CATFISHING by Bridge Lower

CATFISHING by Bridge Lower

Catfishing happens at night and the bait smells like blood and cheese. We fished for what felt like hours in a cloud of mosquitoes, and we only caught one fish. We pulled it to the floor of the boat, and I couldn’t believe it actually looked like a cat. It fought hard, flailing wildly. The man called it a beastly motherfucker, his foul language thrilling my sister Ellen and me. 

“You know catfish got tastebuds all over their bodies?” he said. “They’re just swimmin’ tongues. You lick one and he’s lickin’ you right back.”

“Gross!” we screamed. “Why would you lick a catfish?” 

He laughed. “Knowin’ that, why wouldn’t you?”

When the fish finally succumbed, we laid it in a cooler full of ice, its glassy eyes cold and detached. The man promised us fried catfish sandwiches the next day, which I’d never had and didn’t know I wanted until right then. To eat this very fish would be primitive in a way for which, at age ten, I didn’t possess words or experience. Every fish I’d ever eaten had come from a blue Styrofoam tray, wrapped in layers of plastic that encased a dozen different smells, all of them factory and none of them sea.

We slept in the car, something I don’t think was planned because there was only one blanket. The man made do with a thick canvas coat, putting the driver’s seat down as far as it would go and resting his hat over his face. Ellen and I curled up in the backseat and held hands all night, the way otters do to keep from floating apart. She couldn’t sleep so I whispered to her everything I knew about dogs, making friends, black holes, puberty, Christmas, Egyptian mummies, different types of candy, and kissing.

In the morning, we sat up and saw two deer, a mother and a baby. The man told us to be still, don’t make a sound. The pair walked past the rear window, their soft dappled fur nearly brushing the glass. 

On the way home, the man dropped us at a Wendy’s and said he was going to find a payphone. “Let’s get your mom on the line,” he said. 

I was happy to have a break from the car. The smell of the catfish was beginning to leak in from the trunk. Even on ice it was starting to spoil. 

He handed me a twenty-dollar bill. “That’s ten each,” he said. “More than enough, but don’t spend it all.” 

Wendy’s had recently launched a ninety-nine cent menu. We ordered modestly, just a burger and small fries each, and a Frosty to share. We didn’t want to get into more trouble. Then we went outside and looked for the man, for his car, and found neither. 

We stayed there for hours, spending the rest of the money. First, Ellen was thirsty, so I bought her a soda. Then she was hungry, so I bought her some chicken nuggets. Then she was scared, so I bought us both another Frosty. On our table grew a mountain of sweating yellow cups, cardboard boxes, and greasy wrappers. We somehow knew not to draw attention to ourselves, sitting out of view of the employees and moving tables every half hour. Each time I ordered more food, I told the cashier, “My mom said to buy this”, but the employees didn’t care. They weren’t thinking about us at all. 

We quietly sang Bruce Springsteen songs, avoiding eye contact during “I’m On Fire.” 

Hey little girl is your daddy home, did he go and leave you all alone mmmm-hmmm.

“Darlington County” felt better, full of references to things like union connections and World Trade Centers, things we didn’t understand but flew off our tongues with less self-awareness. 

I told Ellen the man was coming back, of course he was, he probably had trouble finding a phone. She gulped and nodded. I looked out the wide windows to see if there was somewhere else to go, but everything outside held much more uncertainty than the Wendy’s booth. There, in the plastic refuge, we were safe.

I told Ellen that Dave Thomas was a real person and he named Wendy’s for his daughter, also real. I wasn’t sure if she really looked like the grinning, freckled girl who stared up at us from our pile of trash. She was almost certainly never left behind at a Wendy’s, or anywhere for that matter. She was loved. 

I told Ellen everything I knew about leprechauns, monkeys, Garbage Pail Kids, dreams, Hawaii, Helen Keller, bras, weddings, and secret diaries with locks and tiny keys. We spoke about the doe and the fawn we’d seen when we woke up that morning, walking past the car, oblivious to our presence. We named them after ourselves.

We ran out of things to talk about and began to eat whatever was left, picking at the smooth edge of a hamburger bun, the skin of a baked potato. Ellen ran her tongue around the inside of a fry box and I was jealous I’d never thought to do that.

Then she whimpered. Our eyes met; her mouth twisted terribly. She had an accident – too much stress, too much grease. I took her into the bathroom, which smelled of lemon disinfectant and urine, and in the stall, I helped her remove her shoes, socks, and pants. We threw her underwear into the trash and buried them. The stink of feces persisted, filling the tight space. Ellen cried hot tears while I wiped her legs with wet paper towels oozing with electric blue soap that rubbed her skin until it stung. I removed my own shoes, socks, and pants and gave my underwear to her. I was fine without them, but she would not be. She needed them to feel safe, a thin shield against the world. 

It was getting dark when the man came back. I watched his wiry frame move across the parking lot, silhouetted against an astonishing pink and purple sunset. He walked with purpose until we locked eyes through the glass, and then he hesitated. I suppose there are things in life that feel right in the moment but will grate at your being over time, leaving you porous. You become a sieve, unable to hold anything for any amount of time without remembering the awful things you did. Maybe he came back because he didn’t want to be a sieve for the rest of his life and leaving two young girls at a Wendy’s will do that to you. He saw us through that window and knew he was nothing but fucked. 

Many years later, I entered this Wendy’s into Mapquest and found it was over two hundred miles from home. To get to the catfishing lake, we had gone up and over the Rocky Mountains, passing several ski resorts. On the drive, in each direction, when we approached Hot Sulphur Springs, the car filled with the stench of rotten eggs, and both times, Ellen opened her eyes and asked who farted. We’d laughed on the way there, but no one laughed on the way back. 

The man raged as he drove, telling us how our mom had tricked him, said she had an emergency and could he take us for a night. He said she begged and cried, and having no kids of his own, he didn’t know what to do with children, didn’t know how much attention we required. 

He said he’d do anything for her, move mountains, drain the widest river. He kept referring to her little rendezvous, which I made a note to look up later, but I couldn’t find it in the dictionary because it’s not spelled how it sounds. Over and over, he said he should have known. He never stopped talking, comparing her to all sorts of animals: snake, dog, cow, pig. He used other words too: bitch, whore, liar. He called her a fucking slut and then apologized for swearing. 

I dozed off with Ellen’s head in my lap and woke to see a roadside sign with reflective white letters that said Denver 87 miles. Ellen snored loudly, the seatbelt tight under her chin. The man was still talking circles, though quieter, hissing to himself. It was darkest night by the time we got home. Our unwashed hair absorbed the smell of oil and the char of beef hung on our coats. He dropped us at the end of our cul-de-sac, told us to go up to our own house and ring the bell. We climbed from his car, bedraggled and drowsy, and before we slammed the door, his last words came floating out.

“I didn’t touch you. I didn’t touch neither of you. You be sure to let her know. I ain’t going down for something I didn’t do.”

I woke up in my own bedroom, the cheap blinds no match for the bright Colorado sun. I rolled over and faced my sister, searching for the night in her hot morning breath.


Bridge Lower is a writer, educator, and graduate of The Writer’s Foundry MFA program at St. Joseph’s University. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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