It was still early when they got to the rutted gravel driveway leading to his uncle’s cabin. A wooden walkway started abruptly in the gravel and ended at the door. There was no yard, only trees and brush. Matthew watched a squirrel walk down the branch of a tree onto the roof of the cabin and disappear.
“Everybody out,” Matthew’s father said. He opened the door and sat with his legs hanging out. Matthew’s uncle Shug did the same thing in the other door, while Matthew waited between them. Finally, Shug got out and milled around. Matthew followed him and stretched his legs.
A long, dirty aluminum boat was tied down in the back of the truck. Rounded craters dotted its sides where holes had been patched. Matthew stretched his arms and shoulders, which were sore from twisting to watch the boat during the drive. His brand new fishing pole was inside it. He checked the ropes again, and dug under the boat, trying to feel the pole.
“We going out today?” Matthew asked.
“They’ll be there in the morning,” Shug said, patting his gut and looking around. The thick, red skin of his face stretched into a yawn and he leaned back against the truck, letting his head slump in a pose of abject relaxation.
“Should we get the boat out now?” Matthew asked.
“Go ahead,” his father said.
One end of the boat covered the cooler, the other hung over the tailgate. Matthew untied the ropes and tried to drag the thing out, but it was too heavy. He tried to pull it to one side and then the other, but he couldn’t make any headway. He glanced around, but his uncle and father weren’t watching him. Matthew turned back to the boat, and leaned on the end of it, pushing with all of his weight, until it rose above the cooler, and he was able to slowly slide the boat down to touch the ground. Shug stepped up, and Matthew watched, sweating, as he opened the cooler and took out a beer.
“Here you go, Van,” he said. Matthew’s father held up a hand.
“Doing good, boy,” his father said, smiling. He tossed his empty can in the back of the truck. “Be careful, now, the poles are in there.”
Matthew dragged the boat out until it clanked on the ground. He tried to lift it but his father stopped him. “Just set it down, we’ll get it in a sec.”
“Bring that cooler, boy,” Shug said as he and Matthew’s father started towards the cabin. Matthew slid the cooler out of the truck and carried it, barely keeping it out of the way of his feet.
Inside, the cabin smelled like dust and mildew. The first room was a kitchen, which was wide and empty except for an old wooden table and a refrigerator that looked older than Matthew’s father. The floor was covered with dull green linoleum with a faded yellow flower pattern. Matthew set the cooler down.
“Piss poor excuse for Disney World, ain’t it boy?” Matthew’s father called out. Matthew followed his voice to the living room. It had a wooden floor with tight cracks. The walls were made of mismatched planks wedged together. A dirty glass door opened onto a deck. Shug sat on a metal chair that looked like the rust had just given up on it and let it be.
“It’ll do,” Shug said, sitting on an old couch. He turned to Matthew. “Did you bring that cooler?”
“Yeah, it’s in the kitchen.”
“Well get me another beer, then,” Shug said, shifting his weight.
“I got to go to the bathroom.”
“Through there,” Shug pointed.
The bathroom smelled like loam. There was a handwritten sign on the mirror that said, “Please Do Not Flush Paper.” Matthew figured that if he sat on the toilet, he could touch the wall with his knees. There was a trashcan beside the toilet and a small window. All he could see outside were leaves. When he went back into the living room, his father and uncle hadn’t moved.
“I’m going to bring the rest of the stuff in,” Matthew said. No one spoke, so he went out to the truck.
His pole was stuck inside the boat, still unstrung. He had never had a new pole before; he’d always used his father’s old one. His father was doing a lot of stuff like that lately, giving him things. He was supposed to get braces soon, and he was going to start getting shots for his allergies. The night before, his father had helped him take the reel from his old pole and put it on this one.
There were two cases of beer in the back of the truck, beside where the cooler had been. He brought them inside first and put six fresh ones in the cooler. His uncle was talking in the living room.
“It ain’t much, but it’s all right. Better than Momma’s old house.”
“Before or after the fire?” Matthew’s father asked.
Matthew wandered out onto the deck. The sun was still high, but it was starting to slump down after a long day. He could see the lake through the trees. There was no wind. The water was still and deep-looking. Some steps led down to a path, which ended at a dock after twenty feet or so. He stared at the lake for a minute, and listened. He could hear something from it, but he wasn’t sure what. Everything else was quiet. He thought maybe that was it: maybe the water just made everything quiet, maybe that was what he heard.
He went and put some of the sodas in the cooler, and dug around for a cold one. He could hear his uncle talking again.
“How’s Abby doing?”
“About the same,” Matthew’s father said. “Doctor’s can’t do nothing for her. Most times, she don’t even know where she is or who she is.”
“Is she near the end, then?” Shug asked.
An image of his mother flashed in Matthew’s head, from the night before when she’d been eating a bowl of ice cream, and gone to the kitchen when no one was looking and put half an onion in it and ate it like that, like it was a piece of fruit. Which wasn’t as bad as the walker, which his father had bought her at the beginning of that week because she kept falling down, but she didn’t use it right; she just held it out in front of her and never set it down, so now, she tripped over it and fell twice as often. Matthew’s father tried to take it away from her when he realized what was happening, but the strange thing about it was that she was strong, now, and he couldn’t tear it out of her hands. Worse than the strength, she fought like an animal, and Matthew knew that beneath his father’s long-sleeved work shirt, there were red scratches all down his arms from her fingernails.
In the other room, he could hear them still talking.
He slammed the lid down hard on the cooler, and silence settled over the other room.
“You done yet, boy?” Shug asked.
Matthew went out to the truck and stared at the new pole. Behind him, the screen door slammed.
Matthew looked up. His father sauntered towards him like a bull behind a fence.
What Matthew could see of his father’s black hair was sweaty under a thin, worn cap, and the red, burned skin of his face was littered with stubble.
“Get that end,” his father said.
They carried the boat, plowing through bushes and trees like they were grass. At the dock, they flipped it face down and laid it on the ground.
“Water looks calm,” Matthew said.
“Yep,” his father said, looking out over the water.
“Looks like molasses.”
“Well, don’t try to put it on your pancakes,” his father said, allowing himself a smile.
“Makes everything quiet.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?” his father said, after a moment. “People need quiet.”
His father looked out over the water again, then up at the sky. Matthew wanted to say something a man would say but he couldn’t think of anything. He wanted to ask his father a question, but he didn’t know what to ask, and he didn’t think his father would be able to answer. They were both quiet.
“Don’t mess around and fall in,” Mathew’s father said and walked back up the path to the cabin.
After a dinner of sandwiches, Matthew went out onto the deck and threw acorns at the woodchucks until the sun went down, then he sat in the dark and listened to the rustling of his father’s newspaper through the door.
“Time for me to hit the hay,” his father called out, standing up. “Come on, boy, ‘early to bed, early to rise.'” Matthew rose and followed his father.
The bedroom was small. The mattress was bare and stained with dark brown circles. Matthew poked at the rust-colored carpet with his shoe. It was worn thin and ripped. He could see wood through it. His father took his shoes off and stripped down to his boxers. He set everything on a chair, and laid his wallet on top. Matthew did likewise, setting everything in a pile in the corner. His father yawned and lay down on the mattress. Matthew crawled up beside him. He heard Shug stomp to his room.
“There’s no sheets,” Matthew said.
“It’ll be all right,” his father said.
Matthew listened as his father’s breathing slowed and sputtered into snoring. He tried to hear the water again, but the snoring drowned it out. Matthew slid out of the bed and got his clothes. His father didn’t stir. He carried his clothes to the kitchen and slipped into them. Then he went outside, holding the screen door until it touched the frame, and walked down to the lake.
The water was darker than the sky. He sat on the dock, and stared out at the darkness, trying to see to the other side of the lake, but it was too big.
It was quiet there, and his breath slowed and quieted as well. It was cool, close to the water. He listened to the arrhythmic sound as the water moved against the dock for a long time, until he felt a breeze and realized he was shivering.
He went back inside and went back to bed. His arm touched his father, and his father turned over on his side, away from Matthew, without ever ceasing to snore. Matthew played the sound of the water hitting the dock over and over in his head until he was able to sleep.
He woke to the sound of yelling.
“Get up, boy,” his father shouted from the kitchen.
Matthew heard the screen door slam. He slid out of bed, still dressed from the chill of the night before. Shug was eating a sandwich in the kitchen. Matthew got out some bread and started making one of his own.
“Hurry up with that,” Shug said. “You slept half the morning away. Time you’re ready, won’t be any fish left.” Matthew slapped a piece of lunchmeat on the bread and ate it with a sour look, finishing it as he got to the dock. His father was standing in the boat, which was already in the water.
“Did you bring the trolling motor?” his father asked.
“I got it,” Shug said.
Shug shouldered past Matthew and handed the motor down to Matthew’s father. Matthew climbed in, tripped over the cooler and sat down hard on one of the middle seats. His father pushed off the dock and the engine sputtered to life.
Matthew had almost dozed off by the time they stopped. Matthew’s father and Shug dug lures out of their tackle boxes, fixed them on their lines, and whizzed them over the water like lassos. Matthew got his pole and his father gave him a lure. Then he tossed his line out a couple feet. He watched them reeling their lures back in every few seconds, dragging them across the water like seines.
“I’m used to catfishing,” Matthew said.
“Just do like I do, son,” his father said, whipping his line across the water and reeling it back. It made Matthew flinch.
“Think it would matter if I just set it in the water, like I was catfishing?”
“Nothing will hit it. Dig that liver out of the cooler,” his father said. “And use that.”
Matthew reeled the lure back in and cut it off. He handed it to his father and opened the cooler.
“Hand me a cold one,” Shug said.
Matthew dug a beer out for his uncle, and then offered one to his father. He found the package of chicken livers.
“Here,” his father said, handing Matthew a hook. Matthew tied it on, baited it, and tossed it into the water.
“Whoa,” Shug said. “Got one.” He jerked his pole around and reeled it in.
“Crappie,” he said. “Not that big, though.” He dug the lure out of its mouth and handed the fish to Matthew. “Put it on the line,” he said.
“Where’s it at?”
Matthew’s father dug around in his tackle box, and stood and looked in the bottom of the boat. “Did you bring it, Shug?”
“Nope. Thought that was whistle-britches over there’s job.”
“Well shit,” Matthew’s father said.
“Put it in the cooler,” Shug said, and took a drink of his beer.
A couple of hours later, Matthew hadn’t had a single strike, his father had caught a decent-sized bream, and Shug had caught another crappie, and a bream. Shug had finished off half a dozen beers and was starting to slur his casts. Mathew’s father was working on his fourth, and no one was speaking.
“Watch your line, boy,” Shug said. Matthew jerked his head up and tugged on the pole. His line had drifted under the boat. “You’re going to get tangled up in the motor.” Matthew reeled the line in.
“It’s about that time,” his father said, checking his watch. “Get that lunchmeat, boy.” Matthew got the bread and lunchmeat out and passed it around. Matthew bit into the dry sandwich and tasted fish. He chewed and swallowed.
“That’s a nice pole there, let me see that,” Shug said.
“That’s his birthday present,” Matthew’s father said. “He’s an even dozen, now.”
Shug set his sandwich on his leg and looked the pole up and down. He reared back and cast out into the lake. He dragged it a little, making the line taut, then eased the tension up. Matthew watched him, eating his sandwich.
“Well, lookie here,” Shug said, pulling back on the rod. “Got one.” He pulled it into the boat. “Catfish. Glad I could get something besides crappie.”
Matthew put the fish in the cooler.
“Let’s move upstream,” his father said, after they finished eating. The shore narrowed as his father guided the boat, and they stopped under a tree.
“Try here, son,” he said.
Matthew baited his hook again and dropped it in the water. He tugged at it like Shug had done, while his father’s and Shug’s lures whizzed by overhead like insects. “Remember that time we went fishing with Mom?” Matthew said. “At Johnny Hill’s place? And Mom caught that gar and it almost dragged her in the water?”
His father let out a quick sharp laugh. “Yeah, she fought him, though. Would’ve got him, too, if she hadn’t looked at it.”
Matthew smiled and tugged on his bait a little, staring across the lake. It didn’t register at first that it was tugging back. The pole slipped out of his hand, and he grabbed it, just above the thick handle. “Hey,” he said.
“Got one?” his father asked.
“Yeah, it’s big too,” he said. He jerked the pole sharply, but the fish didn’t move.
“Let some line out, let it tire itself out,” his father said.
Matthew released the lever on the reel, surprised by how quickly the line flew out. He grabbed for the line, and jerked back on the pole, holding it awkwardly. The fish pulled hard and Matthew felt the pole break in his hand. A few seconds passed before he realized what had happened. The line flew out and he fumbled to grab the reel. No one said anything. He pulled the broken pole high over the water, fighting for leverage, and finally maneuvered the fish close to the boat. The broken end dipped down in the water. His father reached under it with the paddle, lifting it so he could grab it, and wrapped the line around his hand. Matthew could see the fish. His father pulled it up to the surface and lifted it into the boat. It was a catfish.
“That’s a big son of a bitch,” Shug said. “Must weigh ten pounds or more.”
Matthew picked it up, took it off the hook, and put it in the cooler. He didn’t look at his father.
“You about ready, Shug?” his father said, checking his watch.
“Yeah, let’s clean them and cook them up,” Shug said.
Matthew’s father started the motor and guided them back to the dock.
“Must have been some kind of flaw in the pole,” his father said behind him. “You can use my old pole tomorrow, son.”
Matthew nodded so that his father could see.
“Soup’s on,” Matthew’s father said. They were in the kitchen. Shug and Matthew sat at the table, across from each other. Vandale carried a plate of fried fish from the stove to the table. “Eat up.”
Matthew picked up the backbone of a catfish and set it on his plate.
“Eat up, boy,” his father said. “I sweated over a hot stove all evening for you.”
Matthew sipped his soda and chewed on the backbone, taking no pleasure from it. When they finished, Matthew’s father stood up. “Got to take a leak,” he said.
Matthew pushed his chair back. “I’m going out on the patio,” he said.
“You know what you did wrong today?” Shug said. “You ought to learn from your mistakes.”
Matthew looked at him, surprised. His uncle’s face was a painful red.
“You tried to jerk that fish out the water, you’ve got to learn patience. Can’t take your problems out on the fish. You’re getting too old to be acting like that.”
Matthew started for the door. His father ambled back in just then and sat down.
“Hand me a beer,” Shug said.
“Get it yourself,” Matthew muttered.
“What’s wrong with him?” Shug said.
Matthew looked his uncle in the eyes. “Drunk bastard,” he said.
“All right, now,” his father said.
Matthew got a beer out and set it on top of the cooler. “Here, do you some good to get it yourself,” he said, walking outside.
It was still light, but getting gray. He climbed down the steps to the path, his eyes blurring so much that he had to wipe them to see the dock. The water was still. A piece of driftwood floated by.
His pole was in the boat, by his father’s pole, lying on a bed of empty beer cans. It glowed a metallic black in the dying light of the day. He threw the broken pieces as hard as he could. They made a quiet dent in the top of the water and floated there. He threw one of the cans in the lake, but it didn’t sink either. The tears were coming more quickly now. He hated them. He punched himself in the leg as hard as he could to make them stop, but they wouldn’t. He heard his father yelling at Shug inside the cabin. The glass door slid open and his father’s voice carried down to him.
“What’re you doing down there, son?”
“Stringing the pole,” Matthew said.
“Well, don’t worry about that. We’ll do that tomorrow. Just come on back up here.”
“Leave me alone,” Matthew muttered. He heard the slow sharp thump of his father’s boots moving across the deck. They crunched down the path to the lake and stopped behind him, then his father’s breath came quietly.
“We’ll get you another pole,” his father said.
“I hate him. Why’d he have to come?”
His father sighed heavily. “It’s his place.”
Matthew could feel the drink in his father’s stance, the way he was swaying a little too much to be from the breeze. Neither of them said anything for a few seconds, and then Matthew broke the silence.
“She’s dead,” he said. “And I missed it.”
His father was quiet.
“You gave me that sorry pole; so cheap,” He turned to look at his father’s knees. “It broke on the first fish it ever caught.” He turned back to the water. “Brought me out here so I’d miss it.”
He threw a can in the water as hard as he could and watched it bob. His father walked around beside him. Matthew could smell mud on his father’s boots, mixed with an old leather smell.
“Miss what? Boy, what the shit are you talking about?” his father finally said.
“She’s dead,” Matthew said, not looking at him, “And I missed it.”
“She’s doing all right,” his father said softly. “She ain’t going to,” he broke off. “She’s all right.”
“No she’s not. You said it yourself, she don’t even know who she is.”
“No,” his father said. “She don’t. But she’s not dead.”
Matthew turned back to the water, ashamed of himself for crying. “I want to go home.”
His father spoke slowly. “If you want to go, we’ll go. I thought you might like a break, is all.”
Matthew dropped his eyes and tried to sniffle as quietly as he could.
“She’s not dead, but she’s sick. There’s nothing anybody can do about that. She’s going to get sicker. But that don’t mean we have to stay at home and worry until it happens. Your brother’s grown and your sister’s almost grown, but you’re still young. It’s harder on you. You don’t know how to handle it. All you’ve known is her sick.”
He stumbled into silence. Matthew stared out over the water, his mind moving slow like the waves. His father had just spoken more to him than he could remember in a long time. Embarrassed silence hung between them.
Matthew could feel his father watching him. He was afraid to meet the man’s eyes.
“Come on,” he said, patting Matthew awkwardly on the shoulder. “Come inside.”
Matthew rose slowly. He was sniffling and hiccupping so much he could hardly breathe. His fingers balled into fists, trying to fight the aftershocks of his crying. His father pulled him into an awkward hug.
“It’s alright, we’ll just wait a minute till you calm down.”
Matthew snuffled into his father’s shirt. He sounded to himself like a pig snorting and snuffling through mud. His fingernails dug into his palms and he hit himself in the leg again, trying to make it stop. But it was getting worse. The longer his father held him, the more desperate Matthew’s sniffling became.
“All right now,” his father said, rubbing his son’s back. “All right. Just let it out. Ain’t no shame in it, son. Just let it out. Don’t fight it.”
But he couldn’t. His father held him while he rode the wave out, fighting it every step. It was the best he could manage.
“You’ve had a hard row to hoe, with your mother and everything, ” his father said. “I’ve never been cut out for parenting. All I know how to do is try to set a good example and hope you follow it. I never wanted you to feel like you had to go it alone.”
Matthew stepped back. He felt drained and small, but it wasn’t a bad feeling. It was good to just be small. Matthew’s father put his hand on his son’s shoulder and stared at the water. After a little while, he coughed loudly with a great effort, like he was pushing rocks up his throat and said, “Good size fish you caught, though, for your first day out.”
CL Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel Sunlight; three poetry collections, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals. A poetry chapbook,Goodbye to Noise, is available online at http://www.righthandpointing.com/bledsoe. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available at http://tenpagespress.wordpress.com/2011/08/01/the-man-who-killed-himself-in-my-bathroom-by-cl-bledsoe. His story “Leaving the Garden” was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for the storySouth Million Writers Award. His story “The Scream” was selected as a Notable Story of 2011. He’s been nominated for The Pushcart Prize 5 times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings. Bledsoe has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.