Life cycles seen through the lens of fishing, first kisses, manly advice, lessons in parenthood, and death.
My son asks for a fishing pole for his 5th birthday. He says to me, “I never fished before.”
“Can we go fishing?”
I tell him, “Sure, we can go.”
I tell him, “When you get bigger.”
“But I am bigger.”
I must have been about his age, maybe a bit older, the first time I went fishing. Torch Lake, Michigan. “Just the boys today,” my dad said when my brother asked where Mom was, where Grandma was. “Girls don’t like fishing much.”
That day is fragmented—haunting snapshots.
First, there was the ghastly feeling in my fingers when the night crawler’s body went tense as I jammed him on the hook. And the slippery ooze the worm excreted made it hard to handle, hard to continue to wrap around the hook, hard to stab it through a second and third time.
Then there was the tug on the pole when I hooked my first fish, a sunfish, most likely, or a bluegill. Except I didn’t hook it. Not really. It was more like the fish swallowed the hook whole, and as I reeled it in, the hook tore through its internal organs instead of its lip.
As my grandfather shoved the needle-nose pliers down the fish’s throat and dislodged the hook, the fish squirmed in my hands and set to defense. With the pointed pain of dorsal spines in my palm, the slappy-thwap of the fish on the sandy bank, eyes bulging and gills flapping, gasping for air, the fish found its freedom.
“Go on, boy, pick it up. Don’t let it die there on the beach, throw it back in the water.” I picked it up by the tail. The fish flailed, and I felt the tail rip. I felt it slipping, and just as I reached the water’s edge, the fish fell. I expected it to swim off, maybe look back like a cartoon and say thanks, but my fish floated up top, its gill still gasping for breath and its eye looking at the clouds.
Now my son waits for me to teach him to be a hunter not a gatherer. I want to explain that not every man can cast a line out in deep water, not every man can get a hook out of a fish. I want to help him understand. But we cannot talk. Not like that. Not yet.
“Daddy, when? I really want to go fishing,” he asks.
“I don’t know, buddy. We will one of these days.”
His head lay still on a satin pillow. Pursed lips stitched shut. No sound of breath. His eyes closed as if asleep—without the twitch of dreams playing behind his eyelids.
I touched my grandfather for the last time. I touched the hand that stole my nose at will, the hand that took out his teeth, the hand that released a fart simply by pulling a finger.
After she covered her steak with ketchup and ate the whole thing, after her kid brother had his mom cut the corn from the cob so that he could use a spoon, and after huge chunks of watermelon were eaten and a seed-spitting war was abruptly ended by mothers who expected better from us kids, she and I stole some beers. Behind the garage, with a beer in my hand and one in hers, we raced: 1, 2, 3, drink. We raced a second time, then went back in the pool.
Dizzy from beer, she whispered secrets in my ear, which tickled and made me tingle in the stomach. She drew messages on my back with her finger, saying, can you guess what I wrote?
I could, I said.
Did you, she asked.
No, I said. Never.
Did you, I asked.
Yes, she said. A lot.
Do you want to?
And in the shadows of a 100-watt floodlight, with pruned fingers and toes, my first kiss.
I didn’t know that my words would slice through the illusion he built for himself. I didn’t know my words would gut him like the knife we used on the walleye we caught when we had a boat and could go out in the middle of the lake, drop hooks in the water, and not talk.
When I gutted his illusion, we were at the hospital. He lay in a bed, IV stuck in his arm. He read what I wrote and said, “Working class? You should get them to fix that.” Fix what? But I knew.
I want to apologize. But we cannot talk. Not like that.
My dad stood behind me and said, “Just like I showed you…add some pressure and slide—don’t saw it off, cut it off.” When the fish’s head hit the bucket, my hand started to shake and tears wet my face. My dad got pissed. “Stop crying,” he said. “Don’t be a goddamn sissy.” He took the knife and handed me the shovel.
This wasn’t a fair fight, and I knew it. Sean was skinny like me, a few inches taller even, but he was a year younger. And still worse, Sean had never been in a fistfight before. I had experience. This was my fifth fight of the school year, and even though I lost half of them, I learned a few things. I learned to draw first blood. I learned to knock out the wind from your opponent’s lungs. I learned to jackhammer, one punch after another, until the fight was over.
But who deems the fight over? If you are lucky in a fight, whether you are winning or losing, a bystander will step in. He will stop the fight, force the brawlers to make peace and go home. With each of my fights, the decision to stop was imposed—the last by a stranger on whose lawn I lay as my former best friend held a fist to my face, yelling over and over, “You give?” The stranger pulled the boy off me. He wasn’t interested in who started what or why. He did not judge, but rather imposed peace. I was lucky.
Sean was not lucky. When my fist connected with the side of his face, the flesh of his mouth gashed open against his teeth. I threw a solid punch. Just like Dad taught. I kept my wrist locked. I threw straight out with my shoulder pushing into it. I didn’t use that slick Hollywood hook the actors used in bar movies. “The movies are full of shit,” my dad explained. “In a real fight, that kind of hook will hurt you. Besides,” he said, “you’ll probably miss. You won’t land the punch and you’ll look like a girl—like a fag.”
Sean was wounded. His cheek swelled. Drool and blood started to escape his mouth. There were no signs of a stranger for Sean. No one seemed willing to step in and impose peace. And, for a second, I was proud. Then my fist connected with his stomach, pushed the air from his lungs through his blood-filled mouth and onto my face, now stippled red. The crowd cried out in cheers. Sean crumpled over—he looked up, gasping. I knew that look. He was trying to not cry. The water in his eyes pulsed, rising, fighting back, receding. You had to look for it. You had to know what to look for. I walked away.
That thing in your shorts—keep it there.
Don’t make my mistake.
If you aren’t careful, it can happen to you.
It starts off with a kiss. It starts in a pool—when you think nobody’s looking. But it doesn’t end there. Next, you want to explore. To touch. To feel. And when you do, that touch, that feeling can become a need.
Don’t make my mistake.
If you aren’t careful, it can happen to you. It can happen before you graduate high school. It can end with you and a kid. It can end with you in a factory busting balls 14 hours a day. It can end with you a slave to the paycheck—a factory rat.
That thing in your shorts—keep it there.
Don’t make my mistake.
When they stuck that long needle into my son’s back, he didn’t scream. He didn’t yell, he didn’t cry out. He shrieked. One long, breath-stealing, fiery shriek. And I stood behind the curtain, not consoling him, not being there when he needed me.
My grandfather didn’t talk to me about the war. Maybe I was too young; maybe he died before he thought I was old enough to listen. Or maybe men don’t talk. Regardless of the reason, he didn’t tell me he was part of Normandy. He didn’t tell me he watched young men, boys really, fall in front of him, to his left, to his right. He didn’t tell me about the bullet that ricocheted inches from his head. He didn’t tell me that when he found cover, the bullets flew hard and fast in his direction. He didn’t tell me the fear dug deep to his core and he couldn’t move—that he was paralyzed—that he shit his pants. He didn’t tell me he never forgot that fear.
Only once in my life did I see my father cry. With both of us dressed in black tuxedos, he walked up to me just before my wedding was to begin. He hugged me and told me he was proud of me. In that hug, he quaked, and I knew he was crying. And as the organ played and the bridesmaids sauntered down the isle, I watched my father wipe away his tears.
When my son is tired or sick, he is easily frustrated. At these times, when I accidentally knock down his block fort or tell him no more SpongeBob, he gets angry. He tells me he is not my friend anymore. He runs to his room, buries his face in his Batman pillow and cries. He’s four. After a minute or two, I go to his room. He sits in my lap and finishes his crying. We work on breathing and calming down. I ask, “Do you feel better?” I ask, “Did you get it all worked out?”
But I wonder, what happens when he’s nine or ten? What happens if some wise-ass bully says something to him on the playground? What if he strikes out playing baseball and someone in the stands calls him a whiffer? What happens if he gets tackled playing football or the soccer ball hits his nose? What happens when society says its time to be tough and he isn’t? Does he become their permanent victim? Then what? I wonder if I should be toughening him up. Last I heard, it’s the dad’s job to teach his son how to make it in the world. My grandpa did that for my dad, and my dad did it for me. I mean, I really hated when my dad called me a sissy, a pussy, a fucking crybaby—but it toughened me up.
“The blade must be sharp,” he explained as he dragged his knife. I could feel the scrape grating my teeth as he slid metal across the wet stone.
Using his now-sharp knife, my dad removed the fish’s head with one quick slide and its gills opened and closed one last time. That’s how fast it happens. One second, life put you in a terrible predicament so you fight for breath, for life. Then a second later, your head hits the bottom of a stink-filled bucket before your body knows it’s supposed to stop breathing.
My dad slid the blade in the belly of the fish and slid the knife straight to the neck. The entrails fell into the bucket on top of the head.
When all the fish were sliced up into clean white pieces of meat that would soon be crusted in breadcrumbs and fried in Crisco, I’d take the bucket behind the garage, dig a deep hole, and bury the remains.
The illusion he built—the one they all built—was the American dream. Bootstraps and hard work—that age-old song and dance. By the time I was 7 or so, he moved us from a 2/1 bungalow in a crumbling neighborhood to a 3/2 in a middle-class suburb. He worked 60, sometimes 80 hours a week to keep us in that house, in the illusion. He worked midnights for shift-premium. When he wasn’t working OT, he coached tee-ball, then softball. He bought a boat, took us fishing. He took me fishing.
I loved that boat. It was an older model—a squared-off, open-bowed fiberglass beast with a super-fast ski engine. Except we didn’t ski. We fished—for two summers. I hated fishing—I hated catching fish. I hated touching them. I hated cleaning them. Often, I would pretend to bait my hook and cast out empty. Then I’d sit there in the bow, getting sunburned, and read my book, not catching any fish.
The summer of the layoff, I was angry, bitter. I had just finished my boating class. I’d be able to legally drive the boat. I didn’t talk, though. I just watched. He may have been angry, bitter. And he too said nothing. With a fat black marker, the kind with fumes that rivaled model glue, he wrote our phone number on the ‘For Sale’ sign, and parked the boat in front for the world to witness.
When you hear the words, when they say, “spinal tap,” you step from the world of reality. Everything becomes a hallucination. In my mind, that needle was a foot long. And it was going to drill into his spine—a spine only five weeks from the womb.
“We need to rule out meningitis,” the baby-faced doctor said.
“It’s a fucking fever,” I said. “No. No way.”
He was calm. He knew just what to say.
Several years before I had kids, my favorite show on television was ER. This was back when it starred that one guy from Roseanne and the other guy from Revenge of the Nerds. The premise of the show was for the audience to follow teaching doctors and baby-faced doctors—like that doctor, that night—around the emergency room of a Chicago hospital and watch them save lives, or at least learn to save lives.
It seemed to me, there was one question the loved ones inevitably asked the baby-faced doctor as they listened to instructions from that one guy from Roseanne or the other guy from Nerds: “Have you done this before?” They wanted someone who had jabbed needles, shoved tubes, cracked ribs, and drilled skulls before. They wanted experience.
That doctor, that night—He said, “We have no choice.”
He said, “It’s hospital policy.”
I was not calm. I didn’t want this child stabbing my child. I wanted that self-assured doctor. I wanted that one guy from Roseanne or the other guy from Nerds. I said, “Find me a doctor—a real doctor.”
“I am a real doctor.”
On the way to the hospital, he reminded me I was the executor of his will. It’s my job to dispose of or disburse what my father leaves behind, and I couldn’t help but notice his new truck was already starting to take the familiar form of his old truck. Trampled newspapers, wet from snow-covered shoes and spilled coffee, mingled with the cigarette smoke absorbed in the cloth ceiling and carpet, with the nicotine that varnished the windows, with the factory sweat and grease transferred from pants and shirt to car seat. He told me he was going to draw up the paperwork and make it official. “I don’t know if you remember, but your grandfather died when he was 56. And his dad was 52.”
“I remember,” I said. “I was in third grade.”
“All the men in our family go early.”
“You’re 62,” I told him. “You broke the cycle.”
“Yeah, but I’m on borrowed time.”
He didn’t tell me, but I knew he was scared. I don’t think he was afraid to die. I think he was afraid of what he thought he was leaving behind—the legacy I was supposed to dispose of or disburse. I could hear it in his voice when he said, “You should get them to fix that.”
I wrote that I grew up in a working-class suburb outside of Detroit. I never meant malice or indictment with the words “working-class.” I will change the words next time—if there is a next time—something less offending. I think we can agree on blue-collar. I want to ask. But we cannot talk. Not like that.
After the procedure, after my dad woke to find it still felt like someone was sitting on his chest, the doctor told us that while it’s good news that he found no blockage, he could not explain why my father’s breathing was so labored, why my father lay in this bed, looking at the ceiling and gasping for air.
*Excerpted from Nobody’s Looking (ELJ Publications 2015) by J.R. Miller