Before the wildlife department came in and poisoned the pond, it was nameless and wild. A mystery, a glacial hiccup, a vertebrae popped out of place near a bend in the Green River. Some said the river flowed into the pond, but there was no visible evidence. They said sometimes salmon made a wrong turn, swam up its invisible tributary and became trapped. Tales circulated of some guy bagging a twenty pound Chinook, but once you hacked your way in, past the trees and thick bushes that obscured any glimpse of the pond’s existence from the river road, and stood on its dirt banks, looking into its brackish water, almost entirely choked by lily pads and milfoil, you knew the tales were bullshit. Yet something about them still excited me.
I liked to imagine an underground drainage pipe connecting the pond and the river, even if the still water of the pond showed no sign of such an entry. The only bubbles that issued up from the bottom were from diving ducks, frogs and a resident turtle I saw sometimes sunning itself on a dead branch in the water. Other than that, the pond looked dead. A place where bog men emerged, a murky mirror that stole your soul, a lost mood ring, always cloudy and overcast.
But I’d awakened early for enough Saturday morning fishing and hunting shows on ESPN to know that looks could be deceiving. Watching Bill Dance casually hoist a ten pound largemouth bass out of a farmer’s mudhole convinced me that all water held the possibility of fish. I began to look at rain-swollen ditches, man-made apartment complex lakes and oily retention ponds as if fervent fishermen might’ve planted fish in them during the night, that just below the surface these fugitive fish had led secret lives and grown huge, that if only I were the first to ever cast a line in that I could hook a monster.
This mode of thinking often drew crazy looks from strangers as I maneuvered a lure through obviously lifeless waters. If questioned, I told them I was practicing my cast. This usually satisfied them and they moved on, leaving me alone with my fantastical world. The way I wanted it.
So I may have been uninviting when the old man materialized out of the heavy brush and fog and walked up on me that early morning by the pond. I didn’t want another unasked for stranger to come along and piss on my fun, to tell me what was possible and not. I just wanted to cast and reel my purple plastic grub with the flopsy tail above the milfoil, and see what fish might emerge from hiding. I just wanted to discover the world in my own way.
Maybe the old man sensed this. Instead of inquiring if I’d had any luck, he just stood and watched as I cast and reeled. This behavior always annoyed me at the arcade — the kid with no money, watching your every move of the joystick, an oppressive cloud reflected in the Plexiglas screen right next to you. But, as my lure kept returning with huge clumps of milfoil that I had to unhook and detangle by hand, I didn’t seem to mind the old man’s presence. He didn’t feel a need to play armchair fisherman and tell me what I was doing wrong. Like a nature show cameraman, he blended in with the background, until you barely noticed him.
Maybe this should’ve been cause for some worry. Even though I was already taller than my male sixth grade teacher, I was just a boy of eleven. Maybe I should’ve thought of the possibility that this old man wasn’t just watching me fish, but might be leering.
Alone, on a wild pond, buried from the sight of the world. Maybe I should’ve worried about danger (especially considering the pond was only a few hundred feet away from the Peck Bridge, where the first victims of the Green River Killer were discovered by a pair of boys a few years earlier), but it never crossed my mind.
Throughout my boyhood I fell into meaningful friendships with older men easily, be it teachers, coaches, my dad’s co-workers and softball buddies, or just random strangers. I rarely felt like these men were mentors but peers. Maybe because I grew up the youngest in a neighborhood of older boys, I talked to them the way I talked to anybody else.
And though my sexual education, along with many valley kids in the 1980s, was on an accelerated timeline (like the Green River Killer’s earliest victims: mere girls, teenagers, yet already offering themselves to men on Pacific Highway South for quick cash), the notion of another man posing a threat to me, a boy, was foreign. Nobody spoke of such things, except in hushed whispers. As if you spoke too loud, if you somehow called attention to yourself, you never knew what monsters might emerge from the depths.
Off in the distance a freight train echoed throughout the valley. To the north, an endless stream of garbage and dump trucks made their way up Frager Road to the landfill, methane torches blazing on the hillside. While near us, only a trickle of traffic crossed the Peck Bridge to climb the hillside to the west.
For me, half the allure of fishing was dropping out of sight of the world, while still in the world. To blend into the overgrown vegetation, to live my secret life beneath its tranquil surface.
They often say civilization is what stopped Gary Ridgway from killing and dumping young girls on those backroads. That when the wilds were replaced by giant apartment complexes and condos overnight, there were too many eyes. He could no longer do what he wanted, when he wanted. Investigators theorized that he’d died, that it was impossible for a serial killer to stop killing, but civilization had only pushed him further and further away from towns that had become cities, until killing was inconvenient.
For years he blended in with the suburbs, one house looking like another. For years he lived his secret life beneath its tranquil surface. But you know his eye never stopped looking, appraising, hunting, a predator amongst prey.
The old man still watching me, I continued to fish. I didn’t know what to make of him. My grandmother would say people that listen are the most intelligent in the world, but she never said what kind of people said nothing and only watched.
I made several more luckless casts when my rod tip suddenly darted downward, my loose drag sang and line ripped from my reel.
As fast as the fish hit it was gone.
“Looked like it was a big one,” commented the old man.
“Felt like one.”
“I bet there’s a catfish as big as a Buick down there.”
I grinned, recognizing the words of another dreamer.
I lobbed another cast into the murky pond, fog starting to lift some as the day pressed on, able to make out more of my surroundings, and said, “Never know, I guess.”
“Right. You just never know.”
Ron Gibson, Jr. has previously appeared in Stockholm Review of Literature, Cheap Pop, New South Journal, Jellyfish Review, Whiskeypaper, Easy Street, Noble / Gas Quarterly, Harpoon Review, The Airgonaut, Pidgeonholes, Spelk Fiction, Cease Cows, etc. & forthcoming at The Nottingham Review, Rain Party Disaster Society and apt. @sirabsurd