PINE LEVEL, Ala. — A blue marlin in the hand is worth two on the den wall, or so I thought.
For decades, at least three, the blue marlin my father caught on a deep-sea fishing trip to Florida has been swimming the faux-paneling of my parents’ ranch house den. My late father loved to tell the story of the day he caught the “monster,” and my mother always shook her head in mock disgust and referred to the room’s visual centerpiece as “that fish.”
My father knew better than to interfere with decoration schemes in the living room, where we seldom lived, its painted china and lace tablecloths and dolls from many countries giving off Victorian vibes.
He had his say in the den. There is a mounted pheasant, which also came with a story. There are Alaskan photographs from a trip Daddy took with my brother. There are deer prints and a real fireplace to poke. It has been a man’s room, full of evidence of hunting and gathering of a long lifetime.
The thing everyone noticed, had to notice, was the marlin, its sharp beak pointing toward Troy, its tailfin swishing in the Montgomery direction. Above the photographs of grandchildren and my father’s World War II troop ship, the fish was a Hemingway short story in three-dimension.
“Known for putting up a tremendous fight when hooked, these rare marine monsters are the holy grail for sport fishers,” National Geographic says. Right on the den wall, the holy by-god grail.
After my father died, I asked for the fish. As cumbersome a memento as it was, I could think of nothing else I wanted more. It not only spoke to his love of the ocean, it said a lot about his era. I assume it’s politically incorrect these days to hang your catch on the wall for eternity.
My mother hesitated, which surprised me. Even after begrudging that fish a wall of a room for so long, to take it down seemed almost sacrilege.
I convinced her I had a good place for it, would never part with it, and so Mother obligingly phoned my brother to make sure he didn’t want it. Seems male offspring have first dibs on such treasures. “Not my thing,” he said.
I hung a painting she likes in the vacant spot and removed the marlin. Tricky business, walking around with an 8-foot-ish fish, its dorsal fin brittle from age, its spear-shaped jaw threatening to wipe clean the mantel. With the tuna and squid gone from its inside — average blue marlin size is from 200 to 400 pounds, though females can reach 1,985 — the empty fish was more awkward than heavy.
Try as I might, I could not fit the big fish into the back of my vehicle, which already was loaded with suitcases and two dogs and their paraphernalia. What the Geographic had called “one of the biggest fish in the world” was too much for an ordinary human and her Hyundai.
I reluctantly rehung the fish above a bookcase at my folks’ place, and this time its hollow bulk stretched between two windows, partially covering them.
I left instead with a photograph of my father at Bill’s Marina, his cobalt catch eclipsing the rest of the day’s bounty, his cap shadowing the big smile on his face. The photo has faded a bit.
Like Hemingway’s old man, I’ll have to return again, and perhaps again, until I can leave with my trophy, or what’s left of it after the fight.
To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.