There is a door under the overpass. It isn’t a big door, and like many doors under bridges it is covered with graffiti. The runners and cyclists don’t notice the graffiti, it’s endemic. Occasionally small children will notice the door and realize that it’s painted with rainbows, and swirls and glitter: not regular graffiti at all. Before they have a chance to point out the sparkly door to their parents an airplane will roar landing or taking off right over their heads, and the door will be forgotten.
Only at dusk when fishermen come to hook bass, catfish and perch will the door open. It will only open when the fishermen bring their son or daughter to teach, for the first time, how to bait a hook, how to cast a rod, and how to reel in a fish. When the sun is low and the puffy cloud-filled sky is painted pink, purple and orange, and the shadows are deep enough to hide details of faces and bodies, the door will open and he will join the families on the banks with his rod and reel.
He isn’t a big man, if he’s a man at all. The children with ages greater than two handfuls tower over him, so he keeps his distance from them. The little ones, the ones just over a hand old are irresistible to The Fisherman. He’ll watch dad teach his child the steps of a cast – bring the reel back, push down the button, throw the rod forward, release the button – and listen to the short whir and plop of tiny first attempts. The Fisherman calls the fish to his favorite hole. He’ll sit as the father, only the fathers since the mothers are too observant for The Fisherman, grows tired of the lessons and moves down the bank to fish himself. The Fisherman will move closer to the child and throw a hook into the honeypot where he’s called the fish, and quick as a wink, the short man will hook a catfish, identifiable by any child, and reel it in. He’ll make a show of fighting the fish if the child has already noticed him, but if he’s still anonymous he’ll wait until the fish is flopping out of the water before blowing a low whistle. Always then he will have the attention of the child as he reels in the fish and loops his finger into it’s mouth. He holds the familiar creature out to the child and says,
“Wanna see? Don’t touch him. He’s got spikes that will getcha.”
The child knows not to talk to strangers, but this small man has a fish, and a big one, and dad is right there, so he asks, “Where, where are the spikes? Will they hurt me?” The child points to the whiskers and asks, “Are those the spikes?” Danger attracts children of a certain age.
“Nah, those are the whiskers. You can touch those.” The man points behind the head on the sides and top and says, “Here and here. These are the spikes. Don’t touch there. Wanna pet his whiskers?” The fisherman strokes the fish to show it is safe.
Sometimes, but not always, children will reach out and touch the familiar, yet alien whiskers, and the Fisherman has made a catch. If they shy away he’s got to lure them in. If they runs to daddy he’s lost them. If they lean forward wanting to touch, but not willing to reach out he says, “Aw, I’m lettin’ this one go,” and before the child can protest he leans down and releases the fish back to the honeypot. That moment of loss is critical if the Fisherman is going to reel the child in next time. No child wants to miss out twice.
His audience is rapt for the second fish he catches; the child is mesmerized. His rod whips like it’s alive back and forth and the line whizzes until there is a quiet drop of the un-baited hook. Not a minute passes, for children have short attention spans, and he pulls another fish out of the honeypot. He can read the child and read the fish and know if another catfish, a bass or, even once, an eel will delight the most. Always by the second fish the child is his.
“You wanna catch a fish?” The Fisherman asks, returning the second fish to the water.
The child nods, and grabs his fishing pole. He wants to impress this man who has already caught more fish than he’s ever seen on a hook in his short life. He smiles at The Fisherman and shows off what daddy taught him. Not once has this ever yielded a fish for the child. The disappointment is in his face, his posture, and on his empty hook.
The Fisherman leans to the child and whispers, “Do you wanna learn to cast, or do you wanna catch a fish.”
“Catch a fish,” the child whispers back.
“Then give me your pole.”
Without hesitation the child hands over the pole. The Fisherman pauses, finding the fish, and casts into the water. He hands the pole back to the child and says, “Let’s not spoil the surprise. Don’t tell your daddy I did the casting.” The words aren’t necessary. When the child’s pole bends and he feels the tug he forgets everything that happened before. He’ll let out a shout and daddy will come running.
Father and child fight to reel in the fish. The Fisherman casts away from their fish, and focuses his attention on the child’s caught fish. He calms it as the child brings it to land. With a whoop and a holler the fish flies out of the water to the waiting family. The child is excited and terrified. The father is proud and teary-eyed. There is a moment where both dad and child focus on the wonder from the water and that’s when The Fisherman feeds. The love and joy of that moment sustain him. Then, as the father fumbles looking for his camera, The Fisherman prods the fish and it flops to the ground, and then back into the water. This is a time for memory, not photography.
As child and father pack up their gear and rush home to tell their story The Fisherman guides a fish to his own hook. Alone on the bank he reels in his catch, removes it from the hook, and crunches his way back to the door. He picks scales and bones from his teeth as the door opens and he returns home with a full belly and soul. The rainbow shimmers as the final sun rays reflect on the closing door.