by Douglas Young
Before the plane took off, a stewardess stood in the aisle explaining in a bored monotone what to do “in the highly unlikely event of an emergency.” Addison Armistead contemplated whether he preferred to survive should the plane crash. After such a pleasant stay at the conference in New Mexico where his talks had gone well and everyone had been so kind, it was distinctly uninspiring to fly home to a wife whose love for him had long been in doubt. He wondered if she might prefer he go down with the plane. That would spare her all the emotional and financial costs of leaving him and going through a divorce, she would get all the sympathy due a widow and still be easily young enough to remarry, and she could cash in his life insurance policy.
The two days and nights at the hotel had been defined by greeting so many folks interested in his work, satisfying presentations, dinners where people actually smiled, talked, and laughed with each other, and evenings full of compelling conversation by the pool under a majestic moon instead of silently watching television with someone obviously bored or reading alone in his study.
Shortly after the plane was airborne, Addison noticed a cute black boy of about two sitting – but more often standing – in a seat a few rows ahead of him. From time to time the little fellow loudly cheered and made noises he could not understand, often grinning and speaking to the passengers behind him.
The contrast between all the adults sitting ever so quietly and staring ever so intently at their phones or laptops and this exuberantly energetic child prompted Addison to chuckle. Looking around, he saw only frowns and furrowed brows. Though crammed together, each passenger was cocooned in his own world, seeking to get as much work done as possible.
But this boy was in a happy space completely devoid of stress or a hurried pace. Addison marveled at his ever-patient mother, alternately telling him to sit down and be quiet, laughing at his comments, and giving him a hug. Mr. Armistead wondered if he would have had the patience or tolerance to endure a young child, much less be so unperturbed and even thoroughly amused by his endless antics. He had not wanted to be a father. With all the mental illnesses breaking so many limbs of his family tree, he had no wish to infect anyone with his genes, least of all an innocent child. That was a life sentence he had no desire to mete out to anyone.
But Hulda Armistead pined for motherhood, or had for at least a few years. Though one of the reasons he married her was her initial lack of interest in children, about five years into marriage — soon after hitting thirty and their relationship having become far more distant — she stunned him by announcing she wanted to be a mother. Without saying so, he wondered if it was an effort to keep them together.
After a couple of years trying to conceive without success, they saw a fertility doctor, but did not pursue any recommended treatment plans. Addison was sure Hulda could tell his heart was not in it, and after a while he figured she had given up, whether out of lost interest or sensing their relationship was not strong enough to handle rearing children. She did not press him to follow up with the fertility options, and adoption was never mentioned.
Instead, they grew farther apart and she became much more argumentative, angrily analyzing all the many ways he disappointed her. For a few years he defended himself, affronted at what he saw as unreasonable, petty complaints. Sometimes he laughed at them. But each time he stood up for himself or laughed only seemed to spark her into more of a frenzy. So he stopped.
For several years, when Hulda began to fuss, he would silently sigh, slowly turn his head away, close his eyes, and dream. He knew not to say a word since that would only heighten and extend the storm. No matter how tempted to protect his dignity or pride, he reminded himself that the sooner he let her completely vent – and without interruption – the sooner the storm would lift. Early middle age had cured him of a need to defend himself. He now knew truth and fairness were irrelevant and trivial compared to peace of mind. Knowing no one changes anyway, why bother with such meaningless abstractions?
On one occasion she briefly lit into him at a restaurant with a pair of friends present. Stunned by the outburst which appeared to them completely out of character, the couple was more startled by his failure to respond or even look at her. When Hulda went to the ladies’ room, the wife asked Addison why he had not stood up for himself.
“As Janis Joplin explained why she shot herself up with heroin: ‘I just want a little
peace,’” he replied with a shrug and changed the subject.
The Armisteads’ marriage had for years settled into a mostly silent truce. Indeed, he noted their home was quieter than a library. Though they still shared a bed, he could not recall the last time they were intimate. After losing interest in having a baby, she no longer initiated sex and was emotionally absent when he did. But he soon found he no longer wanted it with her. So they had long been roommates maintaining a delicate domestic detente.
Addison noticed a pair of little Oriental girls running down the plane’s aisle, each wearing a paper crown of the kind provided at some fast-food restaurants. Giggling, they would stop and begin speaking to each other in bird noises, each with a wide grin. Addison caught himself sporting a smile. The girls’ parents never appeared and the stewardesses had long retired to the front and back of the plane for the long flight. Looking around, he saw that no one seemed to notice the children who remained oblivious to everyone else, each enthusiastically making bird chirps to the other. Addison realized his grin appeared frozen.
He caught himself trying to imagine Hulda greeting his arrival that evening with excited bird calls and felt the grin collapse. He had no doubt their dog would welcome him with far more joy.
Addison recalled his closest female colleague at work recently laughing over lunch with him about how easy it was to fake an orgasm with her husband. As her laughter subsided, he spoke with a voice from far away.
“As the saying goes, ‘A woman can fake an orgasm, but a man can fake a whole relationship.’”
“Ridiculous.” She looked aghast. “That’s not true.”
“It is too.”
“How do you know?”
“I faked all mine.”
She looked at him dumbfounded.
“Why?” She asked with wide eyes.
“It’s less lonely than being alone – having to go to restaurants and movies by yourself. The sex – not having to masterbate. Not wanting to hurt her. ’Cause breaking up would disappoint family and friends. Not wanting to have to explain yourself. Guilt. Just routine romantic bureaucratic momentum.”
After the plane landed, he found himself looking for the children who had amused him so much, but did not see them among the mass of people hurrying through the airport. Later, on the sidewalk heading to his apartment, he walked ever slower. All he would recall of the evening’s walk was the homeless man singing while setting up his cardboard bed on a building’s front steps.
When he opened the apartment door, Tulip immediately jumped on his leg barking with her tail wagging excitedly. Addison’s face beamed as he picked up the dog and she eagerly licked his cheek. Putting her down, he saw Hulda sitting in her favorite chair watching TV. He walked over and kissed the top of her head as she patted his back lightly. They exchanged pleasantries and then each went about his business, with Tulip eagerly following Addison to the bedroom where she sat on the bed supervising his unpacking with occasional barks.
The rest of the work week went reasonably well. Life at the office had always been an oasis as he cherished getting lost in the details of his latest project. Though some colleagues complained about workers who talked too much amidst the ceiling-less offices, Mr. Armistead welcomed the friendly banter and found it easy to tune out. Particularly when the work was going well, he enjoyed working overtime. It was at the office where he felt most appreciated. Work had always been his salvation.
When frustrated this week, he focused on Saturday morning’s trip to Lake Basil Duke where he and his college roommate DeBoyd Bradbury would meet to fish. Located about thirty miles out of town and halfway between where each lived, their twenty-year friendship would be re-baited a few times a year while casting for bass, catfish, the occasional carp, and mostly bream. Since Hulda preferred spending Saturdays with girlfriends or relatives, fishing was a good excuse for Addison to escape the loneliness of their apartment.
So early Saturday morning Mr. Armistead arose before Mrs. Armistead to take Tulip outside, eat a quick bowl of cereal, and then gently close the door and rapidly walk to his car. He arrived at the lake at 8 a.m. to find DeBoyd at their favorite fishing spot by the large Weeping Willow trees at the south end of the 15-acre body of water. A young couple jogged on the north side of the lake as an old couple strolled on the south side. Most single people walking around the lake had a dog with them. In the middle of the water was a pair of paddleboats with laughing teenagers. One had a couple of boys and the other a pair of girls. They talked loudly and occasionally splashed each other.
Addison was relieved the only beings near DeBoyd were a family of Mallard ducks swimming near the shore. Not many folks fished in Lake Basil Duke, and rarely had anyone joined him and Mr. Bradbury by the Weeping Willows where they had enjoyed the most success.
“You may be just in time to see me reel in a mighty hungry baby,” DeBoyd announced as his float kept bobbing but would not be pulled under water. “Something’s just a nibbling away at my worm but won’t take it – likely a real little one. Good to see you, roommate.”
They shook hands and exchanged greetings as Addison baited his hook with a worm. He cast his line about 30 feet from shore to a spot where he had caught many bream over the years. The orange float already shone brightly in the early morning sun.
Since DeBoyd and Addison had known each other well for decades and neither was very talkative, there was little conversation. Upon greeting, each would ask the other about family, work, and whether he had heard from any mutual friends since their last meeting. The rest of the morning was characterized by long silences punctuated by exclamations as one or the other caught or almost caught a fish. If the catch was big or unusual enough, one would take a picture of the other holding it and text it to him.
Though long periods of silence at home bothered Addison, they were soothing at the lake. It was as if the large body of water was a giant spring renewing his spirit. While watching his float, his mind drifted to all kinds of pleasant places and memories, some only recurring when fishing. Sometimes he became so enmeshed in thought that DeBoyd had to shout that his float had gone under water to prompt Addison to reel in the line.
Upon seeing his float go up and down, Addison never failed to feel a surge of excitement, a jolt of adrenalin undiminished even if he felt sure the fish was not big. He never ceased to admire what a fine fight even a small bream could put up. The joy of reeling in a really spirited fish, especially a good-sized one, was something Mr. Armistead found nowhere else. Though he never acknowledged it, he always hoped to catch more than DeBoyd. That he usually did not made the rare occasions when he did all the more cherished.
Unlike with the rest of his life, fishing for Addison was a domain where he could just act on impulse, feeling, or auto pilot. He had never read a book or even an article on fishing. Nor did he keep any fish caught. He knew Hulda would not cook them and he really did not care to clean or cook any either. The quarterly trip to Lake Basil Duke let him unwind with an old, trusted friend where there was no pressure to talk or impress. Instead, he could just relax standing by the shore and follow his instincts as to how to bait his hook, how deep to fish, where to cast his line, how long to keep it there before trying elsewhere, and how quickly to try to reel in a fish.
Though there were usually a few other fishermen along the banks, no one fished anywhere near anyone else. Folks walking by spoke and asked what they had caught, but there was an unspoken understanding it was not kosher to fish remotely too close to anyone.
It was an intriguing surprise when Addison noticed a pair of young Hispanic girls slowly walking around the lake in their direction. It was rare to see any females fishing, and he tried to recall if he had ever seen one not in the company of a male. As the minutes passed, he realized the girls were walking straight toward them and getting ever closer. I don’t recognize them, he mused. Maybe they are going around us to another spot.
But when the girls got about fifteen feet from them, they stopped and put down their gear. As Addison looked at them, they smiled back, said hello, and waved. The older girl appeared to be about fifteen and the other twelve. After the bigger one baited her hook and cast her line, she got another worm and showed the younger one how to hook it.
But the twelve-year-old squealed and giggled, jumping back at one point.
“Oh, don’t be a baby, Doshia,” the larger girl exclaimed. “You’re such a girly girl. Come on. You said you wanted to fish.”
“I don’t want to hurt it. Why can’t we just use those artificial thingies?”
“’Cause we don’t have any and bream don’t like them.”
Then the taller girl tried to show the other how to cast her line. But the younger one suddenly jumped, pointing to her friend’s float which had gone underwater.
“Ah! Arabella, you’ve got a fish!” She shouted with delight. The older girl quickly grabbed her rod and reel and started to reel in the line. The fish waged a mighty battle as Arabella excitedly exclaimed how heavy it felt and Doshia clasped her hands in front of her wide smile.
DeBoyd and Addison silently followed Arabella’s progress pulling the fish ashore. When she lifted it out of the water, they were impressed by what an especially large bream it was, and how colorful too since it was tinged with orange on its fins, belly, and tail.
The girls were thrilled, and Addison congratulated Arabella on such a swell catch. She thanked him and got Doshia to take a picture of her holding it. While Arabella unhooked the fish to throw it back in the water, Doshia implored her not to hurt it. Before casting her line again, Arabella texted the picture to family and friends.
After more squealing as Doshia finally baited her hook, the girls cast their lines but continued chatting. Addison wondered if fish could hear and, if yes, whether the girls’ chatter would scare them away. But he found their eager exhortations to each other amusing and remembered events from middle and high school not recalled in years.
DeBoyd caught several decent-sized bream before reeling in a feisty bass. Arabella and Doshia cheered each catch and Addison took a picture of DeBoyd holding the bass. Just as his friend was about to release it, the girls implored him to pose with the fish once more so they could photograph them as well.
Though glad his buddy and the older girl had caught fish, Addison wished he could haul in something too, no matter how small. Still, upon reflection, he realized it really did not matter. He felt so at peace just enjoying the pretty surroundings, pleasant people, and all the minutiae of fishing. So he continued to hook fresh worms, cast his line in different spots, and slowly reel it in when there were no bites. Arabella caught a few more bream, and each time she and Doshia would get excited and take pictures of the fish to text to relatives and friends, no matter how small the catch. Addison caught himself smiling at them but was careful not to stare.
Failing to get even a nibble anywhere near where he had been standing, he moved to the other side of DeBoyd. But despite a couple of brief bites, he had no more success there. So he walked back to his bait can, hooked a fresh worm, and raised the float considerably so he could fish in deeper waters. He then cast his line as far as he could, prompting the girls to applaud. He laughed in surprise and remarked that a man his age should be able to cast his line farther.
“Why can’t I catch anything?” Doshia complained with a pronounced pout before giggling.
“It’s like Granddaddy says, you have to be patient,” Arabella reminded her.
“I haven’t caught anything today, either,” Addison added. “And we’ve been here longer than y’all.”
For a good twenty minutes he kept exploring waters as far from shore as he could cast his line, but got nary a bite. Yet Addison remained completely in the moment, unconcerned, even oblivious to all else. Only here and now seemed to matter and, glancing at his watch, he was stunned how fast the time was going. It always did when fishing.
He turned to talk with DeBoyd before looking up at the bucolic blue sky above the big pair of Willow trees. When his eyes lowered to the lake’s surface, he searched for his float but could not find it. Then he felt the line tighten and start to move in another direction. Addison was thrilled as he quickly began reeling in his line.
“I’ve got one,” he exclaimed. “I think it could be a big one too.”
The girls shouted encouragement and DeBoyd agreed the fish was a first-class fighter.
Addison was making progress, but was a little nervous with three other sets of eyes following his line. How humiliating if he lost this one, he mused, especially in front of the girls.
“Take your time,” DeBoyd advised. “You’ve hooked him good. So don’t jerk him out suddenly.”
Sure enough, with patient persistence Addison reeled his line ashore to discover he had a fair-sized carp. Elated he had caught the biggest fish of the day thus far, he held him up and was embarrassed to realize he had a full grin. Arabella and Doshia cheered and wanted to know what kind of fish it was.
Since something was biting DeBoyd’s bait, a slightly sheepish Addison asked Arabella if she would please use his phone to take a picture of him holding the carp. She happily complied before she and Doshia took pictures of him with the fish on their own phones.
Over the next hour, they each caught at least one bream, including Doshia. Addison and DeBoyd chuckled as she reeled the fish in while squealing with a mixture of excitement and fear. Too scared to unhook the feisty little fellow, Arabella did so for her while shaking her head.
As the morning started to heat up toward noon and neither Addison nor DeBoyd had caught anything in a good while, they decided it was time to pack up and head to the nearby Big Catch Cafe for lunch. But the sun did not intimate the girls at all. Now that Doshia had finally caught a fish and could even bait her hook, she cast her line with new determination. Addison noticed the girls were not talking as much but appeared absolutely absorbed in trying to catch the next fish.
As the two men started to walk away with their gear and were about to tell the girls goodbye, Doshia shouted, “I’ve got one!”
Pleased with her farthest cast from shore, her line had been yanked deep under water with no warning. Seeing how sharply her rod was bending, Addison and DeBoyd stopped to watch.
“Oh, he’s too big!” Doshia cried. “What’ll I do?”
“Keep reeling. You’re doing well,” Arabella reassured her. “I think he’s a real big one. You want any help?”
“No. Let me try.” Her eyes appeared as wide as her smile, and Addison really hoped the girl could pull in a big catch. In fact, with her rod still bending and the line going left and right, he eagerly hoped this would be the biggest catch of the day.
After many squeals and laughs from Doshia, and lots of reassurance and encouragement from Arabella, Addison, and DeBoyd, the twelve-year-old pulled over the bank a large catfish.
“Ah! It’s a monster!” Doshia exclaimed before dropping her pole and leaping back when the fish swung toward her.
“It’s a catfish,” Addison explained. “See, those are its whiskers. And that’s a right fine catch too — likely a two-pounder. Young lady, you just caught the biggest fish of the day. Hooray.”
“Yay!” Doshia shouted, jumped, clapped, and did a little dance. Assured the fish would not hurt her, she posed with it, albeit at arm’s length and shaking slightly each time the fish flapped.
Addison happily took pictures of the girls holding the fish before volunteering to unhook it to shield them from its sharp spines. Holding it up until they finished taking pictures, he finally tossed the catfish in the water where it made a splash and swam away with a vengeance.
Doshia waved goodbye to “my little sea monster.”
As Addison picked up his rod and reel and bait, he told them how impressed he was with their fishing prowess and informed Doshia he had been fishing for thirty-five years and had never caught a catfish as big as hers. He and DeBoyd wished them well and said goodbye.
The girls replied in kind and Doshia hugged Addison, thanking him for “protecting” her from “Mean Mr. Catfish.” Addison tried to recall the last time he had been hugged and guessed it was when he saw his parents a few months before.
He and DeBoyd enjoyed a delicious lunch recounting each fish caught that morning. There was talk of little else since neither had any real news he cared to share. On the drive home, instead of putting on music, Addison reviewed the morning. Despite not catching nearly as many fish as he would have liked, it was tough to remember when he had last had a more enjoyable time. For hours it was as if life had been put on pause and there was only a placid present punctuated by brief bursts of excitement. Waiting a few months before meeting his friend to fish again would be a real downer of a frowner, and he resolved to get together sooner. What a swell smiler if Arabella and Doshia could join us again too, he hoped.
Then he surprised himself by imagining how splendid it would be if Hulda could join them. Though they had fished together when he courted her before marriage, they had not done so in many years. But he suddenly recalled all the fun times they had shared casting their lines together at various lakes long ago, especially when she hooked a big one and he helped her reel it ashore. How surprised DeBoyd would be should Hulda join them next time. Though they had not seen each other in so long, they had always gotten along.
Or maybe Mr. and Mrs. Armistead could just go to the lake on their own, Addison smiled.