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Spook stares into the motionless depths of Mariano’s Pond. The stillness does not surprise him. The pond has been quiet for years, unwilling to cough up any fish since his great-grandfather Mariano passed away decades ago. Mariano was the only one who could catch anything from the stingy old pond. So for a ten-year-old like Spook, waking up at 5am seems a reasonable compromise when immortality within the family ranks is the reward for netting the first fish in decades.
Spook only knows his great-grandfather by the black and white photos lining the shelves, window sills and bookcases of the family house. In all the photos, Mariano’s smile, which has cemented itself in the family genetics, shines bright and is his most redeeming quality. The photos are sources of energy for the older family members, who remember the days when family togetherness was a chief concern; when tilling the land and harvesting crops was enough to sustain a budding family.
Mariano built the family house on a land colored by tree greens and dusty browns that stretch out in a mile radius. Intersecting the land in parallel lines are two streams which eventually empty into Mariano’s Pond. Crawdads are found in the larger stream, near a swing rope tied to the underbelly of a bridge no one uses anymore, while the smaller stream is a perfect runway for river rafting and back floating on warm summer days.
The worms are good, thinks Spook, testing his fishing pole’s balance as dawn approaches. A jar of night crawlers is to his right, and dirt from his diggings in the family garden gathers in his hair and nails and ears, cleanliness irrelevant.
The wind gusts and an amateur fisherman might foolishly think he’s hooked a fish, the way the wind dips the line in and out of the water, mimicking the movements of a nibbling trout. But Spook is headstrong and doesn’t flinch or reach for his pole. He waits, stoically, for the real bite.
“SPOOK!” breaks the morning silence. The yell causes Spook to jump within an inch of the water’s edge. Looking around for the source of his aggravation, Spook eyes his cousin a few yards away, laughing at him in overalls and sneakers. Her hair is brown and falls to her shoulders. Freckles pepper her sullied cheeks, colored brown from her own night crawler diggings in the garden, and the bagginess of her clothing makes her look like a chimney sweep Mary Poppin’s might hire.
“Thanks for scaring the fish away, Spayho,” Spook grumbles to his cousin. “Bring some night crawlers here…you probably scared the worm right off my hook for all the sound you made!”
“Nothin’ here to scare but you,” laughs Spayho. She hands Spook a night crawler and pulls out her own fishing gear from under a tree near the pond. Despite her adamant denial, she, too, revels in the temptation of hooking the first fish since Mariano. “There’s no fish in this pond. You know it better than me. Don’t see why we spend our summer fishing for nothing when we can hit the Riley Twins with oranges or sneak out to the badlands.”
“The Riley Twins are easy targets. And the badlands are the badlands…they’ll always be there. Besides, Porter-Bar says there’s fish here..says he caught a rainbow, once.”
“No rainbow trout here, Spook,” replies Spayho. “Only buried bushes that steal our bait.”
“Well, I believe Porter-Bar.”
“You believe an alcoholic?”
“I believe my uncle,” says Spook.
“He’s my uncle, too, ya know. Just because you can stand his temper doesn’t mean I have to.”
Spook lacks a rebuttal, knowing full well the anger Porter-Bar can showcase while drinking. And Spayho has seen the worst of it, even hides some of the more brutal tongue lashings from Spook due to her embarrassment and unwillingness to give Porter-Bar satisfaction in scarring her twice.
“Why would Porter lie about the fish, anyways” Spook asks, choosing to call Porter-Bar by the first half of his name, unlike Spayho, who thinks Bar is a suitable title for her uncle. Four years older than Spook, Spayho is beginning to scratch the surface of understanding. While Porter-Bar’s extreme thirst, mood swings and smelly odors are only weird eccentricities in the innocent mind of Spook, the same behaviors, in Spayho’s world, are defined by terms like alcoholic, withdrawals and whisky breath.
“He lies about everything else,” concludes Spayho. “Why not this?”
“Because he told me when he was the real Porter. I found him near the badlands crying. We walked back home together and he told me about the fish he caught once. Said he never told anyone before. That means you can’t say a word about it either, Spayho.”
“Go on believing him, then,” she replies, casting her line into the pond in a graceful motion. “I won’t say a word. Promise. In the meantime, stop talking…you’re scaring the fish.”
As they settle into silence, the sun clefts the ridge and a cavalcade of sunlight highlights the pond, which had been dark and eerie in the pre-dawn light, framing the water in a silver-gold tint. Spook crouches to his knees near the bank to take in his aquatic reflection. For more than the first time in his life, Spook sees Mariano in his own facial features, in the brow and cheekbone and jet black hair; but in the smile, mostly.
After the relative calm morning, Spook and Spayho are back in the family kitchen, empty-handed. The kitchen smells of leftover menudo, tortillas and chorizo. Porter-Bar is at the stove wearing a stained t-shirt. His grey-black, middle-aged hair fritters at the top. His eyes are overcast, but in them Spook has seen, on a few occasions, reminders of the young man who used to push dreams instead of the family lawnmower.
“Spooky!” cries Porter-Bar, ignoring Spayho as she ducks into the family living room. “No fish?”
“Nothing,” mumbles Spook. He eyes his uncle, critiquing Porter-Bar’s posterity, and, finding it composed, concludes that his uncle is sober. The concept of sobriety is lost on Spook. He only knows the term because the family uses it when Porter-Bar is manageable and does not have the wobbly legs and slurred speech indicative of the inner demon Aunt Cake talks about.
“You know,” Porter-Bar begins in a steady voice, catching the sadness in Spooks response, attempting a cheer-me-up speech, “I’ve spent a lot of money buying bait for those ghost fish…a lot of hard-earned money settling at the bottom of Mariano’s Pond….some of it mine, some of it your daddy’s and aunts’ and uncles’. Not sure if money is edible to those fish. Maybe that’s why they spite our attempts to net em’. I found this out the day I caught my rainbow.”
“What bait did you use, then?”
“I didn’t use any bait. Only had my hook.”
“Only a hook?”
“Only a simple, smooth hook,” replies Porter-Bar. “But the fish slipped right out of my hands when I tried to bring it in. All slimy and wiggly and unwilling to be contained. Before it hit the water, I swear I heard it laughing at me.”
“How can fish laugh?” asks Spook, amused by his uncle’s story.
“With their gills, of course! Haven’t you heard a gilly laugh?”
“No?! Well, it sounds a little like this…,” says Porter-Bar, smashing his lips together in a pucker, puffing out his chest real big and squirming around like a fish while making a hideous noise that leaves Spook giggling for all the breath he is worth.
“Whatever, uncle,” says Spook between laughs, finally inhaling enough oxygen to replenish the amount he spent laughing. “Everyone keeps saying nothing is in the pond. Maybe I should start believing them…maybe I should give up.”
“No good,” says Porter-Bar, face scowling like a bad memory has resurfaced for the first time in forever. “Giving up is no good. Think of me every time you want to give up on that pond. Think of all the junk that comes my way. I’d cast a million lines into Mariano’s Pond if I thought it would bring my rainbow back. But I lost that colorful fish…”
Porter-Bar dishes up two bowls of menudo, handing one to Spook, and takes a seat at the kitchen table. The two consume their breakfast in silence. Porter-Bar understands Spook’s anger at coming up short, and Spook understands Porter-Bar’s need for company. The family has largely given up on Porter-Bar after repeated attempts to cure his alcoholism have ended in miserable failures. The experience and anxiety of the failed treatments have left Porter-Bar with a haughty disposition and a soul unwilling to nibble at the rehab bait that has dangled in front of his eyes since 1980. The family believes Porter-Bar resigned to his fate because he prefers the stench of whiskey over the comforts of familiar conversation; and because everyone knows the sunrise, for Porter-Bar, is never a prerequisite to drinking.
Before retiring from the kitchen, Porter-Bar turns to Spook with somber eyes.
“You might surprise us all,” he says in a voice softer than Spook has ever heard. “Might be you’ll hook something more than a fish one day.”
With that, Porter-Bar leaves. Spook can hear his uncle’s footsteps ascending the second story staircase; going back to his bedroom to play with his drink and his demons and his alcoholic climaxes with his middle finger flaring in the face of mortality. Porter-Bar’s room is off-limits to Spook and Spayho and the rest of the grandchildren. Even the adults stay away from it. The staircase leading up to the only bedroom on the second floor is narrow and dark and has a morbid stench that protrudes through the walls, reeking, like the gauze of a man lost in the bandages of his own nightmare.
Spook stares into his half-consumed bowl of menudo, pondering the meaning of his uncle’s statement. What could be in the pond other than fish? The more Spook considers his uncle’s words, the quicker he comes to the conclusion that maybe Porter-Bar isn’t sober after all.
Morning brings with it the hustle and bustle of Spook’s aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents. Generations mingle under one roof, all squabbling in the living room while trying to navigate the sea of younger grandchildren who think it’s amusing to hide under the furniture, shooting out arms and legs and fingers to the dismay of the adults who topple and sway in their attempts to avoid flattening the precious limbs of children at play.
“I knew you wouldn’t catch anything” mingles with “good try” mingles with “all the better for me” as Spook recounts his fishing failures to his cousins. They all laugh at him and make fun of his misfortune. Spook enjoys the banter and comedy of the conversation, forgetting about the fish and Mariano’s Pond as the rapturous summer entices him away to play baseball under the canopy of avocado trees and tangerine trees that add their color to the family land already gushing under the smile of a thousand summer’s deep.
End of Chapter One