Grandkids and their parents were camping and fishing at Canyon Ferry Lake. Their Nana and I came for an afternoon visit. I opened my canvas chair in the limited shade next to the camping trailer and was immediately handed a beer. A hot, dusty afternoon was reason enough that the beer disappeared quickly. We only planned to stay long enough to shoot the breeze for an hour or two and have hot dogs with the grandkids. As an old guy, I’m aware that my body cannot handle much alcohol (anymore?), so I wanted to keep track. That’s just to say that I wasn’t ready for a second beer and if I didn’t get up, someone would put a can in my hand and I’d throw its contents down my throat. I went for walk – that’s what I’m trying to get to.
I walked over to the lakeshore and wandered along just above the lightly lapping waves. I was moving slowly, looking at the little rocks at my feet as I kicked along. As I came into a thicket where the trees reach the shoreline, I nearly bumped into a man with long, stringy gray hair and a beard that reached all the way to his round beer belly.
“Excuse me,” I said, “I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
“Whazzat?” he shouted.
I said it again, louder, “I was looking at the lake instead of where I’m going.”
“A common malady in these parts, Mr. Elliott – the author, amirite?” He didn’t wait for my amazed affirmation. I mean, let’s be honest, my book sales are in the dozens, not in numbers to gain recognition beyond my neighborhood. Instead, he went on talking. “Leastways you wasn’t pretending to steer a boat out there and tangle up with them fish derby boys. Them dudes is serious for the walleyes.”
“How’d you know who I am, if I may ask? And the author part?”
“It’s nice here when it’s quiet. We can hear more of what we’s saying, can’t we. Does that gizmo hanging around your neck help your bad hearing much?” I gave up, deciding I might as well not ask. Again, he not only hadn’t answered, he didn’t give me room to answer his question. He launched into ten minutes of a steady stream of syllables. I recall his saying that he lost the hearing in his left ear, that at the time he had a car without a window on the left side, and I thought I heard him say he was driving it to Detroit where he’d get the window replaced. That was mixed in with talk about the varieties of trees and bushes around us, the pebbles dotting the beach, and the best place to find the big walleyes, but not in clear enough terms to know where he really meant. It might have been another lake entirely. Eventually he paused to wheeze and take a hit of medicine from an inhaler. Once his breathing eased, he added, “You understand what I’m saying?”
I jumped in quickly to answer. “You’re loud and clear. I’m hearing every word you say. It’s the sentences and paragraphs I’m having a little trouble making sense of.”
He laughed, coughed, and was about to begin Monologue Act 2, so I interrupted. “Let me get this straight. You lost hearing on the left from driving in the cold and storms with no window glass protecting you. But why were you going clear to Detroit to get it fixed?”
“Hell, no. Wrong on all counts. No wonder you write them made up stories.”
“Wrong? You mean you’re not deaf in one ear? What?”
“Oh, yeah. Hearing’s shot awright. We got that between us, sure thing.” He abruptly reached out to shake my hand. We shook and he went on to either explain or lead me into more confusion. “The left is the bad ear, see.”
I nodded, “I know. That’s why…” He held up his hand to stop my interruption.
“Yeah, Mr. E, but the car was a MGB. Made for British use. Right hand drive. Oh, yeah. Fun little outfit that was. Cruise along wide open. The top, that is. Wide open for speed where I could get away with it, too. Gliding down Route 12.” He turned toward the highway a half mile away beyond the trees, campgrounds and the famous silos. “Can’t see it from here, can ya.”
I followed his gaze and saw the dense thicket we were standing in. “Nope. Can’t see the highway for the trees.”
“I musta made a mistake. You ain’t really the writer, are ya?”
“I am. Some lines disappear on the first edit. You’ve been leading me along on purpose. How did it happen? The hearing loss.”
“Probably like you. I woke up one morning and couldn’t hear but from the right.”
I said, “Mine was more gradual.”
“Did I ask? I’m telling the story, Mr. Storyteller. Your turn’s later.”
I looked at my watch. He noticed. I asked, “Did you tell me your name and I forgot?”
Without answering he went on, “I woke up. Couldn’t hear. My jaw was still awful sore, too. Getting wacked by a fist the size of a watermelon the day before might’ve had something to do with it. About then I was more angry about losing my car. Still hadn’t got to Detroit for the window that was waiting for me.”
“Lost your car? It was stolen? But hey, here’s a question from a while ago: Were you driving from Montana clear to Michigan for a piece of glass?”
“Hell, no. I was only coming from Sawyer. Route 12 used to go that way long time ago, but by then I had to go south a ways to get on there. Straight and fast for miles. The MG loved it. Last day I ever drove that little roadster. Steered like a Mack truck.”
“Sawyer? By the lake? That’s where I saw the light. Right near there.”
“I s’pose you got a story about that, huh?”
“I do. Want to hear it?”
“No. A wrecking yard had the glass I needed and I liked to take the drive anyways. Long about White Pigeon, ‘tween there and Sturgis—Michigan not Harley Dakota—somewheres in there, that’s when the thugs caught up with me.”
“Thugs? They stole your car?”
“Well, sorta. I was living a little above my pay grade in those days. Not like now. Now I keep it simple. Old Ford and a slip-in camper on the box. It’s all I need to get me by. Back then I had big dreams. I needed a stake to get started. Trouble is, with the only collateral being my life and limb, I’m just lucky they didn’t break my kneecaps. All I lost was a car and an eardrum. Well, a coupla teeth to boot, but that’s nothin’.”
“I think I’m getting the gist of the sentences and paragraphs now. You must be somewhat local now, if you knew my face before we met. How’d you get to Montana?”
“Highway 12. You know your wife’s wondering where you got to. Worrying. She’s had enough sun and wind. She wants you to drive her home. Them brats is ready over there besides.”
“I have a hundred more questions I want to ask you…”
“Git yourself over there, buddy, before they start dragging the lake bottom lookin’ for your body.”
“Well, it’s good to get acquainted, Mr. umm. What again?”
He turned and walked up toward the biffies shaking his head.
“Where’ve you been all day,” I heard as I pulled a Dr. Pepper out of the ice chest. When I started to tell about my encounter, the family quickly turned to other topics. A little later, while I was putting our folding chairs in the car, I saw the man with the ZZ Top beard get into a shiny late model four-door Ford F-250. The slip-in part of the camper was on a 5th wheel trailer hitch. As we drove out of the campground I was muttering to myself, “What else was he fibbing about? Was any of that story true? How does he know my name and hobby? How’d he even know the kids were grilling bratwurst?” Now I can ask, “Does it matter?” And answer, “No.”
(The only true parts of this story are that some family members have camped there, that the fishermen among them have competed in the Canyon Ferry Walleye Festival, and that Barb and I have enjoyed afternoon visits at their campsite and walks by the lake.)