BY ANDY NALEWSKI
I sipped the coffee out of my thermos and burned my tongue - my scorched taste buds almost forgot it was the shitty instant stuff I bought from the packy. I was out in the boat. Everything was better when I was on the water. I felt the jittering at the end of my rod as the line trailed behind me. I realized I was taking the corner too hard. “Don't cut it that hard, Greg, you'll get the line stuck in the prop,” my dad would have said. It sunk in the last time he told it to me.
I cut it too hard, like he said. He was in the front of the boat – it was a tippy little fucker made of aluminum – and we tipped, went over. It should have been fine. We should have just swam to shore. But he went under. I dove in, put a hand on his collar. I was a tiny thing back then – a little fucker, like the boat. I couldn't pull him up, but I got a look at his eyes; they were tired, like my mom's when she couldn't sleep. They spent days trying to fish him out – never found him though. I didn't think he'd rest when he hit the bottom.
I never liked fishing. I only went to keep my dad company. The talks we had were nice, and it was nice to catch a fish, sometimes, but mostly I went to talk. After he died, there didn't seem like any point to it, but I always go up here once a year; sometimes I think I'll catch him out of the lake on a deep-running lure, happy as can be with eight pound bass in either hand. He'd say “Get the camera, get the camera!” and I'd take a picture of him with the bass and the wide smile with his scraggly beard on his face. I told that to Jeff, the one time he came with me. He laughed my buzz cut right off of my head. He was so literal, too logical to get the poetry.
I lit a cigar. It was harsh on my burned tongue. The sensation stopped my reminiscing, and I looked over the pond. The water was glass; no ripples, no wind. Just before dawn it was the most beautiful thing. There were two tree lines, one above and one below, perfect copies of charcoal silhouettes. I used to climb trees when I was little. When I was young I wanted to climb the ones on the water, like my dad did. But when you go down there, the trees disappear.
The motor sputtered, choked, and went dead. Stupid little fucker. Not even three horsepower, and made in the forties. Still working, kind of. I fiddled with the choke and gas valves, and then my arm shot back so far it almost dislocated my shoulder. I got a hit. It was a bass, I knew it. It jumped, trying to spit the hook. He jumped high, he had real nice hang-time. I reeled in slow, I wanted to enjoy the fight. I worked him hard, he kept on jumping, and I swear I heard him scream one time. He freaked out when he saw the boat; the light tackle made it really fun. I finally pulled him in. I was happy for a minute there; I caught a good one, three pounds. I respect fish like that. He was a fighter. I reached for the lure to send him back. He swallowed it. Fucker. I got out the surgical clamps, and I tried to get it out the best I could, but I pulled out his guts along with the lure. I went back to camp. I cooked the bass. I preferred salmon. I preferred anything else, really, but you have to eat them once you kill them.
I took a nap, a long one. When I awoke there was an owl sitting on the picnic table. He was white, big, and had squinty eyes. He looked at me with them. I looked back. We just sat there together, looking at eachother for a while. I got up and walked over to the boat to grab one of my cigars. He kept watching me, didn’t move a muscle except for turning his head. I lit it up, and he cocked his head at me. I leaned against the boat. “How ya doin’, Mack?” He fluttered his feathers. “You cold? I got some hot coffee. It’s instant, but it’ll warm you up.” He looked around the site, as if he couldn’t find the stuff. I pointed to the kettle, but he didn’t take notice. “You should get out of the rain. I have a tarp set up, if you want to lie down.” He ruffled his wings a bit. Something moved in the bushes. He looked over and bowed real low, then he took off and snatched the thing straight into the air. I watched him disappear into the thick woods. “Some other time, then.”
I saw some guys down at the boat ramp with scuba gear on. One of them made a crack about republicans, and I chuckled a little bit as I got ready to launch. Launching the boat was a bitch, but not as much as it used to be. This one wasn’t as tippy as my dad’s, pretty stable actually. I had to strap the motor on after I got in the water, because it dragged in the sand and messed up the prop. I had to repair it once. That was a bitch.
The sun was up a bit above the tree line. It wasn’t going to get dark for a few hours. I grabbed the can of beer that I put in the cooler; IPA, the brand my dad liked. I raised my glass, looking at the part of the lake where he fell in, and drank. Even with how heavy I was, I was still a lightweight. One beer got me buzzed, so I only drank half. I didn’t want another mishap.
I went around to my favorite spot, a little cove with a sandy beach where no one ever sat. It was beautiful. Downed tree trunks, sprawling bushes with amber flowers, and a lonely, lonely shack. I was born in one of those; my parents had no money for hospital bills, and no place to go. It was shit-tier luck; my dad had lost his job right when my mom got knocked up. They were on the streets, surviving off of change and McDonalds. When she was ready to pop, my found a little shack and busted the lock off. No one had used it in years. He told me they were there for two days, but mom said it was only four hours. My dad had to hold his hand over my mom’s mouth so no one would hear them. They said I just plopped out all at once, right at the end. I didn’t believe that, not after I wrote my dissertation. I started teaching after I broke up with Jeff.
The sun came out through a patch of trees on the shore, it hit me right in the face. The boat slammed into the shore line, and I killed the motor quickly; I spaced out again, beached the damn thing. I looked up. I was right in front of the shack. It scared the hell out of me, I couldn’t figure out why. It wasn’t because I was born in one, it just made me feel uneasy. I sat there just looking at it, it stared back at me like the owl did. “Where are your owners, kid? Who owns you?” It didn’t respond. After a while I got up and went over to it.
When Jeff came with me, he thought it would be hot if he went down on me in there. I told him no, and he screamed at me, calling me a pussy and a little bitch. I yelled back at him, the water carried our voices all the way back to the boat ramp. He pushed me, and I socked him in the face. He got up. “Take me home,” was all he said. We packed up camp, went home, and I dropped him off. Neither of us said a word to each other.
The wood was old, creaky to the touch. There was a lock on it. I went around to the side of it and found a hole in the wood. I peered in. There was something white, and a scent of iron seeping through. I cut my hand when I swam back to shore after my dad went under. I just sat on the beach, bleeding into the pond. The scent reminded me of that; I pulled away quickly, and puked up the fish I ate earlier. I sat down and looked at it. “You fuck. You’re a good for nothing fuck. Your owners don’t even use you.” It seemed sad when I said that. “What’ve you got in there? You got a boat? Guns? Torture tools?” It looked like it was crying. “Was somebody murdered in you? Did you like it? Did you watch and laugh at them?”
I got in the boat and went back to camp. I drank all of the IPA I had left. I threw up again, and slumped into my sleeping bag.
The sun in my face woke me up and gave me the most delightful hangover I’ve ever had. It was time to go home, back to work again. I always loved going back to work after the trip. It took me a few hours to pack up, but I didn’t load up the boat yet. I looked at all the shit that needed to go in; I usually load it up first, and then the truck. I didn’t do it for any particular reason. I looked down at my hand. I had cut it again, where I did before. Iron filled my lungs. I gaged. I thought of the shack again. I felt bad for what I said to it. The owl didn’t do me any harm, and I was nice to him. The shack was the same, but I treated it like dirt. I wanted to apologize before I left.
I got over there. I sat in the boat. I got up early that morning, the sun wasn’t even over the tree line yet. The shade made it look inviting, but the thing was dead. I had killed it. I couldn’t apologize now, but I could give it a proper burial. I got out what little gas I had left, and doused the door in it. My dad wanted to be cremated too, and have his ash thrown over the water; I did it as much for him as I did it for the shack. I lit a match, and my eyes fell upon the lock on the door. It was old, rusty, and looked weak. I put the match out in the sand.
I bought a pipe wrench with me over there, and it was in my hand. My knuckles turned white as a gripped it, I could feel my pulse racing in my palm. My mouth was dry, I felt nauseous. Sweat ran down the inside of my jacket, and I felt clammy. I took a few steps forward, each one making the feelings worse as the scent of iron got closer. I heaved a little bit, and fought to swallow down my breakfast. I did it over and over, step, heave, swallow, until I was inches from the door. “I’m going to give you an autopsy. I do it all the time. I’m a coroner.”
I smashed the lock off and went inside. There was a white canoe, a few paddles, and a shawl with something under it. I looked around, it was pretty barren except for those few things. I went over to the shawl, it smelled like iron and it was crusty. Dried blood. I pulled it up. There was placenta was off to the side, with an umbilical cord still attached to the child. It wasn’t an autopsy, I did a c-section. I did one before, in an emergency. The child was fine, but this one wasn't moving. It's eyes were open though; baby blue, faded to gray in the light. They looked tired. It wasn't resting. I felt lucky then, luckier than I ever had before. My dad got a phone call that day, a few hours before I was born. He landed the job – the other applicant got caught with meth. He could take care of me then. What if that didn't happen – would they have left me there, like this poor thing? I couldn't ask either of them, even if they were around.
I put it in the boat. I motored over to the place where we tipped. I looked at it one last time. It was a girl. She had baby blue eyes, but they were faded to gray, like the trees in the morning. I wondered what those eyes saw before she died. I picked it up, and placed a kiss on her forehead like my dad did when I was little. I held her out, and plopped her in. My dad always wanted a daughter. Maybe they would fall asleep together, and their eyes wouldn't be so tired.