My mother turned her head toward me.
“No, I didn’t do it,” I said.
“Jonathan, did you do it?” My brother Jonathan smiled sweetly.
“No, I didn’t do it,” he said.
“Derek, did you do it?” My older brother put on a serious look.
“I didn’t do it,” he said, in a firm voice.
It was a Sunday morning in April. Sun was streaming in from the small lanai onto the burgundy rug in Surfside, Florida. Helen and Fred (my mother and father made us call them by their first names) were sitting in the living room on the Queen Anne sofa. They were reading the Sunday paper. The sofa had a soft floral pattern and was comfortable.
The three of us were standing in front of them, prisoners waiting on the jury. Someone had gone into the refrigerator, punched a hole in the top of a can of peaches and drunk all the juice out of the can. While the peaches inside were relatively undamaged, my parents still sought the truth. Perhaps it was because canned peaches had been planned for Sunday’s breakfast.
“You will just have to stand there until someone tells the truth,” my mother said.
“But, I didn’t do it,” I said. I had my suspicions. It was the sort of thing Derek might do and he was a little strong in his denial. On the other hand, Jonathan had a guilty smile on his face. But, he always had a guilty smile.
“Look at Jonathan’s smile,” Derek said, pointing his finger, “That’s a guilty smile.”
“Yes,” I jumped in, “that’s a guilty smile.” Jonathan’s smile got worse.
We stood for a while looking at each other. Then, Derek put on a thoughtful look.
“Perhaps Charley did it. Charley could have come in when no one was looking and done it.”
Charley was our one-eyed gardener who was sweet on Mrs. Essie Mae Banks, our housekeeper. They both lived in Newtown, Miami. Occasionally Essie would invite Charley into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. My mother didn’t know this, but we did and to Derek the story about Charlie was almost plausible. But it made my mother angry and her eyes opened a little wider.
“We will have none of that,” she said.
We had been standing for half an hour. Fred appeared absorbed in the paper but occasionally he would look at us with calm eyes. We were never spanked for transgressions. My father had graduated from Columbia Teachers College and both parents practiced a relatively early form of psychology on us. That meant no physical punishment, if one rules out standing and waiting.
But, the mullet were running. From 1st Street down near the Government Cut all the way to Baker’s Haulover Cut north of Surfside the silver and black mullet ran and ran. If you went out to the beach at 94th street and waded to the sandbar, the fish in thick dark schools, 100 yards wide, would run into you as they streamed along the shore. Tony, Rudy, and I had planned to gig mullet that Sunday morning.
“The mullet are running,” I said. “They are really running!”
I had a ten-foot pole with a five-prong gig pounded in and screwed on at one end. At other end was a 15-foot piece of clothesline. You slipped a loop in the end over your left hand and arm. You balanced the pole and loops of the line in your left hand and placed your index and middle fingers of your right hand at the pole’s end. When the mullet came by you hurled this javelin at the blacks of their eyes.
In those days, mullet were known as trash fish, good for fertilizer and cat food. But, all one-lunger (one piston) commercial fishermen, those who jigged for king mackerel using a 9/0 cod hook wrapped with yellow hemp, liked to eat mullet. The fish was fat. When smoked over Australian pine wood it was delicious. We got a nickel a pound for mullet that were not broken up; that is, gigged in the head.
“Can I go gig mullet and come back later,” I asked.
My parents didn’t respond.
Outside I could hear the flapping of cards against the spokes of Tony’s Western Flyer. Tony came to the door and knocked softly.
“Can I talk to Tony?” I asked.
My mother told me to explain to Tony that I was busy with a family matter.
“Pete, the mullet are running on the incoming tide. Let’s go.” he said.
“Wait just a minute,” I said.
I went back and stood in my old place.
“What if I said I did it, even though I didn’t do it?” I asked.
My mother and father looked at me with mixed expressions.
“We just want you to tell the truth.” My mother was the spokesperson.
“Well, I’ll say I did it, even though I didn’t do it,” I said.
My brothers looked elated. My parents looked disappointed and I went to get my gig and old Schwinn for the ride to Rudy’s.
Tony and Rudy, two of my best friends, were winter visitors to Miami Beach. Both of their fathers came south to fish and soak up the sun. Rudy’s father was born in Germany. In early 1939 he was a German sympathizer. “He hates the US government,” my father told me when I was extolling Pop’s virtues. However “Pop” Gabler would pay you a nickel a coconut and 19 cents a pound for lead you dived up off the south jetty at Baker’s Haulover. His garage was magical. The doors of the cabinets that held his 9/0 and 10/0 Edward Vom Hofe reels were covered with citations of giant kingfish and sharks he had caught off the Haulover bridge. He would catch a big hammerhead, tie it to his rear bumper, and plant it in the yard under the nickel coconuts. Ten months later, he sold the young palms for $1.50. Nothing made him happier.
Rudy was big for his age. Mrs. Gabler claimed it was because they gave Rudy shark liver oil. Tony and I were never allowed inside the Gabler’s house, just the garage. However, that was good enough. On the south bench was a big vice and you could sharpen your gig there using an old file. If you wanted to sharpen a knife Pop would show you a brick made of very fine clay. You whet your knife on this brick with water added.
Today was the day of the big contest. Which one of us would gig the most mullet? Rudy had gigged an ocean-going needlefish that weighed over six pounds. And one time, I hit a big snook that broke one of the prongs of my gig. However, we were good at striking mullet because there were so many fish to choose from.
After warning us to be careful, Mrs. Gabler told us that Junior would meet us at the bridge that spanned the Haulover Cut. At Baker’s Haulover every six hours the tide would turn with the bay rushing at 8 or 9 knots out to the Gulf Stream and then back in again.
Tony and I peddled our bikes, one-handed, our gigs over our right shoulders. In my saddlebags were some burlap sacks. You dipped them in the ocean and they kept the fish wet and cool for hours.
It was a mile and half to the cut. The tide was rushing in and the whole bay and seaward side was black and alive with mullet. Big jack crevalle were rounding up the mullet and busting inside the pods they had created. The baitfish jumped and flashed like silver dollars in the sun.
Tony and I ran to the north jetty. As the mullet swarmed around the concrete pier in huge surface schools, we hurled our gigs into the melee. The gig must be at right angles to the fish in order to have the best chance of hitting the prey. To our surprise, we would sometimes gig two mullet on one toss. We shook the mullet off onto the broken concrete and launched our spears again and again. Every now and then, a giant rat would come up out of the broken jetty, pick up a small mullet in his mouth and drag it into the darkness.
Rudy’s folks drove him up in their new Chevrolet and he was late on the counting. He argued that we should start the count all over again in order to have a true contest. Tony and I didn’t like it but Mrs. Gabler said it was only fair.
We started getting serious then, and the broken and torn mullet started piling up on both the north and south jetties. By noon, I had gigged 83 mullet. Tony had 80 and Rudy 63. We took a break then and, selecting the best silvers, went down to the sport fishing docks on the bay side west of the trailer park and swapped our baitfish for a fish sandwich and a big orange drink.
The tide was still coming in and the mullet were everywhere. Pop and Mom Gabler were gathering the gigged mullet and putting them in wet burlap sacks. My arms ached but my count kept going up.
At 5:30, Rudy’s mom made him quit. Tony said he had lost count but I knew that I had gigged over 285 mullet that Sunday. Mr. Gabler gave me a ten-dollar bill for my mullet. Many had been lost or were too broken to be salable. I took eight fat mullet and put them in a burlap sack and into my saddlebags. The sun was going down when I rode home. As I got closer to home, I got a bad feeling.
Instead of showing my mother the mullet, I went and got a shovel and dug a hole near the young coconut palm she had planted. I dumped the mullet in the hole and covered them with dirt. In the early darkness, my mother came out on the back porch and watched me.
“Peter, did you do it?” she asked.
“No, I didn’t do it,” I said.