I recently had one of those dangerous ends-in-a-zero birthdays that lure middle-aged guys into taking stock of their lives. This is a dicey business, frequently leading to despair and rash action, such as running off with the baby-sitter or dropping 60 grand on a candy-apple-red pickup with a Viper V10 engine that will pass anything on the road except a gas station. Me, I went bass fishing, arranging to meet my buddy Greg at a nearby lake.
Greg is a curmudgeon, a painter and sculptor whose work gets high marks from critics but is too candid and straightforward for our sophisticated times. His latest project, for example, is a series of anatomical human hearts about four times life-size, meticulously sculpted in red cedar. A rare hereditary disease in Greg’s family caused the hearts to pack it in early, almost before they got started. Eight siblings, including his twin, died in infancy or childhood. Greg doesn’t know how or why he escaped, but he grew up more closely acquainted with death than any kid ought to. His two obsessions, art and fishing, help him cope. Each cedar heart requires thousands of hours of focused solitude with chisels, gouges, and carving burrs. He fishes like he sculpts, so I learned long ago not to promise to be home by a certain hour when I go fishing with him.
The weather on the anniversary of my birth was practically an invitation to self-pity: hot and thermally inverted, a sky the color of plumber’s putty holding down air that you didn’t want to inhale any more of than necessary. We figured the bass would be deep and set about trying to dredge some up, starting with the closest structure, the riprap where a bridge crosses the lake. Greg was throwing a deep-diving Shad Rap that looked like a perch dressed in drag, and I was slow-rolling a ½-ounce spinnerbait. It was too deep to anchor, so we drifted under the bridge, paddled back up, and drifted it again. All the while, Greg ridiculed my spinnerbait, a lure he considers vulgar. “There is nothing in nature that looks like that. Have you ever in your life caught anything with it?” I told him that I had, as he very well knew but had forgotten because his fragile ego deletes any memory in which he is outfished.
After a spell we headed for a line of standing timber that marked a drowned road and tied up to a dead trunk in 25 feet of water. Greg tied on a Zoom Trick Worm in watermelon gold glitter. For two hours straight we fished without a hit. Finally, at about 7 P.M., the day began to soften. Snapping turtles surfaced and blew bubbles. A bullfrog started honking in the long grass along the bank. Suddenly Greg grunted. “I’m on.” A fat 2½-pound bass jumped twice on its way into the boat. Five minutes later something slammed my spinnerbait and started to torpedo this way and that under the surface. It was a tiger muskie about 2 feet long and mad as anything that dinner came with a hook in it. With my spinnerbait mangled, I made a small gesture with my left hand and soon a fresh Zoom slapped me in the back. Such are the advantages of fishing with the same guy for 20 years.
We each set the hook on a few more bass before my cellphone buzzed in my pocket. It was my wife, Jane, who, strangely, asked to speak to Greg. In the stillness of the twilight, I could hear every word. The guests had been waiting at the house for an hour. Had he forgotten? “Not at all,” he said evenly. “Everything’s fine.” Greg ended the call and handed the phone back. Great. Jane didn’t know that relying on Greg to leave off fishing and get me to my own surprise party on time was like asking Michael Jackson to stop hanging out with kids and meet you at a policeman’s ball. Even if we paddled back immediately and I broke the speed limit the whole way, I wouldn’t be home for another hour. Greg calmly rerigged his worm and tossed it out. “Let’s make a few more casts,” he said. We did, and by the time I got home, the 30 or so guests still there had switched over to water. The cake was brought out, the song was sung, and they left. Greg, showing a good instinct for self-preservation as well as his usual antisocial tendencies, told me he would see me at the party and went home for the night.
Two days later he called to see if I could meet him on Thursday at the lake. “You know, I think that riprap’s beat,” he said. “We should just head straight for the wood.” I was tempted to point out how he had ruined a good party, nuked a week’s worth of planning by my wife, and left a crowd of people cooling their heels–all to chase a green fish. But those decade birthdays will wise you up. What had happened was done, and dredging it up wouldn’t change that. You only get so many old friends over a lifetime, and you’re lucky to have them. I’ve been told I’m not always a box of chocolates myself.