by Tim Martin
I was three years old when my father ran away. He left, unexpectedly, vanished like a wisp of smoke, and I wasn’t even sure who it was who had stepped out of my life. I remember little about my father. My mother refused to discuss him. She could scarcely bring herself to speak his name. When he left, he never returned. It was as if he had simply disappeared from the face of the earth.
My mother and I lived in a small mill town in northern California. It was a town of chuckholed streets, junglelike lawns, and houses as bleak as a hundred-year-old ghost town. Unemployment was endemic there. What I remember most vividly about those days was the embarrassment. I had no father. He had let us down. He had failed to do what a man was supposed to do if he was to call himself a man: work hard, pay his debts, and stand by his family forever.
The numbers attached to the years slowly changed. During that time my mother and I never went anywhere. We enjoyed no vacations or weekend outings, no movies. We had little money in our house for such things. Then one day, everything changed. A man fell from the sky and landed at our dinner table. I was ten years old, but I remember it as though it were yesterday.
That winter day began brittle with cold. Plates of ice covered the puddles. I was in bed when I heard a car pull into the driveway. I peeked out the window and saw a blue Chevy pickup, motor idling, vapors rising in the gelid air. A strange man sat behind the wheel, looking big and full of purpose. Mom told me he was coming—my new stepfather. He had married my mother only a week before in Nevada. I was choked with excitement. What would he think of me? My hair wasn’t combed and I hadn’t brushed my teeth. I was taken with a terrible idea: what if he had seen me already? What if he thought, This kid will never make a decent son. A boy should be stronger and taller.
My mother called from the living room. I stuffed my shirttail into my pants, hollered, “Yeah?” and straightened up erect, prepared to make the best manly impression possible. Then I opened my bedroom door and strode into the living room. There, in the flesh, was the father I had dreamed of in a thousand forms since I’d realized that other boys had a second parent, a parent who knew men’s stuff and could pass it down to them.
He introduced himself. His name was Ernie—Ernest McKenzie. His voice was rough, yet caressing, like the lick of a tomcat’s tongue. He had bare-looking green eyes, a gap between his top teeth, and hair as black as wrought iron that was combed with force off his forehead. He offered his hand and I shook it. His grip was meaty, muscular. He was, as I knew from a boy’s curiosity and observation, unusually strong.
“How’s the fishing around here?” he asked.
I had no idea. I had never caught a fish in my life.
“I don’t know,” I murmured, hardly daring to raise my eyes to his.
He fixed a cigarette on his bottom lip, snapped a little no-nonsense stainless steel lighter under it, and returned the lighter to the chest pocket of his shirt. The smoke rose up the right side of his face, so he narrowed that eye.
“Well, we’re just gonna have to find out,” he said, and tipped me a wink.
A thrill rippled through me in that wink. It put the two of us in cahoots; it made us secret allies in a manly way. After my mother finished showing Ernie around our small house, he pulled me aside and said, “Say, I got a great idea. How would you like to go fishing tomorrow?”
“S-sure,” I stammered. “But . . .”
“No buts about it,” he said. “I’ll wake you in the morning.” Then he handed me a half dollar and asked me if I would run to the store.
Would I run to the store? I would have circled the globe if he had requested it! I was falling all over myself getting out the door. I was just pulling out of the driveway on my bicycle when Ernie hollered, “Get yourself a candy bar, too.”
The man is a god, I remember thinking as I pedaled down the block toward the corner store.
As Ernie promised, he woke me early the next morning to go fishing. Our destination was the Eel River. It dipped out of the mountains to the east and slid past our small town. Ernie assured me trout were in the river, big speckled trout with bellies as red as cherry candy.
By the time we reached the river, the sun was up. Our fishing spot was downstream from a small waterfall. The rock reef was about two feet under the water, so the whole river rose into one wave, shook itself into spray, then fell back and turned blue. Ernie added sinkers and hooks to our lines. Then he threaded worms onto the hooks. A fish jumped from the blue water, flashing like quicksilver.
“See right there?” He pointed to the place where the trout had jumped. “Wow! She was a big one.”
Ernie always called things she, but I couldn’t tell how he knew. He would say, “I guess she’ll be a hot one today,” or “It looks like she’ll rain.” Or when we were fishing, “Just skim the worm across the water and watch her jump.”
I drew back and made my cast.
“Did I get her in the right spot?” I asked.
“Just right,” Ernie said.
The line tightened and the current carried the worm into sight at the end of the pool. I could feel the sinkers tap-tapping on the rocks. Suddenly, the tip of my pole dipped and the line straightened, taut as a wire. I jerked and reeled in quick. On the end of my line was a ten-inch speckled trout. My hands were shaking, but finally I managed to grab the fish and shout to Ernie: “Look! I got one!”
“Hey, that’s a beauty,” he said, launching a terrific smile. “And it’s the first catch of the day. You’re turning out to be quite a fisherman.”
I preened inwardly, murmuring my thanks. Already I liked everything about Ernie. I thought to myself he was the kind of man a boy needs around when he’s growing up. If I was going to call any man my father, he would be a good man to choose.