My grandmother had an old sign hanging from a rusty nail in the living room on the clapboard wall that read, “Lord give me the grace to catch a fish so big that even I, when telling of it afterward, may never need to lie”. The sign hung next to a picture of Jesus right by a fireplace that had been sealed off. My grandmother fished, mainly using a cane pole cut, dried, and fashioned from reeds on my uncle’s farm. My grandfather, too, fished, and in fact everyone in our family fished at some point. In fact, you might’ve been considered “off” or “not quite right” if you didn’t. In Southern Georgia, people fished in ponds, rivers, or lakes with water that looked like dark tea and they were constantly scanning for moccasins.
When I was standing in the Davidson River in the Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, North Carolina, on a day when the mist floated on the river, I thought about my family who would have enjoyed this—-the coolness, the lack of gnats, clear water rushing over rocks, and bite after bite by beautiful rainbow trout. They would’ve loved the overhanging Rhododendrons in bloom until their carefully tied flies got hung.
What they wouldn’t have loved is that I hired guides to assist us, not because we couldn’t do it on our own, but because I didn’t have the equipment or garb needed—socks, waders, fly rods, flies, nets, and because I didn’t know much about fly fishing. I’ve been behind a desk for twenty years, not fishing in a river. What they would have hated most is the concept of catch and release. In fact, I could hear my grandmother saying, “I don’t believe in that,” just like she’d said about the moon landing. It’s not that she denied reality so much as it was something that wasn’t practical in her world. The point to them would be to catch, clean, fry, and eat them. The point to me was to get out of the office, turn off the devices, spend quality time together doing something we’ve never done, learn new things, and enjoy one of the most beautiful areas of the South. What my grandparents would have also thought absurd was not keeping up with how many we caught. At the end of our time, the guides thought we caught seventeen. To us, it didn’t matter. We had no need to lie, to talk about the ones that got away, to talk about who caught the most or the biggest. We simply hated to leave the river and now, back in the world with all of our devices, we long to return.
The Last Word
When she turned seventy, Annis spent what had been writing time taking care of her husband: preparing breakfast, dishing out a handful of pills for everything from acid reflux to anti-stroke, cleaning the wheelchair with alcohol wipes, changing his diaper and wiping his privates, sponging him with soap and water, and spoon feeding him. Home health from the state came twice a week, but these tasks had to be done daily. Since high school, they’d done everything together from working the farm to raising their children and taking care of and later burying their parents. Somewhere in between, Annis had managed to write, mostly in the morning, reading everything out loud to him and catching her own grammatical and content errors.
She had her first publications in small literary magazines, managed by artsy folks who loved her Faulkneresque style, her keen Weltyish description, her O-Connor-like wit, yet what she wielded on the keyboard was different and unfolded in its own distinct Southern style. Set in a geographic region of swampland South with rough, God-loving characters who straddled the thin line between saved and sin, her ten novels, two collections of stories, and countless other stories raised eyebrows. Through the years, Annis had anorexic literary agents who wore all black, old gay giants of publishers who were known to make starving artist discoveries, and media hounds who pounced on every new story.
Annis didn’t travel much at all because of anxiety and previous wrecks, the last of which was the most traumatic. She was plotting and describing her story, “Julie’s Song”, a modern version of a Shakespearean love story with rape and spousal abuse by a grotesque figure when she hit a pine log truck head on. Though the air bag saved her, she had been jolted back to reality and came to the conclusion she could no longer drive because she was so obsessed with stories. So, Waylon drove and she told him stories and he offered his opinion and enjoyed watching her on stage speak to crowds who smothered Annis afterward for a signature while Waylon dreamed of book royalties turning into a new John Deere combine with an air conditioned cab with a FM stereo, but when Annis found Waylon slumped at the breakfast table, blood running from his nose, muttering gibberish and not able to lift his right side, she knew they’d scale back readings and book signings and farming, promoting books on social media and renting the land to keep income flowing to pay for health care.
As the weeks passed, the agent moved on to clients churning out youth fiction and chic lit, the publisher rejected the eleventh based on falling sales on paperbacks, gigs dried up, and the media covered book fairs in larger cities where they picked what writers they thought would appeal most, like apples in a tree. Annis knew she would and could focus on Waylon and plot and transcribe when he slept and at night when the moon shown light through the kitchen window and the owls called to each other, but most of all Annis knew that as the crowds faded, she would save the best for last and would have the last word, a word people read and talked about long after the other movie goers had gone home.
Niles Reddick’s collection Road Kill Art and Other Oddities was a finalist for an Eppie award; his novel Lead Me Home was a national finalist for a ForeWord Award. His work has appeared in anthologies Southern Voices in Every Direction, Unusual Circumstances, Getting Old, and Happy Holidays and has been featured in many journals including The Arkansas Review: a Journal of Delta Studies, Southern Reader, Like the Dew, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Pomanok Review, Corner Club Press, Slice of Life, Faircloth Review, and many others. He works for the University of Memphis at Lambuth in Jackson, Tennessee. His new novel, Drifting too far from the Shore, is forthcoming in 2016. His website is http://www.nilesreddick.com