The mellow yellow sunshine of early July melted into those lazy hazy dog days of August like a rainbow snow cone on a sizzling summer day, cooking those afternoons so hot to where you’d just about pray for sundown. The days in Pair O’ Dice flowed by us, then weeks disappeared too as if rinsed into the creeks by a heavy downpour, the water rolling inevitably toward the ocean, and finally carried out to sea by the tides. That particular late August day had special written all over it, the world ripe and full without a cloud in the sky, the earth drying out after nearly a week of hard rain, nothing more than a fresh sweet gentle breeze to keep us company, and chase away our concerns.
God made some days for work, and some days for play. That especially glorious day he created for fishing. Jessup and grandmama had postponed their salt water version of the world’s greatest fisherman rematch long enough. The same crew, me, Jessup, granddaddy, and grandmama, boarded the ferry from Aransas Pass over to Port Aransas so we could carry out God’s will, and go fishing. Jessup parked and chocked his truck on the ferry. Then we walked over to the side of the boat to take in the view. They dredged the Aransas ship channel through Mustang Island in the 1920s to allow free access to the Texas coast by larger vessels, thus opening the Port of Corpus Christi.
“Did you remember to take your Dramamine?” Grandmama asked as she and granddaddy held onto the side rail, his grip a little tighter than hers.
“Yes. I didn’t wanna throw up on anybody.”
“If you do get the up chucks, make sure you launch your lunch over the side. Fish aren’t too picky when it comes to chum.”
Granddaddy smoked her with a nasty look, but he was already turning a little green in the gills from seasickness, so he grabbed the rail like he was holding on for dear life and bit his lip. Several fishing boats passed us, as did a big oil tanker with the name HERREN painted on the side as the ship made its way to refinery row, located within spitting distance of the Port of Corpus Christi.
As soon as the ferry docked we trucked down Port Aransas beach until we reconnoitered a likely fishing spot near a rock outcropping jutting way out into the Gulf of Mexico. Granddaddy removed his new Fish-A-Rator from the bed of Jessup’s truck, and started messing with the contraption, calibratin’ he called it. Apparently, this highly sophisticated piece of NASA tested, been to outer space and back sort of science, required a great deal of nuanced adjustment and fine tuning.
Jessup gathered up several four foot long sections of plastic pipe out of the back of his truck. He’d cut the pipes at a sharp angle on one end, and left them flat on the other end. Jessup pounded the sharp end of the plastic pipes into the sand on the beach with a sledge hammer so we could use them as fishing rod holders. About a hundred feet down the way, a few dozen migrant farm workers were scattered out on the dunes near the beach.
“The fields have been too wet to work the past week,” grandmama said as she noticed the makeshift encampment of Mexican laborers.
“Texas has four seasons, but they’re not quite like they are everywhere else,” Jessup said.
“Most places enjoy spring, summer, fall, and winter. Texas survives flood, drought, twister, and blizzard.” Jessup was a weatherman too, I guess.
“Still, no work means no food. I’ll bet there are some hungry folks over there.”
“Well, let’s see what we can do about that. Total weight again?”
“Total weight, and as Doris Day would say, que sera, sera.”
“Let’s hook ‘em.”
“You always hear people say it, right as rain. What does that mean exactly?” Granddaddy asked himself as he surveyed the soggy landscape and prepared to pontificate about precipitation. “We seem to get rain wrong more often than we get it right. What did Texas ever do to piss off the Almighty? Either we get these frog strangler, Noah get your saw and hammer and build me another boat kind of downpours that last for days, turnin’ rivers into ragin’ muddy torrents that wash away our cattle, pigs, and goats, and scare the chickens up into the trees, or it don’t rain for months, and gets so damned dry the catfish have ticks, and the jackrabbits are carryin’ canteens. Please tell me God why we never, ever, get just the right amount of rain in Texas. Right as rain. Harrumph.”
Jessup hiked down the beach and invited several of the migrant farm workers to join us. He showed them how to use the extra surf casting rods and reels we’d brought, fancier rigs than anything they were used to operating, but the men caught a few small fish as they got the hang of it. Soon the women — resourceful, and accustomed to hard work — built a roaring campfire on the beach, where they planned to roast the fish. Still, hard to imagine how we could catch enough fish to feed all those hungry people.
Jessup placed a folding aluminum lawn chair in the bed of his pickup, and secured it to the truck with some leather straps. Then he threw what looked like a homemade deep sea fishing harness fashioned from sail canvas into the bed of the truck.
“Come on Billy, you drive. I’m gonna sit back here.”
“What are we doing?”
“You can hand a man a fish, and feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you can feed him for a lifetime.”
I climbed in behind the wheel of Jessup’s truck, and put my hand on the stick shift like a man who knew what he was doing. Jessup settled into his lawn chair in the bed of the truck. He instructed me to drive him up and down the beach, and even part way out into the surf as he cast his line as far as he could. After about fifteen minutes, we had a huge strike, his rod bent over double and the reel screamed as the line spooled out. Out in the ocean, a big blue marlin jumped up and danced on his tail fin for a few moments before splashing back into the water.
“Marlin, marlin!” The migrant farm workers on the beach hollered. They pronounced the word more like mar-LEEN. I also heard them using the word milagro, miracle, in association with the marlin, as they shouted, “El marlin del milagro. El marlin del milagro!” It would be a miracle too, if Jessup could catch a fish big enough to feed all those hungry people.
“Put it in reverse, we gotta give him some breathing room.”
I zoomed down the beach in reverse as Jessup played the marlin from his lawn chair in the bed of the pickup truck. I can’t tell you how long we fought the big fish that day. It must have been at least two hours, maybe closer to three, but I wrangled that truck up and down the beach like a man possessed. Several times we ventured way out into the ocean almost up to the windows. At certain moments, I was scared half to death thinking we might drown, but Jessup laughed his head off and sang these old timey fishing songs at the top of his lungs.
God must like fishing even more than any of the rest of us do I suppose, because Jessup eventually landed that huge blue marlin, pulling him into the bed of his truck. I steered the truck over to where the women gathered around the campfire. Grandmama and granddaddy waited there for us as well. We stared at each other with stunned astonishment on our faces. Did we believe, could we believe, what we had witnessed with our very own eyes?
“Earl, how much do you reckon that fish weighs, seven, maybe eight hundred pounds?”
“Closer to nine hundred would be my guess.”
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, did you ever hear tell of anybody around these parts catching a nine hundred pound blue marlin off the beach?”
“Nope, never,” granddaddy said, and then this visage of God’s own revelation sluiced across his face like the salty spray of the ocean. “I bet it was my Fish-A-Rator that brought the marlin in this close.” Grandmama rolled her eyes, and looked like she might launch her lunch.
The migrant farm workers dragged the marlin out of the bed of the truck still flopping around for all he was worth and fighting the good fight until the very end. They prepared the big fish for roasting with both care and prayer. You could tell they felt a great appreciation and even reverence for this great blue gift from the deep blue sea. A hungry man feels a deeper gratitude for food than the well fed man.
“Mayor Earl, Miss Kathleen, ya’ll take care of this end for a little while so Billy and I can run into Port A for a minute,” Jessup said. Port A being local slang for Port Aransas.
We’d changed seats, so Jessup occupied the driver’s side of the truck, and I parked my fanny on the passenger side. Though still buzzing from helping him catch that marlin, I calmed down on the ride into town. I gave it a go toward engaging in some sentient conversation and said, “I’ve been reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead.”
“Good man. Does any of it make sense to you?”
“Some of it I guess, but I grew up a Presbyterian, so the idea of reincarnation is pretty hard for me to wrap my head around.”
“Jesus spoke often on reincarnation, and those references can be found in many secret documents hidden in the caves near the Dead Sea by the Essenes. Parchment scrolls buried in clay pots for nearly two thousand years that are just now coming to light. I have a friend on the team of archivists who keeps me updated on the latest developments.”
“Whoa, wait a minute, what?”
“The early church leaders, the Bishops, decided what would and wouldn’t be in the Bible at a series of what they called ecumenical councils beginning with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A. D. called by Emperor Constantine I. We can talk more about that later, but let’s get back to reincarnation itself for now. Okay?”
“Okay, but you’ve gotta promise you’ll tell me about this other stuff later.”
“Promise. This book, the Tibetan Bible if you will, is just a meditation on change. Think about the different sides of the moon, one light and the other dark. The dark side becomes the light side, then light to dark, back and forth, again and again. It’s the grasping at light that causes the problem, wanting constant, perpetual light. How would we even understand the light if we didn’t have the darkness? Life and death are like different sides of the moon. They constantly come and they go, our bodies change, but the soul lives on.”
“Yeah, that makes sense, I guess. I’ve been playing that album backwards too, Sgt. Pepper, but I can’t hear John Lennon saying, ‘Paul is dead.’ I guess if you listen long enough, you can make yourself believe you hear anything.”
“Yeah, I couldn’t quite make it out either when a friend played it for me the first time. Could be it’s just a gimmick dreamed up by some marketing guy to sell more records. You know what they say, you sell more records when you’re dead. Personally, I hope the Beatles are around forever. They’re a great band, and this is an amazing record with a really cool cover. ”
“Yeah, the cover is way cool,” I said as we came to an intersection about a mile outside of Port A. Jessup pulled over onto the shoulder of the road and turned off the engine. That I could even half-ass hold my own in a conversation like that with Jessup made me feel like I was getting to be pretty cool too.
There we sat in Jessup’s truck. We watched and waited at that intersection. This less than bustling beach town wasn’t big enough for a red light so we found ourselves in a four way stop sign situation. Ten minutes seemed like two hours, but I had no idea for who, or what, so I asked, “What are we waiting for?”
I heard a hint of exasperation in his voice, like the teacher trying to explain the most basic long division concepts to a student, but no matter how eloquent and elemental the explanation, the learning lamp just wasn’t getting lit.
“Didn’t anybody ever tell you that patience is a virtue? As Lao Tzu said in the Tao Te Ching, ‘Simplicity, patience, and compassion, these are your three greatest treasures. Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power. If you realize you have enough, you are truly rich.’”
“I’ve never heard of the Tao Te Ching. Is that another book I should read?”
“Yes. Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching in the 6th century B.C. The title translates as The Great Book Explaining the Way of Life. Just because your life doesn’t turn out the Way you expected it to turn out, doesn’t mean your life didn’t turn out the Way it was meant to be. You got your Tao Te Ching, but then again, you got your Tao Te Chingow. Got it?”
At that very moment, a Lone Star beer truck ran the stop sign and came speeding into the intersection. The beer truck slammed on the brakes at the last second, but still half ass T-boned a Tio Beto’s Taco Wagon barreling through the stop sign coming from our right. The cargo doors for both trucks flew open from the impact of the collision, sending hundreds of cans of Lone Star beer and dozens of packages of corn and flour tortillas skittering all over the intersection.
After we checked to make sure both drivers were okay, and their trucks still drivable, we rounded up the bent cans of beer, and the damaged packages of tortillas. By the time we cleared the intersection, we’d filled up the back of the Jessup’s truck with beer and tortillas. Jessup handed the drivers of each of the trucks two twenty dollar bills a piece, which they gladly accepted as payment for the unsaleable goods.
We drove back to the beach where the laborers roasted the miracle marlin on a spit, hand turning it so the big fish would be cooked perfectly, all the way through. Grandmama glanced into the bed of the truck, and then glared at me, expecting a plausible and coherent explanation for Jessup’s Texas version of the water into wine, loaves and fishes, miracle thing. Well, really it was a nine hundred pound blue marlin, Lone Star beer and tortillas thing, but you catch my drift.
“Don’t ask,” I said, as I shook my head and laughed.
Twilight embraced us as we congregated around the campfire eating fish tacos, and drinking beer with the migrant farm workers. Sparks flew up off the fire, and cavorted in the beach breeze with the lightning bugs.
“I do believe these are the best fish tacos I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. Dee-licious!” Granddaddy said, giving his testimony, as he licked his fingers.
“Jessup, as much as it pains me to say this, I admit defeat. I salute you as the world’s greatest fisherman,” grandmama said as she raised her slightly dented lukewarm Lone Star beer in tribute to an amazing angler.
Jessup clinked his almost empty beer can against hers and said, “We do like to hook ‘em every chance we get.”
The rest of August passed without much happening in our little corner of the world. Soon, I’d have to go back to school in Raleigh, or El Paso maybe, but in any event I’d be leaving Pair O’ Dice. I helped Jessup with odd jobs during the day, around the Old Gates Home, at the ranch, or Jim D.’s clinic, and then we’d fish in the late afternoon and early evening. I guess it must have been the last week of August in 1967 when Jessup and I rolled up to the corral area on the Gates Ranch. Uncle Pharr stood next to a long livestock trailer.
“We bought a Charolais bull from Don Camargo down in Torreon,” Pharr said. “He’s been breedin’ Charolais cattle since the French and Spanish went to fightin’ over Mexico in the first damn place.”
“That’s a lot of trailer for one bull,” Jessup said.
“This is a lot of bull. El Jefe, they call him, the Boss. Sumbitch is as long as a freight car,” Pharr said, confirming the need for the heavy bull hauling equipment in front of us.
“Jessup, you any count with a weldin’ rig?”
“I worked for about six months one time doing underwater welding on an oil drilling platform out in the Gulf.”
“You ought to be able to handle this then. You don’t even have to get wet. Replace the missin’ rails, and make sure the tires are sound.” Pharr reached into his khaki shirt pocket for some papers. He also fished around in the hip pocket of his khaki pants for his wallet, and handed Jessup some cash to cover our traveling expenses. “Here’s the bill of sale and some cash for the trip. Don Camargo is bringin’ El Jefe up to Villa Acuna and takin’ care of the customs paperwork, so the bull will be waiting for you at the livestock holding pens on the Del Rio side of the river. Any questions?”
As he tromped away Pharr mumbled under his breath, “It’s hotter than blue blazes. I got sweat pourin’ off my balls like hell’s own Niagara Falls, and he’s cool.”
That afternoon as we worked on the livestock trailer wearing welder’s gloves and helmets, sparks flying everywhere, Miss Bobbie Beth Rayne drove up in a black Corvette convertible. I’d never met her before, but Jessup had told me about Bobbie Beth, how pretty and smart she was, but I wasn’t anywhere near ready for this. She stepped out of that hot car, more like emerged or even burst forth from the Vette, and glided effortlessly over toward us, like she was moving in slow motion. I remember thinking at the time, yeah, the car’s hot, real hot, but the girl’s even hotter. Jessup cut off the welding torch, and flipped up the visor on his helmet.
“Bobbie Beth, what a pleasant surprise. I kept meaning to swing by and see ya’ll over in Corpus, but I’ve been crazy busy. How’d you find me?”
“You said you were going to Pair O’ Dice, so I flew up here on a lark. I asked around town, and apparently, there aren’t that many long hairs in Pair O’ Dice. I visited with a nice lady on Shoreline Drive, and she gave me directions out to the ranch.”
“That would be Miss Kathleen, Billy’s grandmama, sweet lady.”
I took off my welding helmet, and to say I was smitten by Bobbie Beth does not even begin to describe the feeling that inundated me at that particular moment. We were only a few months apart in age, but Bobbie Beth seemed so much older than me. She carried herself with a maturity and worldliness I could barely fathom, and that turned me on like a radio. Then I noticed a mouse, a telltale bruise, under her left eye.
Jessup shook off his welding glove, and reached up to touch the mouse under Bobbie Beth’s eye, which she’d tried to hide underneath a lot of makeup. She felt the energy from Jessup flow into her body, and placed her hand over his to savor the feeling. Her shoulders softened and her whole body relaxed. Although I’d only just met her, jealously crept over me, as I envied the closeness between the two of them.
“God, I’ve missed you,” Bobbie Beth said as a small tear rolled down her left cheek and onto Jessup’s fingers.
“Did Jimmy do this?” Jessup asked in a riled up voice I hadn’t heard from him before, like he might be the man to make sure this sort of thing didn’t happen again.
“He hasn’t been himself since the real miracles stopped happening. He’s barely drawn a sober breath these last couple of months in Corpus Christi since you left us,” Bobbie Beth said as she kept holding Jessup’s hand to her face for a few more precious seconds. When Jessup gently pulled his hand back from her face, the bruise under her eye had disappeared, not a trace of the injury that was so prominent moments earlier. They noticed I was still standing there, and staring at them like some downhome dirt road doofus.
The preceding passage was brought to you by true believers in the Tao Te Chingow and the less than saintly patrons of Tio Beto’s Taco Wagon, and includes an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter Six in The Gates of Pair O’ Dice.