In the spring of ’72, we took a long holiday and fished for bass. I had accumulated leave from work that needed using, and Charlie Joiner had the good fortune to be laid off in warm weather. The opportunity for intense fishing does not come along often enough in a normal lifetime. We jumped on it.
Our wives probably would not like it, but we had adopted a singular purpose and would not attend to a dissonant voice. Charlie went to the salvage store and bought several cases of pork-and-beans and mustard-packed sardines. I fine-tuned my old Evinrude until it purred. The hell with everything else.
The reservoir serpentined over the old river channel for forty miles, sprawling above the dam and filling slowly with snow melt and seasonal rains. The warmest water would be in the lower end of the lake, and that was where we began.
Muddy water and molting crawfish made for immediate success. The fish were in about twelve feet of water when we first located them, and they were full of milt or roe. We experimented with a variety of baits and followed them into the backs of the creeks as daylight lengthened and they moved up to spawn.
When you live on the water, it does not take long to make the acquaintance of your fellow truants. Ed Monroe, a retired pipe fitter with a house on the lake, was as devoted a sportsman as Charlie and I. More than once we encountered his blue-hulled craft in the recesses of the coves, Ed in the bow and a fish on his line.
“They’re slowing down,” Ed remarked one afternoon over a cold, canned lunch. “Slowing down and spawned out. Time to move up the lake. I’m for Parable Creek tomorrow. The water figures to be a little cooler up there.”
Though Charlie and I knew the lake well, we had never been to Parable Creek. But this was a year of rectification, and we were eager to expand our horizons.
The next morning we were on the boat ramp just before sunrise. Parable Creek was an out-of-the-way arm of the lake, and traffic was moderate that early, even with the spawn in full swing. Charlie rode the boat off the trailer. I parked on a hill, collected our tackle, and prepared to join him.
Dedicated fishing can lead to overequipping. I unloaded a forty-pound tackle box full of lead and another lighter collection of swimming lures. There were half a dozen rods in the back of the truck. As I struggled to carry it all, there was a grating of brogans on gravel and a soft, almost otherworldly voice behind me.
“Don’t fret, Cap’n, here’s the ole nigger.”
I turned around and looked into the oldest human face I have ever seen. Before I could say anything, he scooped up my gear in one motion and headed for the ramp. I locked the truck and followed in silence. My expensive rods and tackle were tossed roughly into the bow of our boat as Charlie stood amidships in open-mouthed astonishment. I came up behind the apparition as he picked up the bow line and turned to face me.
“Will you be needin’ bait or ice, Cap’n? Bass are doin’ good; crappie better.”
I was not hallucinating. Here was time incarnate, bareheaded, wrapped in heavy bib overalls and flannel, and moving in a lithe, short-stepping dance about the concrete ramp.
“Ice,” I stammered, “no bait.” I was mesmerized and responded reflexively as I studied our host. Dock boys average about sixteen, but I could not guess this man’s years.
He offered us a cardboard carton we hadn’t asked for.
“Take a little o’ my fo’mula, Cap’n. Shad guts an’ hen blood an’ some secret dope, too. Catch me a willow cat. Them damned ole bass ain’t fit fo’ nothin’. A dollah fo’ the launch and whatever you care to settle on me.”
I gave him two dollars and took my time doing it, hoping he’d be still and let me look at him. My staring did not seem to be a problem for him.
“Don’ know you, Cap’n,” he said. “Folks call me Ruff. Them that like me call me Uncle, but suit yo’self.”
He was still for a moment. Here was the face: ringed in hair and beard that grew thick and white enough to blind you. His skin had no distinct color, reminiscent of shale that looks dew-damp in the morning and sun-bleached at midday. His eyes were deep-set mahogany and very clear, without a hint of cataract. When I paid him, I offered my hand, and he took it with a palm that was as small and soft as a woman’s, the lines stained dark as though from husking black walnuts. My first impression was that this was someone who had lived so long that mere facts of age and race no longer applied to him.
“I believe I’ll call you Uncle Ruff, then, if you’ll permit me,” and I told him my name. It was superfluous; he would never call me anything but Captain, just as he did every other grown man of whatever color.
Then he was gone, hurrying to the next boat at the top of the ramp. I pushed off the bank and stepped aboard. We were underway, looking for gravel points and the creek channels that were the highways to the spawning arenas.
Our stratagem worked beautifully. The bass of Parable Creek were about two weeks behind their kinsmen of the lower end of the lake in their spawning cycle. Whatever lure we offered they attacked viciously, slashing at the diving baits and thumping our jigs with abandon. By midmorning we were sore-armed from fighting them. Predictably, the pace slowed when the sun climbed overhead and we were forced into bottom scratching.
Just before noon, I hooked a fish that hesitated an instant, then began to ease itself slowly toward deep water. I tightened up, ready to throw the fish off balance when it broke for the surface to jump, but minutes later it had not come up. It was soon clear that this was no bass.
“Trash fish of some sort,” Charlie opined as I struggled to lead it to the boat. “No, wait — it’s a big channel cat.” He manned the net and brought the bewhiskered beast aboard, grunting its frustration.
“I’ll cut him off unless you want to dress him out. You’ll have to nail his head to a tree and beat him to death with an ax to do it.”
Catfish were surely a nuisance to clean, but I remembered that the old man preferred them. “Put it in the well,” I said. “Clip off those spines.” The cat looked to be six or eight pounds. I did not envy Uncle Ruff the task of skinning him.
We decided to go in for lunch and to meet Frank Stone, the dock operator, since it appeared that we would be needing his services in the days ahead. Several parties were loitering on the floating shed when we arrived, buying gas or bait or just loafing. Frank was a big, good-natured man who seemed to love his work. He was busy transferring minnows from the aerated tanks into various bait buckets and giving orders to his son. I brought out the catfish and carried it along with me.
“Sonny,” Frank barked, “put this cat in the box and get Riley Taylor’s boat off the buoy line. Move your ass.”
Sonny Stone was about eighteen, already sunburned early in the year and rushing about with a harried expression. He grabbed the catfish through the gills and began to raise a fish box from beneath the pontoons that supported the dock. Three catfish of lesser size were already inside.
“Well, Cap’n, my fo’mula served well.”
Uncle Ruff was on the shady side of the dock, seated on a stack of boat cushions and surrounded by a small audience of children and adults. It was plainly a storytelling session. I did not reveal that we had thrown away the stinking mess he called his formula and that we’d picked up the big cat by accident on a bass jig, but I told him the catfish was his.
“Thank you, Cap’n,” Ruff said. “They’s the only sort I care to eat.”
I bought a soft drink from Frank Stone and opened a tin of sardines. Charlie went to the truck to nap. “Wake me when it’s time to go out again,” he said.
I joined the throng of listeners around Uncle Ruff and lost track of the time. We missed half an evening’s fishing before I remembered to wake Charlie.
We beached the boat just before dark, and by then most of the crowd had already departed. Frank was totaling up his receipts and ordering Sonny around as the light diminished and the air developed a chill.
“Sonny,” he demanded, “burn out those gas lines. Then get back here and clean those cats for Uncle Ruff.”
I was coming out of the shed after arranging space on the buoy line. Sonny stomped by irritably.
“There’s enough to do around here without my having to wait on that shiftless old coon,” he complained, pulling up the fish box and unsheathing a long-bladed knife. He turned to me as if seeking an ally, but I had no sympathy for him as he caustically disparaged the old man I was already beginning to revere.
“I guess you can see who’s the real nigger around here,” he spat.
“Shut your goddamn mouth,” Frank snapped. “Finish up there and get the ramp light on.”
Uncle Ruff was cleaning out a storage locker, organizing a number of parcels that I later learned were gifts from the Parable Creek clientele. They included secondhand clothing and household goods and food of all sorts, mostly cakes and pies. He collected his prizes and ambled up the gravel bank to the Stones’ pickup. Only Frank and Sonny were left on the dock with me, and they were at odds.
“I thought you had a little common sense,” Frank raged at the boy. “Don’t let me hear that kind of talk again, or I’ll kick your ass for you. That old man has feelings you’re too simple-minded to understand. He’s seen things in his time you can’t imagine.”
Frank’s tirade brought fresh to mind what I had wondered all day.
“Just how old is he? And who is he?”
“Rutherford Birchard Hayes Beauchamp,” Frank said. “Named after President Hayes, of course. There are people in their seventies who swear that he was already an old man when they were children. His own estimate is that he’s a hundred and fourteen.” Glancing at his son, then back at me, he continued, “Sonny doesn’t realize he’s been privileged. Get Uncle Ruff to talk to you, tell you some of his tales. Ask him about the day the church bells all rang —” He broke off, noticing that Sonny had finished cleaning the cats. “Sonny! Help that last party trailer their boat, then take Uncle Ruff home.”
As the season advanced, the water stabilized, the days grew longer, and the fishing got tougher. The bass came off their nests and began to school up. We should have moved up the lake as others were doing, but we kept returning to Parable Creek and motoring upstream instead, exhausting the range of the outboard and taking fewer fish than we might have by launching in the headwaters.
Over the weeks we got to know the area and its inhabitants very well. I began to look forward to the hot afternoons ashore as much as the fishing itself. Charlie was fond of his nap, but I’d never been a day sleeper and instead joined the gallery that assembled to hear Uncle Ruff tell of war and slavery and emancipation. None of those kids — and relative to Uncle Ruff we were all children — would have learned this history from a book, and no lecturer could have presented it the way that old man did, idiomatic and from memory, with some irony thrown in for edification.
“These pol’ticians, they squawl an’ rave an’ take us to war, and when the killin’s over and done, they adds it all up and say, ‘Now we knows better than war.’ Then a new bunch come along an’ begin agin.”
Tourists brought cameras and tape recorders sometimes. One writer who came to fish spent his weekend on the shady side of the dock instead, taking notes and asking questions.
Things did not get any better between Frank and Sonny. I figured it was just a matter of time until they came to blows. Often you would see Uncle Ruff’s attention follow their outbursts, and he would lose his place in his narrative.
“I could get around this floating asylum a little better if that old relic didn’t have to hold court in the middle of the walkway every afternoon,” Sonny whined one day.
Frank was livid. “People come here because of him. It’s good for business. You ought to listen to him sometime. You might learn something, or maybe you know it all already, you loud-mouthed little son-of-a-bitch. Keep on — you’re about old enough to try your luck with me.”
“Learn something? Not from that phony old bastard. It’s all bullshit. He’s not any hundred years old. He’s named after President Hayes, right? Well, Hayes was president in the late 1870s. I looked it up. He can’t be older than about ninety-five.”
There was a peculiar silence on the dock. Uncle Ruff left off his narrative altogether, and after an awkward moment the small crowd began to disperse abashedly, quietly, as though embarrassed that the old fellow had been caught in a lie and that he had to suffer the indignity of being exposed by the likes of Sonny Stone.
Sonny swaggered away himself, huffing, “I won’t be his nurse much longer. As soon as the recruiter finishes my paperwork and I take the physical, I’m gone from here. The hell with you, Daddy, you and your precious old nigger.”
It was difficult to find expression in the eyes and ancient lines of Uncle Ruff’s face. Although he certainly had no cause to justify himself to anyone, when we found ourselves alone he drew me aside.
“I had a slave name from birth,” he said. “Gideon, I believe it was. Then we adopted the surname of the landowner who bound us. After manumission, many Negroes renamed themselves entirely. I kept the last name of Colonel Beauchamp because he was a good man, but I retitled myself after Hayes, the current president, when I was Sonny’s age.” He sighed audibly. “All those names,” he lamented, “and I wanted one that was lovely, musical, when all I’ve needed in recent memory is Ruff. It’s another of those ironies we keep uncovering, Captain.”
As he looked at me, I imagined that the fathomless eyes were tearing. That I couldn’t bear to see, and I turned aside.
Then it occurred to me that the pidgin speech was gone. He had spoken to me in perfect English. There was no drawl, no accent, and he was faultlessly articulate.
“Don’t pay any attention to Sonny,” I said. “He’s still a kid — he doesn’t know any better.”
Abruptly, Uncle Ruff was familiar again.
“Oh, I knows it, Cap’n, but that’s what’s wrong. Sonny, he’s done wearied of bein’ a boy. He wants to be a Cap’n now. I remember, an’ I know you does, too.”
All the way home I pondered why the old man would debase himself voluntarily to play “the ole nigger” for regulars and newcomers alike. And I wondered why he let Sonny Stone slander him.
Summer came quickly, slipping past redbuds and dogwoods into muggy, long days. Charlie was recalled to work and made a reluctant end to his days of glory. My leave was almost exhausted, and my desk, I knew, would be piled to the ceiling with neglected drudgery. I made one more trip to Parable Creek on my own, not for sport — I was fished out — but out of curiosity, something rankling my understanding. I also intended to take the boat back home; there was no guessing when I would be back again.
The marina was fairly idle now that the seasonal crowds were gone. A few lantern fishermen were setting out to hang their lights against the bluffs. It was dusky and the air smelled of summer storms. Screech owls and rain crows called across the cove that housed the dock. I backed the trailer in and went to the shack to settle my bill with Frank.
Uncle Ruff was alone on the walkway. In the half-light, I saw Frank working the buoy line fifty yards away. There had been a shower already, and he was clearing the bilge of a runabout boarded there. Sonny was with him.
“Hello, Uncle Ruff,” I said, giving him the merchandise I carried: a few pairs of cotton socks, a tin of Bruton snuff, and an angel-food cake. The old fellow seemed glad to see me.
Tasting the cake, he said, “Your missus is shore one fine cook, Cap’n. God bless her and thank her for me.”
“What’s Sonny doing here?” I asked. “I thought he was going into the service any day now.”
“Not to be, Cap’n: bad feet, broken arches.” He shrugged. “An’ he shore is bitter. They been at each other all day, one thing then another.” He swallowed some cake and added, “But mostly over me. I burden the boy terrible, what with my airs an’ lyin’ all the time.”
I felt a rush of anger. If Frank did not care to kick some manners into his kid, there were others who would be glad to.
“The hell with him, Uncle Ruff. He’s a fool. Pay him no mind. You don’t owe that jackass anything.”
“Oh, but I do, Cap’n. That’s what this is all about. What other use for a man to live so long as me? I am obliged to show him something in our common time.”
“What could you possibly teach that ilk, Uncle Ruff? He’s too full of himself to absorb it.”
Then I saw his expression — the same deep, undecipherable eyes he had fixed on me once before.
“Why, I don’t know for certain, Cap’n. I ain’t clear yet on that point. Humility, perhaps, or circumspection. Maybe just the taste of shamefulness. There’s time yet. It’ll come to me.”
The dock sled chugged in, bearing Frank and Sonny Stone, still heated and accusing.
“Lock up the gas pumps,” Frank ordered, “and take Uncle Ruff home. It’s near dark, and he’s been here all day.”
Sonny wore his perpetual sneer and flung equipment around hostilely.
“Never mind, Frank,” I said. “I’ll take him home.”
I helped Uncle Ruff carry his plunder to my truck, and he climbed in the passenger side and held the socks and cake on his lap. It was only a mile to his house, a little frame structure with a barn and other outbuildings on a hill above the back of the Parable Creek embayment.
“Come in, Cap’n, and meet the girl.”
We got out of the truck. There was a splendid view of the lake, now afire with the setting sun.
“I have five acres there,” he said, gesturing toward the shoreline, “and back here a small woodland.”
Valuable property, I thought. “Have you ever thought of selling it?”
“At my age?” he chuckled. “What for? I don’t need to, and the girl shore don’t need it. When I’m gone, she’ll go back to Atlanta. No, Cap’n, they try to buy it, thinkin’ to beat a foolish ole man out of his holdin’s, but I don’t sell.”
We opened the kitchen door and went inside. An elderly black woman stood at the stove, stirring a stew pot.
“My granddaughter,” he said, “or is it great-granddaughter? I’ve buried several wives way back thar, Cap’n, and lost track of my chil’ren.”
The woman was simply dressed and immaculate. I put out my hand and she took it, saying, “Eat with us.”
The table was piled with miscellaneous papers and books, and we pushed them aside to set three places.
“Ole man,” the woman joked, “you never clean up after yourself.”
I picked up a hard-bound volume: Dickens. Then another: Hawthorne. A revelation was slowly dawning on me, and when I looked up, Uncle Ruff was faintly smiling at me, rather sheepishly.
“Why, you old fraud,” I laughed. “Sonny was right after all. You are a bit of a liar.”
“So I am, Captain,” he admitted. “A liar of a harmless sort, not the one Sonny imagines. You see, when I was a child, the white children liked to play school, and I was an apter pupil than their dolls and house cats.”
We both laughed, and I laid the books aside. Supper was rabbit stew and cornbread with collards. I was suddenly hungry and ate a great deal.
It was spring again before I returned to Parable Creek. Nothing much had changed. Uncle Ruff came up the hill to help with my gear. He was half a step slower but still himself.
“What have you there, Cap’n?” he asked, noticing my bundles. There was a cake, of course, a flannel shirt, and a slightly worn copy of The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
Sonny was worse than ever, lackluster and sullen, and going about his work with a vengeance.
“He spends all winter talkin’ college,” Uncle Ruff told me. “Frank can’t afford to send him, so he tries for gov’ment help. Then that falls through, too. Thousands is what it costs, Cap’n, more than he can ever hope to save. You can’t help but pity him, stuck in this life he despises.”
Sonny was on the ramp. “You want to launch,” he called to me, “or stand around babying that ole nigger?”
I shoved aside the gear and started down the hill. It seemed that Sonny required a lesson that would not wait any longer. Uncle Ruff caught my sleeve.
“No. No, Cap’n. Let it go. He’ll learn soon enough — very soon now, I believe.”
That spring and summer were busy. I got to the lake infrequently, and when I did go, it was always to Parable Creek, regardless of where the fish were said to be biting.
Fall came early with unseasonable snow, and the marina closed early as the water level dropped and the shallow backwaters froze over. Impounded water can be treacherous in cold weather, and I stayed away.
Shortly after Christmas, word reached me that Uncle Ruff had wrenched his back trying to move grounded boats during the drawdown of the reservoir. He took to his bed, and a few weeks later pneumonia killed him. The local papers published an extensive obituary and gave his age as one hundred and sixteen, verified, they said, by a great-granddaughter who was in possession of the old records of the white Beauchamp family.
For the most part, his eulogists were sportsmen. There were many. They must have thought it odd that he willed his lakefront property to Sonny Stone.