Metropolitan Homesick Blues

Southampton Stories & Other Stuff

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He takes an old plastic pail from the back of his Chevy Silverado, flips it upside down and twists the open end into the sand and gravel shore close to the edge of the river. He returns to his truck and briefly rummages around in the back, mumbling to himself until he finds what he’s looking for – a well-worn red cushion with duct-taped corners now split from wear and revealing fraying foam edges. He gently places the cushion on the top of the pail, shifts it around searching for what he feels is the right angle.  He pats it twice just to make sure that it still has the support he needs for a long day of sitting. 

He leans his rod against the pail and opens the lid to his tackle box. It doesn’t take him long to rig his line. Flipping back his rod he casts out over the muddy brown, slow-moving water. The lure traces a high arc before plopping down in the middle of the river. The bobber surfaces and floats uneasily with the current. Satisfied that he hit a deep enough spot he slowly lowers himself on to the cushion.

“Now we wait.” A slim smile cracks his normally stoic face. He lights a cigarette and looks up at the traffic heading in and out of town over the long concrete bridge spanning the river. 

“They’re going somewhere.” He exhales a long, thin stream of smoke. “I ain’t going anywhere but here.” 

He knows there is nothing better for him, nothing more that he wants to do other than what he’s doing right now. Sitting. Waiting. Watching. Willing the fish to his lure.

His wife is at home, reading, as she does when he goes fishing. It’s a good thing the town has a library, he often says to her, otherwise we’d be broke if you had to pay for all the books you go through

Aren’t you the lucky one, then. She is happy to get him out of her hair. She prefers to have the mornings to herself.

He can’t stand her kind of doing nothing. Even as a boy he was always outside, wandering on his own…exploring…letting the world pass him by. To him solitude is a state of grace.

It is cold down on the river shore. The slow rising sun isn’t warming things up yet. That’s the way he likes it. He squints into the stubborn early morning light. A small breeze sends ripples across the water’s surface moving his line back and forth, so he has nothing to do but light up another cigarette and wait. He doesn’t mind if the fish ignore him.

Out of the corner of his eye he notices a young man setting up a folding chair just down shore from him. The old man smiles when he sees what the fellow is wearing – ball cap, jacket and pants with more zippered pockets than needed and boots, all in that dark green and beige camouflage pattern you see a lot of come deer hunting season. When he sees the fellow arranging a thermos, cooler, iPhone and ear buds, and one of those big, plastic, multi-drawer tackle boxes neatly beside his chair, the old man just shakes his head and smiles.

When the young man starts casting out his line and reeling it in repeatedly, the old man senses something that he’s familiar with. With each cast he the feels it building inside. It’s a frustration the boy should be feeling, not him. But, he can’t help himself.

“You ought to let your lure just sit a bit so they can get at good look at what you’re offering them. Doesn’t look like the fish will be chasing bait this morning,” he says in a loud voice. 

“What?” The young man doesn’t look up. He keeps casting and reeling in. 

“I said, relax, the fish don’t seem to be in much of a hurry right now.”

“What makes you the bloody expert?”

The tone of voice surprises the old man. He didn’t expect that kind of response, but he was familiar with it. Since his suggestion isn’t welcome he turns away, content to stare at the water and take shelter in his own thoughts.

He never did deal well with confrontation. Whenever he came up against anyone with strong opinions he would shrug and allow that they had a right to what they were thinking. This was his way of avoiding arguments. He didn’t like conflict. To him, people who put so much effort in wanting to be right all the time didn’t have a sense of peace about them. 

His wife said he was always in retreat, that he had no spirit for a good argument or discussion. Her gentle criticism didn’t bother him. Throughout his working life he wanted nothing more than to be left alone to do his job. Those he worked with saw him as a calm, easy going, but private individual…what they called ‘a good worker’. He managed to survive, retire well and still feel good about himself. 

“Are there any fish in this river?” The young man is shouting at him.

True to the person he’s always been, the old man doesn’t respond. He looks away, drops his cigarette into the sand grinding it out with the heel of his boot. In his own time, on his own terms, he might get around to answering.

“Do you ever catch anything off this shore?” There is a tinge of agitation in the fellow’s voice.

The old man sighs, shifts his weight on the cushion and slowly turns to him. “Sometimes. Sometimes you just have to wait them out. Sometimes you only wait a few minutes. Sometimes you wait all day long. Sometimes you wait for nothing.” 

“Thanks for the advice.” The fellow puts as much sarcasm into the words as he can. 

The old man hears it, but isn’t bothered. It isn’t his fault if this fellow doesn’t see the truth in his answer. If this young man could put his impatience on hold for a second and listen to what he was being told, he would understand. He’s like most of the people the old man dealt with throughout his life. They were all in a big hurry. Expecting a quick solution. Demanding satisfaction right away. When they didn’t get what they thought they deserved he could see how it diminished them little by little. 

The old man stands up and reels in his line. It takes less than a minute. He knows that he’s being watched. He can see the fellow swaying from one foot to another. From the body language the old man can tell that this young man is annoyed with him. The realization that he is getting under the fellow’s skin makes him feel good…makes him bold.

“Son, what is it you want me to say, exactly?”

“You could answer my question straight up.”

“I did. You just need to listen more. It isn’t my fault if the fish aren’t biting.” 

He paused a moment deliberating whether to keep talking.

“It certainly isn’t my fault if you aren’t catching anything. I’m not either. So, really, what is the problem?”

 All he is doing is trying to communicate the reality of the moment. If this guy isn’t prepared to deal with reality, then fine. He isn’t prepared to let him upset his morning. 

Toying with someone like this isn’t something he’s done very often. It comes as a surprise that he can bring himself to this point. He knows he is deliberately taunting the fellow. If his wife were here she’d say this was certainly no retreat. Finally found some spirit is what she would probably say. He laughs softly at the thought.

The fellow ignores the old man’s last comment and casts his line down river. He turns his back to the old man who stands watching, serene and satisfied…doing what feels right to him…enjoying this moment. 

As the young man reels in, his line goes taut. His rod bends and moves in the direction of the current. He jerks it back quick and hard to set the hook and turns to the old man.

“Looks like sometimes is right now for me,” 

There’s a look of triumph on his face. His rod bends even more as he struggles to bring in his catch. With each turn of the spool he looks in the old man’s direction and lets out a short, high pitched whoop. About a minute passes. Nothing happens. Nothing moves except the river.

“Looks like you caught bottom,” says the old man.

Ignoring him, the fellow whips his rod up, down and sideways trying to get free. His face grows red with frustration.

“You keep pulling on it like that, the hook’ll only set deeper into whatever you snagged.” 

“Got an answer for everything, don’t you old man.” 

“I’m just…”  

“I don’t need you to tell me what to do.”

It  feels as if the wind off the river is blowing these words into the old man’s face, collapsing the moment, forcing it to fall in on him. He doesn’t have control of this situation like he thought he did. At this point his will gives way to a crushing weariness. For years he has unconsciously given in to a fatigue so palpable, so deep that it weakened his spirit. He suddenly realizes how exhausted he is.

The old man closes his eyes, trying to shut out this feeling that he has known all his life.

He feels the fellow’s anger flow into his body on some invisible conduit. Tension grows tighter in his head as he watches the young man struggle to pull his line free. He feels the fellow’s frustration pressing down on his chest. Like the line that is caught on an unknown obstacle deep beneath the surface he feels hooked to some unfathomable reality laying deep in his soul. He can’t breath. An unseen snag at the bottom of his brain holds him fast and won’t let go…won’t let him surface so he can suck in a lung-full of air. He squeezes his eyes shut hoping it will all go away.

Something snaps inside like a switch, releasing feelings he’s resisted for too long. Pain burns momentarily across his palms. 

Opening his eyes he finds himself standing beside the young man, holding the remnants of the fishing line in his bare hands. 

The young man looks at him not realizing what happened. He lifts his rod, free now from the hold of the river. Wind catches the severed line. 

The old man walks back to his pail and sits down on his tattered cushion. He looks at his hands and sees a thin trace of blood where the line cut into the skin of his palms.

There is no pain, just a feeling of liberation.

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

December 16, 2019 at 12:45 PM