Archive for the ‘St. Lawrence’Category

Chapter 5 Fishing


The fishing reel makes its own particular sounds as it releases and stops the line.

“Now you wait,” says my mother. She is holding Rufus on her hip. My father is painting Dulcibella and we are all down at the dock. The fishing rod came when Jimmy Grant, Daddy’s friend from Newsweek, came to visit. He bought the clicky rod in the grocery story, and even though my father hates the fishermen who park themselves in our harbor, staring at us as they troll for muskie, he couldn’t say no to Jimmy Grant, so we got the fishing rod. It was fun when Jimmy Grant came to visit, because they all told fantastical stories about living in New York City, where I was born. My favorite was about how my father jumped over our black bureau—it’s four and a half feet tall—then had my mother, hugely pregnant with me, lay down on top of it to make it a higher jump for him. Jimmy Grant laughed and laughed telling how Daddy jumped over Mommy and me.

“Mommy, do you know how to fish?”

“Oh, yes I used to fish a lot.”

“Where did you do that?”

“Back in Oklahoma,” she tells me. My experience of Oklahoma is home movies of my father and grandfather chasing a chicken around a dusty yard with pistols. My mother’s brother sends us letters from Vietnam. The only object we have from Hugo, Oklahoma is a souvenir pitcher we use for lemonade with a picture of a sorrowful Indian on an exhausted horse. Both their heads are bowed. They are spent, broken, depressed, the way my mother is sometimes. Just below the Indian is spelled the explanation:  Hugo, Oklahoma.

She concentrates on putting a little piece of bacon on the end of the hook. She gets it, and shows me.

“Like this,” she says, then drops the hook, the line and the sinker into the water. I patiently stare at the red and white bob floating on the water. After an hour, it’s just Daddy and me down here now. Then, there is a tug on the line. I start clicking and bring in the hook and whatever is on it. I reel it close enough for me to see I have caught a little wriggling fish.

“Daddy, Daddy!” I yell, and his head pops up from the boat. “I just caught a fish!”  The shiny fish drips as it swings over the water. Now I can see that it’s beautiful, brown and speckled. It is six inches long. I’ve never seen a live fish so close up. Daddy jumps onto the dock and kneels next to me.

“Let’s throw it back,” he says softly.

“No, no Daddy, I want to do what people do with fishes.”

“Well, people throw fishes back.”

“Can we take it off the hook?” I ask. Daddy looks hopelessly at the fish. I can see he doesn’t want to touch it or have anything to do with it. He is a sailor not a fisherman.

“Your mother is better at this than I am. Why don’t you get her?”

I put the rod down with the fish still on it, letting it swim in the river, while I run up the path to get her.

“Mommy, Mommy!  I caught a fish!” I’m halfway up the path already. “Mommy, the bacon worked!”

“Get a bucket,” mom says. She grabs Rufus, and I carry a silver galvanized bucket, and we run down to the dock. Mommy expertly takes the hook from the fish’s lip, and we put the fish into the bucket with water. It’s so heavy now that Mom and I carry the bucket up together to put up on the back porch.

I watch the fish as it swims around and around in circles in the bucket. She goes back inside to cook dinner and sits Rufus up in his high chair. Daddy comes up with the fishing pole.

“You left this at the dock.”

“Daddy, I want to eat the fish.” His jaw tightens.

“If you want to eat it, that means you have to kill it,” he says. He is against killing things. “I want you to put the fish back into the river.”

“Well, I don’t want to. I want to eat him,” I say. “Just like you and grandpa ate that chicken.” He stares at me for a second then moves quickly past me, through the back door into the house. In one second, I hear his heavy footfalls in his study above the porch. I kneel down and stare at the shiny brown fish, circling around and around. I love this fish so much I want to eat it.

I hear my father coming back down his stairs and through the kitchen, my mother sees him and calls out to him, “Tim, Tim—what are you doing?”

When he comes out of the screen door onto the darkening, cluttered back porch he has a shotgun in his right hand. He steps to the bucket, aims in, and starts to shoot.


I am two feet from the bucket.


And it’s the loudest thing I’ve ever heard.


All he needs to do is point the gun up two feet and he’d be aiming at me.


Now the bucket is red, and red water runs everywhere on our back porch. I look down once, and when I see no fish, nothing but red, I cannot look down again. I look across the porch at the hill behind the house. I see rocks and grass and I am trying to be as far away as I can get.

“There,” he says, “you happy?”And he throws open the back door and stomps past me. I hear him going back upstairs, and then I feel liquid through the holes in my sneakers, I look down again, and see the holes he shot into the galvanized bucket.

I look up from the holes into the blank face of my mother through the screen door. I feel hot tears on my face. I didn’t mean to be a murderer. I didn’t want to make my dad a murderer.

“Mommy, why did he do that?”

“Daddy wanted to show you how precious life is, sweetie. Come in here, honey.” She sits me down in a chair, wipes my face and turns on the radio. She grabs a mop and goes out the back door with it.

I want the radio to play my favorite song, A Boy Named Sue, right now. I decide that, just like in the song, all the things my dad does, all the things I don’t understand, are part of an orchestrated plan to improve me in some way. I know my father loves me and I know, one day, it will all make sense. But I resolve never to fish again.

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03 2010

Map of St. Lawrence River

See Bluff Island down and to the west?



03 2010

Chapter 2 Treasure Island

“Remember this moment so you can tell your grandchildren.”

My father and I stand on the veranda, looking out across the water, back at the mainland.

My grandchildren. It is a funny thought that tickles me deep inside, but it seems unimaginably far away, like the long line of admirals that he always tells me we come from.

“Family is the most important thing,” he says, and then steps to the old wooden wheelbarrow.

“Get in,” he tells me, and once I’m in, he runs down the narrow path as fast as he can, and I bump all the way back down to the dock, my breath still on the veranda.

“Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!  Sing it, sing it out!” I don’t really want to sing about a dead man’s hairy chest. He sees me hesitate.

“It’s a work song,” he tells me as we load the barrow, and when he starts to sing it again, I join him, and we bring the barrow up the narrow path, singing all the way, and start to unload it on to the back porch.

“Wait,” he says, “smell.” I pause in front of the screen door, puzzled for a minute. “Go in, go ahead, just remember the smell,” he says. I push against the screen, and then I smell it: cedar—an overwhelming rich, wooden welcome—binding me to this place more surely than a blood pact.

Here is Mom, waiting to put away the first boxes of groceries that we bring her. Just to the right of the door is a huge restaurant-style black Garland stove, with six anvils, two ovens, a grill and a separate broiler. On the next wall to the right is the three-foot-long wooden sink, lined in copper. The most modern thing in the room is a greasy black wall phone, hanging by the eastern window.

My father pulls a can off the red chunk of a six-pack on the round oak table and grabs a glass.

“Come on.” He beckons me with his loose shoulders. I follow him past the bags waiting to go upstairs, outside again to the veranda, where he pulls out a folding chair with faded webbing. While he arranges the chair, he sets the beer and glass down on a broad yellow table whose buckling wooden surface makes the beer’s perch precarious. I gently touch the veranda railing, and the brittle paint pops off more satisfyingly than any scab.

“Blub, blub, blub,” says the beer as my father carefully pours it. He takes a first sip, and gets foam on his lip. Looking south, back at the mainland, back at the rest of America, he smacks his lips and says softly, into the gentle constant breeze.

“This—this right here—this is the best place on earth.”

Then he hands me the beer can. I love the warm feeling I get from my little sip. It’s the warm feeling of being just like my father. After a few sips, he gets up to take down the plywood boards protecting the windows against the winter. I walk past him, to the far western end of the veranda where I can look out across a little harbor to see a small modern looking house. There are kids jumping off the dock into the water, they are hooting and hollering. They are having fun.

“Look, Daddy!”  I have discovered my new lifelong friends, but when I turn to him, he is scowling, and grumbling. “What’s a matter?”

“First of all, they shouldn’t be there. Jack Cutler wasn’t supposed to build right where we could see. Then to go and turn around and sell it to a bunch of rowdies…” He trails off in disgust, shaking his head, continuing to pull down the boards.

“What are they called?”

“The Nadlers.”

The name echoes, like the name of a mystical golden kingdom. I decide I like seeing them, giving each other towels, shivering and grinning.

“Can I go play with them?”

“No,” he says. “No way.” His voice is clear: they are a blot on the perfect panorama.

He turns away and walks back down to the other end of the veranda. I stick to my spot, staring west. One of the kids waves at me. I wave back.

“Bring me another beer,” he says over his shoulder, but I don’t hear him.

“Bring me another beer!” he roars. I jump out of my Keds. “Come on dreamer, look alive.” I run back to the kitchen. I am useful. I am his assistant. Those kids might be having fun, but I get to assist.

I go back to the kitchen and my mother has made me a peanut butter sandwich.

“Have a seat,” she says.

“Daddy wants another beer.” She hands me the red can that gets me back to the front porch. When I come back with the beer, he is sitting down, holding a worn brown book on his lap.

“Remember that song, ‘sixteen men on a dead man’s chest’?”


“Well it’s in this book here called Treasure Island.” He takes the beer.

“Just like this island?”

“Well, a little different—but they’re both islands. Here, I’ll read it to you.” He refills his glass with the new beer, and hands me the nearly empty can so I can take my second swig as I settle onto the porch near his feet to listen.

I love learning about this pirate place—the place we go together to escape. I love my mother. She is musky, she is earth. When she’s not mad at me, she washes my face with a warm wet washcloth. But today, my father, smelling of cedar and beer, reads me the first chapter of Treasure Island before dinnertime.

Part 1 Chapter 1 June

Now that we’ve crossed the country, it’s clear:  my father hates every inch of America—including my mother—

except for this place, this water that has been gleaming in his eyes since last summer. This water drives my father to bring us from Missouri in a stinky purple VW van, to this place, here at the northern jagged edge of New York State. After five days of driving, we’ve made it here at last, to Mercer’s Marina, on the St. Lawrence River. When he was in University on the shores of Lake Ontario, newly arrived from England, my father first discovered the freshwater islands of the St. Lawrence once inhabited by whiskey runners, muskrat hunters, and scouts during the French and Indian War. He fell in love, and when he started to work downstate, he knew he needed to come back to this place, so he asked his father for an early inheritance, and his father helped him buy part of an island in the Thousand Islands the year before I was born. And now—even though I vaguely remember coming here in earlier years—this is the first time things are clear.

I am lying on my stomach, in a dark boathouse that smells of motor oil and cobwebs, looking down into the moving, green water that picks up light from the outside and glows. Next to the empty boat slip, the Mercers have put the black wooden runabout my father bought along with the Island. He has named it The Pelican. He’s in her now, wiping off her dipstick. The light from the water reflects off his glasses. Like his name—Tim—they are perfectly pitched to his role of trim, 1960s intelligentsia. He went on from Business Week to write for Newsweek, and now he teaches magazine writing at University of Missouri. I want to see the world through his glasses, but I am learning to be content with looking at what he tells me to.

Aleta, my mother, walks into the boathouse, squinting through the thick cat-eye glasses she never used to wear.

“It’s cold in here.” She is always cold now because the only thing that fits her any more is the sleeveless maroon wrap dress that expanded infinitely as my brother Rufus grew inside her. Now she is holding his tiny four-week-old body against her full one. My father is busy pouring a can of black liquid deep into the Pelican, so he doesn’t look at them. My mother pauses for a second, staring at him, then at me, with my short light brown hair and bright eyes. My heart is pounding inside my life jacket, just hoping they don’t say anything to each other that will start another fight.

Last night we were all in the last hotel room of the trip, and she was so excited because we had a color TV to watch. She flipped the channel to show a beautiful round lady with elaborate hair singing: “California Dreaming…”

“Who’s that Mommy?”

“Mama Cass.”

“You look just like her Mommy!”

“Not for much longer I hope,” said my father with a little laugh.

“All the leaves are brown…” Click. My mother grabbed me by the neck of my pajamas and dumped me between the strange hotel sheets.

“You promised you wouldn’t talk about it anymore.” She started crying, “I told you I can’t help it.”

“Oh, Christ!” he said, making a funny face and mincing around on his toes. “Of course you can help it!” I started to giggle, but stopped when I saw Mommy’s wet face.

“You shut up,” she screamed at me. He grabbed his coat and the keys.

“Daddy, daddy!”  I held my arms out to him, crying because she was mad at me and he was leaving.

“Don’t worry,” he told me.

“I want to come.”

“Shut up you,” interjected my mother. He opened the motel room door and looked down on me.

“I’m just going out for a beer, I’ll be back in a little bit.”

In one step, he was out, closing the door hard enough to make the chain beside it swing. My mother and I looked at each other as we wiped the tears from our eyes.

“Stop looking at me,” she said.


“I’m fat, that’s why.” And she started to cry again. I dove deep under the sheets and turned away from her. I held on tightly to my teddy bear and thought about the Island, this place that we had been driving to for the last four days. That’s what my father always tells me when I feel bad: “Think about the Island.”

Like brown paper packages wrapped up with string, there’s the Island, and at last we’d see it tomorrow.

The water in the boathouse smells clean and fishy, so it makes sense when a fish family of five, floating just above the silty bottom, move out from the dock to where I can see them. They hover together, then all make a left turn at exactly the same time; they are connected. I drop a chunk of gravel on them, and they scatter, but come back together in an instant.

Now my father has loaded The Pelican with boxes of canned corn beef, and tanks of water and our bags of clothes and he is holding his hand up for my mother to step down into the boat like she is a princess. Except it’s not because she’s a princess, even though a year ago, she looked like one.

“Be careful of my son,” he says, just to be clear.

My parents used to make each other laugh all day, all the time. Aleta would start snorting she laughed so hard at what Tim would say, and he would stomp his foot at what she said, and I would laugh with them just because they were happy. But now, I don’t think he likes anything she does anymore. Before we left Missouri, she threw my favorite plates at him, until one shattered on his hand, and he was bleeding everywhere, and we all ran up to the bathroom and the sink was full of blood, and I could see the flap of skin on his hand in the water. Then they started laughing about it, because they still laughed about things and she wrapped his hand up in a big bandage.

Now that Rufus is in Mommy’s lap there is no room for me. Last year here at the river, I can hardly remember it, but I know it was just the three of us, and Mommy looked like a princess. I want things to be the way they used to be.

When I am told, I untie the boat, step onto her, and then I sit myself on the rumbling inboard motor. I stuff my feet below the tops of the grocery boxes to hold myself in because now we are moving. My father is expert with the wooden steering wheel; turning us around to head into the river. He shouts out, exuberantly.

“Here we are people, we’re on the River!”

We are all happy because he is happy. I watch the small town of Clayton and the waterfront businesses, like ragged dark teeth over the water, get smaller and smaller. The wind blows the wisps of hair left on my father’s head, as he calls me over to sit on his lap. I pick my way through the bags and boxes. He has me steer for a moment, which is when he points forward and talks right into my head.

“There’s your Island.”

I can see it. At first it is a green bump I can cover with two fingers, but The Pelican is fast, and soon the Island and the house on it are looming above us as we slow down for our first good look of the summer. The front of the house has a huge veranda, supported by wide pillars of stones that rise up from the rocky bluff. Pine trees, their branches perpetually blown east, grip tightly to the shore.

Between each pillar is a long horizontal stack – cement arch on the bottom, a narrow line of green porch in the middle and creamy railing on top. Even from down in the Pelican I can see the paint peeling off of all of it.

“She looks good.” My father nods and smiles to my mother, shouting over the engine and the water. Now he is turning east. He gives me directions as we move past our shore.

“Go grab the stern line and get ready to bring us in.”

I’ve never done this part before. So I pick my way back through the luggage. Then I do what I am told: grab the line and wait. Then suddenly, I’m looking at our dock, or more accurately, what is left of our dock. The first winter after we bought the Island, the boathouse was blown down by a storm and dragged away. What the ice left is just a rickety jumble of disgrace. I cannot tear my eyes away from the splintery holes across it as The Pelican’s motor revs into position. I can see what he needs me to do. If no one jumps out onto the crumbling dock as we get close to it, the wind will blow us back out of our slip. Mommy used to do this, but now he needs me to hold the boat in place while he finishes bring the Pelican in, and then he can jump out himself.

“Get ready to jump.”

I climb up on the seat in the stern and balance on the varnished edge.

Below me, black boiling water swirls in the three-foot gap between The Pelican and the dock. I look at the broken barren dock for a safe place to land, but I don’t see any. I feel queasy. But before I can think about it another second, he yells,

“Jump. Jump! JUMP!” I push off the Pelican into the air and sail over the black water.  I am flying. I am flying away from the milky warm armpit of my mother, into the wide broad adventure of my father’s world.

My feet end up on solid dock and I am keeping Pelican where she needs to be. I am on Bluff Island. I stare at the green forest across the harbor. My father jumps out with the other line.

“Well done,” he says to me. And I am proud. He takes the rope from my hand and kneels at my feet to make the stern line fast. I look over his shoulder at my mother. I think she might get madder at me because I just took her job. I look at her arms, fat outside of their sleeveless holes, holding my brother, and I look at my father, standing up now, holding out a hand for her hand to help her out of the boat. And now I can see, he’s holding out a hand to a stranger, a woman different than the woman he married, a woman different than the wife he was sleeping with even six months ago. As we head up the path to bring down the wheelbarrow, I look at the scrunched up face of my little brother, staring into the space behind my mother’s shoulder.

Still, I’m hopeful. Maybe now that we’re here, on the Island, I think, maybe we can have a happy family.


03 2010

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