Thomas Bonville

FISH, THE RIVER, TROY, 1959


The smell of the Hudson, after three days of April rain,
the water organic, rushing back to life,
river bottom mud mixing with the sediment of tributaries
together with the raw sewage from the guts of Troy,
decomposition along the shore line, stinking, like fresh manure newly spread in a garden,
that smell, calling men of a certain bent to the river,
a time that pulls Grand-Pop to fish his favorite place,
a not-so-secret spot for simple souls with time to spend,
a pole in their hands, standing along the banks of the Hudson,
standing below the dam on the Green Island side of Troy
--- fifteen days remain in April, fifteen more days in May ---
each new day breezy, a change in the wind, the air as cool as the water, but warming,
ready for fish to be taken:  Shad come first, bloated, bountiful,
the meat good for a Sunday, backyard bake, all the neighbors invited,
stripers next, stout and stubborn, thirty pounds easy,
the primeval drive to spawn, to return to the estuary where life started,
to find Troy, far from the ocean's eternal deep.
The fish never tasted better than those moments, river fish, steeped in tradition,
more flavorful than you think, something to be savored, free for the taking.

*

We would eat fish for dinner, after every catch.
"Brain food!" Grand-Pop said.  "Can't you see how smart I am?!"
Always with a smile, everything with a smile, soulful and sweet,
a few front teeth missing.  Too much of Troy in his life, I think, too much of life in Troy,
with bars as ubiquitous as parking meters on a downtown street.
Even today, how I still taste and smell the fish frying in my grandmother's kitchen,
the fish done to a crisp, the corn meal breading moist and flaky,
the caste-iron frying pan sizzling, the oil bubbling on the stove,
the house on Hutton Street filling up with the smell of grease and fish and family,
a page of the Troy Record on each of our plates, each slab of finished fish landing on the daily news,
next to a handful of potato chips and Grand-Mom's Old Country, church cabbage "koolslaa,"
the kind with plenty of cider vinegar and a sprinkling of caraway seeds.
"EATEAT!" Grand-Pop exclaims, "while the fish is still hot!
Just watch for the bones, so the devil don't take you away this day!"
wagging his finger at all of us children, huddled around the dining room table, hungry for food,
absorbing the ripples of love cascading over the table, teaching us
at an early age the meaning of the word family, the hot warmth of love.
"Yah, we don't need no new excitement," Grand-Mom adds, "that goes for you, too, Old Man.
We can't afford no more new tragedy this year."

*

There was herring, too, flooding the mouth of the Hannacroix, downstream
a ways, a day trip for sure in the old Packard, Grand-Pop pulling out the nets,
the ones he used in the summer to keep the birds out of the raspberries.
"Come along, Tommy, you bring me good luck," he says, "I always feel it in my heart, I do,"
so I skip school for the day with everyone's blessing, as long as I promise
to keep Grand-Pop out of the sauce and out of the river.
"He can't swim a lick, you know," my father tells me, nodding.
"You can't swim, Grand-Pop?" I ask him, on the drive to Coeymans.
"Well, who the hell swims after the fish to catch them?!" he roars, laughing.
The two of us net and haul ashore as many bluebacks as we can, the fish coming in waves,
strong with the tide, silvery iridescent scales shaded blue and green, the colors of spring.
We load full our red, metal coolers, already packed with ice, bringing the fish back home to Troy,
the next day half of the herring preserved in Grand-Pop's smoker, stoked with apple wood,
the other half brought inside to be pickled the old fashioned way, Grand-Mom remembers how,
pins her hair up and does them all in one sitting, so we can have herring with Christmas Eve dinner.
All of which made my mother think the whole thing disgusting.
"Easier to buy food at the Central Market on Hoosick Street," she makes clear, "safer, too."
"Yah, it surely is," Grand-Mom replies, "just not as good to eat, it isn't.
But, you are my daughter, and I love you all the more all the same."

*

Maybe life was better back then, maybe it wasn't.
So hard to say, just from memory.
Doesn't the past always seem better than today?
1959 probably wasn't such a good year,
the Yankees didn't win the pennant, the Russians were always raising hell,
and my father was laid off from work at Republic Steel, more times than not.
Now, in this movable feast of memories, a few months into 2017,
forty miles away, downstream from where I started living,
I mourn the loss of what I had, what I can never have back.
Grand-Pop and Grand-Mom are long gone, planted together
in the Oakwood Cemetery, with Uncle Sam Wilson and half of Troy laid to rest,
my parents, too, buried in another place, not far away, on the other side of the river,
soon enough me, my doctor says, my ashes to be surrendered to the river,
where they belong.  So much of the river lives inside of me,
the waters of the Hudson forever flowing to the sea,
wave after wave,
what abounds, what abides,
these familiar currants and tides
that speak to me.





Thomas E Bonville is sixty-five years old and has always lived within two miles of the Hudson River.  He writes, reads and critiques with the Rensselaerville Poets, and he is also a part of the Posey CafĂ©.



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