From the Dan’s Papers Literary Prize 2012: Flat Fish

My now the grasses sway free of the slush ice and you can smell the mud again and feel it under the heel of your boot. From the northeast a stiff breeze rushes off the harbor and through the small locust trees anchored to the loam by knobby roots. It’s light enough to see the outcroppings of mussels, and I drag my onion bag, feeling with a toe for gullies. On the water oldsquaws splash down and commence to gossip in rippling, ancient chants. It is a timeless language of unequivocal and mocking truth.

I am to fill the onion bag three-quarters with bank mussels. My orange gloves are cracked at the fingers and the mud finds its way inside. There will be no comfort until I’m near the wood stove. My mother will bring me soup and I will dismiss her soothing words because boys wanting to be men mistake caring for coddling.

I pull a clump of mussels and move on a few yards, passing others. To strip bare a good length of the bank seems sinful. And so I wade and feel for gullies with my boot toe.

The engine sputters to life at the dock, and I am on my way back. I pull myself onto the planks and walk to the boat where my father and his friend Julius wait. We cast the lines and head east to the inlet. The lavender band is above the horizon, blanketing the clouds, and a pink hue hovers over the dappled chop of the bay and fringes the black fingers flanking the inlet.

We meet and pass mergansers and oldsquaws darting through the narrows, tipping their wings to glide away and give us wide berth. Low over the grey water, black figures glide in procession, paralleling Mashomack’s shore. I watch the lead goose guide the rest past the points, one black formless mass floating like an apparition until it is lost in the silhouette of Little Ram Island.

Turning back to the east I am met with the expanse of Gardiners Bay. The long beach of Orient Point lies to the north. In coming months it will be pocked with fish traps made of locust posts and net, and off them pot buoys will bob and strain with the tides. Still later, the gill nets will spread, marked by flag buoys. And by early summer the upper bay will be an obstacle course of gear.

Near the tip of the point is the New London Ferry terminal. The big ferries are converted troop carriers from the second world war. They are slow but menacing to a young boy when they pass through Plum Gut close to the fleet of small boats drifting for striped bass. We will be well away from them this morning.

Off Orient sits mysterious Plum Island. Ominous with its complexes, it is a government research facility and subject of much conjecture for locals. All afflictions are attributed to top-secret research of horrific diseases, natural and manmade. What they do upsets the balance of nature, that is, of course, unless they are just one more piece of the inscrutable puzzle.

We are heading to Cedar Point where a lighthouse juts like a barb from the end of a knitting needle. It is a waving hand promising comfort in the lee of Northwest’s cliffs. Over them the late winter sun will rise and warm us slowly.

When my father puts the boat in neutral, I will reach in the cooler for a clam and slice it in strips. It will be cold and my fingers will burn. Then I must reach into the sinker bucket and find a good lead. And that too will be cold and impersonal. Nothing weighs like a sinker; nothing else can replicate the sullen dull grey heft. It is a dark secret, a tedious tug, that old lead, that scarred weight.

I’m seeing and feeling all this still minutes from the spot, with Cedar Light in sight and the scalding unnatural wind rasping my face.

I look at Julius, my father’s friend. His mouth is moving but he is silent to me. His black curls peek from beneath his watch cap and wiggle under the tension of fast-moving air. I move closer, pulling myself along the gunnel to be part of this conversation among men. He is talking about the subtleties of fishing for flounder, wondering aloud if the mussels should be crushed at the dock and permitted to ferment some during the ride out.

Under my father’s lip a strip of light brown hair curls over his chin. Aside from his eyebrows, it was the only visible hair above his neck. On the nape of his neck someone had inked a green triangle bordered in blue. That marking and others hidden were part of him. If he had intended to be Melville’s noble savage, he never let on. He was Alan, comfortable being himself.

Julius was younger than him and adjusting to a rapidly changing world. I was only a boy with no idea that the world did change, with or without my approval, and that it was under no obligation to advise me of its temperament. My father was something apart from the world. Later in life he would fight it and grow old in doing so and maybe a little bitter. Only occasionally would he laugh at the absurdity of a mortgaged society.

Easing back on the throttle, my father peers at the cliffs of Barcelona Point to the south, swings north to Nichol’s Point, then ahead to Mashomack before turning east toward Cedar Point. He repeats this triangulation ritual several times. Impatient and cold, wanting the artificial breeze to cease, I stammer, “Isn’t this the spot, already?”

But it is not, generally perhaps, but not precisely. It never was the first try. The wind would push and the tide would tug. A general rule was this: the hook would be pulled and reset at least once before he was satisfied.

Julius is on the anchor. I am both sympathetic and envious. His orange gloves, while keeping his hands dry, direct the rivulets of cold seawater down his cuffs. The gloves make it difficult to grasp the line and cause his fingers to cramp. The job is laborious and leaves one open to the whims of sea spray coming off the bow. And so I feel sorry for Julius. And, too, I want to be the hook puller. I want to contribute, to show my father that I am strong and courageous. But I stand back behind the helm and watch, half grateful and half resentful.

I feel the pointy spurs grab bottom, not so much feel it as sense it, watching the surface water lap past us leaving swirls of tiny bubbles. We pull up and move again without dropping a fishing line. I am ripe with impatience. “What difference does it make?” I quietly debate. “Won’t the chum draw them?” I expect the sea gods to suspend their laws and have the bait float into the fish’s mouth. But entitlement is not the way of my father. He knows the elements are aloof and it is man who must shape his fate in these fickle confines. We settle finally and I reach for my fishing pole.

My rod is a short, stout model given to me by my Grandpa Sena, not my adopted father’s father, but my birth father’s father. It needed some refitting when I got it, and Alan made it like new. I think how this gift from one grandfather, disowned in a way, could have been taken as an insult to the man who would raise me. What need do we have for a rod from him, father of the son who forsook his wife and child?

I imagine Alan easily could have felt hurt, and yet he took that rod and rewrapped the guides, replacing those that were worn, and he disassembled the reel, delicately like any other reel in his arsenal. He tenderly oiled the gears and sprockets and cared for the little Penn article like he’d made it himself. He wound new line on its spool, varnished the wood butt of the rod and presented it to me with a smile, saying, “This is a good rod.” In fact, even long after I had left the crew of the Stinkpot V to stumble through early adulthood, that rod stayed on board. Its sentimental quality never wore thin in Alan’s mind. Rather, I think he revered it.

And that stout rod is in my hands as Julius, my father and I release line into the waters where Little Peconic Bay meets great Gardiners Bay. We stand on the gently swaying deck of Stinkpot III, the early day sun cloaking us as remnants of the stiff cold wind leak over the cliffs. And we wait for the flounder to bite.

View the Dan’s Papers Literary Prize website

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