The Day He Flew
The day began with the mayflies. We went fishing and those little, yellow bugs were everywhere, swarming and softening the rocks, changing the bricks and clay under the overpass from a sticky orange to a moving yellow. Take a step, killing several, and then the spot was covered with more winged things. Other days we'd sit for hours under the heat in the boat, but today we were in the shade surrounded by the mayfly bodies. Their thumb-length torsos looked so awkward and alien-- some kind of crawling worm with feather wings and twin-tail antennae.
Me and Dad usually took the aluminum boat out on the lake. It was an old quarry that filled up over the years. Dad said that people had been dumping stuff there forever: old cars, motorcycles, maybe even a body or two. And the thing started filling up with water and the junk was all covered up, the same way the kudzu would cover over a dump and you'd never know there was trash laying there until it got cold and the vines died down to brown. Out on the water, I would look down into the swirling mass of green things and try to see. But it was just weeds and nothing.
When we got tired of a spot, we'd go to the shore, pick up the boat--just the two of us--and skitter it through the pine needles and over rocks til we got to the other part of the lake. Taking breaks for the bologna sandwiches Mom packed, mustard on white bread. I liked to take mine apart and place Cheetos in rows, then put it back together and chomp down on it. They gave it crunch. Then we'd peel oranges and chuck the rinds into the water and see what minnows or snappers would surface to peck at them.
I hated it. It was the most boring thing I could imagine doing.
But he would talk to me during that time when he wasn't concentrating on a cast or reeling something in. I loved that he would tell me stories. That day with the mayflies he told me how he went fishing everyday as a kid, had to because they ate whatever he caught that day for dinner. And when he went fishing with his dad in a little aluminum boat and when the motor gave out his dad told him to get out and drag the boat. He put a rope around him and pushed him into the water, which was probably full of gators and moccasins, and he dragged his big, fat, drunk dad in the boat until they got to shore. "How old were you?" I asked. "Probably about your age, what, like, 11 or 12?"
At home we didn't talk. Maybe it was because he couldn't hear well, but I thought it was because he didn't like me or what I said. I would talk to him, in my little voice, and get no reply. I started talking to my mom to ask my dad questions.
He'd be sitting right next to us in his recliner, and I'd say, "So, does Dad want to go fishing tomorrow?"
Then she'd repeat it to him, "Gary, do you want to go fishing tomorrow?"
He seemed to hear her better, and he'd reply, "Naah, I need to work on the cars, get the oil changed in the morning."
Then she'd repeat what he said to me, "No, he's going to do car stuff tomorrow. No fishing for you guys."
And I'd sit there quietly waiting during the entire exchange.
I always wondered why he still enjoyed fishing after all these years of doing it. After having to drag a boat with a man in it; eating fried fish, every night. How could he possibly enjoy doing this?
I would get restless and start talking to the fish in my head. I'd plead with them to get on my line. I figured if we caught enough, we could go home sooner. At least it would be something different than sitting, doing nothing. I'd concentrate on the bobber or I'd imagine a fish tailing my lure when we were casting out and trolling. And when something did bite, and I wasn't doing the tension right or the fish was too big for me to handle, he'd get behind me and put his arms around and help stabilize the pole or reel it in while I held on and the line zinged out. And "Good job, look at that one," or something after we got it in.
Dad was having more hearing problems. He'd been to the doctor the week before we encountered the mayflies, and he wasn't feeling like hauling the boat in and out this weekend. He said he felt fine, but I could see that he was scared of his new hearing aid. He'd always had ear problems, said it was because they didn't have money for a doctor when he was younger and his mom never took him. One morning he woke up and his pillowcase was covered in yellow wax and blood. So when he finally had money and health insurance, they operated and put tubes in his ears. It drained the wax, but he still couldn't hear.
When he was out on the water he had to wear wax plugs. If water got in his ears he said he'd know it later. When he tried to sleep "it felt like someone was stabbing me through the head with an ice pick." I had to yell for him to hear me when he had the plugs in. So I usually wouldn't say much.
He was just past thirty when he got this hearing aid. And he had the two different colored eyes because the day the rivet shot back and blinded him in his twenties. And he couldn't wear metal watches because the batteries died a few minutes after he put one on. He said it was because of all the times he'd been electrocuted. And he had.
One afternoon he came home early from work and sat on the couch while I was watching TV. He stared at the TV and told me, "I almost died today." Just like that. I didn't know what to say, partly because he was talking directly to me and partly because what do you say when your dad says something like that. I asked him what happened, but I never took my eyes off the TV. I didn't know what I would do if I looked at him. I thought I would cry, which is what usually happened when I looked into his two different colored eyes. Not because his face scared me or made me feel sad, just because I couldn't communicate with him without tearing up. So we sat there, both of us watching the TV while he told me how he'd been working under a house, chest deep in water, and a cable fell in and charged the water. He got out with a mild shock. This was the third time he'd been electrocuted. So he only wore plastic watches because they didn't die when he put them on.
That day, we sat on the shore to fish because he was tired--maybe from the week's plumbing work or from the weight of being half blind, deaf and scared--anyway, the two of us sat under the bridge, trying to get crappie to bite or catfish or anything. We got restless when we saw fish snapping up mayflies instead of tugging on our red & white bobbers. They were everywhere. I had never seen anything like them, anything in this quantity for no reason. They were crawling over one another, their rear ends attached. "They won't stop screwing for nothin," Dad said, and I was embarrassed by the blatant sex occurring in front of us--over and over again.
So we baited our hooks with the bugs. It wasn't easy. Their thin, silver-yellow bodies would smash and squirt green blood between our fingers. When we finally successfully got one on, all it did was float on the water's surface. Fish would bite a head or tail, rarely getting hooked. All we caught were little bream and perch hanging out near the surface. We couldn't do anything with the palm-sized fish. Before releasing them, I'd put them in little pools of water created by great big blocks of concrete and talk to them in my head and watch them snap at the mayflies and look for cracks to escape back to the lake.
Dad had changed to his Rapala and cast his line out when it got snagged as he reeled it back in. I thought maybe it was a car or a dresser or someone that fell in and was never found.
"I'm not losing another lure," he said. "Here, hold this." And he handed me the rod. "Keep tension on the line."
He took out his wallet and keys and a wadded up handkerchief with crusted yellow patches and placed them on the concrete next to me. Then he took a hold of the taught Stren line and used it to guide himself into the water. I thought maybe he'd go as deep as his knees, but after the first few steps, the rocks gave out and he was up to his waist and then his shoulders. I knew he couldn't go much deeper. He had that hearing aid in and no plugs, and he wouldn't let the water get in his ears. He was close to where the line went into the water and he tugged and dipped his arm. All I could see was his head and left arm raised up out of the water.
"I think there's a fish on it," he said.
And then the line came free and there was no more tension, but I felt the tap-tap-taps of a fish. And I started reeling it in as he slogged his way back to me. I kept reeling and got the fish in before he got back. It was a big, silver crappie or maybe a sand bass, the kind we called Stripers.
"Nice one," he said, a big grin across his face.
He sat next to me, a ring of water surrounding him and helped get the lure out of the fish's mouth. "I guess it's our lucky day after all." He was still smiling and didn't seem to care that he was wet and dirty and cold.
We stayed a little while longer; if there was one "nice one" there was always the chance of another. Finally he grew tired of the sport and wanted to get in the truck and get some dry clothes.
That's when the mayflies--ending their daylong lifespan--sparked and flew. For seconds we couldn't see anything, just yellow in our eyes. The little bodies tickled and chaffed.
We were back by the truck when Dad said, "We have to go back. I lost the damn hearing aid."
He went back among the bugs and rocks, trying to locate the small plastic piece underneath the thousands of yellow bodies sunning themselves in the orange afternoon.
"Come down and help," he called and I thought I could hear that bit of annoyance in his voice. So I laid the stringer with one fish hooked through its gills in the back of the truck and went back through the bugs, trying to step carefully.
That's when I saw him squatting there, amid the mating bugs, crawling sex, their tails glued to one another. His back was to me and I saw the white space of his skin between his shirt and pants. He had a crew cut at that time with a barely visible mustache. He looked young, like the pictures of him with me as a baby. When both eyes worked and he could hear everything.
He was bent down searching underneath their bodies for the tiny part. I took another step towards him, and the mayflies swarmed. For a moment I couldn't see anything, I didn't walk, and I felt the feather touch of the mayflies as I instinctively put my hands in front of my face.
"Son? Son?" I heard his voice through the bodies. And then a kind of sigh or groan.
And when the mayflies died down I didn't see him squatting there. I went down farther by the water, stomping through the bodies. Nothing. He was gone. It was quiet and I was all alone, surrounded by the yellow bugs dying in the sun.
* * *
Jerry Portwood was born in Florida but spent the better part of his life scuttling across the globe with his military family living in places as polarized as Wichita Falls, Texas, and Okinawa, Japan, before ending up in South Georgia. He earned a degree in English literature from Oglethorpe University in Atlanta and later worked as an editor and writer for the city's alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing before chucking it all to move to Barcelona, Spain, to live with his partner. He continues to attempt to figure out this thing called writing.