Dec. 7, 2011: South of Chicago. 0214 hrs.
Dark waves of asphalt rose and fell like deep ocean swells, passing easily beneath. The traveler’s eyes stared out blankly over wine-dark waters and a rushing, moonless night. The trees—and they were indeed trees, scattered carelessly over the landscape and leaning, drunkenly, like tombstone in a ghost-town graveyard—were clouds to him, star-crowned and formless on the edge of the world.
The odometer ground away the miles, like a heartbeat, precisely marking each passing minute, each hour that divided the indifferent seasons that pass into years, each sinking like Atlantis into that immutable past from which he came. Where he was bound was simply away. Away from the past, from that other life, those other lives—from that hard shouldered harbor town rife with ghosts of pirates and sailors, wreckers and fishermen, all lost to the sea, away from the empty mud flats alive with silver dreams, away from the hot taste of salt in the corner of his mouth and the color of her eyes, blue and gray as a windswept dawn.
Still he rose and fell, in a trance of half-remembered, half-tasted beer and cheap rum, like the sharp tang of gunpowder and blood, and all around him bodies pulsing, grinding to a primal beat, sweat dripping on the asphalt and steaming. He blinked and the town was silent again—sea-air and bottles in the sandy gutters—at rest, as if God had finally stopped the carnival.
And inside the wheelhouse the traveler wrung out the miles, knuckles white on the wheel, eyes fixed on the edge of the world. And all around him the ghosts they crowded, whispering.
December 25, 2000
We finally ended up fishing the harbor lights, our backup plan. Almost immediately I started seeing fish: young tarpon that would go maybe fifteen, twenty pounds. (Every time I start to get down on where I live, I have to remind myself that I can catch tarpon five minute’s drive from my front door.) I quickly went through three refusals and as many fly changes. Then, just as I got a nice lead on a good fish, my father hooked up.
He always does this: hook fish here. I remember the first time. He kept casting long after I’d reeled in. I was trying to convince him to leave, saying, “Look, there are no fish here; can we go now…” when a tarpon went airborne with his fly. On the next jump it tail-wrapped the leader and broke off, but I was cured of my disbelief.
Another time I was supposed to meet him for some tarpon fishing at the same spot. I was running late and by the time I got to my buddies house to retrieve my car there was a message on his answering machine from my dad describing how he had just missed landing a big one. I don’t remember it verbatim, but I do remember my father sounding a little shell-shocked. In a hoarse, hollow tone he repeated phrases like “six-weight rod… BIG…” and “forty-five minutes.” “I got some Philippino to help land it… couldn’t speak English… finally broke the leader in my hand…”
There’s not much in the world of sport that can so completely ruin your composure as a tarpon tail-walking across fifty-yards of ocean.
Well, this time Dad hooked a good fish (judging from the high-pitched squeal his reel was making) and he played it wonderfully on ten-pound tippet. I waited about five minutes for the fish to jump and when it didn’t I pronounced it a jack. Now this wasn’t bad, or at least not to us. I’ve heard of fishermen saying things like “Dam’ jack” and purposefully breaking them off, but I can’t imagine why. A twenty-pound horse-eye will fight like a fifty-pound tarpon and take more of your backing too. A tarpon will make a run, jump a bit and then come right back to you. This happens a couple times or a dozen, depending how big it is and what kind of pressure you can put on it with your rod and leader combination. A horse-eye jack, though, wastes no energy with jumping and they’re still kicking away from you when you land them; there’s just no give up in them.
Plus you can eat jack. Lots of people don’t and think they taste funny, but they’re wrong about that too. In fact, the best fried fish I ever had was a horse-eye as prepared by J.B. Groves. J.B. was an old fishing partner to my grandfather and me, and he could cook fish like nobody’s business. Now I can’t be sure whether he always ended up with the horse-eye jacks cause most of our customers didn’t care for them or because he simply liked them best. Whatever the case, whenever we were out night-fishing and we hit a lull in the bite J.B. would sing out, “galley’s open” and would start passing out think slices of fried jack on slabs of hard-dough bread. The fish was always cut into cross-sections with the backbone and all, and that bread was probably to help clear the throat of any bones we might swallow by accident. Even so, I wouldn’t want anything else but to have J.B. around now so he could show me how it was done. Of course, it’s too late now. As soon as he got off the bottle he died. I guess you could say going sober killed him.
Ever since then I don’t hold much with those who say cold turkey is the only way to quit.
Dad did finally land that fish: a beautiful horse-eye pushing two and half feet. We let this one go; giving something back seemed only right on this the day for gifts.
Merry Christmas, J.B..
I know, I know; I’m depressed by this too. But we still NEED to pay attention. Really.