Little Largemouth Summertime Star Splash Blues

by Serge Bielanko


We fish for fish that are small and weak.

Henry and me are both massive by comparison; he's six and scrawny, which makes me even more of a force; look at me though: standing there on the lake, squinting at the gilded ripples dancing in the sun: I'm a western Eastwood, a Terminator. I'm Ben Kingsley/Don Logan, glaring at a seven-inch largemouth bass flapping around on my hook, high above the water where she lives, probably scared shitless out of her mind, her vision all blurry, memories bashing through her wild mind the way that they do when your Subaru is flipping out on the interstate and you're dead soon, airbag technology be damned, because your face is about to meet with the curvy top part of a guardrail that-up to now- has remained the most anonymous stretch of metal on Earth, but which is about to slice you into the darkness, dude. 

"You got one, Dad?!" Henry hollers at me from his spot down by the wooden bench. We're at the little boat launch area. It's become our spot this summer. Sometimes he doesn't want to come here, he wants to 'try somewhere else'. But fuck that/I'm a creature of habit. I want to squeeze as much simple joy out of this ride as possible.

We catch fish here.

And even if they're hardly ever big ones, who cares, right? Who cares what we catch? Who cares what we do? We are out here in the sunshine moving slower because maybe our blood has happiness in it. I don't know where that comes from.

I don't get happiness. Is it real? Is it a chemical released from your brain? Or from pizza? Wine? Sex? Meth? Is it always so temporary? Or has anyone ever had a happiness that lasted. Like, they woke up one day and all their shit was in place, all the ducks lined up like a motherfucker, and even though they knew it would fade/the smile lighting up their puss would go out after an hour or two, when the next bill came or when their husband or wife came home from work and they were drug back into the inexplicable darkness that came over them every time this person they once loved (still love!) appeared in the kitchen/never looking them in the eye anymore/beating them down/beating them back with their own unhappiness/one of their pubes on the toilet seat making you ill/making you furious/how is this my life?/motherfuckin' happiness thief/working/driving together to the Target with the kids in the back/listening to Arcade Fire because you're both trying to remain in light/everyone up front bluer than the October sky/everyone in the back happy with their Goldfish in a Ziploc/until they're tired/bored/collapse, utterly dejected by life, in the shoe aisle in a half hour/unhappiness oozing up out of them like street vent steam/it never went away, the happy. It remained. I doubt that has ever happened. How could it work?

"Largemouth!" I yell at Henry. He's running my way now. He drops his rod to the ground over where he is, he don't give a rat's ass. He lets it fall out of his hand like a cigarette he's done with and he runs at me with everything in his body. 

"Dad! I wanna throw it back in!"

He wants to throw it back in, you see. Six, young, beautiful, sharp, happy, sad, fiery, sweet, my middle child, my first boy. My first son. He wants to throw it back it, this little bass. Why? I don't know. I don't ask him and he wouldn't know what to say even if I did. He'd probably look up at me with brown eyeballs that speak beyond his heart or mind. 

Seriously, Dad? You really need to ask me that? What do you think? Why are we even here? I want to throw it back in because I want to feel wet fish skin on my kid skin! I wanna feel connected to something! I wanna touch a thing, a totally wild and free thing, for a brief moment, for like three seconds while we hold it captive, before I give it back to life. Okay? Does that make sense, dipshit?

Henry moves into the fish's head and whispers. Then he raises it to his lips and watches to see if I'm looking- and I am- and so he kisses its top lip with his lips. He doesn't fake the kiss. He's truly happy. It's a real smooch. You can't fake that shit when you're standing there in the world unencumbered by demons or ghosts or lust or whatever. He's overjoyed right now and it's truer than God or money. I don't know, he might be the only human being alive on the planet at this moment who is feeling the purity. I'd lie to you and say I'm with him if I was a lying man. Because I'm feeling something, don't get me wrong. I'm all climbed up in Henry's smile and it's propelling me upwards in ways both rare and strange to me anymore. I'm an American adult; I walk around in a haze of poisonous anxiety. My dreams embarrass me. Sometimes I'm ashamed to want to live the life I live. Writer? Rock/Roll guitar player? Broke? Scared? Serves you fucking right you banged-up middle-aged daydreaming sack of hot piss. 

Then sometimes I watch Henry kiss a fish and something in me clicks. All of this is because of all of that. All of us is because of everything that happened. My choices. Diving in so hard and fast. Rash. No plan. Young, then youngish, I turned away from so much. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to live a happy life. I swore I knew how. Sometimes I think I still do. But I dunno. 

Henry tosses the bass back into the water. It slaps down over near the cattails that will steal your hook if you think you're a fishing badass and can cast anywhere near them. I'm cranked up on coffee. Got my last kicks in just under the 4pm window on our way here. I sucked it down on the ride over the mountain. Sometimes we see deer. Not today though. By the time we got to the lake I was twitchy, dehydrated, and unable to achieve full happiness because my veins were pulsating with the artificial kind that keep me from feeling comfortable enough to touch any kind of honest vibe.

The closest I can come is this.  

Me and my son watch the spreading circles of a very small fish that ate one of the worms we bought at the gas station like two weeks ago and that I keep in the fridge in that little Japanese hotel room butter section thing up on the door until we break them out for a day like today is turning out to be even if neither of us know it right now since a ton of the happiness that will someday come from this very moment of the two of us being alive together and standing in this precise moment together is currently racing away from us, up/up/up/ through the puff clouds and the bluebird sky/slitting through all that/bursting out into the blackness of space/out past the moon/pffft: the moon!/out past THE SUN!/me and Henry and the ripples of a long gone baby bass shattering out into the stars/so swift/only turning back around when we're older/when happiness is harder for both of us probably, because life will eventually whittle away at the childish toothpick castle he was born in/things will happen/his heart will break so bad/his soul will try to punch his face from the backside of his skull/his spirit will tire/he'll become so sad/then he'll be sitting there/Where???!!!?/Oh, I wonder/I hope it's somewhere he loves/somewhere with green hills and trout streams/or with mad bustle if that's what he wants/the memory turning back around to race back to him then/zooming/blasting back through the unseen night/blasting back through the visible day/blasting down through any cloud he might be under or any roof he might be under or any tree he might be under or through the top of his car rolling down the road/the anxiety welling up in him/exams/job search/she hurt me/he made me cry/I wish I was better/I'm so scared of what's next/slamming into his scalp like lightning/like rain/like hot summer sun/and thrusting him headlong into the past/back to a day/long ago/God, how we forget things/back when he was laughing beside me/when I was smiling my ass off/him kissing a fish I'd caught/throwing it back into the lake/standing there, just the two of us, watching the lake swallow its child back into its mysterious belly/a pissed-off redwing blackbird clacking at us from a pine above the dock/coffee in my veins/Kool-Aid in his veins/the same imperfect blood running so perfectly through our veins.

"Dad, put a bigger worm on my hook," he tells me. "I wanna catch a big bass."

I don't say anything. I just nod. He runs back to get the rod where he dropped it, over by that bench. He runs back and I'm waiting by the plastic container of worms. For a second then, I feel it: total happiness. It comes and goes, but it came and I felt it, man. Don't tell me. I know what I know. I pick out a fat crawler and Henry's face explodes, "Oh yeah! That's the guy!"

And we both shoot out into the stars again.

But someday we'll be back. 

 


Friday Morning, While You Were Doing Your Thing, We Were Washing the Blood from the Street

by Serge Bielanko


 

This morning. I'm watching YouTube. Early. I'm drinking coffee and eating my oatmeal with peanut butter and chocolate syrup and watching, on a whim,  a School of Life video about polyamory when someone is bashing at my front door. What the fuck. It's 5:45am. I stand up, make a fist. That'll run 'em off if it's Isis or home invaders, I figure. It's dark out and rainy and I squint to see that it's neither. It's Monica from down the block. My kids' mom, my ex wife. She's crying hard. 

Your world drops out from under you a few times in a life. I think about the kids. I think about the house fire from years back. I head towards the door and I don't want to hear it because I'm shaking now. She's a mess, bare feet, pajamas, sobbing, pointing down off my porch at the middle of the road. 

There's a body there and right away I think it must be Willie, the new rescue dog she got two days ago. He's sweet and kind and he cannot die like this on a Friday morning at the beginning of a better life. I will give him CPR, I tell myself. I won't let that beautiful son of a bitch go. The kids love him too much. I will use the sides of my hand to ease the rainy blood out of the street and back up into his body and he will come around, I say before she even starts making sense with words I can understand. 

But it all comes to pass in a moment or two and it isn't Willie. It's the ducks. Both of them. The mama and the daddy. Goddamnit. Goddamn this goddamn road to hell. 

She'd been out in the wet grass of her dark yard waiting on Willie the Dog Who Never Pisses to piss when she'd heard it all go down. A car coming down the street, the swoosh of the damp brakes, the pause and the revving back up, disappearing down towards the bend at the church and gone. Daddy was in the middle under the streetlight, ripped apart on the yellow line. Mama was over on the curb, right where the kids would be walking to the bus in while. She was still alive when Monica found her. Gasping but going. Monica wants me to put her out of her misery and I know I have to. I want to but I'm sick about it.

I know these two.

Me and the kids have been watching them dig their hole for laying eggs over in the patch of shit lawn outside the vacant joint across the street. Monica chased them out of the road just yesterday morning, me telling her to forget it. 

"They're just gonna be right back out there in ten minutes," I said. "They don't give a shit." 

Last year they made the nest right there too. We watched them then like we've been watching them now. There's tons of better places around here to choose but they liked this spot. Right on the road. Right in the shadow of the old church and the old theater. Right out in the open. Privacy be damned. They wanted a roadside birth. I guess they had their reasons. We all have our things. 

I go quick to grab my dirt shovel out of the garage and then we're out in the street. Out in the dark and the wet and what I'm looking at is like some scene out of some wild-eyed photographer's coffee table book. Mama is passed by the time I reach her. I touch her side with my fingers and half hope she'll fly up into my face and bite me. No though. What we have here is two ducks freshly killed lying in the streetlight glow. Fucking feathers everywhere. People come up the road heading to work/I can't see them/just tires hissing on rain/headlights/a brake tap to wonder what the fuck these two are doing out in the road in their night clothes. We look like meth heads trying to find something. Monica is walking on the cinders with a spaghetti pot, throwing water on the pools of blood. We are sleepy heads trying to get rid of something. 

Back and forth, that's what I am. I'm up and down too. I'm overjoyed it isn't one of us and I'm gonna throw up because it's these two. 

I use my shovel to scoop up Daddy into a Hefty bag. I remember watching him yesterday just standing there on the sidewalk as Mama's ass was pointed up out of the dirt, up at the sky. He was standing around while she did all the work, I thought. But I gave him the benefit of the doubt. That must be their arrangement, I figured. She digs the hole the way she wants it/ he stands guard against this messed up world. 

I walk the six steps over to Mama and scoop her up as Monica stares down and cries. 

"They just kept going," she says. "Who does that?!"

I don't know what to say. 

I never do. 

I look down in the bag and their bodies lying on one another against the clean white. Then I tie a knot in the thing and bury it in my trash cans. 

It's trash day today. Trash trucks will be here by 9. 

--

The kids show up later and they don't know because I can tell right away that she hasn't told them. I glance at the road as Monica walks away with Charlie and Willie and there's basically no sign of what we saw earlier. There's a few feathers but they're matted down and look like old gum now. The kids are in good spirits and i ask them about Willie and Henry wants Lucky Charms because he says he's still hungry even though he had something over at his Mom's. 

I pour him a fat ass bowl of Lucky Charms.

I stare at their heads, my kids. 

The ducks are in the trash cans a few feet away. One wall. Out there on the side where there ain't no Lucky Charms. 

What is this? 

How is any of this happening? 

How do we all keep dodging so many fucking bullets, you know? 

--

I shit you not: as I'm writing this sentence the trash truck is out front. It's a shit burial but I'm shook up and I had to get the kids on the bus and what can I do? They're gone now. Back to the Earth, I guess. 

--

I walk away from writing this with an idea up in my head. I walk over to look at her hole: if there's eggs in there then I'll try and find another duck's nest and sneak them in there. This town has a lot of ducks, a lot of nests; make it happen, dude. Then these ducklings will get born and that will be something at least. I want to salvage that family somehow. They deserved better than that. I know they did. I saw it it their eyes just yesterday. They were scrappy. They made cars stop and go around. 

There's a Twix wrapper in the hole. 

Nothing else. 

I stare down at it for twenty, thirty seconds.

Fuck. 

I pick it up and put it in my pocket. I turn around and walk back across the road towards my place. The rain is light but steady. This grey day is an hour broke. 

I toss the Twix wrapper in the empty trash can, head back in the house, lock the door behind me. 

 


Fish & Chips

by Serge Bielanko


For Henry David Bielanko on his 6th Birthday. I wrote this for you on the morning of Feb, 23rd, 2017, man, after your Mom took you over to Grammy's because you are home sick from school for the third day in a row. Someday I hope you read this and smile. 

Sick on your birthday.

Whatever.

I love you so much. 

PS: I also got you a Hot Wheels track. 

--

I pick the fish sticks up with my fingertips and that moment happens between when you pick a thing up that you know is hot and when you actually feel the heat. I try and pop them down on the plate before I cross over but it doesn't work. I do the thing/slam them down/raise my hand back high above my head and whip it through the air like that'll cool things down. It's stupid. There's a spatula two seconds away. But I do it this way. Like I always do. 

The kids are watching cartoons as I dole out the food. Three plates, two cups with straws, a sippy cup, three blobs of ketchup, three mounds of nuked frozen corn, three stacks of fries, and fish sticks rationed out according to age/size/consumption history. Six for Violet. Five for Henry. Four for Charlie. 

Two for me. I already ate them. 

It's not my best dinner but whatever. It's a deep album cut from life, this meal. You can't shake your judgy stick at it. This stuff has been keeping kids alive for a long time now. Does it make them crazy in the head? I don't know. Does it make their bodies go into some kind of hyper state of carb kinesis, hurling them around the room against the angels of their better mercy? I don't know. Probably. Who cares? Tonight I don't give a shit. There are nights when you make fish sticks and fries for your kids because you know it will get the job done when you aren't feeling up to the job at all.

Simple.

375F.

20 minutes or so.

Use your fingertips.

Squirt the chocolate in the milk.

Paper towels, boom boom boom.

I did it.

Survival. 

Come eat, you little bastards.

--

I use the SEARCH thing on YouTube on the Apple TV. I fumble around with the remote until I've managed to type out SCOTTISH MUSIC. Then I scroll down maybe two or three videos until I come to one with a bagpiper playing by a castle along the sea. I can't argue with that. No one can.

Themes are my jam at dinner time but tonight is a stretch, I'll admit. When I buy these new Street Kitchen kits from Walmart they kind of come with a theme. I buy Thai Green Curry/I YouTube Thailand music. I buy Malaysian Satay Chicken/I YouTube Malaysian stuff. Then I cut off Curious George mid-sentence, I don't give a fuck, and I serve the food in a haze of chanting desert sounds or ancient pan flute jams that sound like snakes rising from baskets. Theme Night, you see? 

Tonight I scrambled for a minute with that. Fish sticks, What do I play them? The Guess Who? Synyrd? Rumors? Something that reeks of the '70s when I was growing up and my blood was 80% fish stick? They won't get it/too obscure. Plus I don't feel like listening to classic rock right now. I'd rather suck a live grenade than jam that shit into my YouTube history so I have to see it tomorrow morning when I sit down at quarter to six, before the kids, sit down for ten or fifteen minutes with my oatmeal and my coffee to watch another home video of a dude fly fishing in New Mexico or Montana, a strange way to start the day, maybe, but it's my way and I'm broken in weird ways you would never understand. I don't want any part of that. I don't ever want to see the words 'Steely Dan Rare Backstage Footage 1979' on my YouTube screen. It's just a little promise I have made to myself. A little pact, a little pledge. 

In the final moments before I shut the oven down and have to make a choice, I say the words out loud. 'Fish and chips'. It rolls out across the kitchen then, the evening tide. Me and my brother standing there on a dock near boats. Near a ferry? The wind incessant. The boats have faded but the wind hasn't. The grey clouds pushing swift out along the cobalt blue; the sound of the gulls; Americans unaccounted for; the freedom of knowing no one knows where you are at that second. The sun in Britain is a magical beast, appearing unexpectedly, throwing girders of light/hard slashes of beam, beautifying a dark sea or a sheepy hill in ways that will send you straight to the pub for a pint because the only way to describe the moment of natural glory you have witnessed is to describe it to fail yourself with words. No mortal human can get it right. You can can only approach speaking of the British sun with the first glowing sip of ale in a pub. First sip. No words. There you are. There it goes. Forget it. I nearly had it. But there she goes again.

We found a fish and chips place looking out over the water, me and Dave did. We were waiting for a ferry, I think. I don't know. We were on a tour. Were we headed to Ireland? To Denmark? I don't know. It doesn't matter. The fish and chips were scalding, oily, coned in newspaper. I remember I was so hungry that afternoon. I remember that I could not believe that we had stumbled into this opportunity for food in such a remote part of the world. It seemed a dream. The skies, the sea, us out there so far from home. The gulls squawking. The wind pounding away at everything like it surely had been for the last fifty trillion years. A wind older than time. A wind that hadn't stopped blowing since there was no day, just one long cloudy night of never ending darkness. 

The fucking wind of winds. 

And there we were. Eating fish and chips snagged from God's personal stash. I burnt the roof of my mouth on the very first bite. Vinegar pain. It was among the best feelings I have ever had. Out the chippy door, across the sunny street, the gale up my nose, the dock under foot, the warmth in my hands, the swift sky unable to stop, the creak of the boards under my brother's feet behind me, the land in the gleam, the sea in the shine. 

Why do I remember that day when I forget so much else?

Why do I connect it with now, with me thumping down fish sticks and fries on my plastic Target dishes? 

Why does the connect come so naturally, without even trying, you know? 

I was on YouTube. 

Then I was somewhere else. 

It might not have even been Scotland. It might have been Wales or England. I wish I could remember. But I can't.

Come eat, you little bastards.

--

It sounds like a state trooper's funeral in here now. Pipes blaring. They sit in their seats and I watch Violet and Charlie dig in. Henry pokes around, drags his fork across the ketchup, Pollocks the wide white corner of his oversize plate. The food is nothing like that day on the docks. Different galaxies. But they'll have their chance, I figure. Someday. I hope. 

"Eat, dude," I holler at Henry through the bagpipe jungle. "You're not hungry?"

He looks at me. 

"Maybe I don't like this dinner because you make it every night."

Which is bullshit. I don't. Maybe twice a month. Maybe four times a month. But not every night. That would fuck with my themes. There are only so many fried fish themes. I tell him about the British day long ago. Me and Uncle Dave on tour. We were so hungry. The sky was magic. Yes, I was young then. Or younger. Yes, we were happy. Yeah, the food was good. So good, man. I wish I could give it to you now. I wish I could throw it back up perfectly onto a plate and let you have it, bud. I would. I would share it with all of you. 

He smiles at that, eats a fish stick. Eats a fry, a chip, if you will. Ignores the corn. 

After a minute or so I come back to him. 

"Henry, eat some corn, dude. This is corn country we live in. Remember that. You're part corn. You have to eat it to keep the valley going."

He thinks about this for a second as his brother and sister gobble their food, ignore their corn. Then he lays it out for me.

"Corn Country, Butthole Country!" he exclaims. 

I just look at him and smile. I understand him perfectly. As the bagpipes cascade down off the TV and over our tired heads, I understand what my boy is saying even when I don't really have a clue. 

-

I hold Henry's little hand out on a dock in my mind. Clean blue sky, warrior wind. One cone of fish and chips to share. I let him hold it, one arm pulling it tight/warm to his chest. The sun is forever, even in Britain. Especially in Britain. Especially on days like this when sunshine sparks off the tips of weak waves and the seagulls ride the sky for centuries on end without ever flapping their wings, or ever dying. 

Poets take that first sip of ale in the pub, chasing the words just up ahead. 

The woman behind the counter in the fish and chips place looks out the window as she towels off the crumbs. There they are. Two lads in the sun. 

She turns away, drops the fish into the hot oil. It hisses. 

She looks back up.

The lads are gone.