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Many years ago, I once went fishing with Eddy Sanborn. It was hard to like Eddy; at least I thought so. From my 14-year-old perspective, he qualified as a total jerk. We’d never been friends. Nonetheless, he was going with us to the lake. Eddy had been a grade school classmate, but now he lived in a little town in northern Minnesota. The town happened to be near the lake where my aunt, Lorine Dillard, had a cabin. I’m not sure how she came up with the idea, but my mom decided it would be great for Eddy to join us during our end of summer vacation.
My dad, a high school teacher, getting ready for school opening, couldn’t make the trip. And my big brother, Wally, had deployed to Korea as a Marine. Maybe that’s why my mom thought I needed somebody to hang out with. Really? Did she really think I needed a “pal” to share stories around the fire, or hike with, or fish with? I’d have preferred our spaniel, Freckles for companionship. But he had to stay home for a vet’s appointment.
Anyway, when Eddy’s mother agreed to have him join us at the cabin, I had my enthusiasm under control. Besides, the whole expedition made me uneasy. Something didn’t feel right.
We collected Eddy in Hinkley and headed out toward Tamarack Lake. It was about twenty miles, on gravel roads. Aunt Lorine piloted our ’54 Studebaker. My mother, Beryl Stevens, rode shotgun. I found myself stuck in back with Eddy. Neither of us wanted to be there. For town kids like us, “going to the lake” translated as going to a place with mosquitos, ticks, a malodorous outhouse, and no electricity.
But, when I complained, my mother said, “Jake, Minnesota people have cabins up North. That’s what we do. The cabin is a place we go to get away from things; to get some peace and quiet.”
Aunt Lorine’s husband had been killed in the war ten years before, in 1945. I felt less sorry for her than my mom did. She’d never pretended to like me, either. She smoked, and she turned out to be a terrible driver. A tall woman in her forties, prematurely gray-haired, with a husky voice, she refused to wear the glasses buried in her purse. Easily distracted, she had a bad habit of pivoting her head when she talked to someone in the back seat. Twice she missed a turn and had to go back. And, along the way, she also announced she’d forgotten to get gas in town.
“We probably have enough to get by, though,” she said. I guess that was supposed to reassure us.
Unlike her sister, my mother was a smallish woman with close cropped blonde hair. Sun burned, with blue eyes, then in her late thirties, she dressed in dark slacks and a patterned shirt.
“Maybe we should go back. What if we run out?” she said. My mother offered free advice to her older sister as we rolled along.
Lorine responded with a familiar, “Quit nagging.”
Eddy was my age. Chubby, red-faced, with blond crew-cut hair, he had on jeans and a ragged blue tee-shirt with a white logo promoting a place called Pike’s Resort. The logo featured a fisherman reeling in a fish.
I was a slim (well, skinny) kid with dark eyes and curly black hair. I’d only recently shed my braces. People described me as nice-looking. I had a good tan from a summer of swimming and baseball. Unfortunately, my skin also featured several souvenir welts delivered by mosquitos, and I figured more of the nasty little critters waited for me at the lake.
Eddy mainly stared out the window. When he spoke, it was things like, “When are we going to get there? or “This pop is warm.” Stuff like that.
We all felt relieved when, in late afternoon, we pulled up to the cabin, a one-story log structure with a screened porch overlooking Tamarack Lake. The area little developed, the trees grew thickly, and the clearing around the structure was endowed with wildflowers. A yammering congress of crows greeted us as Eddy and I hauled our bags inside. We plunked them down on cots in one of the two bedrooms. We all felt better to be out of the car. However, once inside, a mélange of mildew and disinfectants tempered that relief. And I didn’t much care for the mounted fish, bass and walleyes, on the wall. Their bulging eyes sent chills across the back of my neck.
While my mother and aunt finished unpacking the car, Eddy and I settled into the main room. The room had simple wooden furniture and one old leather couch: not much more. We benefitted from a pleasant afternoon breeze, and, when we opened the windows, the air cleared. The sweet scent of burning wood from the kitchen stove helped, too. We munched canned nuts and picked up some music on my portable radio. Dean Martin crooned away on Eh, Cumpari, and Doris Day sang about her Secret Love. The women liked these songs. Not Eddy or me.
We worked our way through a pile of old National Geographic magazines that had been piled in the cabin for as long as I could remember. Then, we wandered onto the porch and stood looking out onto the lake. A westering sun produced a collage of shimmering and shadowed surfaces. Songbirds warbled their evening vespers.
“Did you ever see anything so beautiful?” my mother said.
It all seemed pretty ordinary to me. I mean the sun reddened the sky like that almost every day. Anyway, after quick trips to the outhouse, and fetching pails of water from the pump, we spilled back onto the porch for dinner. Loons serenaded us from across the water, and the sun abandoned the sky to encroaching darkness. It seemed at once peaceful and eerie. I detected the ominous chugging of snapping turtles. They were out there, ugly snouts barely above the surface. Waiting?
Dinner consisted of burgers and fries we’d picked up at a Hinkley drive-in. It soon became apparent the women had tapped a bottle of red wine discovered in the kitchen. They giggled and laughed, tuning in to a static-ridden broadcast of Burns and Allen, a popular comic radio program. Coleman gas lanterns created white domes of light. Eddy and I joked around and made faces imitating the tipsy adults.
We’d barely finished eating, when the radio signal failed. Moths beat their wings against the screens and died. A pair of owls hooted to each other. Blackness prevailed beyond the white light of our lanterns. Nothing moved; it seemed nothing lived.
A flashlight-lit march to the outhouse and then we went to bed.
“If it’s nice,” my mother had said, “maybe you and Eddy can go fishing in the morning.”
There it was again – an idea I’d hoped she’d forgotten. I hated fishing. And the fact Eddy had once stayed at a resort and seemed likely to be a good fisherman intimidated me. The next day’s weather forecast had been iffy. Maybe it would rain. Maybe we could stay in the house and play board games.
I didn’t want to go. Eddy didn’t want to go. But, in the morning, once we’d downed our scrambled eggs and toast, my mother guilted us into it. “It’s what Minnesota kids do. You’ll love it,” she said. If it promised to be so much fun, why wasn’t she going? “We can grill some fish for dinner.” She didn’t say who would clean the fish.
“You’re a good swimmer, aren’t you, Eddy?” my aunt said.
Eddy considered the question and said, “I know how.”
I wasn’t so certain he did, but my mother followed up with, “Anyway, there should be life jackets in the boat.” She brushed us away like a couple of pesky gnats.
Then, as an afterthought, she added, “Now, you boys be careful.”
We retrieved rods, reels, and a tackle box from a corner of the porch and trudged down to the lake. Three planks wide and twelve feet long, the dock cried out for repair. The whole thing creaked and wobbled when you walked on it. The wooden rowboat tied alongside, its green paint chipped and faded, was oddly shaped, rectangular with a triangular bow. A pair of oars rested in worn-out-looking oar locks. We found no life jackets.
“Is this thing safe?” Eddy said.
“Of course,” I said, smothering the impulse to ask the same question. “Besides, we can always swim back.”
My effort at humor flopped. “I don’t really know how to swim,” Eddy confessed. He looked worried.
“It’ll be okay,” I said, “we’ll stay close to shore and cast for bass.”
We loaded our gear and pushed off. Eddy sat in the back, and I rowed. It turned out to be exhausting work; like rowing a barge. The boat would never be described as streamlined. The oars rasped, as if in protest.
It took twenty minutes to reach the spot where a sketch map left in the tackle box told us we’d find bass. I had no idea who created the sketch, but it had been there forever. The air felt thick and wet, and I’d worked up a sweat pulling on the oars. Eddy perched on his seat, arms folded, like some junior potentate. He didn’t say much, except to ask how long we’d have to stay out.
When we reached the place where I thought we should fish, I threw over our concrete block anchor. I guessed the water to be seven or eight feet deep.
“This has got to be it,” I said. “Probably plenty of bass hiding in those weeds.”
Eddy looked unconvinced and uninterested. “I think it’s gonna storm,” he said matter-of-factly. He gestured toward a convoy of ragged gray clouds piling up in the west. While rowing, I hadn’t paid attention to the weather, but it looked like he had it right.
“Let’s just fish for twenty minutes or so,” I said. “Then we can head back.”
“Let’s not and say we did,” Eddy said.
“That weather is still pretty far off. Worst thing that can happen is we’ll get wet.”
Eddy gave me an incredulous look and shook his head. “Let’s each make five or six casts. Then head in.”
“Okay.” I wanted to get going myself but, instead, I selected a rod, moved to the front of the boat, and stood up. We needed to maintain separation since both of us would be casting. We used lures scrounged from the tackle box.
My first cast fouled in a weed patch. It took time to free the lure and to reel in a dripping clump of green vegetation. At the same time, Eddy had to untangle his line when it got stuck on the reel. I made three or four more casts without success. Eddy’s casts produced no better result. Despite our spacing, we had to be careful. One of Eddy’s errant casts zipped by my ear.
“Watch it, Eddy.”
“You watch it, Jake.”
Maybe I hadn’t understood the diagram. Maybe the weather played a part. Ripples of wind had become gusts. Forks of yellow electricity capered across the gray-black sky. As if to taunt us, a bass leapt from the water, swallowed a bug, and re-entered the water with barely a ripple.
“One last try and we’re heading back,” I said. I lifted my rod and put my shoulder into what I intended to be a long, arcing cast. But, instead of hearing a splash as the lure hit the water, I experienced a sharp jerk, accompanied by a shattering scream. I wheeled around in shock and horror. My lure had snagged Eddy above his left eye. Blood dripped down his face. One of the barbed hooks in a three-hook cluster had penetrated the flesh of his forehead. The point of the hook protruded while the barb stayed buried. The shaft of the hook had not fully penetrated and remained made fast to the lure. The lure dangled from his forehead like a grotesque ornament.
“It hurts. It hurts,” Eddy sobbed. “Get it out. Do something.”
My stomach twirled. What had I done? Confused and uncertain, I was at a loss. Finally, I scrabbled through the tackle box, found a knife, and cut Eddy’s line. All the while, Eddy moaned and gasped. I tugged a handkerchief from my pocket and inserted it between Eddy’s forehead and the lure. I hoped it would limit motion of the lure and the pain it induced. It would also absorb blood.
“Try not to move your head,” I said. Meaningless advice, but all I could think of.
I took up my place, dipped the oars into the water, and began to row. Despite my best effort, the boat did not move. The anchor; I’d forgotten the anchor. It must have been stuck. Exasperated, I managed to untie the anchor rope, threw it overboard, and once more started to row.
Now, the rain poured down. I struggled to propel the unwieldy craft through increasingly choppy waters. Rainwater collected and sloshed around in the bottom of the boat.
“Hurry,” Eddy said. “It hurts. Please, hurry.”
Consumed with anxiety and the physical demands of rowing, I sought to assure him. “Hang on. We’ll be there soon.”
The twenty-five-minute journey to the cabin blurs in memory. Exhaustion, fear, and guilt pooled together. I panted, my arms ached, and rubbed, raw on the oars, my hands burned. Eddy groaned softly but said nothing. Eyes half shut, mouth half open, he seemed washed in pain. At least, the bleeding had stopped, leaving him with a mask of blood.
Already worried by our absence in the face of the storm, my mother and aunt heard me call out and hurried down to the dock. Like Eddy and me, they’d both been soaked by the rain. When she grasped Eddy’s predicament, my mother’s hand flew to her mouth. For a moment, emotion overwhelmed her. Aunt Lorine took charge. Somehow, we got Eddy out of the boat and stumble-footed our way up to the cabin.
Once inside, we quickly confirmed that dealing with the dangling lure was beyond our capability. “We have to get him to a doctor,” my mother said. “Where is there a doctor around here?” Duxbury and Danbury were closer than Hinckley. But we did not know if either had a medical facility.
Eddy mumbled, “Dr. Pimsbury. Hinkley. I know the place. Edge of town. Just hurry. Call my dad. Do something.”
“Can’t call. We don’t have a phone. Don’t worry, Eddy, we’ll get you to the doctor and get that thing out.” My mother sought to assure herself as much as she did Eddy.
When we made our way out to the car, for the moment at least, the rain had stopped. The world and everything in it were drenched. I slid into the back next to Eddy who huddled under a blanket; the women occupied the front seats.
My stomach churned. I did not say it, but thought it; what if it had been his eye? “It wasn’t my fault,” I said as we set out. “I didn’t mean to do it.”
“I know you didn’t, Jake,” my mother said. Eddy said nothing.
The road proved to be waterlogged and slippery. It would be no easy ride.
Each immersed in his or her own thoughts, everybody clammed up, everybody but Eddy. Each time the car jolted over a rough spot, he groaned. Not a loud groan, but enough to signal it hurt.
My mom didn’t say anything, but I knew she worried about the gas. Her sister finally blurted out, “It looks like we’re running out.”
My mother replied, “They say you can go several miles even when it reads zero. And it’s not there yet.”
Maybe not, but the needle hovered dangerously close. Not only that. More water puddled on the road as the deluge resumed. The danger of flooding loomed.
Somehow my mom kept control. She gripped the wheel and, hunched over, did her best to see through the flailing wipers.
We’d been at it for forty minutes when Eddy squinted through a steamed-up window. “We’re almost there,” he said. “Turn left at the next street. It’s a big white house, with a porch.”
Moments later, Doctor Orville Pimsbury’s house, where he also maintained his office, rose before us. We made our way through the pelting rain and rang the bell.
Esther Pimsbury, who doubled as her husband’s nurse, let us in. She had her gray hair pulled back in a bun, and her glasses hung from a chain looped around her neck. She had on a cardigan sweater.
“Oh my, what do we have here,” she said. She, of course, could see what we had there. “The doctor is out on a call, but he’ll be back soon.” She spoke to Eddy. “Come with me, young man. We’ll go into the office. When he gets here, the doctor will have you fixed up in no time.”
“The rest of you folks can stay here.” The front hallway served as a waiting area. She gestured toward a bench.
“I need to call his family,” my mother said.
“Phone’s right there on that table. Phonebook, too,” Mrs. Pimsbury said. Then she guided Eddy into the office and closed the door.
I couldn’t hear what she said, but my mother returned and told us Mr. Sanborn would be there in a few minutes.
I sat shaking on the bench. “It was an accident. I didn’t mean it,” I said two or three times. I kept thinking it could have been his eye.
“We know, Jake,” my mother said. “We’ll get the details later.”
My aunt kept giving me dirty looks, like I was some evil doer.
Mrs. Pimsbury had been right. Barely ten minutes had passed, when the front door swung open, and the doctor came in. He put down his bag and doffed his jacket.
“Well, what seems to be the problem?” he said. Dr. Pimsbury took us in with a sweeping glance. Mustachioed, with a full head of white hair, wire rimmed glasses on the end of his nose, and a no-nonsense attitude, I suppose he could be described as a kind-hearted curmudgeon, emphasis on curmudgeon.
“There is an injured boy. A fishhook.” My mother nodded toward the closed door.
“Well, I’d best have a look.” With that, the doctor went into his office.
He’d left the door ajar, and we could watch him examining Eddy’s injury. Eddy sat on the edge of an examination table; legs dangling. He trembled, whether from fear or pain I don’t know.
“I just can’t bear to watch,” my aunt said. But, like my mother and me, she persisted in doing just that.
We could hear the doctor. “Don’t worry young fella; you’ll survive.”
As we peered into his office, the doctor snipped off two of a triad of hooks. He continued to chat away. “Almost there” he said.
Eddy’s only response, recurring groans.
Without warning Doctor Pimsbury pushed the hook further through Eddy’s forehead, snipped off the barb, and propelled the remaining portion of the hook back up and out, all, it seemed, in a single motion. He’d done this before.
Eddy screeched once, then went quiet.
He flinched as the doctor irrigated the wound. “It hurts, doctor. It hurts.”
“I know, but some disinfectant, and a bandage,” both of which the doctor applied while talking, “and you’ll be fine.”
“Oh, my God, I thought I’d faint when he pushed that hook back out,” my aunt said. “It scared the bones out of me.”
I said nothing. But I agreed. I never wanted to witness a sight like that again.
“Let’s just be happy Eddy will be okay,” my mother said.
Mom’s voice now came loaded with empathy. It should have been, I thought. It was her fault we’d climbed into that boat in the first place.
Just then, Eddy’s father burst through the door. He was a big man, red-faced and blond like his son. He’d come straight from the garage where he worked as a mechanic. He had large, grease-stained hands.
“Where is he? What’s happened?”
“Slow down, Mr. Sanborn,” the doctor said. “He had a run-in with a fishhook, quite a scare. But he’s doing fine.”
Eddy sidled over to his father’s side. The boy had a bandage around his head, like a wounded soldier I’d seen in Life Magazine. I figured a band aid would have been sufficient.
“Are you okay, Eddy?” For the moment, the father ignored the doctor’s words.
“These things happen,” Dr. Pimsbury said. “Third case we had this summer. Hope the boys learned a lesson. Shouldn’t be too quick to place blame, though.”
I could tell Eddy didn’t believe him. He looked at me in a way that used to cause my mother to say, “If looks could kill.”
“I know Jake is sorry, Mr. Sanborn,” my mother said. “We’re just so grateful, it wasn’t worse.”
How did she know I felt sorry? I knew I should have been more careful, but Eddy had been the one pushing to get going. And, I couldn’t prove it, but maybe he’d changed his position without telling me. Maybe he got what he deserved.
Unaware of the thoughts running through my head, Mom looked at me and nodded.
I caught the prompt. “Yeah. Sorry, Eddy,” I said. “Hope you get better right away.”
Doctor Pimsbury provided brief instructions on tending the wound. He concluded his comments by saying, “Eddy, would you like the hook as a souvenir?” Was there a twinkle in his eye when he said it?
“No way,” Eddy’s father said. Then to my mother, “Bring his things back tomorrow.” He gazed at Eddy with a kind of showboat affection. “Come on, Eddy. Let’s go.”
At the open door, Eddy turned, his voice saturated with hostility, and called out. “You did it on purpose, Jake. You did it on purpose.”
At that moment, I almost wished I had done it on purpose.
Mom tried to pay, but Mrs. Pimsbury said, “We’ll send you a bill.”
We thanked the doctor and his wife, got in the car, and made it to the Phillips 66 station with the gas gauge reading zero. It was still midafternoon as we drove back toward the lake. Less than twenty-four hours had passed since we’d come this way the first time.
My mom said, “Fishing seemed like a perfectly good idea. But I should have realized neither of you wanted to go. I guess something that seems safe can go wrong. And I didn’t pay enough attention to the weather forecasts.”
“I wonder if they’ll sue us,” my aunt said.
“I should have been more careful.” I sort of mumbled, still not certain I meant it. I had a lingering feeling that Eddy had shifted his location before I made that last cast. Who knows?
Whoever’s fault, and there was plenty to share, it had been an ill-considered decision to go out that day. Some people say flawed choices aren’t permanently etched into the contours of our lives. Maybe so. Others say time paints a softening patina over unhappy events. Maybe so. And maybe it’s irrational, but I’ve never gone fishing again. Never.
Lawrence F. Farrar is a former American Foreign Service officer. His 30 year diplomatic career involved multiple postings in Japan, as well as assignments in Germany, Norway, and Washington, DC. Short term assignments took him to places as diverse as Beijing and Tehran, Caracas, and Muscat. Farrar's work has appeared in literary magazines more than 100 times https://www.northoakswriter.com. Many of his stories derive from events he experienced and people he encountered during 20 years living outside the United States. Farrar and his wife, Keiko, now live in Minnesota where he is a member of the Loft Literary Center.