There used to be a pond just behind my house on Terry Street. It’s still there, actually, I’ve just moved on. It was surrounded on all sides by reeds taller than me or Max or even Carson who was the tallest. We went there after school, left our backpacks at home and picked up our fishing poles then walked just past the Barbers’ house down the hill to the pond. Oh no, it was the Palermo’s house with the wind chimes that sounded like thunder, not the Barbers.
There were benches all around the pond to sit on and look out, little oak logs from the forest behind the pond with the tops shorn off to make a seat. We wanted to be in the water, though, deep in the mud and watching the fish swim around underneath us. We had to dig through the reeds with our elbows to stand in the water; Max liked to go where there was less moss because his little arms couldn’t drag it around like I could when it got tangled up in our hooks. It was all heavy, water-logged and sometimes the snapping turtles would get caught up in it and die. We couldn’t do a thing but watch them choke. I remember them always looking angry until they were dying and started to look anxious. But, when it was dead, it looked dead.
I think every day of the fourth grade we would go down to the pond to catch something and never did. We would talk about it all day in class until our teacher told us to shut our mouths and pay attention. Then, we got to talk all the way down to the pond and we would ask Carson what it was like to kiss girls or ask Max what it was like to have divorced parents. At the pond one day, they asked me what I was going to be when I grew up because I was the smartest and I said I’d just like to fish and not have a job. I did have a dream back then of becoming an actor in big Hollywood movies, but I don’t think I told them that. Or maybe I did, one day when it was about to rain and they said that would be weird for them. Then we talked about what it would be like to be a fish and we all forgot I’d ever said anything.
On my tenth birthday, my dad bought me a new fishing pole and a Costco pack of hot dogs and I said, “Thanks for the pole, Dad, but I don’t even really like hot dogs that much.”
“The hot dogs isn’t for you, boy. That old pond’s only got catfish and catfish is a bunch of bottom feeders so they eat all the nasty, smelly garbage. You’ll catch a thousand catfish with hot dogs,” he said.
From then on, I’d go down to the pond without Max and Carson and fish all by myself. I was going to be the first one to catch a fish in that pond if it killed me. I had all those hot dogs, after all, and that was sure to get me at least one. But, it didn’t. Not even one. And I knew they were there because I’d seen them and sometimes they would touch my legs when they swam by me. Sometimes I thought they were avoiding me on purpose, like they were making fun of me down in the mud.
Max and Carson got awful mad when I told them I went by myself on the weekends and told me that it wasn’t fair. Their reasoning was something kind of stupid and I remember the interaction, how Max accidentally spit on my shirt because he’d forget to swallow when he was mad and how Carson stood over me and squinted down at me like he thought he was my dad. For the life of me, I can’t remember what they said. I think I put it away because it hurt my feelings and I thought it was stupid to get my feelings hurt over a bunch of catfish. Maybe I understand it a little better now.
The summer after fourth grade, Max spent the summer with his Mom in Wisconsin so Carson and I never saw him. He called once or twice, but we just talked about the Rangers and movies and never catfish. It was hard to hang out over the phone and I think he was still mad at me. Carson wasn’t so mad, but he got tired of fishing and just wanted to play video games at his house. I kept saying it was summer and we should go fishing because we had all day to go outside and live the best days of our lives.
He said, “That pond is dead to me now,” and I don’t think he knew what it meant, but that’s what he said.
So, I just went out on my own to catch fish from then on. I still felt mostly sad that I hadn’t caught one. My little brother came sometimes and tried to be my friend. He took Max’s pole because it was the smallest, but he could only be outside for an hour or so before he got bored and hot and went home to Mom. Dad even came with me sometimes, and he’s like a good friend, too, but he wanted to ask questions the whole time. He asked about girls and football and if I was having a fun summer just fishing all the time and if he was doing a good job as a dad. I can’t remember my answers.
He came out with me once in August when he got home from work and the sky was melting in the wind, giving us gentle goosebumps. He asked me, “How come your boys don’t wanna come out?”
I told him they hated me. Dad just nodded. I knew he liked me, so he didn’t have to say that. It’s nice to be liked, but Dads have to like you. Friends get to choose. I didn’t tell Dad that.
So, we fished until the sun went down and the sympathetic cicadas quieted their calls and went to bed in the leaves of the taller, kinder oak trees. We didn’t catch anything. I didn’t complain, but I was pretty sad. I didn’t blame Dad for the hot dogs because he really thought they would work and he was trying his best. My friends just weren’t around to try other lures.
When school was only days away, I packed a little lunch box and grabbed my pole and tackle box with all those hot dogs and went down to the pond alone. If my memory is correct it was more than a hundred degrees that day, but it didn’t stop me because I wanted to prove to my friends that I was a good fisherman if I ever saw them again. I figured there wasn’t really a better time with school starting and I had to make sure I caught one before my life came to an end. I didn’t think I could live a full life having never caught a fish even if I got old and got dementia and couldn’t really remember the one I caught.
The pond that day was lonely out in front of the benches and the sky stretched out in different colors all over and the pond smelled like morning. I thought maybe that all the colors were a good omen, that pink and red and orange were my fortune for the day and I was happy for it. I might’ve even thought my friends might just come and watch. I took off my shoes and wandered through the reeds until I could see some of the fish starting their little laps round my legs. My feet sank deep in the mud and I let my hot dog fly.
On my very first cast, I felt my first bite.
I knew it was a catfish because I used a hot dog and felt it sink down to the bottom of the pond, way down deep where the catfish made their living and the tug was hard, like a whale or a shark, probably. I yanked back and then I just reeled and reeled and reeled until my arm was starting to get tired and the edges of the plastic were digging into the pads of my fingers, but I reeled some more then. I yanked a few times until I saw his back, big and sending long breaks to the edges of the pond and into the moss and reeds. The back looked slimy and sickly and I suddenly realized Dad never taught me how to handle a fish when I caught one because we never had. I reeled anyway.
He breached again, this time a whole splash up over the water and I realized why he tugged so hard; this was the biggest fish I’d ever seen. My fingers were starting to bleed and sweat was sinking into the little cuts. He was probably about as big around as my torso, maybe even bigger, and longer than I was tall. I thought that he probably came from under the mud, way down deep somewhere where the earth just stops and gives way to the underworld. Or maybe he came from Hell and that made more sense seeing as he was a monster.
By the time I had him all the way reeled in, I was sweating big drops into the pond around me and all the little fish stopped to nibble on my salt as it sank and then swam away as the monster got close. I reached down to pick him up, but he kept thrashing every which way, just fighting for his life and I had no idea how to grab him without killing him. I didn’t want to kill him.
He kept flopping all over the place until I yanked some more and wore him out enough to pick him up with my forearms from under his belly. I was still a kid, still kinda small, and this fish weighed about as much as me if I had to guess. My forearms weren’t enough and I had to drop him before I decided to reach down into his mouth like I’d seen the pros sometimes do on TV. His barbs stung me, all the poison digging into the hollow of my hand and burning it red and white as I howled up at the colors in the sky. Catfish barbs are poisonous and you need gloves to take them off the hook and I knew that, just must’ve forgot then or something. See, I always forget the important stuff.
When my fish stopped splashing all over the place, I’d started to wish my friends were there to share it all with. They would’ve cheered and clapped me on my back and said all those uplifting and celebratory things that came with accomplishing your life’s greatest goal. Instead, I had this Goliath thing just at my feet staring up at me and just me from the water. I knew it was still alive because it’s gills were aflare and trying to pump all that water they couldn’t get to through him. His mouth was big and round and all wide open because my hook was tucked in the corner and propping it open. The throat went way back to where I felt like I could see his tail in his mouth, but that can’t have been true according to his anatomy. It just went back and back and back until it stopped and I had to sit down to think about how far back the throat went, to think about all the slippery white in his gullet where he swallowed one of my hot dogs and tons of other stuff. Man, it must’ve gone back forever.
It was so hot that day, and I could tell the fish was burning up. I guess he wasn’t from Hell if the heat bugged him so much. It’s a tough thing, catching a fish. I just took his life in my hands and then had no idea what to do with it; I was only in fourth grade. I didn’t know about catching fish or trying to safely get it off my hook or how to be a better friend to it. And there he was suffering up above the water and his gills were getting redder and he needed help. I looked down at this ugly thing’s face and, in my mind, the water on his face looked like streams of tears from his little muddy eyes.
I said, “I’m sorry, buddy.”
So, I picked up my pole and walked right out of the pond to drag him home. I knew home was exactly where I could get help, where my dad had gloves to take the hook out and we had a kiddy pool in the backyard that we could keep him in until he was breathing again. At home I could call my friends, too, and tell them what I’d done and that there was still hope for us at the pond. Dragging him through the water was easy, but once I got into the mud, he got even heavier and I thought my pole would break so I grabbed the line and let it cut into my hands as I pulled him through it and onto the grass. My hands must’ve been just all cut up, but I don’t remember the pain, just the effort.
It was easy through the grass, too, then onto the concrete and I could feel it kind of roughing him up. He was so heavy, but still I pulled. I had to take him home immediately so I left my shoes and tackle box and sweat and blood and everything I was back there.
It was hard work going up the hill that led to my house, but I did it. I vaguely remember the thundering wind chimes from the Palermo’s house and when I got really tired I stopped to listen to them cheer me on. I took him around to the garage and then I went inside, breathing heavy and sweating through my clothes and I told my parents what I’d done. My hands were all bleeding and I couldn’t open them all the way from the strain of all of it. I don’t think I’ve ever hurt so much in my whole life, but my parents still followed me outside to look out at the fish still on the end of my line, burning on the concrete. I just wanted them to hurry up so I could call my friends.
My dad was amazed at how I did it. He told me I was a tough kid.
The fish was dead. I’d peeled off the entire underbelly and exposed his innards to the hot sidewalk until he just burned up. Its face still held those tears. It was so dead that I didn’t even want to call my friends and tell them about it anymore, I just wanted to forget about it forever. It cut through me until I started to cry, really cry. My mom wrapped an arm around me and guided me inside while my dad, a little more prepared than I was to deal with death, put on work gloves to pull the hook out and pick it up to put it in the trash bin. My brother tried to ask me about the fish and told me great job, but mom shooed him away so I could cry.
When Dad finished outside, he came in and patted my back and said, “Things die sometimes and we can’t dwell on it. We’ve gotta be happy with what it once was. The memory will linger forever and that’s what you cherish. Don’t forget that fish.”
That didn’t make me want to stop crying.
On the first day of school, I saw Max and Carson in the lunchline and I went over to stand with them, but it was different now. I think Max was a little taller and Carson had gotten pale from staying inside on his computer all day. Maybe I’d changed, too, though, because I killed that fish. I don’t know how, though, I just know that we were all looking at each other kind of sideways and every time we told a joke or laughed we were trying too hard and it didn’t feel as fun.
Max asked us what we did while he was gone and Carson just played games and I decided I could probably tell them about my fish and maybe it would be better. I said it was a catfish from Hell and how it wasn’t so hard to catch it, and he was kind of stinky and it fought me, but he was way bigger than I was and ugly. I left out how I killed him. It’s hard to say something like that to your best friends.
Max turned to me and said, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard,” and then him and Carson laughed a real laugh. Carson said it was all a big lie, but a good joke. Hard as I tried to tell them it wasn’t a joke, they just didn’t believe me.
I walked home all alone that day. I passed the pond, too, and I could smell the heavy killing moss from the street and the oaks way back behind whispered their sorrow to each other and the wind told me maybe it was time I give up fishing. I agreed with them.
That was the last time I ever talked to my friends, if I remember correctly. And I do.