Levi leans against the weathered rails of the pier, his fishing rod pointing seaward. Evening slips around him like a cloak while an incoming tide swells the estuary. The tug and release of gentle waves against his line slow his heartbeat.
Lights from the pier glide over the gentle swells; he imagines hungry fish flashing their silvery scales out there in dark waters. His hunger is different, its effect no less insistent. This silence, broken only by the murmured greetings of ocean and land, provides a sense of homecoming.
Countless Fridays, he’s repeated this routine—a race signaled by the factory’s whistle initiates a dash to his doublewide to pack an ice chest with sandwiches and a six-pack of Schlitz before hoisting it and a retrofitted Radio Flyer wagon into the back of the pickup. Jacket, thermos and fishing tackle complete his baggage for the sixty-mile drive down to the island.
Not so long ago, Maggie would have helped by preparing the cooler. But she never presumed to choose his fishing gear, quietly understanding that he must do that for himself. When the wind blew soft and the moon’s aura made ghost hair of the Spanish moss clinging to live oaks, she’d come with him. Nestling under her shawl into an aluminum chaise, she’d sip her beer and stare toward the horizon. She called it “her kind of fishing”—trying to catch sight of wonders just beyond the world’s borderline—wonders she’d said she felt but couldn’t quite name. Sometimes, Levi had caught the flash of her gold tooth as she smiled contentment at some ineffable revelation.
Levi gazes eastward thinking, I’ll bet she fully understands them now.
After a stop for bait and filling the coffee thermos, he’d pulled the wagon holding his gear to a preferred location. A few other regulars on the pier had already staked claims to spots comfortably distant from him. Occasionally, someone’s voice might reach him like the distant low of a solitary cow; but most conversation dissipates into the cool night.
He arcs a long cast into the darkness and hears the satisfying plunk of the lead sinker carrying bait shrimp to the sandy bottom. He spends a moment considering what might be enticed by the hapless crustacean tonight. Last week’s efforts yielded only one catch worthy of remark—but that one a generous flounder. Two weeks ago, nothing; but the week before that, several whiting had gone into his freezer.
Now, he’s content to simply stare into the depths.
Th’ fish don’t really matter. I’m here.
Slamming van doors, peals of laughter and chatter reminiscent of a flock of fractious grackles shatter Levi’s reverie.
Teenagers! They seem to know everything but their own ignorance. Just like when I tried to teach Sammy about fishing…or talk him out of enlisting for ‘Nam with his buddies.
Tension seeps into his jaw as a covey of six youngsters approaches. A balding, scruffy young man follows. Maybe they’ll just move on by without any smart-ass remarks.
Levi’s shoulders relax. The ocean absorbs the teens’ prattle. Blissful minutes pass before a slight shadow to his left makes him turn his head—a girl six feet away mirrors his stance and watches the tip of the rod.
“How will you know if you get a bite?” Her voice so soft that it’s almost carried away by the breeze.
Levi sighs. “I’ll feel the nibble in my hands, even before I see the tip twitch. The line and long pole act sorta like a telegraph.”
More minutes. More silence. Levi sneaks a quick glance to see the girl’s patient gaze remaining on the rod’s end. Her furrowed brow and raven ponytail seem oddly familiar.
“Is it hard to tie a knot that you know won’t come loose?”
Another sigh. “Not so hard. A loop through the eyelet of the hook. Three twists. A loop through the first loop and another loop through the second loop, then pull tight … you wanna try?”
“Could you show me? A fisherman’s knot seems worth knowing.”
The girl sits cross-legged on the concrete while Levi opens his tackle box and pulls out a short line and large hook. He stoops and twice demonstrates—“loop, twist, loop, loop, pull tight.” Her eyes remain on the movements until he snugs the knot against the hook.
Snipping the line again with nail clippers, he hands the materials to her and murmurs, “Now you.”
Loop, twist, loop, loop, pull tight. Her lips move as she silently mimes the lesson. Several attempts. Several snips. Finally, success and a tiny squeal from her. “I did it! Thank you so much. By the way, my name is Meg.”
Perhaps he only imagines her whispered, “I know.” Their eyes meet for a moment before interruption by the chatter of her boisterous peers’ return down the walkway. An adolescent voice bellows, “Hey Meg! Y’all caught anything?”
“No, but look, Levi has taught me a fishing knot! Who wants to learn?”
Two girls bend to her giggling instructions while Levi coaches the three boys’ comical attempts at casting.
He laughs for the first time in much too long.
Finally, the scruffy guy announces time to get back to their camp. With words of appreciation and fist-bumps all round, the gaggle moves toward the van.
Meg turns to find Levi’s eyes again and smile, dim light reflecting off her braces.
“Scruffy” lingers a moment to grasp the fisherman’s hand and wink. “You’re a good teacher!” he says before trailing in the wake of his group.
The crunch of tires on crushed oyster shells disperses across the marsh and silence again envelops Levi. He leans against the railing and gazes out to sea. Another trace of light catches his attention—probably just the moon reflecting against some lonely shrimper out there on distant swells, magnified by unbidden tears welling up.
Didya hear that, Maggie? I’m a teacher.
Allen Stevenson is the Runner-up for The Lowcountry Award for Excellence in Southern Writing by Southeastern Writers Association. His prose reflects decades of teaching and oral storytelling in the Southern mountain and coastal regions. His stories highlight the magic and beauty within everyday experiences. Samples of his short fiction and essays can be found in moonShine Review, Catfish Stew, and Marathon Literary Review. Allen and his wife Lynda reside in upstate SC where he leads creative writing classes at the Furman University OLLI program.