When my grandfather came to wake me just before sunrise, I nuzzled my tiny face between his chest and his shoulder because I thought he was my father. I kept my face there after realizing he was not my father – I was embarrassed and did not want to show my face, but his chest was also warm. The beach house my family was renting for the summer had high ceilings. In the day time, heat would ooze through the screen doors, and smooth breezes would sweep through the open living room; but in the morning, before the sun rose and when sharp winds blew off the choppy ocean, the house was cold and damp, so I kept my face nuzzled in my grandfather’s guerilla-like chest until he forced me to get up. We were going fishing.
I was uncertain what to wear. I’d never gone fishing before. My grandfather instructed me to layer up because that way I could take off clothing as the sun rose higher in the sky. It did not look like it would be a sunny day though. The dim light that comes before dawn illuminated a blanket of grey clouds hanging over Ammagansett, and I could hear the rhythm of rain falling softly on the roof.
In the kitchen, he scrambled me eggs while bacon slowly sizzled on the stove. Years later, he would teach me how to cook bacon like that, with grease dripping off brown and pink strips of tender, thin cut meat. But that morning, at nine years old, I did not care for such things.
The leaves on the bushes around the rectangular pebble driveway drooped tiredly under the heaviness of the morning dew as we walked to the car.
He put his steaming coffee on the dashboard and started the jeep. He let me sit in the front seat.
“Mom might get angry if she knows you took one of the coffee cups fishing with us. We don’t own the house.”
He shrugged and took another sip of coffee. A peculiar warmth came over me from knowing that I was doing something which might be wrong. I was that type of kid.
The jeep rattled down the bumpy road on the way to the marina. I pulled at the seat belt occasionally because I was too small and it felt like it was cutting into my neck. Papa Jo put music on – something with acoustic guitar and sad, crooning voices. The dark grey sky began to lighten up.
I watched the scattered brush flash by as we whizzed along, always trying to look ahead up the road so that I could see the foliage clearly when we came to it, instead of it passing by in a blur. I’ve never liked the tall grass on the outer reaches of Long Island – there’s so much space and broken wood between each clump. It seems so lonely and confused.
If I were a windshield wiper, I thought, I’d be frustrated. There isn’t a lot of rain, but just enough so we need to use them.
I’ve always hated that.
I wonder if windshield wipers were invented before or after the first rainy day car accident. That seems like the sort of functional thing an inventor would overlook in his first model. You could probably Google that.
Anyway, by the time we reached the marina, a gloomy day had set in. Ghoulish mist hovered above the water, steaming around as if it knew we were watching. I shook the captain’s hand. I remember his rotund belly jutted out above his beltline, and even beneath the blue button down and the vest he wore over it, I somehow could tell he was hairy and oily. It might have been his poorly maintained thick white mustache and the fat lips that hid beneath it which led me to think this.
My grandfather had a wonderful beard. It was always perfectly trimmed so that the helmet-strap melded into the goatee as if it were natural. His voice was deep. He sort of looked and sounded like Al Pacino, just bigger and more rugged. Papa Jo also wore a blue button down with a vest over it, though his shirt was made of denim, and unlike the captain, you could see how powerful he was beneath the clothes. His vest was also army green, and looked like a proper fisherman’s vest. The captain’s was black and looked as if it belonged on a ski mountain.
As we walked through the marina to the fishing boat, I admired the machinery. I was still at an age where construction equipment impressed me merely by its form, and by virtue of which the implication of its function. The thin metal doors to barn-like warehouses hung open to reveal overturned boats balanced on metal beams, all sorts of iron poles, and draped or folded sails. With the mist about, I was somewhat frightened, even though I always felt safe around my grandfather. What could be lurking in the shadows of these empty yet filled spaces? Who could be watching me, waiting to snatch me away once I was alone? The rain still fell, softer now, and I rubbed my nose with my sleeve. This only made it wetter, and so I pressed my soft, boyish hands against my face and dragged them down to try and dry my face.
“What are you doing there?” said the captain with a smile that also filled his eyes.
“Nothing,” I mumbled.
My grandfather laughed. “He’s a weird kid, you know. We might have to toss him in the bay once we get out there.”
He looked at me fondly and I snarled a little because I didn’t like the idea of being weird. We had paused in front of the dock that led to the boat. The captain placed the blue cooler with the white handle on the ground. He walked over to his sea-green pick up truck parked beside one of the tall tin storage sheds and called over, “You need anything Jo? Water? Juice? Chips?”
“I’m good Willy. Brought some stuff in my bag. I’ll put it in your cooler.” He looked at me. “You want anything?”
“Maybe some chips and some orange juice?”
“Hey Willy – bring over two bags of chips and an orange juice.”
“I only need one bag, Papa Jo.”
“Who ever said they were both for you?”
“Oh.” I looked down at the ground and shuffled my feet.
He ruffled my hair and laughed.
“You excited to get out there? This is a perfect morning for fishing.”
I nodded and smiled. Willy came back over carrying three rods under one arm and chips under the other. He pulled an orange juice out of the vest pocket and put it in the cooler.
“Alright, let’s get to it. If we leave now we can catch ‘em all waking up.”
I marveled at the fact that fish slept. It had never occurred to me. It’s both funny and sad that as we get older we have to remind ourselves how fantastically wonderful simple things can be.
Our rubber boots clunked down the wooden dock. When we reached the white schooner, I felt rough hands grasp around my waist and tenderly lift me onto the boat. Papa Jo didn’t like to waste time. I was underwhelmed by the size of the boat, but also intrigued that a boat so small had stairs that led below deck.
“Can I go below deck?” I asked Willy.
“Sure. Just be careful as you go down the stairs.”
By the time I got bored of inspecting worn out plaid woolen blankets and strange nautical maps the boat was moving, and I came back above deck because I enjoyed watching us pull out of the marina. In the back of my mind I hoped we’d crash into something since the process was so delicate; being a young boy, I was fond of destruction. We made it out to the bay unscathed though, and Willy turned up the motor from a low hum to a soft roar. It was startling to hear such a violent noise when the only other sound was the seagulls. I looked back to watch our wake. Willy turned up the motor again; now to a loud nasally buzz. The sound bothered me, and since I was cold and tired, I once again found refuge in the nook between my grandfather’s chest and shoulder. The wet, salty breeze would not be ignored though, and I began to begrudgingly wake up as we pulled further and further away from shore, out into the silence of the morning sea.
The mist out on the open water seemed to follow us wherever we went.
“Look! A fish! Let’s stop!”
“Trust me, Justin, there’s nothing worth catching out here,” shouted Willy as we pushed on.
I looked up at Papa Jo for confirmation. “We want to get far out but not too far out. Willy knows the area well and he’ll bring us right to where we need to be.”
“What if the fish aren’t awake yet?”
“They’re getting up, trust me.”
“Have you ever fished with Willy before?”
“No. But he’s a good guy.”
“So you know him?”
“No. But I made sure we got a good guide.”
“Do you think he catches big fishes?”
“No. But he does catch big fish. Fish is like moose when it’s plural. You just say fish.”
“What about gooses?”
“Then why aren’t moose meese?”
He chuckled. “You got me there.”
“Are platypuses platypeese?”
He looked at me with a raised brow. Then he laughed. I smiled and looked out at the calm, dark water.
We soon came to a stop, and now there was true silence, and for the first time I realized we were going to kill something.