The whole class went fishing, last day of third grade. This was 1980. I remember the rods lined up along the blackboard like skinny kids hoping to be chosen for kickball. My father had lent me a light-weight black rod, spinning reel, three-pound-test line. Perfect for lake fishing. Red-and-white bobber, slices of Wonder Bread for bait. Alex Meltzer had forgotten to bring a rod. His mother was too busy and father too not around to remind him. He cried silently at his desk, kids skidding their chairs away from him, until Mrs. Connor told him, “You can fish with Joe.”
Mrs. Connor had a kind, round face and made each of us think we were in the top reading group. She had a son in high school famous for his record-setting field goals, who came to class once and talked to us about working hard. I liked Mrs. Connor, but sometimes she singled me out.
“No way,” I said. Fishing with Alex meant I’d get only half the casts. Catch half the fish. “Why me?”
“You’re the expert fisherman,” she said. I was. I bragged about it a lot. “And Alex should be paired with the best.” Alex snorted up some snot. He wiped his nose with his hand and looked over at me, mouth open, his front teeth big and crooked. Turd Worm’s lips never closed all the way. That’s what everyone called him on the bus and at recess. Turd Worm. Worm because he was so skinny. Turd because we knew nothing worse.
I didn’t want to be paired with Turd Worm or anyone else. Rumors of the fishing trip had reached me in the first grade. Two years I waited. Now it was here. Better than my birthday. My dad captained the Lady Elise, named after my little sister who was born but never lived. Twice daily—once at dawn, again in the afternoon—my dad set his compass for East 120° and his customers would jig for mackerel or blues or bass, depending on the season. In his better moods, he let me come out with him on the boat as his “second mate.” (His first mate everyone called Cousin, a bony, hairy man with bug eyes and a fleshy bulb-nose stuck on like God was running out of time. Cousin kept my ears full with stories of fishing for giant tuna, my stomach full with strawberry Yoo-hoo.)
At eight years old I knew how to tie on weights, leaders, hooks, lures, how to cast, how to know when to let out slack from your reel and when not to. Back at the dock I could tie lines. I could fend off the boat from its pilings without mashing my hands. The men loved me. Their own kids didn’t know anything. They rocked from leg to leg, pale and impatient, always having to pee and throwing up at the first sign of choppy water. But I could spot seagulls feeding miles away. I could steer on course, climb up and down the fly-bridge ladder like a monkey. On the Lady Elise I didn’t feel fat. In the sun my skin bronzed and my hair lightened, and I laughed at the right times and squinted like I knew a thing or two.
In school, though, I was Fat Joe. Worse than being Turd Worm, because it was so simple. Fat. Joe. Fatjoe. Not just at recess, or on the bus. In class, too, teacher front and center, kids would fake sneeze, put their hands up over their noses, and go, “Fah-JOE!” Everyone laughed. Even Turd Worm. Especially Turd Worm.
Today, I’d give everyone a hint of myself at sea. Where the rod was just another part of my arm. Joe Miller, professional fisherman. Not someone to laugh at.
At one o’clock we marched double-file with our rods on the sidewalk through town, to the lake. Cars beeped. Drivers waved. In front of me, Tino put up his middle finger. Paula said “Quit it,” and he called her fat lard. I felt sorry for Paula. She had brought an ocean rod. As if Franklin Lake had bluefish or tuna swimming in it. The rod was so thick you’d never feel a trout’s bite. Paula was fat like me and now she had brought a fat rod.
But at least she didn’t have to share it with anybody.
“I get two casts,” I told Alex. “Then you get one.”
“I don’t even want to cast your stupid pole.”
“It’s called a rod, Alex.” It was no use calling him Turd Worm with nobody else listening.
The wind quit and temperature rose. We tied windbreakers and sweatshirts around our waists. We passed Nino’s Pizza and Cost Cutters and the post office. Passed Murphy’s Cleaners and, across the street, the Cedar Lane School, grades 4-8, where we’d go next year. Where we’d be the youngest again, like in kindergarten. Two men, or maybe boys, stood on the cement steps of the school, cigarettes in their fingers. They wore blue jeans and t-shirts, no windbreakers. One had a basketball under his foot. Were they students or teachers? As we marched by with our rods they laughed at us.
Let them. I was going to bring home fish for dinner. I carried an Igloo with me with an ice pack at the bottom. I’d put my fish in there and later my dad would fillet them and we’d pig out on trout. I hated eating fish unless I caught them.
“Can you come over and play?” Alex was looking at me.
“Today. We can watch Batman.”
I watched Batman anyway. “I’ll ask.” But I wouldn’t. He was Turd Worm.
His family lived next door in a two-story house larger than ours. It was disease-yellow on the outside, I don’t know what on the inside. I’d never been. They’d moved to the neighborhood over the winter, after months of foul-mouthed men hammering dawn to dusk, blaring rock music through their tinny radio, and hauling tons of dirt around in rusty tractors. Mountains of dirt still filled the Meltzers’ backyard. No grass grew. You could play King of the Mountain. You could play Mars. But Alex didn’t. He was never outside. Not on the dirt, or on a bike or a skateboard. Not ever. He’d probably break, he was so skinny.
Even though Alex lived next door, my parents didn’t force me to become friends with him. They knew I knew he was weird. And they were cold on his folks, and not just because their yard was a mess. Mrs. Meltzer worked for a drug company and didn’t greet her kids after school. Instead, her dark car pulled into the driveway at six, six-thirty. Other families were finished with supper already.
As for Mr. Meltzer, when he wasn’t hauling cargo across America, he rode a Harley around town, no helmet. He also played the guitar in a rock band in his garage, and at night our house would quake from the vibrations. My father went to sleep early for work, and the noise kept him up. He’d walk the halls muttering about the damn noise pollution and how we supposedly lived in a decent neighborhood.
You knew Mr. Meltzer was in town when, Monday morning, trash bags overflowing with beer cans lined the curb. “Do you see that?” my father said to me once, pointing. I had missed the bus and he was taking me to school. “I don’t care how old you are—your trash ever looks like that, I’ll bust your behind.”
A green film covered the lake. Thick and thin tree branches reached out of the water like people’s withered limbs. Tires and car parts peeked out closer to the shoreline, which was brown and sudsy as if somebody kept scrubbing the lake over and over with the same dirty rag. On the lake sat a spattering of ducks, eyeing us. In high school I’d learn that the lake was a mile around. We’d run its rocky circumference for gym class, twice around or else. In winter, kids skated the lake and sometimes fell through and almost died and made it into the weekly paper.
Mrs. Connor and two chaperones told everybody to stand here or here, but not here, not too close to the water, to cast away from trees, away from each other. They said to be patient. “Fishing is all about being patient.”
Fishing isn’t all about being patient. It’s all about catching fish.
In the ocean, you can smell when fish are near. You taste it in your gut like birds can. Franklin Lake tasted nothing like fish. It smelled like eggs and Vaseline. Still, I cast into the water, ready to tame the lake. Ready for everyone to see me like this. Me. Rod. Reel. Skill. Igloo of fish. I waited, watching the bobber for the smallest sign of life. After a while I reeled it in to make sure the balled-up bread hadn’t come off, or that no muck was on the hook. Another cast. Bobber soaring through the air. Line whirring from the reel.
Soon the sun would fall behind the high school, but now it was shining over the lake, reflecting everything. “It looks like the high school’s in the lake,” I said. The flagpole was in the lake. American flag, green from the muck, flapping in the lake. Tall trees in the lake. All of us in the lake. The whole place, drowning.
“Pretend we all live in the water,” Alex said, “and we have to swim everywhere.” He walked around for a while, swimming, until I reeled in the line. “Hey, it’s my turn,” he said. It was his turn. I’d already taken ten or more turns. On either side of us kids were casting or reeling or untangling their lines. Some had given up already and were balling up their bread and feeding the ducks that had come ashore.
“Fine,” I said, and showed him how to stand, how to throw the rod behind him but keep his pointer finger on the line, how to throw the rod forward, to lift his pointer finger from the line at just the right time. Of course he tangled my line and put the bobber in the rocks. I had to cut the line with the pocket knife my dad had given me and retie everything. He sat on my Igloo, head in hands, staring out into the lake and nearly crying. “Here, try again,” I said.
His eyes got big. “No way. I don’t want to go again. You go. So can you watch Batman today?”
“I said I’ll ask.” I wasn’t strong, but I could cast, and the bobber landed far into the lake. Farther than anyone else’s.
“Nice cast!” Alex was up beside me, hands on hips.
“Oh, I cast farther than all the men on my dad’s boat,” I told him. “I can cast a mile. We measured it.”
“Liar,” he said.
I reeled in the line. “Just watch me.” I cast it as hard as I could. The end of the rod whipped through the air, sounding like sword-fights on TV, and the bobber landed even farther than before.
“Nice cast! Can I eat a piece of bread?”
I’d only used half a slice already. I knew I didn’t need all three. “Ask Mrs. Connor.” He ran off. A minute later I heard the Igloo behind me open and click shut again, and when I cast again he yelled, “Niiiice caaaast!” It had become a game, more fun than not catching fish. I reeled in my line and we repeated it.
The next cast, I hooked a shrub behind me. I’d thrown the rod back over my shoulder like before. When I yanked it forward again, it got caught. It felt like a shrub and bent the end of my rod. I didn’t know that the hook was in Alex’s neck. I still faced the lake, imagining my farthest cast yet. One that would have my classmates and Mrs. Connor and the chaperones gathered round, asking how I did it. What my secret was.
I tugged on the rod.
Still caught. The instant I turned around, the shrub became Alex, looking at me with his head tilted slightly, as if confused. There was no blood. You could barely see the hook at all. Just thin fishing line coming from his neck, suspending the bobber in air like a magic trick, then snaking along the ground and leading to my lightweight rod, my spinning reel, my hands. The fingers of Alex’s right hand held a corner of white bread.
The rod fell out of my hands to the grass. I ran after Mrs. Connor or another chaperone. Or I started crying or lost my breath and sat down or I stood there dumb. I definitely stayed away from Alex. And soon enough everyone was gathered around like I had imagined, but gathered around him, not me. I backed away and from between the branches of a tree watched Mrs. Connor on her haunches, looking Alex in the eyes and speaking softly to him. She stroked his hair. They could have been in love.
When the ambulance came it flashed its lights, but no siren. A man in white uniform cut the fishing line above the bobber. He and another man laid Alex on a stretcher like a dead person and loaded him into the ambulance. A chaperone went into the ambulance alongside the stretcher. After it drove away, Mrs. Connor found me behind the tree trying not to cry. She knelt down to my level.
“My kids’ve hooked themselves dozens of times,” she said.
I looked down at Mrs. Connor’s muddy white sneakers. “I’ve never seen a dead person before.”
“Dead? Who’s dead?” She looked around. “Not Alex. Alex’ll probably be back at school before we are.”
But before I could ask Mrs. Connor what made her so sure, she and the other chaperones were telling everyone to pack up. Time to leave. The fishing trip was done. I went over to the corner of bread that Alex must have dropped on the ground before being taken away. There it was, a little sandy but untrampled. I balled it into a tight pill and ate it. Then I got my Igloo. We marched with our rods and no fish back to the Shore Breeze Elementary school, double-file lines intact, Turd Worm’s absence screaming beside me.
A few years later, Mrs. Connor’s son Brett, the place-kicker, rode into Penn State on a full-ride athletic scholarship, then tore his knee even before the first coin toss. In the weekly paper back home, Mrs. Connor assured everyone that her son, the pride of Gaston, New Jersey, would be back kicking field goals by mid-season. “You can count on it,” she said.
She was wrong about her son, and wrong about Alex, too. He wasn’t at school that afternoon. After the final bell I waited as long as possible out in front of the building, until the bus driver made me climb aboard. On the ride home I stared at my reflection in the window and kept thinking about jail, and whether they sent kids there. Whether they ever let you call your parents on the phone. If they had private bathrooms or if you had to go in a long, smelly trough with other people peeing into it too, like at the baseball game my father had taken me to the previous summer. I missed my stop and had to walk three extra blocks.
When I got home, I told my mother the trip was “fine.” Put the fishing gear in the garage, declined a snack, went to my room. If Alex was dead, I’d probably go to jail. If he wasn’t dead, then my parents didn’t ever need to know what had happened.
I didn’t come out until supper. At the table my father asked how the trip was. To my guilty ears, his innocent question sounded anything but.
“Fine,” I said, not realizing that after my long-awaited fishing trip, I ought to be talking up a storm.
My parents looked at each other, as if confirming something.
“Did you catch any fish?” My father asked.
What did they know? Had Mrs. Connor ratted me out, phoning my mother while the bus drove me home? Had the police come by? Were they waiting now in the laundry room? Everything my parents said felt like a trap.
Not knowing whether I was better off having caught fish or having not caught fish, I took a long time answering. I cut a piece of meat loaf.
“Yep.” I pretended to have trouble getting green beans on my fork, and stuffed some in my mouth. “A bunch.”
“A bunch! Gee whiz.” My father never said “gee whiz.” He leaned forward in his chair, propped his chin on his elbows. “What’d they look like?”
“The fish? They were green. And red.”
“Green! Red! Like Christmas fish.” He whistled. “Caught yourself a whole school of Christmas fish.” His voice got quiet suddenly as he said to my mother, as if in confidence, “So why is it you suppose our son’s lying to us?”
“I’m not lying!” I dared myself to look him in the eyes. “I swear to God!”
He held my gaze until my eyes burned and it was either blink or go blind. Hours passed. Entire seasons. “Okay,” he said, and began eating again.
“Joey,” my mother said, “honey, if there’s anything you need to tell us—”
“The boy swears to God he’s not a liar,” my father said. “So I guess he isn’t.”
And for a while, there was the sound of humans chewing. Of silverware scraping on dishes and a refrigerators motor clicking on. A chair’s legs rubbing against vinyl. Then, a doorbell.
I lurched in my seat. The police! My father frowned and checked his watch. My mother went for the door. She returned with a tall blond woman who looked like the women on TV news. She had a small, perfectly straight nose underneath widely spaced blue eyes. She wore a sleeveless navy-blue suit, and her skin looked richly tan like on commercials for sunny places. And yet you didn’t think for a moment she wasted time on any beach. She looked all business. I’d seen her before taking out the trash or carrying grocery bags, and she always moved with purpose, like she wasn’t running late but was about to be. Standing in the doorway of our kitchen, she made an impression on my father. He scraped his chair back, said, “Well,” then looked down at his shirt as if to make sure he was wearing one. He wiped his mouth with his napkin and said “well” again.
You’d only know that Mrs. Meltzer had had a hectic afternoon by her hair: it was pulled behind her in a tight band, but stray strands had escaped and fell in front of her face.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt your dinner,” she told us. “But I thought Joe would want to know that Alex is okay.”
I hadn’t noticed until then that Alex’s mother held a large white envelope. She opened it and pulled out its contents, a couple of dark plasticky sheets. “Do you mind if I show Joe these x-rays? They’re fascinating.”
“Go ahead,” my father said. He was looking at my mother.
I went over to Alex’s mother, who held the x-rays up to the kitchen light. There it was, in his neck. She pointed but didn’t need to, it was so clear.
“The doctor cut the end off the hook and just sort of pushed it on through,” she was saying to all of us. “Came right out. Two stitches and he’s good as new. Though he might not feel like fishing any time soon. You can’t blame him.”
“No,” my father said. “You can’t.”
Alex’s mother kneeled down to me. “It was nice of you to let Alex fish with you today. And he knows that what happened was an accident. He’d like for you to come over after school tomorrow and spend the afternoon. You two could watch Batman together. Would you like that?”
My mother told Mrs. Meltzer that of course I’d like that, wouldn’t I, Joseph?
I must have said I would—I knew how to be polite—but I wasn’t thinking about tomorrow. Not with tonight looming. Alex wasn’t here with his mother. He’d been left next door with his father. So his father was home rather than on the road with his big rig. Just a matter of time then before he came over and killed me. Unless the police came first, and all my questions about jail got answered. But before either of these things happened, there was the worst fate of all. Now. Here. Alone with my parents, about to be sentenced for cold lies and searing omissions—far worse crimes, it only now dawned on me—than the misdemeanor of an accidental hooking.
Alex’s mother left, and we were back at the table. More kitchen sounds. The world, swimmy. Me, stirring the green beans around on my plate, and waiting. Waiting for it to start.