I shuffle down the path from our house to the dock. I've been on the water for so long, my wife Molly tells me, that I've gotten permanent sea legs. I step down into my seine-net fishing boat, the one I bought from my father forty years ago, slide my feet slowly across the deck, and then climb down the rope ladder to a rowboat. Nobody bothers me in the small boat. They assume, I guess, that I'm employed by the real fisherman. I laugh, and a seagull squawks right then, as if we're sharing the joke.
I set myself down hard on the bench and study my hands as if I've never seen them before, surprised at how they remind me of my father's gnarled hands. I tug a corner of the net into my lap, work my fingers through it, a square foot at a time, test it for holes. I knot loose ends, keep pulling it across my lap. This morning is misty, the sky thick gray, the pale jade ocean barely ruffling. "Henry," my wife said to me this morning over breakfast, "it's time for you retire. We could go to Florida, see the kids and grandkids before we're so old we don't want to fly no more."
I have no interest in flying or in retiring. Have the kids visit us here, I say, so I can teach my grandsons to fish, and my granddaughter, a talky one like her grandmother, how to read the waves and sky better than the meteorologists with all their instruments.
I look toward Jewell Island where I plan to fish this morning, take the little boat out and let the nets drift, pull in what I can. Today I don't want to hurry. "You're an old stubborn fool," she said this morning. She's told me that before, and I agree with her, and I tell her I'm my own old fool by choice. What do I want to do with waiting in traffic when I can sit where it's quiet except for the seagulls nattering? I keep pulling the net across my knees, running my fingers along its loops, layering it on the floor in even folds. It's going to rain but I can row out a mile, set out the net, and be finished in time for lunch with Molly, which will please her. Please me too because I'd make a few bucks first. "Why do you keep fishing?" she asks me. "We've saved enough."
The sea air is sharp with the tang of low tide. I don't know how to answer her. I don't want to retire to rocking on our porch, watching the sun go down through that slice of the sea we can see from our house, the two of us not knowing what to say to each other, each of us looking out straight ahead, listening to the rockers squeak on the deck. Loving her isn't the same as wanting to be with her but I can't explain to her that being by myself makes me more available to her.
I finish examining the nets. Stand up slowly unknotting myself. The mists have thickened; the air is chilly. I've still got enough time to row a little ways out but I won't set the nets out today. Just sit out there for a while, letting the waves rock me, and then head back to shore before it starts to rain.
"Henry," I say aloud, "you're not making any sense." I agree with me but I don't know what's bothering me this morning. A minnow pokes its nose up through the green water as if it questions me, too. I lift one of the old oars, its worn wood rough in my hands, and feel its heft. I balance it on the bench, pull the other one up from the floor. I'm out of breath, and sit down again, struggle to catch my breath. When we first got married, Molly and I rowed this boat to Jewell Island for picnics. We'd talked then, about fishing and children, about how she wanted fishing to never be more important to me than us, to promise to tell her if it ever did. I'd promised her I would.
It's begun to drizzle. I've fished in every kind of weather, relished the challenge. White mists drape the island like ghosts. "What's happened to us?" she said this morning, and I'd left the house, letting the screen door slam behind me, and walked past her standing at the top step, twisting one apron tie around her fingers, and shaking her head.
A northwesterly wind has picked up, bringing a chill with it. As quickly as that, summer slides away and fall spills in. I study the green choppy waves and reach into the front pocket of my yellow coveralls for the knit cap and push it on my head, and I think how it's time for me and Molly to talk. That fishing can wait till tomorrow. I slip the oars back beneath the bench and slowly pull myself upright so I won't lose my balance, pull myself up the ladder with the nets draped over my shoulders and spill them on the deck of my seiner, and lumber down the gangplank toward home, and Molly.