In May, 1968, the Russian tanks hadn’t rolled into Prague, my mother hadn’t gone crazy yet, and out on Rt. 22, just down from the dairy farm that’s now a Carpet Warehouse, Sam’s Bait and Tackle held a fishing contest.
I was ten and awkward in that first-generation, white-shirt-and-black-bread-sandwich-way, my square-ness reinforced by my every attempt to be hip, my brown Oxfords and no-nonsense crew cut redeemed, but only slightly, by a modest athleticism and a certain willingness to get beat up if the situation called for it. I didn’t like football, though I pretended to. I didn’t care about baseball, though I could pitch a little. I’d noticed girls but couldn’t talk to them. In the pictures I seem to be listening for something, wanting to smile but not sure I should.
My great passion was fishing. Though we lived in Queens, my parents rented a cabin on a lake for the summers, and it was done. This wasn’t a hobby. I could tell you which part of China the Tonkin cane came from that craftsmen like Hiram Leonard and Jim Payne turned into split-bamboo fly rods I could never afford. I could tell you what size and pattern of terrestrial to use in August on the legendary Letort Creek in Pennsylvania, though I’d never been within a hundred miles of it. I read Ernest Schweibert and Art Flick, pored over Field and Stream with Talmudic concentration, spent hours tying my own trout flies while listening to Cousin Brucie in the darkroom where my dad hid his vodka in rinsed-out bottles of fixative.
And every summer I fished my heart out, lifting up the latch on the kitchen door and sneaking out into the morning fog, pouring water over my head at noon, flailing around after dark, a thousand bullfrogs roaring in my ears. If this was love, it was no sillier than most and better than many, and I devoted myself to it as I’ve devoted myself to few things in this life. All I had to do was keep at it, and things would come out right: the odds would kick in, the surface would shatter, and I’d know I’d summoned something extraordinary, something few others had seen or imagined. The knot would hold, because I’d earned it.
What I’m saying is that fishing mattered to me then. Walking to PS 206 in the cold, the brown buildings of LeFrak City fading in the sleet, I’d imagine my Jitterbug gurgling placidly along a mossy log, the wake of something dark rising up behind it. All through December and January, February and March I’d sit in my room with a plate of my mother’s bábovka, curled up like a moth in its chrysalis, dreaming. And then, just like that, the loaf-shaped hedges along 63rd Road would be green and we’d be driving across the Triborough Bridge and up the Saw Mill River Parkway, winding back the season until, somewhere around Bedford, only the willows showed any color. There’d be a protocol. We’d always stop at the Red Rooster where my father would buy me a strawberry milkshake while my mother stayed in the car, and coming up Doanesburg Rd., whichever one of us first spotted the Green Chimneys school, or Schlump’s mailbox, or the post office, would get to yell školka!, or Schlump!, or pošta!, and then we’d be there, pushing open the swollen door, breathing in that sharp, dank, cedar smell, touching all the sleeping things, remembering ourselves to them.
Most years we wouldn’t move out to the cabin until school let out, but that year my parents took me out of school a month early. Things were complicated, my mother told me. Daddy would probably stay in the city – he taught at Columbia - and come up on the weekends. Things were complicated there, too - at Columbia – he needed to do what he could. But it was fine. Everything was fine. The two of us would be moving back home to Czechoslovakia that fall. She’d waited long enough, and though Daddy didn’t always agree, sometimes you had to take a risk, sometimes you had to take a chance at happiness because life just flew by and then it was gone and what was the point of it all if not to be happy and among your own? When we moved she’d show me the lakes she’d known as a little girl. Beautiful lakes. Full of carp and pike – huge fish. We had family there – aunts, uncles. I’d have so many friends there.
Daddy didn’t have the nerve. He didn’t believe in dubček, which I understood was a kind of luck. He didn’t know what it was like to slowly suffocate while he waltzed off to his classes to play the big man in front of all those graduate students in their mini-skirts. But once we’d made the move, he’d understand, and join us. It would be like it used to be – maybe not perfect, but right.
I’d been asleep in my room when their voices closed my dreams.
“You know that’s not true,” I heard my father say - “I want this as much as you do.”
My mother laughed –a short, sharp laugh like a cough.
“You? It’s all the same to you – here, there . . .
I could hear the water, the touch and clink of dishes. My father, I knew, would be standing in the kitchen doorway; she’d be by the sink, her white arms disappearing in the long, yellow gloves.
“- every day it’s take off your hat, read the paper, shovel your dinner – I could put ashes on your plate you wouldn’t know the difference.”
“So this is about how I eat now? I’m just saying this isn’t some fairy tale you decide to believe in because . . .”
“We’re going. I don’t care - ”
“Obviously - ”
“We never fucking said it would be forever, we - ”
“Keep your voice down, he’s - ”
“We’re going home, and you can come along with us or sit here and . . . die.”
“That’s all I’m asking.”
“If it holds - ”
Something smashed and a second later my door opened and my dad came in and closed it quickly behind him and came and sat on my bed in the dark. Had they woken me? It was nothing. I should go to sleep, everything would be fine. And he pet my head with his heavy hand until I pretended to be asleep. He smelled like smoke.
And so Mom and I went to the lake before we moved to Czechoslovakia and Daddy stayed in the city. I don’t know if it was hard for him. When I remember him now, I imagine him sitting up late in our apartment, the sweat quietly running down his back, listening to the drone of the expressway. Wondering if she was right.
At the time, I didn’t think about him much at all. My best friend, Matt, had moved away that spring, and the lake was almost empty because people didn’t really come up till June, but Mom and I were fine. It was still cold so we made fires in the fireplace every night and slept under hills of blankets and talked through the wooden wall between our rooms and laughed. Mom kept a hammer under her bed just in case somebody tried to break in.
I’d be up so early the lake would still be invisible, a mirror in the fog. I liked seeing how quiet I could be, pulling my jeans on slowly, not stirring the tea till I was outside. Mom would sleep in, then read in bed till noon. She was still Mom, then. The day would pass in a slow waltz, me off in the boat, Mom reading in the hammock in the watery shade, the two of us drifting together to eat, or to swim. The shadows would shrink into the eastern shore, the sun rise on its arc, the shadows grow from the west. Twice a day she’d come down to admire the fish I caught, which I’d pull up for her, their red gills flaring and closing in the heat, and I’d tell her about the one that had broken my line and she’d say I’d catch an even bigger one next time, and then we’d walk up through the long, knotted grass to the cabin. She was my best friend.
It wasn’t long after we came to the cabin that year that I saw the sign scotch-taped to the wooden counter at Sam’s. The contest was for the biggest bass officially weighed in by 6 PM on June 1st, and the winning prize – there was no second or third - was two hundred dollars in store credit. I didn’t think about it much. This wasn’t for me - this was for grown-ups. Already the fish in the lead, a 19-inch trophy weighing 4 lb. 3 oz. - caught by a man who looked like my math teacher, Mr. Leventis – was three inches longer than the biggest bass I’d ever seen.
I looked at the picture of Mr. Leventis holding his fish out to the camera, then picked some five-cent plastic worms from the candy jars while the owner, a thin man with a big Adam’s apple who always seemed about to be angry, watched me over the top of the reel he was filling with monofilament by the cash register. “Back again?” he’d say, whenever I came in to buy some worms, and I’d say “yes, sir,” and he’d say, “Just make sure you put all those back,” and go back to what he was doing.
My mom, who’d been crying in the hammock when I came in for lunch that day, saw me looking at the picture. To je macek, she said, leaning in for a closer look: That’s a whopper.
Kluku, měl bis to skusit, she said – You should try it, kiddo.
“Don’t you think he should try it?” she said to the owner, who was winding the reel while holding a cigarette.
He didn’t hear her.
“I think he could win, don’t you?”
“What is that, German?” he said.
“Whatever it is you’re always talkin’.”
He cut the line with a pair of scissors, then put a fat rubber band on the spool to keep the line from unwinding. “Why don’t you just talk English, where people could understand you?”
“I am speaking English.”
He smiled and tilted his head a little like something hadn’t gone down right, then nodded toward the contest sign. “Open to anybody with a license,” he said carefully. He picked up another reel. “Could buy himself a lifetime supply of those plastic worms.”
“Yes, he could,” my mother said, and the man looked up at her, took a drag, then turned back to his reel.
I was up early that morning, like every morning, dropping the latch quietly behind me, stowing my gear behind the wooden seat, rowing with short, choppy strokes to keep the oarlocks from creaking till I couldn’t see the shore. The air wet my face and somewhere out in the fog some jays started up and then stopped and everything was still. I fished by ear, mostly, casting the weedless frog out into the mist, listening for a strike. Near the cabin where Matt used to live I got a 14-inch bass, the biggest I’d caught in a while, then nothing. It was strange seeing his dock and knowing he wasn’t coming back there, and I wondered if someone would think the same thing about me. I fished on. At some point, the mist began to yellow and the very tops of the oaks came out. When I looked again, a dark fringe of leaves floated high above the lake and the fog over my head had thinned to a cloudy blue like an old dog’s eyes.
I could make out bits of the shoreline now, and I cast my Amazin’ Weedless Frog out over the dark water toward the fallen trees, then hopped it back and cast again. And again. A quick, white sun lit the trees on the western shore, disappeared.
Not far from the four cedar boards that made our dam I cast the frog into the shallows, let it sit, then scurried it over the open water onto a plate-sized mat of ropy weeds. And then the water erupted and the mat of weeds disappeared into a red-gilled, rattling maw big enough to fit my head into, and I hauled back on the rod and set the hook.
How I managed to get that bass into the boat, I have no idea, but I did. It took a while. I had no net. Toward the end, shifting the straining rod to my left hand, I reached down into the water and pinned a huge clump of weeds to the side of the boat; inside it I could feel a gill plate wider than my hand. Disbelieving, I wallowed the monster, still encased in weeds, into the rowboat and started to scream.
My mother, hearing me yell, came running down to the dock, barefoot, holding her nightgown above the long grass. The bass, with its huge, underslung white belly, measured just under 26 inches long and probably weighed eight or nine pounds. We were laughing and yelling in disbelief, jumping around on the wooden boards of the dock, and then we looked at each other and we were in the car and Mom, still in her thin nightgown, was driving down Fairfield Drive where the American Nazi Party used to march long before I was born and I was sitting with the bass head-first in a metal bucket of water, its tail slapping against the glove compartment.
We skidded into the gravel parking lot and I was out and running, hugging the sloshing bucket. I could hear my mother, slumped down in the seat, shouting encouragement out the window, cheering me on.
I can see him, writing something on a pad by the cash register. He’s just opened up – another day on this sinking ship, which he never wanted in the first place, which was his brother-in-law’s idea – when the door flies open and that little Kraut kid comes staggering in carrying a bucket with a tail flopping a full foot over the rim. This isn’t possible. He’s got Pete with the picture all lined up to go.
I didn’t see him look up – I was working too hard carrying the bucket. He was writing something on a pad.
“Caught a fish, huh?” he said. There was no one else in the store.
I don’t remember what I babbled: “A huge one,” “The biggest fish I ever saw” – it doesn’t matter.
“Well, good for you.” He flipped the page, then flipped it back. I didn’t understand what was happening.
“So . . . what can I do for you today?”
“The contest,” I said, like an idiot. “The bass contest. I - ”
He looked up from the pad, distracted, irritated.
“The bass contest,” I explained. “I thought -”
“You’re sayin’ you brought this fish to enter in the contest?”
“Got a New York State fishin’ license?”
“I don’t need one till I’m twelve.”
“Is that right?”
“Sure about that?”
He looked at me. “Well you’re just one smart fella, aren’t ya?”
I felt like I was going to cry but I didn’t know why. The bass’s tail flapped in the air.
He picked up the pen, clicked it. “So where’s that smart mother of yours today?”
“She’s waiting in the car,” I said.
“Didn’t feel like comin’ in, huh?”
“No, it’s just . . . she’s not feeling well.”
“That’s too bad.” He looked at the pad again, then flipped it closed. “Well - guess we better take a look at what we got here.” Getting off the stool, he strolled around the counter to where I stood by the bucket, looked at the fish, then slipped his fingers under its gill flap and lifted the great gleaming bulk into the air. I just stared at it. In the store it looked even bigger than it had on the lake. It was barely moving.
“Nice fish,” he said. Carrying it dangling below his knee, he walked back behind the counter, then lay it out on the brass bucket scale.
The bass lay still, only its gills opening and closing. I could hear him sliding the weights this way and that.
“Three pounds, fourteen ounces,” he said. “Not bad – you’re in second place.”
I just looked at him. Every bass of that length I’d ever read about had weighed at least eight pounds.
“What?” he said.
I didn’t say anything.
“Somethin’ you want to say?”
I shook my head.
“Didn’t think so.”
He walked back around and put the fish back in the bucket for me, said something about me coming back for plastic worms sometime. And I thanked him and I left.
My mom was hugging herself in her nightgown. How did it go? she said. She’d have given anything to see the look on his face.
I hoisted the bucket into the car. I didn’t know I was going to do it. “It went great,” I said, laughing. “You should’ve seen him - he could hardly talk.”
She glanced at me quickly, then toward the entrance.
“I’m in second place,” I said.
She hesitated for a long second, then smiled. “Okay. Wow! That’s great!”
We sat there for a few seconds, and then she started the car. I looked out the window while she bumped across the lot.
“My god, look at it,” she said, almost to herself, as we waited at the road”, and then: “Is it dead, you think?”
“Pretty sure,” I said. I leaned forward to see. “Yeah.”
“I just saw it breathe.”
“That’s just the water moving it around,” I said.
“There it is again - look!”
Barely covered by water the huge gills opened, then closed, like a butterfly on a hot day.
We looked at each other.
“We can try,” my mom said.
And we were off, back up 22, a hard right at the light, flying down the long, shady curves of Fairfield Drive.
“Is he still breathing?”
“I can’t tell – I think so.”
“Splash some water on him. Move him around a little.”
She ran the stop sign at the war memorial. A car honked.
“Doesn’t matter – is he still breathing?”
“I’m not sure.”
“We’re almost there.”
And then we were back on the dirt road and the cabin was there and she was running for the camera while I lugged the bucket down through the tangled grass to the lake.
She took a picture but it didn’t come out - I hadn’t yet learned how to present myself to the world, how to make my accomplishments seem larger than they are - and then I was wading straight into the lake, carrying it in my arms like a child, rocking it forward and back to send water through the gills. It tilted sideways, helpless, the white of its belly shining against the dark water, its half-dollar-sized eye staring up at the clouds. When I looked up my mother was standing on the shore with her hands hiding her mouth.
I see her there still.
And I felt the muscles flinch, felt it right itself slowly on its axis, and then it swam off my palm and disappeared against the bottom of the lake.