OLD CHARLIE

OLD CHARLIE

 

Hi there. Catching much?

Well, they're in there. Just got to have the right bait and be patient. You don't mind if I sit down on the bank next to you, do you?

Good, good. Thanks.

Yeah, I like it fine. I never fish with anything but a cane pole. An old-fashioned way of doing things, I guess, but it suits me. I like to sharpen one end a bit, stick that baby in the ground, and wait it out. Maybe find someone like yourself to chat with for a while.

Whee, it's hot. Near sundown, too. You know, every time I'm out fishing in heat like this, I think of Old Charlie.

Huh? No, no. You couldn't really say he was a friend of mine. You see, I met him right on this bank, sort of like I'm meeting you, only he came down and sat beside me.

It was hot, just like today. So damned hot you'd think your nose was going to melt off your face and run down your chin. I was out here trying to catch a bite before sundown, because there's not much I like better than fish, when here comes this old codger with a fishing rig. It was just like he stepped out of nowhere.

Don't let my saying he was old get you to thinking about white hair and withered muscles. This old boy was stout look­ing, like maybe he'd done hard labor all his life. Looked, and was built, a whole lot like me, as a matter of fact.

He comes and sits down about where I am now and smiles at me. That was the first time I'd ever seen that kind of smile, sort of strange and satisfied. And it looked wavery, as if it was nothing more than a reflection in the water.

After he got settled, got his gear all worked out, and put his bait on, he cast his line and looked at me with that smile again. "Catching much?" he asked me.

"No," I say, "Nothing. Haven't had a bite all day."

He smiled that smile. "My name's Charlie. Some folks just call me Old Charlie."

"Ned," I say

"I sure do love to fish," he says. "I drive out every after­noon, up and down this Sabine River bank, shopping for a fresh place to fish."

"You don't say," I says to him. "Well, ain't much here."

About that time, Old Charlie gets him a bite and pulls in a nice-size bass. He puts it on a chain and stakes it out in the water.

Then Old Charlie rebaits his hook and tosses it again. A bass twice the size of the first hits it immediately and he adds it to his chain.

Wasn't five minutes later and he'd nabbed another.

Me, I hadn't caught doodlysquat. So I sort of forgot about the old boy and his odd smile and got to watching him haul them in. I bet he had nine fish on that chain when I finally said, "That rod and reel must be the way to go."

He looked at me and smiled again. "No, don't matter what you fish with, it's the bait that does it. Got the right bait, you can catch anything."

"What do you use?"

"I've tried many baits," he said smiling, "but there isn't a one that beats this one. Came by using it in an odd way, too. My wife gave me the idea. Course, that was a few years back. Not married now. You see, my wife was a young thing, about thirty-two years younger than me, and I married her when she was just a kid. Otherwise, she wouldn't have been fool enough to marry an old man like me. I knew I was robbing the cradle, impressing her with my worldly knowledge so I could have someone at home all the time, but I couldn't help myself.

"Her parents didn't mind much. They were river trash and were ready to get shed of her anyway. Just one more mouth to feed far as they were concerned. I guess that made it all the easier for me.

"Anyway, we got married. Things went right smart for the first few years. Then one day this Bible-thumper came by. He was something of a preacher and a Bible salesman, and I let him in to talk to us. Well, he talked a right nice sermon, and Amy, my wife, insisted that we invite him to dinner and buy one of his Bibles.

"I noticed right then and there that she and that Bible-thumper were exchanging looks, and not the sort to make you think of church and gospel reading.

"I was burned by it, but I'm a realistic old cuss, and I knew I was pretty old for Amy and that there wasn't any harm in her looking. Long as that was all she did. Guess by that time, she'd found out I wasn't nearly as worldly as she had thought. All I had to offer her was a hardscrabble farm and what I could catch off the river, and neither was exactly first-rate. Could hardly grow a cotton-pickin' thing on that place, the soil was so worked out, and I didn't have money for no store-bought fertilizer—and didn't have no animals to speak of that could supply me with any barnyard stuff, neither. Fishing had got plumb rotten. This was before the bait.

"Well, me not being about to catch much fish was hurtin' me the most. I didn't care much for plowing them old hot fields. Never had. But fishing... now that was my pride and joy. That and Amy.

"So, we're scraping by like usual, and I start to notice this change in Amy. It started taking place the day after that Bible-thumper's visit. She still fixed meals, ironed and stuff, but she spent a lot of time looking out the windows, like she was expecting something. Half the time when I spoke to her, she didn't even hear me.

"And damned if that thumper didn't show up about a week later. We'd already bought a Bible, and since he didn't have no new product to sell us, he just preached at us. Told us about the ten commandments and about hellfire and damnation. But from the way he was looking at Amy, I figured there was at least one or two of them commandments he didn't take too serious, and I don't think he gave a hang about hellfire and damnation.

"I kept my temper, them being young and all. I figured the thumper would give it up pretty soon anyway, and when he was gone Amy would forget.

"But he didn't give it up. Got so he came around often, his suit all brushed up, his hair slicked back, and that Bible under his arm like it was some kind of key to any man's home. He even took to coming early in the day while I was working the fields, or in the barn sharpening my tools.

"He and Amy would sit on the front porch, and every once in a while I'd look up from my old mules and quit plowing and see them sitting there in the rocking chairs on the porch. Him with that Bible on his knee—closed—and her looking at him like he was the very one that hung the moon.

"They'd be there when I quit the fields and went down to the river in the cool of the afternoon, and though I didn't like the idea of them being alone like that, it never really occurred to me that anything would come of it—I mean, not really.

"Old men can be such fools.

"Well, I remember thinking that it had gone far enough. Even if they were young and all, I just couldn't go on with that open flirting right in front of my eyes. I figured they must have thought me pretty stupid, and maybe that bothered me even more.

"Anyway, I went down to the river that afternoon. Told myself that when I got back I'd have me a talk with Amy, or if that Bible-thumper was still there amoonin' on the porch, I'd pull him aside and tell him politely that if he came back again I was going to blow his head off.

"This day I'm down at the river there's not a thing biting. Not only do we need the food, but my pride is involved here. I'd been a fisherman all of my life, and it was getting so I couldn't seine a minnow out of a washtub. I just couldn't have imag­ined at that time how fine that bait was going to work ... But I'm getting ahead of myself.

"Disgusted, I decided to come back from the creek early, and what do I see but this Bible fella's car still parked in our yard, and it getting along toward sundown, too. I'll tell you, I hadn't caught a thing and I wasn't in any kind of friendly mood, and it just went all over me like a bad dose of wood ticks. When I got to the front porch I was even madder, because the rockers were empty. The Bible that thumper always toted was lying on the seat of one of them, but they weren't anywhere to be seen.

"Guess I was thinking it right then, but I was hoping that I wasn't going to find what I thought I was going to find. Wanted to think they had just went in to have a drink of water or a bite to eat, but my mind wouldn't rightly settle on that.

"Creeping, almost, I walked up on the porch and slipped inside. The noises I heard from the bedroom didn't sound anything like water-drinking, eating, or gospel-talking.

"Just went nuts. Got the butcher knife off the cabinet, and I don't half remember.

"Later, when the police came out there looking for the thumper, they didn't find a thing. Turned out he was a real blabbermouth. Everyone in town knew about him and Amy before I did—I mean, you know, in that way. So they believed me when I said I figured they'd run off together. I'm sure glad they didn't seine the river, or they'd have found his car where I run it off in the deep water.

"Guess that wouldn't have mattered much though. Even if they'd found the car, they wouldn't have had no bodies. And without the bodies, they can't do a thing to you. You see, I'd cut them up real good and lean and laid me out about twenty lines. Fish hit that bait like it was made for them. Took me maybe three days to use it up—which is about when the police showed up. But by then the bait was gone and I'd sold most of the fish and turned myself a nice dollar. Hell, rest of the mess I cooked up and ate. Matter-of-fact, them officers were there when I was eating the last of it.

"I was a changed man after that. Got to smiling all the time. Just couldn't help myself. Loved catchin' them fish. Fishing is just dear to my heart, even more so now. You might say I owed it all to Amy.

"Got so I started making up more of the bait—you know, other folks I'd find on the river, kind of out by themselves. It got so I was making a living off fishing alone."

That's Old Charlie's story, fella . . . Hey why are you looking at me like that?

Me, Old Charlie?

No sir, not me. This here on my right is Old Charlie.

What do you mean there's no one there? Sure there is...

Oh yeah, I forgot. No one else seems to see Old Charlie but me. Can't understand that. Old Charlie tells me it used to be no one could see me. Can you believe that? Townsfolks used to say Old Charlie had gone crazy over his wife running off and all. Said he'd taken to talking to himself, calling the other self Ned.

Ain't so. I'm Ned. I work for Old Charlie now. Odd thing is, I can't remember ever doing anything else. Old Charlie has got to where he can't bring himself to kill folks for the bait anymore. Says it upsets him. So he has me do it. I mean, we've got to go on living, don't we? Fishing is all we know. You're a fisherman. You understand, don't you?

You sure are looking at me odd, fella. Is it the smile? Yeah, guess it is. You see, I got it, too. Once... Wait a minute. What's that, Charlie? . . . Yes, yes, I'm hurrying. Just a minute.

You see, once you get used to hauling in them fish, using that sort of bait, it's the only kind you want to use from then on. Just keeps me and Charlie smiling all the time.

So when we see someone like yourself sitting out here all alone, we just can't help ourselves. Just got to have the bait. That's another reason I keep the end of this cane pole so sharp.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There's more Mojo fun to be had next week! Swing back here Thursday, September 04, for another totally free story!

 

"Old Charlie" appeared in A Fist Full of Stories [and Articles], a collection published by CD Publications. It was later included in Bumper Crop (Golden Gryphon Press). "Old Charlie" Joe R. Lansdale. All Rights Reserved.