By Mr. Fish
It was Aug. 4, 1978, a Friday night, and there was just me and my big brother, Jeff, and the rain outside our open-air cabin at Camp Consecration Revival Retreat in upstate New York was pouring down through the trees like applause cheering on the foulness of our moods. There was something about the crackling and popping of the raindrops against the roof that seemed to place us at the center of a raging fire that refused to consume us, and why should it? As the only two avowed atheists in the entire campground, what good would such an Old Testament behavior modification technique such as divine incineration do for two pissed-off little boys unwilling to recognize the implicit existence of God outside of the word “goddamned”? Finding our blackened bones amid the smoldering ash of our collapsed cabin would’ve been explained by the fire department, no doubt, as an accidental death due to cigarette smoking, our newest passion, an explanation the camp pastors would’ve found impossible to believe because it might imply the existence of free will, or, even worse, it might expose God the Father as a crummy baby sitter, as if the whole of humanity and its tired eyes and feral disposition weren’t proof enough.
“Let’s bug out of this shit hole before everybody else gets back and gives me such a fucking pain in my ass that all the voodoo dolls that look like me all over the world will start crapping out porcupines, backwards,” said my brother, crunching his face into a fist with the blue smoke from the cigarette that hung out of his 12-year-old mouth curlicuing with the grace of a much older person’s signature around his eyes. He’d been reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and, in addition to calling me Ole Jim all week, had begun trying to make everything that he said sound as if it had some folksy backwoods wisdom to it.
“Where we supposed to go?” I asked, crushing out my own cigarette on the bottom of my sneaker and letting it fall to join the holocaust of butts on the floor. “It’s really raining out there.”
“I don’t care,” he said. “I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” I didn’t say nothing. “You think they moved the Jamboree of Light into the mess hall or you think they’re still outside in that field?” he asked, looking out into the dark.
“Think I give a shit?” I said.
“I’m guessing that nobody noticed that we wasn’t there.”
“Think I give a shit?” I said.
“So let’s get out of here,” he said.
“And go where?”
“Home,” he said.
“Home?” I asked. “Home 90 miles away home?”
“I’m getting so powerful bored with all this Jesus bullshit, Jim,” he said, standing to put on his jacket, “and when all you can smell is how stinky everybody else is then you’re in mighty deep shit.”
“What are you going to do, walk home, you fucking moron?” I asked.
“Yup,” he said, pulling his knapsack out from under his bunk and brushing it free of spider webs.
“It’s 90 miles! Nine-zero!” I said.
“It’s only 90 miles when you’re standing still, jackass,” he said. “The distance becomes progressively shorter when you’re actually moving towards it.” Appreciating his big brotherishness for a moment, particularly the quickness with which he could sometimes ridicule me with common sense, I narrowed my eyes. I was unable to decide if there was something like real genius behind his words or if he was an idiot savant whose flashes of insight were episodic and no more useful than would be the ability to instantaneously count a fistful of toothpicks thrown into the air.
I thought about the incident at the lake earlier that day.
Assembling a group of us, all boys, at the water’s edge and supplying us with bamboo fishing poles and the unmistakable feeling that our young buttocks and thighs were being recorded by his frontal lobe for the purpose of being played back later in slow motion above a shower drain, counselor Dusty Woo paced back and forth behind us while we fished, the back of his flip-flops slapping his chubby heels as if each was a naughty little ham. With a smiling face that might’ve invited comparison with Buddha’s had it not been dotted with the eyes of Charles Manson and framed by a dyed blond hairdo that belonged on a cheerleader, he described how Jesus was a fisher of men’s souls and how it was our job to catch a fish and then to release it back into the lake. The lesson was supposed to demonstrate (a) the simple idea that all life is equally precious; (b) that a fish whose life has been spared will, on some level, communicate the virtues of the fisherman’s compassion to the rest of the universe; and (c) just as Jesus abhorred the appetite for violence, we too must recognize our own responsibility to limit the propagation of murder, particularly of those beings whose lives have been deemed to be somehow less miraculous than our own.
“What about the worms?” asked my big brother, Jeff, who always had a gazillion questions about everything and whose freckles—splattered recklessly enough across his face to make you want to check your own clothes for stains—gave the impression that he was comfortable causing explosions.
“What about them?” asked Dusty Woo.
“Aren’t we killing worms just so we can catch a fish that we’re not going to kill just so we can show each other how much like Jesus we think we are, even though nobody’s a hundred percent sure there’s such a thing as Jesus, anyway?”
“What?” cried Dusty Woo, as if the sentence had been presented to him on a revolving Scrabble board.
“We’re baiting our hooks with worms, right?”
“You need a worm to catch a fish,” said Mr. Woo, only 40 percent sure of his statement, having never actually seen anything but eels and occasionally underpants that had been weighed down by rocks like murdered informants yanked out of Lake Admiration. “A fish isn’t just going to jump into your pocket, it has to be deceived,” he explained, holding up his index finger as a gesture of professorial wisdom.
“So we’re actually killing something to deceive something else.”
“We’re killing something to save something and we’re only focusing on the thing that we’re saving just so we can say that we’re saviors, right, even though we’re murderers first?”
“What?” exclaimed Mr. Woo, using the word for a third time in a row, striking it one more time against his comprehension like a wet match against a wheel of cheddar cheese.
“All right, forget about the worm for a second,” said my brother, lowering his pole. “How is pulling a fish out of water and then putting it back into water saving it?”
“Turn around, Jeffrey, and pay attention to the water,” said Mr. Woo, suddenly feeling a fresh mosquito bite rising up on his ankle. His reach as far away from doing anything about it as a “gesundheit” would be blessing a sneeze suddenly detonated in El Salvador.
“We’re deceiving the fish?” asked somebody, whispering to his neighbor, causing poles to waver up and down the bank.
“Isn’t this the same thing as digging up a tree and then replanting it five feet away from where we dug it up and then saying that we saved it by not turning it into a picnic table?” asked Jeff.
“No, it’s completely different.”
“You can’t build anything with a fish,” said Mr. Woo.
“My mother used to exfoliate her feet with a sea urchin,” said my brother. “It was freeze-dried and glued to the top of a paperweight. Now she uses a pineapple.”
“A sea urchin is not a fish.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, and besides, even if it were, sandpapering your feet is not building anything,” said the counselor.
“Sure it is,” said my brother. “It’s building trust that you’re committed to not wearing away all the enamel in the bathtub by walking around in the shower and falling through the goddamn ceiling into the living room.”
“Look,” said Mr. Woo, stamping his left foot hard against the ground and then wiggling it some in the air, figuring that the atmosphere itself might be enough of a claw to rip his mosquito bite into glorious shreds, “let the fish save the worms if they want to, that’s not our responsibility! Our responsibility is to save the fish. Likewise, it’s the Lord’s responsibility to save us. See how there’s an order to it, kind of like the biggest animal to the smallest?”
“So shouldn’t we be saving monkeys and dogs then?”
“I’m just saying that it’s a pretty big leap, a human being to a fish.”
“Well, maybe it’s not literally the biggest animal to the smallest.”
“And wasn’t Jesus only something like 5-4?”
“Nobody knows how tall he was.”
“My older sister, Maureen, is 5-11 and the idea of her saving anybody from anything is absurd. She can’t even button her shirt straight. My mother says it’s because she can’t see over her overbite.”
“OK, Mr. Booth, forget about it.”
“My father says it’s because she’s not buttoning her own shirt and that when you let everybody on the football team each take a button then you’re bound to come up a little lopsided sometimes.”
“Dad says that the only thing that separates her from Roto-Rooter is the fact that she doesn’t have a truck and a toll-free number.”
It was then that my fishing line stiffened and my pole began to bounce and I suddenly felt the unmistakable jolt of electricity that a fish makes when a barb of steel splits the roof of its mouth and its body falls into convulsions as it struggles to reverse time. Ninety seconds after that I was tearing through the woods with my brother and an hour after that we were being pushed into Father Sweat’s office after the camp janitor found us sitting in the camp mail truck with the motor running and a fish pinned to the radiator by a hot rock. Holding out the fish for Head Pastor Sweat to wave away like it was a copy of Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,” the janitor was asked to gather Mr. Woo and the rest of the group from Lake Admiration and to assemble them at the Sympathy Garden just outside the mess hall for a burial ceremony. “And if you know what’s good for you,” said Father Sweat across his desk through glasses thick enough to magnify the buffoonery in his face, “you both better have something nice to say about that fish.”
“Where you fellas headed?” asked the state trooper who found us walking dog-tired along the interstate at half-past midnight. He had pulled up next to us and was shining a flashlight hard in our faces. We couldn’t tell what the heck he looked like.
“Home,” I said to the light.
“And where’s home?” asked the light.
“There aren’t no home like a raft, sir,” said my brother. “Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” The light didn’t respond.
“Broomall, Pennsylvania,” I finally said. “We’re headed to our grandparents’ house.”
“Do you have a guardian with you,” said the trooper, not buying a thing we were saying.
“Just God the Father,” said my brother, stepping forward to show the officer the front of his Camp Consecration Revival Retreat T-shirt.
Ten minutes later we were watching from our caged backseat as the great logged archway leading into Camp Consecration passed over our heads and the police car rolled slowly toward Head Pastor Sweat’s cabin and the insatiable appetite of the unforgiving. “What’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?” asked my brother to nobody in particular, with nobody answering, while I sat remembering Dusty Woo and the lesson at the lake, pleading the whole time with the empty heavens above to be full of some very real mercy.