by Arthur Davis
Lights from the windows of Brennan’s Fishing Lodge seeped through the ground fog ahead—a welcoming beacon for lost souls.
Brennan’s rested in an oval spit of land that jutted out into the St. Lawrence Seaway in the heart of the Thousand Islands of Southeastern Canada just above New York State.
The traffic light turned green. The battered gray pick-up to my left pulled away. I remained trapped in thought at the intersection in the mist of a cold October afternoon. A car drove out of Brennan’s long, sinuous driveway, stopped and turned left towards Gananaque, a quiet town about five miles west. We’d go there and walk the village when it rained and it was impossible to fish. But mostly so my brother and I could buy fireworks—boxes of fireworks, every kind and size of fireworks. The rarest of adolescent contraband and parental indulgence.
We were teenagers, when we first came up to Brennan’s in 1966. My father and his friends had fished the St. Lawrence and Alexandria Bay for years before their poker group disbanded. One of the players had accused another of cheating and the other four were forced to take sides. A meaningless squabble breached a friendship that was born before my older brother. After that, we came up as a family whenever my father could afford it, which meant a long weekend every other year or so.
Brennan’s was a spacious private home that had suffered through several poorly thought out renovations. When their children married, Molly and her husband Bill decided to put their hospitality and excellent fishing location to better use. There were four bedrooms upstairs and two smaller ones on the first floor that were in constant demand.
Guests were picked up every morning at seven o’clock by guides who tethered their launches to the long dock that poked into the bay. Molly ran the kitchen and accommodations and smiled constantly. Bill arranged for the guides and managed the finances. Bill was the straight man, while Molly plied the small dining room after dinner, ladling out homemade vanilla ice cream on top of homemade chocolate layer cake mixed with local folklore and terrible jokes.
The body of water was so vast you could spend an entire morning without seeing another soul, overcome by the beauty of lake, land, and great natural bounty of the northern rim of the Adirondacks.
Under the calm of a Canadian sun, there were no distractions from this glade of isolation and retreat. And if you were skilled, but above all patient and fortunate, you might catch a pike, perch, or smallmouth bass. If the gods embraced you, a muskellunge or northern pike would take your line for an unforgettable ride.
The light turned red then green again. The sirens called as they had a week ago. So a phone call was made and clothes were gathered and my rod was taken from the closet and memories were dusted off and confronted.
It was Wednesday. By tomorrow night, the lodge would be filled with guests and expectations, and the few who longed for solitude. I unpacked, ate alone nodding cordially at the two other families steeped in laughter and familiarity. After dinner I withdrew, as is my tendency, and had coffee on the porch overlooking the seaway. Stars twinkled above as they had on my last trip and the one before it.
“What do you know that I don’t? Probably everything. Send me a comet, a flash, or bolt. A marker. A word of truth to save me from myself,” I said pondering the possibility that the almighty may be a woman who’s been humoring the assholes of mankind simply in order to continue the experiment. Mosquitoes darted around my ankles searching for dessert.
My alarm drew me from a deep, forgiving sleep the next morning. The wind rattled the windows on the west side of the home. I washed and dressed and was greeted by Molly who scolded me for being late. I should have known better, she said, concerned that Captain Jack would be pissed.
She was right. “Does the condemned man get a last breakfast?”
Molly was about to further her rebuke. “I’ll tell him your shower wasn’t working. Sit down and I’ll get you something.”
Molly’s something was bacon, eggs, sausage, blueberry pancakes, and steaming coffee. She remembered I liked oatmeal cookies and prepared a fresh bag offered with an affectionate pat on the head as I made my way down to the landing. Captain Jack Hutchinson sat facing the morning sun, his back to the lodge adjusting a reel. A lifeless cigarette slung from his lips.
A ripple rose on the lake surface a dozen yards out to my right and moved toward the dock. It struck the piling as I passed over then disappeared under the dock. It didn’t come out the other side. I stopped and waited, but the surface of the water to the left of the dock remained still.
The first thing that strikes you about Jack Hutchinson—besides the pinch of gray hair that slipped between his coat collar and baseball cap, his cracked canvass brown skin, slight hunch, and torn black turtleneck sweater—were his eyes—a fire of cobalt blue shaded by thick brows, receding into depth and distance, set in a wasteland of cracks and crevasses, etched lines marked an absolute intensity. Captain Jack wasn’t simply looking at you, but scanning your soul for flaws.
I introduced myself. He nodded thoughtfully. We were the last boat to clear the dock. It had to bother him.
I came here because I had to, only I wasn’t certain why. Just that this was the place for me to be this weekend. This is what I told my friends. They were silent, hoping that I would find a foothold out of the miasma that had held me in its grip for these many months.
Captain Jack attended to the helm and his intuition. The sun’s glare showered us from the east, the wind confronted us from the west. I pulled my reel from my gearbox and attached it to my pole. I threaded my line and opened the bait box. A swarm of minnows frantically looked for deeper waters.
His launch hummed along like a fine tuned musical instrument. We skirted the shoreline for another ten minutes until we came around the crest of Pelican Cove. Jack throttled back the engine and slipped past a bed of thick marshes and tangled horse reed. He let the boat drift a while then dropped anchor near the trunk of a half-submerged oak.
The boat settled. The sway felt good, comforting under foot. How many times had I set my line and sent it flying out across sun-speckled water? How often had I dreamed of being up here rather than working in New York City or flying to client meetings in Atlanta or Philadelphia or kidding myself that there was still time left for me to find happiness?
“You were out with Andy Larsen,” Jack said.
Andy Larsen. “A long time ago.”
“You caught a five and a half pound smallmouth bass off King’s Point with him.”
I let the weight of the minnow drag on the line then flipped it back and sideways twenty yards off the stern. It landed near the tree stump. I’d caught my first pike out here. I remembered the cove, and Andy Larsen.
“Terrible breath,” I said, working the line.
“As long as I’ve known the old badger.”
“He knows I’m up here?”
“His back’s real bad or he would have taken you out himself.”
“I gave him a hard time.”
“You caught the biggest damn smallmouth bass he’d seen in years and twice the catch everyone else caught for the weekend you were up here.”
“He’s a good man.”
“With a blown out back,” he added as the boat drifted toward a rocky outcropping close to the shore, “Give it a toss over there.”
I dropped my line again a few yards from the outcropping and let it sink. There’s no telling where a school might be. It depended on the weather, the time of day, the current, if others boats have been around in the past few days, and luck. Even the dumbest fisherman can get a bite if luck rides his line.
“I never got that fish.”
“I know. Bill was embarrassed. Molly too. Everyone round these parts heard the story.”
“It’s probably hanging over a mantelpiece a few miles from here.”
“A prize like that’s hard to pass up.”
It was stolen from Molly’s freezer before it could be picked up by the taxidermist. “Even twenty years ago?”
“I was the one who Bill wanted to mount it for you.”
I looked into those cold blue eyes. “You’re that Captain Jack!”
A fragile grin broke across his grizzled jowls. “Ain’t another within a hundred miles.”
Captain Jack! “That’s what Molly wanted to tell me.”
“I thought she had.”
“No. I was late getting down to breakfast. There was a problem with the shower. She fed me and sent me right out to your boat.”
“Watch you don’t snag your line there,” he said, noticing the boat was turning toward a sunken branch spiking up through the surface.
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” I said again, to the man Bill Brennan guaranteed would give me the finest fish mount in Canada. “I don’t suppose you have any idea who took it.”
“I thought about it for a long while when it happened. Everyone around these parts was surprised. Doesn’t look good for business. When word got around what happened, the local who took it, and it had to be a local, wouldn’t dare brag about his good fortune.”
I was nineteen. It took me a half an hour to bring that fish to the side of the boat. Andy kept maneuvering the bow of the boat to keep my line clear. The fish sounded, and then ran off half my line. I took him square on my flimsy six-ounce test line and he fought until the end. Andy lifted the bass out of the water and dropped it into the holding tank with our other catch.
“A very big fish,” was all he said.
It was only when we brought it back to the dock and Bill weighed and measured it against the catch from the other boats did we grasp what I had landed.
Old Andy Larsen. “What if.”
Jack turned to me, “You say something.”
“You ever play, what if?”
“Never heard of it.”
That’s because I just made it up. “Something to pass the time.”
“How’s it go?”
“Ask yourself what if you could have whatever you wanted. Like change something in your past, or live to a hundred?”
Jack thought this through. “Longer.”
“Whatever you wanted. Anything.”
“A man asks himself that all his life.”
“Every time he sees a loved-one sick or dying,” I said.
“Or wishes he’d have said something instead of remaining silent.”
“Or what if he could have gone back in time to change his life?”
He shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. Hard question to answer, I mean off-hand.”
I felt a sharp, biting tug. The line tightened and sliced left, then right, through the water. A fish will grab bait and swim with it in its mouth undecided as to whether it should be swallowed. Only if it’s swallowed can you set the hook. If you pull back too quick on the line, a fish will simply let go of the bait. The fish came around near the stern, swam on a little longer, and then released the bait.
“He’s down there,” I said pulling up my line.
Jack released the dead minnow and set a fresh one and I let it drop over the side. Jack lit up a cigarette and hung his legs over the side of the boat. He dropped the beak of his baseball cap over his eyes letting enough light in to see where my line had entered the water.
Tiny waves lapped up against the launch. I was glad to be back.
I could feel a nudge, a ping on the line. I was being tempted and teased. I moved to the center of the boat to steady my balance and gave a slight tug. Nothing. Another tug brought with it a tug in turn.
I dropped the tip of my pole closer to the surface. “What if?”
“What if you could see the fish?”
Captain Jack came off his haunches. My line jerked to the right, then steadied itself. “What if you could see the fish?”
“Wouldn’t be much sport there,” I answered.
“It would be like hunting elk or lion. You set up the crosshairs and squeeze off a shot from a hundred yards out. Hardly call it a sport the way it used to be.”
“That’s what makes fishing different. You never see what you’re going after or what you’ve hooked until it comes to the surface. Could be anything.”
“You have to feel it, not simply pay an expensive, ill-mannered guide like me to shuttle you to the quarry.”
“What if you could predict where all the fish were all of the time? Would you still want to fish?”
He shook his head. “Not much thrill in that.”
“It’s more important to know where and how to stalk.”
“It’s about the journey.”
“That’s what most people fear.”
“Ain’t no point knowing everything.”
I gave a slight yank on the line and set the hook. Jack pulled anchor and let us drift as I worked the line. For the next ten minutes, I reeled in, then let the fish swim away as its strength overcame the tension on my reel.
“Nasty little critter.”
I pulled back some line and he surfaced a few yards out. “Pike. Nice one too,” Jack said reaching for the net.
“The tension on your drag is too taut.”
I immediately released the drag screw on the side of the reel letting my line run out faster. The fish ran out line and sounded again. We maneuvered for a few more minutes until he came to the surface for good. Jack scooped him into the net and held him out to me. “Got to be six or seven pounds.”
“Nice catch,” I admitted.
“Nice day’s catch.”
It was ten-fifteen. We went back to the lodge at twelve-thirty with another, smaller pike, two respectable smallmouth bass, and a large perch. No other boat did as well. The other guests sat at tables in the dining room while their guides went around back and ate in the kitchen or on their boats.
We returned to reality and went back out at one-thirty. The afternoon wasn’t as productive or as animated as the morning. We were relieved to see that the rest of the boats had fared as poorly.
The next day was cloudy and cool. A stiff breeze from the west set a coating of fine ripples rubbing the surface to a froth. Fish would be biting today as they came to the richly oxygenated surface. Guests were down early and eager. Breakfast was taken in greedy quantities, as if we were warriors preparing for certain battle.
We spent the morning combing Jack’s favorite spots, zigzagging across a body of water with no beginning and no end. Everyone should spend a day on this stretch of nature’s imagination—hold a pole in their hands and test themselves against a wily adversary who harms no one and provides endless hours of pleasure and, if you’re available, an opportunity for reflection. In the morning, I caught a sizable pike and had my line snapped clean, Jack insists, by a muskie he knew lived nearby. We went back to the lodge for lunch, reluctant to disclose our failures. By the evening, I had added three smallmouth bass.
As we tied off, Jack asked me if I would like to have dinner with him. I accepted. I told Molly about it. She said Jack never invited guests home. Guides never exposed themselves to such familiarity. But she approved.
West Benton Pond Lane. A winding, rolling dirt road that sprang from nowhere four miles out of town, marked by small, widely separated cottages and undulating stretches of Canadian grandeur. I was early and enjoying the scenic route. Jack said his house wasn’t much while Molly disagreed. Jack Hutchinson was an excellent cook who participated in life when his wife was alive. His daughter had moved down to Albany to work for the government. Molly said she was very pretty with her mother’s fire green eyes, her father’s sharp tongue, and a native innocence about her that belied a quick, resourceful mind. Jack saw her and his grandchildren every chance he got.
I turned onto the dirt road that twisted and rolled until a quarter mile later I saw the house that Jack built obscured by thick underbrush and a rangy stand of Canadian scotch pine. I got out with my bottle of wine in hand and knocked at the door. Something I judged as stew wafted down from the chimney.
The door opened. “Good evening,” the woman said, moving back from the door.
My first thought was that the woman in her early forties was his daughter. I strained for similarities around the eyes and mouth. A young girl in her twenties came out of the kitchen. She was as beautiful as the one who introduced herself as Gretchen. Younger, but here was a definite similarity in the high cheekbones, complexion, and the full, sensuous mouth.
Gretchen put on her coat and wished me a good evening. She kissed the younger girl on the cheek and closed the door. No other car or pickup was in the driveway. Laura introduced herself and asked me how I fared today. I recounted my mediocre performance. She curled up her legs and listened attentively. I was as captivated by her as she seemed to be transfixed by me.
She moved closer on the sofa. “You have sensitive hands,” she said taking my right hand in hers. She stroked my palm, examining the surface of each finger the way I searched for ripples on the water. “A long life and a strong mind and a willingness to explore new opportunities.”
“You can tell all that?”
She wrapped my hand in hers. “I can tell you a lot about yourself,” she announced quietly.
Her smile and charm was transparent and without guile. There was a childlike innocence and yet a depth of maturity. “Can you tell me where the fish are biting?”
She laughed. “No. I can only tell you where I am going to bite.”
I heard no other movement in the house. If Jack were about, he was either standing quite still or sleeping. “I feel at home here.”
“I’m glad.” She seemed genuinely relieved.
“And with you.”
“I felt that too when you came in. I’m usually not so trusting. Neither is Gretchen. I think you were quite taken by her.”
“She’s very beautiful. You both are.”
“And, if you had to choose one?”
“I’m very happy to be with Laura.” And I was.
“What if you could have us both at your side? Don’t most men think about that sometimes?”
“Maybe. I guess so. Maybe as often as women think about being in the company of two men.”
“Well, I think she was as taken with you as you were by her, and I don’t mind.”
“You’re very pretty,” I heard myself say.
“I feel very pretty with you.”
“You have a beautiful home.” She did. Or she and Gretchen did. Wouldn’t Molly have warned me about the possibility of a threesome? And Jack was apparently late for his own dinner. I was expecting something quite different, though what I could not immediately recall.
“I’m happy you came.”
I didn’t know who she was, or her companion’s purpose. I did not know who these women were to Jack Hutchinson. I was tempted by this girl but fought to respect my boundaries.
“We’re alone. You have nothing to be afraid of.”
“I’m not afraid,” I said and reached out and she fell into my arms.
I knew time had passed as I counted the kisses before I could count no more. She got up and took my hand and guided me to the bedroom. We held and touched and caressed, confirmed and relieved each other. I had come to Canada to find a sanctuary and had been delivered to this room not by circumstance but a design that I made no attempt to fathom.
The wind picked up outside. No one was in my room in the lodge. The wind would shake no one awake. My wristwatch said it was past midnight. I had been here four hours. Impossible! I turned and Laura curled herself into me.
She was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, or held. Who she was pleased me immensely. She was darker than Gretchen. Possibly bigger boned, fuller in the chest and waist, though not heavy. Her youth wore her instead of the reverse. She was understated where Gretchen’s silhouette was more obviously seductive.
Her hands were never at rest, constantly stroking and probing and searching for delights and to please. She pinched and bit and laughed and her lips were always upon me. By the time I entered her, we had known each other forever. I did not want this night to end and was already burdened by the thought of leaving when I heard the front door open and close.
A jacket was being hung on a brass hook in the living room. Sighs of relief from the cold outside. Cabinets were opened and secured. Footsteps in the kitchen. I was concerned for Molly and Bill. These were good and decent people who deserved more in friendship than they were getting from me.
Laura turned away from me in her sleep. An omen I thought. It was an opportunity to get out of bed. Instead, I kissed the back of her neck and traced my hand down her back. I caressed her backside and moved it up in front until I could feel the heft of her breast in my hand. She moaned agreeably. I was erect and wishful.
Footsteps moved closer to the bedroom. There was no purpose in pretending nothing had happened. Laura’s touch and tenderness had vanquished the spirits that had seized my soul captive, which had shackled and burdened me. I was inspired and relieved. A sense of passion had been released and restored that I had not felt for some time.
The door opened to reveal a smattering of light from the kitchen. Gretchen came into view, turned towards the bed, and closed the door behind her. She went to the closet and removed her sweater and unbuttoned her shirt. She slipped out of her skirt. The light streaming through the bedroom door crack cut up her thigh and buttocks and shadowed her breasts. I could see the measure of her body—beautiful and full. She closed the door completely then came to my side.
“I’m sorry I got back so late,” she said taking up the corner of the comforter and slipping in next to me as though this had always been her practice. “I don’t want to wake her,” she said and set herself in the crook of my arm.
I left just before daybreak and parked in Brennan’s driveway as a delivery truck pulled out. I went up to my room showered and dressed and considered how I would reconcile with the friends I had betrayed.
I bounded down the steps as though I had been relieved of a terrible burden. I had been exorcised of a pall that had taken over and made my life less than what it could have been for too long. The casualty of my relief was that I had dishonored my friendship with Captain Jack.
Bill greeted me and Molly served me and the other guests. Molly made no inquiries as to how my evening went. When I was the only guest left, I got up and put my coat on and walked down the pier.
“Morning,” Jack said and untied the bowline as I unhitched the stern line.
He got in and I pushed us away from the pier. I checked my pole and bait box. In the corner behind Jack’s seat was a long battered box tied off with a piece of string that cut into the corrugated as though it were born to it. I opened the thermos of coffee Molly had left on my table and offered a cup to Jack.
“No thanks,” he said throwing the boat into gear.
Instead of hugging the shoreline, we headed to the open bay and dropped anchor.
I set my bait and cast out. The minnow flew long and straight over the surface and arched down over the spot in my mind’s eye. There was a moment’s pause after it struck the surface then a stiff tug at the line. The fish sounded immediately. A few minutes later Jack scooped up the fat, thrashing pike.
“Let’s throw him back.”
Jack hefted the fish whose bright eyes and fins marked an adult with an excellent instinct for survival. He looked surprised. “It’s a prize fish!”
“I know. But let someone else bring him in.”
Jack examined the fish. “You don’t want to keep him?”
“Cut the hook and let him go, Jack.”
“Not a man on the lake wouldn’t give up a day’s wages for this one.”
This was something I couldn’t explain. It went in the face of the man’s job, what he did for a living. Bringing the fish back to the lodge was as much a distinction for him as it was for the one who landed it. “Cut him loose.”
Jack removed the hook and dipped the pike into the water. The pike started wiggling immediately and lurched out of Jack’s hands. He wiped off on his pants and picked up the battered corrugated box that was the size of a vacuum cleaner. “Here.”
I took it. “What’s this?”
Jack sat down on the engine housing still smarting from my largesse but with a grain of ulterior satisfaction. “I shouldn’t even give it to you after that,” he said making reference to my recent act of irrational generosity.
“What is it?”
I put the box on the bait locker and cut open the string. The corrugated box nearly fell apart in my hands. There was a thick roll of old newspaper in it. I peeled back the newspaper that revealed another string that was tied around a smaller bundle of newspapers. I cut the string again and stripped away the final folds of newspaper. The first thing I saw was the eyes then the teeth, then the bony dorsal spines and finally the entire body of my prize smallmouth bass.
“Andy called me yesterday. He told me he’d have it for me after nine. That’s why I couldn’t make dinner last night.”
“Yeah. I left you a message at the lodge. Maybe you’ll come by tonight.”
I spread the newspaper back. How many years had it been? “I never thought I would see this. I gave up hoping decades ago.”
Jack came closer and examined the taxidermist’s handiwork. “Someone did a first class job.”
“As good as you?”
“This wasn’t done around here. I know the best in this province.”
“Then you know who took it?”
“Andy said he didn’t know. Only that someone called him and said they knew it was his and told him where to pick it up. What with his back and all, I went for him.”
“Just like that?” I believed him.
“After all these years and on the very weekend you’re up here; just like that,” he said clearing away the old newspaper, “you finally got your fish.”
We examined the sheets of newspaper. They were all dated the week that I had been up here. “And tonight?” I asked.
“If you’re up to it. You can tell me the story of how you caught it over dinner.”
“One-thirty-two West Benton Pond Lane.”
Jack stood up and looked curiously at me. “You don’t want to go there.”
“That’s the address you gave me,” I said pulling the slip of paper I wrote out as he described for me yesterday before we docked.
He read from it. “One-thirty-two East Benton Pond Lane.” Then handed it back to me.
One-thirty-two East Benton Pond Lane. There it was. Clear and unmistakable. “Why not one-thirty-two West Benton Pond Lane?”
“There is no one-thirty-two West Benton. West Benton is a rutted dirt road that was never completed. Not a house on it—one-thirty two or otherwise. Now let’s make the best of the morning and bring back enough fish to cover the lodge in trophies.”
I could still feel Gretchen’s biting my shoulder as she snuggled in beside me. I could still feel where Laura’s lips paused before she consumed me. I could still feel the warmth of love and desire.
I could still feel my soul sigh with relief.
One-thirty-two West Benton was as real as any fish I’d ever caught and as exciting as anything I’d ever done, and part of a weekend where all my ‘what ifs’ came true.
“Sounds great. Let’s make it so.”