I follow the trail away from the last neighborhood, along a fenced bean field lying stripped of its fruit, past the hummocky track the dirt-bike riders circle on Saturdays, and down to the river. I am so focused on the story in my head that I don’t hear the wind arguing with the willows, so absorbed by the travails of my fish prince that I don’t notice the man following me.
I’m a professional storyteller, hired to liven up birthday parties and classrooms. I love to see the kids’ upturned faces, mouths open, the narrative unreeling in their minds. Walking helps me memorize a story, and I am mentally jabbering away, linking the sections of the story to one another, putting meat on the bones, when I happen to look behind me and see him: nondescript clothes, short bristly hair, a stern walk.
I turn up the path that eventually goes by the school athletic fields. He turns and keeps pace with me. This trail, about three miles in length, has been the setting for many hours of contemplation. There’s a certain magic here in the thrust of grass burgeoning in spring or the cascade of leaves in the fall.
I hear the crunch of his feet, closer now. He speaks.
“Give me your wallet.”
I turn to see the knife pointing at my belly: a heavy, five-inch blade, shiny, well cared for.
“Yeah, sure. Whatever you want.” I pull out my wallet and open it. “I’ve got a few dollars here.”
“Give me the fucking wallet.”
I toss him the wallet. He catches it, flicks it open, and takes out a twenty, a ten, and two ones. He searches in vain for hidden flaps or compartments.
“That’s all there is,” I say. “I don’t wear a watch.”
He looks me up and down.
“I’m a storyteller; I was just practicing a story that I’m going to tell in a kindergarten class next week.”
He doesn’t say anything, just looks as if he’s trying to decide something.
“It’s about the time I went to visit my grandpa in Ireland, when I was eight years old.”
Somewhere in his eyes I see the five-year-old that he once was. I see him in the back of a kindergarten class, pacing, unable to sit down. I see him at home, leaning on the arm of a chair as his daddy blows marijuana smoke into his nostrils. Later he staggers around the room, making the grown-ups laugh.
“I’d never been to see my grandpa before. So, for my eighth birthday, my parents sent me on a plane across the Atlantic. I prided myself on being a fisherman. I’d been fishing in the river near our home from the time I could hold a rod, and I had heard many fishing stories about my grandpa.”
“Fuck you,” the man says. His tone is flat, his gray eyes enamel drops on steel plate. He doesn’t move; I don’t move. Then he turns his head slightly, and I see him at eight, watching his meth-fueled daddy ride away on a motorcycle, screaming into the night, the rain and glare — alive, and to hell with everybody.
“The day after I landed in Ireland, Grandpa took me fishing on his favorite lake. He told me there was a huge fish in there that he had never hooked. He had fished for it many times, but it had always outsmarted him. I tried a couple of steelhead spinners and flies I’d brought from home: nothing worked — until my very last fly. Then wham! it hit. The fish jumped and circled under the boat. It took us half an hour to land it. When we got him into the bottom of the boat, we saw the fish was as big as a chinook salmon, and Grandpa handed me a bucket and said, ‘Keep him wet while I row us back.’ So I kept sloshing water on the fish. We docked the boat and walked up the trail back to the house, Grandpa cradling the fish like a baby. At the house he slipped him into a rain barrel.”
The man stares at me, his head tilted slightly back, pockmarks on the left side of his neck and jaw. His daddy never came back. There was never a straight answer: maybe prison, maybe dead. His strung-out mama went crazy, set the couch on fire with a cigarette, forgot to take him to school. She sat in the school office, jumpy as a cat, answering questions, eager to get out of there. That night, when he knocked over her wineglass, she hit him and hit him and burned him with her glowing cigarette until she started to cry and clung to him tight as a vise.
“Well, that fish was alive in the barrel, looking up at us. Grandpa said he might be the smartest fish in all Ireland. When Grandma asked if we were going to eat him for dinner, Grandpa said he had other plans for that fish. Each day he removed a little more water from the barrel until there was just enough to keep the fish submerged, then just enough to keep him wet. Then one day Grandpa burst through the back door and said the fish had started to breathe air. We had a celebration: a picnic in the backyard, the fish wiggling around in the grass.”
The man starts to turn his head at the sound of a cat yowling up behind the houses. By thirteen he was on the streets for good. Cats. He both loved and hated them. He would pet them and kill them. After he’d nailed six cats to the fence behind the Ready Mart, the judge sent him to the home for boys. He ran away the second week. He felt he would die, cooped up.
“The next day Grandpa announced he was going to teach the fish to walk. He spent all day, every day with the fish, holding him against the front of his legs as he took steps, encouraging and petting him with wet hands. One day Grandpa called for us to come and see. We hurried outside and watched Grandpa coax and cajole, saying, ‘Come to Papa. Come to Papa.’ And that fish walked three or four steps into Grandpa’s arms. We clapped and cheered. It wasn’t long before the fish was walking halfway across the yard.”
The man shifts his weight, and I imagine the swift thrust of the knife. No pain at first. Then the second thrust, glancing off a rib, and blood pouring out. An artery. I would have three or four minutes at most. If I ran for help, my heart would pump faster, and it would be too far anyway. I’d know — from basic training, years ago — that I should put pressure on it, but with what? Everything would be too far. The weakness in my legs, the light beginning to fade.
“One morning Grandpa got me up at the crack of dawn. ‘We’re going to take the fish fishing,’ he crowed. And we did. My grandpa rowed with the fish up in the bow, proud as can be, the wind in his gills. We fished awhile, caught a few small ones and threw them back. We were almost done when Grandpa stood up to reach for something, the boat lurched, and the fish fell in. Grandpa and I looked over the side and watched the fish slowly sink toward the bottom. ‘He’s forgotten how to swim,’ Grandpa said. I peeled off my pants and shirt and jumped in. The water was cold, but I couldn’t think about that; there wasn’t time. I got a good gulp of air and went down, down to where the light started to dim. At the last possible moment I reached the fish and brought him back to the boat, and we headed home. Grandpa usually had a story to tell on the way back, but this time he was real quiet. Finally he said, ‘A fish that can’t swim: that isn’t right.’ ”
The man’s gaze is hazy. He knows what it’s like to be a fish that can’t swim. The last time in the county jail, he became nothing. Not even cold. He was convinced he wouldn’t cast a shadow if he were ever to walk in the sunshine again.
“You’re a crazy son of a bitch,” the man says, as much to the air as to this stupid fucker in front of him.
“Grandpa reversed the process: putting the fish back in the rain barrel and adding water a cup at a time. One day he announced, ‘The fish, he swims!’ and we stared at the swimming fish, as if it were unusual. The last day before I was to fly back home, we took the fish down to the dock and slipped it into the lake, where it leaped and splashed. I remember the fish jumping one last time, as if saying goodbye, before it disappeared. On the way back to the house, Grandpa wondered if it would tell its grandchildren about the time it had walked on land and breathed air.”
The man throws the empty wallet into the weeds and briers and walks away, muttering, “Crazy fucker.”
He melts into the trees.
I retrieve my wallet and follow the trail through a thicket of willows and along the cottonwoods that skirt the hill. The sky seems inordinately blue, the greens and browns luminous. I get back in my car and watch my hands steer me home. I picture the kindergarten class I’ll visit next week: the kids stare up at me, entranced as I unreel the tale. I imagine that he is there, too, the boy who will become the thief — skin smooth, hair shaggy, eyes not yet steel. I want my story to reach him.