There was a summer in my life when the only creature that seemed lovelier to me than a largemouth bass was Sheila Mant. I was fourteen. The Mants had rented the cottage next to ours on the river; with their parties, their frantic games of softball, their constant comings and goings, they appeared to me denizens of a brilliant existence. “Too noisy by half,” my mother quickly decided, but I would have given anything to be invited to one of their parties, and when my parents went to bed I would sneak through the woods to their hedge and stare enchanted at the candlelit swirl of white dresses and bright, paisley skirts.
Sheila was the middle daughter—at seventeen, all but out of reach. She would spend her days sunbathing on a float my Uncle Sierbert had moored in their cove, and before July was over I had learned all her moods. If she lay flat on the diving board with her hand trailing idly in the water, she was pensive, not to be disturbed. On her side, her head propped up by her arm, she was observant, considering those around her with a look that seemed queenly and severe. Sitting up, arms tucked around her long, suntanned legs, she was approachable, but barely, and it was only in those glorious moments when she stretched herself prior to entering the water that her various suitors found the courage to come near.
These were many. The Dartmouth heavyweight crew would scull by her house on their way upriver, and I think all eight of them must have been in love with her at various times during the summer; the coxswain would curse them through his megaphone, but without effect—there was always a pause in their pace when they passed Sheila’s float. I suppose to these jaded twenty-year-olds she seemed the incarnation of innocence and youth, while to me she appeared unutterably suave, the epitome of sophistication. I was on the swim team at school, and to win her attention would do endless laps between my house and the Vermont shore, hoping she would notice the beauty of my flutter kick, the power of my crawl. Finishing, I would boost myself up onto our dock and glance casually over toward her, but she was never watching, and the miraculous day she was, I immediately climbed the diving board and did my best tuck and a half for her and continued diving until she had left and the sun went down and my longing was like a madness and I couldn’t stop.
It was late August by the time I got up the nerve to ask her out. The tortured will-I’s, won’t-I’s, the agonized indecision over what to say, the false starts toward her house and embarrassed retreats—the details of these have been seared from my memory, and the only part I remember clearly is emerging from the woods toward dusk while they were playing softball on their lawn, as bashful and frightened as a unicorn.
Sheila was stationed halfway between first and second, well outside the infield. She didn’t seem surprised to see me—as a matter of fact, she didn’t seem to see me at all.
“If you’re playing second base, you should move closer,” I said.
She turned—I took the full brunt of her long red hair and well-spaced freckles.
“I’m playing outfield,” she said, “I don’t like the responsibility of having a base.”
“Yeah, I can understand that,” I said, though I couldn’t. “There’s a band in Dixford tomorrow night at nine. Want to go?”
One of her brothers sent the ball sailing over the left-fielder’s head; she stood and watched it disappear toward the river.
“You have a car?” she said, without looking up.
I played my master stroke. “We’ll go by canoe.”
I spent all of the following day polishing it. I turned it upside down on our lawn and rubbed every inch with Brillo, hosing off the dirt, wiping it with chamois until it gleamed as bright as aluminum ever gleamed. About five, I slid it into the water, arranging cushions near the bow so Sheila could lean on them if she was in one of her pensive moods, propping up my father’s transistor radio by the middle thwart so we could have music when we came back. Automatically, without thinking about it, I mounted my Mitchell reel on my Pfleuger spinning rod and stuck it in the stern.
I say automatically, because I never went anywhere that summer without a fishing rod. When I wasn’t swimming laps to impress Sheila, I was back in our driveway practicing casts, and when I wasn’t practicing casts, I was tying the line to Tosca, our springer spaniel, to test the reel’s drag, and when I wasn’t doing any of those things, I was fishing the river for bass.
Too nervous to sit at home, I got in the canoe early and started paddling in a huge circle that would get me to Sheila’s dock around eight. As automatically as I brought along my rod, I tied on a big Rapala plug, let it down into the water, let out some line, and immediately forgot all about it.
It was already dark by the time I glided up to the Mants’ dock. Even by day the river was quiet, most of the summer people preferring Sunapee or one of the other nearby lakes, and at night it was a solitude difficult to believe, a corridor of hidden life that ran between banks like a tunnel. Even the stars were part of it. They weren’t as sharp anywhere else; they seemed to have chosen the river as a guide on their slow wheel toward morning, and in the course of the summer’s fishing, I had learned all their names.
I was there ten minutes before Sheila appeared. I heard the slam of their screen door first, then saw her in the spotlight as she came slowly down the path. As beautiful as she was on the float, she was even lovelier now—her white dress went perfectly with her hair, and complimented her figure even more than her swimsuit.
It was her face that bothered me. It had on its delightful fullness a very dubious expression.
“Look,” she said. “I can get Dad’s car.”
“It’s faster this way,” I lied. “Parking’s tense up there. Hey, it’s safe. I won’t tip it or anything.”
She let herself down reluctantly into the bow. I was glad she wasn’t facing me. When her eyes were on me, I felt like diving in the river again from agony and joy.
I pried the canoe away from the dock and started paddling upstream. There was an extra paddle in the bow, but Sheila made no move to pick it up. She took her shoes off and dangled her feet over the side.
Ten minutes went by.
“What kind of band?” she said.
“It’s sort of like folk music. You’ll like it.”
“Eric Caswell’s going to be there. He strokes number four.”
“No kidding?” I said. I had no idea whom she meant.
“What’s that sound?” she said, pointing toward shore.
“Bass. That splashing sound?”
“Yeah, bass. They come into the shallows at night to chase frogs and moths and things. Big largemouths. Micropterus salmoides,” I added, showing off.
“I think fishing’s dumb,” she said, making a face. “I mean, it’s boring and all. Definitely dumb.”
Now I have spent a great deal of time in the years since wondering why Sheila Mant should come down so hard on fishing. Was her father a fisherman? Her antipathy toward fishing nothing more than normal filial rebellion? Had she tried it once? A messy encounter with worms? It doesn’t matter. What does is that at that fragile moment in time I would have given anything not to appear dumb in Sheila’s severe and unforgiving eyes.
She hadn’t seen my equipment yet. What I should have done, of course, was push the canoe in closer to shore and carefully slide the rod into some branches where I could pick it up again in the morning. Failing that, I could have surreptitiously dumped the whole outfit overboard, written off the forty or so dollars as love’s tribute. What I actually did do was gently lean forward, and slowly, ever so slowly, push the rod back through my legs toward the stern where it would be less conspicuous.
It must have been just exactly what the bass was waiting for. Fish will trail a lure sometimes, trying to make up their mind whether or not to attack, and the slight pause in the plug’s speed caused by my adjustment was tantalizing enough to overcome the bass’s inhibitions. My rod, safely out of sight at last, bent double. The line, tightly coiled, peeled off the spool with the shrill, tearing zip of a high-speed drill.
Four things occurred to me at once. One, that it was a bass. Two, that it was a big bass. Three, that it was the biggest bass I had ever hooked. Four, that Sheila Mant must not know. “What was that?” she said, turning half around.
“Uh, what was what?”
“That buzzing noise.”
She shuddered, quickly drew her feet back into the canoe. Every instinct I had told me to pick up the rod and strike back at the bass, but there was no need to—it was already solidly hooked. Downstream, an awesome distance downstream, it jumped clear of the water, landing with a concussion heavy enough to ripple the entire river. For a moment, I thought it was gone, but then the rod was bending again, the tip dancing into the water. Slowly, not making any motion that might alert Sheila, I reached down to tighten the drag.
While all this was going on, Sheila had begun talking, and it was a few minutes before I was able to catch up with her train of thought.
“I went to a party there. These fraternity men. Katherine says I could get in there if I wanted. I’m thinking more of UVM or Bennington. Somewhere I can ski.”
The bass was slanting toward the rocks on the New Hampshire side by the ruins of Donaldson’s boathouse. It had to be an old bass—a young one probably wouldn’t have known the rocks were there. I brought the canoe back into the middle of the river, hoping to head it off.
“That’s neat,” I mumbled. “Skiing. Yeah, I can see that.”
“Eric said I have the figure to model, but I thought I should get an education first. I mean, it might be a while before I get started and all. I was thinking of getting my hair styled, more swept back? I mean, Ann-Margret? Like hers, only shorter.”
She hesitated. “Are we going backward?”
We were. I had managed to keep the bass in the middle of the river away from the rocks, but it had plenty of room there, and for the first time a chance to exert its full strength. I quickly computed the weight necessary to draw a fully loaded canoe backward—the thought of it made me feel faint.
“It’s just the current,” I said hoarsely. “No sweat or anything.”
I dug in deeper with my paddle. Reassured, Sheila began talking about something else, but all my attention was taken up now with the fish. I could feel its desperation as the water grew shallower. I could sense the extra strain on the line, the frantic way it cut back and forth in the water. I could visualize what it looked like—the gape of its mouth, the flared gills and thick, vertical tail. The bass couldn’t have encountered many forces in its long life that it wasn’t capable of handling, and the unrelenting tug at its mouth must have been a source of great puzzlement and mounting panic.
Me, I had problems of my own. To get to Dixford, I had to paddle up a sluggish stream that came into the river beneath a covered bridge. There was a shallow sandbar at the mouth of this stream—weeds on one side, rocks on the other. Without doubt, this is where I would lose the fish.
“I have to be careful with my complexion. I tan, but in segments. I can’t figure out if it’s even worth it. I wouldn’t even do it probably. I saw Jackie Kennedy in Boston, and she wasn’t tan at all.”
Taking a deep breath, I paddled as hard as I could for the middle, deepest part of the bar. I could have threaded the eye of a needle with the canoe, but the pull on the stern threw me off, and I overcompensated—the canoe veered left and scraped bottom. I pushed the paddle down and shoved. A moment of hesitation . . . a moment more. . . . The canoe shot clear into the deeper water of the stream. I immediately looked down at the rod. It was bent in the same tight arc—miraculously, the bass was still on.
The moon was out now. It was low and full enough that its beam shone directly on Sheila there ahead of me in the canoe, washing her in a creamy, luminous glow. I could see the lithe, easy shape of her figure. I could see the way her hair curled down off her shoulders, the proud, alert tilt of her head, and all these things were as a tug on my heart. Not just Sheila, but the aura she carried about her of parties and casual touchings and grace. Behind me, I could feel the strain of the bass, steadier now, growing weaker, and this was another tug on my heart, not just the bass but the beat of the river and the slant of the stars and the smell of the night, until finally it seemed I would be torn apart between longings, split in half. Twenty yards ahead of us was the road, and once I pulled the canoe up on shore, the bass would be gone, irretrievably gone. If instead I stood up, grabbed the rod, and started pumping, I would have it—as tired as the bass was, there was no chance it could get away. I reached down for the rod, hesitated, looked up to where Sheila was stretching herself lazily toward the sky, her small breasts rising beneath the soft fabric of her dress, and the tug was too much for me, and quicker than it takes to write down, I pulled a penknife from my pocket and cut the line in half.
With a sick, nauseous feeling in my stomach, I saw the rod unbend.
“My legs are sore,” Sheila whined. “Are we there yet?”
Through a superhuman effort of self-control, I was able to beach the canoe and help Sheila off. The rest of the night is much foggier. We walked to the fair—there was the smell of popcorn, the sound of guitars. I may have danced once or twice with her, but all I really remember is her coming over to me once the music was done to explain that she would be going home in Eric Caswell’s Corvette.
“Okay,” I mumbled.
For the first time that night she looked at me, really looked at me.
“You’re a funny kid, you know that?”
Funny. Different. Dreamy. Odd. How many times was I to hear that in the years to come, all spoken with the same quizzical, half-accusatory tone Sheila used then. Poor Sheila! Before the month was over, the spell she cast over me was gone, but the memory of that lost bass haunted me all summer and haunts me still. There would be other Sheila Mants in my life, other fish, and though I came close once or twice, it was these secret, hidden tuggings in the night that claimed me, and I never made the same mistake again.