For about a year I was part of a writer’s group that included Jack Heffron, who was an editor at Story magazine, Mark Kissling, who was editor of a literary magazine called Ambergris, and a poet, Rick Stansberger, who I thought was the most talented of any of us. Heffron worked at his stories the hardest, and seemed to have the most mature idea of what he wanted to do. He was working on a cycle of stories set in a place called Bridgetown. Kissling was cool; he played softball in black socks because he’d seen cricket players wearing them. I didn’t have any idea what the hell I was doing in any part of my life. But I wrote this and read it to the group, and in 1992 Kissling asked if he could publish it. My dad and I used to nightfish, and we did have the shit scared out of us by lightning once — and we did lose a basketful of fish fleeing to shore — and on another night we did catch so many we couldn’t bait our poles fast enough. But that’s all the truth I was willing to put into print back then.
I was nine before I knew why Mack was only Mack, and that was also the year I finally understood nightfishing.
We’d nightfished Lake Michigan as long as I could remember, me and Mack, and for just as long I wondered why we bothered. The nights were wet as the water and the water dark as the night, so that except for the yellow circles of lantern light jiggling on the surface of the lake, we’d never have known which blackness we bobbed on.
But every clear Saturday from April to October we went, cutting into the southern cup of the lake until the Indiana shore was just a glow that topped and washed under the waves like a drowning man. And every Saturday we hid under the splotchy stormcloud-colored canopy that stretched across the back half of our boat, watching the poles lie still as sleep until, at one or two in the morning, we would fall asleep, too.
“Next time,” my mother would chirp when we’d come home empty the next morning.
“Mack would reply, “You never know what you’ll get.”
We always got wet, cold, lonely, smelling like bait and all-over tired.
“You just never know,” Mack would say.
Our prize catch was a mottle crappie brown and big as Mack’s hand. He admired it for twenty minutes before reluctantly pulling our bright new fish stringer through its gills and dropping it overboard.
Mack looked at the fish every half-hour until we fell asleep. When we work around four in the morning and decided to pack it in, Mack wound in the stringer and pulled up a chewed fish head.
After talking to the men at the bait shop, Mack bought a wire fish basket. The next four trips we fished just a few feet down for the gar that patrolled the edges of our lantern light. Every gar Mack caught was a goddamn gar, and he clipped off its long thin bill with a pair of needle-nose pliers he kept in the boat to dehook toothy fish, then threw it back in to starve. Or instead of pulling the hook, he whirled the gar over his head on a foot of line until it ripped loose and flew off arcing like a boomerang to slice into the dark water yards away.
We used bobbers until the bait shop men laughed at us for buying them, and we tied the hooks directly to our lines until Mack discovered leaders. I guess he was lousy a fisherman as me. But he baited my hooks, wasn’t afraid to wrap his hand around the occasional fish he managed to reel in, and could haul up the thirty-pound anchor I couldn’t even move. So he was my hero. Even though he wasn’t a father.
That whole thing was more confusing than nightfishing. A bad question for my mom, and one Mack couldn’t seem to hear. My best guess was that a brother was an untrained or demoted dad.
I wanted Mack’s answers and attention more than I wanted a fish, and I knew for sure that getting one was the only way to get the other.
When I’d forget to pump my lantern and it would suddenly send dark flickers across us, Mack would curse the lantern instead of me, rising himself to pump it and sometimes bashing the glass cylinder until it shattered.
Once I forgot to tie the lantern handle to its cleat, and jerked my pole in a futile strike right into the lantern. It hissed when it hit the water, and went under with a forty-five dollar gurgle while I watched in shock. Mack shouted, “Why’d you do this to me?” and I felt a kind of awful thrill for finally earning his anger. I turned to receive my punishment, and I hold the picture with me as clear as if it’s a photo I carry around: Mack in that worn tattery green fishing outfit that was too big for him, standing on his seat and punching his fists at the moon.
Mack always went up alone to close the boat for the season, because it was a man’s job, and that one weekend a year I was the greatest nightfisher in the world.
From the couch in our living room, I’d reel whales and sharks and formless monstrosities up from under the carpet almost faster than I could bait my Wiffle-bat poles. My mother stood for hours in the arched doorway between the kitchen and living room, laughing until she cried at the furious battles between me and the fish, and then she’d collapse on the couch, pull my head to her stomach and say, “Next year, Donny boy, next year. It’s in your blood.” And she’d laugh again, but not so hard.
Closing day when I was nine, I’d already hauled in three sharks and something I called a bigfish before Mack had even finished breakfast. The sun illuminated floor-to-ceiling every dust speck belched out by the squashed couch cushions, giving the room a sifting, shimmery depth. Like being underwater.
Mack walked straight across my ocean to the closet. Right through the line I’d just hooked into an octopus.
“Maaack,” I cried, and threw my pole onto the floor. Mack began pulling shoes out of the closet, looking for his hip waders.
My mother, who had followed Mack in from the kitchen, but stopped at the edge of the carpet, said, “Hey, Donny boy, next year —”
“Never, mom,” I said, sinking back into the cushions.
She looked at me, like mothers can.
Mack walked back across the room, kissed my mother on the cheek like he always did, and said, “I’m off.”
She said, “Why don’t you take Donny —”
“Man’s job,” Mack said, and my mother smiled.
She said, “I was going to say, why don’t you take him and stay out an extra weekend this year. Look how sunny and nice it is.” She pointed to the window and Mack turned to face it, squinting. “You close so early in the year anyway,” my mother said. “You’d think you don’t like nightfishing.”
Mack was twisting one of his fingers into his fist. My mother reached out and put her hands on his shoulders.
It was cold enough for gloves, but neither of us wore them because the bait shop men never did. We relied on a Coleman heater they’d sold us that threw off kerosene waves of heat that scorched our hands but never warmed the vinyl seats. I had a line in the water and another in Mack’s hands for re-baiting after a tragic near-miss.
I was nightfishing on closing day, and the water was smooth as our living room carpet, except for a wind that ruffled its surface and made it seem even more like the piling of our shag. A promise of lightning flashed high and far away, but it was what the bait shop men called heat lightning. It was as harmless, they’d confided to me one day while Mack puzzled over some plastic worms, as the storm bolts that could shoot down and electrocute everything in the water were deadly.
Mack crammed my hook into a minnow’s face, and its tiny black eye bounced off the boat’s Astroturf carpet and up against the foam bait bucket with a small plonk that could be heard over the slosh of the waves. I jumped, and my hook slipped into Mack’s finger.
“Fuck,” he said. “Fucking minnow.” He ripped his finger loose and stuck it in his mouth until the fish taste hit him.
He tore the minnow off the hook and threw it over the side, reached under his seat for the brown bottle he kept there to nip at when it got cold.
“Mouthwash,” he said, as he usually did. When the bottle was capped and replaced, he scooped another minnow out of the bucket and hooked it through the tail. I swung my pole out over the water and released the catch on the reel. Just as the darkness swallowed the minnow, the tip of my other pole curved down as if to watch it sink.
“Mack,” I yelled and dropped the pole in my hand. I knelt between my seat and the handle of the striking pole. “Mack — I got a monster!”
To say striking doesn’t get at what that pole looked like. Its arc was as calm and practiced as the best girls in gym class. I could barely stand watching it. My hands shook, and circled the cork handle.
Mack snickered and said, “You’re snagged on something, Donny. Passing seaweed or a sunk tree limb. It’ll pull off your line.”
As if it had been waiting for its cue, the pole straightened out its bow, and Mack said, “Sit back down.”
But I wanted to touch how close I’d been to one really great fish, so I stayed there, kneeling and running one hand up the tapered smoothness of the pole as far as I could without rising — so that when the second strike came, I was not at all ready.
I stood and grabbed and yanked all at once, and the silver filament of the line sliced circles and eights and zigs into the water, then straightened and twanged into a dead resistance solid as the times I’d tugged against the anchor.
The reel shrieked when I tried to turn it, hissed and slipped, hissed and slipped, then finally caught and began coiling line. It was hard to tell if I was pulling on the pole or the pole on me. I reeled, reeled and reeled and screamed, “Get the net.”
But of course we didn’t have one.
In the water, a wavery white shadow rose into clarity, slow but sure as if I were standing on a tall building watching a balloon float up toward me. Without thinking, without waiting to see just what I had, I yanked the pole up and over the boat, and watched the hook rip from the mouth of the biggest fish I’d ever seen outside of our living room.
It fell on the floor, gasping but still, as if it were smart enough to realize the fight was over. The fish was not as wide as a crappie, but longer and fatter, packed looking. Shiny as a watch band, where crappie reminded me of old men’s ties.
“Son on a gun,” Mack said, standing up and accidentally kicking his poles. “Son of a fucking white bass gun. Where’d you come from my boy, where’d you come from?”
We bent over to examine the fish, all three of our heads nearly touching. Mack reached down and moved his fingers across the shimmering scales like he wanted to polish them. I touched it too, my fingers brushing Mack’s.
The fish was wet but not slimy, muscular as Mack’s corded forearm but giving as my mother’s. I had caught it.
Mack stuck his fingers in the fish’s mouth, then stood and held it at arm’s length. It curved itself up and down, catching the yellow lantern light and throwing it back off in silver sparkles.
“You see this sucker?” Mack said. “You ever seen a bigger one?” And he shook the fish.
“Yeah,” I said. “Some fish me and you caught, huh Mack?” And I tore myself from the magnificent sight of the fish to share a smile.
But Mack’s back was to me, and he was looking out across the water. He said, “You damn sure better see this.”
I stepped backward and the seat collapsed my knees, dumping me into its vinyl and cracking my head against the sideboard. Because it was the only way to not cry, I squeezed my eyes shut and said, “You ain’t dad.”
The waves slid along the side of the boat like breaths. The anchor rope creaked against its cleat like a man clearing his throat. Mack didn’t make a sound.
When I heard a shuffle and clatter, I opened my eyes. Mack was still facing away from me. He was holding the fish basket over the side of the boat. The wire mesh bottom sagged with the weight of my fish.
I said, “You never caught one that good.” Mack did not move. The basket swayed with the shifting of the boat. “Never will,” I said. Then, “Mom says it’s in my blood.”
That’s when one of my Mack’s poles bent itself so far over that the handle rose off the floor and clacked back down. Mack looked at the pole. The fish basket fell from his hand, splashed into the water and pulled its rope tight. Mack still hadn’t moved.
I thought I was turning away because I didn’t care if Mack got that fish or not. But by the time I was looking out at the edge of our boat bouncing against the night, I knew I refused to watch because I cared more than almost anything.
My pole was bent, too.
I willed myself not to grab it. But I did.
The next three hours were like that, strikes rolling into our poles steady as waves. Six, seven, eight white bass, Mack toasting each one with a slug from the brown bottle and a shout and a shake at the air. The fish basket and Mack’s eyes bulged, and I began baiting my own hooks after the time Mack was busy reeling in and I couldn’t wait to get a line back to the water. I unhooked the next fish by myself. And the next and the next, but not the fish — not even my new courage — was worth more than a sort of grudging giddiness, as if someone had died on my birthday.
When we’d gone more than an hour without a strike, the sting of excitement in my eyes eased into the sting of sleepiness. Each time the boat splished into a wave, I closed my eyes. Then I closed them for two rocks, then I did not know how many.
Once I woke and said, “Mack? It’s in your blood, too,” and stayed conscious only long enough to hear Mack grunt and totter into the covered front hull of the boat, where we sometimes blanketed ourselves with rope and tarp and slept, and where Mack kept another brown bottle.
He would not get up. The lake smashing against our boat spit dark froth up over the canopy. Tackle and lanterns and cans clanked, and the bones in my kneeling legs vibrated, but Mack would not wake up.
The boat heaved half out of the water. I dropped my hands from Mack’s shoulders and supported his head so I could slap his cheeks. Saliva splatted between my fingers, and the bristles he was trying to grow into a beard pricked my hands. Each slap rolled his head only slightly, but brought a low hollow sound out of his open mouth, and I laughed at him. Then at myself.
The front hull was dry, and warm and sweet with the smell of whisky and fish, far away from the thrashing bare end of the boat. Mack was relaxed enough to sleep. We lifted on a wave, higher than ever but cushioned in a deep swell.
When the wave was pulled out from under us, we plunged through dead air and smacked into water that hid like concrete below the shifting surface. Mack’s head jumped out of my hands and crashed to the floor. He twisted to his side, clutched his head, and began snoring. The lanterns leaped into the air, fell over, rolled off the boat and hung bashing against the sideboards.
As we see-sawed in and out of the water again, an answer to Mack’s snores rumbled toward us across the lake. And a sliver of lightning sliced the sky apart, opening it for rain.
Lightning. I crouched in the hull, waiting for the electricity speeding through the water to sizzle us. Another bolt razored through the darkness and tipped something far away and high with a puff of flame. I scrambled out of the hull and stood up, staggering with the tilt of the boat toward the driver’s seat.
The boat lurched and lightning struck, and I saw the tips of our poles illuminated against the flash. The lines needed to be pulled in.
I stumbled to the back of the boat, and yanked the first pole I grabbed high over my head as if setting a hook. That’s when I remembered the fish basket. And the anchor. I froze with the cold impossibility of getting off the lake, and lightning struck.
The crooked white finger snatched at the tip of the pole, missed, then tickled my neck as it left, grabbing my hair and pulling upward.
I screamed and fell back. The moon leaped across my vision and dived past the boat’s edge into the lake. The minnow bucket splintered underneath me. Jumping spots of light and minnows bounced against my head. The icy bait water soaked my back and legs, followed by my own hot urine. I could smell how bright the bolt had been.
Not crawling, but squirming, squishing minnows under my hands and back and knees, I got to the driver’s seat. When I turned the key the engine burbled and died, burbled and died, then cleared and caught and growled.
I rammed the accelerator handle forward. The boat hesitated, reared like a horse, then set its nose into the lake and pushed through the water.
We wallowed, hit broadside by the waves. The motor’s winding sound pitched higher every time the prop came out of the water, and by listening for that to stop, I finally got us turned directly into the waves, and we shot forward. I didn’t know which direction. I didn’t know if the anchor would drag or catch bottom and capsize us. I still couldn’t see anything but darkness and spots, but I could hear howling and ripping and stretching sounds I tried to steer away from but couldn’t, and then I could feel rain stinging my face and I lowered my head behind the slanted windshield and I could feel nothing.
When the prop kicked up out of the water, I knew we’d hit bottom and were close to a shore. Saved us, I thought as I reversed the accelerator to slow down, the way I’d seen Mack do. Saved us.
We hit the high rocky shore loud as a thunderclap. I was flung forward into the windshield, felt my lip peel away from my cheek and saw my lightning eye spots dim, tasted blood and rain. I thought, saved us.
The boat lolled sideways in calm water, tapping the bottom of the pillowed sandy shore. My head was cradled in the cup of the steering wheel, cheek and lips puffy tight against the hard plastic. My teeth ached.
I raised my head off the steering wheel and looked around. The canopy was plastered against the back seats and engine well, its aluminum supports torn and sticking through it like broken bones. The husks of the lanterns hung on the boat. Pieces of the minnow bucket covered the floor. Not one pole anywhere.
Mack sat in a back seat. His head hung between his bent arms but not supported by them, and spikes of his black hair poked through the fingers of his clenched fists. When he heard me stand he turned his head in small, jerky movements, keeping his hands in his hair.
“Donny?” His voice sounded like mine had one time when I’d fallen in and swallowed lake water. “I did it this time.”
“Mack.” I smiled as much as my swollen face would allow. “I did it. I brought us in.”
He stood and took a step toward me, stopped, blinked hard, dropped his hands from his hair and turned around.
I said, “There was a storm.” But past Mack I could see the lake smooth under a light mist and streaked with whiteness, stretching flat-out to the horizon where it met a gray sky poked full of sunny holes. “I saved you and me,” I insisted.
Mack turned and stepped toward me, then wobbled and set his hand on the side of the boat. He brought his hand back up clutching six inches of yellow rope and the frayed end that had held our fish basket.
With his other hand, he slapped me.
“That’s because you goddamn lost them fish,” Mack said, screaming the hoarseness out of his voice.
He slapped me again, backhanded with the return stroke and harder, and the crusted cut along my lip opened up.
“That one’s because —” Mack stopped and seemed to push out against himself, tensing every muscle until he trembled, and I thought he’d turn away and bash the boat or curse the water. But he looked right at me and said, “Because. Because we goddamn lost him.”
Then he started to crumple, and by the time he said, “Because we couldn’t have shown them fish to him, anyway,” his voice had returned to its scratchy whisper and he’d dropped to his knees in the seat, hung half his body over the side and begun throwing up.
My heart pounded at my mouth like Mack’s fist. I pressed my fingers against the cut, tasted white bass and blood.
I know I should have said something like, “Next year, Mack,” but I was nine. All I could do was stand there and let it take me, powerful and clear as the strike of my first fish, what we were trying to catch out there, nightfishing, just me and my brother.