Virginia Bell: Memoir Excerpt, Cat-Fishing

Sean Mahan


My father came to pick up my brothers one summer morning and I watched them climb into his blue Ford Torino with the trunk and roof top luggage carrier stuffed to the gills with sleeping bags and fishing poles, tackle boxes, coolers of food, lanterns, and a Coleman stove. They were headed to the Boundary Waters near Canada to rent canoes, portage when necessary, sleep under the stars and learn to fish—walleye, pike, bass, trout, sturgeon, and catfish.  The large ones they would toss back; the small ones would become “panfish,” their own supper. 

I stood red faced with my hands on my hips on the stoop of my mother’s house.

“I’m coming too!” I demanded.

My father reached down and tickled me under the arms until I had to give up my stance. “Not this time little chickadee.”  He smiled, “No girls allowed.” And they were gone.


In the United States freshwater catfish species are known by a variety of slang names: mud-cats, polliwogs, chuckleheads. They are negatively buoyant; they don’t float as well as regular fish. They have no scales, so they are essentially naked.  About half of all catfish species are sexually dimorphic; some females, for example, are able to modify the anal fin into an intromittent organ, one that can enter or penetrate an orifice. They are also bottom-feeders, some even detritivores who scavenge for dead material. 


Long after he died, I heard the story of my father’s skinny-dipping in the boundary waters. My father and brothers had paddled all day and in the late afternoon came ashore to camp for the night. As they were securing the canoes, they heard whooping and hollering from the small island in the middle of the lake. The men on the island were diving in the water, swimming a little, but mostly horsing around—dunking each other, pulling each other under, laughing and splashing. The sun was a low red ball meeting the land behind them, so it was hard to tell, but it looked like they might have stripped bare.  Their torsos shot up every now and then, like the pale, slick bodies of dolphins—or the furred pelts of otters—then twisted back down and out of view.

“Come on, kiddlins!” my father shouted at my brothers. “But Dad…?” my brothers said doubtfully.  Then he pulled his shirt up over his head, pulled his trousers and boxers down, threw them all on the sand, and dove in the water to start swimming across to the men. Who were complete strangers. 

My brothers watched until it was too dark to see anything across the water, then turned their backs, built a fire from the kindling close at hand, and finished setting up camp. They primed the lantern and the stove, cleared a soft area of stray sticks and stones, unrolled the sleeping bags, and waited for our father to swim back. It seemed like a very long time.


Cat-fishing, as opposed to fishing for catfish, is a virtual event on social media. An internet dating hoax. When you catfish, you assume a false persona online in order to meet people and explore virtual romantic and erotic encounters.   You might log on with a different gender identity from the one you normally use in “real” life. There’s the famous case of the football player who became engaged to a woman he was dating online but had never met in person. She turned out to be a man using a female pseudonym. 

Virtual reality. We use it to access the inaccessible. To touch what we are otherwise not allowed to touch. To touch like a fish. 


Virginia Bell is the author of From the Belly (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2012).  Her poems and personal essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and have appeared in Hypertext ReviewFifth Wednesday Journal, Rogue Agent, GargoyleCider Press ReviewSpoon River Poetry ReviewPoet Lore, and other journals and anthologies.  She was a finalist for the 2016 Lamar York Prize in Creative Nonfiction and she is a Senior Editor with RHINO Poetry, an adjunct professor at Loyola University Chicago and the Chicago High School for the Arts, and the recipient of a Ragdale Foundation residency in 2015. 

Virginia Bell’s Poetry at EIL 

Virginia Bell’s Website 

Virginia Bell at RHINO 

Virginia Bell’s From the Belly at Sibling Rivalry Press 

Virginia Bell at YouTube (excerpt from memoir)

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