Beer and Cancer

by Con Chapman

There was a light wind off the water, just enough to turn the tips of the waves white, not enough to make it choppy, as the fishing boat took off from the pier with the guide, the two young boys and their grandfather.

“You're gonna catch some fish today, little fella,” the guide—Bubby—said to the younger of the two, while his brother eyed the bait in the bucket.  “I guarantee it.”

The boy didn't know what that meant but he wanted to catch a fish.

“What kind of fish do you catch around here?” the old man said.

“Oh, all kinds,” Bubby said.  “Jacks, lotta ladyfish—trash fish not worth eatin'.  Snook, snapper.  Maybe get a grouper if we're lucky.”

The old man looked off down the channel to where the open water lay ahead.  “Is it all right if the boys sit up on the deck there?” he said of his grandsons, who had climbed up over the housing of the boat and were sitting with their backs to the cabin glass.

“Sure—we can't make wake through here.  Gotta go slow because of the manatees.  Nobody gave a you-know-what about ‘em until a few years ago,” Bubby said to the old man.  “Then all of a sudden they're more important than the humans.”

The grandfather let out a “Hmph” of agreement, and was silently thankful that the guide had kept his language clean in front of his grandsons.  He'd catch hell if he brought the kids home with new swears in their vocabulary.

They glided past the houses on the shore, with the guide making a comment every now and then about some illustrious person who lived in one, or some outlandish feature that had been added to another in recent years.  The old man took it all in and seemed impressed, but not excessively so.  He must have a lot of money of his own, Bubby thought.

As the neared the mouth of the channel the guide knocked on the glass and motioned for the boys to come inside.  The grandfather asserted himself in response, calling to the boys to get in the boat for the rougher ride on the ocean.  The boys obeyed, chattering to each other, eager to submit to manly discipline on their high seas' adventure.

They rode for awhile in silence as Bubby sought out the most fertile fishing grounds.  He was sensitive to the tides in a way that the old man, who'd been fishing since he was a boy but mainly on fresh water, was not.  They came to a stop on the leeward side of a sandbar a football field's length from the shore and Bubby cut the engines.  “See them birds up there,” he said to the boys.  “They know there's fish here.”  He dropped the anchor, then said “Let me get you guys started.”

“Make them bait their own hooks,” the grandfather said.  The older of the two boys screwed up his face in distaste.

“You don't wanna stick your hand down in there, little buddy?” the guide said.

“No,” the boy said quietly as he squinted into the sun.  It wasn't clear to Bubby whether he wanted to be fishing, unlike his brother.

“I made your mother bait her own hook when she was growing up,” the old man said.  “You can learn to do it too.”

Bubby knelt down and helped each boy slide a mud minnow on the hook, then showed them how to cast.  Their lines didn't go very far out, so Bubby took each one's rod in turn and guided them with a sidearm motion.

“Now let that bait bounce along the bottom, bounce it,” he said to the younger, who was reeling in his line quickly.  “Slow it down if you want to fool them fish.”

Bubby asked the grandfather if he wanted to fish some, and the old man said sure.  He pulled a rod out of the tubes that ringed the cabin, and started to get it ready.  “That's okay, I'll take care of it,” the old man said.  He knelt down by the bait box and, with a sureness that his other motions in the boat lacked, got a grub on his hook and, with a cast that looked like it was encumbered by arthritis, sailed the hook a good twenty yards past where the boys' lines landed.

The old man was intent on his work but attentive to his grandsons at the same time.  He would cast them a sidewise glance from time to time, encouraging them, telling them to be careful when their hooks neared the boat.  After a while the grandfather caught a yellowfin, then the younger boy got a ladyfish, but neither was big enough to keep.

“I think we better try another spot,” Bubby said. “I thought the tide would bring ‘em in, but they musta gone somewhere else.”

They secured the rods and the guide started up the boat again, heading now for deeper water.  “There's a reef out here,” he said to the old man as he pointed to the screen on the fish finder.  The boys gathered around to watch, happy to have an excuse to get in out of the bright sun.

As the boat bounced over the waves the old man allowed himself to stare at Bubby's hat from where he was sitting on the seats, each arm around one of the boys.  It had a flap in the back, like the ones worn by the French Foreign Legion.  He'd never seen one like that except in a movie or on television.

The guide stopped the boat once they reached a point near the reef, and once again they readied the rods, this time just two, and started to fish.

“That's an interesting hat you have,” the old man said.

“Interesting ain't the word for it,” Bubby said.  The old man was taken aback by the guide's tone, which had until then been deferential and friendly.  “I've had two lesions removed from my neck, don't wanna be cut up any more.”

“Oh,” the old man said, chastened.

“Yep.  Bubby don't like spending money on cancer.”

The elder boy looked back at him.  He knew cancer wasn't a good thing, and wondered why anyone would spend money on it.

“Bubby'd rather spend money on beer than cancer.”

The old man smiled wanly.  “Sure, I know what you mean.”

“It all comes out of Bubby's pocket one way or another.  Being a fishing guide don't come with no health insurance.”

“No, I know,” the old man said, then hung his head a bit and looked away.

“I made my choice,” the guide said.  “I'd rather be here than sittin' at a desk, or working a drill on an assembly line.  I'm out in the fresh air every day, doin' what I love, so you won't hear Bubby cryin' about it.  Still, if I have a choice, I'd rather spend my money on beer than cancer.”

“Can we have a snack?” the older boy asked his grandfather, and the old man said “Sure.”  He went to unpack the cooler he'd brought with them, which contained juice and crackers.  “Why don't you get down in the cabin, out of the sun, while you eat,” he said.

“That's right, boys, you don't want to get what I got,” the guide said.

When the boys were taken care of the old man climbed back up to stand beside the guide.  He wanted to show he was sympathetic to the fellow, and it was the only way he could think of.