George was in one of those moods that might only come upon a grown man once in a lifetime, or not at all. Sure, some men lived their whole lives ruled by such moments, but those men weren’t successful, didn’t hold respectable jobs, or provide for a family.
George didn’t actually have a family. He just had Martha. When they were first married they tried for children, but it didn’t work out. Martha lost interest in the process before they figured out where the problem lay. Of course, she said it was his fault, both counts, but secretly he always thought they should’ve tried a little harder.
That left him free to work on his career. Like his dad, he joined the army, and did a tour in Europe. That’s when he met Martha, she was a USO girl he met at a good-bye dance. After the army, she insisted he join “daddy’s” firm.
Martha’s dad was the kind of iron furnace that consumed raw materials and lesser men, turning them into his own wealth. He was always sure Martha married below her station, and did his best to prove it. After twenty years he still made George call him “Mr. Purdy” and promoted legions of jovial hard-drinking good ol’ boys past George.
Even after all this time, not a day went by without Martha giving George some pep talk about how he just needed to apply himself to please daddy, layering nacre over the grit of his frustration to build a perfect pearl of shame.
Today George was on the outskirts of his territory, in the foothills near where he lived as a boy. It was a scorcher. He had his coat folded inside out on the seat beside him, but sweat was still running off of him. He daren’t open the window more than a crack, lest the road dust settle into his wool business suit. Martha had them cleaned twice a year, and he would catch hell if she had to do it more.
At any rate, George suddenly felt the urge not to work. He hadn’t had a single sick day in twenty-two and one half years. It earned him a twenty-dollar bonus every year, and as Martha said, those little things add up. But suddenly today, George didn’t feel like making any more calls. He was ahead of schedule and over quota anyway, of course.
He found himself driving deeper into the foothills. The open fields gave way to the cool evergreen forest, and the temperature dropped like he had just entered a cold cellar.
George came up to an old log bridge and braked his car. He sat there a moment, hands on the wheel, staring straight ahead as his dust cloud wafted by. Suddenly, he reversed to the side of the road under the shade of a big fir, and got out of the car. He looked both ways and then walked up to the bridge, pulling at the knot of his company tie. Halfway across, he stopped and looked downstream, running his hands through his brush cut. Below the bridge was a little fall, and then downstream the brook widened to a little pool, almost hidden around the bend.
George stared thoughtlessly for a while, his brow creasing with some half-remembered thought. Suddenly, he stepped forward, putting both hands on the log rail and leaning against it. He laughed. He remembered this spot, his dad took him here as a boy. He hadn’t thought about it in years but suddenly it came back to him.
When he was about eight, his dad took him here to go fishing. Just down there out of site, a massive tree fell across the stream, creating a natural dam and a pool below the falls. His dad walked him through the cool forest to this secret spot and George watched in earnest the ritual of selecting and tying on the perfect fly.
“See George how steep the banks are upstream, above the falls?” George nodded his head solemnly. “All kinds of things fall in there, then come down over the falls, there’s a big fish under those falls, eats everything that comes down, like a garbage disposal.” George was afraid of the garbage disposal, living like a voracious beast in the dark cavern under the sink. He imagined a creature more beast than fish, with great, large, geared teeth lurking in the depthless pool.
“So we don’t have to be too picky. Something big and leggy, make him thing he got himself real meal.” He pulled a large black hairy fly out of the box. “This would do, but we really want to get his attention. I tied this one myself. I call it ‘Hot Lunch’,” and he pulled out another fly, again with black but this time there was lots of gold and silver in it too. “Don’t look like nothing, but he sure seems to like it.”
Then he showed George how to tie it on, wetting the knot so friction wouldn’t weaken it, and snipping off the extra, careful to put it in his pocket otherwise it would sit here “a million years” showing how sloppy they were.
In George’s eyes, his father’s cast was as mighty as Casey’s swing. It arced twice back and forth through the air until he judged the distance right, and then landed right at the base of the falls, just up from a pile of foam. He looked at George and winked, just as quick, he looked back as the line and the fly disappeared in an explosion of water. At seeing the monster, George grabbed his father’s leg.
“Lunch!” exclaimed his dad, and waded into the pool. George watched in fascination as his dad played the fish for hours, using the rod like a first seat violinist wields her bow. He explained every nuance of the battle to George.
“See how he’s heading for the falls? Lost him there once, and he remembers.”
“Can’t let the line get too tight, see how I let it go?” And he took his palm off the reel while the fish ran downstream. But when the fish turned and came back, he reeled furiously, “But you never let him have any slack either, got to wear him down.”
And so it went upstream and down, both the man and the fish working that little pool for hours, neither of them showing signs of quarter. Lunch came and went, George wasn’t even hungry. Finally, as the sun dipped into the forest, casting the pool into plum shadows, George’s dad waded into the water next to the fish. “Come here Georgey, this is what I wanted to show you.” George waded in next to his dad. The fish was leviathan. Easily over three feet long, it was bigger than George. “This here is Max. Short for Maximus Fishus. Long for Big. He’s a world record fish George. The biggest brown trout anybody has ever seen. A man brings home a fish like this, he’s going to be a hero to other men.”
“Dad, wait ‘til moms sees him! They’ll go gaga at the store!” George imagined it all standing next to his dad, everybody looking at them.
George’s dad just smiled. He’d been a hero, after the war they put him in a Cadillac convertible and drove him through town on the Fourth of July, medals on his uniform. “No, George, not today. This fish is here for you. This is your inheritance, someday, you’ll come down here and you’ll catch Max and everybody will admire you. Until then, he’s just money in the bank, and you can’t ever tell anybody about him, even mom.”
George never kept a secret with his dad before. He watched while his father reached down and lovingly stroked the fish’s side. “Promise?”
The fish looked like a bronze statue lying in the water. “I do. I swear it.” His dad smiled, then laughed, and then taking the hook out of Max’s mouth, let him go. George looked at the empty water, not sure the fish had ever been there.
His dad died soon after that. Got caught in the bight of a logging cable, cut him clean in half. Only later did George find out he had cancer. Today was the first time George realized that he probably knew he was sick for a long time before he went. That’s why he took him to the hole that day. George had completely forgotten about the fish with the funeral, and working the farm, the army, his career and everything else that came with his father’s death. He smiled. Since then, he didn’t think of his dad much. Seemed like life kind of got in the way. But he was always a hero to George. He shook his head to clear the past and saw gold flicker in the pool below, then a hole opened in the water as if some one had just pulled a bath plug out of the pool.
He pursed his lips, then turned and hurried back to the car. Could it be? After all these years? He opened the trunk. He always carried the rod and gear he inherited from his dad. He hadn’t used it in what, twenty-five years now?
The trunk only held a spare and a couple of road flares. Dammit, Martha must have taken his gear out. Damn that woman, why couldn’t she just leave his things alone? Maybe he hadn’t used it in a long time, but at least he knew where it was. Just once in twenty-five years he’d decided to have some fun, and she’d denied him even that.
He futilely ran his hands into the dark recesses around the wheel wells and was surprised to come up with an old reel, with the remains of a fly still tied on it.
George looked at it in disgust, dropped it back and slammed the trunk down. Might as well call it a day. He turned to get behind the wheel, and stopped, a look of reserve on his face. No, dammit, this was his place. His afternoon. He could feel it in his bones. He re-opened the trunk and took out the reel, turning it over in his hands. There on the back were his father’s initials. AH. Alston Hammond. All machined out of a solid block by his dad. They didn’t make reels like that any more, or men, George thought. Alston never worked for another man a day in his life, and he went fishing when he damned pleased.
George remembered what the doctor said to his mom. Told her that it was a grisly way to go, but less so than the cancer. Besides, the accident paid double on the insurance, so Georgey would get to go to college after all. The doctor and his mom shared a long silence after that that took George years to understand. After that George’s mom wouldn’t hear of anything but business school for George. But he felt compelled to go into the army when war broke out, and met Martha at a going away party for the local boys. She wasn’t the prettiest girl there and she wouldn’t dance with him, but she promised George she would if he came back, and that’s just what happened. He made it most of the way through his tour before his mom died of pneumonia. He came back to settle up the farm and bury her, and true to her word, Martha was there for him. The army let him out early and he went to work for her dad, finishing his degree in night school.
George opened the trunk again and grabbed the reel, inspecting the fly. The feathers were dust except for the quills, but there was a hook. He shut the trunk and crossed the road to a stand of alder. It took a while, but he managed to cut and limb one with his pocketknife, came back to the car, put the reel in his pocket and started searching for the path.
Just as he remembered, it started behind the fir and wound across the thick duff under the trees where it was as tall, dark, cool, and holy as the cathedrals he had seen in Europe. George paralleled the stream for a while until he came to the fallen tree. Lying in state all these years, it was still taller than he was.
He walked along it to the stream and carefully took off his shoes and socks and rolled up his pants. No way he could explain muddy cuffs to Martha.
The tree still blocked the stream, and the pool was just as he remembered it. George took a shoelace out and carefully bound the reel to his switch. Then he took a paper clip out of his pocket, bent it into a loop, and fastened it to the tip with the other lace. It was a bit Izaak Walton, he thought, but people had caught fish on cruder apparatus.
He stripped a bunch of line off of the reel and threaded it up the rod, then gave it a few practice flicks, using his had as a kind of stripping guide. It was the crudest thing he’d ever seen, but he could put about twenty feet of line out. The big problem would be what to use for a lure. His dad always called his flies “gee-haws” and said he could catch fish all day on red yarn tied to the hook, but then what would he do with the rest of his time? George patted himself down looking for something he could tie on. Remembering the “hot lunch’’ fly he took off his silver tie tack and affixed it just above the hook.
It looked dubious at best, but a big eight-year old boy smile got stuck on George’s face and wouldn’t leave. He walked up the bank keeping to the soft needles. He honestly couldn’t remember the last time he was barefoot – even at the house he always kept his socks and slippers on.
Trees hemmed the pool in and overhung the water, so he carefully edged his way in. There was little room to false cast, but with the weight of the tack, he just held a bunch of line and shot it. Plonk! The lure hit at the base of the falls. The current quickly pulled it downstream. George began stripping with nervous twitches, unaware of holding his breath. At the downstream swing, he picked it up and reshot it, right to the base of a big boulder. He could see the tack trailing its little chain in the transparent water. It looked surprisingly lively.
So intent was he, it took him a minute to see the trout nosing after it like a dog with a ball. As he watched, more and more of the beast came into sight in the sunlight. He couldn’t believe it, it was Maximus. How could that monster still be alive? The trout was as long as his leg and as thick around. George slowly stripped as the fish bumped the makeshift lure with his nose.
Just at the end of the swing the fish turned and shot back to his hole so quickly that George just froze, wondering if he had only imagined him.
Carefully, so carefully, he lifted his line and cast it again. He jumped at the splash it made, but again the fish followed nosing its prey almost as if herding it out of his territory. Again, the fish disappeared at the end of the swing. George pondered the leviathan’s behavior, but could think of nothing else but to entice the fish again.
And so it went, the splash and chase, splash and chase. George and the fish wiled away the afternoon, the blue fir shadows were creeping across the pool when George finally stripped in his line, at a loss as to how to get the fish to bite. If only he had his proper gear!
George held his rod under his arm, and out of old habit, turned his wedding band on his finger while he thought. Suddenly he stopped and looked down. Frantically in the glowing gloom, he stripped it off. Too short on time to rig it properly, he formed a bight in the tippet above the tack, ran it through the ring twice and tied it back to the line. He tugged quickly to test it and shrugging, let it go.
The extra weight proved problematic, after trying to shoot the line somewhat unsuccessfully, Georgia automatically tried to backcast. In his rush, he snagged the line in the fir, bending the aspen rod like a bow. Just as this was registering, the line released and shot forward, the jewelry flashing like a shooting star in the gloom.
George could no longer see the fish, but he pulled in rote, knowing this would be his last cast for the night. Bump. Bump. The wily bruiser was at it again. Perhaps he was blind with age? Bump. The lure was almost at the end of its arc and George could no longer see where the line met the water when suddenly the water erupted. Like a train coming out of a tunnel, the fish hit so hard he pulled the entire line into the air.
George gave a mighty heave to set the hook and tried to use his right hand on the line to slow it down while simultaneously palming the reel with his left. Suddenly he realized that his system had so many weak links that he didn’t know how to play the fish.
Maximus began zooming around the pool in great ellipses, George playing and taking line as best he could. The force of the fish was amazing.
Like his dad, he began a constant dialog with the beast. “Oh, Max, dad was right, you are going to be the world record, don’t make this hard.”
Oblivious, the fish raged around the pool. Within fifteen minutes the mountain light was completely gone.
“Easy boy, you stay out of that snag. That’s right, come to papa.” George reeled furiously.
Forty-five minutes and the three-quarter moon cleared the trees. Still the fish followed its Maypole circuit.
“Easy George, got nothing but spit and baling wire here. Convince him in.”
At an hour the fish suddenly changed tactics, shooting straight down the stream and back. George’s arms ached. His soft feet were bruised from the gravel. His toes numb from the mountain stream.
“I think I’m getting to you! Are you feeling it?” He transferred the rod to his other hand.
Finally, after almost two hours, the fish began to slow, and George thought he might win him. A few times he came off the bottom and George saw him glowing like a sunken moonbeam. The dappled pattern made it seem like he had caught a ghost, a phantom of his childhood.
The fish turned at the tree and headed straight upstream. George attempted to take in slack but the fish shot by, wrapped around the boulder that was his hiding place, and snapped the line. Just like that, George stood there in the dark, his pants soaked from splashing, his shirt like glue, the ludicrous rod in his hand, but he laughed and shook his fist.
“That was Alston Hammond’s son – no, his ghost – Old Man. You were fair hooked and almost cooked and I’ll see you again.” His little poem amused him and he danced in the moonlit shallows waving his rod overhead and singing:
See you again
He stopped mid-splash and the water seemed to hang in the air. He ripped the line in gibbering “No. No. No.” It was too dark to see, but he could feel, there was no hook, no tack, no ring.
George dropped to his knees in the water, dropping the rod and holding his hands. How long he sat like that he didn’t know. Finally, he stood up, disassembled the rod, carefully putting the laces and reel in his pockets. Leaving the useless sapling under the firs, he stumbled back to his shoes and socks, picked them up and limped back to the car.
By the dome light he rolled down his soaked cuffs, laced his shoes, regarded his socks and deciding against them, put on his shoes.
He sat behind the wheel for a while, smoking quietly. Part of him considered just driving on, seeing where the road would lead. Finally he admonished himself. Enough foolishness. This is what playing, especially playing in the past, will get you. One day off, one day in twenty-two and one half years, and what did it get him? Martha was going to be livid.
He started the car, carefully made a three point turn before the bridge, and headed home.
He got home well past midnight, parking next to Martha’s new Chrysler. Not a single light glowed on his street. The whole way home he tried to think up a story about the hour, the clothes, the ring, but nothing came to him. He had never had to lie before, and lacked the creativity for it.
George undressed in the bathroom so as not to wake Martha, and slid into bed next to her. He could tell though by her breathing that she was not asleep.
“Car troubles, dear.”
She rolled over and sat up quicker than Maximus took the makeshift fly.
“What kind of trouble? There’s nothing wrong with that car.”
The more unreasonable she was, the easier this got.
“Got lost, drove off the road turning around, got stuck.”
“I swear George, you are the most reckless man I ever met. You need to take care of that car. We need that car.”
“Martha, that car is over twenty years old, about time to expect the occasional problem.”
“Sounds like it’s not the old car, but the damn fool driver. Did you even finish work?”
“Yes, Martha, I crawled on my hands and knees and finished my route, just to keep Daddy happy.”
If an intake can be a swallowed scream, that’s what Martha did. Then she sputtered, “Well, I never. You are a mean, foul-mouthed, lazy man. You’ll never even be his shadow.”
“Not if I don’t get some sleep, dear.” With that he rolled over and fell instantly asleep.
In his sleep he was back in the moon shadow pool, playing the trout. But then he was the trout too, rolling in the water, struggling with his strange bond; and it was his father on the rod. When he saw him, George swam to his father, the tension going away, but then the angler was Mr. Purdy and George made a frantic run for the rock, the line straining with unbearable tension. He thought it might’ve parted, but then the alarm was going off.
George sat up, but Martha was already gone. At first he was confused, but then the previous day came back to him.
He jolted out of bed, afraid he was late for work, but saw that it was his usual time. He was surprised by how good he felt; he expected to be dragging. In the shower he noticed his ring was gone. How could he forget! He had the same problem as yesterday, as hard as he thought about it, no good lie came to him. His mood evaporated completely.
Martha was at breakfast, banging plates around in the kitchen, plainly mad. His greeting of “’Morning.” went completely unanswered. He poured his own coffee and got a grapefruit out of the refrigerator. George just picked up the paper and folded it so he could hold it in his left hand and read the headlines while he ate.
“Where is your ring?” The emotion in her voice was palpable, although not clearly definable.
“I didn’t want to say anything, dear. It came off when I was slogging the car out of the mud. I couldn’t find it. It’s the reason I was so late.” That came out better than he expected. He looked at her over the paper. “I’ll go down right after work today and put a claim in on it, then I’ll order a new one.”
“You can’t just replace a ring, George. It’s not like that. That is a symbol of our bond. Is it so easy for you to just throw it away?”
“Martha, I had a damn shitty day,” her face showed plain shock, he was sure that was the first time he’d sworn since they were married, “and I kind of wish I didn’t have to apologize to you for it. Sometimes, things just happen.”
“I cannot believe you! What is happening to you? Have you taken up drinking?” She was a pink as the inside of his grapefruit, and almost as sour. “Things do no ‘just happen’. Our lives are what we make them. Something happened, and you’re telling me some story. Don’t think I can’t tell when you are lying to me.”
A dead calm came over George. He took a sip of coffee, put down the paper, and standing up, took his coat off of the back of the chair. “I’ll be late if I don’t leave now.” Walking down the hallway to the front door, he squared his shoulders, as if expecting a blow, but it never came.
On Wednesdays, he always went in early, to type up reports, and pick up any new leads for the rest of the week. Usually, he could be back out on the road by noon. Today was typical. George was in ninety minutes before anybody else, and while he made dutiful progress on his reports, his thoughts were evenly divided between the thrill he got from that fish and the rift his little escapade has caused with Martha. He was sure she would never understand the truth, but he was sorry that he’d told a lie. He knew that would cause him no end of grief.
At nine he had just finished the last of the reports when Mr. Purdy came in. He stood there in the door to George’s office sucking in the light like a black hole, expelling it in clouds of cigarette smoke. He was the kind of man who once had a presence on the gridiron and kept the muscular physique late in life, albeit might have suffered some from a surfeit of Canadian whiskey.
He stood there staring at George for a while who looked back at him over the top of his bifocals. These meetings always unmanned George who felt completely defenseless. Today, however, he returned Mr. Purdy’s glare with the same calm nonchalance he’d used on his daughter.
“How are you feeling today, George.”
“Just fine, Mr. Purdy, what brings you by?” George was going to hold out getting sucked in as long as he could.
Mr. Purdy cocked his head to one side, as if he sensed something was different, but couldn’t quite place it.
“Mind if I come in?”
“You’re the boss.”
Again, a look crossed his face, but then disappeared. He closed the door behind him and came in putting a ham of a buttock on George’s desk. “My little girl,” he began, “called me this morning. Quite upset she was. Said you’ve been acting mighty strange.” He cast an eye at George’s hands, clasped in front of him on the desk.
He leaned over close to George. “George, there are a lot of reasons a man might take off his ring, but you gotta be more careful.” George thought he might wink.
“Mr. Purdy, I’ve known you for a long time, and I really don’t know what you think of me, but I certainly hope you don’t think that.” Mr. Purdy sat up, his eyes wide. “I lost that ring just like I said, digging the car out after I got stuck. At work,” he added thinking that somehow might make a difference. “I’m plenty sorry about it, and I know it is out of character for me, but after twenty-two years, I think I’m entitled to have one bad day.” Or one good one, he secretly thought to himself.
Mr. Purdy’s eyes narrowed. “Well, that might be; don’t go making a habit of it George. I’m keeping an eye on you.” With that he got up and left.
George sat back in his chair with his hands flat on the desk and stared at the spot where Mr. Purdy had disappeared. For some reason, he couldn’t stop thinking about that fish.
He shook his head and called the insurance company. Did he understand that his deductible would go up if he claimed the ring? They understood was his first claim in over twenty years? Yes, but that was the rule, Mr. Hammond. So did he still want to file the claim? Yes, yes he did. Okay, as long as he was sure. Yes, yes he was. He got off the phone and stared at it for a while. He got out the Yellow Pages and started shopping around. It meant transferring to an agency in Milleville, but he got a new agency
Then he collected his things and headed out to make the rounds.
When he got home after work, Martha’s car was gone. Inside, she left him a note, saying she was staying with her folks until he came to his senses. He crumpled the note up while he walked to the liquor cabinet and poured himself two fingers. Martha kept it around for company, meaning her, and occasionally her dad or other business guests, but she didn’t like George to drink. Said it lead to irresponsible behavior.
George started prowling around the garage, found his old fishing equipment, and put it in the trunk of his car. He doubted he’d ever use it again, but damn, he realized, it made him mad that Martha had decided he wouldn’t have that option, and hadn’t even told him. He paused a moment and looked at the rod, a simple but useful bamboo that his dad had put a lot of miles on, as had he. He turned it over in his hands and thought of times with his dad, and times by himself after school when he got away and just relaxed. He had even fished for a while when he started at the firm, but somehow it eventually got replaced by other things.
The flies were still in beautiful shape sitting like little soldiers in their leather wallet barracks, marshaled in neat rows, awaiting the call to duty. Grey Ghost, Olive Dun, Wooly Bugger, Royal Wulff, Comet, Hares Ear, Damsel Nymph. He still remembered each and every name and how to tie them. His father used to tie them while he and his mom listened to the old time radio dramas at night. He looked at the wicker creel and laughed, imagining himself trying to stuff Maximus into that tiny coffin. He took it back out and returned it to the garage and then turned off the lights. It was just symbolic anyway. After his last episode, he sure wasn’t planning on wasting any more time fishing.
George knew this: you can’t rush a woman. He’d never really fought with Martha before, generally his modus operandi was to acquiesce to her desires. Now he was just a little bit peeved. It seemed like one afternoon with that damned trout had shattered his whole life. He decided to wait things out for a bit. If Martha didn’t return in a week or so, he had the seeds of a plan.
The next day, he went to the jewelers where he got his ring. Frank Templeton still owned the place, and worked the counter. George had ordered Martha’s special, but his came right out of the catalog, a simple gold band. It was no trouble at all, Frank told him it would be there by the end of the week.
George’s workweek was pretty much all planned out to be on the road, so he just followed through with his plans. Driving gave him some time to think. He couldn’t believe that he let some stupid fish ruin his marriage. What had he been thinking? And what kind of inheritance was that from his father? A fish. He fumed behind the wheel and banged his fist on the dash when he thought what a fool he had been. Life was so simple, and then you go and do one stupid thing and it was a mess. Well he thought, he could fix that up right.
On Friday he finished his route and stopped by Merrill insurance to get his check. He stood there fumbling with it for a while, then addressed Betsy, the receptionist.
“Betsy, I thought I should tell you in person and all, I’m going to cancel my policy. Got another one already lined up.”
Betsy, sat there behind the counter, her mouth open. Then she closed it with a snap that made George think about a trout. He had to stop thinking about fishing for God’s sake! Betsy pushed her bifocals up her nose and then reached over and buzzed the owner, Russell. George never liked Russell. He also reminded George of a fish with his pasty complexion and neckless figure, complete with an oily sheen starting with the vestiges of his unwashed hair.
“Mr. Merrill, I think you ought to come out here.”
Russell blustered out, not happy about being disturbed from his work. “What’s this about Betsy? You know I can’t be disturbed every ten minutes,” he stopped abruptly when he saw George.
“George. Damn shame about your ring,” he looked quizzically at George as if George might suddenly divulge some important fact, some sordid detail, about how the ring was truly lost. After an uncomfortable pause he went on. “As you can see, minus the deductible and depreciation, you get almost half value. That’s a damn fine deal. Plus of course the entirely reasonable increase in the premium. You can see that we’re always here for you.”
“About that premium, Russell,” George looked back at Betsy, “I’m afraid that I’m canceling my policy.”
Russell gasped like a beached whitefish. “Now, George, this is just business. You need insurance. I’d heard you were behaving a little rashly these days, but you don’t want to go over the deep end.”
George looked back at Russell. “Just business. In Milleville, I got better rates than I got here. Seems it’s more valuable to be a new customer there than an old one here. I’ll be expecting a refund of my premiums in the mail, properly prorated, of course.” He smiled at Russell, winked at Betsy, and walked out, feeling downright jaunty.
He walked straight over to Templeton’s and wrote a check for his new ring and put it on right there in the store. From there he stopped at the florists and got one dozen red roses. On the curb he went back and got a dozen white ones, too. The counter girl looked at him like was a bit mad. A bit more for the legend of Mad George Hammond, he thought. Not to worry, he was about to put an end to all that.
George drove leisurely out to the Purdy estate. It was on a bluff overlooking town, with room enough between the old money houses that if there were neighbors, you couldn’t see them. He was surprised at how nervous he was, but he had a foolproof plan, and he knew that after today his life would be back on track. He drove up to the circle and parked off to the side, just in case somebody else needed to use the driveway. Then he put on his coat, fixed his tie, picked up his roses and headed to the gloss green door shining in the middle of the two-story brick house.
He was a little surprised when Martha answered, but relieved too. It was going to make this a lot easier. She looked at him sourly, but he gave her a big grin.
“Madam,” he said bowing and extending the roses. When she took them, he went down on one knee and took a little box out of his inner pocket. “Martha Purdy, you are the prettiest girl in Yellowwood.” He extended the box. “I’m proud to be your husband, and I would like to know: Would you please marry me all over again?”
He had originally ordered that ring for their twenty-fifth, been making payments on it since their twentieth, a few dollars saved from his per diem every week. But with recent circumstances, he decided to pick it up with his new ring. He was too simple to call it romantic symbolism, but it just seemed right that if he had a new ring, so should she.
“Get up!” Martha looked both ways as if he might embarrass her. George just kneeled there stunned. “Get up,” she practically pulled him to his feet. “I don’t understand you George Hammond. I’ve been hearing you’ve been running all over town doing fool things – I just got off the phone with Judy Merrill – and now this. What are you trying to do?”
George stood there mute. He was intensely aware of the smell of lavender coming from somewhere in the garden, the sound of bees. Far away in the valley, a carillon began to toll. He never imagined it would go like this.
“Martha, I just came to say I’m sorry. I got a new ring,” he held up his hand, “and I’ve been saving for that for a while.” He pointed to the box in her hand.
“Maybe I’ve done some fool things, and everything just seems to make it worse. But I love you, and I just want you back.” He looked her in the eye. “I want things to be the way they were.”
Martha returned his gaze and shook her head. “I’m not sure they can be. I’m not sure what I ever saw in you, George, and I’m not sure I can forgive the things you’ve done.” She shut the door, taking the ring and the flowers.
George stood there for a while, his reflection fuzzy in the gloss of the door. Then he turned around and looked over the width of the estate. Finally, he shambled over to the car.
All weekend long, he played over the scene at the door. How could it have gone so wrong? Then he started going back in time. Everything had been perfect between them. He’d worked hard, provided as best he could. Then he just got lazy, and took that day off. If he hadn’t seen that monster from the bridge, everything would be different. If his father hadn’t shown him that fishing hole, infecting his whole life, everything would still be the same. His fool father and that fool fish. They tumbled through his brain all weekend while he mowed the lawn, washed the car and did his other chores around the house.
George was a man of action. Problems had solutions. In his life, he worked hard and knew little failure. Now, all he could think to do was to work harder. He became convinced that Martha was disappointed in him for his lackluster career performance, and all of this was just a symptom of that. Hell, wasn’t that why he was goofing around on the job in the first place? He was bound to make something of himself at the firm. He’d go in Monday and talk to Mr. Purdy. With plan in hand on Sunday night, George went to bed and slept soundly.
Monday, he went in early and reviewed all of his accounts. Everything was in order, but he wanted to be clear when he talked to Mr. Purdy. He knew Mr. Purdy held him to a higher standard, that it would take more for him to advance, but he felt he had met that. If he hadn’t, perhaps Mr. Purdy could explain what more he needed to do.
He decided to give Mr. Purdy a half an hour to get his coffee and check his mail before he spoke to him, so he watched the painful minutes drag by. Just as he was about to get up and walk to Mr. Purdy’s office at the other end of the building, the devil himself knocked at the door.
“George, got a minute?” Mr. Purdy already had his sleeves rolled up, a steaming mug of coffee in his hand.
“Sure, Mr. Purdy. I was just coming to see you.”
Mr. Purdy shot him an undecipherable look. “George, I want you to meet Brice, he’s the son of an old, old friend.” George got up to shake the young man’s hand. “I want you to take him on all of your rounds, show him exactly what you do. Make sure he knows all your customers.” George was speechless. Now he was babysitting some brat?
“Uh, Mr. Purdy, there are some things I’d like to talk to you about,” he looked at the grinning boy, “alone.”
“Now, George, that’s not how we do things around here, you know that.” He flashed a grin at Brice, then he leaned over to George and spoke between clinched teeth. “You’re on the edge here. No crap from you. You owe me this one.” Then he stood and waved cheerfully, “I’m off, you two get acquainted.”
Brice stood there, his smile as constant and annoying as a puppet, “Isn’t James just a swell guy?”
George stopped staring at the open door and turned to the young man, “Jim. Here we all just call him Jim.” Brice just smiled wider.
There was nothing for it. George was all set to start his rounds. He didn’t even have any tedious paperwork to saddle the boy with, not that he would trust him with it. He took him on the road, and hoped he was being jovial, but his mind was far, far away.
After dropping the boy off, up on the ridge near the Purdy estate, and promising to come get him the next day, George drove into town. He stopped at the Watering Hole, a bar he drove by every day on his way home. He’d only been in a couple of times with the others at work, but he knew that most of the men at the company came here every day to unwind.
After the bright afternoon light, it was dark as the inside of a cow, as his father used to say, and at first he couldn’t make anybody out. So it may have just been his imagination that conversation stopped when he walked in. He wasn’t much in the mood to talk anyway, so he just took the first empty seat the bar.
“Whiskey and water, rocks,” he said when the bartender came over. Before the drink arrived, a beefy man plopped onto the stool next to him.
“Well, as I live and breathe. George Hammond. What brings a hardworking sod like you to a place like this?”
George pursed his lips and looked over, suddenly wishing he hadn’t stopped by after all. Now this too would go on his long list of crimes. “Tommy. Haven’t seen you since high school. How’s work?”
“Work is work George. You’re supposed to ask after the missus, then the kids, then we chew on the weather for a while. Only after we run out of things to say do you talk about work.” George’s drink arrived, and Tommy motioned to the tender to bring another of whatever he was having, then he looked at George.
“Honestly, Tommy, didn’t even know you were married.”
Tommy let out a hoot. “Jesus boy, you always were a serious one. I’m just joshing you. Lighten up.” Then he winked at him. “You’d know I was married if you ever came in here. I married the waitress,” then he let out another belly laugh, and George found himself laughing too. Tommy brought him up short when he asked, “So, what brings you in here? Got a business meeting?”
George thought for a moment. What did bring him in here? “I guess I’m just killing a little time.”
“Yeah, I heard about you and the missus.” At that George’s eyes went a little wide. Tommy held up his hands. “You’re married to Big Jim Purdy’s daughter, if you fart in the bed sheets this town’s going to hear about it.” Then he leaned in, “The amazing thing, you ask me, is that you haven’t farted in twenty years, least I can tell.” Then he demonstrated by letting out a rather loud emission from his nether regions, simultaneously making a face of mock surprise. They both burst out laughing at that one, then took a long pull on their drinks.
“To be a little bit serious, George, I’m surprised you lasted at that firm long as you have. Everybody knows you’re the best in the business and they treat you like shite, as my Scottish nanny used to say. Can’t afford to promote you, who would they get to do your job?”
“Ha! Apparently, all you need to do my job is to have your daddy drink with my boss.” Instantly, George looked at Tommy as if he would take it back.
“No worries, Mate. You’re talking about my competition.” He stuffed a card in George’s pocket. “Perhaps our competition? Give me a call if you’re looking for a better position.”
George finished his drink, looking at Tommy in the mirror. “Yeah, I’ll do that,” he said without conviction.
He made to pay for his drink, but Tommy waved him off. “Next time, boyo.”
The next day, George called in sick. Then he went to Gimble. Gimble had a sporting goods store where he got a new five-weight line, and a new leader. Now, only a fool goes after a Goliath like Maximus on five-weight gear, but that was the only rod he had, and if it was good enough for his dad, perhaps it was time he found out if it was good enough for him. Then he went next door and picked up a pint of Rye.
George pulled directly under the fir, sluicing a little on the clay road as the rain began to fall in earnest. He got out of the car, a little unsteady. Well, Maximus, he thought, you’ve had a long and fruitful life circling like a caged leopard in your little hole, but tonight, I will free you. After this, you’ll only live in the record books, and the wall of my den. He took a swig of the pint, and lit a cigarette. They calmed him a little, and he remembered something his dad said once, “Don’t rush a fish son, they live in a different world, and you can only get them by moving into that world, not trying to get them to agree to yours.”
He crushed out the cigarette and walked to the trunk. He pulled out his waders and put them on, then looked up at the rain and shrugged. He didn’t own any hat but his fedora, but that just wasn’t going to fit the bill, so he guessed he was going to just get wet. There was no putting this off. He took another swig and emptied the bottle, then dropped it into the trunk. He assembled the rod, and then opened the fly wallet. There it was a brand new Hot Lunch, his dad’s special recipe for the monster. He tied it on, and then dropped the wallet back in the trunk too.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” he said to the trunk. If he lost the fly, he figured, he could always entice the beast with his new ring.
The last thing he did was take out a brand-new six-inch hunting knife and strap it to his belt.
This time, he didn’t appreciate the wood, nor feel the ground on his feet. He slipped on the bank coming off of the road, almost dropping the rod, and swore as the wet branches soaked his shirt. He was in a fully foul mood when he got to the pool, and wished he had bought a bigger bottle of whiskey.
He looked at the pond, a pewter gray slate pocked by rain and showing no signs of Maximus. But George knew he was there. The fly rod felt foreign in his hands, but he made a few side-armed false casts to get some line out, then gave it one last haul and shot for the falls. He misjudged it and it fell short. Swearing, he began stripping it in.
At first he thought he snagged the line. It simply stopped coming in, even with the reel. Now he was in a really foul mood, that was his only fly, and if he lost it at the least he would have to hike back to the car, losing fifteen or twenty minutes. The only other choice looked to be a good soaking, which would scare Max into hiding for good, and not guarantee retrieval of the fly. He began working upstream hoping to free the fly when the rod was almost jerked from his hand with so much force he was lucky the leader didn’t break.
The line began singing off of the reel, and George palmed it the way his father showed him to slow it down. Once again the fish started circling the pond counter-clockwise, for the third time in his life tethered to some unknown object. The rain came down so hard it was almost dark. George could only see briefly after clearing his eyes with his hand, but that meant taking his hand off of the rod, so he squinted them as best he could and started to work the fish.
“That’s right you bastard, you ruined my life, now you’re going to give it back. First I’m going to gut you to get my ring back,” the fish made a sudden run, forcing George to step over some slippery basket ball-sized rocks.
“George Hammond, world record for brown trout. World record for any trout! I’ll show them a hero!” Then he had no more breath to waste, and the battle was on in earnest. Today the fish leaped clear of the water, and George stepped back, awed by its size. Again and again the fish crashed, trying to dislodge the hook, each time George gave him a little slack with the rod, and then reeled it back in. He knew he should have a different rod, different gear. As night came on and he sobered up, the whole preposterous thing came to him, that he should be back here, after this fish again. But he knew, too, that Maximus had stolen his life, and this was the only way to get it back.
There was no moon this time. The trees touched overhead in the wind, and the surface of the water seemed amorphous, undefined, in the wind and the rain. At times it seemed the fish was floating almost between the two elements. George had no advantage of sight, only his knowledge of the pool from the last fight, and a feeling in his stomach that this was to be, kept the fish on.
In the mist and cold, George wondered if he would have to wade in and stab the fish to death, but gradually, so gradually he could only tell in reflecting upon the hours, the fish began to give. Occasionally, he would see the fish’s side near the surface, giving him confidence that the battle was won. His arms were so numb he could barely hold it, but still he leveraged the delicate rod against the great fish.
Finally, in his fatigue, it almost seemed as if the fish gave himself over to his fate, perhaps coming to investigate his foe while he still had strength to acknowledge him, the fish swam straight at George. George, kneeled down in the water and cradling the great trout, wrestled him onto the bank where they both lay gasping.
It took George some time to recover his breath, but then he fumbled with the knife on his belt. At last what he came for; he would gut this demon, and retrieve his ring. As he rolled over, the rain began to diminish and the fish regarded George with his great eye, no panic showing.
As George put the knife to the belly and began to press, he began to think about his father. How had his father known that at some point, George would need this insurance, stocked here in this pool, against all odds for what, the vagaries of a mediocre life? What actuary could calculate those odds? At the same time, hadn’t his father’s plan ruined everything George had worked for day upon day? George poised over the fish, the beast’s struggles almost over. He looked into that eye, a film already forming.
With a jerk, he tossed the knife into the pool, and ever so carefully picked the fish up. He stumbled through the woods, helped by the moon, now showing through scudding clouds. When he got to the tree, he followed it back into the woods, making detour around the root ball, and then following it back, along the downstream side. There he eased his burden into the water, stroking Maximus’s sides and holding him in the cold current to revive him, even as he had seen his father do. For long minutes, George was sure he was failing, that the fish was nothing more than a trophy husk. He wept over the fish in the ashes of that long night despairing that he ever knew of him; despairing of his weakness to catch him not once, but twice; despairing of anything ever being right again.
A twitch rewarded his efforts, soon, the fish was swimming in place between his hands, holding his own in the current. With a prestidigitatious flash, the fish was gone, and George stared at the empty spot between his hands, wondering once again if this was some dream he might awaken from.
Almost too tired to walk, George retraced his steps to get his rod off of the bank. The moon was just ducking behind the trees on the far side of the stream, casting his shadow deep beneath the firs. As he stood up a twinkling caught his eye drawing him hunched over into the woods. There dangling from the fir branch was his ring, still tied on its double loop, swinging in the breeze and winking secrets to him in the dying night. He reached up and grabbed it, cold and heavy in his hand.
Perhaps he would take that road over the bridge tonight after all.