When I was a kid we left the dirty streets of Brooklyn, New York for the
quieter suburban streets of Connecticut. We moved into a large house in Norwalk,
Connecticut. Norwalk is the sort of town that dreams of being a big city but
will always be just another small port on the Connecticut coastline. Like out
of some horror story
, the south side of town offers plenty of frightening
images: ghettos, drug dealers, prostitutes, graffiti, and even young urban
professionals. The south end was a popular place to work, but when the day
ended, these young men
and woman got into their BMWs, Porsches, and other toys
and drove to safe ground. Most found their way to surrounding towns: Westport,
Wilton, New Canaan, and others. Other people, like my parents, crossed town
through East Norwalk to our home in the northern end of town. Sometimes I would
hear my father boast to far off relatives that we lived in a nice residential
neighborhood (otherwise known as "the good area") In most horror stories
the hero approaches some haunted house (or some other terror) you can shout,
"Don't go in there! Stay away!" People moving into Norwalk have no such luck;
they move into the charming town without a clue of it's underlying sickness and
One of my first discoveries was the river that passed through the middle of town.
I was only a kid, maybe ten, when I started fishing by the edge of the river.
It wasn't easy finding the perfect location; this was a place where I would
want to be alone, a place to get away from the unhappiness that would spread
like fire through my home on occasion.
This time away was possibly the most important thing to me then. When I turned
eleven years old, one of my favorite gifts was a large book. When the moment
was right, I ran upstairs to my bedroom, opened the book, and found the word
"fish." The brown book, Funk and Wagnals (the name made me giggle), defined the
word: to catch or try to catch fish. to try to get something in an artful or
To me, good old Funky Wagnails couldn't be further from the truth; the true
meaning of fishing. It wasn't about hunting fish or about rods and reels or
fishing lines. No, it had nothing to do with that. Fishing was a time, not an
action. When I climbed the hill, crossed the path everyone else followed, and
finally reached the surging river my spirit soared. I was no longer little
Steven Stepleman, son of Leonard (a tough man who "gave you a shot" for "your
own good"), brother of Howard (an even tougher, bigger man who played football
and everyone expected to get a sports scholarship), the baby to Ellen (a loving
but timid woman who swore that it was a busy schedule that made Len sometimes
mean, but I knew better). No, I was none of these people. I was Paul Newman in
Cool Hand Luke, The Fonz in Happy Days, or Roger Staubach throwing a touchdown
pass for the Dallas Cowboys. I was all of these people and more, rarely
catching fish, but always fishing.
Back at home my mother was usually busy in the kitchen. My mother, a large
woman, seemed to enjoy cooking. She let us believe that lie, the truth was that
she enjoyed eating. Mom wasn't simply fat, wasn't just overweight, chubby,
hefty, plump, or any other word one would choose. She was huge. Her weight did
fluctuate, of course. At times she would lose twenty or thirty pounds and we
would all be proud of her and then she would start to put it back on. Although
she was occasionally aware of her ominous size, she usually ignored it. These
were times where she would come face to face with the dark shadow her weight had
cast on her life. Like when we would go to the movies and she would be
uncomfortable in the small theater seats. Sometimes people would stare at her
as she tried to casually manipulate herself into her chair. There was the time
she had gotten into a crowded elevator and saw the small sign by the doors, 1000
pounds maximum, and worried that she and the unfortunate people riding with her
were going to plunge to their deaths. So, although she was acutely aware of her
size, she usually pushed these thoughts away. It wasn't until years later that
she took off most of the excess weight after a scare in the hospital.
My father was a distant man who was usually preoccupied with his career. We
rarely spent time alone. Sometimes, when my father could find time with me, we
would play football, baseball, and other sports. There weren't many times that
we played together alone. My brother always seemed to be involved. Eventually,
my father and I developed a pretty good relationship; he hung out with my older
brother and I got to watch.
Once, we were watching the "Outer Limits" or "The Twilight Zone" while my mother
quietly read a magazine. She folded her Life magazine, put it down, and began
to knit by the fireplace. My mother and I noticed that my father had been
drinking beer that night. He had a pretty good buzz going. She looked back to
her knitting and I looked to my television.
The room was silent except for a few creepy sound effects from the TV. Outside
we could hear a dog barking and crickets cricketing. Just as things became too
quiet my father bellowed, "How can you watch this crap? That stupid thing looks
I stared blankly at my father, not knowing what to say. I knew what I wanted to
say but I couldn't. I wanted to shout, "Of course it looks fake! Of course its
crap! That's the fun of it you stupid ass! That slimy, oozing, fake thing is
going to make me sleep with the lights on tonight like a baby! Sure it's fake,
sure it's crap, but I wish it would tear off your head like it's doing to that
poor guy right now!"
But I didn't say these things; I couldn't say these things. Instead, I said
some vague comment about how scary the show was. My father's red eyes, which
were growing redder by the second, looked at me. He reached, without looking,
and grabbed another beer. After he gulped down half the can, he spoke. "That's
scary? I'll tell you what scary is, kid."
As I said, I think daddy had one too many drinks. "Scared is not being able to
pay the mortgage. Scared is trying to support a family. Scared is knowing some
lunatic is raping woman and your wife could be next. " He took a deep sigh.
"Don't tell me about scared, kid, you don't know the half of it."
My eyes became red like my father's and my face felt hot. I wasn't angry; I was
beyond that. I was desperately trying to hold back tears. Thankfully, my tears
didn't come then ("I'll give you something to cry about," he would have said).
It wasn't until later that I would be crying.
Later that night, after my favorite cop show, I went to bed. As I lay in bed, I
did a quick check: flashlight next to my bed, closet door open (with the light
on inside), baseball bat within reach. I was prepared for any creature of the
night, except maybe werewolves, but it wasn't a full moon. And, if a hand
reached up from under my bed, my feet were covered with my blanket - so what
could happen? Smiling, I looked up and saw my father's shadow in the door.
Daddy looked very tired.
"Sorry, kid, no lights. I'm not working for the electric company, " he said (but
his words were slurred and it sounded more like, sssury, keed, no lice. I'm not
wurkin for tha lectric companee)
My powers of debate weren't quite as skillful then. I said, "But dad…"
"No buts, " (no busss) he spat at me. He turned off the lights and left.
Tears came for me then. I looked out the window and cried. Some sickening,
diseased, murderous creature was going to appear any minute. Any minute now. I
watched and waited. I fell asleep with tears that night, and always thinking:
any minute now… any minute now.
To the outside world, we had an ideal life in an ideal town. Yet what went on
after dark (in both) scared the heck out of me. Sometimes, as I drive through
that horrid little town, past our hideous old house, I try to push away the bad
memories and remember the good times. Often I will drive near the river and
park my car. I walk through the trees and over the hill to my secret fishing
place and relive my favorite childhood times. Times when I ran as fast I could,
away from my father's smacks and shouts of cruelty. Times when I was a Viking,
a musketeer, a pirate, a detective, an astronaut, and anything else I wanted to
When I finally became old enough to move away, I spent some of my moving day at
that fishing spot. As the sun beamed brightly across the sky, the birds sang
and chirped. In some indirect manner, I knew everything was different now, a
new cycle of life beginning. And, as I sat fishing, thoughts of a better life
danced in my mind. I sat, rarely catching fish, but surely fishing.