The rowboat has a few good seasons left in it. It is upside down on sawhorses in the field beyond the house. Patching the bottom with tar—it’s got holes. It’s got cracks. Father works in the noontime sun with the sweat dripping from his nose. Help Father. The sun beats down. The tree line is up behind you. The small grey house sits, a box, out past the backyard and clothes are on the line. A face comes in a small screened window by the back door.
Lunch! she cries. Come in—it’s lunch.
The face is pasty white and suddenly disappears.
Father stoops and taps the tar can top back on with the handle of a blackened screwdriver. Our hands are spotted with tar; filthy. Our shirts are spattered with tar; filthy. We go through the brush lining the back yard and across the grass, being careful not to touch the hanging blowing clean white sheets on the line. We have our work; Mother has hers. Father goes to the back of the house and gets the red rusted gasoline can. He pours some into a large dented coffee can. There are rags on the ground; old torn shirts long ago thrown away. We wash our hands in the gasoline. The smell is strong and radiates out from the can and the rags wipe away some of the tar, most but not all. After the gasoline we wash our hands in cold water from the tarnished brass spigot thrusting from the foundation wall. The smell goes down, most but not all. We shake our hands dry; shake them hard. Father kicks his feet against the grey foundation knocking globs of tar from his heavy work shoes; you do the same; tar flies.
Go on in up the back steps. They creak. The paint flakes off. The old paint. In the kitchen stop and take off your shoes. They lay in the corner. Mother’s at the refrigerator bringing out the lunch meat; brown and grey—sliced. She puts it on the table and speaks with a crooked face.
What’s that awful smell, she says—it smells like gas—
We washed our hands, said Father—we had tar—
You washed your hands in gas?
She puts out her hand, shakes her head—her blonde hair’s frizzed out.
No, she snaps—don’t sit at the table—go wash with soap and water—you always wash your hands in gasoline—I’ve told you, I have—nobody with a brain washes their hands in gasoline—why do you wash your hands in gasoline anyway—Jesus, Christ—
It’s the only way to get the tar off, Mom, says Father.
Then don’t get tar on your hands—wear gloves—do something—use your head—I hate that smell—
Father bites his lip and turns to the kitchen sink and turns on the steaming water. As he begins to squirt in detergent, you go to the bathroom down the hall to use the sink in there. The floor creaks—the peeling flowery papered walls of the hall go by—come into the bathroom.
Start the water. Put in the drainplug. Grip up the soap.
The water runs into the sink, bubbles up. The soap struggles to escape your grip, like a slimy fish. Out in the boat on the water you will fish—you will catch one. Struggle it into the boat—wash the hands—the lather boils up. The water is hot. Not like out in the boat where the water is cool and still, here and there the fish break the surface—the rushing water is loud, violent, hot, foaming in the small sink. The hands wring together. The drainplug pulls up—the water escapes—it spirals down the drain. Rinse the hands, rinse. The fish is on the stringer off the boat in the cool water. Smell the hands. Clean. The fish is caught.
Need to pee. Shut off the water. Step to the side, raise the toilet lid. Zip down the fly. The penis is there—grip the penis. The stream comes. It plunges yellow into the water—the fish plunges back in the water, escaped. The fish is let go. The stream ends. Too small; too small to keep. Flush the toilet and the fish is gone in the rushing; the rushing spirals down and takes it far away—nothing like the calm brook water holding the boat; tuck in, pull up, zip, turn. Go back down the hall toward the kitchen between the flowery walls. Walk up the path from the brook between the skunk cabbages and come onto your street; the kitchen. There’s a platter of meat; there’s a loaf of bread; there’s mustard, there’s ketchup. There’s soda. There’s beers. Sit. Mother and Father sit; Mother and Father are there, talking.
—I see more shirts and pants are ruined, said Mother—you and that old boat—that tar—
That boat brings in food for our table Mom; when we fish in the summer—
She waved a hand.
Not that much fish comes in—what good is fish when you ruin perfectly good clothes slapping tar over the damned old boat all the time—
It’s not all the time. It’s once a year—listen you don’t have to curse—
I’m not cursing! I guess you might as well throw those clothes away when you’re done—I can’t get out God-damned tar—I won’t even try—scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing for nothing—they never look right again never—
Father said nothing more but bit his lip as he got two slices of bread onto his plate and a piece of ham from the platter of meat and mustard, and he put the sandwich together and greedily tore half the sandwich off into his mouth, all the while staring at Mother. You sit down at the table between them and get bread and baloney and mustard and take a bite; take a bite the way the fish bite out in the brook in the evening but not to be caught this time—honest food, honest—not with a hook embedded in it—a hook in the lip—my God does it hurt?
You know, said Mother, chewing—if you’d take a little bit of that overtime down at the plant you’d be able to buy yourself all the fish you want, and get rid of that old boat—
I hate the plant, said Father, pointing—I hate the plant and won’t work a minute longer than I have to—we’ve got enough money—besides I like to fish don’t you like fresh fish in the summer? I clean it out back you don’t have to clean it—all you have to do is cook it don’t you like that?
Clean the fish he cleans it on a plank on sawhorse back in the field beyond the cats always come around take a bite of the baloney sandwich as she chews fast to get ready to answer; take a bite the way the bass do in the night like her answer is a lure making you bite because you know what the answer is going to be like it always is going to be—
No, she said, after swallowing—I don’t see the difference between the fish you catch in that damned boat and the fish I can buy in the store.
Swallow the baloney; swallow the hook; Father’s answer pulls on you—like a taut line—
I like to fish with my boy in the summer—what’s the matter with doing something just because you like it—I spend time with my boy—gee Mom what’s got into you today?
—he sets the hook—the words pull—nearly drop the sandwich, nearly gag—he pulls her like a fish—she sits up straight and lays her hands palms down on the table.
Nothing’s got into me, she says—listen, she says, eyes open wide as dinner plates—let’s put this back into perspective—what I said I hated was the tarry ruined clothes—let’s not get into the God-damned fishing this has nothing to do with the damned fishing!
—swallow—spit out the hook—take another bite—dumb fish never learn—
Father waves his hand down over his clothes.
This is an old shirt and pants, says Father—it was ready for the trash anyway—
She threw up her hand—like casting—casting a lure away into the place under the shade of the oak leaves, where the big bass sleep in the cool shadows.
Yeah but look at the boy’s, she says—those are perfectly good clothes ruined.
Put a hand on your chest—swallow—feel the clothes—pick at the tarry stain—it is bait—it is all turning to bait—you are bait—she’s coming mouth open teeth bared.
Well I’m sorry about that, says Father softly. She says nothing. Father eats his sandwich without a word, without looking up. Mother does the same. Eat the baloney in the silence boiling up all around like cattails and saplings and thorn bushes and eat and swallow and start making a second sandwich—
Oh, you must like this lunch boy, says Mother gently. Two sandwiches—sure that’s not too much?
No it’s fine, you say, taking the cold cuts.
You say that like you mean it—but no you don’t mean it you do why do you always think you are lying? Guilt comes up—from somewhere, black—but from where, for what—it’s a terrible feeling—it fills you all the time—
Father’s first sandwich is almost done. Mother speaks, calmly now. Listen. Listen. The surface of the brook is mirror-smooth. There’s no wind, no rain—perfect—quiet enough to listen. The guilt sinks into the brook it’s forgotten the thought is forgotten—
Oh, she says—and remember—we’re going to Mom Cotton’s tonight after dinner.
What? said Father, eyebrows rising. Why are we going to Mom Cotton’s?
For a visit. She’s expecting us. I told you the other day. Why, what’s the matter—you used to always want to go there when her Freddie was still alive.
Father puts down his sandwich and raises a hand.
Well, said Father—you can go to Mom Cotton’s tonight by yourself—I’m not going. We got to finish working on the boat. It’s going to take until nightfall and it’s got to be done today.
Why does it have to be done today—oh, she said, rolling her eyes and smiling. I get it.
He sits back, mouth open.
What do you get?
You only used to go there to visit Freddie—him and that damned electric train set that took up his whole cellar.
I used to like to take the boy there to see it—
Yeah! And now that Freddie’s gone, and his train set is gone, you don’t give a damn about poor Mom Cotton. She’s all alone in that big house—she was always glad to see all three of us but that damned Freddie pulled you and the boy away into the cellar, down to that damned train set—and you’d spend the whole visit there and never say a word to her—
I give a damn about Mom Cotton! said Father, waving a slice of bread. I just need to get that boat done and in the water tomorrow—trout season starts Saturday we got to be ready it’s got nothing to do with Mom Cotton!
Mother’s brow is set.
Yes it does, she says, nodding. You don’t like her.
Who said I don’t like her—you’re saying it, not me—
Then come with me—to see her—
Go by yourself—tell her I’m busy getting ready for trout season—she’ll understand—
—but I can’t go alone I’ll never find it—
He takes a deep breath, then speaks, pointing at her.
Listen and listen good! I do what I have to do! I am the man here!
The lines are pulling pulling toward that quiet closed in dark dead cellar where the train set sits forgotten, full of cobwebs and covered with coal dust from the big coal bin and disconnected and in disrepair embedded in shadows colorless and grey forgotten since the death—death, of Freddie Cotton.
So go see damned Mom Cotton, said Father, rising, throwing the bread across. Go ahead and see her—you don’t need us! Just tell her we said hello!
He turns and speaks more softly, to you.
I’ve had enough son—come on we got to finish the boat.
That’s it? she says—you’re going to leave me like this?
Father went and sat in a side chair and pulled on his tarry work boots.
Come on son, he says.
Go put on the shoes. After having a drink of soda Mother poured you the soda she knows you like soda she knows what kind you like what kind you’ll bite on—she knows what bait to use to keep you coming back—but Father but Father—
She sits at the table stunned saying to Father You really don’t care about me do you—you really don’t—
Not when you give us all this shit!
I gave you no shit! I just—oh God—what did I do—what did I God-damn do to deserve this—I didn’t mean anything I really didn’t mean anything—
Her voice trails off and her head goes in her hands. Father goes out. Look at Mother, sitting alone—alone as if in the boat out on the brook at twilight, on the glass smooth water with the bass breaking water all around, but unable to bait a line cast a plug catch a fish alone alone just sitting there alone with the dark settling down over her—
Father calls from the door.
Come on son we got a boat to finish!
—but Mother is alone—
—I have been alone—it’s terribly black, dark—like night across the brook—
Her eyes rise unbelieving.
I am guilty. The door slams behind me, and I am guilty. And I realize—this is where it comes from—this! This is where the guilt is—the black guilt that never leaves. Somehow, this is all my fault. I was there.
I said nothing. Nothing the whole time. I was on the brook—the still darkening brook—
You go out to the boat. Father pops the top off the tar. You start to work.
The sun is lower. The tar spatters. The tar stains.
Father says This rowboat has a few good seasons left in it.
Just a few, though. Just a few.