a short story by
ELIZABETH BRUCE | Educator + Writer
“Flounder” is set on the Gulf Coast beach of Galveston Island, near where I grew up; the horse is inspired by my girlhood love of horses and riding on the beach.
Photo by Justin Greene
“ONE DOLLAR,” said Ben’s grandfather, holding a worn dollar bill in front of his grandson. “I’ll bet you this here dollar I can catch something before you do, buddy.”
“A dollar’ll get you a bag of finger mullet, Fred,” said Chester, the old man selling bait out of the shanty off the feeder road at the end of the island, and he grabbed the buck from Ben’s grandfather and stuffed it in his pocket. “Strong scent, them mullet. Good for flounder, if that’s what y’all are fishing for, and it outta be. Ain’t nothing else biting today.”
“Yessir, flounder,” said the boy’s grandfather, handing both fishing poles to his grandson Ben to hold. The old man patted the inside pockets of his slicker, greasy and torn though it was, and pulled out an old pipe and a crumpled pack of tobacco.
Ben’s grandfather set to stuffing his pipe, his hands trembling so that strings of tobacco fell on the ground and he hissed at them as they fell. Ben watched silently. The old man saw the boy watching him. Watch your tongue, Fred, the old man said to himself. Boy don’t talk much, so don’t be cursing none to show him how.
“Take him fishing, Daddy,” his daughter Colleen had asked. “Get him out of the stables for a while. Boy needs to be with people sometimes,” she’d said. “Child can’t live by horse alone.”
“Not like his ma used to, huh?” the old man had smiled at her, but his daughter’d just poured him another cup of black coffee and set his breakfast dishes in the sink.
“Ben’s not like me, Daddy,” she’d said. “Or like you. World hadn’t beat the tender out of him yet. And don’t you be the one to start, you hear me? Be kind to him. Please.”
You was plenty tenderhearted too, the old man thought, least with them damn horses, and again the fragments came back to him as he sat there in his daughter’s makeshift kitchen in the little home she’d made on the Texas shoreline, these ragged bits of memory and valor mixed up with years he’d lost to the bottle. He thought of Colleen’s mother, of the cancer that took her so young, and the pain and terror he’d felt holding their young daughter by the hand, watching the preacher sanctify his wife’s new dug grave.
Chester the bait man scooped up a ladleful of shiny silver slivers into a plastic bag of seawater and plopped it into the bucket. Ben’s grandfather shook off his memories and looked at his grandson.
“They look like they’re just babies,” Ben, said, peering at the bag of mullet.
“Look like fish to me, son,” Ben’s grandfather said, and he smiled a weary smile at the boy. “Swim like fish, and sure as hell stink like fish.”
“Fish is fish, son,” the bait man said, giving the boy a rough tussle on his shaggy hair. “And generally speaking, fish stink some.”
Do they stink worse than the stench of old age? Ben’s grandfather thought. Of an old man ain’t saved his only child? And again his mouth twitched for want of whisky but he shrugged it off with a grunt.
“You’re on,” Ben said suddenly, lively as the old man had rarely seen him. “First one catches something wins a dollar, Grandpa.”
The old man grinned at the boy, who stood soft-eyed and gentle-voiced before him, holding the old fishing rod and tackle box the boy’s mother had once used as a girl.
Ben’s grandpa stuffed another pinch of tobacco into his pipe and leaned into the bait shed and lit a match and sucked the flame down into the pipe and the tobacco burned red. He puffed out a few mouthfuls of smoke and coughed. The tobacco smelled thick and sharp like horse dung. The boy wrinkled his nose and turned away.
The old man lit another match and puffed again on his pipe and looked at the boy, small for his age with gray-green lonesome eyes like his mother’s.
He thought again of his daughter, Ben’s mother, and the fury in her gray-green eyes that sickening night months before the boy was born.
“Let me do this for you, Jelly Bean,” he’d said to her then, his words slurring together. She’d come roaring up to the tumble down stable-hand shack they’d lived in on the horse farm in north Texas, riding on the boss’ yearling. The animal had been beaten wildly, by the boss no doubt, and the old man had helped his daughter unsaddle the young horse, black as crude, and he’d stayed with her as she brushed it down and treated the whip marks with salve and fed it oats and stroked its muzzle the way the boy Ben had done to the self-same horse that very morning before he’d come fishing with his grandpa.
“Somebody’ll have to pay for taking this here horse,” the old man had told his daughter so many years ago. “And it might as well be me, for all I ain’t done for you, nor your mama before that. Was me that sunk us down to living here like field hands all these years shoveling horse shit for that bastard.”
“I paid for it already, Daddy,” she had said, “even if that SOB denies it, which he will do like he denies everything else he’s done to me and this family and this horse and half the county that nobody dares talk about,” and it was then he’d seen the look of her, his beautiful daughter, her hair matted at the back of her head and her clothes twisted and crumpled.
“What you mean, you done paid for it?” he’d asked her, the words coming thick and dull out of his mouth heavy as they’d been with whisky and cigarettes that night, though in his heart he’d known what she had meant. She’d punched the air and cursed the world.
“I mean, I already swapped him a trade, Daddy,” she’d answered him. “To get him to stop beating this poor animal. He got what he wanted finally, so let’s just leave it at that and let this horse be. The animal’s had a hard time of it, Daddy. Anybody can see that. Just let it be. I’ll be alright. I’ll think of something to prove this horse is mine now.”
Ben’s grandfather had looked at his daughter that terrible night, lean and defiant even haughty as she’d been as a child, motherless for all the world to see, but he’d seen the defeat there, beneath the set of her jaw and the black iron sear of her words. The horse’s owner would deny it all, they’d both known that. The beating, the barter, the devil’s bargain she had made. And the back country law would believe him, bossman that he was, as they always did.
So he would help her, as best he could, he told himself. And, sure enough when the bossman railed about his stolen horse, the old man had marched himself into the sheriff’s office looking bedraggled, and swore a blue streak that he’d stolen a horse—a coal black gelding he’d found wandering whupped and raw across the boss’s land out off of the old farm road down by the railroad tracks. And sure enough he’d taken the poor horse, he’d said, saddle and all, and sold it to drifter passing through, though he was damned if he could remember who he was, slumped down drunk as he’d been and broke down as the horse must have been for the beating someone, maybe even the bossman, had laid upon it. And they had believed him, these small town lawmen, and let him do his time down in Huntsville Prison with all the other robbers and thieves just to be rid of him for a while, and his daughter swallowed her pride and thanked him and moved away, driven off in the darkness with the horse in a rickety trailer, far off from the Texas panhandle where the horse was born, and she’d set up her little riding stable on the southern tip of Galveston Island, and made herself a quiet life, a simple living all alone.
The boy had come along months later, sired, the old man figured, by his daughter’s barter in the night, but they never spoke of it, his daughter and he. They kept their conversations at the prison—such as they’d been–on business, a new horse or saddle or the pleasantries of life—Ben’s first words, first steps, his two front teeth, the tuft of sandy hair that jutted up into a cowlick plain to see, and over time the boy had grown to six years old, far from Huntsville, but sweet and kind and gentle, a quiet boy, unlike the cruelty from whence he’d come.
Standing outside the bait shack beside his grandson holding the bucket of finger mullet, the old man suddenly felt a rush of tenderness and fear for the boy, just a child who couldn’t possibly know the ugliness of this world, its steady creep into even the lives of the good ones, like Ben’s mother.
“Take him out past the jetty near the old road, Daddy,” his daughter had asked earlier that morning as she set the breakfast plates onto the drying rack. “Folks say the flounder is biting good over yonder.”
He’d said he would and smiled at her and she’d stopped and brushed back a stray strand of greying hair and smiled back at her father. He’d grinned the grin of a prodigal man and gone to find his grandson Ben that morning, alone as usual in the stables, stroking the velvety muzzle of his coal black horse, flecked now with a few white hairs across its nose, a beautiful animal still, sleek and strong for all its suffering. The pride of his young boy’s life, the old man had thought, the one thing that sets him apart from every other fatherless boy cross the bayou.
Ben’s grandfather shuddered in the wet autumn air, and turned and spoke to the boy.
“You ready to catch us some flounder, son?” he asked, and nodded to Chester and stuffed his tobacco back into his pocket.
The boy and old man picked up their gear and walked down the stretch of hard wet sand past the jetty. It was a public beach but at 8 am on a holiday morning in November they had the place pretty much to themselves.
The old man put his hand on his grandson’s shoulder to steady himself, wobbly as he was without drink, and he felt the boy straighten his back and pull himself as tall as his six years would let him. He hadn’t seen the boy much these past six years, he thought, some of it his own damn fault and some of it the jail time he’d done for the sake of the stolen horse and his daughter and the trouble she’d have been in if he hadn’t. It wasn’t his first turn at jail, and odds were it wouldn’t be his last.
The old man looked down at the ground. The boy’s small feet lightened the gray sand beneath him slightly as he walked, a halo of paleness bursting out from each footprint, only to vanish in the salty wetness rushing back to fill the void. He looked down at his own feet, clumping along in his old boots, pressing the gray green lightness like the boy’s eyes into big, bleak circles around each step. He coughed and the boy’s shoulder jerked slightly beneath the old man’s hand.
“Flounder here we come,” said Ben quietly, slowing his pace to let the wobbly old man he barely knew catch his breath.
“Yessiree Bob,” the old man said, sucking on his pipe again though it had long gone cold.
To the old man’s surprise, the boy took hold of the old man’s fishing rod. “Your pipe’s gone out, Grandpa,” he said. “Lemme hold your stuff and you can light it again.”
“Right you are, Ben,” said the old man, and he turned his back to the waves and stuffed his pipe again and leaned toward the sand dunes and held his hands over the match and lit his pipe. The wind hurled the smoke away from them and it vanished in the air like breath on a cold blue day.
Then he took the bucket from the boy and bent and opened the bag of finger mullet and tried to thread his hook through the gills of one but his hand shook and the fish struggled against him and again he felt the pull of liquor and he righted himself. He took a deep breath and tried again and this time he got the hook through the mullet’s mouth, almost dead now with the hook sharp inside it. The old man tugged on the hook and tightened it up.
“Hold out your hook, son,” he said to the boy, and he held Ben’s hand tight in his as they held the hook and dug it through another mullet’s gills and out its mouth. The old man’s hands were cold and he held them around his pipe and puffed again.
“You know how to cast this thing?” he asked Ben.
“Seen it done,” Ben said. “Don’t go fishing much.”
Then the old man crossed behind the boy and helped him swing his fishing rod back and forth a few times before letting loose the reel and watching the hook and sinker sail far out into the surf. Then he took up his own reel and cast his bait out beyond the waves.
They stood there, holding their fishing rods, looking out into the Gulf, the wind blowing their slickers flat against their chests and the cool salt breeze whipping through their hair. Out at the edge of the horizon they could see the dim shape of an oil rig and farther still beyond a tanker bellowed. The port of Galveston lay north and west and farther up to the north Houston’s ship channel beckoned, waiting for ships and cargo that came and went, loading and unloading freight cars piled high with sulfur, yellow as egg yolks, and cotton baled taut beneath their sheaves of burlap torn and tattered as field hands, bounty from a crueler time bound for or from the great wide world beyond.
Ben and his grandfather stood, breathing in the seaweed smell of it all. Their lines ebbed with the rhythm of the waves and above them the seagulls cawed as seagulls do.
“Yessiree Bob,” the old man said at last. “I could sure do with some barbecued flounder tonight.”
The boy suddenly lurched as his fishing rod bent forward and he put one foot out and leaned back and groped for the reel.
“I caught something!” Ben hollered and he began to jump up and down, the taut fish line see-sawing the air. “I did it! I did it!” he shouted above the wind, breathless from excitement. His line pulled and yanked.
“Hold on, boy,” Ben’s grandfather said, and the old man stepped back and jammed his own pole into the looser sand behind them and angled it back and the line slacked then stretched taut again. Then he stepped up behind his grandson and put his arms around the boy and laid his hands over his and together they began in fast turns to reel the boy’s catch in.
“Gonna get me a dollar,” Ben muttered as the flounder flew out of the water and splashed back down as the old man and he pulled it in. It flipped and flopped in the shallow sea brine, and the old man let go of the rod and grabbed the line and walked over to hold the fish up above the foam.
“Yep, looks like you done won that dollar, son,” he shouted to the boy running up behind him.
But then the boy stopped. He reached out and touched the thin flounder as it struggled and grasped it between his hands, stroking it like a hurt pup, flailing against fate.
“Let it go, Grandpa,” the boy said quietly, his eyes suddenly fierce like his mother’s. “Please, let it go.”
And Ben’s grandfather, his hands not shaking so much now for lack of drink, looked hard at the boy, the Gulf breeze slapping his hair across his face and he saw the same sorrowful fury there he’d seen in his daughter that night six years before, and suddenly he felt the same sick helplessness sweep over him, busting his heart into a thousand splinters.
The old man gently pulled the hook from out of the flounder’s mouth, and the boy, holding the wiggling fish in both arms now, wadded into the surf and gently let it go.
“Don’t need a dollar no how, Grandpa,” he said. “’Leastwise, not that way, I don’t.”
Coughing again, the old man went and got the bucket of finger mullet and handed it to the boy.
“I reckon we don’t need no dollar’s worth of mullet neither, son,” he said softly as the salt air stung his eyes. “No sireee Bob, I reckon we surely don’t,” he said as his grandson Ben, smiling now as he’d never seen him smile before, whooped and knelt and let the silvery finger mullet dart out into the foamy undertow.
Educator + Writer
DC-based Texas writer/theatre artist/arts educator Elizabeth Bruce’s debut novel, “And Silent Left the Place,” won Washington Writers’ Publishing House’s Award, ForeWord Magazine’s Bronze Fiction Prize, and was Texas Institute of Letters’ Best Work of First Fiction Finalist. Publications that have published her prose in the USA, UK, and Australia include FireWords Quarterly, Pure Slush, Inklette, Lines & Stars, ‘Merica Magazine, The Olive Press, Eos: The Creative Context, Human Noise Journal, Degenerate Literature BareBack Magazine, and The Washington Post. Anthologies: “Gargoyle 64,” “Gravity Dancers,” Weasel Press’ “How Well You Walk through Madness,” and “Vine Leaves Literary Journal: A Collection of Vignettes from Across the Globe.” Educational Book: CentroNia’s “Theatrical Journey Playbook: Introducing Science to Early Learners through Guided Pretend Play” by Elizabeth Bruce. Her fellowships include the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, Poets & Writers, and McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation.
Elizabeth says, “My fiction focuses on regular people pressed into the margins, their equilibrium gone. And yet they go on: a World War One vet traumatized into silence, an imprisoned father communicates with his daughter, an isolated housewife defies a malcontent husband, a young man struggles to care for his disabled brother, a recluse entwines himself with literature. They are my locals. My attention must be paid.”