I never lied about a fish I caught or one that got away. Not a lot of fishermen can say that. I’ve lied my ass off about where I caught fish, but I always told The Gospel Truth about everything else.
What? Why lie about where I caught fish? Think about it. If I walked into a bar like this after a day on the water, bragging to every angler within earshot about all the fish I caught, and said where I caught them, there’d be a god damn fisherman’s convention out there next weekend when I went back! Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Mais yeah, it should make sense! *laughs*
Sailfish. That’s what brings me out here to Islamorada. Captain Chuck Higgins is the guy I use. Hired him to charter me every day this week. I always hire Chuck when I’m down here. I’m not gonna tell you where he takes me. Hire him next week if you want. *laughs*
Anyway, what was I saying? Oh, right- I always lie about where I catch fish, but I always tell the truth, The Gospel Truth, about everything else. Cross my heart, Scout’s Honor, right hand to God. You believe me, don’t you? I have no reason to lie to you about anything else; follow me?
It’s important that you know I’m not bullshitting you when I tell you what I’m about to tell you. Trust me, I couldn’t spin a yarn like this one if I tried. Nobody could, not even Mark Twain. And I never told anybody about this before, not even my wife, and I tell her everything.
After all this time why tell you? Hell, Boyd, I don’t know. Maybe because I’m old, and probably because I’m a little drunk. And you just look like you’d be the type who’d understand; follow me?
It was all my fault, really. Can’t blame anybody else for it but me. I was working too much. Probably drinking too much, too. And I was lonely.
Years ago, not long after we’d gotten married, my wife’s sister’s baby boy passed away. Doctor said babies just die like that sometimes. They stop breathing, no good reason for it, and they die. Well, her sister was devastated. The daddy wasn’t in the picture. She was all alone up there in Kansas City.
I remember the phone rang at two in the morning. It was her sister. I hand the phone to my wife and she just sat there listening. Said she couldn’t live another day in a world where everything she loved would get taken away. Didn’t want to live anymore. My wife was on the next flight up there. Stayed with her and looked after her for damn-near six months. Six months, Boyd.
So like I was saying, I was lonely, I was putting-in too many hours at work, and maybe I was drinking more than I ought to have been.
Loneliness’ll do that to you. It’ll make you lose sight of The Bigger Picture; follow me?
The Bigger Picture? Okay, for example: me and my wife have been married for thirty-seven years. And damned if those years haven’t been good years. Real good years. Six months doesn’t amount to much when you look at it like that, hindsight being what it is. That’s what I mean by The Bigger Picture.
But I didn’t see things like that, back then. And maybe one mistake in thirty-seven years doesn’t amount to much either, Boyd, who knows?
Anyway, I had an affair. And I regretted it immediately. Still do. And I never told anybody about it. And I never told anybody about what happened after that either, that’s for damn sure! And that’s the most important part, Boyd.
It was with Abigail Duhon. Why she picked that dive on that Thursday night I will never know. She sat down at the bar next to me, and she wasn’t like the usual clientele who frequented that place. Most women like her drink down town; follow me? You don’t see old money being thrown around dive bars like that one. Bars like that are where people go when the money’s damn-near run out. But there she was, and damned if she wouldn’t leave me alone. Not that I made a herculean effort to fight-off her advances, either. Like I said, I was lonely.
I’ll put it this way- I missed my wife. I missed her terribly. But I missed the, what should we call it? Uh, the “connubial bliss,” I missed that more; follow me? A man can miss his wife like the French say- tu me manques, “You are missing from me,” or a man can miss his wife because a man has needs and she ain’t there to meet them. Well, that was how I justified it. “A man has needs, doesn’t he?”
I missed her too much the wrong way, Boyd.
The next morning Abigail was gone. Left me a note, “Had a nice evening Clovis, but it won’t happen again, take care of yourself” is what it said. And Boyd, do you want to know what the real irony was? I was too damn drunk that night to remember what the woman was like in bed, the next day! Not that I wanted to. I felt bona-fide horrible when the light of day shone on the decision I’d made, that morning. Horrible was all I felt.
I called my boss and told him I couldn’t come to work that morning. Told him I was sick. “Bullshit, you’re going fishing” he said. He was right of course. I’d already hooked the boat trailer up to the truck before I called him. He told me I could take the day off anyway, and I didn’t hear anything about it after that.
That’s when I met the Old Man, Boyd, down at the lake that afternoon. Christ, I still get the frissons when I think about… Him. He told me he was one-hundred and six years old, Boyd. Can you believe that? One-hundred and six years old, so help me God.
You’re going to need another drink for this, Boyd. You and me both. Tell Millie to make me another Test Pilot, and that I’d also like a Landshark with a lime, and order yourself whatever you’d like. Have her put it on my tab. I’ll be back in a minute.
I don’t like remembering him, Boyd. I thought -hell, hoped-beyond-hope- that the memory of meeting him would fade as I got on in years like all the other memories seem to, but it hasn’t; follow me? I don’t think even Alzheimer’s could erase it. God-forbid I ever get Alzheimers, of course.
I’m giving it all to you straight, Boyd. Just like I remember it, just like it was yesterday.
I was out there on the water in my old pirogue, about thirty or so yards from the bank just beyond the cypress trees and the lily pads. I hadn’t caught a damn thing all day, and it wasn’t because my mind was too wrapped-up in what’d happened the night before with Abigail, either. Nothing was biting.
Now, I’ve been fishing since I was eight years old and I know just as well as any other fisherman that days like that are why we call it “fishing” and not “catching.” So I cracked-open a beer and resigned myself to the fact that I’d be doing a whole lot more drinking than catching that day.
And that’s what brings us to him, Boyd. The Old Man. I was sitting there in my pirogue, drinking a beer, when I saw a tall, wiry-looking old man walking down the bank. He was wearing a pair of old blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and one of those bushman-style hats.
And he had a fly rod in his hand, of all things. In South Louisiana! Can you believe that, Boyd? “There’s no speckled trout within five-hundred square miles of here or more,” I thought to myself. I’d been throwing all my best lures and hadn’t got so much as a nibble all day, like walking through the TB ward and not even catching a cold; follow me?
“No way,” I thought, “is He going to catch anything with that fly rod.”
After a little while he picked a spot near the lily pads. I watched him cast a few times, that mid-air “back and forth, back and forth” way they do. A couple times he’d let that fly land on the water, and then he’d pull it off real fast and start all over again with that “back and forth, back and forth” stuff.
After a minute or two he made a cast and let the fly land on the water, right in the thick of those lily pads. I watched him strip a little bit of line, and then a little bit more, moving that fly along the surface of the water. All of a sudden, from out of nowhere, a fish hit that fly! Ever catch a bass top-water, Boyd? You see an explosion on the surface when the fish hits your popper, it’s wild! He pulled-back on that rod and I watched it bend with the weight of that fish. I watched him strip foot after foot of line until he had it on the bank, a nice little bass. He removed the fly from its mouth, inspected the fish for a moment, and then put it back in the water and let it swim away.
I opened another beer and kept on watching him. He’d cast in mid-air for several moments while surveying the water, looking for a spot he liked. Then he’d cast and let that fly land real gentle. Sometimes he’d leave the fly to sit there on the water for a minute or two and other times he’d strip some line and make it dart along the surface. And he caught three more fish that way, if you can believe it!
When he started walking toward another spot a little way down the bank from there, I pointed my pirogue at those lily pads and started making my way over to them. Damned if the fish didn’t seem to follow him though. *laughs* I tied-on one of my best popping lures and fished that spot for a damn hour, walking that lure through anywhere the way was clear, and didn’t get a single bite. And every time I’d look over at the Old Man he was turning another fish loose.
Didn’t take me long before I got fed-up with it and pointed my pirogue at the boat launch.
It was the curiosity that made me want to go talk to him. I wanted to know what the hell was on the end of his leader that the fish were so gaga for; follow me?
So after I’d gotten my pirogue back onto the trailer, I pulled my truck away from the boat launch, parked, and took-off down the bank in the direction I’d seen him walking.
When I found him he was kneeling down by the water, holding a large, bull chinquapin. Biggest one I’ve ever seen. I tell you Boyd, that sunfish must’ve weighed four pounds. He took what looked to me like a crude dragonfly out of the fish’s mouth, a then let it go.
“Nice catch” I said to him.
The Old Man didn’t say a word to me. He just stood-up slowly, and when he turned to me, Boyd I swear… The Old Man didn’t have any eyes…
I said he had no god damn eyes!
Well he had, I don’t know damn it, just skin, shiny skin, scarred-like, over where his eyes should’ve been. I was staring right into his eyeless face, Boyd, and I could feel him staring back at me somehow!
No! No, I’m not kidding! I told you already, this is The Gospel Truth!
I’m trying to calm down! Where’s Millie? I need her to bring me another god damn drink.
When the Old Man turned to me, I forgot all about the fish. I forgot about Abigail Duhon and my wife, too. All I could do was stare into that eyeless face of his.
What’d the Old Man look like apart from having scarred patches of skin over where his eyes should’ve been, you mean? Well, he was a white man. And his face was long, and weathered. Tanned, too, like he’d been in the sun a lot. Strong jaw, and you could see the muscles under his cheeks when they twitched. And like I said before, he was wiry. Wiry but not frail. He was more sinewy-looking, tough. But he was tall, too, with long arms and long legs.
I don’t know how long I was standing there, staring at him, but he snapped me out of it when he spoke to me.
“Something’s bothering you” he said.
What’d I say back to him? Shit, Boyd, I said the only thing I could say back to him!
“Sir, you don’t have any eyes.”
“I know,” he said, “I burned them out, Clovis.”
Yes that’s right, the Old Man said he burned-out his own god damn eyeballs! Burned them right out of his own head! And yes he called me by my name, and before you ask- no, I have no idea how he knew what my name was!
Well of course I asked him why the hell he did it! And he told me, too! Told me the whole story and I remember it all, word-for-word:
“I met Alexandra, my wife, when I was eighteen years old. I loved her the moment I met her. I married her two months later. She gave me sixty-seven years of her life and eleven beautiful children, Clovis. And never, in that entire time, did I ever so much as look at another woman.
When she died, I swore I’d never fall in love again. I was an old man by then, didn’t think I could, anyway. But I’m still a man after all, and after she’d been gone a while, my eyes started looking. Much as I didn’t want them to, they looked. It didn’t matter where I was or what I was doing, I’d look up and my eyes would find another woman, and they’d try to make me fall in love with her.
One morning I was at church, and my eyes kept looking up at a woman who was singing in the choir, when they should’ve been looking down at the words in the hymnal I was holding. I decided right then and there that something had to be done.
When I got home from church that afternoon I started a fire in the fireplace. Once it was going real good, I left the tip of a poker to sit in there and warm-up. I said prayers while it got good and hot. And once it was glowing red, I took it out of the fire and burned my eyes out with it. First the right one and then the left one.”
I was staring right at it and I still couldn’t believe it. And I don’t know what scared me worse- the scars where his damn eyes should’ve been, the fact he’d done it to himself, or Hell, that it felt like the Old Man could still see me somehow. Boyd, I’m telling you, I’d never been so scared in all my life, and Lord I hope I never am again, I’d probably have a heart attack and die!
And get this, Boyd. After he told me that story, after I had time to think about it, process it, I asked him how the hell he got himself down to the lake that afternoon.
Know what he told me?
He said, “I thought my way here…”
No I am not bullshitting you, Boyd! This what he told me, I swear to God!
“…after I ate my breakfast” he said, “I decided I wanted to go fishing. So I sat down in my rocking chair, started rocking back-and-forth, back-and-forth real good until I was real relaxed, and then I started thinking about the lake. Thinking about it real hard you know, like I could almost see it. And before I knew it, I could see it. Not with my eyes of course, they’re long gone. I’m talking about seeing it in my mind. And before I knew it, here I was.”
I can’t make this shit up!
I told him I didn’t believe him, that it was impossible! What the hell else do you think I told him? And you know what the Old Man said to me? I’ll tell you-
“Clovis,” he said, “I’m a hundred and six years-old, and I’m blind. You don’t honestly believe that I walked all the way here from Lafayette, do you?”
That’s why I never told anybody about it, Boyd! Because of how crazy it all sounds. I was afraid they’d have me committed!
Care to know what else he told me? He said that if I ever went looking for Abigail Duhon again, or any other girl for that matter, he’d let me borrow his fire poker. Said he’d bring it to me, himself! That’s what sent me running back to my truck, Boyd. That’s what put the fear of God in me.
So do you believe me, Boyd? Or do you think I’m crazy?
Hell no I haven’t! And if Millie has a Bible under the bar somewhere I’ll swear on it! I was never unfaithful again after that. Do you understand, Boyd? never again after that! At first it was because I was terrified the Old Man would come looking for me, ready to burn out my eyeballs with that fire poker of his. But after a while I guess you could say I started looking more at what I had, and not so much at what-all was going on out there; follow me?
I didn’t want to go on another ten, twenty years without telling someone about it. I couldn’t. Hell, I’ve carried it around with me for so long already that the idea of going another day without telling somebody about it felt like it’d kill me.
Imagine going all that time after something like that, thinking nobody’d believe you. Thinking they’d call you crazy.
I knew you’d understand. Christ, Boyd, I feel like a damn millstone’s been lifted from around my neck.
(Thirty-Six Years Earlier…)
An orderly at the Maison De Lafayette rest home checks-in on her favorite resident- a blind centenarian who often regales her with stories about his deceased wife, their children, their grandchildren, and occasionally- fly fishing. Sometimes he tells her about things that haven’t happened yet, like the time he told her that her she’d become pregnant with twins. The door to his room doesn’t fit right in the jamb, and it creaks loudly as she opens it.
“Bonnie, is that you?” he calls.
“You knew it was me before I opened the door” she answers, making her way to him. She’s smiling.
He’s in his rocking chair, by the only window in his room. The window is open, and the sunlight and the breeze coming through makes the room feel expansive.
Reaching him she places her hand on his shoulder. He pats her hand gently, and smiles.
“Be a dear and hang my fishing hat up over there, would you Bonnie?”
“All done fishing for the day, are we?”
“Yes ma’am, I think so.”
“Let me put your fishing rod away for you, too, then.”
He smiles. “Thank you, Bonnie. I appreciate that.”
Once his hat and his fly rod are put away, she pulls a chair up next to him, and they begin to talk.
“Catch anything good at the lake today?”
“As a matter of fact Bonnie, I did! But I can tell you all about that later. Right now I want to hear about how your babies are doing.”
© 2016 Kenneth Atkins