My radar started going nuts only a couple minutes ago. I finally found the lively shipwreck Davis always said was the best for catching bass. I put hand over hand as fast as I can to spin that stubborn old wheel to the left and reach down to cut the engine at the same time. When it finally begins to slow down, I exit the helm out into the blistering noon sun and hoist the anchor over the side. I remember when I was younger it was much easier to chuck that hunk of metal – not to mention I used to have more help. I grit my teeth and grunt this one last time, dragging that anchor just enough to make it into the water, but not enough to avoid scratching the fading red paint job off the railing. It makes a loud “plop” when it hits the water, then disappears faster than a group of guppies you just threw a loose net over.
I can hear the distant cawing gulls and the soft rustling of disturbed waves against the side of Ol’ Hustler, but other than that there’s not much sound at all out here. A triangular white streak of water is beginning to dissipate behind the stern. I whip my pack of Marlboros out, damp from the spitting waters. I finger the pack and feel each cigarette until I decide on the driest one and slip it between my scruffy sun-kissed lips. It’s easy to light it today, easier than normal. The wind is hardly whispering by me, and once the boat stops rocking the dark waters will grow calm – maybe the calmest I’ve seen them in years.
I breathe in deep, hold it, then huff out a puff of ashy smoke through my nose. While I puff on that little thing, for the first time I’m catching myself thinking about somethin’ I’ve never thought about before. It’s quiet now out on the water – quietest it’d ever been. And even though I’m just getting settled, for the first time I don’t know if I can spend another 2 weeks of my life out on the water. I let out another puff of smoke, but this time hum while it leaves my lips and rolls over the port.
My name is Quentin Kennedy – folks call me Kent – and I’ve been fishing out here on this dinky vessel as long as I can remember. The Ol’ Hustler ain’t called “Ol’” for no reason. In fact, this boat’s older than me. I was practically pushed out the womb on this thing, and for all my life I never wanted it any other way… that is until today.
Back then the boat was run by a feller named Captain Big Hank. Whenever I picture him now I imagine a chap with the sturdiest legs you’d ever seen stretching six feet into the air on their own. Then just above that was an old ragged red button-up shirt missing its bottom two buttons showing a curly hairy snake running up the middle of that plump gut. And then there were Captain Hank’s arms, stronger than an ape’s. once told me he reeled in an Orca and dragged it all the way home behind the Ol’ Hustler. Now that I’m recalling that story, I’m not sure how true it is, but if anyone could do it, it was Captain Hank. And something tells me he wasn’t eight feet taller than the tallest man alive, but I couldn’t be sure since he didn’t get the “Big” in front of his name from me. But one thing’s for sure, Big Hank was the best Captain I’d ever seen.
He used to throw more extravagant parties up on the deck than that Gatsby fellow with more sparkling lights and glittering chandeliers than the Titanic. When we came back from a successful fishing trip, he’d rally the crew to go into town and try to see how many ladies they could invite onboard. None of the other guys knew how Hank would always win that contest, but when he was older and thinking about retiring he finally told me the secret – Big Hank would tell the ladies he’s got a private yacht parked out in the marina with more champagne than the King of France. I laughed for days after he told me that. It finally explained why they all looked so disappointed when Hank pointed to Ol’ Hustler and confirmed that was the yacht. For some reason, I can’t remember a single one of them turning around though. They’d started the night out on a lie but stayed for Big Hank’s charm, but I bet the cache of booze didn’t hurt.
I cut off a piece of bait out of the bucket. It squirms and fight me hard, so I hit it hard with a mallet. It sways, then quickly falls limp on the ground with a heavy thud. I throw the mallet to the side and it lands in a coiled rope. It’s easier to hook when the bait’s limp. Pearson always told me to be bountiful with my baiting portions – use as much of it as you need. “The bigger the bait, the bigger the catch,” he’d say. And I’d tend to agree with him – those big fish have quite the appetite. Sometimes I’d even use the smaller bait to catch bigger bait and attract the motherload catch, but the results of that strategy didn’t always work out quite so well in my favor. You lose the bigger bait one too many times and you finish the trip shit out of luck and shit out of fish.
Davis didn’t ever agree so much with Pearson though. Sometimes I wondered if they purposefully took the opposite opinion of the other just in spite. If Davis asked “how high?”, Pearson would ask “how low?”. While Pearson said use as much bait as you need, Davis always told me to use only what you need. “When you’re done, throw back what you don’t need – dead or alive,” he’d say. “There’s a natural order to this world. You and I are just passing on through. We’d best respect that order if we want to be around much longer. Whether it’s on the end of a long, tired chase or the end of your line, these fish gotta eat. And if they don’t eat enough they’ll move on to somewhere else. And if they move onto somewhere else we won’t get so lucky anymore in these parts.” Davis always made sense and had more thoughtful explanations, but Pearson was always more convincing. Sure, it was best to conserve and respect the natural order and all that, but what if I want to use the bigger bait? After all, the more the merrier. The bigger the bait, the bigger the catch.
I trudge out on deck, dragging my boot heels, trying to mimic what movements I could remember from Captain Hank’s stoic sea legs. When I reach the port of Ol’ Hustler again, I grab her rusty railing and let out a smoky relieved sigh. I’ve never had that same gravity in me Big Hank had. No matter how hard I’d fight it, the sea would always eventually get the best of my shaky knees.
Pearson and Davis bicker like an old married couple, but they’re all I got left. The boat’s quiet now. Jimbo died of gangrene a long while back at the same time the engine died out and we had to wait too long for the coastguard. Barry Oliver got caught up in some gunrunning business down in Havana and never looked back. Sam Tobin got caught by a great white, Kit Vickers got pulled in by a giant squid, Shorty Lee is on the run from the law in Santa Monica, and Ruby Nicks started a family with Captain Hank on the countryside – good as dead to the Ol’ Hustler since they’d never see the water again.
The bait has only been out of the bucket for around a minute and it already stinks. Its putrid scent wafts into the air with a sweet smell not different from a rotting agave I’ve grown too familiar with, and mixes with the salty sea air. I can hear Pearson complimenting me on my choice of bait. “My boy, you went for the bigger one. That’s gonna be quite some catch I’d bet.” But Davis scolded me all the same, nearly at the same time. “You’ll lose that whole hunk of meat and all for nothing. What a waste!” I breathe out a huff of smoke again, coughing harshly this time, then shake my head. Then again, I’ll have to get rid of all the bait before I head back or I could be in a lot of trouble when I dock back at the marina.
I flick the release and lightly place a thumb over the reel while the line zips back and forth and plummets into the depths beneath. The fleshy bait makes a harsh plopping sound when it hits the water. I used to wince and shiver when I heard it, but not these days.
Until today, I always wondered why Captain Hank ran off with that pretty girl, Ruby. I couldn’t imagine what a man would need that wasn’t on deck the Ol’ Hustler. Pearson tells me it’s like the old legends of sirens – fishermen would see a gal with fins and scales and such and damn near drown just to get a better look at her and hear her songs. Until today, I couldn’t imagine myself walking off the bow of Ol’ Huslter for some pretty lady, but maybe I would now. Big Hank was a wise man, I should have trusted his words more than Pearson’s. But like I said, Pearson always sounded more appealing than Captain Hank and especially more than Davis. Davis would have told me, “Men need the company of a woman and the fulfillment of raising a family.” What nonsense – until now.
I think I feel a little bite on my line. I jerk the rod up, but it doesn’t catch onto anything, it just glides through the water. I let the line rest again in the still waters below, once again with deeper thoughts than I’ve ever had buggin’ my mind. This might be my last trip out on sea. I heave out another puff of smoke. The cigarette is gettin’ mighty short now. I might need another.
I start to wonder a bit. I’m thinking more about Big Hank and Ruby, even more about Lee in Santa Monica. They all got lives beyond Ol’ Hustler, for better or worse. Word down at the marina is Big Hank and Ruby are expecting a kid soon. They say they want to give the kid a proper education, raise ‘em right. That kid will be the first in their family to go to college – hell, the first to even make it through four years of high school for that matter – four without being held back for any that is. Ruby got through 4 years on technicality but spent 3 of them in the tenth grade. But the point is, Ol’ Hustler is turning into a memory for them. A fond and important memory I’d reckon, but still just a memory. They might tell their kid some stories of their old fishing days, but they sure wouldn’t tell some of the others. And I wonder if Lee even gives the Ol’ Hustler a passing thought these days. Past the time he caught a 20-foot bass, he probably doesn’t think about his days fishing on her at all. He’s been too preoccupied with that coyote business of his and has got too much cash coming in to ever need his sea legs again. And these past couple months, the law is sure giving him too much trouble for him to ever even tell anyone about that giant bass he was so proud of.
I yank the line again, this time out of boredom. Nothing’s biting my line, but I thought I’d give it a try anyway. I’m not even sure the bait is still down there, but since I haven’t gotten any real bites I’ve got no reason to think it’s not.
I’m starting to think about life outside the Ol’ Hustler, maybe starting a family of my own one day and moving out to the country like Captain Hank. I wonder if I’m too old or too beaten by the sea now to do it. Time’s getting thin, but there’s always a chance, right? I wonder about the bait – what were their lives like before Ol’ Hustler? All of us are swimming around in some sea until life picks us up in a net in some way. In some ways the bait was no different than me or Hank or even Ruby. Did they have lots of friends? Maybe they started a family of their own. They could have sent their first kids to school and been so proud when they got a half decent job. I could picture their little flapping mouths ‘round a dinner table, talking about where they’d like to travel and such. Sure, there were plenty of fish in the sea as Pearson used to say, but I wondered if their parents were proud of them before they got in my net. It was their kid after all. There were tons like ‘em, but no other was ‘em. Maybe that bait had hopes, even some dreams. I bet at least half of them were smarter than me back home before we picked them up on Ol’ Hustler. But out here onboard the boat they don’t stand a chance. Once you snatch these little buggers out of their comfortable little habitats they don’t have the first clue how to survive. I wonder if they know they’re never going home again. Those hopes and those dreams are over for them, they’ll never see that white picket-fenced family of theirs or anything like home ever again.
I snap out of a trance I entered from getting just a little too mesmerized by the glimmering sunlight off the quiet waters. The cigarette is a quarter inch from burning my lip, so I spit it overboard. It fizzes when it hits the water. Something yanks my line a few times. The first two yanks are subtle nips, easily mistaken for the rolling waves, but the third is deliberate. I snap my wrist to pull the rod upwards, but my line just glides forward with no resistance. I wrap my fingers around the reel’s handle and start spinning. My hand starts to get numb. It feels like I’ve been spinning that reel for at least half an hour when it finally comes up, but it’s probably only two or three minutes. Before I see the line come out of the water, I mostly can guess what I’m going to see. The hook plops and skips lightly out of the water, cleaner than it was when I brought it onboard this morning. Just as I suspected – I just gave some lucky sea creature a free meal.
Since I’d followed Pearson’s advice and took a big hunk this time, I considered following Davis’s for the second round while I head back to the bucket inside to get more. I unsheathe my knife, ready to filet the bait again. I feel my skin getting another bad burn from the hot sun. No matter how much sun lotion I put on, my pale skin always manages to pick up a burn.
As I walk over, I try to decide which part might be the tastiest. What would I like to eat if I were a fish? How big would I want the meal to be? I think if I were a fish I’d want a guy like Pearson casting a rod in – a guy who’d put a damn buffet on a hook. But Pearson can’t exactly go fishing given his ethereal state, so it’s up to me. But I’d started off by following Pearson’s advice and didn’t catch nothin’. Maybe if the bait’s smaller, it’s more likely the fish can’t avoid gettin’ hooked when they start nibbling. The bigger bait leaves some room for those stupid little things to get off free.
I get to the cabin and eye the bait. On my way back to the cabin, I was sure I was going to use the same bait I did before, just scrape off another small piece. But that one is getting a little too pale for my liking. Even the fish are going to start catching on that they’re not eating a live meal. Also, that specific bait is whining now, letting out a low, constant moan. I don’t know if it’ll ever stop. He’s complaining that his cuffs are too tight. “I’m seeing double,” he says. I’m only barely able to understand his words. His guppy lips are opening and closing, pathetically gasping for air like it wasn’t made for his gills. I take my filet knife and close one eye, trying to concentrate enough to perfectly line it up at the peak of his eye socket like a surgeon. He’s not making it easy – squirming and flopping all about. I would hit the bait again with the mallet, but I forget where I left it. I’m getting frustrated. I throw him against the wall to try to subdue the flopping, but it doesn’t do enough. It suddenly occurs to me that he’s got another good eye and I’ve got 3 more live ones in the cabin that need hooking, so I finally give up on my desire for a perfect cut. I reposition the knife and shove it straight into the center of the bait’s eye. He groans and croaks, gargling on his own blood. I hit something harder with my blade, probably his dense brain. I pull the blade out and let his neck go with my other hand. He grasps for his eye, both hands flailing and scratching at his face. The gargling grows louder. I step back and watch. My focus drifs off again just enough to mix up his shrieking flapping gills with the muffled sounds of waves puttering against the hull. I feel like he’s trying to tell me something, but I can’t really understand anything he’s saying, nor do I care to. I just watch the blood roll over his cheek and drip off his scaly face.
He eventually stops trying to tell me whatever it is that was on his mind. His body isn’t moving anymore. For a few minutes I thought the sun might set before he gave up. I kneel down in front of his limp body and grab his oily neck to prop him upright. I close one eye again and position the filet knife at the top of his eye socket. It’s a little hard to focus with the others shrieking in the bucket. One even came to tears. I got as used to it as the best fishermen could over the years, but I still heard it loud and clear. “See, this is why you gotta use as much bait as you can as fast as possible,” I can hear Pearson telling me. I sure wish I remembered where I put that mallet.
When I’m finally satisfied with the knife’s position, I push hard, first stretching, then splitting the skin. Blood immediately oozes from the slit and covers the blade. I follow the bone carefully, hooking the knife in a circular motion back towards me. As I guide the knife and feel the perfection of the cut I lick my lips. I’m almost envious of whatever fish gets this piece. The eye and the lid plop out of the socket together and hurriedly thwack into the wooden floorboard. I’m sweating now, my lips trembling. I’m not sure, but I think I just moaned. I can feel my brain shooting off a reverberating electric high. I let the neck go. The rest of the bait slides against the wall, still held by its partially fileted hands in the cuffs. The others holler louder when they realize what happened. It’s even easier to ignore the others now. I smell it again – that putrid but sweet smell of a rotting agave is already caressing my nostrils. I grab the rod again and run my fingers down the line until I find the hook. It scrapes my finger slightly, but I don’t flinch. I grab it and find the faded blue iris aimlessly looking back at me. I dig the silver hook into it. The eye softly pops with not too much more resistance than the skin of a grape. The white parts fill with blood, and the eye expands slightly. There’s just enough room on the hook now to put one eyelid on, but not both. I blush at the sight of his dead oily eyelid sliding onto the hook. I might even feel my pants tightening. There’s hardly any blood this time.
I stand triumphantly and display the hooked eye to the others the same way Shorty Lee showed me that 20-foot bass all those years ago. One holds his mouth tight, trying to avoid puking out the little life he’s got left in him. I raise my eyebrows and grin with the smoke-stained teeth I have left. “We’re losin’ daylight,” I tell them softly. I leave the cabin with their shrieks and pleading growing thinner and less distinct. One of them is too scared or maybe too weak to even murmur.
Who am I kidding? Never mind all that. Ol’ Hustler’s not for everyone these days, but it’s a sure home for Captain Kent Kennedy. I ain’t starting no family. I ain’t no gunrunner. I’m staying on Ol’ Hustler forever – right where I’m meant to be.