I feel close to Dad on the drive home, our legs mud-dry and tired, the tackle box between us, the pillowcase full of fish and ice. She’ll never admit it, but Mom will be impressed, I’m sure. In a million years she’d never guess how we caught so many. I’ll never tell.
Mom’s outside, unfolding card tables and chairs, snapping tablecloths into clouds. She’s wearing her hot-pink corduroy shorts high above her thighs and a gray T-shirt — the day-off clothes she changes into after her Saturday-morning shift stuffing envelopes and folding paper at the dentist’s office. At least she can sit down for that. Most days she cleans for a company that maintains mansions on the water during the off-season. “Dusting is lonely,” she once told me. She has a day and a half off every week. A rubber band holds back her hair, blond and curling at the edges. She is focused, aligning the chairs just right, like the socks she rolls into fists in my drawers. She’s always pretty when she isn’t worrying.
“We got twenty or thirty in here,” I say, gesturing to the pillowcase. Dad places his heavy hand on my shoulder to quiet me.
She looks up at us, ignoring my pride. “You’ll have to take those wet shoes off before you go in the house,” she says. “Ruth and Caffey are coming over.”
Dad lifts his hand off me. “When did we decide this?” he asks.
“When Ruth told me he got the Pelican Bay contract,” she says.
“When was that?”
“Were you gonna say something about it?”
“I’m saying something now. They’ll be here in an hour.”
Dad closes his eyes, his breath slipping out like air from a tire. He doesn’t like Uncle Caffey. Everyone knows this, including Mom, but she doesn’t seem to care. Dad says Caffey couldn’t hang drywall if you stuck a .22 in his ear and a sheet sander in his hands. He opens his eyes and studies Mom with a look that tells me he wants to hurt her feelings.
“Is that what you’re going to wear? You look like a sheet cake.”
Dad walks to the cleaning station: a worktable with a spigot, fiberglass cutting board, and a concrete drain. It sits beneath my bedroom window. He built it six months ago after he was asked to leave the big hotel project up in Bonita. The general contractor called him argumentative, and they exchanged blows. “That’s what they say when you have an opinion on the quality of stone they want to lay down,” Dad had told me, trying to justify the fight. For the next two weeks, whenever we ran into friends, they’d lie, like he was hoping no one would notice the black eye that was still healing. Dad would say it was going “really, really well, really well,” repeating himself. And then Mom would jump in with “He’s so busy I hardly see him,” followed by a quick laugh and a “gotta run,” like she was embarrassed.
“Caught enough for ten,” he says, underselling it. We could feed a football team, I think. The humped outlines of fish heads slowly punch at the fabric of the pillowcase. Most fish would have suffocated by now, but Dad said these catfish can go for hours on moisture alone. “They don’t fight so much as they just hang on,” he told me. He pours them into a large steel bucket, then sharpens his filet knife on a whetstone. Then he asks if Ruth and Caffey plan to bring anything.
“I imagine they’ll bring dessert,” Mom says as she places a sheet pan on the cleaning station. She glances at the pillowcase.
“What?” he asks.
She shakes her head at the pillowcase. “Nothing.”
“You really should have told me you were inviting them,” he says, the knife slow in his thick hand. He clutches a catfish. It’s tired-looking — until he saws off its head, and then it twitches on the cutting board. He rips out the spine and guts and does the same to the next five, never flinching. This is how he works: steady and alone. He’s been a carpenter, a handyman, a roofer, a flooring expert my whole life — I’m twelve. Now that the homes are bigger and the contractors are upselling bathrooms and kitchens, he cuts tile with a wet saw and installs it. There isn’t a lot he can’t do with his hands, he tells us. When he’s on a job, he’s up at dawn and home after I’m in bed. Mom likes it this way, when all we see of him are his boots at the door, caked in clay. She drops charcoal in them to kill the smell of paint primer.
The seventh fish, a large one with white spots along its sides, wrenches quickly from his hand in a muscular jerk and falls back into the bucket. “Go get me a hammer,” he says.
I walk around the side of the house to the garage full of tools, paint, framing wood, caulk — everything he could get his hands on before he almost came to blows again with another subcontractor. He’s putting his energy into the house now. “Our home, not theirs,” he likes to say. He peeled away the linoleum in the bathroom to show us the flooring glue that looked like honey. We cover the exposed concrete with beach towels now. He’s resurfacing the ceiling in my bedroom, too. He wants it smooth before he repaints. There’s a ladder in the corner that will stay there forever. He’s trying to make things better.
I return with the hammer, and Dad kicks over the bucket. The remaining fish roll back and forth on the concrete drain until he stills one with his boot and aims the hammer against the top of its head. I get lost staring at the heads and tails, the translucent fins flexing against the concrete. They smell like hot pavement. I want to open the spigot and let the water wash over them.
After Dad’s finished, he sends me to the kitchen with the sheet pan full of fish, so Mom can boil the skins off and cut them into nuggets for frying. She meets me at the back door, unhappy at the sight of it, and tells me to put the pan on the kitchen counter.
When I return, she is saying something I don’t understand. She does this often; Dad and I call it The Muttering, a quiet complaint about the state of things. I catch the last bit of movement in her face that tells me she has more to say but won’t. I want to know if it’s on purpose, those times when she turns the dial up on her volume just enough for me to hear. I listen for her to say something like Pack your bag, we’re running away to Disney World, even though I know she won’t.
She sets the tables with paper plates and plastic forks, the green paper napkins left over from Christmas, and silk wildflowers in a soda bottle. When she finishes, she tells me to wash my hands, put on some clean clothes.
As I undress in my room, I hear Dad kick the steel bucket again. “Because he’s my brother,” Mom says.
“And you’re my wife.”
“One big, happy family.”
“Whose family, Hannah?”
“This isn’t about you, Ben. It’s about a job.”
“He will lord it over me,” Dad says, “and you will love it.”
Ruth and Caffey arrive carrying a styrofoam cooler between them, telling us the grass around our air conditioner is dead. “Probably a coolant leak,” Caffey says.
Mom holds a large bowl of coleslaw on her hip and smiles at her brother. You can tell they’re related by the way their knees point inward. His hair is blond, too, and tight against his skull. He wears jeans with creases and always tucks in his shirts. Uncle Caffey is a project manager. Instead of banging nails all day in the sun, he handles the laborers and subcontractors for a company that makes houses look more expensive than they actually are: fresh paint, granite countertops, imitation wood floors that snap together like Legos. Dad and Caffey often find themselves working the same houses, but Dad is independent. He wants never to be under anyone other than himself.
Caffey kisses Mom on the cheek. They hug each other for a moment, their arms tight around their backs. They let go and hold their gaze on each other’s faces for a moment like they’re looking in a mirror.
“You’ve lost some weight,” Mom says to Ruth. Ruth wears jeans when she’s thin like this, a dress when she gets heavy. Mom once told me Ruth cares about things like diets and walking because she doesn’t have kids. We were sitting on a bench at the end of the public fishing pier, tossing potato chips into the bottomless gullets of pelicans. Dad had landed a last-second gig in Sarasota when the tile guy got bought off the site by a competing contractor. He slept on a couch in an on-site trailer, leaving us alone for the weekend. It felt like we’d gotten away. Mom told me about the diamondback she and Caffey once found wrapped around the mailbox post; her first stitches from throwing a broken wine bottle off the roof just to hear it break; a boyfriend who raced an electric-blue Chevy Nova at the local racetrack. She talked nonstop, one story after the other, like she’d been waiting her whole life to tell me things. She described how Caffey proposed to Ruth during the intermission at the Cypress Gardens water-ski show right there in the bleachers. It was supposed to be a family trip, but he brought Ruth along. Everyone was in on it but Mom. They were never as close after that.
“Ruth likes to say not having kids was a choice,” Mom said there on the bench. “But I know it’s the one thing I’m better at than her.” Mom doesn’t talk like that anymore, not out loud.
“Troy, say hello,” Mom says.
“Hello, Aunt Ruth,” I say. “Hello, Uncle Caffey.”
“Help your uncle with the cooler, Troy,” Ruth says.
I take her handle and help Caffey walk it to the table. Caffey grabs two beers and tells me the icy-pops I spy are for later. He says hello to Dad, who keeps washing his hands under the spigot as if no one has arrived.
The breaded skin crunches against the roof of my mouth, and I wave my hand in front of my face from the heat. Mom pours me a glass of iced tea. Dad laughs out loud as he and Uncle Caffey stand next to the gas grill Dad hasn’t refilled in months. They’ve gotten over their initial silence with a few beers.
“Food’s ready,” Aunt Ruth says. “You two can eat whenever you like.”
“We know that,” Caffey says.
Ruth shoots Caffey a look that drops his drinking arm to his side. Dad smiles and raises his beer to his lips.
We eat firsts and seconds, and Dad and Caffey eventually mow through three plates each. They’re a little drunk, and Ruth points to the salt and mayonnaise spotting their shirts. “You’re like children, you two,” Ruth says.
Mom and Ruth clear the table while Dad and Caffey move their chairs closer so they can rest their feet on the crumbling lip of the cooler and lean back like disinterested teenagers. I stack the plates and cups, and Dad tells me to come back out when I’m finished helping Mom.
“Pelican Bay starts next week,” Mom says as she dries the plastic spoons Ruth hands her. Mom keeps them in a jar for everyday eating.
“Ten-hour days,” Ruth says. “It’s better when they’re busy.”
“I remember. What did he say?”
“You know your brother better than I do.”
“No, I don’t.” Mom gives Ruth her territory.
“Caffey said yes. But first he’s got to ask.”
“Where should I put these?” I say, standing in the doorway with the dirty paper plates in my hand. Both of them turn around, and Ruth asks how long I’ve been there, and I tell her a minute, maybe.
“He’s our little spy,” Mom says.
“For who?” Ruth asks.
“Good question.” Mom’s voice sounds unsure.
“Well, for a boy he’s good at going unnoticed,” Ruth says. “Not like his father.”
My face is suddenly flushed and hot, and Ruth smiles like she knows something about me that I don’t. I focus on my hands and feel the paper plates soft now with grease. Who is Ruth anyway? Mom would say family, resigned to the forever of it. But not me, not blood. How would she know what part of me was his and what was Mom’s? Ruth is just someone who shows up to keep score, lay blame. I want Mom to say something cold and mean, to bare her teeth a bit, to defend me. But she doesn’t.
Caffey and Dad are loud, and after I’ve made my retreat, as instructed, Mom raises her finger to her mouth at me through the window.
Dad waves me over with his free arm. Empty cans pile up at their feet. He takes a long slug of his beer and drops it with the others. “Crush these so they don’t take up too much room in the trash.”
I stand one of the cans upright and place my foot on its top. Then I put my full weight on the can, which holds until I tap the side with my other foot and it crumbles underneath me.
“Now, that’s a skill,” Dad says. His sarcasm always feels kind of sad.
I crush every can they drink: the fourth, the fifth, the sixth. When I stand on the seventh, Caffey digs into Dad about where he’s working. Dad lifts another can to his lips and lies. “Inverness, the new golf community.”
“Did they forget who you are or something?” Caffey asks.
“They realized they needed a craftsman.”
“I’m sure they do,” Caffey says in a way that tells Dad he’ll play along for now.
“It’s off the books. Cash in hand.”
“What’re you charging them?”
“You looking to poach me?”
“No need. I’ve got the biggest project on the market starting soon.”
“Everybody knows you can get a lot cheaper than me,” Dad says.
“But they’re not as good as you,” Caffey says. “That’s what you want to hear, right? That with these other crews I got to go over every last tile to make sure I get my money’s worth?”
“Your words, not mine,” Dad says. “You know, I love being the last one there finishing a room.” Dad drops his head the way he does when he wants to be taken seriously. “No other bullshit on site. No one over my shoulder. General contractor comes in the next morning — that’s you, Caffey — and he’s surprised he’s ahead of schedule.”
I draw a line from his face to Mom’s. She’s still standing over the sink. She and Ruth take turns blowing cigarette smoke through the window. Mom looks exhausted from the day, from the day before — all the days she has to work harder than Dad and then come home and work hard at not embarrassing him.
“It’s a long-term gig,” Caffey says. “High end, the whole thing. Things go well, it could go on for a couple of years.”
“You can’t cut corners,” Dad says. “Not if you want me.”
Caffey takes a breath and nods. I can feel him resisting the urge. “It’s two full years of work, maybe more, but two definitely. If housing demand spikes next fall, overtime will probably kick in.” Caffey pauses, expecting a reaction, but Dad just finishes his beer and places it upright at my feet. Like he’s been practicing all night, Caffey says, “So, are you going to ask me, Ben?”
“Ask you what?”
“To hire you. That’s why we’re here.”
“Isn’t that your job? Or am I supposed to get on my knees or something?” Dad says, laughing.
I look back to the window over the kitchen sink, at Mom and Ruth waiting for Caffey to respond.
“You know, Ben, you’re not as good as you think you are. And if you were, it still wouldn’t matter because all those things you say you care about — taking your time to do things the right way, paying attention to the details — that’s not how any of us make money. I’m sorry to say.”
Dad’s face goes slack the way it does when Mom breaks her promise not to poke at the hidden, soft part of him.
“Fine,” Caffey says, a little tired of the conversation now. “You win. I’m asking, officially. Come work for me. It’ll be a good thing for you. For Hannah, too.”
I try to distract Dad by lifting a foot off the ground like a waterbird and placing it on top of the can until it folds underneath me. I peel the crushed can from the soil and toss it as hard as I can over the fence, spinning it through the early-evening glare of streetlamps until it disappears into a daydream. The can passes over the next fence and the next, skips across Donna and Gail, the streets the county named after hurricanes, and chips away at the new terracotta roofs of the development going up on the other side of the parkway, where Caffey, no doubt, pays a hundred men a day in cash to hang drywall. I imagine the can finally dropping into an empty pool, dusty with limestone and basalt, waiting for the new saline solution everyone says is safer for kids, and bounces to a stop next to the drain where Dad wears a face mask and earplugs as he slowly works a power sander in gentle half circles. He’s completely focused and making progress here. Professional.
The can leaves a small slick of blood that runs down my palm, and my hand suddenly disappears inside Dad’s like he’s snatched a cricket off a blade of grass. He doesn’t need to do this. It’s a minor cut I can dress myself with a simple band-aid. But he’s making a show of it, raising my arm in the air like he’s saved the day, and for a moment I feel embarrassed for him.
“Jesus, Ben,” Caffey says. “You teach your kid to throw trash in your neighbor’s yard?”
Don’t let go, I think. Just hold my hand. And then I hear the sound a fist makes against a person’s face. It isn’t like TV. It doesn’t whoosh through the air. It sounds like a grapefruit falling off a kitchen counter. Caffey slumps over, a line on the side of his face slowly opening.
“Let’s get out there before it gets too hot,” Dad had said to me this morning when he woke me up and told me we were going fishing. The past few months he’d been leaving the house before sunrise, searching for subcontractors short on men. He would come home when we were eating dinner, his clothes soaked in sweat.
We drove a few miles from Big Cypress Preserve, that part of Florida where people find wild hogs in their pools. Half a moon lit the sky.
A fence caught the first thread of sun as Dad slowed the car to a stop. He told me this was the last strip of undeveloped land between the county and the national parks. The canals faded into the growing haze of saw grass. The rain had come from all directions that October.
We walked a few minutes until he pressed the back of his arm against my chest to stop me. He handed me a jar of crickets from the tackle box, and I shook the jar to stun the bugs, then poured one into my hand and pushed my hook through its back. The cricket’s legs kicked.
Dad knelt, smoking, and periodically put down the rod to slip his hand into the water and slap his face wet. After an hour or so, he rose and shook his head at me. As we walked back, I let the line drag behind me in the water in case I got lucky and snagged a brim. We got back in the car, and Dad said, “There’s an easier way to do this.”
After a short drive we parked in front of a sign that read Kohler Development Presents Inverness. Dad got out and opened the trunk. I followed his lead to the fence to peer through the chain-link at the lots sectioned off by sticks tied with orange ribbon. A small lake with a fountain sat at the center, a house and a larger building on each side.
Dad clipped an opening in the fence with bolt cutters. I ducked through, and he handed me the tackle box.
“What about the rods?”
“We won’t need them,” he said.
The rains had made ponds everywhere, and we sucked through a few feet of mud, then found a path of plywood and pressed on until we reached the fresh sod that ringed the small lake. We circled it until we came to the half-finished house with an open-air patio.
“Did you lay them?” I asked, pointing to the blue-and-white-patterned tile. I traced the crumbling grout between the squares. A few tiles sat dislodged, loose on the floor. Others were cracked.
He nodded. “A few months back, before they started to run out of money. Mediterranean. Some of my best work.”
It was the neglect, I thought. Or the elements. Cheap materials, maybe. This is what happens when you’re not allowed to finish a job, I thought. They screwed him. Or maybe Dad wouldn’t think I would notice. Maybe he was just bluffing everyone all the time.
We walked across more plywood to a building that Dad said was supposed to be the clubhouse before the bank foreclosed on the project. “But they just used it as a showroom. They’ve got tiny models in there with the roofs off, so you can see inside.”
I stopped at the edge of a pool filled with rainwater and pine needles and garbage. Across it, plastic billowed in the spaces reserved for doors. Through the plastic I could see dust covering everything. There were boot prints and stacks of flooring. A burst of wind punched the billowing plastic.
We waded through to the middle of the parking lot, where we found a catfish on its stomach, whipping left and right.
“Is it dying?” I asked.
“No, it’s walking.”
“Fish don’t walk,” I said.
“These do. They’re looking for new water.”
A few more snapped on the wet cement a few feet away. They were slowly moving toward the fence and the open water that lay beyond.
“Won’t they suffocate?”
“They already are. There’s no room left in the lake for them.” He opened the tackle box and pulled out the pillowcase. He told me how the fish hold oxygen in small sacs sort of like lungs, that they work their spines back and forth to crawl. “They started out as exotic pets. Then their owners dumped them in the sewers. That’s how you get an invasive species,” he said.
“Is this still fishing?” I ask.
“It doesn’t matter what you know about bait or casting or water temps. Wish it did. The only thing that matters is what we bring home.” Dad held a small breath in his mouth, as if he’d said too much. “I won’t tell if you won’t tell.”
I nodded and smiled, then quickly scanned the development around us, on the lookout for anyone who might see us. The coast was still clear. The two of us on our own, together. I held the pillowcase open as Dad slipped his hands under the milky belly of the fish and lowered it carefully in. The fish relaxed, its mouth slowly opening and closing.
Caffey presses a kitchen towel against his face, his head tipped back so the blood doesn’t run down his neck onto his shirt any more than it already has. He’ll get a few stitches later that night, but for now Mom keeps telling him to keep pressure on the wound, that it’ll heal on its own just fine.
Ruth is angry, saying they were doing Mom a favor, and this is how she repays them. The seat of her pants is wet and muddy. She tried to tackle Dad but bounced off him like a toddler against a parent’s leg. Uncle Caffey was on the ground, his pupils like saucers, his right arm straight up in the air, stiff, like he was frozen in midpunch. She screamed and screamed until Mom came out and rolled Uncle Caffey over on his side, and he eventually woke up. Then she walked him into the house.
Uncle Caffey tells Ruth it’s not Hannah’s fault that she married a crazy person, and she should pack up and go as soon as she can. For a moment everything is out loud and in the open.
Mom ignores the comment and leaves the kitchen. I follow her down the hall and watch her bear down on Dad, telling him that all he had to do was be nice, quiet, and thank her brother, and he’d be employed right now.
Dad flinches and says, “Don’t make this worse for me, Hannah.”
She raises her hand, ready to slap him. Dad smiles nervously. “I’m not sure that’s possible,” she says.
Ruth calls down the hall to say there is a police car stopped in the street. Mom walks out of the bathroom wiping her hands on her shorts, the hot-pink corduroy now soiled with cooking oil and blood. I hear the pebbles on the driveway crunch under the cruiser’s weight. The lights don’t flash — just a solid red and blue.
Mom stands in the doorway for the deputy, who announces himself with “Evening,” then drops into something just above a whisper. Mom leans in closer, her blond curls sticking to her face. She wraps one ankle around the other and invites the deputy in with her hand. She says, “Fresh fish.” She says, “No trouble.”
Caffey straightens up over the sink and takes a few steps back toward the far end of the kitchen, near the garbage can, so the officer can’t see him. Ruth takes a cigarette from Mom’s purse.
The deputy pulls a pad of paper from his belt. He asks Mom questions. She smiles with every boring answer. He nods and takes notes and looks her up and down.
“Are you hurt?” the officer asks.
“Do you have any bruises? Has anyone touched you in a violent way?”
“No, Officer. I’m in one piece, as always.”
The deputy says the neighbors called about some noise, some screaming.
“False alarm, Officer,” Mom says.
“That blood on your shorts?” he asks.
“We were gutting catfish earlier. I haven’t had the chance to wash up.”
I press my cheek against the wall and feel the hum of the air-conditioning.
“What’s his name?” the deputy asks.
“Whose name?” Mom asks.
“The boy,” the deputy says.
“Oh, he didn’t do anything wrong, Officer.”
“I wasn’t asking that.” The deputy’s body stiffens. “If I have to come back, it’ll help to know the boy’s name,” he says. “That way he’ll be more comfortable with me, and I won’t scare him.”
“His name is Troy,” Mom says.
The deputy makes a note and rips a piece of paper from his pad. Mom doesn’t flinch. She never does. “This is my number,” he says.
She tucks the paper into her pocket and says, “Thank you, but I’m sure we’ll never need it.” She’s wrong. I know it. Years from now, when she wants to stop feeling guilty about him, I’ll say that her filing for divorce while Dad was in county lockup after attacking this cop never bothered me, that it was no big deal. I’ll say I never missed him, and she’ll say she doesn’t like my tone, that even though I say the right things, I sound dismissive and arrogant underneath it. Her ear is good. And I know after pushing me away she will reverse course and pull me close again, telling me from the start she was never really sure about Dad, like the whole thing was a mistake.