It’s a Johnson Century reel, model number 100B, made in the U.S.A. It used to be my Dad’s—the reel I used when I went fishing as a kid.
There’s a white release button with a smooth indent where your thumb fits, and it makes a delicious click when you push it down. Even sitting on a 5-gallon bucket in the garage, I can’t hear that click without hearing also what comes next, the whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr of a line making hope’s arc to heaven, rising like the angel Gabriel leaving the Virgin Mary, then suddenly recognizing that he’d forgotten something. At its peak, that line is carried by gravity down to the earth, down into the dark, wet, green, down near the thick, red mud where the soul of a fish gets itself wooed.
“I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus said to those leathered few who already knew by trade how hard it was to fish for fish. Fish are fickle as women, and women are fickle as men, and I don’t know how to sink down into the shadows where I am called to go forth and woo, and to preach, and to mother, down in this cold, blind darkness.
The line wasn’t rolled up right the last time this reel was used, and somehow it’s got wound all around the rod handle. A big mess is hanging down in an irreverent tangle, looking like a pretty little blonde baby whose momma didn’t fix her hair before they went out to the I.G.A. to pick up a carton of cigarettes and a sack of light bread.
The top dome is covered in dust, and a crust has collected on top, bits of insects caught in webs, cat hair, and probably spider feces. I suppose there’s something living inside the casing. I want to look inside it, because I remember how it smells like old grease and turns my fingertips silver brown with the residues of metal and oil. Some of my first memories go back to this reel.
Dad always kept a jon boat because he had character. I never did care for a bass boat, those shiny, loud river bullies, smelling like burnt gasoline and gaudied up with glitter. A Jon boat is quiet, dull, and simple. It lets you be a part of what’s around you.
Sometimes when the fish weren’t biting, I would dip the tip of my rod in the water and let a line of it race down and drop on the dry sides of the boat. In full sun, the wet would dry straight off, and there was something hopeful about watching the mark you’d just made lighten back up into nothing. A new beginning. A baptism. “Whiter than snow, whiter than snow, wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” the old people used to sing, and that lyric is woven all through the world.
The casing on the reel is racing green, which I should have told you straight off the bat. Any other color, and it wouldn’t be the same. There’s also a silver pinstripe run round the perimeter. The word “Johnson” is slanted to the right a little, like the bottom of those letters got stuck in 1982. A dial sits on the front of the reel over the thumb button. It’s got numbers nine down to zero, and that’s your tension. Dad knows how to set it so it works. I’ve seen him sit at the kitchen table and take this whole thing apart. He knows where to drop oil in it and how to thread it with a strong new line.
When you’re fishing you need to give a little line for a strong fish, or it will just snap. That fish needs room to run and wear himself down. If it’s too loose, though, if there’s no resistance, he can wiggle off.
You do this, of course, after you’ve teased the little booger into interest with a flickertail that catches the sunlight or with a nightcrawler pinched in quarters with your thumbnail. You do it after you’ve worked your way up under tree branches where it’s a little bit risky, knowing you might get hung up. Fish have personalities, some nibble, some yank and run—and you never know what’s coming, but when it happens, you have to decide what to do about it right then, when to set the hook, and when to give him space.
Lately I’ve been fishing for men like one of those Bubbas who throws a stick of dynamite in the water and collects the dead fish off the top with the net. The world got all messed up, and I’m impatient with it. People got everything upside down, calling good evil and evil good, and I want to share the Gospel with a lit fuse and a ker-blam. I don’t feel like making an art of it any more, sitting still, and taking it one word at a time. “The end is near! The end is near!” Some days I’d rather use fire and brimstone or at least a plague of frogs.
Couple of turns, the dome comes off. It reminds me of those colored metal glasses old people would use for drinking sweet tea. Those glasses would burn your tongue with the cold, and they had a taste to them, kind of like touching your lip to a nine-volt battery. When the ice hit up against their sides, they bing-ed like a dime store countertop bell. It was the best way to drink sweet tea, and a Johnson reel is the best way to catch a bluegill, I don’t care what you say.
Still, I don’t know how to untangle this line. Dad would probably know. He’d probably sit at the table for hours taking it apart, but I’ll just cut it and unwind the yellow outside layer off and pick up the end of a clean start. Thread it through the hole. Screw the lid down.
Lord, have mercy, I don’t know how to be a writer in a place like this, either. I can’t fish these waters. Everything is so tangled up, I don’t know what to say to change anybody’s mind about anything.
But every day the sun still sets, and every evening you can still hear the water splashing laughter against the banks, and the Canadian geese are yakking at each other like women gossiping, and a cool, calm sinks down while the tree frogs make their chorus, and all the natural world turns pink and gold, and longs and aches for the return of the Christ, and I can feel him hovering over the surface of these waters, “Holy, holy holy.”
Here he comes, stirring order from all chaos, speaking “Let there be light,” here and there, just like He’s always done. He still loves this place, even when I get tired of it, and that makes me cry, because I stay so homesick. But here He is filling me up so that there’s nothing left to do but take a deep breath and look out upon the deeps, upon this ghostly netherworld, upon these shadowlands, and cast a line.