The Nest (Or, a Father Considers the Odds of Raising Successful Small-Mouth Bass Offspring)

That afternoon at the cabin

we sat by the river

after I had cut up those small trees

that you dropped at my feet with the tractor –

(an offering, a challenge,

one that I tore through haphazardly with the new chainsaw,

black and yellow like a drunken, terrible bumblebee).

It was quiet after all that noise,

the dog (our fourth) now gone, our offspring absent-

(one washing other people’s dishes in dirty water for $7.75 an hour,

one in the throes of new love, thrashing in the shallows, and then

one that has swum out to her own sea)

so we sat without them

on cheap and dirty plastic chairs

that had sat outside all winter

and swatted at mosquitoes,

talking a little but mostly just

watching the male bass

swim back and forth around its nest,

guarding the 20,000 – 

give or take a few hundred –

eggs ditched by the female – leaving him

to patrol the nest alone, watching for

panfish looking to gorge on eggs coming in from the left

while he is preoccupied with crayfish coming in from the right –

there are always more predators.

(Five bass fry will live long enough to grow ten inches long;

it’s better that the father not consider these odds,

yet, how can he not?)

A muskrat broke the perimeter –

rat-tail moving side to side like a pink snake, but

the bass didn’t break patrol.

A father knows, or thinks he knows, what is a threat.

Really, I had almost certainly just waded right through the nest

through the muck and rocks and branches

(a sweaty, mosquito-repellent covered Godzilla

sending translucent globes helplessly into the current).

But we kept watching the bass,

circling his trampled nest while the sun

slowly arced to the west, and north,

the surface of the river sparkling like

glass from a broken mirror.

Behind us, up the hill,

no one tended the fire;

and though it was light, still, for so long,

in that week leading up to the solstice,

it was too late for us

to go home.

 

Wes and Jesus Come up Empty

I.

After

we see paintings of the sea, and moonlight, and doom by

Winslow Homer, after we work on income tax forms and insurance and eat

carnitas

burritos and watch Netflix, I don’t feel well,

it’s not a bellyache or a hangover or a fever or something that CVS can fix.

it’s like

this existential ache in my soul; it’s

not something that I really want to think about

because

I’d have to reach back all the way to the beginning

and anyway it’s dinner time and instead I’m reaching into this drawer full of

knives,

serrated blades that bare their

teeth along my fingers, but I’m careful to take just one.

II.

Last week

I saw a TV commercial for a microwavable cup

with bits of vegetable and potato and peppers, you just add an

egg

and your breakfast problem is solved, I am thinking

of this while you and I walk 38 blocks teetering on the edge of

Milwaukee;

this March Sunday morning question unsolvable:

is this it, or is there more? I wish I could just add an egg to this

problem.

Faced with that same question 27 years ago,

I stayed. Was it right? I don’t know. The thought of not having my

three

children, these particular ones, out in the wide world

brings me to fierce and sudden tears right there on the windy sidewalk.

Each

choice is wrong, either choice is right,

or could be made so, perhaps you learn how you feel before the coin lands.

III.

“Is he

a good dog? ….Who’s to say?”

Wes Anderson doesn’t help me here, or Jesus either; Micah 6:8,

what

is the right thing to do in this instance,

what leads to happiness? Do I say, stay, stay with this boy who is kind, this boy we

love

and who loves you, beyond measure,

even if you do not always sharpen each other, make each other better,

like

a knife against a stone?

The world is full of sharp things.

IV.

Life

is a yawning paper cootie-catcher

on lined notebook paper in a 5th grader’s back pocket, first narrow then wide,

narrow

then wide, you can’t know what’s

inside, you just have to pick a color, and pull up the flap, the

question

on the other side propels you

deeper into the story, back and forth and back and forth

until

you don’t know how

you got there or where you are going, you just hold on and

ride,

back and forth and dark and

light, yin and yang, pain and pleasure, if you are lucky,

until

it closes on this world for good

and opens in the dawn of another, without any

guessing at all.

Linneman’s

At Linneman’s

RiverWest

with McKenzie,

my firstborn,

who is somehow of age,

beautiful, and strong,

despite it all –

we’re just one drink in,

waiting for her boyfriend Zach to play,

when I hit the ladies’ room —

“I’m comin’ out!” the lady in the half-open stall shouts

and so I pee behind the imperfectly locked door of the other stall

while I listen to her humming and talking to herself

and then walk out, she is still talking

to everyone, to no one,

dreadlocks pointing everywhere and nowhere

as her purse, full of mail, or newspapers, or bills, or maybe some

sort of manifesto, not haphazard but

like a file cabinet crossed with an accordion,

orderly perches in the one sink like a satisfied cat

only she is not

washing her hands, and so then I am not, either

but stand there for a moment to see if she will

pick up her purse or whether a Gryffin or mail-carrier

or mouse will crawl out of it, but as it is she just stands there,

letting her conversation flow around us like water

and eventually like an island I think who am I kidding

anyway, I don’t always wash my hands,

and walk out into the darkened bar

where glasses clink and the last performer wraps up a song

about his brother who’d do anything for anyone except that he’s just

died, and the soft glow of phones light up just a few

faces, and the audience poet man finishes his sketch,

and I don’t see her come out of the bathroom

and I don’t think of her again at all

after Zach plays.

At the Nick Offerman Book Reading Event In Milwaukee

 

There is a man built like a hay bale in the row in front of me,

a blue flannel shirt, he comes in alone, jams his long legs

behind the seat in front of him, and

much like a bale of hay, he speaks to no one

but stays hours and hours to have

Mr. Offerman, Ron Swanson himself, sign his book

As the crowd dwindles slowly;

My daughter and I watch the girl with blue hair and

A white bow in it who has snuck down to have her book signed

ahead of her assigned row in the balcony; we are Midwestern,

we bear the injustice stoically;

We talk to the couple next to us,

A teacher from Johnson Creek and her husband,

The kids behind at grandma’s, they are reveling in their

Night out and late dinner, yawning and drinking Red Bull

And I am doing the math, about 10 signing seconds

per fan; there are more than 100 people left when equity breaks down

and many of those seated behind us who have moved down

are called ahead of us, and despite

Having spent two hours waiting already,

The cost-ratio benefit falters, and we head for pajamas and sleep –

Bidding our new friends goodbye and

Godspeed;

The man in the blue plaid shirt

Standing stoically in the place he has taken,

holding his book in his arm like a talisman

warding off foolishness, loneliness, youth,

no one pulling him toward a warm bed,

only the wind across the unbroken spring field

will welcome him home hours from now.