American Coming of Age Fiction

When Charlie Calisher was shoved into early retirement he made a promise to himself; he’d fish until he got bored. Boredom was not the goal. Boredom was a worry, an admonishment, a sentence that he was beside the point.

He’d been at it since May and was still not bored. He’d had exceptionally good days when he’d land 23 fish, hooked, and lose, another seven, and extraordinarily bad days like when he caught nothing but a chill after slipping on a slimy moss-covered boulder, filling his waders with icy river water, and losing his rod, a $950 Thomas &Thomas in the process. That was hours earlier on this the final day of the season.

Fortunately, on this occasion, he’d managed to keep his head above the current—fast but only three feet deep—and was helped to his feet by a pair of young anglers who had rudely invaded the run he was fishing. Charlie had tried to tell them as much.

“Hey, young fellows. I’m still fishing this spot. And see that sign, ‘Trout Management Area?’ It means fly fishing only.”

They had looked at him as if he was speaking another language before casting their spinning rods right into the run. They also were drinking beer, tossing the cans onto the bank. Charlie had thought to say something but couldn’t be bothered; he just picked up the cans himself. “Massholes,” he muttered as he glanced at their Red Sox hats and couldn’t help but hear their townie accents.

But when he fell, they were quick to run in—without waders—to get him up and over to the bank. “You okay old-timer? You took a wicked fall.” Charlie was more embarrassed than hurt and brushed them off with a couple of thank yous as he dropped his chest waders and laid down in the gravel just over the bank, his legs awkwardly kicking in the air to let the water drain out. He felt as foolish as he looked. 

“Old-timer,” he thought. “Christ.”

He was cold but could warm up. He’d told the Massholes a thing or two and made it clear he wasn’t happy about their littering his river. He still had it in him. A temper to display, a sense of responsibility, something other than just an old man falling. Yeah, he’d told them a thing or two.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then age can be a subjective thing as well. At 67, Charlie would be younger than his father, who lived to 94, and younger than his best friend from high school, Gustav O’Rourke, who got pancreatic cancer two years ago. He went, snap, just like that.

His dad has been an old 94, unable to walk, on oxygen, anxious, and depressed. He was in a steady state of deterioration after his heart attack at 67, a month after retiring, and a stroke a few years later. So much for the golden years.

Still, ‘old timer.’ Seriously?  

It said over the hill, needing assistance. It said you were feeble, you required help, reading glasses, hearing aids. That you could be ignored by some low-class Massholes with their Wal-mart made-in-China spinning rods in a flyfishing only stretch. And it implied, as if the labored lumbering to your car wasn’t, that you were once in better shape.

Charlie’s feet sloshed in the booties of his still soaked waders as he stopped short. He shook his head in front of his Toyota Avalon. Of course, he knew what car he drove, but it struck him especially hard that it was a Toyota Avalon. A Google search once revealed it as being at the top of a list of “top 10 cars for retirees,” a.k.a. an old man’s cars. He asked himself why he didn’t buy the manual red BMW 330i and why he bothered to look up “old man’s cars” in the first place.

He got out of his wet things. Once the car was on he put the heat at full blast, turned the seat warmers up all the way—he’d bought the winter package. He put the seat back, closed his eyes, and enjoyed the toasting sensation on his ample rump. Charlie poured himself a mug of sweet coffee from the thermos he’d had the foresight to bring, took long sips, and closed his eyes.

What to do? Go home? Warm up? Get back to fishing? Read the book he’d brought along—The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared? Maybe he’d put together a resume and test the waters. Then he thought about friends his age who worked at Whole Foods under the bosomy gaze of assistant managers young enough to be their granddaughters.

Fishing it would be and thank goodness for those heated seats. Charlie changed. Ever prepared, he had gotten into the extra clothes, grabbed his spare rod out of the trunk, and put on his mostly drained waders and celebrated his resolve with a final cup of coffee baptized with a shot of cognac he kept in a flask under the seat. He wasn’t lumbering now; he was marching upstream. After all, he may have gotten wet, but he hadn’t gotten bored yet. That was the unwanted goal, a dead end. Besides, the sun was out. Perhaps it had gotten warm enough; there might be a hatch going on.

A few yards in he’d forgotten if he’d locked the car, so he took the keys from a waterproof case (which also housed a cell phone, wallet, and fishing license), pushed the button, and realized he had already locked the car. “A mind’s a terrible thing to waste,” he said, trying to remember where he’d heard that phrase. The United Negro College Fund came to him.  

“That old TV ad. Does that organization still exist? They should have changed the name to the African American College fund. Yeah, but what if something else comes into fashion like, ‘the People of Color College Fund’? Is there a word that would transcend the changing words of political politeness? Why am I talking to myself?”

He had to laugh. Now that he had so much less interaction with people, lonely conversations with himself had become more frequent. It was one more thing he missed about his old job.

Charlie trampled through the underbrush, scrambling over collapsed stone walls, to get to a pool he knew held fish. It was a hike to be sure. Despite the cool air, he was sweating. “Can’t sweat,” he huffed to himself. “Slowdown. Don’t want to catch a chill.” He stopped a lot to catch his breath and settle his racing heart. But the struggle raised the hope he’d have it to himself. 

Two others had the same thing in mind. He broke through the brush only to see the Massholes splashing their lines through the pool. Their loud stomping would spook any trout into the depths where they would not be feeding. Of course, it could be nature at work, too; the hatch had run its course. But Charlie preferred to blame the Massholes. The anger made him feel less like a curmudgeon and more like a serious fisherman, more like a real man.

“Hey buddy. You hit the right place. They were coming up like crazy but went quiet like,” one yelled, a suspicious pre-roll dangling from his mouth. “I’ll just bet,” thought Charlie. “I’ll just bet.”

Now what? It took enough out of him to get here, but he’d read about a section in a narrow ravine a good mile upstream, straddled on both sides by national forest. That section, word had it, saw few people. That section, so it was said, held wild brookies, 12 inches and more, and holdover browns. That section rumor had it, was a mystical place if you could find it.

Charlie stared into his pool in the vain hope that maybe fish would rise again. He tore his gaze away looking upstream toward steep hills that might cradle the legendary ravine. It would be a trek, yes, but he wasn’t bored yet. Besides, he could use the exercise. 

The path that followed along the river narrowed into a barely trod track before giving way to an obstacle course of boulders, thorny bushes, and downed trees. Charlie was really huffing it, starting to sweat again, and had to slow to retain his stamina. He edged over to the river and decided to walk upstream against the current. It was easier than pushing through the vines and getting stuck, but swimming upstream was still a workout. 

Charlie sat down more than a few times to rest and to slow his breathing and heart. Sufficiently rested, he looked up and down the river, trying to match his breathing to the splashing of the current against the rocks while scouting for the rippled circle of a rising trout. But this wasn’t the ravine, not yet, and he was determined to reach it.

After a good hour, the banks started to steepen on both sides as the river curved toward the east. The afternoon sun was hitting one stretch at a near perfect angle, providing just enough warmth and inspiration for a big hatch, possibly a massive hatch, of blue-winged olives, size 16, a perfect size for Charlie; easy to see on the water and easy to tie onto a thin tippet. And beneath those BWOs were trout popping to the surface, lots of them. 

Charlie’s heart was beating hard again. Now, though, it was for the beautiful sight in on the river. One trout jumped out of the water a few feet from him; it must have been 18 inches. A rainbow. Maybe he’d hit a trifecta.

His hand shook as he tied on a matching fly and cast over a rise. Nothing. He cast again. Nothing. The fish were popping up but not for his fly. He took it off and tied on another—identical in theory, but fish can be finicky. Again, nothing. He took it off and added some lighter tippet along with some grease to help the fly float.

“Eat it,” he said to no one but the fish. “Eat it.”

BAM! He had one on and it was fighting. Charlie’s rod was light, a three-weight, which should have been ideal for this river, but this fish was big, really big. It took line out and Charlie kept the rod high—"let the rod take the pressure, protect the tippet,” he told himself. He reeled in, the hook biting the fish, and the fish tore downstream.

Charlie followed. “Go easy,” he said out loud. “Let it run. Easy.”

Charlie followed the fish, sensing its exhaustion, holding his rod way up and slowly reeled in just as he stepped into a hole that took him to his knees. Freezing water poured over his waders and he didn’t care. The rod was nearly doubled over, vibrating with life. Charlie was vibrating, too, shivering. It wasn’t the cold doing that, it was the monster at the end of the line.  

The fish was tired but fought all the way into the waiting net. By god, he had never seen anything like this on a New England river. A male rainbow, hooked jaw, 21 inches, fattened up for a winter that felt like it was already here. The fly came out easily —all his hooks had the barbs pressed down. Charlie swayed the monster back and forth in the current, water flowing over its pulsing gills, until it swam off, revived, alive, to be caught another day.  

He reckoned he caught over a dozen more but stopped counting after six. All were returned to the river. Freezing on the outside, he was warm on the inside. It had been a good day, a great day, the best day. Charlie felt revived, alive. He smiled as he closed his eyes for a moment. It was getting dark anyway. He had enough.  

Jack O’Brien and Pat McHale were tossing the final cans of their original six-pack into the woods when they saw the Avalon with its engine running. They half expected the old guy, the one who’d fallen in the river, to give them grief. Instead, they saw him with his head resting on the steering wheel. Charlie didn’t rouse when they tapped on the window. McHale tried to find a pulse, then looked to Jack; “Dial 911.”

Neither Pat nor Jack, nor the EMTs that finally showed, nor the doctor who pronounced him dead, noticed that gently hooked to the tip of his left forefinger, as if to admire it, was a size 16 blue wing olive. It was barbless, of course, so fell out easily.

June 01, 2024 13:51

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17:33 Jun 14, 2024

This was beautiful, David. I love the resilience of Charlie. Refusing to kowtow to the looming shadow of death that flickers under the surface of the waters of life. Even until the last. Tagging this as 'Coming of Age' was a stroke of genius.


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Julie Grenness
19:49 Jun 13, 2024

So well written. This tale portrays a vivid and realistic picture, choosing evocative word pictures, which many old fishers can relate to. The conclusion was touching, but depicted a happy ending of some kind. Overall, worked well for this reader.


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Trudy Jas
14:11 Jun 09, 2024

Going while you're doing what you love.


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Mary Bendickson
16:22 Jun 02, 2024

The one that got away.


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