Half-Moons and Sunfish
John Reoli, Jr.
Mark smoothly whipped the pole backward. The tip bent, wiggled, and jerked. He focused on the line out in the water. The struggling creature played it, making small S-shapes and the almost-circles of a stretched spring.
"I bet it's a bluegill. Feels like it," he said.
"It's a sunfish," said Deavon. "I can see it from up here. Guess you're lucky today," he said, pulling in his line.
Mark reeled the fish up to the clay bank and dragged it out of the water. A long, thick strand of green moss had gathered where the leader was attached to the line. He could see the orange belly of the sunfish blazing through the moss.
"Watch out for his spines," said Deavon. "It'll hurt like hell if he sticks you with one of 'em."
He raised the fish by the line, slowly pulled away the moss, and tossed it aside. The sunfish arched its fan of spines and curled its body in defense. Cautiously, he inspected it to see where it had been hooked. The bright afternoon sun reflected off of the sunfish and struck Mark in the eyes. He swung the fish away and turned from the glare. The fish flopped hotly from the motion.
"It's pretty big. Looks about seven or eight inches long." said Deavon.
Mark put the fish on the ground. Expertly, he slid his fingers down the line to the fish's mouth and then gave the hook a quick twist. There was a slight tearing sound as the barb came out of the cold stiff flesh. He stood to kick the muddy sunfish back into the water.
"What are you doin'?" exclaimed Deavon.
"I'm putting it back in. I just don't want to get one of those spines in my hand," said Mark.
"Are you crazy? Sunfish is good. I'll take it home if you don't want to."
"Ok. You can have it," said Mark.
He put the fish on one of the metal clips of his chain stringer and dropped it into the water beside his pole. It puffed and flapped. He could see the red gills swell with each of its breaths. Like a runner after a marathon, he thought; then baited his hook and cast again.
The line hummed like the high voltage wires overhead, and the sinker made a muffled pluiff when it hit the water. Mark reeled the loose ringlets of slack, rested the fiberglass pole into the Y of a stick, and hung a small fluorescent bobbin between the second and third eyes of the pole.
Not far from shore, the late June heat rose in waves from a rusted, metal plate laid across two parallel stone walls. Standing on its edge, Deavon whipped a bamboo pole over his head. A red and white plastic bobbin, round as a billiard ball, jerked; then plopped onto the smooth green water. He put the pole on the plate. The bamboo was sandy brown like the cattails on the other side of the reservoir; its shadow curved across the ripples of water. Small bluegills cautiously approached, then nipped at Deavon's floating line.
"That's an awfully big bobbin, Deavon. What do you think's gunna pull it under, Shamu?"
"Catfish. I saw a couple sittin' off of this plate when we was up on the road," he said in mild defense.
"Those fish looked about three feet long. There aren't any catfish in here that big. You probably saw carp. Besides, you know catfish eat off the bottom. Your bait's hangin' four feet below that bobbin and probably fifteen feet off the bottom. No catfish is gunna come up there. Some baby bluegill's gunna eat your nightcrawler and you won't even know it because that bobbin's too big for him to pull under," said Mark.
"You just worry about your own line. I saw your hook baited with velveeta cheese. What are you gunna use next, a ham sandwich?"
"Deavon, I'm fishing for trout, not some sewage sucker."
"Trout. There ain't no trout in here. Shiiiiit, you're lucky you caught that sunfish. What do you know about fishin' anyways? All you got up here in Star Junction is this reservoir and the one above it. Both of em' full of bluegills. What you need is to come down to Whittsett and fish in the river. You wanna catch some fish, that's where they are," he boasted.
Mark knew Deavon was right. There really wasn't any "good fishin'" in the reservoirs like before. On days like today, when the water was clear, carp could be seen sitting on the bottom off the "tin plate," but mostly, the two reservoirs, one overflowing into the other, were populated with bluegills and sunfish. Occasionally, a catfish or perch would swim through to break the monotony.
Local fishermen spoke of a bass population returning; every year around bass season, "They're comin' back." This kind of talk and stubborn locals returned to the small, rain and spring fed lakes; but outsiders wouldn't fish there. Not for bass. They would go to the Yough river or up to Virgin Run lake: both stocked by the state or a local fish and game club.
"Why don't you come down to Whittsett and fish in the river? We can go tomorrow," said Deavon.
"You gotta be crazy. My dad would kill me if he knew I went all the way to Whittsett," said Mark.
"Shiiiiit, he don't have to know. You can leave in the morning, fish all day, and be back by six o'clock. He'll think you was up here all day."
"How would I get there?" asked Mark.
"Walk. How'd you think?"
"I couldn't walk there," said Mark.
"You know how this town is. If people see me walking towards Whittsett they'll call my mom and tell her."
"So what," said Deavon.
"If my mom finds out I went fishing in the river she'll get pissed at me and say I could fall in and drown. Then she'd tell my dad and I'd have to hear it from him too," said Mark.
"Man, your folks don't let you do nothin'," said Deavon.
"Does your mom know you fish up here?"
"Hell no, you gotta be crazy. I tell her I go way down the river past the island to get catfish. The island's too far away for her to check," said Deavon.
"Doesn't anybody call your mom and tell her they saw you coming up to Junction?" asked Mark.
"They can try. We don't got a phone," he said, and turned to Mark and smiled.
The boys laughed out loud then Mark plainly said, "Look Deavon, I just can't go."
"Ok," said Deavon.
Deavon sure is lucky to live in Whittsett, thought Mark. The river's down there, and all those different kinds of fish. Muskie, bass, pike, and trout. And things always wash up on its banks. Rusty tricycles, cables, and plastic parts of things that look like they come from appliances or factory machinery. And he always has something from the river. Hunks of blue glass or rusty railroad spikes. Sometimes his pockets are full of iron ore pellets that fall out of railroad cars.
Mrs. Adams almost went crazy the day he rolled a handful of them to the front of the room while she was reading to the class.
"Who's balls are these?" she shouted holding them in her hand. "I want to know right now."
Deavon puffed as he tried to restrain his laughter. Tears streaked his face. Beside him, Mark buried his hysteria in a social studies book. Under the desk, Deavon handed him some pellets.
"I know they're from the river. My son brought these home when he was your age," she added.
"Then maybe they're your son's balls," shouted Scott Stanko from the other side of the room. The class roared. Tammy Smith lowered her flushed face.
With a crooked finger Mrs. Adams pointed toward Scott, but the tip of the finger actually pointed right at Timmy Veletti.
"Listen, young man. I'm warning you. You're already in trouble with me for your outburst this morning. I was a WAC in World War II, you know," she said to Scott, pronouncing WAC as "wack."
"What are you pointing at me for? I didn't do anything this morning," shouted Timmy. The class laughed even louder than before.
"No, but you did just now," she said and furiously rushed to him in the middle of the room. The students moved their desks in big jerky motions to exaggerate the width of her hips as she waddled past. In the rush, she seemed to burst from her tight black skirt.
She grabbed the back of Timmy's shirt, put her face right up to his and said, "I knew someone in the army like you."
Just then three more of the rust red pellets bounced off the blackboard. The class roared and she stormed out shouting for the principal and her old commanding officer. Mark brushed the rusty dust from his hands.
Around the reservoirs, styrofoam bait cups are all you could find, thought Mark. Fishermen from Virgin Run, who stop at the reservoir to use up old bait, leave them lying around without even a worm or two. Inside the cups, there's only perfect dirt; the kind that comes with bought worms: no roots or coal or clay or bits of coke ash, just perfect little moist chunks like black cottage cheese.
Mark looked at Deavon standing on the plate. He wore cut-off shorts and his slight body bent backwards. His stomach stuck out a little and appeared to have an inflated stretch, like a round balloon pulled from both ends. His rich black skin seemed to absorb the sun, soaking it into his body, never to release it.
He stands just like those African bushmen, the ones on TV specials about Kenya or Botswana, out there on the Serengeti or Kalahari. They always look so curious, so concentrated, he thought; still, but in motion with small pieces of hide around their waists and a stick at their side. What are they looking at? Maybe a lion or rhino. No. It had to be something else. Something harder to discern. A small deer maybe. Dad always said how hard it was to see deer when he went hunting. Maybe it wasn't that different in the Serengeti than it was here.
"So what are you gunna do?" asked Deavon.
"What are you gunna do about tomorrow?"
"I don't know."
"Come on, Mark. You always think of something," said Deavon.
"Yeah, I... Shit! Here it goes!" Mark leaned on his haunches toward the pole. The bobbin wiggled back and forth, raised half an inch, then stopped.
"Gettin' a bite?" Deavon asked.
"So what are you gunna do?"
"Wait for him to hit again, he's just playin' with it now," said Mark.
"No. Not about that, about tomorrow. What are you gunna do?"
Mark waited silently for the bobbin to move. It remained still. Satisfied that the fish wasn't going to strike he turned to Deavon.
"I can't walk down to Whittsett," said Mark.
"Why not? You got legs."
Mark looked sternly at him and tried to explain.
"Deavon, you know how these people are around here. Some of them just like to make trouble. Maybe I'll ride my bike, I don't know. I just can't walk down," he said with finality.
The bobbin smacked against the pole. Mark grabbed the pole and pulled violently.
"Shit! I missed him," he shouted and began to rapidly reel in the line.
Deavon walked to an edge of the plate and jumped. His leap was a little short and his left foot landed in thick mud at the shoreline.
"Son-of-a-bitch!" he yelled, and pulled his foot from the mud.
Mark laughed as Deavon turned his foot to examine the dripping sneaker. When he pulled off the shoe, it made the same sucking sound coming off his foot as it had coming out of the mud. Deavon removed his other shoe and tossed it on the ground. Barefoot, he stepped in the water near the stringer and crouched to rinse the mud from his shoe. The yellow paleness of his feet and palms was highlighted in the water. They're not white or faded like people said, it's as if more of the blackness is trying to come through, but can't, thought Mark.
"You should put it on the plate to let it dry when you're done," said Mark. "It's so hot it'll be dry by the time we go home."
"Yeah, I know. Hey look! There's a mussel out there." said Deavon, pointing to a submerged rock.
"Yeah, I see it. Right by that rock. And there's another one behind it." Mark finished reeling and laid the pole on the bank. "Let's go out and get them."
"We can use them for bait," Deavon added.
At the rock, the water reached their chests. Deavon went under for the first mussel then splashed to the surface with it. Stars of water glistened on his tight jet hair. Mark went under and retrieved the second. He pushed back his straight wet hair and took Deavon's mussel. With one in each hand, he tapped them together. Deavon watched closely, but the mussels remained sealed from them.
A loud engine rumbled on the other side of the reservoir. Wooden planks bounced in tandem as a pick-up truck crossed the small, flat bridge over by the swamp. The driver gunned the engine and raced up the road along the reservoir. The boys turned and saw patches of red streaking through the tree line. Past the trees and out in the open the driver yelled, "Hey, you motherfuckers!!!" The truck, patched with gray primer, continued up the road. Its engine strained as it reached the top of the hill. Mark put his head down.
"Asshole," he muttered.
Deavon laughed and said, "He don't mean nothin' by it. He's just playin' around."
"Maybe he is, but he doesn't have to play around with us. Besides, who'd want to play around with anybody who has a piece of shit truck like that?" said Mark walking to the shore.
"Yeah, I know what you mean," said Deavon. "But, I'll tell ya' something. His truck might be a piece of shit, but he got a good lookin' sister."
"You know that fuckhead?" asked Mark.
"No, but I know his sister. I see his truck at her house when I walk to school. Sometimes I see him working on it. He's too young to be her dad, so I figure he must be her brother."
"How do you know his sister?"
"From school. You know her," said Deavon.
"I do?" asked Mark.
"Yeah, she's a year ahead of us, sixth grader, got black hair, kinda' tall.
"Whose class is she in?"
"Mr. Deiter's." Mark searched his mind as he waited in the knee deep water. Impatiently Deavon said, "You know who I'm talkin' about. Black haired girl with those big titties that are always bouncing up and down the hall."
"That's Tricia Stueben's brother?" exclaimed Mark, pointing to the road with one of the mussels.
"Yeah. That was Boobin' Stueben's older brother, Steve," said Deavon.
"He looks kind of old to have a sister in sixth grade. Is he a senior?"
"No. He's out. Just works on his truck and drives around bothering people," said Deavon. In the distance, the engine rumbled and became louder as it approached. The two boys looked at each other and faced the road. Rumbling down, right on top of them, the truck appeared from around a turn. A long haired, bearded man in the passenger side leaned out of the window and shouted, "Fuckin' nigger!! Go back to Whittsett where you fuckin' belong!"
Mark threw one of the mussels. It missed the truck and spun across the road.
Stueben gunned the engine. The truck raced red and gray back through the trees. The planks bounced in tandem. Loudly, Ba Boom!
Deavon got out of the water and found an old coffee can. He filled it and spilled water on the plate two or three times. The water dried quickly over the hot metal, but cooled it enough so he could walk across. He stepped up onto the plate and sat in a puddle where the water had collected near the edge. The metal banged against the stone.
The boys fished silently for the rest of the day. Using the other mussel as bait, Deavon caught two or three bluegill and a very small perch. Mark caught another sunfish, but lost a catfish caught with one of Deavon's nightcrawlers. In the warm water, their fish lay curled and stiff. Only the tiny perch, the most recent catch, lived on the stringer. Snapping violently, it made a gentle splash.
Mark leaned back on his elbows and looked up. Deavon sat stiff armed; tilted back on his hands. His legs hung flaccidly over the edge of the plate. He's still looking out, ahead; thought Mark.
"So Deavon, you wanna get out of here?" he said through a loud yawn.
"Yeah. Let's go home." he said and silently stretched.
They brought in their lines and gathered up their gear. Mark surveyed the ground for any hooks and bobbins that might have fallen from his vest; then, he put it on. Its rough canvas stung his sunburned shoulders.
Deavon wrapped his line around the base of the bamboo pole and put the red and white bobbin in his pocket. The large ball bulged tightly against the denim. Looks like old man Sweeney's goiter, thought Mark. He jumped off the plate onto the cracked clay bank and walked over to Mark.
"How are you gunna take your fish home?" asked Mark, holding the stringer.
"With this." Deavon reached in his pocket and pulled out a length of blue nylon cord.
"I'll run this through their mouth, out their gills, and carry em' like this." Holding the ends of the rope, he showed Mark how they would hang.
"That'll work; but you're not gunna keep that perch, are you?" asked Mark.
"Hell yeah, I'm gunna keep it."
"Deavon, you can't be serious. It isn't more than three inches long," exclaimed Mark.
"So, how are you gunna eat it? You'll cut most of it away when you clean it."
"No I won't. I'll give it to my grandmother. She grinds them up and makes fried fish cakes."
"All of it? Won't she cut off the head and the tail?"
"I don't know. All I know is she tells me to bring home all the fish I catch and them cakes is gooood," Deavon said smiling.
Up on the road, like cut-outs of half-moons made in grade school, one black, one white, they moved in a common sky. One passed behind the other, grabbed at the sagging limbs of a choke-cherry tree; the other crossed over and tormented a garden spider webbed in a barbed wire fence. At the plank bridge by the swamp Deavon turned to Mark and asked, "So, what are you gunna do about tomorrow?"
"Go down to Whittsett," answered Mark.
"Are you gunna ride your bike?"
"No. I'll walk down in the morning."
As they crossed the bridge, the planks wobbled under their feet. Softly, Ba Boom.
John Reoli, Jr. was a senior English major at Carnegie Mellon University when "Half-Moons and Sunfish" appeared in InterText in 1992.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 John Reoli, Jr..