50 Minute Fight

Dylan stepped out of his small, black pickup truck and walked around to the bed. He picked up both ends of his collapsed fishing rod, lined up the guides, and pushed the two pieces together, making a ten-foot surf rod. He then picked up his tackle box – a soft, black fabric satchel-like container that slung over his shoulder and across his chest – and he popped it open. Skimming through his rig options, he chose a two ounce silver and brown eel spinner with a feathered teaser.

A few months before, Dylan had no idea what an eel lure was. He didn’t know how to rig a teaser. He barely knew how to tie a secure knot to a hook. He’d only been fishing for less than a year and this past summer he only rigged for fluke. Today, even though it was March, he was after the Northeast trophy fish – striped bass.

Dylan grabbed a plastic shopping bag from the passenger seat of his truck. The bag held two cold hot dog sandwiches and a bottled water. He secured all three items – rod, tackle bag, and lunch bag – closed his truck doors and walked to the boardwalk, toward the beach.

The sun shone bright, but a chilling breeze blew strong from the southeast, pushing the current to the northwest. Dylan looked at the terrain and picked his spot. To his left, large rocks forming the Manasquan inlet wall jutted out a good forty feet off the beach and into the crashing waves. To his right was nothing but sand.  Dylan had done some research: with this current, stripers follow bait fish into the rocky shallows, so he knew he wouldn’t have to cast too far. He looked at his black and silver diver’s watch. Exactly noon. He had an hour.

This was a nice respite from his situation just twenty minutes before. It had been his fifth conference call of the day. Something was wrong with the communication between the finance and production systems. Everyone could see the problem, but no one seemed willing to fix it. Voices rose, respectfully, but by the end of the call, nothing was resolved. Most calls were like this. As the new guy, he was expected to clean up past messes. As the new guy he was expected to keep his mind to himself. Don’t step on toes. Some were already upset that he’d pushed too much. Who? Dylan was unsure, but he was pulled in too many directions, sometimes by friends and other times by foes. He just couldn’t tell which was which. A good hour of fishing would clear things up. His head would be calm.

Dylan plopped down his lunch bag and walked toward the water and the hard sand. He swung his hips, arms, and rod to the right, letting the rod fall behind his right shoulder, and then he quickly spun forward, guiding the rod toward the ocean. The eel lure plopped with a small splash just past the rocks. He’d spin and drag the lure right through his target area, close to the rocks where large fish wait to catch bait.

As his mind drifted away from the office and into his fishing, he began his reeling method – reel three times, settle, and pop to the left. Reel three times, settle, and pop right. He did this a few times without thought and as he got into his rhythm, he looked at the sun and at the gulls. A forty-foot fishing boat, with its side rigging up, shoved toward the inlet, gulls swarming and squawking, waiting for pieces of the cleaned catch to be thrown overboard.

Snap!

Dylan’s arms flung forward as the rod bent toward the ocean. “Holy God! What did I snag?” The line ran out quickly but Dylan let it go. He’d read that stripers like to run and many times the hook won’t set unless you let them go a bit. He watched as the line sped away from the spool. Ten yards. Twenty yards. Thirty yards. “When do I start reeling back in?”

He tightened the drag on the spool and started reeling with his left hand, steadying the rod with his right hand and occasionally pulling the entire rod and reel toward himself. The reel was stiff and fought him, like grinding coffee, but with pebbles instead of coffee beans. Slowly and painfully he reeled and then pulled back, over and over, feeling like he was getting nowhere.

It was ten after twelve. He’d made one cast and landed something, something large and stubborn. After five more minutes, his arms and back started to cramp. The fish pulled harder and now moved against the current, heading south and parallel to the beach. Dylan walked the same way. “No sense in fighting you. I’ll just let you tire.” Ten paces down the beach, the fish stopped and turned out to sea, stronger than ever before. The rod’s arch bent dangerously toward the ground. “I can’t lose him.” So Dylan loosened the line and let him run more, reeling every few seconds to keep the fish from swimming to Portugal.

Twelve-thirty. Dylan looked at his watch. I had better end this soon. “I’m hungry and thirsty.” His lunch sat bout fifty feet away. Out of reach. “I’ll eat when this is done. How will I hold up the fish and take a picture at the same time? Worry about that when you have to.” Dylan tightened the line again and started reeling, against the fish’s wishes.

One revolution at a time, Dylan let his left and right hands alternate – reel and pull. Reel and pull. Each time the tension in the rod increased. He pushed on. Sweat built up underneath his sweatshirt, despite the cooling wind. Closer and closer he pulled in the elusive fish. “What does it look like?” Dylan followed the line with his eyes and saw his green feather teaser poking up out of the water right in front of a silver-white breaking wave. “It’s so close. I’m hungry, thirsty, and sore. Maybe I can grab the line and drop the rod. Then I’ll run into the surf and just jump on the fish and bring it in with my hands. The water isn’t too cold. I’ve been in colder.”

He laughed at his idea. He reeled, loosened the tension, tightened it again, and reeled again. At one point, with the drag as tight as possible, the fish still pulled out line. “How is this fish strong enough to pull through this?” The rod was bending and almost touching the sand.

Quarter to one.

“I just need some water. I’m so thirsty.” Dylan looked around and saw a middle-aged, barefoot couple walking toward him, their shoes by their sides. So he let go of the rod with his right hand and signaled to them with a friendly wave. The gentleman waved back, acknowledging Dylan’s call for assistance.

Snap!

This time the sound was less than exciting. Dylan looked away from the approaching couple and up at the end of his rod. His line was frayed and loose. The tension was gone. The eel lure was gone. The fish was gone. Exhilarated and dejected, Dylan walked to his lunch bag, gathered his gear, and headed for his truck.

At one o’clock, he was back on a call. Back to uncertainty.

During down time, he stopped by the bait shop and told the owner his story. “Sounds like you lost a big striper. They never left because the water temperature stayed warm enough. May have been a blue, but probably a striper.” Dylan thought about natural hazards. Maybe he hadn’t hooked a fish, but a crab trap or just snagged some submerged rocks. It ran with the line against the current, though. Day after day, he got on his calls.

Three weeks later, Dylan needed another detox session, so he went back to the same spot. He cast and got into his pattern – reel three times, settle, and pop. Nothing. Again. Nothing. After thirty minutes, Dylan noticed an old man walking toward him. “Catch anything?” the old man asked as he got close. The man’s face was permanently sun-burned. Deep wrinkles around his eyes closed tight. He was smiling and sincere.

“Nothing yet.”

“Well steer clear of the rocks. There’s a net about twenty-feet off them to the right and I lost a good lure to it last week,” he said.

Dylan’s mouth dropped. “If I hooked it, would it pull my line?”

“It might if the tide and current are strong enough.”

Dylan quickly told the man his story. The man laughed.  “Part of the fun. Sometimes you never know what you have on the end of your line. You don’t know what’s fighting you. You know what I do?”

“What?” asked Dylan.

“Put on a new rig and keep fishing.”

The old fisherman turned away and headed toward the rocks, climbed them, and then followed them away from the crashing waves and onto the boardwalk. He disappeared into a small crowd of mother’s walking their strollers, couples holding hands, and kids on bicycles.

Dylan cast and reeled for another hour or so, never getting even a bite. He didn’t mind.

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A Letter to Saint Francis de Sales – Patron Saint for Writers

Dear Saint Francis de Sales,

I’ve been struck with a bout of writer’s block, struggling to get pen to page or finger to keyboard. Do you know what a keyboard is? You passed well before the computer age. Anyway, it’s not just writer’s block. I feel like I’ve been dropped in a windowless, doorless cement room. There’s a blank piece of paper on a table in the center of the dull room, but no pen or pencil. So I make paper airplanes. You get the point.

So I have a few questions for you that I hope you’ll answer and help get me started again. Here they are:

  1. Saint Francis de Sales, where the hell have you been?
  2. Saint Francis de Sales, should I pray directly to God? Will I get a better result?
  3. Saint Francis de Sales, will this only work if I address you by full name at the beginning of each question, or can I dive right in? How about I call you Frany?
  4. Frany, how many times a day do I have to pray to you so that I overcome this? The walls are caving in.
  5. Frany, who prayed to you more, Hemingway or Faulkner? I bet Hemingway talked to you more overall, but he probably cursed you a lot. Faulkner probably spoke to you for hours at a time.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I’ll await your response.

Cheers,

Desperate Writer

P.S. Don’t take too long.

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Don’t Call Me Samson

 

 

 

 

Samson’s dark, curly locks gave him strength; my dark, curly locks give me hell. A constant battle wages between us. They grow. I get tired of them. I shave them. This cycle has been revolving since childhood. The tally: Matt -zero points; Matt’s hair – at least five points

The battle hasn’t eased as I’ve grown older. My wife loves my curls and she thinks I look like a penis when I shave them off. Honestly, I agree, but there are times when I want the curls gone.

Until recently, I assumed everyone had a bag of “bad haircut” stories. Then, at dinner with friends, I began recalling my run-ins. As a friend nearly shot spaghetti through her nose while laughing, I realized I might be unique.

How difficult can Brillo hair be?

I have the short stories of hair folly – a barber shaved off half my eyebrow while buzzing the sides when I was about ten-years-old. Another time, I used a BIC to shave the sides, hoping the top would fall. Instead I looked like half Neo-Nazi, half Q-Tip and it made my grandmother cry.

The better stories start in high school, when your looks either get you a date or beat up. It was very late, probably after 10:30 at night, and everyone was exhausted. Homework was finished and checked, chores done, and lunches made for the next day. The perfect time to cut my hair. My curls had been long for a while and, as always, I was ready to shave them off.

I pulled out the trimmers, put them in the bathroom, and pestered my mother. “Please cut my hair. It will take two seconds.”

“No. I’m tired and I don’t want to cut your hair right now,” she said.

“Mom?”

“No.”

“Please?”

“No!”

“Mom!”

“Fine, but don’t blame me if I screw up.”

I handed my mom the clippers. “Put on the two clip and just buzz it off,” I said.

The clippers buzzed on. Mom pressed them against the back of my head, the small teeth grabbing clumps of curls and then… “Uh oh.”

“Uh oh what, Mom?”

“Nothing,” she said.

Buzz… shzurp.

“Oops.”

“Oops what?”

Using two mirrors, I saw two, large bald spots on the back of my head.

“Mom!”

“I told you I’m tired, but you wouldn’t leave me alone.”

I looked at the buzzers. “Where’s the clip, Mom?”

“I guess that would have helped.”

Solutions: Grandma recommended I rub brown and black shoe polish on the spots. Brilliant. I recommended I stay home until it grew in or drop out and home school. In the end, an Uncle came over around midnight, shaved it, and blended it so that the holes looked like scars.

You’d think growing older would lead me to wiser hair cut decisions. Years later, when I was about 25, I was in the same “cut the curls at all costs” mindset.  Driving down a local road in my hometown of Point Pleasant, New Jersey, I noticed a barbershop sign. I just wanted a trim. That shouldn’t be so difficult I figured. Had I noticed the We Do Men’s Fades sign in the window, I would have figured differently.

I sat in the chair for thirty minutes and watched the butcher go to town. As she chopped and hacked, the sides became very short and the top had a distinct boxy look, a clear resemblance to Kid n’Play.

Not what I had in mind.  I shaved it all off as soon as I got home.

Numerous hair cutting atrocities perpetrated by others can take a toll on a man. So I took matters into my own hands – I bought a set of clippers. For a while, I’d grow my curls long then shave them off.

The cycle repeated a number of times. One day, tired of the fro, I decided to shave it off. No big deal. Clippers plugged in and the proper #2 clip on, I started buzzing. I could shave it quickly at this point because I had done it so many times.

But nappy hair has a habit of tangling itself on the blades. You can hear the little motor struggle to chop through the brush. The motor moaned but I pushed through. Mid-shave, the bottom of the clip snapped, leaving the shortest setting exposed and buzzing a solid, thin line across the side of my head. I brought back the men’s fade, why not lightning bolts? 

My clippers were useless.

It was a weekday, but I had stayed home because the hurricane of the century was supposedly bearing down on us and I wanted to make sure nothing happened to the house. It hadn’t even sprinkled yet. I’ll quickly drive to the drugstore, buy new clippers, and finish shaving my head. Simple.

Nope. No keys. I had left them in my wife’s car the night before and she was at work. No problem. I’ll grab a bike from the shed and ride to the drugstore. 

Not halfway down my street, the skies opened up. As I pedaled through the downpour, I noticed mud from the street riding up the bike’s rear tire and flinging onto my own rear. Great. Wet T-shirt contest in the front and brown stains in the back.

But what the hell is that smell? Shit. It smells like shit. I glanced down at my tire again to see if I had wheeled through a pile in my yard. Negative. I checked my flip-flops. There was dog shit smeared across the bottom of my right foot and now across my right pedal.

A half-shaved head, muddy-backed, and smelling like dog shit, I made my way to the drugstore. As I pulled up, I dropped my bike and ran in, ready to end this nightmare.

I knew the drugstore carried clippers; I even knew which aisle they’d be in. Crimpers. Straighteners. Curling irons. No clippers. There was shelf space and a tag for clippers, but it was empty. “Where are the clippers?” I asked the closest worker.

“We sold out yesterday,” she said.

Fucking what?! I may have said that aloud, but I don’t quite remember. Who sells out of clippers? This town is about 4 square miles small. How the hell do you sell out of clippers?

Still with a half-shaved head, drenched, muddied, and smelling like shit, I rode to the nearest barbershop. I had come full circle. The barber asked no questions; she shaved my head and sent me on my way, probably because I smelled like dog crap.

When my wife got home later that night, she said what she always says when I shave my head – “You look like a penis.”

“I do, babe, and you should hear what I went through to look this good.”

—- Originally published in Pure Slush July, 2011

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