Sometimes I'd take the boy fishing. He was not my boy but somebody else's, and that was good, his appetite and the cost of food being what they were. Mostly, I used him to hold down the bow of my canoe, instead of the bags of lead shot I usually employed for that purpose. He was smarter than the lead shot but not so much you would notice.
"I wonder what causes the tides," he said once.
"The moon," I told him.
"The moon!" he cried, doubling over with laughter. "You expect me to believe that? You must think I'm stupid!"
I treated myself to a thoughtful pause.
"The earth is round," I said.
"So?" he said. "Everybody knows that."
"Just checking," I said.
The boy was about sixteen that year, the year I used him for lead shot. Whenever he ran out of money, which was often, he would come over to my cabin on the river and work for me. Mostly, I would have him dig holes in the ground. When you own a cabin on a river, you always have need for lots of holes in the ground. I enjoyed listening to him complain about the pay, because then I knew I wasn't paying him too much. I prefer to err on the side of not enough, because it is wrong to spoil youngsters by paying them too much.
Whenever he complained about the pay, I would tell him about my first job. I was fourteen and worked for a farmer all one summer digging holes in the ground. The farmer was so cruel and sadistic that he had probably once been a commandant in charge of a slave labor camp. But I was the only one who suspected his previous employment. Everyone else thought he was a fair and decent and good-hearted man. But they didn't dig holes for him.
"Vork! Vork!" the farmer would scream at me.
About once a week I would get mad and resign my position. Then the farmer would come and tell my mother what a fine worker I was and that he wanted me back to dig more holes. He told her that my work habits had improved greatly under his supervision, and now my pace was such that he could often detect movement with the naked eye. So Mom would make me go back to digging holes.
"Vork! Vork!" the farmer would scream.
By the end of summer, I hadn't earned quite enough money to buy my first deer rifle. The farmer gave me a bonus to make up the difference! I was astounded. Furthermore, I became the only person he would let hunt deer on his property, because I had been such a good and loyal worker and also because there were no deer there.
"So," I said to the boy, "do you see the moral to this story?"
"No," he said. "It's a boring story and I don't want to hear it ever again."
"Vork! Vork!" I shouted at him.
Sometimes, when the fishing was good, I would go out in the canoe almost every morning. I would get up very early and rush down to the river still buttoning my shirt, but the boy would be there already, waiting. I suspected he slept in the canoe, just so I couldn't slip away without him. We would paddle off to fish the channels that flowed between the islands where the river merged with the lake. As we paddled along we would exchange our theories about the purpose of human life. My theory was that the purpose of life was to perfect ourselves through learning and discipline in order to fulfill our cosmic responsibilities as part of the self-consciousness of the universe. He thought the purpose of human life was for him to buy a car.
At the beginning of summer, the boy knew nothing about fishing, but by July he knew everything and had begun to advise me.
"That fly you're tying on is too big," he'd say. "Better go to a sixteen. And switch to a black gnat."
"How do you know all this?" I said.
"It's easy," he said. "I think like a fish."
"I can't argue with that," I said.
He enjoyed teasing me, because now he almost always caught more fish than I did. I would chuckle good-naturedly, swack the water just so with the paddle, and soak him to the skin.
The boy had a talent for getting on my nerves. I could remember how peaceful it had once been, when I was a solitary paddler, slipping quietly along the channels between the islands, doing everything just right, becoming one with nature and the mosquitoes and deerflies. But now the boy was always there, yakking, advising me on fishing technique, philosophizing about cars, complaining about the lunch I'd brought along and the pay he was getting for digging holes.
And then one morning he wasn't waiting for me at the canoe. He didn't come the next morning either. Or the following week. It was a relief. I was glad to be rid of him. Having nothing else to do, I asked around about him the next time I was in town. Most folks had no idea who he was, but the lady who runs the grocery said she thought he lived out on such-and-such road. Still having nothing else to do, I drove out the road and found an ancient mobile home approaching terminal depreciation, under some scraggly pines. No one was home. A man stood watching me over a nearby fence.
"They's gone," he said. "Just packed up and left one day. Headed for Oklahoma. I'm from Oklahoma myself."
"Oklahoma," I said. "Any fishing there?"
"I'm glad to hear it."
I went out fishing the next morning but it wasn't the same. A boy works a whole lot better than bags of lead shot for holding down the bow of a canoe, no question about it.
About a week later, another boy showed up at my cabin, apparently having heard I was short a boy. He was a redheaded kid with glasses that kept slipping down his freckled nose.
"I hear you got some work here," he said.
"I do," I said.
"What's the pay?"
I told him. He managed to stifle any hint of elation.
"What's the work?"
"I got all these holes I need filled up."
"I guess I can do that." He watched me for a moment, pushing his glasses back up his freckled nose. "What you doin' there to your canoe?"
"Nothing much," I said. "Just removing some bags of lead shot from the bow."
Copyright © 1997 by Patrick F. McManus