House

By Cris Mazza

Essay

Prickett Backwaters“Dogwood,” Silver Mountain Road, Ottawa National Forest, Upper Peninsula, Michigan

I haven’t written a fishing essay, nor sat on a lakeshore, writing. The former: I still will not have, including this one. It’s not about fishing. The latter: I likewise still haven’t. Although I set up my camp chair last night at the lake, my notebook remained on the passenger seat of the Jeep. Was going to go back for the paper and pen, but a bluegill took the bait I’d put in the water before unfolding the chair. Then I never did get the notebook, or sit, the remaining 90 minutes I fished.

Fishing

By Summer Block

Humor

In third grade, my schoolteacher told me that I was ugly, but that with any luck I’d look better when I grew up. When I tell that story now, people assume I am looking for sympathy, but in fact, even at the time, I appreciated her honesty. I knew I was a very weird-looking child and no number of sympathetic clucks from adults would have convinced me otherwise. What I wanted to hear were practical steps for improving my present appearance or barring that, at least hard-nosed realism coupled with hope for the future. And as an adult I am in fact much less weird-looking than I was as a child, so my teacher was right.

A culture of coddling is of little help to an eight-year-old who has to wait another eight years to grow into her nose, but this type of “oh no, I think you’re the pretty one!” back and forth would become only more of a fixture in junior high and high school, where “fishing,” as we called it, was the norm. “I look so fat today!” some slight preteen would moan, and it was the sworn duty of us all to insist that no, no, she was not at all fat, if anything we were the fat ones. And of course the prettier and bolder and more confident the fisherman, the more willing she was to throw that rod out there.

The problem with this expectation of “fishing” is that it makes it difficult to honestly discuss my many very real inadequacies. As soon as you say you are terrible at parallel parking or putting on eye shadow or cooking rice, someone wants to grab that bait, but seriously, I am not fishing. Nor would I ever. Because I am really, really terrible at fishing.

In fact, I am truly, uniquely bad at doing a host of things, including things that virtually everyone else I know can do readily. For example, I’m thirty-one years old and I don’t know how to ride a bike. I suppose technically I have managed at times to bike as far as a single city block, but slowly, unsteadily, and certainly neither calmly nor gracefully. I didn’t learn to swim until I was ten; I didn’t learn to drive until I was twenty-four, and in both cases it shows. At this rate, I had better live to be at least 120 if I ever want to be a normal, functioning person. I also can’t spit, whistle, or skip stones, making me something like the anti-Tom Sawyer. I am truly, colossally, show-stoppingly bad at sports of all kinds. The kind of bad that makes people want to pull out their iPhones and start uploading to Fail Blog. Schooled in the polite demurral, a friend may assure me that no, really, I certainly could learn to snowboard if I wanted to, but that person has likely never seen me hop madly off a ski lift face-first like a little broken sparrow on its last trip down to earth.

Nor are my failings limited to athletic ones. I am so bad at following the plots of movies that I will read plot summaries on IMDB while watching the film and still not understand what’s happening, even on repeat viewings. I can’t play chess, poker, or any card games. When someone begins to explain the rules of a card game to me, it’s like a part of my mind just turns off and all I hear is the dull, content-less drone of their voice. In college, no fewer than four people tried to teach me how to play bridge, but some people just cannot learn. My skills at estimation, of volume, duration, capacity, or extension, are bad enough to shake your belief in my fundamental neurological soundness. If there are two thousand jelly beans in that jar, I’m as likely to guess one hundred. Or a million. Or ten.

It is for this reason that I simply cannot imagine needing to be falsely modest. Who has time to make up additional failings? In fact, I am more than delighted to trumpet my humble accomplishments wherever I find them. I have very nice handwriting, I’m quite good at gluing broken ceramic objects back together, and I have an unmatched memory for song lyrics. Trust me: if I’m good at something, I’ll let you know. So when I tell you I can’t snowboard, there’s no need to shake your head and protest. I really can’t snowboard. Be like my third grade teacher and accept that I have some natural limitations and perhaps we can find a way to work around them. Considering watching “Inception” tonight? How about we just glue things together instead? Or, like my optimistic teacher, we can just hope that I grow out of it all, and I might, if I’m not killed falling off a ski lift first.


I wished, once, for a time machine. I was instead gifted with the present. . .and no return receipt.

*

Like a lot of writers – hell, like a lot of people – I spend a good amount of time in my head, wading through thoughts and worries and ideas and concerns. I imagine a smaller, miniature, version of me in fishing waders with a fly rod trying to catch hold of the things slipping by.

There’s a tollbooth on the road over to Pensacola Beach. The toll is a dollar.

(Only on the way out. It’s free to come back.)

The tollbooth operators wear a uniform. It consists of a Hawaiian shirt.

That’s it, really.

I mean, I’m sure they wear pants, too. But I never see the pants.

After almost two years of living on the Florida panhandle, I’ve come to think of this Hawaiian-shirt-as-uniform business as typical of what locals call the “Salt Life.”

The “Salt Life” is a popular motif down here on the ole Redneck Riviera. I was of course ignorant about the Salt Life when I first moved to Gulf Breeze. But shortly after we arrived, my husband Kelly and I started seeing “Salt Life” decals stuck to the backs of cars and trucks.

We saw more and more of them. They were everywhere. There were several variations, but the most common was done in white lettering that looked like it had been eroded a little. As though from a gulf breeze, maybe.

“What’s that all about?” I asked Kelly, after I’d seen enough of them to feel they couldn’t be ignored.

“I don’t know,” he said. “There’s another one.”

It became our own private version of the Slug Bug game.

Eventually Kelly got a job working with some locals who filled him in.

“Salt Life means you’re a local,” he told me one evening after work. “But a local who goes to the beach. Not a local who ignores the beach, or a tourist.”

“Oh,” I said.

But it seemed unlikely there was a sticker purely to designate panhandle locals, so eventually I got around to looking it up online.

Turns out the Salt Life is just a … store.

The company originated out of Jacksonville Beach. It sells t-shirts and visors and coffee mugs and–go figure–car decals.

This was a little disappointing. For a while my ardor for the “Salt Life” cooled.

But eventually it came back.

For one thing, there’s the fishing. I’ve lived near the beach before; I grew up by the Jersey Shore. But I’ve never seen so many people fishing in my life as I see fish here.

Some stimulus money has trickled its way into the local area; it’s being used to build two new fishing piers.

Fishing piers! That’s what we need more of to get this great country back on its feet, dontcha think?

Well, here in Salt Life territory, we do. It’s essential to our well being.

Even to mine, and I don’t even fish. I like fishing, though, now that I live here.

Here are some things I like about fishing:

1. At a time when I get the feeling a lot of people don’t even want to be seen in public, as though it’s an embarrassment to be caught outdoors, I like the way people who fish will just stop on the side of the road and drop a line anywhere they think they can catch something.

1A. They do it late at night, too. I like that. It seems like being out late at night is considered especially suspicious. I’m in favor of any excuse to be out in the middle of the night.

2. I like the way fishing seems to cross all boundaries. People young and old, black and white, male and female, rich and poor, all fish together.

2A. The only difference is the really rich people fish on boats.


There’s this old man I see walking up and down my street a lot. He passes at all hours, in the wee morning, very late at night, or anytime in between. He walks slowly, creakily, pulling a cooler on wheels behind him.

He’s headed for the bridge. He’s going fishing. He’s living the Salt Life.

Sharks

By Robin Antalek

Essay

The fall I was fifteen my mother had surgery that would hollow out her insides, scoop them clean like a wide mouthed spoon against the split open flesh of a watery honeydew melon and keep her in the hospital for ten days. This was back before insurance companies got involved and surgery actually meant you recovered in the hospital. Children were discouraged during visiting hours and while my father might have been able to sneak me in, he was too disoriented by the absence of my mother for that long, to even consider what I might need.

The doctor had told my father that my mother would have to take it easy for a month after the surgery and somehow my father equated this with the purchase of an electric clothes dryer. Pre-surgery, my mother hung our laundry on the clothes tree out back: an aluminum contraption with a center rod spiked into the ground like a beach umbrella. The actual lines criss-crossed at the top in the shape of a square, reminding me of the God’s Eye’s I was forced to make during my brief attendance at Vacation Bible Camp out of yarn and popsicle sticks. It was an oddly inefficient design, poorly engineered, that usually toppled under the weight of the wet clothes listing severely to the left or the right if things weren’t balanced just so causing the entire process to begin again, this time with cursing.

I went with my father to Grant’s Department store where my old fifth grade math teacher from Saint Ann’s also worked part time in the appliance department. While my father perused the dryers, Mr. McGowan brought up the subject of monthly payment plans, obviously aware of our financial situation since he had been on the committee that had expelled both my brother and me into the world of public school and the glories of smoking in the bathroom, for non-payment of tuition. Of course they had messily hidden the money issue beneath my mother’s vocal support of Roe Vs. Wade, but I knew the truth. After a few Old Milwaukee’s, my parents could be very forthcoming on a variety of subjects.

While I pilfered candy from a dish by the salesmen’s desk, I noticed my father flinch as he looked at the price tags, finally arriving in front of an avocado green dryer that had the lowest price. It was a basic model, Mr. McGowan exclaimed, his complexion ruddy, with broken capillaries that spread across his cheeks like the silvery threads left behind by slugs. It would do the job for the little lady, he said as a last resort to sway my father.

If my mother had been here she would have turned and walked out. As a matter of fact if my mother knew my father was even considering this she would have called him a fool. There was no way that I could even tell her about his idea: My father hovered over me when he called her room every evening after dinner and handed me the phone. Her voice would always start out strong and then dwindle down to a thready whisper. Every call ended with me saying I love you and my mother repeating it back only it sounded like she was on the moon not the hospital ten blocks away. I hated the phone calls and besides, they were so not the time for telling the truth. I knew that by the fake tone my father took every time he announced into the receiver, “here’s your girl! Like my mother had just won the grand prize on Let’s Make A Deal.

But I could tell my father wasn’t going to budge on purchasing the dryer with money we didn’t have. Servicing the pools of southwest Florida paid the bills, my mother’s job as a nurse provided a little extra, but without her income there was nothing left over. In his lifetime my father had been a pilot and an engineer but for some reason was now devoting his life to a fledgling pool business. I was just beginning to figure out that there weren’t enough Old Milwaukee’s in the world to get that truth out of him. Pride was not even going to allow him to consider a payment plan and we left Grant’s Department store with a handful of candies I’d swiped and Mr. McGowan’s beady little eyes boring into our backs as we bid a hasty retreat out into the buckling heat of the asphalt parking lot.

 

An idea landed in my lap innocently enough. At the very end of the town pier, an old wooden structure that extended out into the Gulf of Mexico like a multi legged sea creature, there was a group of guys who fished for shark after midnight. For obvious reasons, the town discouraged shark fishing. Once the sharks established a feeding area, it would be hard for the sharks to distinguish between a bloody hunk of chum versus the tasty thigh of a tourist.

But the shark fishing continued because the meat was just exotic enough for area restaurants (tasting just like chicken, no lie, albeit a little chewy, so more like conch) and the remainder of the shark: the jaw and the teeth, could be cleaned and dried and sold to the tourists – an entire jaw from a six foot shark could bring ten dollars, maybe more. The way I saw it: five jaws equaled an avocado green clothes dryer. I was no sissy. At my father’s urging I had been baiting and cleaning fish for years. I had cut the jaws out of sharks that had turned up on shore after the red tide. How hard could this be?

The opportunity arrived when, aided by Old Milwaukee’s and exhaustion, my father turned in before eleven o’clock. By eleven thirty he was sound asleep and I was on my bike headed to the pier, his heaviest fishing pole and a bag of tackle strapped to my handlebars. When I got there, I propped my bike up against a piling and walked to the end of the pier with the pole. I was wearing a t-shirt of my brother’s and it rattled around my torso like a sheet in the wind, baring more of the body I was trying to hide, to be invisible among the guys. The pier was empty except for the glut at the end, guys passing the time with a cooler of long neck beers, their fishing poles held loosely in one hand or leaning against the railings, a deep bucket of bloody chicken parts in a tall white plaster bucket – dripping over the sides and trailing off towards the bait table like a bad crime scene. The air smelled like pennies. A few of them glanced my way, seemed to take in the pole and the plastic bag of tackle I clutched in my fist and dismissed me with a smirk.

I walked over to the railing and looked down. It was obvious that for the amount of lines in the water some of the guys had more than one pole going at a time. The tables were empty, the wooden board of the deck glistened from the bait buckets, not a catch in sight. The water lapped against the pilings and made a clucking sound. Occasionally, a cigarette butt would arc over the side and land in the water below, the hiss of the flame as it extinguished forever lost in the wind.

I hung over the railing for a while getting up my nerve. Hoping a shark would appear and make me less obvious when a guy sidled over to me and hoisted his body at a dangerous angle over the top railing of the deck so that he had to look back up at me. When he had my attention he said, “You think a shark is gonna come up and bite cause your cute?” I simultaneously frowned and laughed nervously. He was older than me, but not by much. I was pretty sure I’d seen him around school last year, but not this current year. So he either graduated or dropped out. I was guessing the latter. He offered to help me and before I knew it he had taken the pole from my shaky hands and threaded a bloody mass onto the hook. He squeezed it in his fist, allowing the juice to run down his arm in thin cock-eyed rivulets. I took the pole from him like I did it everyday and arching back, I cast the line over the side. He raised an eyebrow, but said nothing as he wiped his bloody arm against his t-shirt.

After a while he lit a cigarette and cracked a beer, offering me the first swig. I took it, keeping one hand on the pole, and drank deeply until my throat felt funny from the foam and I handed it back. I noticed the others were starting to pay more attention to me because he was, although I wasn’t sure it was the kind of attention I wanted. The wait for a shark went on forever, the only sounds in the dark were of a beer being opened or the strike of a match followed by sulpher as it skunked the air. When it finally happened the guy whose line it was reacted quickly and quietly. He braced himself in a wide leg stance as he strained to bring up the shark. The muscles in his calves shimmied and quivered. Others moved in to help him, peering over the side, offering encouragement in muted voices. When I think of it now they reminded me of nurses in the delivery room, administering direction in low, firm voices, that didn’t interfere with the real work at hand.

When he finally pulled the shark in, the sleek gray body was scarred in the pale underbelly, it’s body, supine against the planks of the dock, shuddered like a child at the end of a temper tantrum, the hook and line still imbedded deeply in its throat. Out of water the shark continued to thrash but it was clearly losing the battle. By the time I turned back to my father’s fishing pole it was gone, along with the guy who had baited the hook. Whether he had taken the pole or it had slipped over the side in the confusion of the moment, I’d never know. In a panic I ran to the end of the pier, to my bike, intent on getting home and into my bed before my father knew I was gone. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I swerved as headlights illuminated the road from behind. I glanced over my shoulder quickly and caught the outline of a familiar truck and behind the wheel my father, his face all pale angles in the light of the moon, his mouth an angry grimace, his brow furrowed in worry. Instead of stopping to accept my inevitable punishment, I continued pedaling as my father trailed slowly behind, ushering me home.

 

In the driveway as I dropped my bike, he stayed in the truck. I could feel him watching me as I slid open the glass door on the carport and walked inside, careful not to look back and meet his eyes. I lay in bed too afraid to sleep, face and teeth unwashed because I was scared of the consequences if I left my room. I considered the fact that he wouldn’t tell my mother because then he would have to admit to the plan of a dryer and she would have been furious, still it didn’t make me feel any better about losing his best fishing pole.

What I didn’t know then was that in the morning my father would wake me early with a gruff announcement of breakfast. After eggs and toast we would take a ride to Ace Hardware where he would purchase a bag of cement and then he and I would spend the morning beneath an aching sun digging a deeper post hole for the clothesline and then filling in all around it with the pebbly gray concrete. I would hold the post steady with both hands as he poured the cement. Sweat dripped down my forehead and the tip of my nose causing my face to itch but I wouldn’t release a hand from the pole afraid to move, afraid of disappointing my father again.

 

 

People are always asking me for directions.

My body language must exude confidence. Or maybe it’s my face: steel-eyed determination successfully masking utter cluelessness. Then again, maybe not, because a blind office worker once asked me to guide him to his building from Grand Central Station.

Really. I kid you not.

Two previous generations of my family hail from New York and my sister was born in Brooklyn Heights. My brother and I were the only two schmucks born in Florida (and not even Miami!).

Seriously.

This thing–actually, a very similar jighead which differed from this one only in coloration–hit me squarely in the right eyeball on Tuesday afternoon. At high velocity. And by high velocity I don’t mean I popped it out of a tree and it drifted down in a slow, lazy arc and bounced harmlessly off my eyelid. Nor do I mean that a largemouth leapt from the water and spit the jighead in a slow, lazy arc which terminated at my eye, and I went “Ow” and rubbed at the sore spot and everyone had a good laugh at my expense.

I mean: High. Velocity. As in, the jighead was being cast when my eyeball interrupted its flight. There was no arc, lazy or otherwise. And I can’t give a MPH figure, but I will suggest an experiment you could do at home to appoximate the sensation I experienced at the moment of impact. Because we can all use a little more empathy, right?

So give this a shot: Stand with your back against any available wall. Tape your eyelid securely open, with packing tape or the like. Next, have a friend whip a penny at your exposed eyeball from two feet away, hard as he can. And you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about.

At first I was pretty convinced I was going to have to be fitted for a glass eye. Okay, that’s not true. That thought came second. The first thought was something like this: “AAAAAAAAGGGGGRRRRRMOTHERFUCKWHATTHEFUCKWASTHATOHFUCKIVEGOTAFUCKINGHOOKINMYEYESHIT!”

But I did not, in fact, have a hook in my eye. I had nothing in my eye. Near as the optometrist could tell, in what turned out to be an unreasonably painful stroke of good luck the jighead itself had impacted my eyeball, then bounced out before the hook became part of the proceedings. And thank whatever god exists, because otherwise, best case scenario, instead of writing this I’m sitting on my sofa with half my head wrapped in gauze, having just had my retina surgically reattached.

But it wasn’t an immediate sense of relief, there, in the moment. Because even though the pain subsided and the boat hadn’t capsized and I managed to retrieve my rod from the water where I’d dropped it, there was still one small problem: I couldn’t see a fucking thing out of my right eye.

Again, an experiment you can try at home to get a feel for where I was at: take a normal, transparent drinking glass. Fill it with skim milk. Hold it up to your eye and try to see through it.

“Do you want to go back?” one of my companions asked.

No, I didn’t. I’d been looking forward to this for a while, and the fishing had been bad so far and I wanted to give it a chance to get better. But there was the whole problem with not being able to see. And it was getting worse. The skim had quickly thickened to 2%, and I was having a hard time keeping my balance in the bow.

The water is warmer by this time of year, but not warm enough.

So I said okay, let’s go back.

Because I’ll be honest with you, by now I was a little freaked out. I don’t like doctors, and I like giving them money even less, but the idea of just waiting it out in the woods until my eye swelled to the point where I looked like this

Quasimodo

didn’t really appeal. Plus of course I had no idea if this blindness thing was time-sensitive, if by waiting for it to correct itself I would be wasting time the doctors needed to fix things. Seemed unlikely, but this was one of only two eyes I’ve been alotted, remember. Plus I’ve done that in the past–let something go for a day or two or five, hoping it would just sort of magically fix itself, and when I finally showed up at the ER the doctors always just looked at me like, “What the fuck do you expect me to do now?”

So we brought the boat in and packed everything up and headed back to civilization. Civilization, in this case, being defined as a place where optometrists outnumber deer. And by the time we’d made an emergency appointment and got to the doctor’s office the sight in my right eye had mostly come back, and I was starting to feel like a pussy. The thing didn’t even look all that bad, except for a small dent at the point of impact. My only saving grace was when the exam revealed definite vision loss on the right. Nothing dramatic, but it was there. Other than that, though, everything was fine. Just some bruising, of both eyeball and ego, and a needlessly aborted fishing trip.

This last was the worst part, of course. Because every fisherman is a speculator, and every speculator is an inveterate optimist. Whenever the fishing is bad, you know it’s just about to get great. You’re always just about to turn the corner. If only you can stay on the water for another half hour.