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Afternoon With An Old Man
by Joe Reynolds

The old man was recovering nicely from heart surgery, but he feared his days on the water were over. That's what hurt the most. It hurt more than having others take care of him. He knew he was contrary at times as well, but for the most part he was content. Memories brought contentment.

Sometimes he sat and thought for hours, going over the events of his life. More often than not, those thoughts would be of days spent on the water, of the fish he had caught and, most of all, of the friendships made during those good times.

Several years had passed since the old man held a fly rod in his hands, but he enjoyed rummaging through the memories of past trips. There was an endless supply of good times and good fishing to relive.

On this day he was thinking about his friend Bill Brighoff and not even the sound of his granddaughter's vacuum cleaner or the wails of his sixteen-month-old great-grandson were enough to break the magical spell of those thoughts.

Brighoff had been a real character. From Bill's Sportsman's Chance Marina on the Little Choptank River they fished together for years, going after stripers and blues in the days when fly fishermen were an unusual sight on Chesapeake Bay. Sportsman's Chance was a dilapidated sort of place. Brighoff ran off most of the customers with his contrary ways. The old man always figured Brighoff did it on purpose so he would have more time to fish. And fish he did. Right up to the day he died of a massive stroke.

The old man remembered how he reacted to the news of Brighoff's death. Sure, there was sadness and a sense of loss, but mostly a feeling of anger. "Damn that Brighoff," he had thought. "He's no right to up and die on me. We had too many good days ahead of us. The old man never returned to Sportsman's Chance again. Not even to see Brighoff's widow, and the old man wasn't happy with himself for that. But he knew it could never be the same, and in those days the old man's thoughts were always on the future, never the past.

Suddenly a smile cracked the wrinkles on the old man's face. He remembered the first time he spent the night at Sportsman's Chance. "Listen," Brighoff had said, "instead of setting up that tent, why don't you just sleep in my old trailer out there by the water. Nothin' fancy but it's comfortable." Nothing was that an understatement.

It was an old, beat-up, gray-skinned travel trailer, very likely built well before World War II. The interior looked as though a major portion of the war had been fought there and the mattress was a cinch to be rejected by both the Goodwill and Salvation Army. Not five minutes after settling in, he recalled, the field mice came scurrying out of the walls and proceeded to run all over the covers. Scared the dickens out of him at first, and then he spent the remainder of the night cursing the mice along with Brighoff. Even so, next day they enjoyed some great fishing. It was fall and in those days stripers were plentiful, with scattered schools tearing up bait over most of the Little Choptank.

There was no need to hurry. Most days it was nine or so before the fish were on top. After breakfast they'd sit by the window of Brighoff's office and scan the horizon with binoculars, looking for signs of gulls working over the feeding fish. Their conversation would revolve around tackle, guns, knives, fish, women, mosquitoes and other such matters of importance, but it really wasn't conversation. More like constant arguing. About anything. Probably why they got along so well, the old man thought. Maybe not having Brighoff as a protagonist was why he missed him so much. They had been alike in more ways than one.

On that day they took a few fish in the afternoon, then just before sunset the stripers really went on a feeding binge, he remembered. The wind died and that miserable chop had flattened until the surface was mirror-smooth. They were inside James Island with the final rays of the setting sun slanting through tall pines, reflecting from the water and creating a lattice work of black and orange.

Suddenly the stripers in the three-pound class were tearing into bait along the entire shore. White streamers brought a take on every cast. Another reason the old man would never forget that day was because most of the stripers jumped after taking the fly. Not fancy, head shaking leaps like a bluefish, but jumps nevertheless. His friends had laughed when he told them of the jumping stripers and he didn't tell the story again after that. But he knew it had happened.

The vacuum cleaner went off and this time silence caused the old man's eyes to open hesitantly, as if unwilling to leave the Little Choptank. "Can I get you anything grandpop?" his granddaughter asked. The old man's head moved slowly, once or twice, from side to side. His granddaughter shook her head too, not so much in reply to the old man, but in sorrow. She dearly loved him. As she turned and headed for the bedroom to quiet the still crying baby, the old man's eyelids slowly closed and he returned to Sportsman's Chance.

Now it was early summer. Daylight on a Saturday morning in June. The old man and another fishing buddy, Chuck, had driven down from Baltimore in the old man's maroon and white Volkswagen bus. He had rigged it out with beds, but they were a few inches too short and he always awoke with cramps in his legs. Everyone else said it was uncomfortable too, but the old man always insisted he slept well, even if he didn't. His wife refused to drive anywhere in it. The thing bounced so much she always came down with a case of motion sickness.

That Saturday morning he and Chuck came prepared to spend the weekend and while they were inside the office talking with Brighoff, his Chesapeake retriever jumped into the van by way of an open door and ate all the lunch meat and bread. Chuck talked about that day for years, the old man remembered, and a smile again crossed his face. The old man always enjoyed hearing Chuck tell the story, even after he had heard it more times than he could count.

"Yeah," Chuck would begin, "first Brighoff's dog eats all our food then Brighoff sells us some sandwiches. But the best part happens at the end of the day. The two of us go out fishing in this old leaky rowboat with an air cooled six horse on the back and it averages forty-seven pulls before it'll start. Engine's rusted, gas tank's rusted, paint's peelin' off the boat like crazy and I spend more time bailin' than fishin'."

At this part of the story Chuck becomes animated, the old man recalls. Chuck's eyes take on a glimmer, the short hairs of his crew cut stand perfectly straight and his hands begin moving in all directions. "But listen to this," Chuck continues. "This is the real corker. We get back to the dock by some miracle and Brighoff starts figurin' up the bill. You ain't gonna believe this. Brighoff says, 'Well, let's see. The boat rents for ten bucks and you probably used two bucks worth of gas. The sandwiches are two dollars and the drinks another three. That's seventeen dollars total. I don't charge my friend here, so I guess you owe me eight-fifty, Chuck.' He says I owe eight fifty! Can you imagine that. I mean this guy was a real character."

Here, the old man recalled, the story varied from telling to telling, but mostly Chuck would go on about Brighoff's office. "Character! Character doesn't even begin to describe this guy. That office of his was a real winner. Half the time you could barely get in the door for all the junk and dirt. What kills me is that Brighoff always wiped off his shoes before going in the office. It looked to me like he should have wiped 'em off on the way out!

"Another thing. Here's a guy livin' in the middle of nowhere, nowhere mind ya, and all he worries about is riots. Has a loaded shotgun in that office, under the counter, and I think in every room of his house. Says nobody's gonna come down his place and start any trouble."

Damn, but they were great days the old man thinks. But mostly when the old man thinks of Brighoff, he remembers the fishing. In later years it seemed the Little Choptank was right around the corner, but in the beginning it seemed remote and wild -- a special place to be enjoyed by an adventuresome few. Now it was too easy.

As much as Brighoff and the old man argued, they didn't talk much while they were fishing. Their's was a special brand of friendship; it didn't require constant conversation. Hours would pass when they were on the water with hardly a word being uttered. And yet, somehow, the old man remembered, they both drew enjoyment from the silence; knowing each other's thoughts and feelings but never consciously thinking about it at the time. Neither spoke of these things, but the old man knew Brighoff felt the same. The old man didn't feel that way about too many people. Maybe that's why he felt anger when he heard the news of Brighoff's death.

Silence again brought the old man out of his dreams when the baby stopped crying. His granddaughter returned. "Grandpop I'm sorry I can't spend more time with you today. I know it must get lonely in here by yourself." The old man's head nodded, as if in agreement. What's the use in trying to explain, he thought, she just wouldn't understand anyway.

Uploaded: 2/21/2004