The Nights of Excuses
Every night, when the moon was full and bursting with light, I asked my momma to take me fishing. For a while, after dad left us, momma would say no. She’d finish her meal, gather our plates, and clean the dishes without another remark, and I’d watch her oil-sick hair sway back and forth while she whistled a song over the static hum of the running water. On those nights I would look out at the moon while momma washed the dishes, and I would wonder where my father was. I imagined that he was still fishing, all alone in a boat, under the moon. And for each fish he caught he would whisper into its mouth. A secret for the next fisherman who finds it, he would say before tossing it into the water. When he was still here, I would watch the fish’s tail flap into the pond, and the water would send ripples through the glowing moon, and the moon would dance and laugh as if it were losing a tickle-fight to the fish.
For months momma continued to say no to me. It was the same routine each night: 1. “No.” 2. Dishes. 3. Silence. Until one night, after a year, her answer changed. It was not a yes, but it was not a no. it was a no, but. Each night she would find an excuse not to go.
“Not today,” she would say. “I am tired and there is too much work.”
I began writing down all of her excuses. I kept a journal of every single excuse. I’d write the excuse at the top of each page in my journal, and I would write a list of things to do so I could eliminate the excuse.
On the second night of excuses, I helped momma make dinner. I expected surprise when I asked her if I could help, but instead she said, “don’t make a mess.” She spoke to me in monotone as she told me to make the mashed potatoes. She filled a pot with water and put it on the stove. I peeled each potato and I arranged the strips to spell my name, to spell momma’s name, to spell my father’s name. Then, before momma could see what I’d done, I gathered them up in a piled like leaves and brushed them into the trash. They splayed themselves all over the day’s breakfast and lunch, the cracked eggs and the uneaten bread crusts; the used tissues smeared with mascara and blush.
I chopped the potatoes and boiled them. I kept a close eye on them so that they wouldn’t boil over, which would’ve made another excuse for momma. Momma pierced the potatoes with a fork and she gave me a gentle kiss on the head. “Good girl,” she said. She emptied the potatoes into a colander, poured them into a bowl and put butter and milk and salt and garlic inside. She handed me a masher and I pressed it into the potatoes crisscrossing the snaking metal imprints, watching the big chunks turn into tiny balls; watching the tiny balls turn into fluffy grains. Momma dipped her finger into the bowl and tasted the potatoes. “Good girl,” she said again.
That night I ate my food so quickly that I was afraid I would get a stomach ache. I waited for momma to finish, and I looked outside to see that the moon was out, peering just through the window’s curtains. She ate slowly, inspecting each bite of her potatoes, each bite of her chicken. She was on to me. But when she finally finished, I picked up our plates and raced them to the sink. I washed the plates under the water, put them into the dishwasher, and turned to my momma: “momma? May we go fishing tonight?”
Momma leaned back in her chair. I could hear the creak of the legs pushing against the old floor as momma shifted her weight. She kept her face rigid like a plastic figurine as she sipped at her evening wine. The cuckoo clock hanging in the dining room ticked to the pace of her footsteps as she stood from the table and walked toward the dishwasher opening it to see the dishes inside. She picked out one of the plates and inspected it letting out a deep hmph.
“No,” she said, “I’m afraid these plates need to be scrubbed again.”
I snatched the plate from her hand and scrubbed it until it was spotless. And I pulled the other plate out of the dishwasher and scrubbed that one too. And I pulled all of the other dishes out of the dishwasher and scrubbed them so clean that they didn’t even need to go into the dishwasher. I had worked myself into a sweat so that my sweatshirt had formed a bib of dark grey where it used to be heather. Wiping my forehead with the back of my hand, I turned to the living to see that momma was asleep on the couch, an open book resting on her chest.
Night three showed progress. I helped with dinner and cleaned the plates until they were spotless. Momma watched with a knowing smile.
“Momma-?” I asked.
She answered before I could finish: “you haven’t readied the poles yet, my dear.” Momma stood and walked to the book shelf. She picked out a book and opened it to the first page, cocking her head to the side and reading it as if the words were written diagonally.
Outside in the shed, the poles hadn’t been touched for a year. They were dismembered and stored on a shelf next to one of the few fish that my father had caught and mounted. I looked through the shed and found the line, and I wrapped the line around the spool and threaded the end through the guides and the tip. I found a pack of rusty hooks in a tackle box behind a trio of garden gnomes standing guard over their treasure, and I tied the hooks to the end of the line like my father taught me: loopty, loopty, loopty, loopty, loopty loppty, loop/the bunny goes through the hoop and the bunny goes through the hoop.
Under the light of the moon, I tied a minnow trap to the dock and threw it in the water. I watched the dark lines slither away through the ripples of the splash and I wondered if they, too, had heard my father’s secrets hidden beneath the water table. Or did the fish keep those secrets to themselves, only letting them go once caught by another fisherman?
I watched the minnows move closer to the trap. They were wary of its presence, but in awe of the alien creature. The trap was something from the unknown, and it made me wonder how the minnows rationalized its existence. Did they believe it was a sacred monument from the fish gods? Did they believe it to be a tool that they could one day master? Or was it simply another object that the world above had dropped into the abyss and decided to forget? I wondered: how many useless artifacts have we left in bodies of water as if it were a time capsule for arbitrary things? And I looked up at the night sky that night, and each night after, checking the minnow trap in preparation for the next full moon.
On the fourth night, I gathered the minnows into a bucket, and lined the poles in a row along the maple tree putting it all on display for my momma: a tableau to appease the fishing goddess. I ran into the house and asked momma how I could help with dinner. She looked at her watch and saw that I was an hour early, but she told me I could cut the vegetables for the pot pie. Momma laid on the couch and read her book while I chopped the vegetables. I held the knife like she taught me: three fingers around the handle, forefinger and thumb on either side of the blade. I curled my thumbs into a claw and chopped the carrots, celery, and potatoes into colorful pieces. Momma stood from the couch and removed the chicken breasts from the refrigerator, and she let me beat the chicken breasts with a hammer until they looked like it was ground.
Whenever momma made dinner, father and I would be outside organizing the tackle box. I never saw anything in the tackle box to organize, but father always saw a mess. He would inspect every jig, every worm, every fly, every bobber, and every hook, rearranging them all until they were in a more perfect order than before. He said the key to good fishing was an organized tackle box. He would kiss me on the head and usher me inside where dinner would be waiting on the table. My father would tell stories and my momma would stare at him the same way I stare at the moon sometimes. He’d make big hand motions, and his eyes would get large under his bushy red eyebrows. Sometimes he would get so excited that his long red beard would dip into his food. He’d laugh and say it was extra seasoning.
As momma and I ate our pot pie, I told her about how daddy would whisper into each fish we caught, and he would tell it a secret. I told her that maybe all the fish in the pond had secrets about where daddy went. Momma nodded when I said that, and I watched her somber nod turn into tears. She stood up, putting her hand in front of her face, and she went into her bedroom and closed the door.
Tip-toeing my way toward her bedroom, I put my ear to the door and heard her sobs. I wondered if this would be the last night of exceptions. I wondered if she would ever want to go fishing with me. I looked through my notebook. I had four nights of full moons, each one better than the last. I turned to the next page and wrote at the top: “do not mention the whispers.” I continued to trace the letters until the outlines of each letter became wet and the page started to break a part.
I walked to momma’s door and heard nothing but the whir of her ceiling fan. Our food sat on the table half eaten, mother’s wine sat half drunk, and mother’s book lay face down on the coffee table opened at the center. I walked outside, picked up the bucket of minnows, the fishing poles, and the tackle box, and I made my way toward the shed to put them away.
But my mother’s voice came echoing off the pond telling me to stop.
Momma’s face shone pale in the moonlight. She had put on a knit cap and a sweater that said UP NORTH on the front. She had an electric lantern in one hand and a net in the other, and she carried the lantern between us as we walked toward the row boat.
Momma’s rowing was gentle as to not disturb the fish. She rowed like father used to row, and she took me to the right said of the pond where my father and I used to fish.
“You know where to go,” I said.
“Your father and I lived here long before you were born,” momma said. “He and I used to fish here.”
I had never seen my momma fish. She never mentioned having ever fished in her life. Momma never told me much about herself, and I realized I never asked. I pulled at my shirt and looked at my feet tapping the puddle of stray water that had collected in the boat. I watched the droplets of water evacuate the onslaught of my boots, jumping like fish from a tiny pond.
“You know that I taught your father to fish,” momma said, “and my father taught me to fish. Every time my father caught a fish, he’d whisper a secret into that fish’s mouth. That’s where I learned to whisper secrets to the fish, and that’s where your dad learned it too.”
Momma pointed to my rod and I saw that the tip was tipping toward the water. I spun the reel and pulled back on it. I battled with the fish. Together the fish and I picked when to pull and when to wait, but through a sequence of tiny victories I finally won the war. The fish splattered the moon with glittering confetti as it splashed through the air. I yanked and groaned and gripped at the reel until my knuckles were as white as the moon. Momma then grabbed the net and put it under the fish. She brought it into the boat and the fish splashed in the tiny puddle I had been splashing in. Momma then picked it up with both hands, careful not to get cut by its dorsal, and passed the fish to me.
“This secret’s for you.”
I took the fish, careful not the let it slip away. I squeezed it with both hands and put its mouth to my ear. Inside its mouth, I heard a voice from far away. It was a gentle whisper from a man’s voice that was not my father’s. It said, “be good to her.” I turned the fish to my momma so she could hear, but she held up her hand.
“That secret was for you. Now it’s your turn.”
She motioned for me to turn the fish to my mouth. I hunched over it, facing away from momma, and I whispered my secret into the fish’s mouth. I took the pliers from the tackle box and jimmied the lure out of its mouth before tossing it back into the water. It landed on its sided, righted itself, and scurried away as fast as it could move.
“Your father is gone.”
I nodded. Momma wasn’t crying. She was stern.
“I’ll take you fishing every full moon. From here on out. But I need you to promise that you’ll help me like you’ve been doing.”
I nodded again.
“Yes,” I said.
Momma grabbed an oar and splashed me with water. I grabbed the other and splashed her back. I handed her the pole and let her cast the line out. She knew exactly where to put the bait, and she caught a fish every time. Each one momma caught, she gave to me so that I could whisper my secrets to it. And in place of telling her secrets to the fish, momma told them to me instead.