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Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Drama · #290653
Rock throwing, eating your bait, Vietnam, and coming of age in the 70's.
The Veteran

I was standing on a London street corner as the Luftwaffe bombed buildings to rubble. Hundreds of derby hatted and umbrella-toting Brits ran screaming past as an air raid siren blared. My eyes flipped open and I wasn’t in London, but tucked in bed next to a ringing alarm clock.

“Fer Christ's sake, turn that damn thing off, ” my old man bellowed from the adjoining room.

As I fumbled in darkness, the clock rang insistently. In the commotion, I knocked it from its stand. It clanked on the tile floor. The alarm stem broke in the fall, so I shoved the clock beneath my pillow and waited for it to wind down.

For a disoriented moment, I wondered why I had chosen to awaken when still dark outside. Then I remembered. It was Saturday, and I was going trout fishing with my two friends, Hoover and Berger.

I pulled the clock from beneath the pillow and focused on the luminous numerals. It was 4:00 AM. The crazy thing had gone off early. I got up anyway.

Standing on shaky limbs, I felt for the light switch. Thud, a toe crumpled against the bedpost. Pain fired through my foot. I fell to the bed and bit into the pillow to stifle profanities.

From the creaky dresser drawer I removed my trout fishing t-shirt, which pictured a leaping, thrashing, fluorescent brook trout, captioned, “Trout Fishermen Make Better Lovers.” I slipped into saggy briefs, jeans, worn out Converse, and a Khaki colored fishing vest with twelve pockets for storing gear. I stepped from the room and padded down the hallway. My old man’s cigarette voice rasped to my mother.

“Why the hell does he do dis? He's nuts,” he grumbled.

I descended to the kitchen where I brewed coffee and browned a frosted toaster pastry. Berger wasn’t due for another hour.

While the third cup cooled in the mug, I began to nod. The blast of a Bel Air’s horn pulled me back. I glared at the plastic vegetable clock above the stove. 5:30. Berger was late.

“Tell that asshole ta knock it off!” my old man barked from bed.

Berger continued to lean on the horn until I came to the door.

“Knock it off, Berger!” I yelled.

“Come on, let’s get goin’. Sun’s startin’ ta show,” yelled Berger from the car window.

I gathered my Ted Williams autographed rod and reel combination, hip boots, and a can of Green Giant Golden Niblets, then stepped out into sluggish morning air. Berger stood by the open trunk, waiting for me to stow the gear.

Berger was boyishly fat, chinless, and looked dirty faced because of intermittent whisker patches that he never shaved. Egg yolk and ketchup splatters were embedded in his psychedelic Grateful Dead t-shirt. A backwards Mets cap sat atop his head with matted strands of brown hair sprouting beneath.

Hoover sat in the passenger’s seat, munching a salami on rye with spicy brown mustard. He had wiry hair, a bulbous nose, and size twelves that pointed nearly parallel to his shoulders. His neck joined at an odd angle and pushed his head out in front of his chest. He looked like a walking question mark.

“How about a little judgement. You don’t blow the horn at this hour, moron. My old man will be pissed when I get home,” I grumbled.

“Easy, Hill. You are grouchy. Did ya sleep bad?” asked Berger.

I hopped in the backseat of the rust bucket car, expecting its musty smell. Instead, I was assaulted by Hoover’s sandwich.

“Hey, I forgot my net. We gotta go get it,” announced Hoover, through a mouthful of sandwich.

“No way. I ain’t drivin’ back ta your place. Borrow one offa Hill,” said Berger.

“I don’t have an extra,” I said.

“Sure ya do. I seen it hangin’ in your garage,” said Hoover.

"‘No, I can’t loan you that one. It’s my old man’s, and it’s an Orvis."

The Old Man had beautiful tackle, which he used for one annual, profanity filled fiasco. This net was made from varnished, seasoned walnut with triple reinforced Dacron netting. It was a work of art. I knew the Old Man wouldn’t want it loaned out, especially since he referred to my friends as “clowns” and “goofballs.”

“Well, all I know is the paper says the stream is heavily stocked. 'Heavily stocked.' I can’t land fish without a net. It won't take long ta drive back ta my house,” reasoned Hoover.

“No way. I only got gas enough for one round trip ta the stream,” countered Berger.

“Look, I’ll use the old man’s net and Hoover can use mine. If he wrecks it, he buys me a new one,” I finally said.

I retrieved the net from the nail it hung on. The old car bucked and backfired out of our driveway. My old man could not be pleased.

While lightly dozing during the drive, I picked up bits and pieces of conversation. They busily rated the physical attributes of better-looking girls in our school.

“I can’t agree with ya. I’d give Anne an eight. Her tits aren’t big enough for a nine,” remarked Berger, in the affected voice of a connoisseur.

“Well, maybe. Beverly’s a nine, though. She’s got melons!” Hoover enthused.

One might have thought that these two had the option of dating these girls. If Hoover and Burger could have gotten dates at all, it would have been with girls who ranked much lower on the one to ten continuum.

Something thumped beneath the car. I looked out the side window to see a rabbit tumble to the roadside.

“Stupid rabbit,” grumbled Berger.

We wound over the hilly, Elbow Fletcher Road. Berger wrestled the steering wheel as the tires churned gravel on the shoulder.

“Why don’t you slow down?” I asked.

“You’re witnessin’ the perfect union of man and machine,” said Berger.

“They both have the same amount of brains,” chuckled Hoover, displaying his lack of wit.

We were now away from the ranchers and split-levels, as the road cut through green forests. Grazing cows, fields of corn, and farmhouses occasionally interrupted the trees. Picturesque, provided you ignored the empty beer cans and fast food wrappers that lined the roadway.

After several miles, we crossed the iron bridge that spanned Muddy Creek. Berger skidded the car into a dirt patch where it sputtered and shook for a while after he cut the engine.

I got out and inhaled the stench that rose from the stream. This was not pristine water. Something organic decomposed down there. The slow water beneath the bridge floated a thin layer of green scum. The sky was cloudless, but lacked brilliance due to humidity.

I tugged on my boots, shouldered the rod, and struck off down the path in a striding gait. Hoover and Berger still rooted in the trunk. I hoped to stake out my favorite section.

Locusts buzzed in the trees and unseen creatures rustled the grasses along the path. The breeze carried the scent of manure. A green dragonfly with lifeless eyes hovered in front of my chin.

Muddy Creek cut a gently sloped valley in the Jersey countryside. The path wove up and down the bank, according to obstructions. Closer to the stream, muck sucked at my boots. When the path rose, I could see long, semi-scenic stretches of stream.

I reached the bend in the stream that began the stretch I particularly liked. The water was swift and filled with rocky pools that created trout hangouts.

I opened the can of corn, drained the water, and dumped the kernels in the bait box strapped to my hip. I rigged the four-pound test monofilament with a size eight hook and two BB split shots, then baited with four plump kernels.

I soon heard Berger’s thudding steps.

“Hey Hill, Hoover forgot his bait,” he yelled, coming into view.

“Nothing new in that,” I replied.

Hoover arrived on the scene.

“Hey Hill, could ya loan me some corn? I forgot my worms,” he whined.

“Why don’t you borrow worms from Berger?” I asked.

“No way. I’ll probly run out myself,” countered Berger.

It was always the same problem with Hoover. He needed lunch money, or hooks, or to copy your homework. Once, he asked to borrow a pair of underwear. I declined.

“You, Hoover, are a royal pain in the ass. Here, take this and kindly go,” I said.

I dumped a few ounces of corn in his mustard stained hand.

“Thanks, Hill, you're a prince, a regular prince,” he smiled.

Nothing much fazed him.

I turned my back and waded into the stream. Rushing water surrounded me. I glanced over my shoulder but the two still stood there. Berger looked like a television show version of a slob, everything mismatched and poor fitting, including body parts. The blank faced Hoover stood at his side, his pale acned face crowned by Brillo hair.

“Hey, no offense, you know, get a little solitude,” I said.

“Sure. We’re goin’ further up ta the good spots,” said Berger.

My eyes took in the natural beauty, carefully avoiding an inexplicable length of pink toilet paper draped over a tree branch across the way.

I angled my first cast upstream. It drifted a few feet and became hopelessly snagged. I snapped the line and re-rigged. My mind began to churn, dredging up past humiliations on the sports field, and in romance.

There was the time I played first base for Flint’s Funeral Home in the local little league. With runners at first and third, our third baseman fielded a routine grounder and fired a throw in the dirt. I dropped to block it, but the ball bounced wild and struck me square in the forehead. Briefly dazed, I grabbed the ball and threw to deep right-center field, allowing all three runners to score. These runs were decisive, and after the game, I received back slaps and sarcastic praise from our opponents.

Then I recalled my pursuit of Sylvia Prattler. She was a little out of my league, but I mustered the nerve to ask for a date. In the first sentence I ever spoke to her, a blob of spit shot through my lips, hung in the air, and gently lighted on her blouse. She wrinkled her nose and aggressively brushed at the droplet. Next, she stared me in the eyes, shook her head, spun, and twitched down the hallway, mashing my teen-age heart.

I fished downstream, methodically drifting bait through promising spots. I felt sticky. The air had begun to smell of rain.

“Hey Hill, ya doin’ any good?” a voice inquired.

It belonged to Hoover. I heard him splash into the stream and noisily wade toward me.

“Easy, you’ll scare what few fish there are,” I scolded.

“Yeah. I hate ta bother ya, but I'm outta bait. They’re cleanin’ my hook,” he said.

“I've been chumming the holes, so I'm a little low,” I said.

“Right. Berger won’t loan me no worms,” he said.

“Can I borrow a lure?” he asked.

“No chance,” I said.

"Sure. Okay." Hoover’s head dropped a notch and he waded back to shore.

“All right. Wait a second Hoover. You can borrow a Rooster Tail. Don’t lose it,” I said.

Hoover happily waded back and plucked the lure from my hand.

“Thanks Hill,” he smiled.

There, Wedged between his front teeth, was the shell from a kernel of corn.

“Damn it Hoover. You ate your bait! Bring my spinner back here, you slob,” I yelled.

“Don’t worry, I won’t lose it,” he yelled, climbed the bank, then scurried up the path.

“You pain in the ass!” I yelled.

This was classic Hoover. Berger and Hoover, I had to shake my head over my place in the social order at school.

I searched my mind for something pleasant, but nothing came. For some reason, I kept listening to the beat of my heart, thinking I detected an irregularity.

Suddenly, I felt a gentle tap and then solid tug at my line. A few seconds later, I netted a lank, ten-inch rainbow trout.

I grasped the fish, hooked my fingers in the gill flaps and pulled back till the backbone snapped. This practice is more humane than allowing a fish to suffocate. The old man had a fondness for broiled trout, so this would make up for the morning noise. I fished with renewed interest, as the storm drew near.

More minutes passed. A metallic flash caught my eye from a hoop-shaped object twisting in the current. Of course. It was the net I had loaned to Hoover.

I tried casting for it, but missed the mark. It quickly passed, bobbed a few times, then disappeared beneath the surface.

Thunder rumbled. A raindrop splattered the tip of my nose. Disgust registered. It was time to go. I waded out and walked up the path toward my companions.

When I found them, Berger stood in the middle of the stream, working to untangle the bird’s nest of line that spilled from his reel. Hoover looked content, sitting at the base of a pine tree on shore.

“Just where in Hell is my net?” I asked.

“I lost it. Real sorry. Look, I’ll buy ya a better one,” he spouted.

“You’re a bit of a horse’s ass,” I replied.

“Come on, Berger. Time to split. It’s gonna pour,” I yelled.

“Berger caught a decent chub. Berger, hold up the chub,” yelled Hoover.

Berger came through the stream, dividing water like a tug boat.

“Yeah, hell, look at this, Hill,” he said, breathing heavily.

He held up an eleven inch chub that was so dried and puckered I suspected he had found it dead.

“It’s a beaut,” I said.

“Yeah, it fought, for its size,” he said a little doubtfully.

“I helped net it,” added Hoover.

“Like hell. You lost the net before I caught this baby,” said Berger.

I fell in tryin’ ta save the net. What more could I do?” asked Hoover.

“You weren’t tryin’ ta save it. It was about a mile down stream before ya even realized it was gone,” said Berger.

“Well, fellas, it’s gonna rain any minute. I’ll meet you two back at the car,” I said.

I walked rapidly for a few moments to ensure solitude. This was perhaps the most peaceful time of the outing. A growing breeze rustled the grasses and the air cooled with the storm’s approach. I breathed the sweet smell of honeysuckle. I noticed purple wild flowers, and an acrobatic squirrel bouncing pine limbs.

Nearing the car, the path followed a bend and climbed to a rise that overlooked a long stretch of stream. I stopped to scan for my associates but spotted a lone angler getting in some final casts before the downpour.

Drawn by motion, my eyes traveled past him some twenty yards to find a peculiar sight. Hoover and Berger crouched behind bushes. Every few seconds, one would pop up and toss something toward the stream. I surmised that the angler mistook splashing stones for rising fish. Perhaps this became the last little straw. It had been building. I no longer enjoyed our trio. I walked on.

I leaned against the car and wrestled off the boots.

“Git back here, you son-of-a-bitch!” cried an unfamiliar voice.

Next, a wild-eyed Hoover scrambled over the bank.

“Some guy’s after us!” exclaimed Hoover.

He ran to the far side of the car and crouched. Shortly, Berger came thudding, his belly jiggling with his strides, one wading boot on and the other missing.

“Ahhhhhhh!” cried Berger.

His mouth was wide, and his face stricken.

A third, more athletic figure came on his heels. Berger ran for the car and yanked at a locked door. He turned to face his pursuer.

The lone angler grabbed the collar off Berger’s t-shirt and pulled forward. The two stood chin to chin. The angler looked working-class, possibly dangerous. Veins stuck out on his neck. His skin was stretched tight, making a skull-like head.

Berger’s jaw slackened and his eyes grew round.

The angler’s mouth churned, but made no sound. A tear rolled. Time was strange and slow motion. He finally spoke in a reedy voice.

“I been dodgin’ God damn bullets in Nam fer two years. Now I gotta dodge God Damn rocks at home!”

He looked around, made eye contact with Hoover, then me.

I twisted my mouth to one side and gave him a small, knowing nod. “Mister, we’re dumb kids.”

It broke the spell.

He stuffed his left forearm in Berger’s face. No hand joined the wrist.

“Look. Take a god-damn good look!”

Then he released Berger, turned, and bolted back as he had come. His presence had been commanding. We could breathe again.

During the ride home, I sat quietly in the back seat, replaying the scene. Berger classified the lone angler as a “whacked out Nam vet.”

I knew this incident would live inside me. It was profound, poetic, and ugly. After all, it was a microcosm of the shabby welcome received by returning Viet Nam soldiers.

The Bel Air was backing out of our driveway when I remembered the Rooster Tail.

“Hey, where’s my lure?” I yelled.

“Sorry, I lost her,” yelled Hoover.

The car drove away down our street.

© Copyright 2001 Harlow Flick (wolfgang at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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