Well, why not? I thought. The truth can now be told.
The statute of limitations has long since expired (I’ve checked), and anyway, society tends to go easy on youthful offenders these days.
I was thinking about how to start when, Cyrus – he’s the resident counselor here – gave me the verbal nudge – “Speak now” – and asked me to lead off the session. Actually he didn’t ask, he instructed. There’s a difference, but he’s a good fellow with his heart in the right place, and he said it with an encouraging smile and a gentle nod of his head, so he can be forgiven. He is, after all, the counselor, and a professional.
We were sitting in chairs in a loose circle, seven of us, which included Cyrus and me, in the former gymnasium of the old Bishop MacKenzie school building, now converted to a quasi-type clinic for the community. Actually it’s a drop-in centre, but it has other uses and other merits, one being that Cyrus, who is now the owner of the whole building, and the property, is a state-licensed psychologist. He was donating his services this evening, and this was a closed group-therapy session, for introverts.
I was a guest speaker or perhaps an assistant counselor (I say this with modesty), and a former patient and graduate of Cyrus’s twelve-step introversion-therapy program. The five others in the circle of chairs were: Khalid, Susan, Owen, Rhonda and Bernie. They were all in that coveted age group that marketers love to target, eighteen to thirty-four. So am I, for that matter, but right on the upper edge of it, give or take a couple of years.
Despite being a graduate of the program, I was still a little unclear as to what these sessions were actually supposed to accomplish. I mean, in my case back then, I had wandered in looking for change for the soda machine in the hallway. The discussion looked interesting, so I stayed.
And I was only here tonight because Cyrus had practically begged me to come and share a story. He said he even had brochures printed up. When I demurred – I had a conflict; the Red Sox were in town, and they were selling off nosebleed seats for the night game – he offered me fifty dollars. Cyrus is writing a book on introverts and introversion, so, in conscience, how could I turn him down?
He had told me earlier that this was the first meeting-night for this group and I was anxious to make a good impression. After all, I was an alumnus, so to speak. And tonight was going to be all about sharing, bringing the members of the group out of their shells and encouraging them to share too. But there is sharing and then there’s sharing, if you know what I mean. So I was nervous.
I had learned a few things from when I took the program. In the second or third week (I don’t remember) Cyrus had told us that there is a lot of generalization about introverts, some of it being factual and much of it horsefeathers. We learned about Jung (who Cyrus put right up there on a pedestal next to the almighty) and there were a lot of technical terms tossed around as well, like Meyers-Briggs and the Big Five model, and other such ways of getting into your head. Interesting stuff, I guess, if you’re into it.
He had said to us back then, that there was a societal bias against introverts, but that shouldn’t make anyone in the group feel inferior. He stressed that introverts are like everyone else, they just tend to be more reserved. They think before they speak and they like to do things by themselves. And, he said, that’s not a character flaw. Some of the group back then, including me, clapped and cheered at that.
So maybe that’s why people are here tonight. It’s a personal growth thing.
The chairs here were damned uncomfortable – the stacking kind, with metal legs and molded plywood seats and backs – which was partially the point I suppose, you were supposed to relax but weren’t meant to get too comfortable at these sessions. But I was impatient to get started, as was Owen, who I noticed had begun to squirm in his seat, and look around him, thirty seconds after he had sat down.
But I digress. I was a little nervous because I was going to share a personal story about breaking the law. The transgression, in this case poaching fish, catching them illegally, happened when I was eleven years old. I wasn’t actually worried about consequences now, for the aforementioned reasons.
And then, of course, there’s still the onus of proof, and the law says you’re innocent until proven guilty. Isn’t this a great country?
But carrying guilt is a funny thing. I don’t know why, but that old mental captivity had bugged me for a long time. So, I decided that I was going to tell the group about it tonight, because it might make me feel better. In such a telling, truth will out. And truth is a step to atonement. Truth sets you free. Truth is everything.
Or, so I thought.
“My story is about fish,” I began. No one clapped or cheered, so I thought I was off to an uncertain start, but I ploughed on.
“And, in the matter of fish, there is also the matter of water. A few years ago, three million people in Cape Town, South Africa, almost ran out of water. Try and picture your life without water. It's hard for me, even today, to imagine that. In my childhood, water was a constant. Running out of it then, was inconceivable.”
I stopped and looked around at the group. They sat there as one, impassive, but with a certain bright-eyed expectation. Well, so far, so good, I thought, and plunged forward.
“I grew up within a stone’s throw of a river. It ran across the south quarter of our farm and connected two lakes about twenty miles apart. There was an eternal quality about that river. You knew it would always be there. It ebbed and flowed and froze over and thawed, with the seasons. In the winter we used it as a skating rink. In summer, there was the damp tang of decomposing bulrushes and waterweed in the air. That was a nice fragrance. But, sometimes, when July would get blistering-hot and windless, you’d then get the stink of algae bloom and dead fish. Nothing is perfect.”
I sneaked another look around the group. Owen was now leaning back in his chair with his eyes closed, arms crossed, and a bored expression on his face. But I knew that at least one person was listening because Susan, a young woman with long dark hair and almond eyes who looked like a youthful version of the singer and actor Cher, had shifted in her chair and wrinkled up her nose with disgust at the mention of algae bloom and dead fish. OK, I thought, small progress.
“When you stepped out of the front door of our house, you saw the river. When it was flowing full force, if you looked to the left, you could see it coming toward you. It was like a liquid blue and silver conveyer belt, as the sunlight bounced off the surface. The current came around a gentle bend from upstream at a fast-walking pace. Then it slowed to a crawl, as the channel straightened when it went past our house.”
One thing about introverts is, we notice stuff. Owen, who had now come out of his semi-coma, had arrived late but grabbed the chair between Susan and Rhonda. He had immediately tried to chat up Rhonda, who was maybe nineteen, and gorgeous, with a Taylor Swift blonde bob, and near-perfect heart-shaped lips. It hadn’t worked. She was now sitting stiffly erect, at an angle facing away from him. A brush-off, if I ever saw one.
Then Owen had tried it on with Susan, who first gave him a tentative smile, then moved her chair over slightly, toward Khalid, who was dark and good looking in the manner of the actor Hugh Jackman. Owen was no slouch in the looks department himself; he somewhat resembled Zac Efron (can you tell that I watch a lot of movies?) but the two women clearly weren’t interested. Well, no matter. This was introversion therapy, not The Dating Game, so I continued.
I told the group about the bridge near our house, which also served as a dam with floodgates. It had removable stop-logs and a fish ladder that spanned the width of the bridge-deck. That perked them up. And Bernie, an intelligent-looking young guy who was a dead-ringer for Elijah Wood, raised his hand.
“What’s a fish-ladder?”
Oh good, my first question. Cyrus nodded at me, encouragingly. “A fish ladder,” I explained to my now-rapt audience, “Is a ladder in name only. This one was like a trough with three ported-baffles positioned across it to slow the flow of water, while still letting fish through. It worked even when the river was dammed off, allowing some water to flow as a pathway for fish.”
“And here,” I said, dramatically, “Is where the story of my disgrace really starts. Because in the spring of the year that I turned eleven, that fish ladder became an object of illicit temptation. And I couldn’t resist it.”
Owen had gotten up from his chair and was peering out the door of the gym, but the others were now paying serious attention, so away I went again.
I told them about the bridge, a focal point in my life then. It was one of only a few bridges on that river where large vehicles could cross. My father, a farmer, also received a small government stipend for recording the water levels at the bridge and for placing or removing the dam’s stop-logs to regulate the flow, whenever that was needed.
What I didn’t tell them was that this, of course, gave me bragging rights back then. None of my friends at school could boast such a bridge with a dam by their house. And lots of fathers farmed, but mine also got a regular paycheck for ‘government work’.
Oh, there were other bridges nearby, but they were mostly much smaller, single-lane affairs, over much smaller rivers, if indeed these could even be (I believed then, with smug, callow superiority) considered as rivers. These narrower, (surely lesser) watercourses were usually referred to as creeks, to keep them in their rightful pecking order.
I also didn’t admit to the group that of such flimsy building blocks were the nascent foundations of my youthful prejudices, hubris and self-affirmation built. My character had obviously begun to abrade very early on then, as I locked humility in a closet and consorted with classism, hierarchal politics and social upmanship. Perhaps that accounts for what happened with the fish ladder.
Owen was now pacing the room impatiently, but everyone else, including Cyrus, was still totally zen. The looks on their faces told me however that I needed to hustle through my story, so maybe someone else could speak.
“A lot of people, anglers, came to the bridge to catch fish, in season,” I went on. “My friends and I also had fishing tackle. But I never really got into angling. Not sure why. I think it’s something you either develop a passion for, or you don’t.”
At the word passion, Susan turned to Khalid and took his hand in hers. I don’t think anyone else saw this, but I did. So they were probably a couple. Like I said before, we notice stuff! But I needed to get through the story, so I rushed on.
”But there was just something about that fish ladder,” I said. “It was off limits to people, period, but especially anglers, and especially during the spring spawning run. However there was an unexplainable attraction there for me; pick your metaphor: iron to a magnet, a moth to a flame, a wasp to an open can of Coke.”
This got a couple of smiles that were fuel to my generator.
“The spring that I turned eleven, the stop-logs were in and the river was dammed at the bridge. The fish were spawning and running in such great numbers – bunched up to get through the fish ladder – that they formed a solid writhing mass, spanning the river on the high side of the dam. There were so many that you could see them above the surface of the water; my father once facetiously said that “you could walk across the river on their backs.”
At this, Khalid put up his hand.
“I have an uncle who likes to fish,” he said, looking around at the group, almost apologetically. “What kinds did you have there?”
Leave it to an introvert to ask an intelligent question. I noticed that Susan gave his other hand a little squeeze in a silent show of support. So they were a couple!
“In the main,” I said, “mostly mullets. Bottom-feeders we called suckers. Also northern pike, that we called jackfish and walleye that we called pickerel. These were prized above all by anglers.”
At this, Khalid jumped in again. “My uncle says that it’s crazy about fish names. He says that you can go to a different state and catch the same fish, and it’s called something different.”
Like I said, intelligence.
“That’s right,” I said. “And I have no answer for the why of it. There were also perch and sauger, which is a cousin of the walleye. And a few tullibee and goldeye and the occasional mariah, which is an ugly eel-like fish. Most people threw them back in if they caught them on a hook.”
“That’s it,” said Rhonda, with a little giggle. “You’ve just put me off sushi for the rest of my life.” This set Bernie off chuckling as well, and I saw her give him an appraising look of approval. Well now, score one for the Cyrus Matchmaking Service, I thought.
I was almost done. This was going swimmingly.
“That massed fish-run lasted for three days. And every evening at twilight I would slip out of the house, unseen, and make my way to the bridge. At that time of day, no one else was around. I would shinny down a bridge-pier to the fish ladder and then spend the next hour or so there, watching until it got dark, too dark for anyone in my family to see what I was doing.”
“Then, every night, from the thousands of fish going through the fish ladder, I would spy a couple of the choicest walleye, two or three pounders, and flip them out with my bare hands. Cleaning them took ten minutes. Then I hid them in the chest freezer in our porch, under other frozen food. My parents never found out where those particular fish came from. If they did, they never let on.”
“So there you have it,” I said, and took a bow. “You see before you an eleven year-old criminal, as yet unpunished.”
No one spoke. That’s the thing about introverts, you can count on them to be contemplative and really listen.
What I also didn’t tell them was this: To this day, I question why I was so enticed, and why I succumbed to the impulse. I was raised with a strong ethical sense of right and wrong, so I knew better. Was I overcome with the secret thrill of the forbidden? Propelled by the adrenalin buzz? Or was it just a dark human impulse, unfettered at age eleven?
I don’t know. What I do know is that when the fish began to run in the spring, I was pulled there inexorably. Had I been the helmsman of a four-masted barque and the fish ladder a lethal rocky shore, I would have steered the ship heedlessly onto those rocks, under full canvas.
Some experiences embed deeply into your memory, sear a lifelong brand into your brain; first love, first heartbreak, first sexual experience, death of a family member, friend or loved pet.
I’ve retained all those embossments. But the fish ladder mark is different. It is an unsightly blotch on my mental canvas; grotty, indelible, an enduring reminder of the fragility of human rectitude.
I have carried that flawed imprint with me through the decades, like a small stone in the shoe of my conscience. To remove it would be to uncouple my moral centre.
So, I was glad it was out in the open. I have been schlepping it around for twenty-five years, after all, and it felt good to confess.
Cyrus got up from his chair and came over to me. “Thank you Daniel,” he said. “I know that must have been difficult for you. Does anyone have any questions, or a story they might want to share?”
Susan turned to him and raised her hand, timidly. “Well, that was rather fun,” she ventured. “But when do we get to talk about intromission?”
Cyrus lost a bit of his tan. “I, I, I’m not sure what you mean,” he stammered.
She handed him a brochure, and pointed. “It says here, therapy for intromission…and Khalid and I, are almost engaged,” she blushed slightly, “and well, you know…”
Cyrus snatched it up and stared hard at the text. He looked over at me, dazed. “Oh my God, Daniel!” he moaned. “Introversion. That idiot printer. I dictated that last paragraph over the phone, and didn’t proof it. I had two-hundred copies printed.”
Owen, who hadn’t said a word until now, got up from his chair, and glanced around at the rest of the group. “Um,” he said, “So I’m guessing this isn’t where you prep the exam for Drivers Ed?”
There’s nothing like a good story to bring people out of their shells.