Avoid the barbs when he hands you the extra hooks from the dock. He’ll dangle them in one long razor-sharp thread like he does every year, taunting you with yet another test of courage. They twinkle in the shafts of faded yellow sunlight, burning holes through the low ceiling of early morning sky.
Remember to wear thick gloves, but not too thick or he’ll make a crack about delicate fingers and uncalloused palms. Don’t point out that barbed hooks are actually illegal in this state.
Curse your younger brother Sam and his more favorable time slot the next day, a Sunday, after which the three of you will go your separate ways until next year. If you’re lucky, you’ll be back at the lodge before you know it: warm, dry, and with cable TV and homemade jerky in the bar, prepping Sam. But Sam has nothing to worry about; he’s going to come away unscathed as usual, though you know it’s not his fault—just the random and mysterious dynamics of family.
Linger in the back by the engine as he stumbles ceremoniously into the boat. Ask him if he’s got any more of whatever found its way into his coffee. Say it playfully.
“That’s funny,” he’ll answer and scan your face impassively, muttering something about torn knees and stiff joints.
Watch him as he putters about, slamming doors to the various hatches, moving the cooler around with his good foot, coiling the lines you haven’t yet had a chance to coil. His muscles and limbs vibrate like Jell-O, but his coffee remains intact, of course. Your mother told you he’s been sober for years. It’s OK to avert your eyes, but you’ll find that you can’t.
For somewhere in the back of your mind, he’s cleaning up the room around you. There go the Legos into their shoebox under the bed, sketchbooks of badly traced dinosaurs into the bottom drawer of your dresser, and piles of Bazooka wrappers into the pail by the door. And years later, there he is hovering at your neck breathing close-mouthed over your unfinished Algebra, waiting for the right answer. You would have taken nasty-and-unpredictable over strong-and-silent any day.
Like many things, this restlessness is something you share: you’ve already filled and stowed the bait box under the driver’s seat and secured the rods and reels. Look at them proudly erect and upright in their sockets. Envy their quivering forbearance as they face the wind and await the open water. Notice that the tip of one of the rods—yours, in fact—points menacingly at the base of his neck. Suddenly, the grisly image of his head skewered on the end of it appears before you. Don’t bury the image, save it. You’ll need an incentive to get through the day. And there’s always next year.
Tell him the preparation is complete and the boat is ready for push-off. Be quick about it. He’ll sense your hesitation—knows it like the widening circumference of his belly—and nod toward the front, urging you to the soggy cushion on the other side of the driver’s console. Before you’re completely settled, he’ll release the lines and choke the engine to life, sending an arc of sound over the water, startling the frogs and the turtles taking advantage of the heat before the herons arrive looking for a snack.
Close your eyes and let the emerging sun pour over you as the boat edges away from the dock and into the lake. Enjoy the 20-minute trip out to the sweet spot where the locals insist the fish congregate, even when the weather is least cooperative. Savor the wet breeze that plays along the folds of your windbreaker, the pungent smell of pine, the rhythmic slap of water against the hull. This is your favorite part of the day. His too.
Don’t panic when you finally arrive and the engine abruptly belches once before cutting out. The cloud cover has finally lifted and, in the glare, his head swivels precariously back and forth, squinting toward the horizon and checking the water for depth. His neck has sunk deep into his shoulder blades.
Ask him, “What happened to your neck?” The words will slip out unexpectedly. Convince yourself it’s the sun talking. The ride out has relaxed you in surprising ways, and his face, hidden behind decades-old Ray-Bans—a gag gift on his 40th from the five of you—flattens against the sky as he looks down at you. You wonder whether he’s heard you.
“Is that how you treat your old man?” he’ll say and adjust the worn-out “Biggest Balls on the Boat” cap above his sunglasses. What passes for a smile will begin to reveal itself on his face and your stomach sings with a mixture of uncertainty and relief.
Ignore the temptation to dive right in and run with the conversation. Let him give it a whirl. He appreciates—and expects—deference. Listen with patience as he runs down the familiar list of to-dos, his mouth full of Nicorette:
“Watch the tip for little tiny nibbles, like dancing.”
“Don’t chintz on the bait.”
“Don’t start reeling too quickly, they’re not as stupid as you think.”
Say, “When have I lost a fish, Old Man?” You haven’t called him that in years. His back faces you, rounded and folded like a cape, and you hear a thunderous stream of piss at the back of the boat. It lasts forever.
When he returns, he’ll unfold the red step stool and resume his litany with a final warning, the open bait box beside him: “Watch out for storms.” He begins slicing the heads off the sardines. Their bloody scales sparkle in the sun.
Feel free to laugh. The scene is overwrought—almost cinematic—and ridiculously ominous. Remind him of the time so many years ago when the two of you outraced the squall coming back to the lodge. Keep your voice steady.
He’ll raise his eyes from the headless pile and laugh his silent laugh and say, “Yea, I remember.” His voice is low and sinks into the blood and the bucket. You want to ask him if he remembers it differently than you do. Can he recall his reckless careening in and out of the waves, which seemed like mountains to you then? The pounding thud of the bow as it dropped into the bottom of each trough, upending your stomach and cracking your knees? Or the silent treatment you subjected him to the rest of the trip?
Unclip your rod and flip the switch on the reel to unlock the line. Try to recall the correct and proper way to hold it, for comfort and efficiency, without letting on that you’ve forgotten.
He’ll read your mind and demonstrate deftly with one thick-wristed hand while the other caresses his first Kent of the day. “Snap your wrist until the hook’s stuck tight into the flesh.” The Nicorette’s already over the side, a meal for one of the endangered turtles that prowl the shoreline.
Swallow your revulsion at this environmental faux pas. There is a grace to his movements that can be intimidating, but not today. His face has softened, too, the eyes a reminder of an eagerness that can be infectious if you let it.
Don’t be unnerved. Instead, throughout the morning, allow the pulse of the conversation to ebb and flow. Pay attention to what he pays attention to and what he doesn’t. Sam will need some fodder for tomorrow anyway.
For example, try something easy, something about your mother’s aunts. He used to call them spinsters, which made you laugh until your chest ached. Ask him if they’re still cheating at canasta.
“Shamelessly,” he’ll say and toss the dregs of his coffee over his shoulder for luck. His profile is emblazoned against the whitening sky, Steve McQueen from a Sunday afternoon Million-Dollar Movie. You’ll wonder—not for the first time—if you should rethink your sanctimonious attitude about the perils and stupidity of smoking.
Talk about the fiasco of your cousin Christine’s wedding—the one where one of those aunts had whispered loudly to everyone within earshot, including the best man, “Christine married down.” It’s a family classic, endlessly recyclable. Repeat the same jokes everyone has already told; ask the same questions that have already been answered. Remember what the groom’s mother said to Christine? Was there an after party? Why are they still together? This will last a good 45 minutes. It feels effortless.
The weather is, by now, glorious. The ceiling has risen, the clouds congealed into white stripes against the sky, and the breeze, brisk but warm. For the first time in years, there is no heaviness outside or inside the boat.
Take off your windbreaker, the forest green one your mother gave you for the inaugural trip. It matches your eyes, she’d said, and you smile broadly at the rest of those memories: that first fish you landed, your initial aversion to handling live bait, how Sam twice snagged your eyelid with a misdirected cast. The air settles on your skin, cooler than the whitening sun suggests.
Update him about Janice, the girl he met the last time they visited, the ex cross-country star with the voice that came from her toes. Tell him how it crumbled, how the chemistry was lacking. Leave nothing out. Say she’s moved out west. San Francisco, probably, since she always went on and on about the food and how everyone there was so ‘outdoorsy,’ as if that was a good thing.
“Too bad she’s no longer in the picture,” he’ll say, and this time you’re confident he means it.
* * *
When the fish hits, it strikes with startling force. You fall forward with shock and lack of practice, still amazed that such small creatures can muster so much desperate strength. The tip of the rod bends at an extreme angle and plunges down below the water’s surface, almost directly under the boat. Later, at the lodge, Sam will insist you recount every second, every reaction, keenly aware that the odds of something similar happening during his turn have plummeted.
Suddenly, you’re afraid the fish is toying with you. You envision the rod tip snapping up and back, breaking your nose or slicing your eye. But the tip doesn’t snap back. Instead, a lucky break: the fish hooks itself and dives even further. The line screams.
He’s excited, possibly more than you are. He stiffens at the console and leans toward your dancing rod. “It’s a monster,” he says.
When the line slackens your need for better leverage pulls you up off your feet and you stand against the side, knees resting on the lip, with your weight centered safely inside the boat.
“Put your guts into it.” His voice is suddenly beside you, smooth as velvet now, the rasp completely vanished.
Years of instructions come flooding back and your hands explode at the reel. Your dexterity feels primal, your wrist suffused with otherworldly speed, and when the fish responds, you stop and let it twist and tug on the hook.
“Let him dance,” he whispers into your right ear, and you return to your cousin’s wedding. You’re on the dance floor with one of your aunts. The fish is there, its tailfin splayed in two. Everyone is clapping.
He elbows your free arm. You comply, resume a two-handed grip, and wait. The fish senses your resolve and flails, further exhausting itself. A standoff ensues.
Some minutes pass, maybe a quarter of an hour. Then the dancing becomes unbearable and, just when you’re on the brink of handing him the rod, the tip begins to unbend toward the sky and you sense the life on the other end draining away.
He catches your furrowed brow and faraway eyes and begins rolling his index fingers over and over, urging you to tighten the slack. You begin again at the reel, this time more slowly in case the fish makes a final mad dash and snaps the line.
The weight continues to diminish in your hands. Still, it surprises you when the fish materializes just below the surface, a grey ghost moving slowly back and forth along the length of the boat. It’s smaller than you had expected—they always are—and laying almost flat on its side. You wonder if the fish ever actually went for the bait and, instead, simply swam into the hook, unintentionally snagging itself.
“Bring him in,” he says and claps his hands together. The muffled sound reverberates across the lake as you draw the fish closer to the boat. He’s drenched with excitement and slips as he readies the net. Both of you know it’s unnecessary but you appreciate the gesture.
The rod is almost weightless now and, in the water, the metronomic back-and-forths have narrowed to almost nothing. If not for your heavy arms and his excited panting, it’s as if the last twenty minutes never happened.
“Let’s get you in,” he says and wedges his thighs against the side. He’s leaning out over the water, gripping the net with one hand, and addressing the fish with the other. The boat leans with him, sinking slightly.
“Don’t think we’re going to need that,” you say, gesturing to the net with your eyes. These words, the first out of your mouth since the fish arrived, sound a little exasperated, which isn’t want you intended. Your hands hold fast to the rod handle. The cork bites into your palms.
When he turns to look up at you, he does it with the guileless, smiling eyes of someone who can’t help himself. He’s whooping with delight now and you feel something that until now had kept itself walled-up inside you trying to give way.
With a sharp and audible thwack of its tail, the fish re-asserts its presence. In the clarity of the sun, it appears even smaller than before and you lament the games that light plays when it’s refracted through water. Everybody wants to catch the big one.
At first, the two of you work in tandem. He jabs the net into the water and scoops forward as you walk toward the other side of the boat, drawing the fish closer. Speaking feels unnecessary; it’s all going so smoothly.
The next evening, at the airport, Sam will wonder how it happened. He’ll want the blow-by-blow. Not bothering to mask your irritation, you’ll insist that it must have been your clumsiness, or maybe his eagerness. Probably both.
The fish is dwarfed by the size of the net and you watch it spasm and slap and ripple the mesh. In your head you congratulate whoever coined the phrase ‘death throes’ when it suddenly flips over with aggressive finality and faces the boat.
You’re drawn to its eye, which seems far too big for its body, and are astounded at the intensity you see there, as if all its remaining life is about to be squeezed away and into the lake. Then the eye blinks and your weight shifts and you stumble back against the driver’s console.
He reacts, naturally, by raising the net out of the water, cradling the fish as it rises. But his own weight is misplaced and he falls forward, shoving the net deeper below the surface.
In the end there is no snap, no dramatic flinging of the hook from the fish’s mouth. Nothing happens in slow motion. There’s only the sudden absence of anything on the other end of the line. As you regain your balance, you look out over the water and see the liberated fish framed against the sky like a promotional snapshot from the nightstand in your room at the lodge. Rejoicing in sudden freedom, it poses in mid-flight, wriggling passionately, almost coyly, before dropping into the water.
* * *
The aftermath will be uneventful.
Hose down and store the net while he resets the lines on each of the rods and adds new bait to your hook, refusing with a brisk wave your insistence to do it yourself. Normality, like the rhythmic thudding of a hammer, returns along with a sense of deflation, of something larger that got away. Watch it envelop the boat.
Turn away from the lake. Residual glare from the water means it takes you a few seconds to adjust. He’s already back at the wheel, shoulders even and wide, grimacing into the slowing breeze. When he lifts the cap off his head you’re no longer surprised at the thinness of his buzz cut, slick and beaded with sweat and pink from the sun.
Don’t protest when he returns to the topic of Janice, confessing between drags that he was struck by her gregariousness and surprised by her above-average appearance.
“I figured she was more Sammy’s type.”
Don’t answer. Don’t tell him it was your staunch silences, the barren terrain of your face that ultimately turned her against you. He’ll refuse to understand that one conversation with him convinced her of everything she needed to know about a future with you.
For the rest of the morning, don’t bother combing your brain for new things to say. Toss off vacuous remarks at regular intervals. Point out the beauty of the shoreline. Discuss the particulars of tomorrow’s departure. You’ve been trolling for hours, so use the gurgling engine as a guide for the cadence of your sentences.
He’ll notice your efforts and grow more irritated and hard-edged. He’ll make four or five more wobbly trips to the back for another piss. Tell him to turn off the engine first or he’ll get electrocuted. The near-poetic athleticism he practiced with the net is gone.
Pick up the slack when you notice he’s beginning to run out of steam around noon. Stand up and offer to take the wheel for an early return trip. Insist upon it, even when he eye-rolls his face into a granite block.
After you’ve re-secured everything, wait patiently while he takes his time to relinquish the wheel, comfortably at home among the life jackets, his prize tackle box, and stray bits of bait and bilge water. Don’t be scared of the proximity. Think of it as just another test.
The mess that greets you at the console doesn’t shatter you as it should. Those earlier memories—the Legos, the wrappers, the untidy bedroom, are all gone, submerged under a layer of renewed resignation. Wipe the coffee stains from the windshield. Gather the few remaining Kents strewn about the gas gauge and the depth finder. Chuck the wet ones into the garbage bag and stow the rest in the dry pack under the driver’s seat. Don’t call them “cancer sticks.”
Make sure he’s seated before you begin. Focus on a point on the horizon as he lowers himself stiffly into the cushion in front of you. His back has rounded even further these last couple of hours, the chest nearly caving in on itself.
Look down at your stinging hands as you tighten them against the steering wheel. The skin is raw and chafed; blood spots spring from the calluses that line the top of your palms. You feel like waving to him. Don’t do it. Grab the throttle and point the bow toward shore.
MIKE FISHER has been a professional copywriter/copyeditor for 15 years and has a Master’s degree in Asian Studies. He currently lives and writes in San Francisco.