When I was young, the threat of violence connected like a punch to the gut before any actual violence ever touched me. It felt like a sudden flu, like losing my stomach on a roller coaster. It was spacy, disorienting, out of my control: like when my dad once angrily floored the accelerator of the family station wagon after some punks blew by us in a no-passing zone on a two-lane highway. My sisters, mom and I went from singing along to Beatles songs on a cassette tape to feeling like we were stuck on a terrifying ride to hell. Instead of my dad singing a sadistically beautiful song like Willy Wonka to his petrified riverboat passengers, he was completely silent. Only the growling aria of the Cleveland 351 engine in that old white Torino kept climbing higher in pitch, pushing over a hundred, walls of trees whipping by on either side. One mistake, we were all dead. I remember my sisters shrieking; I remember my mom meekly demanding that he slow down and forget about it; I remember crying, softly pleading for him to stop. Please, stop. When what my boy pleas were actually asking were, “Please, stop being a man. Please, think. Please, remember us.”
When, for whatever reason, my dad did finally slow down and let the punks continue to break traffic laws on the backwoods highways of Washington state, the world felt unnatural, unreal. We were safe, but our cells would not decelerate, the posted speed limit felt like a record player spinning too slow. Deep, lethargic musical notes that stretched like taffy, dragged down a black hole, to become a psychic rumble in the background, a passing train, a vibrating reminder that your world can change again at any moment. Be prepared.
One evening, after work, my dad asked if I wanted to go fishing. My answer was always yes. I hadn’t told anyone, but I planned on fishing every body of water in the world before I died. I would stare at maps for hours, see a ribbon of blue cutting through Nebraska, through Africa, through Siberia and imagine myself fishing the Platte, the Zambezi, the Kamatchka. Years later, a friend asked me if I had any idea just how many bodies of water there were in the world. And I said that I did. I studied the maps closely. But I always thought, life is long. Always envisioned being on the move. Always thought, sooner or later, I would show up in some new section of the world, armed with my rod, reel and tackle box, like some lone gun for hire.
Des Moines Marina was a far cry from those dreams. Des Moines wasn’t a dump, but it wasn’t exactly a gem, either. On the shore of the Puget Sound, it was about a mile west of Pacific Highway South ‒ a track, near the Sea-Tac airport, lined with cheap motels, notorious for drugs and prostitution. Around evening, people trickled down to the Marina, walking the long pier, parking along the shoreline, staring at the striptease of the sun between the peaks and valleys of the Olympic Peninsula in the distance. Its beauty was a matter of perspective. It depended on what stratum of the food chain you were swimming on, just how many predatory shadows you were dodging to count yourself amongst the living at the end of the day.
What I saw when I looked at Des Moines Marina was a place of beauty, uglied up by too many people.Sunset worshipers quietly abandoned the Marina as street lights turned on, shadows deepened and night took over. Left behind were bored teenagers getting drunk or high, lovers looking to love and diehard Asian fishermen jigging for squid, working crab pots or fishing under lights at the end of the pier. Some nights were fine, but others felt sinister, dangerous. Those nights, laughter had an edge, carried a message, an audio version of old shoes hanging from a telephone wire, a warning, “Watch your step.”
Though my dad and I arrived while it was still light, there was a lot of early sunset foot traffic. Or else it was the weekend. People were everywhere. My heart sunk at the sight.
As I dug into the trunk of my dad’s red Dodge Colt to untangle and set up my rod, I wondered what compelled him to come here. He, like me, shied away from crowds, especially when it came to fishing. Fishing was sacred, a meditation, a holy act between you and nature, balanced in silence, tempered by patience.
But here we were in the constricted throat of Babel, about to field the same questions over and over again, “Any luck?” “Catch anything?” “What’s ya fishin’ for?” “What’s ya usin’?”
After a while I would think up new, smart-ass answers but never say them, “Don’t need luck when you’re born with looks like this.” “The Clap.” “Love.” “What god gave me downstairs, if you know what I mean.”
As we walked the crowded pier, I think my dad started to realize his mistake. We baited up, dropped our lines and jigged along the barnacle-encrusted pier pilings hoping to catch a sea perch. But after a short time, he must have felt the claustrophobia and stalked off back to the car. Or at least that’s what I thought. For, when I chased him down, he’d found an open gate down to a solitary little dock, next to the boat sling which hoisted boats in and out of the water.
Though we both suspected we were breaking some rule, we didn’t care. We cast our lines toward the breakwater and enjoyed the feeling of space, the sun riding high in the saddle of the Olympics on the horizon, the water softly rippling against the dock.
Then, footsteps. Deep clunks that wooden rampways make at marinas.
When I turned, I fully expected to see marina security or some yacht club type telling us this was private property, that it was for members only, asking for proof of moorage or club membership, sending my dad and I on our way. But it was an old wino. I had seen him earlier near the start of the pier, brown-bagging it, hustling for spare change. Now, up close, he seemed to exude a strange energy. I could feel him in my bones, a precursor to a gut punch, a preamble to violence. The air buzzed and crackled around him like high voltage power lines.
“What y’guys fishin’ for?”
“Sea perch, maybe sole,” my dad said.
“Shit… I love breaded sole.”
When I resumed fishing, my mind was figuring out how I would unfold my pocketknife in time and start stabbing if the wino did something crazy. I even took a step closer to the dock edge in case I had to ditch into the water.
“Well, shit…” The old wino lazily stretched against the fading warmth of the dipping sun, took a tug off his brown bag, tilting it high like real alcoholics do, and offered it to my dad.
My dad was a drinker back then, but not the kind that took random swigs of two-dollar wine from winos. He would drain entire cases of whatever beer was on sale and not even miss a step. So many times I saw him hit home run after home run and win MVPs at weekend softball tournaments, after he had drank enough to make most men tipsy and useless. He just became relaxed, loose.
“Hell, I’d sure like to eat some fish tonight. Y’gotta hook?”
My dad dug around in the tackle box and handed him a pack of Mustad hooks.
The wino dug in his pocket, came up with a little spool of twine and, after several attempts, he finally tied on a hook. I think I was the only one that noticed when he slipped the rest of the twenty-nine-cent container of hooks into his pocket.
“Y’got some bait? I’d dangle my pecker in the water but the only thing I’d catch is a blue whale or another wife.”
My dad and I smirked at each other, before my dad got him a nightcrawler.
“Using worms in the saltwater?” the wino wondered.
“For sea perch. When you see them gnawing on those barnacles on the pilings, they’re trying to get at something like a sea worm. It works. Fish aren’t picky.”
The wino drunkenly half-listened, before hand casting his line into the water. It looked pathetic. Stringy, floating, no weight to carry it down to the bottom, more apt to catch a sea gull that might dive beneath the surface and eat the worm than a fish.
My dad told him to pull it in, then snapped some split shots on the twine, allowing for a leader down to the baited hook.
When the wino cast again, it looked much better, like he might actually catch something.
Just when we were about to really settle into the insular act of fishing, and I would have to admit that my senses had been off about this guy, the wino abruptly stopped and said, “Be right back!”
He ran up the wooden rampway, and my dad and I gave each other an exasperated look that said, “What’s his problem?”
But while the wino was away doing who-knows-what, I spotted a big, fat shadow in a shaft of light by the keel of a moored sailboat, picking at barnacles. It had to be a big sea perch. The kind I would see lumbering in the shadows of oil docks, where boats would gas up. Every time I saw them like that, I never had a fishing pole with me. It was cruel. To see a big fish that close, unnoticed by fishermen because it was a scrap breed, a secret king of the dock shadows, probably never even seen a baited hook before in its life. I always suspected that out of complete naiveté I could catch one of those virgin kings on my first cast. That, so unaccustomed to the stresses of pursuing fishermen, even if it saw the nylon filament of my line shining in the water, it would ignore it, never once wonder if this might be some kind of trick, and sluggishly devour my bait until the barb stuck deep in its throat and I landed my trophy fish. Maybe even a state record since oftentimes nobody took the time to verify a record catch for scrap fish. Oftentimes the record weight remained easily attainable. To see my name printed in the state records section of the fishing and hunting regulation book published each year ‒ that would have been a dream come true. Ron Gibson, Jr.: Washington State record holder for sea perch! One small record, I thought, before I broke many more in my world travels.
I snapped on a bobber and cast as close to the moored sailboat without hitting it, but it was such an awkward, almost impossible angle that no matter how hard I tried, I could only get my bait relatively close, not right in front of it. The sea perch seemed more interested in its barnacles, not a worm dangling two feet behind it. But that shadow was so alluring I had to keep trying.
That’s when the old wino stormed back down the wooden rampway, waving around a car antenna like a magic wand. He said he ‘found’ a fishing pole to tie his line to, but it was obvious that he’d snapped it off somebody’s parked car. My dad and I could not help but roar with laughter, even though we were horrified by what he had done.
“What’re y’guys up to?”
I pointed out the shadow under the sailboat. It took his old eyes a while to adjust. He stepped closer to me. I could smell the wine on his sour breath, along with the stale smell of body odor, as he followed my pointing finger, before he saw it.
“Shit… That’s a nice fish.”
Getting close to him like that, the wino became real to me. He gave off a crazy, unpredictable vibe that might still turn dangerous, but I wondered who he was, how he got here. Who he used to be.
His twine tied to the end of his broken radio antenna, the wino began to try to cast toward the sailboat, too. At first he waved the antenna back and forth like some lame fly fishing pole, and, as the line limply waved in the breeze going absolutely nowhere, my dad and I started laughing again. The old wino smiled sheepishly, like a mischievous boy, not minding in the least that he was playing the clown for our entertainment.
By the time my dad gave him a bobber to snap on his twine and learned that if he pitched the bobber and bait like a baseball to where he wanted that it would work as an improvised cast, the sun was starting its striptease for the worshipers. Shadows were beginning to lengthen and hide the big sea perch from our view, returning it to its kingdom, oblivious that we ever existed, ever tried to kill it for our own appetites and glory.
Before I could muster up the courage to ask the old wino’s name, he yelled at some guy skirting the cyclone fence above, “Hey, motherfucker! Y’owe me money!”
The guy spun on us and yelled, “Fuck you! I don’t owe you shit!”
“Hey! Motherfucker! Goddamn it.”
As quickly as he arrived, the old wino was stomping up the wooden walkway, dragging his raggedy fishing gear and holding his brown bag against his chest like a newborn baby. Before he exited the cyclone fence gate, he looked back and said, “Next time y’re here, if y’see that sea perch gone. Y’bet y’r ass I nabbed him.” He slammed the gate and went running toward the pier where the nameless motherfucker went to dodge him in the crowd.
It was not until a few years later that I made my way back to Des Moines Marina, this time with a group of friends. They’d cleaned it up, rebuilt the pier, installed new bathrooms, maintained a stronger police presence to keep things safe. The same sunset worshipers trickled down to the marina by evening, but many more stuck around after, now that the the newly-installed, brighter lights burned all night long.
When I walked along the pier with my friends, cracking stupid teenager jokes at other people’s expenses, my eyes looked for the old wino. He was nowhere to be found.
Telling them I had to take a piss, I left my friends and ran over to the locked cyclone fence gate. After I figured out which moorage slip the sailboat must have been in that day, I looked but couldn’t see any sea perch shadow lingering by the new Bayliner in its place. Like many of my wild, childhood ambitions of fishing every body of water in the world, the sea perch was gone. I liked to believe that the old wino caught him, but instead I wondered what had caught the old wino. I liked to think the old wino was still out there electrifying the air with his mania, a walking sunset you could not help but stop and watch, but I was growing up. Every day, history’s heroes were being exposed as frauds, life was feeling shorter and shorter, and the world felt ever more distant and unreachable as responsibilities increased.
As I returned to my group of friends, my role was changing. I was now becoming a lover looking to love. Instead of watching the fiery striptease on the horizon like everyone else, I stared at a girl in my group of friends. I searched her eyes like I used to search for shadows in the water. I crept closer, hoping not to startle her, digging into my tackle box of words for the right ones that might lure her into my life, even if only for a night.
Ron Gibson, Jr. has previously appeared in Rabble Lit, (b)oink, Stockholm Review of Literature, Cheap Pop, New South Journal, Jellyfish Review, Whiskeypaper, Unbroken Journal, Crack the Spine, Gone Lawn, etc… forthcoming at Easy Street Magazine & Mannequin Haus. He tweets as @sirabsurd