One summer, as part of his campaign to win their mother back, their dad took the three of them down the Sacramento River Delta on a houseboat. It was breezy on the water. Their craft, a thirty-five-foot, diesel-powered RiverCoaster, trailed smoke as they chopped along between banks of farm fields spread like quilts under a vast, bleached sky. Marshes rustled. Trees nuzzled isolated houses. "Look," Shelley said, "a horse." It stood in an empty meadow, as if helicoptered there.
Dad, wearing a captain's hat with his usual beat-up combat boots and Bermudas, a cigar clamped in his teeth—like a man who'd boated all his life—throttled up, throttled back, maneuvering smoothly around a jug bobbing in a snarl of wire. The kids argued over beds—who got which one bolted atop each other on two walls of their floating motel.
A miracle of efficiency, it offered everything they'd need for a week. Besides those sleeping berths—which were to be their one scrap of privacy apiece—they had a closet-size bathroom and an alcove kitchen Dad called the galley, crowded with bags from a Stockton market. A dinette with benches doubled as a lounge. On its Formica table, they'd laid out a deck of cards and Dad his Carefree Angler and Life on the Mississippi. He loved Twain, loved water and boats, had always promised to take Joey fishing—Joey, now ten.
He whistled for quiet and assigned the bunks, which, anyway, Shelley thought, weren't worth fighting for. Each had a porthole and a cushion that would work, the boatyard manager had explained, for flotation, "just in case."
Outside, there was a foredeck and a roof deck, where, this same manager (longhaired, tattooed, missing a pinkie) had promised, they could "sleep out under the stars." A CB radio ("emergency hooter") hung in the captain's nook beside the wheel, which was wood-spoked and buttoned in the middle by a horn.
Dad tooted it as they chugged across the blue-glass stream, which, he informed them, was full of sturgeon and bass, seasonal salmon and shad.
Was it the season?
It wasn't. But the other fish ran all year, according to the Angler.
Lizzie, the eldest, who'd brought a Delta wildlife guide so she'd know what she was looking at, said, "You shouldn't fish for fun, Pops. Only to eat. Otherwise it's cruel." Big, square sunglasses covered her eyes. Her straw-blond hair was straight like their mother's, her face red from sunlamp treatments. Tetracycline, also for [End Page 121] acne, had whittled down her appetite and she had almost no hips, plus long legs tapering to wide, flat feet—her only, besides her skin, bad feature, which she exaggerated, Shelley thought, by painting her toenails pink.
"Oh, we'll eat 'em, Liz-Wiz," Dad assured her, "Miss Fish-and-Game Police."
"Oh yeah," echoed Joey, "Miss Fish-Witch Stupid Hag-Face."
"Not me, Pa," Lizzie said.
"Not me," Shelley echoed. They bumped fists.
Six rivers converge on the Sacramento Delta, according to the brochure Shelley had picked up in the boatyard's shop. The water pours south a thousand miles to San Francisco, slowed by dams and islands, swirling past Gold Rush towns and marinas, narrowing here and there to quiet lakes called tules and loops and trickles that don't show up on maps. Where you decided to go depended on what you were "into," the boatyard manager had explained, ticking off on his three good fingers, Fishin? Swimmin? Watchin birds?, which drew attention to the stub.
Dad had winked at Shelley (Who was this clown?) and taken a seat in the makeshift office of the shop, which sold gear and snacks and reeked of fuel oil and fish. Some scratchy, hidden speaker played "Something Stupid" by Frank and Nancy Sinatra. While the manager scribbled notes on a map, Shelley, Lizzie, and Joe sipped Cokes he'd all but forced Dad to buy ("Kids look thirsty") and Dad had called "cavities in a bottle" as he dug for pocket change. Fishnets draped the walls with...