national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

Wake

Daniel Grammer  • 
Louisiana State University

Pa says the ducks are still here because I’ve been feeding them all our bread. But the truth is they took refuge under our dock during the storm that dripped rain down our walls. He’s tried throwing sticks and rocks, and at one point he even sent me after them with his patch-job net. Seems that no matter how bad he wants them gone, he’ll never be able to scare them off for good.

Stray dogs skip their yips over the water from the trailers on the other side of the lake. A lot of the places around here are trailers, nicer ones though. But we’ve got a house built onto stilts that rocks as we go room to room. Mama left when I was littler, and they picked Hucks for college ball in the summer. Now it’s just Pa and me living here, and there’s plenty of room for the both of us.

Pa foots the empty fish box, waving cigarette smoke from his eyes. “Catched up a lot of nothing today too, huh?”

I reel in my empty hook. “Better to fish than to eat what we ain’t even got.”

Our next door neighbor’s screen door snaps shut and Mr. Richard stumbles onto the waterfront. He drags a big black bag, the tail of a Catahoula Shepherd sticking out limp from its zipper. He and the late Halfsight will part ways at their favorite fishing hole, under that cypress tree marked with a tin can sprayed bright orange. Good luck, he calls it. I call it crazy.

He and Pa used to keep me up at night throwing empty bottles through the windows of our car, but they’ve run out of windows to smash. The car doesn’t move anymore. Pa doesn’t go to work, or even to Bea’s for cheap beer and cigarettes—he just wanders around the house like he’s trying to remember the directions to any place but here.

We keep the Christmas lights up year-round, and an old pickup slows down in front of our house as if to wonder what we’re celebrating. I figure Pa thinks of the colored lights as a beacon for Mama to find her way home, but it hasn’t even done enough to make the phone ring. The pickup drives on and we’re just as soon forgotten as we are noticed.

Pa turns to me. “You want to know why no one stays here anymore? I’ll tell you why no one stays here anymore.”

 

Mr. Richard floats by, the boat sounding all cicada, burying driftwood in its wake. He raises a beer to us like a toast to the Nantachie Lake burial that lies ahead.

His wife died ten years ago, and it wasn’t long afterwards that he picked up Halfsight. Funny, he never got around to naming the dog until that Nichols boy popped her eye out with a slingshot last week. She died yesterday of some kind of infection, like the name was poison.

Motor smoke swallows us up and I cast another line.

Pa smokes his cigarette to the butt and flicks it onto the lake. “Even when you catch’m you throw’m away,” he says. “You want to know why we only got what we got to eat? It’s ‘cause you throw’m back.”

“I don’t either.” I reel in another empty hook. “They was just too small.”

“Too small?  Now look, boy, it’s time for you to learn something. Just look what we got, huh?” He stands hugging his chest, ragged as our house with the pantry fuller of liquor than food, jaw hung slack like the front door. “You need to learn how to catch a fish like your brother.” He lunges for my rod and his foot comes down onto the fish box. It rolls from under his foot and Pa splashes clumsy into the lake.

The ducks blare panic from their beaks. I make for the fish house immediately because those things gave me lice before, and I’m not about to shave my head right at the turn of winter.

Pa dog-paddles through the feathers that the ducks left behind and climbs out of the water, damning us all to hell. I bring him a towel from the coat hook behind the fish house door and wrap it around his shoulders.

He drops into his chair and the ducks settle back into the water weed. “You need to learn how to fish like your brother. Real fisherman, your brother.” He holds out a dripping hand and barks, “Bait!”

I check the tackle box and all that’s left are crumbs.

Pa casts the line bare. The splash sends ripples rolling out to the dam. In the distance a fog light cuts the darkness, all quiet except for Mr. Richard’s sputtering motor.

“Yeah, well, he’s not here. He won’t catch fish for you ever again.”

“Don’t be such a drama queen, boy. He’s only down in Alec, not even that far away, so don’t be such—” Pa suppresses a burp. “You just got to get in the damn water sometimes. Sometimes you just got to catch’m.” Pa’s eyelids close. The rod slips from his fingers and falls into the lake. “Too small’s better than the nothing you got now.”

It’s late and Pa will spend the night on the dock. Bait or no bait, the reel clicks as the hook swims away in the mouth of a desperate fish. I want to reel it in for us, but the lake is overrun with bugs and I am bitten too many times over to care. I go inside and put myself to bed. The walls of my room glow with colored lights, and will be that way when I wake up.

 

The sun gleams off Hucks’ dusty trophies on the mantle, where my family keeps its fame. There are dozens, and Pa’s got me polishing them once a week, even though none of them’s mine. Right now I’m scrubbing at the windows and my fingers are pruned with bleach.

Mr. Richard steps out of his truck with a bag full of automatic fishing reels called ‘yo-yos.’ This is the first time I’ve seen him out since Halfsight died, except when he buried her, and afterwards to throw out the chicken breasts he would have fed her for dinner—a whole stockpile rotting in a bucket at the base of his cedar tree, under those leashes hung like nooses blowing in the November breeze.

Pa is baking something awful. Mama used to raise hell about how giving Mr. Richard the gift of my company was good for his soul, and she would send me next door with a plate of her homemade muffins. I always hated it, but I guess it was nice of her. Plus, I could get at least three muffins for myself on the sly. But now the house smells like burnt blueberries, and I wouldn’t eat one if it was the last thing we had.

Pa walks bow-legged to the mantle and undoes my cleaning with his greasy thumb. He’s swaying drunk, and staring at the smudge he left like I’m the one who made it. “Listen to all that barking coming over from Richard’s place.” He opens the window and props a box fan on a chair to blow out the smoke. “What do you make of that, boy?”

I shrug. “Musta got a new dog.”

Pa slips on a catcher’s mitt and pulls the pan from the oven. The muffins are charred up and ruined, but Pa doesn’t seem to notice. He dumps them onto a plate and eats one that had tumbled onto the counter-top. “Time for you to bring the ol’ man his soul food.” He polishes off his bottle of beer and cocks back in the stance of the All-Parish catcher he was in his collection of framed pictures from ’85. “Well, what the hell you waiting for, mama’s boy? Get gone!”

I duck and cover and thank God he hurls the bottle wide enough so it shatters against the fridge.

I’m careful going down the steps. Clouds loom over the tree line as I cross our skip-stone driveway and tap on Mr. Richard’s window, but he doesn’t hear me over his shouting at the TV. And then there’s the barking. My hopes are high he won’t answer.

But now his shadow fills the screen. My stomach drops. The door swings open and a dog pushes its head between Mr. Richard’s legs. It snaps at the muffins and I almost drop the whole damn plate. Mr. Richard yanks the dog by the collar and pops it with a belt, and my knees will not stop shaking.

The dog cowers under the sink, burying itself beneath a collection of brown paper grocery bags. Paw prints track over everything in the house and shredded Keystone boxes litter the floor. The mini-kitchen is caked with meat sauce. There’s a full trash bag next to a full trashcan, and the dining room, which becomes the living room when Mr. Richard clears the dirty dishes, is decorated with a pyramid of beer cans. He’s got snakeskins drying in the light of the wandering sun, and he’s left a big, shiny revolver on top of the TV with .40 caliber bullets scattered all around. I can hear the other dogs scratching up his bedroom, barred behind a child safety gate and a piss-stained sheet. The trailer is worse than I’ve ever seen it, even worse than when his river-riding friends come kicking into town.

I smile weakly. “Company?”

“Oh, boy, you’d better believe it.” He pulls me inside by the collar and pins me against the wall. The gun is far out of reach, and his face is inches from mine. He says, “Tell my wife and I’ll kill you.”

Mr. Richard belly-laughs his fried food breath into my face and drops me to the ground. I wind up like a copperhead ready to strike if he tries me again, but he will not stop laughing. “I love getting you all riled up. You just freeze up like you was made of water in the winter.” He kicks the safety gate open and I jump to my feet. A whole pack of dogs, mangy as the first, scramble into the dining room.

They come right at me with their ravenous eyes. I spring over the table and climb onto a kitchen chair, batting their noses with a roll of paper towels. Their ribs jut out and some are missing patches of hair on their backsides. Where there is fur, it’s matted thick as the woods across the ditch.

Mr. Richard swats the dogs out the door with a grimy spatula. They crowd up the exit, tripping over each other’s skinny legs and thudding clumsy onto the outside dirt.

Now we’re alone except for the fleas we scratch off our skin.

“Lot of fight in them dogs, huh?” Mr. Richard kills the TV and sits.

With some effort I manage a stupid, “Yeah.”

Mr. Richard picks up a muffin off the floor and shoves it into his mouth, wax paper and all, and crumbs fall steady from his mouth. “But they know there ain’t nothing out here to fight for. They’ll keep coming back because I feed them. But as soon as I don’t, they’re good as gone.” He spits the wrapper at the trash can and it lands on the floor, where it will stay. “See, I been collecting ’em. All the strays from around the lake. Rounded ’em up with my leashes,” he says proudly. “Ada, she’d have never approved, and I’d a killed you if you told her. At the wake her mother said I’d never be able to replace her. But here we all are.” He spreads his arms wide, embracing all his broken things.

“Do you mean me, too?”

“No, stupid. The goddamn dogs is who I mean.” He bites the top off another muffin and chases it with beer. “You want to know how I rounded ’em all up? Raw chicken. It’s the smell that gets ’em, and I got my own secret recipe. You got to let it sit in the boat a few days after you season it. I use Tony’s and Worcestershire, and sometimes a little soy from the Chinese place in town.”

Thunder rattles the walls of the trailer. There’s a Dolly Parton calendar taped to the fridge and when I lean my head to the right, she stares directly into my eyes. I imagine my hands cupped to the trim of her shirt.

Mr. Richard taps the plate with a crumby finger. “Your daddy sent you over to give me muffins again, huh? Never made your brother do that.”

“Yeah, well, he ain’t around anymore.”

“You got that right,” he says.

I write this off as some other kind of crazy, and since I already gave him his damn muffins I get up to leave.

But Mr. Richard catches me at the door with his bearish hands. “Oh, no, you don’t, boy, need your help first,” he says. “We’re going to Halfsight Hole. I’ma teach you to fix it up. Ain’t too small to learn nothing, are you, boy?”

 

I haven’t been on the lake in so long that I may have forgotten how to swim, and am perfectly happy never to be reminded. Mr. Richard takes the yo-yos from a key hook, and he’s got me by the collar. We are out the door, and there’s nothing I can do to stop him.

Kicked-in deck chairs litter the patchy yard between the trailer and the lake, and when we get to the shore Mr. Richard buries the yo-yos in his dugout horseshoe pit. “Fish can see a line that clean, and if they do we won’t catch nothing.” He scoops them back into a bag, browned up just like the water, and the next thing I know we’re on the boat, drifting away from the shore.

The wind makes long shapes on the surface of the lake, curling like vines with no branches to cling to. The hair on my neck stands up like the storm’s brewing on my skin.

When we get to the cypress with the orange tin can, Mr. Richard kills the motor. He hands me the rustiest knife I’ve ever seen and tells me to cut the old yo-yos. He teaches me a made-up knot to hang the new ones as well as any drunk fisherman could: “The rabbit comes out the hole, kicks down the tree, and it crushes him to death like this. Yank the short one tight, and Bam! That’s what I call a knot.”

I’m surprised he’s ever caught a fish in his life. “If you’ve got Halfsight sunk down there, why do you even need bait?” I say, trying my hardest to sound like I haven’t been afraid to touch a fish since I was a little kid.

Mr. Richard opens a cabinet by his knees. “They won’t just bite any hook,” he says. “They got natural instincts. Halfsight’s just for luck. The chicken’s the real bait, and if it smells like mine you can catch something big as an alligator gar.”

The thought of a six-foot fish living under the water with as many teeth as I have hairs on my head sets me cringing in the stern. I don’t so much as peek over the rail or one of those fish will jump up and latch onto my face, drag me to the bottom and turn me into bait for lucky Mr. Richard. And then it’ll be Halfsight’s and my job to lure his prey onto rotten hooks forever.

“That’s where I need your help.” He lifts up a bucket of rancid chicken. “It’s time to set the bait.”

I clap my hands over my mouth and nose. “Actually, that thunder sounds pretty close, I think we’d better get—”

“Shuttit, boy, it won’t take a minute if you hurry.”

He will almost certainly chop me up and sink me with his chicken if I don’t, so I prop myself against the railing on the bow with the bucket between my knees.

The meat is like mucus in my hands and my stomach fights its way up my throat. I stab the hooks into rotten breasts and wings, poisonous juices dripping from my elbows. Then finally, with half a dozen of them sunk over that waterlogged Catahoula, I am light-headed with blood rush, choking down every rotten breath.

Mr. Richard throws me a fish-stained rag. “Wash your hands in the lake. That chicken-shit will make you sick.”

The boat rocks as he stumbles around the deck, and I fall over backwards from its rising and sinking. I wonder if this is what he and Pa mean when they talk over a case of beer about getting their “sea legs” back.

Mr. Richard towers over me. “You a real pussy, ain’t you, boy?” I spit in the lake as he fires up the motor.

 

The clouds look like they’re ready to bust, and by the time they’ve finished blacking out the sky we’re back on the shore. The strays scavenge for shelter in the colored light of our lake house. I have never seen anything so pathetic, the way they lift their noses in the rain, sniffing out their next meal like it’ll be their last.

The rain comes down hard. Thunder claps and I am charged up by the applause, as if a four-mile-tall bolt of lightning will strike me dead if I stay outside another second. I fly up the steps, through the crooked front door.

Pa is soaked, frantically wiping the walls with a towel. The floor is one huge puddle, and when he sees me in the doorway he scowls like the storm was my fault. “Where you been, boy?”

“Mr. Richard made me help set his bait, and now my hands smell like death.”

Pa turns and cries out at the walls. “I’ll show you death right now if you don’t help me with these damn towels!”

The wind is rocking our house on its stilts like a tornado is about to come rip-roaring through the kitchen to chuck us straight into Revelations. The door buckles on its hinges till it slams open.

Mr. Richard’s band of strays skids over the threshold, flinging mud from their ribcage bodies. Pa yells, “Aw, shit!” and I take cover behind the coffee table, but I know that they can smell me anywhere. They invade the living room and the kitchen, dirtying the bedrooms, the bathroom, the dining room table. Pa shouts, “Catch’m!” but my knees are shaking like it’s winter come early.

The mantle and all of Hucks’ trophies crash to the floor, the plastic gold dashed to bits. Pa snatches me up me by the scruff of the neck and drags me over the table. “I said catch’m, boy!”

The dogs bolt out the door and I am on their heels. They make for the woods on the other side of the ditch, running faster than I ever have, faster even than my brother on a home stretch. I run and run and my heart pounds in my chest. The woods thicken with limbs, scratching at my legs, my arms, my face. I run through the frigid headwind, working every muscle in my body till my legs give out, and I know that I will never catch them. They flat-out refuse to be caught. My breath floats away in the cold as the downpour pounds me into surrender.

Pa is shaking his head as I drag myself over the ditch, all cut up and panting. When he sees me he disappears up the steps, through the door busted clean off its hinges. He is alone with his broken trophies and his walls crying rain onto the floor. Down the street a transformer blows. The lights coloring the house go out, and I don’t care if anyone finds the way home now.

 

I wake covered in last night’s filth to the light of the rising sun.  I bandage my cuts in the bathroom while Pa puffs a cigarette at the stove. Earlier, he dragged a hose inside to wash out the mud, and he says for me to keep clear of Mr. Richard while the old man packs all his junk into the boat. “Says he’s had it with the lake, and now he’ll look to settle some place else.” He loads everything up: his kicked-in deck chairs, garbage bags of canned food and dishes, all of his clothes, the TV set, the revolver holstered to his chest.

When his screen door snaps shut for the last time, we walk to the end of our dock. Pa lights another cigarette. The mosquitoes are already out and I’m scratching myself raw because there will never be enough hands in my family to slap them all dead.

Pa turns to me. “You want to know why no one stays here anymore? I’ll tell you why no one stays here anymore.” He smokes his cigarette to the butt and flicks it onto the lake.

Mr. Richard floats by like driftwood, making a big wake, his boat riding deep under the weight of its cargo. He aims the revolver straight into the sky and cracks out a six-bullet salute. The ducks take to the air. Mr. Richard guns the motor to full throttle and the boat cuts through the water over the feathers they leave behind.