“Night fishing” is a euphemism from the south.
I don’t know what the heck it means; my father used to laugh about it with his cousin Gerry, who was Chubs’s dad. Gerry’d come over, kind of on a regular basis, and he’d sit out in the yard with my dad and mom and laugh, joke, and drink beer. My mother, of course, wouldn’t be outdone. She’d keep pace beer for beer with ol’ Gerry, and pretty soon she’d be hammered and slurring. Swaying and sloshing her way inside, she’d finally pass out on the bed or something. I don’t remember directly, but I guess this usually took place on weekends, because my father would stay up with Gerry after my mother lost consciousness and they’d laugh some more. Eventually, somehow, Gerry drove home.
Sometimes, Chubs would come with him. He’d hang out with my brother and me, and we’d try to find things to do to keep ourselves occupied. It was harder when it got too dark to stay outside. We had to find something we could do in the dark or in the house, and it was never any fun to be in the house with my slushy drunk of a mother. You never knew what she’d do when a few beers were in her.
One time Chubs and Gerry came early in the afternoon. His nasally little whining sister Missy didn’t come with them, usually. Ryan, Chubs and I spent our day getting around Bell Avenue’s surrounding neighborhood, heading south and across Greene Lake Road, just before it became Oak Avenue, and into an empty lot on the far side.
It was a hot day — all of them in the south are. The Cicadas buzzing in the thick, lush trees rimming the area only made it feel hotter. My brother Ryan and I, not knowing what they were actually called, just called them “heat bugs.” It seemed like the more they screamed, the hotter it got. The lot bordering Greene Lake Road was overgrown with tall grass, bramble bushes and dense, malicious undergrowth that tore at your pants and feet as you tried to plod through. It left burrs, seeds and insects deposited all over your denim, and I could only feel sorry for anyone dumb enough to wear shorts. They might’ve been cut to the bone.
Twigs snapped beneath our feet as we pushed through, me leading the way with Chubs close behind and Ryan on his heels. It felt like I was exploring the African savanna, and the thick, wet air, dense with humidity falling from the Cadet-gray sky and dripping over everything like molasses, refused to let the sweat evaporate that pooled out of our skin. The sun, never clearly visible to my eye in the southern sky, hid behind his vaporous veil and taunted us as we tried to reach the point of our journey: a tiny, green pond in the middle of that empty lot.
It was tucked carefully behind brush and scrubby little trees, but I’d spotted it from the car one day on the way home from somewhere. So that day, after Chubs, Ryan and I couldn’t figure out what else to do with our times, we decided to go check out the pond.
At least it was a way for me to get away from home.
As we approached the pond, swatting at buzzing invisible insects and debris from the dusty lot, we heard a distinct sound. It was one that made all of us stop and stare at that murky green water.
We watched the ripples roll away from the center of that little body of water where a single white patch of froth was dying, and we knew.
“A fish!” Chubs called out, grinning. “There’s a dad-dang ol’ fish in that pond!”
“Let’s catch it!” Ryan said merrily.
I nodded. “It’s too hot right now though. He’ll stay deep. We have to wait until later.”
“Yeah,” Chubs said, “let’s go night fishin’!” His thick Georgian accent made it sound like “naht fishin’.”
“Yeah!” Ryan bellowed, and just as he did, the water broke again and a new set of ringlets gradually moved apart on the water.
“Okay, let’s get our gear together. We have to wait until the moon’s high,” I said authoritatively.
I have no idea who made me an authority on night fishing. At that point in my life I’d probably caught a grand total of three fish, and none of them had been large enough to keep. And I’d absolutely never been night fishing before.
But, both of the others nodded in firm agreement.
A final pop of the water and a silent ring testified to the idea, and we were bound for home.
Ryan was about seven at that time. Have you ever tried to make a 7-year-old wait for something? It’s a nightmare. He whined, he complained, he made me want to smack him. The sun wouldn’t set fast enough for him. My mom and Chubs’s dad, meanwhile, were getting happily stupid as the hours rolled away. My mother was always easier to be around while drunk if someone else was there; just make sure you stay out of her way so you don’t piss her off. And God only knew what was going to piss her off, because my brother and I sure didn’t. So we stayed as far away from her as we could, but no matter where we went we could hear her cackling, loud-mouth laugh and we watched the sun sink on the horizon.
Eventually, we needed to eat. Still the sun hovered, seeming to grip the sky like a man hanging from a cliff, refusing to fall over the horizon. We played outside some more. We tried to watch TV, but in the days before cable, there wasn’t jack on during the summer and early evening. We tried to read comic books, but I only had a couple, and they were boring to me. I’d read them a thousand times. We played with our dolls — I mean “action figures”. We drew pictures. Nothing worked, though. The earth had stopped spinning and it felt like the damned sun wouldn’t ever set.
We were chatting in our room about something when Ryan suddenly blurted, “Hey, it’s dark out!!”
We all bolted to Ryan’s bed, positioned just under the window facing north out of our bedroom. There was one facing west, too, but that one was buried beneath the smothering tendrils of a monster bush intent on world conquest.
Outside, the tiny bulb in the lonely streetlight cast a yellowish ring of warmth on the asphalt beneath it a few houses down the road. Houses had glowing amber patches set against the frames of pitch dark to mark their presence along the street, and the Cicadas had given way the to feverish chirping of crickets.
Night had fallen when we weren’t looking, and it was time to go fishing. After hours of tortured agony enduring endless strands of time waiting for this moment, we had enough time to prepare and then make our way through the thicket of the lot to that shiny, stagnant mega-puddle.
We raced out of the room and charged the kitchen. I quickly checked, as cabinet doors and the refrigerator banged open and closed, whether anyone was in the house.
My mother had passed out, nude from the waist up, face-first on her bed. She was loudly and wetly snoring so I opened the bathroom door wide, which meant I was closing the door to her room. Shaking my head, I watched as Chubs and Ryan were slapping bologna sandwiches together at a fever pitch.
“How many you want, JD?” Ryan asked as Chubs passed him another slice of bread. He slathered a load of mayonnaise on it and then set it beside him.
“I guess two,” I said, and joined the assembly line by slapping a slice of bologna on each set of sandwiches. I closed them all one by one as I did, and soon we had food for the three of us to go long into the night.
“Okay, that’s good, get some drinks,” I told Ryan. He was only too happy to obey instructions when it meant something for him, so he hurried back to the fridge and grabbed a few more cans of soda pop, one for each of us.
Chubs was putting everything into a grocery bag, which at that time were all paper. The loud rustling of the heavy brown bag was noisy and I put my finger to my lips to silence him.
“Quiet!” I said softly. “C’mon, let’s get our stuff and get going.”
My brother and I each had a pole, and we found a clunky old spare for Chubs among the others stored in the “spare room,” which was really a storage locker full of boxes and sundries that hadn’t been unpacked, weren’t able to find a place for, or simply weren’t needed in the rest of the tiny green asbestos-armored house. Without really thinking about it, I grabbed the tackle box, too — a collection of fishing equipment and supplies my father had from when I was a little boy.
With Chubs carrying the bag of food, Ryan carrying the bag of drinks, me carrying the tackle box, and all of us armed with our fishing rods, we set off toward that mysterious pond on the far side of Greene Lake Road. As we crossed the yard, the glow from the fire at the end of the cigarettes our fathers were smoking turned our way.
“Where y’all goin’?” I heard Gerry ask.
“Night fishin’,” Chubs said. “Up the road here a piece.”
That brought a round of wheezing, uproarious laughter from both men. “Oh, night fishin’, huh? Well, good luck then.” I could tell by the way my father spoke he was being facetious and condescending. I decided not to retort.
“We’ll be back before morning,” I called over my shoulder.
“I’m sure you will,” he said, and more laughter chased us up the street as we set off for the pond.
We headed up the hill south and crossed Greene Lake Road for the second time that day, and as we watched the full moon crest over the trees in the distance, we started across that empty lot.
We’d had to work hard for it in the light. At night it was downright hazardous.
Ryan kept shouting “Ah! Ah!” every time his foot fell farther that he expected into holes or divots. Chubs and I kept shushing him, but he’d just whine that he couldn’t help it. Big clods of dirt reached out of the black and tripped us, making us stumble. The tangles of dense, malevolent undergrowth that had slashed at us during the day slithered around our ankles and bound us at night. We fought for every inch, scanning every so many steps for the reflection of the moon in the pond, listening for the splash of the fish in its cooling muck-filled waters.
I saw a clearing ahead, and I whispered that it was probably the pond. The water would be the only place where the thicket would be clear. Chubs craned his neck and Ryan stood on tip-toes, trying to follow my pointing finger into the blackness.
Finally they said they could see it, and they moved off ahead of me toward the clearing.
Distances are deceptive in the dark, though.
Ryan was ahead of Chubs and had taken about 10 steps when he screamed and flailed. I heard a slick, slopping sound and his grunts of disgust before he started screaming for help, he was falling, help, catch him, helphelphelp!
Chubs burst out laughing his hyena’s lilting laugh, but Ryan caught his wrist as he toppled, and the next sound I heard was a series of splashing into ever-deepening water. There was a wailing screech as Ryan sputtered and spat slimy pond water out of his mouth, and a split-second later I heard the water’s surface break again followed by more sloppy, mucking footfalls and rushing water as it pours off a wet body, then the wails of Ryan mixed with Chubs’s laugh.
“What happened?” I said.
“The dad-danged pond’s right here,” Chubs told me, trying to stop laughing. “We were past it before, I reckon, so me ‘n Ryan walked right into it.”
“I need to go home,” Ryan whined, fighting back tears, “I got mud in my socks and I’m all wet. I need to change clothes and get dry underwear.”
Chubs couldn’t stop laughing. “I cain’t change!” he giggled. “This is all I brought with me!”
The slip-slop, slip-slop, slip-slop of their footsteps all the way back home marked our passage back to tiny green house. When we got to the yard, the two men started laughing.
“Hey, you’re back,” Gerry spoke through his wheezing laughter. “An’ jus’ in time; c’mon, Chubs, we got to go.”
“Catch anything?” my father said, wheezing his laugh right along with Gerry. I guess the way you laugh in Georgia is just like Muttley in the cartoons.
I didn’t say anything as I put the tackle box and my rod away. Ryan made a B-line for the bathroom and closed the door behind him to get out of his sopping clothes.
I sat down on my bed and just laughed. I laughed and laughed for hours, until I finally drifted off to sleep.
I’ve never been night fishing again. And I still don’t get the joke.