The nurse said, "You failed the vision test."
"Failed? I thought wearing contact lenses were okay?"
"To be a court officer you have to meet certain requirements,
without glasses or contacts."
"But I did so well on the written test."
"Our rules are firm."
Sarcastically, I said, "Written in stone, I guess."
The white ceiling, the yellow walls, and my hopes seemed
to be closing in on me. I jumped up and left the office.
Outside, I thought, I was so sure I had the job, the way,
years ago, I was so sure I'd be a famous writer by the time I
was twenty-five. Sometimes I feel like I'm cursed, as if my
failing the eye test a reflection of me.
During the rest of the long, long day and the next morning, I
felt as if I was being pulled into a rip tide of grief. I was afraid
of drowning. Don't panic. Swim out of it. How? Believe in
a loving Higher Power? If it were only so easy. But I suppose
everything I learned in recovery is sort of a Higher Power. Yes,
I can stay in the moment. I can remind myself I didn't cause the
state's requirements. And I can go fishing. That's how I swam
out of my grief over my mother's death.
I took my fly-fishing equipment, rode the Path train to Hoboken,
and walked to the long, wide, concrete pier. Covering most of the
pier was a big lawn. The pier, therefore, was clearly designed to
look like a small park. Parallel to the park or pier, about two
hundred feet down river, was the old, Lackawana, ferry terminal.
The side of the terminal was getting a facelift, but not for the better,
in my opinion. The new face was flat and white, emptied of the
flowing, baroque-like ornamentation of the old green facade.
I looked up. The thick, gray clouds seemed to form a high ceiling,
reminding me of the inside of a huge, marble building. Though the
blue sky was closed off, the forecast didn't predict rain; so the
clouds weren't ominous, especially because they were somewhere
between gray and white.
The Hudson River was murky, and didn't reflect sunlight, failure,
disappointment or anything else. The Hudson River was calm, as
if most of it, except its thin, flowing surface, was an immovable
highway. The river was murky and I wondered if the river not
reflecting sunlight or anything else was some sort of metaphor
of my life I tried to come up with one. I took out my small pad,
but the page remained blank. Maybe I'm really at a dead end
as a writer. I reminded myself I was losing precious fishing time.
I put the pad away.
Because of the cloud ceiling, I guessed the stripers, if they were
around, would be close to the surface. I decided to fish a popper
on a floating, shooting-head line. I put my fly rod together and
screwed on the reel. Suddenly, cracks appeared in the clouds.
Streaks of sunlight poured through, decorating the water like
rhinestones on a shirt.
I hope the cracks in the clouds don't get bigger, let in more
sun and send the stripers deeper. Maybe the clouds will expand
and plaster up the cracks.
I wished the answers to catching fish were as rigid as the state's
vision requirements, and then placed my bet on the sun coming
out: I put on my fast-sinking line, and tied on a white deceiver. I
walked onto the lawn, pulled more than a hundred feet of line off
the reel, and stretched the coils, about three feet at a time, out of
How strange, that after so many years of practicing and trying
to discover long-distance, fly-casting techniques, I only recently
saw that even loose coils in the line caused friction and weakened
my casts. To compensate, I usually cast too hard, and caused my
casting loops to tail. Yes, when it comes to fly casting, I'm always
I put on my stripping basket, retrieved the line and walked to the
end of the pier. The skyline of lower Manhattan came into view.
Sunlight tinted the sides of some of the buildings. I thought of a
Vermeer painting, of sunlight shinning through a small window
and falling on a woman's face. I wondered, though I knew it
wasn't true, if nature had learned from Vermeer.
The Manhattan skyline looked more awesome than I remembered.
Is it because for the first time in over a year I'm seeing it from
New Jersey, from a western perspective? Though many of
the buildings were from different eras, and though each building was
from a different design, they all seemed to match, like mountains in a
range. Maybe the buildings match because of luck. And the
Catskill Mountains? They match because of nature. And how long
does nature take to form a mountain range? Are ranges, like the
Manhattan skyline, works in progress? Are ranges formed because
nature, like humanity, spent thousands of years discovering, one by
one, the techniques of engineering and construction? Maybe even
nature is learning.
In my mind I tried to fast forward a hundred years and see how
the skyline looked. I couldn't, even though I was wearing contacts
I reached into my pocket and took out my long-distance, fly-casting
notes. I studied the techniques and visualized them. I false cast,
shooting more and more line. Finally the whole shooting head and
twelve feet of running line were outside of the rod tip. I cast back,
reminding myself to keep my elbow in. I hauled downward, then
waited for a second. Keeping my shoulders still, I looked back. My
loop was tight. I shot line and slowly pointed the rod lower, to about
two o'clock. I hauled upward. When my line hand reached my rod
hand, I cast forward, then hauled straight downward. I moved both
hands faster and faster. I shifted my weight all the way forward and
extended my casting arm. Abruptly I stopped the rod. I let go of the
line and raised the rod butt.
The line arrowed downstream. The front loop unrolled. My deceiver
turned over perfectly and dived in the water. Proud, I looked for the
fifty-foot mark I had put on my line. The mark was just inside the rod
tip. I had cast about 105 feet.
No, I wasn't cursed. Maybe the murky, non-reflective water is
just what it is, and not a symbol or metaphor of anything, and
neither is my failing the eye exam.
I retrieved as fast as I could and rewound my mind back to when
I was forty-six and was sure I landed a new job. But Fedex didn't
call. Disappointed, wanting to erase another failure, I finished my
third fishing article. A few days later, an editor offered to publish it.
Grateful, I told myself that in spite of my failure to write the great
American novel, I might as well try to write and sell fishing articles.
Maybe then people, as well as myself, wouldn't see me as a failed
And so I wrote and wrote, and after eight years of writing, of
revising, I grew tired, especially because I didn't see anything
new to say. I wanted a career change, a steady income, and,
I hoped, a son or a daughter I could teach the fly-casting
techniques I had struggled to learn. But as I stood on the
Hoboken Pier, I no longer saw fatherhood or much of a
future ahead of me.
Again I cast about 100 feet. I retrieved, a little slower this time,
and remembered how I never thought writing articles for local,
outdoor magazines would lead to my writing memoirs and a fly
fishing novel, both reflecting my emotional recovery. Yes, the
memoirs and book unfolded in my mind, little by little, by themselves,
it seems. Could it be that Fedex did not offer me a job right away for
a reason? Did some unseen architect design the grand scheme of my
life so I became a writer? But the idea is opposite of everything I
believe: that the world is often random and violent, a tale, as
Shakespeare says, told by an idiot.
Again I false cast. I began my forward, presentation cast. I
accelerated then abruptly stopped the rod and let go of the line.
The fly rod seemed to come apart. Did I lose the top half
of my $600 rod? Another massive disappointment. The world
always hits me when I'm down. Damn it!
The rod was there, all of it. I was grateful. The running line was
in my stripping basket. I realized the small loop connecting the
shooting head to the running line broke. Now I'll have to
spend another thirty bucks for a new shooting head.
I put on my floating line, tied on a popper, and cast across
stream, toward Manhattan. I retrieved, repeatedly jerking
the rod tip to the side, banging the popper though the surface
so that it splashed and sprayed water like a miniature speed
boat. I reminded myself not to look at the popper, so if I got
a strike I wouldn't pull the popper out of the striper's mouth.
Down river, the Hudson flowed into the harbor. It seemed amazing
that a shallow, tree-lined stream in upstate New York could turn
into a deep, building-lined river. Was the Hudson, therefore, a
reflection of the flow of humanity? After all, our knowledge
supposedly deepened as generations flowed on. But the Hudson
eventually flowed into the ocean and lost its shape and identity.
Perhaps if it knew where it was flowing it would turn around and
go back. But whether I want to or not, I know where I'm flowing:
toward the final unknown, toward losing my shape and identity, unless
some of my writing keeps me alive, like the children I don't have, in
the annals of fly fishing. And before I reach the final unknown, what
will my future be like? A dead end? If only I could turn around and
become a doctor instead of a writer, a forgiving son instead of an
angry one. But like the banks of the Hudson, my past is shaped in
Something, I saw, was wrapped around the bottom of the railing
my shooting head! A miracle, it seemed. Grateful, I pulled the line up,
wrapped it around my hand, and put it into my vest pocket. Thirty
bucksthe cost of twenty knock-off cigarssaved.
Again I cast, this time about 108 feet! I retrieved. Yes, I'm a spoiled
angler, lucky to have days off during the week so I can fish any river,
lake or pier, without worrying about crowds.
A strike! I whipped my fly rod up and pulled down on the line. The
striper pulled back hard. He was on. I let him run. He bolted upriver.
I didn't try to slow or turn him. He circled, as if he didn't know where
to go. Finally, he tired. Slowly, I reeled him close to the pier. I pointed
the rod straight up, toward the sky, and grabbed the line. Hand over
hand, I pulled the striper up. He was about thirty inches, a keeper, if
I wanted to take life. I took the hook out of the striper's mouth and
dropped him back into the river.
I fished for about another hour, and though I didn't get another strike,
I felt that, on this day in this small world of the Hoboken Pier, I won
and the fish lost.
I took apart the fly rod and screwed off the reel. Breaking a loop
connector and having to change lines: could it too have been meant
to be? Certainly when it came to deciding what level to fish, I didn't
have the answer, the way for so long I didn't have the answers to
fly casting or, like a circling striper, to the direction I should go.
After all, without my difficult childhood and my failures, events I
couldn't understand, I wouldn't have journeyed down the road I
wrote about: spiritual recovery. Yes, my painful past was meant to
be. And perhaps the high tide of my recent disappointment will
slacken and carry me to a new turn in the road of life. Yes, in a
way the state was right: When it comes to seeing, at least into the
future, my vision is blurred, for better or worse.
I sat on a bench, lit a cigar, and watched the sun set. The smoke
rose and blended into the marble-looking ceiling of gray clouds.
The ceiling grew darkit seemed eeriebut as the
lights of New York grew brighter, as the city, like a night owl
with a million eyes, came alive, it seemed to me as if it were
sculpted from the marble sky.
Wow! What a great day to be alive. ~ Randy
Publisher's Note: Randy's novel, The Fly Caster Who Tried to Make
Peace with the World is available on Amazon.