SPORTING CLASSICS DAILY ORIGINAL FICTION
According to my father, this pond is no good.
But he comes along because he thinks we’re trespassing, thinks we’ve got no permission. He likes it that way. Dad will stick his ex-brother-in-law any way he can, a feud that’s older than me. I don’t tell him I’ve been fishing here since May of last year. I caught a blue cat the size of a two-liter a few months ago. Marty, my uncle, said I can come anytime. “What’s mine is yours,” he told me. “Bring Ronnie if you want.” My uncle claims he carries no grudge. But Dad won’t believe that, so I don’t mention it.
It’s August, and I’m afraid he may be right—West Tennessee humidity turns fish lazy. I wanted to be here by morning, but I couldn’t get him out of bed till eleven. He spends weekdays mowing yards. And the weekends? He sleeps or wanders the house in a daze eating cereal or takes a bath. Every now and then a fit of energy comes around and he’ll read a motorcycle magazine, dress in sharp boots, and take me to the Dixie Castle steakhouse.
Currently, his energy is full. He’s bolted with it, ready to see what this pond can deliver.
“When’s the last time you were here?” I ask, carrying our rods and a plastic bag of chicken livers—Dad used to call them slimebags to make me laugh as a kid. He totes the tackle box, the one he’s had since as far as I can remember. One of the fasteners is broken and replaced with a wrap of twine.
“Probably before you were born,” he says. “A good 20 years.”
“Twenty years?” I’m near 18 and think that’s a long time to hold such prejudice against a body of water.
It’s a trek to my uncle’s pond. We climb over an electric fence that isn’t turned on and then cross a meadow of tall grass. The sun pours over us and everything is a hot yellow.
When we make it to the tree line, I’m thankful for the shade. Chiggers feast on my ankles. Deer ticks use acts of stealth to find my scalp. Thorn-corns cling to my clothes. This is the type of place where you ask yourself, Is any fish worth all this?
“I came here only that once,” my father says.
Up ahead, a sign is staked to the ground, a reminder of private land. But I—Tully Robert Bowman—am allowed to roam, hunt, and fish on this property by permission of Marty Wayne Maness, relative. And my father? He used to be an outlaw in these parts. He’s been inside the spinning blue lights before and doesn’t hesitate to keep walking past the sign.
“What did you catch last time you were here?” I ask.
“Maybe some poor bream,” he says. “Your mom had the luck that day.”
Mom left to be an artist up north somewhere after I was born. If it weren’t for some Polaroids underneath my father’s bed, I’d forget her thick red hair, the freckles on her forehead, the tiny gap between her teeth. My long limbs come from her side. She’s the one who named me Tully.
My father continues, “That whole day was a bunch of lure loss and hook tangle till your mom caught the cat, a jug of an animal. So big, she was afraid to touch it, afraid it’d swallow her hand.”
“That’s the thing, she put it back in,” he says. “This pond’s no good, makes people act without any sense.”
I wonder if the cat I caught a few months ago was any relation to hers. The description sounds right. I cooked mine, though, fried it in pancake batter with hot sauce. I learned the recipe from Uncle Marty, who said it was a family tradition. I told Dad the filets came from Big Star.
“What’d she use for bait?” I ask.
“Catalpa,” my father says, “from a catalpa tree.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Moth larva is what it is.”
Where had she found a moth larva tree? A pretty word, though, catalpa. I need to look it up.
The pond comes into sight. Marty nicknamed it Triangle Pond because he claims it carries the shape from an aerial view. Since no one I know owns a helicopter, I can’t confirm or deny it for sure, though. Growing up, Dad would say, “No, Tully, that pond is shaped like a rat.”
We set our things on the ground and stare at the water, colored like coffee. Dad pulls a red handkerchief from his back pocket and wipes his forehead and his arms. “Let’s make a bet,” he says.
He says whoever catches the first fish will be wined and dined for the night, whoever loses will filet, cook, and serve for the other. For someone who doesn’t think this pond is worth it, I don’t understand why he’s the first to start a competition.
“I like my odds,” I say. I bend down to the tackle box and unwrap the twine that keeps it shut. I pull out a ball-weight from a tray and pinch it onto my line. I open the bag of chicken livers. At Gorski’s Convenience, a plate of raw ones costs only a fiver. There’s an art to fishing with them. Cast too wild or too hard, the bait slings off before your hook even hits the water.
“You know earlier when we were talking about the last time I fished here?” he asks.
I nod my head and pierce the chicken liver with a hook.
“I got into it with your momma,” he says. “I was in the wrong—still red from alcohol back then. I gave her a hard time when she put that catfish back in the water. Said some loud words. I never touched her or anything, you know that, but stupid words.”
My father threads his handkerchief between his fingers. “I was just bossy all the time, still riding motorcycles. Anyway, Marty came up, said he could hear me yelling a ways off, threatened to call the law. That’s Marty for you, sneaking around, staring. Wouldn’t surprise me if he’s somewhere spying on us right now. Me and your mom packed our stuff and drove off. I may’ve apologized. I don’t remember.”
The story makes me nervous, and I cast without paying attention. The chicken liver flies off the hook near the pond’s center and pops the water. I haven’t screwed a cast up like that since I was a kid.? Dad laughs. “Damn, I thought I taught you better than that.”
I reel in my line and take a sit on the ground. I don’t know what to say except, “I think the fish’ll be biting soon.”
“If you can keep your bait on the hook,” he says. “I got to leak before I do anything.”
He wanders off into the woods.
I peel another liver from the bag. My cast is perfect this time around, but Dad doesn’t see it. I hope one of us catches something today. If the pond has potential, maybe he’ll want to come back here, maybe it’ll motivate him. Or maybe Uncle Marty will show his face sometime, and Dad won’t be so set on division, family pains, who did what, and why they did it. Maybe we can all fish together.
But my line is still. Not a ripple on the water.
I turn my head and scan the woods. The trees are heavy with leaves, squawking birds, dog-day cicadas. My father is under a big green one that looks like a tall rod stuck in the ground. He stares up at the crown and pulls down a branch, checking its leaves.
“What you doing over there?” I yell.
All he says is, “You’re done, Tully. Done.”
Disappointed, I reel in, my chicken liver still intact, and head to where he stands.
He tells me that the tree is covered in worms. “Catalpas,” he says, “the kind your mother favored.”
The leaves are as large as hearts, the tree’s bark grooved and gray like the skin of something antique. My mother picked from it before I existed, and if I were younger it’d be perfect to climb and taunt the world from above.
“Look here,” Dad says. He fingers a leaf with a catalpa on it. He points at me, and I give it a closer look. It’s marked with a yellow trail from top to bottom. It crawls on his index finger and curls around his gritty nail. It’ll cocoon one day and become a moth. It’ll turn into an adult, if it’s given the time.
But it has another purpose today: bait. Maybe it’ll help Dad find what he hasn’t found before in this water. I’ll stick with livers, though. I’m willing to come home with nothing if he can walk away with a big cat. I’ll let him use the magic of the catalpa.
Because according to me, this pond is plenty good. +++
Garrett Crowe grew up in Lexington, Tennessee. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Southern Humanities Review, PANK, Untame, and elsewhere. He is also one of the creators of the Everything Is Stories podcast. He currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi. You can follow him at twitter.com/crowegarrett.