(Art by spoon+fork.)
The only reason Mrs. Angrywall came fishing with me was because I promised her we would throw all the fish back, even the ones good enough for keepers.
We went out on a cloudy Monday afternoon to Island Beach State Park, pretty close to where I had hooked the squirrel. When I was a kid, it seemed to take forever to bike there. Now it was just a 30-minute walk. Usually the best time to catch kingfish was dawn or dusk, but when it’s overcast or storming, they bite all day.
I bought some sandworms from a bait shack and had selected the two most innocent-looking hooks. I bet those hooks couldn’t pierce the rough patch on my right heel.
Now I was really glad I hadn’t asked Howard to go fishing. I had enough of his ass, six days a week. But I hadn’t had enough of Mrs. Angrywall’s ass.
There’s something very innocent about walking with a woman when you’re each holding a fishing rod, even when you think she’s more attractive every time you see her. What hidden intentions could you have? You have someplace to go and your purpose is clear: fishing.
It’s not like you’re sitting in a bar, spinning a wet coaster on its edge and wondering how many more drinks it’s going to take.
Mrs. Angrywall had found the center of balance on the rod and carried it daintily, as if about to twirl it like a baton.
“This rod is quite elegant,” she said. “As all instruments of death are. You paid $10 for it?”
“For both,” I said. “It was a bargain.”
“Death on the cheap.”
We found a spot on the beach away from some jerks trying to play ultimate Frisbee on the sand.
“The last time I tried to fish was right around here,” I said.
“How long ago was that?”
“About a dozen years ago.”
“Why did you stop?”
“Aw, my reel got all tangled up and I got disgusted with it. I threw the whole thing down the sewer,” I said. I went about tying on the hooks and weights onto our fishing lines.
“You sure you remember how to do this?” Her arms were crossed and she was standing on her toes, making me a little nervous.
“Easy as shaking hands,” I said.
“People shake hands to signify friendship and peace. Fishing is not a peaceful act.”
“It’s a relaxing act. Try it, you’ll like it.”
“It doesn’t hurt them, does it?”
“Fish don’t have nerves in their jaws. They won’t feel the hooks.”
“They’re going to be okay, right? If we throw them back after?”
“Of course. This whole act of reeling them in is like playing tug-of-war with a dog and a rag. It’s fun for the fish to try to fight you.”
“Still, I feel badly.”
“You eat fish, right?”
“Where do you think they come from? You think they make them in a factory like Swedish fish?”
“It’s a bigger sin to kill the fish than to eat them.”
“None of us are innocent,” I said. “You can’t live your life without sinning.”
“Let’s get on with it, then.”
Women can’t throw baseballs or cast lines. Their bone and muscle placement aren’t optimized for those actions, an old gym teacher, a woman, told me. Mrs. Angrywall did her best. By her third cast, she was doing okay.
“You just have to feel the pull of it coming around,” she said.
“That makes no sense at all,” I said. “Are you high?” I wasn’t dumb enough to bring pot to a public place anymore, so I the only grass around were the scraggly weeds that struggled to grow in the sand.
“Hargh,” she said, because she couldn’t come up with anything immediately. “I thought that fishing was about sitting back, falling asleep and drinking beer.”
I was reeling in my line slowly, watching her.
“You have to keep the bait moving. Kingfish like to chase bait on the bottom. They don’t want it unless it looks like it can get away.”
She sighed. With some reluctance she said, “I’ve always found fish to be the least interesting part of marine biology.”
“Have you read a lot of books?” I asked her.
“Yes. I have read many books.”
“Do you think any of them have changed your life?” She shrugged.
“I suppose all of them have,” Mrs. Angrywall said.
“But some are more important than others, right?”
“What exactly are you getting at, Sean?”
“Well, there’s this one book I never finished, back in fourth grade. Now I wish I had.”
“Actually, now that you mention it, books I had read as a child were instrumental in my development.”
“Exactly! I think maybe, possibly, that’s why I’m such a fuckup now. Because I didn’t finish that book.”
“That’s quite a leap, Sean.”
She pulled up her feet. The backs of her legs looked nice in those clamdiggers.
“How’s Mr. Angrywall doing?” I asked. “I haven’t seen him around, lately.”
“Oh,” she said with a heavy sigh. “I found something the other day.”
“Is he cheating on you?”
“Sean,” she said. “It’s nothing like that. I found a small bundle of money in the closet.”
“How much money?”
“There were several stacks. I counted one and interpolated the rest. It’s about $30,000.”
My head hurt. Absently my hand continued to wind my reel.
“Why was this money there?” I asked.
“We’re struggling to stay afloat, I’ve told you that.”
“This money sounds like the answer to your dreams, then.”
“He’s been driving up and down the state to meet our fellow countrymen. He comes home late. He’s been getting to know people through this group for Asian hotel owners. They’re Patels, nearly all of them. In ancient India, they were the bean counters for the rulers, you know, so running businesses is in their blood.”
Mrs. Angrywall drew circles in the sand.
“Apparently he’s been borrowing money to keep us afloat.”
“These people would lend him $30 thousand?”
“I’m sure it’s from a number of people. Hotels are rich in cash flow. The ones that do business, that is.”
“My friends wouldn’t lend me $30. You people have so much trust in each other. No wonder you do so good in this country.”
“We won’t be able to pay this money back. Taking this cash from them is akin to eating our feet to keep starvation at bay.”
I saw that the Angrywalls were in an M.C. Hammer sort of fix. They appeared to be well off, but in reality they were getting deeper and deeper into debt.
“This money will keep you going for a while, though. Maybe business will pick up and you can pay it back.”
“It’s usually a loose arrangement, these loans. But things are sure to tighten up in a few months or so.”
“Did you ask him about the money? Maybe you have it all wrong.”
“I can’t speak of it. He’s a very proud man. It would really crush him if he knew that I knew.”
After a while, I sat down next to her and said, “Things could work out OK.”
Mrs. Angrywall didn’t say anything. A seagull tried to laugh and sounded more sad than happy. We watched the water sloppily moisten the edge of the beach.
Her hand moved to the right side of my jaw. Her nails barely touched my skin.
“How did you get that?” she asked.
“Oh, that, just a little scratch.”
“Where is it from?”
“When I was a kid, I used to work sometimes on charter cruises, gutting and filleting fluke, or summer flounder, for tourists. One day, I was on a boat having bad luck. There were about a dozen people not catching very much of anything.
“On the way back to docking, this chump landed a small fluke. It was getting dark, but I could tell it wasn’t a keeper. There was no way it was even a foot long. I got it off the hook and was going to throw it back, but the captain came over to tell me to cut it up. I said it was too small, and he said that if I wasn’t going to do it, he was going to.
“With my left hand, I chucked the fluke over the side and I raised my right elbow to defend myself, because I knew the captain was going to swing at me. What I forgot was that I had the knife in my right hand, and when I blocked the blow, the blade got me right there.
“I started bleeding and the captain freaked out. There are usually private security guards or policemen on the dock. He gave me a hundred bucks to clean my face up and not say anything. I was used to a buck a fish, tops. That was one of the best days of my life. It wasn’t even that bad a cut.”
“It left a scar,” Mrs. Angrywall said.
“You’re the first one who’s noticed it, besides me.”
“I suppose you do most of your socializing in dimly lit places.”
“That’s the old Sean Kerry. Now I only go to bars when my probation officer wants to meet me there.”
“That sounds odd to me. Is that how it’s usually done?”
“I just want to get through the probation period. I don’t want to question anything.”
“I feel like my life in the States has been on probation. More so in recent years. We look so like terrorists, my husband and I, you know. At least your probation is going to end. I seriously doubt you’ll ever be caught with pot.
“Our hotel will only come to a bad end soon enough. We’ll run out of money and then we’ll have to move out. Then we’ll have to retreat to India. The dot-busters are going to get what they want.
“The funny thing to me is that I think I’ve smoked as much pot as you and the whole lot imprisoned under the new marijuana law. My mother and I used to smoke a little bit of bhang on the roof when my father and his sons would be out. It’s like a weak joint. Then my British tutors introduced us to ganja and charas.
“Charas was just too much, really. I forgot how to use my tongue to talk. Ganja was just right. My father believed he was doing something right to have two happy women in the house, even though he is a right bastard.”
“You know, Mrs. Angrywall, I’m a bastard.”
“My mother’s parents disowned her when she had me. They would have done the same thing if she had had an abortion, anyway, so my mother decided to have me. ‘Erring on the side of life,’ she said. And it was an error she lived to regret.”
I noticed the tip of Mrs. Angrywall’s fishing pole bending slightly. I stood up and went over.
“Do you see that? Looks like you’ve got a bite,” I said, picking up the pole and reeling in the fish. “Feels like a keeper.”
I pulled out the kingfish and noted its prominent top fin.
She stood up and pressed the back of her fist to her mouth. I was smiling because I felt like a kid again, the kind that doesn’t hurt squirrels.
Without thinking about it, I had the fish unhooked quickly. I still knew how.
“It’s a shame we’re going to throw it back,” I said.
“I want the fish,” she said, and looked at me. Her eyes were scared and beautiful. “I want to eat it.”
“I was hoping you’d change your mind about it,” I said. I took out a crumpled plastic bag from my pocket. “Go fill this with seawater. We’ll bring him back in this.”
We took a backstreet to the hotel. The long shadow of its roof slanted down and pointed at us.
“You going to be okay with filleting this guy?” I asked her.
She opened the bag and took a heavy breath.
“I’ve never actually killed something and then eaten it,” she said.
“Do you want me to tell you how? It’s pretty easy.”
“Could you just do it for me, Sean?”
“Yeah, that’s no problem. I could just clean it and give you the fillets.”
“Yes, that sounds all right.”
We were standing in the parking lot.
“I’ll bring it into the office when I’m done. It should just take a few minutes.”
“Thank you very much, Sean.”
I took the bag from her and messed with the hamburger stand lock. I finally got it open and turned on the light.
Somehow it seemed brighter inside than it did during the day. I heard something outside the door. It was Mrs. Angrywall.
“I just felt that. . . I had to see it happen.”
I looked at her for second. She looked like a little girl who had missed her school bus.
“Give me that hammer by the door,” I said.
I poured out the bag on the counter so the water ran into the sink. The kingfish flopped just once then gave up. Its eye had a fixed look in it, seeing something in the next world.
“I need that hammer, Mrs. Angrywall.”
“What are you going to do with it?” she asked, walking over.
“I need to kill it first.”
Her hand was limp at her side, holding the hammer loosely. I took it and smashed the fish in the head. She jumped.
“That was out of mercy,” I said. I took a knife and cut the fish’s head off. Blood was pooling on the counter and the tail wriggled slightly.
I looked at her again, and she was running outside. I didn’t want to leave a job half-done, so I stayed and scaled the fish and then cut it up, throwing the guts and the bones in the trash under the sink.
I wrapped up the two fillets in some paper towels and took them into the office. It could probably make a good dinner between the Angrywalls.
On the counter was a lopsided bag from Taco Bell. Mr. Angrywall was sitting at the front desk while Mrs. Angrywall stood with her arms crossed.
“I wouldn’t have bothered if I had known you were out fishing,” said Mr. Angrywall.
“Well, I didn’t expect you to bring food back. What made you start?”
“That’s what I get for being considerate.”
“Sorry to interrupt,” I said. “I brought the fish fillets. They’re pretty easy to cook.”
“No thanks, buddy,” said Mr. Angrywall. “I’ve brought our dinner home.”
Mrs. Angrywall turned to me.
“Why don’t you just take them, Sean? Cook them for yourself.”
“Okay. Good night.”
I always knew when it was time to cut out of a bad scene.
I stopped at the hamburger stand to get a lemon and some salt and pepper packs before going home.
(Part 13 next week.)