls knocked each other down, their hair flying, their faces murderous.
After cornflakes, spooned out of their individual packs, Dad had Lizzie study the tide chart while Shelley, cross-legged beside her at the table, tried to read the map. The river squirted randomly across the page. She found a place called Prisoners Point, an arch labeled “Drawbridge.” The notes of the boat guy, who Dad called “that nine-fingered meathead,” were gibberish.
Joey finished the breakfast cleanup and walked around pronouncing bird names from Lizzie’s Delta guide: “Sandhill crane, snowy egret, short-eared owl, long-billed curlew.” He broke into his famous canary whistle, which he’d practiced for months, then rolled his eyes so far up in his head, he looked dead.
“We all set here?” Dad emerged from the bathroom. “Liz, you ready to pilot? Joe, little help with the anchors?”
After they’d cast off, Liz knotted her hair and adjusted her mirrors. There was a hum in the air as if the heat had a sound.
“Easy-peasy,” Dad encouraged. “Simpler than a car.” On Sundays, he’d been teaching her how to drive.
She throttled up, letting her sunglasses drop down.
“Slow and steady. That’s the ticket.”
At first the river was wide and blue, with a lazy, wrinkled current. Soon it narrowed and split around an island littered with cans and the ribs of a boat.
“Easy,” Dad said. “Watch that inner tube.”
Lizzie over-steered and bumped a bank.
“Nice,” Joey cackled.
She started and stopped, threading through channels that curved and doubled back until it seemed they weren’t getting anywhere. Her red camp shirt, which she wore almost daily, indifferent to style, was streaked with sweat.
“Fun fact,” she offered nervously. “The Delta’s an estuary, where river water meets salty water from the ocean in a whole new ecosystem.” Information soothed her. “Seven hundred and fifty animal and plant species live here.”
Shelley wandered to the front deck. She was supposed to be navigating. Minnows scattered in the shallows. The channel was tight. She unfolded the map, not sure where they were but guessing Dad knew. She understood how his mind worked. He wouldn’t risk getting them lost or hurt, or so far from the boatyard that they’d be late back and have to pay more money. Meanwhile, he enjoyed giving orders and posing problems that forced them to Study the map! Check the chart! Did these streams hook back to the bigger ones? Should they turn around and try again? Use your God-given brain!
Shelley squinted. One of two forks ahead looked wider than the other. “Go left,” she said. How should she know?
The slough they entered was mossy and green, like something from the Jungle Book. Joey, perched on a bench, provided sound effects. “Ee-ee-ee. Oo-oo-oo. Aa-aa-aa . . .”
“Shut up!” Liz cried as the boat’s bottom scraped.
“Ai! Que lastima!”
“Put a sock in it, Joe-Bo.” Dad reached across her to throttle back. “You’re okay. You’re fine. What now, though? Which way’s the tide going? If it ebbs, we’re stuck.”
Reeds choked the water. Birds exploded from the surface. A turtle sunned on a rock, its head a dark knuckle.
“We’re stuck now,” Shelley pointed out. “Back up, Liz. That last fork? Go right.”
An hour later, underway again, they cruised up on a man fishing from a dinghy who touched his hat politely. “Nuttin’ yet!” he shouted to Dad’s question about the catch. Further on, the river widened. A speedboat bumped along with a skier in tow, slopping the RiverCoaster in its wake. More boats showed up, speedboats, fishing boats, a small yacht with a couple sunning on its deck.
“Stop!” Joey cried. “Let’s catch some pescados!”
“Too loud, too busy. Plus,” Dad said, “we need bait.”
In a shaky voice Liz announced, “I’m done, Pa. Too many boats here.” She looked around. “Dad?”
“Stay put. You’re doing fine. You asked to drive.”
She throttled back as another ski boat bounced by. “This is dangerous!”
“You don’t know what you’re made of till you try.” It was one of his favorite sayings, dating back to his Marine Corps days.
He tucked his hands in his armpits. “I see a dock—something or other—up ahead. Take her in there. You’re doing great.”
Liz’s face had gone white. Shelley saw a shack looming on the right, boats bobbing at its dock, RVs and trailers cobbled behind. Reading the posted signs—Gas! Bait! Food!—she was knocked to the deck by a pair of jet skiers carving doughnuts around the RiverCoaster.
“Shit!” Liz cried. The boat jumped and yawed. “What do I do now?”
“Stay calm.” Dad marched out on deck. “Cool it, hotdogs!”
“Feels worse than it is.” He was back, rubbing his hands together. “No one patrols these parts, I guess. Jackasses run the show.” He swept his cap off and mopped his head.
“Dad! You’re not listening! What’s wrong with you?”
He looked surprised. “I am listening.”
Liz flung herself off the seat. “I said, I’m done!” The wheel spun and the boat rocked.
“You can’t just make me do things!” She stomped off a few feet. “Drive it yourself!”
In minutes, with a grim Dad at the wheel, they eased into a slip, Shelley swinging ropes at cleats, Liz jumping to the dock with Joe.
“That was ridiculous. Wasn’t it? Talk about overreacting,” Dad muttered, retying Shelley’s knots. (What is this mess? Over and back, then cinch the loop, I said. Yours wouldn’t hold a fly.) “Here’s what you can’t do,” he added reasonably, “just get up and leave. Would you do that in a car?” He glanced at her for support.
Music floated from the trailers—battered wooden boxes, tear drops, a van with a pop-up tent—that cluttered a dirt lot a short distance from the shack. Around the van kids sprayed each other with a hose. A door slammed. Shelley said, “You couldn’t see how scared she was? What if she crashed? Or the boat tipped over?”
“Oh, please.” He looked disgusted.
Inside the shack, a ceiling fan stirred above canned chili and chips, cookies and soda. Lizzie compared bug sprays, scowling. Joey read the signs on coolers arranged on the floor. “‘Blood Worms,’ ‘Night Crawlers,’ ‘Cold Dinks,’ ‘Iced Creams.’”
A woman in a denim shirt leaned on a counter. Taped to the front was a list of fish. Now biting: Blue gills, cats, strippers, steelhead trouts.
“Where you-all folks from?” she inquired pleasantly.
Dad picked some strawberries from a basket. “Bay Area,” he said. “These local?”
“Nah. We truck ’m in from Mexico.”
His mouth smiled. His eyes didn’t. “Tomatoes too?”
“Carney’s farm a mile away.” She regarded him sleepily. “You come to fish? Something partic’lar?”
“What do those catch?” He pointed to the cartons in Joey’s hands.
“What don’t they,” the woman said. “They’re live, they’re fresh, they wiggle. Fish can’t get enough.” She licked her lips. A cross dangled in her cleavage. Her eyeliner had tails.
“Hey, Lovebug.” She stacked Joe’s cartons on the counter. “Gonna bait them hooks yourself? I bet your sisters won’t. Or your mama.”
“She’s not here,” Joey said. “She’s home in Menlo Park.”
Working his wallet out, Dad asked about fishing spots. She waved out directions as she made change from a shoebox. “First right, then a left by the oak stumps, red house—used to be red—’nother right, then mile or so, reach a little pond there, what feels like a little pond. Good swimming. You gals’d like that, huh?”
They anchored under a stand of willows, Dad handling the operation himself and only dropping one anchor, Shelley noticed, as if, why should he care? No one else did.
She pitied him a little. Fishing? Really? Mom had said when he proposed the trip.
He rattled gear out of a storage bin while Joey babbled.
“I’m going for steelhead. It’s the best fish except for salmon, but there won’t be any salmon, right, Dad? What’re you going for?”
“Whatever bites.” Dad sat at the table, sorting sinkers, leaders, hooks, the boat fragrant with the berries Liz had dumped in a bowl. The Carefree Angler lay face-down, the author grinning on the back. Jim Tomlinson, a.k.a. Mr. Fish!
Shelley scanned a page, titled Don’t Cry For Me—Seriously!
No need to whack your fish on the head, she read. Why bother? Icing does the job! Or do like the Carefree Angler and take the skinning pliers to him while he’s flopping. Meat’s better and guess what? HE CAN’T FEEL IT ANYWAY!
Dad cranked a reel. “Fresh bluegill? Nothing better. Fresh bass?” He ruffled Joey’s hair. “I love fish. Love to fish.”
“Remember, though. Whatever we bag, we eat. Clean it, cook it, eat it.”
Shelley replaced the book quietly.
“When you’re catching it, you don’t like its looks, okay, throw it back. A crappie, for instance . . .”
Lizzie, hopping down from her bunk in a Speedo, said, “What about its mouth? These barbed hooks?” She came and touched one. “They rip the mouth. The guts, if the fish swallows it.”
Shelley regretted her own two–piece, an impulse buy she’d chosen for its padded cups.
Dad enunciated clearly, as if talking to a toddler. “Fish don’t feel pain.”
“That’s ridiculous. Says who.”
Shelley eyed The Angler as Dad inquired, “What’s that you’re wearing, Shell?”
“As in, where’s the rest of it?”
Liz sighed and followed Shelley to the roof deck, grazed here and there with whispering boughs. At home, when she got mad, Liz climbed trees to escape. If you couldn’t find her, you checked the camphor trees.
This deck was like a treetop. It offered close and distant views—of Dad and Joe below, of the landscape’s oat-golds, hazels, and siennas. An airplane inched through the sky, a soundless bird.
They spread out books, bug spray, the thin towels from the bathroom. In one corner of the deck, sun splashed and Shelley settled there, determined to get a tan. Liz, in her sunglasses, lay in the shade with a washcloth on her face.
Dad’s voice drifted up. “Don’t mess around. Poke the hook through the worm twice. Otherwise, we’ll just be feeding ’em.”
“Yuck,” said Joey reverently. “These guys squirm.”
“Attracts the fish. Sit on the bin here. When you cast, flick your wrist. It’s a small motion. We’re not out to hook a tree.”
Shelley wondered if these were Dad’s words or Mr. Fish’s.
A buzzing sounded, a whir and click, a fluid plop.
“That’s the ticket.”
For a while, the only sounds were rustling willows, the juicy current, Joey’s thudding sneakers, and Dad’s admonishments. Keep still. You’ll scare away dinner.
Joey couldn’t keep still. If his feet stopped, his hands drummed; if his hands stopped, he whistled, keeping time with his feet. He bounced in chairs, ran imaginary bases, pitched tennis balls against walls. Like a shark, Shelley thought, if he stopped moving, he could die.
Lizzie pulled the cloth off and rolled close. “I shouldn’t’ve said all that. I lost it.” She whispered mournfully, “Listen to them. He’s in heaven. He loves Pops.”
“Pops is just being nice.”
Shelley propped herself on an elbow and tried to read Liz through her shades. These days, she was more Mom’s friend than Shelley’s. “Dad bullied you, you defended yourself,” she said. “You defended the fish. Good for you.”
“I made him look bad,” Liz insisted.
“Plus, I was mean.” Liz disliked being interrupted, especially as she confessed. Her goodness reproached Shelley.
“You weren’t mean,” Shelley protested. “But so what if you were? Why couldn’t that be a good thing?”
“Dad can be so thick.” She paused, then went all in. “He doesn’t get it. You want to prove you’re such a good guy—quit being such a jerk!” She added the obvious. “He can’t come home unless he changes.”
Liz was quiet a minute. “Can a leopard change his spots?”
Mom said this so often Shelley had almost stopped hearing it. She didn’t want to hear it. She knew what Mom thought—that Dad was all talk. He was who he was and that was that.
She closed her eyes, smelling her own hair, which she couldn’t wash since she’d forgotten to pack her rollers. Lizzie’s was clean and perfectly straight but she’d scraped it into that knot that made her look pin–headed because she couldn’t be bothered. What bothered her was not hair or zits or big feet, only that she’d been mean—to someone who deserved it!
“Dad! I think I got something! Dad!”
Down below, there was a sudden clattering and scurrying and shouting.
“Pull back!” Dad cried. “Let out some line! Play him!”
Shelley jumped to the rail and saw him drop his rod and grab Joey by the shorts as Joey’s rod arced and bobbled.
“More line! More! Okay, stop, pull! Reel him in, reel him in!”
“My arms’re breaking!”
“Don’t let go!”
“He’s too big,” Joey faltered.
“Wear him out! You’re strong. Play him! Wow,” Dad admitted, “he is a fighter!”
At that, he seemed to change his mind, grabbing the rod and cranking as the fish ran out the line.
He tugged and wrestled, whipping the rod left and right as Joey shouted, “We got a monster! Lizzie! Shelley! It’s a trout, I think! Whoa, Dad! You got him! You got him, right?”
“One—two—! Back off! Look out!” Something thunked on the deck.
“Holy crap,” Shelley muttered.
Lizzie groaned, not moving. “What is it?”
Flipping and heaving, it had oil-green skin, a white belly, and wormy tendrils around its mouth. For all its fight, it wasn’t even that big. “A catfish?” Shelley watched the lips gawp.
In a wondering tone, Joey said, “Ew. I can’t eat that.”
The captain’s hat lay on the deck. Shelley saw the bald spot on Dad’s clipped and curly head. “You know the drill.”
“Wait! I wanna see him.”
“Quick. Don’t let him suffocate.”
Lizzie jumped up. “Throw it back, you guys! Now!”
All afternoon it went like this. Shouts, smacks, the chop of water, the sudden thump on the streaming deck. Joe, Dad, Dad, Joe, another catfish.
“Thank God they’re ugly,” Lizzie groused. “Otherwise, they’d be toast.”
“Not just ugly. Listen.” Shelley read aloud from the Delta wildlife book. “Catfish are ‘opportunistic feeders.’ They eat worms, snails, decaying fish, sometimes each other! No wonder Pa doesn’t want ’em either. Rats have been found in their guts, French fries, cigarette butts, corn cobs, snakes.”
“Stop,” Liz said weakly.
“Wild ones taste ‘musty,’ or ‘muddy,’ fishy. Duh. Farmed ones of course taste like chicken. Here’s some recipes. Mrs. Bort’s Crispy Pan-Fried Cats . . .”
“I mean it, stop.
“Deep-Dish Catfish Pie . . .”
“That’s it. I’m going swimming.”
Coin-spangled tide. The mixed perfumes of baled hay and diesel, rotting leaves and salt. The river was frigid.
Shelley tried to keep her head up but couldn’t help plunging after Liz into the light-glittering swirl, putting distance between herself and the boat as Liz, the stronger swimmer, stroked ahead, her hair unwinding in a golden trail. Shelley shrank from the water’s soft, indeterminate flotsam, fumbled through reeds, dove deep, and flipped on her back, awed by the wobbly, faraway surface. She imagined those whiskery cats, lurking. Without her contacts, everything looked mossy and indistinct.
Bursting up for air, she saw Liz practicing her synchronized swimming. At school, she was on the team. Gracefully, she executed sculls, egg beaters, the oyster, the star. She relaxed and sank.
Back onboard, they dried themselves with the smelly towels.
The worms were almost gone. Dad smoked, lounging on the storage bin. Joey, sporting a wicked sunburn, hunkered on deck, poking a worm with a hook.
“You look boiled,” Shelley observed.
She went to stand in the tin-can shower. With Lizzie, she toweled off at the window that overlooked the angling.
“Poor Joe. Can’t catch a break,” Liz said.
Through the glass, which muffled outside sounds, they watched him flick the rod.
“One fish,” Liz prayed. “Just one. Let him go home happy.”
Shelley pictured the gruesome “skinning pliers.” “I thought you were on the fish’s side.”
Lizzie sighed. “Look at Pops. He’s finished, done. Fishing, check.” She scrubbed her scalp. “Who’s on Joey’s side?”
This wasn’t fair. “This whole trip’s about Joey. Dad promised and here we are.”
The cabin was stuffy, the cool water a memory. As Shelley’s hair frizzed, she was suddenly annoyed.
She went out and leaned on Dad. “I’m bored. And hot.”
He squeezed her. “Couple more, Joe-Bo.”
The hat was back on his head. His jaw was ashed with beard. Chest hair showed in the vee of his shirt, which bulged where his belly was. She tried to see him as handsome, but there was only the worn, familiar Dad in which she was reflected. She pleased him. She disappointed him. She wasn’t “living up to her potential.” It was all there on his face. He knew. All hell was breaking loose.
She frowned and said, “Oh crap. Not again.”
“Dad! Dad! Dad!”
The rod bucked in Joey’s hands, yanking him.
“Hold tight!” Dad tossed his cigar and grabbed Joey.
Liz raced out with her glasses on.
“Give us space! Clear the deck!”
The girls backed against the cabin as the fish, a round, flat, goggle-eye with a fin like a Mohawk, appeared and disappeared, leaping and thrashing.
Dad pronounced it “a bluegill, a big one,” taking over the rod, the fish whip-sawing, plunging, flopping along the surface. Minutes passed. Dad swore and sweated, his boots sliding in the wet. Finally, with one great grunting heave, he got the fish over the side. “Where’s newspaper? Lizzie! We need tons! Ice! Shell, fill the Igloo—it’s in the galley!”
Shelley ran in and broke the tray from the icebox.
“What’s this? Five cubes? We need an ice bath!” Dad cried. “Add water!”
“How should I know?” she shouted back, hurt.
Joey capered around. “A bluegill. A bluegill! I knew I’d get one! They’re good eating, right, Dad?”
“You bet. Slippery as hell. Watch the slime!” He slapped the fish on the paper. “Need more, Liz! Check the storage bin! Joey, get the toolbox!” He looked around. “I assume we’re keeping this monster—”
“You bet!” Joey clicked open the box, in which, from the Angler, Shelley recognized the gruesome pliers, the mallet, the scaling spoon, and fillet knife. Dad, she thought uneasily, had come prepared.
Lizzie stood still, watching the fish. “Question, Pa. How’re you gonna kill it?”
Eyeing the Igloo and the tools, Dad appeared undecided.
“Ice bath,” Shelley said.
“Won’t he suffer? Isn’t that slow?” Liz asked.
“He’ll go to sleep,” Dad said.
Joey offered, “We could bonk him on the head.”
Dad knelt to wiggle out the hook. “Point is, we can’t eat him like we promised until he’s dead.”
On the soaked newspaper, under the headline, water study: bad news, the fish gawped as if in protest.
Joey squatted, fingering the slime. “Yuck.”
“Protects the fish. The parasites slide off.”
“Keeps him warm too,” Shelley suggested, remembering the frigid river.
“Fish’re cold-blooded, you know that! Nor do they, as I’ve said, feel pain like we do. So, why not. Into the ice bath, bud.” Dad lifted the Igloo. “Those who can’t hack it, scram. You know who you are, Lizzie. Shelley, you too.” He flapped his hands at them.
“You might faint,” Joe said.
Liz wasn’t satisfied. To Dad she added, “Too bad the fish can’t say if he’s suffering. Doesn’t mean he’s not.”
Dad sniffed back pretend tears.
Liz persisted, “You should at least thank him for his life before you take it. The Indians do.”
The breeze had stiffened, the trees giving off papery, conspiratorial sighs with gleams of intermittent light. The tide, coiling and uncoiling, shoved the boat around. Clouds drifted in the giant sky. What was one fish? Nothing.
Shelley poked Liz. “Let’s go.”
Liz loitered, knotting her hair, the sign of an inner struggle. Finally she knelt.
Joe, hanging the scaling spoon off his nose, said, “What?”
“You know we’re proud of you. You went fishing and caught one. You’ve had this experience you’ll never forget. Here’s the thing. You don’t even like fish.”
“Yes, I do.” The spoon fell off.
“Remember that swordfish Mom cooked?” Liz brought her face near his. “Look at him. He’s kind of cute.”
“Enough,” Dad said. “You’re being a pill, Liz.”
In an almost kindly tone, Liz said, “I wasn’t talking to you, Pops.”
His eyes widened. “I will thank you to be civil. This isn’t your fish, it’s your brother’s.”
“Yeah.” Joey pinched her.
Dad laced his hands, as if to calm himself. “Fish don’t suffer. However you kill ’em. So enough guilt-tripping. Don’t wreck Joe’s day.”
Shelley saw what he didn’t. Far from stifling Liz, his speech inflamed her.
“You’re the expert? You’ve been fishing what, twice?” She let her hair tumble from its knot. “Funny, if you don’t feel something, no one does! Not everyone’s you, Dad!”
He stared at her.
Drop it, Shelley communicated fervently.
Shaking his head in disbelief Dad said, “You know how ignorant you sound? What you don’t know would fill an ocean.”
“Me.” The word hung like poison in the air.
Shelley knew that only the helpless, denied their rights, only wrongness, unfairness, meanness could arouse Liz’s meanness, and it never lasted. Even now, behind her sunglasses, she might be crumbling. Doubting herself.
But Dad, attacked, punched back. “You think you’re so grown up. You’re a kid. You’re all kids. You think you understand,” he said stonily. “You don’t. You can’t possibly.”
He turned and grabbed the rail. “Wait’ll you’re my age and have a real life; wait’ll you have your own kids.”
Liz, who didn’t plan to have kids, or get married, or follow in Mom and Dad’s footsteps at all, said nothing.
Dad’s fury was like radiating heat. Shelley felt him picturing his crappy apartment, his paltry, permitted visits, Mom calling all the shots. He wouldn’t forgive her. Even if they worked it out. He might pretend to, but he wouldn’t.
“I just,” Liz said, “feel bad for the fish.”
“Of course you do.” He hugged himself. “You cling to misapprehensions. There happens to be research on this subject. Experts. It might be news to you, well, I’m sure it will be . . .”
Shelley, recalling the Carefree Angler, sensed where this was going and it wasn’t good. “Come on, Dad.”
“No,” said Liz. “What experts? Tell me.”
Joey, cross-legged beside the fish, was shredding paper, his feet tapping, his jaw working as if in time to some hammering inside.
Dad went on in a voice almost too soft to be heard, “Our little friends, the fish you care so much about, have no nerve endings in their skin. Which means, Liz-Wiz . . .”
“How do you know?” Liz shouted.
“Hey,” Shelley said, “you guys—”
“. . . that you can literally,” Dad went on, “—and many, even, possibly, most fishermen do—in fact, the meat’s supposed to taste better—”
Shelley didn’t know what came over her. When she thought back to that day, she remembered Joey rocking with his eyes closed, her rage that they didn’t notice, wouldn’t stop, that any second the terrible Mr. Fish would be invoked. The skinning pliers. It was as if, all at once, some mysterious thing exploded out of her, grabbed the mallet and brought it crashing down and down and down on the twitching, goggling fish.
There was no sign of the nine-fingered meathead when they returned the boat. A mutton-chopped grandpa in a rubber apron stomped around dispensing oars and wetsuits, ringing up candy, and conversing in such halting, equivocal grunts that Dad muttered, as they headed for the parking lot, “Another Nobel Prize–winner for you.”
Joey, who got carsick, was installed up front, the girls in the back seat with a duffel of dirty clothes. Dad drove with the windows down, the air and road noise flapping in as they wound through town, past bars and boxing gyms, storefront churches and payday loan stores, men in straw hats milling around out front. Double-cab trucks hauling boats gave way to semis hauling peaches, pickups pulling horse trailers. Then the road widened and they were speeding through gold-furred hills etched with fences and oaks, cows and sheep, leaning barns with signs for car dealerships and drinks. Heat wavered like water in the landscape’s dips and folds. Hawks swooped in a watery sky.
Dad, elbow slung out the window, spun past Jesus radio and yodeling cowboys, whistling under his breath. There was news of a fire in Shasta and one near Sacramento. Voluntary evacuations are in effect.
Joey kicked the dashboard, was ordered to stop and went still. “Out like a light,” Dad muttered.
Shelley and Lizzie played license-plate blackjack, sign bingo, and alphabet soup. Eventually, Shelley let her head fall against the duffel, which gave off a salt tang that lulled her into imagining where she might go someday. Greenland. Antarctica. The Galapagos, where all the animals, she’d heard, were tame. Mark Twain, in his long, action-packed career, had worked as a boat captain, a silver-miner in Nevada, a gold-miner in California. He’d been a newsman, a foreign correspondent. He’d traveled everywhere, writing books. She could do that, she thought drowsily.
When she opened her eyes, they were pulling into the driveway, and Mom was waving her arms as if directing an airplane to the gate.
“How was it?” she cried. “Tell me everything. Look at you, all rosy and tan.” To Dad she said politely, “Can you stay a minute?”
She wore a sundress, sandals, a string of grape-size beads that clacked when she moved. Her arms were brown, her hair very blond, and the house smelled like warm butter. Open windows let in breezes. In the living room, with its pillowy couch and white pile rug, the TV played fire news soundlessly: burning trees and angry flames against the smoke-brown sky. Iced tea and cookies waited.
Helping themselves, Shelley, Joey, and Liz took turns describing their floating home, its features and fittings, what they ate, the egrets and sandhill cranes, the hawk with the mouse in its mouth. Joey produced rocks and a bird skull he’d gathered along the shore. Shelley, picking chocolate chips from her cookie, said that Dad had read them Twain, and Lizzie interrupted, “We got marooned. Our boat floated away on the tide. We woke up stuck on a sandbar.”
She laid her head on Mom’s shoulder, their faces versions of each other, with pointed chins and mild blue eyes. Joe, on Mom’s other side, said, “We had to use our emergency hooter.”
“Pilot error,” Dad conceded. “Got lazy with the second anchor.”
Shelley, in the chair beside his, frowned. Lazy?
He winked. “We had fun, didn’t we, among the river rats?”
The curtains puffed out around the sliding screens. Mom wore her interested smile. Wondering, Shelley thought, what really happened.
“And you?” Dad asked, taking a cookie. “How’d you spend your summer vacation?”
Mom laughed. “I cleaned house. Read. Waged war on some sneaky ants.”
“I had ants, in my apartment . . .”
Shelley felt for them. Everything in this room—the striped chairs and pottery lamps, the leather hassocks, even Mom and Dad—felt smaller, stunted, as if she’d been away for years. Through the screens, Lizzie’s climbing trees glowed like cut-outs; the lawn looked unnaturally green. Time stood still. It was the hour when light thickened, dogs barked, sadness crept in.
“What about the fishing? How was that?”
There was a pause. Dad, who’d shaved and slicked his hair, put on pants and a collared shirt, said, “Kind of a bust.”
No one was going to talk about that.
Mom said, “Oh. Well. Next time,” the way she did, as if there’d be a next time.
Dad chewed thoughtfully. “It is nice country. Rural. Pretty. Poor, of course. People aren’t ambitious.”
“Why would they be?” Shelley flashed on Mr. Boatyard with his tattoos, the bait seller in her shack, farmers, fishermen, just living. “You should see the sky up there, Mom. The stars.” She felt a tug in her chest remembering—the dawns, the sunsets, the tides. Dad’s crusty captain, banging his boots. The fish, fighting for its life.
It wasn’t a place that could be managed or explained. It was huge and mysterious. Its power, as Twain had written about the Mississippi, was its mystery.
She gulped her tea and thought about that desperate, goggle-eyed fish as her parents talked on and on, around and past each other. (Had they always done that?) She remembered the savage recoil in her arms as she brought the mallet down once, twice, three times, splashing the deck with brains. All over again, she was stunned.
Dad had thrown the mutilated carcass overboard. Lizzie wouldn’t talk to her about it. Go to hell! she’d whispered, jamming her pillow on her head.
Shelley had lain there, it seemed, for hours, shivering in her still-damp shorts, the wind rattling, the boat tugged by the tide, which, sometime before dawn, must have ebbed and set them on the sandbar. It wasn’t a big deal. Their rescue, if you could call it that, took minutes, once the ranger arrived with a tow-chain. But no night of Shelley’s life had ever been so dark, so loud with menacing bumps and creaks, the cries of airborne hunters, the slop of water demons. Until, finally, out of the blackness, came a tiny human sound.
Relief rolled over her. Gratitude. Holding her breath, she’d felt her way past Dad and Lizzie’s bunks (They were sleeping! How could they!) and climbed into Joey’s. He was wedged against the wall, fiercely, quietly sobbing.
“Hey,” she whispered. “Joe-Joe.”
Peeling his covers down, she slipped close and touched his back, his arms. “It’s me.” What could she say? “I’m here. It’s okay.”
For an instant, she thought, it was. With her there, feeling tender and contrite, he went quiet. But all at once, he lunged and pummeled her, loosing a flurry of fists and kicks. “Killer!”
“Stop. Hey! That hurts!” She caught and pinned him, squirming and spitting, his face pushed against hers.
“You wrecked everything, you dunderhead!”
She was so much stronger than he was. Holding him, she felt the pity she might feel for a drowning bee or a trapped kitten, and with it came release. She didn’t make the rules. It was too bad about the fish, but it wasn’t her fault that life was mean and unfair.
“You’re going to stop this right now. Stop it.”
Cautiously, still restraining him, she began to rub one palm around his back, his neck, his shoulders. It felt good. Kind in a way she usually wasn’t. Slowly, the trembling stopped. His breath came in ragged sips, between hopeless declarations. “He’ll never take me fishing again. Never. Nope. I know Dad. He won’t.”
“You don’t know,” she soothed. “Lots could happen. Anything. You’re a kid.” She said what Mom said. “Someday, you’ll look back on this and laugh.”
He shook his head so hard the bed rattled, and it was then that she noticed the night through his porthole, cold and black, a pitiless forever.
Dad stood up and stretched, eyeing the TV.
Liz looked anxious. “This fire. It won’t come down here, will it?”
“Don’t be silly. It’s worlds away.” He turned the sound up. Firefighters in charred suits swung hoses at crackling flames. A studio voice announced, “Evacuation’s now mandatory in some communities. Containment’s only one percent. We’re in for a rough night!”
Mom got up and smoothed her dress, short, with ribbon straps. “Oh, California.”
Dad slapped his knees. “Gimme a kiss, Joe-Shell-Liz. Time to shove off.”
Obediently they rose, Joe grabbing on like a barnacle.
“Be good. Mind your mom.” He waved an imaginary phone. “Call me.” Then to Mom: “You too.” Impulsively, he extended his hand.
“Group hug!” Joey cried.
Dad caught Shelley’s eye as they shuffled sideways, all of them, giggling and stumbling to stay upright, he and Mom on either side, Joe-Shell-Liz in the middle, like the guts of a sandwich. Wasn’t this, he seemed to ask, enough? Couldn’t it be? Weren’t they a family?
Joe yanked Dad’s belt. “Stay,” he whined. “Eat dinner here. Can’t he, Mom?”
“Oh, Sweetheart.” She excused herself to collect the tea things. Something brushed the screen, a big moth or a small bird. The sun striped the lawn gold, the trees shook their bony shadows. “Tomorrow’s a big day. In the morning we’re going shopping—look at you, that shirt. You need clothes, you and the girls need shoes, books. In two weeks, school starts.”
“Fifth grade,” Liz reminded him softly. “Imagine.”
He stuck out his lip. “I’m going home with Dad. Okay, Dad? Tomorrow I’ll come back.”
His chin wobbled. He was tired and sunburned. He didn’t know, Shelley thought, what he wanted.
Dad looked carefully sympathetic. “Joe-Bo, I’ll be here before you know it. Wednesday. Date with you. Pancho’s Mexican Kitchen.”
“And Sunday,” Liz said. “Don’t forget, Pa. Driving school.”
Shelley, suddenly gripped by a heavy gloom, added, “Don’t forget me either, Pa. Your favorite child.”
His arm went around her and, in its grip, she felt all he didn’t say. How could you know another person? Make yourself understood? Be yourself and still be loved?
His shoulders sagged. “You’re all terrific. Didn’t we have fun?” He stroked her wiry hair. “Hell, let’s all go to Pancho’s Wednesday. Liz, you can drive.”
Mom shrugged and smiled, carrying dishes to the kitchen. Her kids were home. It was enough.
What did he think, watching her? What did she think, running water in the sink, taking something out for dinner? Almost overnight, they were strangers to each other.
Shelley heard the refrigerator suck shut. Across the room, fire trucks fishtailed up a hill.
It was awful, fire. Hungry. Voracious. Indiscriminate.
Dad frowned at the TV and switched it off. “Well, team . . .”
One last time, as the light lengthened at the windows, he gathered his children up, squeezing hard and rocking on his feet. As if now was all there was. As if maybe, for another moment, he were still captain of the ship, and they were all churning along under sunny skies across a blue, unruffled sea. ■