Pissing for Rockfish


When he wasn’t in prison, Dad drove this honey-mustard AMC Gremlin, the model with rolling papers stowed in the visor and cigarette butts piled in the ashtray. A car that routinely sat unlocked, Dad being too drunk to know any better.

On the kitchen table his dinner would wait, plastic wrapped. Usually a dark meat, a canned vegetable, instant potatoes. Or some other instant side. He’d be at the backdoor, twisting the knob, when Mom would yank it open and begin a string of so-you-knows. As in, So you know, rent is three weeks past due. That little mousy bastard comes by today, gets a ladder when I don’t answer and goes to our bedroom window. Mom would say, Imagine if I was naked. Course I hid, but you are getting paid tomorrow, right?

For a short period she also added, So you know, someone called and hung up again.

There I’d be pretending to watch TV, Three’s Company or some shit. Periodically I’d stretch over the sofa arm and sneak glances when Mom would grab hold of Dad’s t-shirt, shirts that always had holes in the collar and armpits. What Dad called air-conditioning whenever I stared at them and told him I was having a friend over.

Anyway, on some weeknight, Mom had him in her fist again. So you know, she said, moving her big flaky lips next to his ear so you couldn’t hear a damn thing, just see that she tensed a little more with every word. At the tail end, though, you could hear: I’ll kill you where you sleep. Dad shoved her face, said to shut the fuck up, cunt. She crashed into some dishes I couldn’t see, called him an asshole. On the TV a dumb blonde did something dumb and blonde. Laugh track cued.

Mom said, My brother still needs help for that housing job. Have you gave it any more thought?

At the table Dad barehanded a slab of roast beef, balled it up and pushed it in his mouth. He chewed a while before pinching out a bit of grayish fat. A brief look at it, then flicked away.

So you know, Mom said, he’s picking you up tomorrow, round four-thirty. Looking at her watch, one with a leather band so worn it was cracked and slinky, she said, Less than seven hours from now. She turned to the living room, caught me leaned over, listening. Told me to go get ready for bed, that I will be on the bus tomorrow if she has to drag me there herself. No more I’m-too-tired bullshit. And she gets called about how I cut English again, it’s my ass. She said, Don’t think you’re too old to be spanked.

Those nights when my thoughts were consumed by the word divorce, when cicadas and distant police sirens composed the outdoor soundtrack, I’d go sit in Dad’s car, driver side. After all, a couple more years it would’ve been mine on occasion. To go to school dances or drive-in movies, places to make out with my girlfriend. Shit like that.

From the ashtray I pinched a leftover Marlboro and smoked that little nub as I dazed off into the moonless, bruised horizon. Black and purple. All those stars burning in the middle of nothing for no other reason than to fade away. Not as many as you see in redneck towns, but at least fifty or so. The Big Dipper, the little one, some others.

When I went to grab another cigarette butt I noticed a glow on the floor, reflected light from a streetlamp or something, peering from underneath the passenger seat. I reached over, lifted a magazine showcasing a brunette with red lipstick and the minimum amount of cleavage you’d find on a beach. Across the top in orange letters: PLAYBOY. Flipping through it was Pall Mall ads, interviews, articles about movies and books. Music reviews, cartoons. The latest tape decks. But every so often, tits and pussy. Most of which had been dog-eared, all of which I turned horizontally and vertically. Tan lines, asses, pocketfuls of pubic hair. I traced every curve of every body.

With all that skin and pressure of a magazine in my lap, I couldn’t stop myself. A quick survey of the street yielded a cool breeze and a stray cat. Down came the zipper.

Needing some room I propped the magazine on the steering wheel and turned to a set of D-cups getting lathered in a soapy tub. Then from somewhere near the back, between the black-and-white pages featuring bourbon and ribbed condoms, Polaroids slid out and tapped my erection:

(1) A woman I didn’t recognize slouched beside my dad on a plaid loveseat. Dad held a bag of pot, maybe an ounce. Next to him a lava lamp bubbled on top a record player.

(2) Dad’s chest, so much hair there weren’t any nipples, and that same woman as before, nuzzled against it.

(3) A picture of Dad and me, side by side, fishing off the pier behind my uncle’s house. At our feet stood that thermos Dad always carried around, the bottomless model designed for cheap beer.

Used to be we fished monthly, outside of winter, of course. Get up real early, buy worms from Grandpa Eddie’s Bait & Tackle. Get near some water where Dad would use his thumb to plug a nostril and blow out an oyster. I’d wrinkle my nose, and he’d say how snot was like chum for perch, drew them right in. I’d grab a worm, cut it in half. There’d be two worms, blood and guts and shit oozing from all ends. I’d toss one back into the styrofoam container, slide the other onto my hook. Little guy would be paralyzed in the shape of a J, its head or ass, whatever, flailing about. Then we’d cast out and wait. If they weren’t biting, Dad might offer a life lesson, like how he told me there are two kinds of people in the world. He slowly wound his reel, saying, Those who shit and those who clean it up. Which kind was I going to be? But usually when we were dry he’d just act real startled-like and go, You see that? He’d drink from his thermos, point at a wave, and swear a rockfish had jumped straight out. It always worked. No matter how much I knew he was lying, a fraction of me thought maybe this once he wasn’t, and so I’d cast my line close as I could to wherever that invisible fish was swimming.

What’re you doing, Mom asked. She was hunched over, head where the window would be if it were rolled up. My body flinched, dropping everything. I yelled Jesus and pulled my shirt over my erection. My knees locked together. As for Mom, she laughed so hard her eyes clamped shut and she covered her mouth because otherwise she would’ve been all teeth.

Awesome. She’d seen my dick or, at the very least, glimpsed it. And apparently, it was hilarious. Never again could we be alone in the same room. It’d be like borderline King Oedipus-type shit.

Mom’s hysterics wavered as her focus veered over to the passenger seat, to that photo of a woman using Dad’s chest as a pillow. Give me that, she said, still struggling to control a smile.

I avoided her gaze and did as told.

In my periphery she gripped that picture so hard it bent. She called it cocksucker. Meanwhile I tried to devise an excuse about why I was out there, other than jerking off, of course. The thought of her knowing I did that was a real mind job. God, she’d probably want to talk about it, or about sex. There’d always be this semen cloud hovering above us, making all future masturbation jokes and sexual references forever awkward.

Go wash them dick-beaters, Mom said.

I nodded and left fast as I could.

From then on, when Dad came home reeking of booze, or even those occasions when he didn’t, there were no more plastic-wrapped meals. No more of Mom’s reminders or what Dad called harping. After she caught me battering my fish stick, she only addressed him for stuff like opening a stubborn jar, and he only addressed her for stuff like buying more Michelob Light. For a little while Dad appeared to enjoy this arrangement. Came and went without having to answer a thousand questions, could spend his checks however he damn well pleased. That was what he told me, anyway. Mom, on the other hand, still made my lunch, gave me chores, told me to do my homework. Besides her relationship with Dad, nothing changed.

Then on some Friday when I had ditched last period, I came home to find my dad nosing in the fridge, his arm slung across the top of that magnet-covered door. He shuffled a ketchup bottle and glanced over his shoulder. Keep in mind this is the guy who’d tell people to get in and get out. The guy who’d say, What, were you raised in a barn? Electricity ain’t free.

I wanted to go to my room before he realized I should be in class, but he closed the refrigerator, saying, Hey, got a thing I need you to do for me. He went to the cabinet above the toaster. Inside sat a lone mug rimmed in dust, every other dish forming a mountain in the sink. Saucers stacked on plates, plates stacked on pans. Glasses holding knives, forks, spoons. Under his breath Dad cussed his way to the trashcan, pushed aside some beer bottles and dug out a small McDonald’s coffee cup. He examined it, saying, Wish I knew what’s gotten into Patty. Been ignoring me going on I don’t know since when. Hope she’s feeding you at least. He looked up and said, Your mother is feeding you?

Like most kids, I wanted my parents to stay together, but there was no way to tell him that Mom found out he was balling another woman. Not without incriminating myself in the process. I said, Uh-huh.

Good, good. Look, sport, about that thing. He held the styrofoam cup near his chin, tapped the golden arches logo and said, I need you to pee in this. Could you do that for your old man? It’s this stupid test, like those spelling tests you hate, but with piss. Real dumb. Not even a big deal, he said, just this thing I gotta go do.

I swallowed spit, crossed my ankles. Fidgeted with my book bag straps. This obviously had to do with his parole.

He said, When you get older you’ll understand.

Knowing full well I couldn’t say no, I took the cup. It was the best way to prevent him from giving me shit for cutting class.

Maybe we go fishing tomorrow, he said, tucking a cigarette between his lips. Heard they restocked the quarry. Rock and crappie. Dad struck a match, brought the flame up and took a healthy drag. Smoke plumed from his nose, and he said, Buddy of mine tells me they’re big boys, dumber than hell, too. Said they was practically jumping ashore last he went. Dad tapped ashes to the floor, took another drag, blew exhaust out the side of his mouth. You pissing and all, he said, keep it between us. Your mother don’t need to know. But if you would, I kind of need it soon.

Upstairs I tossed the book bag to my bed when my parents’ door swung open. Mom stepped out, the smell of incense and pot in her wake. Brandon David Wallace, she said, why aren’t you in school?

Oh, hey, Mom. You’re home.

How very observant of you. Now, answer the question.

You know I just saw Dad? He was acting super hungry. Is everything okay between you?

Don’t worry about us, sweetie. We’re both fine and he’s plenty full. It may not be food, but he’s eating something, I’m sure. Mom said, I’ll only repeat myself once more. Why are you home?

Why I’m home is we had this pep rally, in the gym. School spirit crap that ended earlier than planned. Hand on my stomach I moved toward the bathroom, saying, Mom, think we can do this later? I really have to go.

She squinted, knotting her arms under her breasts. What’s with the cup?

The cup?

Yeah, the one you’re holding.

That? I said, I was going to throw it away is all.

In the bathroom? Didn’t you just come from the kitchen?

Sure, but I only finished drinking it, like, a second ago.

Didn’t know you drank coffee. I’m learning all sorts about you lately, huh? She extended her palm and said, Here, I’ll trash it while you take care of business.

I don’t know, Mom. It’s kinda sticky. Maybe I should—

Brandon, cut the crap. Your father gave you it, didn’t he?

I checked the stairwell. Empty. I considered falling to the bottom, maybe fracture a wrist, something to avoid betraying Dad and lying to Mom. I was too much of a pussy, though.

Give it to me, I’ll take care of it, she said. Wouldn’t be my first time.

I stared at a corner in that hallway, cobwebs and mystery stains. I gently bit the inside of my cheek and scratched the phantom itch on my elbow. It’s tough to remember if my mom took the cup or if I gave it to her. Either way, she got it, and to the toilet she went.

Because the bathroom door never shut correctly, always staying open a sliver, I heard the toilet seat smack porcelain. I heard Mom’s stream steadily change pitch as she unloaded. Heard the toilet paper roll spin, followed by a flush.

I went to the top of the stairs, hoping Dad might catch us, when out came Mom. She walked toward me, her glassy eyes fixed on the piss she carried.  

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