Several years ago, when our children were still eating strained vegetables out of those little glass jars, my wife and I took the youngsters down to Florida for a winter in a beach-house on the Gulf of Mexico. A few weeks after we arrived, a sportsman friend of ours rang up from New York to ask if the fishing was any good down in our neck of the woods.
Our friend, who was a bachelor, said he planned to drive down to Key West for the barracuda and sailfish. If there was anything he could bring us from New York, why he didn't mind coming by way of the Gulf Coast at all. "You're very sweet to offer to bring things down for us," my wife said. "But the truth of the matter is that we've brought along everything we want. On the other hand, as long as you are driving down...."
Four days later Frank arrived at noon in what looked like one of the Conestoga wagons used by the Donner party. After I helped him unload the folding perambulator, the extra bathinette, two strollers, a playpen, a plastic wading pool and half a dozen other items that we had left behind, I noticed he wasn't carrying anything even remotely resembling fishing tackle.
I said nothing about it. I merely joined my wife in thanking Frank effusively; we fed him a hundred drinks and a heavy lunch and waited for him to take off for Key West. Two days later we were still waiting.
Frank seemed to have lost interest in Key West and fishing. He just paced nervously around the house, staring alternately at the sea and his wrist watch, making an occasional guarded phone call and generally giving the impression of a man who thinks he is being stood up by his date.
The following day the mystery was solved. A convertible drove up, all covered with dust, and she stepped out. Her name was Phyllis, and she was a joy to behold, and she came from Pasadena, but had been delayed by the weather and motor trouble. Frank's story about being on his way to Key West was just a blind. He and Phyllis had arranged by long-distance phone to meet at our place, because they were crazy about each other and wanted to get married, but they were both orphans and had no immediate family, and did we mind, since Frank was such an old and dear friend, acting as family for them until the knot was tied?
"Of course not!" my wife cried eagerly. Like all women, she feels about the imminent marriage of another (any other) member of her sex the way a Broadway angel feels about rave-opening-night notices.
Eight days and several near nervous breakdowns later, all the legal technicalities had been surmounted. We drove to Clearwater with Frank and Phyllis and stood up for them before a local judge. Then we all came back to the beach for a champagne wedding supper and, finally, after a good deal of manly handshaking and girlish weeping, the newlyweds drove off in the direction of St. Petersburg on the first leg of what they said was going to be a month's honeymoon in Key West.
"Well," I said, since I am the member of the family who is considered the phrasemaker, "that's that!"
"I know exactly what you mean," said my wife.
The following morning I was awakened, not as usual at 6 a.m. by an infant yowling for his formula, but most unusually at 5:30 a.m. by someone hammering on our door. I staggered out of bed.
"Hi," Frank said cheerfully when I opened the door. "You're going fishing with us."
"What?" I said, wondering uneasily if Noel Coward, under similar circumstances, would have come up with a wittier retort.
"Deep-sea fishing," said Phyllis, beaming happily, as a newly minted bride should. "Hurry up."
Frank explained that, casting about in their minds for some way to repay us, it had occurred to them that the very least they could do was provide us with a small taste of the large banquet of joy that awaited them in Key West—deep-sea fishing. Why shouldn't my wife and I have one day?
"I hate fish," she said.
"Then you stay with the kids," Frank said to her, and seized my arm. "Come on. I've chartered a cruiser."
The "cruiser" he had chartered looked like an old-fashioned wooden washtub that had been partially boarded over to form a crude deck. The captain looked like a butcher. He wore an apron. So did the two members of his crew.
"Sit down," one of them said when we came aboard. "And don't stand up till we get there."
"Get where?" I said.
Nobody answered. The crew was casting off. I looked at Frank. He was beaming at Phyllis. I looked at Phyllis. She was beaming at Frank. I looked around at the vast blue sunlit immensity of the Gulf of Mexico, and I found creeping into my mind a question that seems to assail me with increasing frequency as I grow older: "What the hell am I doing here?"
An hour later I found out.
"O.K.," the captain yelled suddenly as he cut the motor. "Drop it!"
He meant the anchor. The boat stopped as though it had been slammed against a stone wall. Somewhat dazed, I picked myself up and looked around.
"Here," the captain said. "Get started."
He handed each of us a short, thick bamboo pole about the size of a broomstick. Each pole was fitted with a reel, a thick line and a huge shrimp impaled on a hook.
"Don't stand there wasting time," the captain said irritably. "Get started. Fish."
This did not sound at all like what I had read in Hemingway.
The moment my hook hit the water, something snapped at it and began to drag me overboard.
"Reel in, stupid!" the captain roared. "Reel in!"
I recaptured my balance, found the knob on the reel, and in 10 seconds I had hauled into the boat a red-scaled monster as big as a jockey.
"Look!" I cried, my heart pounding with excitement as I turned to my companions. "Look what I—!"
The words stopped in my throat. There were five other red-scaled monsters flopping around in the boat!
"Jeepers!" Phyllis said in a dazed voice. "All I did was drop the hook, and the next thing I knew—"
"All right, lady," one of the crew members said. Deftly he freed the huge, red fish from her hook and baited it with another shrimp. "Try it again."
"What kind of fish is it?" Phyllis asked innocently.
"Grouper," the crewman said. "We're sitting right on a school."
He then turned his attention to Frank's line and mine. By the time I had lifted my freshly baited hook and was ready to drop it overboard, Phyllis had caught her second fish. Within a half hour we were all standing up to our knees in a slithering mass of groupers, every one of them big enough to vote, and I was convinced that something was wrong. Hemingway didn't catch them as easily as this. Hemingway sometimes fought a single fish for hours. And the fish Hemingway caught looked a good deal more dashing and dangerous than the things we had been dragging in. I started to sit down for a moment and think the whole miserable performance over.
"On your feet!" the captain roared. "Nobody rests till we're full up!"
We were full up by 10:30, at which time the crew relieved us of our tackle and hoisted anchor. The captain started the motor and headed back to John's Pass. I noticed that the newly-weds were no longer staring at one another in entranced rapture. I didn't blame them. I was bushed, too.
As the crew was making our boat fast to the dock, I noticed on the wall of the bait shed a hand-lettered sign that I had overlooked when we put to sea in the morning. I read it carefully, imbedding each word in my mind like a jeweled bearing in a wrist watch, and then I turned to my hosts.
"Frank," I said with as much self-control as I could muster.
But before I could go on, Frank was explaining: "When the idea hit us last night to surprise you by taking you deep-sea fishing, we were both still full of wedding-supper champagne, and the only way we could think to find somebody with a boat was to look in the classified phone book."
This seemed eminently sensible.
"Under what did you look in the phone book?" I said.
"Fish," he said.
"Oh," I said.
Before stepping out of the boat, I turned for a last look at the sign. I wanted to be sure. It read:
HARRY'S FISH MARKET
WHOLESALE AND RETAIL
WE CATCH THEM IN THE MORNING
YOU EAT THEM IN THE AFTERNOON