The rumor that the somebody in IT who watched for unauthorized web
surfing was out today was so intriguing that Edwin, drifting past
work stations moored between static waves of azure push-pinned
fabric, felt compelled to view it as a corporate benediction. He sat
and clicked until the photo came up, carefully scrolling until the
troubling icons beneath it disappeared.
She was as nice to look at this time as when he’d first discovered
her—he liked long dark hair—and her skin, lightly tanned,
lustrous against a peachy-pink blouse. Long Tall Sally was her name
on the site, though with nothing else in the photo to use as a
reference, Edwin was unable to tell if she actually was. She had
pretty eyes, arched mischievously, as though she wanted him to know
she knew how ridiculous this was.
The eyes went with the smile. A dimly recollected university past
unearthed a dusty relic: Enigmatic, he pronounced those slightly
upturned lips, thinking her smile matched the one he wore in his
photo. It was somehow satisfying to imagine they shared a puzzled
acceptance of the absurdity of online dating; that two people, no
longer able to plead youth, knowing the odds, would choose it.
The two part question she posed in the “comments” section seemed
to support that. Long Tall Sally wanted to know if there was a decent
man out there, and if so, was that decent man strong enough to commit
to a long-term relationship? Yes and yes, Edwin was eager to tell
her, was scrolling to the reply button, was gathering his thoughts,
was a moment away from something new in his life, was….
The emoticons were showing underneath her photo. A finger twitched,
ready to send them away again, but instead slid the cursor over the
little yellow balls one by one, just so he could see if they still
had the same effect. Happy-sad-laughing-love to see you-licking
chops—and the worst of them: I’m drooling. His eyes wanted to
slide away, right off the screen.
There were probably men and women in the world who had it in them to
include the “I’m drooling” icon in responding to someone they
had never met. Edwin was having dinner that evening with someone he
suspected might be capable of it. He knew also that light was
considered by scientists to be both a particle and a wave, and his
position on either concept was that he understood but didn’t
It was certainly pitiful—that he was fully able to comprehend. The
emoticons were not mandatory. You could reply without them and oh how
he wanted to, wanted to tell her he was ready for something,
anything. It could have been written that way yesterday—why hadn’t
he done it then? He’d woke this morning to discover that gambit
lost to him, struggled up out of the bed sheets undertow knowing what
had been good enough was no longer.
Forty three years old today and a truculent something had lodged
itself in him overnight. A voice resembling his own, commanding an
authority he could never approach, made demands, including the damned
emoticons. A stupid name for a stupid idea, he protested. A test, the
voice shouted back. Choose one, choose something, and get on with the
rest of your life. It couldn’t be done. Even the easiest: “Happy”
was too much. He didn’t know if he was happy. You don’t know that
you aren’t, he admitted. Not ill, or starving, or living under a
dictatorship, and knew he should be happy about that set of
circumstances. It didn’t seem right to be negatively happy though;
not what the emoticons were for.
Bubbly. Effervescent. Hopefully, triumphantly,
perpetually…relentlessly…he should be that kind of happy. Other
people were. They had children, and puppies. They took them to
school, to obedience class, and it seemed to make them that kind of
happy. His cube was surrounded by theirs. They came smiling into the
office, eyes alight with secret pleasures. Came ready for three hour
presentations, with lots of charts. Spoke of new paradigms without a
trace of irony, and the importance of getting the metrics right.
Drank their coffee, ate their microwavables, anchored, fixed,
He looked up from the screen with a sense of afternoon getting on.
HR had everyone’s birthday—staying much longer brought the risk
of being sung at. Another test he wasn’t up to. The plan was to
sneak home early to change before meeting Danny. He lingered another
moment over her photo before xing out of the site. Plenty of time to
come back to her later at home, to deal with the emoticons. Sure you
will, the voice grated, not modulated by sympathy. You’ll find some
way to fake it as usual. Arrange a nice safe dinner on neutral
ground. You’ll be polite, and correct, and she will sniff out the
truth of you before you’ve finished the salad. You’re empty; a
void. You don’t know what to feel, or how to feel. This is why
Carla left you.
Faint conversations washed over him on the way to the back exit. His
co-workers, prudent lovers of detail, were hard at it before the
daily dash to daycare and after-school. Edwin admired their tenacity.
Paddled around them for years searching for clues, coming in and
going out on their tide, and still didn’t know how they did it
every day. Invited to their homes, he’d watched them poke pizza
into their children’s shrilling bird maws, gooey napkins in hand.
Listened to their soccer and baseball league rants—they actually
cared who won the games—were wroth at the coaches for not playing
their kids long enough for them to shine.
He stepped out into verdant late-spring under magnolias gleaming
against crumbling blacktop. Pulled the door shut quietly with the
feeling that people who knew what they were about shouldn’t be
Argentina hung from the walls, though the effect of vistas depicting
lean gauchos contemplating cattle nibbling Pampas grass was muted by
the live gaucho/server massing at least a hundred extra pounds. His
equipage: ersatz bolas, lazo and leather jerkin, jutted from odd
angles around bulges, reminding Edwin more of some way too serious
sex toys he had once seen than the everyday tools of an early
twentieth century son of the South American plains. The man was
nevertheless quite capable of recommending and delivering another
beer to his customer in the corner booth. Edwin licked the foam from
his lips after sampling it, curious to know if the establishment also
employed gauchettes, speculating on what their working apparel would
look like. Thoughts of what to do if Danny didn’t show played one
step below speculation. Edwin was not the type who ate alone in
restaurants on his birthday. Or rather, conceded a few moments later,
since the divorce you’ve been exactly the type, so why bother
He caught a feminine murmur behind him, answered by a louder voice
“I’m doin’ great darlin’. I’m lookin’ for a guy old
enough to be your dad. You won’t believe his name…ah there you
Turning toward the voices, Edwin discovered that South American
cowgirls wore their skirts short while roaming the plains. Not
authentic, but he wasn’t complaining.
A stumpy man in a black leather jacket squeezed behind the table,
smiling and rubbing his glistening scalp. Aggressively bald was the
phrase Edwin favored for describing Danny. He rubbed some kind of
gunk on his head every day to keep it shiny, and with the dangling
crucifix ear ring, worn, he said, to ward off harpies, which Edwin
knew meant ex-wives, and the size fifty chest, middle age cast him as
the perfect lead hell-raiser for somebody’s midget biker film.
“Old enough to be her dad?”
Danny’s laugh ended in a cough. “You weren’t ‘sposed to hear
“You’re forty six, my friend. Any wisdom you’d like to offer
“You bet.” Danny leaned toward him to declaim solemnly: “You
shall be sirred by pretty young things the rest of your freakin’
life…hey,” he added in his usual tone, “you like the one seated
“She’s nice,” Edwin agreed, looking around, but she had gone.
“What’s ours like?”
He smiled. “You’ll like him. Very well developed.”
“Oh. Too bad.” Danny flipped a menu open. “I love this place.
You can have a big steak, a medium steak, or a small steak. The small
is twenty-four ounces.”
Edwin was shaking his head at the offerings. “All they do is
“That’s it. It’s beef, beef and more beef…hey, that’s
exactly what Anna said last night in bed.”
Edwin looked up. “Anna.”
“Wait ‘till you meet her. Sometimes even I don’t know how I do
it. I mean look at me—a freakin’ dwarf. I don’t know what
women see in me.”
“Dwarves have hair, and I’ve wondered about that. Maybe you’re
the romantic low that makes all their future relationships seem
better. You’re a kind of public service.”
Danny left off squinting at the menu to frown at him. “Lemme ask
this. When was the last time you got your ticket punched?”
Edwin’s shoulders rose an inch before settling. “Oh…well…me…I’m
“Huh! Post sexual—that’s cute. Really, really pitiful, but
it’s cute. Danny’s smile was equal parts amusement and disdain.
“A guy’s in the shop yesterday waitin’ on a muffler. He says
there’s this bar out by the casino where if you sit at this certain
table a woman comes and sits with you. If you like her it’s two
hundred bucks. You could try that.”
Edwin pretended to consider it. “I wouldn’t know what to say to
“You don’t have to say anything, dummy. She comes on to
“No, I mean…later.”
Exasperation crossed the table in a grunt. “You say get your ass
over here and fuck me.”
A good man with an automobile, Danny Brauer. His customers were
fortunate. Find a problem fix a problem. Edwin also appreciated him
in a boat. Fishing together on Lake Erie, heavy weather exposed
subtlety as effete, useless baggage, and Danny, standing solid in the
bow, pointing the way home through waves, rain, fog…it was a
Minus a backdrop of complex machinery or heaving water his judgment
was less reliable. Edwin could not imagine telling a woman that, and
anyway, wasn’t that what she would say to him? Not that it had ever
happened like that. Carla’s unspoken preference left the sex up to
him, along with the auto maintenance and the lawn. She had been very
good at communicating, also without words, that his efforts were
Two years gone, the taste and smell and feel of her still distilled
things he could not control out of those days of pain and confusion.
A drug worked in him always, synthesizing an endlessly repeatable
mnemonic he clutched at like a talisman. It shot up through him now
unbidden, even as he sat across from Danny. Staring down at the
table in shame, the words upon his lips; he fought to keep them below
vocal speech: “I’d have been better at it if you’d told me what
Edwin was grateful that the server returned for a brief discussion
on which designer beer Danny would drink, allowing him a moment.
Danny settled into the back of the booth and regarded him again.
“So…how’s that beautiful sister of yours doin’? Her and Doug
used to bring their cars to me before they split but now I don’t
see either of them. She back on her feet?”
Edwin blinked. The question about Ellen was unexpected. “As far as
I know. I haven’t heard anything for months. She hasn’t felt much
like talking. I’m eating dinner with her and the kids Friday at the
“What are they doing with the house?”
“It’s listed, last I heard.”
“Not a great time to sell.”
“No. She told me it was all they could agree on.”
Danny gave him a grin. “Well tell her Danny from D’s Automotive
Edwin nodded and saw Danny’s grin widen the way it did when a joke
was coming at his expense.
“I never asked before, how come Ellen got a regular name and you
“Oh. It was my fathers’.”
“Another Edwin? I never met anyone named Edwin before you
started bringing your car in and now there’s two of you.” What’s
“He was a boxer.”
Danny’s fist thumped the table. “No fuckin’ way.
No—fuckin’—way. Was he any good? No wait—I’m a dumbshit. A
boxer named Edwin? He had to be good.”
Edwin forced a smile. “He was pretty good.”
“The world is a strange and mysterious place,” Danny pronounced,
running a hand over his denuded scalp. “Wait though…” he looked
at Edwin seriously, “I been watchin’ boxing since I was six and I
never heard of a fighter name of Edwin. He fight under a different
“No, he never made it. He was always fighting on the undercard,
that’s why you never heard of him. There was a contract in 1971 for
a fight that could have been a big step up in the welterweight
rankings, but he broke his hand and it never healed right. He started
training amateur fighters.”
“A welterweight named Edwin.” Danny shook his head slowly. “You
live long enough, you hear everything. He teach you something? Some
Edwin found the air around him becoming more and more difficult to
extract oxygen from. He took several slow, careful breaths, conscious
of Danny watching, before he could answer. “I learned how to duck.”
“Huh. Learned to duck.” Danny looked beyond him and waved.
“There’s our guy. Let’s order.”
“So what did you do that was fun for your birthday?” Ellen
scooped a large spoonful of noodles onto his plate.
“Danny Brauer bought me dinner.” Edwin grimly surveyed the
glistening mass before positioning the plate equal distance between
knife and fork. Mac and cheese wasn’t his thing, but seeing the
large amount she gave Alicia and Jason, he guessed it filled
teenagers up. A newly single mom probably couldn’t afford not to
have it in her bag of tricks.
“Oh, Danny Brauer.” She poured lemonade into his glass. “That
must have been…nice.”
He looked beyond the cramped kitchen/eating area through the short
hall which segued gracelessly into the equally cramped brown carpeted
living room. Less than half the space of the house they had left and,
amid a silence framed by cutlery scraping plastic, he watched his
niece and nephew for clues.
Alicia, pushing noodles around her plate, was wearing make-up, he
noted, her long sand-colored hair held in a complex looking weave.
Jason scooped like a dredger, a shadow of nascent beard bunching
along with his masticating jaws. Their ages were fourteen and
sixteen. The only house they had ever lived in was gone. Their father
no longer lived with them.
A good uncle would know what to say. Something funny; not too funny.
A smart uncle would not, would never express surprise at their growth
rate—he had almost uttered that inanity, stopped just short. He
chewed noodles instead.
“Alicia has decided to be a designer,” Ellen announced too
“Ah,” he breathed. “What kind of designer?”
A faint contralto: “Fashion” The sandy hair flipped once for
He waited for exposition but exposition was not forthcoming.
“Fashion,” he repeated after a time, with a glance for his
sister, “that’s clothes, right?”
Blue, lavender shaded eyes rolled. “Yes Uncle Edwin, fashion means
He smiled encouragingly, though there really was no reason to expect
more. He had not seen them since Doug moved out, since the mac and
cheese spiral into a one income family. Alicia hugging him hello with
a new tentativeness of hormones and reduced circumstances, and Jason,
yesterdays little buddy, now elongated into a lanky stranger who
grunted at him without turning from the television. Alicia though,
had given him an opening: an uncle could always play the fool.
“What about socks. Would you design socks? Are there designers
who draw socks on a computer? Is there a cutting edge in socks
The lavender eyes regarded him briefly before moving on to his
sister. The hair flipped again, a warning this time.
“She’s been critiquing our clothing decisions,” Ellen offered.
He laughed. “I don’t think I want to know her opinion of what
I’ve got on.”
Rising, he held out his arms in invitation and the eyes took in his
faded green golf shirt tucked into cream colored old man shorts.
An almost imperceptible head shake—
“Oh no! I know what that means. I’m hopeless, is that it?”
Alicia ducked her head but he caught the smile, the shy slyness of
“Look how cruel your daughter is to her old uncle,” he
Ellen giggled again. “You got off easy. I look like a farmer in my
baggy old jeans according to her.”
At least his niece had smiled. One triumph proposing another, he
turned to Jason to see if he could claim it, but the boy, bent over
his now empty plate, wore a critique of the conversation on his
“If you’re through you can take your plate to the sink, and take
Something in her voice Edwin had not heard before turned him around
again. The something was made visible in the lines etched in the skin
around her eyes.
Jason replied nothing, but stacked and carried the plates to the
sink. Edwin watched him disappear down the other short hall leading
to the bedrooms.
“Thanks for dinner. It was good.”
Only part of Ellen’s smile reached him for she also looked down
the hall toward the bedrooms.
“I told Alexis I’d call after dinner,” Alicia informed her
“So go call her. Stay out of your bedroom for a while. Use mine,
or go in the living room.”
Alicia glanced at her mother as she left the table as though she had
heard something different as well.
“They’re sharing a bedroom now,” Ellen explained. “It’s a
“I believe it.” He hesitated a moment, noticing newly wrought
angles in her face, shadows in the hollows below the cheek bones.
“How are you doing?”
“I’ve divided it all between physical and mental,” she stated
dully, as though delivering a line too often rehearsed. “The
physical is ok. I’ve got a decent job, we’re moved into our new
little paradise here, the kids have the same schools, blah blah blah.
Everything else sucks.”
He nodded. “It’s like when we were kids.”
Ellen looked at him oddly and he thought that probably he shouldn’t
have said it.
“I’ve been thinking exactly that for a month.” She got up to
hold the kettle under the faucet, placed it on the burner, flipped
Edwin could hear Alicia in the living room discussing a bonfire in
someone’s yard. Was she embarrassed she would not be able to host a
bonfire now that her family was in an apartment? It didn’t sound
“Well, this should cheer you up. Danny says hi. I think he’d love
to be first in line at your door.”
Ellen put a hand to her mouth and laughter leaked through it. “Oh
my God…Danny Brauer. What a pig.” She slid a mug in front of him,
patted his hand. “Thanks for that.”
“All part of the service. I guess that’s a “no” on poor
She was still smiling. “I know he’s your friend, but I’ve got
way too many problems as it is. I think I’d go lesbian before I
went out with Danny Brauer. Move out to a ranch somewhere with my
best girlfriend and break horses with my bare hands.”
“You don’t have the hips for it.”
“Oh believe me, I’ll get ‘em quick if he’s sniffing around.”
Edwin laughed. “Maybe I’ll go with you. You can gentle those
horses with your plaid shirt lover. I’ll skin wildcats with my
teeth. We’ll do all right.”
“You don’t have the hips for it.”
Edwin nodded approvingly. This was the way they had always done it,
spinning the world soft in gossamer humor, diving under, pulling it
up over their heads, safe.
The kettle chuffed. Ellen poured his mug three quarters full,
dropped a teabag in, added a spoon and slid the sugar bowl his way.
“Are you fishing yet?”
“Sure. They’re biting pretty good right now.” He cocked an
“I’d like you to take Jason. Tomorrow.”
He began fixing his tea. “I don’t see why. You know I’ve asked
him before. It wasn’t something he wanted to do. Anyway, Danny’s
going with me tomorrow.”
She was rummaging in a cupboard. “Dammit. Why are all the mugs
always dirty.” She brought out a glass of the type they had used
for lemonade at dinner and stuck a teabag in it. “I’d like you to
take him.” The something was in and around her eyes again as she
poured the water.
Edwin was a long time working on his tea, hoping it would carry them
past the idea of Jason fishing. There was the teabag to extract, and
then he didn’t know what to do with it because she had not given
him a plate. He left it balanced on the spoon, which posed the
question of how to stir the sugar into the tea. He wasn’t going to
ask so he dumped the sugar into the cup from the bowl, sipped without
stirring, grimacing at the strong tannic bite. He peeked at her out
of a scrunched up face and the something was still there.
“Look, I don’t pretend to know anything about kids these days,
teenagers especially, but I know they don’t fish. It’s mostly
older guys like me out there.”
Ellen pulled a chair out. “You’re right.” Sitting across from
him with her arms crossed against her chest, “You don’t know a
damn thing about kids. Has it occurred to you I might want him to try
“Why make him go if he doesn’t want to?”
“Because I can’t handle him right now. He barely talks. His
school called, he hasn’t been showing up. I’m working ten hours a
day—I don’t know where he goes or who he goes there with. He
won’t do anything I tell him.”
She looked directly into his eyes. “It’s not that I want him to
go fishing. It’s that you’re here and you fish and I need help. I
know he’s missing his father… I know he’s acting out, if you
want the psycho-babble crap. This is the best I can do right now.”
“So let his father take him fishing,” he protested in an
“Don’t give me that. Doug was barely around when he was around
and you know it. He’s clueless.”
“Well I’m clueless too.”
“No you’re not.”
He pouted at her, wanting so much to go back to where they had been
a few minutes before. “It’s my birthday. I can be clueless if I
“Your birthday was Tuesday,” she corrected, her voice leaving no
doubt that they had left that safe haven for good. “And you’re
not clueless. You’re repressed, like me. You’re afraid to feel
anything, like me. You know why we’re this way. You know why we’ve
always had trouble with relationships. We each have a failed marriage
under our belts now. It’s time to face up to it.”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
“I know you don’t…I’m sorry. I have to do this for my kids.
“I have to go.”
“No you do not have to go.” Ellen held his arm. “What if he’s
like our father? What if he gets it through me?”
“Ellen, I won’t do this.”
“You remember our dear father, don’t you? Dear sweet daddy?”
“Ellen….” He pulled away, fully intending to get up and walk
out the door, but his legs would not hold him, were no longer under
his command. He slumped back onto the chair. He did not want this….
“I remember the jab,” he muttered, almost to himself, “The way
it would flick out, quick as a snake’s tongue. His money maker, he
called it.” Edwin produced a rasping laugh that hurt his chest. “As
if he ever made any.”
“I remember he was always punching you,” Ellen said. “You were
black and blue for years. I was actually jealous. He hit you more
than me. I almost didn’t exist for him. I wanted a few more bruises
from my dad to prove he loved me as much as you. God. We’re damaged
goods, both of us.”
“Even when I knew it was coming,” he went on, “I couldn’t
get out of the way in time—just bang, I was on the floor.”
“And mom hiding in the bedroom when he was home. She couldn’t
protect us. I think she died to get away. She gave me her jewelry two
“I wanted to get away too. When they were taping my nose up once
in the hospital I decided I would hide in a storeroom and run away. I
“No tears,” he said.
He had been ten, Ellen eight, when they decided they wouldn’t cry
anymore. It was their revenge, to face him dry-eyed in his furies.
“When I was at school, they made us read a play by a Brit. It was
bizarre. Characters said things that didn’t have anything to do
with what was going on in the scene, and then they were gone. You
didn’t know why they had been there. Things happened, words were
spoken, for no apparent reason. Nothing meant what you thought it
“Almost everyone in the class complained to the prof about having
to read something that made no sense. He told us the playwright was
famous for never explaining anything because he wanted the audience
to figure out something for themselves. I understood it completely.
It was just like living at home. I think that guy grew up like we
“I don’t want Jason to be like that.”
“Don’t say that. There’s no connection whatsoever. You’re a
“I wanted to hit him. I want to hit him.” Ellen pressed her
forehead to the table. “It’s in me.”
“You would never hit him.” His strength had come back. He stood
up, he was trembling angry at her. “I’ll take him fishing. I’ll
take him, but it isn’t fair how you did this.”
“I don’t care if it’s fair.”
“Let our father be dead. Let everything he was slide away like it
was never there. I went to see him when he was dying, did you know
that? I got to the hospital and they had sent him home. I found him
lying on the couch, all shriveled up and alone.”
“I didn’t know.”
“I had some stupid idea of making my peace with him, like a scene
from a movie. You know what he said? That I shouldn’t have bothered
coming because there wouldn’t be any estate. I’d have to get
something out of that fancy education he’d sweated blood for, he
“Did he pay for you to go to college?”
“He gave me four hundred dollars when I was accepted. I guess he
thought it paid four years of tuition and living expenses. Not a man
of the world, our father. But I didn’t care. I felt nothing for him
anymore. The only thought I had, looking at him on that couch, was
that I would never have to eat the jab again. I didn’t say goodbye.
Let him be dead to us.”
“Let him be dead.”
Edwin rubbed his eyes and face as though waking up. “I really do
need to go. So about tomorrow…has he ever done any fishing?”
Ellen put her recollecting face on. “I think I took them to a
trout farm once.”
“A trout farm.” Edwin shook his head at her. “It’s Lake
Erie, you know. It’s an inland sea. They lose the odd freighter in
“You don’t go out in the storms, do you?” She asked with
“Hell no. My point is it can get a little rough even on the best
days. Does he get motion sickness?”
“He has his medicine. He gets car sick sometimes.”
“Geez. He’ll be like a fountain out there, all over my
upholstery.” Edwin kissed her. “I’ll pick him up at six-thirty.
Do me one little favor. Don’t let him eat much in the morning.”
The problem with all philosophies was that they were proved wrong as
often as right. Edwin believed in assuming the worst in any given
instance so as to be relieved afterward that the worst had not
actually occurred. The flaw in this doctrine was that the worst
sometimes did occur, at which point philosophy had nothing further to
offer. He held that thought under a gray monochrome sky and had
plenty of room left to marvel at the combined misery and anger
radiating from the limp form slumped in the bottom of the boat.
The boy sat folded over in the cockpit with his head down almost to
his knees. He had finished being sick—Edwin hoped he had finished
being sick—and slid down off the seat cushion. He did not seem to
care that the deck was wet from the off and on drizzling rain, or an
occasional wave slopping over the side, nor had he put on the rain
gear Edwin dug out of a storage chest for him. His fishing rod lay
beside him on the deck, sliding back and forth across the slick
fiberglass surface as the boat rolled in the heavy swell.
“You should really put on the jacket at least.” Edwin did not
know how to insist.
No answer, and he had not expected any. It was time to declare
victory and go in. Ellen had asked him to take the boy fishing—he
had done so. Picked him up early, bought the ice and the bait, gassed
up the boat and ran it fifteen miles out into the lake, put a fully
rigged, baited fishing pole in his hands. All the requirements were
satisfied. It was not his fault the weather, the wind, the fish and
the boy’s equilibrium were uncooperative.
Only what he had seen in her eyes last night kept him from starting
the engine. It was really a question of perception that made him
hesitate. If he dropped Jason off, sick, wet, fishless…miserable,
would she see that he had accomplished what was asked? A tickle of
doubt warned against it. She might possibly take another line, it
argued. She might possibly consider him to have returned the boy in a
worse state than he had received him.
What exactly was he supposed to be doing out here? Helping the boy.
Help him do what? Get over missing his father. An interesting
concept, missing your father. If you missed your dad, wouldn’t you
always miss him no matter what? She had better not, she had just
better not be expecting him to do something about that.
He glanced into the cockpit, still no sign of life, and stepping
carefully around assorted equipment, sat near the boy. Jason’s eyes
were closed; rain ran over them down his pale cheeks, dripped onto
his jeans. Edwin shifted uneasily on the wet upholstery— hated
that this depended on him, sensed there was no more time. The boy was
sixteen. A couple of years and he might go to college, into the army,
or anywhere. It could be many years before they were together again
like this; planets spinning through briefly coincident orbits before
flashing off along differing vectors to circle a distant sun. He
couldn’t let Jason remember this as the last time he was with his
Edwin breathed in. “I think I’ll re-rig your pole with a bottom
bouncer. They work good sometimes when it’s a little choppy.”
The tools came out, and he began cutting and retying line, replacing
this with that. He baited it up and dropped the line over the side,
watched the sinker take the translucent green monofilament swirling
to the bottom. The rod went into the holder nearest Jason.
The boy didn’t look up. Edwin decided to act as if this happened
all the time. He opened a cooler to grab a couple plastic bottles of
“I generally get thirsty around this time when I’m out here.”
He placed a soda beside the boy, cracked the top on the other bottle
The rain was diminishing to occasional spritzing . Edwin got out a
towel to wipe the windshield. He heard a bottle cap being twisted
off, kept on drying the glass. He heard another sound and immediately
turned. The drag was clicking on the reel just placed in the holder.
The rod bent almost double as he watched it.
“Hey, you got bit.”
Jason was still on the deck, soda in hand. Edwin, fighting the urge
to snatch up the pole, waited to see what the boy would do.
Jason looked around, froze for an instant, looked to him.
“Take the rod out of the holder.”
The boy stood up slowly as if testing each joint, lifted the rod,
grunting slightly as the weight of whatever was on the line was
transferred down the rod to his hands.
“Don’t yank. Just keep the rod tip up and crank him after he
gives a tug.”
“What is it?”
Edwin knew what it was. “Too early to tell. Just keep that rod tip
up so he doesn’t break off.”
Jason reeled. A flash of gray in the green depths, “Yup,” Edwin
muttered as the flash ascended.
“Whoa!” Jason was fighting to keep the rod up as a large fish
thrashed at the surface.
Edwin dipped the net, flipped the contents onto the deck. He tore
the hook out of the creatures jaw with pliers.
“What is it?” Jason, still holding the rod, was breathing hard.
Edwin considered that the day had been too unfair. “It’s a
Sheephead. Kind of a trash fish.”
Jason bent down to examine it. “Look at all the colors on it. Why
is it a trash fish?”
“I don’t know, I guess because it’s not real good to eat.”
“I don’t eat fish anyway. He really fought.”
Edwin looked at him, felt a beginning twitch faintly somewhere.
“They do. They fight extremely hard. Some people fish for nothing
“Really?” Jason was sliding his finger along the coarse scales.
Edwin held the fish up and rubbed its belly. “Sheephead is what
we call them around here, but they’re officially named ‘Freshwater
Drum’. You hear that?” A froglike croaking was coming from its
mouth. “He’s drumming. Or maybe he’s a she, the females are
bigger. This is the largest I’ve seen in years—it might be thirty
“Why’s it make that sound?”
“They school up at the river mouths at spawning time and drum for
mates. You want a picture before we let her go? I brought the
“Yeah. Should I hold it?” The boy looked doubtful about picking
“Absolutely. Put one hand in its mouth—it doesn’t have sharp
teeth. Try not to touch the gills… that’s it, now hold it at the
base of the tail with your other hand. Smile. Got it. Okay, let ‘er
Jason watched it swim away, slowly at first, then darting down
toward the bottom. “They’re no good to eat?”
“Some people eat them. I tried it once; it’s pretty strong
There was a joke Edwin heard at least once a year. Probably it had
never been funny, just nonsense men bobbing about in boats told each
other to pass the time when the fish were elsewhere. He glanced at
“The Native Americans around here knew a way to make it taste
good. They used to roast it slow on a cedar plank covered with lots
of herbs and berries. When it was done, they threw the fish away and
ate the cedar plank.”
Something sounding very much like soft laughter coming from the
cockpit. Got you, Edwin thought.
Then: aerial maneuvers above and beyond. “Hey look, we’ve got
company. You caught a fish and they always know.”
Gulls were settling on the water singly and in pairs, encircling
them in gray and white plumage.
“Check this out.” Grabbing a handful of minnows, he tossed them
up over the swimming birds. Instant chaos: beaks darting, wings
flapping, triumphant, enraged squawking.
Jason scrambled to the bait well, scooped his own handful, and flung
them to the birds on the opposite side of the boat, with the same
result. He laughed, Edwin laughed with him.
“You want to catch another sheephead? They’re a schooling fish
and where you catch one you can find more. Look at the fishfinder.
Those lumps are a big pod of them at twenty-five feet.”
The boy stared at the screen. “Cool.”
“Get your pole. I’ll show you how to bait up.”
He sat watching the boy then, getting up every few minutes to net
another fish. Jason showed no discomfort now on the constantly moving
deck, oblivious to wind and waves. Edwin saw him framed by the sky
with something of the pride of creation.
A larger wave caught his eye, curling up over its siblings fifty
yards beyond the boat. White water lit the crest as though to display
the flotsam carried along with it, ebon shining wood and chartreuse
weed. He watched it come foaming at them, all the way in, and then it
was lifting them, dipping the side of the boat down to it for a
dangerous instant before letting go and passing under.
They rocked in diminishing arcs and the gulls were scattered around
them, paddling frantically, squawking their complaints against the
wave and their more dominant fellows who pecked and bullied them back
into position. Edwin checked on Jason. The boy sat with the fishing
rod between his knees, watching everything; the birds, the rolling
water. He was smiling. Holding tight to the boat, smiling.
This is all I have for him, Edwin knew. It wasn’t a question of if
it was enough—it was all there was. Clouds and rain and waves.
Maybe the possibility of something more, something unlooked for,
granted without regard as to whether it was deserved. Jason’s pole
bent again. Edwin was ready for it. Yes, yes, he thought eagerly, was
rising to his feet, was reaching for the net, was leaning over the
side, was gathering himself, was….
The emoticons were peeking at him again, from beneath everything.
Happy—sad—laughing—love to see you—licking chops—and the
worst of them—he still hated it, could never use it. It felt like
now he might have something of his own to offer. It was too long for
an emoticon, but maybe Long Tall Sally would understand. He spoke it
aloud to the waves as Jason’s fish came thrashing to the deck, just
to see if he could: “Looking forward to whatever comes next.” He
wondered if she would like it.