Easiest Kites There Are to Fly, from Our Love Will Go the Way of the Salmon
“What are you working on right now?”I think I was on a Barry Hannah kick when I wrote "Easiest Kites There Are to Fly," but I can't be certain. I know the second or third draft was completed on the Amtrak train between Portland and Seattle. I also know that devil fish are real. Anyway, the story is part of Our Love Will Go the Way of the Salmon, a collection of short stories all centered around fish and fishing in some way or another, that's been my primary preoccupation for almost two years. It'll be out from Broken River Books at the end of this year.
The man swerves across the double yellow. His daddy dances in the road just ahead, dances on his leg stumps. His wife, she’s crying back at home. A bright woman. A beautiful woman. Did he steal this truck he’s driving? He stole this truck. Got to catch up with his daddy. He used to sell kites, this man swerving. Tiny kites. Children loved his tiny kites. Before that, he worked in the watermelon fields. He worked from sunup to noon in the fields and then he fished all day and drank whiskey and played guitar with his boys at night, but his boys all got married or got killed, so the music’s over. It’s all over. Where is he? He fights with his wife. He walks to Bear Naked, the nudie bar up the street. He gets drunk. He goes out for a cigarette, sees his daddy’s ghost run by at supersonic speed, unnatural for the ghost of an amputee. Must be chasing that big devil fish. He steals a truck to follow. He follows, sometimes closing his eyes as he drives because where else could his dead daddy lead him. To the lake, where he caught that thirty pound carp that got his picture in the newspaper. His daddy was so proud when he caught that carp. They caught so many fish in the lake together. Carp, channel catfish, blue catfish, largemouth and smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, brown trout, crappie, bluegill, and once a fish they never spoke of, a fish so unnatural it knifed a silence in their lives for weeks. They stomped its head in, made a blackened, burbling mush of it, and yet they knew it lived on somehow, and that it would return. And in recent times it had returned, fish head leering in windows, tormenting the man. Tonight, the man thinks, tonight the fish we never spoke of will go back to that dark water. His daddy’s ghost is there to lead him.
How did his daddy lose his legs? He lost them on account of the tiny kites his son used to sell. Selling tiny kites put the son in a state of constant agitation. The tiny kite business is more stressful than most people know. The son filled up with sadness and anxiety, and eventually, rage. He didn’t kill his daddy. No. Killing daddies is bad. One Sunday evening, he and his daddy and his wife had themselves a summer barbecue. They barbecued catfish the man and his daddy had caught and they ate the catfish with potato salad and cornbread made by the wife. They ate slices of watermelon for dessert. They sat in plastic chairs on the front lawn and ate their food and drank mint juleps. This barbecue was held to celebrate the success of the man’s tiny kite business. In just over a month of selling tiny kites, he’d made his first thousand dollars. He was well on his way to becoming a premium salesman of tiny kites. He’d already coined his own pitch line. “Easiest kites there are to fly,” he’d say, flying two tiny kites at once. This sold him a lot of kites, but it also impacted his relationship with his wife and his daddy because he’d taken to saying it all the goddamn time. After making love to his wife, he’d roll over and lie on his back and sigh contentedly and exhale a long breath, then say in a voice just above a whisper, “Easiest kites there are to fly.” Out fishing with his daddy, every time he caught a fish, in this time when he was becoming a successful tiny kite salesman, he’d raise the fish by its lip, kiss it on its big old slimy head, and say, “Easiest kites there are to fly.” The man became obsessed in his first month of selling tiny kites, so that finally, on the night of the barbecue to celebrate his success, his daddy said to him, “Son, shut up about those stupid kites. They make you a living but a living’s not a life. There are more important things than tiny kites.”
Now, this was a thing the man knew. Of course there were more important things. But the man was not himself then. He was mad with mint juleps and even madder with tiny kites, so far gone in fact that he struck his daddy across the face. He said, “Daddy, don’t you trample on my success. I shed blood and tears to get to a point in my life where I can sell tiny kites. Don’t you trample that.”
His daddy rubbed his head. “I’m not trampling your success, son. I’m proud of you. You make me nothing but proud.”
“Proud my ass,” the man said, and he struck his father again, for his heart had been blinded by his ambition.
His wife screamed for him to stop but he kept on hitting his daddy, even as the old man scrambled across the lawn to his dinky-ass car in the driveway. The man chased his daddy’s car halfway down the block before turning back, and the expression of horror fixed on his wife’s face told him he was a poisoned man.
On his drive home from the barbecue, the man’s daddy was so distraught, so heartbroken, he wept into the steering wheel and in that way blew through a stop sign at a four way intersection and slammed into a minivan carrying a family on their way home from evening mass. The man’s daddy was drunk and got slapped with a DUI, but that was not the worst or even the second worst thing to happen. The front of his car caved in like it was made of tinfoil and his legs were crushed so bad they had to be amputated. And a boy in the back of the minivan wasn’t wearing his seatbelt, and upon impact he bounced around the inside of the minivan like a pinball, dying pretty much instantly. So upon his release from the hospital, the man’s daddy went straight to prison and served time for vehicular manslaughter, all because his son had let those tiny kites go to his head.
The man gave up selling tiny kites after that. He went into other lines of work. Going door to door for the Census Bureau. Installing solar panels on rich people’s houses. Freezing his ass off in an ice cream warehouse. The man found all sorts of work, although he really didn’t have to do all that much of it. The man and his wife had no children and they lived a simple life. She worked at a pet store and he did his thing and that was that. They went dancing on Saturday nights and sometimes to a movie on Friday. He fished morning and night and sometimes fiddled with the guitar and she knitted and read romance novels and baked elaborate cakes that she entered in the county fair each autumn.
Excepting the period when the man went crazy with tiny kites, they lived a good and simple life. The man and his daddy reconciled once his daddy became a free man again. They fished on the lake, although now the man’s daddy was bound to a wheelchair and had to be pushed around. They still held the occasional barbecue on the front lawn. Everything was fine like that for a year or so, until one day when the man’s daddy’s heart failed and the old man dropped dead. It was a real shame too. The big trout opener had been coming up and the man’s daddy was looking forward to catching one of the trophy browns they were stocking in the lake. The man’s daddy had always wanted to catch a trophy brown.
After his daddy’s funeral, the man took to whiskey harder than he had since his days staying out late with his boys. He rarely went fishing. He sat on the edge of the bed facing the wall, absently strumming his out-of-tune guitar. He sang songs that made little sense to his wife. “Your songs don’t make any sense,” she’d tell him. “I don’t get it.”
The man didn’t get it either. Another darkness had entered his life. At his daddy’s funeral, an unexpected visitor had showed. That unspeakable fish they caught years before hovered above his daddy’s coffin. Nobody else noticed or acknowledged, but the man, he wept in fear. His wife squeezed his hand and wept harder herself. People around him issued little nods as if to say, “We feel you, son. We feel your pain.” When the fish lowered itself onto the coffin, sliming the lacquered lid, the man could no longer contain himself. He cried out, “Go away!”
People thought he spoke of pain and death. Go away, pain. Go away, death. But the man had no beef with pain or death. No move could ever be made in life without inflicting hurt on someone or something else. Every true fisherman knew that, and the man was a true fisherman. This evil fish they’d caught and killed and justifiably feared would live again, this fish juicing on his daddy’s coffin, lived beyond the human world of pain and death.
After he saw the devil fish at his daddy’s funeral, the only things the man could do besides play the guitar were smoke cigarettes and drink and sulk in the musty darkness of Bear Naked. One day, he snubbed out his cigarette against the concrete foot of the bear-in-lingerie sculpture in the parking lot of Bear Naked, squinting against the white noonday sun. The butt fell to the pavement. He opened his pack for another, but he’d smoked his last. A red Impala pulled into the parking lot right then, pulling into the empty space next to the man. The driver stepped out, glimmering in the hot light. The driver was the devil fish. The man stood on the opposite side of the Impala and could not see how the fish was standing. Whether it had grown human legs or floated, he did not know. The fish stared at the man. The man ran home.
He began seeing the fish everywhere—it stared in at him through the windows of the house at all hours of the night and day, at the bar, in the mirror. He withdrew as his condition advanced. He spoke not a word to his wife. He struggled to even communicate with her about so much as what to eat for dinner. He could not watch television, for the fish appeared in every sporting match and on every game show, in every sitcom and cartoon. Everywhere he looked, he encountered that unspeakable fish he and his daddy had caught and killed, and soon there was nowhere to retreat. The guitar now made him sad. Cigarettes and whiskey sickened him. So he stopped everything all together, resolved to sit and wait it out, blindfolded. If the fish was going to get him, he may as well let it happen. He spent most waking hours in bed, black bandana tied over his face, knotted behind, to shield his eyes, which remained squeezed painfully shut just in case the bandana slipped and leaked in light. Then one day his wife had had enough. She came home from work and said, “I can’t take it anymore. Either you get out of bed and you stay out or I’m leaving you.”
This was it. Either he confessed to her the state he was in, or she would leave, and he would be alone. So heaved a sigh, slipped the bandana down around his neck, and said, “I have a confession.” Her silence said continue, so he continued. “I’m being followed by a fish.”
The wife looked at him in a sad way then.
“Behind you. In the window. Don’t you see it?” he asked, for the fish was staring in at them as they spoke.
“What’s happened to you?” she said.
“What’s happened to you?” she said.
“I don’t know what you want me to do.”
“I just don’t know.”
“I see the fish everywhere, even in mirrors. Where I go, it goes. There’s no escaping this.”
The wife lifted the full-length mirror off the wall and swung it around so that before he had a chance to close his eyes he caught a glimpse of himself. He saw a different man than he thought himself to be, but there was no sign of the fish, just a man prematurely entering old age, nothing more.
“What do you see?” the wife said.
“I see me.”
“Do you see any fish?”
“Then get out of the goddamn bed and get a grip.”
When the wife left the bedroom, he got out of the bed and dressed in clean clothes because he’d worn the same outfit for days. He went into the kitchen and the wife served up a dinner of pork chops and mashed potatoes and green beans. They spoke little during the meal but the words they did exchange were pleasant. Afterward, they made love. The wife said something about feeling glad to have the man back, that she’d missed him, and the man, feeling like he’d just touched down on earth after a prolonged journey through outer space, got it in his head that the best thing to do in that moment was to make a joke. He folded his hands behind his head and sighed, “Easiest kites there are to fly.” This did not go over well. The wife’s face turned to stone. She was furious. What ensued was this: an argument about everything that was ever argued about between two people who love each other. They covered all the bases. It was a real heavyweight title fight of an argument. When it ended, the woman sat crying on the kitchen floor, attempting to piece together the ruins of an antique teapot that had survived the great San Francisco earthquake and fire and which had been passed down to her from her grandmother. The man smashed it against the wall after the woman snapped the tip on his daddy’s old fishing rod. They hadn’t apologized or any of that. They simply reached a point where both were too wounded to carry on, so the woman cried and the man slammed the door and left the house, intent on getting plastered at Bear Naked, where he saw his daddy’s ghost race by. That is when and why he stole the truck.
Right now, he’s pulling up to the lake. Lights in the distance waver in the valley smog, which acts like a shield between the earth and the stars above. Dark farmland. Coyotes howl. Somewhere, an owl picks off a mouse. The man sits in the stolen truck with the headlights shining on the still black water, the radio sputtering the day’s baseball scores through static. His daddy’s ghost is out there somewhere, ready to face the unspeakable fish, the one they feared, the one they caught and killed out of fear, so many years ago. The man knows not what he has done, but he is ready to find out. He is ready to see his daddy again. It is time to return the darkness to its home. He kills the engine. No more lights, no more baseball scores. He opens the door and steps out.
Cameron Pierce is the author of over ten books, including the bizarro cult hit Ass Goblins of Auschwitz, and has edited four anthologies, most recently 40 Likely To Die Before 40: An Introduction To Alt Lit (co-edited with Michael Seidlinger). He's also the head editor of Lazy Fascist Press, which operates out of Portland, Oregon.