Ok, here goes one of my first attempts at fiction. I’ve talked about adding a few short stories to the blog as they come to me, and this is the first. I’m not sure I ever consider an essay or short story to be “finished,” and this story is only one step removed from rough draft, so I guess you can consider it more of an “idea” than a finished product. It’s a little depressing. Others I’m working on aren’t quite so down, but I won’t promise they’ll be any better. Feel free to let me know what you think,
Paul Duncan stood in the front yard of his fatherâ€™s home, staring at the old cherry tree. The tree had seen better days. When he was young, Paul had picked ripe cherries and ate them on the spot, after a few forceful puffs of breath to clear off any ants or spiders. There always seemed to be some sort of ripe fruit to eat on the farm. Cherries, blueberries, black berries, apples, figs, strawberries. Suddenly Paul felt half-starved. A still-living limb stretched out over the cab of his fatherâ€™s 50â€™s era Chevy pickup. Paul climbed up on the front tire and found a few ripe cherries hidden among the leaves. From his new vantage, Paul could see why the tree was in such bad shape. It was rotten to the core. At the first big fork of limbs, a rotted hole gaped open and appeared to go through down to the roots. The only life left flowed through the outer layers, just under the bark.
Paul had a handful of cherries by now, just about the treeâ€™s entire crop from the look of things. He sat down on the hood, hot from the midsummer sun, and took a bite out of the first one. The cherry proved unbelievably good, the sweet and the sour playing together over his tongue. Better than he remembered. He loved chewing the fruit from around the seed, spitting it afterwards at random targets.
He was so engaged when his sister Janet opened the screen door on the front porch. She was thin, severe, wore no makeup, but was still pretty. Paul had always thought so, but never told her. â€œI cainâ€™t believe your sittinâ€™ out here stuffinâ€™ your face like you ainâ€™t got a care in the world. Donâ€™t you care that Daddy died not half a hour ago?â€ Paul didnâ€™t respond. Just stared at her wondering when sheâ€™d go back in. It didnâ€™t take long.
Truth was, Paul didnâ€™t really care that his father just died. That wasnâ€™t unusual for Paul. He didnâ€™t seem to care about much of anything these days. But he wanted to care this time. He wanted to desperately. He just couldnâ€™t. There was nothing there. His three sisters and two brothers were inside mourning at their fatherâ€™s lifeless side. The elder Mr. Duncan had died on the sofa in his own living room, refusing to the end to go to the doctor. He had been deeply distrustful of the medical profession for years, since Paul was a teenager, blaming the doctors for his wifeâ€™s suffering and death. And so he died there on the sofa, trusting in God to either heal him or take him Home.
This meant little to Paul. He didnâ€™t know why, and he didnâ€™t like it. It was just the way things were. He guessed it was all part of being a man. He remembered caring. Caring about literature and adventure and purpose. Caring when his mother died. Caring when he left home, how he had missed the times fishing and hunting with his father. Both his parents had been good to him. They raised him right. Taught him right from wrong, took him to church near every Sunday, made sure he was properly fed, clothed, and educated. Neither parent had shown favoritism to any of the siblings. Paulâ€™s leaving wasnâ€™t in anger. There was no hatred now. Just no caring.
He didnâ€™t care that he had rarely visited or called since moving out West. He didnâ€™t care that his dream of being a writer hadnâ€™t panned out. He didnâ€™t care that he had spent 10 years with that office job to support his family, only to have his wife leave and take their son. He didnâ€™t care that his parents never would meet their grandchildren, at least not those by him. He no longer cared about literature or adventure. He wasn’t even sure that he cared if there was a God or not any more. And he sure didnâ€™t care now that Daddy was lying in there dead on the couch. None of it mattered.
What mattered now was that Paul wanted to go fishing down at the pond. He felt full from the cherries and wanted to go fishing. He went over to his truck and grabbed the beat up fly rod out of the bed. He stuck the plastic box with his bluegill poppers in his shirt pocket. He walked past the garden where his father had spent so much time, past the modest apple orchard, past the old farm buildings, and to the gate. Paul could see the pond from there, made indistinct and mirage-like from the rising heat. It made him feel good. He opened the gate by pulling the chain off a rusty nail, and closed it behind him. He dodged the cow patties near the barn and let his hands brush the tops of the tall grass. He stopped at the place where the two bulls had fought. They had torn the ground up badly. The scars were still visible. Paul remembered his father telling him about it when he was a kid. He felt a little scared, like he used to when he was around cattle. He looked around for them, but they must have been down in the woods to escape the heat. Paul had forgotten how hot and humid Alabama summers could be. He walked all the way down to the dam, on the left side where the bluegills liked to feed. It was a good place to cast from. He could see the narrow shadowy shapes of the bluegills holding steady in the shallow water. They looked tired and hot, like they wouldnâ€™t move, but Paul knew theyâ€™d rise to a hapless insect squirming in the surface film.
Paulâ€™s rod was a 5-weight rigged for the trout of Wyoming. He knew the leader was too long and thin to turn the popper over. He cut it back to where it was about three feet long and thicker. A black bluegill popper was chosen and tied on. Paul made several false casts to work out some line, being careful to not cast over the fish. Then he let fly with a cast carrying the popper well beyond the simmering bluegills. He used his left hand to pull the line erratically, causing the popper to gurgle and pause and then crawl across the surface. Several of the bluegills rose up under the popper to inspect it. Paul twitched it once more and then let it sit. A nice bluegill finally sucked the fly under with a satisfying pop. Paul flipped his wrist back to set the hook. He let the nice bluegill run. He could have wrestled it up on the bank by brute force, but that didnâ€™t feel right. Paul smiled as the bluegill banked to the side and cut a wide arc through the water, using its broad side to advantage. He brought the fish carefully to hand, turning it back and forth to let the sun play over the colors. Then he released it back into the water.
Paul felt good. Real good. But he suddenly realized he was hungry again. â€œThat sugar in those cherries sure donâ€™t last long,â€ he thought. He false cast to work out more line and cast again out beyond the bluegills. The popper had just touched down when something larger attacked. The fish had to have seen the fly coming in the air. A nice bass, probably riled by the bluegillâ€™s struggles. He had to let the bass run. Brute force wasnâ€™t an option, at least not on his end. Paul laughed out loud while the fish ripped line from the reel. The bass bored deep toward the base of the dam, leading the rod tip down, insisting Paul follow around the bank. Paulâ€™s wrist hurt from trying to turn the fishâ€™s head. He felt something sawing on the line, a rock or log down there deep. He knew the leader wouldnâ€™t take much of that. Paul dropped the rod tip and let go of the line. He jumped the spillway, letting the fish have slack while he ran to the other side of the snag. He wanted the fish bad. He pulled the line back tight and the bass charged out away from the snag, running hard but in open water. It stayed deep, throbbing, making Paulâ€™s wrist hurt more. But it slowly tired. Paul got the fish to the surface and pulled its head toward shore. At least five pounds. When Paul reached for the gaping mouth, the fish ran, just like that big cutt that broke Paulâ€™s leader on the Lamar River. This time he was ready, giving line as soon as he saw the fish tense. The fight ended quickly after that. Paul brought the fish to hand and lifted it from the water. Maybe six pounds. Then he lowered it into the water to remove the hook. The fish was dark and broad and healthy, gills flaring, looking like she was panting. He swept the fish back and forth slowly to flush some fresh water over her gills. She didnâ€™t need it, and swam strongly from his grasp and disappearing in the murky water. Paul felt real good. And relieved, maybe from not letting that fish break his leader.
He reeled in his line and started walking back, noting pods of bluegills in several spots but not casting. He was pretty hungry. He went back through the gate and headed for the apple trees. He grabbed one off the ground that looked free from worms and rot. He leaned on a wooden fence post, ate his apple, and stared up at the purple martin gourds Daddy had hung up. There werenâ€™t any martins in them now.
Paul remembered when he was a kid, when he had thrown apples at the gourds and busted them up. He didnâ€™t know then why he did it, and he still didnâ€™t know. It was just fun. He had just about busted them all when Daddy saw him. Daddy had yelled at him and asked why he had done it, shaking him by the shoulders. Paul had cried then, not for fear of punishment, but for the hurt in Daddyâ€™s eyes. He couldnâ€™t stand it. Never could.
The memory made Paul sick. Good and sick. He looked away from the gourds, but it didnâ€™t stop the burning in his gut, and the burning came up his throat till he felt like heâ€™d be sick. Then he was crying. It was the only thingâ€™d stop the burning. He was heaving and sobbing like a little boy, till the hurt was gone, and he didnâ€™t see his daddyâ€™s eyes any more. He sat there until he quit, and he was sure his eyes werenâ€™t red any more. He didnâ€™t want another apple or anything else to eat. He walked on up to the house and put his rod and fly box back in the truck.
Paul opened the front door. His brothers and sisters had all been crying and laughing about old times and talking things through. They all looked at him when he came in. He looked back, and he wanted to talk, too. Instead he just said, â€œIâ€™m gonna go get something to eat in town. Any of yaâ€™ll want anything?â€ They just sat there and looked at him. Paul went out and drove to town.