By: Richard Luftig
Chuck-E-Cheese was created for guys like me. Divorced men who see their kids on weekends. Children who, as they get older, don’t want to leave their friends in order to spend boring time with their fathers.
In my case Seth is six, and Kathryn and I have been divorced since he was three. I’m an outdoor guy; I work as a line repairer for a cable company. An office job would drive me crazy. I hunt and fish—typical of a guy raised in northern California.
It’s like Seth was dropped to the wrong house by the stork. He stays indoors, playing videogames. He was born with lazy eye and has worn glasses since he was two. Maybe that’s what makes him hesitant to play outside. I know you’re supposed to accept your child unconditionally and really I try, but Seth has sensed my disappointment. I’ve tried hard to be supportive. But maybe I haven’t tried hard enough.
Then I got an idea. I’d get permission from Kathryn to have Seth for the weekend and we’d spend time in some cabin on a lake. We’d take a boat out fishing. It would get us out of the video game-for-prizes pizza rut. And I guess in the recesses of my mind, I hoped that getting Seth out of the city would help him develop an interest in the outdoors.
Of course, there was one immovable obstacle to my plan. I had to talk Kathryn into letting him go.
I don’t want to make my ex sound like a witch. She’s a good mother. But she’s never let things go since the divorce. In a way I can’t blame her—I was having an affair with Lisa, and Kathryn found out about it. But I guess what really sealed it was when I refused to break it off. You know what they say about pissing off scorned women and Kathryn was scorned squared. It’s great living in California: Katherine got half of everything, the house, took me to the cleaners in alimony and child support and tried to get full custody of Seth. At least the judge didn’t give in to her on that.
So, I swallowed hard and called to see if I could have Seth for the weekend. Let’s just say my worries were well founded.
“You want to take him where and for how long” she literally hissed through the phone line.
“To a lake cabin in the mountains,” I said. “For the weekend.”
“You only have custodial rights for Sundays.”
“I’m aware of that,” I said. “I’m asking a favor.”
“Hell, you can’t even manage one day. Seth is all upset when you bring him home.”
Damn her. She was up to her old tricks, twisting everything against me. “That’s not fair. You know as well as I that Seth is obsessed about winning some big stuffed animal at the video parlor that’s going to cost me three-hundred dollars’ worth of prize tickets. I’m a good father.”
“Yeah, father-of-the year,” she said. “Except for the part about walking out when he was three.”
“That’s a long time ago. People change. I changed. Things move on.”
“Is your tramp going to be with you? I don’t need my son listening to sex orgies coming from the other bedroom.”
I wanted to reach through my cell phone and throttle her. “God damn it, Kathryn. Lisa is no tramp. I’m tired of you making cracks every time you and I talk.”
“She has everything to do with everything. She’s the person who broke us up.”
This wasn’t going well. “It’s just going to be Seth, me and the fish.”
I added a word I hadn’t used with her much since the divorce. “Please.”
There was a long silence on her end of the line. “Fine. You can pick him up Friday after school.”
She hung up before I was able to say thanks.
Like usual, I was late picking up Seth. I took a half-day of vacation time but even so I ran behind. I knew the cabin was furnished so I didn’t worry about bedding or camping gear, but I went to the toy store and bought some jigsaw puzzles and board games that I thought might interest him. Then I spent a long time in the grocery trying to buy foods that he might enjoy. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t have a clue what my son liked. I settled on frozen pizza, canned ravioli, Count Chocula cereal and hoped for the best.
It was after five when I pulled into the driveway. Kathryn was pissed. I wasn’t much happier. We were facing a three-hour drive, much of it in the dark up a winding road. I figured Seth was tired after a full day of school and wondered how well he would sit for the long ride to the cabin.
He was in the hallway when Kathryn let me in, buried under a pillow, blanket and the IPad that his mother had bought him for Christmas over my objections. I was always amazed over how small and thin he was, now tiny under the pile of objects he was holding in front of him.
“I bent down and found an open spot on his forehead to give him a kiss. “Hi sport, ready for our big trip?”
“Like usual, you’re late,” Kathryn said, in a stage whisper. “He’s been waiting like this for over an hour.”
“Sorry I’m late, big guy. But you look ready to roll. Let’s get started. We have a long drive ahead of us.”
He handed me his things. “Seth, they have blankets and pillows at the cabin. You don’t need to take these.”
“He likes his own stuff,” Kathryn said. “It makes him more comfortable. He’s not used to sleeping in strange places.”
I looked at his IPad. “Son, I’m afraid this won’t work at the cabin. They don’t have internet where we’re going.”
He looked confused. “What are we going to do then?”
“We’ll be fine. We’ll fish and hike during the day. At night we’ll do puzzles, play games. And I brought marshmallows to roast over a campfire. It’ll be fun.”
He seemed unconvinced, and to tell the truth, I was beginning to lose confidence as well. I figured that once he tried it, Seth would become as enthusiastic about the outdoors as myself. But what if he wasn’t? This trip could turn out to be a disaster.
Kathryn handed me a suitcase as well as his sunhat and sunscreen. I was beginning to feel like a Sherpa in the Himalayans.
“I’m letting him go on two conditions. First, he wears a life jacket anytime he’s near the water. It was on the news about some kid who drowned up there. Second, you call me at every day to let me know how he’s doing.”
“Phil, listen to me,” she said. “I’m not kidding. If I don’t hear from you I’m going up to get him myself.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll call you first thing tomorrow morning. I promise, we’ll be fine.”
I wished my feelings agreed with my words.
Seth fell asleep thirty minutes after we started. That was all right with me because I didn’t have the skills for keeping a six-year-old occupied on a three-hour ride. Plus, soon after nightfall a thick, gray fog descended, cutting visibility to zero. I strained to see the yellow double line separating traffic and the white one on the shoulder so I wouldn’t drive into the mountain on some turns or off on the others.
Sometimes, when I was on a straightaway, I stole a glance in the rear-view mirror at Seth. He looked so small, almost delicate, asleep in the car seat, holding his pillow and blanket. He was wearing the floppy sunhat that Kathryn had told him to put on. It was like him to take instructions literally. I thought how I had failed him. I wondered what Kathryn had told him about why I left. The marriage had been rocky from the start but the rules had changed the minute he was born. Did I owe more than I had put in? Should I have stayed no matter what? And how much pressure was I putting on my son to be like me? I refocused my attention to my driving in this all-encompassing fog and wondered if this whole trip was a mistake.
We finally pulled into the gravel drive after ten. Seth, bless him, was still sleeping soundly. I carried him inside and was hit with the musty smell. I cursed. This was going to bad for his allergies.
I staggered from room to room trying to find lamps. Half the bulbs were burned out or missing. Also, the place was freezing. I found a bedroom that had lights and decided that it was Seth’s room. I tucked him in, thankful now that he had brought his blanket from home.
I found the furnace. It was off. Damn, this owner had wasted no effort on my comfort, But wasn’t this what I hoped for, a weekend in the wild bonding with my son? I thought wistfully of a Holiday Inn with a heated pool. Maybe I was getting old.
Luckily, there were matches nearby. This was hopeful—at least the furnace probably worked. I lit the pilot, and it caught.
I cranked up the thermostat to stun and collapsed on the bed in the other bedroom.
Morning came cold but clear. Mist lifted off the lake in white tufts. I could see the rowboat tied up at the dock at the bottom of the hill. I sipped the steaming, black coffee from the vintage mug I found in the cupboard. I felt good and the day was cooperating. Things were going to work out.
I woke up Seth and he wandered sleepy-eyed into the kitchen. “Geez, it’s early Dad,” he complained. “Mom lets me sleep as late as I want on Saturdays.”
I smiled, “Sorry sport. Fish get up early. So do fishermen. We have to get out there before it gets too hot. He sat down at the table. “So, what do you want for breakfast?”
He looked up. “Mom makes me waffles on Saturday.”
I felt a surge of panic. New problems. “Sorry, big guy. Nobody told me. I can make you scrambled eggs.”
“Yuck, I hate eggs.”
I thought for a moment. “How about cereal that turns the milk into chocolate milk?”
He brightened. “I can have chocolate for breakfast?” He hesitated. “Mom won’t allow me to eat that.”
“Then we won’t tell her. It will be our little secret.”
Seth smiled “Deal!”
We were all decked out and ready to go to the boat when I remembered that I promised Kathryn I’d call. The last thing I needed was her sending up the Mounted Police to haul Seth back to the city.
I turned on my cell phone and got the “out of coverage” message. That was something I hadn’t considered when I booked the place.
I searched every room for a land phone. There was none. Jesus, who rents a cabin without a phone?
I tried to remember if we passed any payphones last night. Maybe there was one at the camp store but that was on the other side of the lake. I didn’t want to waste an hour of prime fishing time looking for a phone and then arguing with Kathryn. Maybe one of the neighboring cabins had a phone. It was worth a shot.
I got lucky on the second try. The lady who lived there let me make the call. I almost couldn’t breathe from the cigarette smoke that permeated the place.
“Thanks,” I said, rejoining her on the porch. She was probably in her forties but looked older from the smoking. She was dressed in a red robe with blue sneakers. I wondered if she was a nut case or some sort of survivalist although in my mind the two weren’t mutually exclusive.
“No problem”, she said. “Looks like you and your boy are going fishing.”
I really didn’t feel like hanging around talking about the details of my life, especially if the fish were biting. “Trying to,” I said. “But I had to make that call.”
“Just the two of you then?”
I wondered what she was getting at but wanted to avoid further small talk at all costs. “Yeah, sort of. Anyway, we need to get going while the fish are still biting.”
She rummaged through her robe pockets. I thought she might be hunting for a cigarette but she took out a newspaper clipping instead. “You make sure he wears a life jacket. One dead kid is enough.”
“A dead kid,” I repeated dully.
She handed me the clipping. “Yeah, three weeks ago. Some eleven year old boy takes his father’s boat late at night for a joy ride, the next day they find the boat floating empty in the lake. They’ve been dragging the bottom for the body, but as you can see, this is one big-assed piece of water that drops off into the dam. Kid can be anywhere.”
That must have been the kid that Kathryn had heard about on the news. I hope Seth hadn’t heard about this. He was wary of the water as it was. I didn’t him scared about the fishing trip even before it had begun She took back the clipping and put it in her cavernous robe. “So, just a word to the wise; this lake can be more dangerous than it looks.”
I loaded up the rowboat with rods, reels, worms, every sort of lure imaginable to man. I also made sure to pack important survival provisions: soft drinks, Goldfish crackers, Gummy Bears and Little Debbie cakes. I figured if we didn’t catch any fish, I could still keep Seth entertained with the junk food. I’d deal with Kathryn’s wrath later.
But I couldn’t get the drowned boy out of my mind Why did he take the boat? Did he have a fight with his father? Maybe he was estranged like I felt myself from my own son. I looked at Seth in the back of the boat. He was absorbed in dipping a twig in the water, watching it make small ripples and waves as I rowed. In his bulky life jacket he looked like an orange marshmallow.
I tried to push those thoughts away by rowing harder and faster. Now, more than ever, I wanted Seth to catch a fish, have a good time, and tell his mother about the special time he enjoyed with his father.
I found a small indentation in a cove that looked promising. The bank had a dead, rotten log laying in the water about two feet from shore. On both sides of the log, duckweed sprouted. All in all, a perfect hiding place for panfish.
I took the oars out of the water and rested them in the oarlocks. “This is perfect,” I said.
“Perfect for what?” Seth said
I thought he was joking. “Perfect for fish, silly. What do you think we’re out here for, elephants?”
As soon as I said it, I knew I had put my foot in my mouth. Was he serious? Had he forgotten what we were out here for or didn’t he care? It made me realize again how little I knew about what made him tick.
“What kind of fish are we looking for?” His voice was in a whisper as if he was afraid to ask anything stupid again.
“Pumpkinseeds,” I said, taking out his rod.
“Pumpkinseeds come from pumpkins not from the lake. Anybody knows that.”
“No, pumpkinseed is the name for a type of fish.”
“Did you ever carve out a Halloween pumpkin?”
Seth nodded. “Well,” I said, “they look like the seeds inside a pumpkin, fat and round.”
He still looked confused so I took one of the Goldfish crackers from the box. “Sort of like these,” I said.
“And are we going to catch them?”
I baited his hook and cast the line near the fallen log. “If you’re a good fisherman and do as I say.”
“What do I have to do?”
“Well,” I said, “most importantly you have to sit very still and be very quiet.
He nodded gravely. “What else?”
“Do you see that red and white long thing sticking halfway out of the water? That’s called a bobber. If it starts moving fast up and down it means you have a fish. When that happens you reel in your line as quick as you can.”
I pointed to his seat for emphasis. “But until then you have to sit very still and no talking. You have to be patient. Okay?”
I would have had better luck telling a kitten not to chase a ball of yarn. Seth was up and down. When he wasn’t poking the tip of his rod in the water trying, as he said, to make the fish come closer, he was pulling on the line to make the bobber jump and reeling in the hook. I tried to remain calm and supportive but found myself more annoyed every time he did it which was every two minutes.”
Damn it, Seth,” I yelled, “You’re never going to catch a fish this way and will end up turning the whole boat over. If you can’t do like I say you’re never going to make a good fisherman.”
As soon as I said it, I wanted to hook myself in the mouth. Nice going, asshole, I thought. This is exactly what you didn’t want to happen.
Seth looked down at his feet. “Sorry, Dad. Maybe we should just give up.”
My mind raced, trying to save the situation. This day, this weekend, maybe the relationship with my son, seemed to be spiraling into the toilet. “Tell you what, why don’t you try casting the line. Then when you catch the fish, it will be really yours.”
He looked up, eyes wide. “Really?”
I knew I was taking a big risk but I had to do something. “Sure,” I said, trying to sound confident. “Just do it gently. You want to have your hook fall in front of that big log.”
I demonstrated with my rod. “Pretend that you’re tossing an egg so softly that the egg won’t break.”
Seth imitated how I held my rod but instantly, I could see disaster unfolding. Even before I could scream “no!” he brought the reel all the way behind his ear and let fly with a cast more appropriate for a deep-sea fisherman. Within seconds his tackle was past the fallen log and a good six feet up into a huge oak tree standing in the water a few yards from the embankment.
“Now look what you’ve done. I told you to cast softly. What were you thinking about?”
He started to cry. “I want to go home,” he said.
The day had turned to ash. I sat there lost, not sure what to do.
I looked up into the oak and tried to spot his line. I could see where it had gone in but the hook disappeared in its thick foliage. Almost any other time I would have simply cut the line and set up new split-shot, bobber and hook. But I thought I could dislodge the rigging from the tree. I knew it made no sense, but I believed that if I could save his tackle I could save the day.
I pulled in Seth’s line and that drew me closer to the tree. When the bow of the boat was against the fallen log I stood up and followed his line into the leaves.
I parted the branches. I could see now that Seth’s line had actually made it through the tree and was resting in the water about six inches from shore. All I had to do was guide his line back through the tree and out the other side to the boat, difficult but not impossible.
As I struggled to guide the tackle through the leaves something moved along the shore. It was definitely an animal of some sort, maybe a large dog or a deer.
But something, I couldn’t make out what, made me reject both those theories. I struggled to see better. Then it hit me, the thing was upright and looking right back at me.
The thought struck me like some message from God that those evangelists on television always talk about. The dead boy.
I closed my eyes to clear my vision. When I reopened them the object was gone. Nothing but tree, leaves and more leaves all along the embankment. I watched for a full twenty seconds but there was nothing.
I remembered Seth in the boat, and pulled his line up over the bank and into the tree. It felt heavier than usual but I figured there were dead leaves or some small branches attached to the hook.
I guided the line almost completely out. Then I saw it. A pumpkinseed. A large, fat, full panfish.
I brought the line into the boat. “Seth, look at this. You caught a tree fish.”
I laughed. “Yes, you did. You caught the first tree fish in recorded history.”
He stared at the fish. “What do we do now?”
“Well, I said, “first we take the hook out. Then we take a picture to show your mother.”
There was a silence. He seemed to be thinking. “Will the fish die?”
“If he stays out of the water,” I said. “But that’s what fishing is all about. We catch it and eat it for dinner.”
Seth didn’t hesitate for a second. “I don’t want him to die.”
I looked at the fish and then back to Seth. There were a lot of things going on here and I didn’t understand all of them. But I did know, maybe for the first time in a very long while, that how I responded was going to go a long way in defining my relationship with my son.
“I don’t want him to die either. Let’s put him back in the water and hope he has a full, long life.” I unhooked the fish as gently as I could and released it back into the lake.
I turned back to Seth and opened my arms. “Come here.”
“You told me not to get up.”
I embraced him tightly. “Just this once let’s break the rules.
“You don’t like fishing very much, do you?” I asked. He shook his head.
“Neither do I. Not anymore. Tell you what? Would you like to take the boat back to shore and then drive somewhere and have a big pizza?”
He smiled. “And play video games?”
“And play video games,” I said. “After that, maybe we can watch a movie.”
He seemed to relax for the first time since the weekend began. I moved to the middle seat facing the shore and took up the oars.
But first I peered one last time into the woods where I had seen the strange figure. There was still nothing there.
I began to row. I didn’t know what was on that shore. Maybe it was something, maybe it was nothing. I would never know.
Whatever it was, I was grateful.