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Man of the House by Chris Erskine

On a fishing vacation, there's always a catch

August 21, 2003|Chris Erskine

There's this one quiet afternoon in the hammock I won't forget, just one, in our vacation week in the woods. A book. A drink. A gentle breeze nuzzling the aspen. Next thing I know, they're placing a baby in my lap.

"Who's this?" I ask.

"Your son."

Likely story.

People are always trying to palm their children off on me. I gladly accept, but not naively. I know what kids can do to your life. I know how they'll hijack your soul.

"Here, kid, listen to this," I tell the baby as I open the book I've been waiting three days to read.

"Snipe came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist, pressed his sallow face against her hot back. She smelled of road dust, of golden rod and crushed blackberries; her humming voice vibrated in his ear."

At hearing this, the baby twists next to me like a cat, head in my armpit. He finds it's the best way to enjoy modern literature. I turn a page. He twists some more.

"Lucky Snipe," the baby's probably thinking. "Read some more, Dad."

"Haylett was down the next morning at 3:30 to get the stove going. He liked turning the dark chill away, enjoyed the little solitude, the resinous odor of kindling catching fire. The shovel squeaked as he drew out the ashes."

The baby and I decided several months ago that we'd skip the traditional infant books and dive headfirst into serious adult fiction. Neither of us has ever looked back. On this day, we spend an hour swinging in the hammock and listening to each other's stomach noises.

"Catch any fish?" they always ask when we return from vacation. But they never ask about hammock time.

Of course, we did spend countless hours on the banks of a beautiful river, trying to stitch on fishhooks in the twilight, onto line slender as a baby's eyelash.

"Ready, Dad?"

"No."

"How about now?"

"No."

With fishing gear, I have a surgeon's steady hand but the sorry eyes of a cartoon cop. In the fading light, I can barely make out the hook, let alone the hint of fishing line. Got it? Nope. Got it? Nope. I may as well be placing angels on the head of a pin.

That's not the worst of it. When the hook finally hits the water, the brittle fishing line explodes like an Alka-Seltzer, into a snarl within a snarl, into Harpo Marx's hair.

"Catch any fish?" your friends always ask when you return, as if that were ever an option.

No, for the record we caught no fish, though we did spend $120 on various California fishing licenses -- far more than the average Sacramento bribe -- and went out fishing four times, to granite-bottomed lakes and rivers. Believe me, your bathtub has more marine life. Your toilet has more trout.

No, we recorded nary a bite, unless you count the mosquito welts running halfway up my leg. Honeymoon hickeys aren't this big. Every midnight, I crave a skin graft and a shot of whisky.

"I think it's a Hemingway thing," their mother explains as we trudge home from fishing, glum and swollen and scented by bait.

"Who?" asks one of the kids.

"Hemingway," repeats their mom.

"Mariel?" asks the older daughter.

Nope, there were no fish this vacation but no regrets either, except maybe for the overspending, overdrinking and oversleeping, all of which were tied together one way or another, a chain reaction of summer's overindulgences.

"Ever mail those postcards?" I ask my wife as we finally head out of town after our week in the mountains.

"No."

"We'll mail them next year," I say.

So we roll back down the mountain, my wife and her bargain-basement Hemingway, heading home to a world with eight area codes and 14 freeways. Returning to back-to-school sales and soccer meetings, dead lawns and neighbors we've never met. Worst of all, no quiet time.

"You never see hammocks in L.A.," I told her one day in the mountains. "I've never seen one hammock."

"What's a hammock?" she says.

"See?"

Up the Grapevine, down the Grapevine, the car coughing on the smog on our reentry to Earth, the kids eating cold French fries and dreading school. Smelling of road dust and blackberries.

Home, we've come, but not eagerly. Home ... with vacation pictures that will outlast the Visa bills and memories clearer than Kodachrome.

"Catch any fish?" they'll all want to know.

Yeah, a million.

*

Chris Erskine can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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