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Donald Mangum

Losing Steerage

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 me.

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 trying.

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?"

"Yes."

"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 too?"

"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 the reel.

"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 really big.

"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 somebody."

"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, haven't you?"

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.

"Well?" he said.

"Quite a boat you've got here," I said.

"I've got?"

"Whoever."

"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 my house.

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 yet."

"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 shot.

"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 the helm.

"Why?" I said.

"You fish."

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," he said.

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 said.

"I don't care what you do with the fish."

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 they?"

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."

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