winning fish

The Winning Fish

In Short Story by Natalli Amato

The Winning Fish

Lindsey was seventeen in the summer of ’96. That was the summer old Mr. Henkels over at the bait shop had a heart attack and left Kingsport with a population of 1,499. Kingsport High had a graduating class of forty-seven that June, although principal Huckabee had been hoping for an even fifty. Kingsport was a one traffic light kind of town. It was the kind of town that noticed the absence of its 1,500 person; therefore, she knew it was the kind of town that would notice the addition, as well.
To be born in Kingsport was to be born with a keen eye for noticing. Townsfolk noticed whose husband spent the most time at the pub, which boys on the lacrosse team were being scouted, and which house on Academy Street had the most domestic disturbances show up on the police blotter. Lindsey had a knack for noticing, herself, but there were some things she would have preferred not to pick up on.
Like how after she told him, Eddie let his face crumble for a few moments before he commanded every muscle to muster a halfway decent facial expression.
Or how she noticed the wrinkles on her mother’s face dug their trenches even deeper when her eyes closed to process the twist of fate.
When she pulled into Ryan’s driveway, he was packing up his old dodge for the final time. The first thing she noticed was his grin, already spreading halfway to the west coast. She could hear his mom yelling to him from the porch.
“Honey, make sure you leave room for that fridge, we still gotta pick it up from Aunt Colleen’s house.” She was flicking a pen against a checklist when she caught sight of Lindsey.
“Well if it ain’t my favorite girl!” in her one-dollar Old Navy flip-flops and Kingsport High Lacrosse Mom t-shirt, she ran through the yard to give Lindsey a hug. “Look at my boy. You kids are gonna drive me crazy, all up and leaving like this.” Lindsey offered her the best smile she had on duty.
“I was thinkin’ we could maybe strap you up on top along for the ride,” Ryan shouted over to her.
“You know me, I like sittin’ in the truck bed.”
“I think they frown upon that outside of Kingsport.” Ryan winked. She couldn’t help but to notice he had his Sunday jeans on even though it was Friday, and that his work boots and fishing pole were sitting by the screen door, far away from the things he was bringing with him. He hadn’t even hit the road yet and she could see he was already turning into the man he was meant to become.
“Get a load of this, Linds, you’d love it. My roommate said there’s a bonfire pit in the courtyard. I told him he doesn’t know a fire ‘til he’s been to Perch Road after homecoming.” He was shaking his head but that grin hadn’t fled even for a second. “But still, pretty cool, right?”
“You’ll show ‘em how it’s done.” With every box loaded into the back came another detail of all that was waiting ahead for him. Coach already called. He could pick up his gear tomorrow. A teammate’s girlfriend would sell him her old chemistry textbook for cheap. Word was a bar down there didn’t even ID.
“And you!” he exclaimed. “Jesus, look at me runnin’ my mouth, you’re headin’ out soon, too, right?”
There it was. The truth festering inside that needed to be revealed. Her tongue felt dry and it was as if her brain had fallen asleep the way feet sometimes do because she couldn’t remember how to utter a single word. He looked so goddamned excited.
“I – ”
“You’re gonna kick the world’s ass. You know that, right? Lindsey Lafave, you’re the smartest girl I know.”
She then lied to Ryan for the first time in her whole seventeen years of being alive with him. She didn’t lie when she ran over his cat with the four-wheeler, even though she could’ve blamed it on Emma Atwood. She didn’t lie when she knocked the tackle box into the lake and easily could’ve said the neighborhood bully Tommy Peirce took it. She didn’t lie when he asked her if the rumors about Eddie Springer and her were true, even though saying yes made her a certain kind of girl. For Kingsport kids, friendship was a pact that held up through the ugly, kept intact by blurting out ugly truths.
But she wanted to be the way he saw her, if only for a few moments in the imagination.
“My shift starts soon.”
“Come here, kid.” He scooped her up in a signature Ryan bear hug. Her eyes were hot and sticky with tears fighting to escape.
“Don’t forget me out there.”
“Right back at ya.”
As she drove out of the driveway she pictured his mom calling him up to do the deed for her; she’d slip it in with news of a second-cousin’s grandma’s death, or maybe after the announcement of a neighbor’s divorce, or some other type of disappointing turn of events that people love to gossip about because it isn’t happening in their family.

The McGregor’s at table nine needed extra gravy for their fries. The second, maybe even third-date couple at the two-top by the window had their entrées but still no steak knives. Ms. Riley was waiting on her pinot noir. The six-top needed coloring mats within the next three minutes or else a tantrum was sure to erupt in the middle of the dining room. Lindsey had a pitcher of beer in her hand while she gazed desperately at her section; not remembering whom it had been for.
“Linds, I just sat you at table eight.” The freckled face of a hostess who couldn’t have been two days past the legal working age looked up at her.
“Annabelle, tell Ashley she’s gotta take it.”
“She’s on smoke break.”
“Well, I better be getting a goddamned break next.” Lindsey rolled her eyes. Even that slight motion stirred an ache in her body, feeling the heavy weight of each over- worked muscle. Finally she caught a glimpse of the lacrosse dads, holding empty beer glasses in the air as if they were toasting to the fact that this pretty girl would be bound to Kingsport for the rest of her years, ensuring no barfly would ever go thirsty for too long.
“Well if it ain’t little miss Lindsey.” Mr. Lambert filled his glass the instant she set the pitcher down on the table. “Can ya believe m’boy’s gone?” His face was flushed and his eyes were glazed over to such a degree that Lindsey strongly suspected Mr. Lambert had been sitting on a barstool instead of his front porch when Ryan left.
“Might as well bring us another one of these while you’re at it.” She retreated to the bar where Pearl was pouring and set the pitcher down with a sigh of exhaustion.
“What’s botherin’ you, Lovebug?” Pearl’s warm voice had the power to soften the edges of the stress that gathered in angular lumps inside Lindsey’s stomach. “Do you need to be out of here early tonight?”
“Actually, I’ll close up with you if you don’t mind?” Pearl eyed her suspiciously. None of the girls ever wanted to close up. They passed that responsibility back and forth like a hot potato.
“Sure thing.” She handed the full pitcher back to Lindsey. “Oh, and tell the bastard next to Lambert that his wife’s called up here twice now lookin’ for him.”

“Well, the kitchen’s closed and the kegs are dry.” Pearl sunk into the booth across from Lindsey. The country music station favored by the local patrons had been promptly shut off and replaced by Pearl’s favorite Stones album she always saved for closing time. Three heaping baskets of silverware waiting patiently to be polished and rolled were the last obstacles in the way of clocking out. Lindsey’s fingers lingered on each set, searching for a rhythm as her thoughts ran rampant through her mind.
“Lovebug, I don’t think you’ve stayed ‘til close since before you started runnin’ around with Eddie, much less asked to stick around.” Pearl drummed her acrylic black nails on Lindsey’s forearm. “Everything alright?”
There was the question beckoning Lindsey to open her floodgates. She knew Pearl’s kind molasses eyes weren’t going to waver from her until she started talking.
But in place of words came ugly, snotty sobs that brought equal parts surprise and relief. Her lower lip quivered, jumbling any attempt she made at forming a coherent syllable. Pearl squished into Lindsey’s side of the booth, letting Lindsey burrow her face into the crook of her neck.
“I’ve got all night, Lovebug,” she cooed, “all night.”

The people of Kingsport noticed which waitress would have one-too-many shift drinks. They noticed which bus boy always seemed to have a black eye. Ladies noticed which bartender was most apt to flirt with their husbands. Penny pinchers noticed who charged for soft drink refills and who let it slide.
And it was impossible not to notice the pregnant waitress.
With her stomach protruding, Lindsey carried a massive batch of cranberry sauce up the narrow, mildew-lined basement stairs leading up to the kitchen. The night before Thanksgiving was always one of the pub’s busiest of the year. The muscles in her feet were already yawning and begging for rest, but she’d quickly learned tips were more precious than bodily comfort.
Little Annabelle popped into the kitchen. “Are we still on wait?”
In unison, the cooks barked a resounding yes at the girl. Lindsey scanned the counter hoping some of her tickets would be up.
“Five more minutes, kid.” Brad, in charge of the gill-top, nodded her way. “You can tell your table it’d be a hell of a lot quicker if they didn’t need their friggin’ burger well done.” She loaded what was ready onto her tray.
“I saw your boy last night. Pickin’ a fight out at the Boathouse.” Lindsey rubbed at her temples. Eddie was rapidly falling out of the graces of first love and becoming a liability. “Vito had to kick him out.” In a silence, her frustration and embarrassment festered. She focused on organizing the salad dressings and cursed herself for the times she found his recklessness desirable.
“Burger up!” He handed her the plate and she quickly hoisted the tray above her shoulder.
“Hey kid,” Brad called to her before she pushed through the swinging doors, “told him I’d kick his ass if he don’t shape up for ya.”
Lindsey let out a short laugh. “Well, Bradley, I’ll kick your ass if you don’t finish up the rest of my tickets.”
As she scurried between the dining room and bar in the peak of the rush, she could feel more eyes casting glances her way than usual. Holidays in Kingsport drew crowds akin to the census in biblical times. Everyone and their cousin’s cousin’s brother flocked back to the small town for a home-cooked meal and the opportunity to be reassured that Kingsport had remained exactly as they left it. For many, it was a shock to put an image to the rumor: Lindsey Lafave had, in fact, not left.
In between pitcher refills, a girl peering around the hostess stand caught Lindsey’s eye. She waddled towards her since she’d last seen Annabelle swallowed up by the barroom crowd.
“Need a table, miss?” Lindsey noticed the girl before her didn’t look like the born-and-bred in Kingsport type. The pearls around her neck were without a doubt the most elegant thing to ever pass through the pub’s chipped-paint door. It would have been a downright sin to mark her immaculate skin with mud from Perch Lake.
“I’m just waiting on my boyfriend, I think his family’s here already.”
“Monica!”
The name was foreign to Lindsey’s ears, but the voice was not. It was the voice of the ten year old that bickered over who had to bait the fishing hook; the same voice that read her college acceptance letter when she was too nervous to look for herself.
“Wow, Ryan, I- I didn’t realize this was your-,” she stammered over each insufficient word.
“Well, we don’t exactly tell each other everything anymore do we?” He gave her a stiff nod as they walked into the bar and left Lindsey behind with all the things she had kept to herself. She slunk into the bathroom to give herself a two-minute pity party before her eight-top would need the check.
The door creaked. “There you are, Lovebug.” Pearl gently rubbed Lindsey’s back. “Couple more hours and we’ll get you off those achy feet.” Lindsey looked at her face carefully in the mirror. It was as if someone had swapped the under-eyelid bags of a middle-aged woman onto the face of a teenager.
“If you see Annabelle, can you tell her to send someone else over to the Lamberts?” A maternal look of confusion and concern overtook Pearl’s face. The Lambert family was always asking for little miss Lindsey. But she just nodded. Pearl had a knack from knowing when to talk and when to just do. With a soft smile of thanks, Lindsey did what she did best; she took a breath and got back to work.
“Nettie!” she hollered from behind the bar. “Nettie don’t get into those!” Her daughter had abandoned the coloring placemat and crayons for the more enticing pile of rolled silverware. “Honey, Mommy just fixed all those.” She rushed over to control the mess. Pubs weren’t the best place for small children. Nettie just giggled. Her three- year-old world was filled only with games and silliness.
“Lovebug, why don’t you take her down to the marina? I’ll restock the bar.”
“Thanks, Pearl. Eddie’ll be here to grab her soon.”
Pearl noticed the exasperation in Lindsey’s voice. “Did he forget it’s his weekend again?”
“When doesn’t the sonovabitch forget?” She was certain she’d woken him from a hangover-induced slumber when he groggily answered her fifth frantic call that afternoon.
“Hey, Net, wanna go feed ducks?” Lindsey put on her chipper, motherly voice.
Talking to Nettie was the only time she didn’t sound like she needed a cigarette. Nettie let out a gleeful cheer and skipped along in front of her mother.
The marina was sprinkled with families basking in the lake’s beauty. Fishing boats glided effortlessly in and out of the harbor as they sent reverberating ripples throughout the otherwise calm water. Lindsey broke off morsels of bread for Nettie to throw to the ducks.
“Mommy used to come down here when she was little, too, Net.”
“With ducks?” Nettie looked up at her with Eddie’s trickster could-be-hazel, could-be-green eyes.
“With ducks.” She could remember sitting with her own mother in the exact same place. Lindsey tried to recall how old she was when they stopped coming down to the pier together.
It must have been when she was ten, because that’s when she’d started going fishing with Ryan. Knobby-kneed and unafraid, they followed the big kids to the pier, placing penny bets on who would have the winning fish.
“Where’s Daddy?” Nettie’s voice brought Lindsey back into focus.
“He’ll be here soon.” She cringed every time Nettie had to ask that question. Soon was a very subjective term when it came to Eddie.
He’d find a good job soon.
He’d quit drinking soon.
He’d pick up Nettie soon.
“Daddy used to work over there,” Lindsey pointed over to the Boathouse, the lake’s traffic hub. Nettie didn’t acknowledge her mother’s words. She was busy quacking along with the ducks. Lindsey shook her head in amusement. It was strange to remember that there once was a time when she didn’t always grumble when she said his name. In the days of jimmying the screen door to sneak out and find Eddie at the end of her gravel driveway, she was too young to know her faith in him should have had an expiration date.
Nettie tugged at Lindsey’s sleeve. “Bread’s all gone!”
“Okay, honey, let’s go back. Let’s wait for Daddy.” Lindsey watched her daughter bend over to blow the ducks kisses. She wished that Nettie would never grow out of feeding the ducks.
They walked back to the pub. Nothing had changed about the place since she first started working there as a dishwasher. When she applied in that now long lost summer, she never would have imagined herself being there all these years later.
“Pearl!” She hollered, “We really need to get someone on fixing the sign out there, it’s been crooked since nineteen-ninety-“
“You’ve got a visitor.” Pearl hollered from the bar top.
The man at the bar was dressed far too sharply to be Eddie. His finely pressed shirt and tie stood out from the soiled overalls and canvas work shirts most Kingsport men took to.
“Ryan? What brings you back to town?” Seeing him at one of their barstools was a perplexing sight; he kept away from Kingsport like it was posted property and he had somehow become a trespasser. The most Lindsey had heard from him were half-hearted birthday and Christmas cards that she highly suspected were the products of Mrs. Lambert’s strong urging.
“Came up to help Mom and Dad pack up the old house.” Lindsey remembered how seeing the house listed in the paper made her sadder than she’d expected. In the awkwardness of not knowing what to say, she became increasingly self-conscious of the breadcrumbs and lint speckled across her uniform, motherhood’s subtle marks.
Suddenly Nettie scampered from the kitchen and wrapped herself around her mother’s legs like a vine. In her surprise, Lindsey hadn’t noticed her little girl had left her side.
“Silly goose, your face is a mess! Did Mr. Bradley give you custard again?” Nettie giggled and nodded her head no. Like warrior’s paint, chocolate marked her round face. “Come here, you.” She dabbed at Nettie’s face with a cocktail napkin while she wiggled and squirmed. Lindsey loved the musical tones in her daughter’s high-pitched laughter. As inconvenient as Eddie made things for her, a part of her wasn’t entirely mad at him for forgetting his weekend. All of his be-there-soons were Lindsey’s bonus rounds.
“Nettie, this is Mommy’s old friend Ryan.” Ryan crouched down to their level. Nettie’s little arms draped around Lindsey’s neck as she let out a soft hello with whimsy only children may possess.
“Would you look at her.” Ryan’s face was bright with delight. “I have something for you, Miss Nettie.” From his bag he pulled out a floppy fishing hat adorned with buttons and lures, artifacts from childhood days when allowance was saved and spent at the bait shop. The hat drooped dramatically over Nettie’s face when he placed it on her, granting him a giggle from the girl and a smile from her mother.
“Mom wouldn’t toss it and I can’t really pull it off anymore.” The once bright green hat was faded from its years of shielding off the sun. If Lindsey looked at him just right, she could conjure up an image of little boy Ryan pressing his face against her screen door asking if Lindsey could come fishing.
“Mean they’re not wearin’ these out in the city?”
“Not exactly.” They laughed. “There’s one condition, Linds. You call me up when its time to show her how to cast a line.” Lindsey had adjusted to life without Ryan’s friendship the way a person adjusts to the warmth of late August fading into a cool September. But now that her old friend was before her once again it felt like the promise of spring.
“It’s a deal.”
With a pinch of glee and mischief, Nettie ran towards Ryan and then back to the kitchen where she could always find someone with sweets. Ryan noticed the pure, simple delight that enchanted Lindsey’s eyes as she watched her daughter roam.
“Think you got the winning fish there, Linds.”
“I think I do.”

About the Author

Natalli Amato

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Natalli Amato was born and raised in Sackets Harbor, New York, where she grew up on the shores of Lake Ontario chasing sunsets and the Milky Way. As she has navigated the process of growing up she has waitressed, interned with the New York State Attorney General, and studied in London, England. She continues to pursue a degree in Sociology and Public Relations. Her writing has appeared in Perception Magazine (of Syracuse University), Prolific Press’s Three Line Poetry.