Pumpkinseed Summer

by Andrés Cruciani

A memory doesn’t always return. It waits for the right cue. A smell, a certain feeling… lingers, waits… maybe the impetus never comes, gone, all that beauty… An August Wednesday, just months earlier. So hot nary a soul’s outside, windows and office doors battened down for maxed air conditioning, the city’s quarantined don sweaters.

Just two boys, D and Santi, carrying broken-umbrella fishing poles and clockwise circumambulating Harlem Meer, a pond in Central Park’s northeast corner, passing by a NO FISHING sign neither’s yet read. Single-file, clad t-shirts and shorts, sneakers in front, flip flops behind that clack-clack hard on blacktop then soft as footsteps cross freshly-mown grass… then unshorn, the two boys seeking shade and a flat rock close to the water’s edge where they can rest their feet on cool stone and dip the ends of their poles, bait imitating bloated tadpoles for the imagined school of largemouth bass below. Green blades tickle unsocked ankles, aphids hop from Kentucky blue to fine fescue. Seeing Santi’s smooth calves, D wants to joke but doesn’t. Instead, he watches a dragonfly skim across dark green water mimicking the gentle bounce of Santi’s perennial backpack—inside lined with Duct tape and filled with melting ice. Two violet spots speckle D’s vision from the quickest of glances upward, most human of impulses, the want to see. Vision blotches turn into pickerel weeds, purple flowers upright as pipe cleaners, tempting the compound eyes of a sole worker bee enjoying a sun so fierce its tanned two circles around Santi’s eyes. Flip flops clack-clack under the crescent leaves of a gingko, past the tall trunks of a bald Cyprus and a small huddle of mosquitoes; too hot to be out, but out all the same.

Both friends believe fish feed at dawn, but it’s summer—no bells chime lateness, the opening of peepers at a clock blinking 6:45 is no reason to panic, fish’ll want lunch, so close em just a few more hours… On a big stone the two boys sit—under the mighty hermaphroditic oak whose acorns grow green and abundant, cupules and teeth-marked nuts tossed by finicky squirrels littering dry earth. Laces are undone and toes creep past shadows in surprisingly lukewarm water. A translucent fin breaks the water’s surface at the other end and both stare out in longing. A small splash and Santi jumps, thinks something’s nibbling at his toes. Shh, you’ll scare them… D’s t-shirt comes off to a deep bronze, goading reveals torso number two: paler, skinnier, clothing still implied by tan lines. A chestnut-sided warbler chirps above them Pleased pleased pleased t’meetcha as they unpack glistening hotdogs and sit in disbelief. Neither brought a knife, so their teeth cut bite-sized bait and their fingers work the pink, round flesh onto shiny hooks. First D’s then Santi’s poles whip at the pond. Santi’s fishing line uncoils, straightens, and snaps back—his bait bounces off the rock. He tries again, lobbing bobber hook bait in a small, shimmering arc, droplets cascading, pocking the pond’s skin, and now two red and white bobbers float gently. For a few minutes, despite the city’s traffic… stillness.

Now, sun beats a golden drum and here comes a gust of wind—embrace it! Leaves rustle, a million paper bells, and Santi points at a sign they’ve both ignored. D pushes his friend’s arm down, puts a finger to his lips, Shh... Bobbers drift lazily back and Santi’s arm raises once more: VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED. Shh, relax, we haven’t caught anything yet… Lures alternate half-moons. Flat stones skipping one, two, three, four, gullupCome on that counts as five! Raw hotdogs enter smiles and then the miraculous: A bobber dips. Pull Santi! I am! Two boys jerk the old umbrella pole, hooking a cheek deeper. Now there’s no limit: twenty, forty, a hundred pounds maybe. The old man’s marlin! The Pequod’s whale! Heave! shouts D. We’ll be arrested! shouts Santi. But neither lets go. The fish battles, zigs, zags, and tightens the hook’s hold as it jumps from the water in a battle for its very soul, shooting upward into the unknown, unbreathable in the hope that maybe there salvation awaits a second chance at—yanked, she lands flapping on the rock… Quickly D’s foot presses down on her gills. Shimmering scales cut his foot as she wriggles, but he pushes down harder, maw begging, water, while Santi pulls out a Central Park Wildlife manual. Pumpkinseed sunfish, he says, it’s beautiful. Kill it, says D. Autumnal scales writhe under D’s foot and now the two boys look at each other once more. Why’d they forget that knife? Kill it, insists D. I can’t, says Santi. At least take the hook out of its mouth. I can’t do that either… She squirms, mouths ow ow, and D reaches down, pushing the barb deeper into her flesh so it’ll come loose, but she struggles and the hook crunches against ligaments. You try. I can’t, says Santi. So, the two agree: Rochambeau. Rock paper scissors says shoot. Ok, go ahead, you lost. I can’t, says Santi, crouching to take hold of the hook as his tears well, and D wants to chide, but he feels it too. Her gills struggling to pump. Lips suctioning. Tail gently flapping against stone. Heart, a tiny sputtering motor. And now Santi’s fingers reach into her mouth taking hold of the hook, tearing a hole through her cheek. It’s stuck, he cries. Sun gleams in her horrified eye. D knows hypocrisy if she lives. Let’s put it in your bag. But it’s still alive, says Santi. Yet he opens his backpack as D lifts the pole and she, flailing, drops out of sight into the cold... Through the bag’s closed zipper, the fishing line sprouts and coils on stone. The two sit watching a cloud of gnats. The second bobber dips and its pole inches toward the water but neither notices. Instead, they listen to the thrashing of the icy coffin and wait—a helicopter’s thud thud thud… Santi eyes the metal sign, mouths its words aloud but D pretends not to notice, tries to be stronger… Alright, he finally says.

He unzips the bag, lifts her dangling by the hook, still flapping, still alive, and drops her into the water. D hands the pole to Santi and the two watch as she swims circles, sun’s gilded drum higher, the fish’s circling shallower… slower. A duck waddles down a grassy slope and jumping in, its ripple travels across the pond and carries the pumpkinseed up to the surface where she lays unmoving, eye upward through the murky water at a blue sky teeming with bugs and contrails…

 

 

Andrés Cruciani

Andrés Cruciani, SHR 2016 author Andrés Cruciani, a Cornell alum and former math teacher, earned an MFA in fiction from The New School. There he served as a journal editor and was awarded the TNS creative writing scholarship. Since then, he has taught writing at FIT and the Hispanic Center for Excellence at Albert Einstein College. Andrés’ writing has appeared in University of Baltimore's Welter and in Brooklyn Aikikai Journal. He has completed a novel Milos, for which he is currently seeking representation.