Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, and you run out of beer.

The One That Got Away
by Paula R. Stiles ©2009

Jamie was bored. He had been sitting on the wharf with his grandfather all morning, fishing. They hadn't caught anything yet. His grandfather didn't seem to mind, but Jamie really wanted to catch something. He felt ashamed that he had sat and stared down at that red-and-white float for hours with no result. It was making him sulky. His mother liked the word "sulky". She used it a lot.

"Your mood'll freeze just like that if you don't watch it, young man," she'd say. She meant it, too. His mother could make moods and faces freeze for real. It was, she said, one of the many family talents.

The fact that his grandfather hadn't caught anything yet, either, didn't help. Grandpa could have been humoring him. In fact, Jamie was sure of it. His grandfather could catch anything.

"I wish I could catch anything," Jamie said, picking at the ubiquitous barnacles on the underside of the dock beneath his feet. The sun was hot. It shone off the water and made his eyes burn. The Delta felt like a great big mirror for the sun. The smell of salt and black creosote from the dock rose off the glittering green water.

"What's that?" Grandpa said. He'd been dozing.

"I said I wish I could catch anything," Jamie told him again. "Like you, Grandpa."

Grandpa opened both eyes now, which meant that he might be interested enough to wake up fully. "Like me?"

"I think you can catch anything," Jamie said.

Grandpa smiled. "Oh, do you, now? And why is that?"

"Well, look at the big bushel you caught when we went clamming the other day. And when you go hunting, you always come back with something, even if it's just a raccoon."

"I see," Grandpa said. He slapped the gray wood of the wharf, warped and faded by ten thousand suns and a hundred storms. "You sure you know what 'anything' is?"

Jamie gave him a suspicious look. Grandpa had a way of twisting things all which-way, until Jamie didn't know whether up was down or this was that. "Well...sure."

"All right, then, boy. You want to catch 'anything', let's get started. Reel in that hook and bait it."

Jamie did as he was told, though the worm seemed to squirm more than usual. Just as he was about to cast it back out, his grandfather put a hand on his arm.

"Before we start," Grandpa said, "not a word to my daughter. You hear?"

Wide-eyed, Jamie nodded. Just what was Grandpa going to help him catch?

"I don't want any backlash, is all," Grandpa said, settling back with his hands flat on the wharf. "Your mother, she has real set ideas about some things. Now cast it out."

Jamie wasn't sure what that meant, but he had a suspicion. Though his mother had many set ideas, her strongest one was that her son never mess with magic. She was always scolding him about things he didn't even know he'd been doing--cooking up imaginary playmates and making chairs and shadows dance.

And every time Grandpa would come to the motel to take him out, she'd spear her father with a look and say, "You mind yourself, old man. He's not ready yet."

Grandpa would just shake his head and mutter, "How you think he's gonna get ready, girl?"

Jamie cast the rod. The lead weight and float sang out across the shining water.

"Now, reel it in a little," Grandpa said.

Jamie obeyed, turning the wheel twice and jerking the line to attract the fish. The worm was already squirming on the hook, but a lot of times, a fish needed a little more encouragement.

Like this time.

"I don't feel nothing, Grandpa," Jamie said with disappointment. Around him, the hot afternoon felt sticky and blah. Maybe he should give up, not push Grandpa to show him his secrets. Go home and ask his mother for some ice cream.

"Give it a minute or two," Grandpa said. "Some fish, they need time to get themselves together and come around."

"'Get themselves together and come around'?" That sounded real strange. "But ain't the fish already down there?"

Grandpa got up off his hands and leaned forward. He looked across the water, which seemed to extend a long, long way, well into the Gulf of Mexico. Grandpa had lived here all his life. Though Jamie had moved to Oregon two years ago, he still saw Grandpa, and this place, as home. His mother never said much about it, but he thought she might agree. He could not imagine Grandpa anywhere else but here at the center of the world.

"Well, there's fish and there's fish, James," Grandpa said. Jamie was startled to hear Grandpa say his full name. It meant that he was teaching Jamie serious business. "Some fish, they're down there all right, just swimming around and going about their business, like you and me. But other fish...they come from elsewhere. And them, now, you gotta give them some time. Jigger the line again."

Jamie obeyed, jerking the line so that the float bobbled on the surface, water swamping but not sinking the little red-and-white ball.

"I'm still not feeling it," he said.

"Wait," Grandpa said. Jamie could have sworn he looked a little worried. Why would Grandpa look worried? "Wait a little bit more."

Jamie waited a few more minutes, then jerked the line some more, gentle as anything, to attract the fish instead of scare it.

The first bite was a whisper, a brush against the hook instead of the usual nibble or firm tug of a highly interested fish. "Grandpa!" he whispered, not knowing why he should keep his voice down, just knowing he should. "I think I got something."

Grandpa leaned over the line, taking out his knife. "What's it feel like?"

"Like...like the current's got it, but stronger."

"Hmmm." Now, Grandpa really did sort of look worried.

Jamie jerked the line to try to get the hook into the fish's mouth. The pull this time was stronger, but it still felt like trying to hook a cloud. Overhead, the sky darkened as just such a cloud came over the sun.

Then the fish bit.

Jamie was not sure how it bit because it was not the usual jerk or tug. The pull felt very strong, but more as if he'd hooked something heavy and a strong current was trying to pull it away. The float disappeared with a plop!

"I got something!" he cried. "For real, this time!"

Thunder rumbled, and the sky darkened more. Blue-black clouds popped up on the horizon as if yanked from ocean depths. The pull on Jamie's line increased so much, he was sure he'd be pulled off the wharf. And yet, the sudden storm had his attention, too. He hadn't seen clouds like that since the last time he'd watched a hurricane on the Weather Channel from the safety of the motel room where he and his mother had fled. It was after that when his mother had decided to move them to Oregon.

"It's gonna rain," he said, astonished. Right then, lightning struck a nearby tree. Jamie jumped.

At that moment, Grandpa reached over and cut the line. The clouds evaporated; the sky cleared; the sun came back. Jamie looked down at the water past his now-limp line. The water flowed smooth, as if the fish had never been. The float didn't resurface.

Grandpa sat back. "Wants to catch anything," he sighed as if to himself, shaking his head. "Young'uns." Then to Jamie, "Your mother is gonna kill me."

"What was that?" Jamie said in astonishment.

Grandpa waved his pocket knife at Jamie then folded it up. "That, my boy, is the one that got away. Good riddance to bad weather, too."

"But...but I almost had it," Jamie protested.

Grandpa nodded. "Yes, you did, James. But that doesn't mean you'd have wanted it. You just let that one go."

x x x

Used to go fishing on Lake Emily in my home town when I was a kid. Never caught anything; thought I was just unlucky. Maybe I wasn’t. What do you think, ARers? Tell me on our BBS—and while you’re at it, howzabout some comments on this great story? - GM

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