Bigger Fish

Bigger Fish

By Morleen Novitt

I have always loved the southeast fish tail of Long Island in the autumn. The tempo slows and the sky changes into its fall colors, deepening its blues while the clouds puff up. The air has a tinge of chill but it is still warm. Which is why my husband Don and I had decided to rent a beachfront home in the off-season (read: affordable) in Amagansett. We were in our fifties now and noticed that our tempos were also mellowing. My younger brother (by four years) Reeve and his wife Karen would visit us every fall. They’d drive all night from Buffalo. The next morning my brother would be gleefully surf fishing. Although the only thing he ever caught was a tangled line, he’d appear smiling at the kitchen door full of delight, his salt-water soaked jeans nearly falling off his skinny behind, his waterlogged wallet in his hand. “You do this every single time,” I said with exasperation. I made him change in the shed. Each year we chartered a boat and let the ocean and its treasures claim the day. Perhaps the best trip of all was on a less-than-perfect morning. It was totally overcast, with dark clouds whizzing across a sky that was trying to decide whether or not to rain. The waves were roiling, rocking and rolling as we boarded, which made us hesitate about going out. Because he was nearly bald, my brother’s forehead seemed to reach the back of his neck. His frown encompassed his entire head. There was no way Reeve was leaving that boat without fish. We decided to continue as planned. As we headed out of the harbor Reeve joked: “Hey remember when Earl pulled in that huge bass and took his own picture at the same time?” Earl was our youngest brother. “I could not figure out how to use his camera. So he grabbed it from me with one hand,” I smiled, remembering. ”And still, he never did stop talking,” Karen replied. We all laughed, recalling memories of fish caught, fish almost caught, and fish so small we couldn’t keep them. “That was a cold day,” my husband recalled. “No, the year before was the cold one,” Reeve responded. “Your friend Bernie came that year. Caught a 40-pounder.” Within sight of the lighthouse, my brother shouted, “Hey Sissy, I’ve got one.” Fish on! Reeve reeled in a huge, silvery bluefish exclaiming, “What is that, a tuna?” There is not only a size limit, but also a catch limit on striped bass. The mate, Bill, would put each fish we caught into the water tank. He said, “All these guys are alive. If we catch bigger ones, we can throw these back.” This concept sent Reeve into ecstasy. Fantasies of Moby Dick on the line as we eased enormous striped bass back into the sea made him giddy. The sun succeeded in breaking through the clouds. It was nicely reflected by my brother’s head. The light bounced off his wire-rimmed glasses, glinted in his blond eyebrows, so that the impression was of an angelic halo of whites and yellows and golds misting around him. We kept catching fish, and returning the smaller, perfectly legal and respectably sized ones. The highlight was the sight of Bill gently slipping a few stripers back into the sea as a group of sullen fishless fisherman stood on the deck of a nearby charter watching with envy. “Looks like they’re not having any luck.” I observed. “Looks like they wish they were us,” Bill added We all thought that was pretty funny. It was time to head back. The ocean had calmed down and the boat bobbed merrily to match our mood. At the marina, Bill hosed down and filleted our fish. It was amazing how little was left from the giants we had caught. We then took our haul to a local restaurant that proclaimed: “You hook ‘em, we cook ‘em.” We had about an hour to drive back to the house, shower and return for dinner. We drove home with all the windows open. A day on a fishing boat does not leave one smelling like roses. As we headed west we noticed a sign that said: “Overlook.” And indeed there is a scenic place to stop and observe a beautiful view of the ocean and the bay separated by the spit of land called the Napeague Isthmus. Reeve started singing: “I’m overlooking the overlooking, that I overlooked before.” And all of us joined in jubilantly making up lyrics to the tune of a song to which none of us could remember the actual words. We sang all the way home. Once there, we knew we had to hustle to get ready. But I was tired of rushing. In the shower, I slowly lifted my face to allow the deliciously hot water to run down my hair. It was the only time I had been alone all day. I thought of the times when we were kids that I had tried to bribe Reeve not to come on family trips. I wasn’t always the best sister. Our hair still damp, we entered the restaurant with anticipation. The gracious hostess showed us to our round table. We were starving. Out came trays laden with bowls of rice and incredibly beautiful, steaming dishes made from our own, freshly caught striped bass. One platter had a pungent ginger aroma. Another held squares of fish slathered with an appealing black-bean sauce. It was a fish-eating frenzy. “Can you please pass the rice,” Don asked for the third time. “Ohhh, I like the one with the broccoli. The BROCCOLI please!” I requested. We told and retold the story of our day to each other. Glasses of wine and beer seemed to improve the qualities of both the tale and the teller. “Sis, did you see the expression on those guys’ faces on the other boat?” “Yep,” I replied. “Completely blank, frozen, they had nothin’.” “Nothin’,” Don echoed. This sent us all into gales of laughter. Is there anybody as self-satisfied, blissed-out and boastful as a fisherman who is content with his catch? Reevie described this as the best day of his life. I felt pretty good about that. The next October was to be our last in the rental. We had decided to build our own home in Montauk. I had been travelling a lot for business, and the thought of having houseguests seemed overwhelming. I felt I just wasn’t up to having my brother and his wife visit. “What difference does it make?” I thought. ” He can always come next year.” Because Reeve had a good heart (“A head of lettuce and a heart of gold,” was how Earl and I often jokingly described our brother) he understood. He kindly said, “Sissy, don’t worry about it.” And he was so excited about our new home in his beloved Montauk. I was grateful for his generosity. Of course I felt guilty. Guilty and relieved. I was off the hook. That particular autumn seemed to go so quickly. One day we were picking apples and choosing a pumpkin and the next, we were taking down the Thanksgiving decorations. However, December was endless. The snow fell quietly, steadily and malevolently all month. One day Long Island got two feet of snow, but Buffalo had received over five feet, with drifts that buried buses. December 28 was particularly freezing and grey. It was the day after Reeve had turned 50. I had his birthday card all ready to mail, but hadn’t wanted to drive to the post office in the storm. I was staring out the window at the silent, white world when the phone rang. The ring seemed so loud. It was Karen, my sister-in-law. She quietly told me that Reeve had died that morning, a heart attack stealing him from his dogs, his son, his family and any chance of his stepping back on a boat. I dropped the phone without hanging up and ran outside into the blizzard. The winter wind howled around and with me as I screamed in disbelief. That was when next year never came. No more balancing ourselves against the waves, no putting back smaller fish as envious onlookers watched. No nothin’. There was no plan I could make to entice him back. I didn’t get a do-over. This news didn’t come with an edit option. For a long time, I felt numb. I went through the motions, pretending I was a human being. And eventually, the demands of the day chipped away at my grief. Time, like the ocean, can smooth a jagged shard into sea glass. Certainly my life has color and joy. I have come to accept that sometimes there are no bigger fish. And that next year damn well better be right now.