Montauk, Long Island: Bill Corius sat cross-legged on the bowed stair under the deck of his fishing shack. One hand steadied his pipe and the other, pressed open-palmed against the sea-salted cedar stair, steadied himself. The bay gurgled and foamed as it caressed the bulkhead before him. His exhales permeated the wind with smoke, tickling his unruly beard and clouding his vision until dissolving serenely in the grey-blue sky. Between puffs, he stared raptly at the bay. It reminded him of his father, who had died ten years ago this morning. And on every morning since, Mr. Corius had perched on the same stair, smoking his father’s clay calabash pipe, remembering his youth.
When he was a boy, he and his father went fishing on Sundays. They woke up an hour before dawn, devoured a breakfast of cockle shells and laverbread, and scampered down to the fishing shack, where the old fishing boat was moored to a dancing buoy just offshore. They climbed aboard with wet trousers. Billy (as his father called him), though, didn’t feel the chill: he knew that if he pleaded enough, his father would tell him warm sailing stories. And he always did. The bay winds would yield and the water steady while his father recounted acts of heroism aboard the U.S.S. Constitution, on which he had served as a cannoneer during the War of 1812. The British Guerriere was outmatched, he would say. There never was a crew as skilled or honorable, he would add. And it didn’t hurt, he would whisper as an aside, that we hauled onto the ship every goddamn cannon on the east coast. Laughing a deep hearty laugh, he would look with smiling eyes at his son. Billy was imagining himself on the Constitution. And he never did stop imagining himself there, during that battle—even after he contracted polio at age 16 and could never walk again.
So, when Bill had a son, Ellsworth Corius, he pushed him to become a sailor. And he pushed too hard. Ellsworth grew stoic at home as his father would lash out at him; Bill drank too much, causing his wife, Mary, to run away without a trace. Bill was always drunk, and spoke sentimentally, declaring his love for Ellsworth, saying he was all he had. He would enjoy nothing more than to take Ellsworth fishing, Bill would say. But then, enraged, he would scorn Ellsworth for refusing to become a sailor. The house would fill with a singular, deep-throated rage, and Ellsworth would cower.
Bill was sorry for how he treated his son. But he could never surrender his pride to tell him so. Nevertheless, his reason for regret was vague and, given the ability to redo it all, he would have been no better a father. His affliction had made him too bitter.
When he was a teenager, Ellsworth began spending extra time with his tutor. He would eat dinner with his neighbors, who had no children but owned the most pleasant bird-hunting hound, which would leap with joy when Ellsworth entered. (The hound knew to be composed during dinner, however, as he waited to be served secretly by Ellsworth whatever was left on his plate). But nothing compared, Ellsworth felt, to the time he spent alone at the fishing shack. He would read his favorite books his tutor had given him and gaze at the bay, captured by its beauty and mystery. From his right, the bay opened narrowly from the ocean and widened against the fine shoreline, swinging in a wide arc and past the fishing shack. Seaweed lined the water’s rim during low tide, and two wedded swans rested offshore, bobbing above the waves with sleepy eyes. Sea-salted air, borne by the hushed crashing of waves, rippled the pages of his story and teased his stray wisps of hair. One time, he found a beached baby shark down the shoreline and grabbed an oar from the fishing boat, which was covered by a tarpaulin under the deck. He nudged it back into the water and, he liked to believe, saved its life.
At home, Ellsworth’s resentment rankled. He eventually repudiated his upbringing and rejected his identity. At the first chance, he thought he would leave home forever. So when Columbia College offered him a scholarship, he left in the fall. He didn’t even say goodbye.
College proved a transformative experience for Ellsworth. He graduated with distinction and was accepted to the new Albany Law School before ivy had a chance to crawl up its exterior. He told himself he had become a man. An honorable man. And when he graduated, he started a law firm in New York City. The community called him a leader. He served a quiet term on the New York State Legislature.
Having reached the age of 40, Ellsworth was used to having delivered to him every week the Montauk Times. He would flip through the obituary, expecting to see his father, Bill, featured some day. But when his father died, he felt a peculiar way. He hadn’t forgiven him, and he knew he never would—so he hadn’t expected to have any reaction at all.
A few days later, he found himself calling off work and crowding his family into the morning train. They rushed into a car as the driver’s whistle, warning of departure, rang through echoes of passengers’ tip-tapping footsteps and various shouts of question and confirmation. He had thought about home for a few years before that moment. It had never really left him, but it hadn’t urged him, either. Not until recently. He wasn’t sure exactly when—how many years ago, exactly—but one afternoon he noticed that the silence in his study was different. It had a slightly higher-pitched tone. And the time he noticed this was when he decided to have the paper delivered. He didn’t know it, but that was just the beginning: soon, he began to think about his childhood neighbors. He recalled his tutor. But he thought mostly about the fishing shack. So, when the train stopped at the livery stable in Bridgehampton, and his family boarded onto a horse-and-carriage for Montauk, he felt consternation.
When the carriage passed his childhood neighbors’ homes, he pointed them out with purpose to his wife, Catherine, and his son, who was especially confused by the whole business. Kicking up moist earth, the horses then trotted past the house where he often had dinner as a young teen. Ellsworth couldn’t help but scan through the bushes for a bird-hunting hound, leaping with excitement to see him. The hound was not there.
The carriage, as instructed, then passed his father’s house, and Ellsworth felt an inexplicable emotion welling up inside of him. The last stop was the fishing shack. In the flurry of a hurried dismount, he tossed with averted eyes the driver’s fare and grabbed his son by the wrist, yanking him in a zig-zag down the wooded promontory above the shack. Halting before the beach, he stood speechless as memories overcame him: reading his favorite stories, following the swinging shoreline and the water’s seaweed-lined rim, the swans bobbing with sleepy eyes, the sea-salted air rippling his pages. And the shark? The shark! He darted under the deck of the fishing shack and threw aside the tarp covering the splintered fishing boat, flanked on either side by the oars which were worn smooth where his father had once gripped them. Ellsworth dragged the boat and oars into the water and raced back onto the beach toward his son, and placed his hand on his shoulder.
“Billy,” he said, “let’s go fishing.”
Kenneth Gatten III is a sophomore English major and the Vice President of the Student Government Association. Several publications have featured his essays covering art, politics, and literary theory, but this is his first published work of fiction.