The Catfish Summer
James R. Muri
"So tell me, Son. What about that pretty girl, Sally?" Dad and I were riding into town, rattling along in the old cargo wagon and watching the muscles in Tugboat's backside working smoothly.
I mopped some of the trail dust off my face. It was hot, almost noon, and Tug wasn't helping any. Dust.
"You mean Sally, the girl I go fishing with sometimes?" I didn't know any other Sallys.
A slow look over at me, and I had the idea Dad was keeping a smile hidden. I don't think he knew any others, either.
"Well, I suppose that's the one I mean. The girl you used to go fishin' with two, three times a year. But this summer it's been every Saturday. That Sally. Next farm north. You remember?"
Pretty Sally. Redheaded, freckled, suddenly not the roughneck tomboy neighbor I used to put up with. Both of us were juniors this last year, but there was nothing junior about her. Not any more.
"Yeah." I remembered.
"Well, I been wonderin', is all. All that fishin', seems like you don't catch as many as you used to. Change baits?"
"Maybe it's just been too hot for the cats. I don't know, Dad."
"And last two, three times you've gone out fishin' it's been at night. You usin' lanterns?"
"Yeah. You know it brings them closer to shore. Easier to catch at night. Not so hot, neither."
"Don't seem to be helpin' none though, do it, Son?"
No conversation for a few moments. Just the dust, the wagon noises, soft slap of leather on Tug's backside.
"Maybe I'll go along tonight, help out. See if maybe you'n she're doin' somethin' wrong. Gotta be a reason for not catchin' yer share."
I glanced at him, trying to see what was in his face. No clue.
We loaded up at the lumber yard, stopped at the hardware store, headed home. The conversation didn't get back to Sally.
Dad went with us that night, just like he said he would. And Sally and Dad and I brought home forty-six cats. Twenty-three for each family. After church Dad and I went to her house, delivered theirs, already wrapped in newspaper and chilled on ice from our pit.
"Afternoon, Miz Barnes," Dad said to Sally's smiling mother after we'd gotten down from our horses, "Sally'n Jack'n I caught some cats last night, thought I'd clean 'em up and bring you your half." Doffed hat while I handed her the soggy package.
"Why thank you, Mr. Carlson. That was very nice of you, but you didn't have to do that. Sally and I would have been happy to clean them. Please, come in while I put these on ice. I have some lemonade, or tea if you'd rather. Jack -" she turned her green eyes to me - "Sally's got an awful backlash in her reel. Could you help her with it? Then come in and help yourself to some tea or lemonade."
The pile of black line on the tack room floor grew slowly but steadily as I cursed at the reel and tried to figure out how Sally had done this.
"No wonder you didn't bring this pole, Sally. What a mess! How'd you do it?"
Sally smiled. "Mom did it. She was practicing casting. Said she might want to go catfishing one night, too."
Her hand found its way to the back of my neck, squeezed and caressed it lightly. I shivered, got goosebumps. I looked up at her, but she seemed calm, relaxed. Not at all like I'd seen her a time or two recently.
Well, I've been accused of being slow, but I finally started putting things together. Mom had been called home more than two years ago now, and Miz Barnes was a widow. Maybe even, in some ways, prettier than Sally. And that's saying something, even if I am partial.
"Your mom might want to go fishing too?"
Giggles. "Yes. Isn't that a laugh?"
I pressed on. "Fishing, as in fishing, or fishing, as in how we've been fishing lately?"
"Jack! How awful of you! How could you think such a thing? And about my mother, too!" But she was grinning.
"Dad seems tickled to be here," I kept on, "'Most as much as I am."
That was the right thing to say, all right. But that backlash didn't get taken care of.
There were four of us at the creek bank next Saturday night. So since we caught lots of fish pretty early, Dad suggested that maybe Sally and I, if we hurried, might catch the late show in town and maybe a phosphate at the drug store afterward.
"Miz Barnes and me, why, we'll just fish and jaw a bit longer, and pick up. You'n Sally head out now, and be careful."
"And then come back and pick us up," Sally's mother tossed in, "Way the fish are biting we won't need to be here all night."
So Sally and I jumped up in the wagon and headed to town. We got about ten minutes down the trail when Sally asked.
"Shall we go back and watch?"
"Watch? Spy? That what you mean, you sly girl?"
Grin again. "Aren't you curious what's going on with them?"
"They'll tell us what they want us to know," I said pointlessly as I jumped down. I walked Tug over to a scrub oak, tied him up. I reached up, helped her down. That was nice, too. Right into my arms.
"I love you," I told her for the seventy-three jillionth time.
We walked back to the creek bank, taking advantage of the shrubs and trees. Pretty soon we were close enough to see, the moon being high enough and the lantern bright enough to provide some light.
Dad and Miz Barnes were sitting close, and the fishing lines were out of the water. The lantern was moved well away from them so that the bugs would buzz over there.
Same trick Sally and I had figured out.
Sally and I sat down and watched for awhile. They talked, turning to face each other from time to time and say something neither of us could quite make out. It was real pleasant, peaceful. Later Miz Barnes took Dad's hand, held it in hers. Then her head rested on his shoulder, and his arm went around her shoulder, and the talking got quieter or maybe stopped, because I couldn't hear their voices anymore.
They just sat there, staring at the moon in the creek. Not at all like Sally and me.
Well, this was nice to watch, but not exactly exciting stuff, and anyway I didn't feel comfortable watching it. So after awhile I nudged Sally and we snuck away, headed back to the wagon.
On the way back we were both kind of quiet. Then I suggested to Sally that maybe for the rest of the summer we should do this again every week.
"You mean spy?"
"No, I mean the four of us go fishing, and then you and me, why, we'll go to a show, or think of a chore or something that needs doing."
That was seven weeks ago. Next week school starts again. Today as we followed Tug into town I asked Dad.
"Dad, you been changin' baits, or somethin'?"
"Well, I been noticing, is all, that you and Miz Barnes ain't catchin' as many cats as you used to . . ."
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