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The Grass Carp



The fish was nearly as big as the man who caught it, and rode like a dead body in the car trunk.

Earlier that afternoon, a crowd had gathered at the Marquette Park lagoon to watch Elijah Evans struggle with the grass carp. When the fight ended, several men urged Elijah to have the fish weighed at a bait store.

Elijah had collapsed next to the gasping fish. In the grass, amid beer cans, snack wrappers, and sodden baby diapers, it seemed monstrous, even a bit primordial, with barbels like a giant catfish and scales big as half-dollars, flashing gold and a strange iridescent green.

Elijah had already taken three bluegill from the lagoon before the monster hit. He hadn't prepared for such a fish and was using 12-pound test line and a size 12 Eagle Claw hook, smaller than the tip of a woman's pinkie.

The pole was only a little over four feet long, and after so much stress, the ancient reel had given off a pale blue smoke, or maybe it was only dust.

For most of his young life, Elijah had managed to maintain the grace of a man in the wilderness, though he lived clearly within Chicago's city limits. Since the age of 16, he had known all of the wild places where fish abounded: here in Marquette Park, the Jackson Park lagoon, Wolf Lake on the city's south side, Powder Horn near the Indiana border, and several spots along the Calumet River.

The battle with the fish had left him in a mild state of shock. Normally he sat on a ratty lawn chair, savoring the mild tug on the line and the zigzag pattern it made in the water whenever small fish would strike. His rag-eared dog was quiet company, dozing most of the time, occasionally rising to sniff at weeds and cattails.

Elijah was a beautiful man, trim and strong. He had no taste for sweets. His teeth were white like the moon against his dark skin and perfectly straight. Most of what he ate, he caught or grew in his mother's backyard garden. He wore a pleasing expression outdoors. Sometimes as he stood at the city's lakes and rivers, taking in the sun on the water, he gave thanks for the day, for the fish, for being alive.

Elijah spent most of his life avoiding stressful challenges. His mother said he rode like a duck on the waves, staying mostly in one place, facing the wind, never changing course. He worked odd jobs mostly, clearing leaves from gutters, cleaning garages, tuck-pointing chimneys, replacing furnace filters, and repairing small appliances. The referrals came consistently but always in a trickle, which left him time to roam the city's wilderness and reason enough to reap its bounty. He lived in a room in his mother's basement, paid her a small rent, took her shopping and to doctors' appointments, kept her house in order and in good repair.

He was frugal and even reused tinfoil for cooking fish on a grill. He also was clever at finding practical uses for discarded objects. Old spark plugs served as fishing weights. Cottage cheese cartons held night crawlers in the refrigerator and served as start pots for tomato seedlings. His car was small and old but neatly maintained. It didn't bother him that some of his clothing had holes, as long as it still served its purpose and was clean.

Cleanliness was something his mother had taught him. Keep your nails trimmed, keep your hair short, keep everything else washed and clean. He followed her advice and even bathed his dog regularly. This gave them both a certain purity that others noticed.

The three bluegill in the bucket would have made a fine dinner with potato and onion slices. Elijah was looking forward to going home, watching TV. Being out all day in the August heat had tired him.

He pictured himself in the cool basement, flopping down on the daybed with the loose cover, the old dog's toenails clicking on the linoleum floor until he settled into the dark, the black-and-white TV lulling them both to sleep after a nice meal.

A sudden shock at Elijah's wrist snapped him awake. The desperate tugging was rude, insistent, then full-blown fury.

At first, his grasp was pure reflex, an attempt to keep hold of the rod he'd purchased only two weeks earlier, $5 at a yard sale.

Once he saw the monster fish, Elijah half hoped that the line would snap and save the rod, but then he started running along the shores of the lagoon, over a bridge and a hill, trailing the fish with his tan mongrel following like a shadow. He walked backward, up the steep bank, sideways, he was down on his knees, patient, then running, pulling, then giving over line when the reel threatened to strip its gears. His only awareness for more than an hour was the fish, until he suddenly realized a small crowd had gathered. Among them were men who hungered for such a battle, two red-faced pipe fitters who knew the streams that emptied into Lake Michigan around Benton Harbor and Saint Joseph, places where sport fishermen stalked the mighty steelhead skamania, a half-breed trout that sent them scrambling down steep banks, over logs, through brush piles and ravines, over precious camp gear, through mud holes and sometimes hip deep into water. The pipe fitters stood transfixed, watching Elijah fight something that behaved in the air like a sailfish and swam like a deadly torpedo.

Elijah's dog had been barking all along, which may have been what first attracted onlookers. Now he heard voices, men and women alike, even children, saying, "What's he got? What is that? What is that thing?"

As the afternoon progressed and more people arrived, he heard them saying, "What's got ahold of that man? What's that trying to drag him in? Can't he get away?"

For two hours there were only a few brief moments of quiet. These weighed heavily on everyone, but especially Elijah, who had begun to wonder at his own determination. When the water's surface went glassy smooth and the small sticks and dead logs near the shore ceased their bobbing, a dread, which he didn't quite understand, threatened to overwhelm him.

Can't horse it, line'll snap. He spoke under his breath, to steady himself. Others heard the mumbling. Still, he maintained a steady pull, long after his hands had begun to tremble, and that's what finally took the fish.

Even so, near the very end, the fish almost won. Elijah had pulled the carp to shore. It was in so close, the dog had stopped barking and was sniffing at it. One more pull. The dog jumped straight up when the carp rose halfway off the bank, flipped, and snapped the line. Elijah didn't think. He just tackled it, with water swelling up around his ears. He was in and out of the water so fast, his back stayed dry. He pulled the carp from the lagoon as he would a drowned man, gripping its girth with both arms, then he half rode it, like a bucking mule, up the steep bank.

The two pipe fitters could contain themselves no longer and jumped in to help at the very last when the fish slid from beneath Elijah, threatening to make its way back to the lagoon.

Elijah knew this was a large fish, but didn't know what the fuss was about. Why should he waste gas making his way to a certain bait shop to find out how much it weighed? It was more than 50 pounds. He knew because that's how much his niece weighed. It felt more like 70 or 80, but he realized the fight had only made that seem so. The two men said he might get $100. But would the shop take his fish? They told him no.

He followed them to a bait shop in Bridgeport. He usually avoided white neighborhoods, and he considered bait shops unnecessary. For catching bluegill he used bits of bologna or hot dog, sometimes even dry bread crust. For bass and perch, he used night crawlers he'd gather from neighbors' yards after a steady rain. For catfish he saved chicken livers until they smelled terrible, the more terrible the better. Sometimes he even used dead flies and spiders from the basement.

The man at the counter wore a Polish name tag. His booming voice startled Elijah. Jesus Christ, I thought this was a mob hit, thought you were dragging a body out of the trunk. They told me the car raised up in back when you pulled the thing out. The man noticed Elijah wasn't listening. Sir, were you aware of that?

Elijah was distracted by the hissing tanks that shimmered with minnows, golden roaches, and shiners, the arsenal of fishing rods for any season, the wall of packaged lures and flashy spoon-shaped baits with names like Swedish Pimple, K.O. Wobblers, and Glo-in-the-Dark Crocodiles. There were camouflage suits and camping tents, rows of electric trolling motors, and plenty of useless stuff, like caps and pillows shaped like fish, floating key chains, and special mug holders for boaters.

Store traffic was moderate, typical of a Saturday evening in late August. Customers soon converged to look at the fish. It took three men to lift it to the scale.

Mother of God, said one man. Holy Christ, said another.

Yes, gentlemen, we are in the presence of greatness, a true wonder of nature, boomed the man with the Polish name tag. He continued on like a ringmaster. That's probably the biggest goddamn fish ever caught within the limits of our grand and glorious city of Chicago. Sixty-two pounds of absolute stealth, as you can tell by the condition of the gentleman who just brought him in. The store manager was hoping for a good-humored response from Elijah, but there was none.

Elijah suddenly became aware of his appearance. He was wet, covered with mud and algae. Through torn blue jeans, his knees bled from having scraped the gravel shoreline. Muddy water bubbled out of the toes of his shoes as he shifted on his feet.

The men began asking things like where exactly did he catch the fish, when, how long did it take, was it a struggle. At that one, they laughed due to the obvious answer. Then they began with what did you catch him with, what kind of rod, reel, line, hook, bait. They were astonished at his answers, especially regarding the hook. Then Elijah wanted to know just what kind of fish was this anyway?

The shop went quiet, but the ringmaster helped Elijah to maintain his dignity: Sir, it's known as a grass carp. Imported from Asia in the 1980s as algae eaters for the city lagoons. This one's a vegetarian, but one of the most insistent and furious fighters to be found on the planet. Tenacious as a bulldog, cunning as a trout or coho, but with enough mass and muscle to test any man to the absolute limits of fishing endurance.

Elijah was not a prideful man, but the bait store manager's speech evoked a shy smile.

That's why all the Germans are coming here to Chicago, to fight these things, the man continued. It's terrific sport!

To Elijah, the carp looked something like a pig with fins, dressed in a glittering evening gown. Its girth matched that of a large woman's waist.

Just three ounces short of the state record, and one half pound shy of the world record, the ringmaster boomed on.

The shop owner heard the ruckus and emerged from his back office with a freshly lit stogie and some official-looking papers. The prize money would come in the mail later so Elijah gave his address, but when the owner asked to see a fishing license, Elijah only shifted nervously on his feet, causing more brown water to bubble out from his shoes.

The two pipe fitters stepped forward and plunked down $6 for a one-day license. He has one now, they said in unison. The shop owner nodded and issued the permit. Elijah thanked the men, who shared a certain manly glee that he found somewhat puzzling. When Elijah stood next to the fish for a picture, one of them asked what he was going to do with it.

Take it home, store it in my freezer.

No need for a taxidermist?

Elijah wasn't sure exactly why anyone would ever use the services of a taxidermist. He knew they preserved and mounted dead animals, but it all seemed like such a fuss. Make a trophy out of something you would eat for dinner?

Just as well, one of the men told him, the taxidermist wouldn't even stuff the real fish. He'd come up with some mold nearly the same size.

I'm going to eat it, Elijah said, closing the discussion.

Eyebrows raised, eyes bugged out. Some of the customers even snickered. After Elijah left the store sarcastic remarks flew over the awful taste of something like a grass carp, a bottom feeder, a weed eater, a fish that had to be at least 20 years if it was a day old.

When Elijah got home a neighbor spied the fish from her front porch and came over to investigate. The woman called out to other neighbors, and soon another crowd formed and stood in awe of the fish. A day later, a newspaper reporter contacted Elijah at his mother's house and came to interview him. He still couldn't understand all the fuss.

About the second week of September, Elijah decided to barbecue a small portion of meat from near the tail. It was oily, with a muddy flavor like that of an old catfish, but Elijah believed that nature provided special gifts and that they were not to be wasted. He did not savor the taste as he did the sweet white meat of bluegill and perch. This was more something to be endured, like the flavor of an old bass that served as testament to its life of hardships and narrow escapes, and the harshness of each winter.

The carp had such a strong taste, Elijah went through four bottles of Louisiana hot sauce, a tin of cayenne pepper, and a jar of garlic powder before downing the last bite. Onions did little to sweeten the flavor or mask the smell. Its fat sizzling in a Dutch oven on the small apartment stove, this fish permeated his living space with a stubborn rank that lasted even beyond the winter months. The days were getting longer when Elijah realized he had grown used to the flavor, it had become an acquired taste. While eating the meals the fish had provided, he often relived the battle, realizing that he had known the fish in those two hours more intimately than any woman, any man or child in his 31 years. He knew the animal's will to survive. Over the winter, its spirit had somehow melded with his own.

He marveled at the strength that had tested his own and matched it so closely. A sadness swept over him like the low hanging mists that sometimes steal over Wolf Lake and Powder Horn before dusk, like the edge of night that hushes the waters of the city just after sunset. The beauty of these things had always caused him to feel mournful, and now he felt sad that he had killed the fish.

He decided that next time, if there ever was a next time, he would cut the line. After that thought Elijah went to sleep.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Guy Billout.

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