Jerry knelt by his bedroom door, hoping he wouldn’t be seen. They were pretty loud tonight, and he bit his hand to keep quiet.
Jerry sneaked out of bed every time Uncle Ozzy came over to kill a case with his father. He did it whenever he was in port, now that Jerry’s mother was gone. He had a voice big as Christmas, green and blue tattoos up and down his hairy arms, a bristly black beard and eyes black and shiny as a doll’s. He told the best stories. Like the one about the Marine he knocked out by tripping him to the floor, and smothering him with his belly.
“Looks like we got a third,” he said and pointed.
“Get your behind in bed, son,” his father snapped. He was as skinny as his brother was stout, his elbows white and scratchy as a rat tail file.
“It’s okay, Richie.” Ozzy flashed a smile of cracked tombstones. “You like my stories, don’t you?”
“Bout time this boy had a beer, ain’t it?”
His father’s wrinkles cut deep in thought. “Maybe.”
Jerry crawled into an empty chair. His father pulled the tab off a can of Rheingold and set it in front of him. “See if you like it.”
Jerry sipped, fought not to make a face as the bitterness sizzled his tongue.
“See, he likes it.” Ozzy laughed, and his belly didn’t shake. It was firm and round as a big onion. “Well, what story you want to hear?”
Jerry shook his head. He wanted to hear about the naked lady who lead him to his ship, but the thought made his ears flush red.
“I know you got a favorite.”
“I like ’em all. I want to join the Navy, soon as I’m old enough.”
“Hell you will,” his father clucked.
Jerry would be stuck picking cranberries in the pine bogs his whole life, unless he caught a ship out of the Philly naval yard like his Uncle had.
“It’s a good life, rough sometimes. I ever tell you why I joined?”
“Take another nip of that beer, you’re gonna need it. We used to go fishing all over the pines, me and your father. We had a bit of a friendly rivalry. Your old man, he could catch fish like nobody’s business. Bet he still can. We’d hike deep in the pines, find ponds the old timers talked about, and haul home largemouths and bullhead cats.”
Jerry’s father took him fishing all the time, and all Jerry caught were fat yellow perch. They tasted fine pan fried, but weren’t much of a fight. His father always caught at least one chain pickerel or red-eye bass. And one time, a lunker pike near as big as Jerry was tall.
“I’d heard of a pool so blue and bright you could see clear five hundred feet to the bottom, with fish thicker than my arm.” He pumped his thick, tattooed arm, making the mermaid’s tail wiggle.
“Just an old wives’ tale,” his father said.
“I found it,” Uncle Ozzy said. “But I’m sworn to secrecy. On my immortal soul.”
“You’re full of,” Jerry’s father caught himself. “Beans.”
“You gonna let me tell the story, Richie?” The can crumpled under his fingers. The middle ones inked with feathers. For flipping you the bird.
“I found it by talking to Old Man Gar. A real Piney. He told me about a bridge covered with vines, a mile east of Joe Mulliner’s grave. But he said, That’s Mr. Scratch’s fishing hole, boy. And he takes back what’s his, in time. I didn’t believe in none of that. I do now, but the sea makes you superstitious like an old woman.”
Jerry remembered the stories of Mulliner, the Robin Hood of the Pine Barrens. How his grave was lost, then found, now lost again. His bones stolen and returned. He imagined him as a skeleton with a Robin hood cap, wandering the woods.
“Pay attention, nephew. Only telling his story once,” he said. “The bridge near fell apart as I crossed it.”
Jerry’s father slapped his belly. “I’ll tell you why.”
“Hush, you hear?” Ozzy’s eyes went flat, and his brother quieted. “And there it was, a fishing hole as blue as a swimming pool. I couldn’t see where the water came from, but there was current, a slow whirlpool to it. And it was a perfect circle.” He ran a callused fingertip around the rim of his beer can.
“I bushwhacked my way to the edge and looked down. I could see layers of fish circling down there. I tossed a pebble, and it dropped all the way down. I knew this had to be it. I hooked a big ropey nightcrawler and wiggled it around, pulling it away when the sunnies and the perch went for it. I figured a big’un might get interested, if I kept it up.”
“You never had that kind of patience,” Jerry’s father said.
Ozzy ignored him. “Sure enough, this big beauty floats over slow, from the far side. The sun hit it and its scales glowed golden. It’s got freckles down its sides.”
Jerry’s father looked into his beer can, and listened.
“I twitched my line, and her tail flicked. I’m scared to take a breath, afraid I’ll spook it.”
“Then I notice the woods have gone quiet. On the other side of the pond, I see a man in a tweed coat, wearing a funny hat with a feather in it,” he said. “And he’s smiling at me.”
Ozzy cracked open another beer. The bubbles sizzled in the steel can.
“I felt a chill down in my legs. I couldn’t move. He walks over, and I see his eyes are coal black, they got no whites to them.”
“Good day, my boy, he says. He had a real deep voice, like a preacher. Made you want to listen. He reaches out to shake my hand. He’s got soft, rich man’s hands. I’m too scared to shake.”
“He frowns and makes a little disappointed noise, then looks down. How’d you like to catch that fish, boy? I don’t say anything. His eyes are blue as the water. The words push up my throat, like puke. He runs a finger along the cane pole, and I say it. Yes, I want to catch that fish, and show up my brother.”
“He smiles and takes a silver coin from his pocket, and flips it into the water. It shines all the way down. But that beautiful fish, it sure gets her attention. She takes the worm and my pole bends in half. I’m fighting not to get pulled in. I’m thinking of the look on my brother’s face when I lug this home.”
“But out of the corner of my eye, I see the man cheering me, whooping and shaking his fist. He’s got hair on his arms, like fur. He stamps his feet, and his shoes are shiny black, and round, like horse’s hooves.”
“You’re gonna scare the boy,” his father whispered.
“I ain’t scared,” Jerry said, shrinking in to himself.
“The fish is getting tired. How it doesn’t break my line, I don’t know. But I do know, I just know, that if I land that monster, something bad’s gonna happen. So I push the rod into the man’s hands. Help me, mister, I tell him. I’m gonna lose it! And he’s so caught up that he takes it, and the pole knocks off his hat. He glares at me, his eyes gone black. He has two goat horns curving through his slicked back hair. He bites his lip, and smiles. At the end of line, it’s nothing but a yellow perch.”
Jerry’s father let out a sigh.
“Without a word, he points to his hat. I bend down and give it to him. His hands have claws now, and fat hairy knuckles. He snaps my cane pole in two, and drops it in the brush.
“He said, If you tell anyone of my fishing hole, boy, no matter where you plant your two feet, I will reach up and take what is mine.”
He gestured with the empty beer can, then peeled back the tab of the last one. Drained half, fizz bubbling away in his beard. “And he dove into the water and disappeared. I ran like mad over that bridge, and it burst into flames as I crossed it. No one’ll ever find the Devil’s Fishing Hole again. And that’s why I’m a sailor, so I’m never on land if he comes looking.”
Jerry’s father smirked. “You just got mad and broke that poke over your knee, Ozzy.” He reached over and ruffled Jerry’s hair. “About time you get to bed.”
“Goodnight, nephew. Don’t go wandering too far in the pines, now.”
Ozzy pulled on his dirty peacoat and cap, and wobbled out the door to find his way back to the yards.
* * *
Jerry’s father tucked him in, against his will. “I’m not a baby.”
“You’re my boy.”
“How’d you get so good at fishing, Daddy? Did you meet the Goat man in the woods, too?”
He smiled, and looked across the room at the portrait of the smiling woman on Jerry’s dresser. “No, son. I’m just patient, that’s all.”© 2012 Thomas Pluck I post on Twitter as TommySalami ~ My Facebook Page