“Quill Gordon! Come out from under there, you fool!” said my old friend, Milt Audette. “Hiding from Marge Feely again? Very unbecoming, you know. You’re in serious danger of compromising your standing with me, hiding under the porch from a seventy year-old woman.”
“Oh, yeah?” I countered. “Concealment is a dying art. It’s a manly art. Like that time you got burned, hiding behind your furnace at home.”
“I was hiding from my wife. That’s different. What has gotten into you?”
“That old lemon-sucker is worse than her husband! Running into her is like being pulled into a time warp. She sits up on the deck of the lodge, with its commanding view, and when she spots me she starts shrieking ‘Oh, Quill! Do you have a minute?’ If I freeze in my tracks she swoops down like a harpy and starts in with her lists of things for when I “have a minute”. It’s like I black out on my feet and before I know it, it’s an hour later and she’s still yammerin’ on. I fear it’s going to affect my health so I just hide.”
“Is that how you tore your pants?”
“Yeah. Caught a nail falling off the roof of the wood shed.”
“Found you, didn’t she? What did she want?”
“There was a spider in the shower.”
“Oh, golly, Quill. I’m so sorry. What did you tell her?”
“I told her there was no extra charge for our free-range organic pest control. Then I went in, closed the bathroom door, chased the spider up into the ceiling and flushed the toilet like I’d killed it.”
“Good boy, Quill. Now crawl out from there.”
“But she’ll see me!”
“No she won’t. Get out from under my porch!”
I felt Milt’s hand grasp my right ankle and I felt him pull but he’s nearly ninety so he didn’t pull very hard. I’ll give him this, though: his grip is vise-like and my foot fell asleep quickly as the circulation was cut off.
“I’m coming,” I said, wiggling backwards into the evening light.
“You’re a mess,” observed Milt. “Gee whiz, Quill, have you been crying?”
“It’s hard, man. For the last three weeks it’s been nothing but wives and children, grandchildren and dogs. They’re driving me crazy!”
“Oh, boo-freakin’-hoo, you big baby. Think of how the guys must feel, spending so much time with their families. You’re not the only one suffering, you know.”
“Yeah, but …” I said, wiping my nose with my sleeve.
“But nothing,” said Milt, cutting me off. “You know that bringing the family once a year is the only way some guys are allowed to spend those other weekends with the boys up here. It’s only fair that you share some of their pain. It’s for the greater good.”
“Maybe you’re right,” I sniffled, “but the Feelys have gone through 80 towels in six days, Bob Adams’ son-in-law keeps trying to fix stuff that doesn’t need fixing, Max Perry’s granddaughters keep flushing lady products, clogging up the pipes, and the Jacobys don’t pick up after their Saint Bernard. I got sprayed in the face yesterday when I hit a big pile of crap with the weed whacker!”
I stomped, trying to restore feeling to my right foot, and limped up the porch stairs. Milt went inside, returned with a quart Mason jar and kicked one of the beat up old rocking chairs toward me.
“Sit down and have a snort, you weenie,” he said, handing me the jar.
I unscrewed the band, popped off the lid and took a sip. A warm, vaporous glow enveloped my being and curled my toes. My chest hairs stood on end for a second before a few of them fell out and I had to admit I felt better already. I held the jar to Milt but he pushed it back to me.
“I said a snort, not a teeny girlie sip. Take your medicine, son.”
So I did. Two large swallows worth. When my head finished swimming I handed the jar back to him.
“You’re missing the point, Quill. All you’re seeing is wet towels, clogged toilets and dog poop. I know they’re driving you nuts but this is the best thing that could happen to some of those poor people. Sure, they’re demanding and ignorant of the way things are in the woods but you have to be there for them, you big ninny.”
Milt downed a glug from the jar and handed it back. I downed another, too, but kept the jar, balancing it on the arm of my rocker.
“So what if you have to put up with Marge Feely for ten days straight? So what if you have to fix someone else’s fixes and snake tampons from a drain line? You know what I saw this morning? Bob Adams’ five year-old grandson caught his first trout! There’s an angler in the making, but you just see some whiny little kid with an inept dad. And Max’s granddaughters? They actually put down their infernal phones and were sitting on the dock, talking. To each other! That’s real progress, man, and it wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t here doing what you do.
“You’re thinking they aren’t seeing the things they ought to be seeing and you’re so bent out of shape you’re not seeing them yourself. Have another slurp of that paint thinner and hand it back, you flannel-wearing longhair.”
Milt was right. After 99 straight days of dealing with the members of the Neverwas Nonesuch Angling Society I had lost my perspective. It wasn’t all harpies and surly teens and oversized curs. I took another swig, handed the jar back to Milt, and reached into my pocket for my tobacco to roll a smoke.
“Hey!” yelled Milt. “How many times have I told you not to smoke around this stuff? You want to catch us both on fire? I swear it’s a miracle you haven’t blown yourself up, Quill. One more swig and I’ll put the lid on it so we can both have a stogie.”
The backs of my eyeballs felt on fire as I choked on that swig of Milt’s volatile hooch, and I saw electric blue flashes as it burned its way down. My head was full of fumes and I let out a flammable belch that Milt wisely allowed to dissipate before lighting his cigar. He tossed me a Churchill and I could only watch it bounce off my chest, stricken as I was by temporary paralysis.
“Look,” said Milt, “it won’t be long before the women and children are gone and things are back to normal again. You’re halfway through the season and you’re tired, that’s all. Besides, I saw you fishing last evening. Things can’t be that bad.”
Patting the binoculars on the table between us, he continued, “I watched you last night. You’re getting better.”
“Thanks,” said I, “but things are pretty slow with the heat. Water’s warm and I spent most of my time floating around, looking for fish.”
“How many did you net?”
“On how many casts?”
“Way to make ’em count!” said Milt, slapping my knee. “What was hatching?”
“Sulphurs. Fourteens, maybe twelves, but the trout weren’t taking ’em. Threw a size 16 rusty spinner instead.”
“You do listen to me! Way to go, figuring that one out. Most guys would have thrown a sulphur and come back skunked. Those masking hatches can be tricky.”
I’ve always listened to Milt. He has fished these waters for more than seventy years, and I can sit and listen all night to his stories of trout and anglers long gone from Fish in a Barrel Pond. The sun set and darkness crept in as I listened to him talk and we smoked our cigars. I listened carefully, knowing that every time I see my 90 year-old friend could be the last.
A comfortable silence settled in between us as the first fireflies appeared and the loons called from the far end of the lake. Finally, Milt said, “Remember that spot I told you about, just this side of Green Damselfly Cove? The moon will be setting in an hour or so. Might be a good night for you to head out that way after everyone’s gone to bed.”
“You know what? I think you might be right, old man.”
“Of course I am,” he said. “Get out of here. Take that canoe and go. And take the rest of this jar with you.”
I took that canoe and that jar and went, after everyone had gone to bed, paddling through the dark to the spot Milt had told me about way back when we first met. After tying my canoe to a tree on the shore I waded out on a narrow strip of ledge to a spot as wide and as flat as a dining room table. The water was calm and smooth and warm and every star above was reflected in its obsidian surface.
And so it came to pass, on a hot summer night, that I found myself standing ankle deep in the Milky Way, suspended in pin-pricked blackness. Looking down, I saw a meteor shoot out from between my legs, streaking across the lake in a race with its own self, streaking across the sky up above.
I stood there a long while, feet firmly planted yet floating in space, undeniably a part of it all yet somehow apart. In that shimmering darkness, nothing made sense but everything was clear and I was alone but not lonely, in the midst but away. Far, far away without even leaving home.
Floating silently in my canoe on the way back in, I opened that jar and drank a toast to Milt and every person like him I know. The camps were quiet as I slid past, and even the loons were silent as the eastern horizon brightened with the approaching dawn. Tangerine colored tendrils of morning reached across the sky as it blanched from inky black to hazy light, and I had just enough time for a quick cup of coffee and a shower before heading back out to do it all again, for the 100th day in a row.