Last June, my column “The Fishing Trip” (https://bit.ly/3xuv4yL) provided an account of the annual excursion my brothers and I have been taking deep into the Maine woods since the late 1980’s. A few years ago, I began to ponder the eventual conclusion of our tradition and wrote a short story called “Deep Waters.” While the story was originally intended as a memento for me and my brothers, I entered “Deep Waters” in the 2020 Writer’s Digest Story Writing contest. The result was an honorable mention award.
Next week, we all pile into cars and take our yearly foray into the wilderness. To honor the trip, I thought I’d share “Deep Waters” as my monthly column. Before you read, a few points to consider. First, while I view the story as reflecting a fitting conclusion to a life well lived, “Deep Waters” is a variation from my usual genre and is lacking my customary hopeful ending. Secondly, there was a rather lively debate with my brothers as to which of us is the main character, Harold. While I did have one of us in mind during the drafting process, I’m not revealing anything. Finally, the character Drew is a composite of the collected nephews and sons-in-laws who have joined us over the years. They are good men and fun travel companions. His name, though, is a nod to my own son, Andy, my favorite fishing partner. I hope you enjoy reading. Please feel free to drop a comment and let me know what you think.
On his last day, all Harold wanted was a fish he could admire.
It was also gratifying that the sky was Maine blue and the water clear enough to see forever, making it easy to study rocks, search for drop-offs, and make short casts, the only ones Harold’s ninety-year-old body would permit.
They used a guide now. Not for finding fish—anyone worth anything should locate his own prey—but for navigation, allowing old, tired bones to reach the prime water. In addition to the guide, there was his fifty-eight-year-old nephew, Drew, who was just releasing a smallmouth bass back into the wild.
There used to be four. Him and Drew, of course, but also his two brothers. The oldest, the one with four daughters, had been missing for twenty years. A drunk fifteen-year-old who had stolen her father’s car had ended his participation. The middle brother, Drew’s father, had moved on a dozen years ago, first to dementia and then to God. Over the years, there would occasionally be a fifth or sixth fisherman—a stray uncle, temporary son-in-law, or old college friend. None of them ever stuck.
The nieces weren’t even invited. This outing was, and always would be, a “guys trip,” a tradition started back when men could enjoy being men. Back before such things were considered a crime against humanity.
Harold watched the bait sink beside a rock. He’d also had a son, John Francis, but had lost him at the age of three. The culprit was polio, a monster that left behind a pain too unbearable to risk again. Judy was gone now, too. The victim of a worn-out heart.
He kept casting, remembering the trip just three weeks after his son’s death. How Judy had made him go. How his brothers had listened, fed him whiskey, and looked the other way when the tears streamed down his face. There were other painful times—the trip after Drew’s wife miscarried, the time the niece was recovering from chemotherapy, and their parent’s passing, within weeks of each other. The trip, however, had created many more good memories than bad ones. Harold’s brain was packed with recollections of laughter and jokes and eating too much and debating the world’s problems. Cigars and booze and swearing like sailors.
These four days had been their cocoon, an annual rubbing away of the callouses.
Now Harold was taking his last trip.
They had used the “C” word, explaining the illness had spread to his liver and pancreas. Harold didn’t care about the doctor’s label. He knew that, at ninety, you didn’t really die of anything other than being old. The young squirt treating him had recommended staying home, saying a trip might make things go faster, maybe lead to infection. Harold had laughed and, using less formal language, told the doc to go fornicate with himself.
He had informed his nephew over last night’s lobster. Drew, because he was Drew, knew better than to show pity or remorse. Instead, he’d toasted a life well lived and then proposed a game of cribbage.
Harold released a fish. A nice one, but not the one he was looking for.
Hooking on a new worm, green with red flakes, Harold knew the fish needed to come soon. His advanced age, even before he was sick, would allow only a half-day on the water. Soon they’d drop him off and Drew would explore the far reaches of the lake.
A few minutes passed before, almost without thinking, he’d recognized the opportunity. Two boulders joined, forming a “V,” dark water plunging in front of them. The first cast deflected off the side of the left rock, bounced away, and was hastily retrieved. Behind him, Drew whispered “keep steady” to the guide.
The second cast fell right into the crevice, sinking about a foot before the line straightened. Harold counted one-one-thousand and yanked upward. The hook connected and the fish ran.
Compared to his younger days, things were different with a big fish. Now, he was forced to fight his body and the fish at the same time. Muscles objected, joints popped, lungs labored. Over the next few minutes, Harold was able to win both battles and, when they were over, his fatigued arms strained to hold the prize. A bronze, fat, glistening, magnificent treasure.
When he lowered the bass back into its home, the fish disappeared with two powerful bursts of its tail, blending with the water, disappearing into the shadows.
“I think that does it for me today.”
Later, after Drew was on his way to fish again, Harold stood on the arched bridge, watching the river that fed the lake. For some reason, the ancient glaciers had gouged deeper here, creating a pool large enough for a man to disappear. In their youth, Harold and his brothers would bathe along the edge, at the point just before the bottom vanished. Later, this was the spot chosen to pour out his brothers, gray ashes that floated with the current, before the physics of saturation drew them to their final home.
After a few minutes, he stepped to the bank and removed his clothes, creating a neat pile on a gray rock. In the old days, there would have been a swimsuit. Today, though, Harold wanted to be as he was when things began. He waded forward, his hands straight out for balance.
At the spot he had to stop, Harold hesitated for the shortest instant before pushing his foot towards the watery abyss. Gravity and the current did the rest, pitching his body forward, sucking him below the liquid horizon. He didn’t fight.
Although he knew they’d probably find him and drag his obsolete carcass from the water, Harold wished they wouldn’t. He loved it here. It was the place that had made the rest of life work. The one that had helped with pain, magnified joy, kept him connected with his two closest friends. Here was where he belonged.
With his brothers.
Steven Rogers’ award-winning novel Into the Room is available in paperback, on Kindle and on audiobook. If you’d like to order a copy, please visit Amazon or his website: https://steven-rogers.com/
June News from Steve
The audiobook for “Into the Room” is now available through Amazon. Narrator Gary Williams was a fantastic match for the book and did a terrific job bringing Ben Cahill to life. Visit here to learn more: https://amzn.to/3NqXy21.
A special thanks to the Hope Thrift book clubs for hosting a talk on Monday, June 6th. I enjoy discussing “Into the Room” with book clubs, reading groups, community organizations, and individuals. If you or a group/individual you know is interested, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Currently, the following speaking engagements are scheduled:
- July 5th: Ashland Kiwanis Club in the Estes Dining Hall at Randolph Macon College. The gathering begins at 6:00 pm.
- July 24th: Gatewood Christian Church, Ridgefield Parkway in Richmond’s far west end. 11:00 am.
- September 22nd: Crossridge Community gathering, Glen Allen, Virginia. 11:30 am.
Exciting news! “Into the Room” is the FIRST PLACE WINNER, Spiritual Fiction Category, for the 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Awards. The Eric Hoffer Book Awards honor the memory of the great American philosopher Eric Hoffer by highlighting salient writing, as well as the independent spirit of small publishers. Since its inception, the Hoffer has become one of the largest international book awards for small, academic, and independent presses.
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