The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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This was early in the morning, the day after Thanksgiving. My grandfather wore a tan cotton jacket and an old-man’s hat almost the same color. He sat at the wheel of a 1948 Ford he had bought and painted himself. You could look at the lime-cream color from twenty feet away and see the brush marks. He turned the key, glancing at me with the beginning of a smile and with a squint — against Kool smoke — that looked like a wink. Once the Ford had turned over, he reached for the choke and, while he edged it out, looked at me again, as if to say, “Learn this,” or as if he were showing off — which I knew, even at age twelve, that he was not. He used only his thumb and one finger at the choke, though his hand was wrapped around it full fist. He was imparting something to me, I knew in a vague way, but I didn’t know what it was.
My grandfather was in his fifties, and his face was deeply creased through the cheeks — from genes that would later do the same to my mother’s face at about that age. He was a smallish man in his tan jacket and fedora, but he sat tall in the Ford, and moved big when he was outdoors, where we were headed. I was scrawny and as self-conscious as anyone who had ever lived. I was afraid of offending my grandfather, or not hearing him, or not understanding what he said, or of having nothing to say. I sat on the edge of the seat and leaned forward as he milked the choke, as if maybe I were listening to the engine warm up, learning it as he knew it.
My grandfather had awakened me before sunrise with a hard push at my shoulder. We ate oatmeal he had ready, with brown sugar and milk, then toast. We’d put the rods in the car the night before. He said people had no idea how good the fishing was this far into the fall. “Law, Daniel, don’t take that boy out in the cold,” my grandmother had told him.
We set the oatmeal dishes in the sink. At the stove, which glowed across its back like a spaceship in the dark, he poured his coffee while I waited. Then he poured another cup and gave it to me. “Well, I . . .” was as far as I got. He was already headed outside. I followed him through the dark to the Ford, holding the cup far out in front of me so it would slosh on the ground instead of my shoes. My jacket was a blue navy-surplus deck jacket, the best jacket I’ve ever owned. Next to the Ford was the big, new Oldsmobile that my grandfather drove when he went out with my grandmother, or when he went to work. He was an executive at the foundry down next to the river that came through town after pausing to become the lake where we were going to fish. Inside the house, everyone was asleep: my mother and father, my brother and sister, and my grandmother. None of them had been invited out into the cold morning. They were warm and safe in the big, soft beds my grandparents had, while we backed out of the driveway into the darkness and mist.
We drove a few blocks, and my grandfather stopped the car and got out. I reached for the door but then pulled back, not knowing what to do, sure that whatever I did would be the wrong thing.
“Come hold the flashlight,” he called from behind the car.
Standing beside the trunk, I aimed the light on the rods and tackle boxes. He reached over and redirected my hand to shine the beam into the corner of the trunk. There was a bottle there, and a wrinkled paper bag. He grabbed the bottle and the bag and walked away from the car. I had an idea then — to shine the light just ahead of where he was walking. He hadn’t told me to do this. I’d thought of it myself and was proud. Then I wondered what I had done with my coffee.
“You don’t remember this, do you?” my grandfather said as we walked.
“No,” I said. The place? The dark? The bottle?
“Last time we fished when the bait store wasn’t open, you were maybe five or six,” he said.
I tried to remember something from when I was five or six. I remembered a big fish, but I wasn’t sure how old I was when we’d caught it.
“Shine it down,” he said. He reached into the bag, and then I remembered something: a smell. In the bag was a rubber syringe. I remembered having it in my hand. He uncapped the bottle, and the smell was there, stronger than his cigarettes: mustard. It began to come back to me. You stuck the syringe into the bottle and filled it up with the mustard water.
“These right here look good,” he said, shining the light near my feet, at a cluster of five or six holes as big around as a pencil. Around each hole was a collection of six or eight tiny black balls of dirt the size of BBs. I knew what to do next. I squatted, pushed the end of the syringe into one of the holes, and shot some of the mustard water inside.
“Not quite so much in each one,” he said.
I stopped squeezing and moved on to the next hole. I emptied the syringe on the fourth one and waited for something to be said. My grandfather pushed at my shoulder the same way he had awakened me, and when I looked up, the bottle was next to my face. I filled the syringe again and looked back down. A long, dark worm was coming out of the first hole. The worm squirmed hard and came out fast. My grandfather laughed and grunted at the same time. He reached down and, with the same grip he’d used on the choke — strong yet gentle at the same time — pulled the worm out. He put it into his empty coffee cup and then scraped up some soil with his hand and put it in with the worm. More worms were coming out of the holes I’d squirted. I could hear what my grandmother would say if she saw the worms and the dirt in her coffee cup. She’d say my grandfather’s name, high and loud, with an edge that almost sounded like real anger. I smiled when I thought of that.
In the car, he set the cup of worms at my feet, next to where I’d left my coffee. “You know which one to drink out of and which one to fish with?” he said after he got into the driver’s seat. I pinched the worm cup between my feet and took a sip of the coffee, feeling good that we had caught our worms and that I had understood my grandfather’s joke about the cups. The coffee tasted terrible. The closest taste I knew to it was a pencil when you chewed it just below the eraser.
It was still dark when we got to the boat. I wondered what time it was. There were more rituals at the boat than there had been with the worms, but I had been in the boat that summer, and so I remembered most of them and could sometimes even anticipate what I needed to do. The boat was a twelve-footer that my grandfather had built from a kit, with a tiny motor at the back. He said nothing as we worked, as if saving his words, or getting ready for the silence he demanded when we fished. Only once — when his cigarette fell out of his mouth and into the wet bottom of the boat and hissed — did I hear the short, soft, deep-in-the-throat noise that conveyed his dismay. He made the same noise at the dinner table when someone chewed with his mouth open.
By the time it was light enough that you could see all the way across the lake, we had caught five bream, two perch, and one catfish. My grandfather caught all of them except two of the bream. He squinted up at the sky as if it were much brighter than it was, and then started the engine. I assumed we were headed to a new cove to fish some more, but after I had sat in the cold and listened to the drone of the little engine for what seemed like half an hour, he aimed the boat straight in toward the shore. As usual with him, I was uneasy and excited at the same time. Maybe he would steer the boat quickly from side to side to see if I would laugh, or take us in to build a fire and cook the fish. He cut the engine and let the boat push its way onto the shore.
“When we go back to fishing later, you can run the engine,” he said.
We got out, and he carried the fish in a metal bucket — where they occasionally made furious splashing noises — up a long hill, along a narrow path that seemed to go on forever. Sticker bushes and low trees grew everywhere. We climbed, breathing hard, until, all at once, there was a flat spot of bare, red-clay earth.
“Look here,” my grandfather said. Off to one side were big piles of cinder blocks. Some of the blocks had been cemented into a low rectangle — the start of a building, I decided. “This is the place . . . ,” he began, but he stopped when a truck drove up along a dirt road I hadn’t imagined was there. “He’s almost on time,” my grandfather said.
The man who got out of the truck looked older than my grandfather and was much heavier. His stomach stretched the front of his white T-shirt down over his belt.
“Mookie,” my grandfather said.
“Danny,” the man said.
I had never heard anyone call my grandfather Danny. He was Mr. Coggins when we went into town, Daniel to my grandmother, Daddy to my mother, and Dandad to my brother and sister. I never called him anything.
“And a little Danny, too,” Mookie said.
“Alex,” my grandfather said. “This is Alex, and he’s here to work his hind end off today.” He pushed at my shoulder again.
Work at what?
Mookie looked up at the sky. “Good-lookin’ day.” He reached into his back pocket, pulled out a small metal container slightly shinier than the bucket, and took a short sip from it. He offered a drink to my grandfather, who shook his head and rolled his eyes.
“Let’s go,” Mookie said.
While the sun came up above the trees and the sky clouded over, the three of us worked at the foundation. I carried the cinder blocks one at a time to my grandfather and Mookie, who used trowels to coat one edge of each block with cement that my grandfather mixed in an old wheelbarrow with no wheel and only one handle. When he stopped to mix more cement, Mookie did the troweling by himself. Mookie was the first to have to pee, and all he did was turn and barely miss the pile of blocks where I was working. “Not quite cold enough for steam,” he said as his stream made a strong noise against the soil, “but I’ll take either one of you on for distance.” Later, he reached into his mouth, pulled out one of his teeth, and let a long white string of saliva come out behind it. He spit more often than anyone I’d ever seen. He also drank from the little silver container every once in a while and made loud noises in his throat that I thought might irritate my grandfather, but if they did, he didn’t say anything to Mookie about it.
My grandfather didn’t talk to either one of us much except to tell us to keep working. But once during the morning, when Mookie was back at his truck, my grandfather walked over to me and spoke in a low voice: “Mookie lost his brother in an accident when they were nineteen,” he said. “His twin brother, it was. They’d both been friends of mine since we were all five years old. The brother was a good ballplayer and was in his first year of professional baseball. They were trying to hop a freight train to a ballgame. Mookie’s brother had already got on, and he reached down to pull Mookie up. But the train was going too fast, and Mookie’s brother got pulled out instead. Broke his neck.”
My grandfather told the story fast, as if to get it out of the way. I had no idea what to say. I knew in some way that my grandfather was trying to teach me something, but this lesson seemed too hard to understand.
“He’s worked for me off and on ever since,” my grandfather said, looking up toward the truck to see where Mookie was. “You know the fireplace out back of the house?”
In my grandfather’s backyard was a rock fireplace that looked like a little castle. It backed up against a hill. He burned brush in it.
“Mookie built that maybe twenty-five years ago,” he said.
I remembered the only time I knew of when my grandfather seemed angry at my father: we were in the backyard, and there was corn wrapped in aluminum foil roasting in that fireplace. “This fireplace is really a bit out of kilter, isn’t it, Dan?” my father said, tilting his head to one side, as if judging it. My grandfather made the beginning of a throat noise and walked right past my father, toward the house, saying nothing.
As Mookie and my grandfather and I worked through the morning, the clouds became thicker and thicker, and the wind got stronger, and it turned colder. My grandfather asked Mookie if he had brought the lunch, and Mookie said it wasn’t his turn to bring the lunch.
“Mook, Mook, Mook,” my grandfather said. “I told you I was coming in the boat today, remember?”
Mookie looked down toward the lake. “Fuck,” he said. It was the first time I’d heard an adult say that word. Strong and sharp, it sounded, into the cold air. Mookie looked back at his truck. “Let me check,” he said, but I could tell he knew better.
My grandfather looked at me. “You want to cook the fish?” he said. “If we do, it means we have to be sure to catch more later, to have some to take home. We can’t go back empty-handed.”
“Sure,” I said, and he sent me to look for small twigs to start a fire.
Mookie came back from the truck with a big jar half full of what I assumed to be water. He smiled broadly and, as I put down a load of twigs, asked me if I wanted some. He held the big jar up to my lips. I jumped back when I tasted it, spilling some. He and my grandfather laughed.
“Moonshine,” Mookie said with a big smile. “Mookie’s own magic ’shine.”
“It’ll eat your insides out, Alex,” my grandfather said.
My grandfather tried to light the fire, but his lighter kept blowing out because of the wind. Finally, he got the leaves to catch, and then the twigs. He took out his knife to clean the fish, but a gust came and blew the fire out. He threw his lighter to me and told me to put a few of the cinder blocks next to the fire spot and try again. Then he told me to put the blocks on the other side, the side the wind was coming from. It was cold. I picked up the lighter — I had almost caught it — and there was a clap of thunder that made me jump higher than the moonshine had. I tried to figure out how I’d missed the lighter; too many things had happened in a row for me to keep up with very well. I licked my finger and put it up to be sure about the wind. My grandfather and Mookie laughed.
It took maybe half an hour to get the fire to where it had enough heat and coals to cook anything. My grandfather had cut several twigs from trees — twigs with forks at the end. He laid a piece of fish over one fork and handed it to me. I was unsure what to do with it.
“Roast it,” Mookie said immediately. “Like a damn hot dog, only don’t turn it and let it fall off.”
I held the stick out toward the coals, worried about it catching fire. Soon Mookie and my grandfather were doing the same thing. I watched as each of them grabbed his fish and turned it over without burning himself.
“Indians,” my grandfather said as he lifted a big chunk of perch off his stick to eat it. “We could be Indians out here in the wild. You know it, boys?”
“They was all through here,” Mookie said. “Toteros and Cherokees and all.” He swept his hand widely in front of him.
“How do you know that, Mook?” my grandfather said.
Mookie pointed at his head. “There’s still a little left up here,” he said, and smiled. He took a bite of his fish.
We ate all the fish. My grandfather and I didn’t drink anything, and Mookie took two or three sips from the big jar. There was a short time when we all sat on cinder blocks, and the fire was still going, and nobody was saying anything. In the middle of this, snow began to come out of the wind. There were a few flakes, and then, before any of us could say anything about it, the snow was heavy all around us. Mookie let out a squeal and took a long sip from his jar. My grandfather stood up and walked over to the foundation. Three of the walls were now about as tall as I was, and the other was as tall as the men. The flakes left little dark spots on the cinder blocks. The snow was thick enough then that you could just barely see the lake in the distance. I wondered if it would snow a foot and we would have a hard time driving home. But as soon as I thought that, the snow slowed and stopped.
My grandfather went over to Mookie and put his arm around his shoulder. “You think we’ve done enough for today, Mook?” he said.
“We could be under a foot of snow here directly,” Mookie said, and laughed.
My grandfather smiled and patted Mookie’s back. “I expect you’re right, Mook,” he said. He looked up at the sky. There were little patches of sunlight now, but still a flurry here and there. Mookie stood there in his T-shirt, holding the big jar in one hand. I could see just a little left across the bottom as the jar tilted. He looked like a small boy to me. My grandfather reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. He counted bills and handed them to Mookie. Mookie took them, put them in his pants pocket, and then looked at my grandfather as if he might cry. “Nobody else like you in the damn world, Danny,” he said.
“You keep that truck out of the ditch,” my grandfather said. “Remember, I’m in the boat, so there’s no one coming behind you to pull you out.”
Mookie gave my grandfather a military salute. “You boys go back and fish the lake,” he said, laughing, “in snow and thunder at the same time.” He walked to his truck and drove away.
Back at the boat, I wanted to ask my grandfather what time it was. I thought about it a long time, not wanting him to think I was anxious to go home, and then asked him.
“Just after three,” he said. “You’re not running down, are you?”
“No,” I said. “Not at all.”
“Because if you are . . . ,” he said. “If you are, well, too bad. We’ve got to replace the fish we ate up.” He laughed easily.
It was cold on the lake. The water rippled in the wind, and my grandfather had apparently forgotten that I was to run the motor. Twice, as he aimed us through the cold, a gust rocked the boat slightly. I looked back at my grandfather each time, but he kept looking straight ahead, as if nothing had happened. We returned to the cove where we’d caught most of the fish and drifted back under the trees that reached out from the steep bank. There were still brown leaves on some of them. The cove was sheltered from the wind, and the trees and clouds brought an early edge of darkness that made it feel later than it was. My grandfather caught a big catfish almost as soon as we dropped the anchor. The catfish swallowed the hook, as they nearly always do, and I watched my grandfather get out his knife and work to free it: pulling at the line with his thumb and forefinger, cutting deep into the fish’s throat, holding the fish tight around its midsection. Just as he finished, I caught a big perch. Then each of us caught a bream. My grandfather laughed. “Two fishin’ fools out here in the cold,” he said.
Up at his end of the boat, he reached into his big tackle box and pulled out two cans of Falstaff beer. He threw one to me, and I caught it. He used his knife to punch two holes in the top of his can, closed the blade, and then threw me the knife. I caught the knife, too, but couldn’t punch a hole in the can. He stood up, and I handed him my can to open. He felt big, standing there next to me. The boat was still and the bobbers were still as he handed me back the can with two holes in it.
The beer was worse than the coffee, but not as bad as the moonshine. There was a sensation in my mouth that felt like it might be Dr. Pepper, but then the taste turned bad. On Saturdays in the summer, we sometimes watched the baseball game on television, and between innings Dizzy Dean and Peewee Reese said that Falstaff was good beer. It was worse than medicine to me, and I drank it more slowly than the coffee.
“They don’t know about the cabin we’re building back at home,” my grandfather said, taking a sip of his beer. “They know we went fishing today, and when we take home what we caught just now, I guess they’ll think we had a pretty bad day.” He laughed.
I looked at him through the twilight. I had just caught a good-sized fish. I had a can of beer in my hand. I wasn’t shivering anymore. “Why don’t they know?” I said.
“About the cabin?” he said. “They will, but there’s no hurry. Sometimes your grandmother worries too much about things. About money and your family and about Mookie, when she hears about him. Better to get some things done without telling her all about it. Some things are better done slowly. Lots of things with women.” He paused then, and winked. “Or fishing. You know, you have to be patient and coax things along at just the right speed. You get a bite and jerk too hard, and you won’t get the fish, right?”
I nodded and sipped the beer. It tasted slightly less bad.
“When you come to visit next summer when school’s out,” he said, “the cabin should be finished, and we can come up to the lake — all of us — and sleep in it. Fish and swim and play down by the water.”
I thought of the long walk up to the cabin site from the lake. We’d need to cut a better trail through there. I knew my grandfather would do that. Maybe he and Mookie would do it. Maybe I would help.
“So nobody knows?” I said to my grandfather.
He pulled the rope to start the motor just as I said that. The motor struggled to start. I realized he’d brought in his fishing line, and I reeled mine in quickly.
“What?” he shouted over the motor.
“Nobody else knows?” I shouted back.
The engine sputtered then, and he turned to it, grabbing at the throttle quickly and revving it higher to keep it from stalling. His hand was wrapped around the throttle the same way he’d held the choke on the Ford that morning. He was easing the speed of the motor gently down as its running smoothed out. I could tell he was listening to the engine, and I was not to talk again just yet. Once the engine was calm under his cupped hand, he spoke again.
“You and me and Mookie,” he said. “We’re the only ones who know, and Mookie never tells anyone anything.” He took the last sip of his beer, put the can in his tackle box, and lit a new cigarette. He glanced around at the boat, as if to make sure we were ready to go, and then looked at me hard. “You and me and Mookie,” he said again, over the quieter engine noise.
“You and me and Mookie,” I repeated back to him. I tried to look at him the same way he looked at me — straight and hard — as if to tell him I understood. I took another sip of the beer and looked around the boat, to help him check. My grandfather stood up then and motioned for me to come back and run the motor. As we changed ends, the boat listed slightly to his side, and we reached instinctively for each other. He grabbed me by the shoulders, I held the thick muscle in his biceps, and I smelled smoke and fish and cold and cement on him. As we let go and moved to opposite ends of the little boat, I could feel something high in my chest, something I was too young and too cold to recognize as love.