for my dad, protector of imagination, setter of hooks
Among the lures and hooks and webs of fishing line in my grandfather’s old tackle box was an amber prescription bottle, the label removed, that was sealed so tight that neither my eight-year-old nor my twenty-something-year-old hands could open it. Coiled inside was something vermicular, dark and slimy, clearly dead, if it had lived at all. And if it had lived, it would have surely been a creature to both seek and avoid–the two battling and primary aims of childhood exploration. It was the prospect of slime that made it such a desirable object to my brother and I when we were barefoot on the dock situated on the salt marsh of Pawley’s Island, South Carolina, hopping up and down encouraging my father to hook and bait our fishing poles faster. My father, who insisted on at least unloading the car first and had hinted that he’d prefer a nap, would systematically untangle the lines he’d untangled the prior summer before packing the box away. We would beg him to open the bottle and reveal its contents, but he would just mumble that it was some sort of special bait Papa had bought. “But, it’s irresistible to fish!” he would add enthusiastically. My brother cried out in disbelief at our father’s obliviousness, “Then let’s use it!”
“Nah,” Dad would say, “we’ve got some of Mom’s fried chicken.”
When I was six, I would help Papa read. He was beginning to forget words, and I was helping to teach them back to him. On Saturdays, my father would take us kids to pick him up. We would go to McDonalds for Happy Meals and Papa would turn to me and say, “well, isn’t this a nice restaurant?” Papa wandered off a few times a month, and got lost until a neighbor or a kind stranger would help him home or call my father to come get him. This never registered as abnormal to me. It was that he could sit in a plastic booth eating a Filet-O-Fish and perceive that he was in an actual restaurant that frightened me, which turned quickly into aggrevation. “Papa! This isn’t a restaurant,” I would admonish him, “it’s McDonald’s!” He would nod, bewildered, and dip a fry in a puddle of ketchup.
A few years ago, as adults, Alex and I decided to open the bottle. It had rolled around the bottom of the tackle box among the little weights and lures and in our imaginations our entire lives and now my little brother was six feet and four inches tall and his hands were big enough.
“Whatever is in here,” Alex said gravely, “we won’t tell Dad.”
I nodded. It was as if we were about to unleash the very serpent that might tempt us into evil. The irresistibility of this bait was not limited to the feeble willpower of fish; it had caught us. He twisted the top right off, the sword in the hands of the right person at the right time. There, inside the bottle, was a black blob that smelled like rubber, if rubber could die.
“What should we do now?” my brother asked.
We poured the contents of the bottle into the salt marsh where it sank, blackness into blackness. It was a non-moment. In fact, it was a moment in its lack of being a moment. I allowed myself, briefly, the luxury of hoping that the water would come alive in a frenzy of fish, attracting bigger fish with fins that sliced through the surface of the water, but we settled for watching our grandfather’s magic bait dissolve until we were staring into the water made dark by our own shadows.
In his last years, my grandfather began to save treasures: shiny balls of aluminum foil, stacks of Styrofoam containers taller than me, piles of plastic forks, and a large cardboard box of identical Christmas ornaments: felt-covered Santas holding small gifts wrapped in green and white gingham. Had anyone ever thought to unwrap the gifts? I asked. My father, preoccupied with cleaning, looked up briefly and said, “probably not, but don’t do it,” and went back to scrubbing the fireplace. I sneaked into the kitchen and pulled the box off of the countertop. There were probably twenty-five Santas inside. I chose one by carefully inserting my finger into the gold loop of string at the crown of his head and pulled it out of the box. I picked gently at the folds of the cloth until the glue gave and unwrapped the gift: a square of white crumbly Styrofoam. Maybe, I thought, only one of them had a real gift inside: a tiny gold ring or a silver coin, or some unimaginable prize. I just needed to find the magic one. I opened another and another until I was no longer careful with them. I ripped at the Santas frantically, panicking at the possibility that the whole box of them was a hoax, and there was such evil in the world that someone had wrapped a block of the same packing material used for new toys in bright gingham and a bow, glued it to the hands of Santa Claus and left it like bait for a hungry little girl who will believe anything but that sometimes, the greatest gift is the lie.
posted by holly.