Darryl’s Epiphany


Darryl took off half a day of work because of urgent personal business. He could think of nothing more important, and he filled his mind with anxiety.

Just this morning before walking out the door his wife told him, “Don’t be surprised if you come home to an empty house tonight. I may be gone, and if I am, I’ll never come back.”

These were the final words in a three-day rolling argument. For years, Becca had pointed out his thoughtlessness concerning her, overlooking birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. These made her feel unloved, she asserted. She had continuously complained about his bullying her, his arrogance, his combativeness, and his unwillingness to be humble enough to admit when he was wrong.

Countless times, she had begged him in tears to stop demeaning her in public. “After all, I am your wife, and if that’s what you really think of me, it’s nothing more than a reflection on you—how you weren’t smart enough to make a good choice of a wife.”

When he left for work, Darryl did not care if she left, he might possibly welcome it. It would only go to prove her stupidity, he thought. What woman in her right mind would leave a man like him? He was a good provider, he possessed outstanding physical features, and over the years many women had made overtures to him, all of which he had declined.

Sometime around ten o’clock, while sitting in his cubicle and talking to a client on the telephone, it was if the blindfold lifted from his eyes. His wife’s words over the years came back to him, and for some reason he now understood they were true. In horror, he relieved moments where he had publicly shamed her, and times when he had gone out of his way to make her appear stupid. He recalled the missed special days, how he had made her cry and feel rejected, and how he had completely failed in being a good and loving husband to the woman he had married.

Leaving work at noon, he went to the floral shop, then to the department store and picked up perfume and clothing. He stopped at a gift store and purchased items she had said she wanted over the years but which he had refused to buy her. He booked a vacation—in actuality a honeymoon, which he had never given her—in the Caribbean. Darryl could not think of enough places to stop and things to purchase because he hoped he could make up for 17 years of cruelty in an afternoon of unfettered spending.

Becca arrived home at 5:30 every evening, so Darryl timed his arrival to be a few minutes later. Although he did not see her car, he assumed she had parked it in the garage and closed the door, so he bounded in the front door, calling her name. That itself should have signaled a change to Becca, for he never called her by name.

Silence greeted Darryl. He walked through the house in search of her, but his calls echoed emptily. He found her note on the kitchen table.

Becca had gone through with it. She had left him, and she promised the finality of it. Nothing he could do would win her back. She triple underlined the word nothing.

Earlier in the day, he did not care if she left, but now he did. For the first time in his married life, he ached, he cried, he felt rejected, he felt despair. He had inflicted all this on his wife for 17 years and had experienced it just this once, and wondered how she had endured all that time.

Why the epiphany of his wrong behavior if there was no hope of reconciliation, he wondered. This was not a mystery for long, though. After a few moments of mediation, he understood completely. Without that revelation he could never have suffered as he was now, he never could have understood the torment his wife had endured, and he would have put the blame on her instead of upon himself.

Fred’s Guardian Angel


Fred wore the title of town drunk with distinction, although in practice he was neither the town drunk, nor did he make drinking a state of existence. True, he could tie one on with the best, but he usually limited his imbibing to Saturday nights in particular, and any other night when he felt thirsty.

Fred’s inability to read, write, or perform basic mathematical functions aggravated his reputation in town, and citizens played him for the fool to his face but ridiculed him behind his back. On daily visits to the barbershop to spread and receive gossip, Fred became the butt of cruel jokes instigated by patrons.

“Say, Fred, how old are you?” a man waiting for the next open chair might ask.

“Well, let’s see,” Fred would reply. “I was born in 1929, and it’s now 1984, so I’m 47 years old.” In truth, the current year might be 1987.

The men in the shop would give a predictable answer by staring at him in amazement and telling him he did not appear that old, and they would never laugh at him while present. After he left the shop, though, they cackled and hooted and said they could not wait for the next day, for then he might say he was 73 years old.

Despite his reputation, Fred possessed a gentle spirit, loving animals and children, and both groups reciprocated his affections. Children, who generally have a sense about good and evil about them at a young age, felt safe around him, while their parents harbored the same feelings and never shooed Fred away.

Fred had a long-time companion wherever he went, one of the ugliest dogs ever to walk the face of the earth, a severely mixed breed named Harold. Fred said he had named the dog after his own father because the dog resembled him. His father’s name had really been Jackson, but no one bothered to tell Fred that. Jackson had been a businessman and important person in the town, had served on town committees and had helped establish the bank. He also had spearheaded the drive to improve the local schools. Fred barely recalled his father, though, who had died 40 years previously.

One morning Fred awoke and reached over his arm to pet Harold, but for the first time in remembrance, Harold was not there.

“Harold! Harold, where are you?” he yelled. He kept calling as he walked through the rooms, but no reply came.

When he got to his front room, a room most families would call their living room or family room, Fred looked with dismay at an unexpected sight. Someone had come into his house overnight and had stolen some things, knocked over a few pieces of furniture, and broken lamps and bowls. Technically, it could not be labeled a break-in, for Fred never locked his doors, not possessing the knowledge of how to lock and unlock them.

He cussed for five straight minutes as he walked about the house, examining the damage. Then he washed his face and walked to the police station, walking because he could neither ride a bicycle nor drive a car, even if he owned one.

“What’s the matter, Fred?” asked the chief, Willard Barker, with a smile. “You look all out of sorts this morning.”

“Someone’s robbed me,” said Fred. “While I was asleep. Came in my house, broke things, stole things from the living room, turned over some chairs and such.”

Barker became serious. “Robbed you? Robbed you? That’s hard to believe.”

“It’s true! Come on down to my place and check it out. I ain’t touched nothing. Left it just like it was. It’s a shame a body can’t live in his own home in this town without the fear of getting robbed when he was asleep.”

The chief and Fred got in the squad car and headed towards the house.

“Can you turn on the siren?” asked Fred. “I want everyone to know this is official police business.”

The chief complied, even letting Fred turn the switch.

At the house, the chief surveyed the damage and shook his head while taking notes.

“Did they get anything valuable?” he asked.

“Durn tootin’ they got something valuable,” snapped Fred. “They took Harold!”

“Harold?” quizzed the chief. “Your dog? Why would they want your dog?”

“He’s my bestest friend in the whole world. He’s the most valuable thing I got.”

“I’m not understanding this,” said Chief Barker. “How did this happen when you were home?  They had to have made some noise. And they took Harold. Wouldn’t he have barked or something and woken you up?”

Fred cussed around a little bit and hung his head before saying, “Well, Willard, I weren’t really feeling well last night when I fell to sleep. I-I-I guess I was pretty well dead to the world.”

“Oh,” replied the chief, “you mean you might have drunk a little too much last night?”

Fred still would not look the chief in the eye.

“I suppose so,” he replied. “I mean, I got started and…well, I didn’t stop. Now you know I don’t do that often! Just every once in awhile, particularly when I’m feeling a little lonely, and last night I felt pretty low. Not as low as I’m feeling now. Why’d they have to take Harold? They could’ve had anything in the house they wanted. I ain’t got no use for chairs and tables and dishes and lamps and glasses, but my dog! They took my dog!”

Chief Barker resumed writing, making descriptions of things as he saw them. Then he turned to a blank page in his book and asked, “Could you tell me exactly what they took? Do you know?”

Fred fumbled around for words and walked about the room. Chief Barker felt sorry, knowing that Fred actually did not know what the thieves had taken because he did not know what he had in his house.

“Aside from the dog,” Fred said at last, “the only thing I really know is missing is a box of coins and medals from on top of the fireplace, along with a sword that hung over it. My dad left all that for me. He said they were given to him by his grandfather, or maybe even his great-grandfather, I don’t remember. Dad said they had some value. I guess they did. Never meant anything to me, though.”

He walked sullenly around town the rest of the day. Everyone had heard about his loss, so people treated him with kindness. At the barbershop, the owner, Lawrence Tyler, asked if the police had any leads.

“Nothing,” replied Fred. “All I want back is Harold. They can have the rest. What am I going to do without Harold? He’s my onliest friend in the world. He helps me get home when I’ve been out drinking. If I go the wrong way, he barks until I’m back on the right path. Smartest dog in the whole world, he was.”

Fred openly cried, the only time anyone in town could remember him doing so when he was sober.

Night fell about eight o’clock, and Fred meandered back to his house, crestfallen. He did not bother to turn on the lights, but went directly to his bed and flopped on it, but sleep would not come.

A few minutes after ten o’clock there was an urgent pounding on the front door, followed by a loud voice he recognized as Chief Barker’s.

“Fred! Open up! It’s important! Open up!” yelled the chief, who came to the house personally because Fred did not have a telephone.

Fred cussed at the chief as he walked through the house and mumbled, “Can’t leave a man alone when he’s at his lowest point. Have to disturb a man in the middle of the night,” he mumbled. “What do you want?” he barked at the chief when he opened the door.

“Fred! Come with me! Down to the station! There’s something—you won’t believe it—there’s something you’ve got to see!”

“I ain’t in no mood to come to the station,” said Fred. “I want to stay here!”

“It’s about your robbery. Come on!” and he grabbed Fred’s hand and drug him out the door. Fred had to return to the house to retrieve his shoes, however.

At the station, the chief took Fred to his office. “Look!” he said, pointing at a sword lying on his desk.

“What? Where’d that come from? That looks like my sword!”

“It is your sword,” replied the chief.

“Did…did you capture the thieves?” asked Fred.

“No, not yet anyway. Sit down. You’re not going to believe what I’m going to tell you.”

Fred handled the sword and sat down.

“I’m glad to get it back, but it’s not really what I want,” he said. “I want Harold.”

“Harold was here!” said the chief.

“What?” said Harold, who perked up. “Where is he now?”

“He was right here. Right here in the police station. He came walking into town with this sword in his mouth, and I was sitting outside on a bench, When I saw it was him, I called him over. He walked right up to me and dropped the sword at my feet. I picked them both up and took them inside.

“I started to look at the sword to see if there might be prints or anything else on it that could help us find the thieves, Harold took off out the door when an officer opened it. I took off after him, but he ran away too fast and it was dark and I couldn’t find him. This was about 25 minutes ago. I’ve got a couple of officers out looking for him. Hopefully they can find him.”

Fred started crying again, saying he wished he could have Harold again. He said he would give anything—even give up drinking—if he could only have his dog back.

An officer radioed the station and told the chief they had not found Harold and did not even know where to begin looking. The chief told them to ride around for another half an hour and maybe they could spot him.

Fred sat dejectedly in the office while Chief Barker examined the sword some more. Suddenly the chief yelled, “Fred, do you know what you have here?”

Fred looked up and replied, “A sword, but no Harold. What’s it matter?”

“No, no. This sword! Do you know what it is?”

“It’s a sword. An old sword.”

“Yes, it’s a sword. Listen, Fred, I collect swords myself. I go to shows and see collectors. Do you have any idea how much money this sword is worth?”

“I’ll sell it to you for twenty bucks,” said Fred. “That’d give me a couple drunks, probably.”

“Fred, I can’t give you twenty dollars for this sword. It’s worth thousands of times that much. It’s a—“

Barking at the police station door interrupted the chief. Fred and Chief Barker raced outside, and there stood Harold. At his feet was the box from the fireplace. His tail wagged briskly, and when he saw his master and friend, he jumped into Fred’s outstretched arms.

“This is all I need,” said Fred joyously. “Keep the sword, keep the box with the coins and stuff. Just let me go home with Harold. I’m the happiest man alive.”

However, when Fred placed Harold on the ground, the dog took off running again, stopped about a hundred feet away, and barked repeatedly.

“He wants us to go,” said Chief Barker. “He wants us to go with him.”

Chief Barker and Fred got in the police car and followed Harold slowly. The dog took them to a house in the country, where the chief found two drunken young men. A little examination of the room determined that these were the thieves.

The entire town rejoiced in Fred’s good fortune and marveled at Harold.

“Smartest dog I’ve ever known,” echoed the entire contingent in the barbershop.

People greeted Fred and Harold on the street with exuberance. Children wanted to pet the dog, something the dog did not object to.

Chief Barker came to Fred’s house two days later.

“I’m not going to go into detail about all thsi, because I don’t think you’d really care,” he began. “Just let me say that’s an extremely rare sword. There are people who would pay you probably two hundred thousand dollars to buy it, maybe more. But that’s not all. Do you know what was in that box? Have you ever looked in it?”

“No, not in years” said Fred. “My dad said it was some coins and some papers. I can’t read so I didn’t care about the papers. The coins were pretty, though.”

“Some of those coins,” said Chief Barker, “are priceless. They’re not safe to keep in your house, same as the sword. Some are over 200 years old and date back to before the American Revolution. If coin collectors knew you had these, they’d be begging you to sell them, and they’d pay you more money than you can imagine.

“That’s not all,” he continued. “Those papers are important. Some of them are bank stock. As of this moment you are one of the most important stock holders in the bank, and you are an extremely wealthy man. Between the sword, the coins, and the stock, Fred, you are undoubtedly the richest man in town.”

“Is that so?” replied Fred, apparently not caring. “Chief, I don’t know nothing at all about money. I can’t add or subtract. Can’t even sign my own name, so I don’t know where having a lot of money does me any good. But one thing I do know—I am the richest man in town because I’ve got Harold. He’s all I care about, and he’s all I need.”

Chief Barker took care of Fred’s financial interests by putting the sword and the contents of the box in a safe until he could find a permanent home for them. He also managed his affairs concerning the bank stock and helped to insure a secure, stable life for Fred as long as he lived.

“What about that dog?” asked the barber of Chief Barker one morning shortly thereafter. “Did you ever figure out why he brought that particular stuff back?”

“It’s beyond explanation,” replied the chief. “I’ve thought about it for a long time, and you’re going to think I’m crazy, but I’ve come to think maybe the dog is the smartest one in that house. Who knows? Maybe the dog has been sent to look out for Fred. Are there such things as angels in the form of animals?”

Not a Leg to Stand On


Every day Jordan Carton covered the one-and-one-half miles to work on foot—literally one foot.

From the age of 19 until he was 36 Jordan worked in a heavy-equipment manufacturing business that paid well and provided wonderful security. However, an industrial accident caused by a fellow worker not paying attention to a warning light on an electronic console resulted in Jordan losing his leg from the hip down.

He was completely alone in the world, an only child whose parents had died within a year of each other nearly a dozen years prior to the accident. Jordan had never married and had no known relatives, although some must have existed somewhere. The accident cost him his job, and even though there was a financial settlement, it was not nearly enough to provide for him for the remainder of his life.

No public transportation existed in his town, and Jordan was too embarrassed, too angry, or too proud to ask the only other hourly employee for a ride each day. So he walked each morning to work and returned home each afternoon in the same manner.

Most people would fall into self-pity, and he did too. He seldom talked to anyone, confined himself to his apartment, and watched television or worked on wood crafts in his off hours. His diet consisted of frozen foods. The other employee with whom he worked later said that the only time Jordan talked was in brief exchanges when he needed to know some information about the job he was working on at the time. He never went out with anyone to a bar or to a movie because he associated with no one.

Jordan had been fitted for a prosthetic leg, but it rubbed him and made him quite uncomfortable, so after a month of wearing it, he pitched it in the dumpster. Instead, he hobbled on one crutch everywhere his one leg would take him.

One night a fire broke out in his apartment building, which consisted of four units. He had a ground floor apartment. To his left lived an elderly couple who were each nearly completely deaf; one walked with a cane, while the other one moved about in a wheelchair. Jordan broke into their dwelling and herded them outdoors to safety.

In the unit above lived a woman with her elderly mother and their three cats. Upon hearing the fire alarm each became hysterical and neither had the presence of mind to open the door and move to safety. Thanks to Jordan they survived when he once again broke into their place and shepherded them outdoors.

In the other upstairs apartment dwelt a family of five—two parents and three children under the age of five. Their apartment was the one where the fire originated, and they appeared trapped inside. Jordan again managed to break open the door. The husband grabbed his youngsters and whisked them to the yard, but the wife lay unconscious on the floor.

When the firefighters arrived they found the wife in the hall and took her outside and worked on her. She survived, although smoke inhalation forced her to the hospital for two days.

However, flames engulfed the complex by this time and Jordan was nowhere to be found. Later his body was discovered still in his family’s apartment. His crutch had melted, and the medical examiner speculated that, unable to move, he had attempted to escape the smoke and fire by going to a window, breaking it out, and breathe fresh air while waiting for someone to rescue him.

Jordan Carton lay on his stomach covering a book he had found on a shelf. Officials could offer no explanation for the book other than speculation that he had been delirious before the end. The title was A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, and it was turned to the final page.

Beware of Jack

finishline casino

Hattie was a woman who, once engaged in an activity, allowed her passions to rule over her in its pursuit, heedless of advice or warnings from others, including close friends and relatives. With a single-mindedness that could not be deterred even in the face of impending destruction, she pressed on, convinced that the activity would bring her ultimate satisfaction. Such determination is admirable for level-headed people who desire to obtain a goal, as long as it is not unreasonable and it bears favorable promise of gain or advancement, but in the end it led to poor Hattie’s ruin.

For many years her husband Frank held her in check. His iron hand and equally inflexible will governed Hattie’s passions mercilessly. Frank had one area in particular in which he insisted on compliance from his wife, and that was in the area of gambling. He ranted about having witnessed friends and acquaintances from work lose family and homes over gambling losses, and he swore it would never happen to him.

Unfortunately Frank passed away early, leaving Hattie to heed the Sirens Call of betting, and it did not take long for her to plunge in head over heels. She loved two places in particular—the racetrack and the casino, and she generously fed their never-sated appetite to consume others’ money.

Hattie possessed another trait which accounted for much of her troubles. She was extremely superstitious and relied heavily upon the horoscope to direct her to her destiny, religiously reading each day’s words of guidance from her horoscope book. In addition she also believed in lucky numbers and visited fortunetellers.

For months after Frank’s death Hattie made her presence felt either at the local casino or at the horse track, becoming acquainted on a first-name basis with those who worked there. Her losses mounted, and she quickly began losing money she could neither afford nor pay back. As her situation grew desperate, she determined to visit her favorite psychic to get the best number for a particular upcoming meet at the track, along with any other advice she could get.

“I need your help really bad,” said Hattie to Madame Ardanna. “I haven’t been lucky lately and I need you to give me the best advice you’ve ever given because I need money soon.”

“Oh, my poor Hattie,” said the seer, “have you not been taking my advice? Or perhaps you have been visiting someone else, someone not quite as gifted as I am?”

“Well, to be honest, my horoscope’s been all out of whack, and I have seen two, no three, other psychics. They have not been able to see nearly as well as you.”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” said Madame Ardanna. “But you know where to come when you really need good advice, do you not?”

During the visit the psychic presented her with the number seven to use as a guide in her upcoming endeavor.

“I see this is something big for you,” she said. “Something very, very big and important. Do not allow yourself to be sidetracked by any other advice. Seven is your prime number for this crucial time.”

Hattie thanked her profusely, paid her fee along with a generous tip, and was about ready to leave when Madame Ardanna grabbed her arm. “One more thing,” she said. “One important piece of advice, just a phrase really, and I’m trusting you will know what it means when the time comes. Beware of Jack. That’s all—Beware of Jack.”

Hattie now knew her troubles were about at an end. She was going to the track in two more days, and she had decided beforehand that she was only going to bet the number of the horse Madame Ardanna had advised, unlike all the other times when she bet every horse in each race and hoped a long shot would win. However, she told herself that she was going to be smart this time and only bet horse number seven in a race where that particular horse had odds of at least five to one. She knew that meant there would be some races where she would not bet at all, but she persuaded herself that she could be disciplined enough to abstain from betting in those races.

She still pondered the phrase “Beware of Jack,” not as yet understanding its significance. She had known a few men named Jack in her lifetime, but none were of any consequence, and she currently had no contact with any man of that name. What could it mean? Could Jack be the name of a man who would try to get her sidetracked at the races? She simply did not know but was confident she would recognize and avoid him when the proper time came.

The early races proved profitable for Hattie. Two of the first three contained a number seven horse with odds she would use, and they paid nicely for her. Still, she had great debt—over $40,000—and it was coming due soon. She also bet and won in the fifth and sixth races, and her earnings were now in the low thousands.

“If there’s a seven with big odds later, I can cash in and pay everything I owe,” she thought. However, in races seven through nine, no horse number seven had agreeable odds, and she grew sullen.

The tenth and last race approached and she studied the racing program. Suddenly she became overwhelmed with joy and started clapping her hands.

“Tenth race, horse number seven, odds are twenty-five to one! I’m saved! I’m saved!”

Her exuberance left her just as suddenly though as she read the names of the horse and jockey.

“Jack O’Lantern, ridden by Jack Kinney. Beware of Jack! Beware of Jack!”

Convinced that this horse and jockey were plotting to overthrow her good fortune, Hattie determined not to bet horse number seven, but to go with a different one of better but still long odds, a horse wearing number three but named Lucky Seven. She bet all of her winnings.

The race was a long one of a mile, and Lucky Seven got out of the gate well and was near the head of the pack at the halfway point. Trailing the field was Jack O’Lantern. Hattie clapped nervously but said little.

During the next quarter mile Lucky Seven overtook the leader and built a three-length lead, while Jack O’Lantern was still at the back.

“I knew it! I knew it!” she exclaimed excitedly. “Today’s my lucky day. All my problems will be over. I can pay my gambling debts and start over.”

At this point something happened which made her uneasy, as Jack O’Lantern started weaving up through the pack.

“There’s not enough time for that horse,” she said and clapped for Lucky Seven, who was still securely in the lead.

As they rambled down the stretch Jack O’Lantern ran like the wind, passing horses as if they were standing still. With an eighth of a mile to go Lucky Seven led Jack O’Lantern, who had moved up to second, by four lengths. Then it became clear that Lucky Seven had run out of gas. The gap narrowed, but it still appeared as if Hattie’s horse was going to present her with a huge payday.

A photo finish determined that Jack O’Lantern edged out Lucky Seven by the narrowest of margins and she saw her winnings vaporize before her eyes.

Hattie never gave up her belief in the stars determining her fate, nor did she stop visiting her psychic. She faced some especially difficult financial times but also never stopped paying her required Gamblers Union Number One dues to the casino and the track.

The Covered Bridge Chronicles – Bass Roulette

One weekend George and I decided to visit a county in which two covered bridges resided and which were somewhat remote, not only from each other but from nearly the rest of civilization. As usual he sat behind the wheel and I served as navigator, a position George woefully needed. He had obtained maps from the local library to the covered bridges still remaining in the state, but these maps had been drawn by hand as many as 50 years ago, and in no way were they drawn to scale. At some location on a map an inch may have represented a mile, while on the same map but in a different location that same measurement might represent five miles or possibly 500 feet. Fortunately I navigate well by landmarks—there were some on the maps—and numbers of roads. George’s navigational skills were not nearly as acute as my own, and occasionally we had small disagreements about which roads to take and where to turn, most of the time of which I was correct.

We traveled for a little over an hour and a half before we got within shouting distance of the first destination. George had driven there alone previously and he was somewhat bewildered by my crystal clear driving directions, for he revealed that he had come in a more circuitous way on his solo excursion. I, on the other hand, prefer main travel arteries for as long as possible. He confessed that he had taken considerably longer to get this close to the bridge.

Before arriving at this particular bridge, we had to pass through a small village of old houses along a river. Also at the river was an old dam, still structurally sound itself, but the things around it, like a walkway that extended nearly halfway across the spillway and 15 feet over the top portion of the dam, and a couple of buildings and some equipment no longer in use, were rusted and ancient. We had to take a sharp curve and go up a small, steep hill before we could park at the dam area.

Upon cresting the hill George pointed to a dilapidated building to our right. It was still in use, for there was an operating soft drink machine in front, cars parked in its gravel lot, and people were coming out a screen door. George laughed loudly and said, “Did you read the sign?”

I read it. “Big Don’s Bait and Pizza. I know it’s near lunch time, but I’ll pass on that.”

“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Not in the mood for a mealworm pizza?”

“I think I’ll just capture some grasshoppers or a couple of cicadas when we stop. Maybe I’ll catch a fish with my bare hands. That’ll tide me over until we get to a restaurant.”

Also on the other side of the hill was a long line of automobiles parked along the road as far as we could see, and hundreds, maybe thousands, of people walking around, while hundreds more were fishing in the river, both above and below the dam. Some adventurous fishers stood on the walkway that extended over the dam and cast into the water below the dam, 30 to 40 feet below the walkway.

“What’s going on?” said George. “I’ve been here before and at the most I’ve seen just three or four people.”

“Kind of looks like a fair or celebration or something,” I replied. “I only see a couple of vendors, though, selling food and drinks. No crafts or anything like that.”

George parked the car far down the road and we determined to ascertain the cause of the excitement. There were many people along the riverbank, a good portion of them fishing, but some milling around in a party-like atmosphere. George has an innate sense of finding the best person from which to garner information, and he headed towards the bank after eyeing three men in a small boat getting ready to come ashore. On our way there a small, malnourished dog attached itself to us, running around us excitedly and yapping.

“What’s going on around here?” George asked the front man in the boat, who was wearing a hunting vest over the top of a blue flannel shirt, a fluorescent orange cap, hip boots, and was placing a container on the ground, apparently full of fish.

“Hey, where’d you get that dog?” the man answered. “We got here a week ago and that mutt was wandering around, begging for food. We fed him a couple of times, against my advice, but Red—he’s the one wearing the red shirt—threw him some bread and lunch meat.” He pointed at a man in the rear of the boat wearing a red flannel shirt, so we made the assumption he must be Red. “We think Red thought the dog was his nephew Orrin. Thought we’d never get rid of him, but for some reason the dog ran away the next day and we haven’t seen it since. He was nothing but skin and bones, somebody had probably dumped it here at the river. We figure he’d been starved out and that’s why he hadn’t come back, because everybody else just chased him away.”

Red staggered from the rear of the boat and stumbled onto the bank, revealing a solid bed of beer cans in the boat’s bottom. His red eyes rolled around as he looked for something stable to secure himself to the earth. “Where’s my pole?” he asked, but he had left it hanging over the side of the boat.

“You been fishing all night?” I inquired of Blue, making the assumption that their names matched the color of their shirts.

“Yeah, well kind of,” he replied. “At least me and Pete been fishing. Red doesn’t do anything but drink beer, and the cheaper the beer the more he guzzles. Don’t believe he’s drawn a sober breath for a couple of decades, maybe more. He was a drunk before we graduated high school, plain drunk at our graduation, but the school didn’t say nothing—they was just glad to get him out of there.”

“Does Red ever catch anything?” inquired George.

Blue chuckled and threw the rest of equipment to shore. “He caught a fish once down at Kramer’s Lake—you ever been there?” We shook our heads negatively. “Well, Red was powerful drunk, and we’d only been out a couple of hours. But then he hauls in a huge catfish and can’t believe his eyes. He really weren’t fishing, he’d just cast out and laid his pole on the edge of the boat. That fish bit and Red didn’t even know what to do. We had to help him bring it in. He was so excited, he went on and on. Didn’t know how to take it off the hook, so we pretended like we took it off for him and put it back in the water. Naturally Red thinks he’s caught another one, so we helped him bring it in again. We kept that up for nearly an hour and told him at the end that he’d caught about 30 fish.”

“You telling the boys about me catching all those catfish?” Red accidentally ran into consciousness.

“That’s right, Red,” answered his friend. “Best catfishing we’ve ever done.”

“I was better than all you that night,” Red replied. “Better than all you ever been. Nobody’s caught that many fish at one time.” Then looking at us he said, “That your dog? There’s been a dog running around here that looks just like your dog. You got any beer in your car? We seem to be all out.”

George assured him we were fresh out of beer, so Red lay down on the muddy bank and fell asleep.

“Why are there so many people here?” I asked. “Some type of festival going on? Fishing contest?”

“Well, you might call it a fishing contest of sorts,” replied Blue. “I reckon that people are mostly here to go to the funeral.”

“Some local fisherman die?” asked George.

“No, not yet, but he’ll be dying either today or tomorrow.”

“Bad sick? Cancer?” I asked.

“No, nothing like that. Seems fit as a fiddle. Doctor says he’s in tip-top shape and could live another 25 or 30 years. But he’s going to die as sure as Red is asleep down there.”

George and I looked at each other with puzzlement. “I don’t understand,” said George. “How do you know he’s going to die? Can we see him? What’s his name?”

“Name’s Ed Harbin. He’s around here somewhere—there he is, over by that tallest oak over there, dressed real nice, getting ready to be planted. I’ll take you to him. He can explain better than I can. After all, it affects him the most.”

We followed Blue, and he introduced us to Ed Harbin, an honest-looking man of about 50 to 55 years, slightly graying hair, wearing what was undoubtedly his Sunday best. He was jovial despite his impending demise and gladly shook our hands. George told him of our curiosity concerning his situation and he wholeheartedly told us his story.

“A number of years back—I don’t remember how many—a man by the name of Virgil Pressman went fishing right below the dam over there with a couple of his buddies. He reeled in this huge bass that was all tore up around the mouth. They figured he must’ve been caught numerous times and that’s what caused the damage around its mouth, so they named it Old Snagglemouth. Virgil up and decides he’s not going to throw Old Snagglemouth back into the river, but throws him in his container and keeps him alive. He was planning on cleaning and cooking him that night for dinner.

“Wouldn’t you know it, though, Virgil ups and dies of a heart attack before he got home. His buddies came to the conclusion that it was in retribution for deciding to keep Old Snagglemouth, so they quick as they can take the fish back down to the river and put him back in.

“Since that time Old Snagglemouth has showed up at this spot for one week a year—the week of Virgil’s death. Every year somebody has caught him. The second year he was caught by a man named Bob Dudley, and Bob decides he’s going to keep him as well, but wouldn’t you know it, Bob dies right on the spot and the fish went free.

“People began putting two and two together and came to the conclusion that that fish is some type of devil fish, and a curse of death goes with it. Every year since Virgil caught Snagglemouth the person who has caught him has died within a year—some of them natural-like, other’s violently, like in a car wreck.

“So we began having a fishing contest for that one week and challenged people to participate. Something about the danger attracted people—kind of like playing Russian Roulette, so to speak. People wanted to fish for Snagglemouth, hoping they’d not be the one who caught him. As it happened, I caught him last year, and since that time I’ve been waiting for my death. It will be exactly a year in two days, so I’m looking at passing on either today or tomorrow. I’ve been praying it will be quick and painless.”

He paused long enough for me to interject, “OK, let me see if I’ve got this right. You caught a fish and you’re going to die, you believe, in the next two days because there’s some type of superstition connected with catching the fish?”

“No superstition in it,” said Ed. “It’s a fact. Everybody who’s caught Snagglemouth since Virgil has died within a year, most of them almost immediately. I’ve made it longer than anybody. I’ve had a wonderful year, doing a lot of things I’ve wanted to do for a long time but never took the time.”

“Kind of like a bucket list?” asked George.

“Bucket list? What’s that?” said Ed. “Don’t know what a bucket list is. Simply done everything I’ve desired to do for years like visit the state capital, play in an all-night poker game, got married—“

“Got married?” I asked, smiling. “You never been married before now?”

“No, never took the time, too busy working. Up and asked Sally Leiter. Always had a crush on her but never let her know. She said yes, and we’ve had a great year. She knew it was going to be a short marriage, so I appreciated her saying yes. Wasn’t looking for love, only looking for someone to share my final days with.”

“So all this?” said George, pointing to the crowd.

“It’s about me, and the fishing contest. I don’t expect anybody will catch Snagglemouth until I die, but these people sure are having a good time. Started charging a hundred dollars apiece to enter the contest, and whoever catches Snagglemouth gets all the money so he can enjoy his remaining days on Earth. Last I heard we have over 250 people paid up this year, so the winner’s going to get at least twenty-five thousand dollars to spend however he likes.”

We stayed and talked to Ed for about 20 minutes longer, but he kept getting interrupted by people shaking his hand and wanting to wish him a fond farewell, so we went back to the car and proceeded to the covered bridge to take our shots.

After sundown we drove through the town again and there was no longer any crowd. Everyone had seemingly packed up and left. We stopped at the Bait and Pizza place to inquire where everyone had gone, and were greeted at the door by Blue, who had been profusely crying.

“What’s the matter?” George asked. “Did Ed die?”

“Yes,” replied Blue, “about two hours ago. They had a big fish dinner planned for him because fish is—er, was—his favorite food. Larry Martin caught a mess of catfish, cleaned them and gave them to his wife Sharon to cook up. She’s a mighty fine cook, but it didn’t work out too well tonight. After taking a couple of bites, Ed puts both hands around his throat and can’t speak. Appears like he got a fish bone lodged in his throat, along with some bread and other stuff he was eating at the time. Nobody could help him and he choked to death.”

“The curse continues,” said George.

“Never any doubt about that,” replied Blue. “Ed had a strange, peaceful look on his face right before he passed on.”

“That’s real sad,” I said. “He seemed like a nice man.”

“He was, he was. Salt of the earth. They don’t come any better than Ed.”

“So where is everybody?” asked George. “No one staying around for his funeral?”

“No, no one was planning to do that. They only wanted to see him these last couple of days and wish him well. But there’s no reason to stay around any longer, and that’s the main reason I’m upset.”

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

Blue looked over to the riverbank where his boat remained.

“Red’s still sleeping in the mud,” he began, “but he’s been dealt a bad hand. He won’t be conscious for some time, possibly not until morning, but when he wakes up I’m going to have to tell him that he caught Old Snagglemouth. The old rascal bit on Red’s line that was hanging over the boat. Weren’t even any bait on it, live or artificial. We don’t allow him actually to fish, just goes around and puts a hook in the water so we don’t have to mess with it while he’s drinking. As soon as everybody heard about it they cut out. The contest ended when Red caught him. I’m hoping maybe he’ll die in his sleep tonight so he never finds out.”

George and I departed, saddened and confused. He sheepishly approached the subject of us entering the contest next year but let it drop when I refused to respond.