The old chief was dying in the hospital.
Some time ago he thought about where he wanted to die and the best place he could think was in the old apple orchard back home up near Gypsy Hill in West Virginia. But he didn’t think about that now. Instead, he was afraid. Dying was close, and it had grown bigger.
He had six kids. Only four took turns spending the night with him. One died long ago when he was young from an aneurysm on a boy scout trip to Arizona. And the other he hadn’t heard from since he was taken in to the hospital.
One of his sons turned on the baseball game but the chief couldn’t watch it. He was being fed on IV. Hell, he couldn’t even flirt with the nurses. That’s how bad he felt. All he said was, “Where’s Joey?” And he said it when he wasn’t moaning or shivering on his side. His other kids told him they tried calling but the phone just rang and rang.
They wouldn’t ever get him that way.
Late into the night the old man woke up and saw a black bear walking down at the foot of his bed. It got its front paws up on the visitor’s chair and looked out the window that someone didn’t close the curtains over. It was very black outside and the bear looked out there like it saw something.
The chief shut his eyes.
“Oh, God,” the chief said quiet and the shivering returned.
When he opened them the bear was gone. He looked around the room and there was nothing there. And when he looked where the bear had looked out the window he saw an Indian’s head looking back at him. The Indian's mouth was opening and closing.
When his daughter returned from the vending machine she got close, saw that he was shaking, and before she could go tell a nurse the old man grabbed her by the sleeve and said, “Leave me alone again I’ll kill you, you stupid goddamn idiot.”
In the early morning, around 3AM, he woke and said, “What was that?”
His daughter was no longer there. His son was sitting in the visitor’s chair and said he didn’t hear anything.
“This damn place is haunted,” he said, staring around wide-eyed.
The son was over sixty years old and the fear of his dad got into him and he looked around and listened. The old man fell back asleep and the son nodded off in the chair eventually and jumped awake when he heard jangling chains.
The old man was jerking the hell out of the triangle that hung from a chain overhead that patients used to pull themselves up with.
The chief ignored his son and kept jerking the piss out of the chain. Still holding onto the triangle he fell asleep and dreamed about taking his to be wife to the sweet shop for a milkshake and a BLT sandwich.
“You ever hear anything from Joe?” he said around noon of the next day to one of his daughters.
“No, Daddy,” she said.
Joe was fishing. For the last two days something hit him and it was awful. People were worse than anything. Then he saw a dead squirrel and that was worse than anything. The only thing that was good was smoking and he had the idea of fishing when he was about to take a hot bath. Driving to the pond hurt him. Seeing the other cars hurt him. He smoked one after the other.
The fish weren’t biting the rooster tail. He switched through different colors. Casting made his stomach hurt. The only thing he could think of was his dad, the chief, telling him to shoot a possum that he caught in a cage behind the barn. This was a couple months ago and his dad couldn’t walk down behind the barn anymore without falling.
He remembered walking down there with the pistol feeling heavy in his hand and he looked around for the trap in the overgrown grass. His heart was beating bad because he didn’t like killing. He barely fired a gun before. But the cage was over beside the fence that wrapped around the garden. He looked at the fence post. It was ragged and old. He looked down at the cage and the possum was already staring up at him with its black eyes.
Joe aimed the gun at it but waited. He remembered people telling him how hard possums were to kill and he didn’t know where to shoot and kill it. He leaned over and put the barrel through the wire of the cage and the possum bit at it. The creature still scared him. He waited for it to settle in the cage and then aimed, pulled the trigger.
The gun didn’t go off. The safety was on. He stuck the barrel back in, aimed and shot.
Possum coiled and coiled and groaned.
Joe watched it but it did not die. The gray and white hair on it made it look old and there was hardly any blood, just a red dot behind the ear.
His dad told him that he once shot a possum five times and went over to look at it lying on the ground. The neighbor’s jackass was making a strange noise and he looked over at it. When he turned back around the possum wasn’t there. The gray animal was running through the grass. He watched as it climbed a five foot fence and then was lost into the pines.
The gun was stuck back through the cage and Joe hoped this shot would do it. He shot right in front of the ear and the possum seized back, curled, made a sound that was overlong and unsettling and fell on its side with blood bubbling up and foaming out its head.
Joe felt changed unworldly. He wondered if it was dead and watched. The blood foamed hot out its head and made a sound like escaping air or frying fat. It was too much to look at.
The rest of the day Joe was quiet. He tried not to look changed unworldly around his dad when he went back up to the house and watched the rest of a baseball game.
There were crappie and trout in the pond. He saw them swimming. His dad was dying in a hospital. Nobody said that he was. The unworldly changed feeling was in him again and it told him. The crawl of it was similar to the possum but it was a larger animal. His mood was different. He listened to the wind. It was better than radio or the computer fans. It was better than genius. He smoked and felt that lost feeling in him as he cast the fishing line. Nothing bit and the man with a white beard across the pond wasn’t catching anything either.
The sky darkened quick and it rained. Joe ran up to a shelter but the rain wouldn’t stop so he went back down to cast his line. There were birds. Flocks of them circling in the pouring rain and all huddling up in a bare tree across the lake and chirping and raising their spirits up there in the tops of the trees. It was great to see them, and their noise in the dark day was rousing.
It was dark now not only from the rain clouds but the night.
“What, Daddy,” the old chief’s daughter asked and the rest of the family got near so they could hear since the last few hours he got very weak and could barely speak.
Joe didn’t hear that out on the pond in his soaked jacket. He forgot something that he knew he should remember. What it was probably damned him. He cast his line out and reeled in. It was all he could do.
The moon was covered and it got very black. He would keep casting until something hit his rooster tail. They had to want the white one that he always caught trout on, the one that had the bright silver spoon.
He looked down and couldn’t see himself. He only heard a great horned owl and the sound of his lure hitting the water. Where is this? he thought, and felt the wet jacket and felt receipts rolled up in his pockets. The zipper was down on his pants but he left it down. Instead, he adjusted the zipper on his jacket, pulled it up all the way.
There was something hard next to his chest and he remembered. He remembered near everything, near even being born when he felt that hard thing at his chest. He remembered being crouched down at the side of the creek trying to catch the sperm-like baby smallmouth bass with a pair of pliers and his dad yelling at him, because he knew, like a God, what evil act he was committing.
Quick he zipped down and felt back to the breast pocket of his long-sleeved shirt underneath. He pulled out the pack and shook it. There was one cigarette left. He forgot about it. He forgot he even smoked ever in his life.
And when Joe looked down he wasn’t anything. He was only thought. The dark took his body and something hit his line. He didn’t know if he set the hook or not but something pulled from the dark like an arm jerking his lure. It wasn’t a fish. It was an arm jerking. Then it let go.
But the cigarette was still there. It was in his mouth. When he lit the cigarette he still remembered everything, still was in the goddamn game.