Baptism in Black

(Courtesy of The Adirondack Review)

Despite almost dropping him into the water as I carried him on board, the Chief was in good spirits. It was the first time I recalled feeling the Chief in ages. His once formidable frame which was at times my protector or tormentor, was now frail. Bony as a supermarket rotisserie chicken. The backpack he clung to seemed to outweigh him. He refused to let me take it and scurried like a rat into the cabin until we cast off. 

The fishing trip had become an obsession. One last fishing trip. That’s all I wanted. Three generations: my father, my son, and me. Time and circumstance hadn’t been the kindest of companions. What was once a regular occurrence dissolved into stilted holiday get-togethers dripping with regret-filled, forced small talk. 

In a moment of undeserved kindness or sheer pity, my mother agreed a fishing trip could be the panacea we all needed and agreed to cover any expenses. 

I pulled a favor and borrowed a boat from one of the few friends left that I didn’t owe money. It had a small cabin in case the Chief needed to lay down. My boat had been much nicer. The operative phrase “had been.” Repossessed. Like much of my life.   

The Chief’s demeanor brightened once we set out and the fishing lines went in. The October water was motor oil-black and warm from the late summer. The stripers were quiet now. It was a far cry from the tuna slaying trips to Cabo San Lucas we once took. Where Marlins were as thick as logs cascading down a river. I didn’t care. My son Max was thrilled. The Chief was serene, a Cheshire cat perched on the boat’s stern. 

He was gregarious, at least with Max. 

“The heart’s a telescope. It brings things closer, even if you don’t always want to see them.” 

Max nodded politely, focused on his line and unsure of the Chief’s words. 

“Pop-Pop Chief? Daddy says the water is black, but it looks golden to me.” 

“Gold isn’t always the most precious metal. You can find much black in the hearts of men.” 

I took it as a subtle dig but refused to let it bother me. 

The salt spray on my face scrubbed away layers of latent decay. Before me stood my future and my past. The best and worst parts of my life. One was once my hero. The other? I was once his hero. Completely misguided loyalties on both accounts. Yet I spent my entire life trying to capture both mirages and eventually bring the ethereal to light. 

We didn’t dwell on the constant specter of the “good old days” when money didn’t matter. I was once the golden child able to do no wrong. Those days were long blown away like dandelion seeds tossed in the air and carried on bitter winds to places unknown. 

My wife’s unexpected death left me a clichéd spiral that wallowed in degeneration, rotting away, and eventually, collapsed upon myself. Max was forced to move in with my parents when it became clear I couldn’t properly care for another life and showed utter disdain for my own. 

I came to the beach daily and shouted impassioned vows of redemption and rebirth at the ambivalent waters of the Long Island Sound. The same waters that nourished my family for years. Life could begin anew if I could wade in and embrace it. A soul-cleansing baptism where all wrongs would be righted. 

These were empty words that rippled over the surface slung by a side-armed kid. There was no redemption from water that held no memory. 

Onboard the boat, seeing the beach from the water brought a fresh perspective. A modicum of hope. 

The Chief barked his first words to me. 

“Go in my bag and grab that bottle of bourbon I brought. Pour three glasses.” 

Flashbacks to my youth. I hurried below deck before it escalated and rummaged through his bag. No bottle of bourbon. It was full of framed photos I never recalled seeing.  

The Chief holding me as a newborn, smoking a cigar. 

Photos from his Marine Corps days.  

Wedding photos of him dancing with my mom. 

Our first fishing trip together. 

He smiled in almost every photo. Even managed to look proud.  

Max greeted me excitedly in the cabin doorway. 

“Pop-Pop Chief’s gone swimming!”  

I ran to the deck and scoured the water. He was nowhere to be seen. Panicked, I jumped in. 

My eyes strained against the soy sauce-black brine, but there was nothing to see. I understood his plan. Knew it before I jumped in. For a moment, I thought about joining him. Just swim till my head scraped the bottom. Sweet surrender, and let Poseidon take care of the rest. 

I knew my obligation to Max. This was my shot at redemption; my father’s gift to me. I was given a chance to become a father again.  

My untested lungs screamed in protest as I broke through the surface, baptized and born anew. 

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