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My foster father, Mr. Holiday, dreamed of fishing lures and sinkers. Of the ones who spit the hook, he said. He collected bucktail jigs for striped bass and feather hooks for mackerel. On weekdays, depending on the tide, he went fishing in the middle of the night. To fish on the pier alone and smell the slate-laden air was a pilgrimage for him.
Upon his return he slept for a short time, then woke me up for school. He told me of his strange nightmares. Often they were about me running from an unruly toothy shark.
“It's an absurd dream, Fiona," he said, pouring us bowls of Cheerios. I see you as one of my own. In fact, I quite enjoy our chats,” he said as I stuffed my lunch and joy inside my backpack.
Then he changed his clothes and threw his damp attire on the floor beside the washer. I had mentioned to his daughters how kind their dad was to me. They told me to back off and leave him alone.
“Leave those, Fiona,” he said pointing at the washer. The wife or my girls will do my laundry.” I smiled and felt special.
“Wait until tonight,” he said, “when I am fileting my 32-inch striped bass. This house will stink worse than ye old fish market.” Then he left for his accounting job wearing his wrinkled white shirt and salmon-hued tie in the shape of a fish.
Later, standing on the back porch, I watched him flipping the bass from side to side on a cutting board.
“Offshore fishermen have the best jobs,” he said. “And they do not suffer from seasickness. I can’t say the same for myself. I get weak and nauseous, and need my buddy's hand to help me stand,” he said, staggering towards me and laughing.
“I get it,” I said, placing both my hands on his burly arms, lingering longer than I should.
“Take a look at the tide chart,” he said, handing me a folded piece of paper. My patience for rows of black squiggles was non-existent and his aimless chatter left me disappointed.
“I’m leaving for a week of training on the expansive ocean,” he said.
Worried for his safety, I asked him, “Should you be on the water when a storm is coming?”
“Don’t worry about me,” he said, holding up his catch. “ Look at this baby,” he said, snuggling the stout fish against his chest like a toddler embracing a stuffed animal. Then he plopped it on the makeshift table and raised his knife over his head, the tip glittering in the sun. Whack! Off came the head. He pushed the slippery puck into a dutiful plastic bowl. The fisheye glared back at me as if possessed. Shutting my eyes, I met my mother’s raging face.
Off came the fan for a tail with a quick swipe of the blade. Mr. Holiday started drooling with pleasure as he sliced open the snowy belly and revealed the flesh attached to strands of unmistakable bloody guts. Standing close, I hoped to see a glimmering treasure like a gold ring the fish had eaten.
“What a beauty,” he said, caressing its rough silvery skin. I wondered if those words were for me. Did he ever tell his daughters they were beautiful?
Sometimes he brought home gifts from work: fluorescent post-it pads or a container of gum. Once I gave him a box of chocolates but he left them untouched. I consumed them in my room. He spent his evenings watching sports and texting a friend on his phone. He said it was work-related but I wasn’t sure. I sketched his face on paper and pretended I was doing homework.
The next day I said, “We are good friends.”
He said, “The fish last night sure had a lot of bones.”
A week passed and the time arrived for his expedition. He lied through his easy smile and ran off to the Florida Keys with his receptionist. I thought about his love of fishing and wished he’d given me and his daughters the same rapt attention.
I called my social worker, who assigned me to a foster family two hundred miles away. They were cosmopolitan and lived near an ocean. Later, I fell for a pattern of dating older married men while carrying a small-scaled iridescent hope the next man would stay forever. Not one of them abandoned their partners. Instead, they let me go.
Years later, Mr. Holiday discovered I lived in Seattle and sent me long letters of adoration. I thought about unpublishing my address. I heard he had returned home alone and resumed his number crunching inside a windowless office. Estranged from his family, he lived above a tire shop where the smell of rubber simmered like tar on a hot street.
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