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Catfishing by Michael A. FitzGerald
published in Volume 6, Issue 2 on June 1st, 1999

Her grandfather allowed Sara to open the truck window so that she could rest her arm on the door and let her hand jerk up and down in the rushing air. Occasionally she stuck her head out for a few seconds until her eyes watered. When she pulled her head back in, he kidded her about being sad because a boyfriend had gone off to war or maybe the moon.

When they got to Watkins Glenn, he pulled into a gas station. He bought himself a twelve pack. He bought Sara a bottle of grape soda which she made last for three or four hours by sticking a fishing hook in the top and sucking it drop by drop from the pierced cap.

Eventually, they arrived at the deserted boat landing down past the Speedway. Sometimes when they came here, they could hear the dim roar of racecars and the crowd going nuts. Sara would imagine that these people were cheering for her to catch fish. But today there were no races and the absence of noise made her feel like they were trespassing.

A cool, moist air covered the still lake. In the short walk from the truck to the dock, the temperature the dropped 10 or 15 degrees. He made her put on his sweatshirt. It was warm like a towel just from the dryer, but reeked of paint thinner and the sleeves hung past her hands. Her whole body tingled from the colliding temperatures. The sun in her face. The chilly lake-air slipping under the sweatshirt, around her knees. The splintery, hot planks of the dock.

At first, they just caught little pan fish--bluegills, sunnies, what have you- but toward the end of the day she caught a huge catfish. Almost two feet long. And fat, like a football. And ugly, an outer space ugly, a grisly awkward thing.

She cried. Get it away. Please get it off. She begged him to throw it back. Promise we don't have to eat it.

He promised they wouldn't have to eat it, but didn't throw it back. He batted its head with the Billy club, emptied the four remaining beers from the cooler and threw it in. For the following hour or so, the cooler emitted and occasional thump-thump.

Around 3:30, a few cumulus clouds began to inch in front of the sun, and he decided they should get going.

Her pole broke when he tossed it in the back of the truck. He said that it was about time they got her a new one anyway if she were going to keep pulling in such trophies. This seemed reasonable to Sara. It seemed like a good thing he broke her pole.

They had been up since dawn so she slept most of the way home. The sunburn and warm air from the truck and the lush earthy scent of a day at the lake left her in a black-out slumber.

Casa de Grampa, he said as he nestled the truck into the driveway.

She pulled her face from the hot black vinyl. She wiped the drool from her chin. She was unsure for a few seconds if the day had happened. She sat and gazed around, taking in the world. The algae climbing over the edge of the bird bath. The half-painted garage door. Grandpa tucking the empty beer cans into his canvas bag. The heat sneaking off the pitch-covered driveway in snaky little wisps.

Then her grandmother was at the truck. She pulled Sara's hair from her face. She bemoaned the fact that her little honey was so dirty and sunburned. The girl's mouth was still purple from the soda, and she smelled like fish. A grayish slime covered her hands and fingers.

Oh my little baby. What has he done to you? Who got you so dirty?

She caught a whopper, he said. Bigger than that fucking mutant I caught in April. She pulled it in all by herself.

Sara blushed. But her head was beginning to hurt from the sun and the stink. Her grandmother could feel the little girl's sticky uncomfortableness.

Go in and shower, honey. I'll take care of your grandpa.

After the shower, she put her sundress on, and sandals. She felt pretty and grown-up and presentable as she stood, looking at herself in the mirror. And the catfish seemed a universe away until he came around the corner with it.

Sara, open up, he begged as he stumbled around after her. Dinner Sara. Yum! Yum!

She could feel her insides shake from the shrills coming out. He wasn't looking in her eyes while he laughed. He looked at the top of her head or at her little feet. He was ashamed, but , in his drunkenness, having a fairly good time.

Yummy! Fish Sara. A yummy catfish fish. Meow. Meow.

Blood and fish spew splattered around the room. The cold drops hit her face and arms, sending terrifying wet stings through her body. Finally she wedged herself between the arm of the sofa and the wall. She pulled herself into a ball. He dangled the fish over her head, letting it drip into her just-cleaned hair. Yummy, Sara. Catfish. Yum! Yum! Meow.

Sara was screaming uncontrollable, nearly hyperventilating when her grandmother came in and shooed him away. She's only a little girl George. Leave her alone. You monster. And she looked at Sara. Honey, I'm so sorry. Are you OK? Grandpa didn't mean anything. Grandpa isn't well. I'm so sorry.

It was a joke. Just a joke. Can't we have a little fun around here.

Then her unwell grandpa shuffled out onto the porch and fed the catfish to their dog, Charlotte, who dragged the carcass into the garage and wrestled with it for the rest of the day.

Later, he apologized. He said sometimes grandpa does bad things. He forgets who he loves. He shouldn't drink. Grandpa shouldn't drink. He's so sorry. He loves you very much.

I never meant to scare you, honey.

He was such a bigger person to her from that point on. So much more to him in such a wild mysterious way. She never let herself be alone with him again, but his name, or even the thoughts of him, lifted her. She hoped that she'd once be a monster, be unwell, be courageous enough to act on the honest, overwhelming rush, that guttural spasm that tells you to scare little girls, tell operators to fuck off, speak dirty in confessionals, on second dates. On top of the drinking, he ended up losing what little mind he had and then dying after a slip on the early November ice when she was fifteen. At that age everything was a pain in the ass. She huffed and whined about having to attend the funeral, despite having liked him more than everyone other than the rough man she's with now. The way he walks out of the house at night, it's like a conductor deserting his orchestra.

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