by Tom Roth
If I could I’d go back to that day I nearly got curb stomped and tell myself not to get in that piece of shit van with crazy Moses Palmer driving around the country like a dumb fish stuck in a glass bowl. I’d have been better off in jail than stuck out here on this highway with a flat tire and no spare. I’ve been listening to this man preach about finding Fish Island for nearly a month and we haven’t even made it to Chicago yet. Not one person has pulled over to help us because he’s out there jumping up and down trying to get God to deliver us a tire.
“LaaAAAAHHHrd God and Father of the Fellowship of Fish Island,” Moses shouted, “Cast down a tire from your heavenly Lund Boat so that we may pick ourselves up from damnation and lead ourselves into salvation! Roll a tire down on your untangled Fishing Line! Save us, LaaAAAAHHHrd God! And we will sing of your works and of your ways, mighty Fisherman of Nations!”
I opened the door and went out to the front of the van. He was on the ground now, flopping like a fish. I couldn’t take it anymore. I can’t believe he’s been doing this shit for this long and nobody’s tried stopping him. All the people he’s met, all the places he’s gone and he still thinks he’s going to find this island.
“Moses, get up,” I yelled. “This is fucked up what you’re doin’! Ain’t nobody gonna’ help us with you out here screamin’ all this shit. Come on, we can get a ride maybe if we—”
“No, little fella,” he said as he got up on his knees. “I told ya before what this van and all them bumper stickers mean to me. You’re part of the Fellowship too now. You got yours on there, too.”
“You said that if I needed a ride that—”
“I know what I said. You need more’n just a little ride along the country. Salvation, little fella. For the Lard spoke to me on my first night alone, ‘I have seen the oppression…’”
I’ve heard this story a thousand times now. He tells it every time he meets somebody and asks them if they want to live a free life under God’s love on Fish Island. Every time he meets a new person he asks them that and they all look at us like we’re crazy runaways. I thought about ditching him two weeks ago, too. But he keeps reeling me in like he’s got me hooked from behind and I can’t see the pole because it’s covered by his crazy words. And he has done some good for me, too. Shit, I wouldn’t last a week in prison, there’s no way I could win another fight like I did that day when I was walking back home on Lincoln. I owed him one that’s for sure. Shit, we got drunk with girls on Lake Michigan and I lost my virginity to one of them. That was two weekends ago and that was why I decided to stay a little longer. I never even thought I’d make it out of Ohio. It was beautiful seeing those waters. He said something to me on our last day there that keeps me guessing about him, too.
“Look at that horizon, little fella. Tell me where it ends. Just tell me where it ends.”
I was laughing at him, but I could tell he was serious this time because he wasn’t laughing. He lifted his hand up like he could pull the horizon toward him and step onto where he wanted to be.
“Tell me where it ends. Just tell me where it ends.”
* * *
The road was cracked. Streaks of lightening weaved around broken pieces of pavement scattered along the middle like dead fish lying upon a black shore. In the old days, when they were young and little, they threw rocks to claim part of the road. Nobody fights like that anymore and nobody bothers watching them fight unless they get hurt or if they see someone get hurt that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. But if it’s just the same fighting like they’ve always done before, then nothing’s out of the ordinary.
They stand on the sides now, waiting. Groups of them waiting and looking down the road as if it were a river. They wait for a fish swimming by to yank out. They hoist him up, clapping their hands and betting on the length of him. After that, they give him the bag and see if he could measure up to the job like they all did when they were his age.
When I was young I used to pick up the cigarettes they left on the sidewalk and act like I was one of them. I’d put one of them between my lips and tilt my head back and pretend to blow out smoke over the road. Then I tried to talk the way they did, though I didn’t know what any of it meant; “You talkin’ bout that redhead? We fucked last week” and “Shit ain’t never gonna change, man.” I’d ask other kids if they wanted a smoke and they’d look at me like I was almost one of them only a smaller, plastic type; like I was a toy modified to their movements. But they, the real ones who weren’t toys, only laughed at me and called me shrimp.
The moment I saw him and the others I knew he’d offer the kids walking in front of me a delivery job. He was a watchtower, casting a shadow over the road that seemed to stretch for miles. If you looked at him long enough you would feel yourself shrinking down to his shoes. Some of the other ones around him would flinch a little if he moved his arm. And when his eyes beamed down on you like two spotlights they said one thing. Don’t fuck with me.
The kids walked up to him like he was a skyscraper as he raised up his arms and gave a jack-o-lantern smile.
“What’s up, little man? How’d you like to make some cash? All you gotta’ do is run this bag over to a house on Washington down there. Won’t take more’n five minutes probably and you’ll have some cash to take home for yourself. Easy job to do for ten bucks. You want it? Or how ‘bout you with the Kyrie shirt? How ‘bout it champ? Who’s gonna be the big man here, huh?”
One of the kids raised his hand. The watchtower leaned over him and gave a loud laugh as the others clapped and yelled out “There he is” and other shit like that.
The watchtower’s hand fell upon the boy’s shoulder as if he was knighting him. Then he looked over the other kids and said, “This boy here is way ahead of ya’ll. Got himself a job and ain’t more’n ten years old I take it. Atta boy, little man. Now take this bag over to the third house on the left of Washington. You got that? Third house on the left. There should be a guy at the front door waitin’ for ya, alright?”
The boy nodded again and reached for the bag hanging over his head like a bait from a hook. I didn’t realize how fast I had been walking. They all looked down at me like I was a fish jumping out of the water. The watchtower was the only one to speak.
“What you want, shrimp?”
I stopped in front of the kids and stared up at his eyes. Don’t fuck with me. He spoke again.
“What you want? I remember you. Yeah I don’t forget faces, especially ones that look like they gonna shit their pants. What you tryin’ to do huh? This little dude here gotta bigger dick than you. Get the fuck outta’ here before I beat your ass all over this fuckin’ road. Go.”
He threw his arm out over the road and the bottom of his shirt stretched up and I saw the gun handle poking out of his pants.
I looked up at his eyes again and said, “Leave ‘em alone. These kids too young to know what you doin’ out here.”
The others laughed, but he just stared at me with those eyes. Then he said, “And what exactly is that, shrimp?”
I looked back the kid that was supposed to deliver the drugs. He was staring at the cracked road. “Messin’ up their world a little more each day,” I said.
“Don’t you get it, man? It’s already fucked and we the ones gettin’ fucked the most. So what the hell you mean that I’m the one behind all this shit?”
“I didn’t say that. I’m just sayin’ that you ain’t helping these—”
“Shut the fuck up. Who the fuck are you? Comin’ up here tellin’ me how to be somethin’ I ain’t. What the fuck you want me to do, shrimp? You want me to tell ‘em to work hard and that everything’s gonna be okay? That it? Man, fuck that shit. You gotta learn to get by some way cause sooner or later there ain’t gonna be nothin’ for you but the bottom. It’s a big pond and if you ain’t big enough you’ll be nothin’ but one of the hungry mother fuckers left at the bottom waitin’ for a hook to fall in from the big boys up top. Go home, shrimp, cause you ain’t big enough to be out here.”
I turned like I was going to cross the street then jumped and swung my left hand into his throat making him stumble back. I ducked underneath his hips and went for a tackle but I couldn’t bring him down. We struggled until he started pounding my side so hard I couldn’t breathe. My legs left the ground and I was thrown into the road landing on my back. My head hit the concrete and the road felt like it was breathing. My head throbbed like there was a rope tied around it and the road kept breathing. I felt his shoe press down on my stomach and his fist hit me like a thick branch. I rolled over and grabbed a piece of pavement almost the size of my palm. They were yelling, “Put ‘em on the curb!” and he kept mumbling, “Big pond, shrimp, it’s a big pond.” Then I felt my skin rub against the pavement and my mouth kissed the concrete of the curb. Sirens were near us. I heard him coughing hard and I rolled over and got up on one knee and threw the rock into his forehead as hard as I could.
I didn’t watch him fall, only his shadow. It teetered up and stumbled along the road holding its forehead with both hands. As he fell forward the shadow grew taller and taller behind him until his body hit the ground and it disappeared into the road.
The sirens were roaring now. I got up to my feet and felt the road panting hard and I almost fell over. I grabbed another piece from the road and threw it at the police car. It went straight through the windshield and the car swerved onto the sidewalk. I saw one of the officers start to get out and I started running.
I heard the officer yell something and then I heard a bang. I heard another bang as I kept running but then I stopped dead still. A yellow, brown spotted hippie-looking van emerged out of a dust cloud and headed straight for me. It was honking like crazy and the headlights were flicking on and off. The car got closer till it turned to one side and swerved to stop right in front of me so close I thought the bumper was going to hit me. A head that looked like a ball of Spanish moss stuck out the window of the driver’s seat.
“Get in, little fella! Saw the whole thing!”
It had so much rust all over the sides that it looked like a rotten banana and the back was covered in bumper stickers. I ran around the back end of it and one of the stickers caught my eye: GONE FISHIN’. There were even bumper stickers on the sides. I hopped in and we drove off swerving through streets that led to the highway.
Once we got on the highway and he started talking, I figured he was crazy. His grey hair hung almost to his elbows and his beard was longer. He never stopped laughing. Whatever he or anybody else said, he laughed at it. It didn’t matter what it was about. He just kept laughing and talking so much it could make somebody jump off a bridge.
“My oh my,” he said. “Saw the whole thing, little fella! I says to myself, ‘That giant is gonna squash him like a bug.’ And then you threw that rock like you was Pedro. I’s at that gas station down there and I see the cops comin’ after ya and says to myself, ‘God, I will baptize this young man into The Fellowship of Fish Island.’ Came drivin’ down here to pick you up from damnation and lead you into salvation! That’s my little catchphrase. Welcome aboard, little fella! I’m Moses Palmer, founder of The Fellowship of Fish Island!”
* * *
“…and that was when the Lard spoke to me. I’s holdin’ a fish over my fire on my first night alone and then the Lard spoke, ‘Do not burn the fish, Moses. And do not fear me, for I am the Lard and Father of Fish Island.’ I nearly shit my pants, but I kept listenin’ to Him. ‘I have seen the oppression of my people. They have been hooked, reeled, and gutted. Lead my people West, to Fish Island.’ And I says to ‘em, ‘Lard, they gonna think I’m crazy! They gonna lock me up! How’s I supposed to lead your people West, to Fish Island.’ And the Lard God casted down His glowing hand and lifted me up over the fire and whispered so softly, ‘Follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men.’ And I told ‘em I do it all for Him and then He said, “Moses, leave your shoes. For every step you take marks the land with my footprints.’”
I hated the way he said Lord. There had to be something wrong with him with all his talk about God and his nonstop laughing. It all sounded crazy. He looked crazy, too. His face sunk so deep into his beard and hair you could hardly see his eyes and nose until he would get real excited about what he was saying. His eyes would pop out big and black like two eight balls as his nose would come out like a little orange snake poking its head through a tangle of grey weeds. He had a way of reeling you into what he was saying too, like every other word was something to chew on for a bit. And just when it looked like I could get a picture of his face, when those eyes and nose would start coming out of all that hair, it would sink back and be hidden under all that craziness.
I watched him steer the wheel like he was driving a tractor and asked him, “Where is this island?”
He laughed, “Smack dab in the middle between California and Hawaii, little fella. Came up right outta’ the water in the shape of a fish. The Lard God spoke to me and said, ‘I will reel up an island from the deep for my people.’ Snatched the sonabitch up for us to pray and live and fuck and love and be happy on for the rest of our days until we are lifted into his Lund Boat!”
He raised both his hands from the steering wheel making the van swerve into the other lane for a moment before catching the wheel again. I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Listen, Moses, I think it’s alright if you just let me off at the next exit. I appreciate the ride, but I gotta get home I think.”
He sobered up from his laughter and looked at me like I was the crazy one. Then he said, “Fella, you killed that giant back there you know that? And only the Lard knows what happened to the other officer in that car. I saw the whole thing, son.”
I felt sick. I kept seeing the shadow falling and disappearing into the road. I couldn’t take it anymore. His fucking bullshit and all the other bullshit around me. It’s fucked up the ways people are dropped into this world. That you’re dropped and left in the dark and nobody seems to give a damn about it and you try do better but that only makes you feel smaller and more stupid. I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Yes, son, I believe you’re in the shithole. There ain’t any other way to look at it. It is what it is, little fella. You’ll just have to—”
“I’m not you’re fuckin’ son. I’m not a part of this crazy fish thing either. You’re fucked in the head you know that? Let me out of this fuckin’ piece of shit now.”
Moses slammed the brake pedal and swerved to a stop on the left side of the highway. He parked the car and turned off the engine. He curled his hands tight on the wheel like he was trying hard not to let them grab hold of my neck. Cars whirred past and nudged the van with their wind.
“I wanna’ show ya somethin’, hot shot,” he said nearly whispering.
He stepped out of the van and pointed to the back of it as he started walking. The only thing he had on were stained khaki shorts raised above his knees. I got out and looked at all the taillights disappearing into the night horizon like a swarm of tiny red lightening bugs. I walked to the back of the van and found Moses staring at the all bumper stickers. I remember how still he was. He didn’t move anything except for that mouth of his. He just stood there with his hands atop his head like he had just lost something he wished he could have had a little longer. What he said to me then might be the only true thing he ever said to anyone in his entire life.
“Been doin’ this since I was fifteen, tryin’ get to this island. Been forty years and this is the closest I been. My oh my, ain’t even made it to Chicago. These stickers here are all the folks that’ve been with me. Either died, called me crazy and left, or just went off walkin’ by theyselves and didn’t come back.”
I could see he was about to cry. Those watery eight balls came out of all that hair ready drip onto his nose. But he shook it off and his face was hidden again. He started pointing to some of the stickers.
“This one here with the rainbow: I’m so gay I can’t even drive straight! That’s Chris Sorrento. Met ‘em in Florida. Hella’ kid too. Not sure what happened to ‘em. He left in ’97, when we was in one of the Carolinas. And this one with the smiley face: Take It Easy, Life Is Short. That’s Judy Arlington. She met her husband in Erie, PA and married him in ’81. Her daughters both go to Pitt. Nice girls. And this sonabitch! My oh my, the first one to tag along with me: God Bless America. That’s Ernie Whipple from West Virginia. Didn’t even make it seven days and said I was crazy, but he sure knew how to make ya’ laugh. That was 1975.”
He walked toward the highway and stared at all the lights disappearing. He had his hands on his hips and that yellow, rusted van sat next to him. He leaned against the side of the van with his elbow and kept talking.
“These stickers are the verses, little fella. And I don’t plan to rip off any one of them. Never. Don’t matter what they say, just as long as they mean somethin’ to somebody. What you do is your call, little fella. I just want ya’ to know that if you’re headin’ my way at all, I can lend ya’ a ride if you need one.”
He walked back around the end of the van and something fell out of his back pocket. It was a bumper sticker with a picture of Darth Vader that said: Who’s your Daddy?
I picked it up and stared at it. I pictured myself taking off a mask for the first time after years of hiding behind it. I felt the air rush into my nose again as I heard to my own breathing. My eyes saw the world again as they were meant to see it, not as they were told to see it. I could touch the skin on my face again and know that it was me, not a mask.
I pulled off the cover and slapped the sticker sideways onto the side of the van and hopped in. He looked at me, waiting to hear what I would say. I reached out and we shook hands and nodded at each other. I looked down at his foot resting on his knee. It was completely black.
“Moses, you should really put some shoes on,” I said.
He started the car and raced onto the highway. He was laughing so hard he could barely drive straight.
“Don’t you worry about that, little fella. Where we’re goin,’ we won’t need shoes.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Tom Roth works as a long term tutor and substitute teacher at an elementary school in Ohio. He plans on becoming a secondary English teacher.