Cliff

My great Uncle Bill was an avid fisherman. Morning, night, hot, cold, he’d take his boat out on the ocean, sometimes with my grandfather, often times alone. One breezy fall afternoon when he was fishing alone, a couple nips of gin in, he lit his cigar, sat down in the pilot’s chair, and admired the sun bouncing off the four-foot swells from beneath the brim of his white sailor’s cap.

The rod bent like a lowercase f, and soon he grabbed it with both hands, his cigar clenched between his teeth, and fought for twenty minutes, reeling in the line only for the creature to take it all back. It was bigger than a blue, could have been a marlin, a swordfish, not unheard of this close to the Jersey coast. A shark, he finally admitted, on its way back down the coast to the warmer water.

As the fish tired and it’s restless splashes appeared closer, Uncle Bill realized it wasn’t a fish, but a man. A few passes around the back of the boat, and Uncle Bill led the man along the side, and in one strong tug, hoisted him over the gunwale and onto the deck.

The man was dressed in a tweed jacket and slacks, had a thin mustache and short curly hair, all sopping water on the floor. He pointed to the hook lodged in his mouth. Uncle Bill dropped his cigar to rummage through his tackle box for the pliers, and when he came back and removed the hook, the man kneeled with one hand on the side of the boat and stammered to his feet, hacking up seawater and bits of minnow. The man picked up Uncle Bill’s cigar, and took a long drag, patting his chest as he coughed up more water.

Uncle Bill went into the cabin, poured a heaping of gin into an empty cup, and handed it to the man. “Got a name?” Uncle Bill asked.

“Cliff.”

Uncle Bill was about to ask Cliff what the hell he was doing in the water but stopped when Cliff smiled as he popped water from his front jacket pocket and gazed out at the ocean, puffing on the cigar between sips. Uncle Bill leaned over the boat, pulled a minnow from the trap, and gouged it through the eye with the end of the hook, then dropped the line into the water.

The two men stood silent for a while as the boat dipped, the wind drying out Cliff’s clothes and his cough. When Uncle Bill’s rod bent the next time with a force equal to the man’s, he thought for sure this couldn’t be happening again. But as Uncle Bill started to smash the reel, Cliff went into the tackle box, came out with a knife, clipped the line just below the tip of the reel, and said, “Better leave that one alone.”

 

8 Comments

  1. Bill Merklee

    Great details, loved the turn. Wondered if there was more than just a name to “Cliff” — as in Uncle Bill has gone over the edge, but I prefer to take the story at face value. Only suggestion might be to start here: “Fishing alone, a couple nips of gin in, Bill lit his cigar…”

  2. Bud Smith

    Damn. This is cool. I really like that he catches a man. I thought you could do something more poignant with who he catches. I was thinking that Uncle Bill could have caught his long lost father who had abandoned him as a kid or he could have caught himself the true love of his life. But Cliff should be someone. He could even be someone who is related to the thought that we are happy when we understand that a shark is on the line and the implication is that is Uncle Bill catches this shark then maybe he will be saving the life of a swimmer (or mind just goes there) so perhaps he has caught a murderous man who is swimming to the jersey shore to commit a murder and the two men talk about what this murder would be if Cliff ever did make it to shore, such as if Cliff was a Lucifer or even better, a Cain. Then Uncle Bill could have a choice here, he could kill Cliff with his harpoon gun or let Cliff off the boat and continue on his murderous mission — something like that. But what I mean is, we must do something with Cliff, he cannot just be a man caught out of the sea, especially if the sea is this unknown dark place full of mystery and fear that we have always been drawn to and a servant of in its power to erase us off the surface of the topside earth. God brought a flood that erased mankind once, twice, who knows how many times. I do like the idea of Cliff being a benevolent figure just as much. He could easily be someone who is just there to light the cigar. How funny would it be to pull someone out of the sea who has a lighter or even funnier, a pack of matches and that catch is what helps us in our time of need, helps us smoke our joy. Puff puff.

    • Bud Smith

      I think we could cut this: sometimes with my grandfather, often times alone

      I don’t want to think about the grandfather unless we catch someone out of the ocean who is directly relative to the grandfather … maybe Cliff could be the grandfather’s estranged brother? Some adventurer who is finally swimming home to say goodbye to his brother before he is dying and the adventurer breaks the news to Uncle Bill that death is coming soon for the grandfather. It always makes sense for death to come from sea since the sea was where all life sprung from on earth, how we crawled out of the mother ocean and onto the ancient shores of Africa and said, Okay, I’m done being single celled, enough of that.

  3. Jack O'Connell

    Very skillfully paced and clearly blocked and clear sequence of action and process. You’re so good at describing actions, I almost wanted when Cliff comes up for there to be more action, more confrontation, between the two men, then just saying a few words to each other and sipping a drink.

  4. Benjamin Niespodziany

    Great story and I loved going along for the ride. The idea of it being a shark was intriguing and then the man in tweed was such a great twist. I’m double-sided here: 1) Part of me wants this story to end with Cliff sitting next to the uncle, smoking a cigar, and watching the sun. No more words, no more bites on the line. Almost an ambient calm to such an absurd thing. 2) Part of me wants the uncle to catch dozens of men. Hundreds. All types of humans. Those from the past, those unknown. The boat could be full. I guess all of this is to say: you’re off to one hell of a great start with this concept.

  5. Saxon Baird

    Cool story, Greg! I love the idea of a man in a tweed jacket getting pulled up by a lonely fisherman. It reminds me of something that would be in an old 60s Bond film. I like how Cliff plays it cool too. And obviously, the ending suggests that Cliff has some secret he’s withholding which I don’t necessarily want to know about. But right now Cliff is maybe a little too cool and silent. Now the grandfather doesn’t seem like someone who would pry and ask questions, but I’d like to see how the story would look if there was a bit more time taken between grandfather and Cliff. Also what if this story got really blown up…like you really expanded it. Cliff goes home with grandfather, becomes a part of the family, fishes with him. No one asks questions. The narrator is born and knows him simply as Cliff, he was always around until one day he was gone (insert reason here, or not). They never heard from Cliff again (or maybe they did in the form of a postcard…or a box of cigars arrive when the grandfather passes, etc). It would probably need one more element around the impact of Cliff on the family and/or what Cliff might represent— a sort of surreal take on the passing of time and how people are close to you, so close, then leave and you have no idea where they are or what they are doing and they simply become a memory tied to things like a cigar and fishing boat. Just one idea.

  6. Anna V

    I agree with the other feedback about wanting more from Cliff/the grandfather! Otherwise, I’m a sucker for any story that involves fishing. Love the opening imagery, the mystery of what’s being pulled, and the way the ending leaves you with a sinking feeling in your gut.

    If you haven’t read it, the short story “Epigenesis” by Percival Everett is a real trip that also involves fishing (albeit fly fishing) and catching something strange. You should be able to find it in a preview on Google Books from his book “Damned If I Do.”

  7. Kara Vernor

    I super enjoyed this. It’s vivid, intriguing and inventive. I loved the ending and how much you leave out of the story. Uncle Bill cutting the line is just enough of a hint of what led to him being in the water–and funny, too.

    I agree with others that you could give us a little more of Uncle Bill, but I don’t need much more. I also thought you could switch to an omniscient narrator. We don’t know much about the great nice/nephew telling the story, so I’m not sure we need them. In a sense then, I’m agreeing with Bill’s comment about where you could start the story.

    Thanks for this!

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