Drag Boy, Drag
Whenever my grandmother’s brother visited Michigan from the Ozarks to fish, it was assumed that I’d accompany him. He usually arrived, beer-gutted and wearing stained blue chinos, in late August or early September when the salmon migrated from Lake Michigan and swelled the creeks and rivers to spawn—where thousands of dark, silver muscles broke the water’s skin like stones. And we’d lurk along the muddy banks and snag or gaff ten to twenty salmon per hour, which was illegal since we didn’t hook them in the mouth, and club them to death on shore with a priest—a wooden baton three inches in diameter—until blood oozed from their gills and our arms ached. When the mound of dead Chinook reached a dozen or more, we’d carry the fish like sandbags, load them into the trunk of Great-Uncle Arnold’s car, and repeat the illegal fishing tactics the following morning. At season’s end, if he amassed at least a hundred frozen salmon fillets to pack into Styrofoam coolers and haul back to Missouri for his annual fish fry—legendary bashes where roughneck men and women played horseshoes and drank and ate until their bodies gave out—then he deemed the trip north a success.
“Arnold’s in town,” my grandmother said one August morning in 1992. “He wants to fish for walleye this year instead of salmon.”
Out in front of her place, Arnold fiddled with the lights on his boat, a 16-foot aluminum V-bottom—brush-painted baby-shit brown with Miss Carp stenciled in black along both sides. He pulled the boat from Des Arc, Missouri, driving a 1984 Chevrolet Impala four-door with an extracted back seat to better house fishing gear.
“There’s the next Babe Winkelman,” he said. “You ready to slaughter ‘em in this here girl?”
“Always,” I said, and laid my fishing rod gently into his boat.
His 1984 Impala was so loud it shook teeth, and the interior stunk as if night crawler tubs had rotted underneath the seat since the car left the factory. When we rumbled out of my grandmother’s drive, I pulled my hat bill down to avoid being recognized until we reached the city limits. I was fourteen; this is what fourteen year-olds do: we’re self-conscious of being caught by girls while hanging with 67-year-olds—who stink of bait and have fish guts caked into their chinos—and riding around in their shit cars.
When we swung onto M-66—a state highway that skirts town—Arnold accelerated and the trailer popped from the hitch. From the passenger-side mirror, I watched as the boat bounced and skidded between vehicles, a brown flash of chipped paint on wheels. He shifted the Impala into park without so much as a sigh and faced straight ahead, fingered the steering wheel. I slipped my cap down further, sighed, exited. Rows of cars and trucks idled in both lanes. Men threw up their arms, cussed and complained from open windows; one called me an ass puppet, an insult I’d never heard before. In the opposite lane, a station wagon with three high school girls in florescent bikini tops sang to R.E.M.’s Man on the Moon. The brunette closest to the passenger-side door adjusted the bikini string at the nape of her neck and the tan lines—ovate patches of white flesh—disappeared. Arnold’s boat and trailer travelled forty yards, thudded alongside the girls’ wagon, and missed the rest of the oncoming traffic. I sprinted past the girls, grabbed onto the trailer tongue, and hustled back, pulling Miss Carp before dropping it onto the ball hitch and locking it down.
Arnold laughed when I got in the Impala, said, “She almost got away from us.” He spit green phlegm into a Campbell’s soup can, and the remaining teeth on his upper jaw, two worn incisors with an inch gap between them, hung over his bottom lip.
“It wasn’t locked down and safety chains weren’t latched,” I said.
“Can’t always chain ‘em all down,” he said.
And we rumbled along the asphalt to Dolly Parton’s Jolene without saying another word, until we got to the lake and launched the boat, until we popped hooks through the flesh of night crawlers and hurled their slimy bodies into the darkness and waited for the first bite.
When Arnold visited a year later, he brought two friends, Dave and Earl. They were twenty years his junior and drove a separate vehicle—an orange Chevrolet Citation—since they weren’t staying as long.
“These boys want to catch the big fish,” Arnold said, and pointed a thumb at Dave and Earl. I shook their hands and told them that wouldn’t be a problem, that I was a fishing pro, an expert—as Arnold liked to say, the next Babe Winkelman—and soon they’d be calling their mothers collect to share fishing stories.
We left Arnold at my grandmother’s to unpack and the men talked slow in their southern drawl. They both had big block heads and I wondered if they were as smart as those fellas on Hee Haw.
“Get in back,” Earl said, pulling the seat forward.
I crawled over patched Army duffels and sat atop them; the Citation smelled of sweat and beer, and wind from the windows kicked dust and lint into my eyes. “We’re going to the river first,” I said. “The salmon should be running.”
Once we reached the Jordan River, we began to scout. I talked the entire time, told them stories about fish as large as third graders, fish that could swallow ducks whole, fish that had pulled senior citizens from boats and docks and drowned them because they wouldn’t let go. No other fishermen stood along the river, and, after we failed to locate a single fish, we drove to another location downstream.
“I can’t believe there ain’t any fish,” I said, and squatted on the bank near submerged logs and rocks looking for their black shadows.
“Ain’t no fish is right,” Earl said. “You done tricked us again.”
“Of course there’s fish,” I said. “It’s a world-class river. There ain’t no fish in Missouri.”
Dave didn’t say anything; he took a pull from a can of Milwaukee’s Best and wandered into the cedar trees.
“Let’s go to another spot,” I said. “You guys’ll get some fish yet.”
When we were back on the road and following my directions again, Dave and Earl became frantic.
“Lord God would you look at that,” Dave said, hitting the brakes hard, swerving. “Some Yankee dropped his damn wallet on the side of the highway.”
“Where?” I asked, and stuck my face against the cruddy glass. “Let me out.”
Dave pulled over and I crawled out. I stood on the shoulder but couldn’t find anything.
“Over there,” Earl said, and pointed toward the ditch and spat from the window. I moved into the ankle-high grass, the ditch water, and Dave and Earl laughed, spun off. I hustled to the asphalt and watched as the Citation got smaller, waited for them to turn back, but the orange glow never did and I tromped six miles home with squashing shoes and interminable thirst.
I was sprawled along the water’s edge at Goose Shit Park, bobber fishing Lake Charlevoix, and hadn’t had a bite all day. It was a Monday, mid-July and blistering hot, and I couldn’t leave for home without catching something, so I reeled in the line to test a notion. A limp crawler, now blanched like an eggshell, hung from the hook. I pinched the wet carcass between two fingers and tossed the meaty string into the lake. Then I tore a corner from my peanut butter sandwich, ran a hook through, and chucked the bread heel into the crabgrass.
In less than a minute I had my first strike when a seagull swooped and latched onto the crust. I created slack in the line, held still, waited. The seagull cocked its head and the clump slid down its pink gullet. When I believed the bread had found its belly, I jerked the line and the seagull fluttered and flopped on its back. After a half dozen of these rather amusing and playful tugs, the bird took flight. I loosened the drag until it sailed above the willow trees, then reeled until it nose-dived. We played tug of war—the rise and plunge, rise and plunge—for twenty minutes before I gave the rod a heave and the bird plummeted straight into the water, made a splash. This time the bird didn’t move. It floated on its side, like a penny bobber over lake ripples; I cut the line, finished eating the sandwich, and went on home with an empty stringer.
I was on the city dock, casting a silver spinner, the night the family of mallards died. The August evening was cool and dark like the innards of a tire, and I’d been nipping a pint of peppermint schnapps since sundown. I threw the line out as the flock floated by, wings whistling and cutting the dark. Then the first mallard struck the power line, and the next, and soon the entire coterie plunged like stones into the water.
I set the rod down and grabbed the fishnet, stretched the aluminum handle as far as I could, and scooped a mallard from the lake. The electrical cable stripped the skin from the duck’s neck, leaving its muscles exposed like a heel in a torn sock. I dropped the dead bird onto the wooden planks and netted the rest. When I had all four lined in a row, a man in blue Ford pickup pulled over on the bridge, hit his hazards. He hustled underneath light poles along the dock, where clouds of moths slapped the glass bulbs, until he reached me.
“What you got there?” he asked, and leaned down, petted a duck. “These ought to go to the police.”
“They’re mine,” I said. “I netted ‘em.”
“Was yours,” he said. “Besides, the law ain’t cool on minors drinking.”
The man looked around before gathering the ducks by their limp necks, where they hung from his hand like bowling pins. Then he hustled to his car and sped off, in the opposite direction from the police station, and I stood there, with an empty pint that glinted under a dock lamp, and dreamed of a kettle of duck stew.
It was a cruel act—fucking with the mentally disabled.
I was loitering at Allen’s Bait and Tackle, watching Nick work, when I spotted the chest-slapper, Dougie, limping across the bridge clutching a sack of aluminum cans.
"Here comes Dougie," I said.
Nick moved alongside me at the store's window. "Dougie, Dougie," he said, "fucking brickhead, always wandering in whenever he finds an empty or two. Pain in my ass. Ten cents here, twenty cents there."
"He’s probably got more money than both of us," I said.
"Shit," Nick said, and grabbed a yellow Eagle Claw rod from a wooden display rack. He loosened the drag and stretched line from the reel, tied the end of the monofilament around the tab of a Mountain Dew can. "Some sinkers for good measure," and he bit the lead balls, attaching three a foot above the knot.
When Nick had the pole rigged, we filed outdoors and stood behind the dumpster, breathing in a waft of rotten fish guts.
“That bastard,” Nick said, and cast the can across the parking lot into the gravel, and as soon as Dougie reached the parking lot, he wobbled toward it.
“Watch this,” Nick said, and reeled as Dougie tried to collect it.
Whenever Dougie stooped for the empty, Nick reeled, and within two or three minutes Dougie covered the entire parking lot in front of the store, bending and missing, bending and missing.
“You should let him have it,” I said.
“Screw him,” Nick said, and reeled the returnable all the way in. Dougie stood along the chipped rock and faced our way as the can bounced toward us. Then Nick heaved the dented Mountain Dew over Dougie’s head.
And when Dougie turned, stepped for the can again, Nick reeled.
We managed to steal eight salmon, five that I’d snagged from Lake Charlevoix and three that others had given us, and we’d strung rope through their gills and immersed their slick bellies in the cool, dark water underneath the bridge to keep them from spoiling.
Arnold leaned against a concrete bridge support. “Let’s nab four or five more, then we’ll hightail it out of here.”
I stood on the wooden weir, along with a group of other poachers—a grated barrier constructed to keep salmon from migrating upriver, leaving the fish to hunker along the river mouth until death—and pulled on the line, like everyone else, using a chunk of lead with multiple triple hooks as large as half dollars. Whenever a quick double tug hit the line, I’d yank hard, yell, “Fish on!”
It had been fifteen minutes since my last fish on, and I was casting and jerking, casting and jerking, when a woman appeared and began talking with Arnold. She wore a sun-bleached tank top and frayed jean shorts, and her gut overhang looked malleable like dough, and below the paunch a blond-haired boy hung onto her varicose thigh, one red sock and one blue, clutching a wooden spoon.
The woman carried a loaf of Wonder bread and a quart jar, and she and the boy followed Arnold underneath the bridge, where Arnold pulled the stringer from the water, tore a fish off. He laid the salmon on the ground, and the woman stooped, held the jar under the fish’s anal fin while Arnold pressed his hand along its belly and forced the spawn out.
When the jar was full, the woman and boy squatted in the shade and the boy, with blackened teeth, smiled, scooped orange eggs onto bread slices before folding them and biting in.
Before long the woman stood, pecked Arnold on the cheek, and handed the jar and bread to the boy; then she wedged her fingers into the fish’s gills, dragged its caudal fin over split rocks and gravel until she and the boy reached the bridge and slipped from view.
It was the peak of salmon season, and twenty men, women, and children jostled for position at the corner of the city dock, nearest the weir, throwing their lines over one another into the water. Whenever somebody snagged a fish or yelled fish on, the poaching cartel would reel in their baits and step aside, granting the fortunate one room to wrestle the fish without getting tangled or elbowed.
“I got one,” a black man said, and his wife, with a zebra-skinned scarf strung around her head, screamed, clapped, and jumped, and every time his salmon broke the water surface she hooted and told her husband to bring it in, Walter baby, bring it in.
This was the first time I’d ever seen black people here fishing, and the last.
Almost everyone reeled in their lines and stood back, giving him space. But a bearded man in a green bomber jacket kept fishing. He chewed and spat sunflower seeds and tossed his line out near Walter’s fish and ignored others’ calls for him to reel in his line, to show courtesy.
Meanwhile, Walter continued to reel and struggle, and his line zinged and the fish jumped, and during the ordeal the bearded man just shook his head, flung out his line, over and over, like nothing was happening.
After about fifteen minutes Walter landed the fish, a twenty-pound salmon, and a plump man in overalls crushed the fish’s skull for the couple with a ball-peen hammer. Then the wife pulled a camera from her purse and someone volunteered to take pictures of her and Walter posing with the fish.
When the excitement was over, and everyone had wedged back into the corner for another turn, the bearded man jerked his line and his 8-ounce lead bait catapulted from the water. It struck Walter’s wife in the face, knocking her down. A group of people dropped their rods and went to her aid when the blow struck, including me and the bearded man.
Soon the police arrived, then the paramedics, and the woman sat on the dock cross-legged in fish blood and slime and moaned, with a chunk of lead jutting from her face.
The bearded man stood in front of the woman and continued to chew sunflower seeds; the rusted barbs from the triple hook pierced her sclera, the white area of the eye, along with her eyelid. The man spat seeds, and when his shells rained upon the woman’s head, Walter asked the man to please move back; so he did, and went to his tackle box and tied on another chunk of lead with triple hooks while the paramedics and Walter lifted the woman onto a gurney and wheeled her off the dock.
When the ambulance and police left, the man zipped up his green jacket and pushed his way into position at the corner of the dock. “That’ll teach niggers to fish,” he said, and flung his lure over everyone’s line and gave his rod a yank.
Years later, when Arnold’s memory began to deteriorate and he was no longer able to fish or live on his own, he moved to Michigan to stay with my grandmother, and whenever I stopped for a visit, he always asked about the salmon, about whether or not we were going fishing. Usually I told him we’d go, knowing he’d forget as soon as I walked out the door. But, in truth, after seeing a woman take a triple hook in the eye, along with my own history of messy killings and senseless misdeeds, I never had the courage to tell him that I’d lost the passion to fish—that I was never going to be the next Babe Winkelman—that I didn’t have it in me to take him along for one last slaughter. And, I suppose, like a scar, the memories will fade, and maybe, someday, I’ll get the urge to stand on the dock and fish again. Like a weathered stone I too am haunted by waters; the art of dragging misery from darkness no longer holds desire for me and perhaps it never will.
Keith Rebec is currently backpacking around the world. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, The Portland Review, Monkeybicycle, Hobart, Midwestern Gothic, Devil’s Lake, and The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, among others. He is the editor in chief of the literary journal Pithead Chapel, and you can learn more about him at www.keithrebec.com.
Artwork: Fish - Smoke on paper, 2013, by David Friedman