On the Go
My father decided to teach me how to tie flies for fishing. “You should learn to make something useful,” he said.
He clamped the point of a fish hook between the metal jaws of a vise so that the eye and straight part of the hook were exposed. He wrapped a foil strip around the bare wire. Then he attached deer hair by holding it next to the wire and wrapping thread around it. He tied the thread and sealed the assembly with glue. “What does it look like?” he asked.
“A tuft of hair?” I asked.
“It’s a bucktail streamer! A wet fly! It doesn’t float. You make it swim like a minnow.”
When my father wasn’t around, I put the tip of one of my fingers into the vise and turned the handle. The jaws had ridges, and I could feel the metal digging into my skin. My fingertip would have burst if I’d kept going, but I stopped before that happened. When I loosened the jaws, I saw that my skin had serrated marks on it. Even my fingernail was dented.
I saw that the grass and weeds had grown tall in my family’s yard. We owned a lawn mower, but no one wanted to use it. My brother and sister were too small to handle the machine, my mother was at work during the day, and my father was too hung over to exert himself outside.
I went to the back yard and took the mower from its shed. The machine was heavy, not easy to push. I flipped it onto its side and dislodged caked grass from the blade shield. Then I righted the mower and filled the small tank with gas from a spouted can.
I grabbed the handle of the starter cord and jerked it back. After a couple of tugs, the engine caught. I engaged the gear, and the mower leapt away from me. I had to hold it back as it ate its way across the lawn. Where the grass and weeds were thick, I tilted the mower backward, so its front wheels were in the air. I placed the spinning blade over the stalks and brought it down. Homemade hay shot from the side chute.
What I really wanted to do was take the engine off the lawn mower and use it to power a go-cart. I’d seen a nice go-cart made from a metal frame and a rear-mounted engine. A classmate of mine had built it. He wanted to be an engineer, but instead of attending classes, he would tear around the fields next to the high school on his buggy.
When I came in from mowing the lawn, my father called me to his studio. He was sitting on a stool at a drawing board, but there wasn’t any artwork in front of him. There was a pile of loose tobacco on the wood surface. On the nearby table was an open bottle of beer. “Manicured lawns are for the bourgeoisie,” my father said. “Is that what you want to be—middle class, like everyone else?”
I looked at the floor and didn’t say anything.
“I say, let the grass grow,” my father said. “Let the spiders live. Let them weave orbs in the weeds. Let them catch flies!”
He played with the pile of tobacco with his finger, then rolled a cigarette. He lit the cigarette and picked bits of tobacco off his lips.
“I want a dune buggy,” I said.
“Oh, you’ll have a dune buggy,” he said. “You’ll have metal to ride on. All you have to do is build it.
“I’ve got other things to do,” he added. “I’m just getting started. It’ll take me the next twenty years, if you don’t hold me back.”
I rolled past my house, the hotel bar and the post office. I didn’t stop moving until I got to the empty carnival grounds. When I looked back, I saw my father coming out of the hotel bar.
I didn’t steal the engine from the lawn mower. What I did was, I removed the wheels and axles from a toy wagon and found some pieces of wood. I used a plank for the base of my go-cart and a square block for the seat.
I took the cart to the town’s one street, to a point near the top of the only hill. I used my feet as brakes, then let go. I rolled past my house, the hotel bar and the post office. I didn’t stop moving until I got to the empty carnival grounds. When I looked back, I saw my father coming out of the hotel bar.
I dragged the cart up the hill with an attached rope. When I came within earshot, he said, “I don’t think you’re ready for the Soap Box Derby.
“Come in for a drink,” he added.
I followed him into the bar and sat on a stool. The room was dark, and a television was playing on a high shelf.
My father got a bourbon for himself and a soda for me. We sat and watched the Miss America pageant on the TV. During the talent portion, one of the contestants led an orchestra with a small baton. “Congratulations to our young conductor!” the MC said.
“How much do you think she can conduct?” my father asked.
“What?” I said. I thought I hadn’t heard him correctly.
“You know, how many volts can she conduct?”
I got up and walked into the large, empty dining room. I went to the jukebox and put in a coin. I listened to a song about seeing a seventeen-year-old girl standing there. The way she looked was beyond compare.
Later, I gave my brother and sister rides on my go-cart. We rolled down the street and walked back up repeatedly.
“It’s like a surfboard,” my brother said.
“It’s bumpy,” my sister said.
Mostly, we rode solo, but sometimes we rode double. One time, I went down the hill with my sister, and when we were walking back up, she said, “I tried to tell them about our father at school.”
“What about him?” I asked.
“About what he does to me.”
“What did they say?”
“They didn’t believe me.
At home, we tried to get our mother to take the cart for a spin, but she said, “I want to ride a tricycle. You know, one of the big ones with a basket. Since I can’t ride a bicycle, I could get around on a trike. I could go shopping with it.”
“I thought everyone rode a bicycle where you grew up,” I said.
“There were more bicycles than cars,” my mother said. “I saw bicycle jams on the roads every day in China. But I never learned to ride because I didn’t need to. We had helpers.”
I went to the local creek alone. As I approached, I saw that the water was clear. The motion of my approach made fish shoot away, up and down the stream. I stood still, and after a few minutes two trout returned. They lay a few feet out from me. One was green; the other was brown. Their coloring had changed to match the sand, or the algae, on the bottom of the stream, but I could see the speckles on their skin that distinguished them from the background. I stood there, gently throwing my bucktail wet fly downstream and working it back so it looked like a minnow.
Suddenly, I noticed that my father was beside me. I hadn’t heard him. He had his fishing gear with him, but he wasn’t fishing. He was watching me. He crouched on the bank next to me as I threw my streamer into the water.
His presence made me uncomfortable, but I couldn’t ask him to leave. I just kept fishing. After a while, he straightened up and walked away.
I caught one of the trout I’d been fishing for. I held the creature in one hand while I lined the bottom of my creel with wet grass. I put the caught fish into the sack. I could feel it flopping against my side as I walked along the stream. After a short while, the movement stopped.
I knelt beside the water, took the trout from my creel and sliced its underside with a pocketknife. I grabbed the gills with a finger and pulled out the entrails. I threw the guts onto the bank for raccoons to eat. I washed the blood out of the cavity, then replaced the cleaned fish on its bed of wet grass in my creel.
At home, I put the fish into the sink in the kitchen. When my mother saw the catch, she made an exclamation of approval.
At night, I heard the television playing in the kitchen. I knew my father was down there, watching and drinking. The hour was late, but I was still awake.
I knew that my father would fall asleep without turning off the television. The programming would change from a show with actors, to the national anthem, to black-and-white “snow,” and my father’s head would be resting on the table.
Thaddeus Rutkowski grew up in Central Pennsylvania and is the author of the novels Haywire, Tetched, and Roughhouse. All three books were finalists for an Asian American Literary Award, and Haywire won the Members’ Choice award. He teaches at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and at the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in Manhattan. He recently received a fellowship in fiction writing from the New York Foundation for the Arts.