“What are you taking pictures of?”
“What are you taking pictures of?” he enunciates this time. His words are clipped but deep and smooth. He doesn't turn to me but continues to watch the water and nurse his fishing line, pulling it in and letting it go with a gentle rhythm that I had admired from afar before he called out to me.
“I don’t know, just pictures of the river. My mother lives a few blocks away. I’m visiting her from Florida.”
His name is Alonzo. He’s tall with broad shoulders and a distinguished air. It doesn't surprise me to learn that he was an educator before he retired. These days, he’s a jazz aficionado, author, poet and photographer. He also travels, fishes, and allows curious strangers with big cameras to pepper him with questions.
I move in and stand next to him and we both watch the line drift and twitch while we talk.
“Florida,” he tilts his head as if he just discovered that we share a mutual acquaintance. “I visit South Carolina fairly often. I love the architecture down there, to see the cities built by black people. It’s like visiting ghosts. Even though I feel a lot of pain when I go to the South, I’m willing to drudge up the bad ghosts in order to commune with the good.”
His words are beautiful, but they roll out of him in an unassuming, conversational tone. I imagine that he was always a poet at heart - even before he was one in practice. I’m immediately at ease with him. There’s a tug on the line -
“Is that a bite?” I clap my hands and raise up on my toes to peer into the water.
“No, it’s probably just caught on something,” he says patiently. I settle back in and we talk about his time in Africa and how beautiful his sons were when they were younger. He speaks about his boys with a sense of awe that smooths out the lines around his eyes and makes him stand slightly taller, as if a memory alone whittles away the extra years.
I, too, have reverted as I lightly hop from one foot to the other, swatting at mosquitos and gasping every time the line jumps. My childlike exuberance is genuine, a surprising self-revelation since I’ve never had an interest in fishing.
“What about that? Is that a bite?” He shakes his head and brings the line in. The bait has been decimated by little fish that can easily evade the large hook he’s chosen. He has his sights on a bigger prize. Half of the worm still wiggles on the hook. I groan but slide over to get a closer look.
“Uh huh.” It’s a pensive acknowledgment, mixed with slight annoyance. I’m not sure if he’s talking to me, the bait, or the fish.
He begins again. As he baits the hook, his hands shake slightly - not from age. Alonzo is nothing if not steady. Is it his love for this pastime? Does his passion run so deep that his hands are trembling with anticipation, or is it because he’s moving slower than usual to give me the chance to observe his technique - still teaching, even now?
I don’t ask. The line soars through the air and enters the water again with a plunk.
“What made you leave Africa and come back to the United States?”
“My wife was ready to come back. She said it was time.” Alonzo turns to face me straight on. One hand holds the pole and the other adjusts his baseball cap. His gaze is intense. I smile, realizing that I, too, have a hook in the water.
“So you came back to make her happy?”
“I came back for love, but what we have is so much more than love now. How long have you been married?”
“Three years,” I say. He nods as if he already knew the answer.
“I’ll tell you. Marriage is not about needing someone, people need others for a lot of different reasons - sex, companionship. Marriage is about wanting someone, wanting to spend your life with them. It’s also about forgiveness and acceptance.”
I smile but turn away from him, back out to the river. A lump has formed in my throat and my eyes smart. I’m unsure of whether I’m overcome by his conviction or if I’m referencing something of my own.
“The one thing I would tell you is, don’t have any regrets. Live life to the fullest. Don’t look back.”
Our encounter has been too brief. There are more questions that I want to ask him, they bubble up and loiter in the back of my throat impatiently; but the sun has set, and Alonzo has opened and closed - almost visibly - as he retrieves his bait for the last time today.
I ask him one more. “Your line goes out so far, does it ever snap when the boats ride through?”
He extends his hand and moves it from side to side like he’s smoothing the ripples in the river below us.
“My line goes too deep, the boats ride right over it.”