Gone Fishing (A Series of Short Memoirs)
By Ami Wong
There are few feelings more satisfying than that of a good cast. The fishing line glints in the sun for a moment, a silver stretch of light, until it hits the water and becomes invisible again. The swish and click of the reel settles in your hand, and you sit back with a wide-brimmed hat and a good book.
Today I fish with only the company of my tackle box and bait. I’ve never enjoyed impaling the shrimp. I always avoid eye contact and cast the line as quickly as possible. The plop of the hook leaves only the bobber above the water line, dipping in and out of sight. I sit down and my thoughts wander. I think of you.
It was always summer at your home. Florida has many faults, but it really does deserve its nickname of the Sunshine State. Our family had the luxury to pick and choose when to go, so of course we chose the winter and spring (aka chill summer) when it was a cool and constant 73 degrees. We always visited your house.
The drive down was filled with granola bars, fights over the music choice, and wrinkles on my face from sleeping on the leather seats. By the time we arrived eight hours later, we were dying to get out.
“Say hello to Uncle and Auntie!” my parents would yell quickly, their voices hardly reaching our ears before you lifted us off the ground, rough callouses on your hands holding us tight, wrinkles on your face laughing.
There was an inlet in the backyard which led to the sea. This is where you guided my hands, taught me how to bait, cast, reel. Beyond the garden, there were two prime fishing locations: the promontory and the dock. I loved to run between the two spots, too impatient to wait for the fish to bite. The hook usually only spent a minute or two in the water before I reeled it back up, hoping for a catch.
This was the American Experience, I always thought. Fishing in the wild during the summer at grandparents’ house, even if it wasn’t the wild, the summer, or my real grandparents. You adopted us for a week, and this was home. That was enough.
When I was 6, I caught an eel: a slimy, living leathery rope. We kept in the bucket until it was time to go. I sat with it for almost a whole hour, playing with it and wondering whether it understood the concept of friendship.
“I’ve eaten you in sushi before. Eel sushi is my second favorite type after salmon,” I offered. I didn’t mean it as a threat, I meant it as a friendly conversation starter. Note that I didn’t have many friends at the time.
The eel, regardless of my intentions, simply stared blankly before continuing to wriggle around the bucket. I tried sticking my finger in to play with it, but luckily you saw me from the dock and stopped me, saying it could bite my finger off. I watched the eel as you walked back. Its sharp little teeth formed an underbite, two beady eyes glaring menacingly and helplessly.
“You’re pretty ugly,” I ventured. It ignored me.
When the sun set, you told me we couldn’t keep it. I cried, and you comforted me as you threw it back into the water. The ripples on the water receded quickly into the deep.
“Will I ever see it again?” I asked.
“Maybe,” you replied.
I landed my biggest catch when I was 9. I was fishing over the cliff at the time, not the dock. The sun was high and I’d just been about to give up when I hooked something.
I tried reeling in the line, but the rod began to bend so much I was afraid it would snap. It was time to try a new strategy. Zig-zagging the line, I felt the catch move slowly, but it seemed impossible to reel in.
“Help me! I’ve got something big on the line!”
You ran over and, seeing that the rod was already bent into a crook, you quickly took over. I thought about what it could be. A 1000-pound bluefin tuna, perhaps, which had accidentally strayed into the shallows of suburban Fort Lauderdale. They would hang it up in the center of the city, along with my picture and signature. Interviews would pour in, wondering how I did it. Fame and glory were only a thin fishing line away.
“We don’t need to worry about dinner tonight if we land this one,” you joked.
We fought with it for almost ten minutes, turning it this way and that. You were a hale and hearty Santiago, I was Manolin, eager to learn and ready to help. Sweat began to drip from your greyed hair like condensed smoke. Finally, the monster reared its head from the depths, knotted and misshapen. It was a large tree branch, broken off from a recent storm.
I saw my dreams of becoming the world’s youngest fishing expert thaw at the edges, turning into tears in the corner of my eyes. Suddenly, you laughed.
“It put up quite a fight, didn’t it?”
You smiled at me until I returned the grin. We reeled it in and stuck it in the head of the promontory, a trophy commemorating our sweat-soaked struggle.
I was 15 during our last visit with you. It was hot that day, and the fish weren’t biting. I’d been sitting there for two hours already, having set up an umbrella to block the sun. You came over.
“How’s the fishing going?”
I thought it was evident from the fact that the bucket was empty and the bobber was still on the surface that it wasn’t going well, but apparently you still had to rub it in (or so I thought through the haze of my dissatisfaction). I shrugged. “They aren’t biting today.”
You looked across the water. It was noon and the sun glinted harshly, probably hurting your eyes. “They’ve probably already had lunch.” You smiled back at me. “What are you reading today?”
I turned over the cover to show you, but I didn’t look up. I don’t remember what it was. I was too tired to respond. The fish weren’t biting and I was frustrated. You grinned.
“At this rate you’ll be at Harvard in no time.”
I smiled half-heartedly and went back to my book.
When we left, you and Auntie waved from the porch. I didn’t wave back. I was too busy reading the book whose name I’ve forgotten, and I didn’t see your eyes follow our car out of the driveway. It’s okay, I thought, recalling (two hours down the road) the fact that I had forgotten to say goodbye. We’ll be back the next break anyway.
In the end, it was a parasite that did you in. You’d gone to Costa Rica to fish. Auntie said that you said it wasn’t serious until you were too sick to protest.
We drove down again. Inappropriately, it was still summer despite it being spring, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I learned more about you from the funeral service than your life. You were an immigrant, like my parents, once. Is that why you welcomed us so readily? You knew what it was like to try to shed your accent, to join the army and offer your life to be accepted into a country that you must learn to love. But I didn’t learn that from you. You were gone before I even knew.
I wonder, sometimes, about how it may have happened. How did the fishing line look in the Southern sun? Did you catch anything before the parasite came in? How did it feel to have it there, leeching off of you, and you not protesting because maybe it needed your health more than you did? Or did you just not notice it because the sea breeze was as salty as it was back home, and the waves were lapping in their perpetual chant, and if you closed your eyes you were already in heaven anyway?
They folded the flag and we left to make it back in time for Monday morning. We didn’t have time to fish.
The sun sets and the stars and mosquitoes come out. I reel in the line, the whir resting in a final click as the weight hits the end of the pole. Will I ever see you again? Maybe. In the warmth of the summer, perhaps, or the feeling of a good cast. But you were never really one for romance. You exist in my memories. Is that enough?
Can you hear me? I’m ready to listen now, but all I’ve been hearing since you’ve been gone is the echo of waves or the chitter of a bird looking for food for its young. So tell me, please, because the only thing I’ve been catching is a drooping “too late” dangling at the end of the line. There’s never an answer. You were, and would only be, the man who taught me to fish.
The shrimp is no longer squirming; it hangs limply on the pole, cold and grey. I toss it back into the water and the crabs quickly dispatch it.
I head home. The fish aren’t biting today.