You gotta kiss the fish. That’s how summer starts. With a kiss.
That was the ritual of the boy and his grandfather. And then it was on to ponds and lakes and streams. A few hours here … and a few more there.
Almost always spur of the moment, grab-the-poles, hit-the-road decisions. Wedged in between lunch and dinner … or right after a quick storm … or just before the sun quit.
Not particularly talky times either. Not much about sports or school or things happening in town. The unlikely was more likely.
Paradoxes and enigmas. Dilemmas and parables. That sort of stuff.
The grandfather was very good at that. Very good at pretzeling the boy’s mind. Making the child think hard and smart. And having fun all the while.
And the grandson loved it all … perhaps more than the fish stuff. Certainly more than the fish kiss.
The grandfather would ask things like … why don’t Americans love soccer as much as they love baseball or football? Or why didn’t we have an English accent? Or … why are dogs the most favored pets of all?
Whatever the challenge of the day, it was mostly solved before they reached home. Somewhat answered. But the boy’s brain would sputter long after his grandfather had slipped away for the day.
And that’s how the boy learned to ceiling-stare. And to think about lots of things. In the dim light of his bedroom.
But during the winter … not long after Christmas … the grandfather slipped away for good. And the boy was lost. And crushed. And confused.
He couldn’t understand. Or didn’t wanna understand. He thought about his grandfather all the time … especially as the days got longer and warmer.
Then it was summer again. But not the same sort of summer.
He begged his parents not to send him to camp. He wanted nothing to do with routines. Insisted he could handle the free hours. That he’d fill ‘em up with vacation reading … and music practice. With summer baseball. And fishing, of course.
He’d get a few lawn jobs, too … and even lift some outdoor chores from his father. Anything … anything not to have a schedule. Anything not to be marched around by the commands of a clock. Anything to enjoy the freedom his grandfather taught him to love.
So he lawyered his way to the summer he wanted … and the summer that scared him. The summer without his grandfather.
The first day he day-dreamed much more than he read. Thought lots about his grandfather… and how to start his summer alone. Then he grabbed his pole and headed for the stone bridge where every summer began.
Last summer … when his grandfather was still here … they dangled lines from the bridge … to the water below … and the boy caught the fish he hadda kiss. And summer was underway.
So there he sat … on the very same bridge … legs dangling over the side … hanging his line and waiting. Waiting for a new sort of summer to begin.
Then a voice broke the silence.
“Your line’s a foot and a half too short, young man,” said a man with a newspaper tucked under his arm.
“You can’t make fish beg. You gotta bring the food to them.”
The boy looked at the man, but said nothing at all. Made no expression whatsoever. Just stared for a bit, blinked his eyes … and turned his head away. And the man walked off.
Not long after, a second older man crossed the bridge … stopped … and looked over.
“Is that bread on your line? Is that your bait?” asked the white-haired man. “Bread doesn’t catch a thing.”
And again the boy stared. Blinked some. And the man continued across the bridge.
Then there was yet another voice … from a third gray-haired gentleman.
“Fish eat in the morning, son … and in the evening. They don’t eat at noon.”
The boy looked at the man … but said nothing. After a few moments, the boy turned back to his fishing line … and the third man disappeared.
That night, he ceiling-stared and remembered the words of the three old men. Wondering why they appeared. Why they had mentioned such things to him.
And why did they all look a bit like his grandfather. And sound like him, too.
The next morning he mowed the lawn in a flash. Walked Mrs. Byrnes’ cocker spaniel. Knocked off several chapters in his summer book … and headed for the stone bridge.
He baited his line with bread … dangled it a foot-and-a-half above the water … and enjoyed the mid-day sun.
And the old magic worked.
The fish was long and beautiful. It glimmered in the sunlight. And the boy gave in to a small smile … and splashed the fish into his bucket.
Suddenly the three men were there again … gathered at the foot of the bridge … whispering to each other. They had seen the fish. The long, shiny fish.
“You lengthened your line?” asked one.
“No,” said the boy, “I waited for a fish that could jump high.”
“You used bread?” asked another man.
“Cast thy bread upon the waters,” said the boy with a grin, ”and have faith.”
The third man said, “And you caught that fish at noon?”
“He wanted lunch.” said the boy.
And the men all smiled … and laughed in a low roar. And the boy smiled, too. Like he used to smile. With his grandfather.
He hopped off the bridge wall … fetched the fish from the bucket … and held it above his head.
Then … then he kissed the fish. And they all laughed out loud.
And summer began.