A boy stands knee-deep in the river, its sandy banks crowded behind him. He is bent at the waist, staring through goggles at something in the water. He is too close to the rapids as far as his mother is concerned, though she was of that opinion the moment he stepped into the water. In reality, he is so far from the rough water that he might as well be sitting in the sand with his mother, sitting between his mother and the scrawny tattooed guy she’s been shacking up with this summer, sitting there and fiddling with the tablet they bought him for his birthday, the thin piece of magic glass that Tattoo is using now to check the score of the ballgame.
He has never been afraid of the river, this boy. He’s never really been afraid of anything except the pack of smokes his mother clutches in one hand, and the lit butt she’s puffing away on in the other. It’s the same brand the boy pulled from his grandfather’s breast pocket the morning he found the old man slumped against the bathtub, his skin cold, his white shirt covered with blood he had coughed up. Blood and bits of the lungs that had failed him.
Or maybe Gramps failed the lungs, the boy thinks, depending on your perspective.
Perspective. Perspective. It’s all about perspective. The way you see what you see.
And what the boy is seeing now is a fish, a fish weaving in and out of the space between this feet. He knows that animals are meant to be afraid of him, are meant to race away from his body, and he wonders if fish can get rabies, if this fish is crazy.
But then he thinks of a movie he’s been watching a lot lately, one of the ones his grandfather used to pop into the ancient gray box hooked to that enormous tube TV of his, the one they had to pay the dump ten bucks to haul away after Gramps was gone. It was animated, the movie, a yarn about a magician turning a boy into a squirrel and then a sparrow and then a fish in order to teach him some lesson. And now, now the boy’s thinking of that word Tattoo brought up over a couple of beers the other night on their porch back home:
Was this fish his grandfather? Was there a fish ready to be born the day his mother smoked her last? And what about him? Would he come back? And did he have any input into how, and as what? What if he didn’t smoke? What if he didn’t drink? What if he started to act the part of the good little boy his mother seemed to want him to play?
Would he have a choice then? Would he have a choice then, at the end — a choice he could make as recklessly as he wanted — if he made all the right choices now?
The fish swims between his legs one last time and makes for the rough water. It takes everything the boy has not to follow it.