Raw by Gary Thomas Smith
"Damn sand gets into everything," he said. He grabbed his cargo shorts at the crotch and shook the fabric.
"People can see you, Daniel," she said. The motel parking lot was full of cars and the road was just on the other side of the bushes.
He kept pinching and pulling his shorts. "Soon as I put on underwear it starts to grind at me."
"Quit griping," she said. "It's not that bad." She unlocked the SUV and lifted the tailgate.
"Says you." He laid the broken-down fishing rigs in the back and wedged the poles against the backseat with the tackle box and the cooler. Daniel had hidden the ring in the tackle box. She'd never open it because he baited her hooks and strung her line. He kept it close in case the right moment came. A beach proposal would make for a good story someday.
"You sure you're good to drive?" she said. "I had a couple glasses of wine."
"I'm good," he said. He pulled the tailgate down and the Kentucky license plate rattled. "I'm only a little drunk."
"Cute," she said. "Prove it." She tossed the keys up in the air and he caught them without hesitation.
"See? I'm good," he said. "Dock's not far anyway."
"You passed the coordination test." She walked around to the passenger side.
He lifted his hand to his mouth and exhaled. He couldn't smell the bourbon. He shook his head and felt the world slow around him.
"Let's fish," he said. They'd fished almost every day of their trip to the beach. It was his favorite thing to do, and Gina went along with it. She said it was relaxing enough.
The storm at sea hung close to the horizon, bringing the evening shade earlier than in the first few days of their vacation. The motel was only two miles inland from the ocean, but they still saw the endless, shifting blue and green that faded into the sky. Staying inland was cheaper than by the ocean and more in line with their budget. Daniel and Gina had planned their vacation two months before. They wanted to go somewhere new. Everyone they knew went to Gatlinburg and Myrtle Beach to get away. Daniel and Gina figured they could afford four days oceanfront or seven days inland.
"I need to get out of here for as long as I can," he'd said. Gina agreed. He loved the mountains and the valleys at home, but after so long they suffocated him.
Two days into their Florida trip they promised to never stay inland at the beach again.
"I guess there's a reason my mom and dad always stayed oceanfront at Myrtle Beach," Gina said. "It just don't feel like you're at the beach when you can't see the water or hear the waves from the balcony." From their balcony they only saw discount beach shops and fast food.
He scraped his foot over the floor of the car. "I never realized how much sand you pack back and forth when you drive to the beach," he said. "We'll never get it all out."
"I'll help clean when we get home," she said. "Let's just be here now."
The streets glinted yellow and orange in the evening sun. Sand blown in from the shore settled into the slits of the pavement and shone like crystals. The ring was wrapped in a handkerchief and wedged into a small velvet box. They dated for a year in college and for the couple of years since. He'd been saving a little from every paycheck the dealership gave him. The dock at night with the ocean breeze could be romantic—a place to reflect on in the years to come. The memory of their first big vacation would tie a thread through the rest of their lives. If he didn't ask her, he was afraid she'd ask him. The trip was winding down.
Daniel's dad told him that the first vacation with a woman was always telling. You couldn't be sure about loving someone until you went on a road trip with them—until you spent hours stuck in a car with nowhere to hide.
They sat at the red light near the inlet and watched the boats drift on the water in the distance, sails full in the wind. Gina made a list of spots they could stop to explore in their last couple of days. She'd found the inlet dock their first day. She did all the planning and Daniel did the driving. The dock was short and had benches at the end where it widened, but no one was docked there. Daniel and Gina fished often at home. They'd walk the riverbanks together and scout for deep spots and eddies. Other times they'd set up camp and drink cheap beer from their cooler by firelight. Fishing at the dock was less exciting. They just sat and drank. Daniel didn't want to complain though, and Gina seemed to enjoy the view and the peace of it. The change of scenery was good for them. It's easy to fall into patterns at home.
The road leading to the dock was empty and there were no signs. The land around it was grassy in patches, but sand smothered most of the greenery out.
"It's like we get a little piece of the ocean to ourselves," Gina said the first night they went to the dock.
"But is it really the ocean?" Daniel said.
"It's saltwater," she said. "Don't be a smartass. It comes from the Gulf."
Across the inlet was an empty strip of beach that stretched along the coast as far as they could see. It was a nature preserve and they explored it their second day. The main road that led into it was crowded on both sides by hotels and restaurants, but as they neared the strip the road emptied. The beach was theirs aside from a few lone walkers and birds. The water was a blue so clear it scared them.
"I always thought the murky water was more dangerous," she'd said. "But being able to see in water so deep is worse."
"Why?" he said.
"What if I saw something out there?"
"Like a shark?" he said. "Swim to the beach."
"Not faster than the shark would."
"It probably wouldn't even bother you," he said. "They're everywhere, but they still avoid us."
"But I'd know it was there," she said.
All they'd caught at the dock were catfish, which was strange to Daniel. He didn't think catfish lived in saltwater. He expected to be catching fish he'd didn't recognize. When they got back to the motel their first night he searched for ocean catfish on his laptop while she showered and found that they lived nearby where saltwater ran inland. They didn't normally grow over a foot and a half in length. Those first couple of nights in the motel Daniel and Gina stayed up late and slept through breakfast. The new surroundings made sex more exciting, but after the second night they were too tired or too drunk. They didn't say anything about it though. It was habitual.
The road at the intersection to the dock was lined on both sides with parked cars. A church rose sharply over the buildings closest to them, breaking the flat skyline.
"Wonder what they got going on there," she said.
Daniel rolled down his window. Guitar music carried across the road.
"Hard to say," Daniel said. "Sort of weird to think that people actually live down here, isn't it?"
"Of course they do," she said. "Not everyone here's on vacation."
The light changed and he exited toward the inlet beach. The road was narrower and the shoreline drew closer to them. They parked in an empty lot near the street by the dock. Daniel opened the tailgate and put the fishing tackle and folding chairs on the pavement.
"Take a swig." Gina handed him a reusable water bottle. It was sweating and he dropped the car keys and slid his hand under the bottle to steady it.
"Careful," she said. "That's all we have with us."
He sniffed at its mouth. "Clever," he said. "Is this a whole bottle's worth?"
"Wine bottle doesn't hold as much as you'd think," she said.
The wine was sweet and cool.
"Well done, love," he said.
He gave her a peck on the cheek and she took the wine. He picked up the cooler and followed her through empty parking lot to the short wooden ramp.
At the end of the dock the safety light mounted on a high post clicked on and buzzed as it warmed up. She unfolded her chair under the light. The other side of the dock was dark. He put the tackle box by the bench and opened his chair at the edge of the dock away from the light. Bugs would gather around the glow as dark came.
A crane perched on the post at the dark end of the dock. Below the bird sat an old tennis shoe. Its sole was warped from the heat of the day beating down on it. The bird rested in profile and its eye was leveled on him.
"Think that bird brought the shoe?" he said.
"Shit," she said, gasping. "I didn't even notice it. It's so still."
"If it had been a snake," he said.
"I know," she said. "Someone probably hooked that shoe and brought it in."
Bet they thought they'd really hit it lucky," he said. "Junk drags on your line like a fish sometimes."
"Set up my fishing pole?" she said.
"Of course," he said as he turned away from the bird. Gina didn't like the smell of bait shrimp on her fingers, and it was hard to wash off.
The rigs he'd put on their lines were set for two hooks, and the latches for the hooks were set in between bright orange beads. In clear, shallow water with the sun out the light would catch the beads. The waves would break the light and the orange flashes would dance over the sandy floor in rhythm with the tide. The fish that hunt by day and by color wouldn't be able to resist. In the night, lit only by the dock light and the half moon, the orange beads were useless. They came with the leaders anyway. The only thing that mattered in the night was the smell of the bait. Catfish feed on the dead and the discarded. They hover over the bottom in the murky, silty floor, and smell for what drifts down from the more lively waters above.
Daniel cut open the plastic bag of shrimp and leaned over the dock with it. He let the warm water spill over the brim to thaw the ice. Green and red lights blinked on ships in the distance making their way along the coast. He took a sip of the wine and handed the bottle back to Gina.
"Have you had fun?" she said.
"I know I'm not talking much," he said.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?"
"Yeah," he said. The bag of bait drained over the warped boards. Chunks of ice sloshed in the bag and he felt for soft shrimp to bait their lines. The bird's head swiveled and watched as he took bait from the bag. He kneeled and threaded the hook through the tail into the soft body of the shrimp. The dock beneath him was damp. Mold grew in the creases of the wood that had cratered over time, but the green looked purple in the low light.
When Daniel was a kid his dad told him stories about catfishing in the old days. His dad said some could outweigh a man. That was back before the rivers and lakes were overfished—before mining chemicals and septic lines polluted the creeks feeding those waters.
"Thing was unnerving," she said. "Beak's like a big knife."
"It'll back as soon as we catch something," he said. "Free meal."
He cast his line into the water on the other side of the dock to avoid hers, and they sat in their chairs and passed the wine back and forth.
When Daniel was a kid his dad told him stories about catfishing in the old days. His dad said some could outweigh a man. That was back before the rivers and lakes were overfished—before mining chemicals and septic lines polluted the creeks feeding those waters. His dad said one night he and his buddy were in a canoe on the lake when he thought he'd hooked a tree stump. He put on heavy gloves to pull up the line and save the hook rather than breaking off his rig. At the end of the line was a catfish that could have swallowed his head, and when he freed the hook the fish thrashed and almost flipped their boat. It was just an old fishing story.
In the first hour Daniel brought in two catfish and she caught one. The bite was the same every time—a short, sudden jerk as they took the bait and carried it out toward the pull of the deep currents. They weren't much of a fight at their size. The weight of the sinker threw them off balance and reeling them in was more like dragging dead weight through the water, but Daniel was fine with the catfish. The moment where the line starts to pull—that instant where you set the hook or lose the fish—that's what he loved.
"What gives?" he said.
Gina put a finger up to her mouth.
She leaned toward him and said, "A man's coming."
"Public dock," he said. "Anyone can come and go."
The man's leather shoes scuffed against the planks of the ramp. His strides were long and slow and his feet dragged with every step.
"How you folks doing tonight?"
"Just fine," Daniel said, slowly, trying to sound sober. He nodded at the man.
The man wore a black suit and white shirt with a bow tie. He walked to the edge of the dock and looked at the water, hands in his pockets.
Gina screwed the cap on the water bottle.
The man put his hands beneath him and eased down on the edge of the dock. He grunted and shifted himself forward.
"Nice out, isn't it?" he said. The light cast shadows onto his pitted cheeks.
"Not bad," Daniel said.
The man pulled a leather-covered flask from his breast pocket and loosened his bow tie with the other hand. He threaded the bow tie through his collar and tossed it behind him.
"Where you coming from?" Daniel asked. Gina would have avoided the conversation, but Daniel was curious and the wine was getting to him.
The man unscrewed the flask, swinging his arm wide for leverage. He tipped his head back and held it high over his face and let the whiskey pour into his mouth. The man coughed as he slid the flask back into his pocket. He sat back on the dock and splayed his arms to each side.
"Funeral," the man said. "Maybe." He waited for them to respond, then chuckled.
Daniel shifted in his chair, unsure what the man meant.
The man sat up and shook his head side to side. His graying hair covered his ears and it stuck against his oily face.
"Y'all want some?"
"No thanks," Daniel said quickly.
Gina took a long drink and passed it to Daniel. Her hand was shaky. Daniel waved off the bottle and she took another drink. He waited for the last eye at the end of his pole to twitch—to show him a sign of movement on his line out in the dark water. The man was just drunk and a little strange.
The man cocked his head to the side and unbuttoned his shirt with one hand. He took another drink. He'd not stopped staring at them.
"More kick than that cheap wine," he said. He angled the mouth of his flask toward them.
Daniel felt a warm flush in his chest. He could have been watching them for a while.
The man laughed and dangled his feet over the dock, right above the surface of the water.
"Your face," the man said. "You think you're being sneaky keeping it in that bottle, but no. I can smell it on the breeze."
The man took another drink.
"Nobody gives a shit, kid," he said. "Trust me."
"Better to be safe," Daniel said. He tried to focus on the line and the rod. The fillet knife was beneath the tray of lures in the tackle box, next to the ring box he'd wrapped in a handkerchief. He could get to the knife if he had to.
The man swung his legs onto the dock. He kicked off his loafers and peeled off his white socks to flex his toes.
"Don't mind the smell," the man said. He hung his bare feet back over the dock.
It would take them a while to pack up and leave. The man would be gone soon. They could wait him out.
Gina handed Daniel the bottle and he took a long drink. They passed the wine back and forth and kept watching the ends of their poles.
The man drained his flask and pulled a hand-rolled joint out of his breast pocket. He cupped his hand over his mouth to block the wind as he lit the joint. He took a long draw and held it in. The smoke carried clear and fast in the breeze and the salty air smelled sour now. He flicked the lid of the lighter open and closed again and again.
Daniel leaned toward Gina. "Like that's not obvious," he said. She didn't laugh.
"What's that?" the man said. The joint bobbed up and down between his lips.
"Nothing," Daniel said. He leaned back in his mesh chair. The movement made him dizzy.
"I ain't deaf, my friend," the man said. "I was being polite by asking—by giving you the benefit of the doubt."
"Sorry," Daniel said.
The man kicked at the water. "Bullshit," he said. "I'd have shared this if you weren't so rude."
"Always been taught to be polite to strangers," Daniel said. "Didn't mean anything by it."
"Ain't that a conflicting notion?" the man said. He pulled in another deep breath on the joint and the tip lit up the way a beacon flashes on a ship a sea, bright and sudden only to fade as fast.
"If you say so," Daniel said.
"This dock is pretty secluded, you know?" the man said. "Peaceful."
The man was going to keep pushing. "That's why we like it," Daniel said.
"Must be relaxing to be out here all alone."
The man pulled his legs onto the dock and shifted his weight onto his knees. He pushed himself up with one hand and stumbled back a step.
"I know you were trying to show off to your little girl there," he said. He pointed at Gina.
The man leaned over and grabbed his bow tie and walked to the far side of the dock. He picked up the old shoe sitting at the base of the post where the crane had been.
"Don't know what you mean," Daniel said. "I was just talking. I didn't mean anything by it."
"You already said that." The man shoved his bow tie into the shoe and looked back at Daniel.
"I guess I did." Daniel's shirt clung to his sweaty back.
He put the joint between his lips and tossed the shoe into the darkness. It spun in a high arc until it faded from sight and splashed in the water. He walked closer to their chairs, deliberately lifting his bare feet over the warped boards, and squatted down by Daniel. The man smelled of liquor and sweat, almost chemical.
"What are you fishing for there, pal?"
"Anything that will bite," Daniel said. He sat up in his chair a little straighter.
The man leaned in closer.
"Catfish," Gina said.
Daniel jerked. He'd not expected her voice.
"Catfish," the man said. He took the joint between his fingers and blew the smoke at them.
The tip of Daniel's rod twitched.
"Let's see what we got here," the man said.
Daniel learned forward in his chair and the man stayed crouched near him. The end of the rod bent down toward the water and the line spooled from the reel.
"Come on now," the man said.
Daniel set the hook and reeled. The tension wasn't heavy on the line, and when the fish was near the edge of the dock it stopped fighting. Daniel put down the pole and pulled the line onto the dock. The catfish was under a foot long. As soon as its body touched the dock it twitched and it spit the hook from its mouth. Daniel put his foot over the catfish to steady it and slid his hand down its sides to keep the fish's barbs from gouging him.
He stepped toward the edge of the dock with the fish.
"What's the rush? Hold on a second," the man said. "Let me take a look."
"No," Daniel said. "It's just a little catfish. This place is full of them."
"That's not very polite," the man said. "I just wanted to see it."
Daniel dropped the fish by the man's feet.
The man tilted his head toward Daniel's chair. "Have a seat," he said.
"I'm good here." Daniel crossed his arms.
"Sit down," the man said again, but slower. He flicked the rest of the joint off the back of the dock into the still water.
"Do you like catfish?" the man said.
"They're usually a good fight," Daniel said. He looked at Gina. Her body was stiff. "They're strong."
"I mean to eat," the man said. He pointed at the fish. "Do you like to eat catfish?"
The tackle box sat on the bench behind the man. Daniel's fillet knife was inside. With the smooth, wooden handle in his grip his hands wouldn't shake anymore and the man wouldn't bother them. But it was out of reach.
"Do you like catfish?" the man said again.
"Yeah," Daniel said. He coughed. "Breaded and fried."
The man smiled. "Give that one a try," he said. "It's small. Won't hurt."
Daniel laughed, but the man stood still.
"Do it," the man said.
"I'm not doing it," Daniel said. He couldn't tell if the man was joking.
"Go on," the man said. His voice was deep and hoarse.
The sound of the inland crickets rose in force as the wind died and the water steadied. Daniel's chest tightened.
"I'm not fucking doing it." Daniel hadn't expected his voice to break.
The man stepped in again and leaned over Daniel. He took his hand from his jacket pocket and moved it inside his coat. The flick of the metal was clear even against the sound of the tide on the shore and the wind that helped to carry it. He knew the sound. Daniel had heard the hammer slide back on a gun before.
"Change your mind yet?" the man said.
Daniel leaned forward and picked up the catfish. It twisted in his grip and he wrapped his fingers around it tighter.
"Daniel," Gina said, but didn't finish.
The catfish's mouth gaped open. Daniel closed his eyes. He wouldn't fight back.
He slid his lips over the catfish's head and bit into the rubbery skin. The fish shuddered at first then thrashed in his grip. It fought like pure muscle, flexing in all directions to shake itself free of his mouth. Daniel's grip loosened when his teeth broke the skin. The slack gave the fish enough room to spread a fin and stab him with its barb. He let go and the fish struggled in his mouth. A warm, salty taste ran down his chin. Blood dripped into his lap and he slid his hand down its back to get a better grip. He bit harder until he heard the crunch of bone and cartilage. The fish twitched but no longer with any reason—only with the fading electricity of impulse.
Daniel tossed the body to the edge of the dock and spit out the head.
"What a show," the man said. "Feel tough now?"
"What do you want?" Daniel said. He spit blood onto the dock but his mouth still tasted like copper.
The man moved his hand from inside his jacket and flicked the top of his lighter open. There'd been no gun. "Not a damn thing," the man said. "Y'all have a good night." He picked up his shoes and walked back down the dock toward the shore.
Daniel sat back up in his chair. Gina was sobbing, trying to hold in the sound. They couldn't hear the man's soft footsteps any longer, but they heard him wheezing as he laughed.
A scratching sound came from the edge of the dock. The crane was back. It sidled over to the mangled catfish. It stabbed its beak down through the fish and drew its head back, waiting for any movement to make sure the fish was dead. The crane picked up the body and jumped off the edge of the dock and spread its wings.
The lightning in the distance flashed every so often. New shapes formed behind the clouds from the cracks. Gina sat still with her line in the water and stared ahead. She didn't say anything. Daniel sat on the dock for a few minutes and didn't pick up his pole. His hand was red from the catfish's barb, but it hadn't started to swell yet. He spit again but the taste remained. He picked up his pole and baited the shrimp over the empty hook and tossed the line back into the water, as if nothing had happened. The flashes of lightning weren't jagged like he remembered from thunderstorms back home, but the mountains always hid most of the horizon. Gina broke down her pole and wrapped the line around it. She left Daniel in his chair and went to the car.
The lightning over the water kept rippling down into the distance, but Daniel heard no thunder. It was too far out—farther than he could imagine. When he heard the trunk open he broke down his pole and followed after her with both chairs and the tackle box. Gina was in the passenger seat. She'd left the tailgate open.
He took off his shoes and beat them against the back tire of the car to shake out the sand. He put his poles in the back and wedged them against the seat with the tackle box and the chairs. The lid of the tackle box popped open easily and he unwrapped the handkerchief from around the clamshell box. He held it in his sticky palm and rolled it around. The slime from the catfish's skin stuck to the fine felt on the box, darkening the color. He took the handkerchief and left the ring in the tackle box. He just wanted to go home, but they still had a couple days left. The drive back would be long. He pulled the tailgate down and slid against the side of the car as he wiped his hands with the handkerchief. The lightning over the water showed all the creases and curves in the clouds in quick flashes. They looked like the mountains Daniel and Gina had grown up with—vast and beautiful, but the undulations of the clouds shifted with every blast of lightning. The mountains only changed with the seasons. Daniel felt his heartbeat in his hand from the catfish sting. The safety light buzzed over the parking lot and moths beat against its plastic cover. He picked between his teeth with the corner of the handkerchief as the bugs flew back and forth.