Dad was standing in the bedroom doorway, a large, shiny petrified fish labored under his right arm. “Take Dolores, son, and give her to your mom.”
“She always loved this old gal,” he said, turning sideways to give me a better look.
“First I’ve heard of her.” I grabbed my backpack, turned off the light, and left the room.
“Ever?” Dad’s wide-eyed gaze followed me down the stairs and out the front door. He winced when he banged Dolores on the doorframe. Carolina, my dad’s most recent fiancé, was waiting by the car.
“All packed?” Carolina asked, looking at the mess of books and bags and other junk in the back seat.
“Yep, except my backpack.”
My father cleared his throat and said, “Aaaaand?”
“Well, of course, there’s still Dolores.”
The gifting of Dolores was set in motion last night at a restaurant called the Five O’Clock Club, a petrified old steakhouse downtown. I talked about school and my dad filled me in on his latest business venture—a refrigerator repair company—while he finished off his third vodka and soda. Then he dropped a bomb. “Look pal,” he said, “there’s no perfect way to say this. I’ve got six months. Maybe less.” He took another sip and emptied the glass, only the rattle of ice cubes remained.
He sliced off a large piece of meat and stabbed it with his fork. He lifted the fleshy cube to his mouth and paused. “I probably should have eaten less steak and more fish.”
“But there has to be something—” I said.
“There’s not much you do with stage four cancer, pal. The real nasty stuff.” He took a big breath and sighed. “Well, I did it to myself. Of course, I’ll be leaving you what little I have. And Carolina gets a cut, too.”
“I hope we’ll still be Facebook friends after your dad is gone,” she said. “I love to look at the pictures of all the neat things you’re doing. Like that get together you had with your friends at the park.”
“You mean the protest march about wealth inequality I went to on campus?” I looked down at my plate, gray meat swimming in red blood.
“I know she hasn’t had much time to be a step-mom, son, but she’d have been a great one. Makes a mean cookie, keeps all my clothes washed and folded.”
The rest of what was said swirled around the dimly lit restaurant. I heard only fragments—about Carolina’s computer classes, my dad’s need to cut his lawn, and questions about my upcoming semester, confusion about my major and whether my birthday was in June or July. I wasn’t close to my father, but I loved him regardless. Wasn’t that part of the deal? They create you, and you love them forever.
My father handed me Dolores—she was lighter than she appeared, just an empty shell—and then stood there helpless, his baggy shirt flapping in the Wisconsin wind. This would likely be the last time he’d ever see Dolores, a name he said with great reverie, as in Doh-looor-esss.
My father caught Dolores in Mexico the year before I was born and one year and three months before my mom left him. Dolores was five and a half feet long from the tip of what remained of her spear to the back fin. She’d be longer if part of her spear hadn’t broken off at some point over the years. Twenty-one years later what remained of Dolores was a cracked dorsal fin and a faded silver and blue body with a large dent in her side where something had gouged her. Still, her eyes held their marbled-wonder and shined black and clear.
My dad looked up and down the street like he was planning an escape. “You sure your mom never mentioned Dolores? A marlin, a big sailfish? Nothing?”
“Not that I recall, dad. Sorry.”
“The day I caught Dolores was something. It was hot. But the wind was right—Oh!—You know what just hit me, pal? Remember that Christopher Cross song?” Dad sang, “Oh the canvas can do miracles, just you wait and see,” before trailing off into silence. Then he said, “The canvas really can do miracles. Of course, our boat had a motor.”
Dad smiled and looked at me. “Well, it was like that—a damn miracle. We were on our honeymoon and we had been drinking tequila all day. Actually, it was only me drinking Tequila. But your mom was the one who threw up out there. We didn’t know it at the time but she was sick because she was pregnant with you.” Dad rode the memory then said, “Hey, that makes you Hecho en Mexico, pal!”
Carolina giggled. “I’ve tried to chuck that old fish so many times, but he keeps finding it in the trash and hauling it back into the garage.”
“Hauling her, babe.” My dad sighed, then turned to me. “Dolores will be a good travel buddy. Likely going to be her last trip. Can’t think of a finer man to take the journey with.”
“It’ll be an adventure,” I said, looking for the perfect place to put Dolores. I was careful to position her so her glassy eyes could peer out the window and see the world a bit.
“It’s a powerful thing, son. Catching a marlin. Made me feel like a man. More man than I’ve ever felt. Your mom saw it, too. The way she looked at me that day. Best feeling ever. That’s why I want her to have Dolores. It’s a reminder of the man I was.”
My father and Carolina watched as I carefully secured Dolores between my luggage. I had to open the window a crack so the spear could poke out. Then I moved a few bags under her body so the rest of the spear didn’t snap off during the long drive back to Florida. My father contorted in sympathy to Dolores, who was in an awkward position. “Well, there’s no dignity in that,” he said.
“She looks happy,” Carolina said. She lurched forward and gave me a big hug. Dad smiled and shrugged his shoulders and after another moment, her grip now a bit tighter, I patted her back and she let go. I stepped to my dad and gave him a shoulder squeeze. He was soft and sweaty. We locked eyes and shook hands. “I like knowing that she’ll be near the ocean. Closer to her home.”
“Me, too,” I said. When I got in the car, my father put his arm around Carolina and leaned forward to see Dolores one last time. I gave the horn a double-tap, then backed the car out of the driveway and drove up the street.