I’m still here, crawling in and out of the mineshaft.
By now, I was a freshman in highschool and I was struggling with my studies as well as being a good son. After Lameck and Tracy’s pregnancy, the church knuckled down on its shepherding of the youth; a mandatory Friday night youth service was instituted and the parents were required to be there as well. Joe was in and out of IU hospital on a weekly basis. I didn’t see much of Mom and Dad except on the weekends, when we were at church, or in a hospital waiting room. I was losing my time with Whitey and when we did get together, I’d drink until I passed out. Whitey’s family sold their house and moved into another housing addition further north on Lone Oak. He joined the basketball team and started hanging out with a new group. I was seeing less of him as we progressed through school and it was disheartening.
My nightmares returned and seemed to bleed over into reality. I felt like I was underwater and I couldn’t surface. I quit reaching out for anyone or anything and I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t breathe and I turned inside and closed my eyes. There were days when I’d be called from sleep to the table for dinner and have no recollection of having gone to school or even a string of memories from a previous number of days. I noticed that voices were muffled but I didn’t really care to hear what they were saying. It seemed like there was a fog between me and every other person, so I quit trying to see their faces.
By March, I’d lost weight and was thinner than normal. To Mom, I had all of the symptoms of mononucleosis. She questioned the morality of my activities at school. I was insulted but I didn’t say anything. Her inquisition about my involvement with girls outside of the church angered me. She took me to the doctor’s office for an examination and a blood draw and the results came back negative. As well, Dad tried to dig inside of my heart but followed the same path as Mom with assumptions and accusation. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with me but by the time they were done, I wished there had been a girl or even one other person who could set me free but there wasn’t. If there were such a thing as being tied to apron strings and coat tails, this ridiculous incident severed the connection and I closed the door to any possible relationship with my parents.
Carrie invited me to her house on weekends and I looked forward to the time but she couldn’t afford it. She was occupied with two babies and I didn’t want to be a third. I spent my time walking the lanes between the fields. I went down to the creek where I used to catch fish in the traps that Dad had helped me make. I sat on the rocks and watched the swallows drop from their mud nests under the bridge and was mesmerized by their aerial display. I thought about being on the farm before Joe had his first seizure. I thought about Danny’s first rabbit hunt in the west field with a shotgun Dad had bought him for Christmas. I thought about the weekend cookouts where Carrie grilled more chicken than anyone could possibly eat and the Sundays, after dinner, sitting by the the same creek with no preoccupation of attending a church that did its best to steer me with fear of damnation. I realized the swallows, skimming the surface of the creek, were most likely the offspring of the birds I watched when I first came here and it made me cry.
In May, the rains came. They fell gently with no angle and felt like someone you love was whispering in your ear and kissing your cheek. I woke one morning to get ready for school and found a note on the counter. It was in Dad’s handwriting and it instructed me to stay home and that Brother Charlie was going to pick me up. I got dressed and sat in the living room not knowing what to expect. A few minutes later, Charlie pulled his old ford truck, with bass boat in tow, into the drive and honked its horn. I pulled on my sweatshirt and trotted out into the rain. Charlie met me halfway up the drive and hollered, “Are you ready to go fishin’?” I was still confused as to why I wasn’t going to school and why Charlie was in the driveway and asked, “Why are we goin’ fishing?” Charlie pulled off his hat, blinked up into the rain, rubbed his mangled hand on his chin, looked back at me and said, “Cause it’s raining the kind of way that makes fish bite." He asked, “You got a rain jacket?” I told him I didn’t and he said, “Well, I been wet quite a few times too.” I still wasn’t sure why this was happening but it was as exciting as sneaking out of a window at night.
We drove to Morse Reservoir where Charlie showed me how to put a boat in the water and how to pick someone off the shore. From there, he twisted the throttle of the Evinrude and we motored across the lake to what Charlie called his Honey Hole.
He brought the boat down to an idle and asked me to move to the bow and watch for snags. He cut the motor and we drifted up under some overhanging branches. He dropped the anchor, arranged a tin bucket full of live minnows, passed me a rod with a spinning reel and said, “Wer’ just gonna’ sit here for a minute and let the fish get to know us.”
The rain on the water sounded like heavy breathing. I was thinking about being wet when Charlie pressed a metal thermos lid of hot coffee against my arm. I took it and thanked him. After swallowing a few mouthfuls, I passed it back to him and he finished it. Charlie picked up his line, grabbed a minnow from the bucket, and ran his hook through its wriggling tail. I followed suit and we cast our lines between the boat and the bank. Charlie let out a low whistle and whispered, “This oughta’ be a goodun.” It wasn’t more than a few minutes before our bobbers were pulled under the surface. Every time we reeled in our lines, we had Crappies that were larger than Charlie’s good hand. More often than not, the fish hit out bait before the bobbers touched their stops. With each fish, Charlie howled, “Boy, I tell ya what!” In little more than a couple of hours, we stacked two stringers with fish. With a wide grin, Charlie exclaimed, “Boy, I tell ya what, wer’ slayin’ em’ today!” I proudly confirmed his assessment and he noted the clothes I was wearing didn’t have a dry stitch to them. He blew out another low whistle and admitted, “Well, I reckon we’d better leave a few for some other fellers’.” We packed the poles under the gunnels, pulled the stringers into the boat, and headed back to the launch.
After loading the boat and strapping down the tackle, we headed east toward Anderson. The rain was still falling along Strawtown Road as Charlie navigated the sweeping turns that cut the way through fields that were waking from the winter. Over the sound of the windshield wipers, Charlie asked, “How’s yer brothers doin?” I felt a pinch in my gut and responded, “I reckon they’re doing as good as they can.” I turned my head to the window and searched the horizon, grudgingly expecting more questions about their condition. After a pause, Charlie asked, “How are you doin?” I wasn’t expecting a question so pointed. In the seven years since we moved to Anderson, no one had ever asked me about my own wellbeing and it made me choke. I knew I wasn’t doing good at all. It was hard to respond and I couldn’t look back at him but I said, “I’m doin’.” I felt he had my heart in his hand and after a long pause he said, “Most of the time, the hardest part of anything is the doin’.” I turned my face back to him and we nodded at each other. Charlie didn’t ask any further questions on the way to the house. There was a comfortable silence that rested between us. With little more than ten simple words and a nod, I understood that Charlie cared about me and somehow, understood what was going on inside of me.
Upon pulling into the drive, I thanked Charlie for taking me fishing and opened the door of the truck. He said, “Don’t run off, we gotta get your fish!” He met me at the back of the truck where he pulled out a stringer, handed it to me, and said, “The river ought to be good for fishing in a few weeks if you’d like to go - you ever fished a river?” I hadn’t and the idea sounded like fun. I said, “Brother Charlie, I’d like that a lot.” He put his mangled hand on my shoulder and said, “You ain’t gotta call me that - you call me Charlie and I’ll call you when the river is ready.” I smiled and thanked him. Charlie backed his fishing rig out of the driveway and headed down the road.
I went around the back of the house to get a bucket of water for the stringer of fish and noticed Mom’s car parked in the garage. I stowed the fish near the service door and went inside to get a knife. Mom stopped me in the kitchen and asked if my fishing trip was successful. I was still holding the separation from weeks before and grudgingly admitted that I’d caught a lot of fish. She told me I should go and change my wet clothes. I told her it was still raining and I wanted to clean the fish before they got slimey. She jumped toward the kitchen sink, grabbed a mixing bowl, and made a batch of salt water for soaking the fish. I told her I could pack em’ in the freezer but she said she wanted to fry em’ for dinner.
I went outside, pulled fish out of the bucket, and started processing them. I felt bad for not wanting to talk to Mom and I was angry for feeling that way. I knew it wasn’t Charlie’s idea to take me fishing; it was most likely Dad’s idea and Mom was also in on it. I knew they had used Charlie to try and bridge the gap between us.
I had initiated the forming of the chasm and at the same time, I was disgusted with myself for wanting to be away from them. I knew Dad and Mom were strapped with a ridiculous burden. I knew better than to expect attention from them and I never asked for anything because I didn’t want to add to their struggle. I tried to be as small as possible. I didn’t want to make a ripple or even a shadow. I didn’t want to be here but somehow, unconsciously, I had betrayed myself and exhibited a signal that was misinterpreted. Like a pack mule off its lead, I couldn’t grasp what harnessed me but I wanted out from under it and the only thing that seemed to ease strain was running. By now, I was pretty good at being distant and I thought it best to hold my course. I flipped handfuls of gore into into the garden bed and slipped the fish carcasses into the bowl of salt water. I finished my task by the light from the kitchen window and started to shiver from the rain.
As summer started to pull out things that slept in the ground, I went fishing on the river with Charlie. We waded along the bank off of Moss Island road behind the old meat packing plant. Charlie said the fish in that part of the river were fat from sucking up blood and offal from the factory discharge drains. He taught me how to seine for bait with a net strung between two sticks. We saved the crayfish I caught, ripped their claws off, ran hooks through their tails, and cast them to the center of the river. Charlie was wrong about the size of the fish we reeled to the shallows; they weren’t fat, they were monsters. More often than not, they broke our lines.
We went fishing at least one day a week. I liked to watch Charlie in the river; on land, he waddled with a bow legged gate from arthritic knees but when wading through the river, he moved as if he were a young man. He had tattoos across his arms that were blurry and indigo from age. He told me he got them during World War Two, somewhere in the Pacific. Sometimes, he’d walk out, up to his waist, in the heavy current, stare across the water, and whisper to something unseen while he rubbed those tattoos with his mangled hand. The first few instances worried me and I’d call across the river, asking if he was OK. It shook him from his spell and he’d say he was fine and that he was just remembering something. Upon my interruption, he’d back out of the depths and resume his angling. He could have been praying - it wasn’t uncommon for people of the church to pray anywhere - but it looked like he was engaged with something he couldn’t quite see. On the drives back to the house, I’d ask him about the War but he’d say he couldn’t recall much as it was so long ago. After a number of excursion, I gained enough courage to ask him about the fingers that were missing from his hand and in his fashion of using as few words as possible, he said, “Ahw, I did something stupid - didn’t need em’ anyway.”
Charlie had a lot of fishing buddies and my favorite was Sister Hazel. She hailed from ancestral property deep in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. She was a featherweight but what she lacked in dimensions crossed the air between you and made you warm inside. She was old-timey and steeped in backwoods religion but she didn’t ply you with it or try to make you feel bad. Her cotton dresses skimmed the ground but they never stopped her from wading in the river with Charlie and I. Even though advanced in age, she was firm and had a quality that gave me the impression that she had a great number of years more than I yet to live.
I had a hard time meeting her gaze; though dazzling, her eyes did more than shine, they searched my soul. When she talked with me, she palmed my cheek and rested the pad of her thumb under my eye and like some whisperer, she peered inside of me. Once she had my eyes, I can’t really say if she said anything. Her lips moved but there was some other language that I heard and it was peaceful. Often, she held my arm for support but it seemed more so out of affection.
During each vernal and autumnal equinox , Sister Hazel visited her hollow in the Appalachian Mountains. I’m sure she had a number of things to maintain at her property but it appeared as if her main task was as a bootlegger of water. Toward the solstices, she rolled back to Indiana in her vintage Oldsmobile that rocked and swayed under a heavy load. Every nook and cranny of that car was packed with a diverse assortment of plastic and glass vessels filled with water from a spring that flowed through her land. She swore by its medicinal quality and wouldn’t drink any other liquid. A few fortunate people, such as myself, were bestowed with gallon jugs or quart jars. She was right, I’d never tasted water of a finer quality...