Suzanne LaFetra

A new short story in Pearl

Pearl is one of those old gems of a literary magazine. It’s been around since the mid seventies, and has included writing from bigwigs including Charles Bukowski. I’m honored to have a short story, Catch and Release, included in the current issue.

Catch and Release

She always noticed her father’s hands; the blunt, short nails, the left thumbnail deeply ridged, the pale hairs sprouting from the back, lying down like complacent soldiers. “No, Erica. Not like that.” He had taken the fishing rod from her. “Use a blood knot instead. It’s stronger.”

“You wind it through five times on each side, then poke each end through the hole here.” Her father twisted the filament of fishing line. “They go through opposite sides, Erica, never together. Got it?”

She squinted, watching over his shoulder, trying to remember the sequence, but she could hardly see the tiny fringe of the caddis fly’s man-made wings. She couldn’t remember if a clinch knot curled round to the right or left or how to tie the leader, no matter how many times her father had shown her.

He held the barb tightly between his fingers, whipping the tippet through the tiny eye of the hook. Erica watched while he tied her fly on; his own rod had been at the ready for twenty minutes, propped against the curling bark of a cottonwood a few feet away, on the bank of Hat Creek. “Now, you seat it, remember?” he said, and closed his lips along the length of the line, as if he were sealing an envelope. He tugged on both sides of the filament, and the knot, wet with his saliva, seemed to seal itself shut.

A cold, autumn wind swooshed through her hair, rustled the cupped leaves of the madrone at her back. Erica wished she had brought a warmer sweater. She jammed her hands down into the back pockets of her jeans, and stretched backward, arching her neck, taking in the slice of bright blue sky, perfect as a new, sharpened crayon. A red tailed hawk sailed across the open space, bisecting the clump of land she and her father stood on, in the basin between two sleeping volcanoes at the northern boundary of California.

It had been his idea of course, and of course, she had complied. Everyone did what her father asked of them. Even if it was three days of flyfishing, even if she preferred the privacy of an afternoon with an ipod, even if the two of them had little to say to each other. What could they talk about, really? She would be seventeen in a few weeks, and he was practically an old man.

She looked away from the sky, from a tangled wisp of cloud that drifted above them, back to her father. He was digging in his battered tacklebox, crouched on a bed of crushed bark, leaves, pine needles. He wore the red and black Pendleton that he had owned since before she was born. Erica had seen a photograph at her grandma’s house after the funeral, of her parents when they were young at Big Bear Lake, and her dad was wearing that same scratchy shirt. He was smirking, a twisted, arrogant smile, two fingers linked through the gills of an enormous wide mouth bass. In the picture her mother’s hair was stiff and poufy, and she seemed out of place on the dock, in heels and a pale pink dress. Erica had seen her reflection then, in that picture from the past; saw her own face pinched and pale, framed in a black mourning dress.

Even after her mother had died, the summer of Erica’s freshman year, her dad didn’t spend much time at home. When she needed to find him, she called work, and his secretary would tell Erica that he was in a meeting in Fresno, or at a distributor’s in Tucson that week.

“Well, young lady, are you ready?” her dad asked, in a voice that was over jovial, booming. A squirrel skittered on a tree branch overhead.

“Sure, dad.”  She picked up her pole, No, not pole, dummy, rod. C’mon. Get it right!

            “You wanna go upstream, or down?” she asked him. For the past two days they had mostly fished apart, even though this was supposed to be a trip about togetherness.

When he had suggested the flyfishing trip, he’d promised they’d have fun together. For a moment, she had imagined stories by a campfire, or holding up trophy fish, grinning in front of a camera. But it was late September, and she was just settling in to being a senior. She would miss the big game against Piedmont, and SATs were only a couple of weeks away. But she knew she didn’t have a choice, not really. He was her family.

Fishing was his love, he had told her once. On what would have been her mother’s birthday last year he had gone to Idaho, alone, to fish for cutthroat. It’s how he coped, he told her. He could get away from his troubles, work out his problems while he fished, he had said.

 “Why don’t we both go upstream today?” he said, pointing toward a tiny trail next to the stream. “I scouted a nice little spot yesterday. I bet it’s just loaded with trout.”  Erica felt her stomach tingle. Mostly, she had spent the weekend perched on sunny boulders, reading her rolled up copy of In Cold Blood that was sandwiched in her backpack between the clandestine Camel cigarettes and her cell phone. If he were around, she’d actually have to fish, to practice what her father had drilled into her: to pull the line, finger by finger, to try and trick a trout into believing what was dead was alive.

“Well, uh, okay,” she said. “But my casts are still all over the place. I wouldn’t want to hook you, Dad,” she tried.

“Nah, I saw you yesterday morning. You were great. Let’s go.” He strode down the gentle slope. Erica followed behind, and watched the way his coat angled down over his shoulders, noticed that without his hat on, she could see the crown of his scalp through his graying hair. She stumbled then, on the smooth edge of a chunk of rock submerged in the dirt. Her ankle made a quick jerk, a flash of hot. She sucked in her breath, kept walking. He didn’t turn around.

She kept up, and struggled over the boulders, through scratchy stretches of brush, past tanoaks and the gleaming red chokecherries, the hands of orange maple. If she made it in to Dartmouth, she would be surrounded with leaves like that. And men in thick, flax colored sweaters, crowded hallways. She would be away. No more empty dining room table or explanations of why he couldn’t make closing night of her play. No clipped text messages: Flight cancelled—home tomorrow. Use AMX for dinner. Dont forget your homework. Dad.

This is mostly how they communicated, or how they failed to. Blocky letters on backlit screens, stunted messages after a corporate beep.

“There it is, Erica,” her dad said, pointing upstream to a bend in the river darkened by shade. At least it wasn’t windy there, she thought. Maybe she’d be warmer. They hiked under the canopy of leaves, the fiery autumn colors not yet bright. He led her to a smooth, flat boulder, and surveyed the water. “Let’s switch to a dry,” he said, bending down and flipping open the metal tabs on the tackle box. “I’m putting on a #14 Elk Caddis.”

Erica craned her neck, and saw that the clouds had come in from the north, and hung gray and heavy. “It’s pretty here, Dad,” she said. “Want some dried apricots?” She sat down cross-legged in one motion on the cold rock.

But her dad didn’t answer. He hooked the fly in the small patch of foam on the front of his fishing vest. From one of the pockets he pulled out a tiny pair of clippers. He nipped the old fly from the leader, then in a quick flick of his fingers, tied the new fly on. Erica nibbled the sweet, chewy fruit. Her dad walked across the expanse of boulder, angled himself upstream.

She thought about the stories that her dad told about his fishing trips, about the time that he and a guy from work had waded for four hours in Deep Creek until it had gotten dark. During a cast, he had caught his own ear, and they’d had to hike out and find the nearest emergency room.

Erica lifted another apricot from the sack and examined it. Soft and pale orange, it was just the thickness and shape of an ear. She bit down.

She watched the dark water, saw the sudden glimmer of sun glinting off the riffles. “Guess you’ll be in college this time next year” her dad said, casting overhead.

“Mmm hmm.” She chewed the sticky fruit.

            “It’s going to be pretty quiet at home,” he said. She heard the tiny plup of a splash, and turned to see ripples on the dark eddy, ringing their way out toward the shoreline.

            “Well, you’re at work so much” she said, swallowing, and hugging her knees, “It’s not like it’ll be much different.” The sun disappeared again behind a bank of clouds.

“But it is different, Erica.” She heard his line whizzing overhead. “It’s different knowing someone’s under the same roof with you. Maybe you don’t talk much, or have dinner together a lot, or even have much to say to each other.” He let the line sail out, and land near the edge of a mossy rock. “But it’s another kind of lonely when that person’s gone.”

            He wasn’t looking at her. His eyes were on the line, the delicate, nearly invisible strand that draped the distance between him and the dark water. He started to reel in for another cast.

His reel clicked and her back warmed as the sun emerged. She squinted up at her dad, his face shadowed against the mottled autumn sky. She smelled the earthy scent of the wet riverbank, the smell of change.

She watched her father rock the rod back and forth, the cork handle gripped in his right hand. His arm pivoted only at the shoulder, the orange line hissing in an S over his head, a perfect fluid motion. He pulled out slack in his left hand, gradually making the cast bigger by letting out more and more line. Erica watched his rhythmic motions, saw him let the line finally sail out in front of him, and land gently, perfectly, on top of the riffles in the water. He let the current take the fly, and it caught in a tiny eddy, swirling in the dark pool, nearly hidden by an overhanging alder. The line trailed downstream for a moment, and then he whisked it up and over head again, the swaying, swinging motion back and forth singing like a lullaby. He was graceful, her father, Erica realized.

            She watched as he aimed, his eye on the fly, and started another cast. With a rush, the line tumbled out of the reel, whizzing through the guides, the steel circles, ever smaller. The fly landed, hardly making a ripple, in precisely the same spot.

She had stopped chewing. He did this five more times, and with each cast, Erica felt herself increasingly mesmerized. She had never seen him like this, flowing and graceful, tuned in to the direction of the wind, the slant of the sun.

On the seventh cast, the fly resting effortlessly on the surface of the pool, she watched her father’s face, his mouth slightly open, eyes fixed, shoulders relaxed, one slender stripe of line in his left hand. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he fingered the line, pulling it in ever so slowly. He closed his mouth, one eyebrow rose. Slowly slowly……

A bolt of mercury flashed at the surface. It splashed, disappeared. Then the tip of her dad’s rod arched toward the water, the line dragging downstream. “Got it!” Her dad gave the rod a quick jerk. Erica sucked in her breath—the fish was on the line. Her dad swiveled his head to look back at her. Erica popped up, ran to his side.

“Wow, Dad!” she said, clapping her hands together, a school girl. “Look at that!” The trout flashed just a few inches below the surface.

“It’s a big one,” he grinned. “Here, you bring it in.” He held the butt of the rod tightly, locked the reel, and edged next to her. She stood rooted to the rock, unsure of what to do. She was afraid she’d lose the fish, afraid it would all be for nothing. “Hold it tight, now. Give it a little room to run,” he said, never taking his eyes from the V in the water where the line cut it.

“You’ve got it, gentle now,” he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. He watched the water, she watched him, and started to turn the reel with a quickening clicking sound. “Oh, man…” she said, and leaned back a little. A cold wind ruffled the water, and she smelled the rain coming. She could feel the pull on the line, the weight of the fish as it dove deeper, and the tension wane when it rested. Then, the force again, when it fought against the hook.

Erica let out a whoop when the fish came to the surface again, she could see it was bigger than her boot. Her father trotted to get the net. “It’s huge, Dad!” she blurted out, before it raced away again.

“Just hang on,” he said, then grabbed the rod with one hand, standing directly behind her. “Bring it in.” And she did, one click at a time, until she could see the tired trout, a silver treasure just below the surface.

“OK, now lift!” She brought the rod up high with both arms above her head. The rainbow trout dripped and twisted on the end of the line. Her dad leaned out over the rock, and with the net, scooped up the dangling fish.

He set it down on the rock, it’s pale pink stripe framed by the green crisscross of the net. Erica watched the gills panting. “That’s a 13 incher!” he said, clapping her shoulder. “Not so big, but what a fighter.”

She suddenly felt a stab of pity for the beautiful, shining fish, now trapped, unable to breathe. A fat raindrop hit Erica’s nose, then another. She peered up at the dark sky.

Her dad gripped the trout across its freckled glossy center, tilted his face toward the fish’s.  In one swift movement, he pushed with his thumb on the tiny hook, which cupped the trout’s bony jagged lip, and for a moment, the fish was untethered, held back from freedom only by her father’s hand.

“Say adios,” he said, and Erica wasn’t sure whom he was talking to.

Then, her father gently placed the rainbow trout back into the river. It flashed for less than a second, then disappeared, not to the black of the pool where it had been snared, but quickly down the riffles of the rapids, down stream, out of sight. Her father lifted his hand to shield his eyes, following the path the fish took. Rain spattered harder into the stream, pockmarking the surface.

Erica stood on the rock, not knowing what to say. She felt a rush of warmth for her father, but did not know where to begin.

Then she spotted a dot of red, a thickening sphere of blood on her father’s thumb. “Hey Dad, you cut yourself,” she said, and unzipped her backpack, groping for a tissue.

“Mmm,” he said, still squinting downstream.

“Here you go,” she said, waving a Kleenex at him like a flag of surrender. But he just wiped the rain from his face with his sleeve. He walked back to his flat spot on the rock, picked up his rod, and began again.

Erica stared down at the boulder, at two ragged drops of blood. Her father’s blood, rich with iron like her own, stood erect and unmoving, the surface tension keeping it from running. It stood at attention, stark and red on the slab of cold granite for a moment longer. And then, the rain of autumn washed the blood into the stream, where it blended and dissipated, becoming part of all that flowed by.

Erica stood on the clean, wet rock, then turned to join her father.