Grandpa was always quiet on the river. He sat with his back against the wet inside of the canoe, the brim of his Spanish Moss colored cap pulled low around his sideburns. There were times he made raspy comments to no one in particular- whether the bass were taking or the thunderclouds rolling in from the coast were as foreboding as they looked- but mainly he was quiet. He was the guard of the Lumber, and the kingfishers and snapper turtles and long-finned carp each made their rounds with him, passing under or over the boat as the gnats bobbed across the water and clung in the feathers of mallards drifting with the current.
I was a writer, not a fisherman, but I liked being on the Lumber. I also liked Grandpa and the two of us got along well together. He complimented my fishing even though it was poor, which kept my spirits up when nothing was biting. There was something about Pembroke that seemed untainted: the soothing whisper of the wind passing through cottonwoods, the distant rumble of freight trains, the smell of pine trees and fresh earth. It gave me the feeling of being in the presence of something much bigger than myself, something that had deep secrets and a forgotten past. Grandpa gave me the same feeling. He was short, dark skinned, and wore his gray hair in a tight ponytail. His eyes were a muddy brown and oftentimes seemed to be lost in the river; looking far away- past the bend where the branches of water oaks stretched towards us like grasping fingers, past the turtles sun-bathing on ugly black logs, past the highway rising in the distance like the spine of a noisy beast, and even past the miles of cotton fields that extended into the neighboring towns of Red Springs, St. Paul’s, and Barker Ten Mile.
I suddenly felt a sharp prick on my neck and instinctively slapped at the source. Mosquitoes. “The bugs are tearing me up. Don’t they bother you, Grandpa?” Grandpa looked at me and smiled. I was about to say something else, but he lifted a finger to his lips and shushed me before turning back to his line. Grandpa didn’t talk on the river if he could help it. Whenever we passed other fishermen, or old hunters with duck rifles crouched in rusty flatboats; he acknowledged them with a wave or a nod but never a, “Hello, how are you?” I’m almost sure he found it insulting to the water in some way, like it broke a secret bond between them. It was a treaty of silence signed by both parties, an understanding that the most important things usually remained unsaid.
Grandpa let out some of his line as the autumn breeze carried his bobber downwind. Its rubbery pink coat disappeared below the surface and re-appeared moments later fighting against the invisible tug of the current. A blue heron watched from a mob of cattails. His knife shaped beak was the color of pine sap, and he ruffled his cobalt feathers as the bobber floated past him. His slender neck turned with the canoe as it drifted downstream, gazing at us with eyes that looked like dewdrops on a sugarberry bush. “Beautiful, beautiful bird,” Grandpa whispered. He held the heron’s stare until it flew off, its princely figure vanishing behind the tupelo trees, squawking over the cicadas’ otherworldly drone. Suddenly, Grandpa’s line went taut as a bass threw itself out of the river. It thrashed in the air, and its green body curved like the brim of a baseball cap. Grandpa jerked up, yanked backwards, and began to reel. The bass struggled in the water- dived low, pulled away, and flung itself from side to side until Grandpa knocked all the fight out of it. He hauled its limp body into the boat and held it by the mouth for me to see. It was a big fish; seven or eight pounds at least. Grandpa put the bass into the bucket and sat back in the canoe, satisfied. I spent the rest of the afternoon trying, in vain, to make a catch. Grandpa was content to watch silently and stare at the clouds. When the sun began to dip into the water, and the first stars emerged in the sky like lost fireflies; he took one long look at the river, picked up his paddle, and we headed for home.
Grandpa docked the canoe at the edge of a sandy bank and pulled me out by the wrist. He took the fish bucket next, handed it to me, and then tied the boat to a cinderblock with a piece of rope. We could see our house from the riverbank. It was perched at the top of a hill, dark except for the dull blue glow of the T.V. that flickered between the cracks of the closed curtains on the patio. As we walked through knee-high grass we passed a mottled wooden playground hidden in the shadows of the pine trees. A single swing with rusty chains and a worn-out seat swayed in the breeze, creaking in tune to our slow march up the hill to the house. We entered the garage through a side door. The fish would spoil if we left them unattended; so Grandpa took off his jacket, threw a towel over his work bench, and plucked the bass one-by-one from the bucket and put them on the table. He cleaned them with an old Indian knife. He smoothly separated the basses’ scales from their skin, lopped off the heads, and finally ran the blade across their stomachs, opening up the guts. He pulled out the gooey innards with one hand and threw them into a plastic bag for the dog. Grandpa was a master at this. During the Vietnam War he was a food inspector for the American ground forces. He learned how to slaughter a cow with a pocket knife and cook only the best parts.
When I was young I asked Grandpa if he had ever shot anyone. “I never touched a gun,” he said, with a wave of his gnarled hands. “But your Uncle James was an infantryman. The only Indian in his division. He made us proud.” From pictures, I knew Uncle James was brawny. He had wide shoulders, a wider smile, jet black hair, and tanned skin so dark it was almost red. I never met him, but his Army photo held a spot in the middle of the mantle in the living room. There was only one other photograph of James. He was much younger in it, maybe fifteen or sixteen. He stood shirtless on a river bank with one arm wrapped around the trunk of a cypress tree and the other holding a fishing pole without a lure. His hair was unkempt, jeans torn and caked in mud, and was grinning mischievously from beneath a straw hat. A second boy stood beside him with his back to the camera, hands on his hips, shoeless in the sand as coffee colored birds soared over-head, suspended in the sky like tad-poles frozen beneath the surface of an icy lake. Sometimes Grandpa would linger at the mantle on his way out of the house. His eyes seemed very distant in those moments, and they shone like polished stones from the river bed.
Grandpa finished cleaning the fish, wrapped them in plastic, and stacked them neatly in the freezer. He ate dinner without saying a word. Mom threw him softball questions over the lasagna. “So were the fish biting today, John? How’s your arm holding up? Have you seen anything interesting on television?” Sometimes would Grandpa would nod, but he barely seemed to hear her. It went on like this until Dad whispered something in her ear and everyone stopped talking. When the cuckoo clock chirped three times, Grandpa put his dish in the sink, took two yellow pills, disappeared into his bedroom, and closed the door. For a moment, things were very quiet. Our forks rested neatly in their napkins, the cuckoo clock chimed softly, the T.V. was on mute, and our terrier Rudy gnawed on an old shoe in the den. Mom ran a finger through her blonde curls, the way she does when she’s thinking. “Joey,” she said. “What do you think of putting Grandpa in a nursing home?”
“Ellen,” said Dad. He sounded very tired.
“Why not, George? What’s a better time?”
“Not now. Please.”
“Joey, your Grandfather hasn’t been doing too well. He doesn’t talk. He barely leaves his room. I’m sure you’ve seen a change in him lately. It might be dementia. That’s what the doctor said.”
“We don’t know that for sure.”
“Well, something’s wrong. He didn’t even touch his food.”
“The point is, Grandpa isn’t well, and we need to put him somewhere he can be taken care of. He’s not happy here anymore, as much as it hurts me to say it. Your father and I have already talked this over. We only want what’s best for him. That’s all.”
Dad rubbed his forehead. He looked defeated and old.
I couldn’t sleep that night. My body felt too heavy for the bed. After hours passed, I turned to look at the digital clock on my nightstand. 5:00 AM. No use in trying anymore. I sat up, yawned, and gazed out the window. The backyard was illuminated by the light of the moon, and the shadows of oak trees stretched across the lawn like iron bars. I rubbed my eyes. Grandpa’s stout figure was reeling in a line by the water’s edge, adjusting his lure, testing his throw, and casting to the middle of the river. He stood silhouetted against the darkness, his Spanish-Moss colored cap pulled low around his side-burns. I couldn’t see his face but I imagined it was quiet, searching the current for the answer to a question that could not or would not be put into words. As he stood knee deep in the muddy water, the moon reflecting off the Lumber’s quiet surface; I thought I heard the river whisper something in a long forgotten language- a language only the bass, the blue herons, and Grandpa could understand.
About Chad: Chad Sanderson is an undergraduate Writing and Linguistics major at Georgia Southern University. He is currently working on obtaining his Bachelor’s degree and keeping himself sane by reading, writing, and teaching martial arts.