A story of friendship and loneliness, of hope and despair. A story of fish.
|Catch of the Day
“Heck of a day to catch fish.” Bill stated as he put another worm on his hook. He looked over at Jake who, like himself, sat in a green fold out chair. In-between them Jake's hunter green tackle box stood open with fake worms, twister tails, jigs, and a container of liver inside. Jake nodded reaching into the case of Natural Light sitting between them.
“Hope you ain't figurin' on catchin' a thing usin' one of them fakers. Fish don't like 'em far as I can tell. But hell you might get lucky pull you up one of the dumb ones.” Bill was drinking out of his own beer as Jake said this and as a consequence a mouth full of foam spewed out unto his shirt with a laugh.
“Dangit son that's half a Natty you owe me. Besides, I don't expect no amateur “fisherman” like you to understand the mind of no common sense fish. You ain't no genuine fishin' connoisseur like myself you see. Hell tell ya the truth, your ma asked me to bring you along see if I couldn't teach ya something.”
Jake glanced over at Bill from under his black hat, a smile showing itself in his brown eyes. “Is that a fact? Reckon that’s why I come and got you? You was just using some of that reverse psychology I expect.”
“Ain't that the truth bud, you found me out.”
The sun shone down on the lake in a myriad of light, giving the undisturbed water the look of broken glass. Bill pulled a bandana out of the back pocket of his faded, grass stained blue jeans and wiped his forehead. He reached into the chest pocket of his blue denim shirt and pulled out a pack of Malboros. He used a Zippo lighter out of the same pocket to light a cigarette and he tossed the pack and lighter on the ground.
“My dad always was a cat fisherman,” Bill began, “So was my grandaddy before him, ol' man used to compete in some of those tournaments down there in Alabama, like to have got first prize in a few of those son of a guns to hear him tell it. Hell I figure I can't help to have a natural....what do they call it? Aptitude for it there ya are. Don't worry yourself about it, it's in the genes. Ain't nothin you can do about that.”
Jake wiped his hands on his old khaki shorts and turned to Bill, a look of calculated humor on his face, “Well can't say as I know much what's in my genes. Can't remember much about my old man. Heck, if I seen him now I wouldn't know 'em from Adam. Don't reckon my ma's ever picked up a fishing pole a day of her life. Wouldn't know what to do with it if she did. Good a mom as you could ask for though and that's the tall and short of it.”
Bill shook his head slowly as he knocked the ashes of his cigarette off on to the ground. “Hell, I'm sorry Jake. I didn't mean nothin' by it ya know. I ain't the sharpest crayon in the box Old lady Mitchums is right about that.”
“Aw I know ya didnt. And who cares about a high school English class anyways? Don't need no English to be a famous fisherman now do ya?”
“Yeah I suppose you're right there bud.”
The day wore on. The sun continued its unchanging journey into the sky. The birds whistled and called in their nests as they hopped from branch to branch, disappearing and reappearing in abrupt and quick flashes like so many dreams and nightmares. The two boys joked and boasted about who was going to catch the biggest fish. They drank, they caught no fish, and the day wore on.
* * *
Jake watched the sun make its slow way into the sky, the same as it had done since he was a boy. The same as it would do long after his light brown eyes could no longer see it, long after even the memory of him and who he had been slipped away like fine sand through a child's fingers. He took comfort in that, in the unchanging constancy of it all.
He had told Bill the truth, he couldn't remember his dad. Not his laugh, if he had a laugh, not his smile or his voice. He could remember only his hands, hands that grasped and raked like the claws of some monstrous bird of prey, hands that battered and destroyed like some irresistible force of nature. A force that doesn't take into consideration the things and people it leaves broken in its wake. The hope, the trust that it leaves dead, and dying, and broken.
Hands that carried in them poison, poison for the liver his mother had told him. Perhaps, Jake thought, but not just that. Poison for a family that had once known peace, poison for the ears of a small child as he listened to the sounds of his mother's screaming. Poison for that moment in which the child's only worry had been how large a sand castle he could make and how to keep it standing.
Poison for all the times that could have come. It doesn't matter how big a castle you build, Jake thought, on this earth all castles fall and all that’s left is tears and sand. Yes, that was how he remembered his father. Tears and sand. He laughed as Bill made another impossible taunt about the size of fish he was “just fixin' to get ready to pull on in”. He sighed, lit a cigarette, and he laughed again. Dark clouds gathered on the horizon. The sun slipped silently, unknowingly behind them, and the day wore on.
* * *
“You don't figure there's a storm a'comin do ya? Dang weatherman wouldn't know his ass from a hole in the ground.” Bill said as he glanced at the clouds, “Sunny and dry like hell.” He tossed the empty beer can behind him. It fell a few feet from what had been the “designated” pile of beer cans which was slowly turning into a wavy line that came closer and closer to him the more he drank. He reached for another beer. “Sure looks like there’s a storm ‘comin.”
Jake stared at the storm clouds that had been distant, but which were beginning to gather, almost as if with a will of their own, over the pond. “Ain't there always?” He asked.
Bill looked across the surface of the pond to the old wooden boat dock in the middle. He jumped up out of his seat and pointed a wavering hand at the dock. He turned to Jake but as he did he kicked the case of Natural Light knocking it over and sending all but a few of the remaining cans rolling into the pond.
He stared at Jake in slack jawed astonishment for a moment before uttering “What the …”
He continued to stare at Jake as Jake began to laugh. Bill stripped off his blue shirt and tossed it on the ground. He kicked off his hiking boots and after he’d removed his socks he yelled, “God Save the Natty!”
He proceeded to run and jump into the pond sending water splashing up and onto Jake's boots and pants. “What the!” Jake yelled through his unavoidable laughter. He watched as Bill grabbed one beer after the other and threw it back on to the bank. Each time his friend surfaced he was covered with more and more slime and moss.
Finally Bill caught all of the wayward beers and climbed back onto the bank, his hair dripping and his feet covered in mud. He fell, exhausted, into his chair and shook his head to get some of the water out of his hair and wiped his hands on his soaking pants. “Boy, that was almost a catastrophe,” he said as he turned and looked at Jake sitting relatively dry and laughing beside him.
Jake glanced at the storm clouds that were darkening and at Bill's soaking, dirty form, “Dry and sunny ya say buddy?”
“Dry and sunny...” Bill muttered so that Jake could barely hear him.
“You look like you need a beer fella.”
“You know what? I'll be damned if I don't.”
Bill grabbed one of the beers and opened it sending suds pouring down his hand. He sighed and held the beer up as if to make a toast, “To Jack Claymon the sorriest weatherman this side of the Mississippi.”
They fished for an hour longer, occasionally reeling in their lines to re-bait the hooks. “We ain't doin’ nothin’ but feedin’ the jokers.” Bill said. “You know what I figure Bud? I think it's a positionin' thang. You see that dock out there? I aim to swim over there and sure as I’m breathing I’ll catch me a monster.”
“I don't see as we're gonna have any more luck over there than we have right here.”
“Well, course you don't son. We been through this. I'm a bona fide thoroughbred fish catcher. Ain't met the fish yet that can't be caught and if he can be caught I can catch 'em.”
“You might oughtta tell the fish that cause they don't seem to have heard about you yet, considering that not one of them has been nice enough to throw himself on that stringer.”
Bill laughed. “Well I think the problem is they heard I was comin' and now they’re hidin' in the middle of the pond. They're over there and I mean to get 'em.”
Jake was about to respond when he felt something wet land on his arm. It took him a few seconds to realize that the rain had started in a light summer shower that made the surface of the pond dance in the faded sunlight. “Rain happens when God cries,” his mother used to say. He didn’t put much stock in that. He figured if that was true it’d rain all the time.
Bill grabbed his fishing rod and reeled it in. “Well time's a wastin' bud.” he said and grabbing a container of worms, he turned and jumped in the water. Jake watched from his seat as Bill made it to the dock and climbed up.
Jake sighed. He had never been a great swimmer. He had always felt a certain indescribable connection with the land, had always felt that he was a part of it and it was a part of him. The water of natural creeks and ponds had always seemed to him somehow alien, somehow strange. He always felt that he didn't belong, and he'd always thought that the water felt it too.
He put out his cigarette and sat his beer down on the ground. He didn't know why he hesitated; he knew he was going to go. He'd never live it down if he didn't. Bill had done it and so he had to do it too. For sixteen year old boys that was the way of things--had always been the way of things.
He grabbed his fishing pole and a container of worms and began swimming to the dock in choppy, unpracticed strokes. What am I doing? He thought as he struggled and decided it must be the beer. He caught glimpses of Bill on the dock. He was concentrated on baiting his hook. The birds had gone strangely silent and the only sound was that of his arms and legs as they thrashed wildly and the soft dropping of rain on the surface of the pond.
After what seemed like an eternity he made it to the dock and climbed up. Bill was staring at him with a smile on his face, “You're about the worst damn swimmer I ever saw you know that?”
“Yeah, I know it.”
“What kinda sense does that make you livin' around ponds and rivers all your life?”
“Don't make no kinda sense, just is. Hand me one of them worms.”
They sat and fished and Bill constantly reeled in and casted back out deciding that he'd found the perfect place to “catch ol' papa fish.”
After about an hour, Jake's rod jerked and he grabbed it up quickly. He set the hook and reeled in a small channel cat.
“Aw man,” Bill said, “That's just about the smallest fish I ever saw. I'd throw him back 'for somebody sees”
“You got the needle noses? Fella damn near swallowed the hook.”
“Yeah I got 'em.” Bill reached into his back pocket and pulled out an old and rusted pair of needle nose pliers and handed them to him.
“Thanks.” Jake tried to ease the hook out gently but it had dug into the side of the fish's face. When he did finally manage to get it out, it left a rip in the flesh and he stopped and looked at it. How long before that'll heal? He wondered. How long before any scar heals? Do they? He tossed the fish back into the water and watched it swim away.
Jake baited his hook and casted out again. The rain began to come down with more force and the droplets splashed into the lake making it writhe as if alive. Now just how the am I gonna make it back? He thought to himself. He wasn’t even sure how he’d made it to the dock in the first place.
“Is it just me or does that shore seem a lot farther out?” he asked.
Bill turned to him, “What’s that you say, bud?”
“I said … Aw never mind.” Jake said, embarrassed. Bill knowing he was a bad swimmer was one thing. Bill thinking he was scared of swimming back … Well best just not give him any freebies. Still, that lake sure did seem like it’d grown in the past thirty minutes.
They continued to fish, and though Bill sat right beside him—whistling the world’s worst rendition of “Country Boy Can Survive”, and showing off just how tone-deaf he really was—Jake felt alone. He prided himself on being a man. After all, being a man meant that your childhood was over, and by God his was one childhood he didn’t mind seeing the back end of.
He’d learned at an early age not to let people walk on him. Because if a man let people walk all over him, they would. He didn’t mean to be anybody’s punching bag. Not anymore. Fact was, if he was being honest, he was pretty touchy about even looking like somebody’s punching bag. It’d caused him to be in some fights he could’ve avoided, made his high school days a bit of a hassle from time to time, but there it was.
He’d been in some scrapes, and he’d lost his share. He knew he wasn’t no Joe Frazier, not by a dang sight. Put him in a fight and fair odds say he’d lose, but by God he’d show up. Win or lose, he’d show up and couldn’t anybody this side of Heaven take that from him. Not anymore.
He wasn’t scared of standing up for himself, wasn’t scared of taking a lick or two. Growing up, whenever he’d come home with a new black eye or swollen lip his granddad would joke that they weren’t anything but growing pains. Well if that was true he’d done his share of growin’ and then some. No, he wasn’t scared of anybody, not anymore.
The light was nearly gone now, the sun giving its last gasp for the day. It was that hour that wasn’t really day or night, but somewhere in between--twilight. It was the perfect time for catching lightning bugs, something he and his mom used to do when he was little and his dad was still at work. It had been their time, him and his mom, just the two of them, and it had been a perfect time. Was a terrible time for lookin’ at that water though.
In the faded light, the water was dark, like a quilt of shadow laid out all around him. It seemed to stretch away forever, its edges blurring with the shore and on into the horizon with no end. Darkness and mystery and no end.
“So what about you and that ol’ Minny Calter?” He asked into the darkness, not because he was that interested in the answer, but because he needed to hear something normal, something human.
“Aw,” Bill said, “now that’s about the dumbest question you ever asked and you’ve had some whoppers.”
“Well, folks are saying you two are an item, ya know?” Jake asked, grinning in the darkness.
“An item!?’ Bill asked in outrage, “Let me tell you something smart guy, when that girl looks in a mirror the dang mirror looks away.”
Jake laughed, but his laughter sounded timid and weak in the darkness and so he stopped. “Still,” he said, “Accordin’ to my granddad God made all of us, you, me, and Minny Calter out of nothin’ but dust.”
“Shoot, I know that” Bill said, “But I’m thinking when God reached for Minny’s pile he got a big ol’ handful of cow manure instead.”
Jake laughed again, unable to help himself, “Heard something about you taking her to the school dance.”
There was only silence for a moment, a silence that felt suffocating to Jake, but right before he could speak Bill answered, “You heard that did ya?”
Jake nodded, “Yep, it’s what’s going around.”
“Well by God,” Bill said. “I reckon it’s true too. Now hear me out on this one bud. That Minny is so ugly they got emergency procedures at the school for what to do in the case of a Minny alert.” He talked over Jake’s laughter, “It’s true, I’ve seen ‘em. But, But mind you, she’s got some sense.”
“Yeah, well ain’t you got none?” Jake asked, distracted by the way the shadow of the water shifted and swayed in the rainfall.
“Naw I reckon I spent all mine on beer more or less, anyway hear me out. I told her that if she’d do my math homework for this algebra class I’d take her to the dance. And I …” Jake couldn’t hear the rest of what he said because Bill’s voice had dropped to a whisper.
“What’s that?” Jake asked.
“Heck, I told her I’d lay a kiss on her.”
Jake grinned, “Told her that did you?”
“Well you know I ain’t no good with all those fractions Jake, who cares how much pie is left if you take three slices away anyway? I’d just be happy to have some pie and to hell with the fraction.”
“So are you gonna?”
“You gonna kiss her?”
“What, that ugly dog?” Bill hesitated for a moment, “Yeah, I’ll probably kiss her.”
Jake wiped cold sweat from his hands onto his pants. The surrounding woods were nearly silent, except for the sound of a whippoorwill’s call and the rain. It was that sort of silence where you don’t feel right talking, or moving—fact was, Jake barely felt right breathing. It was the sort of silence Jake figured Armstrong must have felt when he first set foot on the moon. Not as if everything had gone quiet, but if there wasn’t anything to go quiet. It was as if nothing existed at all except him and the dark water.
It was an expectant silence, as if all the animals and trees, all life around the lake waited to see what Jake would do, waited to see how he planned to make it back to the shore. Fact was, he didn’t know himself.
“Well,” Bill said as he reeled in, “I guess you got me today, bud. One measly no account fish to no fish at all, though I think I’d prefer the latter.”
“Yeah,” Jake said, though he was only half-listening. He couldn’t seem to pull his eyes from the water.
“Alright then,” Bill said as he got his stuff together, “See ya on the other side, Flipper.”
“Wait,” Jake said as he realized Bill was about to dive in.
“Man,” he said with a laugh, “Hope I can make it back.”
Bill laughed, “Hope don’t float. But ya made it here fine didn’t ya? Besides, it’s always easier on the way back.” He said this with complete confidence, as if it was a credible law of the universe, one as valid as “what goes up must come down,” or “you can’t eat just one.” Without another word, Bill dove unceremoniously into the aphotic water.
Jake very much wanted to ask him why it was always easier on the way back, but in moments Bill was out of sight in the darkness and it wasn’t long before even the sound of his splashing could no longer be heard over the steady downpour.
Jake stood and looked at the water as frigid rain splashed onto his skin. He didn’t think he’d ever felt more alone—not since he was a child, cowering in his bed as he heard the front door open and slam shut, announcing his father’s return from the late shift at the mill. The water of the lake pulsated as if in anticipation of his dive. “Just how the hell do I get myself into these kinda messes?” He asked to the darkness, and the only reply was that of an increased deluge of rain as another cloud burst.
He sighed, and eased himself into the lake, keeping one hand on the dock. The piercing cold of the water surprised him and nearly took his breath away. He swam in place for a minute, keeping one hand on the dock while his body became acclimated to the cold. The darkness was complete and in it he could discern no trace of the shore, no trace of land.
“D-don’t let that bother ya,” He shivered, “long as you end up on shore I don’t guess you’d mind much having to walk around the lake. You can do this,” he reassured himself, “it’s always easier on the way back.” Reluctantly, he released his hold on the dock and began dog paddling in the direction he thought the shore was.
Pitiful, having to dog paddle around like a three year old with a turtle float, he thought to himself, ain’t you got any pride? He continued to dog paddle, feeling as if the water was trying its best to pull him under, gripping and tugging at him with clammy, cold hands. To hell with pride, he answered himself as he paddled harder; I just want to be breathin’.
He was about halfway back to the bank as best he could judge when his head bobbed under the murky lake water and it rushed into his mouth and nose causing him to hack and cough. He felt himself beginning to panic. Where is the blasted shore? It seemed as if he’d been swimming for hours and his arms and legs were tired from swatting at the water.
His head bobbed under the water again and rational thought stopped. For him, the only important thing was that he had to kick harder--had to paddle faster. He flailed at the water, thrashing and kicking in a panic, but the harder he kicked the more his face dunked into the lake. Dark water continued to rush into his mouth and nose, robbing him of his strength.
“Help!” He tried to shout, all traces of pride gone now, scattered before reality like the last vestiges of a fleeting dream. “H-“he began again before the water reached up and pulled him under.
He struggled ferociously for a few moments, beating at the water with a fury born of desperation before his head came up and he took a wide gulp of air. “Bill!” he shouted, but if his friend made any reply he could not hear it over his wild thrashing.
He felt so weak. Water splashed into his mouth and his arms and legs had no strength left. He jerked around looking for anything, for anyone, his eyes wide with fear. But in the darkness nothing moved the only sounds the night offered besides that of his panicked struggles were the plip-plop of the rain on the surface of the lake, and the lone whippoorwill still singing its eerie song.
He realized that he didn’t have the strength to paddle anymore, his limbs were numb and they responded sluggishly, awkwardly. The lake rose up once more and covered him, welcoming him into its cold embrace, an embrace that this time, he knew, he wouldn’t be able to get away from.
He felt himself sinking, felt the burning of lake water in his lungs, felt his throat trying to pull in air and getting water instead but he felt all of this only as a distant, unimportant sensation. For the most part, he felt only cold. Cold and alone. He saw a shadow pass across his vision in the water and he mentally cringed. Saw blurred shapes moving toward him that resolved themselves into what, in the darkness, appeared to be two disembodied hands.
He shrank from them; sure that he knew those hands. He was sure that he had known them since he was a child. They were hands that never comforted or encouraged. They were the destroyers of families, the destroyers of happiness and a little boy’s belief that the world was a place of wonder and excitement. Those hands toppled castles and left only tears and sand.
He felt himself about to lose consciousness. He saw the hands coming closer, but he couldn’t fight against them. He was tired, so very tired. They grasped at him, yanking and pulling, but it did not matter. Soon he would be out of even their reach. Darkness beckoned, enticing in its insistent mystery, and so he went to it.
He woke to a lurching pain in his chest, and he hacked and coughed out lake water. In the dim light of the moon, he could see Bill crouched over him, pushing against his chest repeatedly. “Don’t you make me give you mouth-to-mouth Jake! Minny Calter is about as low as I can go!” Bill shouted.
Jake kept coughing and tried to roll himself onto his side, but found that he had been robbed of all his strength. Bill helped him and he lay there hacking and coughing out lake water, unable to speak.
“You okay, bud? Jake, are you okay?” Bill asked, and Jake nodded as best he could.
Not knowing what else to do, Bill sat beside him on the bank. He stayed there, not speaking, until Jake’s coughing and puking finally subsided. “T-thanks.” Jake struggled to say, his voice coming out in a whisper. He noticed that the rain had stopped.
He stared at Bill’s hands as he lay on his side, gasping for breath. They were wet and muddy from climbing around on the bank, from saving him. He looked up and saw that Bill was watching him worriedly.
He puked again and lay on the bank, listening as the crickets started up in full force, their chirps mixing with the song of the whippoorwill. “Come on, let’s get you to the hospital, I’ll drive.” Bill said, starting to get up.
Jake felt his strength slowly returning, “Ain’t no cause for it. Reckon I puked bout all the water I swallowed back out and then some.”
Bill grinned, “Just how the hell do you take baths anyway?”
“Well, since you ain’t drowned I got a question for ya. Two of ‘em actually.”
“How much do you weigh?”
“’Bout a hundred and fifty pounds.”
“And how much you figure that channel cat you caught weighed?”
“Hell, I dunno. Pound, pound and a half.”
Bill sat back, a big grin coming to his face. “Guess I got the biggest catch after all.”
Jake laughed. The trees of the surrounding woods shifted and swayed in the darkness, but they had lost their menace. They seemed now to be only trees, normal and natural. The ground beneath him was soft and wet from the rain. The lake, too, had lost its foreboding appearance and now It only looked like water. And that was alright.
Everything was as it should be—as it was meant to be. He was lying on the bank, half-drowned, but not all drowned and maybe that was meant to be too. He’d always felt like he was a part of the land, connected to it, so if it was meant to be as it was, and he believed that, then he figured he was meant to be as he was. And that was alright too.