Up River


This excerpt from novelist and writer Mark Guerin's
 YOU CAN SEE MORE FROM UP HERE originally appeared in The Menda City Review, Issue 31, Summer, 2017.

     Damned if I was going to sit inside on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. I was eighteen, facing the end of my summer, and all I had to look forward to was another dreary week of boxcar spelunking at the auto plant. I changed into cut-offs and a t-shirt, collected my fishing rod and tackle box from the basement and headed down the hill to the river. After a few popped fasteners, the canvas came off of Grandpa Caspar’s runabout. The first time I’d been out in it since last summer, I ran my hand along the mahogany veins, gleaming gold red in the sun. I untied and loaded in, wobbling a second before I caught my balance, then sank down onto the front bench with it’s blessedly comfortable white leather seat cushions. 

     The runabout started up with a push of a button, a deep-throated gurgling—like my dad’s old Caddy under water. The big Evinrude engine, built for Lake Michigan, possessed too much horse power for a small river like the Piscasaw, but at least I didn’t have to sit on a wooden bench by a motor and turn a tiller like most everyone else boating on the Piscasaw.

     I guided her out into the current, the water high and rushing from last night’s rain. A number of good fishing holes upstream came to mind, inlets with downed trees where bass and trout and sometimes northern pike liked to congregate in the cool shade of the waterlogged branches. Truth was, there was little chance of catching anything with the current running this fast, but what the hell. Anything to get away for a while. 

     On the opposite bank, the little fishing cottages neared. I singled out the only two-story house among them. That’s where I’d dropped off Manny the Friday before, his back so screwed up from unloading fuel tanks he’d barely made it through the day. The relief on his face when he had reclined in my passenger seat, so happy he didn’t have to take the bus, walk the mile and a half home from the bus stop. 

     On the dock, a pony-tailed, teenage girl knelt in the back of a dinghy. Manny’s daughter, Consuela. 

     “Connie,” she’d corrected him when he’d introduced us. For someone who wanted to fit in, she sure was a spitfire, so pissed the company hadn’t given her dad workers comp, making him go back to work before he was ready. It was all that ‘estupido company doctors’ fault, she kept saying. My dad, though I hadn’t the nerve to admit it. Manny was kind enough not to give me away.

     She pulled repeatedly on a string, trying to start the little motor. It choked and chuttered but wouldn’t catch. I cut back on the Evinrude and watched her, the fast water pushing me downstream. If I tied up over there, I might have to tell Manny what happened with my father, how I’d failed to change his mind like I’d promised. 

     Pushing up on the throttle, I sputtered over to her dock, throttled back and drifted up alongside, my wake rocking her tiny skiff.

     “Hi there.” I grabbed her gunwale.

     “Oh.” Connie sat back on her haunches, surprised. “Hi.” She wiped her brow, painting a streak of dark oil over that gorgeous little mole next to her eye. “Nice boat,” she added, frowning a bit at the runabout. 

     “Thanks. Need any help?” 

     “I don’t know.” She let out a breath. “I think it’s a lost cause.”

     “Why don’t you join me?”

     “I’m going fishing,” she said, an admonishment, as she held up a rod and reel. 

     “So am I.”

     “In that?” she smirked, panning her gaze over my boat. 

     “Why?” I chuckled.

     “Aren’t you afraid of getting it dirty?”

     “Come on.” I gunned the engine a bit against the current to keep me there. “Where you headed?”

     “Up river. Not far. Behind Green Giant?”

     The canning factory? Nothing to catch there but flat water and sunshine. But I wasn’t about to argue with her, not when I’d lucked into this chance to spend time with her. “I can do that,” I said. “Get in.”

     She regarded me a long second and glanced back up to the house. Manny was behind the screen door, watching. My rumbling Evinrude must have drawn him to the door. He waved her away, nodding his approval. 

     “Okay,” she said. “But I don’t plan on taking long.”

     “Fine by me.” 

     Connie handed me her fishing gear and climbed in, then leaned over into her boat and brought over a small red cooler.

     “Refreshments?” I asked.

     “I wish.” 

     She pushed the cooler under the bench in the stern and plopped down on the seat next to the Evinrude.

     “The view’s a lot nicer from up here,” I said.

     She considered me for a long second.

     “Come on.” I patted the cushion beside me.

     She climbed up front and sat down, hands on the dashboard to hold her steady. I guided the boat out into the middle, pointed it upstream and throttled up, the boat seeming to sink a bit as the engine dug in, drilling down. The wind picked up, pushing against us.

     “Thank you.” She spoke up to be heard over the motor. She kept pushing her hair back over her ear. Strands escaped from her dark pony tail and flipped in the breeze. “Manny can usually get that thing started, but he can barely move today.”

     “Sorry to hear that.”

     “He never should have gone back to work. He’s a mess now.” Her smile disappeared, replaced by a frank expression of concern. 

     “I—went to see a lawyer yesterday.”

     “A lawyer?” She turned to me. “Why?” 

     I couldn’t convince my father to intervene—company “red tape,” he’d said, “my hands are tied.” I knew better, a high profile case like Manny’s, injured in a loading dock brawl, questions as to whether the Mexican started the fight or Norm, the hometown white boy. What did I expect?  

     “In case your father wanted to appeal. You know, the workers comp decision.”

     “Lawyers cost money.”

     “Maybe I could pitch in—”

     “No!” she said, a bark, then softening, added, “I mean, Manny would never allow that.”

     Probably, right. You could cripple his back but nothing could put a dent in his pride. Besides, I didn’t have money for a lawyer, either. 

     We continued upstream a few more minutes. 

     No lawyer. It was up to me to force the issue with my dad, somehow. I gunned the motor, speeding up.  

     “Not sure how good the fishing will be after all the rain we’ve had,” I said.

     “It’s always good where we’re going.”

     We bounced along for another half mile, the boat pounding across the water’s surface, the engine like it was sawing wood, hunh, hunh, hunh, making it hard to converse, the spray shooting off the sides of the boat, until, around a bend, the blue metal walls of the canning factory swung into view. 

     “There—” Connie shouted. “By that outlet.”

     I throttled back. She pointed at a large pipe that protruded from the river bank, trickling rust-colored effluent into the river. As we got closer, a stink hit me.

     “Here?” I shut off the engine. “Phew-ee.” Where the sludge dripped into the water, a pool of brown swirled then curled off downstream where it hit the current.

     “Yeah, I know.” She wrinkled her nose. “My neighbors work here. They say it’s harmless plant waste. Attracts the fish, but doesn’t smell very nice.”

     “I’ll say.” I nudged the throttle, moving the boat closer. Was this something else Green Giant was getting away with besides its many illegals?

     “This is perfect,” she said. She climbed into the stern and grabbed her rod. I tossed a small anchor into the water and pulled my rod up from where I’d clipped it to the wall of the boat. While I tied a red and white Daredevil on the end of my line, she was already flinging out her line, splashing. A red and white bobber settled on the surface. 

     I reeled in mindlessly, the fishing a nuisance, interfering with what I was really hoping to catch.

     “So, besides fishing, what else do you do for fun?”

     “I don’t know,” she said, shrugging. “I don’t have much time.”

     It wasn’t easy getting her to talk. I tossed out questions. Small talk. Did she read books? Listen to music? At first, I barely got nibbles. She spent most of her time caring for her infant sister and two little brothers while her mom convalesced and Manny was off at work. I took a different tack. Questions about her family, where they came from. Her schooling. Slowly, she opened up, answers made easier, perhaps, by not having to look at me, her focus on the bobber floating near the pipe. 

     She was born in southern California when Manny worked in a canning factory. When she was little, the family moved to Belford so he could work at Green Giant. After a few years, he found a better paying job at American Motors. That spring, she’d graduated from the Catholic school and was looking forward to the nursing program she’d be starting at St. Francis in the fall. She talked about how much she was learning as a candy striper, and how exciting it was.

     She gave him a sheepish glance. “I know it’s terrible thing to say, but I love it when there’s a code blue—you know, an emergency?” Her eyes flashed at the words.

     I nodded. 

     “All the rushing around. The teamwork. You have to know exactly what the doctor wants when he barks out an order, no questions asked. It’s scary and so gratifying when you can help fix a problem, even if you’re only getting a towel or grabbing a machine.”

     I was drawn to her straight-forward manner of speaking, the way she gazed downstream as she saw her future, so much more clearly than I saw mine. And then, there was the careless expertise with which she reeled in, changed the sinker on her line, adjusted the bobber downward, cast out again. I maintained the pretense of fishing, reeling in the Daredevil, flipping it out, again. 

     “So, what about you?” She turned to me. “You go back to school in the fall, right? What are you studying?”

     Her curiosity caught me off guard, her eyes searching mine. Was she really interested? How could she not see through me, know I was ‘that factory doctor’s’ son—that cold, ‘military man’ she despised. 

     In some confusion, I babbled something about nearly flunking out that spring, how the only classes I attended were ones I wasn’t enrolled in, trying to see what interested me. 

     “I hated all my classes, too,” she said. “It wasn’t until I started volunteering at the hospital that I had any idea what I wanted to do.”

     I nodded.

     “So, that’s a nice place you live in up there.” She pointed her chin up the hill. “You must have a big family.”

     “There’s just the four of us,” I explained, a bit embarrassed.

     She asked about them, and I fudged a bit, not wanting ‘fess up about my father, so I told her my dad was an “executive” at AMC, a word-choice I winced at. At least, I didn’t lie, but I didn’t want to dwell on it, so I talked about my brother being a draft dodger, a term that made her look over, wide-eyed, like I’d sighted an exotic bird you hear about but never see. I complained about the little sister who drove me crazy, what a tattle tale she used to be, as if she was a minor nuisance. She told me how her little brothers, Edson and Ramon, drove her crazy with their bunny obsession, always wanting to draw them, play imaginary games with the stuffed bunnies, watch Bugs Bunny on TV. 

     While we remained on our separate benches, the current pushed the boat in lazy circles, drifting the way our conversation did, keeping us in the same orbit around what, I wasn’t sure. We had little in common, but still, a certain well of curiosity, of feeling drew us closer.  But there was one thing.

     “You know,” I said, “I don’t know a single girl who likes to fish. Those disgusting worms, yanking hooks out of a fish’s mouth.”

     “Manny taught me way back before I could even bait a hook or cast out. He used to do all that for me, then hand me the pole and say ‘Keep your eyes on the line.’” Connie had a treble hook at the end of her line to which she skewered corn kernels from an open can as she talked. “The first time my bobber disappeared into the water?” Connie looks up at me, eyes flashing at the memory, a smile broadening. “My rod dipping down, you know? That very first time? You remember?”

     She nodded, looking for agreement.

     “I do!” I nodded back.

     “I thought I’d caught a whale, it pulled so hard. Like it might swallow the whole boat.”

     “That’s right. Like…this monster, it feels so big!”

     She chuckled, nodding. 

     “Turned out to be this little bluegill, I think.”

     “Me, too. But still, it was cool, wasn’t it? That first one?”

     “Absolutely. Like, I can actually do this!”

     I smiled back, connecting. Hooked. Looking at her corn, it struck me. She could only be after one thing.

     “Are you…Are you fishing for carp?” 

     “Uh-huh.” She cast out and reeled in a bit to make the line taut, then hunkered down in her seat to wait. “And we better quiet down if we want to catch anything.”

     “Yeah, okay,” I whispered. But why Carp? I tried to hide my incredulity by focusing on my line, which I slowly reeled in, jerking occasionally.

     Carp were so gross, the way the fat fish floated up to the top sometimes, the wide coppery scales on their sides, big as pennies, peppered with rust and scum. Ten times bigger than any trout, bass or pike you might hook in this river, but not much sport in catching them. They’d jerk and jolt for a few seconds, then tucker out, surrendering. As fun as hauling in a mud-filled boot. 

     All right,I thought. Whatever floats your boat, Connie Camarasa.

     “What are you fishing for?” she asked.

     “Northern pike.” 

     “Oh. Sorry. This probably isn’t the best spot for that.” 

     “That’s okay.” I reeled in then cast out again, tugging on the rod as if I really cared.

     Connie’s rod bowed. 

     “You got one!”

     “I know.” She wasn’t very excited. 

     I dropped my rod and grabbed the fishing net from under the bench. Connie’s rod bent once, twice, the fish going under the boat and back out, but she kept the line taut and high, a practiced hand. The rod stabilized into a quivering arch, the tip almost touching the water. Had to be a heavy beast to do that, but it had already given up, its resistance easing. Slowly, she reeled it in. Finally, the fish’s head popped to the surface, the hook firmly embedded in its big fat lip. Ugly suckers, those carp. I reached the fishing net into the water and scooped it up. It was huge, eight, ten pounds, foot and a half or so long. Took two hands to haul him up.

     “Nice catch.” It took a while to wrap my hands around the slimy, flopping fish, but I finally braced him, slipped two fingers under a gill, held him up and pried out the hook. So gross, that lip. I lofted the beast up so she could take a good look at her prize before I released it back into the water, but she reached for it first. She wanted to heft it herself—a big guy, even if it was an easy catch. 

     “Big son of a—gun,” I said, censoring myself.

     “Yes, it is.” She grabbed it by the gill. Nothing squeamish about this girl, the way she held it up for a second, one-handed. Strong girl, too. She admired it, but rather than dip it back into the river, Connie used her free hand to reach for the cooler, which she opened, revealing nothing but ice cubes. She curled the big fish in and covered it up with ice.

     “Usually have to catch two or three,” she explained, “but that one’s big enough to feed the whole family.”

     “To feed the—” I spluttered.

     Her smile dissolved, replaced by puzzlement.

     “What?” 

     “You’re not actually—” I couldn’t help it. Nobody ate carp, did they?

     She started to say something, her mouth open, some explanation, some defense, but instead, Connie went quiet, gazing out over the river. Those dark eyebrows hooded her eyes.

     “I’m done,” she said, her smile gone. “Can we go back?”

     “Sure,” I said, cursing myself. Asshole! Blabber mouth! I pulled up anchor and started up the engine with a puff of smoke and a roar. Glancing behind, I patted the seat next to me, but she was staring out over the water. Once I got the boat turned around, headed back downstream, I peeked back at her.

     “I’m sorry,” I yelled over the engine.

     “Why are you sorry?” she replied, but wouldn’t look at me. 

     “I didn’t know—”

     The motor sawed at the water awhile, hunh, hunh, hunh.

     “The ice helps,” she yelled back. “Cuts the muddy taste a bit. It’s not as bad as you might think. And they’re very easy to catch. Have lots of meat.”

     I glanced back again as we were nearing her dock. It wasn’t the sun making her face go red. I steered near and grabbed the piling. She stood, and quickly unloaded her gear, grabbing the cooler last.

     “That was—fun,” I ventured, forcing a smile as she climbed out.

     “Fun?” She darted a scowl at me, picked up the cooler and straightened. “This is our dinner.” Her glower dared me to say anything else. She swept her eyes along my boat, her eyes dancing over it, the red mahogany, the white leather seats, the big engine. She regarded me. “What are you having for dinner?” With one hand on the piling, she shoved my runabout with her foot. It did a slow spin outwards, the current grabbing it, pulling it downstream. 

     “Consuela,” I called after her. “Connie!”  But she was halfway up the dock to her house.