Fiction by Suzanne C Martinez

December 15, 2023

Plum Gut

We were totally wasted when Gus announced his birthday wish was for Arnold and me to go deep-sea fishing with him. Gus loved the water, loved to fish, and wanted to show off his new boat. I’m not a big water guy. I got seasick watching Jaws, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t enjoy a day on the water, but refusing Gus and staying behind would’ve been worse for many reasons. I’d been a vegetarian since leaving home both from conviction and economics. Since I’d been in New York, I’d forgotten the source of meat or fish was a living creature. I’d never killed anything other than a fly or a mosquito. I hoped today wouldn’t change that.

I’m a Chicano Air Force brat who grew up in West Texas. Fishing wasn’t my dad’s idea of fun. Fish wasn’t his idea of food. Any fish that entered our house arrived frozen in a block of ice from the commissary.

We left the dock at 5:00 a.m. Three men in a boat. None of us had slept more than a few hours after drinking and talking about art and life well into the night while a late summer storm raged outside. It ended before dawn. Like a Turner seascape, a light mist burned off as we chugged east toward the sunrise through the inlet at East Marion, Long Island, on Gus’s new twenty-five-foot Grady-White for its inaugural voyage on the Atlantic Ocean.

Nauseous immediately, I leaned over the boat’s side to empty my stomach into the inlet. With it went my dose of Dramamine and any hope of enduring the voyage unscathed. I should’ve taken the pill when Gus handed it to me the night before, but I’d fallen asleep with it in my tee-shirt pocket.

Gus was turning forty. He was loud and tall with countless tattoos, big hands, and feet, and he seemed to take up most of the space in the boat. He’d grown up poor in Yonkers. After high school, Gus joined the Navy before attending college on the G.I. Bill and earning a Ph.D. in Arts Education. He taught Painting and Printmaking at two local colleges. College professors didn’t often talk like Gus did, but he didn’t give a shit.

I admired that. I’d spent my life trying to fit in. I’d moved every few years when my dad was sent to a different base. I was a new kid among new kids until he retired to West Texas when I was in seventh grade. My town, like many, was stratified—the Anglos and the Mexicans. It didn’t matter that my family had owned land in New Mexico since the fifteenth century; I was the other. I’d lived in Hawaii, Washington State, and England, but in Texas, I was a migrant.

“What’s the problem, Benny? We aren’t even out of the Sound. The water’s as smooth as a baby’s ass. How the fuck can you be sick already?” Gus rubbed my back. “You’ll get your sea legs soon.”

Gus and his wife, Jenny, were both artists who lived in a Canal Street loft in Manhattan during the week. They’d invited Arnold and me, with our significant others, to their sprawling house with a dock on the North Shore for Gus’s Labor Day weekend birthday celebration. The house was a wedding present from Jenny’s wealthy parents. She’d bought Gus a new boat for his milestone birthday after his smaller one sunk in a Nor’easter in the spring.

“It’s going to be a great day, Benny. They say a bad day fishing’s better than a good day working. Look. Arnold isn’t sick.” Gus slapped Arnold’s back, causing him to grab the gunwale.

Arnold, Gus’s former student, was also an artist. They’d become friends years ago, but I was a recent addition to his circle. Earlier in the year, my girlfriend, Celeste, and I met Gus through his Madison Avenue art gallery. The gallery owner hired us to collaborate with Gus to produce a limited-edition print to accompany his one-man show of neon light paintings slated for the following year.

We both liked Gus from our first meeting and spent many hours together working on his artwork at our atelier. After a long day working in our loft, he’d take us out for Indian or Chinese food to talk about art until they closed the place for the night. We were eager listeners. He introduced us to his artist friends and gallery owners at openings, telling everyone they should hire us to make their prints. We hoped they listened to him.

Gus was twelve years older than we were, an established painter with gallery representation. He was living our dream. Celeste and I were a couple of years out of Pratt with an undercapitalized fine art print shop in Brooklyn, but we’d worked well together on his project. I hoped my joining him on this fishing venture would cement our friendship and gain me his respect. What’s a little discomfort worth anyway?

“I feel better now.” I hoped. “I’m not much of a drinker or a sailor.”

The night’s hard rain and wind had scrubbed the atmosphere, leaving it fresh and clean. I looked up between heaves and noticed it was a beautiful morning, not a cloud in the sky. A cluster of seagulls chattering amongst themselves soared above us.

“Gus, leave him be. He’s chumming for us.” Arnold turned to me. “Aren’t you, Ben? Try to hold it in until we reach deep water.” Arnold was compact and slim, dressed in pressed khakis, a tucked-in striped shirt with a scarf, new Topsiders, and a navy brimmed cap. His curly dark hair peeked out along the edges.

“Arnold, who are you dressed as? Thurston Howell, the fourth?” Gus pinched Arnold’s shirt collar. “Where did you acquire this outfit?”

“My wife bought it for my birthday last month. Sorry if it offends you.”

“You can wear whatever the hell you want, but this ain’t no pleasure cruise; we’re deep-sea fishing. Your fancy duds will get all fucked up with blood and fish guts.”

“I need to puke.” Arnold stumbled into Gus as he tried to stay on his feet and get to the side to vomit. “What was that shit we drank last night?”

“It was the Back-to-School Special, thirty bucks a case. I figure, why waste money on the good stuff? This crap gets you just as drunk. Quicker maybe. I hope there’s still some left.”

As the last spit of land disappeared, all conversation ceased. I pictured Celeste in a hammock, reading in the cool shade. I envied her. Arnold studied the departing coastline. His narrow mustache quivered slightly. He was probably calculating the distance to shore.

After two hours, Gus turned from the helm to the two of us slumped on the stern bench.

“We’re out far enough. Welcome to Plum Gut, boys—three hundred feet deep, chock full of fish awaiting their demise. Let’s get some lines out.” He slowed the engine. “How are you doing, Arnold?”

“Just fine, Gus. I’m hankering to catch something.” Arnold was originally from Tulsa. “Striped bass and tuna should be running now.”

I was sure Arnold knew no more about fishing than I did, but it appeared he’d done some research before the trip.

“Striped bass, for sure. I’ve never caught a tuna out here—tons of snappers. I love snappers. You like snappers, Arnold?”

“I don’t believe I ever ate one. They fishy tasting?”

“Well, Arnold, they’re fish. So, yeah.” Gus handed him a rod. “Stand on the starboard side.” He pointed out the correct direction.

“Gus, I brought my fishing pliers, a Schwarzwolf 3-in-1 Knife, and a Leatherman Squirt.” Arnold turned away from Gus to carefully guide the baited hook into the water as if placing an egg in a nest. He reminded me of the kid everyone hated who sucked up to the teacher and always got straight As.

“That’s mighty thoughtful of you, Arnold. But I loaded the essential stuff—beer, sandwiches, and Band-Aids.”

“Ben, do you want to fish?” Arnold turned to me, nearly hitting me with his baited hook.

“Your face is as gray as your tee shirt. You okay, Benny?” Gus peered into my watery eyes. “Let’s let him sit on his own for now.” He ducked below and returned quickly. “You’ll topple over puking so much. Here’s your very own bucket. Dump it over the side when it’s full, and don’t forget to rinse. I don’t want you stinking up my new boat.”

My stomach stung like a punching bag mauled by a short boxer. The sun beat down hot, but the strong breeze kept it tolerable. The ocean was noisier than I’d imagined it would be. The wind and water created an undulating roar we had to shout over. It smelled salty and slightly like iodine, not fishy like it does near the shore.

The rippling blues where the sky met water blended like a painting by Monet brought to life. The horizon rose and fell rhythmically. My guts followed. I hunched over the bucket every five minutes with stomach spasms for thirty seconds or so.

I tried to remind myself to enjoy the sunshine and the ride. I was on my first adventure at sea like Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island. As a kid, my family moved to a new Base every few years, so I grew up with four rowdy brothers. I’d never played on a sports team or been part of a group, except in the Army. A loner no more, I was now part of a group of New York City artists, as different as people could be from the ranchers and roughnecks’ kids I knew as a boy. I’d decided to come on this sea journey—to belong for a change. I hoped it would be worth it.

An hour later, Arnold still manned his post with grim resolution. No one was having the promised fun except Gus. He stood tall at the stern, squinting into the wind with his line in the water, his rod resting in his hands, and a broad smile.

Later, he dropped down next to me on the bench. “I wish you weren’t doing so poorly, Benny. Got a headache?”

Turning my head to look at him was a considerable effort.

“I might have some Ibuprofen below. Hold my rod, and I’ll take a look-see.”

“Thanks, Gus. But I probably can’t keep anything down.” He disappeared below.

I prayed no fish would find his hook while he was gone. I knew there was no chance Gus would return to shore without a catch. He had that same look on his face I remembered when we were working on his print at our shop. He wouldn’t let us take a break until the results were satisfactory. I’d have to endure the day, at least until one of us landed a substantial fish or the weather turned stormy. Looking at the flawless blue canopy overhead was depressing. The day was perfect. I hoped Celeste was enjoying it.

“Sorry, Benny. I don’t have anything.” Gus took his rod back. “Face into the wind and take deep breaths.”

We trolled east and drifted, then north and drifted staying in the deep water. I closed my eyes and waited. Time became elastic. By then, even Gus had vomited a few times and was lying on the deck. There was only the sound of the wind and the water sloshing by. The vast water extended without land or ship for company in all directions. I pictured us as sunburned mariners adrift on a lifeboat lost at sea for days.

Abruptly, Gus sat up. “We have cold beer, egg salad sandwiches, and spicy taco chips. Who wants what?”

“Who brings egg salad on a fishing trip?” Arnold shouted over his shoulder.

“You’re damn lucky Jenny arose at four-thirty to pack this stuff, or you’d be eating bait washed down with warm piss.” Gus dug through the cooler. “It might settle your stomach to eat something, Benny.”

“No way. But thanks.” I concentrated on the horizon.

Arnold jammed a stick of Trident into his mouth. “I’m fine.”

“More for me.” Gus, King of all he surveyed, settled at the wheel, eating sandwiches and drinking beer.

Arnold released a loud sigh and stared at the water. His shirt was sweat-stained, and his pants were wrinkled. He’d already stuffed his scarf into his back pocket.

Suddenly, his rod jumped as if possessed by a violent spirit. “Holy cow! I hooked a fish, Gus! It’s a big one. Come help!” Arnold screamed like a little kid.

Gus dropped his sandwich and charged over to him. “Look at that sucker. I think it’s a striped bass. He’s a real fighter!”

Arnold struggled to stand with the rod recoiling in both hands. “You think so?”

I hoped he wouldn’t lose his grip and get pulled overboard into the water. “Gus, can we bring him in?” I was afraid the fish would sink the boat.

Gus took command of Arnold’s gyrating fishing pole as it bucked and strained against his considerable strength. Arnold hovered nearby, rubbing his hands together.

“We’re going to have to spell each other. My arm’s aching already.” Gus gaped at the fish’s wild movement as it momentarily breached the water. “Arnold, you little bastard. It’s a fucking tuna!”

“No shit.” Arnold wiped his forehead with his grimy scarf.

Gus spun around and shouted. “Benny, go below. There’s a book called Saltwater Game Fishing. Look up tuna. I recall you need to bleed them. Read it and talk to me.”

I struggled to my feet, crawled below, and located the book. I found the section on tuna and shouted the procedure to Gus, who passed the rod to Arnold to battle for the fish.

“Stay steady. Feel it? He’s getting tired. We got him, boys. We got him,” Gus grinned like he won a MacArthur Award. “Patience, men. Fish are very smart creatures. They’ve survived for millions of years. We’re the visitors here. Let out a bit of line. That’s right. Slowly. I’ve never landed a tuna before. What a day!”

Gus and Arnold alternated in guiding the rod and shortening the line gradually. It was oceanic choreography. Their teamwork was a spontaneous blend of adrenaline and instinct. It seemed to last forever, the two men jockeying around the pole, holding it or each other while the giant creature fought for its life in the sea. The distance between the fish and the boat slowly decreased. The wind seemed to rise, forming tiny whitecaps mirroring our excitement. I pictured those Winslow Homer paintings of a fisherman in a small boat, the ocean churning around him, and Ishmael in Moby Dick describing the whale hunts.

One last pull and whap! The heavy fish struck the boat’s side, making it vibrate. Gus walloped the fish’s head and pierced its side with his gaff hook. He flung himself backward, and the tuna soared into the boat, flapping and fighting for oxygen.

The fish’s mouth wagged like an auctioneer as it gasped and skated from side to side on the deck; we each jumped out of its way. As it panicked, desperate to breathe, its dark eye shone in alarm. The iridescent scales on its body sparkled like sequins in a million shades of violet, blue, orange, yellow, and silver, altering in hue as the fish thrashed. The fish’s body was about a yard long with a thickset middle tapering to a delicate tail.

“It’s about 30 pounds.” Gus rubbed his wrists. “It felt much bigger in the water.”

“It’s huge, Gus.” Arnold clapped Gus on the back.

Fish scales seem like calloused skin in water, though the colors are visible. Our bluefin tuna lying on the deck, gasping for breath, shimmered as if lit from within; it was a supernatural entity, unearthly, a mystical presence. The late afternoon sun caught the scales’ edges dancing like sparkling neon fairy lights.

How could a creature who lived on the earth look like this? Our skin was dull by comparison—assorted tan tones with patches of hair. Humans with a head on a stalk, legs, and arms, bony appendages erupting from a roughly rectangular body. We were awkward, ungainly, and poorly formed compared to the fish, whose body was compact, sleek, and streamlined for speed in the water. The fish’s head was perfectly integrated into its tapered body with delicate fins and a broad tail. Glorious metallic, twinkling scales covered its skin.

“Benny, I need you to bleed the fish.”

I stared at him like he’d asked me to cut off my leg.

“I can’t do it.” I couldn’t participate in this butchery. This bluefin was watching us, watching me. It was frightened, desperate, and unable to escape its fate. I now regretted coming for a new reason.

“You have to do it. You’re the smallest. We’ll hold the fish steady for you. Do what the book says. If you don’t bleed the fish, it’ll spoil on the way back, and this would’ve been for nothing.”

Whatever I did or didn’t do, the fish would die in minutes. I needed to act quickly and mercifully. I knew I’d never eat that fish.

I remembered the hundreds of hours Gus spent in our print shop as we experimented to find a technique to give his lithograph the same color intensity as his neon pieces. It was a quest to find a series of hues that would visually vibrate when placed adjacent to each other and glow like light. Electricity doesn’t illuminate paper and ink like neon. Periodically, Gus wanted to abandon the project as hopeless. But Celeste and I convinced him to keep working with us to find a solution. He trusted us, and we eventually succeeded, though it took every technique we could conjure. The edition we produced, using lithography, etching, and screen-printing, sold out during his art show. He trusted me then. Now was my turn to trust him.

“Where’s your knife?”

“Arnold put on these gloves and hold the fish still on one side. I’ll take the other. We’ll steady it for you. Benny, cut right behind the gills, as it said in the book. These flaps are the gills.” Gus pointed.

I held the knife as steady as possible, with the boat rolling from side to side. Kneeling by the tuna, I hesitated. I couldn’t do it. I began to turn the knife away from the fish. Gus leaned against me and nudged my arm. The blade disappeared behind the gill as if by magic.

I sliced. It felt like cutting raw chicken. Bright red blood pumped from the struggling fish and flooded across the deck, soaking our knees and the toes of our shoes. In less than a minute, the fish was dead. Its eye turned opaque, and the scales lost their luster. Gus slowly flushed the red fluid down the stern drain, washed the blood from our legs, and carefully removed the barb from its mouth.

Arnold and I stood as silent, respectful mourners on either side of the fish. I hadn’t had a stomach spasm since the battle to land the fish began, but I could sense it returning. Gus didn’t speak as he tied the rods together and stowed the equipment. He opened a trapdoor in the deck and eased the fish by its tail into the refrigerated compartment. He latched the door, slid behind the wheel, and started the engine to guide his boat toward the sunset.

Arnold and I took seats on the stern bench. The day cooled fast with the sinking sun, though the breeze was as steady as it had been all day. I started to shiver and put on the hoodie I’d brought. My stomach was calm for the second time all day. I was grateful for the quiet. Arnold was silent, watching the water.

I scanned the horizon for the first signs of land, like sailors from the past had done, yearning for an unyielding surface to stand upon and a cessation from the constant motion. We pulled up at the dock behind Gus’s house in less time than I’d imagined possible. Celeste, Jenny, and Arnold’s wife greeted us, smiling and relaxed after their day on shore.

The men, such as we were, had returned triumphant from the sea. We were sunburned, sweaty, and soaked in fish blood.

“I need a shower.” I waved Celeste away. “Give me a few minutes.”

Struggling to find my land legs on the pebble path to the guest cottage, I held my battered belly and dropped my clothes in a trail as I entered. Turning on the shower, I sank to the floor as the warm water rained on my head. I rested against the tile and tried to relax my punished muscles one by one. It was quiet, except for my breathing and the shower spray. I saw the fish watching me and sobbed until I fell asleep sitting on the shower floor. I dreamed I was a big fish sliding into the hold of a boat, cold and dead.

“Ben, wake up. Was it terrible?” Celeste stood outside the shower, looking down at me. She looked concerned.

“Worse than I imagined, but I survived.” I smiled as best I could. “I’ll join you shortly.”

Later, dressed in my loosest clothes, I walked to the outdoor kitchen.

Gus, who hadn’t changed yet, was in command, gutting and cleaning the massive fish, his tee-shirt and shorts smeared with blood and guts. Mounds of pink flesh streaked with red covered the table. He was animated and beaming.

Arnold and his wife, dressed in white linen, stayed well away from Gus, the entrails, and the fish. Jenny chatted with them.

Celeste and I held hands as we reclined on lawn chairs placed side by side and watched Gus work. He was methodical. Every move he made had a reason, a purpose. Gus carefully considered every decision.

I’d often chafed when Gus treated me like a little brother. At his core, he was an alpha male, a teacher, and a mentor who’d welcomed me into his friends’ circle. I wasn’t sure if I’d measured up to his expectations, but I’d exceeded my own. I’d endured the day. It wasn’t pretty, but I persisted. I wouldn’t do it again.

Gus motioned me over as he lit the grill, “Benny, I know today was hell for you. I’m real proud of you. You’ve got a lot of grit for a little landlubbing Texicano.”

“Thanks, you bastard. You nearly killed me.” I heard my empty stomach growl.

“Yeah, well, I guess I failed.” He laid the first strips of tuna onto the grill. “Remember this? ‘But a man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.’”

“The Old Man and the Sea, Gus. Fuck you.”

“You hungry?” Gus pointed the barbecue tongs at me like a sword.

“I am, but I’ll stick with the veggies.”

“Suit yourself, Ben. All hands get their portion. Rule of the sea.” He turned to tend the grill.

About Suzanne C Martinez

Suzanne C Martinez’s fiction has appeared in Vestal Review, Citron Review, Gone Lawn, Broadkill Review, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes (2019, 2020), Best of the Net (2020), and Best Small Fictions (2022), and was a finalist in the 2023 Tartts First Fiction Award for her linked story collection. She lives in Brooklyn.

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