A Short Tall Tale
There are rural places in Florida that move strangely slow, like old men telling high-fidelity fibs. Maybe it’s the water from Ponce De Leon’s Fountain of Youth slowing everything down so it lasts a bit longer, giving the hazy illusion of eternal life. I don’t know, but the surrealistic pace dragged on until I missed dragging my feet along city side-streets, past currents of self obsessed youth and chalk outlines. So, since moving to the rural South, I’ve felt displaced and relatively discontent. Through desperation, I’d started drinking wine in the evenings and taking strolls along the shoals of waterways, which in Florida is an easy thing to do, and I’d spent each trip blearily embellishing my mostly solitary, misspent adolescence in St. Louis. Sure, there are no steamers or barges huffing up and down Florida’s small tributaries, and the tributaries don’t own the gritty grandeur of the mighty Mississippi, but the longing for setting off and up a moving current on some misadventure is every bit as desirable now as it was then. I guess some things change and some don‘t.
So, with the evening beginning to set in and the wine I’d drunk not completely, I set out on one of my walks, as best I could. I wish I could remember exactly what side roads and small trails I took, but as soon as there was movement in my body, the wine began to unsettle me. My head swam and my stomach felt sickly sweet, so I kept moving at a feverish pace, through knotted cypress trees and pine; a drunkard trying to outrun his suffering, heading clumsily toward some unknown destination. The sun started to descend toward the horizon and I realized I must have been stumbling about for hours. Panic began to set in, an irrational fear overtook my equilibrium and I fell right on my drunk ass; Newton’s apple shaken from the tree, all rotten and wormy inside. Then, just as the tears were beginning to stream down my face, I heard a faint voice bellow in the distance, beyond the woods. It lifted and pulled me forward. Through my squinted eyes, I could make out three silhouettes perched on a far reaching pier. How had I missed it? One silhouette flapped what looked like an arm in the air, waving for me. I sped up, slowed down, and sped up until the shapes in the distance had reeled me in. And there I was, a confused drunk standing in the middle of three of the oldest and saltiest fishermen I’d ever imagined. Their skins were browned from the sun and they sat, hooking mutant tequila worms for bait and laughing like adolescents. I may have been drunk, but I knew I was certainly in good company.
“What in the hell you doing out here, Son?” the oldest fisherman asked.
“I got drunk and then lost,” I replied indignantly.
“In that order, or do you got things backwards?” he said with a big hardy smile, letting everyone see every cavity his mouth contained.
“Not really sure anymore", I said, "but it’s a good thing I heard you. I would have been eaten alive out here for sure.”
“Don’t rest too easy, boy. I am feeling a might peckish.” He purposely made me uneasy and, realizing how uneasy, he said, “I’m just messing with you, Boy. ‘Sides, ain’t enough meat on you, anyhow. Why don’t you have a seat here and help us catch some dinner; maybe fattenin’ you up will give you a better taste.” They all smiled.
The second old man pushed a footstool toward me, motioning for me to sit.
I smiled and nodded my head appreciatively. “I’ve never really fished before; I‘m usually the guy that goes along to get drunk.”
“Well, that’s fine, too,” he said, rotten fish stink wafting out of his mouth at every new syllable. “Need someone new here, anyhow. These old goats been chewin’ the same damn fat for weeks. And it wasn’t good the first time.”
“Oh, can it, you old bull,” one old man replied sharply.
The oldest man replied, "Why don’t you just stuff it and hand our new drunk a beer.” He turned to me, “You drink beer, or are ya a fag, too?”
“Yes. I mean, no, I’m not a fag, and, yes, I drink beer.” I stuttered, still uneasy and newly caught off guard.
He flashed me his cavities again, then replied, “Just so you know, don’t matter if you are a queer or not. Might be kind of nice if you was . . . it gets mighty lonely out on this pier.” All three of the men laughed at his sentiment.
“Sorry to disappoint,” I said. “I’m probably gonna be straight no matter how much beer you give me.”
The man who had given me the footstool smiled, “You didn’t look none too straight out there in them woods.” They all laughed again.
Slightly drunk and embarrassed, I looked out from the pier and at the descending evening sun’s red face. I laughed a little and said, “Look, I’m not going to be a good drunk if you keep me defending my sexuality. It’s hard to drink when I have to keep talking.”
The oldest man saw the sagacity of the statement and declared, “The boy has a point. Fine, you drink and I’ll talk.”
I smiled and took a drink.
He laughed at my easy surrender and accompanying devotion to the task at hand. “You’re a good listener, so I’m gonna tell you a good one.”
“Aw damn, you old bull, not the one about you bein’ a gator in a former life,” one old man said.
“Yeah, we’re tired of it. Find a new one,” said the other.
“It is a new one to this kid, and ‘sides, you ain’t been listening too well, ‘cause it ain’t got nothing to do with no former life. It’s got to do with this one here and how I met my wife. Which, by the way, she’ll be here anytime; so, you just can it and let me tell it.”
The old men rolled their eyes ‘till they were looking at each other and then silently cast out their fishing lines with the same synchronicity.
“That’s right, you old goats. Worry about catchin’ us some dinner . . . we don’t catch nothin‘; the wife’s got nothin’ to cook.”
One old man grimaced toward the other, “Just let the old bull tell the only story he got; he ain’t much of a fisherman, anyway.”
The old man defended himself sharply, “I’m the best damn fisherman there ever was, and I’m about to tell this new guy why.”
I took another drink, smelling the bullshit that was brewing, mixing with rotten fish breath. The radiant setting sun was still shining and right in my bloodshot eyes, causing me to squint. The old man thought I was smiling at him.
“All right, Boy. Guess you're good and ready then.” And so the old man began:
“I ain’t always been a fisherman, though I’ve always liked eating fish and there’s always been something ‘bout watchin’ them swim so gracefully that just makes my hunger unbearable. And that’s how I met my wife. She was swimming these beautiful patterns, real exotic looking. The sun was breaking up on the dancing surface of the water we was sharing and it just made my big old alligator mouth hang open.”
One old man interrupted, “This is the part where he tells ya that weren’t no figure of speech and he really was a gator in a former life. Crazy old bull.”
“Just stow it. You’re gonna ruin this whole story,” the oldest man declared disdainfully. I hate it when someone interrupts a good lie.
The old man started again, not so gracefully. “Now, where was I . . . oh, yeah: So, there I was with my gator mouth all open and watchin’ my fish-gal swimmin’ all graceful-like. I tell ya, my stomach was sayin’ she’d be the best meal I’d ever have, but somethin’ about having the best of anythin‘…ain’t nothin’ quite so good afterward. So, I didn’t know what to do. Only thing I was certain of was that I should have her all to myself.”
“That’s just like you,” the worst interrupter barked, “always trying to hoard the best for yourself.”
“Damn right, and I’d do it the same all over again if I could. Now stop interrupting my damn story,” the oldest man barked back.
“So, anyhow,” the oldest man paused and looked at the interrupters, “as I was sayin’. I was just layin’ there, belly grumblin‘, mouth open, a million thoughts racin’ through my head and the object of my attention so near and completely unaware. I needed to be closer; thought maybe bein’ closer would help me make some sort of decision. So I started swimmin’ toward her, but as soon as I got closer, I got spotted. And she went swimmin’ off as fast as her little body would allow. So, me bein’ the big old nasty bull I was, I chased after her - not even realizin’ my big old mouth was still open. And as soon as I caught up to her, I swallowed her up.”
“Bet you liked eatin’ her, too. Know I would,” the interrupter interjected again.
“That’s it, you old queer. I ain’t gonna tell you again; you best watch your tongue. And I mean it in more ways than one,” the oldest man declared with authority. The interrupter quickly looked back out toward his fishing line without a word, pale as a sheet and then red-faced.
“That’s right,” the oldest man began again, “only my mouth was of suitable size for her, and in she went, though not too happily. The poor thing; she never even saw me comin‘.” The old man paused and smiled to himself.
“What the hell you waitin’ for, you old bull? Ain’t ya gonna finish the damn story ‘fore it gets dark out?” the interrupter asked, impatiently.
“Thought you couldn’t bear to hear the story another time. Now, you can’t bear for me not to finish it. You’re a real piece of work,” the oldest man chuckled as he replied. The interrupter, realizing he’d given his two cents, sat surprisingly quiet, waiting for the tale to continue.
“So, there the poor vulnerable little fish woman was - stuck in my big, toothy alligator mouth, which must have seemed like a prison to her ‘cause she kept tryin’ to escape. It caused my stomach to knot up and I wasn’t hungry no more. I was just sad cause the fish I’d fallen in love with was scared of me and wanted nothin’ more than to be free. It took me about a minute or so to gather enough fortitude to let her go, but I did, and as soon as I opened my mouth, out she swam. And it was the damndest thing I’d ever seen, she must have been scared to death, cause even though I’d injured her - I could taste her blood - she swam right up on shore and kept right on floppin‘, through the very woods we saw you floppin’ through, Boy, and it was a most terrible sight. I watched my injured fish-woman flop for what seemed like forever and I wanted to just crawl up on shore and bring her back into the water. But, I knew she would have been just as scared all over again. So, I sat, with big old tears in my eyes, and watched her flop till she got so far away I couldn’t see her no more.”
“Poor old gal must have favored death instead of bein’ trapped in your big old nasty mouth,” the interrupter stated bluntly again, adding two more cents.
“Don’t you know it?!” The old man paused. “I never have gotten over that sight and for weeks I was the loneliest old gator you’ve ever seen. I didn’t swim, hardly even came to the surface, and stopped eatin’ all together. That’s why all my teeth is the way they is - the weeks of malnutrition.”
The oldest fisherman paused again and looked out toward the nearly vanished sun. I looked out with him, through my ever squinting eyes. I was nearly in tears thinking about the aged gator’s longing, despite guessing that the oldest man was making it all up as he went along. At least, the details had become fuzzy from time and he had no choice but to be a bit creative.
The old man drew a large breath and looked back at all of us, his two old companions at me.
He exhaled and began again, “So, after weeks of misery, I decided my fish gal had the right idea. Maybe death was better than a life spent trapped in my mouth, and maybe death was better than the misery her absence left me with. My old gator head was swimmin’ with all kinds of crazy notions and I finally just snapped - I crawled right on up the same shore that my fish gal had disappeared from and kept right on crawlin’ as far as I could. I figured at best I’d find her and she’d love me; at worst, I’d die tryin‘. I crawled up that shore, through those very woods, and kept right on like that till I guess I blacked out from the hunger. I thought I was dead. And I probably was, for a little while anyway, but then I woke up. And I didn’t just wake up like a gator wakes up; I woke up like a man wakes up - a human man. I picked myself up with my new, long arms and stood up straight on my two new long legs. You can imagine my astonishment. Somehow, death had transformed me.”
“Death might have that affect on a person,” I said, slurring my words together and realizing I was now the jerk that interrupts a good lie. The three men sat silently, just staring at me. I apologized and took another drink.
“You’re damn right,” the other interrupter said, smiling.
“No foolin’,” said the other old man.
“This boy’s just full of points; everythin’ he says is pointed,” the oldest man said. We all laughed. He slapped me on the back and handed me another beer. I took a large swig and we all looked toward where the sun had sunk and stared for a moment at what little was left of its light.
The oldest man began again, “So I roamed around for awhile, tryin’ out my new human body: tastin’ new foods and old foods that tasted new; tryin’ on different kinds of clothes. It didn’t do me much good, though. I kept thinkin’ ’bout her and quickly went back to looking for my old fish gal. I searched for a long while, too, hopin’ that maybe she’d been transformed like me. But, like most creatures, I didn’t exactly find what I was lookin’ for and came back to what was most familiar to me - this old body of water. I spent the most of my days that followed, fishin’ and sleepin’ right here on this pier. But, wouldn’t you know it; I suddenly couldn’t catch no fish. I was horribly desperate for food, but all I managed to catch was a plastic leg and everyday that passed afterward, I felt like kickin’ myself with it. Days passed, no, weeks - just me and the damned leg huddled up on this pier. I didn’t know what the hell it meant; just that it wasn’t what I thought I was lookin’ for. I mean, the leg wasn’t food and it wasn’t a fish gal. I started feeling like old Ahab; obsessed, or senile, or something along those lines.
The statement drew laughs from everyone but me. By then, I was too drunk to laugh and I was again getting awfully close to the point of tears. The story was sad and the idea of the old man suffering with nothing but a plastic leg as a companion was horrible.
“Don’t cry,” the oldest man said. The other men patted me on the back in unison and agreed, “It’s sad, but it ain’t that sad.” The oldest man added, “Sides, there’s a happy endin‘.” It all helped.
“So, there I was, curled up right here on this very pier, and holdin’ onto the plastic leg like it was my old fish gal. And then I heard it - an odd sound; a thud, then a pause, then a thud. I opened my eyes and saw a tall, long-haired, human figure hoppin’ right at me on one leg. I tell ya, it scared me right off this pier and back into the water, plastic leg and all. Cowering in fear, I tucked myself under this pier and out of sight. But the figure kept comin‘, closer and closer, ‘till it was right above me. And, in the most exquisite tone, I hear, “Please come out from under that pier and bring my plastic leg. It’s the only one I have and they’re quite expensive. It isn’t even paid off, yet.”
“’Well, what a gal’, I thought. I shot straight out of that water and right up next to her. It was my exotic fish gal, I was certain of it. She recognized me, too, and got scared for a second, ‘till I handed back her plastic leg and apologized for her needin’ it in the first place. I then confessed my love for her and told her how I never meant no harm. She said she’d ‘heard all that before‘, but I guess this time was different than the last. I mean, every evenin’ for a week, she brought me food. Nursed me back to health, she did and I waited for her too, Boy, anxiously. We spent every evening on this pier chattin‘. Why, it was only a matter of a week before I was full of nourishment and we left the pier to get married. I finally had my old fish gal and she’d willingly come to me.
“I liked the story better the first time ya told it,” the interrupter said.
“Yeah, me too,” added the other old man. “It was more original and shocking then. Now, it’s just old hat. And givin‘ the moral at the end ruined everythin'! ”
“What do you think, Boy?” the oldest fisherman asked.
“Well, I think I’m drunk, and I’ve been entertained by three complete strangers. It was a pretty good load of shit, too. And I don‘t think you gave away nearly as much as they think, either.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” said the oldest man. “But, it wasn’t a load of bullshit, and that’s the ass-kicker. It even surprises me sometimes.” He stopped mid-thought and looked away from the spot where the sun had set, at an approaching silhouette. “Here comes my wife now. See for yourself.”
All of us looked through the growing darkness in search of the old man’s wife and when she materialized, we were enamored. She had the sort of ageless elegance that is usually only lent to legends, and she wore a shawl, much like Jason’s fleece. The woolen shawl seemed to emit a subtle light that lent its glow to her, making her skin appear of different hues, from different angles. The light preceded her too, along the esoteric path she whisked toward her husband. She smiled at her husband and at the same instant, his eyes lit up like framed tinker bells.
I understood why the oldest man had made up such an elaborate story about how he met his wife. In a certain light, he was telling the absolute truth.
She kneeled awkwardly beside her husband and kissed him softly on the cheek and then danced toward us. She gave us all a radiant smile and then stopped next to my chair and patting my shoulder, she asked, “He told you the gator story, didn’t he?”
“Yes Ma’am.” I sputtered.
“That’s his favorite and mine too, truthfully. Though, it’s a little different every time he tells it - and he’s always telling it, so they never catch much of anything . . . and that’s the one thing you can count on.” She paused a second to smile again at her husband.
“Tell ya what, why don’t you come on up to the house and have dinner with us. It’ll be fun and I’ll let you see my fake leg,” she said, rapping on her clothed plastic leg.
I smiled acceptingly and off went: slowly, drunkenly and boisterously, together toward the place the fisherman and his wife called home that, thankfully, wasn‘t through the woods. And I’ve been looking for my very own fish gal ever since, instead of drowning in my sorrows. I mean, sometimes we just have to try again and now seems like as good of a time as any.