As he was hauling in the gill net and shaking herring onto the floor of the jon boat, he saw it like a light below the water coming in with the net. With the next haul and shake of the net it fell, flipping and bouncing indignantly just like the others, except it stood out, scarlet, atop the silver mass of fish. He grabbed it quickly and turned to his cousin. “Joey, check this out!”
“Whoa, what is that a goldfish?”
“It looks like a herring. You see this Uncle Joe?” he said holding the fish higher so his uncle, smoking a cigarette back by the outboard, could see. The uncle only replied with an uninterested “Yeah” and continued smoking.
“But why’s it red?” Phil asked. “I never seen that before.”
“Yeah, I seen it,” his uncle said, slowly assuming a sage-like countenance. “Thems one of the red phase, pigment things. It happens.” He nodded and exhaled smoke, but then it seemed his uncle remembered his true role. “Now are you gonna get them fish in the fuckin’ box or jerk off all day with that thing?”
“Well, do I put it in here with the others or?” He motioned towards the truncated dock barrel in the center of the boat where they tossed the herring. His uncle paused and said, “No. Throw’em in the chink bag.”
For the previous two years, he had helped his uncle and cousin during the spring herring run. The uncle decided he could make some extra money with herring when he dubiously procured some gill nets. Phil earned five dollars a trip while they filled the barrel with herring, but he had no idea where his uncle sold them or how much was earned. The bycatch (the other fish that were unintended, illegal, or out of season) were kept over the side of the boat in a grain bag weighted with a brick, so if any conservation officers came by the rope could be cut and the bag would simply disappear. The bag would be left on shore upriver before they took the boat out at the launch because the Encon guys would wait there often, hidden with binoculars. Later, they would drive down a pitted, mucky track and pick up the bag. His uncle would then sell the bass, sturgeon, walleye, decapitated turtles, and anything else ensnared to the Chinese restaurant on the main drag. His uncle was an outdoorsman only in the literal sense of the term: he was a man who spent time out of doors.
Phil looked at the fish jerking in his hand with sea-run strength, not slow and muscular like a freshwater pike, but with quick, sputtering movements. It had the large eye and broad iridescent scales of a herring, but it was a glorious scarlet tip to tail.
“Phil, maybe you can make a wish on it.”
He looked from the fish to his cousin Joey. “Huh?”
“Ain’t there a chinko story like that?” the uncle said, blowing smoke.
“I think it was,” Joey said. “Some guy catches a magic fish and it gives him wishes or something. We read it in class, in elementary school.”
Phil seemed to remember it, at least sensed the idea of it. A magic fish. Gives wishes. “Did he kill it or let it go?” Phil asked his cousin.
“Well, why would it give him wishes if he killed it?” Joey laughed.
“Put it in the fuckin’ bag and let’s get going,” his uncle Joe shouted. “And get them good ones off the bottom of the boat.”
Phil leaned over and pulled in the weighted sack. As he loosened the top, he made a silent, secret pact with the fish and returned it to the water where it darted unceremoniously downward into the blackened river. He closed the bag and returned it without anyone noticing anything. His uncle never brought up the missing fish after selling the contents of the sack, probably because he forgot about the scarlet anomaly, eagerly taking his cash and going into the smoky bar right next door to the restaurant.
Phil Durant was seventeen years old at that time. He lived alone with his mother in the bottom flat of a two-family house. His cousin Joey was his best friend and they both worked in the produce department of the local Shop Rite. They were quite similar in many respects, but Phil would not graduate from high school on time with Joey because he had trouble with the English Regent’s examination. Also, Joey had a father and Phil did not, and depending on perspective, Phil may have been better off for that.
They spent their time that year with weekdays in school, weekend nights at beer and weed parties in the woods. Joey had inherited some of his father’s qualities as a creative profiteer, so on weekend days they would check on his line of metal snap traps. They ran up creek and all the way down to its mouth at the main river. Phil enjoyed the hikes and the time outside, scrambling over boulders and slogging through the marsh, but hoped the traps would be empty when they encountered them. If they weren’t empty, he hoped the animals were dead because Joey would dispatch the living with his knife. Phil asked him once if he felt bad and Joey said, “Nah. It’s fine. Maybe sometimes. But my dad can get me three bucks for a muskrat fur and four for a mink!”
The weekend after Phil released the herring, a kid at school invited them to a house party. That it was indoors rather than on soggy couches around a bonfire smoking with plastic was appealing, but Phil was ecstatic when he realized Ellie Hansen from his science class would be there.
At the party, she smiled at Phil and it gave him a weird feeling in his stomach. Later, they ended up in the pink bedroom of the host’s little sister. Phil lay with his head resting on her smooth stomach, inhaling the powdery odor of her skin, while she caressed his scalp lightly with her nails. He found himself nodding off, so relaxed, and said, “You know, I made a wish this would happen.”
“Oh yeah?” She leaned forward, arched her eyebrows and then leaned back on the pillow.
“Well, sort of. Last weekend I threw back this weird red fish instead of bagging it. And when I did, I kinda hoped this would happen. With you, I mean.” He turned his head to look in her eyes.
She chuckled. “You made a wish on a fish for me?”
“I guess I did.”
“Well, what a good boy you are,” she cooed as she pulled his face to hers.
Phil and Ellie were together for seven years after that night.
As a fiddlehead pushes through leaf mulch, rises, unfurls and expands, so Phil matured. When Joey graduated and Phil was finished with school, they both landed summer jobs with the city’s department of public works. Joey’s dad drove a garbage truck for the city and got them in. They maintained parks, mowing lawns and weeding beds. They pried up asphalt and dug holes for faulty sewer lines. They removed fallen tree limbs and jackhammered sidewalks, and eventually, they were taken on as permanent hires in sanitation. The work was good, the pay was good, Ellie was good, and life was good.
A few years later Joseph Sr., went to prison. The Department of Conservation placed some decoy deer in the middle of a farm field and waited at night in a sting operation. Joe drove darkly out into the field, put his truck in park, prepped his rifle and blasted his spotlights. He fired four shots, emptying his clip. Cursing, he ejected it and flipped it over, as he had another duct taped to it. He inserted the new clip and fired the next four rounds. The deer had not moved from either the sound or from being struck (which they were not.) He pulled the rifle away from his face and stared at the motionless deer. He paused and thought. Then he heard a bull horn ordering him to drop his weapon. When his truck was searched, there was an unregistered handgun and a substantial amount of cocaine. Joey was distraught at his father’s bad luck, but benefitted by gaining his father’s position in the driver’s seat.
The boys had settled into life as most young men do, like their fathers before them, although Joey was less mercenary than his own. They worked hard mornings, took good lunches, and rolled through afternoons. They spent most evenings at Joe Sr.’s old haunt next to the Chinese restaurant, Uncle Ben’s, where they ate hot dogs with Ben’s “famous” meat sauce and drank Miller. The bar flagrantly profited from gambling. The bartender was the city’s largest bookie and on Friday and Saturday nights the dining area was filled with round felt poker tables. Phil had never been a gambler and was safe from the trappings of Uncle Ben’s until the spring of 1989 when he was 24.
Now left to their own devices, early May on the Hudson had changed from working season to recreation season for the boys. The jon that was Joey’s father’s was now his and was used for herring still, but the herring were caught with fishing poles and were bait to catch the migrating striped bass amongst them. Smoking their own cigarettes on a sunny Saturday and hauling up a thirty pound striper was more satisfying than making five dollars hauling nets in cold rain. Ellie would marinate the heavy fish steaks in Italian dressing and they would grill up beautifully. She would be so happy when he came home with a striper, he began to associate it with a bountiful future.
On a Saturday when the lilacs were beginning to bloom, they were out beneath the immense expanse of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and were jigging up some herring for bait. Phil released his bail and let his weighted rig sink to the bottom. When it hit, he clicked the bail and began to bounce the weight on the river floor. Within a minute he felt the familiar spastic tug of herring. He reeled in smoothly and slowly hoping other fish would bite the additional hooks on the rig. One time, Joey got five fish into the boat at once. At the surface he saw he had multiple fish and quickly lifted the rod and dropped them into the boat, and to his amazement, bouncing and flipping amongst three silver herring was another red one. “Holy fucking shit,” he said.
Joey turned, began to gape but then caught himself. “Another one? We haven’t seen one of them in a while.”
“We only seen one. Like ten years ago.”
“Naw. I think we seen others. Anyway, they’re around. It’s that red DNA thing or whatever. There’s not alotta them but they’re there.” He took a drag from his cigarette and exhaled as he looked up at the bottom of the bridge. Phil grabbed the wriggling fish and looked at it closely. It was just like the last one, a completely normal, wide-eyed, large-scaled herring, but a brilliant scarlet. It was uncanny and he wondered if it was the very same fish from before. Joey saw him rapt. “You should put that out on a line. They say stripers can see’em better cause o’the color.”
“Yeah…” He thought of catching a giant striper with this lucky fish and Ellie’s excitement upon his return with a record breaker. He began to think of their bountiful future together: they had discussed marriage and buying their own house. If this fish was lucky, he thought, it could net him a great catch. He didn’t believe the first one was lucky, but it turned out his wish did come true. So did he really want a big striper or did he want something more? He wanted a home and prosperity for Ellie and himself. Killing the fish might destroy that and who says red fish attract predators more than silver ones? “Oops!” he said as the fish hit the water and shuttled itself into the darkness. He caught no stripers that day, but when he stopped by Ellie’s he told her they should try to get their own house by the next year and she kissed him on his neck. Soon after, they opened a joint savings account and squirreled away as much money as they could.
Everyone in town was familiar with the baddest man on the planet. Iron Mike was Kevin Rooney’s boy and had lived and trained in town for years. Phil had seen him frequently out running and he made Phil feel physically nervous. The man was a legend and was world champion at 20 years old. He made a lot of money and a lot of people made money on him. Many people in Uncle Ben’s did as well.
One summer night, Phil had drunk too much and he broke his no gambling rule and bet $500 on Tyson while at Ben’s. The odds were 1-10 as at that point the champ had thirty-six wins and zero losses, so when Tyson destroyed Williams in the first round, the payoff was only $50. But it was free money because no one could ever beat Tyson. That $50 went, along with the original $500 to where it came from: his shared account with Ellie. They were saving well that year and would have enough for a downpayment on a house by the following spring. That fall, Phil bet and won on the World Series and again that winter on the Super Bowl. He didn’t tell Ellie, but he put his winnings directly into their savings account. He knew she would get angry for taking those risks. He joked to Joey about the magic fish, but part of him, deep inside, attributed some of his luck to that May occurrence.
On February 11, 1990, Phil was turning 25. Ellie was working and he was celebrating at Ben’s. He had lived the best year of his life. Work was good, life was good, and Ellie and he were going to get a house soon. Brimming with happiness and confidence, he drank and laughed with Joey and others in the bar. It just so happened that on Phil’s birthday that year, Tyson had his next match. The only sure thing in the world was a win for Magic Mike. It was just a matter if he’d knock out Douglas in the first round. The book was stacked for Tyson even more for this fight. The champ was 37-0 and Douglas was relatively unknown. He was bigger and had 12 inches of reach on Tyson, but no one thought he had a chance. Except for the bartender at Uncle Ben’s, Jay Hunter.
“One to fifteen?” Joey asked after finding the odds. “I heard people got it up to thirty?”
“I’m tellin’ ya. I’m not goin’ any higher an at. He could lose,” Jay said. He cracked two more bottles of Miller and put them on the bar in front of Phil and Joey.
“But he’s 37-0!” Phil exclaimed. “Did you see what he did to Williams in the first round? He crushed him.”
“I don’t know what you’re fuckin’ complainin’ bout anyway. You bet on ‘em wit my odds you got a betta payout.” Jay leaned forward and spoke confidingly. “Rooney knows see. The kids in shape but he’s fucked. He’s runnin’ in Vegas doin’ all sortsa shit. He ain’t focused. His mom’s dead, D’Amato’s gone. Rooney knows, see.”
“But he fired Rooney.”
“He fuckin’ knows, see?”
Phil considered the payout if Tyson lost, but remembered his luck and the purpose of these bets, which was to get money for their house. The only sure thing in life was a Tyson win and that was guaranteed money. He thought of the herring and bet the entire content of their account, $6,500, even though he knew, deep in his heart, he was going to lose it.
After the first round, Douglas was still standing and Phil became nervous. “Alright, one round not so bad. Wait for that uppercut in the second,” he said.
After the second round, Douglas was still standing and Joey said, “This is fuckin’ crazy.”
At the end of the eighth round, when Douglas was knocked down and got to his feet in a count of ten, Phil said, “Okay. Finally. Let’s do it!”
In round ten, an uppercut snapped Tyson’s head back and was followed by four punishing head shots as he fell to the canvas. When Tyson was disoriented, on his knees, trying to put his mouthguard back in and the fight was called, Phil could only say, “No,” while he began weeping.
He had never seen such rage and hatred in someone’s eyes before Ellie told him she never wanted to see him again. Phil would never have a serious relationship after that. He became a heavy drinker. The next year his mother died and he stayed in the apartment alone. Years passed. He continued to work in the Department of Sanitation until he was forty-eight. He went on disability when his right leg was badly crushed.
He developed the habits of a lonely old man. He was balding. He gained a lot of weight. At noon every day, he would walk with his cane down to the park by the river. He would sit on a bench and stare out at the water, looking up at the immensity of the Rip Van Winkle. He’d enjoy watching the women running on the path and pet the occasional passing leashed dog. He even kept dog treats in his jacket pocket. When he got home at 1:30, Joey would come over for his lunch and they would drink beer and talk about football and hunting. Joey had a house and a family by then and bought some acreage outside of Cairo for a hunting camp. He and Phil would go up there during turkey season. Even with his lame leg, Phil was at least able to lean back still against a tree and scrape a turkey call. He had a nice time those seasons of hunting. They would fish in the late spring as well.
In May of the year Phil would turn 59, he and Joey were out on the river for stripers. Joey had a new boat, a big center console with a 100 horsepower engine. While jigging up bait, Phil felt the familiar spastic tug of herring. As he reeled in the fish, he saw the red flashing rise to the surface. “Will ya look at that?” he said to Joey as he hoisted the fish over the gunwale.
“Haven’t seen one of those in a while,” Joey said.
Phil removed it from the hook and held it in his hand. It looked exactly like the other two. “You think it’s the same one?”
Joey laughed. “Well kill this one and if you get another you know it’s not.”
“I wish I could keep it. You think they’d mount it over at Avery’s? How much you think that’d be?”
“Greg ain’t gonna mount no herring. It’s too small. Waste of his time.” Joey thought for a moment. “Hey, you know my kid’s making some extra dough in school putting shit in lucite and selling it online.”
“Nah, he got the idea in some bio class. He takes shit, like frogs and insects and he casts them in these clear plastic blocks. Then he sells ‘em. Makes some good money. He’s back from school now ‘till Monday. I’ll ask him to do the fish. I bet he can.”
“That’d be great,” Phil said.
Waiting for the preserved fish to arrive that week, Phil thought a lot about the meaning of three. Three times is the charm. Three strikes you’re out. The holy trinity. Death comes in threes. Three ring circus. Ready, set, go. The good, the bad, the ugly. Three darts in a board. He tried to find meaning in the fish. Why him? Was this last fish special? Were the others? As all thinking has its value, Phil mistakenly considered himself a poor thinker. But that week he contemplated life, death, fate and purpose. Without the refinement or jargon and with less articulation, he vaguely plumbed the same depths of philosophy as Schopenhauer and Kant. He also drank a great deal and had to be helped back into his house by his neighbors twice.
“Will ya look at that?” Phil admired the encased fish. “Will ya look at that?” He held it at different angles to view it in the sunlight of his front room. Joey had brought it wrapped in tissue paper in a small white box and the two friends sat together, Phil verging on ebullient.
“Yeah, he did a pretty good job with it. He’s been nettin’ a lotta small fish in the stream, even got some baby trout. Tole ya, he’s making some good money.”
“How much I owe?” Phil said still smiling.
“Oh nothing. Nah, nah, I took care of it.” Joey watched his old friend carefully with the concern of a parent. Phil was in bad shape. His hands tremored, from under his denim shorts his legs were the color of uncooked sausage and an abrasion on his wrist had become a sore.
“Really?” Phil looked from the fish to Joey. “Thanks, man.”
He kept the fish on his mantle between two framed photographs. One was of his mother, a formal Sears portrait of her in her forties sitting primly in a maroon floral dress, with a bucolic horse farm backdrop. The other was a picture of him and Ellie in their early twenties. He was wearing a blue collared shirt and she a yellow sundress. They were posing in an embrace, almost as if dancing, her cheek against his chest, her skin a healthy tan, delicate youthful nose, bewitching eyes. He had the photo for years on his dresser, but now had no reason to fear displaying it proudly. When Joey had first seen it on the mantle, he picked it up and said cheerily, “Hey, great picture.”
Days and months and then years passed. As the mature fern that has weathered the first few fall frosts begins to blacken at the edges and become mottled with mildew, so went Phil’s vitality. He still made his daily walks to the park, sitting on a bench near the river with the massive bridge in the distance. He still enjoyed giving milk bones to puggles leashed to women in yoga pants. He’d still amble home with his cane, stopping to catch his breath and ease the pain in his legs, have his lunch with Joey, and watch the sports channel alone in the afternoon. Heavy drinking was part of his routine as well, paying the guy next door to stop and get him a bottle of vodka from the liquor store. Often, if anyone had ever looked, he could be seen through his front window, standing, weaving slightly, staring dumbly at his mantle. His prim mother. Himself healthy. Beautiful Ellie so vibrant and happy. The fish between them, still brilliantly scarlet, its large eye staring lidless. All eternally motionless.
On an arbitrary summer day Phil had a stroke. Luckily, the upstairs tenant found him when she came to his back entryway to inquire if the postman had left a package. The television inside was blaring, so she opened the door and there he was, in his recliner gasping and gesturing strangely. He survived but was impacted badly enough that he had to live in a nursing home. Even though his new residence was a good 45 minutes from his old one, Joey visited him most Thursday afternoons. Phil had so much trouble speaking it almost didn’t seem worth trying, but he enjoyed his friend’s company and Joey did a great job of detailing the local news and happenings, especially the ludicrous statements made in Uncle Ben’s.
After two months and it was clear he’d never return, Phil’s landlord wanted to clear out the apartment for a new tenant. When he finally got in contact with Joey, he invited him to come over and take what he wanted, either for Phil or himself. “I just gotta get someone in. I got someone who can next week, but I need the place empty,” he said. Phil was a tidy person and there was almost no clutter. He had all the clothes he needed at the nursing home. Joey gave Phil’s two shotguns and fishing pole to his son and brought the two mantle pictures to Phil, who expressed his gratitude and joy with a stammer and tearful, bulging eyes.
One Saturday, the fish ended up on a collapsible table in the driveway. It was labeled for fifty cents and lay between a pack of cards and an aluminum cooking pot. His recliner sold for fifteen dollars and his bed frame for ten. Late that afternoon, when Phil’s landlord was ready to close up the garage sale, two boys came into the driveway and perused the meager leftovers. One picked up the clear block and examined the fish inside. The landlord said, “Take anything you want. It’s all going in the garbage anyway,” as he shoved a camouflage jacket into an oversized trash bag.
“One fish...two fish...red fish...blue fish!” he yelled as he hurled the block at his friend’s back.
“Aah! You dick head!” the friend yelled laughing as it bounced from his shoulder blades. He turned quickly and grabbed up the block to retaliate.
“One fish...two fish...red fish...blue fish!” After a few painful throws at each other, the game had morphed into throwing the fish to one another. The trick was to get the fish as high in the air as possible while making the catch difficult, landing it near a fire hydrant, mailbox or bush. The two were working their way home, throwing the fish as high as they could and laughing at collisions or admiring daring catches. The block was now chipped on its corners and scuffed and the red fish would rocket upwards to the peak of its trajectory. Before falling, it hung, suspended, the sunlight glinting on its scarlet scales and oversized, lidless eyes.
“One fish...two fish...red fish...blue fish!” The boys were on the bridge that crosses the creek and were testing one another by having the block land as closely to the opposite railing as possible. Finally, one of them overestimated his skill and the fish fell over the railing, splashed into the deep creek and sunk out of sight. “Aw shit,” one of them said. They quickly decided to race each other to the post office where they would part ways, each heading to his own home for the night.