Persuasion August 23, 2016Posted by anagasto in blogging.
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Here comes Larry riding down our sidewalk on his English Racer, his fishing rod swinging in front.
If only he had never come! He is one of those who know how to fish both men and trout.
“Sugar?” he says, meaning “Are we going to go fishing at Sugar Creek?” Larry hardly ever smiled. It was as though he was always imitating some crotchety adult.
“Can’t,” I told him. “My dad won’t let me.”
“But can’t we go just for a couple of hours?”
“He says I can’t go until he lets me.”
Larry didn’t like this unexpected obstacle. Sugar Creek was only about three miles from my house.
“But how’s he going to know if you went? Isn’t he working uptown?”
“Where’s your mom?”
“Over at a neighbor’s.”
“Your pop will never know,” said Larry right off. “He’s uptown working and you and me are under the bridge catching fish.” — He called our dads “pops”, even addressing his. But I had never tried to imitate him. “Pop” seemed too buddy-like or disrespectful. Perhaps my father wouldn’t have minded.
“I can’t do it, Larry.”
He was quiet for a moment.
“I thought we could get that big carp we lost last month. Remember him? He was a real whopper. And I just have a hunch he’ll be biting today.”
I shook my head.
“But you’re crazy,” he told me. “Your pop probably didn’t really mean it, whatever it was. He was just mad. I bet you a dollar he’s already forgotten it.”
He was getting tired on his bike, got off and stood it up. It was a beautiful bicycle, tall and aristocratic. His fishing rod was of the same sort. It was longer than mine and with a reel that could cast a line for twenty yards into the stream with just the flick of his wrist. It seemed like magic. And when he caught a fish, the rod bent down like a young birch twitch and jumped excitedly.
“They say it might rain tomorrow,” he said, looking at the perfect blue sky. “And next week Pop and me are going to the lake in his boat.”
Then he tried a new idea. “Doesn’t your pop like to fish? I bet…”
“No,” I said. “He has no time for that. He works all day.”
“Well, kid, you baffle me,” Larry said. “A father certainly likes to think his boy is having a little fun.”
“But not right now.”
“Bullshit. What pop wants his son to suffer?”
“I figure he’ll let me go again pretty soon,” I said. “Just not today.”
Larry kicked off the kickstand and hopped back onto his bike. “Guess I’ll just have to go by myself. You sit here and lounge around and please your dad like a good boy.” He said it with his eyebrows way up in disdain.
“But, Larry, didn’t you tell me your dad punished you last month?”
“Yeah, but he got mad and beat the hell out of me and that was over. He didn’t make funny conditions… What would happen if your dad found out? Would you get a good licking?”
“No, he’s not like that.”
“Then, what the hell? I don’t get you.”
He had one more idea to tempt me. I could swear he wasn’t my buddy Larry but old Satan himself.
“Get on your bike,” he said. “We’re going to go. I’ve got it.”
“Larry, no, I told you…”
“What exactly did your pop say? Did he say no more trip to Sugar Creek or no more fishing?”
“No more fishing, but he meant…”
“We’ll go to the bridge and you can watch me fish. We won’t even take along your rod and tackle box. If your pop asks you whether you fished, you tell him no, just watched, and there’s no way he will be able to get you.”
“But that’s tricky,” I said, but considering it all the same.
“When we come back, if your mom asks, you tell her we went over to my house.”
We ran as fast as we could go on that country road, Larry on his tall English Racer and me on my short, beat-up bike. Larry seemed to just coast along. My heavy old mount had no special gears and I had to work harder to keep up with him. Riding together, we looked like Don Quijote on his steed and Sancho on his donkey.
We met no one, nor did I look around me at the greening wheat fields. The roads were always just an impediment on our way to the horizon but now I kept cringing on my bike and trying to keep small, looking down at the asphalt as I pushed at my pedals. I hoped no farmer would come on his tractor. I kept mulling over Larry’s sophistry and disgusting myself for going along with it. What nonsense! I knew it was wrong and that even if my father found it clever or seemed to pardon the sin a little, it would be clear to both of us that I was no longer trustworthy. My only escape now was the hope of keeping him ignorant. But how was I going to do that? Even if no one saw us and reported it to him, would I be able to lie in his face when he asked?
I kept remembering our last conversation at the bar and weighing his words for their severity. I had bowed my head in submission but his order was more like a proposition I was agreeing to than a punishment. It was not meant to humiliate me or to cause animosity in us. There was a basis of trust. It was simply a condition for me to be allowed to go fishing once again. There should never have been a question of lying.
Larry and his dad were on different terms. Frank treated his son as he treated his wife or his dog Charlie. If he encountered misbehavior or a lie or simply opposition, he reacted in anger. Once they no longer bothered him, he dealt with them as before, with the same feelings of familiarity and well-being. There were no programs of reform or education. Larry had learned to keep him well-humored, by any means.
He had told me about getting licked. He had stolen some money from his pop’s wallet to get a better light for his English Racer. Frank usually gave him everything he asked for but now Larry tried to skip the asking part. “He beat me with his belt,” said Larry. “Hurt like hell.” I listened with commiseration, trying to imagine getting punished by Larry’s big pop. “His wallet was full of bills and I figured he wouldn’t miss a couple. Boy did he get riled,” said Larry.
“How’d he find out it was you?”
“He saw the new light on my Racer and asked me where I got it. ‘Where’d you get the dough to buy it?’ he says. I said I found it. He knew how much money was missing from his wallet and started figuring.”
At the bridge we lay our bikes in the weeds beside the road and slid down the embankment to our favorite place beneath. The weeds had grown almost as big as bushes. The brook looked different now in the spring, the sun on the water with more of a glare than in winter. Under the bridge the water was dark. Suddenly a fish disturbed the surface and the little swirl moved quickly away with the current. “They’re hungry,” said Larry.
He was already opening his tackle box and looking for bait in a tin can. “I got these big dew-worms last night in our yard. Nice, huh? I hope you aren’t going to just watch me,” he said.
“But what do you mean—fish?”
He smiled at my shortness of understanding. “But of course.”
“But I thought I wasn’t going to fish?”
“God are you an idiot,” he said. “That fib is for your pop, not for you. Now that you’re here you might as well do what you wanted to.”
Larry looked over as he got ready to cast his line. “If your pop ever does find out that you were here, do you think he will believe you didn’t fish?”
Another big carp or bullhead slapped the surface of the water about ten feet off the bank from us and Larry aimed his line at it.
“Go cut yourself a twitch off those bushes behind us,” he told me. “I’ve got plenty of string and hooks for us both.”
I looked over at the long, green shoots on the trunk of an old tree behind us. “So now you go whole hog,” I told myself, disgusted. What good would I get out of a silly fish now?
Soon I had my fishing rod and threw my line into the brook beside Larry’s. Neither of us was getting any bites. “Can’t figure why the fish are so sluggish,” said Larry. “Nothing wrong with those worms. You see any footprints around? Maybe somebody else has been working on them here and scaring them.”
“I’m going to go up on the bridge,” I said, more to be exploring than fishing, now that the fish were unwilling.
“OK, said Larry, “but don’t you go tossing your line in on top of mine.”
The bridge was a kind of tunnel made of massive iron girders. Even the top was covered with irons. Yet, for all its solidity, when you walked over it, it trembled a little, and when a car drove over, it clanked.
I crawled up onto one of the girders and looked at the creek below. It was like standing on the high diving board at the swimming pool. I could see the stream flow away for about a quarter of a mile, then it was hidden by some trees. “See any fisherman?” asked Larry. He had been watching me from down on the bank.
“Nobody”, I told him. Something about the acoustics made us hear each other as clearly as talking on a phone.
I noticed what looked like a small carp laving the surface of the water and wondered whether it couldn’t be enticed. I tried to drop my line right on top of him so he couldn’t miss my worm. About then I heard the bridge tremble.
For a moment I forgot what that meant and ignored it. I was concentrated on placing my hook right into the carp’s mouth, and the rocking of the bridge became a nuisance and made me jerk the line in frustration.
The line was suddenly very heavy. As I never believed that what I was doing would actually hook my fish, I guessed I was snagged on a rock or some other obstacle, like a branch below the water.
But it was no branch. An enormous bullhead came to the surface with my tugging, a bigger fish than any Larry and I had ever seen in Sugar Creek.
As I drew it completely out of the water and understood what I had caught, I was sure I would lose him. It seemed impossible that I would be able to hoist him up to the bridge before he escaped because I would have to lift him right up in the air where he was suspended with all his weight for twenty feet. No hook could hold him so firmly. And my little branch was no good as a rod now. I had to pull him up with great tugs as I collected the line in my hands. The bullhead was strangely still and I let him rise, but I knew I would lose him as soon as he began to resist.“Not too fast!” shouted Larry, who was watching from his bank below.
I finally brought him up as far as the girder where I sat and in great anxiety tried to decide how to catch hold of him in order to bring him onto the bridge. There was not a second to admire him, though I couldn’t but notice his lively eyes and plump, yellow belly. If it wasn’t for his whiskers I’d have put my hands around him and carried him to the floor of the bridge. But I knew about those from other, smaller bullheads, and wasn’t so foolish. They are not whiskers but long prongs which the bullhead uses to defend himself—making them suddenly stiff and pointed, like porcupine quills. Or like the horns he got his name for.
Now he was not a foot away from my girder but still hanging directly over the water. As though understanding that this was his last chance to fall and be free, he brought his tail into movement, tugging strongly at my line and no doubt tearing the hook in his mouth. Whiskers or not, I grabbed him with my hands and hurled him onto the bridge. He landed on the bottom of the bridge and, after sliding a foot or so, rested beside the tire of a car.
“That’s quite a catch!” said a man sitting at his steering wheel, his window rolled down. He was not three feet away as I got down from my girder. “I didn’t know there were fish that big in Sugar Creek.”
“Did you get him?” called Larry, who had been watching me from below. “Is he as big as he looks?”
“Hey,” said the man. “Don’t I know you? Aren’t you Clem Wilson’s boy? I was just going into town to have a beer at his bar.” I recognized the man. He was one of Dad’s customers who sat on a barstool with his beer. “I’m Banky Soderman. I’ll tell him all about your fish and what a good fisherman you are. Bye.” And he drove off the bridge with a tremor and a clank.
I watched him go without ever having opened my mouth. Everything had happened so fast—seeing my catch, pulling him up and bringing him to the bridge, discovering the car and hearing the farmer talk.
Larry had seen and heard everything. He came to me laughing as I had never seen him laugh before. He fell to his knees on the bridge and doubled up, putting his hand on his belly and making a face that could as well have been for pain as laughter. He was too breathless to say anything. I watched him with irritation, trying to measure what was real delight and what was only theatralics. He hadn’t even stopped to look at my big bullhead on the bridge. “Your goose…is…” His convulsions wouldn’t let him continue.
I went over to it, picked it up, carefully avoiding its whiskers, and threw it over the bridge. Larry was still too active with his hysterics to notice but when he realized that I had left him, he became serious, suspected what I had done, stood up and came over. “Where’s the bullhead?” he asked.
“Did you throw it away? What’d you do that for?”
“I didn’t want it,” I said.
“You could have showed it to me.” He was sour.
We didn’t talk all the way to town, except for one little exchange.
“It’s not my fault you got into trouble,” he said.
“Nobody said it was.”
“That was bad luck.”
We separated at the end of our street and Larry went straight to his house without stopping at mine. My mom was in the kitchen with a frown on her face. “Where’d you go?”
“I was with Larry…”
“Well I hope you two didn’t go fishing. You know Dad told you not to.”
I didn’t deny it, which was as good as admitting it.
“I’m going to go uptown and see him,” I said.
“He’s probably busy now,” said my mom.
The bar was full of men at their drinks and Dad was racing back and forth behind the counter as usual, serving their beer and whisky. He saw me come in the door and I could see by his face that he knew what I had done. I went to sit on my favorite barstool beside the Jonah painting and waited for him to come over. I had imagined a conversation and was ready to say my lines first but Dad was there in a moment and said:
“I heard you were at Sugar Creek. Banky Soderman came in and told me. He said you caught a big fish.”
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
“Why’d you go?”
“My friend Larry came along with his fishing pole and wanted me to go…”
“Didn’t you tell him I told you not to go fishing?”
“Yes, but he convinced me to come along and not fish. That it would be all right as long as I didn’t actually fish.”
Dad made a little huff of annoyance.
“But didn’t you catch the fish that Banky saw you with?”
“Then you did fish?”
“Once we were under the bridge and Larry had his line in the water, it seemed silly not to fish.”
Dad thought a moment.
“What did you fish with? Did you bring along your rod and tackle?”
“No, I cut off a branch and used Larry’s string.”
A customer called from the other end of the bar and Dad went off to serve him. I watched while he drew the beer into the man’s glass and I tried to imagine from his scowling face what was going on in his mind. He didn’t return to me immediately but started washing some glasses in the sink under the counter.
Finally he came back and lit a cigarette before saying:
“Your friend Larry is a little brat but I hope you don’t think the whole business was his fault.”
“It’s all yours, you know. There will always be someone to keep you from doing what you know you have to.” He tapped his cigarette on the big glass ashtray. “Just one question: what would you have done if Banky had not caught you? Do you think you would have gotten away with the little cheat? Would you have told me you went fishing?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Because I don’t think you’d have liked to feel happy about the whole affair. It’s a real shame Banky appeared just then…”
Another customer called from the bar and Dad ran off. When he returned he asked:
“And the fish?”
“Yeah, what happened to it? I bet you threw it back into Sugar Creek.”
I was surprised that he would have guessed.
“You threw it back because you couldn’t show it to anybody.”
“I threw it back because I was mad at Larry for laughing,” I said. “And also at myself.”
“Good fish,” said my Dad.
It wasn’t the first time I had ever done wrong. But it was the first time I ever got caught without the possibility of a lie to save me.
At the top: Low relief in clay by ghd -- Kids: one fishing and one studying the bait in his tin can