Deep Sea Fishing
by Marjie Rynearson
Marjie Rynearson currently teaches story structure at the Temple Civic Theatre and the Cultural Activities Center in Temple, Texas. She was the winner of the Norfolk Southern New Plays Competition for her play, JENNY, and was awarded the Golden Cine and the Silver Medal (American Medical Film Festival) for a documentary about Hypochondriasis. She was the founder of the Temple Civic Theatre and was president of the board of Chicago Dramatists.
"We were wrong," he said. "We should have cooked it long and slow."
His eyes opened into a vast experience, a mystery I longed to solve. The secrets of the universe were hiding there, I knew. This frightened me, and at the same time compelled me to follow. I wanted to feel like he looked -- strong, self-confident, full of knowledge and compassion.
He was a famous writer who had come to the Mayo Clinic for psychiatric help. His doctor thought it would be a good idea for him to get out of the hospital. Maybe spend time with a family for Sunday brunch, with someone who had a pool where he could relax, where everyone was sensitive enough to treat him like any other human being.
My in-laws invited us to their pool one Sunday morning to be a part of this perfect family, assembled to make the writer feel comfortable and at home, and ultimately to help him get well. My husband's sisters and brothers and their children were also invited.
By the time we arrived, it looked to me like everyone was being "oh, so nice" to him. They were also all being "oh, so nice" to each other, which wasn't usually the case. In the absence of a celebrity, they were quite human.
I helped our kids into their bathing suits, made sure their dad was watching them, and then went to help Lida, my mother-in-law, with the food. It made me anxious to think a famous person was down there by the pool. We were told to call him Ernest, but I knew I could never do that. Lida said, "Dear, you're missing the party. Why don't you take this tray down and see if anyone wants to nibble on the cheese and crackers while they wait for brunch."
I carried the tray down to the pool and quickly handed it off to my sister-in-law who passed it around. I watched, hoping to learn how to behave, but it all seemed so phony.
He was sparring with anyone who would return his playful punches and telling the older children about his experiences in the war. Despite his gray hair, he was strong and lean. He was trying his best to be social, smiling, perhaps hoping to establish a real relationship with someone.
I had always been shy, not very good at small talk and easily intimidated. This writer was no ordinary person. What was he thinking when he said yes, he'd like to go to some nice people's pool and be with their children and grandchildren? What could he get from us that he didn't already have? What did he know that I needed to know?
When our eyes met, I looked away, determined to give him his privacy, determined not to look like I thought he was an object to be gazed upon, some more-than-human being. Also, I didn't know what to say. We had been told to treat him just like one of the family, but there was no way to look into his eyes and think he was just one of us.
Brunch was served. Mounds of fresh fruit, eggs cooked with chives in a double boiler, sweet rolls from the bakery, coffee, and juices of all kinds, papaya and mango, special for him, and orange and tomato for the rest of us.
For weeks we played this little game, pretending he wasn't someone special. My husband even invited him for dinner one night. I hadn't said more than hello to him. I'd avoided any conversation by pretending I was so busy with my children that I didn't have time for anyone else, not even a famous writer. And now I was going to cook for him . . . dinner.
He said his favorite food was Green Turtle Steak. My husband said he had a friend in the Florida Keys who would air mail the steaks and then said, "My wife will cook them." Oh sure, I could cook. I was a good cook, but turtle wasn't a staple at the grocery, and I didn't know anyone who might have cooked it.
When we got home that day, I rushed to my kitchen. The Gourmet Cook Book seemed the most likely place to find a recipe, but I closed it immediately after reading a recipe that said, "hang this for two weeks in your smoke house" and "serve on a yacht." After another look, I saw three recipes: turtle steaks broiled, turtle steaks baked in white wine, and turtle steaks sautéed, on all page two hundred seventy. I took the book with me to the next Sunday brunch.
When everyone else was busy, I approached him. He smiled as he indicated I should sit next to him at the table. It was as if he had been waiting for me. We looked at the recipes and agreed on broiling the meat. It was quick and not too much work, and the flavor of the meat was truly enough for him. He was delighted. I didn't feel nervous any more because we had a mission. We had Green Turtle Steaks coming on the airplane and we had to get them cooked.
Neither of us had to worry about what to say. I was comfortable talking with this famous man, and he had a reason to listen to me.
From that moment on, we had lots to say to each other. We both liked to fish, we both liked to write, and we talked a lot about our families. Sometimes we just sat and watched the children swim.
He wanted to come to our house early the day of the Turtle Steak dinner, wanted to do some yard work, wanted to outside, wanted to be useful. My husband said he could mow the lawn.
We watched out the window as he pushed the mower back and forth in our tiny back yard. He was lost in the experience. He didn't notice the woman who walked right past him, down our sidewalk.
My neighbor had company that day, and had told her guest to come over to our house and get her bread from the top shelf of our freezer. She walked down the sidewalk through our back yard, into the garage, got the bread and retraced her steps. She glanced over to see who was mowing and said nothing, but picked up her pace and was out of breath by the time she got back. "It's bad enough for me to go into some stranger's garage and take bread out of their freezer," she said, "but they have a gardener who looks just like Ernest Hemingway."
So, we sat down to dinner and began our eating adventure. First our forks met with some resistance, then our knives, and last of all our teeth. If you sucked on the meat, it tasted quite good, but if you were trying to chew it, forget it. I was embarrassed, he was disappointed, and my husband didn't know what to say. Then it dawned on us that together we had failed. "We should have cooked it long and slow."
We began to laugh and lost control thinking about how we might use this turtle leather. Our children came in to see what was so funny. My husband said, "Never mind, it would be too difficult to explain."
We spent the rest of the evening talking about his fishing experiences. He told us he was about to be dismissed from the hospital and would be going home. We were happy for him, that he could go, but sad for ourselves. Both my husband and I had fallen for this honest man who told wonderful stories and who genuinely liked us. It was the kind of friendship where no one expects anything of the other except what's happening at the moment.
Before he left, he made us promise we'd come to Florida and join him on his next fishing expedition. We wondered if he really meant it. We both said we would find the money somewhere, and we would be there. All he had to do was call.
His driver was to pick him up at nine, and the hour had arrived. Our children said good-bye to their Pa Pa Bear, the name he had insisted they call him; my husband shook his hand; and I sneaked one last look into his eyes before we hugged good-bye.
He had handed us a book when he'd come earlier that day, before he'd mowed our lawn. We'd said thank you but hadn't stopped to see if there was an inscription. The book was still on the end of the buffet. I ignored the dirty dishes and the rejected green turtle steak and opened it to the first page. The inscription was to the two of us: "Here's hoping we can fish together sometime. Your old sparring partner, Ernest Hemingway."
It was a copy of The Old Man and the Sea.
"Will you look at this," I said, "He really wants us to go fishing with him."
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