by Randall Kirkpatrick

Amber tried to be quiet, she really did. Every time she heard that subtle liquid sound she’d sharply draw in a breath like a hiccup and every time she drew in a breath she’d moan low and raspy or shriek out a “whoo-hoo!” She’d pull back hard, her ropy, tatted arms tensing. Sweet Ugly Stick is a thing of finely calibrated beauty. See the way it pulsates in her left hand that so delicately grips it, balancing so finely on the tip of her Black French Manicured forefinger . . . just right for a smallmouth bass.

“Take this, you low-life bronzeback. What is the lady doing WRONG?!” she asked, as the beat-to-hell balsa wood Bagley lure came whizzing by her head from yet another missed strike. Check that, smacked her forehead dead-center … just grazed her newly Dr. Feldmaned nose on the way down. She smirked, reached up and flicked a couple drops of blood onto her left wrist. I can deal, she thought, at least it wasn’t the eye … these color contacts don’t come cheap.

That was Amber in a nutshell. Loss of contact, near-tragedy. Loss of eye, hey I still have one. The blood-letting shot to the schnoz was just what she needed to re-focus. She leaned over, grabbed a few ice cubes from her cooler, tilted her head back and placed them on her eyelids, still mildly sensitive after the eye tuck from the week before.

Eye tucks, a very nice, understated nose job (“Light touch, Doc, remember Jennifer Grey, right?”), daily Pilates for the ripped look. Just one thing … no boob job. Mine are perfect as is, could cut marble if necessary. Yes, I know, Irwin, you’re the best in the Tri-State, but you’re not touching these beauties. You’re an artist but you’re not that good.

Amber shared this stripped-down wisdom with a few of her fellow dancers at Cheyenne Territory and Liquid Skybar, her two favored clubs in the Greater Pocono Shaker Bar universe. The ladies took her words at face value . . . everyone had their quirks and had made their slippery peace with their place in the profession. Amber just had a few more than others: no lap dances, after-work dalliances, no drink-no smoke. She was gone from the scene at least three weekends a month from April to November and most of the time she worked Monday to Thursday. Long days, sure, 12 to 12, and with her rented Neshanic Station studio in a converted mill on the South Branch of the Raritan, definitely a long-ass commute.

Her pole-dancing comrades simply could not get their arms around this no boob job decision. This all-natural thing is unnatural, they all said. What they didn’t know was Amber mainly worried about throwing her casting mechanics out of whack. With so much at stake, who needs bigger ta-tas to get in the way. She didn’t spend three years at Sarah Lawrence to lose the ability to reason. She was now in the Top Five of The Wacky Worm Bassfishing satellite tour, knocking on the door to the big leagues: The Bassmasters Tour.

Amber turned her perfect upper body and improbably sculpted forefinger toward a partially submerged Norwegian Spruce inches away from a sheer volcanic rock wall nearly invisible in the crescent-moon dusk. Her Duran Duran era Bagley bounced off the rock formation in a less than perfect cast. She twitched the plug, waited, waited, waited. Shish. With untypical deliberateness she raised her rod tip, rightly anticipating the bass’s leap.

The Godzilla in the Shallows splash startled her. Did I actually get wet from it? Not possible, she concluded with a small smile. The smallmouth bass bore down, stripped line. Breathing harder again, she pumped and hauled, almost as if she was back on the tidal Delaware around the Route 1 “Trenton Makes” Bridge, muscling in a 20-pound striper.

She realized that was exactly the technique she was channeling and backed off. She knew her aggression was what kept her below the .200 “bassing average,” the Gamefish Mendoza Line. Amber let her bass have its way, keeping even pressure … sensing leaps, horizontal runs, borings into brushy areas. I’m winning this one, she said, consciously slowing her breathing, gearing down from Maserati to Mazda speed. The bass had a couple of leaps left in him two or three rod lengths away, and one violent criss-cross run under the boat. But she was right, she was winning. She lifted up the spent fish, quickly Droided and weighed it — a shade over 5 pounds — removed the barely stuck hook from his lip and gently fanned him for a minute until he swam away.

She heard clapping from atop the sheer rock wall where the fish had first engaged her. God, how long was he standing there? “Nice job, Suze. Hoo-wee! You played that one real nice. Next time you want to hit that spot without bouncing it off the wall first, ’cause . . .”

“Hey, don’t tell me how to fish, I know what I’m doing … Just give me some space here..

“Honey, easy girl I was just…”

“Yeah, I know, showing me the right way. Bite me, old man.” As always, Amber regretted it the moment she said it.

It was too dark to see her Dad’s face but she knew his cheeks were burning as if he’d been slapped. They waited out a long ten seconds together. “Okay, that’s how this goes then. I’ve been out for six months and you still haven’t spoken a civil word to me. It wouldn’t hurt you to.”

“Excuse me, Father, if I wouldn’t inconvenience you … bite me!”

“Hunh, that’s a start, I guess. I’ll leave now, but you know I got the goods to help you, Suzie. You can’t do this on your own, the satellite tour I mean, not the dancing. That you’re doing fine, though I like your real first name better than Amber. You know, I don’t stand in judgement, but really . . . Amber? What’s wrong with your name your Mom and I gave you?”

Amber/Suzie didn’t know whether to scream or laugh at his habit of blithely skipping off the Rant Trail (though his were far gentler than his daughter’s). So she laughed for a moment, then ranted, “You embezzle $200,000 from your union, I have to leave school because you can’t pay my tuition, and you want to talk to me about using my real name in the clubs? You mentioned leaving. Great idea. We’re done here.”

“Well, you put it like that then I guess we are. I hope you brought your head lamp too. You’ll need the extra lumens at the ramp tonight.” With that, Al Rosarati turned away from the edge of the wall and his little Suzie seething in her little bass boat a dozen feet below. A prison release memory surfaced as he got a few feet down the trail leading to the gravel parking lot and his burnt-orange Datsun B-210 with the Yosemite Sam mudflaps. He turned and walked back to the wall’s edge.

“Suze, just hear me out. You never wrote me back in those four years I was stuck in Trenton, but I know you read all my letters, so you know I worked in the prison library and did that chess program with the local kids and how much I missed DeLorenzo’s and Hoagie Haven and the Phillies and the Six…nah I didn’t miss the Sixers that much. Thought I might run into Iverson in there, though.”

“Geez Dad, get to it, will you? I’m not done with these bass yet. And don’t you dare trash Iverson.

“Yeah, sorry about that. You know how I get.” He paused for a long moment, as if mentally tearing up a pile of ratty 3 by 5 index cards, save for one. “You know, the first thing I did last October with my couple hundred bucks after getting paroled from Trenton? I took a taxi over to the tackle shop in Morrisville and picked up a used Mitchell 300 and a couple of Rapalas. Then I ran down to the Delaware, geared up and waded out about waist deep. The tide was up, or at least it was starting to move. You remember what that moving tide means, don’t you?

“I’m really not expecting anything but I catch a 10 pound striper and a couple of largemouth bass. God, that striper was strong — all those river stripers are. I had to haul him like I was deep sea fishing. But it was that first bass I caught that did it for me. I remembered all those times you and me tricked those bass in the river. Pennypack Creek downriver, way up to the Water Gap and right there at Trenton. And I cried like a baby. You hold it all in for 48 months and all that pain just spills out. But it wasn’t all pain because that was the first day I’d felt anything like joy in years. I’ve fished the canal a couple of times, but I haven’t been back to the Delaware.

“I don’t know, Suze. Maybe it’s because it’s got to be with my baby. I know your mom and I are done — I’ve dead-scorched that bridge and I don’t blame her for hating me. But I’ve got to believe we can at least throw a couple of lures together. That’s it, Suze. I’ve got nothing else to say. But I can’t help but notice that the Wacky Worm tour has a stop in Bristol, PA, six weeks from now and if you think about it.”

“Nice story, Dad. Nice touches too. So what, you think you can dig up these memories just like that? Sometimes they’re just like digging up old bones to see how they smell. And I’ll tell you something else, you are not getting on my boat with me so you can serve up all your semi-smart advice. You can save your stories for your parole officer!”

Her dad turned silently away, with no turn back this time. Suzie’s reflexive anger melted into erratic sobs, she knew she’d gone too far once again, but there was no way she could dilute her pent-up emotions. And that night, there was no way she could delete the infuriating notion of her dad joining her on the boat in six weeks.

11:45 p.m. Wednesday, Hump Day at The Silk Lady Lounge in East Stroudsberg, Pa. This was Amber trying again, really trying not to execute her professional exit strategy. James “Jimbo” Beakins had started out just having some fun with Amber, but the third shot of Johnny Walker Red had brought on some borderline cheap shots.

“Baby, you need those wide hips to handle what I’ve got.”

Amber spun twice around the pole, “Honey, I have Mister Twisters in my tackle box bigger than your little handle.”

Not being much of a fisherman, Jimbo didn’t know what a Mister Twister was but concluded that she’d just demeaned his equipment.

“Did your Momma and your Daddy teach you to disrespect guys like that?”

Jimbo got the in-taken breath going but not the next word. Amber’s right foot — her Jimmy Choo Mock Croc-clad right foot — clocked Jimbo’s two front teeth with impossible speed. It was a clean separation of bone from gum.

And a clean separation it was from Amber’s Monday to Thursday life. She flicked her packed Lavender clutch on the bar as a peace offering. She barely looked back as she walked out of her last job shakin’ that thing for remuneration. “Sorry, Jimbo, I may have over-reacted. Dr. Harrison, Cosmetic and Reconstructive Dentistry, Bridgewater. Use my name: Suzie Rosarati.”

Jimbo used the $1,200 as a down payment for the work, decided not to ask for the rest nor to press charges, knowing the grief he caught from his friends would only get worse.

Suzie had to change her cell number, as every club in the Northeast was calling her to perform — now she had edge — but she held firm. Except, that is, for one quick photo session for the foot fetish website Girlgotsole.com. $15,000 for 40 minutes in her Jimmy Choos. Half an hour of Web immortality bought a new trailer, six new graphite trigger rods, a Minnkota electric trolling motor easily four times more expensive and effective than her current Sears Special, and “a whole lot of stuff that I probably don’t need but will look good when I’m cruising up with my winning bass on the last day.”

5:30 a.m. Bristol public access boat ramp. Sunday, June 19, 2011. It was Day 3 of the tournament on The Wacky Worm tour and Suzie Rosarati’s name was 12th in a field of 45 bass fishermen. This was so not in the plan. So much for home field advantage, so much for a year-long qualifying exemption on the “Big Tour” for a first-place win.

She backed her not-so-gently used Ranger boat into the river, climbed out of her ’98 Suburban and saw a male figure in a gray hoodie and brown cargo pants already disengaging the boat from the trailer. “Hey Suze, thought I’d help you out today if you need me.”

Don’t say it, don’t say it. Suzie mentally bit down on the lip of her brain sector that controlled Dad Rips.

“Aight, thanks for the hand here,” she said evenly. “I’m not mailing it in on the last day, but really I have no shot, so go home and get some sleep. I know you did the 6 to 4 a.m. shift at that new warehouse in Dayton. Seriously, I’ve got to pull 30 pounds today to leapfrog these Gomers, and I can fall short with or without you.”

Her Dad ran a Judo move on her surprising equanimity. “Well, if it’s hopeless and doesn’t matter either way, I’m in your boat today. You may have to really move around these next 10 hours and I’ll just shut up and be your servant.”

For some reason, Suzie believed him and in 30 minutes they were screaming up the hazy river, trying to race several other boats to a favorite spot slightly north, near the old Fairless Hills Steel site. They got there first, but in 90 minutes got nothing but a couple of barely legal bass they knew they’d cull from the livewell later if any heftier bass followed — which didn’t look promising.

With each stop along the river, including a risky move much farther downriver within sight of the Tacony Palmyra Bridge, Al Rosarati kept his pledge, Suzie kept stealing curious glances for a hint of eye-rolling, or frustrated body language or mumbled suggestions. Nothing about the tides, nothing about switching to buzz baits or jigs. He ran the trolling motor when she asked, rigged up whatever she asked for without hesitation.

At 2:45 p.m., her livewell held exactly three fish — 4 lbs, 12 oz of extra lean bass. They were drifting in shallow water just south of Trenton. “We’ve got to get back in at 4 to weigh in. And I will toss these boys back in the river before I embarrass myself with these guppies,” she said in a pre-tantrum monotone. She looked at her Dad for a reaction, then asked wearily, “Okay, Dad, any ideas?”

“Look, you’ve tried some great spots and used some techniques I’ve never seen before. You’re damn good, Suze. I can’t add anything to the mix.”

She was almost speechless seeing this unfamiliar man spouting positivity in front of her. Never a giggler, she almost giggled, “Yeah, yeah Deepak. I know that’s not all you got. Spit it out, I know you’re dying to tell me about some river honey hole that you never took me to.”

He turned away from her and looked east across the river toward Trenton, in the general direction of Trenton State Prison. “God, Suze, I was locked up for four years and spent two years before that just trying to stay out of prison. What can someone like me tell you?” He gazed east again, then swiveled around toward his daughter.

He spoke hesitantly, “Okay, this is gonna sound so stupid, but almost every night from month 32 on, I had the same dream about fishing that deep hole dead-center in the river 50 yards south of the Calhoun Street Bridge. I pulled bass after bass, tiger muskies, all big ones. I lived for that dream, it was just so real.

“I got it, Deepak. Hey, why not, let’s go check it out. You let me know when we’re on it and I’ll actually drop the anchor — give anyone watching a good laugh.”

The spot was only 200 yards away. Suzie ran a deep-running Rattletrap lure 25 feet down and Whap! Something huge, heavy and immovable tore the line down to the backing and stopped, like a truck tire filled with cement. Then a quick surge and snap, the line broke. “Wow, that had to be a striper,” said Suzie, looking for affirmation from her Dad. They had the same out-loud thought at that moment: Sturgeon!

“One less plate of caviar for us then,” said her Dad. This inane comment drained whatever remaining tension out of her body.

It was now 3:05 p.m. and she had, at most, 35 minutes to go before she’d have to blaze a Big D comet trail back to Bristol for the humiliating weigh-in. Whap! Her reel drag whined, but this time she horsed a 4 pound largemouth out of the depths in three minutes. Then she switched over to a Rebel plug to entice a 5 pound smallmouth bass.

Three more fat largemouth bass in the 3-4 lb range came aboard and were placed in the livewell. Suzie looked over at her Dad, who just nodded and smiled each time she lipped another bass. 3:40 p.m. They pulled up the anchor and prepared to push the Ranger boat to its absolute limit. “Hold on, Dad. We still have no realistic shot to win this, but could be interesting anyway. Won’t mean Jack if we don’t make it by 4 though.”

This was going to be close. No tournament boats were visible anywhere, while a few spectator boats waved encouragement as they sped by. A quarter mile away, Suzie was already decelerating when — BOOM — the boat wrenched loudly and violently to starboard. What had she hit? Didn’t matter. Could be anything in this river.

Where was her Dad? He was gone, overboard, nowhere in sight. She spun around, looked in the rough area where she thought might be. Nothing. Choking panic. Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod!

Then, not 30 yards away, the voice of several people on a spectator boat. “We’ve got your Dad,” said the 60-ish woman. “He’s OK. We’ll bring him in!” She could see him, a blanket draped over his body, his favorite Phillies cap gone. He was giving her the thumbs up. No, that isn’t a thumb, she realized, but she was fairly sure he was smiling as he “saluted” her.

Suzie rolled into the Bristol ramp with not exactly minutes to spare. The digital clock read 4:10 and the Wacky Worm mascot was fading badly in the heat. “Look, I understand the rules but you can see we had a little accident,” Suzie said with a brave catch in her voice. Al Rosarati walked with a slightly exaggerated limp, and it wouldn’t have been out of character for him to bloody his own scalp with a quick swipe of a hook (he did). The Tourney organizers knew a good story line when they saw one, so the Rosarati Team would have their shot. All of the Day 2 leaders described their fishing results as some variation on “dogcrap.” A shade over eight pounds was the highest total for any of them.

An official in a loud yellow Wacky Worm shirt walked Suzie’s Bag o’ Bass to the scale: 21 lbs, 8 oz. Her 3 day total: 33 lbs, 1 oz. Second day leader Ben Oh’s 3-day total, 33 lbs.

She and her dad stood together, triumphantly holding each other’s arms aloft as the crowd of 100 (maybe) cheered them, cameras flashed, and a regional outdoor cable program shot brief footage. Suzie had a thought about lead sinkers being secretly slipped down the gullets of her bass. With eyes narrowed and face flushed, she looked directly and accusingly at her dad. He looked back, appalled at what he somehow knew she was thinking and not saying.

“I would NEVER do that, Suze. This win is all you. This is all you.” With the ESP that exists in some undeniable way with some families, Suzie believed him. She was already thinking about her first Bassmasters tournament on the Potomac in August … and if she could convince her Dad to wear a seatbelt.

Randall Kirkpatrick is director of community development for CASA of Mercer County (Court Appointed Special Advocates), a non-profit organization that provides community volunteers to represent the best interests of abused and neglected children in Family Court. His first story for U.S. 1 appeared in the 2002 Summer Fiction issue.

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