An excerpt from: The Pond Robber from Issue 98
The water’s surface held the calmness, the color, of twilight. The pond’s purpose had always been more spiritual than sporting. During its fifty-year history, only four fish had ever been kept—the first fish landed by each of the Thornwiler children. All four were taken to a catfish taxidermist in Little Rock, where they were mounted and fitted with a plaque noting their weight and measurements. These trophies had hung in the Thornwiler living room, as surrogates to the photos displayed by most families. Cecil’s fish had been of respectable size—a four-pounder—but it was a curiously ugly specimen. Its head was misshapen, its skin jaundiced—this unhealthy sheen worsened when the taxidermist tried to improve it. Murray’s fish, on the other hand, was of a regal sort. Eight pounds, six ounces, and pretty as a vine-ripe tomato. It had hung over the mantel, the centerpiece of the room, coveted by half the county. The Cadillac of catfish, their father had called it.
Cecil reached around Murray’s legs, into his saddlebag, and pulled out a styrofoam carton. He peeled off the lid to reveal a slimy pink meat. Chicken livers, Murray guessed.
“Is there anything you don’t have in those fucking saddlebags?” Murray asked.
“You want to do the honors?” Cecil asked, holding the carton out to Murray.
Murray grabbed a plug of raw liver and, without ceremony, tossed it into the water. The two of them waited, eyeing the meat as grease clouded around it. Though Cecil was seated in front of him, Murray thought he detected, in his brother’s posture, the hope that the fish were already dead. Alice lifted her head and looked forward, water dripping from her jaw, as though she too were watching the water. Then a catfish, fat as a football, nodded up and sucked the liver down.
When they arrived back at the house, Cecil tied up Alice in the carport, next to Irene’s car. As Murray watched Cecil undress the horse, he asked, “Don’t you think this concrete will hurt her feet?”
“She doesn’t have feet,” Cecil said.
“Okay, it’ll hurt her hooves,” Murray said.
“Her shoes are made of steel,” Cecil said.
Murray untied the horse and led her into the front yard, where he tied her to a leafless persimmon tree. Cecil scowled, a teenager’s haughty expression of displeasure.
Inside, they found Irene sitting on the living room couch, watching the real estate channel. Photos of houses and sketches of floor plans, backed by squawking saxophone music—it sounded like the musician had a head cold.
After properly introducing Cecil to Irene, Murray took a seat beside her on the couch. Meanwhile Cecil wandered around the room, his breath whistling disapproval of Murray’s décor adjustments.
“Murray, where are our fish?” Cecil asked.
“They’re in your old room,” Murray said. “It’s my office now.”
“You’ve converted my bedroom to an office?” Cecil asked. “Where am I to sleep?”
“You could sleep in Cindy’s old room,” Murray said. And then he asked, “You’re staying here?”
“I thought we’d get this guy together.”
“The pond robber, Murray,” Cecil said. He smiled at Irene as though Murray’s dimwittedness was difficult to fathom. “I intend to relocate to the pond bank tomorrow.”
“He may not come for weeks,” Murray said. “He may not come at all. Weren’t you going to ask my permission?”
“I won’t use more than my third of the property,” Cecil said.
It took Murray a moment to figure out what Cecil meant. “Mom technically still owns the place.”
“I’ve already talked to her about it. She doesn’t mind if Alice and I stay here with you for a while.”
“What about your dealership?”
“You know how it is, Murray. You sell golf carts. You don’t sell golf carts.”
Murray nodded, figuring Cecil’s absence could be good for business. Then Murray’s cell phone rang, a call from his own dealership, and he left the room to answer it. The teenager who took the cars to the wash had stolen another roll of quarters. Murray ordered his immediate dismissal and returned to the living room, where he found Irene sitting alone.
“Where’d Cecil go?” he asked Irene.
“Said he was going to set up camp.”
“What a presumptuous shit,” Murray said. “He won’t use more than his third of the property.”
“He doesn’t seem too bad,” Irene said. “Different than I imagined.”
It was then that Murray saw Cecil in the back yard, the horse standing next to him. He was emptying the saddlebags and pulling things from his oversized pack. Irene stood up from the floor and joined Murray by the window.
“He does seem different,” Murray said. “Calmer maybe, but more fucked up.”
They watched in silence as Cecil hammered stakes, anchoring a nylon teepee to the ground—the contraption looked like it might’ve been ordered from a catalogue specifically catering to midlife crises.
“What’s he doing?” Murray asked.
“Setting up camp, I guess,” Irene said.
During dinner that evening, Cecil complimented Murray’s game hen marinade. He drank only one glass of wine. He didn’t mention the saltiness of Irene’s salad dressing. This pleasant behavior did little to put Murray at ease—he’d always been unnerved by kindness from Cecil.
They had nearly finished eating when Cecil said, “I’ve been doing some research on our family.”
Irene nodded and Murray forked a spare arugula leaf into his mouth. Although typically an aggressive eater, Murray ate with even more vigor in Cecil’s presence—it was a superb means of avoiding conversation.
“We’re Indians,” Cecil said, in an exhausted way, as though he’d long been burdened by the information.
“What do you mean?” Irene asked.
“We’re a quarter Quapaw. I found pictures of our long-lost grandfather online.” He tugged at the beaded headband he was wearing.
Murray picked at the skin of his game hen. He’d known about their Native American heritage for years—everyone in the family did. The grandfather Cecil referred to had accumulated considerable wealth selling life insurance in Jonesboro.
“That’s wonderful, Cecil,” Irene said. “I looked for information about my family at the library for seniors but couldn’t find anything. Most of our funds go to discreetly smutty novels.”
Murray swallowed his food. He knew Cecil was expecting him to respond. He finally asked, “Does this have anything to do with your sudden interest in the pond?”