When the ice begins to thaw from the lakes and streams, my brother Drew and I put in for our vacations, leave our homes, and migrate north to Lakeville. It’s part of a promise we made back when we were still in high school: to return to the spawning grounds of our ancestors and work our grandfather’s bait and tackle shop on the opening weekend of trout season.
I know everything there is to know about fishing. I can tell you which lure colors work best in low light, which test monofilament line to use when casting into heavy cover, what the fish are biting on down at the river this week, and whether the weed beds on the lake are right for running a deep-diving crankbait. But I don’t fish. I’m a musician—classically trained at the Manhattan School of Music, one of the youngest ever to receive a doctorate in musical arts. I’ve served as a substitute clarinet for the Rochester Philharmonic and the Utica Symphony, and I’ve worked as a pit performer for the Syracuse Opera and various theater companies. By my colleagues’ standards, I’m actually quite accomplished for a guy in his twenties.
But I haven’t held a rod in nearly twenty years, not since the day Drew almost died.
* * *
Across the loosely-packed gravel lot, Alan Muchowski dangles his leg from the door of his beat-to-hell Chevy Blazer. He lights a cigarette in the cold and doesn’t say a word, doesn’t nod or wave, just watches me fumble with the lock, leaning expectantly forward and then back again into the darkness of the cab. When I finally open the doors and flip on the fluorescent lights, he steps from his truck and follows me inside.
“We’re here and Pennsylvania’s a better state for it,” he says, leaning against the doorframe, watching me unlock the cash register, his cigarette ash falling on the rubberized welcome mat.
“Mooch,” I say and point at the no-smoking sign by his head.
He looks over, inspects the sign as he smokes, pretends as though it’s the first time he’s seen it there, and then nods and shoots me a hangdog grin.
“Guess you didn’t see the sign,” I say. “There’s an ashtray outside.”
“I saw it,” he says, sniffing and flipping the butt behind him out the door.
Through the window, I can see his stepson sitting in the truck, rubbing his hands together and blowing into his palms. In all the years Mooch has been buying nightcrawlers from me, the kid has never set foot inside the shop. Not once. He’s about ten years old as far as I can tell, and I’ve never heard him called anything but “the kid.” His given name may be “the kid” for all I know. A few years ago, I overheard Mooch tell my grandfather that the kid’s old man was a General in the Army or something—not one of those loveable, softhearted White Christmas Generals either, but one who used to beat his wife and son something fierce whenever he came home hammered.
“Now, what can I get you?” I say, as Mooch ambles over to the polarized sunglasses display and checks his face in the mirror. The sunglasses we sell are specially designed to cut the glare on the water, and when you put them on a fish appears in the corner of the mirror to illustrate just how much you miss by not wearing them. But Mooch doesn’t try on the sunglasses. He opens his mouth instead and looks at his tongue, scraping it with his pinky.
“Three dozen crawlers,” he says, wiping his finger on his flannel shirt and wandering over to the rod rack. He pulls an expensive seven-foot graphite and swings it like a swashbuckler back and forth in front of his body.
“You sure you don’t want to try spoons this year?” I say as he slides the rod back into the holder. I am trying to help him. I happen to know that last year the locals slaughtered the stocked lake trout fishing spoons. But Mooch eyes me suspiciously, as though I’m trying to sell him anideology he’s got no use for.
“Just worms,” he says, and I go to the cooler and pull out three Styrofoam containers marked with the number twelve.
The fat, beige nightcrawlers scrunch down when I flip open the top of each container. I check to see that the artificial soil is moist and wipe a few clumps of it from the air holes my grandfather punched in the plastic lids. While I check the count, Mooch fingers a package of chartreuse soft bait. He reads the back of the plastic bag, smells its contents, and then tosses it in a bin of split shot as I return to the register.
“Much obliged,” he says when I ring up the sale.
From the porch, I watch his rusty trailer kick up rooster tails of stone and dust as it thunders out of the parking lot—the faded, yellow bumper sticker that reads: I’d Rather Be Fishing, disappearing around a bend in the service road that leads to Grady’s Lake. Back inside, I remove the soft bait packet from the split shot bin, and hang it back in aisle one where it belongs. Then I lean against the concrete bait tanks and wait for the influx of anglers.
When I was a kid, the Lakeville area was the honeymoon capital of the world. Presidents vacationed here. But now the only outsiders that regularly visit Lakeville are the fishermen. On this one weekend of the year, they roll into town, rumbling down the gravel side roads in dented Chevy Blazers and well-worn Jeep Cherokees, fishing rods propped across backseats, aluminum boats in tow. Men in brown canvas vests, waders, and baseball caps, trudge below bridges and along soybean fields to fish the native trout runs. Fathers take their children to the boat launch to pick up temporary permits. These men (they are mostly men) are reticent and pensive. If a bit rough around the edges, they appreciate the landscape for what it is. They are a non-invasive species. Nature poets. Even Mooch.
My grandfather keeps a six-foot spinning rod and a tackle box in the back of his truck at all times so that if the opportunity arises, he can toss a few casts. He took waders to my cousin’s wedding in New York, storing them in an army green duffle bag in the trunk, pulling them on over his tuxedo pants after the ceremony and sneaking away to fish Willowemoc Creek during the reception. He reads all the fishing magazines, analyzes the pictures and the charts, mumbling to himself and throwing fake casts at the trophies mounted on the walls of his den—a largemouth bass, all three of the native trout species, a Walleye set against driftwood, and one enormous Pike baring a mouthful of bone-white teeth. He reels in imaginary whoppers while he watches Bill Dance and Roland Martin on the twenty-four-hour Outdoor Life Network and can work a fishing platitude into any conversation.
“Well, if it isn’t the one that got away,” he says when I shamble down the steps and into the kitchen. I can smell bacon frying in the cast-iron skillet on the stove, and I pour myself a mug of coffee while my grandmother scrambles eggs.
At breakfast we listen to Drew tell stories about mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and ventricle defibrillation. Drew saves lives full time as an EMT with a small ambulance company in Latrobe. A respectable job for a man. His training has come in handy more than once on opening weekend. Just last year he removed a fishhook from Mooch’s eyebrow when the kid caught him on a back cast. I can still remember the look on Mooch’s face as Drew approached slowly with a pair of bolt-cutters in one hand and a bottle of rubbing alcohol in the other.
I sit down at the table and Drew gets up to fill his glass of orange juice. Standing at the counter, he places one hand on top of the other and performs CPR on the frozen chicken my grandmother plans to bake for dinner. He counts each compression aloud, and before my grandmother can snatch the bird away from him, yells “clear” to demonstrate exactly how vocal paramedics are. My grandfather laughs while my grandmother scolds Drew for beating up seven pounds of frozen fowl, mumbling “paskudny” under her breath and shuffling back to the oven.
“And how are they biting in the wide world of music, David?” my grandfather says.
I’ve never heard the word “music” used in a fishing metaphor before, but I play along. I talk about performing Beethoven’s symphony no. 3, the Eroica, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite in front of a packed house on opening night and my grandfather gets up to refill his coffee mug. He knows I don’t make much money, knows I spend most of my time hopping from one orchestra to the next as positions open. He doesn’t ask when I’m going to settle into a stable job, when I am going to start thinking about my future—a home, a family, a 401k—not anymore, but the question hangs in the air regardless. He’s nearing eighty years old, and he still hopes that one of us, the grandchildren he and my grandmother raised, will take over the store when he dies. That’s not entirely true. He still hopes that I will take over. Drew already has a good job.
I don’t tell him that I turned down an opportunity to play with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra this weekend to sell Stren fishing line and Powerbait, because I don’t even understand the decision myself, and I know that I’d be speaking in a pitch he can’t hear. That’s not to say that he’s heartless; he just doesn’t understand the nature of my profession. In his mind, my frequent pay-as-you-play, substitute performer gigs rank somewhere just above walking dogs and babysitting—I’m another starving artist, pursuing a pipe dream. He doesn’t know that the orchestras I play in are funded by a council for the arts, has no sense of the thousands of patrons I perform to every year. He only knows he hasn’t seen me on television or in his iTunes library.
But for all his misgivings, I have sensed moments when he seemed eager to learn about what I do for a living. And in those moments, I haven’t made much of an attempt to explain my life to him.
The west bank of Grady’s Lake is dotted with homemade vinyl-sided shacks built atop cinder blocks. Shabby places you can rent cheap. My grandfather’s cabin is no exception, and every spring he rents it out to Mooch.
The interior sports an eclectic mix of nautical furnishings picked up at various yard sales and auctions: an amateur oil painting of a 19th-century clipper ship, two framed photographs of boats cut from a National Geographic magazine and glued to cardboard, and a two-year-old calendar featuring pencil drawings of different North American sport fish every month. A ratty bed sheet serves as a window blind, a rusty mushroom anchor doubles as a doorstop, and a thirty-year-old television set, jerry-rigged to a car antenna, sits atop the kitchen table.
“Spa package it ain’t, but it’s cheap,” my grandfather says, tossing the key to Mooch as he steps down off the porch. “David will help you get launched.”
“Much obliged,” Mooch says, lighting a cigarette in cupped hands, dropping his spent matchstick in the yard. “The kid’s real excited, aren’t you, kid?”
At the mention of his name, the kid jumps a little. Then he nods and shifts his weight from one foot to the other and back again. It’s easy to see how much his old man—his George Patton of a father—messed him up, and I wonder if that isn’t why he’s always so quiet. I’ve seen him fish. He tackles it with the restless determination of a child. But when he’s off the water without a pole in his hands, it’s like he’s hiding inside himself—like he’s hoping misfortune will miss him somehow if he keeps swimming with his mouth shut. He’s the kind of kid that needs sticking up for. I can appreciate that.
“They’ve been swimming with their mouths shut the past few weeks,” I say, resisting the urge to glance over at the kid. “Postfrontal conditions.”
Mooch looks at me and raises his eyebrows and smokes his cigarette. “You don’t say, hot shot,” he says, finally, resting his hand on the thirty-year-old Evinrude outboard that dangles from the stern of his boat. “Well, at least we’ll get to try out the new motor. I got her for a song.” He lowers his voice and, with his cigarette, gestures toward the kid, who is now sitting on the edge of the porch, picking splinters of wood from the steps. “I’ve been saving up some of his old man’s child support. If it turns out he’s not college material, I can maybe buy myself a new boat.”
“All we can do is pray,” I say.
Mooch drops his cigarette on the deck and crushes it out with his foot, and says, “Right, let’s hit it.”
From the outside, Mooch’s truck looks entirely inconspicuous amongst the other vehicles in the lot. Sure, it has a lot of miles on it, and plenty of wear to show for it—the antenna has been kinked by a low tree branch and it no longer retracts into the hood, the side view mirror is held on with gray duct tape, and the fenders are slowly being eaten by sandpapery patches of rust that flake off in amber-metallic clouds when you run your finger over them—but my grandfather isn’t exactly running a country club.
“Do me a favor and kick some of that mud off your feet before you get in,” Mooch says, climbing behind the wheel.
I swing my legs out the door and kick my heels together. Then I squirm to position myself around a seat coil that’s sprung through the ripped leather upholstery. My feet slide on the floor. If the exterior of the car has character, the inside is a nightmare. It’s sensory overload. Little balls of iridescent blue fishing spool, and split-shot lead sinkers, and red and white striped bobbers roll along the floorboards. Discarded 100 Grand bar wrappers and waxy blue McDonald’s wrappers fill the space beneath the seats, and silvery fish scales twinkle in greasy rainbows. The carpet is a mulch of cigarette butts and dried apple cores and stale sandwich crusts and mud and pinecones and wet leaves. Burnt coffee stains the dash, and a black Hefty bag plugs the space where a rear window belongs. The seat cushions reek with the permeated stench of spilled salmon roe.
“Don’t lean back too hard there; I’ll have a hell of a time getting the seat upright again,” Mooch says, fumbling for his lighter.
In the back, the kid sits quietly, staring out the window at the trailers and cabins as we drive the steep slope towards the boat launch. Low-hanging shade trees stretch out over the lake. Homemade plank-wood docks bob in the water, their white-wall-tire boat bumpers and galvanized pipe moorings dipping in and out of the green.
“Do me a favor and put your boot over that hole in the floorboard,” Mooch says, his cigarette hopping in his mouth.
I nod and reposition my foot. When we hit a rut, the glove compartment door pops open.
“Don’t mind that,” Mooch says, backing us down the ramp, the truck sliding a bit on the loose stone.
This year, the water is low—the DCNR drew down the lake twice this winter for spring runoff—and large slabs of concrete have broken from the bottom edge of the launch. It’s a two-foot drop off. What my grandfather would call an “axle breaker.”
“Holy shit,” Mooch says, as we pull closer.
“There’s no way you’re gonna get that trailer deep enough without swamping your truck. It’s too damn steep,” I say. “I’ll have to push you off, but I’d better call Drew to back us in.”
“The kid can do it,” Mooch says, glancing up in the rearview mirror. “You’re up to the task, right?”
I twist around in my seat to see the kid’s reaction, to see if any fear or hesitation registers on his face, but the kid is as impassive as ever. There’s no hint of excitement in his eyes as he crawls up from the back, positioning himself on the center console. I doubt his legs are even long enough to reach the pedals.
I start to say something, start to suggest that maybe we should think this through a bit, but Mooch steps from the truck, balancing himself on the trailer tongue, and scrambles over the bow. He primes the outboard and then signals for the kid to start backing the trailer into the water. The kid crawls over the seat, releases the brake, directing the rear of the trailer down into the lake. He does a good job of it, too. And when the truck is submerged to the wheel wells, Mooch calls over the drone of the motor, “Give me a shove.”
I curse softly and slosh my way to the back of the truck, straddle the trailer arm and inspect the front of the boat.
“You forgot to release the winch,” I say, reaching down and unclipping the tow hook from boat’s bow. I step up onto the trailer hitch, balancing myself by grabbing the nose of the boat with one hand and the fender of the Blazer with the other. Then I give the boat a good push and watch as Mooch backs it away, circling around towards the docks with a jaunty yachtsman’s salute.
“All right, now pull it out slowly, kiddo,” I say, leaning in through the rear window.
The kid nods and presses down on the gas. The engine wheezes a little and the tires spin in the soft ground at the bottom of the ramp, skidding and spraying gravel.
“Hold up,” I say, cupping my hand around my mouth. “Put it into 4-wheel.”
I lean down and watch through the back as the kid grips the knob on the floor and pulls it towards him, and for some reason, it doesn’t register with me that he’s grabbed the shift and not the four-wheel drive lever. The kid really guns it this time, too, and the truck jerks backwards, accelerating in reverse, kicking stone and mud into the water with a deep, throaty splash.
“No, forward,” I say, but it’s too late. The trailer wheels have already broken free of the ramp and there’s no way we aren’t going in the lake.
“Whoa!” I yell. “Whoa! Stop!” I lose my grip on the back of the tailgate, my right arm flailing as I grab for something to steady myself, but my hand hits only air. My feet slip on the trailer tongue, and I’m falling backward into space and landing with a perfect, reverse-belly-flop splash in the reeds along the side of the ramp.
When I stand, putrid water drips from my hair and my clothing, and I’m covered in slimy green algae and silt. It’s clear that the truck has gone over the edge. The water is halfway up the door, and I’ll be surprised if the rear axle isn’t broken in half. I slog over to the driver’s side window and lean in and turn off the ignition. The kid chokes the steering wheel in both fists, gripping so hard that his knuckles turn white. Water pours into the truck through the door seals, and the junk food wrappers float like wax paper boats in the back.
“Okay, kid. You’re done,” I say.
The kid doesn’t cry, but it’s clear he’s nervous. He keeps drumming his fingers on the wheel, and when he looks at me, his eyes are so distant, so forlorn, that I think I just might be the one to cry.
I dry off in the back room of my grandfather’s store, throwing my jeans over the old clothesline strung for hanging waders and sitting my boots on top of the radiator to dry out. If someone were to come in now to buy bait, I’d look quite a sight ringing up the sale in my underwear, but at this point, I don’t care. I had to wait a half hour for the tow truck to come fish Mooch’s Blazer out of the drink. I’m wet. I’m cold. And I smell like the lake. I wrap an old towel around my shoulders and pad out into the store to grab some gear off the shelves.
In my grandfather’s store, everything has its place—soft baits in aisle one; Shad Raps, Hot ’N Tots, and all other crank bait in aisles two through four, arranged by brand and size; rods sprouting up from the holder by the door like tall, grassy cattails; and reels out on display in the glass case by the register. As kids, Drew and I used to unravel the long strands of cast-off monofilament from the dispensary bin labeled: Fishing Line is Not Biodegradable, Please Recycle. We’d sneak around, opening jars of salmon roe, wrinkling our noses at the different pungent scents.
Along the far wall hangs a poster of trout dry fly patterns—Quill Gordons, Tom Thumbs, Blue Duns—and an array of T-shirts stenciled with our logo: a trout jumping out of the water after a fly and the words Lakeville Pro Fishing. I grab a shirt and pull it on over my head. Then I grab a pair of neoprene waders and yank them up over my hips, letting the shoulder straps dangle behind my back. I look ridiculous—like I somehow stumbled out of the stream and into the shop—but it’s better than nothing, and it will have to do until Drew comes to relieve me after lunch.
That’s always been the arrangement. I manage the shop in the mornings while my grandfather and Drew fish down the Delaware River. Because I don’t fish, it works out well for everyone. I’m free all afternoon, and I can use that time to practice the clarinet. In fact, if it’s a slow day, I can also practice right there in the shop if I feel like competing with the constant hum of the aerators in the live bait tanks, which are a cool, sweaty acoustic nightmare.
Even though I only work this shop one weekend out of the year, I have the routine down. All through high school, Drew and I managed the store, so I know how to ring up sales, know most of the prices by heart, know when to expect the afternoon rush and what to do if I catch someone shoplifting. I’m the consummate professional. In that sense, it’s not that much different from playing in a pit orchestra. Sometimes, in the pit, you won’t play a note for over half an hour, but when it’s your cue, you’re on—front and center, exceptional—and you’d better know where you are, you’d better be ready to perform. There’s no worse feeling than silence, than watching your part pass unplayed. That’s why we all look out for each other down there in the dark. And once you have the feel for it, you could take a nap if you wanted to and not miss a single beat.
That professionalism is the kind of detail my grandfather might appreciate.
Early in my career, before I moved away, people would sometimes come up to me in the supermarket or on Main Street to compliment me for my performance in one of the community orchestras. Usually, they saw my name in the playbill. Or else, they recognized my face when the local jazz band I ran with here in the Water Gap serenaded them during dinner. When these people praised my playing, if my grandfather was with me, he would grow red in the face, nodding as they talked about my natural talent and skill, and he would agree that I was a fine soloist, even though he had no real way of knowing.
“He’s a keeper,” my grandfather would say proudly, offering some excuse like, “It’s a shame I couldn’t get away from the store.”
I knew my grandfather wouldn’t show up at my musical performances uninvited, but I never asked him to attend. It was as if we had an agreement—You stick to your interests, and I’ll stick to mine. And yet, I make it sound like he never took any interest in me. That isn’t fair at all. Or even true. He was a father when Drew and I needed one. He taught me how to throw a football so that it spirals and how to choke up on a baseball bat before swinging. He taught me that pool is a game of angles and that you can line up your shot by drawing an invisible line from the desired pocket through the ball you want to hit. He showed me the proper way to filet a fish to avoid getting bones in the meat—slitting it diagonally below the dorsal fin so that the cut runs along the backbone perpendicular to the gills. And, in one especially harrowing month, he taught me to drive stick on our old Dodge pick-up. But after Drew’s accident, my grandfather never invited me to go fishing again, and I never asked.
It was a morning expedition, early spring, the last time my grandfather took me fishing. Drew and I couldn’t have been much older than ten, and my grandmother had packed us a picnic lunch—bologna sandwiches, potato chips, and three cold cans of Coca-Cola. Before we left the house, she made us promise to wear our life jackets, but when we got out onto the lake, my grandfather took his off, and when Drew and I pulled ours over our heads and tossed them in the corner of the boat, he didn’t say anything.
We were out mid-lake, fishing a weed bed along Marcy shoal, and my grandfather was showing me how to tie a line. He didn’t make up any silly mnemonic devices about bunnies hopping around the bushes and down the rabbit hole, as he had when he taught me to tie my shoes. Instead, he sat behind me and put his hands on mine and showed me how to thread the line through the eye of the lure, then twist it on itself a half-dozen times before threading it back through the loop it made. I understood him, but I couldn’t get my small fingers to make the line do what I wanted, and when I tried to pull it taut with my teeth, the way he showed me, it fell apart.
“Not bad for a first try,” he said, fishing line clamped in his teeth, as he tied on an Eagle Claw for me.
Drew had already had a couple of hits by the time I got my line wet, but on my first cast, the fish that struck my lure hit so hard that it nearly pulled me into the water. It grabbed the bait only yards from the boat and started down lake, buzzing line out from my reel.
“Holy crow,” my grandfather said, jumping up and nearly spilling us, our gear, our lunch, and the life vests, into the lake. “Play her nice and easy, Davie,” he said, shuffling over to me and grabbing the braided net below the seat.
I could feel the fish jerking back and forth, the flutter of its tail as it nosed down toward the weeds, diving and zigzagging and doubling the rod over on itself so that the tip practically touched the water.
“Don’t horse it,” my grandfather said. “Get your rod tip down over the boat. Keep her out of the weeds.”
I strained against the rod, just trying to keep from losing that fish and trying not to drop the rod over the side, but my arms were starting to tire and my muscles were getting that jelly sensation. I managed to draw the fish close enough to see its greenish-yellow back, and then it saw the boat and went berserk and dove again. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could hold it. Still, I wanted to land it myself. It was my catch. Mine. And just when I thought I couldn’t pull any longer, the fish tired out. It went dead like a log, its weight solid and heavy as a snag, and nosed up onto its side along the edge of the boat where my grandfather scooped it in the net.
“Lordy, will you look . . . at . . . that,” he said, tugging the treble from the top of the fish’s head. He reached into the nylon netting and hooked his finger along the pink gills behind the fish’s jaw. “You false hooked it. Snagged her right in the dome. I’ll be damned. What a lucky catch. What a lucky, lucky catch.”
The walleye had to be close to eight pounds, speckled olive and gold across its back. It opened and closed its mouth a few times, exposing a small row of teeth, and swished its tail in the air. Its cloudy gray eyes focused on nothing as my grandfather pressed it down across the ruler on the live well and measured its length.
“Over twenty inches from snout to spot,” he said. “What do you want to do with her?”
I looked to Drew, but he already had his line in the water again, casting and retrieving at record pace, trying for a whopper of his own. “I don’t know,” I said. “Throw it back, I guess?”
My grandfather nodded and got down on a knee. “I wish we’d brought a camera,” he said, leaning over the edge of the boat and sliding the fish, that monster of the deep, back into the lake. He slipped a hand under its belly and held it upright, letting the water filter in and out through the fish’s gills. Then with a violent flick of its tail, the fish sprang to life, thrashed the water once, and disappeared into the murk.
“Hell of a catch,” my grandfather said, grinning, and for the moment, I was speechless. Just standing there in the bow smiling and proud, letting the adrenaline ebb from my body.
On the way back to shore, my grandfather let me drive the boat.
“Go on, Davie,” he said, sliding out from behind the helm and patting the faux-leather seat. “Biggest fish brings us home.”
He’d never asked me to do anything like that before, and I wasn’t really sure what to do. I felt a churning in my stomach, but I didn’t want to disappoint my grandfather, and I didn’t want Drew to know I was nervous. So I grabbed the wheel with both hands, and my grandfather showed me how to prime the motor.
“Okay, now give it some juice,” he said.
I pressed the throttle forward with some hesitation and the bow of the boat rose in the water, bouncing a bit on the chop.
“Give it a little more,” my grandfather said over the grumble of the motor. “Then she’ll level out.”
I did as he told me, and soon we were cruising at a flat plane, running across the surface of the water, the air blowing up through our T-shirts and across our faces. My grandfather grabbed the brim of my baseball cap and pulled it backwards on my head and gave me a thumbs-up. I nodded once and leaned back in the seat, taking a hand off the wheel. I was a real boatman, guiding us in across unchartered waters, those perfect green waves. My grandfather smiled, as though he knew what this meant, and then he turned back to Drew and said something I couldn’t hear.
He was still turned, telling Drew some pointer about fishing or boating, when a jet ski shot out of a cove ahead to our starboard side. Had I known something about boating, had this not been my very first time driving, I might have handled the situation better—I might have realized that in a crossing situation you should give way, let the stand on vessel clear your danger zone, and then pass astern. But there behind the wheel, with my grandfather’s back turned, I froze. My elation, my confidence and the joy I’d felt only seconds earlier disappeared. I knew we were seconds from collision, knew that the jet skier wasn’t paying attention, had no plans to alter his course, just as one knows when two cars are about to crash at an intersection.
When my grandfather turned back, he didn’t say anything. He didn’t yell or scream or order me starboard. He just sat for a second, staring. I like to think he realized his mistake in that moment. When he grabbed the wheel from my hands, he knocked me to the floor of the boat, jerking us sideways and pulling back on the throttle. We spun in a half circle, and I rolled toward the edge, smacking my head against the live well. Drew, sitting in back with his feet propped atop the gunwale, let out a small cry and then he was over the side, his heels disappearing beneath the transom, dipping smoothly into that dark water.
Then my grandfather was overboard—only he was diving. When he sloshed back to the surface in a singular clear burst of water and foam, his glasses and hat were gone, and his eyes were wide, panicked, helpless—the kind of stare that might drown all three of us. He called Drew’s name in a way I’d never heard it before, gasped and then dunked himself under again, his boots breaking the surface of the water once, and with trembling hands I pulled the floating life preserver out from the back and tied it off to one of the metal cleats on the side of the boat.
“Please,” I whispered, leaning over the side, staring down into the shadows. “Oh, God, please.” But the only thing I could see was my own reflection on the surface of the water. My grandfather was under for too long that second time, long enough for the water to go flat above him, and after a while I thought he might not come back up. But when he did, he had Drew with an arm around his neck, and he was holding him up in the water.
The jet skiers had stopped further down the lake and were watching us now.
“Get to the other side,” he said, pushing Drew’s limp body over the side, and once I’d pulled him across the seats, my grandfather slung a leg up and rolled himself back into our little boat.
Drew’s skin was cold and his lips were turning blue when my grandfather stretched him out on floor and pressed his mouth to Drew’s and started blowing.
“Come on, boy, please, come . . . on,” he said, pressing down on Drew with both hands, and then pressing his ear to his skinny chest. He looked up at me, pinching his eyebrows above the bridge of his nose, and then he pressed down again. Hard. And Drew started retching, cloudy water dribbling out of his mouth. My grandfather turned Drew’s head and hugged him, and said, “Oh, thank God,” over and over again.
When we reached the shoreline, my grandfather called our grandmother. She got to the lake just before the ambulance did, and she trembled as she asked questions and patted our bodies all over, as though to make sure we were all there—ten fingers, ten toes. And on that afternoon, Drew rode to the hospital in the back of the ambulance, though the EMTs assured my grandparents that it was only a precaution.
When Drew arrives for his shift at the shop, I’m just finishing up with a customer. He leans against the doorframe and watches me ring up the sale on the register, looks me up and down, taking in my getup—the waders and T-shirt—then he says, “That’s a good look for you, Dave. Really.”
“I hate this town,” I say. “I hate coming back here, and I hate working at this damn store.”
“You don’t mean that,” Drew says, buffing out a scuff mark on the floor with the toe of his sneaker.
“Yes, I do.”
“Then why do you come back?” Drew says.
It’s the million dollar question. Why do I come back? “Obligation,” I say. “Masochism.”
“It’s not obligation,” Drew says, moving around behind the register. “It’s not even really a two-man operation. I mean, we aren’t arming nuclear warheads or landing jumbo jet-liners here. I think you do it because you know it makes Pops happy.”
And to that, I have no response.
* * *
Bebe’s is a small diner less than ten miles outside of Lakeville. Actually it’s more or less a dive bar with some wooden tables in the back, but at Bebe’s the drinks are cheap and the food is even cheaper, and so the locals frequent the bar at night to trade fishing tales in the dim, smoky light over a pint of Yuengling. Inside, various photographs decorate the wall—pictures of men holding up Walleye, Pike, Bass, and in one case, a prehistoric-looking Musky. My grandfather, Drew, and I sit at one of the tables eating chili and sopping it up with sourdough bread, when Mooch approaches from the bar with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
“How’s the truck, Mooch?” my grandfather says, setting his spoon down in his bowl.
Mooch smokes his cigarette, and he rubs the two-day growth of beard on his chin, and then he says, “The whole damn thing is waterlogged.”
“Hook, line, and sinker,” my grandfather says.
“Could’ve been worse,” I say. “It’s easy for a kid his age to get confused with everyone yelling at him.”
“Way I heard it, you were the only one yelling,” Mooch says, taking a rubbery step backwards.
“I don’t think I was,” I say, offering up an easy smile. “I was just speaking loud so he could hear me. I thought he might swamp us.”
Drew looks down and pushes the beans around in his chili bowl. My grandfather leans back and presses his fist to his chest, puffing his cheeks and burping. If Mooch accepts my explanation, he shows no signs of it. He just continues his furious smoking and glances awkwardly around the room.
“Take a load off,” my grandfather says, pulling out the empty chair.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Mooch says, flopping down and sighing. He points at my grandfather’s chili with the butt of his cigarette. “You finished with that?”
My grandfather pushes the bowl toward Mooch, and Mooch drops his cigarette in the chili and crosses his arms in front of his chest. “I come to tell you, I think you should apologize to the kid,” he says.
“Apologize?” I say, laughing a little. But no one else is smiling. “For what?”
“For muckering him,” Mooch says. “He’s only eight years old, for Christ’s sake.”
“I wasn’t trying to mucker anyone,” I say, pressing my hands to the sticky tabletop. “I don’t even know what that means. I was just trying to keep him from sinking your damn truck, Mooch.”
“And I say he wouldn’t have sunk my truck, if you weren’t harping on him,” Mooch says, slapping the table.
“There’s logic for you,” I say, and I can feel my cheeks growing hot with anger. If anyone is to blame, it’s Mooch for having the kid launch the boat in the first place, for giving an eight year old that kind of responsibility. But Mooch’s doggedness defies reason. He’s drunk, and he’s angry, and above all else, he’s determined not to take the fall for this disaster.
“Where is the kid?” Drew asks.
“Back in the cabin,” Mooch says, lighting another cigarette.
“Well, we’re headed back soon,” my grandfather says, nodding to the waitress as she tops off our coffee mugs. “Why don’t we give you a ride?”
“Hell, I just got here. Let me finish my beer,” Mooch says, grabbing the waitress’s arm and ordering another round.
I’m just about to tell him how selfish he sounds, maybe lecture him on taking some responsibility for his actions, when Mooch points over at Drew with his cigarette and says, “You know, I designed those packets.”
Drew looks down at the pack of Sweet’N Low he’s dumping in his coffee mug.
“Yeah, that long, skinny one there you’re using. That’s my design. Saved the company a shit-ton of money, if you’d believe it.”
Drew and I exchange unsure looks, but Mooch doesn’t care. He’s on a roll, staring down into his pilsner glass as though we aren’t even there.
“A few weeks ago, my boss calls me in. Says, ‘Alan, you’ve done good work for us over the years. Here’s a little something extra for you.’ And he slowly slides this envelope across his desk and winks at me,” Mooch says, sliding his hand along the table in pantomime. “He’s being real damn debonair about the whole thing, so I figure it must be a thousand dollars or something. When I get home, I tear open the envelope, and you know what’s inside? A fifty-dollar gift certificate to the Lobster Bucket. I save them a quarter-million bucks and they give me a lousy, stinking gift card for assembly line seafood.”
I lean back in my chair and look over at my grandfather, who is shaking his head and staring at the ceiling. “We should head on back,” he says, placing a handful of quarters on the table for a tip. He hands Mooch his jacket from off the back of the chair, and says, “You know what they say: early to bed, early to rise. . . .” When Mooch doesn’t answer him, he adds, “Fish all day; make up lies.”
“I like spending time with the kid. He’s a real fishing machine. I hope he grows up to be a professional fisherman or something,” Mooch says without budging. “He’s a smart boy, but he gets kind of confused when people yell at him. Then he gets spooky quiet, and it’s like he’s staring right through you, like one of these beer glasses. And I start wondering if he’s ever going to speak again.”
Mooch clears his throat, stares hard at each of us as he reaches back for his coat and wrestles with one of the sleeves. “So are you going to apologize or what?”
“Listen, Mooch, if you feel that strongly about it, I’ll apologize to your son. But maybe you ought to be the one to talk to him,” I say. “You’re his father, after all, and you’re the one who put him in the driver’s seat.”
Mooch doesn’t say anything at first. He just draws little circles in the spilled beer with his finger. “You don’t seem to get me,” he says. “I already did apologize. Didn’t mean anything. In case you ain’t noticed, I fuck up—a lot. I’m not exactly father of the year.”
And there’s something beautiful about that—something humble and unconditional that makes my throat close up. And all of a sudden, Mooch doesn’t seem selfish anymore at all. He just seems like a father who’s in over his head.
Mooch looks at me a long time from the corner of his eye. He frowns. Then he takes a swig of his beer and says, “Okay, then. Glad we got that settled.”
Later that evening, after apologizing to the kid, I head down to the makeshift cleaning station—a carport with a sink beneath it that draws its water directly from the lake—and watch my grandfather fillet the day’s catch.
“That Mooch is something else,” he says, his back to me as he plugs in the electric knife.
“Sure,” I say, but somehow, standing there at the side of the lake, I envy the kid. He’d gotten the apology I always wanted. From my lips to his ears.
My grandfather turns the knife on and then turns it off again and says, “You know, I still have nightmares about killing Drew.” He shudders a little, and I can see that terrible, doomed look creeping back over his eyes, the way it did when he surfaced from the lake so many years ago. He looks down over the rims of glasses. “He had to practically beg me to take him fishing after that, and it still makes me nervous even today. And you,” my grandfather says, his shoulders slumping. “I could barely look you in the eye, I was so afraid you’d never forgive me.”
I open my mouth to say something—though I’m not sure what; I’ve already apologized once today. I must look stunned, like one of those glassy-eyed fish hanging in his den, because he says, “Hey, it worked out okay in the end, right?”
I nod and watch as he digs a fish out from the sink and lays it flopping on the cutting board. As he begins to slice, I slip out from the cleaning station and climb the hillside above the boat launch. I sit next to Drew and watch the sun set over the water, the red clouds and the deep purple shadows cast across the small crests of waves and the wind-whipped scumlines.
“It looks like blood,” Drew says.
“I think it looks like a crescendo,” I say.
The breeze coming off the lake puts a night chill in the air, and the sound of water lapping at the shoreline is far more peaceful than any of those nature tapes you can buy at the supermarket checkout. The yellow fluorescent telephone booth light clicks on with a faint buzz and, in minutes, the booth is filled with mosquitoes—mostly the large males that live only a short while.
Halfway up the road, Mooch and the kid sit at a picnic table, examining a tackle box. A pair of brook trout dangle from a metal stringer on the porch. They’re on the small side, but at least they are something to show for a day’s worth of fishing.
Drew and I catch snippets of their conversation on the wind.
“My dad gave me this box when I was your age. Told me the names of all of these flies. That’s the only thing he ever taught me. Like that one there—that’s a red zinger.”
“You know there’s no such thing as a red zinger, right?” Drew says, his eyes still focused on the last brilliant sliver of light as it disappears below the waterline.
“I know,” I say.
Down below, my grandfather’s electric knife registers a high E as it cuts through fish scale and pink flesh.
“What’s that hairy one?” the kid asks.
“That’s an azure-tailed buggy nymph,” Mooch replies.
“He’s just making it up as he goes,” Drew says, shaking his head and snorting a little.
I look over to where they sit together, studying the blue dun, the sides of their faces illuminated in the dying light. Mooch takes another fly out of his tackle box and holds it up by the hook so that the kid can take a closer look.
Down below, the light goes out in the fish cleaning station, and my grandfather emerges with a porcelain bowl of fillets in hand. He stops for a moment, staring out over the lake, and as the sun sets beyond the trees, he bobs his head a little as though admiring a tune only he can hear.
About the Author: Jason Kapcala’s writing has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Prime Number, Saw Palm, the Good Men Project, and elsewhere.