Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 125 in December, 2010.
While sponging a stainless skillet in the fluorescent-lit kitchenette of the Air Force Base’s hotel, I griped that our kid should do the work. Two days before, we’d arrived in Tidewater Virginia after three years in Colorado. For Chris, our 17-year-old, my comments coagulated the anomie of moving with hormones, family dynamics, and the pressures of jumpstarting life in a strange place.
“You fucked me over!”
“You moved me across the country just before my senior year!”
“I had a girl, friends, a job… everything was fine.”
“I hate you. I always will.”
Then, a door slam and drywall punch.
He was right. My childhood unfolded neatly in the same foggy California town while his splinters every three years thanks to my military career. I kept a poker face, and replied: “I’m headed to the jetty. Want to go?”
No response, but he followed as I walked out. The oven air embraced us in waves of humid haze and mosquitoes. We took opposite sides of the seawall in silence and sunk our lines in the blood moon light. The tidal lap on riprap rocks disrupted the cicada drone, and I wondered if the chunked concrete was rubble from some hurricane past—wreckage, home or school foundations, reincarnated as coastal armor guarding land from sea.
A few casts in, I saw Chris struggle against his rod and reel. He said, “I’m either stuck or on something big.” He tried everything to free the line… shake, pull, yank, and walk.
With this, I walked toward him and said “keep reeling if you’re making any progress.” “I’m not gaining anything,” he said leaning back against an unseen weight, “I’m about to cut.”
Just then, his spincast began to collect. The rod bowed, and Chesapeake Bay droplets caught the light as they rode the monofilament. Soon, the tip of a fishing pole broke the surface. I kneeled and arched toward the catch. My fingers snagged the rod and I hoisted it from the water.
A price tag from a nearby sporting goods store clung to the foam handle. The $100 rod and reel appeared new, and more expensive than any of my tackle. As I eyeballed the setup, I felt a tug and noticed its line still ran into the bay—something was hooked. I reeled against what felt like a bowling ball. I imaged a gutted croaker, shredded by blue crab, until I felt a firm but smooth pull, unlike the strike and jerk of a fish. Eventually, a 3-foot-wide Cownose ray broke the surface about 25 yards out, flapping and lashing to return to the depths. Soon the rod doubled over, and the ray hovered upside down on the rocks in a few inches of water. Its milky belly contrasted the bay’s brown murk—a living kite. From the ray’s mouth hung a large pyramid sinker like some sort of lead goatee.
After passing the rod to Chris, I flattened myself spread eagle on the jetty. The stingray faced open ocean, beat its muscled wings and whipped its two-foot tail. Cockroaches patrolling the seawall scattered as I reached and strained to sever the line close to the animal’s mouth. I cut, the tension let go, the ray submerged—its brown back blending instantly with the murk. But the sinker snagged and trapped the Cownose in the rocks leaving it to churn the water over and over with helpless splashes. We reached our poles down to aid the creature to no avail. As I started to scale the wall, the ray pumped his broad wings three times and freed itself. While the surface calmed, I took comfort with the knowledge that the lead will eventually weaken and fall off.
I congratulated Chris with a slap on the back and an awkward high-five. As he walked away I couldn’t tell if he would keep fishing or call it a night until he stopped at the edge, rebaited, and cast into the darkness. Alone at our hushed outposts on converse jetty corners we were as far from home as we could be, and I wondered if we’d ever conjure the strength to clear the rocks. My eyes caught Chris’ bait splash glimmer, and on the horizon the green and white lights of a solitary boat pressed noiselessly to sea.