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Monday, October 23, 2017

The Muskie

The Muskie

May 24, 2013 in Fiction
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It’s a picture in one of 13 shoeboxes of pictures. 1973. Two middle-aged men stand leaning forward against the top rail of a fence. One of them–my father–towers over the other one, whose skin is taut against his face and neck. Between them six fish, four northern pike and two walleye from two to three feet long, hang from the railing. A white sign also hangs from the railing that says Brown Bear Lake Resort, although the fish obscure some of the letters. The short one–Eddie Nagler–is holding onto a 49-inch muskie hanging from a chain, its tail dragging against the dirt. The walleye and northern pike are nice adornments, but that muskie is why this picture was taken. It’s the “fish of 10,000 casts,” rarely found in the clear water lakes of the upper Midwest and Canada. That picture is the only one I have of Eddie. At the time, he said he was going to have the fish mounted. I never saw him again. I have many more photos of my father who would die two years later of a heart attack. Both men hold lit cigars, stare at the lens and don’t smile. It’s the Humphrey Bogart look they’re after.

I took this picture and it’s properly exposed and in sharp focus, a testament to the camera I used, a 1948 Leica that my father traded for one carton of Marlboroughs in Munich in 1949. It was probably stolen merchandise, but then again so were the cigarettes. He used the camera to take a few pictures on the boat to America. He took a couple more when my sister was born. That was it. The camera lay in a top bedroom dresser drawer, the same one that had his condoms, for another 20 years. When I showed an interest in photography, he gave it to me. I started to take a lot of photos. I have never stopped.

My father, a Jewish refugee, dealt in the black market after the war while he waited for sponsorship to America. He had been a smuggler and ganovnik–a professional thief. Occasionally, to make up for all of this, he would smuggle arms from Eastern Europe to a port outside of Rome to be shipped to Israel for the Haganah. He said he didn’t make a dime on those deals. I took him at his word.

I took fishing trips with my father every summer. Sometimes we went with my mother and my older sister and stayed at a resort with pretensions. But usually, it was just my father and me and we rented tacky cabins next to lakes. We almost always went fishing in northern Wisconsin or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I had never gone fishing with him in Ontario, but I had heard that the fishing was better up there. When people we knew came back from Canada, they usually brought back a stockpile of walleye and northern pike. It was as if the fish had jumped into their boats.

The picture of my father and Eddie Nagler was taken in Canada. I was 16 when I started to use the Leica. I took a lot of pictures of friends. It helped pass the time to document our collective teenage boredom. We were all musicians of some kind. We smoked pot and intermittently attended high school. Most of us had the presence of mind to show up for tests and pass classes. It wasn’t much of a school.

In my junior year, I got a note to see the principal. He sat me down and looked at me sternly. “Phillip. You have 636 demerits for lack of attendance. Did you know that nine demerits are just cause for suspension?”

The number surprised me. Over the course of two and a half years I had missed slightly more classes than there were commandments in the Bible. I could have done a little riff on the religious significance of the number 636, the kind of thing that we would do almost as an involuntary reflex in Jewish day school before I was kicked out. But I knew my erudition would not be welcome. “Nobody told me,” I said.

“Somehow you have an A average. What am I supposed to do with you?”

“You could let me graduate early.  I’ll have the credits I’ll need by the end of the year.” This wasn’t an idea out of the blue. High school was tedious and mind numbing. I had applied to graduate early and was denied because I “lacked direction and focus.”

“You’d be out of my hair then,” he said, which was funny because he was bald. “What will you do next? Go to college?”

“I don’t think so. I’ve saved up some money. I want to go see my relatives in Israel. I’d work on my uncle’s farm.”

“I grew up on a farm, you know. It would be good for you.” And so it was settled. Except I had no intention of going to Israel. It just seemed like a good thing to say.

I wanted adventure. Israel wasn’t adventure. I’d been there many times. Israel was a balancing act of visiting relatives, most of whom didn’t talk to each other, but liked to squeeze me for information about their enemies. Israel was picking grapefruit on my uncle’s farm from eight in the morning until six in the evening and then sitting exhausted in front of the TV until bedtime. Israel was being told by my mother not to even look at a certain girl in the town of Ramat Gan because my Israeli relatives had already decided that she should be my wife.

In truth, I hadn’t saved up much money and couldn’t even afford the airfare to anywhere overseas. But I had an idea one day when I saw a map of Canada in school. Against a vast pale yellow background flanked by the blue of oceans, a red thread ran across the country. I asked my teacher about the highway. “That’s the TransCanadian, the Queen’s Highway.”

It seemed like a romantic idea. I’d hitchhike the TransCanadian from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. The scuttlebutt from Vietnam draft dodgers originally from my neighborhood–there were a lot of them–was that throughout Canada there were little dry goods stores run by Jewish families and if you were pleasant enough to them and threw in a Yiddish phrase or two, they’d house you and pay you for odd job work for a week or so. I had 300 dollars to my name, two pairs of jeans, a fresh pair of Adidas, a half dozen t-shirts, and a thumb. The TransCanadian sounded like a great place to be.

I told my voice teacher at the Conservatory about my plans. At the time, I sang everywhere in town, synagogues, a blues band, and the Milwaukee Symphony Choir in the fall through winter. In the summer, I’d get bit parts in a summer stock theater that used to bring in nearly forgotten, B-grade movie stars like Van Johnson for lead roles. I was small for my age with long curly hair. I had vague aspirations of being an opera singer. I’d won a few statewide singing competitions.

My voice teacher was 27 years old, a few years older than my sister. She was recently married to the conductor of the symphony. She was beautiful in the way a 16-year-old and probably a symphony conductor thinks of beauty, which meant she had long hair and fairly large breasts. She liked my voice. One day while working on an aria from a Benjamin Britten opera, she was so impressed that she kissed me full on the mouth. Since then we’d been doing a lot of kissing. I liked my voice teacher.

“Your parents are going to let you do this?” She looked surprised. She asked me to repeat just what I planned to do.

“I don’t think they can object.” I told her about my parents. At 15, my mother was wandering in Poland by herself trying to avoid being raped by soldiers or murdered by Poles while searching for her father after the war. She succeeded. At 14, my father had been kicked out of his parents’ house for lack of religious observance and was living on his own in Warsaw. “Hitchhiking across Canada seems like child’s play in comparison,” I said.

“Well, come back safely,” she said.

My parents didn’t say no. But my father was feeling very sad about my graduating and leaving home. My sister was living in Boston. The prospect of being an empty nester seemed to hit him harder than my mother. He wanted a proper send-off. For him, this meant that he and I would take a trip together. I had my plan. He had a plan of his own. We’d drive up to Canada and fish for a week. We’d go to the land where fish seemed to jump into boats. Then he’d drop me off on the highway and I’d be on my way.

*******************

My father didn’t plan these trips. We’d head up to a vague destination and drive until he found something that he thought looked good. We ended up at a place about 40 miles north of the TransCanadian called Brown Bear Lake Resort. It wasn’t very different from the places my father and I went in Wisconsin. In the parlance of the world of real estate it was rustic, which meant cracked windowpanes in the cabins, a bathroom floor of worn linoleum curled on the edges, and dirt in the corners that was probably old enough to be carbon dated. The cabins had wood burning stoves for cold nights, but no cooking facilities. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served in the main lodge. The lodge contained a restaurant and a small bar that was also the business office. Over the bar, a northern pike about 45 inches long was mounted, its jaw wide open. Presumably, the fish had been caught in Brown Bear Lake.

It was the beginning of June, but it was still a little early for the summer fishing season. The winter and spring had been incredibly cold. Oak trees were barely leafing out, and it was still below freezing at night. We asked for wood for the stove and were told they were out. I brought my sleeping bag out of the car. I decided that I’d treat this like a camping trip. My father lived through Hitler’s siege of Leningrad, keeping warm by huddling in a bee-like swarm with his fellow soldiers; 30 minutes in the middle of the swarm and you were kicked to the outside so someone else could nod off without freezing to death. A 20-degree night was nothing to him.

My father woke me at dawn. We walked out and I saw that there was a thin film of ice on the edge of the lake that went out anywhere from three to 10 feet. My father carried his motor to the dock while I carried the poles and tackle. It was well before the scheduled breakfast, so we loaded up the boat designated for our stay, and went out for some pre-breakfast fishing.

When the water is cold, game fish like walleye, northern pike and muskie will tend to stay in shallow, grassy-bottomed waters, usually less than 20 feet deep. The lake was probably three to four miles across, and my father motored around trying to get a feel for the place. He had a huge nose, even bigger than mine, and his nostrils would expand visibly to breathe in the air. He was convinced he could smell where the fish were. I didn’t doubt him. He was an excellent fisherman.

It was an odd hobby for my father, an urbanite, someone who read a lot, and, while not religious enough for his own father, wore tzitzit and prayed every day. But about a dozen years previous, an Italian neighbor who shared my father’s insomnia had taken him to a pier on Lake Michigan on a summer night. My father came back the next morning with a 10-pound salmon and a rare boyish grin. He was an instant avid fisherman.

I wasn’t all that interested in fishing. But when my father–who normally ran at high speed, impatient and irritable–fished, he was different. Calm. At peace. Patiently waiting for the next bite on his hook. I loved seeing my father like this. If it meant I had to spend time in a weather-worn, only somewhat water-worthy, wooden rowboat being blasted by sun or rain or the occasional bit of snow to witness this transformation, it was worth it.

We were about one-eighth of a mile offshore when my father started to troll. The water was about 15 feet deep and we set up some fishing poles with minnows. Then we took our best casting rods and attached our lures, tear shaped, chrome plated with feather fragments and triple hooks.

Both the size of our lures and the minnows indicated we were fishing for big fish. But when you do that, it can be a long wait between bites. After an hour I got bored and switched to a lighter line and small lure for crappie, a relatively small but good eating fish that tends to bite in the spring and late fall. I was having great luck and caught more than enough for breakfast. After another half-hour, a northern pike hit on my father’s lure and he reeled it in. One three-foot fish in less than two hours and we didn’t know a thing about the best spots on the lake. I knew we’d have a good week.

We motored in for breakfast, and gave the lodge owner our fish. For a fee, he’d clean and cook them (or freeze them if we wanted to take them home). We sat in the restaurant warming our hands with cups of coffee waiting for our breakfast.

A group of men about the same age as my father walked into the restaurant. They sat down at a table next to ours and started talking about some sexual exploits from the night before. My father and I were used to this type of fisherman. For them, fishing was a euphemism for whoring. In Wisconsin, they tended to hang around the town of Hurley where there was an ample supply of Chicago-based whores who came up for the fishing season.

For my father, fishing was a near-religion. He would talk about the psychology of fish with a level of detail that few even thought about their loved ones. “You know, it’s nice to be eating crappie for breakfast,” my father said. “They taste better than pike. But you need to be more patient.”

One of the men at the other table, slight of build with longish gray hair fringing his bald dome, turned his head and listened to my father talk. My father had an incredibly heavy Yiddish accent–he had come to this country late, at the age of 32–and for some reason chose to speak in English on these trips. He was probably just trying to blend in, but that was impossible. Sometimes drunk anti-Semites would harass us. In response, my father would judge the harasser. If he were suitably drunk and not too big–which was usually the case–my father would walk over nonchalantly and cold-cock him. “I didn’t survive Hitler to hear that kind of shit,” he would say.

The bald man walked up to our table with a phony grin on his face. “My name is Eddie,” he said. “So Moishe,” Eddie said. “Vos macht dir?” Moishe was not my father’s name. It was Lazer. But Eddie was using the name Moishe generically, the equivalent of saying, “Yo, Jewman.”

My father looked at him and cleaned his teeth with a toothpick. Even sitting down, my father was nearly eye level to Eddie. “Do you know me?”

Ich ken dir.” Eddie said. “You’re from the old country. You’re a greenhorn just like my father. Where are you from?”

“Milwaukee.”

“Milwaukee is where you live. Not where you’re from. I have a niece there. Maybe your know her,” and he mentioned her name. I looked at my father and he looked at me.

“She lives in the neighborhood,” I said.

“This is your boy? A good-looking boy. You know my niece’s kids?” I nodded. “Pretty girls. Don’t you get any ideas about those girls. Or I’ll come after you.” He laughed to himself.

“I’m with my clients,” he said, nodding to the men at the other table. “Look, boys.” he said to them. “You think I’m the only Jew who goes fishing? We got a real one here. Him and his boy.” He wrapped his arm around my father and then sat down at our table.

“We’ve been here five days and haven’t caught a thing. Looks like you two just got here and already are having some luck.” Eddie looked at the fish on our platter. “That looks like some good eating.”

“You want some? Go ahead,” my father said. “We have more than enough.”

Eddie put some crappie on a plate. He was a fastidious eater, carefully removing the bones from his fish. “I should go fishing with you boys today. These guys are getting on my nerves. Five days already. They drink. They whore. All on my tab.”

“We’re not going fishing anymore today,” my father said. “Going to go into town for a bit.”

“Gonna catch a different kind of fish, huh?” Eddie was smiling. “There’s good fishing in town.”

“No. The boy isn’t feeling well. I thought we’d go see a movie or something.”

“Uh huh,” Eddie said. “Too bad. We’re leaving tomorrow. This is great fish by the way.” He looked up as the waiter walked by. “Put this on my tab,” he said. Then he looked at my father. “It’s the least I could do. Best meal I’ve had all week. Best company, too.”

My father and I went back to our cabin. “What’s wrong with that guy?” I asked.

“A ganovnik like that. He’s either lonely for a little company or wants something from us. Could be both.”

“I wonder if he knows just how slimy he comes across.”

“A man like that isn’t even worth thinking about.”

“We’re not going to fish because of him? We’re going to the movies?”

“No. We’ll just wait until he drives off with his group to find some whores.”

That didn’t turn out to be an option. Eddie’s group did drive off. But Eddie stayed behind, hanging around the dock drinking beer. My father and I stayed in our cabin reading for a few hours. Every half hour I’d step outside and see Eddie still there.

“He knows we’re not going into town,” I said. “I bet he’s there just waiting for us.”

My father threw his book across the room. “I’m not going to let that bastard keep me from fishing.”

***********************

“The boy feels better,” my father said to Eddie at the dock.

“Yeah, I can tell he’s all recovered,” Eddie said. He smiled. He was piss drunk. He started to stand up on his own, but he was so wobbly that I thought he was going to fall into the water. I grabbed him by the arm and lifted him up the rest of the way.

“Want to go fishing with us?” my father asked.

“Sounds like a good idea to me.” Eddie had his rods next to him. We helped him into the boat and we were off.

Eddie talked a mile a minute. He was a lobbyist for the mining industry. He seemed to know everyone and anyone in the clubby world of Minnesota politics and in his drunken state had a lot of nasty things to say about someone my father admired, Hubert Humphrey. He would ask us questions about fishing, and not listen to the answers. It was a general rule of thumb that my father and I talked little when we were on a boat. Fish, according to my father, liked quiet. Voices scared them. Whether that was true or not, I didn’t know. I only knew that the fish weren’t biting and Eddie was irritating.

“Would you please stop talking so much. I’m trying to fish,” I said.

“The boy’s right. We can talk off the boat.”

“I was just making conversation,” said Eddie. He was sobering up. He looked terrifically bored. In a small boat with more than one person, fishing requires an efficiency of motion. Eddie didn’t know about this. And his lines kept getting tangled with ours. It was turning out to be a dreadful day. Then Eddie started to talk again, mindless banter.

“Please Eddie. Be quiet. The fish don’t like it,” my father said.

Eddie was incredulous. He mimicked my father’s “please, the fish don’t like it” with an accent even thicker than my father’s and then laughed out loud, proud of his humor. My father dropped his rod. Eddie blurted out, “Hit me and I’ll sue!”

“Don’t mock me. You think because you were born in this country you’re better than me? I know your kind. Smart American-born gonif. Shake your hand and I have to count my fingers after.”

“Don’t insult me.”

“Filth. Faggot filth,” my father said in Yiddish. I watched Eddie’s face flush and then watched as his hands lunged across to my father’s throat.

“Apologize.  Apologize.” Eddie said. His pale fingers contrasted with the olive skin of my father’s neck. The boat was shaking back and forth.

My father lifted up his arms over his head and brought his fists down full force on Eddie’s forearms. Eddie screamed out. I thought I heard something crack. Oddly, Eddie bent over like he’d been hit in the stomach as he cried, tears streaming down his cheeks. As he sobbed, we looked at him in silence for a few minutes.

It’s true that my father had been provoked, but it was in his nature to settle arguments with fists not words. He was 56 years old. He was still fit. I wondered how long he could go on like this. Even an angered Eddie didn’t have the strength to hurt my father, who could have easily and simply pried those fingers off his neck. People are supposed to mellow with age. They are supposed to gain the kind of wisdom that yields perspective and better judgment. In some ways my father was ageless.

“I’m sorry,” my father said. “I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” My father put his hand on Eddie’s shoulder. “I really didn’t. I apologize.”

Eddie looked up at him. “Jesus. You’re one strong motherfucker.”

“You OK?”

“Hurts like hell. Damn. What the hell do you do for a living?”

“Mason.”

“Shit. Just my luck I pick a fight with a six foot tall Jew bricklayer.”

It looked like our fishing day was done. I thought so. Eddie thought so, too. But my father picked up one of his rods and began to fish. For lack of anything to do I began to fish as well, casting my artificial lure into the reeds. Eddie sat in the boat quietly rubbing his forearms, which were starting to bruise. We had some ice in the boat and I made a couple of compresses for him with plastic bags. The fishing began to pick up for both my father and me. We were finding a good rhythm. We were in a great spot. The sun was just above the tops of the tallest trees. The water was quiet. Eddie turned out to be good with a net as we reeled the fish in, one after another. Walleye. Northern pike. And then it happened. The “fish of ten thousand casts” took my lure.

I’ve caught three muskies over my entire life. Each time I knew just by how the rod instantly pulled downward that this was no ordinary fish. I set the hook and then let out some line. My father stopped fishing. “Muskie,”  he said. The muskie jumped out of the water a few seconds later, its body shimmering in the sun.

“Shit. That’s a big fish,” Eddie said. It takes some skill to land a muskie. When you have a 30-pound fish on a 20-pound test line, the math doesn’t quite add up. I alternately tightened and let out the line trying to tire out the fish. My father grabbed the net.“Let me do it,” Eddie said, grabbing the net by the rim. I was afraid I was going to lose the muskie at the boat because my father and Eddie would start arguing again. But my father gave Eddie the net and he quickly scooped it out of the water.

“Watch out,” my father said. “That thing can snap your finger off.” My father took the muskie out of the net and hooked it on a separate chain from the other fish. “I’d say we’ve had a good day fishing,” my father said. We reeled our lines in and went back to shore.

*******************

Eddie’s clients were at the dock when we got back. The air was already starting to chill. “I don’t know what fish you boys caught in town, but Moishe, Izzy and I caught some big ones.”

Eddie pulled the muskie out of the boat. I looked at both of Eddie’s arms. One was OK. The other was bruised so heavily that it looked as if it had been slammed in a car door.

“Who caught that one?” A client asked.

“Eddie,” I said. My father gave me a look. Eddie didn’t skip a beat.

“Thing hit like a hammer. Jumped out of the water. Unbelievable.”

“Damn,” the client said. “I’ve never caught a muskie my whole life.”

“You got to go out with Moishe and Izzy is all. Those two really know how to fish.” Eddie looked at me and gave me a wink. My stomach sank.

My father and I never talked about what I had done. It was simply a shared moment between us, something quietly understood. Maybe in a story even more sentimental than this one, my father and I would have a drink together and talk about memories like this many years later. I know what he would have said. No matter what happened on that boat, that fish was mine. I was confusing kindness with weakness. I would have told him he was right. But I never had that chance. My father died too young.

We went around to the front of the lodge and my father hung up the fish on the fence railing. Eddie took some pictures of my father and me with his own camera. He said he’d send us some copies. I knew he wouldn’t. I took some pictures of my own.  “I’m gonna mount that thing when I get home,” Eddie said. I’m sure he did. Over the years that he lived, I’m sure he told some good stories about that fish. And I have my stories as well.

We had dinner together that night, walleye, fries and a few beers. I was a little drunk. After, Eddie asked us if we wanted to drive into town. “It’s on me. Anything you want. It’s the least I could do. You boys are really something.”

“I only eat kosher fish, Eddie,” my father said.

“How about your boy?” Eddie asked. “Does he only eat kosher fish too?”

“Between you and me, I think he’s had traife fish already.” I blushed.

Eddie was gone the next day. Before he left he told us to say hello to his niece. “Don’t mention the whores, though. She thinks I’m crazy as it is.” My father and I stayed the whole week. We caught many more walleye and northern pike. It was phenomenal, as if the fish jumped into our boat.

When the week was over, I helped my father pack up the station wagon and he drove me to the TransCanadian. I said good-bye with a firm handshake and started to walk a bit down the road. I noticed my father hadn’t moved. “Anything wrong?”

“No, nothing’s wrong.”  He walked up to me. He gave me a bear hug and then a kiss on both cheeks. He hadn’t shaved for a few days and his beard was so rough that the kisses burned. Despite that, I kissed him back. Then he turned around, got in his car, and was gone.

As luck would have it, because of my father’s kiss I got a ride within 15 seconds of my father leaving. It was a couple in their twenties in a station wagon. They looked cute in the front seat together, well washed and scrubbed. The woman said she noticed me kissing an “older man.”

“That wasn’t an older man. That was my father.”

“Do you believe in Jesus Christ the savior?”

“No, I’m Jewish.”

“Homosexuality is the work of the devil,” she said. “If you believed in Jesus Christ, you’d know that. You wouldn’t be kissing other men.”

“He’s my father. We’re European,” I said. “That’s what Europeans do. They kiss each other on the cheek. You know, like Charles De Gaulle.”

My explanations were to no avail. They hadn’t heard of Charles De Gaulle. They certainly did not believe that European men kissed each other on the cheek. We continued our ride for several hours in silence, but the bottom line was they gave me a ride all the way to Winnipeg, which I really appreciated.

Stuart Rosh is the sometimes pen and music name of Stuart Rojstaczer. A retired Duke University geophysics professor, he was born in Milwaukee and lives in San Francisco. His novel, The Mathematician’s Shiva, will be published by Penguin Press in 2014. He is currently working on a new book of fiction and an opera with composer William Susman. “The Muskie” was a finalist in the 2011 Moment-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest.

 

 

 

 

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