Catch and Release

by Christopher Amenta

Waiting for the locks to drain, a woman said to Prete that maybe he should watch his language in front of the children. He flashed her that smile, then howled in her face like an animal.

The cry surprised Tom, but then he took Prete by his bird chest and shoved him back toward the railing. When he’d put some space between them and the woman, Tom muttered an apology over his shoulder. She swept her children behind her skirt and crossed herself.

To Prete, Tom said, “Behave.”

Prete fixed up his face so his teeth looked like pipes on a church organ. “What’d I do?”

“Just behave.”

Prete shrugged, then turned to watch a catamaran glide out to sea. By the time the bridge started moving again, his expression was as flat as the sound, as if nothing had happened.

Tom planted his elbows on the railing next to Prete. The sun was out, blistering, which meant that pretty much every mope in Seattle had stepped into a pair of boat shoes and suddenly become a skipper. And the weather had wrangled the tourists, too, who’d come to snap photos of salmon climbing the fish ladder. And standing there among them, all Tom wanted to do was get home before Prete got bored again.

The bridge reset and the gate lifted, and they began to cross with the others. Whenever he could, Prete inserted himself into the back of people’s photographs, always grabbing himself or making a face or flipping off the camera. Tom kept moving. Without an audience, Prete would tire.

When he did, Prete opened his McDonald’s bag and started shoveling a burger into his mouth. “Watch this.” He dropped a hunk of beef into the water. The food vanished with a plop.

“So?” Tom said.

“So there’s fish down there. I’m giving them a taste for meat.”

“Okay.”

“Ever hear of natural selection? The theory of evolution? Fish eat the meat, then they evolve into carnivores. Then they eat all the fishermen. Fish eating fishermen.”

Tom shrugged.

Prete clacked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “Sometimes you’ve got no vision.” He finished his food, wiped his face with the waxed wrapper, then dropped the trash to the ground.

They walked to Tom’s house. Out front, the couch sagged with last night’s rainwater. Tom opened the front door, stepped over the catalogs and sham credit card offers that had piled up on the concrete stoop, and led them inside. His grandmother was sitting in her wheelchair before the TV. She turned and raised an arm, and the plastic hoops she wore on her wrist clattered around her elbow. Prete waved back. They went downstairs.

In the basement, Tom tossed aside his work shirt, swept a towel from the weight bench, and began adding plates to the bar. “I talked to my friend,” he said. “Putting in a second entrance would be expensive.” He lay down and began to lift. “It’s a complicated job.”

Prete leaned on the arm of the couch. “Take the room.”

“I said, ‘Like a couple hundred?’ He said, ‘Like a couple thousand.’ It’ll take me months to come up with it.”

Prete stepped behind the bench so that his face hovered upside-down over Tom’s. Then he placed both hands on the plates and pushed, and though Tom pushed back, the weight, with Prete added, became too heavy. The bar lowered to his chest. He felt the air spurt from his lungs. He said to let up, but Prete didn’t move. The steel seemed to lash against him like a whip. Dark spots began to crowd his vision. Maybe a minute passed, and, as Tom became lightheaded, he found himself watching Prete’s long, pretty lashes flicker across his upside-down eyes.

“Take the room,” Prete said. “It’s empty. I’m not using it. I want you to have it.” Then Prete let go, and the bar shot from Tom’s chest and clattered to the safety of the uprights.

“Asshole,” Tom said. “Why would I ever want to live in your place? Huh? Why would I ever want that?”

Tom sat up and let his breathing settle. Then he wiped the sweat from his forehead, stood, fell to the floor, and began a set of push-ups, knuckles down. Prete opened the mini fridge and took a beer.

#

The next day, Prete showed up at the store with a wad of tobacco wedged under his lower lip and a Gatorade bottle to collect the spit. Tom was mopping the floor.

“I have an idea,” Prete said.

“You’re not supposed to be here.”

“Do you want to hear it?”

To a coworker, Tom said, “Cover the register, will you?”

Tom leaned a mop against the magazine rack and led Prete to the back of the store. Two pallets of bottled iced tea were on the tile by the refrigerator. Tom knelt and began restocking the shelves.

“I have a way for you to get that construction done,” Prete said, holding the spitter to his mouth like a microphone. “Not six months from now. This month. Right now. It’s a job.”

“Who’s hiring?”

“Phil Wesley.”

“Bye.”

“You don’t even know what it is,” Prete said.

“Goodbye. And seriously, don’t come here. You’ll get me fired.”

“Just listen—”

Tom stood and stepped forward until he was close enough to Prete to smell the tobacco under his lip. He touched his shoulder to Prete’s, giving a reminder that, if Tom ever felt like it, he could snap the kid apart like a set of chopsticks. They stood staring at each other for a moment until Prete threw an arm into the air.
“All right, forget it. I’m leaving anyway.” Prete swapped the spitter for a box of animal crackers on a nearby shelf. He split open the packaging and then left, eating without having plucked the chew from his lip. A display of novelty pinwheels spun as the door swung shut behind him.

Tom returned to the iced tea. Glass slapped against glass. He finished his work, then retrieved the Gatorade bottle filled with spit and returned the empty pallets to the basement. Pop radio scratched through the speakers.

#

When Tom came home that night, his grandmother turned to him and smiled, and he knew this meant that she was hungry. In the kitchen, he fixed her meal: a bowl of applesauce, a peanut butter sandwich cut into fours, five baby carrots that he knew she wouldn’t eat, half a donut, a plastic cup filled with lukewarm water, and a straw for drinking.

He placed the food on the TV tray by her chair. “Do you want the quilt?”

She nodded.

Tom draped the red blanket over her legs. “What else?”

She shook her head.

“I’ll come up after I exercise.”

Downstairs, he changed into a pair of gym shorts and began to stretch. Through the ceiling, he heard the front door open and slam, and then Prete came thundering down, two stairs at a time. He was wearing a parka with the collar popped.

“What’s today?” Prete asked, looking at the weights.

“Back.”

“Where do we start?”

“Pull-ups.”

Prete shed his jacket. The kid had skin the color of milk and arms like kite strings. He liked to keep himself hidden beneath big coats and sweatshirts, and though he sometimes exercised with Tom, he always gave up weeks before it would make any difference.

Tom did a set, then stepped aside. “Do eight.”

Prete jumped and took the bar, and Tom helped by lifting up on his sneakers. Prete cursed eight times instead of counting. Then he dropped to the cement, staggered to the fridge for a beer, swallowed half in a go, belched, and then finished the rest. After his second set, he lay on the floor, arms stretched out above him, and said, “That’s it.”

Tom laughed. He took a dumbbell in each fist and continued to exercise. “They call these Schwarzeneggers.”

“Are you off on Saturday?”

“After Arnold. Before him, this exercise didn’t exist.”

“Do you want to come to Oregon with me?”

“Before him,” Tom said, “the whole sport didn’t exist. Schwarzenegger created it, as much as it created him.”

“Remember the tsunami in Japan?”

“People used to think that bodybuilders were freaks. That all that muscle was gross. Arnold changed that. Those Gold’s Gym guys owe him. In a way, he created them, too.”

“The wreckage is starting to wash up over here.”

“What wreckage?”

“From the tsunami.” Prete sat up. “It’s washing up on the beaches in Oregon. I thought we could go check it out. Maybe we’ll get lucky and see some dead Japs.”

“You know what the difference was?” Tom said. “Schwarzenegger worked harder than everyone else. He got bigger than people thought you could get. He changed the way movies looked, changed the way men looked. He got rich, married American royalty, became governor.” Tom dropped the weights to the floor and exhaled. “Saturday? Yeah, okay.”

“My girl’s coming, too,” Prete said, standing.

“What girl?”

Prete put a hand on Tom’s shoulder. “You don’t know everything there is to know about me.” He gave Tom a light smack on the cheek. “See you,” he said, and then he retrieved his jacket and left.

When Tom finished exercising, he filled his plastic bottle at the slop sink behind the basement stairs. He added protein powder and shook the mixture into sludge. His sketchbook was on the floor beneath the coffee table, and he bent and took it up. The latest idea left the plumbing in place but moved the stairs to create more room in what would be the kitchen. He thought it might take eight, maybe nine grand to do. He could help with the labor. Tom leafed through the pages.

When he finished the shake, he rinsed the cup and went upstairs. His grandmother was asleep in her chair. Applesauce had spilt across her tray. The carrots were left in their bowl. Tom cleared everything to the kitchen, scrubbed the dishes, then set them out to dry. He returned to his grandmother, wheeled her to the bedroom, and lifted her from her chair. She weighed almost nothing, was light enough for him to curl like a dumbbell. When he placed her beneath the sheets, she all but disappeared.

Tom set the alarm for eight. She liked to be awake before her nurse arrived.

#

On Saturday, Tom heard the horn, and he left to find Prete parked in front of the house. A girl sat in back. Her dark hair was straight and shoulder length, and she had pale skin. She wore no makeup, a sweatshirt with the hood pulled up over her head, and jeans split open at both thighs. Tom didn’t know her. He leaned over the windshield, and Prete waved him into the passenger seat. Tom got in.

“I’m Tom,” he said, extending a hand.

She looked at him, then folded her arms.

Prete laughed. “Tom, Abbey. Abbey, Tom. Everyone in? Good. Let’s go.” He shifted the car into gear and pressed the gas. “Here.” Prete handed Tom a slip of paper with an address on it. “Punch this into the GPS.”

“It’s not coming up.”

“That’s fine. She knows the way.” Prete tilted the rearview mirror. “Don’t you, Abbey?”

She didn’t respond.

Tom watched the girl through his own mirror. She kept looking out the window. Her face appeared as a white sliver, a silhouette edging out from the red hood. He wondered how old she was. Without makeup, she looked like a teenager, but he could see how, under a different light, having slept and showered, she might look almost thirty.

Soon, they reached the highway, and Prete leaned on the accelerator.

Abbey said, “Don’t you think it’s stupid to go so fast?”

Tom glanced and saw that she was squeezing the door handle with both hands.

“Are you scared?” Prete asked, smiling.

“I just think it would be particularly dumb to get pulled over right now. Don’t you?”

“Show her,” Prete said.

Tom opened the glove box and handed her a device.

“This thing scans for radar,” Prete said. “If it beeps, it means there’s a cop nearby. If it’s quiet, like, right, exactly now, then I drive however I want.”

“You think this stupid thing works?” She turned the machine over in her hands, then gave it back to Tom.

He returned it to the glove box.

“I know it does.” Prete wrenched the car around a bend in the highway, and Abbey’s head thudded into the window.

“Jesus,” she said, clutching her skull through her hood. “Then maybe slow down so you don’t kill us all before we get there.”

Prete turned halfway around, ignoring the road, and jammed a finger in her face. “I don’t crash.”

She recoiled. “Calm down, psycho. Accidents happen.” She slumped back into her seat and retook the door handle.

Prete turned back to the road. “Not to me they don’t.”

“You’ve never been in an accident?”

“No.”

“And there’s no way you’ll ever get into one?”

“That’s right.”

“What makes him so special, Tom?”

Tom smiled. “He learned from the best.” He ran his palm over his head. It was time for a buzz again. “His brother used to race motorbikes. If you’re from around here, you’ve probably heard of him. He was my year. His name was Tom, too.”

“All right,” said Prete.

“You know,” Abbey said, “I am from around here, and I’ve never heard of him.”

Tom watched her in the mirror. A lock of her hair fell from behind her hood and landed across her face. She tucked it away. Without any paint, in the afternoon sun, her lashes appeared almost yellow. Red shadows encircled both eyes. Exhaustion, he thought. Perhaps she’d been using the night before. Or maybe she was hung over. He wondered how they’d met.

“You’re young,” Tom said. “You don’t know everything yet.”

Abbey faced the window again. “Isn’t driving a motorbike a little different from driving a car?”

“No,” Prete said. “It’s not. Because there are these things like physics, lift, drag, friction.” He held up a finger for each. “Maybe you’ve heard of them? They don’t change. Not in principle. So car, bike, there’s no difference.” Sweat blotted Prete’s brow. The weather had turned muggy. “If anything, racing a dirt bike is harder than racing a car, which made him better.”

“Well, in a car, you use a steering wheel. That’s one difference.”

“My brother could have driven this car with a joystick. He could have driven it with his feet if he wanted to.”

Tom heard the sound of her belt unbuckling, and he turned. Abbey slid into the middle of the backseat. Leaning forward, she angled her chin toward Prete. She slid down her hood, and Tom saw that she had a tattoo of a seashell in such a spot on her neck that her hair, if worn down, would hide it. She wetted her lips.

“So, how did he die?” she said.

The car began to accelerate. The engine grew louder. Prete silenced.

“I see,” she said. “It was a car crash, wasn’t it? And you still think he’s the best, you stupid fuck. You still think he’s immortal.”

The car sped to ninety, then one hundred, then one-ten. The engine whined. Prete swerved in and out of traffic, cutting everything close. A rattle could be heard from inside the guts of the machine, loud and hollow, as if some piece of apparatus were toying with escape.

“Hey,” Abbey said, now looking worried.

Prete didn’t move, didn’t flinch.

“Hey, asshole. You’re going to get us killed.” She slid back into her seat and fastened her belt.

Blue liquid began streaking up the windshield, leaking, maybe, from the wipers. Tom smelled gasoline. He placed a hand on Prete’s shoulder. “Hey,” Tom said. The knob of bone felt like a speck beneath his palm. He squeezed. “Hey,” he said again.

From inside the glove box, the radar detector bleated a warning, and Prete released the accelerator. The car slowed, and when, down the road, they passed the cruiser, seventy-five felt like a crawl.

“Fuck,” Prete said.

“Did he get us?” Tom turned and watched the patrol car until it fell from sight.

“Fuck,” Prete said again. He put both hands on the wheel.

#

Eventually, they crossed into Oregon and exited the highway. A fog settled. Pines bordered both sides of the road. From time to time, Prete would steer the car over the yellow line to pass another driver. Repeatedly, he asked, “How close are we?”
Each time, Abbey said, “Close.”

As they drew near the coast, the forest thinned, then disappeared altogether. Dunes, shaggy with yellow-brown sea grass, loped alongside the car. The misting stopped.

“This is it,” she said, pointing. “Over there.”

Prete turned into an empty lot. One car, an antique red Mustang, idled near the boardwalk. As they drew close, the driver switched on the brights and stepped out. He held up his hands.

Prete slowed, then stopped. “See what he wants,” he said to Tom.

“What?”

“Maybe get out and see what he wants.”

Tom got out. The air smelled of salt and rain and carried a chill. Gravel rustled beneath his sneakers as he crossed the lot. Tom put a stick of gum in his mouth and chewed. When the other driver raised his arms again, Tom could see that they’d been worked on. The guy’s teeth seemed to glow white against his tan.

“Yeah?” Tom said.

“Is she okay?”

“Who?”

The driver stepped towards Tom until they were only a few feet apart. The guy’s eyes wouldn’t stop shifting; he chewed on a corner of his cheek. Behind him, the passenger door of the Mustang opened, and a second guy got out. This one was bigger.

“Hang on a second,” Tom said.

The other man came around the car and sat on the hood, had a breath of his cigarette, then let smoke rise from the back of his throat.

The skinny guy put a finger in Tom’s face. “Speak.”

The other one, the one leaning on the car, stood and folded his arms.

Tom became aware of his own breathing. He watched the big guy flick aside his smoke. He watched the butt skitter across the parking lot, trailing a comet of orange ash. The skinny guy scratched at his eyebrow until his face turned red. Then he started scratching at his chest.

“What in the fuck, man?” the guy said.

Tom blinked to reset his focus. He wanted to turn and walk back to the car, but instead, he stepped closer to the man. He squared up his shoulders, setting them between that man and the daylight. He rolled up his left sleeve with his right hand, and then his right sleeve with his left. He blew a large bubble in his gum and let it pop. He said, “Relax.”

And the guy seemed to do just the opposite.

“Do you have the money?” Prete shouted from the car.

The skinny man wiped sweat from his forehead, then gestured to the smoker, who reached into the backseat and produced a duffle. The big man handed the bag to Skinny who handed it to Tom.

“How much is it?” Prete asked.

Tom stared at the bag.

“Fucking count it,” Prete shouted.

Tom counted. “It looks like a hundred thousand dollars.” The cash was wrapped with paper bands. He shuffled the bundle in his arms and felt the weight of all those bills.

The back door of Prete’s car opened, and Abbey came out with her sweatshirt sleeves pulled over her hands. She approached the skinny man.

“You okay?” Skinny said.

“This one’s name is Tom,” she said, jerking her thumb.

Prete honked the horn and shouted, “Get back in the car.”

The skinny guy said, “Yeah?”

Tom leaned forward until they were nose to nose. “Yeah,” he said. “Tom.” Then he began backing up, clutching the duffle in his fist, holding the guy’s gaze until he was in the car again.

And then, sitting, Tom wanted to know what in the hell, but Prete just said to be quiet, and Prete just pressed his boot hard on the gas, and Prete put road between them and the men with the Mustang. He throttled them forward, hugging the coast until, a few miles to the north, at a public beach, he careened into a parking lot busy with cars and people.

And Tom tried to find some sense, to make some sense, and Tom said, “Did we just sell that girl?”

“Hang on,” Prete told him, and then he parked.

“Prete, who was she?”

“Let me see the bag.”

“What did we just do?” Tom was sweating. “Prete? What did we do?”

“Aren’t you a babe in arms?” Prete fixed his face into that yellow grin. “Aren’t you ever the innocent? Take a breath, Tom. We didn’t do a thing. We returned her.”

“I don’t know,” Tom said. “I don’t know what that means.”

“We just brought her home.” Prete snatched the bag from Tom’s lap. “Holy shit, you weren’t kidding.” He began pawing through the money. “Have you ever seen anything so lovely in all your life?”

“Returned her?” The adrenaline drained from Tom’s body. He felt as though he might fall asleep sitting upright in the car. He closed his eyes, and the answers came: the money, the job, the job that Prete had mentioned. Phil Wesley.

“That was the easiest hunk of cash I ever made. Ten,” Prete said, “Ten of this is ours. For a drive. What an absolute beauty.”

Tom opened his eyes. He looked out the window. The sun, now setting, cast light upward onto the underside of the clouds, folding color into atmosphere, creating a sense of sky roiling. With his finger on the glass, Tom traced the line of a sand dune. He listened to Prete count. From time to time, between whispers, Prete would curse. Sometimes he’d giggle. A few minutes passed, and Tom looked down and realized he was gripping the door handle with both hands.

He let himself from the car.

“Hey,” Prete said. “Where are you going?”

“I’ll find my own way home.”

“Look at this money,” Prete said, lifting a stack. “Look at the money you earned and get back in the car.”

Tom closed his eyes. “I’ll find my way,” he said. And then he left. From up ahead, he heard the ocean thundering. He followed the sound.

Offseason, wet from the mist, the sand clumped like mud and caked to the bottom of Tom’s sneakers. Though the weather was cold, a crowd had gathered. As Tom crested the dune, he understood why. Japan was washing up on shore. Tom went to watch.

Out at the break, partially submerged in the gray water and beached on a sandbar, rested the wreckage of an industrial pier. Sixty or seventy feet long, made of metal and concrete, it resembled a half-sunken ship. Lime green seaweed coated its sides and bloomed and retracted as the ocean swelled.

People had gathered, ankle-deep in the cold June water, pants cuffed, and were having their photos taken with fingers making bunny ears, with smiles on their faces. Tom lowered himself to the sand and pulled his knees against his chest. Two boys that looked like brothers splashed into the surf. The younger waded out and stood straight up with his back against the pier. The older marked his brother’s height with a hand. The boy stepped away and took stock of his measure against the debris.

Tom felt the ocean in the air, felt its chill. After all, there’d been the doping. There’d been that terrible Batman film, the affair with the maid, rumors of orgies, accusations of sexual misconduct. Hadn’t there? How many miles was it to Japan? How many days since the disaster? Tom didn’t need to turn his head to know exactly where Prete waited, exactly where he sat, counting all that money.

He watched the two boys play in the sea, salt water sloshing around their waists. They shivered. They laughed. The ocean had made a playground of all this wreckage. Tom watched as the brothers splashed and scattered and rejoined and ran.

#

Tom struggled to find a lift back to Portland. Hours passed. No one would pick him up. He grew frustrated, then nervous. By the time a girl let him ride in the bed of her truck, he was frantic. When they reached town, he bought a ticket on the last Amtrak. He ran home from the station in Seattle. It was well into the morning before he arrived.

She wasn’t in her chair. Instead, in the kitchen, the dishes—two bowls, one for applesauce, one for carrots, a plate for a sandwich and one for a donut, his grandmother’s plastic cup and straw—lay washed and drying on the rack by the sink. The TV had been switched off. Her blanket was folded on the arm of the couch. In her bedroom, she slept. The extra quilt had been tucked up under her chin. Tom knelt. He took her face in his hand, pressed his thumb to her cheek.

Tom stood and returned to the kitchen sink. He filled a plastic cup with tap water and added an ice cube. He went to the basement.

On his way down the steps, he said, “How long have you been waiting?”

“She didn’t eat her carrots.”

“She never does.”

“I thought she might for me.”

Wouldn’t that have been a thing? Wouldn’t it have been something were there actually a girl, had she actually been his. Prete was sitting on the back of the couch with his feet on the cushion. Still in his sneakers and parka, it seemed likely that he’d come directly from the beach. More likely, that he hadn’t eaten or spoken or slept.

“Sometimes it’s not easy being my friend,” he said.

Tom sat. They both faced the TV, which, in its darkened surface, reflected their own images. Outside, a gull squawked. Tom unlaced and removed his sneakers. He lay down on the couch. Prete shifted his feet so they could share the last cushion.

“Is there anything on now?” Prete said.

With a closed fist, Tom twice thrashed his pillow, softening the stuffing, before replacing the cushion beneath his head “Keep it low.” He handed Prete the remote. “I work in the morning.”

Tom closed his eyes. Prete turned on the TV.