(Art by spoon+fork.)
I used to love fishing. I never got so deep into it that I would make my own flies or drift live bait in the water. I was a sandworms-and-frozen-spearing kinda kid.
It’s true what I told O’Keefe that I gave up on the filleting jobs on boats because they started making me nauseous. But it was something else that stopped me from fishing altogether, and why the thought of baiting a hook made me feel sick for years.
I really wasn’t thinking the day that it happened. That’s my defense. You can think fishing is fun because when you have a fish with a hook through its cheek, you don’t hear it scream. Other animals are different.
I went fishing at Island Beach Park, on the surf, with Al Lombardi. We were about 14 or so. Al was a guy who later got put into private school so this was one of the last times I ever saw him.
I had a sandwich bag of sandworms packed in seaweed to keep them lively. Sandworms would be scary if they were bigger. They have two fringes of hundreds of feelers on either side of their body. Those feelers would wriggle around a lot, especially when you cut up the worm to bait on your hook.
Al brought a small pile of corn kernels from a can. What the hell are you going to catch with corn kernels? Nothing. I let him use my worms. I had to cut them for him, too, because he was such a pussy.
We were trying to get kingfish. Despite its name, the kingfish is actually pretty small and only weighs a pound or so. Bluefish and sea bass were made by God to be caught by men. The kingfish was made to be caught by kids.
For whatever reason, nothing was biting that day. No kingfish, anyway. But we were pretty close to a cluster of evergreen trees and a squirrel was running in, stuffing his mouth with Al’s useless corn and then scurrying away with it. He came back to refill a few times.
For a joke, I stuck a kernel on my hook and put it in the middle of the corn pile. I didn’t think the squirrel was actually going to take the bait. He could see it, couldn’t he?
Suddenly my line jerked. The squirrel was rolling and flopping around. It was screaming, too, like a mother bird when you’re too close to its nest. I didn’t know squirrels could be so loud.
I was scared and I couldn’t move.
“What the fuck did you do?” cried Al. He ran over and grabbed the squirrel. He managed to get the hook out and released the squirrel. Al’s hand was bleeding where he had been bitten and scratched. I knew then he was way braver than I ever was.
The squirrel ran off about 20 feet. It stood up, turned its back to me and stroked its face.
“It probably can’t eat anymore!” Al yelled at me. “It’s going to die!”
I grabbed my pole and jumped on my bike. I pedaled harder than I ever had. Maybe I was trying to go back in time and make us go shoplifting instead of fishing, or at least far back enough so that I didn’t bait the corn.
I shoved my pole down a sewer grate and that was the last time I touched one before the thrift store. Satan had acted through me to trap God’s squirrel. I could never face Him again.
I had a dream about that squirrel years later in jail. He came up and touched my face. I thought he was going to rip my cheek where my fishing hook had got him. But his face was smooth and furry like nothing had happened to it and his little claws felt soft on my skin. His black and bottomless eyes seemed to say that it was useless to say anything to me.
When I woke up I had a corner of the sheet twisted into my mouth.
I managed to get the reels untangled. I called O’Keefe and asked if he wanted to go fishing with me. He sounded surprised to get my call, and not too pleasantly. He decided he didn’t feel like it.
“You look like a fool out there,” he said. “You look like a bigger fool when you don’t catch anything.”
“Come on, we’ll catch something. It’ll be fun.”
“Not fun for me.”
“I’ll bet you’ve never gone fishing with a white boy before.”
“That’s true, but I’m not going to be your slave Jim gone fishing with you, Huckleberry!”
After he said goodbye and I hung up, I stared at the phone.
I used to know so many people. Guys I could call and we’d go hang out. Girls I kinda boomeranged back to (but of course if a guy picked up the phone, I had the decency to hang up).
It was a different world now. People moved on, changed their numbers and e-mail addresses. You find out who your real friends are when you are moving to a new house or when you get out of jail, my inmate instructor at DEPCOR had told me.
I turned the phone over in my hands. What is a “real friend,” anyway? I lay down in bed and played with the phone some more. Was a real friend someone who hurt you for your own good? Did real friends stop you from smoking pot or get you a nicer bong?
Sure, Jesus was your savior, but was He a real friend?
I turned on my side and saw the stack of books the prison staff had given me as a going-away present. Three that had their spines to me were “Fast Food Nation,” “One Hundred Years Of Solitude” and “Down These Mean Streets.” I had read more books in a year than other guys had read in 10, they told me. Now that I was out, I hadn’t read anything. I had reverted to a dope-smoking moron with a retarded job.
I thought about Mrs. Angrywall teaching me British English words in the marsh. Maybe a real friend helps you become a better person. I could have lay down and listened to her talk all night. She could have re-taught me English right from “aardvark.”
The book was called “The Corduroy Road,” which our class read in fourth grade with Ms. Daley. It was about a family of pioneers crossing America in covered wagons. The title always made me think about my pants, but it really referred to the roads made of logs laid across lengthwise where the mud was bad so the wagons could cross.
The teacher had tried to section it out so we would stop reading the book on the last day of class, but everybody loved the book so much, we read it out loud for an extra half hour every day. Because we were such wonderful readers, when the class finished the book early, we’d gotten to see movies for the rest of the year.
But I had missed the last few chapters and the big ending because I had something close to strep throat. I was drinking a lot of Hawaiian Punch and Hi-C. This girl brought the book out of my desk at school to my house. She wanted to read me the last few chapters, but I waved my arms and shook my head. I wasn’t in the mood to hear it. When she ran out, my mother came in and for the first time looked at me as if she were the one I had hurt. I would get that look a lot from her, later on in life.
My mother used to dream that I’d be the first man in the family to wear a shirt and tie to work. But every one of her dreams had been smashed to pieces and all she could do was watch them fall off the mantelpiece from the next room over. When the truant officer brought me home from the arcade. When she found a used condom in her bed. When they wouldn’t let me walk in the high-school graduation ceremony.
The truth is that I felt terrible for her, but I also resented her for making me feel that way. I really hate to say it, but she never should have hooked up with my father. I’ve seen pictures. She could have been in music videos. She could have found someone really special, or someone really fucking boring with a decent job, but she threw herself away on an illegal Irish bastard. Then she had a bastard herself.
People were talking about me and my family in church, but nuns would come up and, unprompted, remind everybody within shouting distance that Mary was unwed when she gave birth to Jesus and that all unwed mothers and their children were blessed by the Holy Father.
Maybe they were trying to be nice, but it didn’t hurt that I was a good-looking bastard. I got my mother’s frigid blue eyes and perfectly symmetrical eyebrows. I got my father’s feet, and their casual manner of walking away from things. Too bad neither of them could give me brains. Where I got my height from was anybody’s guess.
My mother still had most of her looks, at least the last time I saw her. While I was catching up on reading in jail, she had my stuff boxed up and put into storage. She moved in with some guy in Philadelphia who made it clear in a postcard that if I dared to show up at the door he’d put a pickaxe through my head.
Unfortunately, my mother had picked the storage place by the Holland Tunnel entrance. It had burned down while I was locked up. The only thing I had left from her was the shirt I was arrested in and got back when I was let out. I still considered myself lucky, because some people had been living in those storage spaces and died in the fire.
I remember how upset I was when I got better and came back to school and my copy of “The Corduroy Road” was missing from my desk. The janitor had taken all the books and stacked them up in the storage room. He already had it in for me because I had Krazy-Glued his metal tools together earlier in the year. So I wasn’t surprised when I asked him to get one for me so I could finish it and he just laughed and laughed.
Nobody in class felt like explaining how the story ended because the teacher had cried and everyone got weirded out.
Maybe if I had let that little girl read me the end of “The Corduroy Road,” I would have turned out a better person. It made me a little sad. Someday I could look for that book on eBay.
That pioneer family had to have made it all the way West. There was no way they were going to let them all get killed by Indians, right?
(Part 12 next week.)