by Tom Roth
“After my dad died, your Uncle Ross and I and some friends took his fishing boat up to a little cabin in Canada. That morning was like today, bleak with thick clouds close to the ground. We hooked up the trailer to Ross’ big truck with the rusted engine sticking out like an old tabernacle and Ross drove the whole twenty hours because he was too stubborn to let anyone else drive. You know how your uncle is.
“Anyway, I remember how white his knuckles were the next afternoon when we got on a winding dirt road that led to the cabin. Specks of sunlight glittered through all the trees standing over the road. I looked over at Ross and caught him dozing, his eyes on the verge of collapse.
‘You good?’ I said.
“And Ross goes, ‘I’ve made it this far, haven’t I?’
“This hard turn that overlooked a steep drop came up. Ross cursed at the three in the back when they tried instructing him on what to do. I just kept quiet and stared at the pile of empty plastic bags between my shoes. They were smeared with peanut butter and grape jelly. The truck was a mess. Playing cards scattered all over the place. A three of clubs had somehow wedged itself in the AC vent. Ross’ bottles of sunflower shells occupied the cup holders. A newspaper page of baseball scores was spread across the top of the dashboard. I sat on a damp towel because Jake spilled Coke on the seat right before we switched spots. Scott smoked cigarettes in the back the whole way up.
“When Ross made the turn, there was a slight tug and then a clink. The weight of the boat was gone and when I looked back the boat was upside down leaning against a row of trees. Its nose hung on to the edge of the road and the wheels of the trailer still spun. The square windows in the front reminded me of my dad’s glasses. For some reason, I found them in the truck’s glove compartment when I shoved the map in there. He used to try setting them on Willy’s nose, the beagle we had growing up, but the dog would knock them off with his paw. I ever tell you about the day that dog got hit by a car? I’ll get to it after this.
“We sent Scott to a security post we passed a few miles back and he returned in a dinky tow truck about an hour later. The driver’s name was Stu and his fat legs had mosquito bites all over. He bent the bill of his green hat and itched his legs as he laughed, ‘I’ve never towed an upside-down boat out of the woods before.’
“First, we had to flip the boat back. We got between the trees and the four of us forced it upright. Branches scraped my neck. Stu pulled from the other side. Ross cursed and complained, arguing he should be the one on the other side. If it wasn’t for big Stu, though, we wouldn’t have moved it at all. I remember the black and brown smudges on his thick fingers and knuckles. His nails were jagged. When we flipped the boat over, a ringed notepad with yellow paper flopped onto the dirt. It was my dad’s fishing journal. The pages contained dated headlines above a list of bullet points about the day. One bullet point said Heavy rain and cracks of lightening. Ross teased Danny for crying. I was crying because I knew he would get us out of it, even if it meant risking his life. I was six then.
“‘You’re lucky the hitch gave out,’ Stu said as itched his legs, ‘or else it might’ve been a different story for you guys.’
“After that mess, we finally arrived at the log cabin that had a triangular roof, the tip facing the gravel driveway in front. It was a simple, one-story cabin surrounded by the tallest pines I’ve ever seen. We hitched the trailer back to the truck and paid Stu. I said I wanted the boat in the water right away, but Ross argued that everyone was tired and hot and just wanted to relax with a few beers before dealing with that damn thing again. So, after he and the others carried a cooler of beer and lawn chairs down to the dock, I stayed behind with the truck. Ross had left the keys in the ignition.
“‘Goddammit, Danny!’ Ross shouted when I backed the boat into the water. ‘Stop!’ I rolled up the window before he could reach through. The others clapped and laughed, cheering me on like the time I stole Ross’ bike after he told me I wasn’t allowed to ride behind Mr. Watkin’s backyard with them.
“But when I backed the boat into the water, the truck went in with it. I forgot about the parking brake. Ross, swearing this and that, pulled me out of the truck as the water flowed in. He dragged me out and threw me on the grass and smacked me with his shoe in his hand. I never did match up well with him. He got your grandpa’s size. After they pulled him off, the others jumped in to fetch the boat. The truck’s headlights barely peered over the lake’s surface.
“The cabin had a phone, so we called someone to get Ross’ white truck now. It was almost submerged in the water except for that old engine sticking out of the hood. Some of the playing cards floated out of the passenger window and spread across the water as if someone underneath shuffled them face up. I thought about my dad’s glasses in the glove compartment. Stu showed up again. He got out, itched his legs, and laughed, ‘You guys again? I’m going to make a lot of money fishing things out for you this week, huh?’
“That gave us a good laugh. The truck rolled out. Water fell from the window and it made me think of my niece’s baptism at the time. I was your cousin Julie’s godfather. I remember Ross shook my hand after the ceremony ended. We stood in the sunlight coming through the stained-glass window of Jesus falling beneath the cross and Ross said, ‘Try not to be such a dumbass now that you’re my daughter’s godparent.’
“But the truck turned out okay besides the smell of lake water. And the trip was alright after all that, I guess. We drank beer, fished every day, and played Euchre with a fresh set of cards and listened to the radio. A couple nights later, we heard that Thurman Munson’s plane crashed while he practiced takeoffs and landings. He messed up on a landing, clipped a tree, and was short of the runway. I loved watching that guy play ball. From around here too, but you already know that. Hearing about him as we played that night made me wonder if we were just little clubs and spades waiting to be dealt and fished out in some card game without any rules. But that was years before your mom taught me how to change a tire right outside this restaurant here.”
Dad raised his cup after he finished the story. A thick puddle of water outlined the cup’s circumference upon the chestnut table. He slid his other hand along the water, wiped it off with a napkin and then dropped the crumpled ball near his unfinished cheeseburger surrounded by French fries and smears of ketchup.
We were supposed to go fishing that weekend, but I told him I could only stay for lunch because of a term paper. It was a lie. I couldn’t stand the fishing trips, especially when there were other things to do on a Saturday.
A crowd near the front waited for a table as servers in green shirts carried milkshakes and cheeseburgers and chili dogs out of the clanging kitchen. Dollar bills scribbled with Sharpie Marker designs were tacked all over the support columns and walls. There was a floor to ceiling window that displayed the cars parked along the street and the leaves lying along the brick sidewalk. Black and white pictures of the restaurant’s first years also decorated the walls. Dad’s picture was above the gumball machine. He wore an apron and had his hands on his hips and his long bangs swooshed over the top of his geeky glasses.
“When was that?” I said, asking about the story. I checked the time and estimated I’d get back to the dorms around 4 o’clock or so.
He folded his hands together, placing his chin upon his knuckles. Those bangs were long gone, just spare patches on the sides of his head now. “1979,” he said. “I was a couple years younger than you at the time, so eighteen or nineteen.” He took off his glasses. “No,” he said, “Twenty I think.”
“He fished a lot,” I said. “Didn’t he?”
“My dad?” he asked as he put the glasses back on. “Oh yeah. He was big on fishing. I remember one time, Ross wasn’t with us, we weren’t having any luck and I said to him, ‘Dad, let’s find a different place. There ain’t any fish in here.’
“He just looked at me and said, ‘The fish are in the water, Danny. We can’t see anything down there, but there’s no sense in looking for something you can’t see. Don’t worry, they’re down there. Just wait for the tug.’” He took a sip of water and stared at me a while.
“What?” I said.
“Oh, nothing,” he said. “Except I had this dream not too long ago with him in it. We were fishing on this calm lake, so still you could lay down on it and look up at the gold and white biplanes flying in the sky. I don’t know why there were those old planes above us, but they shined in the sunlight. He was helping me untangle my fishing line. He kept asking about you while he worked out the knots, wondering about your college or if you were seeing anyone. Then he said he needed to give you a letter after we’d get back to town, but the dream never got that far. The line was still tangled. After a biplane rushed over the flat lake and made white water splash beneath its gold wings, I woke up.”
He gave a weird, half-smile before taking the bill between us. Outside, it began to rain. We stood beneath the roof and watched it pour for a moment.
“Thanks, Dad,” I said after we hugged. “Sorry about fishing.”
“That’s alright, I understand,” he said. “Get your work done. He would’ve loved to have met you, you know?”
“I know,” I said.
On the drive back, I remembered an old picture of my grandpa standing in front of a lake. He holds a huge fish that hangs over his biceps. His smile is at ease even though it’s a struggle to keep the fish up. It’s almost like he knew it was coming to him. On our fishing trips, I imagined I’d catch one like that, but I always left the water with nothing. I learned to hate fishing. When I got older, I remembered thinking that maybe underneath all that water there was a big mouth that swallowed all the fish and at any moment it could swallow everything else in the water if it wanted to and no one could see the mouth because it was too deep.
Tom Roth works for Sandy Valley Local Schools. His writing has appeared in The Canton Repository, The Flash Fiction Press, Literally Stories, The Literary Yard, and Tuck Magazine.