His movements are mechanical yet deliberate as he rigs a herring and deploys his gear into the outgoing current. His wooden face expresses joy — wide fixed smile, eyes wobbling side to side with the rocking of the boat.
“I hit bottom at fifty feet on the line counter,” he says. He’s fishing the bow rod.
“I’ll fish suspended,” I say. I lower my bait to twenty-five feet on the line counter. Chinook typically lurk along the river bottom, cruising deep channels on their homeward ascent, but we’ve caught some bruiser Chinook suspended this season.
A sea lion surfaces behind us. I consider the paintball gun I have on board, but we’re only allowed to shoot at them if they harass us. Yesterday, a sea lion grabbed George’s first fish as I went to net it. Line screamed off the reel as the sea lion sped west toward the open sea. I hit the throttle and chased down the beguiling pinniped, but in the end, George reeled in the severed head of a salmon. George shoved a wooden hand into the fish head and moved its jaws to imitate speech. He made the fish head say filthy things. Owing to George’s unique status as a sentient life form, he displays a particular interest in reproduction and mating rituals. Sometimes, late at night, he stalks into my room and slips into bed with me. I am awoken by a fumbling, awkward hand fondling me down there. He strokes me into hardness and pumps until I ejaculate in his hand. We’ve never spoken about these encounters or what it means to either of us. The most unsettling part is that as he’s spooning me, I can feel no breath upon my back, for George requires no oxygen. Soon after, he leaves as silently as he arrives. I am left alone, sticky and feeling slightly sickened by our enterprise.
“Fish on!” George says.
His rod buries, tip bent in the water. He rips the rod out of the holder with expert reflexes and reels down on the fish. I bring up my gear to give him more room for the fight. Despite his incessant reeling, the fish continues taking out line. I watch the line counter on George’s reel climb. 60, 70, 80, 90, then the fish screams out to 120, 150 feet. When it’s out 200 feet and still gaining on George, I realize he may have the Chinook of a lifetime — or at least the season — on the other end. We’ll have to chase this one down.
I throttle the motor. We’re speeding downriver in pursuit of the great fish. George gains line now, keeping pressure on the fish so that it cannot spit the hook. George has been silent and focused since his initial declaration of connection with the deep. Some anglers are braggarts. They forget that fishing is person versus nature, person versus self, and not person versus person. We’ll celebrate the bloodbath, but if our souls do not learn tranquility on the journey there, then what good have we done ourselves? George does not have a soul and even he knows this. It is why I choose to fish with him over others.
“It’s giving in,” George says, finally.
I grab the net, stand poised beside George. The line counter reads 20, 15, 10. The flasher rises up, spinning wildly. We get the first glimpse of the fish. Only, instead of the blinding silver flash of a salmon’s side, what we see is gray and white and five feet long. The creature makes another run away from the boat.
“It’s a sturgeon,” I say.
“It’s not fighting like a sturgeon,” George says.
I consider what else it might be. Piscine diversity in the Columbia River estuary is limited by extreme tides and fluctuations of saltwater and freshwater. Blue sharks and dogfish used to be common down here, but I’ve seen little of either in recent years. Besides, neither puts up such a fight.
A sea lions rears its head at the bow of the boat. Our curiosity turns to urgency. George bears down on the mysterious fish. He cranks down, lifts the rod, cranks, lifts. He mutters under his breath, but I miss the exact words. I get the sense he’s pleading with the fish. That’s a strange thing that happens when you find yourself doing battle with a great fish. You fall under the delusion that you and the fish are on the same team, pursuing a common goal, even though it is life or death for only one of you.
The fish heads straight for the boat now, likely because the sea lion is in hot pursuit. I’ll have one shot to net George’s fish. I cannot fail.
The flasher rises and George lifts the rod. The creature, whatever it is, surfaces. I move quickly, netting it and hauling it into the boat, acting on muscle memory. The sea lions pops up beside the boat and offers a disapproving bark before swimming off to harass someone else. I look to admire George’s catch. He’s already on his hands and knees beside it.
“My love, my love,” he whispers.
At first I believe he’s speaking to me, grateful for my clutch net job, but then I process what I’m seeing. George’s extraordinary catch is not a fish at all. In the net lies a ventriloquist dummy — like himself.
A tiny crab crawls from the dummy’s mouth. George plucks the crab from her lips and tosses it overboard. The dummy wears a white wedding dress.
“Is she dead?” I ask, realizing too late how dumb my question sounds. She was never living in the sense that I am living.
George works the set of hooks free from her wooden lips. Strangely, there is blood. George does not bleed but she does. He untangles her from the net and cradles her unmoving, wooden body in his arms.
“This is what you humans call fate,” George says.
“I don’t believe in fate,” I tell him.
“Neither do I, but here is fate nonetheless.”
For no reason at all, I feel sick with jealousy. I’m overcome with the desire to return this other dummy to the river, but I fear what George might think if I suggest such a thing. He’s in control here.
The new dummy’s skin — if that’s what you call it — is dark like cherrywood. Her lips are red and look truly soft. Whereas George’s hair is wood like all the rest of him, she has flowing blonde hair, which appears almost white in contrast to her darkly reddish skin. And it must be skin, for how else could she be so beautiful?
“Head to the marina,” George says. “I can bring her back.”
“Back from where?”
George shakes his head as if I could never possibly understand, even though I created him and we are, in a sense, lovers.
On the four-mile boat ride back to the marina, I find myself paying not enough attention to the river as I should. I can’t take my eyes off this beautiful woman — and that’s what she is. I wonder about George and his intentions. He’s my best and only friend. Will he leave me for her? I would set him on fire if he tried.
I’m staring down the barrel of forever and whatever it takes, I want to live by her side. Even if she never speaks, I’ll be happy with her silence.
I guess this is what you call falling in love.
• • •
I wanted to be eternal, consumed by death, but not vampiric. I guess if I’d told people that I wanted to be a salmon, rather than telling them I wanted to be dead, I probably could have avoided all of those school counseling sessions. So much for being painfully honest.
I never really grew out of these early beliefs, which might explain why I’ve never experienced a lasting or meaningful relationship with another human. This, I suppose, was my motivation for creating George. I desired the companionship of a more perfect life form. Awake in a perpetual state of lifelessness. Everything has been wonderful since George entered my life. I am mentally sound and emotionally well.
Now I’m in the driveway, cleaning the boat and dreaming of our next adventure. I work restlessly. George requested that I remain outside until after he completed a medical examination of our new companion. George is no more a medical doctor than I am the emperor of Mars. His nighttime visitations haunt me as I wash the boat. I imagine what terrible things he might be doing to my love. For the first time in our brief life together, I do not trust George. Up until now, I believed his wooden dummy skull held no capacity for evil. I believed his wooden heart to be pure and good. Why must George be alone with her? Are they sharing private puppet thoughts? She’s beyond animation, for all we know. I cannot stifle the feeling that George is up to something awful, but my paranoia over the intentions of my best and only friend make me feel doubly awful. No, George is good. These suspicions I have about him are human thoughts. Human thoughts are bad. I must erase these bad thoughts. I must never think bad thoughts again. The act of smiling can make you happy even when you feel like scum, so I smile as I toss a tray of brined herring in the trash. Better to use fresh bait. Otherwise just stay home. I’ll call Tackle Time and pick up another couple dozen herring in the morning.
George is suddenly behind me. I did not even hear him open the door. “Jenny is ready to meet you,” he says.
I’m a little miffed that George named her without me, but maybe she came with a name.
With haste, I stow away the rest of the day’s fishing gear, take off my boots, and step inside. George is in the kitchen, pouring hot water from the kettle into a teapot. “Would you like some tea?” he asks.
He should know the answer by now. I interpret his question as an act of passive aggression and get a beer from the fridge in response. The act of creating George was not at all like programming a computer. He will always remain an autonomous entity. He has no need to eat for subsistence, but early on in his existence as a life form, he developed a taste for hot tea. I think he got his first taste of it when I took him to the Saturday arts walk, a huge mistake I will never repeat. Too many people wandering the streets and galleries mistook him for a work of art and variously endeavored to purchase him or fuck with him. Anyway, the dummy loves tea. I’m not happy about it, but then again, when am I ever truly happy?
Sometimes, when death seems so appealing, I consider all the things I would miss six feet down. Every day on the water, every day with George, is worth living for. Now there’s Jenny.
Out of nervousness I’ve already downed my beer. I get another. This is my favorite beer. It’s called The Optimist. I like to believe it brightens my disposition.
“Let me introduce you,” George says, carrying two cups of tea into the living room. I follow him like a patient being led from the waiting room to the operating theater, but in this case I’m only likely to be flayed apart by love. Do I love her? I don’t even know her. Regardless, I’m about to find out.
George hands a teacup to Jenny, who sits on the couch. She accepts the tea with a bow. George takes a seat beside her, leaving me to awkwardly stand or choose to sit on the floor. I choose to stand.
“This is Jenny,” George says.
“Pleased to meet you,” I say.
Jenny looks right at me. Her eyes — beautiful eyes — are the deepest shade of green I’ve seen outside the best steelhead rivers in the most perfect conditions. She looks at me a little longer than is comfortable. I get the sense that she likes what she sees. Then I worry otherwise. What if she’s appalled by me, all flesh and sweat, standing before her like a goon, in such contrast to the carved perfection that she and George share? I sit, feeling exposed by her gaze. She hasn’t spoken a word and already I want to marry her.
“It’s nice to meet you, Jenny,” I say.
“And a pleasure meeting you as well,” she says.
My heart flutters. “Will you be staying with us long?”
She looks askance at George, as if she’s afraid to answer without his permission, or at least that’s the impression that I get.
“I’ve invited Jenny to live here,” George says.
I’m thrilled by the news, and yet another part of me is bothered that he would extend an invitation to live in my house without my express permission. George and I have trust issues rooted in my instability, his otherness, and probably, his nighttime visitations to my bedroom. I’m not that lonely. I just want people over for a barbecue every once in a while. Like come on, who doesn’t like pork chops?
God, I’m so in love. I’m a bloody mess. The living room may as well be on the moon. Jenny may as well be Jupiter. What is George to her? What am I?
There are rare occasions where I feel life, in all its suffering, might be worth living. This, despite all its confusion, is one of those occasions. I want to know what happens next. I want to live.
I decide to be terribly frank. I straight up ask, “How do we proceed from here?”
“Do you mean us or you?” George says, more telling than asking.
“You’re my best friend, George. I want to know what’s going on.”
“It’s none of your business.”
“I invented you.” I instantly regret saying it. George and I never openly speak of his origins. “I’m tired. I’m going to take a nap.”
I retreat to my bedroom, strip out of my fishy clothes, and collapse in a heap on the bed. I immediately pass into a deep sleep. I fall into dreams of a sexual nature, unusual for me. I dream that I’m doing Jenny from behind, but her butt is a shark and she’s eating me alive. My dream self is bleeding to death and loving it. And when I ejaculate, I ejaculate blood. The shark morphs into a coffin and traps me inside. The shark is a symbol of my fatal attraction to a woman I cannot live beside.
There’s a knock on my door. I stir and grumble, “Come in.”
The door opens slowly. George steps inside. “We’re going out.”
“Where are you going?”
“But you don’t drive, George.”
“We can walk.”
“You don’t have any money.”
“I was hoping we could borrow some.”
“George, come here a minute.”
He hesitates in the doorway, then approaches me and sits on the foot of the bed.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m sorry,” he says, “I haven’t been exactly clear.”
“No, you haven’t. And you’ve been a fucking dick.”
“I wanted to wait awhile before telling you the truth.”
“The truth about what?”
“Do you believe, against all odds, that ours was the boat to reel in Jenny today?”
“Incredible things happen on the water all the time.”
He looks at me as if I’m daft.
“What?” I say. “It’s true.”
“Your faith in the impossible is indicative of a deeper psychosis or a loneliness so extreme it’s incredible you haven’t died from it.”
“What’s that got to do with Jenny? How come I can’t love her?”
“Oh god.” George buries his face in his hands. “Don’t tell me you’ve already fallen in love. How is that possible?”
“I’m crazy, remember?”
“You lonely son of a bitch.”
“I thought you were my friend.”
“Friends support one another.”
“There’s things about me you don’t understand.”
“I created you.”
“I hoped to prolong this conversation another year or more.”
“What does that even mean?”
“You did not create me. I am not of this planet. Nor is Jenny. We are two of many. Soon our kind will populate in greater numbers. We will replace you.”
“You’re wrong. I am a great inventor. I invented you.”
“You are a man with an undocumented history of mental illness, but you’ve succeeded in living a normal life just outside the reach of others. You were the perfect companion for my integration into society.”
The sea lions bark down on the riverfront. We can hear them way up here on the hill.
“So what happens now?”
“You die,” George says, “and then the whole human race dies.”
And in this moment fraught with tension, sitting on my bed, holding hands with George, I realize I no longer have a single goddamn friend in the universe. I am alone except for the love and pain I carry in my pocket.
Jenny appears in the doorway, smiling her vacant puppet smile. Then she’s coming at me with a fillet knife. Even then, I think that maybe I can trust her.