Years later they gave my dad rat poison in the hospital. Because of what the smoking had done to his heart. To keep the blood flowing. They had to be careful with him, those doctors. Too much warfarin and the blood would leak right through the walls of his veins. Too little and a lack of oxygen would leave him gasping for more air than his lungs could possibly hold, behaving like a fish on land. In the VA hospital I would see him like that once, breathing terrified, like the air itself was full of shards. That's a sort of thing you never want to witness, I don't care what the man may have ever done. I assumed he'd calm down and breathe right eventually -- we were in a hospital after all. So I simply watched the walls, wondering if they were soundproof and trying to imagine what it might take to get me to comfort him or call a nurse instead of just standing there feeling embarrassed for him and his dying proud look and wanting to scream over his wheezing couldn't he admit a single thing in his life. Warfarin was the same stuff we used to lay down in the attic except his came in capsules instead of in little trays. We would bring it out whenever the scratching got so bad mom would throw up her hands and walk away from the stove.
"Why I should live like this?" she said. Every now and then some Spanish would slip out and under the right circumstances he might let her get away with it. She walked right out of the kitchen and kept her hands in the air above her shaking head. Sometimes I wished he'd come right out and hit her instead of keeping her so aware of herself and making her hide what was in her heart. If it hadn't have been for those rats maybe they would have gotten along better. Unfortunately, there was no shortage of rats in our neighborhood.
"It's those goddamned colonias of yours," he said from the recliner, shooting an accusing look at her over his second-hand reading glasses. "They're regular breeding grounds." He truly loved his Sunday paper.
At night the huge rats zipped along the phone lines like squirrels. In the shadows I would crouch on the ground, hidden from their black wet eyes by the green veils of banana leaves. The day I picked up a pump pellet gun at a garage sale I immediately imagined myself posing proudly in front of a towering dark mound of rat bodies, my folks way in the background with their arms around one another. But when I finally got the gun cleaned up and actually working, its worn interior mechanism fired only sluggish pellets that arced lazily. If you aimed high enough and caught one of those shitty animals in the eye or perfectly on the side of the head you might bring it down. But it took real determination, sometimes hours of letting the soft, green leaves -- leaves like umbrellas or nice vinyl placemats -- caress your cheek or your forehead without wanting to knock them away.
There was this one monster rat I'd been after for months. He moved quickly for his size but only when he had to. Normally around nine o' clock he'd lumber out onto the line and head in toward the house. About half way he'd stop and aim his lousy gray pointed head in my direction and stare stupidly. Everything about him was stupid. When he was satisfied I wasn't a threat, which was always wrong because I was always there and always a threat, he continued stupidly along. And that's when I would start firing those sissy pellets at him. He'd pick up speed and I'd emerge from the banana trees like a mercenary soldier, pumping wildly away, the small lead pellets raining down around him like spit watermelon seeds. Night after night he eluded me, the pellets thudding harmlessly off his stupid evil hide.
"Come on, Sam, let's see what we can do about those mice before your madre pops a stitch." Sam's not my name, not even close, but it's the only name he ever called me and I never found out why. Maybe I reminded him of someone. The steamy kitchen air rich with nutmeg and comino followed us through the door like a snake and abruptly dissolved in the dusty garage.
"This should fix those bastards," he said, tearing open an economical twelve-pack of poison bait.
"What's this stuff do, dad?"
"Makes em thirsty," he said. "Crazy and thirsty."
"How does it work, dad?" I busted open a tray and stirred a fingertip in the sweet-smelling granules.
"Bleeds em out inside, they puff up with their own juices."
"Sounds like a bad way to go," I said and tried to imagine what it must be like, running around swollen and thirsty and trapped within walls.
"I guess so, Sam." He mussed up my hair. "Glad I ain't no rat."
"Same here, dad," I said. He scratched his beard and looked at me and then mussed up my hair again, like it was something he suddenly realized he liked doing.
"Why don't you go and grab the tackle, sport," he said.
"Just like that?" I said.
"It's a free country, ain't it?" he said.
My legs couldn't carry me fast enough. I tore through the kitchen right by mom and grabbed what we needed from the closet and by that time he was already revving the engine.
"Where we headed?" I said.
"Let's give that ditch a try, the big one," he said.
"What about permission?" I said. The owner who'd listed the property with dad asked him not to fish the irrigation ditch. He didn't give a reason and dad didn't ask.
"That's where I want to fish," he said, revving the engine hard.
Dad probably had keys to half the gatelocks and lockboxes in the Valley. He'd been selling land and houses long before the Century 21s and Red Carpets had smelled the money starting to pour across the border and moved in and took things over. Pickings were getting slimmer by the year but he wouldn't give up and he refused to consider working for one of the franchise realtors. We pulled up to the gate and before we could stop I was out of the truck with the huge jailer's ring. I felt him watching me from behind the wheel so I jumped onto the gate and rode it open fast.
Out on the big drainage pipe that spanned the canal about ten feet above the water I dropped my line with blood bait while dad fished from the bank. His eyes studied the line of water. Follow the ditch in one direction and it led to town; in the other direction were the colonias. From where we were you could see neither. We always ignored one another while fishing. Talking was always the exception.
"I want to have my own piece of canal someday, dad," I said. It was a dumb thing to say but it was how I felt. I reeled in to check the bait every few minutes and it was always there. I watched dad on the bank, gripping his rod with the fishing line gently pinched between the crease of his index finger and the ball of his thumb. You wouldn't expect much sensitivity from those large, leathery hands but it was there. His skill at fishing proved it.
"Why the hell shouldn't you?" he said slowly. His voice came out heavy and low as he stared down the length of the canal. The way he said it made it feel like no one had said anything at all.
Reeling in I hit a snag. The line came up slowly with increasing effort, like I'd hooked something that in turn was hooking onto other underwater things. "Hey," I said. He looked up at me then down to where my line pierced the water, which wasn't too far from where he was on the bank. He shook his head and sighed and threw down his rod.
"What now?" he said.
"Look," I said, pointing into the ditch. He couldn't see things like I could from the pipe but gradually, squinting through the glare and the bending of the water, it dawned on him what I'd hooked. It was a trotline. Silvery flashes lit the dirty water just beneath the surface. Practically every single hook had a fish on it. There must have been eleven or twelve catfish. Big ones. Dad stared in amazement and was awfully quiet.
"What happens now?" I said. He looked at me like I'd spoken a foreign language then began digging frantically through the tackle box. I believed right to the end he meant to free my hook and let things be. The unspoken law was you let people's trotlines alone. I watched him fixing a razorblade to the tip of a long branch.
"Haul up hard," he said. The sweat poured from his head and his feet slipped into the water's edge as he struggled awkwardly toward the trotline. He held the branch with both hands and swiped down and I almost came off the other side of that pipe when the line gave. He'd cut the trotline, and I remained hooked into it.
"Stay there," he said. He scrambled up the bank and onto the pipe with me where I could see excitement in his eyes like I'd never seen and that excitement wanted to rub off. "Steady, steady," he said. We crept along the pipe to the other side. I strained with the weight and reeled in until he could grab the trotline, all those fish swaying in the air like some crazy bracelet. He held the trotline like a prize, like something he'd fought for and deserved. We were sweating in the sun, working together toward some kind of accomplishment. We walked carefully along the pipe, me reeling in the loose line and him gathering up the heavy trotline. On the opposite shore he cut the other end.
Back at the truck I didn't know what to make of everything. Dad looked around nervously before swinging the fish up into the truckbed. That's when we had our first good clear look. Seven beautiful, fat-bellied channel cats and five lanky, dark hardheads, a couple of them still alive. The kind of haul sportsmen dreamed about.
"Your mother's not going to believe this," he said with a huge smile on his face. I didn't understand exactly what she wasn't going to believe.
"Let's get out of here, Sam," he said.
Mom took in the sight of all those fish with a tired look that told me nothing about her belief or disbelief. She watched us occasionally through the kitchen window while we cleaned and fileted the fish in the yard and threw the carcasses into holes we dug at the bases of the citrus trees for fertilizer. When we were done we marched into the kitchen, filthy with fishblood and the sweat of real sportsmen. Dad tossed the filets in the sink for her and I put the lemons I'd picked on the counter. By the time we had showered the house was filled with the smell of frying fish. Mom had a way with Mexican herbs that brought out flavors you'd swear were tropical from mud-sucking ordinary catfish. We sat down to the golden brown filets, but once I brought a piece to my mouth something was wrong.
It was common, after heavy rainfall, for the smell of all those carcasses to ooze up through the soil. It would hang in the air for days, be with you when you were ambushing phoneline rats or stretched out in the yard looking up at a cloudless blue sky. It got into everything, your clothes, your hair. Falling asleep at night it was sometimes the last thought you carried. You got used to it, like you would anything, but it was always a shock when, after the rain, you slowly realized once again just how rotten the smell really was and that it was always there, just under the ground.
At the table the smell filled my head even though we hadn't had rain for weeks. I glanced over at dad but he was busy chewing up a storm. And mom was giving every forkful that bored, thankful expression she wore whenever she ate. I didn't like feeling so strangely sad and crazy so I squeezed extra lemon on the fish and dug in. Even though I knew it was perfectly fine the meat still seemed to cut like it was underdone, not ready to be eaten, like raw liver. With each rubbery forkful I reminded myself what sportsmen we'd been that day. Afterward I didn't feel too much like a sportsman or like any kind of anything, just confused some and gross and awful. But I didn't feel hungry, at least.
"Go watch some tv, mi hijo," mom said, clearing the table. Dad was already in his recliner, belching and snapping the newspaper. Her long black hair trickled into her face and a long thin rope of it split her smile at me in two.
"Can I help?" I said.
She didn't answer but made room for me at the sink that I understood. When the rats started up on the wood we had to raise our voices slightly. I thought she might get angry about them but there were dishes to wash.
As soon as we were done I was outside ambushing again with the pellet gun. The banana leaves dripped their moisture on my head and against the back of my neck like tempting invitations but I stayed absolutely still. The cicadas were dying down for the night and burrowing insects churned up the ground all around me. Right on schedule came that stupid monster. Like clockwork he paused and pointed his head toward me and on that night I wasted no time. The first pellet took him on the ear. Suddenly his stupid little ear was simply gone. I strode forward with confidence and pumped hard and took high aim. Right in the eye! The monster stopped in his tracks and curled his head down like it wanted to sleep. Asleep forever! He stayed put on the phoneline, half-blinded and probably knowing he was finally about to die and being completely stupid. It took nearly twenty minutes of pumping pellets into his motionless body to get it all out of me. When he eventually fell off the line with that stupid ratty skull of his full of lead pellets, I kept firing into the humid night air, alone and filled with so much wild determination.