Fishing, My Friend and I

I used to fish with Arthur Bias before he died. I think of those days now, and I wonder: Do the days pass away with the person?

I mean: Those days were warm and peaceful and free of enmity. If anyone was mad at me, I didn’t know it. Arthur liked me. “Rev?” he said. “Reverent, y’wanna toss a line t’mornin’?” But he died, and the days have changed since then.

Now there’s a whole load of folk most mad and most particular that I should know it—a frownin’ shoal of folk, a letter-writin’, telephone-callin’, grudge-and-memory-bearin’ rudeness of furious folk.

Well, I’ve acquired a notoriety neither Arthur nor I could ever have imagined in those sweeter days, as well as publicity neither of us would have wanted. That’s one thing changed, yes. And Arthur died in the 1970s. That’s another thing. And I haven’t been fishing lately. There’s the third. Maybe the fault lies in one of them.

Or what do you think?—maybe the world is angrier now than it used to be? Maybe the world is lookin’ for doorsteps to dump the grumpiness on—and the handiest porch gets the pile, and I, by my writing, am handy?

Are people less content? Quicker to take offense? Slower to forgive? Certain that those whose opinions differ are not just different but are enemies, are wicked people deserving attack and revilement and public punishment?

What happened to plain happiness?

*****

I miss you, Arthur Bias.

Old man, enormous man, deep-voiced, large-jowled, slow-striding black man: you were a police officer in your day. That was—Oh, my!—that was back in the ’40s, the ’50s and the ’60s. I came to know you after you had retired. But you hadn’t retired the stories. You told them while we fished, your eyes gone thin with remembering, squinting toward Kentucky, talking and talking in tones that knew no guile nor anger.

You bottom-fished. Therefore, we both bottom-fished. Took less energy letting a line hang down from its red-and-white bobber, a grub on the point of the hook. Or an angle worm. Or a cricket. Caught catfish on bacon fat. Bullhead on cheese. Carp on anything.

Tossed the line. Sat down in a lawn chair. Lit a pipe. Slit the eye. Stayed silent a long while. Let the droning flies soften our brains to drowsiness. Sighed at the goodness of an uncomplicated world. Thanked God for lazy afternoons. Dozed.

You would doze, Arthur, making moist buzzings in your cavernous nose. But then you’d wake to the tug of a fish, twitch your brows, reel it in, and start a story, all at once.

Old man, I miss the benediction of your presence, your life constructed of common things. You desired no more than that. Ah but you were more than contented: You were kind.

“Ahmmmm,” you’d murmur in the vast passages of that nose. “Never did pull mah service revolver more than a few times, nope. Never had to. Made mah wishes know in other ways.”

You had walked a beat in the black center of our city. Could make your leather heels crack that sidewalk. And you knew the people, the renters and the owners, the houses and the projects—knew them by name. (Crack! Crack!) Knew them from babies at they’s mamma’s knee. You could use a moral persuasion. After that, the authority of your massive size. And then intimacy. Then the badge. But the gun—that vomit of wrath and death—was the last persuasion of all for you.

“Tell you wot,” you said, squinting across the Ohio River toward sunshine and Kentucky, “even them long-legged boys and them gum-snappin’ girls’ud heed me—on account of I knew they’s mammas. Ahmmmmm, ha-ha, oh yeah! Hoo! Mamma’ud willow-switch ’em, if’n I asked as much, cause she an’ me been singin’ in the church choir since we was chirren.”

“Well, an’ I didn’ care none if they liked me or no. But I’ll tell you wot.” You leaned back and tipped an old face to the sunlight and smiled. “They liked me.”

*****

Arthur, you made that lawn chair bulge both backward and bottomward. You made a neighborhood civil—Crack! Crack! You took the tough job and turned it to kindness. When you laughed, heaving your shoulders and stomach in seismic displacement, I felt the earth respond.

And when you lay dying in Deaconness Hospital, you asked for green beans. You talked of the exact right way to cook green beans, in a bit o’ bacon fat, with sausage boiled to the point of popping. You tol’ me ’bout suckin’ the soft white meat straight off the catfish bones. You grinned, old man, in the deep pillows of your bed and spoke of food with as much fervor as ever you spoke of the law, or of your beat, or of your wife. It was all one with you, and all of it sufficient. That which you had, you cherished. That which you did not have, you did not desire. Therefore, an afternoon at the edge of a sleepy water was no less than Eden prepared by God especially for you. And for me, whom you invited along in easy company.

I miss you, Arthur Bias!

I miss Eden.

I miss the unspoken conviction that people, despite their differences, are worthy of honor and latitude, if not of downright affection. I miss a lawman given to mercy. I miss the perfect assurance that fishing’s enough, that this after-noon’s sunlight is surely enough. And I wonder what caused the change among us. What did you take away? What did your whole generation take away with you when you died?

Why is this present people so quick to rebuke? Why is anger faster and fiercer than gratitude or praise? Why (for instance) does a writer generate more mail from mad folks (who take things so personally) than from the peaceful ones whose word is by nature good will and welcome?

Oh, Arthur, maybe the world has not changed. Maybe you were, in your ordinariness, extraordinary—a cop who caused harmony! A friend who, in fishing, hooked God at the heart. A man of strength and love together. A man of law but not of condemnation. Law does not require condemnation, does it?

But grace requires kindness, doesn’t it?

And grace is this, that an old black man took a young white pastor to his bosom and told him stories and redeemed the time with kindness.

I miss you. I yearn the kindness of common people. It seems so uncommon a quality lately—

Dorothy — In the Crown of God

One summer we took Dorothy to the mountains. It was a risk, but it had become necessary to initiate certain changes in her life.

Soft Dorothy was as citified as they come, though the city she comes from is tiny. She had lived her whole life in the shelter of her parents, who kept that life very regular: sleeping, rising, eating, a little work, a load of ease, and ice cream before she went to bed each night. Almost nothing interrupted the daily round of Dorothy—affairs. She never got caught in the rain downtown. She seldom walked to town. She rode everywhere. She had almost never been separated from her parents.

But her father was eighty-nine years old, her mother not much younger—and Dorothy herself was forty. The clock which ticked her day so neatly was likewise ticking the lives of her parents to their ends. It was time that she should experience a real separation from them before death forced the issue and sorrow complicated everything. So we took her to the mountains.

But it was a risk.

Round Dorothy was ever exceedingly private. She squirreled money in secret places in her room. More valuable than money were the pictures she clipped from magazines, pictures she hid so well they shan’t be found till doomsday. Her eyes would open wide with panic when little children entered her bedroom. Who can control little children? But even then Dorothy said almost nothing. She was private. She buried her thoughts; she muted her basic communication in grunts and grumbles. But she didn’t have to talk, after all. Her mother knew her needs, decided her desires, spoke for her—spoke, indeed, even before Dorothy thought she had a thought. It really was time, you see, for Dorothy to step out on her own.

But round Dorothy was also exceedingly—round. The woman stood no higher than my elbow, yet was wider than I am by half at the beam. Cute little ankles, prodigious thighs, and a body as round as a medicine ball. To the mountains with Dorothy? Why, she could scarcely climb the stair steps one flight up.

Her eyes are slant behind their glasses; her tongue lolls on the lower lip; her chins redouble backward; her expression is generally benign and vague.

Dorothy has Down’s syndrome. She is what people call “retarded.” She is also Thanne’s sister, my sister-in-law; and since I as to teach for several weeks at Holden Village in the Cascade Mountains of the Northwest, we took Hob in our hands and said: “Let Dorothy come with us.”

Her mother swallowed painfully, considered the need, wept with a mother’s solicitude, and relented. She packed for her daughter a suitcase the size of Montana (in which she squirreled handwritten instructions not shorter than the Book of Leviticus. For example: “Dorothy’s bazooka is in her underwear. She likes to play it.” Her bazooka? What was that? Ah, when we looked in her underwear we found her kazoo).

O Holden Village, hold your breath!—here comes Dorothy, the daughter of her mother. Holden, be patient and kind. We can all sacrifice a little to train this woman—child in independence, right?

Oh, and Holden? Please give us rooms low down, on a flat level with the rest of your buildings, because Dorothy is so very . . . round.

                                                                      *****

So we went to the wilds, the Wangerins six and Dorothy of the wide, wide eyes. It was an airplane flight from Chicago to Seattle, a car trip to the town of Chelan, a boat trip for three hours up the lake while mountains rose around us to dangerous sizes, and finally a bus trip up those mountains—miles high in the mighty, remote, foredooming mountains of God.

In Holden Village, then, Dorothy rolled her beanbag body off the bus, looked up at the craggy peaks yet higher than she, patted her bosom, and sighed: “Whew!”

The registrar met us. He pointed to our quarters. He pointed upward at an angle of forty degrees, to the top of a long road. Whew! We—all seven of us—bowed our heads and climbed.

“Whew!” said Dorothy. She moved as slowly as the moon. Whew! This medicine ball expressed herself in variety of sighs, one for each new height as she struggled upward.

And when we achieved the top of the hill—when still we stood at the bottom of the staircase that extended up to the front porch of our house—Dorothy stopped and pr duced a truly admirable cavalcade of sighs: “Whew! Whew! Whew!”—fanning her face, popping her eyes, and grinning. Grinning! She was Rocky Balboa at the end of his run.

Now I declare to you a wonder: Dorothy was no mute at all! She was profoundly expressive to those who had the ears to hear her.

Later, when she spied the busy ground squirrels, she paused and offered them a series of happy squeal-sighs, as if meeting with glee some long-lost relatives. When deer raised their noble necks and gazed at this round dollop of a woman, she honored them with murmurous sacred sighs as soft as lullabies. When she stepped on a slat bridge over roaring waters—which water we could see between the boards below our feet—she made a bleating sigh, and I realized how brave she was to stand so near the tumbling chaos. And when she lifted her eyes to the ring of mountains around us, and when she grew gravely still, allowing one long sigh, one eternal expulsion of breath to escape her languorous throat, I said in my soul: Listen, my sister is praying!

Retarded? Who is the fool that says so? This woman had an apprehension of the universe more intimate and more devout than my own. Her knowing was not troubled by extraneous thought. Dorothy had a language of genuine sophistication and of immediate response. Sighs were her words. Add to that some simple English grunts which even I could understand, and Dorothy was bilingual.

I had been to Holden Village three times before that summer, but I had never seen so well the crown surrounding it, had ever seen with primal eyes until I stood with Dorothy looking up and sighing. I took squirrels to my heart, honored deer, and praised the God of supernal peaks—because of Dorothy. She was the quick one. My responses were baffled and slow. She was the one who trained me, both in seeing and in speaking. I, in the high, green tiara of the Deity—I, in simple creation—was the retarded one. How often we get it backward. How much we miss when we do!

On the second night we were there, Dorothy went up on her toes and embraced me in a mighty hug and kissed my chin and murmured, “Whew!”

I, too, said, “Whew!”

He word meant, “What a good day!”

Mine meant, Thank you, sweet sister, for taking me to the mountains this summer.