HE GOT THE SOUTH because no one else would take it. Like Levine, the other salesmen were from New York. Anything south of Philadelphia was a foreign country to them. So it was to Levine, but Levine liked foreign countries. He studied as conscientiously for this first trip to the South as he had for his graduate school summer in France. Dutifully he worked his way through the WPA guidebooks, Civil history, The Mind of the South. When he finally arrived in Atlanta, nothing was as he had expected, but nothing was totally unfamiliar. From his first day in the South he began to link his experiences to his reading, began building a network of local sheriffs which would eventually grow into a network of governors, a sequence of deals which would eventually grow into a fortune, a series of adulteries which would eventually shatter him.
Initially, though, it was just selling, trying to convince an endless subset of fat-bellied but flint-eyed mayors and sheriffs that the Arco short-wave radio system would save them from the crime wave working its way down from the big cities. Levine believed in his radios (Arco had discovered the Japanese even before the camera people had), and he sold well. So it was he found himself in Sedotalia, preaching Arco's virtues before an impassive Board of Supervisors. This Board of Supervisors differed from all other Boards of Supervisors because its chairman was a pleasant, young, unmistakably Ivy League lawyer named Garrett Brandon. Brandon had ties beyond the South and its small towns and was curiously, almost touchingly, eager to talk to Levine. Stopping by his table at the local restaurant that same evening, he said, "I sure liked the way you explained that system you have. Say - you said this Arco thing was so simple a kid could use it, just like those new spinning reels. That mean you're a fisherman?"
"I fish a little."
"I'll be going out on the lake tomorrow. Could you join me?"
"I'd be delighted. Thank you."
The alram clock rang at 5:45 and Levine fought awake. Something was wrong. Then he remembered agreeing to fish with Brandon. He looked out the window and there was a cold mist everywhere. He could call Brandon and tell him he was sick or had forgotten or had had a heart attack. Anything. He went back under the covers. Christ, how could the farmers do this every day!
The phone rang. A happy, Southern voice said, "Mr. Levine, it's 5:45. You asked to be called." Levine grunted and hung up. It would get better, he knew. Fishing and making love were the only two things he ever got up before nine for, and fishing was the only one he had to be exactly on time for. You couldn't keep another man waiting, not at 6 a.m. He rolled out of bed, picked his underwear up from the floor, and slowly dressed.
Brandon was exactly on time. He was wearing khaki pants, and a tattered blue button-down shirt underneath a thin windbreaker. He smiled, said, "Hate to disturb you so early," and showed Levine into an old International pickup truck. They stopped briefly at a bus station diner, where Levine endured the curious stares of country boys about to rejoin their Army units and Negroes heading north. The coffee cream was tolerably rancid and the hash-brown potatoes soggy, but the two of them ate mechanically until the food was gone. They got back into the pickup and Brandon hurtled along the main road for a quarter of an hour, turned onto a side road that wound between increasingly hilly farmlands, and then bounced onto a dirt road. On the side Levine caught glimpses of a river, not the placid red-clay river of the rural South, but a rushing torrent like something out of the Catskills. They jounced down a long hill, turned a sharp corner, and were confronted by a vast inland lake, sprinkled with islands. The woods and hills came down to the water's edge. No boats moved on the lake. There were no cottages. In the distance Levine heard some kind of bird singing.
"Stoney Lake," said Brandon. "That's a whippoorwill. He must still think it's evening."
The sun was just coming up. Brandon let down the back of the pickup truck and handed down a small Johnson outboard motor to Levine. Then they unloaded a tackle box, oars, gasoline can, and a bait box filled with minnows. Brandon turned into the underbrush at the edge of the lake and dragged out a solid-looking rowboat. Levine rolled up his pants and waded gingerly into the cold morning water to help drag the boat afloat. Brandon clamped the motor to the stern, handed the supplies to Levine, and pushed off.
"You left your key in the truck," Levine said.
"Yup. I'm awful afraid we might tip over and I'd have to strip off my pants to swim and the keys would come out. Happened once when I was a kid fishing with my father. He lost the keys that way. We had the car, all right, but we had to walk five miles out to the main road for a hitch to town. It was hot, too. Never will forget that."
"You left them in the ignition."
"That's what I mean. I'm forgetful. I'd hide the keys under the dash or someplace and then forget them. It's not safe."
"But is it safe to leave the keys like that? Suppose someone comes along and decides to steal your truck."
"Why hell, who'd come up here in the middle of the week? On Sunday there might be a few people from town fishing, but not on a Thursday. Besides, everyone knows it's my truck."
Brandon started the motor and they chugged slowly across the lake toward a small cove. Levine checked the drag on his spinning reel.
"What'll I use?" he asked.
"This time of year they're deep even in the morning. There's a drop-off right near that cove, water goes from twelve feet to around twenty-five. There's an old stone wall under the water. Used to be Moonaw's grandfather's farm before they put in the TVA dam. Moonaw's father helped repair that wall. The bass like it. 'Round here we use these new plastic worms. You fish 'em real slow along the bottom. Bass takes it and you let him run with it. Then hit real hard - you have to drive the hook through their jaw. It's not like a surface plug when the bass does the hitting." Brandon demonstrated.
A million lakes and streams in the country, Levine thought, and a million different ways to fish them. He had read about plastic worms in Field and Stream but never used one. He stared at the garish yellow worm. When I was a kid, he thought, my father used to say that the fish wouldn't bite if one little bit of the hook showed. Levine had spent hours folding ragged worms over hook-tips. The plastic worm, however, sported a gleaming unconcealed hook about the size of a whaling harpoon: Either we knew less then, Levine thought, or today's fish are careless.
"Tell you what," Brandon said. "Let's try the lilly pads a while. If nothing's moving, we'll go over the wall. Use a surface frog."
Brandon cut the motor and in the windless morning they drifted slowly toward the cove. Brandon opened the tackle box and handed Levine a green and white spotted frog. It looked like a one-once lure, and had a metal paddle in front like the old-fashioned Jitterbugs. Levine tied his on with a bloodknot.
"Go ahead," Brandon said.
Levine brought the rod up to ninety degrees and snapped his wrist. The lure shot out twenty or twenty-five yards and splashed ten feet from a clump of lily pads. The ripples from the splash died down. Levine twitched the lure a couple time. The water was absolutely still except for the vibrations from Levine's green and white plastic frog. There was a bass under there, Levine knew. He twitched the lure again. Nothing happened. He began the retrieve, reeling in three or four feet, letting the lure wait, reeling again, occasionally lifting the rod tip to make the frog slurp noisily. Nothing hit. He brought the lure back to the side of the boat, reeled in, turned down the bail of his reel, and cast again. This time the frog landed about five feet from the lily pads.
Brandon, who had watched during Levine's first cast and retrieve, picked up his own rod and started casting toward a different clump of lily pads. They fished continually that way, alternating their casts about twenty seconds apart, saying nothing. Then Levine saw a swirl of water, like a bass coming to the surface, right at the edge of the pads. He overcast and his plastic frog hit in the midst of the plants. He tried to skitter the lure out of the tangle of green, it caught on a flowered stem and held fast.
"S-," said Levine. "I'm hung up."
"Wait a minute. I'll paddle us over."
Brandon paddle as Levine reeld in.
"I'm sorry," Levine said.
"Hell, that's okay. Happens all the time. I was beginning to think you couldn't miss." Levine smiled, reached over, and disengaged his lure from the lily pad. He relaxed. The testing part was over.
They started fishing again. On Brandon's third cast there was an enormous splash, then a thunck, and then Brandon's lure came whistling at Levine's head.
"S-," Brandon said. He gave an eloquent shrug, lifted his eyes toward the sky, and said, "s-."
Levine shrugged. "Happens all the time."
"Not to me," Brandon said, and laughed. It was going to be a good day.
Nothing much happened with the surface lures and they began to fish over the sunken wall. Using the plastic worm was new to Levine and, holding the delicate monofilament between his fingers, feeling the early sun warm his shoulders, he noticed that he was sitting with his entire body tense.
"Wonder what it is about fishing," Brandon murmured. He, too, sat statue-like, holding the line delicately between his fingers like the Muse with the thread of life. Even his voice was soft.
"It's focus," Levine said.
"That's right. Everything, the whole world, is focused right down at the end of the simple string. Nothing else counts, not if you've got any imagination."
"To just see that ole bass nosing back and forth, getting ready to pick it up and run."
"Yeah. That's why you can fish if you're very smart or very stupid. The in-betweens have trouble."
"Watch out now," Brandon's voice rose slightly. "Something's taking yours."
The line was softly slipping between Levine's fingers. It was like nothing he had ever felt fishing before, not a strike, not a bite, but as though an underwater butterfly were gently moving off with his lure.
The movement stopped. "He's swallowing it now," Brandon said. "Count to three and then hit."
Levine counted and hit.
The line hit back, pulled away. The line, rod, Levine became one. The boat, the lake, the sun disappeared. The bass attached himself to Levine's spinal cord. Levine kept pressure on the fish. The fish kept pressure on Levine. The fish yanked, Levine resisted the temptation to yank back. He reeled steadily, kept the rod tip up, prayed. The fish tired, swirled to the surface. Brandon neeted him gracefully. A two-pound smallmouth. It was amazing how something so stupid could be so exciting.
"Nice work," Brandon said. He used a pair of pliers to release the hook. "That's a nice fish. They're some mighty big ones in here."
Over the next hour they each caught two more. Then the action slowed. The sun was hot. "They're out deeper," Brandon said. They moved toward the middle of the lake.
Brandon reached in one of the bait buckets. There was a six-pack of beer. He broke off a beer, reached back into the bucket, and brought out a bottle of tequila. "Brought this along especially for you," he said.
Oh s-, Levine thought. The heat and the sun and the tequila would give him a headache to last a week.
"Thanks," he said. "I don't mind a sip or two."
They drank and fished. Conversation warmed with the sun and the alcohol.
"Mr. Levine, you get around a good deal. You know, I'm just a small-town lawyer, but I'm interested in politics, like everyone else. The problem is, I don't really see how to handle this new Supreme Court decision, the integration one. If there's anything I know, it's that we treat the negras wrong. Segregation is wrong. I know it's the right decision, but I don't see how we can handle it or what to say about it."
"Don't say anything," Levine said. "Lie low. When people ask you, tell them it's the law of the land, but keep as quiet as you can. You're not the kind to go off shouting 'nigger, nigger, nigger' but even those who do, they're going to end up frozen out. And if you speak your mind, you're going to win a lot of friends up north and some paper or other will come down and do an article on 'The New Breed of Southern Politicans,' and you'll never be able to get elected dog-catcher. Now's the time to keep quiet. The people who talk about how politicians have to lead, they're people who've never run for office."
"You sound like you're done a lot of running yourself."
"Me? God, no. I read a bit, and I listen to people. I don't care what the New York Times says. People down here - white people - aren't ready for that decision. They're going to have to accept it, but they're never going to warm up to the people who tell them it's the right thing to do. Lie low. Keep quiet. Move in when tempers have settled down. Make the thing work."
"My friends back at Yale won't think all that much of me."
"They don't live here. You come out as a flaming liberal and your friends'll send you a hundred bucks for your campaign and you'll lose and they'll forget about you. They won't recognize your name. Hold off a while, win, and they might even be in a position to do you some good."
"My wife keeps telling me I should speak out."
"She doesn't have to run either. Tell her what I said."
"I'll do that. You married, Mr. Levine?" Brandon's voice was quizzical, almost, Levine thought, accusatory. Maybe he had heard something.
"Oh yes, very much so. Lovely wife and three children. Don't wear a ring, of course. Not part of Jewish tradition, you know."
That might be a mistake, Levine thought, as soon as he said it. Brandon was the sort of person who asked about things like that and might even know some Jews to ask. It wasn't like talking to shopgirls and small-town school teachers.
"Must be mighty lonely, traveling so much."
"A man's got to live. Besides, I stay busy fishing and reading."
Brandon smiled again.
The boat rocked gently. Butterflies darted over the water's surface. A small plane droned overhead, the only sound in a world that seemed to have moved back to 1935. What was it that Brandon had said - "Everyone knows it's my truck." What were these people going to do when the world hit them?
"Jesus Christ," Brandon said. He was lifting his red tip and tensing to strike. "This fish didn't just pick it up - he's scooting off like a possum up a tree. Just wait, just wait."
The line stopped. Brandon counted under his breath. "One, two, three," and hit. The fish moved off. "Lord, it's a big one," Brandon said. "Can't afford to lose this one. Don't let me be impatient, Lord, let me take my time."
He took his time, and played the fish slowly. He used only the slightest pressure to move the bass toward the boat, and did not resist when the bass headed deep. They were in deep water and there were no logs or weeds where the fish could entangle himself.
Twenty minutes later the exhausted bass fluttered feebly alongside the boat. Brandon netted him cautiously. "Jesus Christ," Levine said. "Largemouth. That must go ten pounds."
Brandon was smiling, and talking to himself. "Lord, lord, lord, look at that fish." He took out small spring scales from the tackle box. "These are accurate - got them from Abercrombie by mail. Let's see what he'll do." Holding the bass gently through the gills, he slipped the point of the scale under the fish's jaw. The bass flopped once, then dangled motionless. "Ten pounds, eight ounces," Brandon said. "Let's make sure we get a chance to catch him again."
"Let me take a picture of him," Levine said.
"Oh, we don't need that," Brandon replied.
"People will never believe me," Levine said. Reluctantly Brandon nodded and Levine took a Polaroid shot of Brandon holding the fish.
Then Brandon threaded a long stringer through the fish's gills and watched him swim weakly alongside the boat for a moment. Satisfied, he paddled the boat toward a rocky point jutting out from shore. He paddled slowly.
"Got to go easy with these fish. You go too fast, you can drown them."
About twenty feet from the rocky point Brandon picked up a heavy line with a three-pronged grappling hook at th end. He lowered the hook over the side and swept it back and forth. "Got it," he said. He pulled hand over hand on the rope and a large wire basket, like an overgrown birdcage, floated into sight. Brandon opened a trapdoor arrangement in the top of the basket and slipped the bass in. He looked at the shore markings once or twice and then lowered the basket to the bottom.
Levine raised his eyebrows.
"Round here we like to keep these big breeder bass. Some of the meat fishermen, they'll take a bass like that home and cut it up and fry it like it was an ordinary catfish, and those ole boys down at the VFW, half of them would take it to Atlanta and get it mounted to put up in their barbershops or drygoods store. But more and more, the real sportsmen down here like to release the big bass. But if you release 'em outright just after you catch them, they're in a weakened condition, and the muskrats and other fish will tear them to pieces. So you let them rest up in the baskets, keep them safe from predators, let 'em feed up on the little fish that can swim through the mesh, and come back in a week or so and let them free."
Levine nodded. He never had seen the point in putting a plastic coating over a lovely fish and tacking it up on a basement wall. People were coming their senses.
The rest of the fishing was anticlimactic. Their conversation ambled easily. On the drive back to town in the later afternoon Levine dozed in the truck. At the motel he thanked Brandon profusely, took a long tub to wash off the smell of fish, and then slep twelve hours, straight through breakfast.
The contract of the equipment was signed the next morning. Everyone smiled. Levine's commission was $5,000, his biggest yet. He made a few phone calls to local farmers, then left for Atlanta.
He brooded a long time about his trip with Brandon and his fishing with his own father. He thought about catfish and bass, and about the sparkling new office building in Atlanta. These things were all linked together, and slowly he realized that beautiful land which had been so rare and so expensive around New York lay close to Atlanta - and was cheap. He saw that the locals were still fixed on land as being valuable for farming or subdivisions and they did not see that the prosperity growing in their city would bring more and more people to vacation homes. But Levine remembered fishing on a polluted lake in Connecticut, and being grateful for it. That afternoon he called Brandon and arranged the first of his land deals.
Four weeks later, traveling in another part of the state, he picked up the Atlanta paper. He always read the local sections first - the world and national was always a puny distillation of wire-service stories. The second section led with a two-column headline: "Lawyer-Sportsman Wins Sedotalia Bass Jamboree." The story was interesting. "Garrett Brandon, well-known local lawyer and sportsman, took first place in the annual Sedotalia Fourth of July Bass Jamboree by weighing in at the Judge's Station with a ten-pound, nine-ounce bronzeback. First prize, consisting of $500 cash and a brand new camping trailer was awarded by Judy Lee Smullens, this year's Miss Sedotalia."
Must have put on another ounce in the cage, Levine thought, clipping out the article and folding it into his briefcase. He thought a while, bought a postcard of Stone Mountain, and sent it to Brandon. It read, "Congratulations. Sincerely, A. L. Levine."