“If you get bites, then I’ll get bites. If we get bites, then they’ll get bites,” explains the exuberant, graceless, and most-likely inebriated Jeremy Holden. Jeremy is the man who immediately assigned himself as mentor to my friend and debutant fisherman Jayme Tauzer when she, my sister Steph, and I first sauntered toward Eckly Pier on the Carquinez Straight in Crockett, CA some twenty minutes ago.
Another, much older man, whose name I hadn’t caught, sitting cross-legged on a wooden bench fixed to the pier, diverts his attention from what sounds like a gory horror flick on his cellphone to correct what Jeremy said about casting out. It’s either by voluntary or necessary custom that Jeremy relinquish his duties to the older man since this acknowledgement has been made. So, Jeremy takes a break to expound upon his knowledge of bait types and styles of fishing to my sister and me as the old man appoints himself as instructor for Jayme.
As Steph and I were both sitting on lawn chairs with books, pens, and notepads in our laps, immersing ourselves in the lulling architecture of the water ripples, or cavorting with the huddled whispers of the novels we’re reading, now Jeremy struts before us dangling different hooks in our faces. I’m imagining him demonstrating the medicinal benefits of snake oil at some junction of the Silk Road while I’m stroking the head of a Siamese cat who appears even more insouciant than me. “This here, is an important one: a rooster tail. The fish love this one. It is the only one you’ll need. You can fish anywhere with the rooster tail. But, then you have the spinning spoons. The shimmering is attractive to the bigger fish. If I wanted a sturgeon then I’d use the synthetic shrimp. You can touch it.”
He ensures that we touch the ersatz pleopod then places it back into the tackle box before returning with an alarming, massive living centipede that I feared only had designs for crawling into his body to enact some sci-fi cerebrum Myiasis the moment his attention slipped. “You want to hold this guy? Live bait is a whole other game.”
We decline. Meanwhile, the old man seems satisfied enough with Jayme’s progress.
“By next week, you’ll be pro,” he decides, brandishing the paternal grin we all wanted for her back when we were first deliberating from the car whether or not we should impose our naiveté.
Jeremy appears anxious to prove himself as a legitimate instructor. I can’t decide if he’s new to this or not. He defers to the old man rather quickly, as if a teacher in training himself.
The old man’s now showing every person on the pier one of those family angler portraits of him holding a thirty-nine pound sturgeon as Jeremy resumes his tutoring. I hadn’t seen one of these beasts before now, but they are bonafide dinosaurs.
“If only forty… one pound off,” the old man boasts to my sister and me. We nod out of politeness, having no idea what he’s referencing. Through eavesdropping, I learn that he was one pound shy of legally keeping the dinosaur for himself. I also learn that there appear to be a number of regulations concerning what you can and cannot keep when fishing at this pier. None of these seems to offer any source of hindrance or resentment to anyone here. These are the rules. It’s just the way it is.
The old man packs his gear and gives Jayme a few more encouraging words. “See you tomorrow,” he jokes. We all have work in the Bay tomorrow. But, the idea is enchanting enough.
Jeremy reiterates that he works in the tech industry, that he has a wife at home, and has a daughter who is about twenty-two years old now. He goes on to detail his history in the Bay Area with a list including a significant amount, if not all, of the places he’s lived: Richmond, Alameda, Berkeley, Oakland, El Cerrito, and the “places where I [he] left my [his] heart,” in Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa.
He goes on to talk about the dearth of fish activity and I’m hear thinking that there’s got be some correlation between that and his estrangement with brevity…among other things.
I’m caught up in a web of sunlight buckling in rapidity on the tidal estuary of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers as they drain into the San Francisco Bay. Pushkin’s imagery of a million angel footprints frolicking on the water surface comes to mind. Naturally, I would never voice out that connection here. That is, unless I want to get a view of the water surface from beneath. I entertain the thought of these angels and what they could be. What is the general mood of a California angel? What is their temperature?
Jutting from the water, the shoreline’s littered with the corroded, rotting, askew supports of a once ferry terminal which had burned in the 1983 fire. Within the ruins are the boilers and paddle wheel hub of the SS Garden City wreckage which decades later was also stylized by the same fire. Just up the straight are the remaining few battleship vessels of the once enigmatic Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet. The Department of Transportation and MARAD eventually announced fleet closure due to damning reports of significant toxicity leakage. These ships that captured my youthful imagination were gradually auctioned or scrapped. I should say departed for romantic purposes. There is the sugar plant down toward the Carquinez bridge that no one here could confirm as shuttered or not. All of it’s primary growth after a fire in a way. These artifacts of the past relent toward their oblivion as the new growth manifests.
An Amtrak train rolls around the bend, its horn and engine echo, and the din steals the moment as if tolling the bells of our reckoning. Steph recalls our taking that train to visit our mom in Sacramento when we were both still in college. This triggers an alien feeling me. The profundity that comes in observing the stark contrast between Northern California landscapes renders a nostalgia I hadn’t felt in some time. I remember the salt farms in San Jose with their glistening fields and hillocks of pink crystals; the destitution, litter, and nearly barren land of Hayward; the sprawling metropolis and warehouses of Oakland and Berkeley; the panoramic sublimity of the bay that traces from Richmond toward Martinez near to where we are now; the bridge that crosses over to the long stretches of agricultural fields in Fairfield, Dixon, Vacaville, and Davis populated with small lakes, sunflowers, the strobing light of orchards, mustard plant fields, oak trees, poppies, tributaries; and finally to California’s capital in Sacramento.
It’s always been a project of mine to see Martinez. Developing a fascination with Sacramento’s history and Gold Rush history, this was the next stop in my edification of California. So, that morning I drove Jayme, Steph, and I through Martinez with the private motive to learn more. However, my grand intellectual enterprise summed up to Steph using the bathroom facilities at the Amtrak station, pulling two U-turns, judging Martinez’s crime rate, and relocating to this pier. After some research on the phone, it was learned that Benicia contained more of the state capital history. I’m not sure what I read or what I heard about Martinez that led me to regard its history with such esteem. Nearly every year I find myself relearning facts that I thought were once true. Sometimes it makes you wonder how much of history is misremembered, fiction, myth, or misinformed.
Due to the advent of Silicon Valley, people are flooding into Northern California at a cumbersome rate. For dramatic purposes, it’s California’s second Gold Rush. Eureka! Mining again on the land of opportunity. This time its data. Instead of blasting through mountains with water cannons and dynamite, plowing riverbanks with enormous dredges, or panning riverbeds and streams, we’ve turned our attention to ourselves, and it can be said with equal amounts of force and pervasion.
Once again, there’s rampant displacement — ironically, some of it to individuals whose ancestors had performed similar acts decades ago. The same ol’ tale: the accommodations of these new frontiersmen engender a harmful demand on the land and its people. It’s to a degree that we sometimes can’t detect the dissolution. One day it’s there, next it’s gone. The gradual replacement noticed through what’s absent. Transformation perceived as a question. What was there? Where did it go? Was it ever there? It renders a sense of dislocation from the agency of a place. The silent catastrophe of identity is its erasure from memory.
Steph and I grew up in the small mountain town called Rescue, near Placerville but with even less notoriety. There has always been a remote sense of pride and agency in thinking we’d grown up where California, at least the white history version of it, began. This area was what we called “Bush Country” for the extent of George W. Bush’s supporters. It’s also what made us unbothered by certain genres of conversation that were happening in the periphery of this pier. It made me think that this must be a respite for these men in the Uber-democratic climate of the Bay Area — see what I did there.
I trip back into Jeremy’s stream of consciousness and he is telling us about the time he was almost deserted in Cabo. He indulged a little too much in the liberal offerings of tequila from a bartender. Jeremy removes his sunglasses and we see his ghostly eyes. It’s the first time we can really see how old he is, despite all his youthful abundance. There is a certain introspection as well. There is a reminder of the distances between our ages, the distances too far to bridge.
He continues, “I ended up waking up on the beach the next morning. I had to hire a little motorboat and have this guy who didn’t speak English drive this thing as fast as possible to the cruise ship, which was at least as far as those hills over there.” He gestures toward the hazy hillocks seated on the westward horizon. “Man, I had a lot of apologizing to do. My mother and my wife…oh boy.”
Meanwhile a new guard of fishermen joins the pier’s crew. They are a pair of buff dudes in their mid-forties who look like they spend a lot of time discussing cars in gyms and sports in garages. They seem to be the new targets for Jeremy. It appears he likes to mingle with the young folk here. Noting the extensive gear they hauled over, I don’t think they have tutelage in mind.
“This is the good quality bait here!” Jeremy announces to the dudes who portray nothing but suspicion for him. I can see their arms and shoulders flexing. In recognition of this defeat, Jeremy returns his attention to Jayme.
“To answer your earlier question, I started fishing in 2008 right after the financial crash. It was something to do while looking for jobs, though there weren’t any out there,” answers Jeremy to an unasked question.
The pier’s nearly at a slumber. Time seems to have a greater viscosity as Jeremy explains that some days the fish just won’t show. He says you can be at the right place, at the right time, and with all the right gear, but it doesn’t always guarantee you’ll get a catch.
The water is murky. There’s an oil refinery up the road and a few more in discreet locations the other direction. Tug boats towing large cargo ships, gas-guzzling speed boats, and commercial motor-power boats have been frequenting the water this entire time. Even though the water is all channeling in from the Sierra Mountains’s snow melt, there is a quality to the water that seems uninhabitable. If it wasn’t for the old man’s photo of the caught sturgeon, I think I’d have a serious impression that there were no fish here. To a degree, it made more sense that way. For, it has never been about the fish. It’s about the ritual. It’s about the space. It’s about chance.
However, as “irony is fate’s most common figure of speech,” there’s a tug on Jayme’s line. Everyone on deck turns toward her to watch the spectacle of laughter, yelling, and awkwardly handled fishing poles. I look around to see a variety of reaction. Most are smiling in admiration while a few seem envious. The two buff bros with sunglasses, motocross tank-tops, and shaved heads give us a thumbs up. Another older man is smiling in the corner while nodding his head.
Meanwhile, Jeremy’s celebrating like he’s just acquired an angel investor for his tech company. Taking off his baseball cap and rubbing his head, asking “how?” to anyone and everything, and offering maladroit, slightly flirtatious, hugs to Jayme. “I can’t believe it. You boosted the morale of the pier.”
Jeremy holds the small trout in his hand. Its eye fixes on this new world. It lips and gills open and close, gasping for breath.
We huddle around the struggling trout as Jayme expresses concern about removing the hook from its throat. All the pride and excitement is now of concern and slight regret.
“It’s all part of it. It’s okay,” Jeremy suggests.
“How can you tell?”
“My finger here is right next to its heart. It’s relaxing not fluttering as much. As long as I’m gentle I can remove the hook slowly it won’t mind. If it’s bothered I will feel its heartbeat.”
The hook seems to be lodged in its jaw pretty good. He tugs and the fish begins to squirm. “It’s okay, it’s okay.” Jeremy consoles. Jayme and Steph are unsettled. I feel a jolt in my heart and spine. The hook releases and Jayme tosses the fish back into the murky water.
“You are the best student I’ve ever had,” Jeremy announces returning again to his frenetic state. “You have a talent for sinking the hook.”
He’s talking about the importance of sensing the faintest interest of a fish, differentiating that pull from the tidal swells, and tugging on the line to sink the hook into its flesh. This action we learned is essential for successful fishermen. There are hints of mysticism about it, but something more extraordinary in question of her acuity.
“It had everything to do with your teaching,” Jayme offers as some courtesy to Jeremy. It takes a moment for Jeremy to register the gesture. Then, a smile surfaces, as big as a forty-pound sturgeon.
“That’s right! It was presentation. My presentation caught the fish. Remember, it’s always about presentation. That is the point of my whole lesson,” exclaims Jeremy. It’s about presentation. Maybe so.
A large bomber plane flies into view from what I can only expect to be a WWII movie screening. As it passes directly above us, the men on the pier debate the model and make of the plane. One or two purportedly were in a similar plane during their military service. Of course, their distinction holds the most weight in the group.
Just as the one flies out of view, it circles back, and another emerges from the distance to make a round on the developing catwalk in the sky.
“These are coming from Mather, huh? I wonder why,” Steph asks me. Mather is imprinted on our memory because it was the military base all the troubled kids went to in our town. However, one summer when we were kids, our school took us on a weeklong camp there. What I remember from our internment within the portable classroom unit was a uniformed military man with a Stalin-esque mustache who would make us do push-ups for answering a question incorrectly and make us prove we weren’t donkeys when answering a question with “um.” The summation of that class resulted in each of us launching the paper rockets we made into the sky as some sort of graduation ceremony with our families. I recall how the parachute would deploy as they cascaded down from their zenith into the eager hands of the children.
Through the obligatory thanking of service to a few veterans on the pier, we learn that the bombers are putting on an air-show for a D-Day commemoration. We think that D-Day was the week before but they are the men of distinction. Plus, we entered their space. Here, they control the narrative. We are here to observe, to sit in, and learn about angling.
Here’s an angle: we could be in the developing symptoms of heat stroke. Or, maybe the arbitrary time it takes to make strangers familiar, the murmuring of native soundings, the one beer effect, or perhaps a combination of all these, cause me to nod off in a semi-conscious state.
In this blurry vision, I can’t distinguish between the jutting supports, trees, or fishermen in the distance. I can’t separate the sky from the water there on the horizon. Voices, music, the sibilance of wind, a distant train, and the low moan of vehicles from the freeway all coalesce. All motion simmers in a soft distortion.
Another bomber wakes me from this somnambulism, a little bait that catches and drags me to the surface. The light blinds for a moment as I trace its westward passage. The steel cord of the telephone wires suspended over the delta. There are spheres hanging from them. I imagine them as rooster tails or spinning spoons.
I’m jotting down what Jeremy was saying earlier: If you get bites, then I’ll get bites. If we get bites, then they’ll get bites.
“I’m on fire,” Jayme says while wielding the fishing pole. The heat and sunlight is taking its toll on all of us. We decide it’s time to say farewell and head back to town.
As we walk over the train tracks and toward the parking lot Jayme asks, “What’s the time?”
We all look at our phones as the bomber makes its way back. On the pier, the old men are looking and pointing toward the sky, gathering beneath its long but momentary shadow.
“Man, the time has passed,” Steph states.