Shiny Unhappy People
He was hunting that afternoon around his favorite rocks close in to shore. The centerpiece was a giant boulder covered with starfish and lounging sea lions. Its massive size brought fish into the shallower waters as it gave them shelter and a place to hide. He was diving down to target them, then coming up to breathe, when he heard a commotion on the beach.
“What are you doing,” a heavy man yelled as he trudged down toward the water’s edge. He stopped to drink out of the bottle he carried.
“Fishing. What’s it look like?” a teenage boy said. There were three girls in bikinis standing nearby, staring at the boy. He had a fish on his line, had reeled it in, but was bungling the job of getting it off since he seemed afraid to touch it. Each time the fish writhed, he let it go. The heavy man tried to take the rod and nearly fell, brown liquid splashing into the ocean.
“I don’t need your help, Uncle Don. I know how to fish. Look at the size of this be-atch,” the boy said.
“Ricky, that’s a white sea bass. You have to measure it. If it’s too small, you have to release it.”
“Too small? This thing is huge! Tammy’s gonna make me fish tacos, aren’t you, babe?” He swung the fishing line with the attached sea bass at the three females, sending them running and screeching. They didn’t leave, but relocated to a safer distance away from the suffocating fish.
“You’re hurting the internal organs of that fish,” the heavy man said.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s gonna be dead soon.”
The boy went back to removing the treble hook. Using it was overkill but typical of beginners. He’d seen plenty of boys on boats maiming all types of fellow creatures.
“Ricky, you can’t take that fish unless you measure it and it’s legal. If you don’t have anything to measure it with, you have to put it back. You have to put it back right now, so it doesn’t die.”
A man wearing a wet suit walked down from the big house on the sand. With its green undulating top it looked like a wave—though one moving in the wrong direction, from the land to the ocean.
“What’s going on,” he said in a booming voice. “Whoa, look at that beauty.” He slapped the boy’s back. “Way to go, son.” The wet-suit man turned to the wave house and hollered up to two tall women holding glasses.
“Ricky caught us dinner! White sea bass!”
“No, Wayne, it’s too small. The fish isn’t legal.”
The Wayne man grabbed the Don man by the neck. “Legal? What are you talking about, Don? Look at the size of that thing!”
“No, it’s too small. White sea bass has to be at least twenty-eight inches.”
The Wayne man let go and shook his head. “Don, that’s a big fish. It is easily twenty-eight inches. Remember the time…”
“Fish always look bigger than you think. I got a measuring tape in my truck.” And he was off, stumbling up the sand, falling twice.
While waiting for the Don man to return, the afternoon west wind turned on. Soon it would be too strong for their voices to carry out to him. As curious as he was, he liked keeping people at a distance. Even now he’d gotten too close.
When Don man returned, the two women, one with black hair and the other blond but dark underneath, had come down to the beach as well. He had thoughts of sneaking in to take the fish, but the image of the treble hook was too scary.
“I told you, twenty-four inches. It’s four inches short,” the heavy man said, measuring it after the boy had begrudgingly pulled it out of the shallows, barely alive. Don man was covered in human water now, and the face of the Wayne man looked like an ocean boil.
“Dad,” the youth said in a suddenly high-pitched voice, “that’s really close. Can I keep it?”
“Come on, Don, let this one slide,” Wayne man said. “Let’s have a nice day. You wanna race me on the Jet Skis?”
“No,” Don man said, “you can’t keep it. We have to abide by the regulations. It’s about conservation. Where are we going to be if we continue on the course we’re on? Plus, Ricky, if you get caught, you’ll get fined and lose your fishing license.”
“I don’t have a license, asshole,” the boy said, dropping the fish into the water with a thwack.
“Ricky!” the blond woman said.
“Tara, he cannot speak to his uncle like that,” the black-haired woman shouted. “My husband can’t help it if he loves fish and respects the law.”
The women drifted to their mates.
“What’s that supposed to mean, Sue?”
“I will not let Don be picked on when you all go around violating laws, and then blame other people when they try to stop you.”
“It’s just a goddamn fish!”
A gust came up. He felt it on his skull and flipped over. He could hear the strange sound of their yelling under the water. When he resurfaced to breathe, he saw the ocean was whitecapping out beyond the kelp. He could only stay another minute.
It was hard for him to make out much with the wind pushing their voices back toward the wave house, where they belonged. He saw Ricky reel the line back in, and watched the boy grab the fish in one hand, dropping the rod. With his other, he wrapped the line around his hand and ripped the head of the sea bass off. The girls screamed as the fish’s body flopped next to them.
“See! Now it’s dead! Go fuck yourself, Mr. Four Inches Short.”
The boy threw the rod and fish head to the sand and left, the pod of girls trailing. The Don man went to the fish, to its body. He put his hand inside.
“It’s a female. See, these are eggs,” he said, showing Wayne man with an open palm, holding the mother’s body and her unborn in his hands. The women turned away. Don man placed the fish and her eggs together on the sand. He picked up her head, still impaled on the tentacles of the treble hook, and removed it.
“I’ll have to turn in the head,” Don man said.
“What?” the Tara woman said.
“I’ll have to turn in the head to Fish and Game.”
“Don, what are you talking about?” Wayne man asked.
“They can track whether this is a naturally raised fish or one of their hatchery-reared fish. They put coded metal wires in their cheeks.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” the Tara woman said.
“Don’t judge my husband just because he’s the only one in this family who cares enough to do what’s right.”
“But Donny, aren’t the fish guys gonna know this fish was too small? That it wasn’t legal?” asked Wayne man.
“Yes, they will.”
“And what are you going to tell them? Who are you going to say caught it?”
The wind was up now, his chances of feeding destroyed. The rougher seas made it easier for fish to hide. He took off hungry but happy to be under the surface and to feel the water glide along his sides, streamline he heard them call it. Whatever it was, whatever they called it, it felt good to go as fast as he could, away, far away, from the people and their big beach house on the sand.
Copyright © 2014 Robert Kerbeck
Robert Kerbeck graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a writer for The Daily Pennsylvanian. A member of the Actors Studio, Robert has worked extensively in theater, film, and television, appearing in lead roles in major shows and earning several awards, including an L.A. Weekly award and a Drama-Logue award. Robert currently lives in Malibu and owns a successful corporate intelligence firm. He has just completed his first novel, The Ballad Of Mr. Jack. His short story, Beta Brothers, is forthcoming in Willow Review.