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—