Posted on: March 26, 2015
I went to live with Uncle Gil the summer before I turned seventeen. Ma and Dad had parted ways and then split for points somewhere east and west. Like God shoving apart sin, they had to get as far away from each other as possible. Nana ended up with me in the immediate fall-out, but she was moving into the local home for the elderly come September. So I was inducted into the world of fishing on a rickety boat in the Gulf covered in fish scales and fish guts and reeking to high heaven.
Gil was short for Virgil, and he wasn’t actually my uncle. I had lost track of how we were related—or even if we were. Nana’s version of our family tree snarled together like the yarn she sorted, running knotted strands through fingers spotted by time. I had half a mind to tell her that I was almost seventeen and didn’t need any looking after, but we were already at the bus station. Then she sent me off with a peck on the cheek and a squeeze that surrounded me with the lingering scent of dead roses and baby powder before the bus pulled away.
Gil was somewhere between my parents and Nana in age, with hair that might have been white or just bleached by the sun. It hung well past his shoulders, but when he pulled it back with an elastic band, the gesture was always masculine—unlike the smooth sweep-and-gather the girls in my high school had mastered. Even with a ponytail that would cause most women a pang of envy, no one could call Gil feminine. Maybe it was an aggressive act of self-defense against his name—which Nana said he thought was “a sissy name.” I later learned that while Nana paraphrased a lot of the things Uncle Gil said, she could never quite master the flair of his swears. They were downright Shakespearean sometimes. I’d never heard “fuck” used as every part of speech with such ease.
He was standing with his arms crossed and his feet spread wide when the bus pulled up, like he was on his boat instead of the parking lot and the asphalt was rolling beneath him. He didn’t shake my hand or try to take my beat-up duffel bag as we walked to the truck. I was tempted to hold my arm up next to his. His skin was the deep red-brown of dried blood after decades spent outside. Tattoos crawled up the back of his neck and covered his arms from shoulders to wrists. His worn yellow tank bore what looked like a naked woman wrestling a many-tentacled creature, but sun and salt had faded it to almost nothing.
“Know anything about boats, Cale?” he asked after half an hour of silence as we rode in his truck. We drove with the windows down. The air tasted like the inside of a grill—salt and hot metal.
“Fish?” The skin around his eyes and mouth were webbed with white in the places where the sunlight didn’t reach when he squinted against the sun and spray.
I shook my head, unsure if he was asking if I fished or if I knew anything about them. Either way, the answer was no. The rest of the ride passed in silence. I’d come to consider myself something of an expert on silences. That’s how Dad and Ma fell apart—their silences started out as a few minutes at the dinner table and stretched into weeks of dead air. Silence could sometimes say more than shouting. Our whole house rang with it.
When we reached Gil’s ramshackle beach house, he showed me the spare room that would be mine. I was surprised to see a frame and a box spring rather than just a mattress huddled on the floor. There were even a few hangers in the closet. I dumped my duffle on the bed but didn’t have time to look around much. Gil told me to put on my swim trunks if I’d brought them. We were going out as soon as we’d had a bite to eat. I didn’t question filling my stomach with the cheeseburger I ordered from the roadside stand before setting sail, licking the rivulets of grease and pickle juice off the backs of my hands.
Gil’s boat was small and more than a little worn. I could barely make out the painted name peeling off the back – Jezebel – and wondered if I’d ever get the courage to ask about it. Gil jerked his head at me and gave terse instructions as we unmoored the boat from the dock and then backed it out of the marina. The water was steely gray, tinged by the muddy backwash from the Mississippi. As we motored farther out it turned a darker blue-gray and the sun turned the wave tops chrome. Gil told me what we’d be catching and how to use the gill nets, one brown hand on the steering wheel and the other tracing arcs in the air to match his descriptions. I thought about the sunscreen I’d forgotten to apply and wondered how many sunburns it took to turn my skin into the same rusty cowhide that encased Gil’s ropy muscles.
When we dumped the first catch of silver-sided fish into the boat, they cascaded around our ankles, fins twitching and big liquid eyes flat and staring. I wondered if they knew in their tiny brains that it was all over. If they felt fear or pain. If they felt torn from the ocean, their essence. When the day was done and we headed back towards shore, my hands were burning from hauling nets and my cheeks were sore from squinting against the sun. Gil hadn’t said more than a few hundred words all day but as the salt spray lashed our faces and the sun bronzed the waves behind us, it felt like the beginning of a hundred conversations.
Written by: Hannah Sears
Photograph by: Blake Bronstad
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