1st Place Fiction Winnerfiction Bill Wilwers
After forty-three years of teaching high school (forty-one at Lavaca High School in Arkansas), I decided to plague my long suffering students no longer and retired. Looking for something to keep me off the streets, I discovered Anita Paddock’s writing class at the Miller Branch Library in Fort Smith. Anything I have accomplished in writing, I attribute to that experience. This story sprang from a misspent youth spent at various fishing holes.
— Bill Wilwers
A big, burly man, Jim Archer looked out of place in the placid Arkansas meadow. He tromped forward, picking his path to avoid the cow patties, and arrived at a small pond in the heart of the meadow. He looked it over. Its steep, muddy banks were dotted with reeds and some scraggly willows.
Nothing much has changed, he thought. Not yet, anyway.
He bent to pick up a rock and chucked it into the water. Red-eared sliders, sunning on a log, slid into the water. A large bullfrog croaked and leaped from the bank. Jim watched the ripples radiate outward from the frog’s point of entry. A memory tugged. Concentric circles. That’s what his old geometry teacher had called them.
He had once skipped rocks on this pond. He found a flat rock and pegged it at the surface. Two hops. He scratched his ear and then remembered he had to keep his elbow tucked and throw sidearm. He tried again. Six hops.
“Not bad, mister.”
Jim’s head jerked toward the voice. It belonged to a redheaded boy of twelve or so. He was sunburned, barefoot, and clad in worn overalls and a threadbare flannel shirt. A long, cane pole rested on one shoulder, and he carried a Folgers coffee can full of bait.
“Yeah, well, it’s been a long time. I see you’re going to
do some fishing.”
“Sure am. I’m after Old Jake.”
“Old Jake? Is he still –”
If the boy noticed Jim’s abrupt halt, he gave no sign.
“He’s a catfish, mister. Biggest old cat in these parts, I’ll bet. He’s been in that pond forever.”
Forever is a bit of a stretch, Jim thought, but it’s certainly been at least a dozen years.
“Yeah? Well, I hope you get him.”
The boy grinned.
“Me too, but it ain’t likely. The only time I ever hooked him, he snapped the line. Won’t happen again, though. I’m using 50-pound test now. You like to fish, mister?”
Man, Jim thought, this one’s a talker.
“I used to when I was your age. When you grow up, there’s not much time for such things. There’s always work to be done … money to be made.”
The boy’s grin faltered.
“Say, you mind if I ask you something, mister?”
“Well, if you ain’t here to fish, why are you here?”
Jim’s mouth tightened in a hard line.
I don’t have to account for myself, he thought. Especially not to some kid I just met.
He almost said as much, but looking at the boy’s freckled, friendly face, he opted for the truth.
“I’m trying to decide about something.”
The boy didn’t say anything, but his eyes held open curiosity.
“I’m trying to decide what to do with this meadow.”
The boy looked puzzled.
“What do you mean, mister? This land belongs to Old Bob Johnson.”
“Not anymore. I bought it from him last week.”
The boy’s blue eyes widened.
“Really? Gee … is it still okay for me to fish?”
Relief spread over the boy’s face, and Jim shook his head.
People are the same at any age, he thought. When something surprises them, they think first about how it will affect them. Yeah, look out for number one. Words to live by.
The boy plopped down on the muddy bank, baited his hook with an uncooperative night crawler, and tossed his line in the water.
The plastic bobber rocked for a moment, then stilled. He pushed the base of the pole into the soft earth and propped it up with a rock. Satisfied with his efforts, he looked at Jim.
“You said you’re trying to figure what to do with the meadow. Does that mean you ain’t going to use it to keep cows or grow hay?”
“I run a construction company, kid. There’s not much call for cows and hay in my line of work.”
“Construction,” the boy repeated. He frowned. “That’s building things, right?”
The boy’s frown deepened.
“And building things means tearing up the land with them dozers and stuff?”
Jim raised his eyebrows.
Where’s he going with this, he wondered.
“Well, yes. When we’ve got to get a building site ready, clearing the land is necessary.”
The boy didn’t reply right away. He stared at the bobber and scratched a chigger bite on his ankle. Then he looked up at Jim.
“Are you planning to build in the meadow?”
“Maybe. The city’s talking about putting up a shopping
center, and this meadow’s in a good location.”
“Do they have to put it here?”
“No, but I’ll make a profit if they buy the land from me, and my company’s got a good shot at the building contracts.”
The boy worked a stone loose from the bank. He sat still, turning it over, then stood and pitched it far into the meadow. With tears in his eyes and fists clenched at his sides, he faced Jim.
“It ain’t right, mister!”
“Hey, kid, why are you getting so upset?”
“Is making money all you care about?” the boy shouted. Don’t it bother you that this meadow will get all tore up just so folks can have some fancy place to shop?”
Jim’s ears reddened.
“Now just a minute, kid. I didn’t say I was building here – just that I was thinking about it. This is my land now, and I can do whatever I want with it.”
The boy was not cowed by Jim’s anger. He looked ready to continue the attack, but suddenly he turned and stared at the pond. Jim followed his gaze and sucked in his breath. The bobber wasn’t visible, the cane pole was bent almost double, and the line raced back and forth like a fly in a bottle.
“It’s Old Jake, mister! It’s gotta be.”
The boy ran to the pole and pulled it from the ground. It almost pulled free from his grasp, but he held tight. He tried to back up, but the slippery bank gave him no traction. Each backward step resulted in a slide forward.
“Mister, I need help.”
Jim shook himself and ran over to the boy. He gripped the pole, placing his hands above and below the boy’s, and pulled. The strain was incredible. Slowly, slipping and sliding, they backed up until forty pounds of furious catfish lay flopping on the bank and jabbering expletives.
“We did it, mister. We landed Old Jake.”
The boy’s voice was hushed and reverent.
“We sure did, kid.”
Jim wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
“What are you going to do with him?”
The boy stood quietly, brows knitted in thought.
“I reckon I’ll … let him go.”
Jim’s mouth fell open.
“After all this time trying to catch him? Why?”
“Well, I figure if you’re gonna build in the meadow, he
ain’t long for this world. He might as well spend his last days
where he’s happy.”
The boy grinned at Jim as he pulled a jackknife from his hip pocket and walked toward the fish.
“I’m gonna cut the line, but I’ll leave the hook in his boney old jaw. It won’t hurt him none, but it will give him something to help him remember this tussle.”
“Wait a minute.”
The boy turned around.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Well, Tommy, you can let Old Jake go if you want to, but I’m thinking maybe this meadow wouldn’t make such a great place for a shopping center after all. Maybe cows and hay would be the way to go. What do you think?”
Tommy’s smile could not be measured in dollars and cents.