I was ten years old, standing in my grandmother’s kitchen while she packed our lunch. Sandwiches, cookies, cheese, fruit, crackers, a bag of chips, two Budweisers and a couple Shasta Black Cherry sodas for me.
“Jesus woman, we’re only going fishing, not headed for the darn Yukon Territory” My grandfather grumbled. They always did the Fred and Ethel bit perfectly.
“I just don’t want you two to get hungry,” she replied. My grandmother never lets anyone go hungry within 20 feet of her. She keeps an emergency sandwich and a plate of deviled eggs in her purse. Just in case.
We kissed her goodbye and I followed the old man out to the garage where he kept his truck, a battered Chevy Apache. I watched in awe as he went through the complex ritual to bring the old girl to life, then we bounded out onto the road.
We stopped at a bait shop behind a strip mall in a neighborhood my mom wouldn’t even drive through. They had an amazing collection of things to put on hooks: Glass shrimp, lug worms, and, my personal favorite, Pile Worms. I wandered the shop looking at the faded snap shots of men with silly grins holding up enormous fish.
After grabbing some bait and ice, Grandpa would fire up the ancient truck again and we’d rattle out to our fishing spot. Gramps always talked about how good the fishing used to be, and how big the Striped Bass used to be, until “Los Angeles killed them all by stealing our water,” which I took as the reason the San Francisco Giants hated the Los Angeles Dodgers.
(Boy did I have egg on my face when I found out both teams were from back east…as were striped bass. Gramps was an old farm boy, though, and water feuds die hard.)
We’d always fish at a place called Coyote Point in the San Francisco Bay. We set up on an old breakwater between a restaurant built out of a dilapidated pleasure barge called “The Showboat” and an equally dilapidated drive-in movie theater. I helped carry gear from the back of the pickup, pausing to marvel at a stray cat that ran by dragging the biggest rat I’ve ever seen, to this day.
He set up our tackle and cast out and we settled into our folding chairs to enjoy the magnificent lunch grandma had packed. Extra cookies for me and big ol’ honking salami sandwiches with tomato from the garden, kept separate so as to not make the bread soggy. That woman can do no wrong in my eyes.
Hours went by and we caught and released some bullheads and a stingray. We kept a couple of shiners to use as fertilizer. We never kept anything he wasn’t going to use.
As the sun began to sink low, a very fat man who was fishing near us caught a big Leopard Shark about three feet long. He was half-drunk (the man, not the shark) and holding the still flipping critter by the tail. It was the most action we’d seen all day so I ran over to admire his catch.
“Wow! Are you gonna eat that?” I asked.
“Hell no,” he laughed. “I ain’t no Chinaman, I don’t eat these things.”
“Oh?” I replied, genuinely confused.
“Hey kid, wanna see something?” He slurred, waving me to come closer.
“Umm…Okay…” I looked to my grandfather for approval – this seemed like the kind of thing the GI Joe’s had warned me about. Gramps nodded.
The man threw the shark down with a wet thud on the cement. Then he took his lit cigarette and stuffed it into the shark’s mouth. The gasping shark was now smoking its first Marlboro. Welcome to flavor country. Smoke wisps came from its gills.
“Bet you’ve never seen a shark smoke, huh kid??” The guy laughed the laugh of a bully. Then he walked away and took a piss on a bush.
The shark lay there gasping smoke and trying to swim on dry land. I had this terrible feeling there was a “right thing” I was supposed to do, but I was paralyzed – it was technically the loud guy’s fish, after all. I looked to my grandfather.
Gramps sighed, wiped his hands on his jeans and stood. He came over and pulled the cigarette out of the shark’s mouth and tossed the beast back into the water. The shark rolled over a couple of times before it found life again and swam away.
My grandfather was not a man of many words, but when he spoke wisdom to me I soaked it up like a sponge. He lit his own cigarette and looked at me. “You may have seen your first smoking shark today… But you’ve probably not met your last asshole.”
I beamed at him with the joy of a kid who’s been included in adult talk and filed that little gem away for future use.
He must’ve caught the look in my eye. “Don’t tell your grandmother I said that and don’t you dare repeat it.” He sighed – it was clearly a lost cause. “It’s getting late, reel in your line and help me pack up.”