THE WAYS OF FISH
by Chris Cleary
The second time a flying fish thumped Tyler Spradlin squarely in the chest seemed to him a miracle.
The first time he was fourteen and with his Uncle Dee-Wayne on a charter cruise off the coast of North Carolina. The boat, a double-deck fifty-footer, had left shore in the middle of the night. Harbor lights leaped off the black water, though Tyler had already tucked himself away in the cabin, the rough waves bouncing his head off the tabletop on which he had fallen back to sleep. When he woke just before dawn, he was surprised to see so many fellow passengers—about 20 in all—milling around, eager to start their fishing for the day. Now starboard, he propped his feet on the gunwale and concentrated on the waves hurtling past just below, the horizon all the while remaining quite the same. Tackle stood up around the perimeter like lightning rods, a phalanx daring the sky to strike.
Chopped bait fish was not effective, so Dee-Wayne brought him slivers of squid. Maybe, just maybe, he would win the pot for the heaviest catch of the day. A sea bass would be nice, or perhaps a black drum. As long as it was over 18 inches, or else it would have to be thrown back. That would be a shame. All that trouble, just to have to surrender. He didn’t understand. He watched the workers give out numbered tags for the catches. The hook went in through their mouths and out one of their eyes, little disks popping open like bottle caps, and then onto a peg in the freezer. Victories were possible. Dee-Wayne had caught a hundred-pound tuna a couple years before and never stopped talking about it. A big fish for a big man. He said that day they had called him Captain Starkist.
Dee-Wayne was 300 pounds of Grateful Dead tie-dye. His chuckle was hoarse and phlegmy. His goatee lapped over his second chin. He was the incarnation of mellow. On their way to the coast, he hadn’t flinched when he accidentally plowed down a raccoon on I-95. Nothing but a big ol’ scratch, he muttered after he pulled over to check. Or when the captain of the charter boat announced a storm suddenly on the radar, Dee-Wayne responded that water spouts were pretty cool and maybe they’d be lucky enough to see one.
Peering into the distance, Tyler worried about gray clouds. All he could think about were those morning shows with footage of the rescue of a dehydrated sailor. Three cheers! Yes, but for every one recovered, how many were lost forever at sea? Dee-Wayne was never so morbid. He found merriment everywhere. Merriment, or at least acceptance. Zen, little dude, Zen. He asked his uncle why he was always so happy. His uncle told him he had a perpetual case of Id Gas. And what was that? Dee-Wayne grinned and replied, “I don’t give a shit.” Wouldn’t his uncle make a great dad? He certainly wasn’t the kind of man to argue and yell and then disappear for a long weekend. His parents’ divorce was on the horizon. Horizons at home were composed of shifting patterns, but above, where sky fled futile earth, stars remained fixed and sane. His childhood had been celestial. Hadn’t his mother always cooed he was her little angel?
That was the year the first flying fish darted from the waves and struck him like a bullet.
When he was fifteen, his classroom B’s devolved into C’s and D’s. His laugh became hollow, an annoying insincerity. He had not cultivated it, was not even aware of it. He stared down adults with an idiotic grin. His math teacher was first to notice, and perhaps it was most pronounced with her because if the longevity of marriage equaled zero, then all the other numbers were no longer fast and firm, and one plus one no longer made two. His earth sciences teacher swore to the existence of Jupiter and Saturn, but there again was that expression that said, “You can cajole all you want, but you and I both know it’s a scam.” He promised his geography teacher to hand in all his missing worksheets, but after a while he learned instead to say, “I’ll think about it,” which no longer committed him to promises he was going to break. Not that broken promises mattered anyway. National news he started hearing everywhere, pledges to drain the establishment swamp turning into one scandal after another, taught him selfishness and lies were ubiquitous. He considered adopting incivility, but he just could not muster the energy rudeness required.
For his 17th birthday he acquired a stepdad, blond and tan, all new dental work through which Tyler was fed the same old platitudinous horseshit. He thought he had begun to smell perfume pervading the house, had been sniffing it for some time. He seemed to recall the subject mentioned in one of the final arguments before his real dad had left for good. In class he grinned from bell to bell, and traced boxes within boxes on his worksheets as he pictured his mother taking a protracted lunch break to straddle this vacuous J. Crew model on some motor lodge’s rented sheets. When his mother swelled and a new half-brother arrived so soon after the wedding, he did the math and verified he had been right all along.
He grew fond of the basement den, with its particle-board bar cabinet and Pabst Blue Ribbon neon sign, its comfortable fold-out couch and its red-felt pool table. He convinced himself he was on top of things, there at the bottom of the house, where from 8 to 5 he was in charge. His mother, off to work again, had brought in her mother to babysit Midget, until the routine grew wearisome, and then Uncle Dee-Wayne, who lasted little more than a week. And so it was left to Tyler, so smart he could skate through senior-year civics, no problem at all. Diapers were a nasty business, yes, but Pampers were preferable to poring over public policy and the political process. Midget taken care of, he returned to the den to absorb himself into Call of Duty, an effective method of avoiding the realization that it was his mother, in fact, who had been absorbed and diverted out of his life. He never asked himself why he felt compelled to spit in Midget’s Gerbers, to speak to him in nonsensical phrases in the hopes that he would grow up to talk wrong.
Every so often Dee-Wayne would visit to re-up his nephew’s weed supply, and one day it occurred to him to ask if he ever missed anyone at school.
“Are you kidding? Most of the guys are brown-nosers and morons, and the girls are all posers and whores.”
Dee-Wayne chuckled and coughed.
“And I figure if I don’t stay out for too many days in a row, they can’t get me for attendance. Teachers’ll pass me anyway to protect the school’s graduation rate. I know how to game the system.”
Dee-Wayne wet the rolling paper and sealed the joint.
“What about your edumacation?”
“Ah, hell, that don’t matter.”
The walls of the guidance counselor’s office were filled with brainwash posters of sunsets and beaches, kittens and puppies. Her shelves and desk were loaded with the falsehoods of family photographs. His mother was there, acting put-upon, and the principal as well, all polite smiles but tired of veiled threats to take him to court for truancy. He steeled himself for an inquisition, but he stared at his feet and grinned, secretly satisfied to be the center of attention once again.
“What do you want to do with your life?” the guidance counselor asked.
“I dunno.” He thought the exciting field of cannabis sounded rewarding.
He looked at the last adult in the room, his English teacher, whom he already had met a few times. Perhaps she too would scurry him through the doors of secondary education with a 59.5%. The principal laid out the plan. All he needed to pass was English. The teacher, an expert in her field, was willing to tutor him during her planning period. Instead of taking off at the end of his half-day, he now had a golden opportunity to catch up.
The greatest hits of British lit. There was so much reading to do, and some time mid-Chaucer his eyes began to glaze over. He skimmed Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets, lied and said he looked at every last word, so time for the battery of tests, pro-forma hoop-jumping, and he’ll be on his way.
A knowing smile from Mrs. Mason. “All right. Let’s see how you do on one.”
His essay began, “It is often said that Shakespeare is a very great writer, and that is so true, and this essay will tell you why.” He casually mentioned the existence of sonnets and a play called Hamlet, about some guy who couldn’t make up his mind and so all he did was crack jokes with the audience, and that was as specific as he got.
Mrs. Mason dropped his paper onto her desk.
“Okay, we got that out of the way….”
Was she going to hand him a signed blank check?
“Now we’re going to start learning.”
She pulled up a student desk and actually sat next to him. All that he had flown through at breakneck speed she had him go over again. She read along with him in a deliberative manner, examined nuance, asked him to paraphrase, asked him to think about times in his short life when he felt something similar. How had she known he had his own Claudius? He heard himself say things about himself he was surprised to hear.
And in the midst of his confessions—he didn’t dare call them by that word—he noticed the strangest things about her, how she styled her blonde hair in the manner of his mother, how the bracelets she wore reminded him of hers, how she sometimes walked in from the hallway with the grave determination his mother had when putting up the dishes. Was the air conditioner off or was he uncomfortably warm as her pen tapped the textbook to hammer out the scansion? Sometimes the pen cap traced the words on the page as she read the passage aloud, and he felt the hairs on his arms begin to tickle.
Much to his surprise, because the textbook’s Doré reprints filled him with such dudgeon, he loved Paradise Lost but found it frustrating.
“And why is that?” she asked. She seemed genuinely curious.
“Satan’s got every right to be pissed off. God set him up to fail.”
“Interesting. How so?”
“Well, he’s nothing but a pawn. And he can say all he wants about it being better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, but look at how it’s described. That’s no bargain. Hell really sucks.”
The summer after he graduated, his uncle chartered a boat larger than he had four years before. “Dude needs to celebrate,” he explained to the captain, who stood behind them watching Tyler bait the hook.
“Well, young man, celebrate with landing a big one. Any questions about what I said back there about how deep to lower the line?”
“Nah,” said Tyler. “Just steer clear of flying fish,” and he told him about what had happened the last time. “Damned bastards were out to get me.”
“Well, now, they’ve got a rough time of it too.”
“What you mean?”
“In the water they’re hunted by the dorado, the mahi-mahi, and so they use their flight as a means of escape. But when they’re above the surface, they can get picked off too. By frigate birds, for example. Snatch ‘em right out of the air. That’s what’s called being between a rock and a hard place.”
For the next hour, as his fellow passengers occasionally scrambled about putting their catches into the ice bin at the stern, he remained anchored to his spot, staring overboard to the imprecise line where sea met sky, and thinking about the captain’s justification of the ways of fish to him. And then, like a sideways gift from the deep, he was struck again in the middle of his chest, directly upon the heart. He gasped. He fit his rod into the holder, pulled off his shirt, and massaged where the bruise was sure to appear. His endless laughter was full and honest.
About the Author:
Chris Cleary is a native of southeastern Pennsylvania, in which many of his stories are set. He is the author of four novels: The Vagaries of Butterflies, The Ring of Middletown, At the Brown Brink Eastward, and The Vitality of Illusion. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Oddville Press, Belle Ombre, Easy Street, Ginosko Literary Journal, The Brasilia Review, and other publications. His short fiction has been anthologized in the award-winning Everywhere Stories.