The day I caught my biggest fish, my father was out of town.
In the mid ’70s, my sister and I were fishing with family friends in Aransas Bay, anchored near a well, waiting for that mysterious something to yank our corks beneath the surface. After tossing out my line, I clicked my reel into place, and gave it a good luck pop.
I took a tiny sip of Dr. Pepper, reeled my line in a bit more, and took another sip of my drink, relishing the drink’s cold fizz. This was my measured, rationed routine and I kept my fingers crossed that it might bring me a big one.
When my cork disappeared under the gray-green sloshing water, Dr. Pepper spilled all over the boat, but nothing matters when a fish is on the line. I fought it hard, jabbing the rod against my stomach to leverage the line being pulled far and hard.
The 29” speckled trout that flopped against the slick white boat floor caused everyone to ooh and aah, but my experience felt fizzled-out, because my father wasn’t there to see it, and he was the primary audience for such an occasion. Back on land, I stopped my father’s friend from cleaning the fish and demanded that he stick the whole thing in his freezer until my father returned. The adults tried to tell me that the simple measurement of 29” would be good enough—my father would know how big my fish was, even if he didn’t get to see it. But that wasn’t enough. I wanted hard evidence—the physical proof of my catch, even if its exquisite rainbow iridescence would disappear.
I’m pretty sure my father’s friend gave me a wink and a nod, and then fileted the fish and ate it for dinner. But my pride eclipsed that fact. I had reeled in–what for an 8 year old–appeared to be a monster, and this huge accomplishment added bravado to my existence, like I had won a giant trophy.
As I grew older, I used the same careful cultivation to run my miles and earn my A’s, more trophies to bring to my father, who stressed the importance of academics and exercise. We went on 4-mile runs together around the neighborhood. He taught me how to spit (with force–so it goes out and away) as we flew along the road at a brisk pace. My mother had raised me not to chew gum or use toothpicks. In contrast, this oh-so-very unladylike activity had a boldness that I relished. I became addicted to running, hooked on the power I felt from building my strength and challenging myself to run long distances.
Now I am near the same age that my father was when he taught me to run, and I have driven back to Rockport, with the task of moving out of his coast house. It’s been a little over a year since his death, and when I walk in his house, I am struck again with the jarring reality of his absence.
The movers are scheduled to arrive in the morning and I’ve gotten here late on a Sunday afternoon. I know my father is nowhere near this house. To find him, I return to Fulton Beach Road, with the goal of running the entire length and back again, tracing his footsteps from those many years ago.
The house’s sterile atmosphere intensifies my loneliness. He built this house on a golf course in a retirement community where it feels like time has stopped, except for the brightly colored yard art spinning in his neighbors’ yards, hot air balloons and pinwheels, endlessly twirling like oversized geriatric toys.
In my father’s house, everything is shiny and clean; the space calls to mind his OSHA-regulated dentist’s office, except for the few objects dropped in from his past life—his mother’s oriental rug; his father’s green leather chair; and a set of chipped coffee mugs that we sipped out of during the 80s.
Here is where he watched the wildlife from his porch; there, on that couch, he watched the stock ticker run across the TV as he day-traded on his laptop.
When we first came here after his death, his navy Crocs waited for him just outside the garage door. He had left them there on the ground, slipping his feet out on his way inside. At least six pairs of khaki pants hung on hooks in his closet, belts still strung through each pair (he was compulsive like that).
I throw on my running clothes and drive over to my father’s old house, the one he built after he and my mother got divorced. I have a picture of him on my desk that shows him leaning down by a pot of fuchsia bougainvillea. He is tan and handsome and smiling right into the camera.
Sometimes when we used to fish, I’d see the cork floating off in the distance, but when I tried to reel it in, it remained in the same place, and I realized it was disconnected. That’s how it felt with my father during the last two decades of his life.
Fulton Beach is my touchstone to this prior version of my father. It’s been at least 20 years, and the house has changed so much that I don’t recognize it. It’s nearly dusk when I park in the wrong spot, by a more modest house instead, wondering how a berm got in front of the deck. But as I begin my run I see his old house, shadowed by a hulking mansion that didn’t use to be there. He was so proud of the big open room with rafters, and the huge deck that overlooked Aransas Bay. I helped him pick out the shower tile and we designed them to be open, like in Mexico.
I soak in the familiar balmy, salty air as I run along this bumpy, beat-up asphalt road. My father and I used to run along this road together, and as I retrace our footsteps, I reach back through time to pick up the strands of connection.
Aside from several failed developments, everything’s mostly still the same. The oak trees’ branches remain swept back, like God left the hair dryer on for all eternity. Whitecaps roll in like soldiers, crashing into the chunks of cement rubble dumped along its edge, covering the oyster shell beaches with their cumbersome presence. The steady wind blows out my thoughts with its relentless whir.
Four pelicans fly over on patrol, their shadows looming, feet stretched out behind them, feathers ruffling as they maneuver the wind. The seagulls call, raucous and greedy, cartwheeling in the air, their own mixed party of desire.
I pass the corner store, where my sister and I would follow the footpath with quarters in our hands to get M&Ms and Twix bars. Just beyond is a tiny bridge that leads into the island of Key Allegro and I run up to the top, passing a clump of Indian Blanket that returns year after year, just like the generations of families who summer here.
On top of the bridge, I stare out at the Allegro West condominiums, where we first had a place when I was a little girl, and count out the units to our balcony, we were fourth from the end. Everything looks smaller and run down. This must be Lewis Carroll really meant, when he described Alice eating the little cake that made her grow so large out of the room: the dramatic alteration of perspective that is brought about with age.
Down below, we used to keep our boat docked in this tiny harbor, which feels even smaller, like my bathtub just filled with water. The sun is setting and the evening light sets the water aglow. I’m reminded of Vija Celmin’s wave drawings, the infinite surface of the ocean water. There’s a lonely blankness to this textured infinity that reminds me of my childhood days, filled with boredom, spiked by the scavenger hunts that my mother invented to break up the doldrums of hot afternoons.
As I pass car after car, I wonder if anyone inside might be someone who knew him. He is no longer here, except in my memories, and at 48, I am least halfway to nonexistence myself.
When I turn around, I realize I how strong the wind had been that I was running against. On the way back, the road glides before me, like I’m on a fast treadmill. I’ve learned a lot more about running since my father taught me the basics.
It’s not distance but speed that matters, and when it comes to speed, it’s all about form and training, constantly challenging myself to up my speed incrementally. This training feels so much easier than the blind desperation of endurance that used to be my only tool.
With the wind behind me, I feel like I own the road. I blow back past the harbor and the diners, past the garish blue of the seafood restaurant down towards the lonely stretch of road.
It’s twilight now. I’m running in the middle to avoid any potholes or ruts. I come upon a twiggy looking older man, who is running with a crooked gait. As I pass, he stops to let me go by, and says, “I’m going to let you pass. You’re much faster!”
It’s the same pride I had when that fish was on the end of my line, completing this seven mile run at top speed, but I know now, it was never something my father wanted. What he wanted, all along, was for me to have it for myself.