By Shell Fejio
My husband was born one of three boys on the east coast, in a small town known for its Portuguese fishermen, perhaps more for their drug use and hard drinking than for the big catch, but they were known nonetheless. When his parents left for sunny California in his early childhood, they landed in a more fog covered Bay Area, but there was water, and my husband’s father took advantage of it. His dad would show up at the elementary school just past noon on a Monday, barely cleaned up from a late night of partying, pulling in the parking lot and honking. The receptionist would send the boys out, and under the guise of a doctors appointment (nobody at the school ever questioned why they were so many appointments, it was the seventies), Pops would take them down to the marina.
A ninety-nine cent package of bologna with a bottle of mustard and a loaf of white bread fed them for the day. Pops drank beer while the boys shared sugar laden Shasta soda. The lake was the bathroom, unless number two was needed, then, a bucket in the back of the truck sufficed. By sundown, Pops would be drunk, the boys tired and cranky, and the fish, on a good day, were flopping on a stringer in the water by their feet. Weekends might be searching for crabs or clams at the ocean, rushing them home to get them in the pot, simmered in garlic and spices. In bad times, his dad would marinate smelt, a tiny fish abundant in the Pacific, a fish that soaked up the wine and got everybody drunk from tasting before dinner. Parties were oysters on the barbeque, hot sauce and a beer chaser.
My husband became a big drinker too. At twenty-two, he worked ten hours a day at a dry cleaners, with no respirator, inhaling any chemicals he could, hoping for a little buzz. After work, the first stop was the drive thru liquor store on the Mission Boulevard strip, a six-pack, at least. He’d get home, eyes shiny, beer in hand, ready to grab his pole. Night fishing was catfish. An early morning before work was hoped for rainbow trout. On Wednesdays, he got off early, picked me up from high school at first, later, from our tiny run down apartment, and begged to go to the lake – the ocean was too far on a work night – even in California, you can be a flatlander.
“It’s boring” I’d whine.
“I’m a fisherman,” He’d answer. “You knew that when we met.”
I did, like I knew everything else. Still, I wanted him to change. Why couldn’t we just hang out together? Go to the drive in movies at night or party at home?
“The water is so peaceful,” he’d lament.
“Sure, everything is nice when you’re fucked up,” I’d bitch.
We went on like this for years, him wanting to drink and fish, me nagging and complaining and yelling and slamming doors. “You stink like fish” I’d say, pulling myself from him in our bed at night. “Aww, baby” he’d mutter, “That’s the best smell in the world.”
How I convinced him to come to the Midwest with me is a long story, but it goes kinda like this: I got into a school that we thought would make everything better. I would be the savior of the family. It was worth sacrificing the ocean; we could manage without the smell of the sea. We would visit the ocean every summer.
He said “I’ll follow you anywhere.” I worried that no fishing would starve him but I smiled thinking no drinking might follow.
Our Midwestern city floods. The Iowa River caps and spills over with a dirty vengeance. People worry. I’ve ruined a car driving through the water. My husband grins, checks the water flow online, watches every weather report, waits for the water to recede, and barrels down to the river as soon as it’s slowed enough to throw in a line. Some folks here won’t eat fish from the river, they talk about pollution and water quality and turn their nose up when my husband passes around a picture of him standing by the spillway, cigarette in his mouth, beer perched on the ground behind him, a 9 pound walleye held above his head. He is proud of his fish. He says, “Those people have never been hungry, that fish is good eating.”
A few years back he fell off a roof at work. The dry cleaning business had declined with the same threat of pollution and chemicals that threaten the fish, and kept my husband high for all those years by the ocean. So, he went back to manual labor, his first job, the one he could always come back to – painting, construction, drywall – whatever there was, he’d do it. It worked for a fisherman. Off early when it was too hot, no work when it was too cold, down seasons, lots of drinking in the early afternoon when they cut off for the day, and plenty of time to fish.
When he fell of the roof, everything changed. Surgeries and back pain and metal rods in his legs and pain killers that couldn’t be mixed with alcohol and fights and no money and drinking even though he wasn’t supposed to and he felt trapped. There was no fishing. We broke up. We got back together. The cops came. We broke up again. We fought like our lives depended on it, blaming and crying and screaming and hitting and wishing, wishing, wishing it was back like it was. I missed my fisherman.
It’s been eight years since his accident. He is permanently disabled. He doesn’t drink anymore. An admission to the ICU after a night of shots ended that. His liver and pancreas can’t take the alcohol any more. He knows that. Well, that, and he really hated jail. Turns out that even him, an avid fisherman who believes he can handle his booze, can’t drink and drive. And refusing to go to jail when you are pulled over will often end up with you on the ground and five police officers surrounding you. He knows that now.
For a while he couldn’t fish at all. He couldn’t go to the lake without a beer. He tried. He’d come home late, sweaty, hair plastered to his head, eyes glossy, slurring, denying the drink. Adamant he didn’t do it. In the morning he would sit, head in his hands, “Okay, yes, I had a beer. Okay, some beer. Fuck, I drank, okay?”
I’d cry and yell, “You can’t drink and drive! You just can’t go fishing if you can’t handle it. Damn it! You are ruining us.”
He quit fishing. He said he had to, that we were more important. I beamed.
But he wasn’t himself. He was sad. Detached. He got a fish tattoo to represent his sign, Pisces. He got an anchor tattoo to represent his dad when he died.
He needed the water.
A year after he quit drinking, he asked me, “You think I could try to go fishing?”
I didn’t know if he was asking me like I was his mother or asking me like I was his friend. I bristled because I was his lover, and I was scared of him going to the lake, I wanted him to come home safe.
So, I didn’t say anything at all. I just shrugged.
A few days later he called me while I was at work, “Hey, babe. The house is all clean and I’m just hanging out here. I’m gonna take a ride out to the lake and check the water. I’ll take the bike.”
His taking the bike was code. He never drank when he was driving his Harley, it was a rule of his (I’d bet he dropped it one day after drinking, and it scared the shit out of him, but he’d never tell me that, he’d know I’d freak out).
I sighed. “Okay babe. Be careful.”
I got home that night to a smiling man, a man who glowed not from alcohol flush, but from sun and wind and water. He talked about the reservoir and the water levels and the fish he saw being caught. He talked about getting out his poles and renewing his fishing license and how wonderful it felt to sit by the water. He didn’t have a drop to drink.
I couldn’t help but be happy for him, but I worried too. He was walking a slippery shore.
He started slow, once a week, checking in with me by phone, never staying too long. He avoided Friday nights and Saturday afternoons, the times when the fishing spots became parties, and he might be too tempted. Hot days were the hardest, a cold beer with a pole in his hand seemed like heaven. But he’d been to hell and couldn’t take the risk.
He still can’t work. His legs twitch all the time and his back aches while his bones crack with every movement. He hides the pain most of the time, and I make him take hot baths with Epsom salt at night.
He smells like fish again. He goes a few times a week for a few hours while I am at work, the youngest kid in school, he doesn’t drink. Instead, he is known around town for his fish. While the hipsters and the yoga moms won’t touch his fish from the river or the reservoir, his friends love it. He brings them fresh filets with the pride of a child presenting a new drawing. His friend Tim likes trout. I request Crappie. Raymond, from the Chinese restaurant only wants Walleye – big monsters for massive pots of soup for the workers and family. My husband trades fish for Chinese dinner for us. We get a meal a week in the good season. It helps the finances. It makes my husband proud.
I am a fisherman’s wife. We may not live on the coast or in a land of lakes, but my husband finds the water. He finds the fish. He finds himself. And then he brings it all home to me.
Shell Feijo is a former foster kid from the streets of Northern California. She lives in Iowa and teaches writing and working class literature at Kirkwood Community College. She can be found on Facebook posting pictures of coffee, discussing witchery and liberal politics, and obsessing about her next tattoo.