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by Mary Fisher

Helpless as a fish on a hook—that’s how I’d describe my Uncle Jay. That week I stayed with Aunt Marge, my cousin Maddie, and him, silent and separate from their struggles, I initially judged my aunt’s and cousin’s denial in sidelong glances and grimaces. In the end, I understood Aunt Marge, Maddie, and I were in the same boat. We were all caught.

The first morning of my visit, I trudged down for breakfast and inhaled the tones of maple, yeast, and coffee mingled with the stench of sadness swirling in the air. Aunt Marge’s toasted homemade cinnamon bread with rasher bacon and coffee couldn’t mask the acrid smell of Uncle Jay, face down on the kitchen table in a pool of sour spittle. Standing at the stove, Aunt Marge hummed along with a song on the radio station and fried eggs. Maggie clinked silverware and doled out napkins without glancing at her father across the table. She prattled on about the new bathing suit she unwrapped this morning and the chocolate birthday cake in a box on the sideboard. Aunt Marge plunked a plate of eggs and bacon in front of me. A neighbor’s lawnmower roared, sputtered, and died. My stomach churned.

Didn’t they see him? Did they care? Mama warned me that he’d gotten worse since losing his construction job, but I never imagined a scene this desperate. Ashen and still, he looked dead.

“Eat up, Mary. No food until supper. Like last year, we’ll celebrate Maddie’s birthday at the lake. An afternoon of swimming, supper at sundown, and then a night of fishing.” She rattled on about all the fish we’d catch over the lifeless body sprawled in front of her.

Uncle Jay snorted, raised his head without opening his eyes, and slide back into oblivion, his arms stretched out across the table. So close, I reached out to touch his hand.

“Oh, leave him be. He’ll sleep for hours. Always does after a bender.” Aunt Marge bent to give me a hug. She did see him—too often to care too much.

I pushed the food around on my plate, just like I did at last Christmas dinner at Grandma’s. Midafternoon Uncle Jay sneaked off to the barn and came back smelling of whiskey and argued with Grandpa about ‘not giving a damn anymore.’ When my other two uncles tried to calm him, he pushed back from the table, knocked over his chair, and stormed out and disappeared for the rest of night. Mama wept about “poor little brother Jay” in the corner with her sister. Grandma hid in the kitchen. Aunt Marge stood up and asked, “Who wants my apple pie?”

The lawn mower roared to life again. Aunt Marge wiped her hands on her apron. “I ate already so I can catch my wrestling match on TV before we leave for the lake.” She pulled a beer out of refrigerator and slipped it in her pocket. Come and watch, if you want, after you’ve cleared the table.”

Noting my startled look, Maddie giggled. “Mom means put the dishes in the sink, silly. Dad takes care of himself—eventually.” Maddie chattered about packing a picnic, sunbathing on the dock, swimming out to the float in the deeper water. I choked down a piece of toast. Maddie rarely talked about Uncle Jay. She complained once last year about his stumbling home from the beer joint one afternoon and embarrassing her with slurred greetings in front of her friends on their walk home from school. “Whatever. The whole town knows he’s a drunk.” We never discussed him again. A twelve year old and thirteen year old couldn’t clear up what was going on here. We rinsed the dishes and wiped the table, but avoided where Uncle Jay lay snoring.

Papa and Mama snored. Their snoring comforted me when I woke from a bad dream. Mama said Uncle Jay suffered nightmares after he got out of prison. He’d been only seventeen when he stole a car, eighteen when sentenced. Mama said a foolish boy shouldn’t have been thrown in with cruel men in the penitentiary. “He came back broken.” Maddie must know, but not from me.

Once Maddie and I joined Aunt Marge, Maddie suggested we play Snakes and Ladders, one of dozens of board games stacked in the bookshelves surrounding the television. Before Maddie was born, Uncle Jay built this river stone house all by himself and the wood bookshelves, too. My papa couldn’t have done that. Maddie and I sat on the floor in front of the television and rolled the dice. Landing at the foot of a ladder pushed the player closer to the goal. Landing on the toothy mouth of a snake forced the player to slip back. Uncle Jay rolled the dice and slithered down the back of the snake every day. He was losing.

 Grunts, a growl, then a slam of a body thrown to the mat, and the crowd’s roar on television distracted me. So did Aunt Marge’s grin while watching half-naked, sweaty men with bright tights, giant buckles, and bulging muscles. Maddie won three games, and chastised me. “You’re no fun today. Let’s go to the kitchen. Help me pack the picnic for the lake.” Uncle Jay had disappeared.

Not really. Through the open door of the bathroom off the kitchen, he slumped on the toilet with his head in his hands and his trousers pooled around his feet. Like a peeping Tom, I gawked at Uncle Jay’s hopelessness. Why did I feel so ashamed? I didn’t do anything. That was the problem—I didn’t do anything to help.

 I turned away. Aunt Marge marched down the hall toward me. Without stopping for a second, she slammed the bathroom door and snatched her yellow fishing hat off a coat rack near the back door. Iridescent lures pinned around the rim sparkled with turquoise, topaz, and emerald. A trowel in hand, she told us to pluck a bean can out of the trash and come with her to the garden. “Time to dig for worms and get this party started.” I bolted outside and gulped fresh air.

With our worm can, three poles, a tackle box with extra hooks and line, a bucket for the catch, a cooler filled with cokes and beers, sandwiches, chips, and the cake, we three women piled into the car. Maddie and I had slipped our swimming suits on under our sundresses. Aunt Marge lit up a cigarette, revved up her Plymouth Fury, “My getaway car,” she called it, and peeled out onto the highway.

Ten miles out of town, we turned down a bumpy gravel road. Gunning the car over hill after hill lifted Maddie and me off the backseat and left billowing clouds of dust in our wake. The hot wind blasted through the open windows and blew away the morning.

A quick right turn, Aunt Marge screeched to a stop at a rusty metal gate with a sign “Rod and Reel Members Only.” Maddie and I stripped off our dresses and dashed into the lake. While we swam, from steamy high noon to simmering sundown, Aunt Marge sat smoking at a picnic table on shore, head bowed over a paperback with a picture of a ruby-lipped woman in a swarthy man’s arms. With a shock of thick hair and whiskery square jaw, the man resembled Uncle Jay. Mama told me Aunt Marge loved Uncle Jay since high school. She asked him to marry her when he got out of prison. Another bad roll of the dice.

Maddie and I swam to shore and back, dived, and hollered for Aunt Marge to watch. She cheered us on and returned to her book. The afternoon evaporated in the summer sun.

When the sky turned gold and violet behind the oaks and dogwood trees, Aunt Marge yelled for us to come to shore. Time to eat, blow out birthday candles, and row her boat, Marge’s Midsummer Dreams, into the middle of the lake. We had a bucket to fill.

“Moonrise and moonset make for the best fishing,” she said. “When water striders and dragonflies skim the water, fish surface to feed and flip their tails. That’s how I find ‘em.” She gazed across the lake at the full moon. “I come out here every night while the weather holds. It’s peaceful.” Did Maddie have a peaceful place? Did Uncle Jay?

We baited our hooks. The impaled worm still wiggled. I cast my line. Maddie and my aunt cast theirs. Our bobbers plopped on the lake’s placid surface, creating ripples like the rings around Saturn. We settled into silence, interrupted only by an owl’s hoot and waited—and waited—and waited. No bites except from mosquitoes behind my knees and on my neck. After forever, I stood up to stretch and rocked the boat—Aunt Marge grabbed for the side of the boat. She didn’t swim.

“Sit down. Keep still and watch your line. You got a nibble.” She scooted closer to me.

In a flash, the bobber disappeared, and the spool’s sparkling handle whirred as the fish ran out the line. Aunt Marge caught the reel and showed me how to pull in my catch. I could feel the tug and drag as I wound in the line. Together, we scooped a flip-flopping Bluegill into a net and dumped it into the bucket. In the twilight, the olive green and burnt orange scales shimmered like a mermaid’s tail in the moonlight. One glassy eye stared back at me.

“Do we have to keep it? I can’t kill it.” Caught. Hurt. The blood oozed from the corner of its mouth when Aunt Marge yanked out the hook.

“I can. Turn your head. We’ll catch and kill a mess of fish for tomorrow’s supper before the night’s over.” Aunt Marge voice turned husky. “Jay used to love a fish fry.”

The moon came up and started down before we left the lake, our bucket overflowing. Aunt Marge turned on the radio on the way home—“Clair de Lune” and the thrum of tires on the tarmac lulled Maddie and me asleep in the back seat.

The jolt of the car when Aunt Marge parked jostled us awake. Our eyes glued shut, we played possum curled around one another to avoid the inevitable trek inside as long as possible. After Aunt Marge unloaded the car, she shook us with an admonition to keep quiet and shepherded us into house. 

Only the blue light of the television spilled out into the hall. Collapsed sideways in his chair in the living room with a beer bottle hanging from his hand and seven empties at his feet, Uncle Jay mumbled something. It sounded like “I’m sorry.” Aunt Marge slipped the bottle from his hand and brushed his hair off his brow. I held my breath. Would she kiss him goodnight? No. She followed the line of his jaw with the tips of her fingers and let them linger on his lips.

She turned to Maddie and me, tears glistening on her cheeks. “Time to catch sweet dreams, my fishing buddies.”

About the Author 

Mary Clements Fisher relished her careers as an educator and businesswoman and celebrates her current mother/grandmother, sweetheart, and writer status. She studies psychology and writing part-time at Stanford University. A member of Taste Life Twice Writers, she writes about women’s and children’s trials and triumphs and is published in Quail Belle Magazine, Adanna Journal’s Fall 2020 Issue of Mothering in a Pandemic, Passager Journal’s Pandemic Diaries, The Weekly Avocet #450, and Personal Story Publishing Project’s Fall Trouble issue. @maryfisherwrites 

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