Background by W. A. Smith

My dad and grandfather are together by the pond. The place is so big I can sneak up on anyone, stealing from an azalea bush over to the magnolia tree to gather a few of the hand grenades it manufactures, in case of enemy attack. Light and shade are everywhere. With the dry grass and twigs on the ground, it’s difficult to be quiet when I skulk, but they each have a line in the water, whispering to one another. They can’t hear me.

My dad, Emerson, is sitting near the flood gate; his father stands a little ahead of him on the bank. My grandfather, Big Charley, has on his favorite fishing cap ‘ with the long green visor ‘ and Emerson’s wearing the vest my Mother sent him during the war, when he was in Africa. Lined with alpaca. I can see the lining because the side with buttonholes is permanently creased back from being packed wrong for the long trip home. It doesn’t matter much about the weather ‘ hot or cold, rain or shine ‘ my father wears the vest whenever he fishes. He’s got on a blue button-down shirt, short sleeves. He’s told me that in Africa the vest was always buttoned up. ‘It was cold as hell,” he said. He was somewhere near Casablanca the first time he was shot, and he told me he was damn sure the Germans were aiming at the cross painted on his helmet.

Big Charley looks like The Old Man and The Sea standing there with his line reaching out from him. I watch him pull one in, but it’s too small, like most of them. He gives it back. Dad stocked the pond so Big Charley can put a line in whenever he wants, even hook a good fish now and then. My grandfather has a profound relationship with fishing, and now, in his seventies, he’ll drop a line in the pond even if there’s no fish at all. It doesn’t matter about the big ones anymore; it’s more for the setting, I think.

Big Charley turns to say something, and I take the opportunity to sneak from the magnolia tree to the pine where our rope swing is dangling riderless in the breeze. I pull the swing to me and run my hands up the rope to the place where it’s just begun to fray. Then I make another halfback sprint to the old oak character whose moss hair drags the ground. I’ve crouched in its empty trunk before. It’s hollowed by age and disease, but it’s also a good tree to smoke cigarettes in ‘ for the rustic flavor ‘ yes, of course ‘ but primarily for camouflage. Though my mother and father know I smoke, it’s not condoned because I’m only 12, after all. What they don’t ever seem to grasp is that only-twelve is as old as I can be right now, and I don’t have the time to wait until I hit the age when smoking will be okay. I think of the soft fingers on my grandfather’s right hand, nobly stained by Lucky Strikes.

My father is looking at Big Charley while the old man speaks. His lips are moving. My grandfather takes off his cap for a moment and his white hair stands up in a little breeze. I look at Emerson’s profile while he listens. He loves Big Charley, I can see. I think there’s something biting at his line but he doesn’t seem to notice. Big Charley breaks off what he’s saying and motions Dad to pull in his catch. But this fish is like the first one, just getting started. Emerson watches as Big Charley removes the hook and gives the fish back.

Emerson stands up and puts his arm around the old man, pulls him close for a moment. Big Charley’s long green visor shades their faces and casts a thin shadow on Emerson’s vest. The water’s sprinkled with bits of light that seem to float toward them from the other end of the pond.

Suddenly Dad’s voice is loud enough for me to hear it. ‘Damn!” he says, knees buckling under him, sliding, jerking his arm from Big Charley’s shoulder, sitting down hard. His head yanks back into the high grass near the flood gate, my grandfather throws both fishing poles up on the slope behind them and kneels down beside him. Big Charley holds Emerson’s head in his hands. My dad’s rocking back and forth, bucking and shivering as if he’s freezing in the July heat. Big Charley rocks with him, holding him steady, saying things I can’t hear. His lips moving. I’m unable to do anything but stare from the shaded hollow of my tree.

The seizure is slowing down, Big Charley moves behind Emerson, cradling my dad’s head in his lap, rubbing his forehead. The sound of Big Charley’s voice drifts over to me, as clear and incomprehensible as the hum of the generator behind the kitchen at school. Big Charley lifts his head for a moment, looks at the pond.

They stay there for a few minutes. Finally Dad sits up slowly, holding steady with his hand. They both stand again. Emerson brushes the grass and dirt from the seat of his pants with his left hand and feels along the back of his head with his right. Big Charley gets the poles, gives one to Dad. Each checks his line and casts in opposite directions, toward the edges of the pond. I love watching them, and I’m aware of it. I love spying on them.

Emerson passes his pole to his left hand, putting his other arm around Big Charley’s shoulders, turning to say something. When he’s finished the two of them look at each other. Except for sunlight drifting toward them, the afternoon is standing still. It’s the first time I ever remember thinking silence can be okay.

No one would think they’re two doctors. I see two men: fathers, sons. Emerson’s fishing pole is dangling from his left hand, forgotten, the tip lost beneath the glassy water, unnoticed by these two men.

I wonder if the biggest fish in the world is now effortlessly working the bait from his hook.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *