I WAS FOURTEEN when my father first took me fishing. Part of a father-daughter, weekend-visitation thing that, to be quite honest, bothered me.
See, my father was alien to me, with his barrel chest and his big game magazines spread across his coffee table. He was the kind of man who bought the same baseball cap he saw Bill Dance wear on television. How he could stand smoking these horrible, unfiltered Camels—which, incidentally, gave him a thick, hacking cough—I’ll never know.
“All good fishing is done before sunup.” His eyebrows flickered below the brim of that ridiculous cap. “Best way to catch the fish is to wake ‘em up.”
I sighed and then I sank my line into the water, staring off at the soft light of the morning. I didn’t know how to tell him that I didn’t want to catch fish, let alone wake them up. Just let them be, I thought. Better than killing them for a meal, you know?
“Pass me a bottle, would you hon?” When I felt the Budweiser bottle hit his hand, I turned to back to the cooler, to open a can of Coke for myself. Best breakfast, let me tell you. “What do you wanna do later today, hon? After we get off the lake?”
“Sleep?” I let my eyes roll into a slow cartwheel.
He laughed and slapped my shoulder, taking a swig of his beer. After he swallowed, he spurted a thick, phlegmy cough into his fist. “Seriously, hon, it’s your day.”
The boat rocked slightly as my father leaned back and pulled the brim of his ridiculous blue cap down over his eyebrows. I stared at the patches of rust forming along the top lip of the boat, which looked like the dabs of spongepaint on my mother’s kitchen walls. It was as if the water hated the aluminum ship as much as I did, and wanted to drag the boat, me, my father, tackle box, cooler and all, to the bottom of the lake and steal the air from our lungs.
My chest grew tight.
That’s when I felt it. From under drooping eyelids, I stared out at the edge of the boat and felt a slight tug on the line. I began to reel the line in, imagining the hook slipping from whatever branch it had caught itself on, when I felt the tug stay with the line. I reeled harder, and I felt the unmistakable pull of the living.
“Dad!” I slapped his shoulder with a fluttering hand. “Dad! Dad! I got one!”
“Let’s see here…” His weight rocked the boat as he shifted to my end of it. As his arms wrapped around mine, we reeled the line in and that’s when I saw the shimmering, golden shape of a fish rise from the water. It wiggled at the end of my line, its fins flapping at its side and tail. Its pink gills ballooned and contracted right in front of me, struggling to breathe.
He pulled the end of the line in, hooking his thumb into the fish’s small, puckering mouth.
“What do you think of that, there, then?” A toothy grin wrapped around my father’s face. I looked at the fish, pushing my face closer to it, and noticed the way the lips pushed out from what I’d assume to be its face. A puckering pair, like those crazy wax lips you get on Halloween.
“Looks like it’s trying to kiss you, Dad.”
He laughed at that. I noticed the shiny barb of the hook poking out from the fish’s gill.
“Dad.” He started at the alarm in my voice. I pointed at the hook.
“Let’s get it out, then.” He sighed slightly as he swirled his finger down the fish’s throat. “Wanna keep it?”
I felt squeamish. My stomach sank. “Do we have to?”
“Naw, not at all. You want to throw it back?”
“Might be a better idea.”
“Okay,” he said, finger still swirling. “Shit.”
“What is it?”
“Goddamn thing’s slippery.”
“What? The hook?”
“Yeah.” He made a clucking sigh in the back of his throat. “Can’t get it.”
This image—my father, sitting on the edge of a rickety aluminum boat, swirling a finger into a kissing fish’s throat to retrieve a hook I had caught in its gill, as the sun behind him slowly started to rise—reminded me of the only story I remember about my grandfather.
My grandfather died three years before my parents split up, and my father had told me this story on our first visitation weekend together.
Apparently, my grandfather served in the Pacific during the Second World War. According to my father, Grandpa was on his ship, serving some kind of midnight watch in the dead of night when the ship was hit with something.
Something trying to drag the ship, the men, the guns, and the shells all down to the bottom of the ocean.
The way my father tells the story, I can almost see Grandpa standing behind the bridge railing, in those blue bell-bottom jeans I see in those old John Wayne movies. He has his arms crossed over his bare chest because he had taken his shirt off to stay awake in the cold. He has that white sailor’s cap tucked down on his head, a prized possession because it has a lock of my grandmother’s hair along the inside brim, a reminder from his last shore leave. His breath freezes in front of his face. Staring off into the rising sun, he’s shocked by the impact from the enemy shell hit the side of the ship.
But he doesn’t feel his breath leave his lungs as he falls, flailing, over the side of the ship. He doesn’t feel the ocean water as his naked chest bursts through the surface and his legs flail around him.
All he feels is the cap leave his head. All he sees is the cap float down before him. All he knows is he has to get that cap.
And he swims deeper.
I imagined all of this, my grandfather swimming deeper into the warm Pacific as debris from the gunmetal grey hull rain on the surface above, as my father told the story. I see all of this and feel my own arms grow cold and goose-bumpy, and I shiver and my chest gets tight. But here’s what I can’t see, and when my father related this part of the story, I must have thought he was crazy. I can’t imagine a time when I believed it, but here it is.
Without thinking, almost reflexively, my grandfather dives to the cap, and only when he catches it and was about to slip it onto his head does he realize how deep he swam. How far down he swam and how, as it slipped between his lips in thick bubbles like a long, dark sigh, the last of his oxygen fades from his lungs. He felt his chest get tight.
He was dying alone in the warm Pacific.
It was just as he was giving up, my father said, just as he closes his eyes and loses all hope, when he feels lips, pursed, brush his.
And breath. He feels breath bubbling thick through the brushing lips.
He opens his eyes and, swimming before him, he sees a mermaid.
That’s what my father said.
He sees the paper-white face of a mermaid—red hair swirling about her head, lips pursed into a smile, eyes as deep and as green as the warm Pacific waters—and knows he’s safe. That it’s all okay.
So that’s the story, okay? The story as my father knew it, and that’s what I thought about as I saw him—scissors in one hand, thumb of the other still holding the fish—cut the line and release the fish into the water.
“What about the hook?” I asked, watching the yellow shape dart away.
He looked right at me and for just a moment, I saw his face soften. Not the barrel of the man I knew, not the man who spread big game magazines across his coffee table, but the man my mother fell in love with.
It was the man my mother fell in love with who told me, “It’s…uh, it’s a special kind of metal that, uh, after a little while…uh, it dissolves in the fresh water.”
I wanted to believe him, too, as I stared down into the water. I was looking for the fish, to see if it was okay, finding its fish family to tell the strange dream it just had of Up-There. How it woke up to find itself drowning in air, being held by a strange creature swirling something around in its throat.
I stared down into the water and, instead of that darting yellow shape, I saw the barely-risen sunlight glint off my reflection. In it, my red hair was falling down around my shoulders. I sighed and wished I could be down there, that I could breathe in water, that my red hair would swirl around my paper-white face, and that my lips could hold a smile, and I would tell myself that it would all be okay.