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by Kent Kosack                                                                                                                 by


My father and I drove up to Hull to go flounder fishing even though he hated fishing and I hated him. I had just turned twelve so maybe it was a birthday present or maybe he thought it would take my mind off the fact that my parents had just split up, my mom running off with my father’s former best friend, the guy I’d grown up calling Uncle Jim. The guy who taught me how to fish when my father was too busy shut up in his office with his accounting. I wasn’t angry at my mom for choosing Jim. I was angry that they didn’t take me with them.

My father and I spent the first day on the small center console boat he rented. He knew his way around boats a bit because he grew up spending summers on the Jersey shore fishing with Jim. We were fishing for flounder with live sandworms that my father didn’t know or couldn’t remember how to hook. I showed him as we drifted across Quincy Bay. Jim had taught me well: you run the hook through one worm, in one end, out the other. You add another worm on the end for good measure so it dangles and looks delicious to any curious fish.

“See?” I said, holding my newly-baited hook in my father’s face. He looked squeamish. Whether from the rock of the boat or the worm twirling in its death throes in front of him, I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I just wanted to show him what I could do. And to watch him squirm.

“Is this the way Jim taught you to fish?”

“We’d spend the whole day out here, start bright and early, me and Jim and mom. Mom would always make bologna and Swiss sandwiches on kaiser rolls with tons of coarse grain German mustard. And we’d listen to music sometimes too.” I remembered how they’d dance together towards the end of the day. I’d sit in the back of the boat, one eye on the lines, waiting for a hit, the other on them, as they laughed and danced in tight circles in the bow. “Sometimes Jim would let me sip his beer,” I said.

“It sounds like you had fun out here. With them.”

“Here. This pole’s all set up for you. Drop the line off the bow.” I turned to set up a pole for myself.

We spent the day fishing mostly in silence. The radio on the boat was barely audible and my father hadn’t thought to bring a boombox. Jim usually did that. But the silence wasn’t the only thing wrong with the scene. Jim looked like he belonged on a boat, a working-class Kennedy. He was lean and tan, shaggy blonde hair pouring out of a beat-up Mets cap. My father looked like a Jewish Al Gore: stuffy, dull, and too weak to contest the election everyone said he won last year. Al Gore with a bigger schnoz and a kippah that looked like a bright white bald spot. My father was all wrong. He looked lost behind the wheel, bored with the rod in his hand, and spent most of the day mooning over the sea like a Romantic poet. I hated him more and more. Some birthday present.

My father had also forgotten to pack us lunches so we shared the bag of chips I’d bought at the bait shop. He told me to wash my hands so I wouldn’t get sandworm guts on the chips and I said it was part of the flavoring. My father scrunched up his face and I said, “Don’t get your panties in a bunch,” and his face scrunched even more, like it was collapsing in on itself. It was one of Jim’s favorite lines and I knew it would wound my father to hear it. I grabbed another fistful of chips with my grimy hands.


We ate a half mushroom, half pepperoni pizza in the motel for dinner. Or whatever passes for pizza in Hull, Mass. I’d dragged my father to Sandy’s, a dive bar across the street from our motel on the barb of Hull’s hook-shaped peninsula. The fish and chips were famous at Sandy’s but my father didn’t like the look of the place. He took one look at the faded Confederate flag hanging over the jukebox and said we were having pizza instead. I’d never noticed it before and wasn’t sure what the Confederacy was doing in the heart of Yankeedom but I didn’t much care. The décor didn’t affect the fish and chips. But my father insisted. So, we ate our pizza on our respective twin beds. My father delicately ate two slices from the mushroom side in the same amount of time it took me to polish off the rest of the pie. I chucked the empty box in the corner and a piece of half-gnawed crust leapt out of the box and landed on the worn-out carpet. I ignored it, flipping through channels on the tv. My father had been watching some suits talk about Bush’s tax cuts but I wanted to find reruns of MacGyver. I admired MacGyver. He could fix anything with some tape and his Swiss army knife. Maybe he could even fix my father? I usually watched the show with Jim and my mom. Or I watched it alone when they went out for a drive.

“Are you going to pick that up?” My father asked, raising his voice slightly to be heard over the hum of the a/c in the window and the snippets of news and canned applause coming from the television.


“Why not?”

“Jim says it creates jobs.”

“Leaving an empty pizza box on the floor creates jobs?”

I nodded, keeping my eyes on the tv. The Rugrats was on and I liked the show but didn’t want to seem like some stupid kid so I kept searching.

“Maybe it doesn’t create work but just creates more work for someone who’s probably already working too hard.”

“How’s that my problem?”

My father took off his glasses, rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Do know rachmones?”

“Metal band?” I said, wiping my greasy fingers on the blanket.

“No. It’s Yiddish.”

I shrugged. I didn’t know any Yiddish. My father dropped a word here and there and I heard an occasional Yiddish insult on Seinfeld but I had no interest in all that Jewish stuff. Neither had my mom. We both thought it sounded silly and looked it too. The little goofy hats, the strings hanging from the guys’ shirts in the Kosher deli in Fairlawn my father dragged us to a couple of times a year when he felt he needed to reconnect to some culture we didn’t understand. Or maybe he just liked the pastrami? I didn’t care. It wasn’t for me. It wasn’t something I recognized as mine.

“It means have a little sympathy. Have a little mercy, a little pity.”

“For who? The maid? Isn’t cleaning up the place part of her job?”

“It is. But there’s no reason to make her job harder.”

I turned the tv off. “Why are you like this?”

“Like what?” He said, looking genuinely confused. And weak. Or kind. I couldn’t tell the difference back then.

“I need to get some air,” I said, borrowing my mom’s favorite exit line. Though in the end she needed more than just air. She needed Florida. She needed Jim. She needed to free herself of us. I jumped off the bed, put on my sneakers, and opened the door.

“It’s late. Don’t go too far.”

“Don’t get your panties in a bunch,” I said, opening the door to the motel parking lot and the hot July night.

“What’s wrong?”

“Al fucking Gore,” I yelled, slamming the door behind me.


I walked across the street to the phonebooth outside Sandy’s. I’d been there a dozen times with my mom and Jim. Last summer I even had lunch there myself while Jim and my mom ran some errands.

I called them at their new place in Florida. They moved down there in the spring and had bought a place not far from the water. They even had a little boat and had gone fishing for marlin. I was supposed to visit this summer but something came up, they cancelled, and I was stuck in a motel learning Yiddish from an Al Gore lookalike instead.

My mom picked up on the seventh ring, mid-laugh.

“Hi mom, it’s me,” I said.

“Hi sweetie,” she said, her voice warm and soft like she’d had a few drinks. “What’s the word?”

“I’m in Hull. With my father.”

“Are the fish biting?”

“Father couldn’t catch a fish if it bit him in the ass.”

She laughed, then said something I couldn’t catch to someone near her.


“I was talking to one of Jim’s friends. He has a ton of friends down here already. You know how sociable he is. We’re having a little party.”

“Do you think I could visit next month, then?”


“Maybe I could visit next month?” I said, a little embarrassed by how needy I sounded. I looked through the greasy glass doors of the phonebooth but no one was around to hear me.

“Next month? Hm. I don’t know if that’ll work.”

“Why not? This month didn’t work. You can’t leave me in Jersey with father for the whole summer. You can’t,” I said, crying all of sudden.

“Don’t get your panties in a bunch, dear,” she said and I heard laughter in the background.

The line went dead. I was out of quarters. I walked back to the motel. From across the road, I saw the door to our room was open, my father standing watch at the threshold until I’d safely crossed the street.


The next day was nearly as bad as the first. My father caught nothing and the only fish I hauled up was a sea robin. Little bottom feeding monsters that Jim called “trash fish.” My father liked the look of it, though. He said it was “interesting.” I said I wasn’t interested in his opinion. But he at least knew how to bait his own hook now and seemed more confident at the helm. And he remembered to pack lunch, too. Thick slices of Hebrew National salami on bagels slathered with spicy brown mustard. No Swiss, but tasty.

Aside from my interesting sea robin, we caught nothing the rest of the day. My father took me to Sandy’s for dinner. I’d talked the place up. Practically pleaded. The fish and chips. The jukebox. My father wanted to sit at a booth but I preferred the bar. We usually sat at the bar, Jim and mom and me. So, we sat at the bar, me in my old, sandworm-gut-covered jean shorts, my father in a polo and chinos he pressed in the motel with an iron the woman at the front desk lent him. As usual, he looked ridiculous, even more so at Sandy’s.

I ate my fish and chips and most of my father’s. He smiled weakly, shifting on the rickety stool and keeping his elbows off the sticky bar. Some oaf on his way back from the bathroom bumped into him, spinning my father on his stool.

“Watch where you’re going, pal,” the man said.

“Watch yourself,” I said, balling my fists and knowing he wouldn’t have dared bump into Jim like that.

My father looked mortified and apologized to the bruiser. The man went to his friends at the end of the bar, pointed at us, said something, and they all laughed. I stood up and my father said, “Let it go, son. There aren’t enough hours in the day to fight every schmuck you come across.”

“I need to get some air,” I said. I glared at the clowns at the end of the bar as I went outside. I didn’t realize I was calling my mom until I was already in the phone booth listening to the line ringing in Florida a thousand miles away.

Jim picked up on the second ring. “Jim, hi. It’s me. You’ll never guess where I am,” I said. “I’m in the phonebooth outside Sandy’s.”

“Hey, buddy. That’s great. Hull in July. You must be reeling them in like crazy.”

“Just a sea robin today. My father is bad luck.”

“A sea robin? Yeah, that may be. He was never much of a fisherman. A hell of an accountant though,” he said with a laugh.

“Jim, is my mom there? Maybe I could talk with her. Yesterday we were talking about me coming down there next month but the line went dead.”

“Down here, you say? Well, she’s actually busy at the moment.”


I didn’t hear anything for a minute like he’d covered the phone with his hand. “I mean, she’s out. Food shopping, I think.”

“Food shopping? At nine pm?”

“I’ll have her call you tomorrow. I’ve got to go, buddy. Happy fishing,” he said.

He hung up before I could tell him that she didn’t have my number. I whispered “rachmones” into the telephone though I knew no one was listening.


Our third and final day on the boat went better. We fell into a rhythm, my father and I, and kept out of each other’s way. But still we caught nothing all morning. In the afternoon, my father said we should give up on the flounder and try for striped bass. A man in the marina said they might be biting. I preferred fishing for stripers anyway because I’d rather cast and reel than just wait for something along the bottom to strike the line.

We hit a school of stripers the minute we changed bait. Small flashes of silver and black leaping out of the water as we reeled them in. It was fun. They put up a good fight. My father even caught one large enough to keep.

“And Jim said you were never much of a fisherman,” I said, marveling at his catch.

“Did he? What else did he say?”

I looked at my father, this accountant of the open seas, and told him some of what I’d heard over the years. That he was kind, too kind, my mom had said. That she found this kindness unattractive. That he was reliable, Jim had said. And reliably wimpy. That he was too Jewy, they’d both said, leaving me to wonder if there was a right amount of Jewy-ness. I told him of the laughs they’d had at his expense. About how I laughed along with them and suddenly I was furious not at my father but for him.

“That’s enough,” he said, looking pale but grimly determined too. “Do you want to keep this one?”

I stared at the fish dangling from the line over the side of the boat, wrenched from its world, suffocating, while freedom was a mere foot below it. I shook my head.

“Me neither. It’s better to let them go.”

I held the line while my father removed the hook and released the fish back into the water. Together we watched it shimmer swiftly away from the boat.


After we docked, hosed down the boat, and returned the keys to the man in the marina, my father turned to me, smiled, and said, “Sandy’s?”

I nodded and we drove back to Sandy’s, not even stopping at the motel for my father to shower and change.

We sat at the bar again. Ordered fish and chips. My father ordered a beer though he rarely drank. He even pushed it towards me, said I could take a sip.

I picked the bottle up, looked at the busty blonde in lederhosen on the label, and put it down again. “No, thanks. I never really liked it anyway,” I said.

“Me neither.”

“They used to dance here,” I said. “Mom and Jim.”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, admitting to myself that they did a lot more than dance on these fishing trips. That maybe I was culpable, too, as their pretext, nothing but a cover story. Maybe that’s all I ever was to them. I started to cry.

“Do you need to get some air?” My dad asked.

I shook my head and stayed on the stool beside my dad. He rested his hand on my shoulder, lightly, as I cried. He didn’t remove it until someone bumped into him again. Slammed into him is more like it. He leaned into me and I felt the shock of the impact too.

“Kike,” I heard someone say.

I saw the man from yesterday. The bruiser must have been one of Sandy’s regulars. My dad’s face went white. A bead of sweat trembled on his lip in the shadow of his nose.

The bruiser smirked at us then turned and continued towards his friends at the end of the bar.

“Kike?” I asked. “Is that Yiddish too?”

My dad shook his head, slowly stood, and walked towards the end of the bar to catch the man before he sat down. He tapped him on the shoulder. The man turned, grinning. And my dad punched him square in that grin. With disbelief and fear and pride, I watched the wind-up, my dad’s thin and sunburned right arm cocking back, his small fist dangling for a moment in the air as if it couldn’t quite believe what it was about to do, before launching forward into the meat of some stranger’s face. Only, unlike in the movies where the Nazis are laid out by a single of Indiana Jones’s punches, the man didn’t stop grinning. His head barely moved. Maybe Al Gore was right, after all? Maybe some fights are unwinnable. I kept watching as the man grabbed my dad’s shirt with his left hand and with his right repeatedly punched him in the face, hook after hook, flattening his once proud schnoz. My dad fell to the floor, his kippah crumpled on the floor like a used Kleenex, his face and shirt smeared with blood and snot. The floor bloody too. Just as the man raised his boot to stomp my dad into the ground—a boot which seemed to multiply there above him, becoming a dozen boots, a million, my mother’s, Jim’s, George W. Bush’s, countless soles looming over us—I threw myself across my dad yelling “rachmones, rachmones, rachmones,” over and over again. Though I doubted a word no one understood would shield us, I didn’t know what else to say.



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