By Andrew Furman
(Excerpt of a novel)
Nathan Pray pulled the Tacoma gingerly onto the street. A too-small truck for a too-small boat, but he could get away with it. There were no gradients in south Florida, its humble topography such as it was fairly leveled within Nathan’s lifetime, iced with concrete and asphalt frosting. The trailer in tow groaned and bucked, the only noise about shattering the blissful quiet, his little burg–loud and congested with its sudden human commerce–returned to him at night for a few magical hours. Scarcely a soul about.
He lowered the window, jutted an insouciant elbow into the surprising cold. My town, Nathan mused, then checked himself. My town. A quaint, obsolete notion. Who cared about hometowns anymore?
He rolled the window back up. What a winter. The snook had disappeared from his immediate sphere. Purged. A few more degrees south, one more cold snap, and the few survivors at this northern fringe of their range would perish, too. The last cold front pretty much did in the Florida linesiders. Water temps plunging from 75 degrees to 54 degrees overnight. Too abrupt a shift. The extreme low of their tolerance, in any case. Cold snap aside, there wasn’t much to keep the snook along his particular stretch of coastline. Bridges, docks, and spillways they still favored. The inlet, too, offered the current, depth, and salinity that fired their gametes during spawn. But their prized sulfurous mangroves inshore were barely holding on, leaning over the intracoastal in isolated patches as if in preparation for that final shove over the bank, beneath the depths. Acoustical bands of cordgrass, needle rush, spartina, and saltwort had been dredged years ago now, along with other vital underwater flora. (Long gone, the redfish and seatrout.) Hasty "renourishment" projects dumped tons of alien sand along the beaches to shield residents in their high-rise condos, choking off more longstanding coastal residents in the bargain.
A rare fox darted across Nathan’s illumined field of view, flicking its ridiculous bottle-brush tail above the asphalt. The fox, real, ushered phantom creatures to his mental screen. Land crabs scuttled across the sandy, two-lane road, disappearing beneath the palmetto scrub; armadillos wandered blindly, nose to the air, fragrant with wax myrtle; gopher tortoises lumbered below ground into their burrows; a scrub jay pair, wearing their gray backpacks, hopped follow-the-leader across the tattered bark branches of a slash pine.
So long to all that.
Some beauty remained, though. And so Nathan stayed too. For what remained.
Within the hour, he was on the water with his fishing partner.
Slow it down a bit, Terence, will you. Wielding an inshore rod, Nathan hopped up on the bow’s casting deck. He tugged his line taut above the bail, testing the drag, savoring the reassuring zzzzzp in his ear. Next, per routine, he popped a Lemonhead into his mouth. Cherry Chans he had liked too, but it seemed they stopped making those a while back, maybe on account of the impolitic name, the slant-eyed portrait on the cardboard package. Well fine. The candy, itself, though, he missed.
Just cut the motor. I’ll use the trolling.
Terence, Nathan was certain, rolled his eyes behind the console as he turned off the ignition. It burned him up that Nathan insisted upon wasting time inshore alongside a few lit docks and beside the crusty pilings of the inlet bridge with his spoons and homemade wooden lures before heading out to the reef lines, where they actually stood a chance of filling the coolers using frozen sardines and slimmer silversides.
You planning on casting anytime soon up there?
Nathan raised a hand to quiet his companion, which didn’t work.
It ever occur to you, my brotha’, that you done chose the one path you’re least cut out for? Terence usually didn’t talk like this. He had started out as an English teacher before becoming principal at Carver Middle. Yet his street diction, syntax, and timbre rose proportionately with his vehemence.
Take a look at yourself, man. You’ve got options. With your B.S. from U of M I can get you a provisional teaching certificate, lickety-split. English teachers, dime a dozen. But science, math–a rhetorical burst of air fluttered between Terence’s lips–can write your own ticket, homeslice. When you gonna give this up and teach science for me?
Soon, Nathan replied, smiling at "homeslice," tasting the sweet lemon ball dissolve, turning tart. Real soon, T.
You can blow it off all you want, but face facts. You can’t handle the sun, you don’t like getting wet, you’re not into marketing or any self-promotion at all far as I can tell–heaven forbid you answer or even carry your cell phone–you don’t really like people very much, you’re out catching colorful fish all day but you’re colorblind--
It’s an advantage, I keep telling you. Being colorblind. I see my grays better down under the surface. Come on, now, T. You’ve seen me spot tarpon down there. Besides, you say it like it’s a huge deal or something. It’s not like I don’t see any color. I just have some trouble with the greens and reds.
Just you gotta see things as they are, Nate? Not how you want them to be. How many times we been through this? You want to fish, fine. But we ain’t fishin’ for croakers out the El Rio no more. You gotta ditch this skiff. Nathan glanced back to see Terence gesture downward with an open hand, dismissively, as if the twenty-two foot skiff were an inner tube.
Get yourself a center console, something with a decent-sized V, take folks out to the Gulf Stream for dolphin, wahoo, marlin, sailfish. That’s where the Benjamins are. That’s what all those dumb clucks at the dock are doing. They ain’t got half your smarts, a Jew like you, so why you letting them make off with all the charters.
A Jew like you. Terence used the expression facetiously from time to time to leaven his chastisements with humor. All the same, it seemed to Nathan that his friend ascribed too much validity to certain notions. Anyway, his brother had been the smart one, the one with the yiddishe kopf, if Terence truly wished to pursue this line of thought. Nathan, for his part, and despite manifold failings, didn’t think himself guilty of squandering any untapped intellect.
I’m not nearly as smart as you like to believe, T.
There! There! Don’t you see? Just saying something like that proves the point. You feel me?
Nathan didn’t and confessed as much. Besides, he added, you know I’m not into that sort of thing, Terence. The blue water stuff. Next you’ll be telling me to fish with kites or balloons?
Well, what’s so wrong with that?
It’s not angling, Terence! That’s what’s wrong with it! Now it was Nathan’s turn to grow exercised. Playing with your food is what that is. . . . Want a Lemonhead? he abruptly proposed, in a spirit somewhere between peace offering and taunt, rattling the cardboard box.
Terence, frustrated by the inscrutable terms, elided the offer.
You and your rules, Nate. He plopped heavily down on the cooler seat. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but you’re pretty much the only one anymore who cares about these rules of yours.
Terence was right. The waters had shifted over the years, the fish stocks had depleted, and the charter community had adjusted in kind, unabashedly harnessing every conceivable advantage to locate and land these ever-dwindling creatures. 3-D sonar, 32-megabyte GPS, newfangled baitcasting reels boasting unprecedented torque in complex ratios and variable-speed retrieves, 12-volt electric reels for deep-dropping on the swords miles offshore, a plethora of glimmering, mass-produced stick-baits and plugs, and now these scented plastics, dangerously blurring the live versus artificial boundary. And live bait had always been anathema to Nathan. Any putz could catch a snook throwing live pilchards, pinfish, or mullet. The only thing that mattered anymore, it seemed, was the bottom-line. The fish landed.
No boundaries. No shame.
Nathan, for whatever reason, couldn’t adjust in kind. More and more, it seemed to him, he had become a person who didn’t do, who wouldn’t do, any number of things that most people would do, and did do, as a matter of course. There were innumerable overpriced, overmarketed lures that Nathan refused to tie to his leader, or to the leader of any of his charters, no matter their earnest protestations. The skitterwalk, the skitterpop, the top dog, the popa dog, the popa pup, the shad rap, the jitterbug, the chug bug, the bomber long-A, the hula popper, the zara spook, the thin fin, the spot, the Rat-L-Trap. Anything made by Parabola.
Nathan outright refused to rig any number of set-ups too. The chicken-rig, the fixed float, the sliding float, the stinger rig, the knocker rig. Anything with wire, balloons, kites, pyramid sinkers, bank sinkers, or pencil sinkers.
Nathan’s preferred angling methods comprised a much shorter list, methods faithfully adherent, he felt, to the venerable principles of angling. Ten-pound test. Maybe twelve in a pinch. A medium-weight spinning rod and reel. Artificial bait to match the hatch. He handcrafted his own plugs from dogwood or cedar using a lathe and gouger. He also used bucktail jigs and gleaming spoons, securing all these go-to baits with a trilene, palomar, or loop knot, depending on conditions. He used a few soft-plastics, too, mostly at night, and partly to appease Chad at Swallow Artificials. None of those funky hues and patterns–electric chicken, mango tango surprise, green eggs and ham, drunken monkey, watermelon blaze, psychedelic Chernobyl. . . . Natural presentations only. He rigged them weedless or on a jig–eighth ounce, quarter ounce, half ounce–sometimes below a popping cork that splashed and gurgled and clicked. More often, not. Braided line and 1-ought or 2-ought circle hooks (kinder to the piscine creatures) represented Nathan’s only bows to modernity.
Look around you, Nate. Look, Terence urged. Nathan complied with a weary exhale, lifting his gaze toward the wide expanse of the intracoastal waterway. The natural inlet, he knew, had been at the north end of the lake, just yonder. A rat’s mouth. No more. The Army Corps of Engineers, for whatever reason, had dredged this alternative inlet before the war, this inlet that looked only like the manufactured inlet it was, then stoppered the natural channel. The war. A war his grandfather spent mostly on Miami Beach, then briefly as a latecomer on a separate beach in the Philippines, thanking his lucky stars that two A-bombs precluded the planned assault on Japan’s coast. The war was the only reason pretty much they completed the ICW, a protected waterway passage up and down the eastern seaboard, safely beyond the German U-boats’ field of view.
Where do you think you are, Nate? The Mosquito Lagoon? The Ten Thousand Islands? Flamingo? Biscayne Bay? You want to be an inshore guide throwing plugs, plastic, and spoons with ten-pound mono, you’re in the wrong place. Face it, my brother. They’re gone.
There’s still snook here, Nathan declared, softly, not altogether convincingly. For his snook working group was still searching for scattered, skinny remnants of the forsaken colony. Nathan’s survey of the warmer lee shores, stained water, and dark bottoms in nearby channels hadn’t yet turned up a single survivor. Nathan hoped that at least a few females had survived, fat ones with shoulders. They were protandric hermaphrodites, the snook, changing from male to female as they aged and grew, something the scientists at Mote had just claimed to discover, even though Nathan could have told them as much years ago. What accounted for this precipitous decline? The cold snaps alone? Or was it something else, too? An undiagnosed bacterium or fungus? Habitat loss? Poaching?
Jimminy-Crickets man, Terence squealed in falsetto. Are you going to cast or not, Nathan Herschel Pray?
Now now, Terence.
Might as well gimme some of them Lemonheads!
Nathan grinned, underhanding the cardboard box Terence’s way. Jimminy-Crickets. His God-fearing black friend cultivated a whole lexicon of non-curses, which sounded downright babyish to Nathan’s ears. Such practiced restraint. What was it with these Christians? Need Terence deprive himself a full-throated Jesus Christ once in a while?
I’ll cast . . . I’ll cast . . . I’ll cast, Nathan assured his partner softly, reading the dark water beside the bridge piling, its ripple illumined by the sizzling bulb just a few feet above the surface. Outgoing tide. Yes. Good. Gripping the cork handle lightly, he flipped the bail, felt the textured braid lay across the uncalloused crease along his index finger’s first joint. The first cast. It wasn’t something to attempt, casually. The second, third, fortieth cast, fine. But there was only one first cast. One chance to set his homemade silver mullet down in the drink just beyond the ocher O edge, where dock light gave way to darkness, where the snook (hopefully) lurked. His fastidiously weighted and contoured plug would inspire an underwater wave hewing to the precise real-mullet signature, offering its eons-old come-hither tickle across the snook’s lateral line. He crunched down on the sour sugary remnants of his candy, whipped the rod back, and threw.
Having conceded defeat, tired of Terence’s hectoring, his weary sighs and exhales, his Lemonhead ball abuse between malevolent molars, Nathan took the throttle. Clearing the bend, he gazed out at the blank darkness beyond the green and red inlet lights. A moonless night. Not bad for fishing. Easier to lure the snapper up off the bottom. But dangerous. Nathan struggled to discern where ocean gave way to sky beyond the bow, where sky yielded to ocean. He glanced rightward toward the jetty, where fishermen silhouettes usually offered parting salutes. They were invisible tonight (if they were present), as was the jetty itself of bulldozed boulders and dirt, just inside the green light. Not many boats out, apparently. A couple stern lights winked at them from the third reef. Not a good sign, he knew, the winking, nor was the sea spray he lapped from his stubbly upper-lip just before the bow dipped below the crest of the first wave.
WHOA, he uttered, immediately regretting it.
You call this two feet or less!? Terence widened his stance, gripped the console’s stainless steel frame. Nathan removed the clasp of the safety lanyard from the key-ring and clipped it to his belt-loop.
Not me. NOAA.
I don’t know, Nate.
Water’s just confused here a bit. It won’t be so bad out on the second reef. Offshore breeze’ll die down. We’ll stay at 60 feet or so. How’s that? This was what Nathan always promised, terms Terence usually accepted.
Drown just as easy in 60 feet as 100.
It was tough to argue with such logic, so Nathan didn’t try. Not exactly.
We’re here, he countered, taciturn–a remark so nonsensically incontrovertible that it left Terence dumbstruck.
Nathan motored the vessel to take the chop a bit sideward at the bow. As he couldn’t see the waves, though, it was anyone’s guess how to achieve this position. They took one wave over the bow before Nathan’s eyes adjusted, before he figured out what was what.
Thankfully, it wasn’t too bumpy once they cleared the sandbar beyond the inlet. Just rollers, it seemed, sufficiently spaced. Annoying, but tolerable. They went about their business without words. Nathan scanned the coastline, spotted the telltale droopy Australian Pine silhouettes, the red beacon light in the background, near Dixie. Nathan labored over 36 honey-holes between Deerfield and Boynton along the shallow patch reefs, and the inside and outside of the second and third reefs, recording his spot, conditions (current, wave-height, water temp, etc.), date, and take in his journal. He adhered to a fairly strict rotation, lest he deplete any one honey-hole.
Terence, seated at the stern, sliced semi-thawed sardines for chunk. Nathan eased on the throttle as the slow-moving beacon neared the second notch in the tree line, just off the coast from sprawling San Remo, where the old Italians lived. Terence, ripping off the cardboard top, slipped the first frozen menhaden block inside the mesh bag. Nathan, an eye on the sonar, motored eastward, slowly, the waves lapping the hull. Terence slipped past to the bow, the anchor locker.
Okay . . . now.
Terence, a sneakered foot braced on the gunwale, threw the Danforth.
Nathan turned off the ignition, unclipped the safety lanyard from his belt loop.
The two stood there for a moment at the stern, waiting for the anchor to hold, for the boat to lay downcurrent. Terence, for whatever reason, always stood shoreside, while Nathan took the outside.
The stern shifted to the north as if on a pendulum once the anchor found its purchase. Nathan set out the chum bag Terence had prepared, tied it off to the cleat. Terence tossed a fistful of chunked sardines. They set about lowering their lines. Terence flipped the bail of his reel, peeled off monofilament with his left hand, then flicked his rod upward with the right, enacting the exercise over and over, a conductor leading a symphony. Nathan offered his weighted line no such encouragement. He allowed the eighth-ounce split-shot to perform its own slow work while he gauged the strength, direction and depth of the currents, the monofilament slipping across the pads of his fingers at alternating tempos.
Cold, Terence observed, halting his symphony to throw the hood of his sweatshirt over his clean shorn pate.
How’s the little gangster, Terence asked after Nathan’s son, Miles.
Fine. I mean good. Big meet coming up. Regionals.
Same. Still those ridiculous red dreads.
Not bad. Nathan exhaled. Seems okay most of the time.
This wasn’t Nathan’s favorite kind of fishing. He considered it more like collecting, actually. Collecting a catch for Dixie Doc’s. Paying the bills. But he relished the uncomplicated industry of fishing the reef late at night. While his drowsy town slept, here Nathan was, awake and alive and burning.
He savored this particular moment, especially, this brief spot of time between the bustle of setting up to fish and the actual fishing, the noisy two-stroke shut off, the sound of the sea returned to them, their lines just over the side, the bait slipping down the darkening column, negotiating the curious currents, speaking through his fingers, still a secret to the creatures below, the two of them settling in for the night, clearing their throats, a few quiet words exchanged, taking their essential human inventory before . . . before . . .
Got one! Terence declared, flipping the bail. Snapper, he predicted with confidence, reeling in the line. His drag ziiipped, then held. Decent size. Nathan nodded, threw some chunk bait over the transom as if to kosher the imminent catch.
Think you might need to step up from that split-shot, Nate. Gotta punch through that strong current about thirty feet down. Then, bam!
A good night. The offshore breeze calmed, the ocean lay down, while the current below remained brisk and organized, spiriting the frozen chum along a thin productive trail. Nathan reached down to jostle the mesh bag every so often, as if to encourage a fresh pouch of tea in a steaming cup. When the bite slowed, he plopped ten meatballs or so into the sauce–fist-sized sand-spheres peppered with his proprietary recipe of oats, corn meal, hogmouth fry, and menhaden oil–the heavy, packed meatballs releasing their chum lower in the column than the frozen block, luring the bigger snapper and grouper from their grottoes.
The spinner sharks and lemons weren’t so bad. Only one mangrove snapper came up quivering, half-devoured–gotta pay the tax collectors, Terence noted–which they saved on deck for possible cut-bait later on. They worked efficiently, quietly, through the night, filling both coolers with mixed snappers, mostly mangrove (the water temp a bit cold for the yellowtail), a few blue runners Terence insisted upon keeping, and one large cobia, shark impersonator, strange catch for dead winter, oddly lethargic during the brief battle before thrashing wild boatside, the still-green creature forcing Nathan to use the gaff, which he didn’t much like. The deck a bloody mess. Every once in a while, they heard the distant celebrations from one of the other vessels out at the third reef, odd whoop and wail frequencies lingering in the mild southeast wind. Probably the Little Carlos, Nathan thought. An odd name for the loud boat, as Charlie was much smaller than his enormous center console. Plus, he wasn’t Latino but an ethnic Indian of indeterminate Caribbean descent. A good night for Charlie too, apparently. He wondered if they were catching kings. Or cobia. Their own snappers weren’t too big, not on this nearshore second reef, but they were all over fourteen inches, anyway, and fat.
Call it a night, Nate?
Nathan kneeled at the bow while Terence took the wheel, fired the ignition. He always breathed easier upon hearing the engine’s staccato growl. Nathan pointed toward where the anchor lay and Terence negotiated the vessel, accordingly. Got it, Nathan said, pulling up the rope.
That as fast as you can pull, skinny-boy? Terence teased, expansive. It had been a good night.
Nathan was about to respond in kind when he heard a plashing portside. He turned instinctively toward the sound, his headlamp firing red eyes.
Goodness gracious, Terence uttered, giving voice to Nathan’s thoughts.
What’s he doing out here dead of winter?
Don’t know, Nate. Never seen one so shallow in winter. You?
No. Don’t think so.
This was something else that Nathan enjoyed about these nights collecting fish out over the reef. He never fished the same ocean. However much the city elders screwed with it (the nearby outfall, for example, spewing their vaguely "treated" sewage just eighty feet deep), the sea’s own inscrutable nonhuman order still obtained. Mostly. You never quite knew what you were in for just off the inlet: curious currents beneath the depths speaking through twelve pound test at his fingertips, a river of glowing photoplasm drifting atop the surface, a shadowy squawking flock of shearwater overhead, a lumbering manatee testing the nearshore waters, silver mullet charging the inlet during their fall run, muscular jack crevalle slicing through the underwater clouds, squadrons of shrimp charging the inlet weeks later on spontaneous winter nights, their eyes breathing fire beneath the incandescence of a lantern, ancient sea hares–gothic, winged creatures–relinquishing the fight, drifting inshore to expire, the heavens aglow in strange hues, a grouper sporting curious geometric patterns. And now this small hawksbill, flopping around their waters in December, chasing man-o-war and snappers. There was nothing second-hand or stale about his coastal life. An original relationship here to pursue along this smudge of land and sea. The way things were going, though. How long could he keep at it?
Divers admired these sea turtles for their gracefulness, but it didn’t seem so graceful to Nathan. Rather, the hawksbill seemed out of its element, downright awkward, flopping around on the surface with clumsy flippers, jutting from its clunky armor. We still have that mangrove on deck? Nathan inquired as he sealed the anchor into its locker. Terence wordlessly retrieved the shark-mangled snapper and threw it over the side to the turtle, which seemed to have been expecting the morsel. Probably wasn’t a good idea, Nathan belatedly contemplated. Making boats mean food to the creature. It negotiated the snapper down its gullet with its odd hawk’s bill, bobbing its reptilian head. Shark food, Nathan thought. These turtles.
Terence, smacking his lips, was thinking something else.
Mmm-mmm. We’d turn that turtle back in the day, boy.
What the heck you talking about, Terence?
Pearl City back in the day, Nate. Turtle steak. Turtle burgers. Turtle soup. Turtle fritters. That’s what I’m talkin’ about.
You never turned turtles at the beach, Terence. Your father, maybe. When he was twelve. Turtle burgers. For crying out loud, you ate subs from Grace’s and Whoppers from Burger King with me.
Didn’t say I did. That’s not what I said. Said we did.
Nathan, sitting on the bow seat now, taking a load off, didn’t know what to say to this. He felt a curious pang of envy and groped to locate its source. The expansiveness of Terence’s we, one that spanned generations. It pierced Nathan, somehow. His partner was like one of those true-believer Jews taking over the place now, ridiculous fringes streaming from their waistbands. We were at Sinai together! one of them had accosted Nathan outside Publix, shoving a pamphlet in his face. A nice thought, that. But too theoretical to offer much ballast– even for these strange Jews, Nathan suspected, which probably accounted for their insatiable procreative efforts, giving the Stillwaters a run for their money. The Florida Prays, by contrast, were ever few, and fading fast.
He looks okay, anyway, Nathan said, coming to.
Give him another one? Terence proposed. Cooler’s full.
Probably not a good idea.
Keep fightin’ the good fight big guy, Nathan proposed as he fired the ignition, impelling the turtle to disappear beneath a patch of sargassum, lit now by the risen half-moon. He motored slowly, clearing the turtle’s possible sphere. Then, removing his headlamp, securing it atop the console, he punched the throttle, exercising the Merc across the tranquil sea, appreciating the frosty mentholated air in his lungs. Within minutes, they reached the inlet, which Nathan took wide in outsized deference to the sandbar. Once inside the jetty, Nathan slowed the skiff off plane. He could see the jetty now beneath the moon. The fishermen, if they had ever been out tonight, had abandoned their posts.
Solid night, Terence burst the sudden quiet.
Yeah. Sure was. Nathan considered their coolers, performed a silent calculation in his head. The wind’s echo still hummed in his ears.
Fillet a few for the ladies? Terence asked after they pulled to the deserted dock, as Nathan knew he would ask. He noticed Charlie’s parked trailer. And Nguyen’s, the kingfish specialist. They fished Nathan’s waters, more or less, fairly close to shore. Otherwise, hardly any hook-and-line guys left these parts. The few white commercial fishermen, anymore, stalked swordfish in larger, costlier boats, miles and miles off the coast in the northward flowing gulfstream. Snapper and grouper men worked the fishier Keys.
Sure you want these blue runners, T? Got plenty of snapper.
Now don’t be dissin’ my runners, Terence replied, channeling his street voice. Perfectly good eatin’. Good enough fish for anyone. Nathan smiled, handing Terence the keys to the truck.
While Terence climbed up on the dock, Nathan opened the aft cooler and threw nine snappers and the blue runners into a five gallon bucket. It used to have words on it, the bucket, some kind of birdseed or something, Nathan remembered, but the salt air and water had long ago erased them. He set the bucket up on the dock, then followed after it. Too suddenly. Ohhhh. He stood still to gather his innards. His confused kishkas. Nausea sometimes gripped him shoreside (though never at sea, curiously enough). Okay. He carried on toward the broad filleting tables while Terence retrieved the trailer. There was talk lately of removing the stations, banning fish cleaning at this particular marina, which catered increasingly to an upscale pleasure-boater cohort, none too pleased in the morning by the sight and stench of stray, stripped carcasses about from sloppy nighttime fishermen. Terrific. Just one more imminent development sure to wound Nathan. And Charlie. And Nguyen.
He freed the fillets from their frames, from skin and scale, quickly, skillfully, scoring practiced incisions at precise locales just behind the gill plates, close along the bump bump bump of the backbones (no meat to waste), around the ribcages. Six healthy fillets for Sam and Miles, eight for the larger Stillwater clan, plus the darker, oily blue runner slabs. He heard the Pray Fish rise from the ramp under Terence’s command, shedding its seawater onto the pavement like a canine shaking off its wet. He split open the fat belly of the next mangrove, throat to vent, removed the viscera with a scoop of two fingers. He slit open its translucent intestinal sheath, its more solid stomach. Between the pads of his thumb and two fingers, he inspected the semi-digested bounty: a few thawed sardine sheets, a gritty paste of pulverized menhanden–skin and scale and bones and meat. The snapper had imbibed lustily in their chum slick. But what was this? Crab remains smaller than a thumbprint, a spindly exoskeleton leeched of its meat. Interesting.
Terence joined Nathan at the steel table after running fresh water through the Merc and they scaled and dressed the remaining catch. Terence scaled. Nathan gutted. There was a world, Nathan idly thought, that would have valued these gifted flicks of his wrist, the well-honed muscle memories of thumb and forefinger. A world of fishermen, butchers, bakers, carpenters, cobblers, coopers, drummers, plumbers, seamstresses and tailors. But this world didn’t exist anymore. Instead, the world, at least the only world Nathan knew, had grown impatient with the familiar vocations. Farmed them out on the cheap, along with the fish, themselves. (Tilapia. This once-African species, genetically re-engineered to taste like mud–didn’t anyone notice?!–farmed, flash-frozen, and freighted from China, Vietnam, Costa Rica and who knew where else?!) Nathan had been born kicking and screaming into a world full of people prized for performing a ceaselessly expanding subdividing list of arcane tasks. A world–or at least a country–where the teeming hordes didn’t seem to do much of anything, far as he could tell. What would become of a nation whose citizens functioned two or three times removed from the actual realm of making and crafting and building and doing? Flimsy stuff upon which to build a civilization, or a town. The fisherman exhaled volubly through his deviated septum.
Nothing, T. . . . Crab on that second reef.
It’s not that I don’t like fishing with you, Nate, Terence finally confessed between fish, exercising his fingers, flicking inward the pale undersides of his upraised digits, working out the kinks. I’m still game for a while yet. Just we’re not getting any younger is the thing.
I know. It’s okay, Terence.
Tournament stuff I’m all in. Sure enough. Just this late night thing . . . I don’t know. Like I say, I’m still game for a while maybe. But if you want to fish with someone else too. Or instead of me. One of those mates at the dock, say. A younger guy like that probably appreciate the money.
I hear you, Terence. No worries. I’ll figure something out.
Always work for me at Carver, Nate. Like I said. Wouldn’t be the end of the world, you know.
I know, T.
You’ll go to school in the morning, leave in the afternoon. Livable wage. Benefits. Have dinner and go to sleep like a real person. Simple. Life’s good when it’s simple.
Yeah, Nathan answered. I know. I’ll think about it, he said, wondering for the first time if he meant it.
Copyright © Andrew Furman 2010
Andrew Furman teaches in the MFA program at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of two books of literary criticism, a novel, Alligators May Be Present (2005), and the newly released memoir, My Los Angeles in Black and (Almost) White (2010). In addition, he has published numerous essays on Jewish literature, race, and the environment in a variety of publications, including Oxford American Magazine, Poets & Writers, Agni Online, Ecotone, Image, JBooks, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Forward. He also reviews books frequently for The Miami Herald. "Jewfish" is part of his novel-in-progress, nearing completion.