Much to the chagrin of my professor friend, I decided to keep the poem “all to myself” as reading it in solitude was one of the few means by which I was able to temporarily staunch my grief, which continued to bleed like an open wound. He was only mollified when I assured him that I would amend my will so that the copyright would pass to the university upon my death. Otherwise, after finishing transcribing the rest of Leah’s writing, I spent much of my free time hiking through the thickly wooded hills surrounding Ragged Lake and suppressing all thoughts of Claudia’s now advanced pregnancy.
On one of these excursions, I roamed down towards the end of Widow’s Peak, a narrow, wind battered promontory that stabbed almost a kilometer into the belly of the lake. It was late afternoon in mid-October and, standing in the crisp air, I looked out over the choppy wine-dark water ringed by an almost unbroken shock of trees, their leaves an explosive kaleidoscope of autumn colors as they churned hypnotically under a stiff breeze. A pair of sailboats sawed through the waves in the distance, their determined, directional purpose seeming at odds with the broader, swirling patterns. Ben barked suddenly, snapping me out of my reverie, and I realized we were not alone.
“Hi there, doc!” called out a waving silhouette. It was Doug Black fishing off the tip of the Peak. He was a schoolteacher who, like me, had exiled himself to Herring’s Jaw after a string of allegations of sexual misconduct had dogged him into early retirement. Although he was a regular at my annual barbecue, I cannot in any honesty say I had any liking for the man. Despite being a washed-out nobody, he was as puffed out with arrogant self-importance as a strutting peacock.
“Hi Doug,” I called back unenthusiastically. Sighing deeply, I picked my way over the slippery, lichen-covered rocks towards him. Ben scampered ahead on his young legs like a mountain goat.
“How are you doing?” he asked once I finally reached him. He attempted to contort his face into a mask of compassion which only serves to make people, when they really could not care less, look like they are having difficulty farting.
“I’m fine,” I said in a firm enough voice to indicate that there was no need to discuss my wellbeing. “Anything biting?” I asked, tilting my head towards the water.
“Not yet,” he said, visibly relieved that the topic of conversation was going to be fishing and not dead wives. “But I haven’t been here long and this is a good time of day.” As he rhythmically cast out his line and reeled it back in again, he delivered a mind-numbing lecture on the ‘Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue’, the type of lure he was using. It was a 3-inch wedge of plastic, vaguely fish-shaped, with three evil-looking treble hooks dangling from its belly. “The Rogue offers lots of flash and erratic action, along with the ability to sit motionless – a common strike-triggering tactic. The bait’s nearly neutral buoyancy enables it to hold its position when paused and then dart away with the next twitch…. Liiike, so… and…”
I tuned out his prattle and just observed him as he fished. His face was tanned and wind-blown and would not have been wholly unpleasant to look at had he not ruined it by wearing a thick mustache that moved like a grotesque, hairy caterpillar as he talked. He had lost all of his wispy, brown-gray hair except for a straggly tuft, parted in the middle, like a second mustache at the top of his domed forehead. He wore John Lennon style wire-rimmed glasses that magnified hawkish, predatory eyes. Although slight in stature, he had a pronounced potbelly, as if he were as pregnant as Claudia, which he proudly dubbed his “6-pack” owing to the oceans of beer he claimed to swill back every day. I concluded that, in the eyes of women, he probably had about as much physical appeal as a bloated walrus. He certainly had not, to my knowledge, been linked romantically to anyone since moving out to Herring’s Jaw almost 10 years ago.
“Whoa!” he shouted suddenly, as his fishing rod bent in such an impossible downward arc it looked like it would surely snap in two. He pulled back hard on the rod and started reeling in the line excitedly. “Got a big one here, doc!” I watched, in quite rapt fascination, as Doug struggled to land the catch. After some time, just a few meters out from the shore, the fish broke out from the crest of a frothy wave and into the open air. It was a beautiful rainbow trout, almost 2 feet long, and as the rays of the sun slanted through the trees and bounced off its radiant gills, which looked like gem-studded armor, I could have sworn the expression on the fish’s face, in that fleeting instant, was one of angry defiance. A few minutes later, it was flipping haplessly on the rocks suffocating to death.
“Goddamn it,” muttered Doug.
“What is it?”
“Son of a bitch has swallowed the lure.”
“Oh no,” I gasped. “What are you going to do?”
“There’s nothing else for it,” said Doug, grimly, as held the fish down and yanked on the line viciously. The ugly lure popped out of the mouth with a sickening gurgling noise. Half of the insides were ripped out with it and dangled from the bloody hooks. The body flipped a few more times and then went still.
“Was that absolutely necessary?!” I cried. “Couldn’t you have killed that poor creature first?!”
“It’s dead now, doc,” said Doug matter-of-factly.
“I trust you enjoy your supper tonight,” I said in disgust and turned away to leave. “Come on, Ben. Let’s go.”
“Um…” said Doug, hesitantly.
“What?” I said, irritably, turning back to face him.
“I don’t eat fish. Don’t like the taste. You can have it if you want.”
Incredulous, I searched his twitchy, bottle-green eyes. “Wrap it up and give it to me,” I said quietly. “All of it. The innards too.”
Later on that night, I stood in front of the open deep-freeze freezer in my basement. It cast a long glaring light over all of the cobwebbed bric-a-brac Leah had collected over the years and had adamantly refused to get rid of. I had laid out all of the meal-sized packets of trout on top of the other meats I had stored away in deep freeze. I was holding the last packet, which I had labeled ‘Doug Black’. It contained the fish’s mutilated guts and, as I stared at it, I resolved that I would be making a special something for Doug at next summer’s barbecue. Just as I tossed it in with the rest of the food and snapped close the freezer, my cell phone jangled in my pocket, startling me in the darkness.
“Doc! Doc!” yelled Brody, hysterically, down the line.
“What is it?!”
“You got to come! You got to come! NOW!!! Claudia’s bleeding!”
To be continued…
Part I is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/06/30/deep-freeze-part-i/
Part II is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/07/11/deep-freeze-part-ii/
Part III is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/07/21/deep-freeze-part-iii/
Part IV is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/07/23/deep-freeze-part-iv/
Part V is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/08/06/deep-freeze-part-v/