Monday, he went in early and reviewed all of his accounts. Everything was in order, but he wanted to be clear when he talked to Mr. Purdy. He knew Mr. Purdy held him to a higher standard, that it would take more for him to advance, but he felt he had met that. If he hadn’t, perhaps Mr. Purdy could explain what more he needed to do.
He decided to give Mr. Purdy a half an hour to get his coffee and check his mail before he spoke to him, so he watched the painful minutes drag by. Just as he was about to get up and walk to Mr. Purdy’s office at the other end of the building, the devil himself knocked at the door.
“George, got a minute?” Mr. Purdy already had his sleeves rolled up, a steaming mug of coffee in his hand.
“Sure, Mr. Purdy. I was just coming to see you.”
Mr. Purdy shot him an indecipherable look. “George, I want you to meet Brice, he’s the son of an old, old friend.” George got up to shake the young man’s hand. “I want you to take him on all of your rounds, show him exactly what you do. Make sure he knows all your customers.” George was speechless. Now he was babysitting some brat?
“Uh, Mr. Purdy, there are some things I’d like to talk to you about,” he looked at the grinning boy, “alone.”
“Now, George, that’s not how we do things around here, you know that.” He flashed a grin at Brice, then he leaned over to George and spoke between clenched teeth. “You’re on the edge here. No crap from you. You owe me this one.” Then he stood and waved cheerfully, “I’m off, you two get acquainted.”
Brice stood there, his smile as constant and annoying as a puppet, “Isn’t James just a swell guy?”
George stopped staring at the open door and turned to the young man, “Jim. Here we all just call him Jim.” Brice just smiled wider.
There was nothing for it. George was all set to start his rounds. He didn’t even have any tedious paperwork to saddle the boy with, not that he would trust him with it. He took him on the road, and hoped he was being jovial, but his mind was far, far away.
After dropping the boy off, up on the ridge near the Purdy estate and promising to come get him the next day, George drove into town. He stopped at the Watering Hole, a bar he drove by every day on his way home. He’d only been in a couple of times with the others at work, but he knew that most of the men at the company went there every day to unwind.
After the bright afternoon light, it was dark as the inside of a cow, as his father used to say, and at first he couldn’t make anybody out. So it may have just been his imagination that conversation stopped when he walked in. He wasn’t much in the mood to talk anyway, so he just took the first empty seat at the bar.
“Whiskey and water, rocks,” he said when the bartender came over. Before the drink arrived, a beefy man plopped onto the stool next to him.
“Well, as I live and breathe. George Hammond. What brings a hardworking sod like you to a place like this?”
George pursed his lips and looked over, suddenly wishing he hadn’t stopped by after all. Now this too would go on his long list of crimes. “Tommy. Haven’t seen you since high school. How’s work?”
“Work is work George. You’re supposed to ask after the missus, then the kids, then we chew on the weather for a while. Only after we run out of things to say do you talk about work.” George’s drink arrived, and Tommy motioned to the tender to bring another of whatever he was having, then he looked at George.
“Honestly, Tommy, didn’t even know you were married.”
Tommy let out a hoot. “Jesus boy, you always were a serious one. I’m just joshing you. Lighten up.” Then he winked at him. “You’d know I was married if you ever came in here. I married the waitress,” then he let out another belly laugh, and George found himself laughing too. Tommy brought him up short when he asked, “So, what brings you in here? Got a business meeting?”
George thought for a moment. What did bring him in here? “I guess I’m just killing a little time.”
“Yeah, I heard about you and the missus.” At that George’s eyes went a little wide. Tommy held up his hands. “You’re married to Big Jim Purdy’s daughter, if you fart in the bed sheets this town’s going to hear about it.” Then he leaned in, “The amazing thing, you ask me, is that you haven’t farted in twenty years, least I can tell.” Then he demonstrated by letting out a rather loud emission from his nether regions, simultaneously making a face of mock surprise. They both burst out laughing at that one, then took a long pull on their drinks.
“To be a little bit serious, George, I’m surprised you lasted at that firm long as you have. Everybody knows you’re the best in the business and they treat you like shite, as my Scottish nanny used to say. Can’t afford to promote you, who would they get to do your job?”
“Ha! Apparently, all you need to do my job is to have your daddy drink with my boss.” Instantly, George looked at Tommy as if he would take it back.
“No worries, Mate. You’re talking about my competition.” He stuffed a card in George’s pocket. “Perhaps our competition? Give me a call if you’re looking for a better position.”
George finished his drink, looking at Tommy in the mirror. “Yeah, I’ll do that,” he said without conviction.
He made to pay for his drink, but Tommy waved him off. “Next time, boyo.”
The next day, George called in sick. Then he went to Gimble. Gimble had a sporting goods store where he got a new five-weight line, and a new leader. Now, only a fool goes after a Goliath like Maximus on five-weight gear, but that was the only rod he had, and if it was good enough for his dad, perhaps it was time he found out if it was good enough for him. Then he went next door and picked up a pint of rye.
George pulled directly under the fir, sluicing a little on the clay road as the rain began to fall in earnest. He got out of the car, a little unsteady. Well, Maximus, he thought, you’ve had a long and fruitful life circling like a caged leopard in your little hole, but tonight, I will free you. After this, you’ll only live in the record books, and the wall of my den. He took a swig of the pint, and lit a cigarette. They calmed him a little, and he remembered something his dad said once, “Don’t rush a fish son, they live in a different world, and you can only get them by moving into that world, not trying to get them to agree to yours.”
He crushed out the cigarette and walked to the trunk. He pulled out his waders and put them on, then looked up at the rain and shrugged. He didn’t own any hat but his fedora, but that just wasn’t going to fit the bill, so he guessed he was going to just get wet. There was no putting this off. He took another swig and emptied the bottle, then dropped it into the trunk. He assembled the rod, and then opened the fly wallet. There it was, a brand new Hot Lunch, his dad’s special recipe for the monster. He tied it on, and then dropped the wallet back in the trunk too.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” he said to the trunk. If he lost the fly, he figured, he could always entice the beast with his new ring. The last thing he did was take out a brand-new six-inch hunting knife and strap it to his belt.
This time, he didn’t appreciate the wood, nor feel the ground on his feet. He slipped on the bank coming off of the road, almost dropping the rod, and swore as the wet branches soaked his shirt. He was in a fully foul mood when he got to the pool, and wished he had bought a bigger bottle of whiskey.
He looked at the pond, a pewter gray slate pocked by rain and showing no signs of Maximus. But George knew he was there. The fly rod felt foreign in his hands, but he made a few side-armed false casts to get some line out, then gave it one last haul and shot for the falls. He misjudged it and it fell short. Swearing, he began stripping it in.
At first he thought he snagged the line. It simply stopped coming in, even with the reel. Now he was in a really foul mood, that was his only fly, and if he lost it at the least he would have to hike back to the car, losing fifteen or twenty minutes. The only other choice looked to be a good soaking, which would scare Max into hiding for good, and not guarantee retrieval of the fly. He began working upstream hoping to free the fly when the rod was almost jerked from his hand with so much force he was lucky the leader didn’t break.
The line began singing off of the reel, and George palmed it the way his father showed him to slow it down. Once again the fish started circling the pond counter-clockwise, for the third time in his life tethered to some unknown object. The rain came down so hard it was almost dark. George could only see briefly after clearing his eyes with his hand, but that meant taking his hand off of the rod, so he squinted them as best he could and started to work the fish.
“That’s right you bastard, you ruined my life, now you’re going to give it back. First I’m going to gut you to get my ring back,” the fish made a sudden run, forcing George to step over some slippery, basketball-sized rocks.
“George Hammond, world record for brown trout. World record for any trout! I’ll show them a hero!” Then he had no more breath to waste, and the battle was on in earnest. Today the fish leaped clear of the water, and George stepped back, awed by its size. Again and again the fish crashed, trying to dislodge the hook, each time George gave him a little slack with the rod, and then reeled it back in. He knew he should have a different rod, different gear. As night came on and he sobered up, the whole preposterous thing came to him, that he should be back here, after this fish again. But he knew, too, that Maximus had stolen his life, and this was the only way to get it back.
There was no moon this time. The trees touched overhead in the wind, and the surface of the water seemed amorphous, undefined, in the wind and the rain. At times it seemed the fish was floating almost between the two elements. George had no advantage of sight, only his knowledge of the pool from the last fight, and a feeling in his stomach that this was to be, kept the fish on.
In the mist and cold, George wondered if he would have to wade in and stab the fish to death, but gradually, so gradually he could only tell in reflecting upon the hours, the fish began to give. Occasionally, he would see the fish’s side near the surface, giving him confidence that the battle was won. His arms were so numb he could barely hold it, but still he leveraged the delicate rod against the great fish.
Finally, in his fatigue, it almost seemed as if the fish gave himself over to his fate. Perhaps coming to investigate his foe while he still had strength to acknowledge him, the fish swam straight at George. George, kneeled down in the water and cradling the great trout, wrestled him onto the bank where they both lay gasping.
It took George some time to recover his breath, but then he fumbled with the knife on his belt. At last what he came for; he would gut this demon, and retrieve his ring. As he rolled over, the rain began to diminish and the fish regarded George with his great eye, no panic showing.
As George put the knife to the belly and began to press, he began to think about his father. How had his father known that at some point, George would need this insurance, stocked here in this pool, against all odds for what, the vagaries of a mediocre life? What actuary could calculate those odds? At the same time, hadn’t his father’s plan ruined everything George had worked for day upon day? George poised over the fish, the beast’s struggles almost over. He looked into that eye, a film already forming.
With a jerk, he tossed the knife into the pool, and ever so carefully picked the fish up. He stumbled through the woods, helped by the moon, now showing through scudding clouds. When he got to the tree, he followed it back into the woods, making a detour around the root ball, and then following it back, along the downstream side. There he eased his burden into the water, stroking Maximus’s sides and holding him in the cold current to revive him, as he had seen his father do. For long minutes, George was sure he was failing, that the fish was nothing more than a trophy husk. He wept over the fish in the ashes of that long night despairing that he ever knew of him; despairing of his weakness to catch him not once, but twice; despairing of anything ever being right again.
A twitch rewarded his efforts, soon, the fish was swimming in place between his hands, holding his own in the current. With a prestidigitatious flash, the fish was gone, and George stared at the empty spot between his hands, wondering once again if this was some dream he might awaken from.
Almost too tired to walk, George retraced his steps to get his rod off of the bank. The moon was just ducking behind the trees on the far side of the stream, casting his shadow deep beneath the firs. As he stood up, a twinkling caught his eye drawing him hunched over into the woods. There dangling from the fir branch was his ring, still tied on its double loop, swinging in the breeze and winking secrets to him in the dying night. He reached up and grabbed it, cold and heavy in his hand.
Perhaps he would take that road over the bridge tonight after all.