MY COUSIN AND I ONCE fished under an interstate where a bent leg of swamp lay exposed and easy to approach. Its water was nothing to drink but it held plenty to eat. We caught a couple catfish inside half an hour. Then this not legendarily-sized gator but gator nonetheless came after his cork. My cousin has always been the mannest man I know, so of course he reeled in fast, hoping the gator would follow his line to our shore. When the gator turned away he cast his line after it and nearly thumped it between the eyes. It gnashed its mean yellow teeth and beat the water into wicked green foam. My cousin kept reeling and casting till at last the gator nabbed the cork.
“Some fun,” my cousin said.
“You hear a dog?” I said.
That almost distracted him from the spoonhead of urine darkening my jeans. We went on fishing and pretending we were alike, but I had been revealed a mush to his solid, a shadow to his man.
A few months later he went for a tour in Iraq. He returned scratch-free, and his wife called him a hero. I did too, and still do, in my pitiful heart.
Last Thanksgiving I had to see him again. His fifth-grader son could shoot a pistol on target. That’s how American they were.
I should not envy him. My wife jogs four miles every morning to maintain her wondrous body. Her spirit, too, is quite rare. After the neighbor’s kitten had been poisoned she conducted a service which wet the eyes of almost every man, woman, and child on our block. Three days ago she drew my head to her bosom and read aloud poems by Milton and Donne in her angel’s voice. And my daughter holds my finger in this singular way. She sings nonsense about fairies and birds. She gives me presents of leaves during walks through our neighborhood. Love grants us too many favors to disdain it absolutely, but it reduces every thought of the future to worry over who might run whom into a ditch.
The night before the holiday, for instance, I had to pin my daughter to the ground and pry open her mouth with one hand and brush her teeth with the other. My wife kept her back against the bed’s headboard throughout the ordeal. She crocheted a beanie and turned up the volume on her headphones so she wouldn’t feel herself an accomplice to torture.
A man could do many things after that, but what, in a hotel room? I tried the Christian bible once again but could not get past the opening of the opening gospel’s record of lineage: ____ who begat ____ who begat _____ ad nearly infinitum. I understood those early church people had to prove their case, but they could have used a better hook.
After they fell asleep I went to buy an ice cream sandwich and found the desk clerk thumbing through a change purse messy with purple diamonds. He arranged its cards into three columns. I fast-walked to the nearby freezer and handled several ice cream sandwiches as though the quality of one could be compared and contrasted with that of others. I did not want to deal with any man engaged in crime, particularly one who filled out a red Polo shirt with that many muscles. Also he wore a gold chain necklace and matching hoop earrings. To be fair, he had a soft, intelligent voice. That evening he had given my daughter a tie-dyed ball to bounce through the lobby. He had charm. Yet I did not approach the counter until he had pocketed the cards he wanted and tucked away the change purse.
“You’ll want an apple,” he said. He touched a wicker basket which held about a dozen grannies.
“No, thanks. Got a sweet tooth tonight.”
“Apple’s got sugar too. It’s so late you probably shouldn’t have sugar at all, but if you gonna have sugar it ought to be natural. None of that fake stuff.”
I bargained my way into purchasing both.
I ate the ice cream sandwich on my return to the room and would have eaten the apple too, but I found a Chihuahua in a crate outside someone’s door. The dog yipped and snapped at the cage. I whispered a curse at it. No one came out to get it or to apologize. Soon I was safe in our room, but I had never quietly eaten a snack, and my loves were snoring, so I tiptoed into the bathroom. I admired its thorough whiteness. Even the used linens, curled like pets asleep on the floor, added to its uncolored elegance.
Yet rather than eat I unscrewed the sink’s gasket. I did not find in the drain the expected four-winged stopper. The gasket had instead been screwed into a piece of cork suitable for fishing or sexual kink. It squealed as I drew it up the drain. It was dirty with unstrung coils of hair and beads of sewage like caviar. Hard to believe we had not noticed the cork plugging the drain in pursuit of our evening toiletries, but I had not in fact brushed my teeth or washed my hands since the previous morning. I cannot speak for what my wife did or did not do with the bathroom door shut. The trouble with my daughter had occurred far from the sink, on the floor between our bed and her cot.
I could have made my cousin sound worse, during that gator story, by saying that a cork is a supplementary signal to a fisherman that something underwater has attacked his bait. When the fish pulls the line, the cork goes under. A strong fisherman does not use a cork. He trusts himself to feel his prey’s tug. He wants the competition to be, as much as possible, between himself and the fish, but there are few strong fishermen in the world. My new cork had an orange stripe, like that of a gym sock, around its wide end. The stripe may be considered a tertiary signal to weak fishermen, who must see both cork and color vanish before they can believe there is a fish wriggling on their line. Even then one might confuse a fish’s strike with a current’s pull. There are many weak fishermen in the world. A striped cork is one of several hundred signs that you are dealing with one of them. I am neither a weak nor a strong fisherman. I may be more fish than man.
That clerk could have accepted my money without grazing my downturned palm with an upturned index finger. He could have. He did, however, sell me the apple I needed.
After breakfast my wife let me stay at the hotel to sleep off a purported headache. She would pick me up that afternoon, in time to gorge. Once she and my daughter had gone I used a nail file to shave the cork and apple into slivers which I tore into shreds. These I mashed into a kind of paste. Again I came upon the dog in its crate outside that door. Again it barked all through my approach. Again no one came to help me. I squatted and pressed the paste through the thin metal grating. The dog nipped at my hand but could not wound me deeply enough. I returned to my room and waited another hour before calling my wife. On my way to meet her I saw that the crate had been removed.
My cousin wore an American flag pin to dinner, but I withstood its shine and him too, perhaps because his son overturned the bowl of cranberry sauce and had to be taken outside, while my daughter served as the very model of obedience. Perhaps, but after dark I found the clerk outside the hotel pool’s entrance. I bummed a cigarette. A hard breeze lifted the tails of our jackets. It swept a plastic bag over the water. He took my hand. “Ain’t no straight line to Providence,” he said, “but you get there.”
In 2011, Marcus Pactor won the Subito Press Prize for his short story collection, Vs. Death Noises. His work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, (b)OINK, X-R-A-Y, and Heavy Feather Review.