I wake up because my father is at the door.
“Want to go fishing?” he whispers, and I know it must be too early for school, too early to be waking up. The light in the hall is on, but he has been careful to keep my door partly closed, just in case I want to go back to sleep.
“It’s fine if you don’t,” he says, still whispering. “Your brothers don’t.” He has a flannel shirt on, the one with the hole at the elbow, and his Budweiser hat. I can smell him, cigarettes and old bacon.
“What about work?” I say, sitting up a little. The air is much colder than my bed. My nightgown has twisted around me in my sleep and I shift beneath the covers to untangle myself.
“No work today,” he says, and now I can see his unshaven face in the half-dark room. He’s smiling. He’s in a good mood this morning.
“Okay,” I say, still surprised he has asked me, and a little worried that it’s just a dream.
“Ten minutes,” he says. “I’m going to pack us some food. Dress warm.” The floor creaks as he turns away.
The truck is still a little cold when I climb in. I’m dressed warm, layered in denim and flannel, my hair pulled back quickly and tucked beneath my hat. Cindy, Dad’s last girlfriend, used to make me brush my hair every morning and wouldn’t let me wear baseball hats. She said I needed to dress and act like a girl. When she left, the day after my ninth birthday last year, dad gave me a Yankees cap which I wear all the time, even to school. Mrs. Wittzle makes me take it off during class, which is fine, since I sit in the back where no one can see me anyway.
Dad finishes hooking up the boat and gets in the truck. It’s an old blue Chevy with a bench seat. The gear shift rises out of the floor between us like a cane, and with a grind and a jerk we’re on our way, without a word, to the Winooski River.
My brothers used to go fishing all the time. I would wake up and they would be gone already, out on the river with Dad. When I asked him once if I could go too, he didn’t look away from the TV and just shook his head. I didn’t cry, just stood by the door not moving until he noticed I hadn’t left the room.
“What?” he said.
“Why?” I asked. “Why can’t I go?”
“Girls can’t pee off the side of the boat,” he said. “And I’m not finding a bathroom every time you have to go.” He turned back to the TV.
My brothers are fourteen and fifteen. They are skinny and fight with Dad all the time now. Mark is nicer to me than Brian, but neither of them likes me all that much. When Brian gets mad at me he calls me Wanda, which he says is a fat girl name, and gives me Indian sunburns on my arms. Dad will smack him if he finds out, so he makes me promise not to tell before he’ll let me go. Mark just ignores me most of the time, except if I take something of his, like the time I borrowed his Bruce Springsteen tape, then he yells and calls me stupid and leaves me crying in my room. I cry too easy, he says, which is true.
“What you thinking about, Cork?” Dad asks after we’ve been driving for a while. It’s starting to get a light off to our right. The truck is warm now, and Dad has lit a cigarette which he holds in his hand that rests on the gear shift.
“Nothing,” I say, which isn’t true, but is safe.
“Sorry to be missing school?”
“No,” which is entirely true.
“Your teacher’s going be pissed at me,” he says, but he’s smiling like he doesn’t care who’s mad. “She’s not such a big fan of mine, is she?” I shake my head, too happy right now to ruin anything by talking.
My name’s Louise, but everyone calls me Corky because they say that was the first word I said, even though I’m sure I was trying to say something else that no one understood. I don’t mind it much, except for when Brian calls me Porky. Dad said I can hit him if he calls me that and he even taught me how to punch like a boy, with my thumb on the outside so it won’t break.
“Punch from your shoulder,” he said, and showed me how, his teeth clenched as he hit the pillow hard.
“What if he hits me back?” I asked.
“He’ll only do that once,” he said. A week later Brian stayed home from school for two days and when he returned he had a note that said, sorry he missed school, he fell off his bike. It’s tough to get a black eye from falling off a bike, but nobody at school said anything. Just easier to believe it, I guess.
The light’s coming up quickly when we get to the boat ramp and back the boat into the river. If I was home I would just be waking up for school. I hold the rope to keep the boat from floating away as Dad parks the truck. The river smells like mud and dead fish and gasoline. It’s hard not to grin in the morning fog, with the slow gulping sound of the water hitting the boat and two containers of crawlers and a full day of fishing with my father ahead of me.
“All set?” Dad asks, stepping onto the dock.
“Need to pee?”
“Well, climb in then. Fish aren’t gonna come to us.” He’s still in a good mood and I allow myself to smile. He loads the rest of the gear from the dock: the cooler, the rods, the bait, and then he steps in and pushes off, all in one move.
The boat is small, sixteen feet, with no steering wheel or real seats. Dad sits in the back with the motor and I sit in the middle, a flotation cushion between me and the hard wood. We’re the only boat out and it feels like we might be the only two people awake.
When we get to the first bend, Dad turns off the big motor and turns on the trolling motor.
“Pass me your rod,” he says, and I hand him the green one that says Shakespeare on the side.
“Crawler okay?” he asks, but he’s already raking through the Styrofoam container with his fingers looking for a fat one. He has lit another cigarette and he clamps it between his lips. He tells me that worms don’t have any feeling in their bodies, so it doesn’t hurt them at all, but I still look away when the hook pierces the pink skin. In one hand he holds the worm and with the other he digs through his tackle box until he finds a small plastic bottle with a needle on the cap—it’s an air bottle, and he inserts the needle into the worm and squeezes, puffing up one end. Then he tosses the worm over the edge of the boat and I’m fishing.
I let out line, just like he tells me, until it goes slack as the worm hits bottom. Then I reel up three times, settle the line on my index finger, and put my feet up like Dad. I picture the worm floating just off the bottom of the river, slowly waving back and forth with the current. I try not to think about this too much, though.
After we’ve been in the water for about an hour, I get my first bite. Dad’s already caught two walleye and a bass. I feel the gentle tugs with my index finger before I see the rod bounce.
“Okay,” says Dad, “let him have the line. Count to ten,” and I see my line go out in soft spirals. Dad tosses his cigarette into the bottom of the boat and snubs it out with the toe of his work boot. He adjusts the trolling motor, touches the net, and moves his rod to the other side of the boat.
“Now,” he says, and in one movement I start reeling and jerk the rod up to my right, just as he tells me to. Nothing for just a second and then the line goes taut and the rod bends and I’ve got him!
“You got him!” Dad yells. “Way to go, Cork!” and I fight that fish until Dad takes the net and scoops him out of the river.
“What a beaut!” he says, taking the hook out of the fish’s mouth. “Should we take him home?” I nod, imagining showing my brothers. I know this means killing the fish and putting it on ice with the others, but Dad said fish don’t have feelings, just like worms. Things that hurt people don’t hurt them, he said earlier.
“Do you want to do it?” He asks, taking a pack of cigarettes out of the pocket of his shirt. “Do you want to knock him out? Can’t have him flopping around in the cooler all day, can we?” Of course I don’t want to do it, but I’m embarrassed to tell him that, especially when he’s looking like he might be proud of me.
“What a great fish,” he says and hands me the wrench. “I’ll hold him still.”
The wrench is cold in my small hand, and heavy.
“Go on then,” he says, lighting a cigarette in the cup of his hand and holding the fish down with his boot. “Just don’t hit my foot.” He waits.
The fish is looking at me. His gills open and close and I remember the time we were at Uncle Mike’s house in Northfield, and I was in the pool and Brian and Mark were fooling around and pushing me under the water. I was trying to hit them, to make them let me go, but I couldn’t. I kept going under and coming back up and yelling, and I was swallowing water and my nose hurt, but no one noticed, and finally I went under and just stayed there. I could hear people laughing, but the sounds were thick and heavy. And I thought, okay, it’s all okay.
“Well? You going to do it or what? Put the damn fish out of its misery!” He seems annoyed all of a sudden which makes my throat hurt. Just kill it, I think. Just hit it once, hard, it won’t feel a thing. Just like I saw him do it. But I guess I’ve waited too long because he grabs the wrench out of my hand and clubs the fish.
“Jesus,” he says, “You’re gonna have to toughen up, Cork. Life is gonna suck if you can’t even kill a goddamn fish.” He shakes his head as he opens the cooler.
I start to cry because I cry too easy, and turn away from him so he doesn’t see.
“See the heron?”
“Right over there,” he leans in to me and points over my shoulder. He is warm and smells like earthworms and fish.
“See it?” I don’t, but he’s patient, pointing out the log by the shore, then taking me to the left, past that stand of ferns, past the pine tree, over the rocks of the bend and yes, there it is in the marshy water near the bank, virtually invisible in its stillness.
“Great Blue,” he says. “Takes practice to see them, but they’re worth the looking,” he says quietly.
At noon we put the anchor down to eat lunch. I’ve caught two more fish, both small, and we threw them both back. Dad didn’t fish much, mostly just helped me and smoked his cigarettes. He opens the smaller cooler that’s wedged in between his bench and the motor, right next to the gas can, and hands me a sandwich—peanut butter and banana—and takes one for himself. He hands me a root beer and opens a can of Bud. We’ve seen a few more boats out here since this morning, but right now there are no others in sight. The sun is out and it has warmed up, so Dad and I have both taken off our outer layers. His arms are already sunburned, not from today, but from loading trucks last week. It’s been a home week, no overnight runs or jobs in Canada. Now that Brian and Mark are older, they look after me while he’s gone. Which means Mark asks me if I’ve eaten and wakes me up for school.
During the Teamsters strike last year, Dad was home all the time. At first it was great. He taught me how to play cribbage. But then it wasn’t so great. Cindy had to get a second job and Dad made Mark and Brian work down at Kenny’s after school. And he didn’t want to play cribbage anymore. Said he didn’t have time for playing. He went fishing alone during the strike.
“How’s your sandwich?” He asks.
“Good,” I say. “How’s yours?”
“Perfect,” he says, “Just like your mother used to make them.” He takes another bite and looks past me towards the shore. “You got to put the bananas in the blender to really mash them up good. Crazy, right?” He shakes his head. I don’t say anything. He never talks about my mother. I want to ask him questions, and I start to formulate one in my head, something about what she looked like, because I can’t remember anymore, but just as I’m about to speak, his rod tip jerks.
“Got one,” he says, and he sets his sandwich down beside him. He lets the line out and takes the last sip of his beer before he crushes the can with his right hand, tosses it behind his seat, and sets the hook with his left hand, all in one movement. The rod bends into a tight arc and Dad leans into it.
“I think it’s a good one,” he says. “A keeper. Get the net.”
I set my sandwich down and grab the net, which is by his left foot. It’s caught beneath the corner of the tackle box and I struggle to get it undone quickly, before he yells at me. Everything is going so well again, and we’re about to catch a big one.
“Get her ready,” he says, just as I get it free, and I lean over the edge of the boat to see what I’m about to net. It’s a northern, he tells me, a big northern, and right as it gets to the surface it dives down again, this time under the boat.
“It’s huge!” I yell.
“You got it,” he says. “Just get the net ready. I’ll help you.” He reels the fish in again, grinning now, and grabs hold of the net handle right below my hand.
“Hang on,” he says, and I do, but I close my eyes. I feel cold water for just a second and then the uneven weight of a fish, thrashing in the net we’re holding.
“Look at her!” He yells. “Look at that fish, girl!” Now we have the fish in the boat and Dad is taking it out of the net. We’re both laughing loudly, whooping, almost, and I think that this might be my favorite moment ever, and the fish is as long as my leg, and Dad says “Yesiree!” as if he’s won a prize, and I yell “Yesiree!” back, and he looks at me, smiling, and I reach in the net to help him and just as he warns me about the teeth the fish thrashes, and
“Cork! Goddamn it! I told you to be careful!” And for a few seconds I don’t know what he’s yelling at me for. Then I see blood all over the side of the fish and all over my hand and I start to wail. It doesn’t hurt, but I know it should, with all that blood, and he’s still yelling at me and the fish is banging around in the net, and I’m holding my hand out in front of me and looking the other way now, crying, screaming almost, because that’s the closest sound to the laughter that was there just a moment ago.
“Shut up!” he yells, and grabs my wrist. I try to stop, but now I don’t know how. “For fuck’s sake, Cork! Calm down. You’re not going to bleed to death. Just stop crying.” My eyes are closed. What he doesn’t understand is that I’m not in control of it, that I can’t stop. I hear him shuffling through his tackle box with one hand while he still holds my wrist with the other, his grip hurting much more than the cuts.
“This is why I don’t take you fishing,” he mutters, and all of a sudden I hope I will die from this cut. I wish it over and over in my head, and the wishing takes the place of the crying, and I open my eyes.
There’s a corner of an old chamois rag in his hand now, and he dips it over the side of the boat and washes off my hand to see how bad it is. He’s mad. I should have listened to him. I should have known better. Now I’ve ruined our day.
“Jesus, Cork,” he says again. “That fish got you good. We’re going in.” He wraps the chamois around my fingers and I don’t look. “Hold this with your other hand,” he says, and when I don’t move he snaps, “Hold it!” Then he turns his back to me, starts the motor with a yank, and spins the boat back down river. “Goddamn it,” he says.
There is a lot of blood, not only soaking through the rag but all over Dad’s boat. My hand is starting to throb. “Hold it up high,” Dad yells over the motor, and I raise it up. In the bottom of the boat the fish lies tangled in the net, its long browngreen body still, its gills opening and closing.
Dad comes to my door later that night. He’s been drinking and I smell him before I hear him. I’m curled in bed, my hand wrapped in gauze and medical tape. It hurts, but I won’t tell him that, won’t be weak in front of him again. He stays at the door, doesn’t come in.
“Cork? You in there? You okay?”
I pretend to be asleep. He’s been fighting with the boys. I heard them yelling at each other and then something broke and then someone slammed the screen door. After that I just heard the TV for a while. I can still hear it in the living room, laughing voices muffled by walls and doors.
“Cork? You awake, Cork?” He’s still standing in the doorway, his voice low, his words falling over each other. Even with my eyes closed I know he has a beer in one hand. In a minute he will go away. I’ll hear the creak of the floorboard as he turns. And he’ll go back in the living room, maybe watch TV, probably have more beer, maybe think about what a great day we had out on the river.
I lie perfectly still.
Emily Rinkema‘s stories have appeared in The Sun, Seven Days, Syntax, The Newer York, and SmokeLong. When not writing, she teaches English and spends time with her husband and two dogs in Westford, Vermont.