This is part 2 of a 3-part story. You can read part 1 of Heromaker here.
The extra weight proved problematic, after trying to shoot the line somewhat unsuccessfully, George automatically tried to backcast. In his rush, he snagged the line in the fir, bending the aspen rod like a bow. Just as this was registering, the line released and shot forward, the jewelry flashing like a shooting star in the gloom.
George could no longer see the fish, but he pulled in rote, knowing this would be his last cast for the night. Bump. Bump. The wily bruiser was at it again. Perhaps he was blind with age? Bump. The lure was almost at the end of its arc and George could no longer see where the line met the water when suddenly the water erupted. Like a train coming out of a tunnel, the fish hit so hard he pulled the entire line into the air.
George gave a mighty heave to set the hook and tried to use his right hand on the line to slow it down while simultaneously palming the reel with his left. Suddenly he realized that his system had so many weak links that he didn’t know how to play the fish. Maximus began zooming around the pool in great ellipses, George playing and taking line as best he could. The force of the fish was amazing.
Like his dad, he began a constant dialog with the beast. “Oh, Max, dad was right, you are going to be the world record, don’t make this hard.”
Oblivious, the fish raged around the pool. Within fifteen minutes the mountain light was completely gone.
“Easy boy, you stay out of that snag. That’s right, come to papa.” George reeled furiously.
Forty-five minutes and the three-quarter moon cleared the trees. Still the fish followed its Maypole circuit.
“Easy George, got nothing but spit and baling wire here. Convince him in.”
At an hour the fish suddenly changed tactics, shooting straight down the stream and back. George’s arms ached. His soft feet were bruised from the gravel. His toes numb from the mountain stream.
“I think I’m getting to you! Are you feeling it?” He transferred the rod to his other hand.
Finally, after almost two hours, the fish began to slow, and George thought he might win him. A few times he came off the bottom and George saw him glowing like a sunken moonbeam. The dappled pattern made it seem like he had caught a ghost, a phantom of his childhood.
The fish turned at the tree and headed straight upstream. George attempted to take in slack but the fish shot by, wrapped around the boulder that was his hiding place, and snapped the line. Just like that, George stood there in the dark, his pants soaked from splashing, his shirt like glue, the ludicrous rod in his hand, but he laughed and shook his fist.
“That was Alston Hammond’s son – no, his ghost – Old Man. You were fair-hooked and almost cooked and I’ll see you again.” His little poem amused him and he danced in the moonlit shallows waving his rod overhead and singing:
See you again
He stopped mid-splash and the water seemed to hang in the air. He ripped the line in gibbering “No. No. No.” It was too dark to see, but he could feel, there was no hook, no tack, no ring.
George dropped to his knees in the water, dropping the rod and holding his hands. How long he sat like that he didn’t know. Finally, he stood up, disassembled the rod, carefully putting the laces and reel in his pockets. Leaving the useless sapling under the firs, he stumbled back to his shoes and socks, picked them up and limped back to the car.
By the dome light he rolled down his soaked cuffs, laced his shoes, regarded his socks and, deciding against them, put on his shoes.
He sat behind the wheel for a while, smoking quietly. Part of him considered just driving on, seeing where the road would lead. Finally he admonished himself. Enough foolishness. This is what playing, especially playing in the past, will get you. One day off, one day in twenty-two and one half years, and what did it get him? Martha was going to be livid.
He started the car, carefully made a three point turn before the bridge, and headed home.
He got home well past midnight, parking next to Martha’s new Chrysler. Not a single light glowed on his street. The whole way home he tried to think up a story about the hour, the clothes, the ring, but nothing came to him. He had never had to lie before, and lacked the creativity for it.
George undressed in the bathroom so as not to wake Martha, and slid into bed next to her. He could tell though by her breathing that she was not asleep.
“Car troubles, dear.”
She rolled over and sat up quicker than Maximus took the makeshift fly.
“What kind of trouble? There’s nothing wrong with that car.”
The more unreasonable she was, the easier this got.
“Got lost, drove off the road turning around, got stuck.”
“I swear George, you are the most reckless man I ever met. You need to take care of that car. We need that car.”
“Martha, that car is over twenty years old, about time to expect the occasional problem.”
“Sounds like it’s not the old car, but the damn fool driver. Did you even finish work?”
“Yes, Martha, I crawled on my hands and knees and finished my route, just to keep Daddy happy.”
If an intake can be a swallowed scream, that’s what Martha did. Then she sputtered, “Well, I never. You are a mean, foul-mouthed, lazy man. You’ll never even be his shadow.”
“Not if I don’t get some sleep, dear.” With that he rolled over and fell instantly asleep.
In his sleep he was back in the moon shadow pool, playing the trout. But then he was the trout too, rolling in the water, struggling with his strange bond; and it was his father on the rod. When he saw him, George swam to his father, the tension going away, but then the angler was Mr. Purdy and George made a frantic run for the rock, the line straining with unbearable tension. He thought it might’ve parted, but then the alarm was going off.
George sat up, but Martha was already gone. At first he was confused, but then the previous day came back to him.
He jolted out of bed, afraid he was late for work, but saw that it was his usual time. He was surprised by how good he felt; he expected to be dragging. In the shower he noticed his ring was gone. How could he forget! He had the same problem as yesterday, as hard as he thought about it, no good lie came to him. His mood evaporated completely.
Martha was at breakfast, banging plates around in the kitchen, plainly mad. His greeting of “’Morning.” went completely unanswered. He poured his own coffee and got a grapefruit out of the refrigerator. George just picked up the paper and folded it so he could hold it in his left hand and read the headlines while he ate.
“Where is your ring?” The emotion in her voice was palpable, although not clearly definable.
“I didn’t want to say anything, dear. It came off when I was slogging the car out of the mud. I couldn’t find it. It’s the reason I was so late.” That came out better than he expected. He looked at her over the paper. “I’ll go down right after work today and put a claim in on it, then I’ll order a new one.”
“You can’t just replace a ring, George. It’s not like that. That is a symbol of our bond. Is it so easy for you to just throw it away?”
“Martha, I had a damn shitty day,” her face showed plain shock, he was sure that was the first time he’d sworn since they were married, “and I kind of wish I didn’t have to apologize to you for it. Sometimes, things just happen.”
“I cannot believe you! What is happening to you? Have you taken up drinking?” She was as pink as the inside of his grapefruit, and almost as sour. “Things do not ‘just happen’. Our lives are what we make them. Something happened, and you’re telling me some story. Don’t think I can’t tell when you are lying to me.”
A dead calm came over George. He took a sip of coffee, put down the paper and, standing up, took his coat off of the back of the chair. “I’ll be late if I don’t leave now.” Walking down the hallway to the front door, he squared his shoulders, as if expecting a blow, but it never came.
On Wednesdays, he always went in early, to type up reports, and pick up any new leads for the rest of the week. Usually, he could be back out on the road by noon. Today was typical. George was in ninety minutes before anybody else, and while he made dutiful progress on his reports, his thoughts were evenly divided between the thrill he got from that fish and the rift his little escapade has caused with Martha. He was sure she would never understand the truth, but he was sorry that he’d told a lie. He knew that would cause him no end of grief.
At nine he had just finished the last of the reports when Mr. Purdy came in. He stood there in the door to George’s office sucking in the light like a black hole, expelling it in clouds of cigarette smoke. He was the kind of man who once had a presence on the gridiron and kept the muscular physique late in life, albeit might have suffered some from a surfeit of Canadian whiskey.
He stood there staring at George for a while who looked back at him over the top of his bifocals. These meetings always unmanned George, who felt completely defenseless. Today, however, he returned Mr. Purdy’s glare with the same calm nonchalance he’d used on his daughter.
“How are you feeling today, George?”
“Just fine, Mr. Purdy, what brings you by?” George was going to hold out getting sucked in as long as he could.
Mr. Purdy cocked his head to one side, as if he sensed something was different, but couldn’t quite place it.
“Mind if I come in?”
“You’re the boss.”
Again, a look crossed his face, but then disappeared. He closed the door behind him and came in, putting a ham of a buttock on George’s desk. “My little girl,” he began, “called me this morning. Quite upset she was. Said you’ve been acting mighty strange.” He cast an eye at George’s hands, clasped in front of him on the desk.
He leaned over close to George. “George, there are a lot of reasons a man might take off his ring, but you gotta be more careful.” George thought he might wink.
“Mr. Purdy, I’ve known you for a long time, and I really don’t know what you think of me, but I certainly hope you don’t think that.” Mr. Purdy sat up, his eyes wide. “I lost that ring just like I said, digging the car out after I got stuck. At work,” he added, thinking that somehow might make a difference. “I’m plenty sorry about it, and I know it is out of character for me, but after twenty-two years, I think I’m entitled to have one bad day.” Or one good one, he secretly thought to himself.
Mr. Purdy’s eyes narrowed. “Well, that might be; don’t go making a habit of it George. I’m keeping an eye on you.” With that he got up and left.
George sat back in his chair with his hands flat on the desk and stared at the spot where Mr. Purdy had disappeared. For some reason, he couldn’t stop thinking about that fish.
He shook his head and called the insurance company. Did he understand that his deductible would go up if he claimed the ring? They understood it was his first claim in over twenty years? Yes, but that was the rule, Mr. Hammond. So did he still want to file the claim? Yes, yes he did. Okay, as long as he was sure. Yes, yes he was. He got off the phone and stared at it for a while. He got out the Yellow Pages and started shopping around. It meant transferring to an outfit in Milleville, but he got a new agency. Then he collected his things and headed out to make the rounds.
When he got home after work, Martha’s car was gone. Inside, she left him a note, saying she was staying with her folks until he came to his senses. He crumpled the note up while he walked to the liquor cabinet and poured himself two fingers. Martha kept it around for company, meaning her, and occasionally her dad or other business guests, but she didn’t like George to drink. Said it led to irresponsible behavior.
George started prowling around the garage, found his old fishing equipment, and put it in the trunk of his car. He doubted he’d ever use it again, but damn, he realized, it made him mad that Martha had decided he wouldn’t have that option, and hadn’t even told him. He paused a moment and looked at the rod, a simple but useful bamboo that his dad had put a lot of miles on, as had he. He turned it over in his hands and thought of times with his dad, and times by himself after school when he got away and just relaxed. He had even fished for a while when he started at the firm, but somehow it eventually got replaced by other things.
The flies were still in beautiful shape sitting like little soldiers in their leather wallet barracks, marshaled in neat rows, awaiting the call to duty. Grey Ghost, Olive Dun, Wooly Bugger, Royal Wulff, Comet, Hares Ear, Damsel Nymph. He still remembered each and every name and how to tie them. His father used to tie them while he and his mom listened to the old time radio dramas at night. He looked at the wicker creel and laughed, imagining himself trying to stuff Maximus into that tiny coffin. He took it back out and returned it to the garage and then turned off the lights. It was just symbolic anyway. After his last episode, he sure wasn’t planning on wasting any more time fishing.
George knew this: you can’t rush a woman. He’d never really fought with Martha before, generally his modus operandi was to acquiesce to her desires. Now he was just a little bit peeved. It seemed like one afternoon with that damned trout had shattered his whole life. He decided to wait things out for a bit. If Martha didn’t return in a week or so, he had the seeds of a plan.
The next day, he went to the jewelers where he got his ring. Frank Templeton still owned the place, and worked the counter. George had ordered Martha’s special, but his came right out of the catalog, a simple gold band. It was no trouble at all, Frank told him it would be there by the end of the week.
George’s workweek was pretty much all planned out to be on the road, so he just followed through with his plans. Driving gave him some time to think. He couldn’t believe that he let some stupid fish ruin his marriage. What had he been thinking? And what kind of inheritance was that from his father? A fish. He fumed behind the wheel and banged his fist on the dash when he thought what a fool he had been. Life was so simple, and then you go and do one stupid thing and it was a mess. Well, he thought, he could fix that up right.
On Friday he finished his route and stopped by Merrill insurance to get his check. He stood there fumbling with it for a while, then addressed Betsy, the receptionist.
“Betsy, I thought I should tell you in person and all, I’m going to cancel my policy. Got another one already lined up.”
Betsy, sat there behind the counter, her mouth open. Then she closed it with a snap that made George think about a trout. He had to stop thinking about fishing for God’s sake! Betsy pushed her bifocals up her nose and then reached over and buzzed the owner, Russell. George never liked Russell. He also reminded George of a fish with his pasty complexion and neckless figure, complete with an oily sheen starting with the vestiges of his unwashed hair.
“Mr. Merrill, I think you ought to come out here.”
Russell blustered out, not happy about being disturbed from his work. “What’s this about Betsy? You know I can’t be disturbed every ten minutes,” he stopped abruptly when he saw George.
“George. Damn shame about your ring,” he looked quizzically at George as if George might suddenly divulge some important fact, some sordid detail, about how the ring was truly lost. After an uncomfortable pause, he went on. “As you can see, minus the deductible and depreciation, you get almost half value. That’s a damn fine deal. Plus of course the entirely reasonable increase in the premium. You can see that we’re always here for you.”
“About that premium, Russell,” George looked back at Betsy, “I’m afraid that I’m canceling my policy.”
Russell gasped like a beached whitefish. “Now, George, this is just business. You need insurance. I’d heard you were behaving a little rashly these days, but you don’t want to go over the deep end.”
George looked back at Russell. “Just business. In Milleville, I got better rates than I got here. Seems it’s more valuable to be a new customer there than an old one here. I’ll be expecting a refund of my premiums in the mail, properly prorated, of course.” He smiled at Russell, winked at Betsy, and walked out, feeling downright jaunty.
He walked straight over to Templeton’s and wrote a check for his new ring and put it on right there in the store. From there he stopped at the florist and got one dozen red roses. On the curb he went back and got a dozen white ones, too. The counter girl looked at him like was a bit mad. A bit more for the legend of Mad George Hammond, he thought. Not to worry, he was about to put an end to all that.
George drove leisurely out to the Purdy estate. It was on a bluff overlooking town, with room enough between the old money houses that if there were neighbors, you couldn’t see them. He was surprised at how nervous he was, but he had a foolproof plan, and he knew that after today his life would be back on track. He drove up to the circle and parked off to the side, just in case somebody else needed to use the driveway. Then he put on his coat, fixed his tie, picked up his roses and headed to the gloss-green door shining in the middle of the two-story brick house.
He was a little surprised when Martha answered, but relieved, too. It was going to make this a lot easier. She looked at him sourly, but he gave her a big grin.
“Madam,” he said, bowing and extending the roses. When she took them, he went down on one knee and took a little box out of his inner pocket. “Martha Purdy, you are the prettiest girl in Yellowwood.” He extended the box. “I’m proud to be your husband, and I would like to know: Would you please marry me all over again?”
He had originally ordered that ring for their twenty-fifth, been making payments on it since their twentieth, a few dollars saved from his per diem every week. But with recent circumstances, he decided to pick it up with his new ring. He was too simple to call it romantic symbolism, but it just seemed right that if he had a new ring, so should she.
“Get up!” Martha looked both ways as if he might embarrass her. George just kneeled there stunned. “Get up,” she practically pulled him to his feet. “I don’t understand you George Hammond. I’ve been hearing you’ve been running all over town doing fool things — I just got off the phone with Judy Merrill — and now this. What are you trying to do?”
George stood there mute. He was intensely aware of the smell of lavender coming from somewhere in the garden, the sound of bees. Far away in the valley, a carillon began to toll. He never imagined it would go like this.
“Martha, I just came to say I’m sorry. I got a new ring,” he held up his hand, “and I’ve been saving for that for a while.” He pointed to the box in her hand.
“Maybe I’ve done some fool things, and everything just seems to make it worse. But I love you, and I just want you back.” He looked her in the eye. “I want things to be the way they were.”
Martha returned his gaze and shook her head. “I’m not sure they can be. I’m not sure what I ever saw in you, George, and I’m not sure I can forgive the things you’ve done.” She shut the door, taking the ring and the flowers.
George stood there for a while, his reflection fuzzy in the gloss of the door. Then he turned around and looked over the width of the estate. Finally, he shambled over to the car.
All weekend long, he played over the scene at the door. How could it have gone so wrong? Then he started going back in time. Everything had been perfect between them. He’d worked hard, provided as best he could. Then he just got lazy, and took that day off. If he hadn’t seen that monster from the bridge, everything would be different. If his father hadn’t shown him that fishing hole, infecting his whole life, everything would still be the same. His fool father and that fool fish. They tumbled through his brain all weekend while he mowed the lawn, washed the car and did his other chores around the house.
George was a man of action. Problems had solutions. In his life, he worked hard and knew little failure. Now, all he could think to do was to work harder. He became convinced that Martha was disappointed in him for his lackluster career performance, and all of this was just a symptom of that. Hell, wasn’t that why he was goofing around on the job in the first place? He was bound to make something of himself at the firm. He’d go in Monday and talk to Mr. Purdy. With plan in hand on Sunday night, George went to bed and slept soundly.
Continue to part 3 of Heromaker.