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Dinty W. Moore

Lem

 

"Check out the rack on that one, Billy."

That was my Uncle Lemís favorite phrase, one he could easily repeat seven or eight times as we crossed town in his battered Ď63 Impala. Occasionally, some middle-aged woman strolling up the sidewalk on her way to the beauty parlor would sense his attention and quicken her steps.

If we werenít in his car, we were in his boat, a sixteen-footer with hard seats. Lem dragged along a paper bag with his beer, his cigarettes, and a cup of worms. Iíd have a sandwich. The Evinrude would sputter blue smoke.

"You gettiní any?" At first, I would think he meant bites, nibbles on my hook. But his eyes would narrow, his lip would curl at the side, Iíd get a glimpse of his yellow teeth, and he would laugh, low and dirty.

Then a wink. "I know what itís like. I know what you boys do."

I was in seventh grade, wasnít doing anything. I had less interest in "getting any" than I did in getting away from Lem, but my father was gone, and my mother thought I needed a male influence. Her older brother was the best she could manage.

One Tuesday, a week before my fourteenth birthday, I pulled in a good-sized lake perch, but the damn thing swallowed the hook. "Your turn," Lem grunted, handing me the pliers. "You pull it out." Lemís skin had been turning more and more a sickening shade of yellow, and as he held the fish, cursing at the sharp fins and slapping tail, I saw the same yellow shimmering from the scales.

I yanked too hard on the barbed hook and felt something tear, cartilage maybe. The fish went stiff in Lemís big hands, then started struggling again, huffing through panicked gills. One eyeball turned up and seemed to be staring right at me, lucid, questioning, asking me what I had done. For a second, I couldnít breathe.

Lem died not too long after. Something with his liver. He wore a suit for this first time in forty years, and Daniel Quinn at Quinnís Funeral Home carefully closed his yellowed eyelids, powdered his face.

But when my mother forced me to kneel beside the casket, when I pretended to pray, I could feel Lem watching me anyway, his eyes lucid, questioning, accusing me of something I hadnít yet done.


Dinty W. Moore is the author of Toothpick Men as well as two books on literary nonfiction. His stories have been published in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, and numerous other journals, and he is the regular essayist for Arts & Letters: Journal of Contemporary Culture.

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