My father used to take me fishing almost every summer weekend. My brother was never as into it so he didn’t always go. We were heading south toward Harrisburg with the green corn vibrating in the breeze all around us. My father talked to himself as if I wasn’t there, something he always did while driving. I never trusted him behind the wheel and hated him for being crazy even though I worried that I might be crazy too. He had the same thoughts about me and blamed it on my mother’s side of the family. I learned to keep my boyish visions to myself. It was something to hate your own blood and I feared what would come of it.
My father stopped laughing and reached into his flannel shirt pocket to withdraw his pipe and tobacco. He let the open pouch rest on his lap while he pushed the black-cherry tobacco down into the wooden bowl of the pipe with his thumb. He had me hold the wheel of the car while he lit the pipe with a wooden match. I watched the plumes of smoke eddy and diminish in a shaft of sunlight. He cracked his window and there was a white-noise sound as the smoke rushed out leaving behind a sweet-smelling blue haze.
“Pretty soon I’ll be having you do all the driving,” he said with a smile.
We slowed for the town, passing a furniture store, high school and gas station. These places were familiar to me and there was an early-morning stillness that I found comforting. Then we were back out in the corn country again as the car picked up speed.
It wasn’t long before we could see the cattail-lined creek that connected the lake to the Big Sioux River. Sometimes we bobber-fished there for bluegills and once he caught a crappie the size of a dinner plate at that spot. We continued down the highway, turning north where the rolling hills parted and the main body of the lake came into view. On the east side of the highway was a forested valley where we would hunt for doves and rabbits together years later.
After turning down a gravel road that led to the lake, we unloaded the car and carried our fishing gear down a narrow path as red-wing blackbirds chortled around us. I ducked underneath the trunk of a fallen cottonwood where the path ended at a small beach. My father quickly baited his hook and cast out into the lake. I heard the plunk of his sinker hitting the calm water. A row of forked sticks already lined the shore from previous fishermen. We were using frozen smelt for bait. They were a silver baitfish that stunk up your fingers even after you washed them. Soon we had all four rods out and it wasn’t long before I had a bite. I picked up the rod and waited for a tug which I answered by yanking back and reeling as fast as I could. The fish fought hard and stayed to the bottom, big-headed and heavy. There was a splashing as I got him into the shallows and dragged him flopping onto the sand. It was a three-pound channel catfish–grey-skinned and smooth with long black whiskers. I got the pliers and removed the hook, wary of being stung by the sharp barbs that jutted from its fins. The animal made a strange grunting sound and stared at me with big, glassy eyes. My father placed my catch on the stringer and tossed it back into the lake.
We caught several more like that over the course of the morning. At one point a herd of cattle came down to the lake to drink and they stopped there watching us. They mooed and stood there bunched up in frustration because we were blocking their usual line of travel. Finally, a brave one ventured behind us and the rest soon followed, clambering out of sight up an embankment.
The action slowed to nothing as the sun rose in the sky. I told my father I wanted to walk around the lake and fish for bass. He cautioned me not to fall in. I picked out a few lures to take with me in a paper sack along with a sandwich. I worked my way around the rim of the lake and waved to my father from across the bay. He sat contemplatively puffing his pipe as he stared out at the lake. He did not wave back. I decided to replace the spinner I had been using with a hammered chrome spoon that was heavier, allowing me to cast further. The lap of the waves filled my ears as I lost myself in the rhythm of fishing.
I could not see my father anymore, but I had a sensation suddenly of being watched. I spun around. A small yellow dog stared up at me expectantly, saliva dripping from his pink tongue.
“Hello there,” I greeted him. “Are you lost?”
He panted excitedly and let out a short yip. There didn’t seem to be anyone around he might belong to. Ignoring him, I turned my back and continued to fish. I hiked down the shore hoping to ditch him, but when I turned my head he was still there. I made a game of it, talking to him as I went. It seemed I had acquired a pet for a day. I saw him eyeing my lunch, so I tore off a piece of sandwich and tossed it to him. He didn’t have a collar and I worried that he had been abandoned. I ended up feeding him the whole sandwich. He licked his chops when he was done and drank thirstily from the lake.
We climbed a grassy ridge that overlooked a spillway channel. Down below, a shirtless man fished just outside the reeds with a beer in his hand. A woman reading a paperback reclined not far from him in a lawn chair. I called down to see if the dog belonged to them, but my voice got lost in the wind. The dog took no interest in them. Continuing along, I could see the entirety of the reservoir. Purple thistles wavered over the tallgrass and grasshoppers jumped ahead of me.
I stood on a boulder at the mouth of the channel and cast as far as I could into the lake. I kept visualizing a fish hitting my lure as it neared shore, but it never happened. It was too late in the day and the bass were inactive. I figured it was time to go home.
Scrambling back up the ridge, I could see the hillsides dotted with scrubby trees and barn swallows diving at insects in the void of blue sky. I stopped dead in my tracks, jolted to a standstill by what I saw. The man was on top of the woman with his jeans down around his ankles. I had quite forgotten they were even there. It was the first time I had ever witnessed two people having sex. I ducked for cover in the weeds, fearful of being seen. My heart raced. The dog was right there next to me and I shushed him even though he was quiet. I had another look at the couple. Their whiteness– the man’s clenching ass and the woman’s splayed thighs–were gross to me. It seemed like a stupid and ugly activity. I felt particularly bad for the woman who didn’t seem that into it. Having seen quite enough, I hurried off down the hill.
The dog followed despite my best efforts to shoo it away. My father asked me if I had caught anything and I told him no. Then he asked about the dog.
“I think it’s a stray,” I said. “He doesn’t seem to belong to anybody.”
My father kicked at the dog and cursed at it to get lost as he angrily packed up our things. He pulled the writhing stringer of catfish out of the lake and held them aloft for a moment before placing them inside the bucket he had half filled with water. I followed behind on the path. The veins in his forearm bulged from the heavy bucket. The dog pestered us as we loaded the station wagon like we were going to bring him home. My dad kicked at it one more time, barely missing, and the dog ran off squealing.
“You shouldn’t be petting stray dogs!” he yelled. “I raised you to have more sense than that! The damn thing could have rabies!”
Once inside the car, my father started the engine and put it in reverse. The tires spun a bit in the gravel. I could see the yellow dog yapping as it followed our cloud of dust away from the lake. We stopped at the highway and then turned south toward home. I looked back. The dog was still pursuing us down the middle of the lane, but his runty legs couldn’t keep up. I watched as he got smaller and then the shiny chrome of another car materialized into view. He kept running, not getting out of the way, and then disappeared—swallowed it seemed by the car. The driver pulled over to the shoulder then, so I was sure he had been hit. I felt a sorrowful anger at how cruel and indifferent the world could be, but I didn’t cry. I pushed the feelings down and didn’t say anything because I didn’t want my father to see my weakness. I blamed myself plenty, but I was madder still at the people who had abandoned him. My father peered intently into the rear-view mirror.
“I think they got him,” he said.
He seemed amused by what had happened, as if the dog’s sorry fate in some way validated his own manner of living. We were both tired and didn’t say anything more to each other.
When we got home, I watched him clean the fish out by the shed. They were still alive and swallowing air when he slit the skin behind their heads and made a line down their backs with the knife. He skinned them with pliers, revealing the pink muscle underneath. I watched the green flies gather on the dark clumps of skin as he cut off the heads and fins and then pulled out the guts. I wasn’t old enough to handle a knife myself yet, but I always liked watching him clean the fish. It seemed like a lesson in biology to see how he did it—the flies and the fish dissected with the blood on his hands. He bagged up the mess and hosed everything off in the grass.
I spent the afternoon playing basketball with my best friend while my father drank beer and watched television. When I got home, he was in shorts mowing the lawn. He looked funny with his pale legs and dark socks. Inside the house, my mother was frying fish. She served them to us with canned green beans. I watched my brother pick at his meal. My father made grunting noises as he ate with his head bent over the plate. My mother was a taciturn woman who always seemed to be on the verge of crying. It was not such a bad time, but it was not such a good time either. We could never really relax in that house. These were just the calms in between the storms of my father’s rage which seemed to have no solution or cause. When I was young, I blamed my mother for being a nag. I thought she should just let him drink in peace. I recalled the couple by the lake as I looked at my parents. I did not want to be like either of them. There was something to that–what the grown-ups did and how it entrapped them. What starts out as love turns into something else that’s hard to walk away from. We were all just prisoners of our blood, a family gathered around a table.