By the age of ten I was an accomplished teller of untruths, especially when it came to excuses for not attending school. But when I started fourth grade, brazenly playing hooky suddenly stopped being an option. After months of dodging class and wanton tomfoolery in the streets, an edict came down the chain-of-command that put a crimp in my renegade wilfulness. A surly, hatchet-faced truant officer was assigned to escort me and a handful of other fledgling social misfits to our grim elementary school each morning. I was last on the pick-up list, and he herded us along the twenty-minute march to Riverside Elementary with dead eyes and an unlit cigarette hanging off of his lip. It was a setback, but I was undeterred. It became necessary to utilise quasi-medical stratagems, which was no walk in the park because my French grandmother was a registered nurse, and she was no dummy when it came to detecting malingerers in her orbit.
Feigning a cough wouldn’t suffice, nor would low moans and woeful eyes peering out from beneath the covers. All I ever managed to squeeze out of those theatrics was a visit to Doctor Fox’s office and the threat of a shot of cold penicillin into my scrawny rear end. No, the thermometer ruled supreme in my grandmother’s house, proof positive of ill-health. So I adapted.
We had a black-and-white console TV in the living-room, opposite the door to Mr. Rose’s room. Mr. Rose was ancient and dying, and he paid my grandmother handsomely in cash to nurse him along the bumpy path to his inevitable end. He was the only person in the house who watched TV, and he always watched it with the sound turned off while he picked at his supper, accompanied by frightful wheezes and wet snorts into a blue silk handkerchief. He also generally forgot to switch it off when he took himself to bed.
The evening before the Day Of The Mackerel, I waited for Mr. Rose to shuffle into his room on his creaking bamboo walker. As usual the TV was left on, flickering flashes of “Gunsmoke” into the darkened living-room. Once in his quarters, Mr. Rose rang his bell, signalling his readiness for bath, medication, and bed. I had a very brief window before my grandmother arrived in which to complete my mission. I darted to the TV, turned the contrast knob to black so it appeared to be off, and crept back to my bed.
I was awake at dawn the following morning, butterflies ricocheting in my stomach, but busily rehearsing my next moves. I had no inkling I might be a budding sociopath at that tender age. At seven-ten my grandmother poked her head into my room to make sure I was awake and readying myself for school. She was wearing her starched white nurse’s uniform that day, which didn’t bode well. I coughed, and pointed to my throat with a suitably miserable expression. She arched a suspicious eyebrow and marched off to her medical cabinet to fetch the thermometer. It was game on!
The thermometer was wedged under my tongue and she went off to deal with Mr. Rose, just in case he was still alive. I quite like thermometers; I had snapped the tips off of several over the years to fiddle with the little blobs of mercury, but that day I had something more pressing on my mind. My delinquent buddies Stevie, Virginia and Gus had all agreed to skip school with me, and we had agreed to meet at noon to go fishing in the Miami river. But first I had to get demonstrably sick.
I heard Mr. Rose’s door close as my grandmother swished into his room, and the ensuing hacking catarrh coughs as she roused him from his uncertain slumber. She may have thumped him on the back a few times to get his heart restarted, who knows? I flew into the living-room and slid the thermometer beneath the embroidered doily on top of the TV, which was nice and warm from being left on all night. I had to gauge the timing very precisely, and my first attempt was an abject failure: after twenty seconds it registered 104 degrees! Doctor Fox and an injection for sure! I shook it down to zero and tried again…eight…nine…ten…success! A paltry 100.2 degrees, but elevated just enough to warrant staying home from school, perfect! I bolted back to bed as Mr. Rose’s doorknob rattled and I lay there with my eyes closed, the thermometer protruding from between my pursed lips, evidence absolute.
The truant officer and his morose posse came and went, Mr. Rose slapped his dentures in and enjoyed his poached egg, subsequently spending a longish time in his bathroom emitting noises I have since tried to erase from memory, and I, dosed with a Sucrets throat lozenge, recovered from my ‘grippe’ with outlandish speed.
Late that morning I convinced my grandmother I felt well enough to venture outside and play. A quick check with the thermometer and I was good to go. Mr. Rose was slated for one of her signature ‘ventouse-a-la-Française’ cupping sessions, and I knew from experience that his therapy would consume much of the afternoon. Normally I would peer through the keyhole of her treatment room, fascinated by the mind-boggling procedure. An antique lacquered chest housed her precious collection of etched Byzantine crystal ‘cups’, and in each cup she would place a ball of alcohol-soaked cotton. Her patient would lie prone on the examining table, the wispy white hairs along his spine waving at the ceiling fan above. For these ceremonies she always wore her formal nursing outfit, including the little upturned hat. After smoothing a mysterious unguent onto his narrow back, she would light a votive candle with a long kitchen match, and then one by one she would ignite the cotton balls in their cups. The cotton balls would flare, sucking the oxygen out of the cups, and just before they extinguished themselves my grandmother would flip the cups mouth-side down onto his exposed back with a deft twist of her wrist. The result was a cupful of robust suction, and lumps of his flesh would bulge into them like jellied golf balls. I was horrified by the entire spectacle, but in awe of her consummate skill. Never once did I see a flaming cotton ball singe his skin. Afterwards his back looked like it’d been pummelled by a hailstorm, all mottled and purple, but that was to be expected and he never once complained.
I laced up my new sneakers, my grandmother’s birthday gift to me, and plunged into the Florida heat. The 1st Street Bridge crossed the Miami river just a few blocks from our house, and my ragtag band of miscreants was waiting for me there, perched on abandoned milk crates beneath its vaulted span. Gus The Cuban, Stevie The Greek, and the always unpredictable, dangerous Virginia The Girl. I was the only one without a moniker yet, which instilled feelings of self-doubt in me, but my friends didn’t care. We were united in our profound loathing of all things school. The river swirled slow and greasy under the bridge, pooling around its massive concrete support pylons. The mucky shoreline was always jam-packed with exotic flotsam and putrid things that smelled. It was our favourite hangout. Sand crabs the width of a baby’s face scuttled sideways through the sludge, their claws held menacingly aloft, and gangs of street-savvy rats nosed through the clumps of reeds that dotted the bank, watching us for signs of weakness.
Old Joe, the infamous one-eyed alligator, had taken up residence in the silty shallows nearest our hangout. He was a hefty reptile, nearly seven feet long, with a massive girth. He had been a denizen of that portion of the Miami river for years, along with a propeller-scarred manatee named Bazooka who eked out a living in the sawgrass swamp beneath the Flagler Street Bridge a half-mile to the west. Old Joe circled his turf with laconic sweeps of his ridged tail, somehow keeping his one good eye fastened on us at all times. I knew alligators didn’t have eyebrows, but given his malevolent stare it seemed to me that Old Joe might be the singular exception. We weren’t particularly afraid of him, but we were leery, just in case. He had been known to ambush stray dogs, and was rumoured to have devoured a drunk or two.
Gus, always reliable, bought the bait: a frozen mackerel that weighed just shy of a pound, black on top, silver on the bottom, wrapped in a paper sack and frozen solid. Gus always had money, even though he and his mother lived in a ramshackle two-room cottage behind someone else’s house. I never figured it out, but he always had cash. In fact, he sometimes hired me to shoplift German WW2 model aeroplane kits from Woolworth’s and paid me twelve per-cent of their retail price, usually in quarters. He was very specific though, and only certain models were acceptable. A Fokke-Wulf 190 was desirable, a Stuka bomber was not…go figure. He was nearly a year older than me, so I didn’t ask. I remember him building a humongous scale model of the Nazi battleship Bismarck and secreting cherry bombs in its hull, with their waxy fuses protruding from a row of portholes. He took it to the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach where Stevie The Greek’s father was employed as a cook and floated it out into the shallow end of the guest pool, lit the fuses, then giggled maniacally when it blew up and shot swastika decals and plastic shrapnel all over the promenade. The bejewelled, coconut-oiled hotel guests bolted from their sunbeds in alarm and we were banned from the pool for the rest of the year. Gus had his good points, though…in third grade he showed me how to properly write the capital letter ‘G’ in cursive.
We fished from a flotilla of grungy, de-commissioned construction barges destined for the scrapyard. They were moored to brass stanchions on a collapsing timber dock situated midway between the two bridges, alligator to our right, sea cow to our left. There were a half-dozen of these buckets lurching and banging into one another in the murky current, and we had to hopscotch from one to the other at risk to life and limb. The furthest one out, a boxy monstrosity whose decaying stern nudged the deep middle of the river, was our sweet spot. That was where the big fish swam.
Virginia didn’t fish; instead, she threw rocks at river rats, land crabs, and rusted oil drums with disquieting accuracy and shocking velocity. She wasn’t one to hurl smooth skipping stones either; her ammunition was jagged and lethal. She stored spare rocks in all of her pockets, along with a magnifying glass and packets of paper matches imprinted with the names of seedy Miami cocktail lounges. When she wasn’t lobbing artillery at beady-eyed rodents she kept herself busy building pyramids of matches and focusing the sun’s rays on them with her magnifying glass until they burst into flame.
Stevie The Greek always brought food. It might be souvlaki sandwiches, it might be almond strudel soaked in honey, we never knew in advance, but he always had a bagful of good stuff with him. His father’s fridge was stuffed to the gills with leftovers from the hotel kitchen, and Stevie never showed up empty-handed. Today it was a Tupperware of stuffed grape-leaves and cheese-filled triangles of pastry. Even Virginia rewarded him by relaxing her habitual scowl and showing a few of her teeth.
I had the fishing gear: three stout hand-lines wrapped around plastic spools, hooks, sinkers, cork bobbers, and a pocket knife. After we filled up on Stevie’s bounty we got down to the business of tying hook to line and picking our spots on the barge’s ugly stern. I carved three fat wedges of defrosting bait meat from the mackerel’s belly, and we got ready to fish. Virginia positioned herself at the bow of the barge facing the bank, hunched behind a ragged sheet of corrugated tin, and waited motionless for an unsuspecting wharf-rat to show its manky face.
I took off my new sneakers and admired them as I sat on the bulwark with my legs dangling over the river. Converse Chuck Taylor’s, $3.95 a pair, the good ones. The barge was so low in the water that the soles of my feet grazed the water’s surface. I threw my line out as far as I could and waited. Several things happened almost simultaneously: a man roared from the dock, “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU KIDS DOING ON THAT FUCKING BARGE?”, followed by “OW, YOU LITTLE BITCH!” as Virginia nailed him on the shin with a humdinger of a throw, and then something massive grabbed my hook and surged off downriver, pulling me over sideways onto my sneakers, one of which got tangled in my line. I wrapped a loop of that twenty-pound test monofilament around a rusty barge cleat but whatever was on the other end kept going relentlessly and snapped it in two, taking the cleat and my new sneaker with it. Stevie and Gus ditched everything and hauled ass toward the riverbank, bounding like kangaroos from barge to barge, angling for the east end of the dock furthest away from the bellowing man. Virginia, unfazed, methodically raked him with a barrage of well-aimed stones, buying us all some time. I grabbed my remaining Chuck Taylor and the partially defrosted mackerel in its paper sack and followed on Gus and Stevie’s heels. The ogre on the dock was ducking and dodging toward Virginia’s position and mulishly getting closer, despite the ferocity of her onslaught. She was running out of ammo. It occurred to me that I should maybe buy her a really good slingshot for Christmas.
A mighty leap propelled me from the last barge and I hit the boardwalk running, a sneaker in one hand and the sacked mackerel tucked into my armpit like a football. The man elected to chase me instead of risking a frontal assault into the teeth of Virginia’s well-aimed salvos, and the rickety dock shuddered as he thundered toward me. Over my shoulder I saw Virginia hop nimbly onto the dock and slip into the reeds, following a scant river rat trail that led to the Flagler Bridge and safety.
He didn’t catch me. How could he? I was ten years old adrenaline incarnate. I felt nothing but the wind in my face and the defrosting fish under my arm. I flew past Old Joe and his dank pool and shot up the steep bank onto SW 1st Street, barefoot and terrified. Ten minutes later I was home.
I hoped to sneak in without attracting any attention, but as it happened my grandmother was feather-dusting the TV in the living room when I opened the front door. She took one long look at me and her eyes bulged as wide as eggs. I hovered in the doorway, one foot encased in a perfectly good sneaker, the other foot scraped raw. I wordlessly held out the stained paper sack containing the mutilated mackerel and said, “Hi Grandma, I caught you this…”.
The good thing about grandmothers is they don’t hold a grudge. At least not for long. And they smell of lavender when they hug you, or at least mine did. Yes, I was grounded, for awhile anyway. Yes, I received a serious talking to about trust and lying and skipping school and how disappointing my behaviour was and what did I want to make of myself. And yes, I was made to take a bath, and afterwards have tincture of merthiolate (the painful one) applied to my damaged sole instead of Mercurochrome. But all in all I counted myself lucky.
As I hobbled to my room that night I passed Mr. Rose ensconced on the Barcalounger in front of the silent TV, his supper balanced on a lap tray. His shirt was off and his bony back was a discoloured mess of circular purple bruises, but he was uncharacteristically chatty. He glanced at me from the corner of a rheumy eye and said, “I’ll tell you what, whippersnapper. Your frog grandmother is a goddamn genius. That cupping got me breathing again, for now anyways. And she’s one hell of a cook…look here…a whole grilled mackerel just for me, as fresh as you’d like…”
When I went to bed that night I smelled something sulphurous on the breeze wafting through the window screen. I crept over to the window and looked out. There, under the streetlight down the road, was Virginia, a mound of paper matches at her feet, aflame. She waved, and I waved back. Tomorrow was another day.
Lawrence Morgan was born in Miami, raised in Istanbul, and left home at the age of 15 to explore the world and have adventures. He currently resides in Scotland. His other writing includes Meal, Combat, Individual, Bottle Rockets, One, Two, Three, Hike, The River Guide Myth along with his pieces for Memoirist, Island Fever, And Yener Danced The Visa Siege and Herat, 1968
Lawrence Morgan was awarded the Memoirist biannual prize, April 2020.