Carl sits in the front of his boat, eyes closed, taking deep breaths, sniffing the breeze coming from the southwest. He claims he can smell the fish swimming under the boat. His nose guides him across the river from congregations of fish that seems to swim away just as he gets there.
“I used be better at tracking their aroma,” he says. “My smeller has gone the way of my hearing and eyesight the last few years.”
“What kind of fish did you used to sniff out?” I say.
“I was pretty good with bass and catfish,” he says, “but my nose went for brim more than my tongue ever did. Sadly, I’ve started sniffing out turtles, and I ain’t no fan of turtles either.”
The clouds ache across the hills to our west like stains on a giant cotton shirt blowing on a clothesline, rippling here and rolling there. Somewhere in the woods upwind, hamburgers are grilling and a dog is barking excitedly, the arfs echoing off the corrugated aluminum walled boathouses hanging over the water on the riverbank.
“Hear that dog?” says Carl. “He’s got sumpin tree’d out yonder. Probably a squirrel. I need a good squirrel dog. Mine died last year. Benny was a legendary hunting dog. Fellers used to come to the house trying to buy him off me. You imagine that? A man selling his best friend? Benny was with me 12 years before the eye cancer got him. Still miss him hard every day. Hurts to talk about it. Change the subject, will you?”
“How long have you fished this river?” I ask.
He sits silently considering my question as if I have asked him to solve a complicated math equation. Or perhaps he is still just missing his old four-legged friend. Hard to tell from his twisted face, which always looks caught between a tortured thought and a happy twitch.
“Forty one years,” he says. “My daddy helped build that dam north of here. The lake up there fishes real good too. When they paved the roads around here, folks from town put up all these fancy houses, ruined the views. Who needs a 5,000 square foot second home? Not me. I caint hardly take care of the little Jim Walter I got. It needs painting. Thanks for reminding me.”
“I think you reminded yourself,” I say.
Carl lost his job a few years ago and now he grows what he eats in his little garden, or he catches it in the river or lake. He loves to roast squirrels and small birds he picks off with his old .22. Fishing, however, is pretty much his full time job now.
“Lost 34 pounds since my wife died,” he says. “You remember Queenie don’t you? Her given name was Flora, but she was my Queenie. She could cook, boy I mean. Cook like a four-armed chef from New Orleans. Worked all those years at the cold storage plant. Cancer got her too. Been five years since I put her in the ground next to our first little boy, Quinton.”
The words leave him and stay gone for a while. He doesn’t mention how Quinton died and I don’t ask. In the face of so much loss and sadness, he still smiles a lot, even though it looks like most people’s frown – a result of a life spent facing the hot sun and cold wind. A fish dips his cork and his mood lifts.
“There it is,” he says, the tortured face cracking open to reveal two missing teeth. “A little late, but no worse for wear. I never smelled this one.”
A big catfish glides out of the water as he tugs the line. The setting sun is trying to push the clouds off into a peach and purple horizon as music cranks up at a big lake house acroos the water. Teenagers laugh and yell and dance on a dock. Carl watches them as he tucks his fish into his dirty ice chest.
“You remember when you wuz that age?” he says. ” I remember when I wuz. I finally got out of ‘Nam. Queenie and me would ride up to the store listening to the Rolling Stones, get us a Dr. Pepper and some MoonPies. We’d bring our transistor radio down here to a secret little place and dance on the rocks next to this same river, just like them kids over there. She loved to dance.”
Carl stands unevenly in the boat for a few minutes tapping his foot to the kids’ music. The Black Keys belt out “Lonely Boy.” In a few minutes the familiar strains of the Rolling Stones singing “I can’t get no satisfaction” raft across the water from the party. Carl’s head starts to nod to the beat.
“I could smell that one coming,” he says, grinning. “Just like a fat dinner bass.”
I hand Carl a MoonPie and we sit in the dying light. I imagine he is thinking about Queenie and Quinton and Benny. Perhaps for a few minutes the music brings them all back to him and no matter what Mick sings, Carl can, indeed, get some satisfaction.