This is what my brother got drunk
one night and said: "I thought we were going to stay together
on this thing. I thought the boat would keep us together. Then
I spend every spare minute attempting to make her seaworthy, doing
things which you haven't even made it your business to understand.
I don't mind the expenses. What I mind is, you're ninety miles
from me and I don't hear a word. So I do it all myself. Then I
call and say she's ready. We can go out on the weekend, and you
tell me you're busy."
This was while I was visiting him
shortly after my first year of law school. I could tell he was
trying not to cry. He told me he loved me, and that he knew he
had always tried to show it by being a father to me since Daddy
was too old and sick to raise a kid by the time I was born.
He said he thought the boat would make things different, because
when we bought it neither one of us knew anything about seamanship
or marine engineering and we would learn them together. He asked
me if that was what I was afraid of, that he was still acting
too much like a father.
"No," I said. But I was
thinking how even if I had been there to help with the boat, he
would have learned it all, been able to do everything faster than
I could have. He's got an IQ of about two hundred and thirteen--something
really grotesque like that--and soon he would have been teaching
Still, I'd have gone when he called
if it hadn't been for exams. I'd have gone when exams were over
too, but he didn't call again the rest of the summer. I learned
from Mother that he was taking the boat out every once in a while
with Anita, his wife, and her two kids, but that they didn't seem
to be catching many fish. She said he'd said they weren't really
Then, after fall semester started,
when I was up late reading, Michael called. "Please understand,"
he said, "that I'm drinking, and I'm lonesome, and I've been
drinking since around noon and I've been thinking that there's
this boat up here that's not doing anybody any good." I waited,
expecting him to say he wanted to sell the boat. Then: "So,
do you want to go fishing?"
"All right," I said.
"Could you get Friday off?"
"Have your gear and enough clothes
for three days. I'll see you Friday morning."
"Fine," I said. "I'll
see you then."
I took a flashlight out to the tool
shed to see if I had a reel that still worked. My fishing equipment
was tangled together into a single mass of line, rods and lures,
and in the near dark, it took most of a quarter of an hour to
free the old Ambassador 5000 Michael had given me when I was a
kid. I tested the drag and release, decided it was useable, and
took it inside to clean and oil.
Julie sat at the kitchen table drinking
a glass of milk. "The phone woke me," she said, staring
at the reel. "You going night fishing?"
"Michael called. We're going
to the coast."
"You're kidding. Me and Anita
"I don't think so." I got
a bottle of bourbon from the cabinet, then filled a glass with
ice. "You want a drink?"
"No. I guess he wants to talk
and stuff, huh?"
"I don't know. Maybe he just
wants to fish. He wants to stay three days, so I'm taking Friday
off." I took my drink to the table and began to fiddle with
"Maybe I'll go to Jackson and
visit your mother. Are you going to be up much longer?"
I stared at the reel and tried to
think about fishing and what it feels like to catch something
"I may," I said.
Friday morning, I had wanted
to sleep late but couldn't, so I got up, made coffee, and took
it out on the patio to watch the sunrise. I decided to cook a
big breakfast since it would probably be the last actual meal
I'd have for a few days. Michael can make a real show of sacrificing
comfort for utility, and I had visions of him checking out library
books on nutrition, then inventing something on his own--some
gray paste that is unspoilable and that you keep under the bow
of the boat, scooping out handfuls at scheduled intervals.
At seven, I woke Julie for breakfast
in bed. She swallowed some coffee and began to pole her egg yolk
with a piece of bacon. "I called your mother while you were
in class last night and told her I was coming up," she said.
"She didn't know you two were going fishing."
"So, how's Mom?"
"She sounded worried about your
brother. She said he looks terrible and that he's always mad at
"He always looks terrible,"
I said. "Who's he mad at?"
"Her, Anita, the kids."
"Is that all?"
"I'm not supposed to say."
I got up and stuffed clothes into
a nylon sack while Julie dressed for work.
At nine o'clock, I took the bicycle
to the bank and then to the K-Mart for a pair of polarized sunglasses
and a fishing license. When I got home, Michael was trying to
back the boat into the driveway. He wasn't doing a very good job,
and he gave me a look, I guessed, for not being there when he'd
arrived. I directed him as far in as he could get, leaving half
the car sticking out in the street, and we went inside to cool
off, Michael bringing with him a can of imitation Vienna sausages
and half a loaf of white bread. "I need to eat," he
explained. In the kitchen, I made instant tea while Michael devised
a sandwich of sorts by wrapping a slice of bread around several
sausages. He hunched over the can of imitation Viennas, his legs
thin and white, jutting out from a pair of madras shorts so huge
on him they looked like a kilt. He lifted the last sausage halfway
to his mouth, hesitated, then began waving it around as though
wondering where it belonged. He returned it to the can.
"You look great," he said,
wiping his fingers on his T-shirt. "You've gained weight,
I nodded. "I've been working
out," I said. "I quit smoking."
"You really look good."
"I've been gardening. You want
to see the garden?"
"What did you think of the boat?"
I blinked, then looked in the direction
of the driveway. I didn't really get a chance to see it,"
I said. "We came in so fast."
"Come on," he said.
The Dauntless was, of course,
a model of stoical engineering. He had ripped out the seats and
replaced them with ice chests, and in every available space, he
had built compartments now packed with life jackets, camping gear,
and emergency supplies. There were a dozen gas tanks along the
sides and under the bow. The gas lines were connected to valve
switches so either the main motor or the kicker--mounted on a
retractable transom--could feed off any given tank at the flip
of a switch. At the helm, he had installed a panel, which controlled
lights, bilge pump, horn, and auxiliary battery.
"Quite a boat you've got here,"
"Well, I guess she's mine until
you learn to run her."
On the way down we talked about a
duck hunt we had had three years ago. Neither of us had gotten
a weather forecast. When we left the house at three in the morning,
the temperature was in the low forties. An hour later we ran into
one of the fiercest cold waves to hit the state in years. When
we parked at the bean field the car swayed with what we later
learned was a fifty-mile-per-hour wind. The temperature was in
the teens with a wind chill of minus thirty. Dressed for a slight
chilliness, we sat in the car considering going back. When we
decided to stay, Michael reviewed the symptoms of hypothermia,
one of which is retarded mental processes. Our plan was to stay
together and keep talking. The first time one of us said anything
stupid, the other was to insist we go back. It was the best shooting
either one of us had ever done. We had both limits in ten minutes.
"What did we talk about?" I said. "I mean in the
field. What did we say?"
Michael shook his head. "My
question--" he pulled out a cigarette, lit it and inhaled,
"--is what made us go out there?" He blew out smoke.
We arrived at the park where we were
to camp, checked out the boat launch, and picked up a map of the
area. A channel ran from the launch through a grassy marsh, into
the main channel out of Biloxi Bay, then on into the sound. Michael
said we wouldn't do any fishing until the next morning, since
there were a lot of afternoon squalls at that time of year. It
took about an hour to get registered and set up the tent. Next
we drove to get some beer and then to the launching area to drink
it. At the pier, I began to throw Michael's bait net, thinking
I might get enough grass shrimp to boil for supper.
On the pier with us was a woman from
in town, crabbing with her grandson, who she said was visiting
her from Arkansas. They hadn't been catching anything, so Michael
got a small rod and reel out of the boat and showed the little
boy how to rig it for croaker and ground mullet. Michael coached,
and I caught enough shrimp to keep them supplied with bait.
While I threw the net, the woman
told me about the alligators that hung around the launch and about
a boy she had seen try to catch one once. He had tied a clothesline
to a large hook baited with a chicken wing. A gator took the bait
and then swam underwater, getting the line tangled on a submerged
log or something. She said the water kept churning over the spot
for about a half an hour until the gator drowned. And to make
matters worse, she said, the little boy had laughed the whole
time, saying his daddy had killed more gators than he could count,
over in Louisiana, and that one day he was going to come get him
and they were going to move to Alaska and hunt manatees.
She watched her son pull
in another fish. "Jerry," she said. "Don't you
think it's about time to go?"
"One more," the kid said.
Michael was leaning against the piling, drinking a beer and watching.
He'd taught all he knew about pier fishing.
"I don't believe I got your
name," the woman then said to me.
"William," I said. "That's
my brother, Michael."
"How nice," she said. "I
had hoped Jerry would have a brother." There was something
in her voice. "Now I'm not sure his parents need a child."
At the campsite after dark, dinner
was imitation Vienna sausages and Spanish peanuts. Michael was
not hungry, even though he had not eaten since that morning at
I said, "So what's on for tomorrow?"
Michael drained a beer. "Well,
we could troll off the outside of Ship Island for Spanish mackerel,"
he said. "Or there's a shallow in the Camille Cut where we
could wade for specks and ladyfish." He paused, staring.
at me. "Or if we just wanted something to put a bend in the
rod, we could troll the outside of Horn for jacks and bonita.
I don't know where to go for ling. I haven't figured that out
"Something big would be good,"
I said. "Maybe jacks."
"Then jacks it is," he
said. "You want a beer?" I nodded. He climbed into the
boat, got two beers from the ice chest, and returned to the gas
lantern which we hunkered over like it was a campfire. I offered
him the last sausage in the can and he shook his head. Somewhere
a bullfrog began booming like an old motor revving up. The crickets
were loud enough to annoy.
"You never answered," he
said. "About the bean field."
I thought a minute. "It was
dangerous. Maybe it was dumb to go."
He reached for the last Vienna and
put it in his mouth. He chewed for a second, stopped, then stood
up. "I gotta piss," he said. He walked over to the bushes.
I watched him spit out the sausage. "I hope you don't get
too far behind in your work," he said returning. "I
mean by coming."
"Don't worry about it,"
I said. "I need this. I really need to catch a big fish."
I lay in my tent later, thinking
of Michael's question about why we went into the bean field. A
wind that strong is like something alive, and as we moved through
it across the field, nothing seemed more wrong than to take the
next step, and then the next, until the car was out of sight and
nothing was visible but the ground and each other, and there was
no bearing but the wind itself. At first light, the clouds appeared
low and fast, and the ducks seemed to spill out of them, speckling
the whole sky, exhausted from riding the front in. Something screamed
behind us. A pair of gadwalls appeared suddenly overhead, banked,
then sprawled into the wind, feet and wings set, necks craning.
I fired without thinking, missed, and fired again. It was still
dark enough to see the barrel flame, and one of the ducks died
in the air, both wings folding completely against its breast,
and fell. The other pounded its wings in a vertical climb, twisted
around for a tail wind, then somersaulted as it folded with Michael's
"Michael," I said.
A sound came from the tent next to
mine, a grunt, so I couldn't tell whether he was awake or not.
"It was because the goddamn
ducks wouldn't come to the car," I said.
Another noise, probably a snore,
and I went to sleep.
We entered the sound at dawn. There
was a slight breeze, and though the water wasn't smooth, there
were no white caps. About nine miles out, we spotted Horn Island.
Michael gave me the helm and said to head for the western tip
while he rigged the trolling rods. We rounded the tip of the island, leaving the short choppy waves of the sound for the big lazy swells of the open gulf. Michael set out the lines and asked for
"Why?" I said.
I sat down to watch the rods. We
hadn't gone half the length of the island when one of them started
bending wildly back and forth. I hollered, but Michael had already
jerked back the throttle. I stood, then looked at Michael to show
him he could still have the fish.
"Take it," he said.
Thirty minutes later the fish showed
no signs of tiring. Michael had dropped the anchor and now sat
up on the bow with his legs crossed. He was smoking a cigarette
and watching when something on the transom caught his eye. He
got up and moved toward the stern.
"We've got a problem,"
By the time the big jack came into
sight, Michael was on his back with cables and tools lying all
over the deck. I tried to gaff the fish in the mouth, hoping to
do the least harm, but missed, getting it right in the gills.
Blood poured all over the deck, the tools, the steering cables,
Michael's back. "I don't suppose you could do something about that?"
he said. I didn't even know what to do about the fish. It was
about thirty-five pounds--too big for either ice chest--and already
as good as dead.
"What about the fish?"
"I don't care what you do with
I started to throw it in, then changed
my mind and stuffed as much of it as I could into an ice chest.
Eight inches of the tail stuck out under the lid. Then I got the
mop and swabbed the deck. "Can you tell me what the problem
is?" I asked.
He stopped twisting the screwdriver
for a second, looked at me, and then continued. "The problem,"
he said, "is that this roller's worn out, and the cable was
slipping off. I had to disconnect the whole cable to get it back
on. Here. Hold this as tight as you can while I screw the clamp
back on." We finished, and he packed up the tools while I
hoisted the anchor. Then he started the motor and headed for port.
After tying up at the dock, Michael
got out the tools and disconnected the steering cable again. "How's
it look?" I said. "Can we just go get a new roller?"
He stood there for a moment in the
late summer heat, scrawny, blood-soaked, contemplating his answer,
his instructions, the boat in chaos around him. Then, "We
could if that were the whole problem," he said. "But
to replace the roller we'd have to take off this other cable clamp,
and it's frozen solid with rust. That means we'll have to cut
the cable and put on a new clamp, but if we cut the cable we won't
have enough left to reconnect it to the new roller. And that means
I've got to install a whole new cable, and I can't do that here."
"You're sure you can't loosen
the clamp? You've tried?"
"Look at it, William!"
I took a screwdriver and applied
all my strength to the clamp. The screw gave. "There you
are," I said. I almost felt bad about it. "Shall we
go buy a roller?"
Michael rubbed his eyes for a minute.
"I'll go," he said. "One of us needs to stay here
with the boat."
When Michael left, I sat down on
the finger pier and dangled my feet in the water till something
nibbled my toes, and I screamed and was off the pier in about
half a second. Then I started looking through the boat for something
to eat. It occurred to me that Michael hadn't had any food in
over twenty-four hours.
I was eating Spanish peanuts and
admiring the fish when Michael returned, before he'd had time
to leave the campground. He came and sat down on the pier. "It's
beautiful," he said, looking at the fish.
"It is," I said. "Maybe
we should have it mounted or something. They're not edible, are
Michael shook his head. "I didn't
get the roller," he said. I looked out across the channel,
hoping maybe to see an alligator. The water lay flat and dark
through the marsh. The air was dense, pressing. "I was just
thinking," my brother said. "About one more problem
we might have with the boat."