Matthew Cullifer :: The Big Bass ::


I’ve lived in the southwest corner of Georgia all of my forty-seven years. Cows and lightning bugs outnumber the people. Lynyrd Skynyrd is the finest American rock band of all time, and Lewis Grizzard wrote real literature. Saturdays in the fall, with SEC football on the television or radio, is as close to heaven as one can get without giving up the ghost.

The Big Bass

To Wade Foster, the machine keeping his father alive sounds like an aqualung mixed with radio static. Both men have asked the doctor if he could do anything about the noise, and he assured them that he could do nothing. About the machine or Harry Foster’s blood disease. 

So, they sit in the hospital room on the third floor, and between the wheezing and hissing, they make small talk. Small talk is the only kind a man has when he is the youngest son and his father is dying. 

“It’s springtime, Daddy,” Wade says.

“How do you know?”

“It’s March.”

Harry looks past Wade toward the window. “Any pecan trees out there?”

Wade knows the answer, but he steps to the window anyway. Moving—even a little bit—is better than sitting in the chair by the bed. He can smell death coming off his father in waves. It is an antiseptic odor with a hint of rot underneath it. 

“Yes, sir,” Wade says with a shiver.

“Any buds on ‘em?”

“No, sir.”

“Then it ain’t springtime yet. The pecan trees know.”

Wade had never noticed that the buds on pecan trees signaled spring. He paid attention to the weatherman on the Channel 5 News and a stupid groundhog. That won’t happen again. Because his father told him that pecan trees announce that spring has sprung, Wade knows it is true. Now, every spring, Wade will look at the pecan trees when the weather warms up and think of his father.

“What are the Braves gonna do this year?” he says, tiptoeing back to the chair. Wade does not like the sound of his heels slapping the tiles. The noise is loud even with the machine churning.

“They’ll do all right,” Harry says.

“New York and Philly made some moves this offseason. Washington too.”

Harry flaps his hand at him. “As long as that kid from the Islands stays healthy, Atlanta has a shot at the pennant.”

If they do have a shot, you’re gonna miss it, Wade thinks. 

The doctor gave Harry a month to live. Even less without that damn machine. 

Just my luck.

He turns his head and sweeps away the single tear before Harry sees it. Harry does not cry. Wade wishes he were more like Harry.

“Don’t do that,” Harry says.

“What?” Wade says, sitting in the chair.

“Everybody dies.”

Everybody dies, but you.

Wade lets out a shuddering breath. “Yes, sir, but—”

“But nothing…You remember when they drained Wilson’s Pond and you netted that big bass?”

“Yes, sir. What made you think of that?”

Harry shakes his head. “I don’t know. Just thinking.”

Wade was eight-years-old. It was a Sunday afternoon in April. He did not count the number of people, but later he told his mother that everyone in Gavin was there. It had not felt like an exaggeration. 

They all had fishing nets, and they waded knee-deep in the brown water. 

Harry and a few of the other men did not join them. Instead, they gathered around the bed of a pickup truck on the bank. Wade guessed the conversation would center on one of three things. The hostage crisis in Iran, gas prices, and pro-wrestling (pronounced rasslin’). That was all grown men talked about in those days.

Wade lacked the patience for legitimate fishing. Scooping them out of the water with an oversized net seemed much more appealing and practical. It was easy. A snap. On the way to the pond, Wade told his father he would catch a billion fish. 

Harry looked straight ahead with a slight smile. He said nothing. 

The afternoon heat was sticky. Not a breath of air stirred it. Gnats swarmed around Wade’s ears, but he did not care. Tom Wilson promised them a bevy of fish, and Wade believed him.

After three hours of roaming in tiny circles between the other, more successful fishermen, Wade reached a conclusion. He was unlucky or a fool. He hadn’t caught anything. Not even a near miss. It was worse than fishing with a cane pole and a bobber.  

Then something brushed past his leg. One thought rocketed through his mind. 

A moccasin! 

Then another thought. 

An alligator! 

Wade screamed and slammed down the net. 

“What ‘cha got there?” Mike Wilson, Tom Wilson’s teenage son, asked from a few feet away. Mike’s net was teeming with fish. Bream. Catfish. Crappie.  

Wade forgot the moccasin and the alligator at his heels. He shrugged and stared at the fish writhing in Mike’s net.

Mike gaped at him, amazed and annoyed at the same time. “Well, turn the net over and pull it up and see, you big doofus.”

Wade shrugged again. 

Mike rolled his eyes. “Doofus,” he said. Then he wandered away.

When he was sure that Mike was not watching, Wade did what the older boy told him to do. He twisted his wrist and immediately felt resistance. He had to use both hands to tug the net out of the water. 

His heart leaped into his throat. It was the biggest fish he had ever seen. Eighteen inches long at least and even bigger than the one Harry had mounted over the fireplace. 

His father had to see it. That was the most important thing in the world.

But the net was torn, and the bass had wriggled its head through the hole. Its eyes were wide and desperate. Wade’s eyes were too. If he did not move fast, the fish would work free from the net, leaving him with a story no one would have believed. 

Wade did not need to catch a billion fish. He needed to catch the one in the net, and Harry had to see him do it.

He turned to the shore. With each step, his ankles sank. The twenty yards to the bank felt like a hundred. The distance to the pickup truck was a thousand. 

The bass was halfway through the hole. The bottom of the net skimmed the surface of the water. Wade was not going to make it.

He stopped and lifted the net as high as he could, arching his back. It reminded him of the guys in the posters on his older brother’s wall, playing a guitar. Ace Frehley or Jimmy Page. Those were his brother’s favorites. Wade did not care which one he looked like as long as the fish stayed in the net.

The bass slid backward. Wade let out another cry, triumphant that time. He was ten yards from the shore.  

Mr. Jackson, the insurance agent, saw him struggling toward the bank first. He nudged Harry with his elbow. Both men watched Wade wrestling with the fish. Neither of them made a move to help him. 

Wade did not want them to. He wanted to get the fish to the truck by himself.

And he did. His arms were shaking, and his bangs wet with sweat.

“Daddy, look!” Wade said, hoisting the net to his chest. 

Mr. Jackson admired the bass. 

“Helluva fish,” he said. 

Harry said nothing. He checked his watch and jerked his thumb over his shoulder. Time to go home.

That night, Wade cried himself to sleep. He did it quietly so his father would not hear. Crying was for girls. Sissies! Still, he wished the bass had been bigger. Thirty years later, he wishes the same thing. 

“Sure was hot that day, wasn’t it?” Harry says.

“Yes, sir.”

“Probably the biggest fish that ever got pulled out of Wilson’s Pond.”

Wade presses his lips together and pats his father’s hand. “It’s not like it took any skill I got lucky.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Harry says. “It was a big bass.”

He wasn’t a man who said a lot. The Silent Generation. Between the Sunday at Wilson’s Pond and this Sunday at the hospital, Wade learned to take whatever Harry offered up. He learned to see the iceberg beneath everything his father said. 

“Thanks,” Wade tells him.

His father died in the middle of the night. Wade’s brother, Harry Jr. called him with the news.

“He was proud of you,” his brother tells him.

“I know,” Wade says. “It was a big bass.”