“Underneath the bridge
The tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped
Have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass
And the drippings from the ceiling
But it’s okay to eat fish
‘Cause they don’t have any feelings”
–Kurt Cobain (1967-1994)
Gripping our rods and a bucket, I held back some bushes to guide my six-year-old son down the path to the fishing hole. Just to my right I noticed the sleeping bag underneath the bridge. At the opening where the head should have been, I saw a pair of red Converse All-Stars. An old dirt bike lay on its side a few feet away. The person must have been cold overnight I surmised, even though it was quickly warming now.
The creek gurgled along reflecting the sunlight in sparkles as it flowed around a bend of cattails. I asked my boy again if he would rather fish on the dock. He stubbornly refused. This location had been the one to excite his imagination when we had discussed our options at bedtime the night before. The creek flowed briefly through a small lake with the modern blue rectangles of the downtown skyline rising beyond the trees. The frequently-kayaked body of water was good for northern pike and I wanted to fish the dock to improve my own chances. The creek held mostly small fish.
“This is the secret spot,” the boy insisted.
I looked back to the sleeping vagrant, wondering if he had been awakened and could hear us. I was less concerned him getting his rest than I was my own child’s peace of mind. I did not really want to give a Dad-talk right at that moment about creeps who sleep under bridges, how they were just victims of abuse, mental illness, or addiction. Victims yes, people who we should not mock and try to help, but mostly–people we should avoid! There were small encampments in many of the wooded parks around my home. I had discovered them exploring on makeshift mountain bike trails that threaded their way through the twisted elms–soiled bedding, tarps and trash bags fashioned into pup tents, furniture with the stuffing and springs sticking out, the blackened embers of abandoned fires scattered with liquor and mouthwash bottles.
I enjoyed great freedom in my youth, epic Huck Finn adventures that my parents knew nothing about. I wanted that for my boy, but I was raising him in a different time and place. We had many “secret spots” known only to us where we fished alone and undisturbed. I had always been gently persistent about the pastime. It was, along with the hunting, the best thing my own father and I did together. I knew it could be boring if the fish weren’t cooperating. I never forced it on him. If he wasn’t in the mood, we just didn’t go. It was important to me that he like it, which is why I suppose he did. He wanted to please me as all sons do their fathers. We took delight in each other’s happiness.
I rigged my son’s line simply with a gold hook, a piece of shot, and a red-and-white bobber. I baited him up with a wax-worm I had purchased from a nearby pet store and let it fly into the current. I could see pan-fish darting about in the pool. I quickly hooked one and handed the pole off to the boy so he could reel it in. He held it aloft for us both to admire. It was dark green with squiggles of orange and electric blue. I unhooked the fish unharmed and let the boy toss it back into the flowing water. We exchanged a smile.
“Where does the water go?” I asked my son.
He always hesitated before answering. “The Mississippi River?”
“And from there?”
Every so often I glanced behind me to the dim recess under the bridge. The figure never stirred or groaned. What if he was dead? Not much helping him then, I supposed. It was getting hot. I wondered how well anyone could breathe like that. Occasionally someone would jog or bicycle over the bridge. These were the beautiful people–well-tanned with a sheen of vitality, blissfully unaware of the homeless individual in a virtual body-bag below them.
The dirt bike made me suspect the individual was a young runaway. I thought of the pictures of the missing kids on the junk mail I delivered, kids they used to put on milk cartons. I thought about phoning the police, but I couldn’t bring myself to have someone rousted from their hangover by some beefy cop. Better to let him sleep. Runaways were usually running away from something and it was a public park after all.
I assumed it was a guy. The shoes made me think it was a white kid. I couldn’t think of ever seeing anyone who wasn’t white wearing Chuck Taylor’s. He was probably a kid very much like a lot of the kids I grew up with in the trailer court. Someone, a couple bad decisions aside, who wasn’t much different than I had been. It was funny to think I had gotten so damn old that kids were wearing shoes that I had worn as a child, shoes I started wearing again just to seem hip.
It was then, peering into the gravel bottom of the pool, that I noticed the bass. He was good sized, maybe fifteen inches. I could sense his dominance over the other fish as he circled about—husky, his eye darkly alert for prey, twitching his head about with that thick, upturned bottom lip. I whispered to the boy and pointed. At last, he saw the fish too. We crouched, sharing each other’s excitement, completely in the moment. The homeless person vanished from my conscience entirely. The boy handed the rod to me. I could see the bass come to rest at a spot near the opposite bank. There was a flash of light and I could see him opening his mouth to feed on something. It was worth a try. I cast the meal-worm upstream from him and let it drift. On the third attempt, I saw him take the bait. The bobber did not go under and I could not feel him, but I saw it so I set the hook.
He exploded out of the water twice before I passed the rod back to the boy who was so excited he nearly fell into the creek. I yelled coaching instruction to him as the bass zipped back and forth in the pool.
“Keep reeling! Keep reeling!” I shouted.
He had the fish close. I grabbed the line and pulled him in a bit closer before scooping him up in the wood-handled fly-fishing net I had brought along. He was a fat one–a real beauty—mouthing the air heavily as he looked up at me helplessly with an eye like a wet, black stone.
“We should get him back in the water,” I said to the boy after he had a chance to admire the bass. He touched the cool slime of the fish’s scales with his finger.
“No!” he exclaimed. “Let’s keep him. He’s so big!” The boy was jumping up and down.
“All right,” I said. I felt bad about it, but the fish would make for a nice lunch. I bent down to dip the bucket into the water.
“I can’t wait to show Mom,” the boy said.
“Should we get him home then?” I asked.
He nodded. It was always best to quit when you were ahead on these sorts of outings. As we departed the creek, I noticed the boy freeze up when he saw the sleeping bag. I nudged him forward.
“Looks like someone’s camping,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.”
We drove home. My son showed off the fish to his mother. I took a picture. He was barely strong enough to hold it up. It really was a nice fish. I let him watch me as I filleted it on the picnic table. I slit open the fish’s stomach and showed the boy the minnows and crayfish inside. I fried the fish and ate it for lunch with a salad I picked from the garden. I tried to get the boy to try a little, but he wouldn’t. He’d always been picky.
That evening I went for a run on the bike trail that paralleled the creek. I went under the bridge where we had been fishing. The sleeping bag and its occupant were gone along with the bike. I replayed the morning in my head as I continued my jog. Fishing was for me a form of time travel. Through some transmutation I became the boy–the father and the son. It was if by getting it right in these moments with my son that I was repairing my own childhood.
I felt bad about the kid under the bridge. I feel guilty when I see the people holding the cardboard signs at intersections. But I almost never give them anything. Truly helping someone is far from easy, almost impossible really. I have always been wary of human entanglements and am well past the age when I naively believed I could affect any kind of positive social change. It is all I can do to keep my own head above water. Kurt Cobain lived under a bridge for a time. The lyrics from “Something in the Way,” surreal as they seem, were actual straight biography. His tragic life and the disillusionment expressed in his art were a product of his parent’s divorce. I live it day by day, doing the best I can to keep us all on the road.