"Net for landing the big ones?"
"Gimme a break, O'Neill."
O'Neill sighed and toted up the bill. He told me I should get myself all rigged up and go over to Long Beach on Gardiners Bay. The boys over there were murdering the weakfish every night. "And you got everything you need to score," he said.
O'Neill lit up a Lucky. "I'll tell you something, brother," he said. "I wish I could go with you."
My trip to Long Island was in the nature of a homecoming. I live in California now, but I grew up near the Island's central section, not far from the Atlantic. Nobody in my family ever did much saltwater fishing, though. Both my parents had been born in the Midwest, far from any ocean, and they remained dedicated to the vicissitudes of fresh water. Every summer they carted us off to Minnesota, where the relatives lived, and rented a cottage by a lake. Probably I caught my first fish there, although I don't remember anymore what kind it was. It could have been a bass, or even a perch.
The other details of our Minnesota vacations remain fixed in my mind, because they varied so little from year to year, from lake to lake. The cottage, no matter where it was, always had a screened sleeping porch. In the mesh of the screens, you could find enough bug corpses to construct an archaeology of insect life dating from the previous century. The kitchen floor was linoleum. A yellow strip of flypaper dangled from the ceiling, exhibiting its victims. The bathroom door didn't close all the way—you had to secure it with a piece of wire. When the door was open, it brushed against the edge of the Formica table where the aunts played canasta. The aunts tried to move the table, but the uncles complained that it blocked their path to the refrigerator. The uncles drank a lot of beer. They had big, sunburned, Slovenian noses that looked ready to burst. Ignoring the tribe of bespectacled children known as "the cousins," they talked about the Army, about Eisenhower, about Jayne Mansfield. The cousins had weird hobbies. They pinned butterflies in books and asked for stamps from Swaziland. At night, when they retired to their cottage next door, I could hear them singing camp songs in high-pitched, ethereal voices.
I looked forward to these vacations until I reached adolescence. Then I began to rebel. I wanted badly to assert my independence, to establish the fact that I had an existence apart from my parents. There were obligations to be met. I couldn't afford to miss any Babe Ruth League baseball games, and I had a new girl friend who required my constant attention. Finally, when I turned 14, I was granted an option: I could go to Minnesota or stay at home on Long Island, alone. I chose to stay at home.
Over the next few years, my father expanded his vacation horizons. He took everybody to upstate New York, to Maine and once, splurging, to the Canadian wilderness. I never went on any of these trips, preoccupied as I was with my exalted status in the world of men. I didn't have much use for boats or family. I thought I'd given up fishing, but the grip of water, its healing power, had gotten into my blood. Soon enough, there again came a time when fishing and drifting endlessly through the middle of nowhere seemed as fine and peaceful an activity as anybody could hope to engage in.
I phoned my father, who still lives in our old Long Island house, and told him about the rig I'd bought at O'Neill's. I told him he'd better get his tackle together because once I'd mastered the art of saltwater angling, I planned to invite him out to my rented place so we could nail some weakfish.