My father, unlike so many of the men he served with, knew just what he wanted to do when the war was over. He wanted to drink and whore and play the horses. ‘He’ll get tired of it,’ my mother said confidently. She tried to keep up with him during those frantic months after the men came home, but she couldn’t, because nobody had been shooting at her for the last three years and when she woke up in the morning it wasn’t with a sense of surprise. For a while it was fun – the late nights, the drinking, the photo finishes at the track – but then she was suddenly pregnant with me and she decided it was time the war was over for real. Most everybody she knew was settling down, because you could only celebrate, even victory, so long. I don’t think it occurred to her that my father wasn’t celebrating victory and never had been. He was celebrating life. His. She could tag along if she felt like it, or not if she didn’t, whichever suited her.
‘He’ll get tired of it,’ she told my grandfather, himself recently returned, worn and riddled with malaria, to the modest house in Mohawk he had purchased with a 200 dollar down payment the year after the conclusion of the earlier war he’d been too young to enlist for legally. He liked to think there couldn’t be more than a handful of men who had lied about their age in both wars. The others had lied to get out, not in. This second time around he felt no urge to celebrate victory or anything else. From his hospital bed in New London, Connecticut, he read books and wrote his memoirs while the younger men, all malaria convalescents, played poker and waited for weekend passes from the ward. In their condition it took little enough to get good and drunk, and by early Saturday night most of them had the shakes so bad they had to huddle in the dark corners of cheap hotel rooms to await Monday morning and re-admission to the hospital. But they’d lived through worse, or thought they had. My grandfather watched them systematically destroy any chance they had for recovery and so he understood my father. He may even have tried to explain things to his daughter when she told him of the trial separation that would last only until my father could get his priorities straight again, little suspecting he already had.
‘Trouble with you is,’ my father told her, ‘you think you got the pussy market cornered.’ Unfortunately, she took this observation to be merely a reflection of the fact that in her present swollen condition she was not herself. Perhaps she couldn’t corner the market just then, but she’d cornered it once, and would again. And she must have figured too that when my father got a look at his son it would change him, change them both. Then the war would be over.
The night I was born my grandfather tracked him to a poker game in a dingy room above the Mohawk Grill. He was holding a well-concealed two pair and waiting for the seventh card in the game of stud. The news that he was a father did not impress him particularly. The service revolver did. My grandfather was wheezing from the steep, narrow flight of stairs and he stopped to catch his breath, hands on his knees. Then he took out the revolver and stuck the cold barrel in my father’s ear and said, ‘Stand up, you son of a bitch.’ This from a man who’d gone two wars end to end without uttering a profanity. The men at the table could smell his malaria and they began to sweat.
‘I’ll just have a peek at this last card,’ my father said. ‘Then we’ll go.’
The dealer rifled cards around the horn and everybody folded lickety-split, including a man who had three deuces showing.
‘Deal me out a couple a hands,’ my father said, and got up slowly because he still had a gun in his ear.
At the hospital, my mother had me on her breast and she must have looked pretty, like the girl who’d cornered the pussy market before the war. ‘Turn it over,’ my father said, and when she did he grinned at my little stem and said, ‘What do you know?’ It must have been a tender moment.
Not that it changed anything. Six months later my grandfather was dead, and the day after the funeral, for which my father arrived late, my mother filed for divorce, thereby losing in a matter of days the two men in her life.
Until I was six I thought of my father the way I thought of ‘my heavenly father’, whose existence was a matter of record, but who was, practically speaking, absent and therefore irrelevant. My mother never did end up getting her divorce. When my father heard what she was up to, he went to see her lawyer. He didn’t exactly have an appointment, but then he didn’t need one out in the parking lot where he strolled back and forth, his fists thrust deep into his pockets, waiting until F. William Peterson, Attorney- At-Law, closed up. It was one of the bleak, dead days between Christmas and New Year. I don’t think my mother specifically warned F. William there would be serious opposition to her design and that the opposition might conceivably be extra-legal in nature. F. William Peterson had been selected by my mother precisely because he was not a Mohawk native. He had moved there just a few months before to join as a junior partner a firm which employed his law school room-mate. F. William Peterson was a soft man of some bulk, well-dressed in a knee-length overcoat with a fur collar, when he finally appeared in the deserted parking lot at quarter to six. Never an athletic man, he was engaged in pulling on a fine new pair of gloves, a Christmas gift from Mrs Peterson, while trying at the same time not to lose his footing on the ice. My father never wore gloves. For warmth, he blew into his cupped hands, steam escaping from between his fingers, as he came toward F. William Peterson, who, intent on his footing and his new gloves, hadn’t what a fair-minded man would call much of a chance.
Finding himself suddenly seated on the ice, warm blood salty on his lower lip, the attorney’s first conclusion must have been that somehow, despite his care, he had managed to lose his balance. Just as surprisingly, there was somebody standing over him who seemed to be making a point of not offering him a hand up. It wasn’t even a hand that dangled in F. William’s peripheral vision, but a fist. A clenched fist. And it struck the lawyer in the face a second time before he could account for its being there.
F. William Peterson was not a fighting man. Indeed, he had not been in the war, and had never offered physical violence to any human. He loathed physical violence in general, and this physical violence in particular. Every time he looked up to see where the fist was, it struck him again in the face, and after this happened several times, he considered it might be better to stop looking up. The snow and ice were pink beneath him, and so were his new gloves. He thought about what his wife would say when she saw them and concluded right then and there, as if it were his most pressing problem, that he would purchase an identical pair on the way home.
Had he been able to see his own face, he’d have known that the gloves were not his most pressing problem.
‘You do not represent Jenny Hall,’ said the man standing in the big work-boots with the metal eyelets and leather laces.
He did represent my mother though, and if my father thought that by beating F. William Peterson up and leaving him in a snow-bank, that would be the end of the matter he had an imperfect understanding of F. William Peterson and, perhaps, the greater part of the legal profession. My father was arrested half an hour later in the Mohawk Grill in the middle of a hamburger steak. F. William Peterson identified the workboots with the metal eyelets and leather laces, and my father’s right hand was showing the swollen effects of battering F. William Peterson’s skull. None of which was the sort of identification that was sure to hold up in court, and the lawyer knew it, but getting my father tossed in jail, however briefly, seemed like a good idea. When he was released, pending trial, my father was informed that a peace bond had been sworn against him and that if he, Sam Hall, were discovered in the immediate proximity of F. William Peterson, he would be fined a thousand dollars and incarcerated. The cop who told him all this was one of my father’s buddies and was very apologetic when my father wanted to know what the hell kind of free country he’d spent thirty- five months fighting for would allow such a law. It stank, the cop admitted, but if my father wanted F. William Peterson thrashed again, he’d have to get somebody else to do it. That was no major impediment, of course, but my father couldn’t be talked out of the premise that in a truly free country he’d be allowed to do it himself.
So, instead of going to see F. William Peterson, he went to see my mother. She hadn’t sworn out any peace bond against him that he knew of. Probably she couldn’t, being his wife. It might not be perfect, but it was at least some kind of free country they were living in. Here again, however, F. William Peterson was a step ahead of him, having called my mother from his hospital room so she’d be on the look-out. When my father pulled up in front of the house, she called the cops without waiting for pleasantries, of which there turned out to be none anyway. They shouted at each other through the front door she wouldn’t unlock.
My mother started right out with the main point. ‘I don’t love you!’ she screamed.
‘So what?’ my father countered. ‘I don’t love you either.’
Surprised or not, she did not miss a beat. ‘I want a divorce.’
‘Then you can’t have one,’ my father said.
‘I don’t need your permission.’
‘Like hell you don’t,’ he said. ‘And you’ll need more than lawyers and a cheap lock to keep me out of my own house.’ By way of punctuation, he put his shoulder into the door, which buckled but did not give.
‘This is my father’s house, Sam Hall. You never had anything and you never will.’
‘That’s how come I married you,’ he said. ‘If you aren’t going to open that door, you’d better stand back out of the way.’
My mother did as she was told, but just then a police cruiser pulled up and my father vaulted the porch railing and headed off through the deep snow in back of the house. One of the cops gave chase while the other circled the block in the car, cutting off my father’s escape routes. It must have been quite a spectacle, the one cop chasing, until he was tuckered out, yelling, ‘We know who you are!’ and my father shouting over his shoulder, ‘So what?’ He knew nobody was going to shoot him for what he’d done (what had he done, now that he thought about it?). A man certainly had the right to enter his own house and shout at his own wife, which was exactly what she’d keep being until he decided to divorce her. It must have looked like a game of tag. All the neighbours came out on their back porches and watched, cheering my father, who dodged and veered expertly beyond the outstretched arms of the pursuing cops, for within minutes the backyards of our block were lousy with uniformed men who finally succeeded in forming a wide ring and then shrinking it, the neighbours’ boos at this unfair tactic ringing in their ears. My mother watched from the back porch as the tough, wet, angry cops closed in on my father. She pretty much decided right there against the divorce idea.
It dawned on her much later that the best way of ensuring my father’s absence was to demand he shoulder his share of the burden of raising his son. Until then, life was rich in our neighbourhood. When he got out of jail, my father would make a bee-line for my mother’s house (she’d had his things put in storage and changed the locks, which to her mind pretty much settled the matter of ownership), where he’d be arrested again for disturbing the peace. His visits to the Mohawk County jail got progressively longer, and so each time he got out he was madder than before. Finally, one of his buddies in the force took him aside and told him to stay the hell away from Third Avenue, because the judge was all through fooling around. Next time he was run in, he’d be in the slam a good long while. Since that was the way things stood, my father promised he’d be a good boy and go home, wherever that might be. Since one place was as good as another, he rented a room across from the police station so they’d know right where to find him. He borrowed some money and got a couple things out of storage and set them in the middle of the rented room. Then he went out again.
Eight years later he kidnapped me.
I had left Aunt Rose’s and was on my way home when I saw a white convertible. It was coming toward me up the other side of the street, travelling fast. I didn’t think it would stop, but it did. At the last moment it swerved across the street to my side and came to a rocking halt, one wheel over the kerb.
‘What’s the matter?’ my father wanted to know. I must have looked like something was the matter. He had a grey chin and his hair looked crazy until he ran his black fingers through it, which helped only a little.
I said nothing was the matter.
‘You want to go for a ride?’
I figured he must mean for ice-cream or something.
‘Come here,’ he said.
I started around the car to the passenger side.
‘Here,’ he repeated. ‘You know what “here” means?’
Actually, I don’t think I did. At least I couldn’t figure out what good it would do me to walk over and stand next to him outside the car. I found out though, because suddenly he had me under the arms, and then I was high in the air, above the convertible’s windshield, where I rotated 180 degrees and plopped into the seat beside him. My teeth clicked audibly, but other than that it was a smooth landing.
He put the convertible in gear and we thumped down off the curb and up the street past Aunt Rose’s in the opposite direction from the dairy. I figured he’d turn around when we got to the intersection, but he didn’t. We just kept on going, straight out of Mohawk. My father’s hair was wild again, and mine was too, I could feel it.
The car smelled funny. My father didn’t seem aware of it until finally he sniffed and said, ‘Oh, shit,’ and pulled over so that he was half on the road and half on the shoulder. First he flung up the hood, then the trunk. With the hood up, the funny burning smell was even worse. My father got two yellow cans out of the trunk and punched holes in them. Then he unscrewed a cap on the engine and poured in the contents of the two cans. I could see his black fingers working in the gap between the dash and hood. I thought about my mother, who would be just about putting her key in the front door lock and wondering how come I wasn’t on the front porch to greet her. I started to send her a telepathic thought, ‘I’m with my father,’ until I remembered that wouldn’t exactly be a comfort if she received it.
He slammed the hood and trunk and got back in the car.
‘Ever see one of these?’ He dropped something small and heavy in my lap. A jack-knife, it looked like. I knew my mother wouldn’t want me to touch it. ‘Open it,’ my father said.
I did. Every time I opened something, there was something else to open. There were two knives, a large one and a small one, the can opener I’d seen him use, a pair of tiny scissors you could actually work, assuming you had something that tiny that needed scissoring, a thing you could use to clean your nails with and a file. There were other features too, but I didn’t know what they were for. With all its arms opened up, the gadget looked like a lopsided spider.
‘Don’t lose it,’ he said.
We were pretty well out in the country now and, when he pulled into a long dirt driveway, I was sure he just meant to turn around. Instead, he followed the road on through a clump of trees to a small, rusty trailer. A big, dark-skinned man in a shapeless hat was seated on a broken concrete block. I was immediately interested in the hat, which seemed full of shiny metallic objects that reflected the sun. He stood when my father jerked the car to a stop, crushed stone rattling off the trailer.
‘Well?’ my father said.
The man consulted his watch. ‘Hour late,’ he said. ‘Not bad for Sam Hall. Practically on time. Who’s this?’
‘My son. We’ll teach him how to fish.’
‘Who’ll teach you?’ the man said. ‘Howdy, Sam’s kid.’
He offered a big, dark-skinned hand.
‘Go ahead and shake his ugly paw,’ my father said.
I did, and then the man gathered up the gear that was resting up against the trailer. ‘You want to open this trunk, or should I just rip it off the hinges?’ he said when my father made no move to get out and help.
‘Kind of ornery, ain’t he?’ my father said confidentially, tossing the keys over his shoulder.
‘Hey, kid,’ the man said. ‘How’d you like to ride in the back?’
‘Tell him to kiss your ass,’ my father advised. ‘You got enough gear for three?’
The man reluctantly got in the back. ‘Enough for me and the kid anyways. Don’t know about you. Can he talk or what?’
My father swatted me. ‘Say hello to Wussy. He’s half colored, half white, and all mixed up.’
Wussy leaned forward so he could see into the front seat. ‘He ain’t exactly dressed for this.’ I was wearing a thin T-shirt, shorts, sneakers. ‘Course, you ain’t either. You planning to attend a dance in those shoes?’
‘I didn’t have time to change.’ My father shrugged.
‘Where the hell were you?’
My father started to answer, then looked at me. ‘Some place.’
‘Oh,’ the man called Wussy said. ‘I been there. Hey, Sam’s kid, you know what a straight flush is?’
I shook my head.
‘His name is Ned.’
My father nodded. ‘I wasn’t consulted.’
‘Where were you?’
‘Some place,’ my father said. ‘Which reminds me.’
We were on the highway and there was a small store, a shack really, up ahead. We pulled in next to the telephone booth. I heard part of the conversation. My father said she could kiss his ass.
When he got back in the car, my father looked at me and shook his head as if he thought maybe I’d done something. ‘Don’t lose that,’ he said. I was still fingering the spider gadget.
‘As long as we’re stopped,’ Wussy said, ‘what do you say we put the top up?’
‘What for?’ my father said.
Wussy tapped me on the shoulder and pointed up. The sun had disappeared behind dark clouds, and the air had gone cool.
‘Your ass,’ my father said, jerking the car back onto the highway.
It was half-an-hour before the skies opened.
‘Your old man is a rock-head,’ Wussy observed after they finally got the top up. It had stuck at first and we were all soaked. ‘No wonder your mother don’t want nothing to do with him.’
It was nearly dark when we got to the cabin. We had to leave the convertible at the end of the dirt road and hike in the last mile, the sun winking at us low in the trees. We followed the river, more or less, though there were times when it veered off to the left and disappeared. Then after a while we’d hear it again and there it would be. Wussy – it turned out that his name was Norm – led the way, carrying the rods and most of the tackle, then me, then my father, complaining every step. His black shoes got ruined right off, which pleased Wussy, and the mosquitos ate us. My father wanted to know who would build a cabin way the hell and gone off in the woods. It seemed to him that anybody crazy enough to go to all that trouble might better have gone to a little more and poured a sidewalk, at least, so you could get to it. Wussy didn’t say anything, but every now and then he’d hold onto a branch and then let go so that it whistled over the top of my head and caught my father in the chin with a thwap, after which Wussy would say, ‘Careful.’
I was all right for a while, but then the woods began to get dark and I felt tired and scared. When something we disturbed scurried off underfoot and into the bushes, I got to thinking about home and my mother, who had no idea where I was. It occurred to me that if I let myself get lost, nobody would ever find me, and the more I thought about it, the closer I stuck to Wussy, ready to duck whenever he sent a branch whistling over my head.
‘I hope you didn’t bring me all the way out here to roll me, Wuss,’ my father said. ‘I should have mentioned I don’t have any money.’
‘I want those shiny black shoes.’
‘You would, you black bastard.’
‘Nice talk, in front of the kid.’ A branch caught my father in the chops.
‘What color is he, bud?’ My father poked me in the back.
I was embarrassed. My mother had told me about Negroes and that it wasn’t nice to accuse them of it. Wussy’s skin was the color of coffee, at least the way my mother drank it, with cream and sugar. ‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘That’s all right,’ my father said. ‘He’s none too sure either.’
And then suddenly we were out of the trees and there was the cabin, the river gurgling about forty yards down the slope.
Wussy tossed all the gear inside and started a fire in a circle of rocks a few feet from the porch. When it got going, he brought out a big iron grate to put over it. With the sun down, it had gotten cool and the fire felt good. My father fidgeted nearby until Wussy told him he could collect some dry sticks if he felt like it. ‘You could have brought a pair of long pants and a jacket for him at least,’ he said.
‘Didn’t have a chance,’ my father said.
‘Look at him, ‘Wussy said critically. ‘Knees all scraped up . . .’
‘How the hell did I know we were going to blaze a trail?’ my father said. ‘You cold?’
‘No,’ I lied.
Wussy snorted. ‘I think I saw blankets inside.’
My father dropped his armload of sticks and went to fetch some. ‘Your old man’s a rock-head,’ Wussy told me confidentially. ‘Otherwise, he’s all right.’
He didn’t seem to need me to agree, so I didn’t say anything. He opened three cans of chilli into a black skillet and set it on top of the grate. Then he chopped up two yellow onions and added them. You couldn’t see much except the dark woods and the outline of the cabin. We heard my father banging into things and cursing inside. After a few minutes the chilli began to form craters which swelled, then exploded. ‘Man-color,’ Wussy said. ‘That’s what I am.’
My father finally came back with a couple rough blankets. He draped one over me and threw the other around his own shoulders.
‘No thanks,’ Wussy said. ‘I don’t need one.’
‘Good,’ my father said.
‘And you don’t need any of this chilli,’ Wussy said, winking at me. ‘Me and you will have to eat it all, Sam’s kid.’
My father squatted down and inspected the sputtering chilli. ‘I hate like hell to tell you what it looks like.’
It looked all right to me and it smelled better than I knew food could smell. It was way past my normal dinner time and I was hungry. Wussy ladled a good big portion on to a plate and handed it to me. Then he loaded about twice as much on to a plate for himself.
‘What the hell,’ my father said.
‘What the hell is right,’ Wussy said. ‘What the hell, eh, Sam’s kid?’
My father got up and went back into the cabin for another blanket. When he returned, Wussy said no thanks, he was doing fine, but didn’t my father want any chilli? ‘You better get going,’ he advised. ‘Me and the kid are ready for seconds.’
We weren’t, exactly, but when he finished giving my father some, he ladled more on to my plate and the rest of the skillet on to his own.
‘I bet there’s a lot of shallow graves out here in the woods,’ my father speculated, pretending not to notice there was no more chilli whether he hurried up or not. ‘You suppose anybody would miss you if you didn’t come home tomorrow?’
‘Women, mostly,’ Wussy said. ‘I feel pretty safe though. Mostly I worry about you. Anything happened to me, you’d starve before you ever located that worthless oil guzzler of yours.’
When I couldn’t eat any more, I gave the rest of my chilli to my father, who looked like he was thinking of licking the hot skillet. ‘The kid’s all right,’ Wussy said. ‘I don’t care who his old man is.’
It was so black out now that we couldn’t even see the cabin, just each other’s faces in the dying fire.
Wussy blew the loudest fart I’d ever heard. ‘What color’s my skin?’ he said, as if he hadn’t done anything at all.
I had been almost asleep, until the fart. ‘Man-color,’ I said, wide awake again.
‘There you go,’ he said.
I woke with the sun in my eyes next morning. There were no curtains on the cabin’s high windows. I was still dressed from the night before. My legs, all scratched from the long walk through the woods, felt heavy and a little unsteady when I stood up. I looked around for a bathroom, but there wasn’t one.
My father and his friend Wussy were face down on the other two bunks. My father’s face and arms were coffee-colored, like Wussy’s, but his legs and back were fish-white. Wussy had taken the trouble to crawl under the covers, but my father lay on top. The cabin had been warm the night before, but it was chilly now, though my father wasn’t aware of it. I was, and it made me wish there was a bathroom even more. In the center of the small table was an empty bottle and a deck of cards fanned face up. They’d kept score in long uneven columns labelled N and S on a brown paper bag. The S columns were the longer ones, and the number 85 was circled at the top of the bag with a dollar sign in front of it. I had awakened several times during the night when one of them yelled ‘Gin!’ or ‘You son of a bitch!’ but I was too exhausted to stay awake. I watched the two sleepers for a while, but neither man stirred, so I went outside.
The iron skillet, alive with bright green flies, still sat on the grate. There were so many flies, and they were so furious, that their bodies pinged against the surface like small pebbles. I watched with interest for a while and then went down to the river. We were so far upstream that it wasn’t very deep in most spots, a river in name only. Rocks jutted up above the surface of the water and it looked like you’d be able to jump from one to the next all the way to the opposite bank. I tried it, but only got part way, because when you got out toward the middle, the rocks weren’t as close together as they looked. One solid-looking flat rock tipped under my weight and I had to plunge one sneakered foot deep into the cool current to keep from falling in. The water ran so fast that the shoe was nearly sucked off, and I was scared enough to head back to shore on a squishy sneaker, aware that if my mother had been there she’d have thrown a fit about my getting it wet. I doubted my father and Wussy would even notice. I found a comfortable rock on the bank and had another look at my father’s knife gadget, trying to pretend I didn’t have to go to the bathroom. Having the river right there made the necessity to pee hard to ignore. I wasn’t sure I could hold it all day.
After a while the door of the cabin opened and Wussy appeared in his under-shorts. ‘Hello, Sam’s kid,’ he said. He tip-toed over to the spot where he’d built the fire, yanked himself out of his shorts and watered the bushes for a very long time. I could hear him above the sound of the river.
When he saw me watching, he said, ‘Gotta go, Sam’s kid?’
I shook my head. I could hold out a while longer, and I wanted it to seem like my own idea when I went. I was relieved to learn that peeing in the weeds was permissible, though it was one more thing I didn’t think I’d mention to my mother.
‘First thing every morning for me,’ Wussy explained. ‘Can’t wait.’
When he was finished, he went back inside for his pants and shoes. I went over to where he’d stood, as if it were an officially designated area, and released my agony.
Wussy came out with the rods and his tackle box. ‘Better get our ass going and catch breakfast,’ he said. ‘Your old man ain’t going to be no help. I see you got your shoe wet.’
‘Fell in,’ I admitted, surprised that I had been wrong about him not being the type to notice.
‘River runs pretty quick out there in the middle,’ he observed without looking at me, and I was suddenly sure he’d seen me out there, though he wasn’t going to say anything.
At the water’s edge, he attached the spinning reels to the rods and ran line through the eyelets all the way to the tips. I watched, full of interest. ‘Ever fish before?’
I shook my head.
‘It’s about the best thing there is until you’re older and can do some other stuff, and it’s better than most of the other stuff too.’
I watched him tie on the hooks, and he did it slow so I could see. He pointed to the little wing on each hook. ‘Called a barb,’ he said. ‘So the fish can’t slip off once he’s on. Works the same way on your finger if you aren’t careful.’
We walked upriver about a hundred yards so that when my father woke up there’d be nobody around. ‘Serve him right,’ Wussy said, without explaining what for.
When we got to a spot that looked lucky to Wussy, where there was a good safe rock for me to sit on, he handed me a rod. Then he opened up a can that looked like it was full of dirt, but when he fished around with his brown index finger I could see the bottom was alive and writhing. He pulled out an astonishingly long worm and hooked him three times until he oozed yellow and twisted angrily. I must have looked a little yellow myself, because Wussy baited my hook with two bright pink salmon eggs. Then he taught me how to release the bail and let the current carry the bait downstream, and how to reel in.
‘How will I know when there’s a fish?’ I said when he started out toward the middle.
He said not to worry about it, I’d know, though that didn’t strike me as a satisfactory explanation. Then I was by myself with only the sound of the running water for company. The sun was high and warm and when I saw Wussy had taken off his shirt I did the same. I watched Wussy for a while, then studied the reflected sun on the water near the drooping tip of my rod.
I couldn’t have been asleep more than a few minutes when I felt the excited tugging. For some reason it was not what I had expected. The jerks came in short bursts, like a coded message: ‘STAY-ALERT-THERE-ARE-FISH-IN-THE-RIVER.’ Thirty yards downstream a fish jumped, but I didn’t immediately associate this phenomenon with my now frantic rod tip. Wussy had waded further upstream and did not hear when I shouted ‘Agh!’ in his general direction.
I was not at all certain I wanted to reel in the fish. Every time I tried, he seemed to resent it and tugged even harder. When he did this, I stopped and waited apologetically for the tugging to stop. I only reeled in when I felt the line go slack. When the fish jumped, or rather flopped onto the surface, a second time, he was much closer, and my already considerable misgivings grew. I was thinking I might just let him stay where he was until Wussy came back, whenever that might be. But then I got my courage up and reeled in a little more, all the time watching the spot on the surface where my line disappeared into the stream, beads of rainbow water dancing off it with the tension.
Then I saw the fish himself off to the side in a spot far from where I had imagined him to be. He was no longer tugging so frantically, but he darted first left, then right in the large pool of relatively calm water beneath my rock. Then he must have got a gander at me sitting there, because he was full of flight again. I stopped pulling at him and just watched his colors in the clear water. After a while he stopped trying to get away and just stayed even with the current, his tail waving gently, like a flag in the breeze. Then I looked up and Wussy was there, and he had my fish out of the water and flopping in the green netting so that cold water sprayed on my knees. I examined the fish without pride as Wussy extracted him from the net and probed his gullet for the hook he’d practically digested.
‘Well, Sam’s kid,’ Wussy said, ‘you’re about the most patient fisherman I ever saw. Nobody won’t ever accuse you of not giving a trout a chance. If I was him, I’d have had about three separate heart attacks.’
Tired of the fish’s unco-operative squirming, Wussy took out his knife and brained my trout with the handle. The fish shuddered and was still.
‘There,’ Wussy said. ‘Now you won’t have no more heart attacks.’
Wussy then handed me the jar of salmon eggs, reminding me to be careful of the barb when I baited up. He slipped my fish on to his stringer next to a larger trout already dangling from it. ‘We got us our breakfast, anyhow. I guess we should catch one for the rock- head if we can.’
He watched me while I baited my hook and released the line into the current the way he’d taught me. ‘You’re a fisherman,’ Wussy said. ‘A good, patient fisherman.’
We fished until the sun was directly overhead. I didn’t have any more luck, for which I was grateful, but Wussy’s fat worms located two more trout, and then we headed back downstream to the cabin. My father was standing in the doorway, scratching his groin. ‘Where’s the bacon and eggs?’ he wanted to know.
‘Back in Mohawk,’ Wussy said. ‘Your kid caught a fish.’
‘That’s good,’ my father said, studying the stringer, as if mine might be recognizable. ‘I could eat about three.’
‘So happens I got some for sale,’ Wussy said. ‘What’s three into eight-five?’
‘Your ass.’ Then my father studied me. ‘What’re you scratching about?’
‘Itch,’ I said. I’d been scratching most of the morning, first one spot and then another. For some reason one scratch just wasn’t enough, no matter how hard. After a minute or so, the itching would be even worse.
‘You could go wash that pan in the river,’ Wussy said to my father, ‘and keep from being completely worthless.’
‘I had my fish on the line last night,’ my father said. ‘Cleaned him too.’ But he grabbed the pan and headed for the river. When it was clean, or clean enough so the flies weren’t interested in it any more, we returned to the cabin. Wussy was cleaning the last of the fish, tossing its string of insides off into the bushes. My father found some oil in the cabin and before long the four fish were sputtering in the big skillet. Then we ate them right down to their tiny bones and drank from the icy river. Even my father had stopped complaining.
We fished some more that afternoon. Wussy was good at it. Between pulling them in, baiting up, stringing the catch, and tending to me, he was pretty busy. My father could have used some help too, but Wussy ignored him and my father, who claimed to know how to fish, refused to ask. Every time we looked at my father, he was either trying on a new hook, or re-baiting it, or trying to figure out why there was a big nest of monofilament line jamming his reel. After a while my father took his act up around the bend in the river where he could fight his gear in private.
‘With most fishermen,’ Wussy remarked, ‘the contest is between the man and the fish. With your old man, it’s between him and his reel.’
I caught two more trout during the afternoon and would have been among the world’s truly happy boys if I could have just stopped itching. In addition to my legs, my stomach and shoulders were now covered with angry red blotches. ‘Looks like you found some poison ivy all right,’ Wussy remarked. ‘You’d be better off not scratching if you could avoid it.’
I couldn’t though, and after another hour of watching me dig myself, Wussy said he was going to fish his way upriver and tell my father we’d better head back before I drew blood. I reeled in, leaned Wussy’s rod up against the cabin porch and jumped from rock to rock along the river edge to where I found my father seated on the bank. Wussy was standing thigh deep in the river, about twenty yards away, calmly reeling in a trout and smiling, no doubt at the fact that my father was engaged in extracting a barbed hook from his thumb by swearing at it. Swearing was about the only thing he did that didn’t work the hook deeper into his thumb. To make matters worse, there was only an inch or two of line at the end of the rod, which kept falling off his knee, setting the hook even further. By the time he washed the blood away so he could see what he was doing, and balanced the rod on his knee, the bright blood was pumping again and he’d have to stop and wipe the sweat off his forehead. He looked like he was mad enough to toss everything into the woods, and he probably would have if he himself hadn’t been attached to it.
When Wussy had landed, cleaned and strung his last trout, he came over and surveyed the situation. ‘Where you got all your fish hid?’ he said. ‘There’s a little room left on this stringer.’ He sat down on a rock out of striking distance, but close enough to observe what promised to be excellent entertainment.
My father didn’t bother answering him about the fish.
‘Your old man looks like he could use some cheering up,’ Wussy said. ‘Tell him how many fish you caught, Sam’s kid.’
I wasn’t sure it would cheer him up, but I told him three, and I was right; it didn’t.
‘Anything I can do?’ Wussy said.
My father gave him a black look. ‘How you planning to get home?’ he said weakly.
‘I figure I’ll just sit right here till you pass out from loss of blood and then take your car keys. Somebody will find you along about Labor Day and that hook will still be right where it is now.’
‘You better hope so, because if I get it out it’s going up your ass.’
‘Of course you know best,’ Wussy said slowly, ‘but if that hook was in my thumb, the first thing I’d do is release my bail.’
My father looked at him, not comprehending. I was close enough, so I leaned over and tripped the bail, releasing the line. My father flushed.
‘Now you got room,’ Wussy continued, ‘I’d bite that line in two.’
Humbled, my father did as he was told. Wussy picked up the rod and reeled in the slack.
‘And?’ my father said.
‘And now I got the majority of my gear back,’ Wussy said, turning back toward the cabin. ‘You can just go ahead and keep that hook.’
I think my father would have chased Wussy, hook and all, except that he’d noticed me for the first time and it scared him so he forgot all about his thumb. I had been scratching non-stop and the patches of poison ivy skin were everywhere, including my face. ‘Look at you,’ he said. ‘Your mother’s going to shoot us for sure.’
‘Shoot you,’ Wussy said over his shoulder. ‘Come with me, Sam’s kid. Stay a safe distance from that rock-head. He’s a dangerous man.’
My father got back at Wussy by refusing to carry anything out of the woods. I helped a little, but by the time we got back to the convertible Wussy was beat and trying hard not to show it. ‘What’s that streaming from your thumb?’ he asked when we were back on the highway heading for Mohawk. The monofilament line took the breeze and fluttered like a cobweb from my father’s black thumb.
About that time I noticed the car smelling funny again, and my father pulled over onto the shoulder. He took two cans of oil from the trunk and headed around to the front via the passenger side. I stopped scratching myself when he held out his hand. ‘Let me see that thing a minute.’
I felt an awful chill. I could see the gadget in my mind’s eye and it was sitting on the last rock I fished from. I pretended to look for it. ‘I . . .’ I began.
But he already knew. ‘What’d I tell you when I gave it to you?’
I tried to speak, but could only stare at my patchy knees.
‘Don’t lose it,’ I finally croaked.
‘Don’t lose it,’ he repeated.
I was suddenly very close to tears, even though all the way home I’d been feeling as happy as I thought it possible to feel. I had caught fish and peed in the woods and not complained about my poison ivy. I had felt proud and important and good. Now, it came home to me that, having betrayed my father’s simple trust, I was a disappointment to him – a little boy to be taken home to his mother where he belonged.
My father walked around to the driver’s side and kicked the convertible hard. ‘Let me see that knife,’ he said to Wussy.
‘You aren’t using my good knife to punch holes in no oil cans,’ Wussy said.
There was nothing to do but kick the car again, so my father did. Then he did it five more times all down the driver’s side of the car. That was all right with Wussy, in as much as it wasn’t his car, but I began to cry, even though it wasn’t my car either. When my father was through kicking the convertible, he said, ‘Come on, dumb-bell. Help me find a sharp rock.’
Then he felt the monofilament line flapping in the breeze, wrapped it between the thumb and forefinger of his good hand, and yanked. The hook came out all right, and along with it a hunk of flesh. Fresh blood began to pour out of the wound and on to the ground. My father swore and flung the line and hook with all his might. It landed about five feet away.
We started looking along the shoulder for a jagged rock, my father kicking the round ones for not being pointed. When my father was a ways up the road, Wussy went back to the car and plunged his knife into the two oil cans. By the time my father got back with a jagged rock, Wussy was tossing the empty cans into the neighbouring field and wiping the knife blade on his pants. My father dropped his rock and we all got back in the car.
‘Hey!’ he said, looking over at me before putting the convertible back on the road. ‘Smile. I’m the one with something to cry about.’
After his walk he wasn’t mad any more and he let me see his thumb. It really was an ugly-looking thumb.
When we pulled up in front of the house, my mother was sitting on one of the front porch chairs with a blanket over her lap, looking like she’d been there for days. Her face was absolutely expressionless.
‘Uh-oh,’ Wussy said. ‘Don’t forget to take your fish,’ he added when I got out, probably hoping that three nice trout might appease my mother.
Let me try to view through her eyes what she saw when we pulled up at the curb that afternoon.
First, she saw my father at the wheel, looking a tad nervous but far from repentant.
Next, she saw a large man of indeterminate breed wearing an absurd hat full of fish hooks, just the sort of companion she imagined my father would select for his son.
And finally, she saw me. My rumpled shirt and shorts were filthy, my hair wild from the ride in the convertible. My arms and legs were red and raw, my eyes swollen nearly shut from scratching and crying.
And she saw too that under the law she was completely helpless, since, as F. William Peterson had that day informed her, a father could not be guilty of kidnapping his own son.
She did not get up at first. My father got out of the car to walk me as far as the porch steps, though he looked a little pale, even before he saw my grandfather’s service revolver, the same one that had already been stuck in his ear once. He stopped, his head cocked, as if listening for something, as my mother stood and raised the gun. I heard Wussy say ‘Jesus!’ and he slumped as far down into the back seat as his big body would allow. The first explosion surprised my mother so, she almost dropped the gun. After that, she did better. She shot my father’s car five more times, taking out the windshield and the front tire, neither of which she was particularly aiming at.
‘God damn you, Jenny!’ my father exclaimed when the shooting stopped. He had scooted behind the car and was now peering tentatively over the hood. ‘I think you shot Wussy.’
‘Nope,’ Wussy’s voice came from the floor of the rear seat. ‘Except for the heart attack, I’m OK. She isn’t re-loading, is she?’
‘Look at my car,’ my father said. The glass from the windshield was all over the street, but for some reason he didn’t look as mad as he’d been when he discovered I’d lost his gadget, though a lot more surprised.
‘Look at my son,’ my mother said.
‘Our son,’ my father said.
‘You can’t have him.’ She was still aiming the gun in his direction, empty now, though she probably didn’t know it. She had just stopped shooting when it seemed she’d made her point.
My father seemed pretty sure she was through, but he couldn’t be certain. The neighbours had all come out on the porches, and he was looking increasingly self-conscious about being pinned down behind his own ruined car. He’d been shot at before and must have guessed that my mother wasn’t really trying to hit him, but those were precisely the situations that got you shot. He’d have felt safer if she’d been aiming at his skull. Since there was nothing to do but test the water, he slowly stood, and when she didn’t shoot he got back in the car. Naturally, it wouldn’t start. ‘Jesus,’ Wussy said from the floor of the back seat.
Finally the engine turned over. My father leaned over the back seat. ‘You want to ride up front with me?’
‘Which is how come I call you Wussy,’ my father said.