Fish Hook

By Bud Smith


Good Luck: Episode Twenty-Two


Your life is a house where you keep your memories. You built this house. Before you, and your memories, there was just a field here, with wild flowers and grass and bugs. You and your house and your memories displaced all of that, but it’s okay, when you die, the house will fall down and the rooms with your memories will collapse under the weight, and the wood that built the house will rot away and feed the ground, so grass and bugs and wild flowers return.

I forget what’s in all these rooms. And every time the hallway is longer with new doors. Sometimes I open a door and what I expected to find behind it is different, there are slight variations, my Aunt Elaine on a dirt road whistling loud, wearing a yellow shirt, sweating, summertime. Wait, she didn’t whistle loud like that, that was my mom, and she was wearing a red shirt. There’s Uncle Jon, and there’s his girlfriend, Dawn, with the feathered hair and it’s 1985? I close the door and get a piece of blue chalk, I write on the door “1985.” When I open it again, everything has changed, and it might be 1986. I close the door and cross out “1985,” and write “1986(?)” I’m never totally sure about the years.

I open the door again, and there’s my Uncle Jeff, lagging behind. He’s got both his legs and his life. From the doorway, I say, “What year is this?” He says, “Mine or yours?” “Yours.” “1987, Buddy.” “Thank you.” I close the door, take the chalk, cross out “1986(?)” and write “1987.”

At the end of the hallway in the house of memory, where the sun beams in, lemon yellow and warm, there are the sounds of dishes clanking in the porcelain sink. I walk down there, and there is my mom in the kitchen. She is maybe 40, instead of what she is now, 61. I say, “What are you doing?” “Doing the dishes.” “No you’re not, come on.” “It’s a mess here,” she says. I shut the water off and take her hand, walk her down the hallway, open the door that says “2000.” Where she belongs. Behind the door, there is a family barbecue in her own backyard and my mom’s brothers and sisters are all there, except for Jon, who is an alcoholic and lives in the Pine Barrens in a camp beneath the high tension power lines, and who was my favorite uncle growing up, who would take me and my brother places, and who my Aunt Elaine is talking about now, saying she’s going to go for a drive later and bring Jonathan some hamburgers. She won’t bring him money because he’ll just spend it on beer, but she will bring him hamburgers. Uncle Jeff is there now, pushed in a wheelchair across the grass by a young yours truly. In 2000, Uncle Jeff is a double amputee. I am tan and have a beard, and it hurts me to see myself at that age, and my ex-girlfriend Melissa is there, and I don’t want to see her, either, so I shut the door to 2000, and lean against the wall of the hallway where all my memories live.

I do some dishes. And as I do them, out in the yard, I see my brother and me, probably seven years old and nine years old. We are flipping rocks and trying to catch frogs, but we only find millipedes. I go out in the yard, sit on the step, watch them. They get uncomfortable when they see me. “Are we in trouble?” “No, no you’re not in trouble. Where did you come from, though?” “1990,” the seven-year-old version of my brother says, and the nine-year-old version of me says, “Remind me not to rob any banks with you.” I let them play for a while, but they’re getting sunburnt, and I have things to do in the present tense, so eventually I say, “Come on, let’s go back.”

I walk my brother and me back into the house, and there is a dog there that died when I was just two. A German Shepherd named Cybil. Alive and well. Cybil Shepherd. My first fuzzy memories I can’t place in time are of her sniffing me and licking my face. Cybil is sweet. Nine-year-old me pets her, seven-year-old Willie pets her. I take Cybil back to the door that says “1981” and she jumps through into my mom and dad’s brown and orange apartment where the stereo is on and Elton John is singing.

When I open the door to “1990,” my brother and little me climb into a boxy, baby blue Pontiac, and Uncle Jon’s fiancé, Dawn, starts the car and drives us slow through the green-leafed town, the Woolworth town, smoke in cars and bars town, and no seatbelts in this town, and Dawn is quiet. We are picking Jon up at the bar, and then we are all going fishing. The nine-year-old me notices she is sad and asks, “What’s the matter?” “My brother is very sick,” Dawn says. And nine-year-old me and seven-year-old Willie, we know this already, but I pretend to hear it for the first time. Willie doesn’t care. He’s looking out the window and up at the clouds, and for McDonalds, and he has forgotten that present day me is sitting in the backseat next to him, and so I’ve become invisible there and can just listen and observe. I can’t even tell anyone to be kind, or to shut up, so I should just let myself out at the first opportunity. When the Pontiac stops at the red light by the A&P, I should open a door back to my white light farmhouse without a farm full of memories, and I should sweep up and I should finish those dishes and take out the trash, but instead I stay in the Pontiac. “Why is he sick?” Willie says. “He’s got cancer,” Dawn says. The nine-year-old me says, “Don’t worry Dawn, we’re going to pray for him.” She looks over at me and says, “No. Don’t do that. Don’t pray. Your family doesn’t know how to pray.” I’m quiet now. Willie is quiet now. Dawn’s family are Christian Scientists, who refuse all medicine. I get out of the car. Before I can leave “1990,” her brother dies.

She was right, I decide, sitting in the backyard, on the cool flagstone. Our family didn’t know how to pray. And even this afternoon, this lovely afternoon, with the breeze and the clouds drifting by overhead, I still don’t know how to pray.

When I open the back door to the house of memories, I find my grandfather sitting in the living room, trying to watch a football game in peace. I peek in the room. He’s watching the Dolphins, and the Dolphins are losing. Grandpa has brought the TV with him because there is usually no TV in this house with all the doors that lead to my memories. There’s no electricity at all in this house, and the running water is its own miracle. I hear he has brought his own gas powered generator. I hear it out there in the yard, pushed right up against the forest line. I see the orange electric extension cord running through the window. I see the curtains moving. I see a butterfly come in and flutter past the TV and past me, and down the hallway. Grandpa doesn’t look too good there on the couch, which he’s brought too. He’s got stomach cancer, and will die that winter, in the year he’s come from, kicking the bucket in the convalescent home on the edge of the cranberry bog, and the pitch pine, and the sugar sand. I say hello. He gives a quick wave and averts his eyes back to the game. I don’t bother him any more than that, than just that quick hello. I don’t drag him back to 1997. I walk down the hallway, the sounds of the game echoing after me, the sound of another cigarette being lit with his lighter, the flip and clap of its nickel top. In the kitchen, I find another ex-girlfriend, standing there topless, in good looking underwear, searching the cabinets, stoned. Reluctantly, I send her back to 2003. As she whines and goes back alone, a funny thing happens. The butterfly slips in through the doorway as I close the door, as I lock it.

Evening is setting on. I open a bottle of wine and light a candle and sit there at the kitchen table listening to the Dolphins lose their eighth game of the season, and then I hear my grandfather curse at the TV, pick it up, carry it back to his door, and disappear back into the last days of his life.

I go outside, shut the generator off, and look up at the moon, and finish the wine, and wish Rachel would walk out of 2005, or 2006, or 2007, or 2008, or 2009, or 2010, or 2011, or 2012, or 2013, or 2014, or 2015, or 2016, or 2017, or 2018, and visit me. I pick up my phone to call her in the present tense, but there’s no cell phone reception out here, this far, out by the house where I keep my memories, which is located up over the hills, and then down the cup of the valley, and then across this river, and that river, and then across a forever stretch of fields, which end only when they meet the forest, the dense mutable forest.

Tired of the moon, I go back inside and open the door to 1990 again, and there I see us all on the pier in Seaside Heights, NJ—wicked daylight, I shield my eyes—and in the memory too, all of us are squinting and in cut-off jean shorts and tank tops: my little brother, and me, and Uncle Jon, who looks drunk or sunburnt, and Dawn who is feather-haired, and who is a Christian Scientist, and whose brother still has cancer, and nothing can stop it, not God, not radiation, not positive thinking, not magical thinking, nothing but the passage of time, which will stop the cancer, yes, once it has stopped him. All of us, squinting, and holding fishing poles, getting ready to try our luck, casting out in the Barnegat Bay.

Oh damn, I remember this now. This doesn’t end well.

We are putting bunker on the hook, and it’s gross to a kid and I don’t really want to do it. Chunks of guts, fish heads. Uncle Jon is being cool though, he’s telling me don’t worry about it. He kneels down, shoves the head down on the big oversized hook, and the hook goes through the eye. He explains how to cast out, and I don’t get it right, the line winds up behind me, lying in the dirt. He picks it up. I say, “Let me try and cast out without the bait, the bait is screwing me up.” “You won’t catch anything without the bait.” I shrug. My brother pulls up a crab trap with Dawn. He is laughing because it’s full of garbage, and no crabs. Pepsi bottles, plastic bags, a beer can. I reach way back to cast out the hook, just to practice, and I hear a scream and the hook is nowhere to be seen when I yank the rod forward again.

The hook is caught in Dawn’s face. Gone through her inner cheek and now sticking out the side of her face. And now she is on her knees crying and Uncle Jon is beside her, telling her to calm down, he’ll get it out, just don’t move. And she doesn’t move. She’s perfectly still. And he is calm. He was always calm. And the fish hook is popped back through, out of the check and through the mouth, and lip, and blood splashing down like water for a bit. But then everything is fine. Except nine-year-old me wants to go home. I don’t want to fish or crab anymore. Dawn wants to go home too. My brother is quiet. Jon drives, though he shouldn’t.

I don’t imagine she gets stitches. But I can’t remember that either.

And if I left that door and went into the next year, I could have seen Dawn and Jon get married at the Howard Johnson, the first wedding I’d ever been to, one to which my father wore a polo shirt; he wouldn’t own a suit until, I’d guess, the burial of his father, which you know is a door to 1997, I wasn’t there at that burial, so I’m guessing; and I can also guess he may have worn that suit to the burial of his mother, but again I’m guessing, I wasn’t there, that may have been 2002, I can’t be sure of much of 2002. My father did, for sure, wear a suit to my wedding, I have the photos to prove it. I also have photos of a year or two before that, of him in a suit, receiving a reward from the community for his service as a volunteer firefighter, a plaque he received for going to the most calls. A house burning, and him running. At Jon and Dawn’s wedding, there was cake, and good food, and Jon wore a powder blue suit (I’ll have to open that door again and see if I am remembering this right) and Dawn wore puffy fluffy white, and was beautiful.

If I look in a door just a few years later, there’s a baby, and she is cute and smiling. And then down the hallway in my house of memory, open another door, a little while farther ahead in time, and I see nobody. Jon and Dawn are divorced and the baby and Dawn are in Florida, I guess. And Jon drinks more and more. I open a door that says “2016,” and I am at a funeral for his brother Billy, and Jon is there in a wheelchair. He’s been living outside, has gotten sick enough to let his sisters help him. I talk to him and he doesn’t recognize me. I introduce myself to him. And I introduce him to my wife. And he looks like he is going to cry. “You’re Buddy?” “Yes, I’m Buddy.” It’s just that time goes so fast, and all the doors sometimes fly open at once and your memories escape you, and you have to sprint to grab them and grab them by the shirt collar, and explain who you are to them, and who they are to you. “It’s so good to see you.” “It’s so good to see you,” I say back.

The next year, behind that door, there is Uncle Jon in a convalescent home not far from the one where my grandfather died. Jon has had a massive stroke and he can’t talk, but, one day, he may again. I go and visit him and it’s summertime. It’s often summertime in a memory. In every memory, all you do is sweat. I sit and talk to Jon in the backyard of the convalescent home, with the wind fierce and a thunderstorm coming. He is angry that he can’t talk back, thrashes around in his chair and moans, tries to form words, but they are inaccessible.

If I open a door to 1999 and go to Thanksgiving, he is there, in my aunt’s trailer, talking quickly and wildly in my face. He says, “Buddy, I’m going to take you hunting. And you’re gonna love it. We’re gonna get out there to that cabin and you’re gonna feel like Bruce Lee, you’re gonna look in the mirror and your face is going to be covered in war paint, and the mirrors are all gonna be full of ghosts and everywhere you’re going to see writing from angels and demons who’ve come to visit.” Killing deer sounds fun. I never get to do it. And on the TV, the Dallas Cowboys are playing the Dolphins. Final score: Cowboys 20, Dolphin 0. In the other room, the food is brought to the table, some of us go and sit down there, others eat in the living room because it is too crowded at the table. This is the first Thanksgiving at this trailer. Aunt Elaine won the pick five lottery drawing, and used the winnings to move out of the trailer park she didn’t like, to this one that she does like. We are all here in 1999, celebrating her good fortune. And our good fortune. Yes, sure, a lot of us that should be here celebrating, are freshly dead, such as Uncle Jeffery who lost both his legs to diabetes, and then who lost his life. And yes, Uncle Lee, who has died of AIDS. The family is getting smaller every year. My brother and me are on the cusp of being able to do something about it in 1999. But if I open a door to 2000, he pays cash money so he and his girlfriend don’t become parents, and if I open another door to just yesterday—to April 10th, 2019—I can see that I am still childless, no father to anybody.

Now I look out the window, into the world that surrounds my house of memory, and I can see all the stars up there are dimmer because the sun is just about to come back up. It’s time for me to leave this place. It’s time for me to get on with living.

Before I leave the house of memories, I go to each door down that long hallway, and I see each door is locked from the outside. Big set of keys, one key for each door. Sometimes it takes me a while to secure all the doors, but I always do. If I fail to see that each of these doors is locked before I leave, I know when I return, I’ll find all my memories have run off, escaped, and tracking even some of them down, will be a fool’s errand. Those memories will have rambled through the forest, and crashed across the rivers, and scaled the hills, and traversed the valleys, seeking their freedom, saying bye bye to their jailer.

If I slip up, and they are all suddenly free, even for a day, I’ll arrive at this house of memories to find the wilderness has already overtaken my small archival shelter here, the bugs and wild flowers and grass eagerly reclaiming their dominion, years before I’ve died. That’s how people forget. They slip up and fail to lock the cell doors, and the prisoners run out across the forever fields, leaving no footprints. The millipedes, and the frogs, and the moss sneak back to overtake the flagstone porch, soon after.


artwork by Ileen Kaplan
BUD SMITH lives in Jersey City and works construction. He is the author of the novel Teenager (Vintage, 2022), among others.

One response to “Fish Hook”

  1. Mark says:

    Wonderful writing and insights. Your writing gives me both comfort and inspiration. I’ve missed a nights sleep reading as much as I can of yours online and I have a couple books qued up to purchase on Amazon when I get a check. Without a doubt, you’re a new favorite!

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