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Donny, you're out of your element...
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I- The Brothers, Pete and Jimmy

There's an old man we watch each morning. He swims the pond, snorkel and mask on, he swims the edge in the seven feet waters. His strokes are slow, almost too slow, it's a wonder he stays afloat. It takes him around an hour, which is about as long as breakfast takes. Between bacon, coffee, Jimmy's stories and the kids messing around, there's no hurry for the day to move on. There's a few slow days left on this vacation. It's not hot enough to swim, the morning clouds have yet to burn off. At some point we'll mobilize for the beach or for the canoes. Maybe today we'd get the flyrods out and try again.

"Five dollars says he doesn't make it…"

"You're on. $20 this week alone, I'd be a fool not to keep betting. The old man's got energizers in him."

"Look at him, he's going to sink. He must be a hundred and ten."

"By the end of this week"

"Yeah I know, you'll have made $35. "

"You, Jimmy, are an asshole. Age will only make you worse."

"Pete, you know you love taking my money."

There's a shard of bacon stuck up near my mutton tooth. I'm working on it with a nail and watching the old man. Jimmy is right, I do love taking his money and the old guy looks unreliable. A flywheeled two-stroke, a steam donkey, a governor, the slow slap of his arms against the pond's surface. If it was quiet, if Jimmy wasn't talking about Wall Street and the big deal closings, of the bonus he was going to get, his hot and stupid secretary, if he wasn't such a narcissist, you could hear it, the scythe-like closure of the old man's swing, over and over again, cutting the water, pulling him along.

"You know that old guy is probably someone's father. His kid's probably watching from some other deck on this lake wondering the same thing. When's it going to quit?"

"Probably. Or maybe his kid is wondering why cereal ever became popular. I mean think of it, a mass produced ubiquitous food that universally tastes like crap and yet people still buy it."

"That's the kind of critical thinking, Pete, that will lead you to the poor house... That kid, you know, is betting on him making it."

"Maybe. Maybe not."

Jimmy puts down his coffee, looks up from the Labrador he's been rubbing behind the ear. A wide-faced deep-chocolate beauty of an old dog all silvered up with delight and drool, hanging out for scratches and bacon. He hits a spot and the dog reflexively scratches, turns his head, snail-trailing drool over Jimmy's pasty forearm. The dog's tail beats a contented rhythm, and Jimmy, oblivious, uses his forearm to wipe a stretch of foamed milk off his mustache. I watch all of this and can't help but smile. Dog drool and milk partially cover my pompous and yet still lovable 50-year-old brother's face.

II- The Old Man

I live on the largest of a chain of glacial kettle ponds, and in them are all manner of fish. Some are stocked- brown and rainbow trout- but most others have grown and bred there for decades, centuries perhaps. On the north end of my pond is a small outlet that makes its way through a marsh, into Horseleech pond and then later, to a tidal estuary via Blackfish creek. From that small stream numerous other creatures come and go- bream, mullet, eels and bigger bass.

From the base of the stairs at the bottom of my deck, there's a small path through the pines, blueberries and low gorse. There's poison ivy and snakes if you stray too far off. At the base of the path, by the edge of the pond, my sons and I once laid railroad ties for the last stairs, backfilled with gravels and sand, anchored them with rebar sledged into place. The ties are all there, but the backfill on some of them is washed out now, and I haven't the time or energy to fill them again. It's an afternoon's work for me and my sons, but when to do it is the problem. I haven't seen them in three years.

My pond is rimmed densely with reeds and lily pads. In the middle there's deeper waters. Waters so dark you can't possibly see the bottom. For three years now, I have made it my habit to swim the perimeter, just off the final border of the lilies. It's a little over a mile, and I do it in part to stay fit, but also to see another world. I wear a snorkel and mask, I left my flippers behind years ago. I need no speed in making this circuit, there is no hurry anymore. Apart from the highest days of summer, when the tourists in their canoes are here, when they have enough energy to paddle past me to the sluiceway and on to the next pond, there is little to interrupt me.

The pond has its noises- the sounds of fish landing back in from their jumps and leaps, sounds of birds and frogs. There's a sound that the reeds make that varies with the wind, sometimes it's a hiss. Underwater the reeds rattle. Things are different down there. At the pace I swim, and with my breathing slowed as best I can, sounds are magnified and distinct. It's not like snorkeling a reef, where the cracks and pops of thousands of beaks or claws or whatever it is can be heard. It's a deeper silence in which you could imagine algae growing or the bubbling of a snapping turtle letting loose. It's so quiet you can hear my arthritic knees as I kick, bones grating in the absence of healthy cartilage. You can hear the tinny suck of air through the snorkel, the splash when my strokes break the surface. You can hear my heart beat. I try to swim without a wake.

The lily wall, when the water hits 60 degrees, is all tendrils. The stems make their way to the surface, they look like fly lines, like small snakes charmed to stand tall by some fish shaman. At 70 degrees the leaves spread over the water's top. And now, dead in the heat of summer, more fronds sneak out from their beds of muck, hoping to mature before fall. There's a line though, seven feet, where the wall ends and the waters turn deeper. You look out that way and there's not much to see, maybe you'd see a leaf rotting and descending slow, held up on a thermocline, but that's about it. That's my path, I can see the plants and fish off to one side, on the other, murky depths, nothing, a bottom of rotting, decaying muck.

III- Boris Stapleton, 14 years old and without his cell phone

"What do you want to do today?"

Jimmie's asked his eldest, a boy named Boris. The fact that he and Heather chose that name still annoys me. Why saddle a kid with that?

Boris Stapleton.

He could have been James J. Stapleton IV. He could have been Nick Stapleton. He could have been Andy or Chip, but Boris? It boiled down to a notion Jimmie had about the merits of legacy.

His main point:

"A man makes his own way in this world, not because of his family and what they provide, but instead based on decisions and correct estimations of risk and benefit."

My counter:

"Your boy will hate you."

Anyway, the boy's been in a sour mood for four days now, deprived of what he's
familiar with. Boris' phone is dead. The constant stream of inane updates that define the dull perimeters of this 14-year-old's world are unknowable to him here. All there is here is sand, ponds full of fish, beaches, paths through the woods, frogs and snakes to catch, a tick magnet of a Labrador, and family.

"Boris, what do you want to do today?"

"Nothing."

"Canoes?"

"Beach?"

"Fishing?"

"For Chrissakes Boris, answer your Uncle Pete. Make a choice, one of the above…assess the fun…weigh the merits…and choose."

His boy is spooning some decrepit looking rabbit-turd sized pebbles of a chocolate-themed cereal into his mouth. His peach fuzz is awful. His hair greasy. There is little good, as far as I can tell, in being 14.

"Alright then. Fishing."

"Fly fishing?"

"Oh you'll hate that, Pete and I never caught anything there when we went with our old man."

"That's because you wouldn't listen to him teach you."

"You were no different Pete, do I have to remind you?"

He doesn't, he's right. Our father, long dead now, tried to interest us in things that held no fascination. And now Jimmy and I struggle with that same problem- how is it that you motivate, captivate and inspire a child? It's easy when they're young, and every year after age 10, it seems to get harder.

IV Billy the talking Bass and the Old Man converse

Where the ponds connect the water temperature changes, the surface waters siphon off towards the sea, towards Blackfish creek. When my hands dig deeper, it's warm. After swimming the half mile to get here the relief is in the scenery change and knowing I'm a little over halfway done. It's different because the paddlers have clawed the lilies out. In dragging their boats through, their feet have churned the algae up and exposed the clean sand. Sometimes they'll stop and swim a while, the sand is dented with footprints. Everything here is open, there's no place to hide.

The lily wall, where it begins again, remains a perfect ambush spot for the fish moving up from the ocean, for the smolts moving down, for the eels. After they've swum through that exposed stretch they head straight for the cover, for the fronds and plants that make up the lily wall. The big bass are here, it took me a long while to see them, but this edge is where they live.

There's one I have come to know. I call him Billy, after the robotic bass nailed to a plank that could sing songs. The one they sold on TV, the one my boys got me as a joke. Gift Billy remains in a box, in the basement, laughed at one summer while they were there. By now, in this humidity, his robot batteries have probably leached their juice and ruined any mechanism inside. Unlike the robot, this Billy is alive and instead of singing, he talks, believe it or not.

This is how our conversations go:

"Hello old man."

"Billy. How the hell are you?"

"What's new?"

"Young eels are moving out at night. Damn tasty those eels, I'm a sucker for them."

"They got a name for young eels, it'll come to me… elders…no that's not it….elvers."

"I never got into eels, what do they taste like?"

"They wriggle. It's the best feeling. Eels, leaches, worms, you're missing out. The wriggle's the giggle, that's what my kids say."

"How are your kids?"

"They're here, they're everywhere."

"Your kids never talk to me, you'd think they would but they don't."

"Why would they? Your people catch us. They have no time for you old man...How are your kids?"

"I never see them."

"No?"

"Why not?"

"They're off making it big, they have no time for here."

"That's good, I guess."

"Yeah, it's good. They are self sufficient. They have launched. I tell you though, they're here one minute, and then they're gone."

And then we swim on a while, me cutting the water with my blows, and him, silent at first and then talking beside me about how the turtles are giving him a hard time, how the freshwater mussels are getting uppity, and how annoying the tourists are. Billy is surprisingly xenophobic. Loyal and unimaginative are other ways of describing him. I like him well enough, but when the discussion comes around to social issues and politics he irks me. We steer clear of these things. Sometimes he's unavoidably boorish. During those times I think of my boys and how I hope I taught them to be better.

V Uncle Pete and Boris try fly fishing

Boris and I made our way out to the pond edge, throwing poppers as best we could. I was reading aloud to him from the LL Bean Book of Flyfishing and sometimes he'd nail a cast so that 20 feet of line would fly out. We fished the edge of the lilies, the book said that sort of place was a good spot to start. The sun fell and the shadows lurked up out of the ground.

"Well what do you think Uncle Pete, should we fish a little longer?"

"Sure. Let's switch it up though. These poppers don't seem to be doing it. Try this."

"Looks like a piece of black yarn. The guy in the fly shop called it a woolly bugger"

"Sounds like booger."

Boris Chuckled.

"I'll tie it on."

"Tie it tight this time."

Earlier we had lost an unseen fish to what Boris and I concluded was a lousy knot. Tied by me.

"I'll try but it's hard for these eyes to see how the knot is supposed to go."

It occurs to me that knots are something you learn best from uncles and fathers, not from a book. Not at twilight. Not while trying to tie a booger onto a tiny line.

"What do you think, should I throw it where those lilies stop?"

"Looks good to me, right on that cut that leads to the other pond."

"Right there."

The first cast is awful, so is the second. Boris curses. I tell him to be patient, to slow his pace down, and this last cast rockets forward and lands right where it should, right where earlier that day we'd seen the old man swim by.

Boris starts his retrieve, he expects nothing, and when he shouts in surprise the silent pond echoes him. The rod is bowed, his reel is ticking out line, he's trying to turn the crank but he can't, the reel is blurred, the handle moving too quick. It makes a constant rasping noise. I let him figure it out. I don't coach him any further.

Boris has some kind of knack that Jimmie and I never did, some fisherman's gene from our father apparently skipped us, boomeranged back for Boris. We didn't get entirely gypped, we got male pattern baldness. We got hypertension. Oh and the Stapleton nose, a grand old snorkel of a thing that our father referred to as "patrician."

Boris is beyond us, he palms the reel to slow the fish down. The fight is so long I have time to look up advice on landing big fish in the book. There is nothing I can see in the dimming light. He brings the fish after a long fight to the edge of the canoe, an old dog of a bass, big, wide-mouthed. The kind my dad used to catch. He's a handsome beast of a fish, and in shaking his head a small eel flies out of his mouth and into the canoe.

VI The Old Man Looks for his friend Billy

On the path this morning I pass a grinning boy and a Labrador. For a minute there I could have sworn that the boy was my own, he looked like Tom when he was young, and the dog looked was damned well indistinguishable from Scurvy. Then the reality set in, my boys are grown, Scurvy is long dead, buried under a sapling oak that has since grown tall enough to tease the lightning.

Called Scurvy because the boys, all of us really, got bored calling it Scruffy. Plus he had this slobbering drool and black and pink gums that mottled up in a pattern that made no sense. How is it that a name takes root?

Today I loop my mask and snorkel around my drawstring. I want to watch the sky. I swim backstroke. I can see that oak where Scurvy rests. I can see the houses on the bluff, people are there, probably eating breakfast with their children. There's that dog that looks like Scurvy. It's a family united. I swim on. An osprey is circling, the gulls are flocking. Clouds pull over the low hills, they'll lose against today's sun soon enough.

This backstroke is different and I tangle now and then in the lilies, they suck at my arms, reminding me to swim out a little further, towards the center of the pond. There's a heaviness to the stroke that sits in my chest and this time I need to rest at the sluiceway. I'm halfway there and out of breath. I don't have any nitro tabs, I'll wait it out. I don't want to talk to Billy when I'm out of breath, he'll know I'm not well.

I sit in the sand in the clear waters. I run my fingers through it. My pulse is good. I wait for the pain to go away, I watch small fish find the bubbles trapped on my leg hairs. Tiny minnows, the sort of minnows that could be Billy's dinner or brethren. Maybe both, I don't understand his world enough. I'd have to ask him about that.

I put on my mask, slip back into the water, place the snorkel in my mouth, and I look for my friend. I swim slowly, waiting for Billy to appear out of the lily wall. But he doesn't come. Maybe I missed him on the way in, because I was looking up, looking out, maybe I should loop backwards, turn around. He's always here, him for me and me for him.

VII Another day, another bet

"Pete, Looks like you may have to pay up buddy boy."

"What do you mean?"

"The old man, look."

I look through the field glasses. The old man is sitting in the shallows, his head hung, straining sand through the shallow waters. He checks his pulse on his neck.

"We might have to paddle out and help him you know."

"He's still moving. You know he's right where Boris nailed that bass last night."

"Hey wait, he's getting up, putting his mask on."

"Is he back in?"

"Yep, swimming slowly. Hang on though, he's turning a loop. Jesus how does he stay afloat, it's so unbelievably slow."

"Boris, get those glasses and $5 from Uncle Pete and a piece of bacon for me would you?"

"Boris? Where the hell is he now?"

"Oh, hang on, he's back on track, the old man's turned around."

"Holy crap, a huge fish just jumped right by the old man."

"Just jumped right by him?"

"No way, he's still there?" Boris has reappeared.

"Let's get the canoe- Dad- you want to catch that bass? I want to get that booger out of his mouth. He snapped me off at the canoe."

"Damnit, $25 in the hole. What do you mean booger?"

"Dad, let's go fishing, I want to show you that monster..."

Jimmy regards his son over his folded WSJ. He's calculating. Looks up at the diminishing clouds, down to the canoe, as if searching for some reason not to go. A variety of garish cereal boxes garrison the empty bacon plate, his coffee is done. The winds are light.

"Alright Boris. Let's do it. Five dollars says you can't catch him twice…"

"You're on…Pete what did you do with that book, the how-to on flyfishing?"

"I don't need it Dad…"

"Well so be it. You show me, how about that Boris?"

"You're on."
 

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Still truckless now farther away
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1,693 Posts
Boot you sure do it up fine, I could feel it so good but I've never been there. Just long enough since the last one too. Thanks
 

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I'm a teacher, I fish to eat!
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785 Posts
This is one of your most perplexing stories that i have read boot. I don't know how i feel right now, my emotions for this story are all over the place. Of course a great read, but feel so sad for the old man, love the interaction between brothers, happy that boris has possibly found his niche, but still i keep thinking about the old man and his loss. Very perplexing boot. Thank you.
 
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