“Well I’ll tell you what it is,” Wendell Brace said. “It’s a god damn shark.”
Bill Alder stood on the hundred-year old hardwoods with his hand still on the doorknob. “It ain’t no shark.”
“You want to place a bet on that?”
“It’s a pond,” Bill said. “You ever hear of a shark in a pond before?”
“I don’t need to have heard of one – I seen one. Right down there in Meredith Pond.”
“When was this, then?”
“I was checking the boat last night. Trying to fix that damn bilge pump. I seen it move under the boat like a shadow the size of you and me stacked right up on top of one another.”
“How many had you had at that point?”
“I didn’t have nothing. I saw it clear as day.”
“How’d it get there then?”
“I don’t know how it got there. Somebody put it there maybe.”
Bill shook his head.
“Go on and get your swim trunks if you don’t believe me. I’ll wait right here for you.”
“I ain’t going swimming in that pond cause don’t nobody want to see a seventy-three-year-old man in swim trunks. Besides, I know as well as you do there’s something in that pond been eating up them largemouth bass. An alligator maybe. A snapping turtle. But it ain’t no shark.”
"An alligator maybe. A snapping turtle. But it ain’t no shark.”
Bill’s wife came up behind him. She grabbed the truck keys from the oak table near the door and stepped out onto the front porch. She wore lose-fitting jeans and still had on her apron, which was covered in grease and blackberry stains.
“Where are you going?” Bill asked.
“I’m going to pick up a tank flapper – unless you were planning on doing it.”
“Hell, we don’t need a new flapper.”
“It’s the flapper that’s broken,” Betty said.
Bill waved his hand like he was shooing away a gnat. “I’ll take a look at it tomorrow.”
“Our water bill doesn’t have time for you to take a look at it tomorrow. I already took a look at it, and it’s the flapper that needs replacing.”
“Just leave it on the counter. I don’t want nothing getting broke.”
“It’s already broke,” Betty said continuing down the porch steps. Her fisherman sweater had bunched up underneath the straps of her apron which were twisted over themselves.
“At least take your dog-gone apron off,” Bill said.
“Can’t get much more broken then it is right now,” Betty said. She walked across the gravel and pulled open the door of the pickup. After a couple attempts the old engine turned over and she started slowly, carefully down the long gravel drive.
Bill shook his head.
“Course, I could show you,” Wendell said.
“And how do you propose to do that?”
“That ain’t for you to worry about.”
Bill pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket.
“We got to leave before sunrise though,” Wendell said. “That’s when sharks are most active. I been reading up on them.”
Bill lit his cigarette.
“On the other hand, you could drive out to the aquarium in Hottelston or else hire yourself a Boston Whaler. But I’m offering you something won’t cost you but a six pack in gas.”
“A six pack?”
“That’s a bargain,” Wendell said.
At night, Bill sat at the dining room table shuffling a deck of cards. The fire breathed in the wood stove and the home smelled of woodsmoke and dish washing soap.
“You want to maybe play some cards with me?” Bill said when Betty had turned off the faucet and begun drying her hands.
“You hate cards.”
Bill nodded and continued to shuffle the deck. “I do,” he said. “But you like them – and that’s how come I’m asking.”
“I don’t want to do nothing with you that you don’t enjoy doing.”
“Well,” Bill said. “I’m asking for you to play. Nobody’s holding a gun to my head.”
Betty turned and faced Bill. She looked old and tired and her glasses had steamed up some from the hot water. “I’ve got to put the cats in,” she said. “I’ve been hearing the coyotes. It seems they start howling earlier and earlier every year.”
“I’ve been hearing the coyotes. It seems they start howling earlier and earlier every year.”
Bill nodded. “I suppose you ought to see to that then.”
In the early morning before the sun rose over the rough hills that capped the town of North Falls and held the first and second branches of the White River, Wendell pulled up Bill’s driveway in his rusted Toyota pickup with the plastic rainbow trout tied to the antenna. Bill was already sitting outside on the porch holding a six pack of bud light, a pole, and some tackle. He wore his good Carhartt jacket and blue jeans and wading boots.
“What have you got there?” Wendell asked when Bill opened the door.
“You think I woke up before sunrise to look for a shark in a pond? I figured I’d see if anything’s biting.”
“You might catch more than you’ve bargained for,” Wendell said.
“It would be the first time.”
Bill put the pole and the tackle in the bed of the truck and set the beer on the bucket seat.
They followed the road around the town cemetery where five generations of Bill’s family lay buried. They passed the small brick firehouse on Elliot Street that had at one time held the harvest dance. It was there that he first saw Betty. Not because she was the most beautiful woman in the room, though she was, but because George Givens attracted the attention of everyone in attendance when he grabbed her by the throat and held an empty beer bottle over her head. At six foot seven and two-hundred and twenty-five pounds, Bill was an imposing figure and despite the glass bottle and the fact that George was about as cocked as a cannon, Bill was able to persuade him to put down the bottle and let the pretty little Wayside Diner waitress go without much argument. Six months later Bill was helping Betty move out of the double-wide trailer that she lived in with George. They loaded her stuff into Bill’s pickup one evening when George was out at the bar. When they had all her things loaded, Bill went inside one last time and grabbed a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom and stuck it under his McAlister fishing cap. He told Betty that George didn’t deserve the paper to wipe his ass. The following summer Bill and Betty were married at the Roman Catholic Church for a total cost of one-hundred dollars.
Wendell made a noise like he was trying to push a pickup out of a ditch and started massaging his neck. “God damn,” he said.
“What’s happened to you there?”
“I been having this stiffness lately – like I’m always going to sleep the wrong way or something.”
“Only one way to go,” Bill said.
“I don’t know – I’m moving around in my sleep then maybe.”
“Maybe you’re moving around a little too much before you get to sleep.”
“I wish that was true.”
“I bet that Elsa Meyers wishes it was true too.”
“I seen you two at the Stagecoach.”
“Elsa just likes to get drunk and dance to Conway Twitty. She don’t want to do nothing more than that.”
Bill ripped a beer from the plastic rings and cracked it open.
“Aren’t those supposed to be for me?”
“I ain’t seen no shark yet.”
“Well give one here. You can consider it a deposit if you like.”
Wendell turned right at a for sale sign in front of a whitewashed barn with rotted out sills and sagging walls. He continued north passed broken down homes. Bill studied the homes. Some of them boarded up – the windows busted in others. All bought up by developers or large farms that hadn’t bothered to come in and fix them. Wendell turned down Rogers Street. They passed an empty building that had once been a grocery store owned by Harold Haggett. Bill and Wendell had worked there as teenagers until they had their employment terminated for having a sit-down-strike on account of their manager, Bobby McLaren, going back on his word to let the employees listen to KPRX on Wednesday nights. Wendell massaged his neck again and turned left onto the single lane road that led to Meredith Pond. The homes that abutted the freshly paved road were large and spaced two to a lot. SUV’s and sport cars sat in the driveways. Toward the bottom of the road was a small tackle shop with a closed sign in the window. Another sign stuck in the grass outside the shop read we support the timber industry. Bill shook his head and took a sip of beer.
“What are you shaking your head at?” Wendell asked.
“You know I was in that tackle shop last Tuesday,” Bill said. “Thought I’d finally get a new pair of waders. Mine haven’t fit right since I had the double-bypass. I must’ve looked at every pair they had in that store. Not a single one under four-hundred dollars.”
“That’s a mortgage payment.”
“Yes it is. Not a real helpful guy working there neither. Just kind of sat at the counter flipping through some magazine.”
“I don’t know who’s buying $400 waders,” Wendell said.
“Not you and me. That’s for damn sure.”
Wendell drove through the open gate and down the gravel and parked in the weeds about twenty yards from the pond. He got out of the truck and grabbed the cooler out of the bed.
Bill stood with his hand on the passenger-side door watching.
“It’s chum,” Wendell said. “Steak bits and some fish. Little bit of bread in there too.”
“You can’t just pour that shit into the pond.”
“What’s the difference between this and what’s in there already?”
Bill shook his head and gathered his pole and tackle. He put the beers in his coat pocket and the two headed down the loose gravel path to the pond.
“She’s leaving me, you know,” Bill said.
“Betty. She wants a divorce. Seventy-years-old. Been together forty-eight of those and she’s up and leaving.”
“What the hell for?”
“Being old and alone is preferable to being with me. That’s what for.”
“Christ Bill – where’s she gonna go?”
“To her sister-in-law’s in South Carolina. She never liked it here anyway. She just assume be somewhere the sun shine down eight days a week.”
Wendell stood still for a moment holding the cooler. His hair was nearly gone under his orange hunting cap and his face looked like a leather mitt that had been run over by a tractor wheel too many times, but he was still in good shape for sitting on the north side of seventy and he had blue eyes that gave him a dignified look like an old movie star so that people often mistook him for having a certain grace, which they generally forgot about the moment he opened his mouth.
“Maybe that’ll change when she sees your picture on the front page of the Falls Press holding onto the tail end of a killer shark,” Wendell said. “The shark that’s been stealing all the town’s fish— turning our pond from one that used to give up forty-plus pound one day stringers to one giving up nothing but duckweed and crowfoot. I’ll even crouch down a little. Make you look like some kind of larger than life super hero.”
“She’d just assume see me with the hook in my mouth.”
The two made their way across the red cedar dock where Wendell had his Jon boat tied up. Titanic he called it. He had even put the name on the side of the boat with some black stick-on letters.
Bill pointed to a couple beer cans stuck in the cattails nearest the shore. “Look at this,” he said. “We never saw any of this when we started out.”
“It’s them god damn leaf-peepers,” Wendell said. “No difference between a pond and a cement pool to them.”
Wendell set the cooler in the fourteen foot boat. Bill eyed the water a little and then put the beers and his tackle and pole beside the cooler. Wendell fiddled with the lock and Bill decided he might as well get in. He stepped into the boat and it rocked back and forth a little.
“Don’t lose that chum,” Wendell said gathering the chain. “I ain’t set up yet.”
Bill got himself situated on the boat seat and looked out over the pond. He thought about the times Betty had come out to the pond. There weren’t many of them. He thought they were good times but he didn’t know anymore. Maybe she always hated them. Maybe she was just pretending. Or maybe she hadn’t even bothered with that. Maybe he just hadn’t noticed how bad of a time she was having.
Wendell dropped the chain in the boat. “It came right under here,” he said pointing to the bow of the boat. “He didn’t give me but a minute.”
Bill looked over the side. Dark as hell. He couldn’t see a damn thing. He guessed it was probably ten feet deep at the dock. Maybe thirty-five feet in the middle of the pond. “I read about this guy up in Johnson,” he said. “He keeps three gators in his basement. The paper says he’s got them in some sort of glass and wood encasement. Says he wants to open a whole exotic pet farm. Maybe one of them got lose up there. Maybe that’s what you saw.” Bill tore a can of beer from the plastic. He had some bourbon in his tackle so he wasn’t worried about moving too fast. “I hear they got alligators in every pond out in Florida.”
“This ain’t Florida,” Wendell said. He removed the padlock from the tee handle bolts and started up the motor. He navigated the boat toward the middle of the pond. The water lapped against the sides. The sun was just starting to come up over the wooded hills in the distance and it felt to Bill like the two of them were in the shade of something too big to see.
Wendell slowed the boat when they were about fifty yards out and dropped the mushroom anchor. “I figure we’re best staying in the one spot,” he said. “We’re about far enough out where we can catch her and then ride her into shore – tire her out.”
“That suits me,” Bill said opening his tackle and grabbing a ten inch straight-tail plastic worm. He hadn’t even gotten the worm on the hook when something slammed into the bottom of the boat.
“Hot damn,” Wendell shouted.
Bill let go of the worm and let the hook fall. He looked over the side of the boat and caught the tail end of something dark moving away from the hull.
“That’s our girl,” Wendell said. “She don’t waste a minute.”
Bill stared out at the water.
“Help me here,” Wendell said grabbing the cooler.
Bill continued to look at the water.
“Come on,” Wendell shouted.
Bill stood and grabbed the other end of the cooler and they dumped half the meat into the water. The meat made a loud splash and for a moment they could hear it sinking but the rest of the pond was silent.
“What the hell was that?” Bill said.
“I told you what that was,” Wendell said gathering the net. “That’s our god damn shark.”
Bill studied the water for a long while then he shifted back in his seat. The air was cool and the boat rocked faintly back and forth. Wendell stood with the net over his shoulder like an old ball player waiting on a fastball but eventually he sat back down. Bill retrieved the plastic worm and tied it to the line. He looked out over the water and then cast the line far from the boat. The two drank their beer and eyed the water as the sun came up over their heads. They didn’t talk much and Bill didn’t get as much as a bite. After a while they got hungry and headed for shore.
Wendell pulled up Bill’s driveway and came to a stop in front of the porch. Cardboard boxes were stacked on the porch against the house and Betty’s sister-in-law’s gray Oldsmobile sat in the gravel drive with a U-Haul trailer attached to the hitch. A kid maybe eighteen-years-old sat in the passenger seat wearing headphones and a hooded sweatshirt and looking down at his phone.
“She don’t waste a lot of time thinking things over,” Wendell said.
Bill got out of the truck and grabbed his pole and tackle.
“We’ll try again tomorrow,” Wendell said. “I got a new idea.”
Bill didn’t say anything. He just shut the door and started toward the house feeling foolish for holding a fishing pole and tackle and smelling like cheap beer while his elderly wife gathered her life’s belongings on the front porch.
The door was partially open and Bill could hear voices coming from inside. He pushed the door open and leaned the pole against the wall and set the tackle down on the hardwoods. He walked through the living room which was dusty and smelled like mold and into the kitchen where Betty was wrapping some old newspaper around a dinner plate.
“I left you most of the dinnerware,” she said. “I just want these ones here. These ones were a gift from my mother.”
Bill looked around the kitchen. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“I already told you that.”
“You told me you weren’t moving till the end of the month.”
“Well Susan’s got the place ready early. I don’t see a point in waiting.”
“Where are you going to stay?”
“I told you. Susan’s got a little basement apartment for me.”
“You’re going to live in a basement?”
“It’s nice. She has it done up nice. And it’s warm out there. It doesn’t get cold like it does here.”
“God dammit Betty – this is ridiculous.”
Susan stood from the table. “Jack and I will start loading some of the boxes,” she said.
Betty waited for Susan to leave the room and then she turned to Bill. “It’s not ridiculous. Don’t call it that. It’s the first thing I’ve done in a long time that’s not ridiculous.”
“You’re seventy years old and getting a roommate.”
“No I already have a roommate – that’s about what you and I have become. Roommates that don’t even talk to one another.
“We can talk,” Bill said.
Betty shook her head. “I’ve already tried that. I’ve been trying that for a long time. I’m not going to do it anymore.”
Bill watched Betty wrap the dinner plate. Her fingers still worked well while his had begun to show signs of arthritis. She set the plate down and faced Bill. She had a good strong face like it had been chiseled out of stone.
“Besides, you’ll have room enough to keep your gear up here. And you can have Wendell over whenever you like. You two can have your run of the place.”
“I ain’t some dog,” Bill said. He ran his hand through his thin hair. His eyes felt swollen. He thought back to that night in the trailer. He never thought he’d have something in common with George, but here he was, losing Betty just the same. “Christ,” he said. “What the hell happened?”
Betty picked at the newspaper. “We don’t need for this to be ugly. We had some good times in our day. It just ain’t our day anymore. It hasn’t been for a long time.”
Bill woke in the middle of the night and found his arm hanging off the side of the bed. He rolled over and swept it across the mattress and felt the empty space. He got up and went to the bathroom and took a long piss and then he went back to bed and climbed under the covers and tried his best to fall asleep. But sleep wouldn’t come. The bed felt large and he couldn’t seem to get himself warm. He couldn’t seem to stop thinking about that shark either. And he realized that at some point between seeing the long shadow under the murky water and waking up in the middle of the night he had decided that’s what it was. A god damn shark making its home in Meredith Pond. He didn’t know if maybe some mischievous son of a bitch put it in there or maybe the damn thing had gotten there itself – bent the grate and swam through the overflow pipes. It didn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense– but then, he figured the world was full of things that didn’t make a hogs nose of sense. He turned over on his back. He could no longer sleep on his side. His ribs ached like he was being stabbed. Forty years swinging a pick axe at the North Falls Granite just like his father and his grandfather before that had turned his body into something he didn’t know anymore. He lay in the dark thinking about the shadowy figure moving under the water until it got to be too much and he pulled the covers from his old and naked body and stepped onto the hardwood floor.
It didn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense – but then, he figured the world was full of things that didn’t make a hogs nose of sense.
He dressed and rummaged through the garage until he found the casting net he and Wendell had used to catch creek chub as boys. He grabbed the bottle of bourbon from the shelf and some raw hamburger from the refrigerator and the keys from the oak table.
His headlights jumped over the ruts in the road. A battered pickup passed going in the opposite direction. He rolled his window down a couple of inches and lit a cigarette. The air was cold. Weeds choked the road on either side. Tumbled stone walls marked boundaries, felled by the long Vermont winters. He passed the cemetery and the ruined barn and then he turned onto the road that led to the pond. Some of the homes along the road had their porch lights on and their fresh-cut yards looked like yellowed mold grown up through the concrete.
He pulled through the gate and parked in some wood sorrel. The moon was full overhead. He put out his cigarette and gathered his equipment and walked along the dirt path until he reached the dock. It wasn’t until last summer that Wendell had bothered to lock his boat. That was the summer someone had taken Herbert Bradley’s fourteen-footer for a joy ride and crashed it into the side of the dock, damn near killing some little boy who was sitting there dangling his toes in the water. It wasn’t all that long ago that everyone in North Falls knew whose boat was whose – and nobody that shook your hand on a Sunday was going to piss on your property on a Monday. But neither of those things was true any longer. Bill lowered to his haunches and put Wendell’s birthdate into the lock and pulled the chain free.
The water was dark. The sky purple and the light of the moon blunted by thick clouds. He put the motor in neutral and opened the choke and pulled the chord. The engine kicked and he brought the boat slowly out to the center of the pond.
Bill unwrapped the raw hamburger he had taken from the refrigerator and tore off a couple small pieces and tossed them over the boat. He stood studying the water and coiled the rope. He placed the net on top of the coil. He slid his hand down the net and made a second coil. The weight of the net felt natural in his hands; like riding a bicycle, he thought. The wind picked up and rocked the boat. He spread his feet shoulder-width apart. The trees that surrounded the pond were tall and dark. He knelt down and pulled the lead line. Bill had showed Betty how to use the net when they were younger, but she never took to trapping. She didn’t have any qualms about taking individual fish from a pond, but there was something about seeing a whole bunch of one species caught up together that didn’t sit right with her.
Bill held the net and narrowed his eyes on the water.
“Come on you old bastard,” he said.
The wind blew and Bill looked toward the shore and then back to the water. The water lapped gently against the side of the boat. He wished he had brought some food. He felt lightheaded. He sat down still holding the net. He wondered how long ago Betty had decided to leave him. He wondered if there was anybody else who had known. Wendell hadn’t seemed all that surprised when Bill told him – but he pushed that thought quickly from his mind. He knew he was just clawing at things – trying to grab hold of something concrete.
“Come on you old bastard,” he shouted standing back up. “Let me see you then.” He lifted the net above his head. His throat was dry. After a moment, he brought the net back down. He was too old to be on a boat in the middle of the night. He needed to be home where someone could call the ambulance if he fell going to the toilet. But there was no one to do that anymore. He’d end up dead in his house until the neighbors started smelling something foul. Or until Wendell got worried enough to bust a hole in the window. He dumped the rest of the hamburger in the water and started the engine and headed back to shore.
About thirty yards from shore the motor gave way.
“Son of a bitch,” he said.
He knelt down on the net that lay on the floor of the boat and examined the engine. He checked the fuel and the kill switch. He held his hand over the engine. He looked up at the shore and tried to estimate how he would fare if he had to swim. He figured he could make it to the dock and into the truck without killing himself. But he’d catch a bad cold and he’d have to explain to Wendell why his boat was sitting in the middle of the pond unmanned. He studied the water between the dock and the boat. He was thinking that maybe he could use his hands as oars when a small drift line appeared in front of the dock. He kept his eye on it. The drift line faded and then reappeared and he thought he saw something white break the surface. He narrowed his eyes and watched the drift line began to move toward the boat.
“What in the hell?”
He searched for a fin but didn’t see one. He grabbed the casting net and stood. He started to coil the rope over his hand but he was stepping on part of the net and he couldn’t distinguish the end from the beginning. The water around the drift line had weltered and begun to foam. He figured he had about five seconds to get the net ready and he began to count. 1 . . . 2 . . . 3. He coiled the rope as fast as he could and then he tried to step out of the net so that he could cast but his boot got tangled and instinctively he whipped his arms over his head to try and regain his balance. The net shot upward and took his leg out from under him and he stumbled and fell onto the floor of the boat. He tried to untangle the net from his legs and something slammed into the bottom of the boat. He started to crawl toward the motor not sure what he would do once he got there and something struck the boat a second time, sending him over the side and into the cold water.
The water filled the space around him. His ears rung. He widened his eyes but couldn’t see anything save for the dark. Something pushed against his side and lifted him like a wave and then let go. He swung his arms wildly through the empty space until he gained enough control of his limbs to swim upward toward the surface.
He pulled himself onto the boat and collapsed on the fiberglass floor. He laid there on his back blinking his eyes. Water pooled along the ridges of his face. He felt his side for a wound but found none. His heart pounded against his rib cage. After a moment he forced himself to his feet aware that old bodies went into cardiac arrest for less that he just went through. He climbed over the bench seat to the motor and opened the choke and pulled the chord as hard as he could. This time the engine started like it was fresh out of the box.
He eyed the dark water as he steered the boat to the dock. His body shivered with cold. The clouds had thinned and the moon was bright overhead.
He reached the dock and stepped out onto the cedar boards. His fingers were numb and he fumbled with the lock and the chain until the boat was secure and then he headed for his truck not bothering to take his fishing pole or tackle or the half-gone bottle of bourbon with him.
When he reached the truck he blasted the heat. He removed his water-logged shoes and sopping wet socks and tossed them onto the passenger floor. He removed his coat and sweater and put on an oil-stained t-shirt that he kept under the seat as a rag. He concentrated on his breathing, counting slowly until his heart settled. The water was motionless beyond the trees. He turned on the radio and leaned back in his seat. A song he hadn’t heard in a long time was playing. He let the heat warm his body and tried to remember the words.
Ian Pisarcik was born in a small town in New England. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works as an attorney. He is seeking representation for his first novel and is hard at work on his second. His work has been published in Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment.
Read our interview with Ian here.