The Aquarists

Life, death, and fish

Seth Lerer
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

I wouldn’t want to get those shoes wet.”

The aquarium assistant, a girl of maybe twenty-five with red hair, crooked the hose under her arm, stopping the water with a bend.

“Those are such nice shoes. Tell your dad,” she turned toward my son, “next time he comes not to wear such nice shoes.”

All the staff were in boots, and their hoses carpeted the concrete floor with running water. I lifted up each foot, checking the soles as if I’d stepped in something, then crooking each leg to rub the tops against the back of my black jeans, drying them off. Hopping and lifting, I must have looked like a folk dancer trying his steps to some invisible fiddle, shifting from foot to foot, bending each leg, and then coming down as softly as I could so as not to splash.

If anyone had actually been looking they would probably have laughed, or clapped along, but the assistants were too busy now, spraying the sides of the tanks, trying to loosen the dirt and algae with the hoses before they put them down and turned the water off and got their brooms and scrubbed the dripping glass. I stood there, watching their dance for a good five minutes until someone I hadn’t seen before came by with a towel and spread it on the ground and I stepped onto it.

My son was giving me a tour, backstage he called it, behind the exhibits along concrete alleyways and metal bridges. He had been volunteering for about a month, cleaning the tanks and cutting up food for the aquarium that had grown out of the Oceanographic Institute in La Jolla. I had cut a campus meeting short, greeting him in the parking lot still in my oxfords and blazer. No men wore ties here except lawyers, and certainly none of the other deans at U.C.–San Diego, but I had put one on, a gray silk knit, hoping it would make me look the worldly humanist, setting me apart from the khakied scientists in the room, with the spread-open collars of their permanent-press shirts. I took the tie off for the tour, but when I met my son at the aquarium I still felt like Nixon on the beach, his wingtips brushed with sand.

We entered the building from the side, slipping past tourists, and walked up a metal staircase to the roof. Pacing our way along the corrugated paths, we looked down through the tops of the big tanks. The fish, no longer magnified by glass and water, climbed up the kelp. Great forests bloomed under the sea, but from up here the seaweed rose only ten feet off the tank floor. Local fish fed under their fronds. From the top, the little silver perch clouded the current. Moving down, bigger fish stacked up, and I said their names aloud as he had taught me: porgy, scup, sculpin, cabezon. Then, almost at the very bottom, a spectrum of rockfish arched: blue, black, canary, vermillion, greenling, brown. And below, at sand depth, were the bottom-feeders, rays and halibut, an angel shark, a turbot.

There we were, walking by the tops of the tanks, looking down into mock seas, listening to the swish of a paddle move across the surface, faking a tide.

I’m the oldest man here, I thought, and then: except for him, I’m the only man here. All the aquarists and the assistants were in their twenties, their hair pulled back or balled up, some of them redheads, some blondes, and I watched them swirl about the tanks and pumps, knowing that in their place, I would only have dropped brushes or slipped or fallen in. He moved about them, clearly at home but junior to their ministry, catching the bits they missed or disappearing in a doorway and returning with a bucket full of mackerel for feeding time.

The weeks before he started work at the aquarium, all we did was fish. Mornings, we’d load the station wagon with the rods and bait, the extra line and lures, and drive out to the piers. Some days, we’d stop close by, targeting perch at Crystal Pier or sand bass at Ocean Beach, or mackerel at Coronado. On more ambitious mornings, we would drive an hour north to Newport, hoping to catch the waves of baitfish that would swarm along the pilings, jigging them up with strings of little hooks, thrilled at the pulsing of their tails, then reeling them up quickly, before they fell away, watching their silver sides flash in the sunlight, and then pull them off, cut off their heads, and chunk them up for future bait.

Some days, we’d only wait. Tides would be bad, or the moon would phase out, and there would be no fish. Then, after dinner, we would park down at the beach, his long rod swift as a whip, sending a slice of tuna belly out beyond the waves to catch a leopard shark, a bat ray, or a thornback. On those nights, he would jerk the rod back, setting the hook, and fight up and down the shore until a fin would break through the foam and I would hold the rod and he would walk into the water, grab the tail, and wrestle the thing down, fighting it like a muscle in a spasm, before he would flip it over, grab the hook, remove it, and release the creature.

On such nights, I would listen to him, almost without words, talk fish into submission. Bay fishing once at midnight, he stood ankle deep in lapping water as a stingray circled his legs. He bent down, and like St. Francis with the birds, stroked the ray’s back with the back of his hand. It circled twice, flipped up a wing as if to thank him for the pleasure, and then darted off.

I grew up with a different ocean. On hot summer days in Brooklyn, we would line the seats of the old Pontiac with beach towels before driving down to Coney Island or to Rockaway or Brighton. The black seats would be sticky in the sun, and on those days when we wore our bathing suits or shorts down to the water, we put the towels down so our bare legs wouldn’t burn against the plastic. As we drove south, the wind would come up, and the brine would catch my nose: tart, salty. You can smell the ocean, we would yell, somewhere between Avenue X and the beach. Summers after we left New York and moved to Boston, we would drive to Cape Cod, the salt air now seasoned with pine and beach plums. That was the ocean to me: an Atlantic tang, with its big, dirty waves and its chill.

The autumn I was nine, my father started graduate school at Harvard, and my mother and my brother and I remained in Brooklyn for his first year. Dad commuted weekly, sometimes in the car, sometimes on the bus, and every Friday night he climbed the stairs, exhausted, feigning pleasure at our greeting. That year, he decided to take me fishing. As if to make up for weekday absences, one Saturday in April we drove to Canarsie and looked for a boat. Resting in a slip was a white tub, twenty-six feet long, with a guy twice Dad’s age, sitting on the deck, chaining cigarettes one off the other. This was Captain Jack, or so he introduced himself, and he told us to come back tomorrow, Sunday, six a.m., and we could join the rest of the guys going out. We dutifully returned, and there he was, true to his word, with a small collection of old men of the kind I’d never seen before: weathered, smoking, Sunday unshaven, obviously not Jewish.

I did not know then what I now know: how uneasy Dad must have been with the men, so strikingly uninterested in anything a superannuated graduate student in Education at Harvard could have said. He’d finished Brooklyn College early, at eighteen; got himself drafted and then medically discharged from the army; got a Masters; taught history and then became a junior high vice principal. Now he was getting his doctorate. On the other side of Brooklyn from that harbor, these were (as my grandfather would have said, the stress so hard on the second syllable it spit) “accomplishments.”

That day, he went out of his way to tell me not to wear the Veritas sweatshirt he had brought me from the Harvard Coop, not to sing any of the songs we sang together in the car, not to say anything about the block we lived on or the dinner we had had, the night before, with his accented parents.

I noticed how he shook their hands with more formality than necessary, didn’t slap a back or make a crack like the other guys did. I tried to push Dad forward. He almost hid behind me, as if I was his protection, as if they would not make fun or challenge anything in front of a nine-year-old boy with gear his father rented from the boat.

We pulled out, and practically from the first turn out of the harbor, Dad and I got violently sick. Not just woozy but hurlingly sick, over the rail for the entire six hours of bumping up and down like a roller coaster, while the old guys drank beer, ate hamburgers grilled by the girl in the galley, and, every now and then, put a line in the water.

I was determined. The following Sunday we were back, and this time I willed myself into security. Dad was still sick, almost (as I would put it now) theatrically sick, but no one stood in audience for him. I let him be, fished with the borrowed gear and pulled up a big, black sea bass, ugly as an irritating uncle. Dad lay there on the deck, his eyes half rolled back into his head, and I held up the fish, conquering my sickness and the sea, and the deckhand unhooked it and looked at Dad, and Dad looked at him and said–more to himself in admiration than to the deckhand –“Boy, Red, you sure have red hair.”

How did he know his name was Red, I thought. I called him “Mister.” Maybe Dad knew something I didn’t. Thinking back on it, maybe Red knew something I didn’t. I had spent a lifetime since then watching Dad meet other men’s eyes, noticing how he’d shake a hand and hold it just a little too long. I watched him open up during those years at Harvard, after we all moved there–finding friends and eating less and less at home. Throughout my high school and college years, he would disappear for weeks on business trips with colleagues we had never met. I saw him as someone else, in suit and tie, and then, as he got older after he and Mom divorced, himself in his leathers. I saw it all. That day on the boat, I saw it for the first time. Woozy and half-forgetting where (and who) he was: “Boy, Red, you sure have red hair.” But Red said nothing, just reached down, and with the same offhand flip that he used to unhook and bag my fish, he took Dad’s hand and hauled him to his feet, and then Dad gave him a pat on the back.

I don’t think I went fishing more than two or three times after that: once with my wife when we were visiting her family in San Diego, once on my own on a charter boat when I had wanted to escape a California coast vacation, and maybe once in my dreams. But when my son was seven, I took the weekend off from preparing my classes at Stanford and took him fishing off the Half Moon Bay pier. I had tried everything else: T-ball with the kindergarten dads, museum tours that ended with an art class in which he came home more full of paint than any paper, half-finished Legos splayed across the living room like ruins on a cliff. I called Dad, asked if he’d remembered Captain Jack, and what had moved him, all those years before, to take me fishing. “Well,” he said, and then a long silence. “I guess it was the most”–he stopped again–“conventional thing I could think of to do.”

On Sunday, my son and I drove up from where we lived in Silicon Valley, north along the freeway, and then turned into the mountain road, snaking past Christmas tree farms and pet-a-pony stands, until we reached the little harbor. I bought two rods and reels at the bait shop, threw in a brick of frozen squid, and grabbed a bag of hooks.


We stood there in the wind. We stood there long enough to watch the tide rise up the pilings and then fall again, exposing seaweed, barnacles, and starfish. We stood there long enough to watch the sun go down over the jetty. We stood there long enough for me to feel as empty as the bucket we had brought along.

It did not matter. Let’s come back, he said, as we loaded up the wagon in the parking lot. He insisted on hanging on to the rod in the back seat, cradling it as if it were a weapon aimed against the wind.

And so, for years, each weekend, we would fish that little pier. Sometimes we caught smelts and mackerel, sometimes little rockfish. Sometimes, we’d get a net and bring up rock crabs. Once, while jigging for smelt, something grabbed his line and spun the spool so fast I thought a human diver down there had come to mess with us. But it did not stop, and my son put his thumb on the reel and pulled the rod back and a long silver arrow jumped out of the water, flipped its head down and then dove, the string of little hooks still stuck inside his mouth. A salmon, I yelled, as he fought that thing and worked the too-thin line until the fish was within grasping distance of the pier. I lowered down our crab net, just as the fish tried one last leap and it fell flat into the net, and then I hauled it up, all tangled with the hooks and line, and we set it on the pier. Nobody else was there, and we both knew it was illegal to catch salmon without special licenses and out of season (when was salmon season? I said aloud). But he took out his pliers and he pulled and cut the fish free and he picked it up as deftly as Red had plucked my Dad, and with one fast, unbroken move he opened up the cooler, threw the fish in, closed the top, and sat on it. It was a small one by California standards, no more than a foot and a half long, a lost juvenile looking for an inland waterway. Something must have gone wrong with its tracking system, wandering into Half Moon Bay Harbor, only to be snagged by a thirteen-year-old with a spinning reel and then buried in his ice.

We fished the piers, the boats, the shores. Day boats out of the harbor brought up rockfish. Fishing the bays, we’d reel in snarling bat rays. I lived his adolescence in a haze of Dramamine and frozen bait. He built up a collection of rods and reels, lures and rigging, and he taught himself to cast a hundred yards and place a bait within a foot of where he wanted it–like Babe Ruth pointing to the stands. He tied his own flies, plying little streams better than a man in retirement. Every now and then, we’d bring his buddies along, and as they struggled with their tangles and their temper, he would effortlessly cast out, the line singing as it unreeled, the perfect plop of the lure hitting the surface almost without a splash.

The summer he turned fifteen, he decided he had had enough of small fish. We booked a five-day trip on a boat out of San Diego, and my wife and I drove south with him, piling the gear in the station wagon, barely able to imagine what five days on a boat in the middle of the Pacific would be like. We stayed in a motel near the landing, and the morning of the trip we lined up with everyone else. My wife was one of only two women among the thirty passengers: fat men, old guys who had been saving all year for this one week, gabbing on the dock, looking to me like characters out of a Hart Crane hangover, drinking Bacardi and talking U.S.A.

“Ever been out before?” one of them asked. Nope. “Well you’re going to love it. You’ll get the shit kicked out of you on the ride back, riding up swell, especially if it storms. But you’re going to love it.”

The Japanese-American captain called his boat the Shogun, and it was detailed with red stripes against the white siding. The first thing that hit me as we boarded, though, was the smell of baking bread. There, in a galley the size of a closet, the cook set out to bake fresh bread, along with the steaks, ribs, burgers, chicken, and fish that he would fill us up with every day.

I stood in the aquarium in La Jolla, the crust of drying water patterning my shoes, watching my son move effortlessly between tanks.

Bill. Probably about six two, with a trim white beard, no more than sixty, in a Hawaiian shirt with a set of tattoos up and down his arm like he’d been Queequeg’s lover. He always had a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and as he cooked, a bit of ash would fall into the sauce or in a pan. He’d turn on the gas and spray the grill with Pam so nothing would stick. I watched him that first day as we motored down the Baja coast. Everything had Pam in it or on it. Bread and rolls gleamed from its oil. He’d take whole cauliflowers, break them up, throw the pieces in a pan with fresh thyme and pepper and then, as if displaying his culinary secret to me, spray the whole thing with Pam.

By this point, I had learned that a scopolamine patch behind the ear would stanch my seasickness, and we all, as our son had put it, patched up well in advance of the trip. So as we motored south, trolling for tuna that never appeared, I was at peace, watching the waves and then trundling into the galley for Pam-glazed pork chops.

Finally, after a day and a half, in the middle of the night, the engines stopped–the silence jarring us out of sleep. Within minutes someone was up, fishing, and we too woke up to the smell of huevos rancheros and crushed bait. Thirty-pound yellowtail, the biggest fish I’d ever seen, were coming over the rail, and we all caught them, fighting them around the anchor line, bringing them to bay along the rail, before a deckhand would lean over with a long hook at the end of a bamboo pole and gaff the thing and bring it up, bloody and bucking, slapped on the deck.

That trip we caught thirty of those fish, holding each one up, its silvery skin glinting in the flash of everyone’s camera. That week, I thought he finally had found himself, absorbed in his casts, learning from the old guys, holding his own–a phrase I said to myself, over and over again. I’d never seen him eat so much or so well–stuff he’d never eaten before, salads, asparagus, pie. And Bill would stroll by as we ate, nodding at his appetite, never even looking at my wife, slapping me on the shoulder, “Hey, Pops,” and then one afternoon, as we hit a lull in the fishing and motored to a different spot, the sun high in the sky and the jade sea lapping the gunwales, I stood out looking away from the sun, focused on the knife line of the horizon, when I felt a man’s hands massaging my shoulders and turned around to see Bill, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, his Hawaiian shirt open to the navel, his hands moving rhythmically along my upper back, and I said, trying to maintain my cool, “Hey, great massage, Bill, where’d you learn to do that?”


And then he walked away, ready to spray up the grill for dinner, and for the rest of the trip, he didn’t look at me again.

I stood in the aquarium in La Jolla, the crust of drying water patterning my shoes, watching my son move effortlessly between tanks.

We had avoided prison. As a child in Brooklyn, I lived next door to an Italian family who grew figs in giant pots and had a grapevine arch above their garage. One afternoon when I was six or seven, the grapes all had ripened, and the winy smell came through our portion of the yard. I wandered over, startled at the purple clusters, some of them bursting, dripping with grape juice, ants crawling all over them. They seemed more destined for the garbage can than for their table, and I must have figured they would leave them there until they rotted, so I grabbed a handful, pulled the stalk, and held the dripping purple at arm’s length, like Herod with a severed head, and marched around the front part of the driveway, when the family came out of the house, dressed for the chalice, and the woman screamed–What have you done? Are those your grapes? Where is your mother? And Mom came out, with a face like I’d killed a man, and smacked the grapes out of my hand, and dragged me in.

Who hasn’t caught his own son in his sins?

I moved from Stanford to La Jolla, thinking I could sell it to him for the fishing, unable to explain to him my own ambitions to be something more than just a teacher, to explain about Dad and his early graduation and his Harvard doctorate, about the feeling that if I could just write the word dean under my name, if I could sit behind a desk in a blazer, it would redeem all of those days on deck when Dad caught Red’s eye rather than my own.

We would be right there where the big boats sailed, I said. We could fish anytime we wanted.

But he did not listen. He resisted–no, turned, really, in the way you use that word to talk about a carton of milk or an unfrozen slice of fish. He turned.

I commuted the first year–only now it was by air. At the end of each week, I’d get on the afternoon Southwest from San Diego to San Jose, buckled next to programmers and undergraduates, all going home for the weekend, the kids with their laundry and the young men with the faces I remembered from my Friday Dad.

Those weekends disappeared. He spent his evenings with his high school friends. Some nights he did not come home. Some I’d get a text and pick him up in schoolyards where he used to play, the smell of wine and weed around him like an angry halo. Swimming against the current, I’d say to myself, until one day they caught him, reeled him in, and set him in the ice.

My second year in La Jolla, I would drive up on weekends to L.A., first to visit him at independent living and then at a sober house. I’d walk in on forty-year-old men in tattoos and T-shirts watching The Price Is Right, nervously smoking, their eyes unaccustomed to my ease.

“I’m sure there’s someone here,” he said, “who’s killed a man.”

One guy, loud, like the stock fat man in an improv group, walked in with a cigarette and blared something about Meeting, and I saw his arms sprout out of his T-shirt, down one the word WHITE and down the other the word PRIDE. I recognized him immediately as a guy from a boat we had fished on a summer before–not sleek like the Shogun, but a different, mean boat, full of drinkers, with a cook who said things like, “Back when I was working for the state,” and everyone would laugh and then he’d throw down an old license plate in front of me as if to say, Yeah, that is what I used to do. That fat guy had been on the boat, fishing with his friends, sitting on the deck, not loud and laughing like now, but withdrawn, in shades, shuttered in the cabin of his anger, like it was the first time he had seen the sun in months, or even years.

It probably was.

“Yeah, I recognized him too,” my son said. “Thought it would be a good idea not to remind him.”

I thought it would be a good idea not to remind my son of that visit while he scrubbed the tanks at the aquarium, the keeper of this house, sobriety in seaweed, as he escaped my glance to step behind a tank, and I watched him, now magnified by fifteen feet of water and two plates of glass, scuttle back and forth as in a dream, his arms distorted into diligence, mopping the floor, his face coming in and out of focus.

As he healed, my mother faded. A long-patient tumor in her leg finally decided it had had enough. It bubbled up, the pressure breaking her thigh bone and sending Mom to the emergency room the evening of a New Year’s Day. The surgeons operated, they congratulated themselves, and for the next ten months I would fly to New York every few weekends to find her, thinning in assisted living.

My parents had divorced when I was twenty-five. Mom moved back to New York, first to Manhattan, then (priced out of Midtown) into Queens, returning to public school teaching, then retiring, volunteering, lunching with her cousins, watching her relatives pass away, working up the cheer to host my brother, me, and my wife, our boy, having my father come along (“you’re not going to wear those socks, are you?”; “keep it down”; “what do you want your grandson to think?”), and then, after we’d gone, watering her ferns, polishing the picture frames.

The tumor caught her in a chair. She had begun to stand up when the thigh cracked and threw her to the floor. She managed to dial 911 but couldn’t move the distance to the door when the emergency men came in. So they pried the door off of its hinges, stretchered Mom out, and then left the door leaning against the jamb–which is how my brother found it two days later, the apartment gaping to the hallway and the elevator’s wink.

I flew to JFK a few days later.

Some days she called me by my name. Some days, she thought I was her brother, some days my brother. One afternoon, I was my father, dead eleven years at this point, and Mom chewed me out for showing up and seeing her in this condition, wondering how I got past the nurse’s station in those clothes. And then she called the nurse to get me out of her room and send me back to Hell.

The meds wore off, she sat up, breathed, relieved my father was still dead, and let herself be moved into assisted living. At first the staff tried physical therapy. Mom was supposed to stand up, walk a few paces, sit down, do it again, until she could move along the length of the hallway. She gave up. Too much, she said. Then they tried massage–someone would come in and work her leg, bringing what had remained of muscle back to tone. Too little.

So they left her. The now-impatient tumor, faking its excision, came back faster, larger, moving up the leg into the gut. She’d call me in California, unaware of the time change, to come and take her out for lunch.

Each month I’d take a weekend, fly and land, direct a cab through Queens, and show up to somewhere between What are you doing here? and You’re late. I’d put her in the chair and wheel her down to the sandwich bar for lunch.

“This food is poison. Here, you finish it.”

And with a salami slice hanging from my mouth, she pointed: “You know, you could lose twenty pounds.”

Every now and then, after a game show or a nap, she’d start to speak, a memory returning for a moment, a wave pulling back from shore and leaving weed and pebbles, and then rolling back, covering the sand with her silence. One morning, the tide went out and she started talking over the TV, long lucid sentences.

“The happiest time of my life was in that summer just before I turned nine. It must have been August 1938. My cousins had an Olds, and they picked me up against my mother’s wishes and I sat there on the floor of the car as we drove up along the Hudson River to the camp my aunt discovered. My aunt was ahead of her time–all vegetarian and walking and fruit juice and never shaved her legs. My mother hated her for her health. Today you’d call her a free spirit. Back then, we called her a gypsy. There would be weeks we had no money, and my mother would beg the butcher for cut ends, and she would fry them for me and my brother, never taking a bite herself. And then my aunt would show up with her good skin and a bag of greens.”

She stopped, the tide returning. And then:

“She must have pitied me. One day she and her family just showed up, told my mother she was doing this for my own good. She took me by the hand, left a head of lettuce with my mother, and we got into the car. I looked back through the window, as we drove away, my mother hurling the lettuce at the fender. We drove up to Westchester. It took all day then, and as soon as we left the city the air cooled and the wind came up, and my cousin opened up the window of the Olds, and if green had a smell that’s what I smelled. We turned up to the river, to a little town called Montrose, near the Croton dam, and we all got out. The place was called Camp Hygicology, and it was run by a tall, white-haired man who looked just like the man in the Arrow Collar ad. Dr. Anderson or something like that. But we all called him Dr. Sunshine. He was, my aunt explained, a “Naturopath,” a specialist in natural cures. No medicines, she said, just clean water and fresh vegetables. We walked around the grounds. The place was full of happy sick people. People dying of colitis or cancer but smiling and eating and thin. They were so thin, and so tan. The color of old rope. And then there were the animals. I’d never seen them before, live goats, chickens, horses. I took off my shoes and walked in the hay. I drank milk from a cow. I ate fresh eggs. We stayed a week, I think, and I have never felt as happy or as healthy as I did then. Dr. Sunshine. That’s really what we called him.”

She turned her head to me. I tried.

He’s doing very well, I said. You know he’s volunteering at the aquarium now, and he has a real feel for the fish. They’ll eat out of his hand. Even the sharks. Last fall, he came home one day, telling us about how one of the sharks was sick. There was a lesion on its back, and he was going to figure out what was wrong. And so, the next day he came back and told me how he got into the tank (yes, completely in the tank) and took his phone and took a video up close of the infection. Then he played it underneath a microscope, and he saw little mites crawling around. He sent the video to the aquarium vet, and together they came up with some concoction that they’d put into the tank to kill the mites and save the shark. Only thing was, the medicine turned all the water blue, and when he got in to administer it, he turned blue too, and he came home that day looking like an underexposed photograph, his skin the color of corroded silver. But they saved the shark.

She was asleep. It may have been the word lesion that distracted her. Or the fentanyl that finally had kicked in. Her face had turned away, she breathed with more ease than I’d heard all day. I got up, risked leaving her room, and walked the hallways. Here and there, a door cracked open. A man sat with headphones, smiling to the beat. A woman played solitaire at her table, flipping the cards up until she found one that matched, and then looking up and seeing me and smiling as if to say, Don’t tell them I cheat. The television room was empty. In the library a few men sat bent over a week’s pile of papers.

“You. Yes, you. Who are you here for?”

I gave him my mother’s name, and he nodded. Then: “Nobody reads the paper anymore. I mean really reads it. Look at that headline. Tells you what you want to know. Big type, black type. Can’t miss it. Here, take a piece. Read it to your mother.”

I left him with his supervisors,
and I walked through the back door into the main aquarium hall. Students and families milled in front of the tanks, and hoisted babies put their hands against the glass, trying to grasp a jellyfish or hold a tentacle. The glass fronts curved and made the fish seem larger than I now knew them to be. The glossy signs described each creature, where it lived, whether it had been endangered, what the aquarium scientists were doing to recover it. I stopped in front of the great kelp tank, ceiling high. The fronds were waving in the artificial tide, and here and there a sea bass turned to meet my look. I knew that rays were buried in the sand. I recognized the broken frozen mackerels that were floating down for food. I did not need to read the labels, but I followed one of the sea bass up to the fake sky, its eye having caught sight of a bit of baitfish flickering at the surface, and I thought I saw, holding its tail and tempting any takers, his hand.

I got the phone call
early in October. The facility could no longer guarantee her safety. What if she fell? What if she choked on something? What if she just stopped living? So they were transferring her to a different place, a place where, as they put it, “she’d be safe,” where others, more accomplished in that art, could care for her. Over the next day and a half, they put her in an ambulance, moved her across Queens Boulevard, set her up in a bed, and then, within hours, “Your mother has taken a turn for the worse.”

And in between those words and my “I see,” I saw Mom breathing roughly, heard them ring the doctor on call, watched him enter Mom’s room and bend over.

“We can make it easy for you,” I imagined him saying. I thought of him putting his hand on Mom’s forehead in a way Dad never did, holding her arm as it had never been held before, this man she had never met, meeting her eyes and ready with whatever it would take to make her sleep.

And in that second’s fraction I saw her look up, smile, and release his hand.

“Nothing was easy. Why should this be?”

Two days later my wife and I were cleaning out her room, boxing up the copies of my books I’d signed to her, stacking the photographs, finding the passport and the driver’s license and the checkbook and the ring that Mom accused the nurse, three weeks before, of stealing from her.

My son and I don’t fish
much anymore. He has his friends, his work at the aquarium, and his girl. He swims, he dives, he surfs. My shoes never recovered from my tour, but I held on to them, letting them gather dust on the dry floor of my closet. I finished being dean, went back to teaching, and last week I cleared out the old clothes that I would never wear again: the blazer, tie, and oxfords; the white shirts, ranged in the closet like a buried porcelain army. Along the back wall sat the shoes I used for fishing: beaten topsiders, old Nikes, canvas loafers.

I remembered the last time we went out to a pier, at Ocean Beach, so close to the Mexican border that my cellphone would get pings inviting me to international service. We went at night, to catch the full moon and the tide, and it had rained all day, one of those San Diego winter rains where the drops don’t fall so much as materialize out of the humid air. The pier was slick with water and scales, and it seemed as if everyone from Oceanside to Ensenada had had the same idea we had–cast out when the tide is just right and fish will beg for you to hook them. We walked out, farther and farther on the thousand-foot pier, looking for a clear spot by the rail. The pier was poorly lit, and every now and then an old man would cross our path out of a shadow, meeting my eye, smiling with half his teeth. Finally we found six feet of free rail. We rested the rods, put down the cooler. I turned. Nestled at the nook of the pier’s end was a whole family–six children, several older men and women. There were rugs and blankets, a grill wrested out of half an oil drum and some rebar, piles of clothing. Were they living on the pier, I wondered.

And as my son fished I looked at this family. Dinnertime was over, and one of the women was washing the pans and dishes at the spigot used for cleaning fish. Children wrapped themselves in blankets and lay down on rugs. One of the men sat down on a lawn chair in front of all of them, and brought out (of all things) an iPad, touched its magic, and began to read aloud. I couldn’t follow his Spanish. It must have been a bedtime story. Was it a tale of adventure? A romance of capture and return? Was it a sentimental novella of girls and boys, defying parents for their love, all living happily at last? I have no idea. The only word I could pick out, every now and then, was the repeated sueños. Dreams. What better way to end a fairy tale, with wishes for sweet dreams, with safety under blankets, with ships home and all the scary creatures turned to harmless stone.

Or maybe that’s the word I thought I heard.

The iPad went dark and the children slept. I turned to see my son, his finger lifting up the line from off the reel, feeling for each twitch.

Seth Lerer is Distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of California at San Diego. His Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Truman Capote Prize in Criticism. He is also the author of Shakespeare’s Lyric Stage.
Originally published:
November 1, 2017


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