after Ernest Hemingway
Charles Thomas pulled the rowboat through the wet sand and down to the surf. Each spring he couldn’t help but remember how the story was told to him.
As a young boy, she used to take him to a fishing hole she knew of which was surrounded by fruit trees. There, beneath the shade of an apple tree, she would spread out a quilt and unpack a small lunch she had prepared. He would watch carefully as she baited the hook on the old, cork-handled pole. Then, tossing the line gently out into the water, her blue eyes would beam brightly and she would begin.
In his mind he could still see the cork-handled rod and reel with its red and white bobber dancing quietly on the water. The thought of there ever having been a time before this one filled him with bitter sweetness. All the same, Charles Thomas never said much. He just smiled.
All a man can do is trust his fate.
He looked back up the sand dunes to see Susie standing next to the old ‘59 Chevy truck. The long, dark tendrils of her hair had escaped her scarf, and she was bouncing on her toes as she waved to him and smiled brightly. Charles Thomas thought he could almost see the blue of her eyes and smiling, waved back. There weren’t too many women like his Susie. Not too many women would spend two days riding in a hot truck across three states towing an old boat just to watch their husband row out into the middle of the Gulf to go fishing. His Susie was something else. She was quite a gal.
Stepping into the surf, Charles Thomas surveyed the horizon.
The clouds were billowing where the waters met the sky. Judging by the sun, Charles Thomas estimated he could reach the edge of the basin, get some good fishing in, and still have time to return before dark. The reason he came to Port Isabel each year was because it was closest to the continental shelf. After all, what was the sense in fishing if he couldn’t fish the deepest waters? For a moment he thought he heard the gentle sound of thunder rumbling in the distance. No matter, he thought confidently, if a storm brews up, it’ll move east, and he began to prepare the boat for the journey.
There wasn’t a whole lot that could come between Charles Thomas and his fishing, except maybe Susie.
He had gotten the old boat in trade for a box spring and mattress. Some poor soul had been living in his car and sleeping in a boat on the side of the road and He and Susie had an extra bed they didn’t need. They had planned on sleeping four daughters in it, but Susie was having trouble conceiving. Still, she was hopeful and often sang lullabies while working around the house. Charles Thomas’ philosophy was: a boat’s a boat, and a bed’s a bed, and a man can’t put much food on the table fishing in a bed, and so he watched quietly as the man wrestled the mattress atop of his car. Charles Thomas knew the locals wouldn’t think any better of a man sleeping on a mattress on the side of the road than in a boat.
He didn’t say a word. He simply smiled.
Along with a small lunch Susie had prepared him, Charles Thomas loaded two poles and a pail of shrimp into the rowboat and walked the vessel knee-deep into the tossing waves of the surf. Even this early in the season the water was warm and reassuring. The small boat bucked capriciously in the swells, and he could feel the waves wanting to take it back to shore. Throwing a wet pant leg over the side, he climbed into the craft and setting the oars in their locks, spread them out over the water. Smiling to his self, he dug the paddles deep into the surf, and slowly, but steadily, began to push the rowboat out to sea.
The further away from shore he got, the easier it was to row, and yet Charles Thomas wasn’t so far out that he didn’t recognize his Susie making her way down to the beach. She had changed into a one-piece bathing suit and traded her scarf for a large-brimmed, straw hat. He knew she didn’t like him going out alone, but she was content to fish from shore and wait for him to return. She had a beach umbrella under one arm and was swinging a small cooler with the other. He also knew she would stop several feet short of the water’s edge, and planting the umbrella into the sand, make a nest of shade. She would spread out a quilt and sitting there pass the time patiently.
Charles Thomas smiled. His Susie was quite a gal.
He continued to push the small craft further out to sea. Eventually the water enveloped the shoreline and he knew he was well on his way. Charles Thomas had been out on the open water so many times that the Gulf had become like an old friend. He never felt as though he was alone, and like an old friend, the waves now seemed to draw the boat effortlessly out to sea—out to where the waters met the sky and he felt closest to God. Such was Charles Thomas’ sense of solitude, and yet his heart always remained anchored to the one waiting for him on shore. Still, as the rowboat drew closer to the edge of the basin, the depths reached up and embraced his return with their chortling waves.
This was a sign that he was where he wanted to be. To go out any further would be foolish. He hadn’t the length of line to secure the boat, and dropping the anchor over the side, Charles Thomas watched 25 meters of rope slide silently into the water. The boat tugged nicely at its position, rising and falling with each rolling wave. Satisfied with his location, Charles Thomas sat down on the bench seat and began making ready his poles. He surveyed the horizon once again. He could see the humidity of the Gulf mounting in the southwest. The moisture was accumulating in the atmosphere and cooling into towers of precipitation. All the same, he was not intimidated.
No matter, he thought, if a storm brews up, it’ll move east.
Charles Thomas considered himself to be a simple fisherman. He didn’t rely on fancy rods and tackle. One of the open-reels, and old, cork-handled Pflueger, had been given to him by his father. When Charles Thomas was a small boy, his father used to take him fishing along the Green River back in Kentucky using nothing more than cane poles. We don’t need no fancy poles, he could still hear his father say. You think just ‘cause you gots some new-fangled fishin’ pole some ole fish is just gonna jump up an’ bite it? Fishin’ aint nothin’ but instinct, a little patience and a lotta luck. Then he’d add—and it sure don’t hurt none much if you shows that fish a lil’ respect– ‘specially when he’s whuppin’ your ass.
They would both have a hearty laugh, and the old man would assure Charles Thomas that one day he would have a pole he could call his own.
The memory made him smile as he palmed the rod and reel reminiscently. He had done little to restore the old pole short of rebinding the guides and keeping the reel well oiled. The fiberglass rod was still strong and true, and the cork handle, although pitted, was intact. He baited the hook with one of the shrimp, and spitting on it for luck, looked out over the water and trusted his instinct to show him where to cast the line. A particular patch of blue winked at him from the far right and off the back of the craft. He sent the line whistling in its direction, and readying the newer pole in the same fashion, set it in the opposite direction. He then sat down in the bottom of the boat, and lying back against the bench seat, made himself comfortable.
A man can’t put much food on the table fishing in a bed. The vast, blue sky reminded him of his Susie’s eyes and his thoughts went back to her waiting on the beach. His own eyes grew heavy with the path of the sun, and he could hear Susie singing her lullabies in the whisper of the wind. Hush little baby, don’t say a word, Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird. The waves rocked the boat maternally and he envisioned the silver wisps of his own mother’s hair in the wandering clouds. If that mockingbird won’t sing, Mama’s going to buy you a diamond ring, and with the comforting memory of his mothers voice in his ear, Charles Thomas fell swiftly and soundly to sleep. So hush little baby, don’t you cry, Daddy loves you and so do I.
“Charles, you best pull yourself away from that radio and make yourself ready for supper. Papa will be home directly.”
“But Mama, the Grand Ole Opry is about to start?”
“The Opry will still be there after you make yourself ready for supper. Now git. I think Papa has something special for you tonight.”
The boy’s ears perk up, and he runs into the kitchen to see his mother sitting a freshly, baked rhubarb pie in the window to cool.
“A surprise?” He exclaims. “What kind of surprise, mama, what is it?”
“Now never you mind,” she says, dabbing a spot of flour on the boys nose. ”If I told you, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise would it?” She winks. “Now go make ready for supper.” She tossed a black-iron skillet on the stove “I got fish to fry and you know how Papa don’t like to come home to no supper.”
A broad smile stretched across Charles Thomas’ darkly, tanned face as he continued to dream. If that looking glass gets broke, Mama’s going to buy you a billy goat. Meanwhile, the boat tugged anxioulsly at its position, and yet remained fast. If that billy goat won’t pull, Mama’s going to buy you a cart and bull. The swells were becoming larger, the waves choppy, and the clouds in the south had silently changed direction If that cart and bull turn over, Mama’s going to buy you a dog named Rover. If that dog named Rover won’t bark, Mama’s going to buy you a horse and cart. All the same, whatever restlessness there was in the water was simply translated into the excitement Charles Thomas was reliving in his dream. If that horse and cart fall down, you’ll still be the sweetest little boy in town.
Having finished his portion of catfish, the boy was about to dig into a slice of his mother’s pie when the screen door slapped shut on the back porch.
“Where ya at boy? I got sumpin’ special for ya!”
Leaping from his chair, the boy met him half way. Papa’s face was still covered with coal dust from working in the mines all day, his clothes blackened and filthy. He was carrying a long package wrapped in brown paper under his arm.
“Happy birthday, son,” he smiled.
The boy’s eyes lit up when inside the package he discovered a brand new fiberglass fishing pole. The open reel was bright and untarnished, and the soft-cork handle fit perfectly into the palm of his hand.
Charles Thomas was speechless.
“Yessiree boy. Now all them there fishes is gonna be jumpin’ outta the water just for you,” he laughed, and slapped the boy encouragingly on the rump.
Charles Thomas sat up abruptly.
The remnants of a thunderclap were echoing all around him.
The front had moved in upon him. The clouds were low and threatening and the waters reflected their impending fury. Charles Thomas scrambled to take in his lines, but a streak of white flashed across the sky sent him sprawling into the hull. The lightening was followed by a magnificent roar of thunder—and it began to rain. It was no ordinary rain. It came at him from all sides and the waves began to jump the sides of the boat. If he didn’t get his lines in immediately and weigh anchor, he knew he would be swamped. Once again, he scrambled to the back of the craft to take in his fishing lines.
Charles Thomas had never been caught out in a storm before. His senses had never failed him. All a man has to do is trust his fate, he thought optimistically, and as he reached for the older rod and reel, the other sailed out into the tumultuous water and disappeared. The thought of losing the older pole strengthened his grip around its cork handle. He frantically began to reel in the line and yet there was a resistance at its end which seemed more alive than even the sea. Charles Thomas smiled as he watched the line cut sharply across the water. Then, without warning, he jerked back hard on the pole and set the hook. The storm may have been worsening, but Charles Thomas was settling in for a fight.
There wasn’t a whole lot that could come between Charles Thomas and his fishing.
The act of setting the hook had alerted the fish to its predicament. Loosening the fishermen’s hold, it made a run back towards the boat while it attempted to spit out the hook. Charles Thomas wasn’t fooled and he hastily reeled in the slack. When the line turned and darted back out to sea, he once again pulled back hard on the pole, this time revealing his quarry. Even with the stung of rain in his eyes, Charles Thomas could not help but stare in amazement as a large, black sea bass exploded magnificently out of the water. Its great tail thrashing wildly, it seemed to dance timelessly across the surface of the raging water before finally disappearing beneath the waves.
Sweet baby Jesus.
The rod and reel almost slipped from his hand in his astonishment, but Charles Thomas gathered his senses and planted his feet firmly in the floundering boat. Nevertheless, his moment of pause had given the fish the opportunity to seize more line and the old reel squealed in agony as it was being taken out. Another bolt of lightning crackled across the sky and the antique rod bent painfully with Charles Thomas’ attempt to regain the loss. Again the fish leaped obstinately out of the water and again Charles Thomas pulled back stubbornly on the pole. On a clear day he may have easily landed the fish, but the fatigue of fighting both the fish and the elements was beginning to take its toll. Charles Thomas found himself not only searching for strength—but inspiration.
It sure don’t hurt none much if you shows that fish a lil’ respect– ‘specially when he’s whuppin’ your ass.
Charles Thomas was suddenly filled with admiration for his opponent’s strength and courage and as a result—let the line go slack. The reel noisily whirled out more line as the fish took advantage of the opening until finally, in its satisfaction, the line fell loosely into the water. Having paid his adversary the compliment, Charles Thomas slowly reeled in the difference and letting the line go slack again, waited for another agreeable return. Consequently, the game of give and take played out respectfully until the fish was circling the boat so closely Charles Thomas might have reached down and touched it.
Charles Thomas was in awe of the creature. It was stout-bodied, almost as tall as it was long, but he estimated its length to be near 18 inches. It was highly unusual for a sea bass of this size to even be found in Gulf waters. For whatever reason, it must have been sitting at the edge of the basin feeding on whatever swept up from the deep, and from the looks of it, the fish had been feeding in these waters for some time. All the same, the fish was now thrashing vigorously alongside the boat. Charles Thomas was quite pleased with himself, and yet as he netted the struggling fish and prepared to haul it into the boat, he couldn’t help but acknowledge its unyielding will to survive.
In that instant Charles Thomas recalled his own adversity.
He remembered when he and Susie had eloped. Her father didn’t want his daughter “marryin’ no son of a coal miner,” and so one night they took what little they had and headed west to California. They had taken the interstate across Tennessee and Arkansas but were stopped short in Oklahoma by the Dust Bowl. They were forced to live out of their truck, not unlike the fellow he had gotten the boat from, and slowly migrated north to Kansas. All the same, it wasn’t long before they ran out of money and found themselves in a wind-ravaged farm town at the edge of the Great Plains.
Having grown up dirt poor, Charles Thomas was nothing if not resourceful.
By this time, many had picked up and headed west to California without even bothering to shut the door behind them. All the same, many chose to stay, putting their faith in rainmakers and a soil conservation campaign. It was difficult for him and Susie to watch people head off in the direction of their own dream, but they simply couldn’t find it in their hearts to abandon people in need. Charles Thomas didn’t see the situation as dismal, but more of an opportunity for him and Susie to build upon. They easily negotiated work for room and board and finally, in the fall of 1939, the skies opened and the rains fell.
All a man has to do is trust his fate.
Charles Thomas never said much. He just smiled, and taking the fish by its gills, he removed the hook and released it back into the water.
Charles Thomas felt a sense of camaraderie with the fish as he watched it disappear back into the dark sanctuary of the depths. However, feeling a coldness spill into his shoes, he suddenly became aware that the water collecting in the bottom of the boat was more than just ankle deep. He quickly tried to retrieve the anchor, but it wouldn’t budge. It would seem that the rough waters had pulled the boat from its original position, dragging the anchor along the edge of the basin until it had become lodged in the reef. Charles Thomas suppressed a panic as he realized that his attempt to secure the craft might very well drag it under.
A man can’t put much food on the table fishing in a bed.
He cursed his self for falling asleep. Without a second thought, he pulled out his pocket knife and severed the line. The vessel lurched from its position, throwing Charles Thomas violently to the bottom of the boat where he struck his head on the bench seat.
p> As his vision became full of stars—he thought the sky clearing.
He searched for sign of hope.
Each year the county heralded the end of summer with a fair and carnival. People from all around would attend, and as the painted ponies of the carousel pranced in circles, Charles Thomas knew it was time to consider his own destiny.
Most of his classmates would move on to high school, and from there to college, but with the recent, and sudden death of his father, he would more than likely be expected to assume the responsibility of the faimly and go to work in the very mines which took his father’s life. The wound was still fresh, and he remembered crying uncontrollably when his mother had told him through her own veil of tears. The words revolved in his head like the caramel—your Papa is dead, your Papa is dead—and yet on this last night of summer, he was determined to reclaim the innocence of his childhood that he was about to leave behind.
Charles Thomas wandered about the fairgrounds.
He passed exhibits of pies and preserves adorned with purple ribbons. There was an award-winning pumpkin twice the size of his head, and many well-fed farm animals that had taken Best in Show. All the same, the Mid-way held the most interest. The carnival was small, only a Ferris wheel and a carousel, but there was a sideshow of oddities and many games of skill and chance. Not surprisingly, most of his classmates could be found there, but Charles Thomas never seemed to fit in. His family was quite poor, and the recent death of his father gave them even more pause to approach him. Nevertheless, he was empowered by the solitude and trusted that for everything there was a reason.
As fate would have it, he heard a sweet but unfamiliar laugh.
On the other side of the coin-toss booth he spotted three girls he had never seen before. He reasoned that they were from the next county over and were here to tease and torment the local boys. Something they were apparently doing quite well. Charles Thomas couldn’t help but smile as he watched one of his classmates bounce one coin after another off the saucers in an attempt to land one and impress the girls by winning one of them a stuffed animal.
“Perhaps they have a game with larger saucers.” One of them teased.
“Or maybe you just need a bigger coin.” Said another.
Charles Thomas stifled a laugh, but he noticed that the third girl had said nothing. She simply stood there looking pretty with her long, dark hair and blue eyes. Then suddenly she noticed he was watching her, and as their eyes met, she smiled. There was nothing left for Charles Thomas to do but dig deep into his own pockets for a coin, something of which he didn’t necessarily have an abundance of.
He found one shiny dime.
As Charles Thomas stepped up to the booth, he gathered his courage, and spinning around, asked the dark-haired girl her name.
The name sat on his lips as Charles Thomas lay helpless in the bottom of the boat.
As he had thought, the sky was clearing and the storm was passing off into the east. All the same, the boat was swamped and sinking slowly with each swell of the sea. It was all Charles Thomas could do to keep his head above water, and yet he was strangely calm for a man in his predicament.
The stars had come out and he could see the morning light brimming on the horizon through the scattering of clouds. The sea had become tranquil. It no longer battered the small craft but seemed to caress it as it had once before. Even so, as the side of the boat dipped beneath the surface of the water, Charles Thomas watched quietly as the cork handle of the old rod and reel carried it out to sea.
The water crept coldly up his chest, and spilling into his ear, silenced the ringing. He seemed to relive every moment of his life in that instant, and yet he would not remember the morning light or would he hear the gulls signaling his nearness to shore. Instead, he would take with him the memory of a single, silver star streaking across the sky.
Charles Thomas smiled.
The dime tumbled through the air and landed flat on the saucer.
The three girls shrieked with excitement.
“An’ we have a winnah!” the games keeper announced and the whole of the fairground seemed to turn their attention to the coin-toss booth.
Charles Thomas was as surprised as anyone that the coin landed as adamantly on the saucer as it did. On any other day it might have bounced and spun and rolled off onto the floor of the booth. However, that was not the case. The coin landed as flat on the saucer as if Charles Thomas had placed it there beneath his thumb. In fact, the coin landed on the saucer as if it were simply meant to be.
“An’ a nice prize for the lil’ lady.” The games keeper winked, and handing Charles Thomas a large stuffed bear, went right to work on the crowd of onlookers that had gathered around the booth in light of Charles Thomas’ recent triumph.
Charles Thomas turned to see Susie blushing. Except for a kiss he stole in second grade, Charles Thomas never considered himself to be much of a ladies man. That misadventure in itself goes a long way in saying that he wasn’t well versed in the ways of courtship. Nevertheless, he was compelled to take Susie’s hand, then again, the only time he had even came close to holding a girls hand was when he was younger still and his brushed up against the hand of the Hawkins daughters while fighting for an apple in the rain barrel.
All the same, his sincerity was its own charm.
She was from Rockcastle, the next county over, and was attending the fair with her two cousins. Her aunt and uncle were chaperoning the young girls. However, and not surprisingly, the three girls had become separated from their guardians in the crowd. Consequently, her two cousins had become positively giddy with the idea that Charles Thomas had taken a fancy to her. Even so, despite their persistent prodding, it was difficult to tell whether either prospect was capable of overcoming their modesty.
Knowing he should be the one to take the initiative, Charles Thomas stepped forward and politely presented Susie with the bear. She held it timidly at first, not quite sure whether to accept it or not—and if she did—how to respond except to thank him just as politely as he had presented it to her, except—she didn’t even know his name. For that reason, there was a moment of awkward silence between them, but only a moment, because as soon as her cousins recognized the hint of a romance they squealed with delight.
“Oh Susie, how sweet he is,” said one.
“And we don’t even know his name,” implied the other with a look of suspicion.
Charles Thomas was taken aback by the girls assertiveness, and yet it was true. He had failed to introduce his self. What’s more—he had failed to introduce his self properly and that didn’t necessarily leave him in a good light. It was no small wonder that Susie appeared reluctant. Embarrassed, Charles Thomas swallowed hard and managed to sputter out his Christian name so the two girls could continue to size him up.
“Well there it is. Charles Thomas. That’s a good name.”
“Yes. It’s a strong name.”
“It rings of confidence.”
“And yet it’s humble.”
“Strong, confident and yet modest.”
“Yes, I think a Charles is a someone we could trust.”
“Well there it is. We both think you two should make an evening of it.”
“Yes, and don’t you worry none… ”
“We’ll tell father we last saw you at the Ferris wheel.”
On that note—the two girls seemed to dance of into the crowd and disappeared.