[Barring any setbacks with Lightning Source, the company printing my book, (and I don’t rule out the possibility) copies of The St George’s Angling Club should be available for purchase at http://www.CalebGarling.com next week. Below is Chapter 1(though I’d recommend downloading the PDF); a second excerpt will be available next week. Please enjoy and thanks for reading.]
I’m a fisherman, so you’ll find this story easiest to digest if you don’t question the details. Now, the pencil outlines are true, it’s just that a fisherman’s mind has a funny way of taking license with the bits and pieces that paint the colors. Sure, Paul and David Ambrose came to St George’s valley, started an angling club and got into a mess of adventure, laughter and tears, but I wasn’t there for every conversation; I didn’t hear the wind whistle through the trees every afternoon; I won’t remember the weather every day and I’m not going to try to either. I’ll take that license and have fun instead. I guess that’s why I’m telling this story in the first place. And I suppose that’s the plight of fishermen anyway: We’re never fishing for fish; we’re fishing for a story. And good weather.
Though brothers, the fickle nature of genetics had adorned Paul and David with vastly different frames. David had been bestowed a short and wiry build and fire from their father, passed down from the roving and warring British Isle clans that abandoned dialogue for the fists. And maybe in a subconscious homage, he let his hair grow long when he got older, hanging it low on his freckled neck. Paul, however, had taken on his mother’s eastern European heft and broad and tan features through the waist and shoulders, all crowned with a strong jaw and cheekbones. Though he always kept his hair short, draped from his great height was a pair of thick hands, bestowed from ancestors that evolved them into the sockets of creation. The only hint that the two brothers were related was in their eyes—the way they focused. Though Paul’s were green and David’s a light blue, you could see they were examining, always, even if guided by different motivation. If both Paul and David were given a quick glance into a crowded gathering of people and asked for the first thoughts to their head, David would tell you whether or not it seemed fun, Paul would theorize the reason it was being held.
I’ll tell one quick story from well before their time in the sprawling lengths of St George’s Valley. When Paul was ten and David was eight, two of their aunts came by their home near Boston to take them to the beach. They pulled into the short winter-cracked driveway that fed a garage that didn’t work anymore. The grey paint curled and fell into the patches of grass that indicated what was once a lawn. The windows were spotted and off-kilter from their sill; and if you looked closely at the front door, you’d notice that the screen had been torn from the hinges.
Paul would later remember how their cousins had stayed in the car because his father was home. He heard his aunt’s cautious voices from the driveway. “No,” Aunt Dee had said firmly to her children, “stay here. Uncle Richard is here and I don’t want you—well—”
“He’s sick,” Aunt Aubrey had cut in quickly. “That’s why we’re going to the beach with Paul and David.”
“Yes,” Dee said just as quickly. “We’ll be right back.”
From his room, Paul had heard the car doors slam shut with extra force, like a warning shot and then a tentative knock at the front door. It had opened quietly and a moment after, Aunt Dee was knocking at his room and cooing him from his covers. He could hear Aubrey doing the same with David across the hall.
“Paul, sweetie,” Dee had said softly, settling at his bedside. “You want to come to the beach today…and maybe sleep over later with your cousins?”
Paul pulled down the covers and tears welled in his eyes, but he sucked them back. He nodded his head as resolutely as he could. “Yes,” he said quietly.
“Good, sweetie. David’s going to come too. I’ll talk with your mom and maybe you can spend the whole weekend with us until your dad leaves or, well—would you like that, hon?”
He had wandered down the hallway steps, a shaft of sunlight bursting into the stale air of their tattered home and sharpening in the standing cloud of cigarette smoke like cream swirling in cheap coffee. As he approached the door, he tiptoed through the stale smell of sticky bourbon and shards of a broken glass; David walked behind him, matching the placement of his feet between the sharp pieces. They didn’t see their parents, but Paul could feel them; he knew they were in the house, smoldering like two volcanoes around the kitchen table.
He stepped into the summer sun and tipped his head back into the heat, letting it warm his face as his aunts sealed the door behind him.
When they’d all arrived at the shore, Aunt Dee procured an old green fishing rod from her trunk. Cobwebs strung like dead bridge cables from one guide to the next and the reel hung lamely in its rusting seat at the base. She’d sheepishly handed it to Paul, knowing that it was useful, but trapped because she didn’t know how—counting on her tall, smart nephew to figure it out. Paul had looked it over and chewed the inside of his cheek in thought.
They walked from the parking lot to the beach and as the cousins built castles made of sand and hit wiffle balls into the wind, their aunts’ attention diluted, focusing on their own children and magazines filled with pictures. Paul wandered away, over to a couple black rocks around a tidal pool, drawn by some void he didn’t understand and bent over the salty waters. David crept up behind him, trying to follow quietly.
“I hear you,” Paul said.
David ran forward, released from hiding, and looked around the pool with him. “What’s that?” he asked quickly, then stepped backwards, his face fragmented in fear. Gulls had dropped clams on a rock to shatter their shells and the destruction and sparse remains of the exposed meat lay scattered in the hot sun.
Paul picked through the pieces and found a chunk of clam under one glinting shard. “I’m going to use it…for bait,” he said and fed the rusty hook through the softest part, letting the line dangle in front of him; and Paul saw why a fish might be tricked into eating it. He continued down the beach, away from their aunts, holding David’s hand, until they came to a jetty.
Sitting along the line of rocks, men in wide straw hats cast into the waves and drank. Paul eyed their quick swigs and their overzealous laughs with wary eyes; but his dark dream vanished when these men spoke in quick tongues that he didn’t understand. He forgot about their drinking and watched them as they whipped their lines into the ocean.
“Come on,” he said to David, as he climbed onto the first rock towards the fishermen.
David cocked his head and looked back at Dee and Aubrey.
“Come on, David. Let’s go.”
David crawled up the rock, inserting his little fingers in the crags and holes smashed by the tides, and followed his brother out over the ocean. The whitecaps unfurled and beat on either side and lapped up onto their feet, leaving salt between their toes as it dried. Just short of the men with hats, Paul stopped and watched again.
David sat down. A wave crashed behind him on the jetty and sucked out to sea like a hunting paw coming up short of its prey.
Paul watched the men for a moment longer and then, before he knew what was happening, he’d cast the rusty old rod. His motion was awkward and jilted but somehow the hook and clam plopped a short distance away and sank out of sight, a lame coil of line extending into the spidery floor of the waters below. He looked at the other men, sat down and waited. The sea breeze blew over them and whipped little droplets off the white caps; they spattered and stung them and dried.
After a minute David said, “Paul, I want to go back.” His eyes searched for the familiar women back on shore. “I don’t feel good.” He stood, but Paul clasped his wrist.
“Wait a second—please David.”
David chewed the back of his knuckle and looked at the rusty fishing rod his brother held between his hands. He plopped down. As he did, the tip of Paul’s rod bent forward and shook. Paul’s hands, unfamiliar and untrained, clamped the handle as it waved from side to side and the line disappeared into the huge, unknown depths of the ocean. David took a step back and his face became tight with fear as the dark sucked away line. Another wave thundered behind him.
But Paul stood and held the rod tighter. He looked over at the men, who’d taken a mild interest in his whining line. He fastened his lower lip to the top of his jaw, hard and set, and turned back to the ocean. He started to turn the reel, and for the first time, could feel the fish actually pull back on the line itself. His eyes hardened and he kept reeling, the rusty and cracked gears of the crank clunking as they brought in the fish, each turn coming in a circular spasm. Soon little darts and flashes of white appeared among the rocks and through the lapping waves. Paul lifted his rod high and a little pogie, no longer than his fists laid side by side, popped onto the rocks around them, flopping and searching for air with gasps of its thin white mouth.
David looked at his big brother and down at the fish, his eyes wide in terror—he had never been around a live fish—but before he could stumble backwards, a great cheer came from the men next to them. They clapped and held up their thumbs and whistled with joyous loops at the end of each blast. David looked over to them, taking in the kind applause and yelps. A void in his heart, smacked open by drunken hands, filled with the foreign men’s support. He couldn’t understand what they said, but he could feel it. They laughed and their eyes told him that he was standing amongst something very wonderful, something to take pride in. An accomplishment had occurred and an addictive warmth flourished in his chest.
He wheeled back around to his big brother.
Paul beamed at the flopping fish, his face drawn in a wide grin, his chest broadening and swelling. David’s eyes darkened and he reached for the rod. “My turn,” he said defiantly, having lost all interest in the flopping fish between them.
Paul pulled the rod away from him. “No it’s not,” he said letting his words trail and lay empty with no justification other than a similar desire to make the men proud. “No it’s not,” he said again, putting himself between the rod and his brother.
“Paul, yes it is. My turn.” David lunged this time.
But before they could fight, the panicked voices of Dee and Aubrey filled their heads, stumbling and huffing out onto the rocks and thanking God that they were okay. The rod was confiscated and they walked back to their towels and sandcastles.
David still focused on his brother’s applause and the warmth the men’s support had put in his heart. “It isn’t fair that you got to catch one and I didn’t,” he said in an undirected whisper when they were alone again. “It was my turn.”
Paul didn’t hear him. He looked back at the waves crashing against the dark rocks of the jetty, chewed on the inside of his cheek and thought about what he’d just wrought from the waters of the ocean.
From there, fishing infected the Ambrose brothers and flourished in their hearts. They snuck out of the house and pedaled their bikes to the estuaries near Beverley and Marblehead, teasing baby bass from the marsh grasses. As they got older, they learned the bus systems around Boston and moved on to the shadows of the tall docks and abandoned piers between Hingham and Quincy and learned the tricks for the bigger fish beneath. Eventually, by high school, they worked charter trips in the summers between high school around Boston harbor and on Cape Cod, helping doctors and lawyers catch bluefish, striped bass, tuna, marlin and even shark. They knew the world of fishing; they knew the world as fishing and they planned to make it their life forever. Someday, they agreed, they’d start Ambrose Brother’s Charters.
But over those young years, a benign fissure had been growing between the two brothers. While fishing served them as a reason and a means to get out of the house, Paul’s angle on the sport developed a different shade than David’s. He didn’t just learn the tide charts, he set down the tables and found books on the lunar orbit, eclipses, planetary motion and the history of the Moon Race. He didn’t just learn the shifting focus of fishes prey over the course of the summer, but learned about the cycles within the entire food chain in which bait and game, plants and ocean currents participated. His stock was not of powerful, innate intelligence and he quietly reasoned this; yet it only drove him to work harder to learn.
Quietly and slowly, this began to drive David away. He’d look on with distant jealousy when Paul would answer a question and then tie the answer into a far greater picture than what had originally been asked. Paul never did it with hot air, always casually, as if he simply explained the interworkings of a great network with no singular piece more impressive or less interesting than the next. When Paul left for college on a partial academic scholarship, David watched him go with veiled support and encouragement. He also knew that he didn’t come from a stock of powerful minds, but in his own manifestation of the insecurity, it drove him farther from knowledge. He rejected because it had already rejected him. He would have been content fishing the same waters each day and spending each night discussing the Red Sox and siphoning talking points from local headlines. Yet, when he finished high school with no college in sight, he did not stick to his young visions of starting a local charter company, nor a local replication of them. He moved away. He worked bartending and construction jobs in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington DC. As soon as he’d feel the footing of one city coming firm, he’d pick up and go somewhere else.
He and Paul kept in vague contact; they would catch up every month or so with brief conversations that touched the extremities of life. Paul spent his college days studying economics, philosophy and science so there was little common ground other than their health and perceived happiness. Yet, curiously, when he graduated, Paul returned to Boston, taking a job at a market research firm, working long days and nights, navigating the moments of stress by gazing from the office window to the islands of Boston harbor, known to hold striped bass.
Life has its strange way of throwing wrinkles at us. One of the benefits of being a fisherman is that you have a lot of time to think, so I’ve tried to understand why—why it can’t just leave us alone, why it won’t just let us be by ourselves. But I suppose that’s just simple. To think the breeze won’t affect us somehow is a tad naïve. Every breath and bump of our world, layered together with our proclivities and psychologies are folded together like a rat’s nest of line, as much as we’d like to cut our way out of it.
So in one of those curious twists it took their father’s passing to bring the two brothers back together. After the wake—one of those dark moments where the void of grief is the true tragedy—Paul and David had loosened their ties, shared a few beers and reminisced about young days fishing. They rehashed their favorite spots in the marshes and around the docks and eventually, started looking to the future. They wound the conversation to the idea of taking a trip. As the empty glasses stacked up, they agreed they would get out of New England. They needed to see the West. They would learn freshwater fly fishing and try their hand at trout. The science of the sport would be for Paul, the adventure for David. Their glasses rang in cheers and they quickly flicked their eyes to the heavens, shaking their heads—then looked west, out the window to the blood-red sun settling into a horizon of shivering oaks and tall sycamores.
(A second excerpt to come next week, after they’ve headed West…)
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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and is the author of the book The St George’s Angling Club.