“The ferry’s loading right now,” announces my nephew, Lucas, looking down at the time on his phone. He is strapped into the front passenger seat beside me as we hurtle down the narrow, winding highway like the lead cart in a roller coaster.
I am driving as fast as I safely can on the curving, rolling road. A few times I cross over the yellow and white lines to cut a corner but only where I can see far enough to know that I’m not going to hit anyone, another car coming towards us, or a cyclist on the thin ribbon of shoulder. Each tight curve has my hands pulling the steering wheel hard around the bend while momentum pulls the rest of my body in the opposite direction. I’m glad I’m behind the wheel or I would be feeling pretty motion sick right now.
A small smile is creeping onto Lucas’s face. “Don’t you have a joke about cutting the mustard and the mayo, Auntie Jo?” His voice fractures a little, alternates between registers. His fidgeting foot is making his knee bounce. “You’re really going for it, hey? I feel like I’m in the Fast and the Furious.”
I can’t quite tell if he is impressed or scared. Probably a bit of both. “You can’t tell your mom I drove this fast, Luke. But I know she’ll want you home for dinner, and with plenty of time to hear how the tournament went.” I slow down a bit, glance at the dashboard clock, speed up again. We are racing down the last hill, bending the final curve. The ferry is sometimes behind schedule. You can’t tell until the last minute if you’ve made it in time.
We sprint onto the landing just as the ferry pulls away from the dock. The ramp on the back of the boat is not fully up and for a split second I consider going for it. I can picture the gap jump, the car’s trajectory through the air before it lands perfectly on the boat’s metal deck. I think Lucas can, too; he braces himself, grips the seat cover, reveals a few more of his teeth, although it might be as much grimace as grin. Instead, I brake firmly and pull into the front of Lane 1, roll down the windows and cut the engine. A ferry employee in navy and light blue—her safety vest like someone has taken a highlighter to half of her body—approaches and lets us know how long it will be until the next sailing.
Lucas looks at his phone. “Oh man, and my battery’s almost dead.” Sighs. Sends a quick note to his mom, my older sister. She’s not going to be happy,[KB6] with either of us. There is a slight friction growing between her and Lucas as his exterior surfaces get rougher, as he tries to assert his independence, and I have made the mistake of defending him once too often. My sister and I get along pretty well now as adults but she still doesn’t like me on her turf, especially with any intimation that I know better than her, about anything. I know she appreciates when I help her with the kids—especially now that their chosen sports require travel on weekends—but I sometimes wonder if she’s a bit jealous of our relationships, how much they like me. It’s definitely easier to be the fun aunt than the rule-enforcing mom. But Lucas is a good kid, smart and sweet. It makes me sad that they aren’t enjoying each others’ company as much these days.
Other cars, most of which we passed while speeding needlessly here, begin to pull in behind us. People start to get out of their cars and wander around – to the ice cream stand, to the washrooms, or over to the beach.
“Come on,” I say to Lucas, “let’s go down by the water.”
I sit on a log while Lucas scours the rocky beach for flat stones to skip into the water. Unfortunately, the shore has been quite picked over. Still, he tries, getting a few half-hearted bounces out of rocks that are too misshapen or heavy. He even tries to skip a small, flat piece of wood. Eventually, he comes and sits down next to me, stretching out his lanky legs. We watch as an older man, another jilted ferry passenger, steps out onto a rocky promenade jutting into the lake. He sets down a tacklebox and busies himself with setting up his rod and deftly tying the perfect knot to attach his hook. Then he widens his stance and uses his whole body to cast into the deeper waters beyond the dock, the line arcing like a rainbow before falling gently to the lake.
Time contracts and expands as we watch the lure touch down on the water, sink unhurriedly beneath its surface, and the man begin to slowly reel it in, his wrist limp, his grip gentle. When the brightly coloured hook finally breaks the surface and skips towards him, he quickly takes up the remaining slack. Shifting his feet, bringing the rod back over his shoulder, the man casts again, the line zinging until we hear the faint plop. He waits a beat, then begins to wind his reel again. This repeats as we grow ever more spellbound.
“I’ve never fished,” Lucas says eventually, absentmindedly. Then, coming out of his trance, “Why doesn’t anyone in our family fish? We live around so many lakes.”
“Well…” Is it my place to tell him? Shouldn’t my sister be telling her own son the stories of her childhood? “Your mom and I used to fish as kids, were made to fish actually, a lot.”
“Who did you fish with? Grandma doesn’t fish.” A pause. A realization. An almost imperceptible eyebrow lift. “With Grandad Gordon? What was that like? Mom hardly ever talks about him. None of you do.”
I hesitate. His illness and deterioration were a painful time for all of us, and we are not a family that is good with emotions, especially the hard ones. At least that was the case before Lucas and his sister came along; I still don’t know how they learned to express themselves so well. But my mom, my sister, and I had loved my dad deeply, despite his peculiarities or perhaps because of them. I fill my lungs with air, dive headlong into a part of my brain I haven’t accessed in awhile. “Okay, kiddo. This is what I can recall about fishing as a kid. I can’t guarantee it will be coherent.”
The thoughts, transformed to words, begin to pour out. “I mostly remember sitting, squirming, on a hard wooden bench that spanned the boat, life jacket like a puffy orange keyhole, coarse weave chafing my neck. One of my earliest clear memories is my sister—your mom—casting, throwing her entire rod in the water, sliver of pink plastic sinking slowly into the lake. I remember tears that day. And I remember boredom, lots of boredom, most of the days.”
Lucas gives a faint chuckle. I continue.
“The boat we are in—were always in—is aluminum, silver coloured, winking in the sun, blue and red cursive writing on the side. Words upside down when the boat is right side up in the water; words right side up when the boat is upside down on top of the truck. The boat itself, and the words on its side—Merv’s Aluminum Boats—are advertising. My dad, your Grandad, got a deal on it; he was always looking for a deal… and for the best fishing spot on the lake. He really loved fishing; he was kind of obsessed. Fishing in a downpour because, ‘the fish bite better in the rain.’ Us kids with black garbage bags pulled over our life jackets, holes cut out for our head and arms, looking—and feeling—like a pair of disgruntled beetles. Wet plastic rustling adding to our discomfort. I remember embarrassment. And boredom, of course.”
The memories continue to surface. I glance over at Lucas. He is still and I can tell that he listening carefully.
“Your mom’s new red fishing rod tied to the oarlock. Melancholy calls of loons, the black and white speckled enigmas plunging under the surface when we try to sneak closer. Us girls scanning the water’s surface trying to guess where they will emerge again, triumphant when we are right. ‘I said they’d come up over there.’ ‘No, I said they would.’’ I mimic our squabbling little voices.
Lucas snorts softly. I know that he and his sister can be like that, have been like that in the back seat of my car. I continue.
“Sharp, sweet smell of gasoline as my dad squeezes the black rubbery priming bulb on the hose connecting the orange metal tank to the outboard motor. To start the engine, he grasps the plastic T handle, pulls the rope hard, shoulder and elbow snapping back. Sputtering noises but it doesn’t fire up. He tugs the stubborn pull start again, swearing under his breath; it still won’t start. He keeps trying, curses growing louder, but still only those that were tolerated by my mom, like ‘Jesus H. Christ’. I never found out what the ‘H’ stood for. Flooded engine. More curses. More boredom.” I glance sideways at Lucas and keep going.
“Headed back to the campsite in a storm, water jagged, us kids huddled at the front of the boat for weight. The bow and our bony little butts on the wooden bench slamming down onto the hard surface of the water over, and over, and over, like the bad kids at school getting the paddle. What have we done to deserve this? Spray soaking us, queasiness rising up from the depths of my intestines to the base of my throat, trying to keep it down. Skirmishes with my sister over who was taking up too much space on the bench. ‘This is the line. That’s your side.’ Secret elbows, bony little weapons. Tears, blame, recriminations. Separation. Our dad telling us that if we kept it up, he would give us something to actually cry about, although we always knew he wouldn’t really. Uneasy truce. Boredom.”
Lucas looks thoughtful. I don’t know if he’s ever really thought of his mom as a little kid before, especially one engaged in such petty rivalry. Or does he not know what the paddle is? He realizes I am looking at him and motions subtly for me to keep going.
“Sometimes, instead of having to fish, us kids would get to water ski behind the aluminum boat. Your mom got up right away. I didn’t but I persevered. After years of trying, one day when I was seven or eight, I just popped up on my knobbly little legs. Easily gliding over the glazed surface. Finger, whole arm, twirled exuberantly in the air, signaling, ‘One more time around!’ When I fell in the weeds, I panicked, got my smooth fire engine red skis back on as quickly as I could, feet sliding into the slippery, grippy rubber. Sitting on the wide wooden boards, floating, life jacket pushing up against my ears, waiting for my dad to circle around, for my mom to throw the tow rope out again. Deathly afraid of the fish biting my bum even though they wouldn’t ever bite my lure and I was told they were more scared of me than I was of them. ‘Why do fish bite your butt?’ yells my sister from the boat, reading my mind. ‘Because they’re bottom feeders!’”
Lucas laughs out loud, a short exhalation of sound. A few people on the beach turn to look. The fisherman glances our way and keeps smoothly reeling in his line. I carry on.
“My dad tried to water ski one time but a 20-horsepower motor is for fishing, not pulling grown men behind a tinner. From the front of the boat, we can see him from the knees up, skis plowing a huge divot in the lake; he is leaning slightly backwards, slowly sinking, like a tree being carefully but crookedly placed in a hole for planting. So it was back to fishing. Back to boredom.”
Lucas is still attentive but I wonder if I am starting to lose him. I should give him something. I did catch a fish every now and then.
“Just as I am about to die from the boredom, the tip of my rod suddenly curtsies to the lake, taut line strummed, humming. I am instantly alert, my plump fingers fumbling to tame the reel’s wild handle. I finally get a grip and start to wind in the line, small arms no bigger than the creature on the other end. After an eternity of struggle, the fish emerges suddenly, flailing at the surface near enough to splash us. My dad tries to help me steady the rod, my mom scrambling for the net, trying to contain it, to drag it over the side into the boat. It flips and flops all over the bottom, my mom and sister scattering to get away from its furious, terrified energy. My dad grabs it, grips it, hits it over the head with a steel ‘fish banger’ that he had welded himself. I can’t watch, can’t not watch, as the hard metal comes down with unapologetic force, cracking the skull, exploding the eyeball. My sister and I scream in unison. Blood seeps out of the fish’s gills and it is finally still. I am breathing hard, can feel the blood pumping at the base of my skull, then slowly returning to my shaking hands. My clenched heart finally starts to slacken as we put my catch in the plastic dishbin by our feet with the other metallic fish. Occasional twitches make me jump. I dare my sister to stick her finger in their mouths. She is above peer pressure, though, or maybe doesn’t see me as a peer. She is two years older than me after all. ‘Two and a half!’ I can hear her saying. Right. Boredom.” I roll my eyes.
I am warming to my memories—even though they are mostly just fragments—and I think Lucas is, too. He indicates with a half smile and a slight upward motion of his chin for me to continue.
“Another curved rod, taut line. Reel it in, get the net ready. Nope, just a ‘green fish’; sticks and lake goop tangled all around the lure. My hands are slimy from trying to clean it off and I prick myself on the barbed hook, the pain sharpening my disappointment. I nestle my rod along the inside of the boat and dangle my fingers in the cool lake, watching the ripples undulate outwards. Another boat speeds by, its wake rebounding off our aluminum side, rocking us and soaking the end of my shirtsleeves. Back on shore, I hold my catch up for a picture. In the photo, I am keeping one eye on the fish, not trusting it. My dad cleans the fish – thin, pointy knife scribing a bright red line up the length of its pale underbelly. Us kids checking to see what it’s eaten. Delight in finding a whole miniature fish inside, like those dolls our Ukrainian neighbour has. Wash its guts out, slippery innards go back into the lake. Hard to get the odour off your skin. Fish for dinner again.”
Even though I don’t have kids of my own, I realise I am starting to see my memories through the lens of an adult, a parent, for the first time.
“I don’t think my mom liked fishing, or camping. All the work of being a housewife without the convenience of a house, although we didn’t have that insight then. We just thought she wasn’t very fun. But even after my dad got sick, we’d all still go. She would drive when he no longer could. Learned the skill of backing up a long trailer behind a long truck, guided by my dad’s nuanced hand signals. Like an airplane on the tarmac yet reversed in the side mirror, steering wheel turned counterintuitively. By then, our little sister was born. My aunts holding her while my uncles help to unload the boat. My older sister and I trying to outdo each other to make my little sister giggle, keep her amused, but our escalating antics just result in everyone crying. This time it is my mom who tells us, exasperated, to Just Stop[KB8] , silently indicating my dad, who has a pained look on his face as he scans the lake.”
I become aware that I have veered off course a bit, forgotten where I was, who I am talking to. I realize I am addressing the lake. I glance at Lucas, who looks a bit confused. I try to bring it back around, to steer away from the darker depths, to keep things more on the surface.
“Red and white plastic ball bobbing along the surface. Gunmetal grey weight with black rubber twisted onto the line to hold the hook down where the fish are. The lure is sometimes silver, like a small fish, sometimes orange and white striped flat metal oblongs that glint in the bottomless layers, or squidgy jelly creatures with curved wriggly tails.” I wiggle my fingers at Lucas, moving my hands towards him.
This would have been guaranteed to make him giggle not too long ago, but now he just smiles a little awkwardly and glances at the man fishing.
“I tell you, Luke, every lake looked the same. I can name the lakes—Charlie, Moberly, Swan, One Island—but I couldn’t tell you which memories happened at which lake. It all happened at all the lakes. Especially the boredom,” I conclude.
Lucas smiles and snaps his fingers softly in quick succession, a kind of subtle applause. “That was really interesting. Thanks, Auntie Jo.”
“So that’s why I don’t fish. It’s just so…” I raise my palms to the sky and drag out all the syllables of the last two words for emphasis, “…agonizingly boring.” The thought lingers in the air like the last note of a symphony.
“But I think you handle boredom better than anyone I know,” Lucas counters after a moment. “Just look around. You probably left your phone in the car.”
I turn and my gaze skims the heads at the beach, all bent over, staring down at small screens, thumbs or fingers hovering between little staccato movements.
Lucas’ voice softens. “I’d love it if you took me fishing sometime.”
“Yeah, maybe kiddo, maybe.” I pause. “Maybe we could invite your mom, too.”
Lucas carves a groove with the toe of his sneaker. Both of our eyes glisten.
“I think that would be great,” Lucas eventually replies, thoughtful. “You know, I miss Grandad Gordon, too, and I never even got to meet him.” He pauses, scratches the skin beside his eye. “I wish you guys would talk about him. I think it would make you miss him less, not more. He sounds like a really interesting person.”
He gets up, goes to a small, dark, flat rock he has spied a few metres away. He picks it up, turns it so it is parallel to the horizon and flicks his wrist sharply like I have taught him. The rock releases at the nadir of his hand’s trajectory and flies out just above the surface of the lake, touching down again and again before sinking. The ripples drift outwards from each point of contact—there must be at least a dozen—more pronounced where it eventually plunged through. I am impressed. He gets better at things so quickly these days.
Lucas watches the wrinkling lake for a few long moments, glances over at the fisherman, smiles and waves at him, then stares into the distance. After a long moment, he turns back towards me, grinning, and says, “I think the ferry’s coming.”
About the Author
Lynda Rocha is taking Creative Writing at Selkirk. This is her first publication. While this short story is a piece of fiction, she was made to fish as a kid, and does not fish as an adult. However, she would love it if someone invited her to go waterskiing. She hasn’t done it since she was about ten years old, but she is pretty sure she’s still got the muscle memory. Unfortunately, her fear of the fish biting her bum in the weeds has also endured.