Fish Story

by George Wood

             “If you got time, I got someone to introduce you to.” Jack Grimes and Charlie McGinn had finished their Sunday morning breakfasts of biscuits and sausage gravy and were waiting for their checks.  Jack nursed a last cup of coffee.

            “Got nothing but time.” Charlie was working over his teeth with a plastic toothpick.  He would use that same pick to clean dirt from his fingernails and wax from his ears throughout the day. 

            “You got to swear not to tell anybody about him,” Jack told Charlie.

            “You don’t have to worry any about that,” Charlie promised.

            Their checks came. Each man left a dollar bill on the table and went to the cash register to pay.  Once settled up they headed out into the morning sunlight, the small bell over the diner door announcing their departure.

            The two men had shared Sunday breakfast for longer than either could say.  They met the Sunday they were forced to share a table after dropping their wives off at the Baptist church. The diner was full of Methodists whose service had been called off due to a faulty air conditioning system.  “Just like the Methodists to bail out of church at the first taste of Hell,” Charlie commented.  Jack knew he had found a kindred soul.

            Their Sunday breakfast meetings continued after Charlie’s wife divorced him and Jack’s died of cancer.  Over the years they had hunted and fished together, taken in local high school sporting events, and helped each other cut and split firewood for the coming winter.  Arthritis and bad backs ended the hunting and wood cutting, bad night vision meant they no longer drove to the high school games. They still met faithfully for their plates of biscuits and gravy every Sunday.

            They drove to Jack’s cabin and took the well-worn trail past the outhouse over to his pond.  “Stand back so’s you don’t startle him,” Jack whispered to Charlie before walking to the edge of the water. “Now watch this.”

            “Whatever you say, old buddy.” Charlie thought it odd that Jack had brought him out to the pond to meet someone. But they had been friends for a long time and Charlie intended to humor Jack.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  Just three weeks earlier Jack had left the diner in a hurry saying he needed to get to the church to pick up Edna.  Edna had died five years ago. Charlie was starting to worry about his old friend.

           “Here goes.” Jack stomped three times on the pond’s bank with his booted right foot. Both men waited in silence. After a few moments, Jack stomped again.

            Charlie fished his toothpick out of his shirt pocket and dug at his teeth. He avoided looking at his confused friend. 

             Then it appeared. The large bass slowly emerging from the dark green depths, his bulbous, unblinking eyes staring at Jack.

             “Morning Sammy!” Jack greeted him. He turned and motioned Charlie to come over next to him.  The fish backed up as Charlie stepped to the edge of the pond.  “It’s OK, Sammy,” Jack assured the fish. It drifted forward again and stopped, suspended about three inches below the surface and a foot from the bank, its pectoral fins and tail waving ever so slightly to keep him in position.

            “Sammy, meet Charlie, my other best friend,” Jack introduced the two.

            “I’ll be damned,” was all Charlie could muster.

            For the next hour the men walked around the pond calling the fish.  Each time they stopped Jack would stomp his foot and in moments Sammy would appear.  “You try,” Jack offered to Charlie at the last place they stopped.  Charlie stomped his foot and again the fish appeared.

            “Seems that he likes you too.” Jack said as he grinned at Charlie. 

            The two friends walked back down the path to their trucks. 

            “You keep Sammy a secret now, just between us.  Don’t want nobody sneaking out here and stealing our friend.” Jack reminded Charlie.

            “No worries about that old buddy,” Charlie replied. “If I told anyone they’d just think I was drinking and seeing things anyhow.”.

***

             For the next month Jack and Charlie would leave Sunday breakfast and drive over to see Sammy.  Walking around the pond they would take turns stomping.  Without fail, the fish would rise to meet them. Until the day Charlie begged off the visit.

             “Time to go see Sammy.” Jack had finished his coffee and was digging for his dollar to leave on the table. 

             “Don’t have the time today, old buddy, “Charlie replied.  “Vicky’s letting me see my grandkids.”

             “Well. OK. Suit yourself.” Jack paused after getting up from the table.  He was a bit ill at ease with the change in schedule.  “Guess I’ll see you next week then.” He paid his tab at the register and left the diner.  Charlie sat at the table, listening to the bell ringing.

              Try as he might, Jack could not get Sammy to rise that Sunday morning. All day and throughout the rest of the week he tried to get Sammy to come with no luck. When he met Charlie for breakfast, he shared the bad news.

            “I’m worried about Sammy.” Jack sat down just before his plate arrived. 

            “Really?” Charlie asked. He was shaking hot sauce on this meal and did not look up.

            “Haven’t seen him for a week.  Can’t figure out where he is or what he’s gotten up to.”

            “You never know about a fish.” Charlie offered, still focused on his plate.

            Truth was that Charlie knew. He had fishnapped Sammy eight days earlier. 

            Charlie reserved Saturdays for drinking and drinking caused him to do things he would later regret.  On that particular Saturday, fueled by a bottle of Jack Daniels, Charlie had loaded a fifty-five-gallon drum half full of water into the back of his pick-up. He then went to the Walmart for a battery-operated aerator.  Taking the back roads with the drum in the back and the bottle between his legs he drove out to Jack’s pond. He caught Sammy and put him in the barrel with the aerator running. Next stop was Sammy’s new home.

            It didn’t Sammy long to adjust to his new settings or Charlie to his new status.  By Monday afternoon the fish would appear wherever Charlie would stomp his feet on the banks of the pond out behind his old tobacco barn.  On Wednesday he introduced Sammy to his grandchildren, teaching them how to call the pet fish. On Friday night he talked about the fish at the weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the basement of the Methodist Church where he had been a regular for a couple of years. Vicky made him attend as the price for seeing his grandkids.  He couldn’t talk about getting sober because he had no intention of doing that.

            “You want to come with me to look for him?” Jack asked when their plates were cleared from the table.

             “Don’t know as I’d be much help.”  Charlie was working on his nails with his toothpick. He avoided looking directly at Jack.  “I mean, you’ve been stomping, right? And the fish isn’t showing up.  What else is there to do?” He paused to admire his clean nails. “It’s not like old Sammy just up and walked away.”

              “I know it.  But I just keep thinking I am missing something. Something else I should do.” Jack spun his empty coffee cup in his hand while they sat in silence. “Guess I’ll go on then.  See you next week.”  The two men got up from the table and left the diner, each going his separate way. The bell tingled behind them.

***

            “I miss that fish.” It had been six weeks since Charlie had taken Sammy. Jack’s biscuits and gravy sat cold and untouched in front of him. A thin grey crust had formed on the food. “He was something special, magical even.  Always showing up no matter where I would stomp my feet.  He was dependable.  Not like most people.”  Jack paused to sip his coffee. “I just wish that he would have floated to the surface or something so I could have given him a proper burial.”  A tear rolled through the gray whiskers on Jack’s unshaved cheek. 

            Charlie hadn’t seen his friend this miserable since Jack’s last beagle dog had passed.  It was time to own up to his trespass. It was step nine of the twelve step process. Charlie still hadn’t bothered with step one. But since he wasn’t going to get sober anyhow Charlie figured he could skip around and do the steps he wanted. He also thought it might help Jack to know Sammy wasn’t dead.

            “I took him,” Charlie mumbled.

            “You what?” Jack asked. Early on the thought had occurred to Jack that his friend might have been involved in Sammy’s disappearance. It had shamed him that he even briefly entertained such an uncharitable notion about his best friend. He owed Charlie a lot. When his wife had died, Jack had sold their house and holed up in his hunting cabin. He wasn’t seen for weeks.  It was Charlie who dragged him back to the living after finding him in the cabin half-starved and suffering from a bout of pneumonia.  Might of died if his friend had not shown up.  No way Charlie would take Sammy. 

            “I took him.” Charlie repeated. He still struggled with why he had taken the fish.  Charlie had been drinking, sure enough.  But Jack was not only his best friend, he was his only friend.  The only one that had stayed with him despite his drinking and bad manners and tendency to stretch the truth.  It was Jack who convinced Vicky to let him keep seeing his grandkids.  Jack had negotiated the AA meetings with Vicky even though he was pretty sure they would not do any good.

            “You’re not making this up just to make me feel better, are you?” Having already considered and rejected the idea that Charlie had been involved Jack was slow to change his mind.  Besides, Charlie was known to tell a tall tale or two when it might serve some higher purpose.  When Vicky was fifteen Charlie had told her that he had given her cat to two kids he met at the veterinarian’s office who were there to have their cat put down due to extensive burns received in the house fire that had killed their other three cats, two dogs, and four parakeets.  The cat had really died from heat exhaustion.  Charlie left it in his truck with the windows rolled up on the ninety-five-degree August day he was supposed to be taking it for a check-up. Instead, he had stopped in for a couple of drinks at his favorite bar. 

             “If you did it, how did you catch him?” Jack pressed.

            “Wasn’t hard.  Just a bluegill under a bobber, stomp three times, out of the pond and into the barrel.  He’s a fish, after all.  He isn’t all that smart.”

            “Why would you do that?” There was hurt in Jack’s voice.

            “Probably because I was drinking,” Charlie shrugged.

            “No doubt. Now bring him back.” Jack demanded.

            Charlie lifted his hands up from the table in an expression of helplessness and shook his head. “Can’t.”

            “Why not?” Jack was starting to get mad.

            “ ‘Cause the grandkids love him.  When they come over, they hook up different baits to see if they can catch him.  They’ve used marshmallows, Vienna sausages, Oreo cookies, even caught him on ping-pong ball. Like I said, he isn’t all that smart. If I give him back, the grandkids will want to know where he went.  I can’t lie to them kids. I would have to admit that I gave him back to you because I stole him in the first place. They’d ask how come I would steal my best friend’s fish. Soon enough it would get around to being about me drinking and exercising bad judgement. The truth would be a slippery slope to Vicky never letting me see the kids again.” Charlie caught his breath and sighed.  “I can’t bring him back. But I brought you this.”

            He slid a polaroid of Sammy being held by his youngest granddaughter across the table to Jack. 

            Jack slammed his hands down on the table making the silverware rattle and other conversations in the diner stop. “You…. go…. to…. Hell!” With that, Jack got up and left the diner, the tingling of the bell as the door slammed behind him the only sound in the packed room.

           ***

            Charlie ate Sunday breakfast by himself until a month after Sammy’s funeral. It had been over a year and a half since he had given Jack the first photo of Sammy. He had tried to mend things with his old friend. Sent him an album full of pictures of Sammy with each of his grandkids.  Mailed Jack a photo of a mess of bass fingerlings in a frame that said “Congratulations Grandpa”. Pasted a couple of scales carefully taken from Sammy on an index card and sent it to Jack as a parent might send a lock of hair from a grandchild’s first haircut.  The final photo was of Sammy’s funeral.

           The polaroid was of Sammy laying in a shallow hole, one eye staring blankly up at Jack.  Scattered around the dead fish was a bobber, two rubber worms, half a dozen marshmallows, and some Oreo cookies.  Charlie had written a message on the back of the photo. “I knew you wanted the old boy to have a proper burial. It was a beautiful service. The grandkids put that stuff in his grave so Sammy would have something to eat and play with in fish heaven.”

            “Son of a bitch didn’t even let me know Sammy was sick.” Jack had thought to himself.

            Charlie didn’t look up when the bell on the diner door tingled.  Jack sat down across from him. 

“Order for me?” He asked.

            “Yep,” Charlie replied.

            They ate their biscuits and gravy in silence. 

            “You said you got something to show to me?” Jack asked after the plates were cleared.

            “Someone I want to introduce you to, old buddy. If you got the time.”  Charlie was picking at his ear canal with a plastic toothpick.

            “Got nothing but time.” Jack replied.

            They drove to Jack’s cabin and walked the path past the outhouse to the pond.

            “Stand here.” Charlie stood on the bank and motioned Jack next to him.  “Now stomp three times.”

            Jack did.  In a few moments a bass appeared out of the green depths, perpendicular to the bank, pectoral fins and tail twitching just enough to keep him in place.

            “I’ll be damned.” Jack whispered.

            “Looks a lot like his old man, doesn’t he?” Charlie replied

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