After the funeral, my twin brother Mike and I go to Grandpa’s apartment on 12th and University to smoke a bowl and watch “River Monsters.”
“Like he was packing for the afterlife,” Mike says, nodding at the trinket-filled U-Haul boxes scattered across the hardwood like a mislaid neighborhood.
He passes me the pipe.
“Yeah, well. Grandpa never liked leaving a mess,” I reply. Mike snorts out smoke. Our grandfather was the king of mess-leaving. He left towels on the bathroom floor and Marlboro butts in the claw-footed silver ashtray. He left baseball games if the Yankees weren’t winning after five innings. He left his wife. Twice.
Mike and I are supposed to be taking what we need. This is what the will said, verbatim. “Tell Mike and Lily to go to the apartment on 12th street and take what they need.” Instead, we’re stiller than the photons slogging through the pre-dusk. Instead, we’re stoned on Grandpa’s red camelback couch, watching Jeremy Wade fish for the elusive Goonch Catfish.
“I keep expecting a monster to loom out of the murk,” says narrator Jeremy, as on-camera Jeremy scubas through the Kali River.
Very true, Jeremy, I think. The murk can be tricky like that.
“It smells like a grandfather in here,” Mike says. “Not ours, specifically. Like, a stock-image grandfather.”
All of the blinds are pulled halfway down. The light only reaches our collarbones.
“His obsessiveness is sort of beautiful,” I say, as Jeremy Wade surfaces, lamenting Britishly about his Goonch failures. “Jeremy’s. Remember the muskellunge?”
Mike smiles. Smoke trickles up from the corners of his lips in twin speech bubbles. Grandpa showed us the muskellunge episode when we were nine. He had just left our grandmother for his mistress, Amy. Our mother refused to see him, on account of his cheating, but Mike and I were thrilled about the split; Grandpa’s new apartment was only two blocks from ours.
On Tuesdays, after school, while Mom lawyer-ed and Dad tried to write his novel, we hung around the living room on 12th street, watching “River Monsters” with Grandpa and Amy, who was thirty-six and smelled like eggs. We tolerated her only because she had a cool owl tattoo on her forearm.
“The fish of ten thousand casts,” Grandpa mouthed along with Jeremy Wade as the muskellunge episode blared. “The giant muskie.”
Fifteen thousand, actually. In Eagle Lake, Ontario, Wade had just about given up hope. But we hadn’t. We never did. Mike and Grandpa and I. Then, like a bullet, it happened; Wade hooked a fifty-pounder. On a six-pound line, no less! He swept it up and held it tight to his chest and smiled gently, placidly, as if this hell-eel was no more than a very long infant.
After good episodes, Mike and I always became restless. “Let’s go catch something!” we would shriek. What we caught usually ended up being the N train to Coney Island. Just us and Grandpa. And after we were past the eternal rush of the view—the lights, the coast, the skyline that swooshed in its almost alien way—we would run to the boardwalk, threading through chain-link alleys and carnival games and crowds of happy, sticky people, not slowing until we reached the water.
Jeremy has hooked the Goonch. We knew he would. We’ve seen this episode before. Still, Mike shouts, “Fish on!” And still, I hold my breath. Literally. I don’t breathe until the raptorish thing is pulled to shore. Before I understood the notion of a pre-taped show, I was certain my breath-holding brought Jeremy luck. Grandpa used to smile and blow cigarette smoke in my face, trying to make me crack. I never did. And look; it’s worked again. Goonch landed.
“I read Wade’s Reddit AMA the other day,” Mike tells me.
“And, he would rather fight one shark-sized piranha than a hundred piranha-sized sharks. And, he’s never had a fish stick before.”
“That checks out.”
“Also, ‘River Monsters’ only ended because Wade caught virtually every giant freshwater fish on earth. Wild, huh? You’d think that’s the sort of thing that’s never really finished.”
We each take a hit of the pipe.
“Do you think he felt finished?” I ask Mike after a long silence.
“Oh, for sure,” Mike says. “The guy fished Chernobyl, for god’s sake. Chernobyl. What a fuckin’ legend.”
I nod and smile and run my hands through the half-lit dust, even though that wasn’t the “he” I was asking about.
Only once did we catch a river monster on Coney Island Beach. A horseshoe crab, belly up, half its insides gnawed away. Laced with Muskgrass and strands of cellophane. Reeking of briny necrosis.
A nearby gull whooped, as if in victory. I picked up the half-moon crab and cradled it just like Jeremy would have.
“Gross,” Mike said. “It’s dead.”
“Gross,” I agreed, laying my cheek against the crab’s shell. Stroking its telson.
Grandpa, who has just caught up with us, bent down and assessed the situation. He got a look in his eye that was almost as sparkly as the eventide Ferris wheel. “You should take it back to your place.”
“Mom would kill us,” Mike said.
“Exactly!” Grandpa replied. “It would be hilarious! Your mother hates dead things!”
“How would you know?” I said quietly, hugging the dead horseshoe tight. “You haven’t talked to Mom in forever.”
“Some things never change, Lils. C’mon. Do it for me.”
Our subway car was empty on the ride home, probably because of the smell. Out the graffitied window, it began to rain. The sound was like coins falling overheard. Under the wet black sky, Luna Park seemed on fire. Everything moving, everything lit. Everything bleeding together. The four of us in the echoey car, bleeding together. The horseshoe crab’s pincers against my thighs. Mike, asleep on my shoulder. Grandpa, dancing with the metal pole, smoking and humming Lou Reed. Everything murky. Soft and monstrous. The rattling car yanked northward as if hooked.
© Eliza Gilbert
[This piece was a finalist for the 2022 Forge Flash Fiction Competition, and was selected by Rachel Wild]