Spanish & King
by Murray W. Dunlap
I want to tell you my fishing story. If you think you've already heard it, you probably have. But don't worry. It's different every time.
Shane Purvis has a birthmark across his face. Instead of too much pigment, he has none at all. It forms the shape of a cartoon ghost creeping up from under his collar and reaching out to his nose. The kids call him Leper and Whitewash behind his back. Sometimes I do too. His son Tripper and I are best friends. Tripper, of course, is really Shane Purvis III, but we won't start calling him Shane until high school. And only then when he demands it. Most kids call him Shrimper. Mrs. Purvis had a problem with her pregnancy, something called pre-eclampsia, and Tripper is half my size. He was a one-pound preemie who never caught up. Mr. Purvis stands six feet tall with broad shoulders and doesn't seem to notice his boy is so small. And in two years he won't be. One day after gym class, it will be revealed that Tripper is bigger than anyone. His nickname will instantly switch to Moby. Girls, even the older ones, will giggle and blush as they walk by. Some will let their eyes drop.
Right now, Mr. Purvis and Tripper and I take turns baiting hooks with live porgies and tossing out the line. We troll across rolling gulf swells, watching the places where the lines and water meet.
"Spanish mackerel been running pretty good," Mr. Purvis says.
"What about King?" I ask.
"Sure, some King too. But mainly Spanish."
"I want a Marlin," Tripper says.
"Like you could reel that in," I say.
Tripper flips me off.
"No Marlin this close to shore, Tripper," Mr. Purvis says. "We'd have to get out past the oil rigs and use some bigger tackle." "Have you got bigger tackle?" I ask.
"At the house," Mr. Purvis says. "Not on the boat. Not today."
"But we can catch King, right?" I ask.
"What about Tuna?" Tripper asks.
"Maybe, but I ain't seen much of them lately." Mr. Purvis rubs sun-block on his birthmark and stares at the horizon. "Bonito maybe. I've seen them."
Tripper and I open cokes and bags of pretzels. We throw a few overboard and watch to see if they float or sink. They float. I ask Mr. Purvis if I can drive the boat again.
"Sure Ben. It's fine out here. I didn't want you to drive in the harbor what with all them other boats, but out here is just fine. Pick out a point on the horizon, check your compass, then keep her straight. And not too fast for trolling. Good. No problem at all."
Mr. Purvis wraps his big hands over my shoulders and kneads them. It hurts, but I don't say it. I check the compass, due west, and keep an eye on the digital Fishfinder. Little black dots appear on the screen, but nothing hits the lines. I keep us heading west.
In the bow, Mr. Purvis arm wrestles Tripper. They lock arms over the ice chest and their butts wag in the air. I can tell Mr. Purvis isn't trying, but Tripper's face has gone entirely red. He does a sort of tap dance and shakes his head, then howls for more strength. Mr. Purvis drops to both knees, feigns agony, and lets his arm fall. Tripper hoots and jumps up and down. He pumps his fist and says, "You lose, sucker!" I steer the boat.
Then the drag on the port side reel begins to click. A slow ticking at first, then a sizzle of line explodes from the spool. Mr. Purvis runs past me to the stern and grabs the rod. He lifts it from the gunnel-hole and sets the hook. He gives the crank a few turns, then hands it over to Tripper.
"Slow her down a bit," Mr. Purvis says over his shoulder. He reels in the other lines and puts them away.
I turn around and pull back the throttle a quarter inch. Tripper holds the butt of the rod between his legs to keep the tip from dipping down. From where I'm standing, it looks like he's taking a shit. I check the compass and see that I've let us drift. I steer back to due west and keep it there. Tripper squeezes his eyes closed and does his best to reel in line. His face goes red. Then, as if told to do so, the fish tires and Tripper pulls him in.
"A good size Spanish, I'd bet," Mr. Purvis says. "Throw it in neutral."
I pull the throttle back into neutral, but it stays in gear. I'm not sure how it works, so I turn the key and kill it. Mr. Purvis takes the gaff and eases it along the side of the boat, sinking the hook beneath rushing water. Tripper reels the last few feet and pulls the Spanish alongside the boat. Mr. Purvis gaffs him and lifts the Spanish out of the water and into the sun. His iridescent back glimmers with specks of gold, but I watch the blood run from mouth and gills to a dull white belly.
"Oh, baby!" Tripper shouts.
"Five. Five and a half pounds," Mr. Purvis says. "See this speck a black on the dorsal fin? That's how we know it's a Spanish and not a little baby King. Little Kings are called snakes. Snow birds on rented boats catch snakes and think they got a Spanish worth keeping. Don't even know it's a baby King until they get written up."
Mr. Purvis uses pliers to remove the hook and tosses the Spanish into the ice chest with one hand. He pats Tripper on the back, and forgetting himself, kisses the top of his head. Tripper ducks down and pretends it didn't happen.
"I pity the fool gets on my line!" Tripper says.
"You're up," Mr. Purvis says. He looks at me and smiles. I nod. Then he notices the engine is off.
"Don't kill the engine out here, Ben. Just put her in neutral. If she don't start up again, we'll be in a heap a trouble."
I mouth the words aye-aye, Captain Whitewash, but I'm facing the other way.
The engine starts on the first try and we backtrack to find the school of Spanish. I bait hooks and let out the line from the other rods while Tripper sloshes his hands in the bait-well, trying to catch porgy without a net.
"I'm after King," I say. "A big ole King, a hundred pounds."
"You know what they call the big ones?" Mr. Purvis asks.
"No," I say.
"Smokers," he says. "They hit so hard that smoke'll come right off your line. And it'll feel like a hundred pounds, sure enough."
Tripper gives up and scoops a porgy into the net. He holds the oily fish an inch from his mouth and whispers, "You lose, sucker. Now go get the King."
He throws out the line.
This time last year, Dad said he'd take me fishing. I made tuna sandwiches and he filled the ice chest with beer. We each held an end of the cooler and took our time getting it to the end of the dock.
I know. Another fishing story. And I haven't even finished the last one. But you haven't heard this before. I never tell this story.
"I don't cry over spilled milk," Dad said, "But I sure as hell cry over spilled beer."
I didn't think it was funny, then or now, but I laughed anyway. It's a laugh I learned from Dad; a polite okay, good one without actually having to talk.
We went back to the house and gathered up rods and reels, thousands of dollars in tackle. Dad finished a beer and popped another while we chose rods. He wore loose canvas shorts and exposed himself every time he sat or kneeled. He may or may not have known it. I looked away. Instead, I focused on picking the biggest rod I saw, not knowing if it was right for our trip. I didn't know where we were going. I didn't know what we were fishing for. Dad laughed.
"Try this one Mr. Big-man," he said. "You'll have an easier time with it."
He handed me an old Zebco. Olive green with rusty eyelets. I took it without looking up.
"Can you catch King Mackerel with this?"
"You bet," he said.
I said nothing.
"I'll try this one today," he said, picking up a brand new spinning rod. The translucent red stem cut the air as Dad made a faux cast. "I found this little jewel in Point Pilot. They robbed me blind, but Goddamn, just look at it."
We took our gear and walked back down to the dock. I'd already lowered the boat from the lift, unhooked the steel cables, and tied up to the gang-walk cleats. I darted back and forth stowing this here and that there; everything in its place. I wedged life jackets between tackle boxes so they wouldn't bang or spill as we motored out. I used twist ties to make sure the rods would stay in place. I worked fast but made sure not to drop anything. When I was done, Dad thumped his cigarette into the bay.
"That seat cushion will blow off," he said. "Sit on it or stow it."
"I was about to sit on it."
"Then let's hit it," he said. "We'll head for the rock jetty and pull up Reds."
Then he looked down and put a hand on his stomach. The wind churned up a light chop and the boat knocked against rubber bumpers. Inside the boat, nothing moved.
"Hang on," he said.
I watched the sky as a flock of brown pelicans drifted in from the south. They flew in single file and landed one by one at the base of a floating buoy. They bent their yellowed heads at strange angles to preen. The last pelican, a slow-moving straggler, dove entirely underwater and surfaced with a fish.
"Hang on," Dad said again, still holding his stomach.
He trotted back down the dock towards the house. I didn't understand, so I followed him. Just as he reached the point on the dock where it transitions from water to land, Dad froze. Both hands lurched for his stomach. Then, just as suddenly, shit ran down his legs.
I froze too, of course. I didn't say a word. Dad looked over his shoulder in rage, then back at his legs. He hobbled down the steps to the beach, kicked out of his shoes, and made short little steps to the water.
I ran into the house. We did not speak of it. We did not go fishing.
I didn't know it then, but I have since learned that when a son witnesses a father beshit himself, it is a psychological rite of passage. The textbook actually used the word
At this point in the story, you'd probably like to know if I caught that big King or not. Truth be told, I did. Forty pounds hit the line fast and hard and we even think we saw a little smoke coming up from the reel. I fought him for thirty-seven minutes. When I reeled him in to boatside, you might expect one of two things. Either I hold the rod upright with one arm and gaff the King with the other—raising the fish into the boat with a tumult of cheers and clapping behind me—or I look down into the water, feeling pangs of guilt and sympathy, and decide on the spot that I must release him. Also to cheers and clapping. Either way, the story ends here: the emblematic fish either served up for supper or swimming to freedom, depending on which metaphor suits my mood. Often, I consider my audience.
But today I've decided on another ending.
It goes something like this:
Mr. Purvis takes the wheel and I stay back with the rods. Tripper eats more pretzels and occasionally opens the cooler to look at his fish. He holds the lid open with one arm and pumps his fist with the other.
I stand up at the stern of the boat, looking down on the churning water. The motor hums evenly until it chews through an occasional clump of seaweed. The water just behind the boat turns a darker shade of green as diced stems and leaves rise to the surface. The sun, now directly overhead, casts no shadows. It is hot. My shoulders are burned and I know by the time we get home, they will blister. I sit down. We wait.
For an hour we troll. Tripper creates a tent with a beach towel and bait net, and sits Indian style, flipping through comic books. Mr. Purvis puts up the shade over the steering wheel and watches the Fishfinder. He opens another coke and presses the can to his face. I put one hand on the closest rod and shut my eyes. For a few seconds, I think I'm asleep.
"So how's your Dad's new house?" Mr. Purvis asks.
"It's all right," I say.
"He has a boat lift, right? I'd kill for my own lift."
"You been fishing yet?"
I open my eyes and stare at the motionless spool of line.
"Yeah," I say. "Last year. We got Spanish and King."
"No way," Tripper says.
"Yes way," I say. "In the bay."
"Spanish and King don't run in the bay," Mr. Purvis says. "Not enough salt."
"I meant the Gulf. We got fourteen Spanish and one King."
"No way," Tripper says.
"How is your Dad?" Mr. Purvis asks. "I heard they have a new baby."
"Did you catch the King?" Tripper asks.
"Yeah," I say. "He fought like crazy."
"How much do you see them?" Mr. Purvis asks.
"I go over there all the time. Dad says he's going to buy me a boat."
"No way," Tripper says.
I start to respond, but the motor lurches and begins to whine. Mr. Purvis shoves the throttle into neutral and pushes a button to raise the prop. He rushes back to where I'm sitting and looks down into the water. As the prop rises, a tangle of trawling net appears, and hanging from the edge, a severed human hand.
I've heard stories of fishermen losing fingers and hands. They find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and a line pulls taut, fast as a bullet, and just like that it's gone. Or more likely, there's the winch. It's always the winch that sucks you in. Or maybe a surimi auger catches on your cuff and pulls you wrist-deep into grinding metal. People say the bait chopper on a crabbing boat will take off your fingers and leave the stump. But I've never met a one-handed man. I've never sat in a bar in Mobile or Dauphin Island or Gulf Shores and seen anyone with a hook or claw. I look for them. Ever since that hand showed up in our engine, I have been compelled to seek out the man who lost it.
But in the moment it happens, I scream. The hand is swollen, ghost-white, and pockmarked from feeding fish. I jump back and hide in the front of the boat. I avert my eyes and hyperventilate.
Tripper cries out, "No way!"
"Holy shit," Mr. Purvis says.
"This is the coolest fishing trip ever," Tripper says.
"Holy shit," Mr. Purvis says.
"Cut it loose," I say.
"No. No, wait. I think. I think. We better take it back with us."
"Oh, baby!" Tripper says.
I watch the horizon while Mr. Purvis scoops up the hand. He goes to great lengths not to touch it. He bags it and throws it on ice. Tripper dances around the cooler and beats his chest with tiny clenched fists. They take turns opening the lid and staring.
"Do you think a shark bit it off?" Tripper asks.
"If he did, it'd still be in his belly." Mr. Purvis says. "It's a clean cut. Right through the skin and bone and everything. I'd say that fella was using the header. Those big spinning blades that cut off fish heads like a length of two by four. I heard about a guy who lost his hand that way. A wave hit the boat all the sudden and bzzzzzt no more hand. He sued for two million. Story goes."
"Or the mob cut it off." Tripper assumes a weightlifting pose.
"You all right, Ben?"
"Fine," I say. "A little seasick."
"It happens to the best of us." Mr. Purvis winks. "Let's head home."
I can't quite put it all together in my mind, but I'm somehow sure this is my fault. Not the hand, and not going home early. I get that. But this panicky knot in my stomach. This dizziness. This burn in my eyes. I feel shame. And I want off this boat.
What I said before, that part about catching a forty pound King. I lied. This is the true ending. The hand and the sickness and shame. I prefer telling the one with cheers and clapping. I like the way a certain face will light up when I say I ate the King that night, and the way another will soften when I say I threw him back. But it's all fishermen's tales. Stories I've told and been told a thousand times.
Sometimes I just can't bring myself to admit it.
Murray Dunlap's work has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Post Road, Night Train, Silent Voices, Smokelong Quarterly, The Bark and many others. His stories have been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize and to Best New American Voices, and his first book, "Alabama," was a finalist for the Maurice Prize in Fiction. He is tinkering with his new book, a collection called "Bastard Blue" as we speak. . .