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Creek Bait by Richard Lutman

Creek Bait by Richard Lutman

Fiction, Vol. 6.3, Sept. 2012

What do the drivers see as they pass the woven wooden fence on their way to Wyndmoor, Chestnut Hill or Jenkintown? A shape standing at the window like a crazy person with nothing left to do but watch the trees.

I turned away. My steps echoed in the upstairs hallway of my father’s house as I walked to the room where I used to sleep and dream of the images I wanted to put onto film. Images I thought meant something, like the framed photo of the bait shop near Barnegat, New Jersey that hung on a wall opposite the bed where I slept. In the picture my younger brother Howard and I stood in front of the run down building, the worn black letters: FRESH BAIT off to one side of us.

Tape covered a crack in one of the windows; a CLOSED sign was taped to another window. The front end of the faded white building faced the road. A pier jutted out into the tidal creek. A rotting wooden skiff had been pulled up onto the mud flats below. I never forgot the thrill I felt as my father snapped the picture. That night I dreamed of bait shops and the smell of the mud flats and salt air.

*

I caught my first crab when I was nine with a fish head in the marsh next to the bait shop. I stood in my shorts on a mound of submerged marsh grass. The water was so clear I could see the eyes of the fish head staring at me as the blue claw crab inched up through the water. My father scooped the crab into a net, the still water breaking into tiny waves. That night I tasted my first crab. Later, at low tide, I walked on the squishy mud flats with Howard, chasing the fiddler crabs out of their holes. They scampered about, hiding behind their huge front claw. I caught a bucket full. The next day they had all died and begun to smell.

The film I’d always dreamed of making about a bait shop would have a flat-bottomed boat tied to a dock and herons poised on yellow stilts. High tide flooding the marsh. On the wall shiny lead sinkers and hooks of all sizes in plastic packets. Headlights from the old highway bouncing off the water and a breeze that constantly smelled damp and weedy. On one wall would be a large stuffed fish and shark’s teeth.

“Biggest fish ever caught in these parts,” my father would say as I imagined him staring into the camera. “Used three pound test line to bring it. Yeah. Lucky catch. Have a beer.”

The fisherman would nod and go off with a quart of crabs, three sinkers and a reel of line.

The images lay in my head like something that hurts before it’s broken, before it’s finished. I wanted to throw a towel over my head to shut everything out or get so drunk I would no longer be able to feel anything.

*

The acre and a half field behind my father’s house was overgrown and needed cutting, something I had liked to do when I lived there. Then after cutting the grass I’d sit on the back porch in a rocking chair drinking beer and look out through the apple trees to the freshly cut field, hot and green in the warm twilight, the air sweet with the scent of the broken grass. The sky, turning light purple and the thick odor of oak leaves. The moon, a hot white above the power lines on the ridge above Lost Valley, a small marsh between the iron legs of the power lines where I’d made my first movie, quick cutting images of the power lines with the opaque water of the small stream that ran down the center of the valley. What had I been trying to say? The end of the world? As I edited the film I broke out into a sweat.

In my bedroom a chair and sofa were draped in sheets and pictures leaned against the wall wrapped in newspaper. Boxes had been pushed against the bed. I knelt and searched for the reels of film I’d put there. Had I been responsible for all the images in the cans? I opened one of the cans, took out the film and held it to the light, then rose and threaded it through the dusty viewer I’d mounted on a desk that had once been my editing table. The film was of my father’s first hound running in circles on a deserted beach in New Jersey. I turned the crank faster and faster until the dog’s legs were a blur and the end of the film clattered through the viewer.

The camera I’d taken the pictures with had been a 16mm Bolex I’d saved up for. It had two lenses and a mount for a light meter. I’d taken it everywhere with me. For awhile the only world that made any sense to me was what I saw through the lenses. I finally had to sell the camera to help pay for my divorce to Vicky.

It was late summer, one of those leaf-droopy days that still smelled of heat, when I first met Vicky. I should have known from her look that I would regret that meeting. I was lonely and she seemed excited when told that I made movies. She smelled like she had just showered. Her brown eyes held judgments even then. When we kissed for the first time she hardly said anything, just touched my cheeks with the tips of her fingers as if doubting my existence. It was nearly Christmas when I asked her to marry me.

We slipped into an easy acceptance of each other in a way we had thought happens only a time or two during a lifetime. W e loved being together and she let me make movies of her. Sometimes she was a clown, a vamp, or a stripper. After three years the movies were no longer exciting and we found ourselves trying to avoid eye contact when we were together. When she asked me if I truly loved her I didn’t know what to say. In bed that night she had turned away. The next morning she no longer looked at me.

Sometimes I missed her and the way she held a cigarillo between her two fingers and posed as a streetwalker to get my attention, a pose that became the symbol of the futility of our marriage.

Below me I heard my father on the back porch and found him downstairs holding a large peanut butter jar that contained a praying mantis on a twig.

“Seven flies,” he said. “That’s a record for him. A record. The flies have to be alive or he won’t eat them.”

“Does he eat anything other than flies?” I asked, half-curious about the angular green body. I remembered once I’d found an egg sack on a bush and brought it home. The babies hatched almost at the same time in the warm room and tickled the skin across the back of my hand until I shook them off. They fell on the floor, where they looked like thin green splinters.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never seen him eat anything but flies.”

“How big is he going to get?”

“Several inches,” he said. “I can’t let him go yet. It’s still young and won’t survive. Why don’t you make a film about—some science fiction thing?”

Without waiting for an answer he pressed his face against the jar. The mantis waved its legs at him.

He put the jar down, opened the lid, and shoved in two more flies, then turned to face me.

“You didn’t stay in Montana very long,” he said.

“I’m going to New York tomorrow. If I find a job there I won’t go back.”

“You can’t just do as you please,” he said. “Look what happened to your marriage. I feel like a beer. What about you?”

I turned away, walked into the kitchen, and opened the refrigerator. I took out two bottles and decided to call Vicky.

The phone rang four times before she answered. When she heard my voice, the line went dead.

I slammed the receiver down, took the beer, and walked outside to clear my thoughts and look at my car, which I’d left at the bottom of the driveway. I opened the door and slid into the front seat, imagining the highways I’d seen through the windshield on my way to Montana. My father stared at me through the car window.

“Where’s my beer?” he said.

I held it out to him, then opened the car door and stood in the driveway.

“What are you going to do with your car? You can’t keep it here forever.”

“I won’t. I’ll give it to Howard. Where is he anyway? I was looking forward to seeing him.”

“Didn’t come home last night,” he said. “He’s got some girl out near Jenkintown he’s been seeing a lot of lately.”

“Good for him.”

“Her father’s a tailor,” he said.

“Nothing wrong with that.”

“She’s a whore,” he said.

“How do you know?”

“Her type always is.” Beer ran down his chin as he took a long drink from the bottle. “I hear Vicky’s getting married.”

The news wasn’t unexpected. The intimate moments we had shared would now be shared by someone else. For a moment I felt angry and jealous. I wanted to go back to my room and sit in the familiar silence.

Back in the kitchen my father opened a drawer and took out a pair of spaghetti tongs and snapped them in the air, then pulled the spaghetti from the pot into a strainer.

“How was your trip?” I asked. Every year he took a two-week vacation to places he’d seen in National Geographic. This year he’d gone to the Pacific.

“Wasn’t bad,” he said. “Everybody got diarrhea from the food and one man had to leave when he came down with appendicitis.”

“Did you get any good pictures?”

“A few. The ones from the Galapagos Islands were the best. It was hot and lots of tortoises fucking. One just climbs up on the other and that’s that.”

The front door slammed and Howard came in with the goofy smile of someone who was stoned. He clattered about in the refrigerator looking for beer.

“Have you ever seen tortoises fuck?” Howard looked at him and started to laugh.

“Be right back,” said our father and pushed through the steam, then returned with a slide and a black hand viewer. Howard put a slide into the slot. He laughed again then handed the viewer to me.

In the center of the picture among some gray rocks were the tortoises. A man in a Hawaiian shirt stood in the background. The picture was well-composed, as were most of the shots he had taken. I wondered how I would have photographed the same scene.

“Who’s the guy in the flowered shirt?” I said.

“A doctor from New Jersey. The heat was too much for his wife and she didn’t go ashore. His name was McIntyre. The fucker could really drink.”

The spaghetti dripped noisily into the sink from the strainer. The sauce bubbled on the stove like the mud springs I’d seen in Montana.

“Come and get it,” said my father. “Eat it all. My dogs don’t like spaghetti, even if I put meat in it. They’ll eat anything except spaghetti.”

The dogs whined and scratched at the pantry door. The kitchen smelled of hot, wet pasta.

I reached for the tongs and pulled at the quivering mound draining in the sink, pretending I was a matador dancing about a bull.

*

The walls of the hotel room on 72 nd and Ninth where I was staying had once been white, but were now gray and cracked. The bureau had a broken leg and was pushed tightly against the wall so it wouldn’t fall. There was one hard wooden chair and a small closet next to a basin with sputtering faucets. The bathrooms were down the hall by the pay phone.

If this had been a film there would have been a bug crawling slowly across the wall when I woke up half-drunk from a night at the Molly B. The wall would suddenly crack open and I would go crazy and become slovenly and unshaven, drinking heavily and not eating until I saw a poor girl selling flowers in the street below. She would lift her face toward me and smile, saying, “Flowers, fresh flowers.” Then, looking at the pure lovely face, I’d want to go on living.

When I’d finally got up and walked to the window and looked out, there was nothing but the tail of a dead squirrel fluttering in the street beneath the moving tires. A truck blew its horn and I stumbled to the bureau for what was left of the wine I’d bought last night. I pulled the cork and drank until I could hold no more, making my stomach hurt all over again.

How much better would I have been had I’d stayed in Montana? It was a strange land full of distances I’d never known before. The quick images: aspens, the Rockies, cedars, the prairie, and the biting winter air. It was outside Billings where I’d cleared a smashed bird with brown and black feathers from the grill of my car. The first Indian I’d ever seen was drinking whiskey at a bar near a truck stop and reciting poems about his father as he once was in his feathers. In another poem, four eagles had come singing.

I didn’t know what I’d expected as I came down through the Bozeman Pass into Bozeman. Banks, a couple of movie theaters, some stores, then the open land again with mountains and more distances I still didn’t understand and didn’t want to return to.

*

I opened the door of the Sterling Employment Agency near Penn Station and stood for a moment. The room smelled like an old rug. The brown plastic chairs with shiny metal legs were full and four people had spread out against a wall at a narrow counter filling out aqua-colored forms. No one looked up when I entered.

“May I help you?” said the receptionist to my left. She wore glasses and was rather plain-looking, a glimmer of sweat shining over her upper lip.

“I’d like to fill out an application,” I said.

“For what position?”

“The one you advertised,” I said.

“Which one was that?”

“For the film editor.”

“Oh, that one. Do you have a resume?”

I rested my briefcase on her desk, took out my resume, and handed it to her. She took a clipboard from the pile by the phone, scribbled something on a small white card attached to it, and handed the whole package back to me.

“Fill this out, then return it to me. One of our counselors will be with you shortly.”

Another man entered and stood behind me. Candy crunched in his mouth.

“Can I help you?” the receptionist said.

“I’m here about the film editor’s job,” his voice wavered.

“Do you have a resume?”

“Yes.”

I walked to the counter. The information was always the same, yet my hands still shook and my knees felt weak. Name. Date of birth. Phone. Address. Employment history. Dishwasher. Driving a cab. Getting drunk. Smoking dope. Marriage. Divorce. Selling encyclopedias. There was little room left to list my film experience.

*

Professor Meyer of Film and TV 101 leaned against the small desk in front of the room looking at us with his sad eyes, the still-unlit cigarette hanging from his mouth. Two latecomers entered, which gave him a chance to remove the cigarette, crush it out in the ashtray on his desk, then get another. One of the latecomers was Janet, the blonde from Malta. Her hair was straight, but because she liked to twist it on top of her head, she looked like a little girl playing at being old. She wanted to be a producer and had never been too friendly with anyone in the class. She sat behind me and fumbled with her glasses. Her perfume smelled like dead flowers and made me sneeze. The other was Dale from near Big Timber. He was still on crutches as a result of falling from a horse. He’d lost his grip while trying to shoot film of a cow being roped. The resulting film had been jerky, twisting skyline then dirt. He hunched himself into a seat in the front row and stuck out his plaster cast, which was covered with writing.

“What is editing?” said Meyer, looking past us to the studio walls covered in burlap.

“First,” he said staring down at his hands. “It’s the process that transforms a miscellaneous collection of badly focused, badly exposed, badly framed shots containing reverse screen directions, unmatched action, disappearing props, flare, and hairs on the aperture, but not containing close-ups, cut-ins, or cut-aways, into a smooth, coherent, and effective visual statement of the original script for which the director takes full credit. Just like God takes credit for your life.”

He paused, as if waiting for someone to say something. No one did and he changed the unlit cigarette again.

“But in truth it’s the process of creatively assembling and splicing together the various scenes of a motion picture, both pictures and sound, into a coherent and meaningful continuity of action or idea according to the script and/or the wishes of the director. Always the director.”

He turned to the blackboard and wrote in thin, lean capital letters:

IMPLICATIONS: PHYSICAL (MECHANICAL)

Again, he faced us.

“This is the handling, splicing, and resplicing of film,” he said dryly. “No creative decisions are involved. None at all. Just like fate.”

He returned to the board.

CREATIVE: THE CONTINUITY OF THE FILM. HOW IT IS TOLD VISUALLY. COMPILATION FILM. THE JUXTAPOSITION OF IMAGES SHOT AT DIFFERENT TIMES, PLACES, AND LOCALES.

The chalk broke and fell to the floor. He took another stick from the trough at the bottom of the board and continued without pausing.

DISTINCTIONS: CUTTER. THE PHYSICAL WORK. NON-CREATIVE.

FOLLOWS THE BLUEPRINT OF THE EDITOR.

THE EDITOR: BOTH CREATIVE AND PHYSICAL.

“Does everyone have this?” he said.

The paper in front of me was blank.

*

A man in shirt sleeves came out of one of the employment agency offices holding a card.

“Bill,” he called.

A young man with a moustache stood up and followed the man into the room.

An older woman holding three cans of film returned the clipboard to the receptionist and leaned against the counter looking at me, then shifted her eyes to stare at the others in the room. Another man in a suit came out of the door marked “2.”

“Tony.”

A bearded man with glasses rose and walked briskly across the room.

I finished the information and placed the clipboard on the receptionist’s desk, then returned to rest my elbow on the counter with the woman and her film cans.

The waiting room was quiet until someone coughed and the pages of a magazine turned noisily. The doors behind the receptionist opened and two men poked their heads around the departing figures.

“Annabelle.”

“Joseph.”

I got up and followed a tall man in a blue shirt and red tie into a small office. Behind me I could hear the woman with her film cans. I waited for him to sit before I did. His desk was clean with only a telephone and a small gray metal box full of cards. He looked through my resume and application.

“The editor’s job has been filled,” he said. “But I can start you right out as an assistant manager at a movie theater on 47th Street. It’s a first run house.”

I thought of the woman and her film cans and almost felt like laughing out loud.

“You’d have to be bonded, of course. Unless you are already?”

“No. I don’t think I am,” I said.

“Not much to it, really.”

I studied him as he went through the cards. His fingers were fast and sure. He found the card he was looking for then raised his head toward me.

“I can arrange for an interview today.”

“Sounds good.”

He smiled, dialed a number, then talked briefly to someone named Bagnall.

“All set. You’re to be there at two.” He opened a drawer and took out a form, which he filled in and put into an envelope. He handed it to me. Through the cellophane window, I could see the words, This is to introduce

“Let me know how it goes, will you?”

“I will,” I said, taking the envelope he handed me.

I stood up and headed for the door.

Once I reached the street, I gazed up at the buildings. The sun rushed to meet my face.

Then I remembered that thirty blocks uptown, two James Dean films were playing. I would just be in time to make the first show.

*

The Molly B was a place I’d grown fond of after I moved to New York, when I’d stopped there one day between employment agencies. I’d been back many times since then to have a drink or two before I had to go back to my hotel room.

I liked the Molly B because one of the waitresses looked a little bit like Natalie Wood and seemed to know when I wanted to be alone or when I needed someone to talk to. Sometimes she’d buy me another beer, calling me Cecil B. because I was always looking in the paper for film jobs.

“Any luck today?” she said.

“Not so far.”

“You’ll find something,” she said. “I read in Cosmo that this is going to be a good month. Let me buy you a beer.”

She tried to give me her best smile as she brushed the hair away from her face.

“Things will work out, you’ll see. Just do the best you can and don’t give up.”

“Is that what you do?”

“Yes.”

“At least you have a job,” I said.

“And a child to raise. That makes it a little different.”

“I didn’t know you were married.”

“I’m not anymore,” she said. “We had some good times together in the six years we were married. He liked the zoo a lot, especially after Peter was born. My husband liked to be seen with a child. On Sundays he’d load us up into his old station wagon and off we’d go to the Bronx. He was a machinist before he got laid off. We had some good times, we really did. And he’d always buy this yellow popcorn and a bag of peanuts. He just disappeared one day and I never saw him again.”

She clicked the top of her lighter open and shut.

“I want to bring my child up right,” she said.

“Good for you. What are you doing after you get off?”

“I have to go home,” she said.

“How would you like it if I took you and your son to a bait shop, and then we could go catch crabs? When I was younger I never forgot the first crab I caught.”

“Bait shop?”

“It’ll be fun. I could make a movie….”

“I have to get back to work.”

I watched her walk back to the table where a young couple sat. They were laughing.

I finished my beer and went back into the night where the city stretched away into the stars. People hurried by me, their footsteps and voices vague and indistinct. I felt as though I were being pressed and ground down. I turned and walked as fast as I could to Penn Station and took a train to the New Jersey shore.

*

They guy I’d caught a ride with left me on the shoulder of a narrow, two-lane road across from a bait shop that didn’t look the one from my childhood. It was a small gray building that badly needed a coat of paint. To one side the husk of a car sprouted flowers from its trunk. An old man sat in a battered boat tied to the end of the dock. I heard the twitter of sandpipers and the slap of water against the pilings.

I took a step across the road, then another, and found myself staring down at him. His hands were weathered and grooved, the skin of his face elastic and tough.

“Before I come here,” he said in a raspy voice, “I fish with eight tubs for the cods, then down to six. four. Then none. My house is neat, yard clean. And the house inside is clean. No man can ask for more. All I want is to get a brown suit I see in the store to be laid out in. Half a mile of line for each tub. Every eight feet a hook, corks to keep the line above the starfish and bottom crawlies. An hour to bait each tub. Two miles of line.”

He flipped the cigarette into the water, then stood up and handed me one of the bait traps in the bottom of the boat, then another. I stacked them on the dock as he nodded at me.

“My customers wait at four a.m. for me to open. I close for the night only when there isn’t any more business. I love to talk to the fishermen and never give them a bum steer. I love it. Love waiting on the customers.

“We sell bait—that’s it! Sell more crabs than anyone in the state!” he said. “Thirty to forty bushels a week. Sell anything for fishing. And if a stranger comes in that doesn’t know where to go fishing, I take him there.

“I used to charge seven dollars a quart for fiddlers. I’d tell them, if you don’t want ’em then I won’t have to send for them.”

“Let me help you with the rest of your traps,” I said.

“Sure,” he said. “You look like a good man. “Stay as long as you want. I always need help.”

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