It was June and I was drunk and I was starving, so I went to the river and plopped down on the bank and plunged my forearm into the cool brown current and grasped blindly. I don't know why. I wrenched out a handful of sediment and flung it against a tree and watched as the slop dripped down the veined bark.
When I was eight years old, my father, with a thud, set me down in his rotting dinghy next to a jar of pickles. He popped open a beer, drank it down and threw it in the river. Then he pointed at me, with his long stickbug fingers, eerie things belonging behind glass. “Jackson,” he said. “We're going noodling and you're gunna see your old man haul in a big one. A whopper, a goddamned prizewinner.”
Dad was always looking to haul in prize-winners and whoppers. He never won any prizes that I know, and he died alone in a big ugly airstream trailer clutching his crotch with one hand and his heart with the other, or at least what was left of it.
That morning, His spidering fingers clenched the side of the boat as he used his other arm to draw us downriver with a makeshift birchwood oar. The riverbank was a mahogany pastiche of mud and root, patched sporadically with grass.
“Below us there's some big ones, son,” he said. “Big whopping guys with whiskers long as you are tall. They're probably all asleep, but I'm gunna noodle one of 'em out. A big one. I seen him the other day. Saw his big ugly mouth comin' up outta the water, slurpin' at a frog.”
It was hot, I remember, a July mid-morning, sweltering. The heat tore at your skin until it crisped and peeled slowly and you'd find it on your pillow in the morning, piled like snake-skin. Dad didn't have a shirt on, but he rarely did. He leaned over the side of the dinghy and splashed himself whenever he got too hot. At times, he would get an intense look of focus on his face, as if a divine current took hold of his earthly carapace and set him upon some biblical task. He often looked fresh from Sinai, clutching the commandments, staring unlovingly at some godless cursed mass. That morning, he bore holes into the riverbank, searching for the spot where he'd seen the catfish and the frog.
“It was somewhere along here,” he said, pointing into a mass of oak roots dipping into the water. “Perfect for a den,” he said. “That's where we'll get him.” He steered the rickety boat next to the grove of roots and peered into the murk. He tickled the surface of the water with those striderbug fingers and licked one for god knows why. “I think he's down there, he said. Right now.” His eyes got big and you could almost see the excitement perspiring from his teard ucts. The year before he'd noodled a big catfish outta its den and was pulling it aboard the dinghy but it let loose of his hand and plopped back into the river. He cursed that fish for weeks.
When you noodle, some people call it handgrabbin', a catfish, you first gotta grope around for its den. Once you find that, you sorta just noodle your fingers around until it rushes at your hand and clamps down, hoping to deter your intruding limb from disturbing its eggs. Then you pull the thing out and plop it in your boat and look at it, whistling and cheering. Maybe you pour your beer on it while it flops, madly gasping, asphyxiating. It dies eventually and you take it home and stare at it some more and take pictures with its carcass then you gut it and your mother fries it and serves with coleslaw on the side and some cool lemonade to wash it down.
I knew one guy, my dad's coworker, he noodled a big catfish one day, a record setting monster. 138 pounds. The Game and Parks Commission came along and they took that sucker and put it in a cramped tank in an aquarium in the middle of nowhere. It's been there near 18 years now, I guess. I went and looked at it a couple times, stared into its black, dollhouse eyes and twitched my fingers at it until it went rampant across the tank and smacked its muscled body against the imitation limestone walls. I swear that catfish smiled at me after he careened off that wall. They've got giant mouths, always half-open, casually making an elongated oval-shape, expanding and contracting.
I stared at my dad the same way that morning as he leaned over and plunged his arm deep into some crevice along the river's edge. I shuddered. I once got stuck in a river at night as it got deeper and the current grew swifter. I walked along the edge in order to avoid being swept downstream but I almost gave up because the muck and mire resting along the banks hides hideous creatures, roots, grass, strange plants, broken limbs, rocks, all of it encased in ooze. My dad plunged his hand into that ooze recreationally, for sport. “Found it,” he said, eyes wider than a windmill. He really stuck his arm in there then. “Any second now,” he said. His anticipation was palpable, a salty mess of desperation and glee. Tension hung low in the air and a daunting, bewildering sensation seemed to be hitching on the wind.
Because my father had his hand mangled by a monstrous snapping turtle that morning, I normally don't dip my hand bankside into rivers. The bloody tangle of flesh and sinew dangling from the beast's beak is still very much emblazoned in my head. I stone cold passed out then. He was shrieking and everything, but I was gone. I cracked my head and broke the jar of pickles as I fell backward into the dinghy. Dad and I were treated by the same doctor.
So, on that drunken June afternoon at the river's edge, I can only cite my inebriation as the cause of the thoughtless plunge of my hand onto the river's bottom. I've been scarred for life, you see. I have nightmarish visions of fingers as stickbugs as mangled flesh which occasionally bubble up to the surface, at times in spurts. I lay awake at night and hear my father's shrieks and the surfaced head of a hellion hissing its prehistoric vibrations.
Sprawled on the riverbank, I had no churnings in my gut. I groped around the river bottom, wriggled my fingers in and out of the sand, letting it slide between my knuckles, placing it on the back of my hand. I sunk my fist into a muck-mired hole next to the river's edge and waved my fingers back and forth. “You gotta move it just right, Jackson,” my dad said the morning of the attack, “so you can startle the fish enough to lunge at you, then he'll get a hold of your hand and you just pull with all your might until that sonofabitch is up outta the water then you plop him down and watch him flop.”
Some people, the real serious types, they go out and they put nesting boxes down into the river and come along in a few weeks after the catfish has all cozied up and yank it away from its eggs. My dad never used a nesting box, and there definitely was no nesting box there that June afternoon when I drunkenly wrestled a 140 pounder from the murk. He chomped down on my hand as I waved my fingers around in that hole and I knew it wasn't a snapping turtle because my fingers weren't severed, so I fought the beast. He pulled me into the water and I just rolled around with him, grappling and hugging like old friends. For a moment I thought it was trying to kill me, its enormity sprawled across my face, smothering me for all it was worth, but I got a hearty grip on him and I rose up and threw him on the riverbank. He flopped wildly but I held him down with a log and whispered “Shhhhh” until he finally gave up the ghost.
For I don't know how long, I laid next to its enormous presence there on the riverbank, exhausted. I put my arm over the hulking thing and told him he'd put up a good fight, but you can't beat man, you just can't conquer the unconquerable, but you tried and that's what counts because everybody fails eventually and sometimes they die because of it and you died because you fought the unconquerable. I was drunk and I was talking to a dead fish and I eventually puked and passed out and woke to the voice of a superintendent telling me it looked like I'd broken a world record but alcohol wasn't allowed in the park.