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September 02

Boy with a Fishing Pole
C. J. Spataro
It’s the boy from the dock. Two summers ago
"Well, what do you think?" He stepped back from the canvas. Beads of sweat trickled down between his bare shoulder blades and he wiped his forehead with the back of his paint stained wrist.
"I think it’s wonderful," she said, taking in the painting. The air in the room was hot and thick, heavy with the acrid odor of oil paint. "He looks kind of like my nephew." She wanted him to open a window, turn on the fan.
"Your nephew?" He looked at her and frowned. "I should have known you’d say something like that."
She frowned back at him. "I guess it’s the red hair." She sat down on the metal folding chair across from the easel and folded her hands in her lap. "Do you have to keep it so hot in here?" she asked.
"I like it hot. You know that." He moved to the small table where his palette lay and began to clean one of his brushes.
She stared at the painting, lifted her nightshirt up over thighs and fanned her legs. It was the contrast between light and dark that struck her most about the painting. That and the figure of the boy, hunched over his fishing pole, a solitary figure surrounded by sky and sea.
"Do you like it?" he asked with his back to her.
"I told you I thought it was wonderful," she said. "The lighthouse on the horizon is a nice touch."
He shook his head. "You just don’t get it, do you?"
She looked down at her folded hands. "Get what?"
"The boy, in the painting."
She watched him gently wipe the paint from the brush and set it down on the table next to the palette. His back and arms were glistening with sweat, there was a dark, v shaped stain where his shorts met his back.
"Take another look at it," he said, turning around to face her.
She stood, folded her arms under her damp breasts, her nightshirt clung to her underarms.
"I really think it’s one of your best, Paul." She reached over and patted his arm. "And I’m not just saying that because my brain is melting."
He smiled at her, moved across the room and switched on the fan.
"Do you recognize the scene, Shelly?"
She shook her head.
"No?" He seemed disappointed. "Remember Lake Superior? The day we went out on the fishing boat?"
She stared at the painting. The boy was bent over his fishing pole. It reminded her of an old man with a cane.
"The boy on the dock?" he said putting his hands on his hips. "You were the one who said I should take his picture."
She shrugged. He stood next to her, both of them taking in the wet canvas.
"I can’t believe your memory is that bad," he said. "Well, anyway, it’s the boy from the dock. Two summers ago, on Lake Superior."
She remembered. She knew what the painting was from the moment she stepped into the room. Her memory wasn’t bad, she just wanted to keep some things for herself, to play with him a little. She’d been fascinated with that boy on the dock that day and now she could see that Paul had been too.
"We had fun fishing," she said, pushing back her damp bangs. "You must have caught six trout that day."
He smiled. "That’s right, that’s right. And we grilled them back at the lodge and ate them out on the deck with drawn butter and asparagus and…"
"Blueberry pie," she said.
"See, you do remember."
She smiled at him.
"I caught six trout," he said, sitting down in the chair. "That boy must have caught twenty, just standing at the end of the pier. I’ve never seen anything like it."
"He was pretty amazing," she said. "Every time he cast his line he pulled out a fish."
"Like he was a character in a fairy tale," he said.
"Yes, just like a fairy tale."

She positioned herself in front of the fan, letting the moist air circle around her and remembered the boy the way he had been that day, not with red hair, but with dark brown hair and eyes. He was much older than he was in the painting, probably twelve or thirteen not eight or nine. He’d told them how his father had been a fisherman and that he had died. About how they said it was no good to eat too many fish out of the Great Lakes because of the mercury. The boy had seemed to her as if he’d had an old man’s soul trapped inside him. It had been a clear, sunny day, but not terribly warm. She remembered how the light reflected off the white caps as the waves hit the stony beach. She’d had her sweatshirt tied around her waist.
"How are you catching all those fish?" Paul had asked him.
"It’s the chum," the boy answered proudly. "You’re not supposed to do it, but if you dump enough fish guts over the side, they’ll just keep coming." He pointed to a wriggling plastic bag lying behind him on the pier. "I’m not supposed to catch more than a dozen, but I don’t care, I’ll just take them over to my brother’s house. We’ll gut’em and put them in the freezer, eat them all winter."
The boy had asked Paul if he would take his picture, not Shelly, although she had encouraged him to go ahead. Paul snapped the boy holding up a particularly large steelhead, still twisting on the end of the fishing line, then he’d flexed his muscle like a strong man in a circus. Paul had continued to snap pictures after the boy had returned to his fishing. She’d stood there, the entire time, observing their interaction, wanting to say some something, but feeling as if she would have been intruding.
"Do you suppose they got tired of eating all that fish?" she said.
"What?" Paul said.
"Do you suppose they got tired of eating all that fish?" She lifted her hair off the back of her neck.
"What fish?"
"All that fish the boy caught?"
He shook his head. "Maybe. They must have been so poor," Paul said. "You remember that town, tar paper shacks and mobile homes."
"He could have just been telling us a story. Trying to elicit sympathy from the tourists." She stepped away from the fan. "His father could have been the captain of our fishing boat or the owner of the lodge for all we know."
"I don’t think so." Paul stood and started to put away the unopened tubes of paint and newly cleaned brushes. He turned and looked at her. "Sometimes you are so cynical."
"Am I?" She looked at the painting again, at the boy, the gentle curve of his back, the arc of the fishing pole. "I don’t feel cynical," she said softly.
"Well, you are." He turned away from her. "You don’t know what it’s like to be poor."
"You’re right, I don’t." She stepped back in front of the fan, looked down at the slippers on her feet. "What do you think is worse," she said, "being poor in the city or out in the country?"
"See, that’s what I mean." He clicked a brush against the side of a glass jar, flecks of color splashed against the glass. "That’s a cynical statement."
"I guess it is." She watched the muscles beneath the skin of his shoulders move back and forth as he cleaned the brush. "So indulge your cynical spouse and answer the question, what’s worse?"
He didn’t look at her. "I think that being poor is no good for any kid, whether they live in the city or the country. I should know."
"I guess you would." She stepped up behind him, wrapped her arms around his waist, laid her head on his back. He patted her folded hands on his chest, then gently pushed her away.
"Your hair was reddish when you were a boy, wasn’t it?" she said, stepping back.
"I guess. I don’t have many photographs from my childhood. No parents, no pictures."
It always surprised her when he spoke that way. "I’ve never thought about it like that before. I’m sorry."
He shrugged.
"But you do remember what color your hair was when you were a child."
"Yes, I guess it was sort of reddish," he said turning to her.
"I wonder. Do you think that if we’d decided to have that child, its hair would have been red?"
He frowned. "I suppose it’s possible but I don’t know why, after all this time, you still say things like that."
"I don’t know," she said. "I know it was the right thing, but I guess I wonder sometimes."
He put his arm around her waist. "You know how I feel."
"I do. Most days I feel the same."
He turned back to the painting, his hands in his pockets. She reached out, stroked his cheek. His eyes were dark and tired. "I’ve changed my mind," she said. "I don’t think the painting looks like my nephew after all."
"You don’t?" he said.
"No, I don’t." She smiled, took him by the hand. "It’s just a beautiful painting of a little boy."

© C. J. Spataro October 2002
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