(photo by placeinsun)
They called it a porch, even though it had four walls and a roof like any other room. Ever since Virginia died, he said, he preferred to sleep on the porch, and by the way he shrugged after he said it, displaying his empty palms, she could see that he meant the room they were sitting in now.
Molly turned her head dutifully to take it all in, the long wall of mildewed slatted glass opposite an expanse of whitewashed siding decorated with a tangle of coils of nylon rope, glass balls bound in nets and old wooden lures hanging by hooks. There was no rug and no bed, just heavy, wrought-iron patio furniture and a huge old Zenith television hunkered on a low table. Molly noticed the places where the old man’s lazyboy was mended with duct tape and how the chair conformed to his body the way a catcher’s mitt might clasp a ball and she decided he must sleep there, in the chair, facing the television.
He said, “It’s a man’s room, I guess you could say. You won’t find any books or pretty things in here.”
Molly shifted her sweaty legs on the plastic cushion. Michael had warned against certain topics. During the flight from Los Angeles to Baton Rouge via San Diego and Atlanta, there had been plenty of time to prepare for this visit to his home town. It was like cramming for a final exam but she had always been an excellent student, one who wore the right costume, knew where to sit and which questions to ask. She could tell this visit was important because of the sudden, intense interest Michael took in her habits. He offered to send her to the beauty parlor to have her nails done and checked her suitcase to make sure she packed her pink blouse and the sundress she had on now.
When she took him home to meet her mother, he hadn’t had to work quite so hard. Molly told him to bring wine, not a nice bottle but a big wine-in-a-box you find at discount grocery because that would seem more friendly, and as soon as she saw him, her mother had thrown her arms around him like a drowning woman. On an extremely modest income, she had raised Molly alone when Molly’s father left just after the baby was born. Molly’s skittish cat Turtle was the only other creature he had to win over and now Turtle liked Michael best, which seems surprising and rather unfair since Molly knows Michael doesn’t even like cats, but Turtle wants to sleep on his chest and if she can’t find him, she’ll suckle and knead any piece of his clothing she can find.
So now, Molly searches the porch for the right thing to say. She could mention that those glass balls are sort of pretty and ask what they are for or she could change the topic completely and say something about the flight or the weather, but the lawnmower is nearing the house, pushing a wall of trembling noise between them. She turns to watch Michael straddling the large machine, a spectacle of bare skin and gleaming metal. She keeps her eyes on him until he waves and loops back around toward the little pier jutting out into the green channel of murky water and the line of tall, skinny trees beyond.
Even after a year and a half, Michael’s manners still surprise her. When he opens her door or carries her bags or takes her hand, she feels like a delicate treasure, she feels like she owes him a favor, although she’s come to suspect that his behavior is simply reflexive. “It was so nice of him to mow the lawn,” she says to the old man. “He certainly knows how to handle that machine.”
Under the brim of the baseball cap Michael brought as a gift, the old man’s eyes are like two shiny black pebbles. It’s a stiff blue cap with a great white shark and the word THRASHER embroidered over the bill. “Mike is a good boy. He used to come out here all the time to cut the grass or check the lines until he moved out there.”
She leans forward to confide: “He wants to move back here, I think. I mean, eventually.”
“Well, he is born and bred. The question is, how do you like it?”
“Oh. I love it.” She doesn’t want to insult him or lie to his face. “Actually, I’ve never been this far from the city before. And I’ve never been fishing.”
“Now, how can a person who’s never caught a fish call herself educated?”
“Well, Mister Charles, perhaps you’ll teach me.” Molly hopes she said it right. Michael told her to call him that even though Charles is his first name. She doesn’t know why she is suddenly speaking with a southern cadence, her words drawn out almost flirtatiously, and wonders if he noticed.
“Mike is a fine fisherman. Taught him all my tricks. Over there’s a photo.” The bill of his cap indicates the low table where several photographs surround the television. Molly takes her cue, feeling his eyes track her as she walks and bends to look. Most of the photos are of Michael, in various conventional scenarios: there’s the school portrait of him in a little bow tie and comb lines in his hair; there’s a shot in of him in a baseball uniform and one in a cap and gown. In a large, ornate frame sits the unsmiling portrait of a woman with a fluffy hairdo and eyebrows plucked into an expression of perpetual surprise. Molly could ask if it was Virginia, the wife who died giving birth to Michael’s father, but instead, she lets her eyes move along to the smaller frame to the right where Michael and his grandfather flank a young blonde who has her arms flung around both men’s shoulders. Dangling from his index finger, Michael proudly displays a fish.
The old man knows just what she’s looking at. “Did you ever get to meet Michelle?” he asks from his chair.
“No, we never met. But I’ve seen pictures.” Aside from Molly, Michelle was the only girl Michael ever dated seriously. At the center of the photograph, pressed between the two men, the young woman’s cleavage asserts itself like an extravagant flourish. Michael claims she wasn’t really his type, that he preferred slim, dark girls like her, but he seemed to like her just fine all through high school. Again, the lawnmower approaches, and they remain suspended—he in his chair watching her, she in front of the photographs—until the noise recedes.
He says, “Well as you can see, she is very pretty, a very sweet and pretty young lady. And not bad with a fishing pole, either. Too bad she let him go.” The old man’s eyes glint under his hat. “But not bad for you. Want a pop?”
“You mean a soda?”
“Get me one too, while you’re up.”
Molly can’t find the light switch in the kitchen, where the only windows look out onto the porch. There’s just enough light to see that the wallpaper has fruits and flowers and there are plates with the same motif stacked on the drainboard. Even though Virginia must have died fifty years ago, the kitchen still feels like a woman’s place. By the time Molly finds glasses and returns with the drinks, Michael is standing in the doorway, dabbing his forehead with his t shirt. “Are you two ready?” he asks.
Fast as a whip uncoiling, the old man is on his feet. “Ready as she’ll ever be.” On his way out the door, he takes the drink from Molly and hands it to Michael. “You look like you could use a drink.”
Outside, the air is hot and wet, swarming with bugs. The waterway is a long channel, fifteen to twenty feet wide, branching off sporadically into smaller lanes. The water is bright green, coated here and there with a rainbow skin of oil. Michael takes the tiller and the old man tells Molly to keep her eyes peeled for juglines along the shore.
“Juglines?” she asks.
“Just look for something that doesn’t belong here. You look on that side, I’ll look over here.”
Michael starts the motor and pulls effortlessly away from the shore, his placid face cocked towards some unseen point up ahead. The motor thrums, loud and monotonous; there is no way anyone could have a conversation over this noise and that is good since she’s tired of talking, although she wonders why the fish don’t hear them coming.
When Michael’s not looking at her, she can relax and study his profile. A face like that could end up on a billboard someday, she thinks, or on television, or maybe even on some form of legal tender. It’s an earnest face with light brown, wide-set eyes, a strong foundation of cheekbone and jaw, and a sprinkling of freckles. After awhile, the sound and vibration of the motor have worked their way through her muscles and into her bones. After they get their bachelor’s degrees, they’ll go to law school and then they’ll get married. The Baptist in him keeps pushing to get married, but she insists that school comes first. When she talks about starting a practice together someday, he says she’ll be too busy watching the kids, and when she insists she doesn’t want any, he throws his thigh over her hips and pins her to the bed, sucking at her neck until she begs for mercy. “Let’s make babies,” he says. “I want to make a baby with you right now.” When he says it that way, it sounds almost good.
The surface of the water is coated with a live, green skin. She’s fiddling with her hat when the engine cuts and they veer toward a patch of water hyacinth on her side of the boat. She leans over to look, sees nothing but an old plastic soda bottle floating on the surface. The old man nods. “That doesn’t belong here, does it? Go ahead, pick it up.”
Michael urges, “Get it with both hands, Molly. Don’t let go.”
She plucks it up and discovers a line of nylon rope knotted around its neck and secured with duct tape. She holds the plastic between her legs and uses both hands to pull the line in but there’s not much resistance, just slimy bits of green algae and a giant, empty hook curved almost into a circle. The old man’s face registers neither approval nor disappointment. “Lesson number one: You can’t catch fish without bait.” She keeps pulling until a second and then a third empty hook surfaces, then the end of the rope tied to a brick. While she works, he tells her, “Don’t hook yourself, girl, or we might have to fry you up for dinner.” From a bucket under his seat, he pulls out some chunks of fish and baits the hooks. He explains he hasn’t been feeling well lately and hasn’t been regular about checking his lines. “Needs a young hungry man, this job does. And a little woman to cook up the catch.”
“That won’t be Molly,” laughs Michael. “Molly was a vegetarian until I got my hands on her.” He grabs her knee and squeezes. “I won her over with bacon, see, and then a good steak, and it didn’t take long before she was eating a kiosk hotdog out of my hand, but she still shies at the sight of blood.”
The old man lifts up his cap to study her for a moment before shaking his head. “Virginia could skin and gut a fish in ten seconds flat; she wasn’t the prettiest package under the tree but she was a good woman.”
Molly wants to redeem herself. “How do you cook it?”
“You can bread a catfish. You can oven-fry it or pan-fry.”
Michael adds, “But you can’t make it taste good.”
The old man nods. “No, not like snapper. But it’s okay if you cook it right.” He drops the brick overboard and feeds the line over the side. “I guess I don’t have much of an appetite anymore. I thought I’d put on a show for your visit. This is how we do it down here in the south. We catch our own and eat what we get and we’re not picky. I guess you might call that quaint. If you want to take any pictures, it’ll cost you extra.” He chuckles dryly; the motor coughs and they’re moving again, each person reabsorbed by the throbbing engine and the task of finding the next float.
Molly is distracted by the hair whipping her face. She feels like a fool with one hand holding her hat on her head and the other clenched tightly to the hem of her dress so it doesn’t fly up. Michael is the first to spot the Sunny Delight bottle floating in the middle of the channel. He cuts the engine and the old man looks at Michael: “Maybe you’ll be luckier than your girlfriend here.”
As he pulls, Michael deftly coils the rope on the bottom of the boat between his feet. His muscles know exactly what to do. He pushes his hip against the edge of the boat and plays the line so expertly it makes her blush. He grabs a net and pulls out a big, wriggling fish. The old man hoots. It’s as big as his arm but he tosses it deftly over his shoulder and continues to thrust and pull, scoops up another, smaller fish. He doesn’t say a word, just yanks out the hooks and throws the fish into a bucket.
Molly has never seen him do this before, but something about it feels familiar. She wants to wrap her hands around his biceps and press her lips to his to see if he tastes different, but the old man is watching and the pleasure emanating from Michael’s body has nothing to do with her. The two men work without speaking, rebaiting the lines, maneuvering the boat over to the edge of the channel, throwing the line. They share some tacit understanding that excludes her. She would ask Michael a question if the motor didn’t start again.
The boat lurches forward, pinning her to her seat. This time, she doesn’t even pretend to watch for the jugline. She leans over to look into the bucket where the fish writhe around like a mass of pale green intestine. Her stomach gives a sympathetic clench and she looks away. Are you okay? mouths Michael, his wide-set eyes full of sky. She nods and tries to smile. Her hair clings to the sweat on her face and the hem of her dress flaps in the wind, but she doesn’t care, nobody’s looking. Why did she have to wear the sundress, anyway? Wouldn’t shorts have been more appropriate? And why did she need nail polish to dabble her hands in slime?
The woods are thicker here, with deeper shadows. Long tongues of moss hang down from the crepe myrtle and the water hyacinth grows so thick their boat must slice a passageway. They inch along the clotted channel, starting and stopping, pulling lines and filling the bucket, while the light grows dim and smoky. She studies their wake, where snakes of orange light stripe the black water.
Up ahead, the channel bends to the right. “Just one more and we’ll head back,” the old man yells over the motor. “I know I dropped my last line by that tree.”
They stall by a cyprus. He holds up one hand to hush them. They sit listening to the sound of water sucking the side of the boat, craning their necks, but there’s nothing there—no bits of floating trash, just a thick green skin. Molly says, “Oh well. Isn’t that enough fish for the day, anyway? I mean, especially if it doesn’t taste good.”
The old man cuts his eyes at her. Then something moves and both men turn toward the bank. There, deep in the hyacinth, bobs the small dome of a soda bottle. The old man grabs an oar and quietly paddles while Michael leans out over the edge. She’s about to tell him to be careful when an enormous kerthunk sounds and a wave sprays up over the edge of the boat. Molly screams and shrinks back, gripping the hem of her dress, but Michael leans further over the edge of the boat, empty-handed, and the old man swears under his breath.
She shrieks, “What was that? What happened?” But nobody answers. Twenty feet down the channel, the coke bottle bobs to the surface. “My god. What the hell is that? Is it an alligator? Or a shark. Michael, get me out of here!”
The old man paddles softly while Michael braces himself. This time he grabs with both hands and holds tight. The boat jerks and trembles, drifts deeper into the thick vines while the old man coaxes and swears. Michael pulls and the boat is dragged slowly back down the channel until finally, something gives and rises to the surface: a huge, viscous wave cresting and sinking again. The old man hoots, clambering for the net, and with one more pull, a giant head emerges, red lips smacking in a beard of worms, a bloody finger of metal hooked deep inside.
It’s too big for the net so they use their hands instead. Molly screams a mindless, whining wail while the men wrestle the exhausted creature to the side of the boat and then heave it over the edge.
It lands at her feet with a giant thump. It’s larger than any fish story she’s ever heard, bigger than an exaggeration. The old man whistles low. “That might be the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen,” he says. The skin is moss green and oily, the color of the water it came from, like a huge hunk of solid water filling the boat. The pattern on its body looks mildewed, mottled like the tarnish on the back of an old mirror. It flaps its lips like it’s trying to say something; the mouth opens wide to reveal a cavernous, empty interior. Its eyes are blind, blind as a dying man or a premature baby or a plug of sentient mucous, and all she can think is that it’s wrong, that it doesn’t belong here, this is all wrong, but she’s backed into the nose of the boat and there’s nowhere else to go.
“What are you going to do with it?” she whispers. “We have to let it go.”
The old man already has a knife in his hands. Michael is holding a brick.
“We’re going to fry it up and eat it.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll show you how.”
(photo by hellocopter on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hellocopter/)
Check out a wonderful poem, The Fish, by Elizabeth Bishop: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-fish/