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Image by Dominik Hofbauer

‘Nearly Father’

Sam lunged for the door at the first knock so that Caroline wouldn’t wake. She hadn’t been sleeping well lately, getting up frequently at night. This pregnancy seemed different than the others.

“Are we really going out fishing?” asked Lincoln, Sam’s neighbor. At ten, the boy was wiry and bursting with energy. 

“Nothing will stop us today.” 

Pressing his finger to his lips, Sam handed Lincoln the fishing gear and snacks. He carried the bucket of bait. When he was Lincoln’s age, he’d never gone fishing with either dad. His birth father got seasick watching Jaws, and his stepdad, the Colonel, had no time for a boy. Sam spent time skateboarding with his friends, avoiding the cops. He’d often been close but never in real trouble. Sam said he didn’t care if his dad spent time with him, but that was a lie.

Lincoln and Sam had become fishing pals the year before after Lincoln kept asking Sam if he could go with him. Soon, slathered with sunscreen, they headed out of Miami Beach Marina in Sam’s single-engine motorboat he’d brought back to life over the last nine months, buying each replacement part one by one when he could afford it. With his own boat, he had options. He could take off for the Keys or go to the Bahamas on a whim. Today, they drove a mile offshore toward the cruise ship lanes, where he knew the big fish were. 

After baiting their hooks, they laid out lines.

“I saw a gecko in the window this morning, Sam. They’re lucky.” Like most fishermen, Lincoln and Sam were superstitious. 

“I hope you’re right. I heard a guy in Boca landed a marlin yesterday.”

Two hours later, they were silent – fishing, waiting, enjoying the ocean breeze and the gentle roll of the boat. When Sam was out on the water, his anger at his boss’s demands and worry over Caroline’s pregnancy would mellow for a few hours.

Sam turned away to pee off the side, and Lincoln’s line got a bite. The fish pulled out so fast that Sam barely caught Lincoln before his feet left the deck. 

“It feels like something big,” said Lincoln, squirming like a puppy.

“As big as you. Brace yourself against me. It’ll be hard to explain to your mom if I lose you.” Sam heard himself and realized that was what a father would say. It was something he would say to his child. I’ll keep you safe. 

A couple of years ago, the prospect of becoming a father was something he had dreaded, but Sam felt almost ready. 

“What do you think it is?” Lincoln’s muscles were taut, his chin set.

“Hard to say until it shows itself. Hold your arm steady; keep up the pressure, no quick moves.”

Sam felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. “Hi, Caroline. How’re you doing?” Sam kept his arm around Lincoln’s waist and sat on the bench. “You sure? So soon? We’ll leave now. Everything will be fine. I’ll be there.” 

Sam would be a new dad when many men his age thought of grandkids. He’d aimlessly drifted through a series of superficial relationships in his twenties, thirties, and most of his forties. His boyhood had few good memories of family after his parents’ divorce; his mom remarried and had more kids. He always felt out of place wherever he was, like an appendix, a vestigial organ. But Caroline had burrowed into his heart and changed him.

“I can’t believe it.” Lincoln pointed at the long blade projecting from the front of the fish. “It’s a marlin.”

Sam looked at the joy on the boy’s face. “Caroline is having a baby,” he said, not loud enough for Lincoln to hear. Lincoln’s parents were always too busy to take him fishing. The boy had waited over a month for this day. “Let’s get that fish in.”

Sam helped Lincoln pull back on his rod and spun the reel to shorten the line. He held Lincoln’s shoulders to keep him steady while he pictured Caroline’s pre-birth checklist. Her ‘go’ bag was packed. She had to find someone to walk the dog, but the car was parked in the alley with a full tank, and she knew the way to the hospital in her sleep. Sam’s conscience jammed in his throat, but he pushed it down. He’d always been good at hedging things. Caroline wanted to be a mother more than anything. She’d be fine. 

“I can see its dorsal fin. It’s getting tired.” Lincoln was glowing, jumping up and down.

“Keep reeling it in. Don’t rush.” They worked as a team, pulling the fish closer. 

Glancing to the north, Sam caught the flash of a speedboat going too fast. He turned Lincoln’s head and pointed. “Let the line go slack. He’ll slice it when it crosses us.”

Lincoln let out as much line as he could, as fast as possible, but it wasn’t enough. The speedboat cut the line, and Lincoln ricocheted onto the deck. The marlin disappeared into the sea, a hook in its mouth. Sam wiped the boy’s tears.

“Sorry, Linc. It was a beautiful fish. You would’ve had him if it weren’t for that idiot.”

“I want to go home.” Lincoln pulled on Sam’s hand.

“I need to find Caroline.” They should’ve left earlier.

Sam stowed the gear and held his breath until the finicky engine caught. He prayed to the sea gods he wasn’t too late as he tapped her number. “Caroline, where are you?” She was nearly forty. After two miscarriages, this might be their last chance. 

The connection was bad. “I’m on …. Mainland …… a mile …… hospital……. Contractions……. Minutes…. Where are YOU?”

“On our way. I promise I’ll be there. Wait for me.” 

* * *

‘Bernie at the Movies’

Bernie rubbed his sweaty palms on his pant legs as he rushed down the aisle to the front of his movie theater. “Good evening,” he said, his high voice quavering. At thirty, he was bald and pudgy as a toddler.  “Tonight’s film Amelie is truly something special, an exceptional example of the French filmmakers’ mastery of magical realism.” Bernie would dream of making love to Audrey Tautou tonight.

At a table of misfits, Bernie was the odd one. But he wasn’t lonely. As a boy, he’d found his cohort of bigger-than-life friends in the movies. He recycled bottles, delivered newspapers, and mowed lawns to earn money for matinee tickets. He founded fan clubs in his teens for minor film actors who played the funny sidekicks, the less attractive best friend who never got the girl or the guy killed in the film’s first fifteen minutes. Frequently, he was the sole member.

“In this classic film, the main character, Amelie, is a seemingly naive young woman who manipulates the people around her to create the world she wants to live in,” said Bernie, pulling his handkerchief from his pocket to catch a bead of sweat before it dripped down his forehead.

When the last movie theater in his area closed, Bernie took his savings and leased the abandoned theater in downtown Scranton. He refurbished the threadbare seats, mitigated the rodent infestation, and restored the ornate ceiling and proscenium, doing most of the work himself. 

His tastes were eclectic. Bernie loved Capra, Truffaut, and Almodóvar but felt Ingmar Bergman was pretentious. There was never a big crowd, but he developed a faithful clientele. Bernie needed a grocery store job to guarantee rent most months.

He was a self-taught movie polymath who knew every moviemaker was influenced by the films they’d seen. It was an essential service to provide his customers context with a brief history before showing each film.

“The subtitles don’t give the dialog in Amelie its due. I urge you to leave now, go home, and study French so you can truly experience the genius of this film.”

Bernie smiled and ran up the aisle, dodging popcorn and Starbursts tossed at him from his grateful audience.

“Hilarious, Bernie. Turn on the projector,“ they shouted as he reached the door and burst into the quiet lobby.

“Feisty group tonight,” said Bernie to the concessions girl.

“Your bag of popcorn?”

He accepted it and climbed up to the projection booth where he was at home, peering at the screen through the tiny opening. After catching his breath, he turned on the projector. His broad face flickered in the light like an apparition.

Bernie visualized himself in every film, sometimes with a small speaking part, in a crowd, a set piece, or occasionally in a love scene. Like Alfred Hitchcock, he imagined himself with a small but significant ‘cameo’ in each film. Seeing his imaginary self for a few seconds every night glowing from a twenty-foot-high screen never got old. After his parents died, he sold their house and set up a little apartment on the upper level of the theater so he could watch movies anytime.

Bernie read Audrey Tautou was coming to America to publicize her new film. He jumped on the next bus to New York, rushed to the theater, and stood across the street in the rain to wait for her. Later, when he could no longer feel his toes, she appeared like a vision in white, alighting from a limousine. Drawn by invisible forces, he stepped off the curb.

Bernie woke in the hospital with a bandaged head and a broken arm.

“A messenger left this envelope for you,” the nurse said when she came to check his vitals.

Bernie opened it and read: ‘My publicist told me you were in an accident while on your way to my film premiere. I am so sorry you were hurt and missed the performance. Please accept my sympathy and these tickets to see the film after you recover. My fans are my true family, and when one is hurt, I hurt too. Love, Audrey.’

Bernie caressed the note, picturing Audrey writing it.

One night, many years later, Bernie’s heart gave out. The concessions girl found him the next afternoon in the projection booth, a half-eaten bag of popcorn in his lap, and a smile on his face. Audrey’s note was in his wallet, worn from much reading. The film canister confirmed Bernie’s last movie was Amelie. Some were sad Bernie died alone, but his regulars knew differently. He was with the woman of his dreams.

This is Suzanne C Martinez’s second appearance in The Wild Word. Her story, “Lost & Found at Sunset Pond,” was included in the BREATHE Issue in November 2020. Her fiction will appear shortly in Wigleaf, has appeared in Vestal Review, The Citron Review, Gone Lawn, and The Broadkill Review, among others, and was nominated for Pushcart Prizes (2019, 2020), The Best of the Net (2020), and Best Short Fictions (2022). She was a finalist in the 2023 Tartts First Fiction Award and WTAW Press Alcove Chapbook Series 2024 Open Competition for her linked story collection. She lives in Brooklyn.


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