The first thing my uncle wanted to do when he got out of prison was go fishing.
Go fishing. That was it. That was all we heard about.
At barbecues, at the grocery, meetings with his parole officer.
When he’d pass out drunk on the couch he’d mumble about the tide. Sometimes I’d grab my bag of sea shells, take each one out and carefully line them along his open ear like a porcelain teepee. He’d drift back off like a baby.
I was seven years old.
No one would take my uncle fishing.
He couldn’t drive because that was how he ended up in prison in the first place. The judge wanted to teach him a lesson. He sentenced him to five months, just long enough to warrant his transfer to the state penitentiary rather than the detention center with the hobos and meth-heads.
He told us he passed the time with drawing. His room. His roommates. Sometimes he’d sketch a picture of someone else’s girlfriend in exchange for items from the cafeteria. Faces and breasts round and flat and delicately shaded like a Diego Rivera mural. He gave us sailboats he’d constructed from wide-ruled paper and toilet tissue, petite but grand affairs where white tatters of sails billowed like the veils of a wedding dress on an overcast summer day. The smell of mint toothpaste used as adhesive tickling my nose. They were exquisite.
My uncle served two months when they released him to my mom and dad.
My mom was thrilled to have him at the house because he was handy. He had all sorts of ideas. He’d extend the porch for a proper grilling area, plant flowerbeds in the front yard, install a complicated system of buckets and pipes that would catch the rain and morning dew and circulate throughout the house so we’d never have another water bill for as long as Jesus kept his sandals out the door.
My dad was less than pleased.
I liked having him around because he was like a big brother and I’d always wanted a sibling.
He’d let my dresses get muddy. He’d turn the other way when I’d chop off pieces of my hair. He’d empty one of his boxes onto the front yard, pictures, utensils, shoes, tons of shoes, and we’d walk to the hill by the baseball field and go sledding with the cardboard.
But it never seemed enough.
He was pretty unhappy, bummed about his situation. Said he had nightmares about prison, that once when he was on the phone with my lola he watched a big white guy get stabbed in the throat by a big Chicano guy five feet away from him.
“Don’t ever go to prison, dayong.”
Back then I thought dayong was just his own special, slurred way of saying darling.
I never looked at him as Filipino because his Southern accent was so thick and he dressed, well, like he was always ready to go fishing.
So it wasn’t at all surprising when he woke me up at two in the morning and told me to get dressed, that we’re gigging for catfish. He carried me out to my mom’s van, sat me in the front seat, buckled me in. He let the van roll back out of the driveway before turning over the engine.
I’d never been in the front seat before. It was overwhelming. He popped in a George Strait cassette and sang along as loud as he could to Amarillo by Morning. I leaned forward and rested my head on my hands on the dash, stared up at the sky, the moon scattering the stars behind slow cirri that looked like long eels ready to slither down the Santee.
I fell asleep.
I woke up cradled in his arms.
A skinny blonde woman in only a pink tank top and white underwear greeted my uncle with a kiss on the porch and patted me on the head. She smelled of magnolia and Lysol. The bungalow was right by the water. Everything was still, like we’d stepped out of time and into our own dimension where the lake and all which a lake encompasses called the shots and didn’t give a shit about parole violations.
My uncle set me down in the jon boat on the shore and he and the woman pushed it into the water. She held it steady as he climbed in, only the toes of his sneakers getting wet, then passed him a six-pack and waved goodbye.
“You take care of your uncle, now, baby-girl.”
I nodded confidently. I would take care of him. I would take responsibility. My uncle just laughed as the hum of the trolling motor rippled our path from the shore.
The first hour we found nothing.
Bugs were everywhere. Little no-see-ums that we could see.
He lit two cigarettes and handed one to me. I put it to my mouth and he smacked it away.
“No, dayong. Just hold the thing. Keeps the bugs away. You better not ever start smoking, you hear?”
We trailed along the brush for some time, me holding my cigarette and the spotlight, my uncle leaning over the water, one hand on the side for balance, the other with the gig and his cigarette. He didn’t smoke, either.
Nothing but millions of small minnows. I imagined looking down from a high-rise in a big city like Tokyo, all these tiny people scurrying in waves down below.
“Don’t look like there’s much out here tonight. Damn.”
I felt bad for him. I wanted to say it’ll be okay but didn’t. I readjusted my feet for comfort and the spotlight slipped from my little palm. I scrambled down to get it, embarrassed, and when the surface was once again aglow we saw it: a baby alligator with yellow eyes just off a small bank ten yards away, floating, maybe three feet long.
I was scared.
My uncle wasn’t.
“Shit, yeah, now that’s what I’m talking about!”
My uncle told me to get the net, this small aluminium thing which I knew immediately would never hold even a big catfish, let alone an alligator.
I was not prepared for this.
He wasn’t either.
The gig was rudimentary, just a broom stick with a switchblade twined at one end. But he had what my lola called the buang in his eyes. He was determined. I thought he’d lost his mind.
We steadied upon the alligator who didn’t seem to care much about our presence.
“Okay, dayong, I’ll stick him real quick and we’ll get on home. Stay over there by the motor.”
I didn’t want to watch but I did. He checked his footing, readied the spear, checked his footing again, raised the spear to just arm’s length, then pierced down into the water.
The whole boat veered sideways at once, violent. The water thrashed high, soaking us both. He pushed down on the stick with his whole body, growling. I panicked and steered right. My uncle waved his arms overhead, reaching, the now snapped broomstick still in his hand. He fell back at my feet. He scurried up, reached past me and steered us about twenty feet toward the shore. He grabbed the spotlight and flashed it on the alligator, his breath heavy, inhaling and exhaling the bugs.
The switchblade was lodged in the alligator’s back. It watched us for some minutes before disappearing below the surface.
I was too scared to cry.
My uncle took us back to shore, lifted my shuddering body out of the boat and hugged me tight. Then he threw me up towards the sky like confetti, laughing. I thought my body would shatter as I fell back into his arms.
“Holy shit, dayong! That was a close one. Hey, baby, cook us some rice.”
He went back to the boat and grabbed the six-pack minus the three he already drank. The water was still again, the moon a little lower and the sky brimming lilac with dawn.
The woman came out with the bowls of rice. We sat by the water and ate. He cracked open the three beers, handed one to the woman and then gave one to me. He raised his can and nodded for me to do the same.
We toasted one another, the beer foaming out over my hand with each small clap of the cans. He smiled and laughed and tipped his head back to drink. I licked the fizz running down my wrist, a mixture of mud, algae, sweat, and bitter. It tasted fantastic.