I told you before about my mean Uncle Gene. He wasn’t always mean. Sometimes he could almost be my favorite; especially when he goofed around with Uncle Kenny. If I could only figure out how to read him, and know when he was serious and when he was joking around. He always played it straight, all serious, never cracking a grin; and his eyes stayed steel cold, so there was no way for sure to tell. Still, one of my favorite memories is when he took me and my sister Deanna sucker fishing. I think Bonita was just learning to walk. We were all out on Grandpa Z’s boat.
Grandpa made his own boat out of wood and paint and lots and lots of resin and beeswax to keep the water out. Mom said Grandpa built boats even back in the olden days when she was a little girl. He was really a fireman, but he had lots of extra time on his hands for building and inventing stuff. That’s ’cause fireman worked and lived at the fire station about half of their time and the other half, firemen stayed home looking for keen stuff to do, ’cause back then men and boys weren’t allowed to do certain things, like clean house, do laundry, cook, or wear shorts or sleeveless shirts in the summertime. Grandpa did all his making and inventing on days he stayed home from the fire station.
Grandpa built a safety plug in the bottom of the boat that let the water out if any leaked in. Just in case. All he had to do was go super-duper fast in the boat, then ask Uncle Kenny to pull the plug, and any water that sneaked in just flew right out of the boat. Of course, Uncle Kenny had to stay put, so right at the very moment Grandpa slowed down, Uncle Kenny slapped that plug back in the hole, lickety-split, or else the water came rushing back in. In some ways it was the same as when I tried to blow up one of those rubber rafts, if I didn’t put the plug in quicker than lightning, too much air came rushing out, then I had to start all over again.
Grandpa sped his boat way, way out on Burt Lake, so far I could no longer see camp. The wind whipped my hair all around my head and into my eyes so hard it made my eyes tear up like I was crying, even though I was having a grand old time. Water sprayed all around me, and the sun beat down hot as blue-blazes in between the cold water drops that came up out of the lake. That how what the clothes felt like when Mom sprinkled them with her giant Coke bottle. The one with the holey aluminum stopper, that let drops fall out when Mom shook the bottle at the clothes that needed ironing. Then spiiitzz, she hit the clothes with a hot iron, just like the sun hit me on my shoulders and straight in the eyes, so it partly hurt and partly felt so good to be warm after all that cold water. Then the cold water hit again, and whewee, the whole thing started over again.
Grandpa gave me and Deanna a stick with a piece of clothesline tied on the end, and told me to start fishing. If I felt a tug on the line, then pull it up fast, ’cause that meant I caught something. He said, when I got bigger, I could have a rod and reel like Mom, but first must prove I could catch some suckers first. He said suckers stayed around on the bottom, so I didn’t need to cast the line out.
I sat as still as still can be; no talking. Fish can hear kids talking a mile away, and fish know enough to stay clear. I peeked over the side of the boat, and there was Uncle Gene and Uncle Kenny swimming around down there and blowing bubbles, way down deep under the boat and around my line. Darn it! A fish would never bite on my line with those two horsing around down there. “Get outa here,” I yelled at their bubbles and their black hair waving around like a couple of octopi. Grandpa said, “Sit back down and stay still. Fish sometimes tug softly. You gotta pay attention.”
Whoa! Right then I got a huge tug on my line and I whipped it straight out of the water. I got a sucker all right. One just like Dr. Diekowitz gave me after he gave me a shot. The kind with the twisty-loop instead of a stick, so kids won’t choke. Doctors are like grandpas; they’re always thinking about safety. Yummeee! I thought I was fishing for some sort of fish, not real suckers. I tore the wrapper off, put it in my pocket, ’cause I was no litterbug, and popped that red sucker right in my mouth. Red’s my favorite color. Deanna’s favorite was red, too, ’cause she liked everything cherry.
That was my best fishing in my whole life. I kept on sitting still and catching suckers all day long, even after Uncle Kenny and Uncle Gene got back it the boat.
“Did you catch anything?” Uncle Kenny asked as he stretched an undershirt over his wet head. Deanna and I showed him all the suckers we caught.
“You can get sick if you eat fresh caught suckers without cooking them,” Uncle Gene said. “Did you eat any?” His eyes looked just like fish eyes: dark and cold and blank. Uncle Kenny threw his head straight back and laughed with all his fillings showing, just like Mom did when Dad told a joke. He grabbed me tight up to his chest and gave me a big squeeze. He smelled all algae-sandy-lakey, and his undershirt was burry-cold and soaking wet, but at the same time he felt good against the heat that the sun left on my skin.
I kept my line in the water all the way back to shore, just in case there were a few more suckers chasing after my line.
“You can’t fish with the boat going so fast,” Uncle Gene shouted at me.
“You never know,” I said, and the two uncles just looked at each other and smiled a secret I-know-something-you-don’t know smile.
“You never know,” Uncle Gene said, and this time I thought I saw some happiness way down deep in those dark eyes.