On Labor Day weekend of 1990, I camped at Caddo Lake with my soon-to-be ex, C. Our tentsite was on a place called Saw Mill Pond, and a pier out into the pond offered fishing. I had a small rod and reel, though I was not in any way experienced at fishing. On one walk out to the end of the pier, I noticed a school of vivid sunfish clearly visible in the tannin-colored water. I went back to my tent, got my tackle, stuck a ball of bread on the end of a small hook, and dropped it into the busy sunfish.
I was able to watch as a fish darted forward and closed her mouth over the hook. I jerked backward, pulling her out of the water. I was immediately horrified at what I had done -- she was far too small to eat, and I had no stomach for cleaning a fish that was edible. Clumsily and with some revulsion, I managed to get the hook out of her mouth -- leaving damage, and blood on my fingers. I dropped her back into pond and was relieved to see her swimming with only a mild display of shock.
I went on watching the school for a while, trying to imagine what their world was like, how they saw things, how their bodies felt. I remembered reading about Wart in The Sword in the Stone, and wondered if metamorphosis was a skill our ancestors possessed that we've lost. Then, inexplicably, I dropped my hook -- still having a bit of bread on the hook -- back into the water.
A fish who might have been the same one hoodwinked before lunged for the morsel. I managed to react in time and keep from impaling her again. I set the rod down on the pier beside me and sat, my legs dangling, my hands shaking, as I tried to figure out why I had just repeated an action I found abhorrent. I really wanted to catch that fish, just to prove that I could.
This sense memory has been coming up for me a lot lately -- the cast of the afternoon light, the sound of water lapping against the pier, the dark depths below the sunlit level of the sparkling small fish, and my hunger for something I didn't understand.
This week I read an interview with Ken Burns, the documentary maker, talking about how the art of narrative is on the decline in this country. He feels storytelling, and its corollary, listening to stories, has been overshadowed and too often replaced by punditry and the braying of opinions. Certainly my approach to writing (in any genre) is founded on an acute desire to tell stories, and I tend to see them as the bedrock upon which symbolism and meaning can be extracted by the listener or reader -- it's not up to me to tell you what my stories mean, it's my job to tell them well enough so you experience it with me and make it your own.
So, for you to comprehend some of the importance of the sunfish incident, it seems likely you'll need to know more of the story.
That weekend trip was, with few exceptions, ghastly. It was a last-ditch effort for the two of us to spend time together without fighting constantly, and we imagined getting out into nature would assist us in this goal. We settled on Caddo Lake because C., my partner, was currently fixated on kayaking and she wanted the two of us to go canoeing somewhere.
Caddo is the only natural lake in Texas. According to Caddo legend, it was formed after a major earthquake, likely from the Madrid Fault, rent the earth next to the river. It is ancient and contains a deluged forest in its bottoms.
(Caddo Lake corridor)
C. borrowed a collapsible canoe from a gay man at Quaker meeting and assembled it in our garage, insisting we should transport it already together instead of in its more portable state.
Who knows at what point I argued with her and at what point I bit back anything I wanted to say in the interest of finding peace between us again? I cannot remember.
It turned out to be a four-person canoe, not a double, and it was 12 feet long. We were traveling in my Honda, but she insisted she knew how to tie down canoes -- her family had grown up with a giant canoe they hauled about in Oregon. In particular, she said she knew a hitch her father had taught her, a sort of swiveling knot that would make it easy to undo the canoe once we reach our destination.
This was explosive territory. She hero-worshipped her father, while I saw him as the source of much of the damage in her family. But they were middle class, and because his failures were all ones of omission, he was the "good parent" in their dynamic.
I had no such illusions about my own father, whose acts of omission were implicated in the deaths of two members of my nuclear family already. We'd grown up moving every few months, and what I didn't know about tie-downs likely didn't exist. My father was an Okie, we joked -- it was genetic. I could tell right away the way she was lashing the canoe to my Honda wouldn't last a mile on the freeway. But -- I think -- I didn't say anything.
Not until we had to take the first exit because we were about to blow ungainly long canoe all over four lanes of the interstate. I had stayed in the far right lane, which is the only reason we got off in time. I retied the canoe -- did I bitch while standing on the shoulder, hoping no one hit us? Did I point out the canoe should never have been assembled in advance? Again, I don't remember.
Once the canoe was secure, the drag on my car was enormous. We were gulping down gas, and just as we reached Marshall, I noticed the alternator light come on and stay on. It was 5 p.m. on Labor Day weekend, and we were living hand to mouth at that point.
I called my brother Bill in Irving, an auto mechanic. He diagnosed the problem over the phone -- the alternator, likely -- and explained how to shepherd the electrical system through until Tuesday morning, when I could conceivably find a mechanic who wasn't going to gouge me. Bill was deeply distrustful of other mechanics, always ranting about how they cheated people. He offered to drive to where we were with his tools and fix my car for me, but I adamantly refused -- his time off was rare.
So we turned off everything we could, driving without headlights through the twilight and taking the first campsite we found. We unpacked and pitched our tent in darkness. My shoulders were knotted from worry about my car and how to pay for the repair. We discovered C. had forgotten to pack the air mattress, which meant sleeping on the ground. I suspected it was not entirely accidental, this forgetting -- it was a double mattress, which would have meant sharing sheets and covers. Once it became clear we had to kip on the ground, she said she wanted her own sheet and blanket; it was hot and still, and she would be wretched enough without the additional burden of sharing with me.
The next morning, over breakfast, she told me she didn't want to renew our lease which was due the following Monday. She thought it would be better if she found her own place.
We were surrounded by families, noisy kids, bored men watching sports on battery-powered TVs, women setting up elaborate kitchens on picnic tables. There was no privacy anywhere, and we couldn't drive to find it. We went back into the tent, which was now like a solar oven, and fought for hours in a whisper. I was desperate. I knew if she moved out, she'd keep going. I honestly couldn't imagine living without her. I was willing to agree to anything, any change, any plan, if she'd stay with me.
She kept offering conditions that I could meet that would persuade her to stay. Each of them felt like an impossible hurdle, an agreement to things that were contrary to core values I held, and I would resist at first, but eventually give in and say "All right, I'll find a way." And each time I did, she'd say there was one more thing she needed.
I am so humiliated by this memory. Now, I'd accept her decision and use my energy figuring out how to make it without her. A hard lesson to learn, and that weekend was when I began learning it. Eventually, past lunch, she said she had to eat and left the tent to dig in the cooler. That's when I walked down to the pier and saw the sunfish.
Context makes a difference, doesn't it?
After lunch, she went off in the giant canoe, which looked to me like it had not been put together completely right. It was heavy plastic stretched over a metal and wood frame, and it was balky, not just because of its size. She got to the end of the mill pond, but when it came time to venture into Big Cypress Bayou, which had a strong current and lots of speedboats, she turned around and came back.
She asked me to go out in the canoe with her. I hesitated, saw the expression on her face, and gave in. To understate things, I did not grow up in a family that went canoeing all the time. I'm fat, I wheeze with exertion, and I'm afraid of dark water. But I got into the canoe eventually, using a tree at the edge of the water for balance, and sat precariously on the seat as she tried to turn the craft so she could reach her seat as well. She told me sharply to reach out my paddle and brace it against the bank. I did, abruptly, and the canoe went belly up instantly.
I broke the surface standing in two feet of water and two feet of mud. I knew the pond was full of gators and snakes, and I was trying to flail to shore but my feet were stuck in the goo at the bottom of the pond. C. went into hysterical laughter. Eventually a guy nearby came and pulled me out. From the knees down, I was dark black with peaty sludge. I couldn't stop shivering, despite the heat and despite C.'s hug and apology for laughing.
She began explaining that I couldn't make abrupt movements in a canoe, and I interrupted her to say I didn't need a lesson, I wasn't getting back in the canoe. Her grin vanished. She said the boat was too big for her to use by herself, I had to accompany her or else she would be stuck in camp all weekend. There was a threat behind her words. When she couldn't roam, burn off her energy in activity, life was not pleasant for us.
She decided I could just sit in the bottom of the boat, on the plastic directly -- she was sure, she said, it would hold me. That way, the canoe would have ballast and wouldn't go over easily.
I'm embarrassed to admit that she talked me into it. After making sure I hadn't picked up any leeches under the drying mud on my legs, I got back in, sat cross-legged on the flimsy plastic, and she joined me in the canoe. Pushing away from the bank, I could feel the water rippling under my ass.
My position didn't allow me to offer much in the way of paddling. Grumbling, she did most of that herself. Halfway across the pond, we went over a submerged tree -- Caddo Lake is full of them. I screamed and she jumped, almost turning us over. I began shivering again, saying I didn't want to have the canoe fail out in deep water, please, couldn't we just go back? But she insisted the bayou would be safe, there weren't any trees there or else the motorboats would be smacking into them, and kept going.
(Hog Wallow, Caddo Lake)
Once in the bayou, the current helped our progress. After a short stretch, though, she saw an inlet "just full of herons" that we had to explore, and turned us into a lily-pad-choked backwater. It was gorgeous, and the birds were spectacular, when I could focus on them and not the treetops scraping against my ass. Eventually, I couldn't shut up about my terror and, with no attempt to conceal her anger, she turned us around.
Getting back to the mill pond meant paddling against the current, and although I tried to help, it took forever. She was drenched in sweat and furious by the time we got into stiller depths. We were gliding underneath a dead tree when an anhinga, unseen sunning itself on the limb above us, startled and took off with a stupendous flapping of wings. I screamed again, but watched it as it circled away and mentally added it to my life list -- my first anhinga.
(Anhinga at Caddo Lake)
I don't remember the rest of the time at the camp, except that I thought I convinced her to continue living with me. On Tuesday morning, we drove into Marshall and stopped at a small garage, a one-bay affair -- Bill had advised me to stay away from the chain auto places.
An absolutely enormous man in overalls came out of the shadows to meet us. He introduced himself as "Pa". I almost thought he was joking, but glancing at his face assured me he really went by that name. I put on my good-old-girl accent, dropped the lingo Bill had given me, and he said "Ah don't hardly ever work on furren cars, but pop the hood, let's look at 'er."
C. wandered off, without telling me where she was going. Pa hooked up a voltmeter sort of device and I read the gauge with him: Yep, it was the alternator. He said "I'd ruther wait on Big Pa, he's better with little engines" and I said okay. Pa went back to the pick-up he'd been working on. I stood around, wondering how massive Big Pa was going to be if Pa was any comparison.
Eventually, a shrunken, shuffling old man came in the door and stared at me. Pa went to talk with him and introduced him as Big Pa. He didn't look strong enough to handle the wrenches used in taking off an alternator, but he was. He made a deft job of it, was done in less than an hour, and they charged me only $45 for everything. Bill had estimated the cheapest I'd find would be $75, if I was lucky.
So, the deal of a car repair, the anhinga, and the jeweled sunfish when I wasn't betraying them -- those are my moments of goodness from that weekend. Half an hour from home, C. informed me she'd changed her mind again, she was definitely moving out.
For years I've had nightmares about being in the canoe and the feel of dead, slime-encrusted trees sliding beneath me, with only a thin stretch of plastic holding me in safety. It will appear suddenly in a dream, that sensation.
To her credit, in 2002 C. apologized for how brutally she had treated me that weekend. For her, it had become an example of what happens to love when you feel trapped: Your ability to think well about someone else disappears, and you are not to be trusted. I'd agree with that analysis. I don't let myself get trapped any more in the name of love.
The road to monstrous behavior is long, and you have many, many opportunities to change direction along the way.
(Maggie and C., 1985)