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Foolish old man.

Old Fred Harmon had been living with his daughter's family, for six months now, and Kate had certainly found enough for him to do around the place to keep him busy. His daughter was one of those women with an excess of energy that gives them a deep aversion to seeing anyone idle. This, coupled with her notion that if she kept Dad occupied he wouldn't find time to brood, led her into a kind of benevolent tyranny over him. When there wasn't something for him to do, she invented it. The chickens had to be fed, or the leaves raked, or the lawn watered. Or would he mind reading a story to the children, or taking them for a walk?

Up to a point, he was grateful for these little chores; they helped integrate him into the household. But there was one thing Kate didn't understand-how could she, in the midst of her vigorous and brimming life?--and that was that a man can reach a time of life when he wants to do nothing so much as to sit and think. Then he needs to look back on the tangle of events that have comprised his life in an effort to understand them, in the same way an old general, long after an important battle, sits down to study the maps and orders and counterorders, to find in the confusion of details the clear pattern of events.

There were times when Kate's voice, calling him from some reverie, as he sat sunning himself in a chair on the porch, to lend a hand with the children or with the preserve jars, or asking him to fetch something, made him swear softly to himself, and wonder if perhaps he wouldn't have done better to remain alone in the big house in Seattle after his wife died. There at least a man might have all the time he wanted to himself, to sit and think to his heart's content.

One afternoon when Kate had been particularly demanding, he felt he simply had to get away from the house. "Going for a walk," he mumbled as he crossed the kitchen. Without pausing to hear her answer, he closed the door and stepped off the service porch.

He walked briskly, eager to leave the little bungalow far behind; then he slowed down as he turned into the small road that branched from the main paved highway toward the distant Chatsworth Hills. A slight figure of a man, his gray hair uncovered, his hands deep in the pockets of his faded plaid mackinaw, he ambled along the broken and crumbling edge of the road, past orchards and small ranches, with their patches of lawn and garden isolated in the arid, semidesert wastes around them, like little fortresses armed with water, holding out against the great silent hosts of sun and sand and drought. He found a path leading vaguely from the road toward a distant clump of eucalyptus trees. He hesitated for a moment, turned off, and followed it, not so much walking toward the distant trees as letting the little trail take him there if that was its aim. Under the trees, to his surprise, he came upon an irrigation ditch which at that point had widened into a small pool. It was no more than 15 feet in width, with an almost imperceptible current moving its slate-gray waters. But it was water, and a moving stream, and to this old man who had spent his life in the north country, black and silver with pines and takes and rivers, it had an immediate and warming appeal. Best of all, it was secluded. Here was a place he could come to when Kate's gentle bullying became too insistent or her youngsters' clamoring intruded too stridently upon the slow deep thoughts of a man who has much to reflect upon and wants time and quiet for it.

Of course, for a woman like Kate, he would need some excuse to account for his time away from home. He found the obvious solution as he walked back toward the house. He would simply tell her he had found a place to go fishing.

When he made the announcement that night at dinner, his son-in-law looked at him incredulously.

"There aren't any fish there," Jim said. "That's just an old irrigation ditch. It runs dry half the summer."

The old man knew that Jim was right, but pretended to be surprised. "You don't say!" he exclaimed, trying to appear concerned. Well, I'll give it a try, anyway. Can't always tell till you do."

Next day he went out to the garage and dug an old fishing rod out of the trunk he had stored there. It gave him a kind of pang to remember that the last time he had used it was almost eight years back, sitting in a boat on Pinel Lake. That was the last time he and Mary had gone fishing.... He stopped off at the hardware store next to the garage at the end of town and bought a fishing license and a small jar of salmon eggs for bait. He smiled at the elaborate make-believe, but thought it better to be on the safe side, just in case Jim or Kate got curious about details. "Where you planning on fishing?" the hardware dealer asked. "Driving down to the lake?" The old man shook his head. "There's a little stream that flows near the hills over there. Thought I'd give it a try." "Toward Chatsworth?" the dealer asked. He looked surprised. "Why, friend, you won't have any luck there. That's just an irrigation ditch. No fish in that." Fred almost snorted with disgust. As if he didn't know an irrigation ditch when he saw one! But he felt obliged to show some appreciation of the man's interest, and aloud he said, "You don't say! Where does that water come from?" "A dam in the hills near San Ritas. Fish couldn't live in it-runs dry months at a time. I take it you're a stranger around here?" Fred nodded. "Moved down from Seattle last fall." The man beamed approvingly. "Ah, that's real fishing country. You won't find anything like that around here. But if you want my advice, don't waste your time fooling around there. Drive down to Lake Henshaw; it's only about three hours. Friend of mine got a five-pounder on a plug last summer. Bass." Fred thanked him, mumbled something about maybe trying the take sometime, and left the store, feeling a little guilty for having evoked all this well-meant advice under false pretenses. But, darn it, didn't people know that a man could go fishing without caring whether he caught a fish or not? He made his way to the pool, and smiled to find it as deserted and secluded as he had left it. For a moment he was tempted not to bother with rigging up his rod and line, but finally he decided he'd better play the role out properly. He fixed up his gear, put a salmon egg on the hook, and tossed it into the water. He found a comfortable place where he could sit with his back against a tree, set the rod down on the ground beside him, and relaxed.

During the months that followed, he came to this spot frequently, sometimes as often as two or three times a week. To the practical Kate, so frugal of time and effort, this was an abomination and a waste, particularly because it never resulted in fish on the table. Furthermore, it was a real inconvenience, because she now had to find out first whether Dad was going fishing before she could plan an afternoon away from the house.

"At least if he'd ever bring fish home!" she complained to Jim one night when they were discussing the old man's foible in the privacy of their bedroom. "You'd think he'd be bored to death!"

"Well, he's getting kind of old," Jim said tolerantly.

Toward the old man, who sometimes came home after Jim had got in from work, the son-in-law's manner was indulgent as he'd ask, "Any luck today?" Too indulgent, for the tone was almost the same he used toward his little boy, and the implication did not escape Fred.

Still, he didn't let it bother him too much. He knew there were others probably thinking the same thing. For he was now a familiar figure along the route he traveled between the house and the irrigation ditch. The fact that he no longer bothered to dismantle his rod, but carried it to and from the pool ready for use, identified his mission to all who saw him.

The men at the garage would grin good-naturedly when he passed and call out, "Don't let 'em whip you today, pop!" Or, if he were returning empty-handed as usual, one might say, "Skunked again? You come to Lake Henshaw with us sometime, pop. We'll show you how to catch some real fish!" And after he had gone on his way, he'd sometimes hear a peal of laughter, no doubt from some witticism at his expense.

He would have been less than human not to find himself occasionally annoyed at this gentle ridicule, but never for a moment did it lead him to consider giving up those trips. His visits to this quiet retreat under the eucalyptus trees were now providing him with the most satisfying hours of his life. Sometimes he would bring a magazine or newspaper along to read. Or he would sit, gazing at the sky or the waters or the distant hills, almost motionless, as if he had become a part of the earth and tree against which he rested. And so it must have seemed to the chipmunks that scampered within reach of his hand; and to the quail stiffly marching a few feet away; and to the rabbits that occasionally hopped out of the brush, eyed him quizzically, and imperturbably hopped away.

Once in a while lads on bicycles would ride down the path and pause to watch him. But there was really nothing to watch, and they would soon leave, though occasionally one would venture to inform him that there were no fish there because it was only an old irrigation ditch. And sometimes as they rode away, awed and baffled at his persistence in this fruitless pursuit, he would overhear their judgment of him: He must be nuts."

But these were only surface disturbances that never entered the intimate personal world his memories were recreating about him. Here by the pool he recalled the early days of his marriage, and the gruffness he had affected to conceal his shyness and timidity. Later, he and Mary had laughed over it together. And he remembered that they had been happy, but frightened, when they first learned that Kate was on her way. And that black evening when Kate was a little toddler and the boy was only a few months old, how he had come home later than usual, hating to tell Mary that he had been laid off. And after the first cloud had passed over her face, the way she smiled and said, with exaggerated indifference, "You'll get another job. We won't have any

trouble managing." The table was already set, but he saw her go into the kitchen, put on a brighter cloth, and replace the sugar bowl and cream pitcher with the ones with the flower design, which she ordinarily used only for company. What a wonderful woman she had been ! Oddly enough, he discovered, to his surprise, that the hardest thing was for him to remember exactly what she had looked like. He could remember many of the clothes she had worn, and particularly a pair of bedraggled bedroom slippers that time and again he had threatened to throw out, which she continued to wear even after he'd bought her new ones. But to remember her features, the exact tilt of the nose, the curve of the lips-this he found amazingly hard. He could remember her laugh, and the quiet way she had cried during those terrible days after they had lost Jackie, and he knew that her eyes were blue, and the funny little gesture she made with the back of her hand to brush back an unruly wisp of hair, and how her nostrils would tremble when she was angry, and the detached way she would repeat a string of cuss words right after him, so that he'd feel a little foolish and chagrined, and be inclined to laugh at himself and forget his anger. But the details of her face, to grasp them and hold them clearly in his mind, this was something he could never quite achieve.

It was a challenge he could never resist trying to meet. Nor did he realize that he never could, for the simple reason that this woman whom he had loved in the course of 40 years had not been merely a physical entity, but a personality, colored by thousands of intimate associations, and if someone had suddenly asked him to describe his wife, he would have automatically started to enumerate her qualities, not her appearance. After all, the face was different at 20 from what it had become at 40 and at 60.

But his defeat here was far from painful; his attempts always led to the recollection of some event they had shared, which had lain stored away and forgotten in some cavern of his mind, and now, like some beautifully illuminated old manuscript, was brought out and dusted off, and the beauty Of its pages again perused with new wonder and delight. In this fashion the afternoons under the eucalyptus trees brought back to him the full rich fabric of his life, the humble life of a man who had earned his bread with his hands, who had been blessed with a good woman to share it, and whose waning days found him blessed again with its tender and living recollection. Now the old man found deep contentment beside the slow-moving waters of the irrigation ditch, which like himself had left the peaks and turbulent boulder-strewn days far, far behind.

Early one May afternoon, when the blossoms of the peach and apricot trees had turned to small green fruit, and the early California summer filled the air with drowsy balm, Fred Harmon was sitting against the big eucalyptus, half-awake in his dream world, when he felt the handle of the rod on the ground beside him strike his leg sharply. Instantly alert, he saw the rod being fitfully jerked toward the water. He grabbed it, and the reel began to click rapidly as line was pulled from it. Something behaving surprisingly like a fish was pulling at the other end. A moment later, not 30 feet away, a large and silvery trout at least two pounds in size burst from the water and leaped high in an effort to shake itself free ! "I've got one! I've got one!" he heard himself scream. His heart pounding and his mind almost dazed by astonishment, he began to play the fish with the automatic skill of the veteran angler.

Now he took in slack as the fish raced toward him. Then it settled down to a brief tug of war before it took off again, this time downstream, where again it broke water. Slowly it began to yield to the pressure of the line. In a sudden panic the old man wondered if the battered leader would hold, and he cursed himself for never having bothered to change it. But the leader held, and the fish, finally played out and on its side, was led to a shallow little shelf of gravel to be beached. The old man stood for a moment looking at it, a flood of exultation and triumph sweeping over him. It was a beautiful trout, its rainbow stripes brilliantly stenciled on the silver scales, and it was even larger than he had first supposed.

Now what would Kate say when he walked in and laid his catch before her? He could almost hear Jim's astonished "Well, I'll be darned!" A little touched in the head he was, eh, spending his time fishing in an old irrigation ditch? A daft old man, eh? And the boys at the garage! He could hear one calling to the other, "Hey, come here, Joe! Take a look at this!" Their expressions would be something to watch. And that hardware dealer next door ! His walk home that evening would be a triumph, for he would be carrying the fish and no one could miss seeing it, and it was indeed a trout any fisherman might well be proud of. All the little ridicules and derisions he had so long endured would now be paid off with interest, and the sweetness of the thought was like honey in his mouth. For he was an old man, and human, and no one likes to be taken for a fool.

With the taut leader exerting pressure, the fish still lay helpless and exhausted.

As the old man stooped to pick it up, a thought suddenly arrested his outstretched hand. True, he was about to enjoy a vast satisfaction, one that he had never for a moment dared hope for. But after that, what? Word would soon get around. News that a big trout had been caught in the irrigation ditch would promptly be assumed to mean that there were others there like it. The very ones who had scoffed at him would be the first to try their luck there. The garage-man and his helper, who often went fishing, would certainly visit his pool. All the lads and urchins who disdainfully speeded by on their bicycles would now descend on the place, pole in hand. What had been a haven of retreat, endeared by the memories he had evoked in its solitude, would now resound to the tramp of many feet and the cry of voices. No, he reflected, shaking his head slowly. His moment of sweet triumph would not be worth that price.

He reached down to the water and, without touching the trout, grasped the leader at the eye of the hook and with a deft twist of his fingers removed it. He watched as the fish, still unaware of its regained freedom, floated ever so slowly with the lazy current. No longer under restraint, it finally righted itself, made a tentative brush stroke with its tail, then moved off, disappearing into the depths. For a moment the old man looked wistfully at the dark waters. Then, with a quiet smile, he reeled in the line and made ready to start for home.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Strawn, Arthur
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1990
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