The Man Called Avery

MNHe said his name was Avery. No mention of a first or last name. He didn’t say.  I didn’t ask. Little did I know back then that this encounter would be something I never expected from this strange little man.

It was almost time to get off the water. I was wading the Straight River near Park Rapids, Minnesota trying for some of the big brown trout reportedly roaming its tea-colored waters. The majority of the river (more creek than river) is open, winding through a Tamarack bog. It would be soon be dark. I began wading through the long, shadowed tunnel toward the gold and rose of a setting sun and the road where I parked the truck. The truck was a stash for six cold Stella beers; at that point the object of my undivided attention.

The tunnel of trees was losing light fast. As I sloshed my way forward a large group of aquatic insects appeared over the water. They had just hatched and were in a fluttering frenzy of mating, a ritual that would end with their dying, falling to water’s surface. Ephemeral… their lives lasting just a single day to get on with their propagation job description. They were having a first and last dance. I wondered if they somehow enjoyed themselves or were just mandated by nature to save their race. Of course the trout would not care a whit (because they can’t) and eat them eventually with gusto.

What held me spell-bound was their distinctive white color, almost luminous in the evening shadows. The hatch was huge with hundreds of white insects undulating in unison; wraith-like, a Casper ghosting its way up-river.

What an amazing sight, I thought, but held to the task of getting off the water before it got too dark to wade safely. Nonetheless, I was moving slowly when I saw movement ahead. Someone was wading almost recklessly about a hundred yards or so up-river towards the road and the remaining daylight. Stumbling right, then left, a frail, if not downright skinny man was engaged in some pretty curious choreography, dancing rocks Fred Astaire probably couldn’t negotiate on a good day. This might be interesting, I thought.

When I finally reached the road, I encountered this mysterious figure only to find a regular person – albeit a thin one – sitting in the back seat of an old beat up Buick eating a fat peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a lot of enthusiasm.

“Hi! My name’s Bob.”

“Avery,” he countered; his mouth full of food.  After a few seconds of awkward silence, I turned and headed to my vehicle. “Nice meeting you” was met with more silence. While he finished the bulging sandwich, I went over to the truck, shucked my waders and pulled a cold beer out of the cooler. Thinking I would try again for some interaction, I called out:

“How about a beer, Avery?”

“Thanks, that sounds good! Did you see any of the white Mayfly hatch on your way out?” It was amusing that Avery became more loquacious with the promise of a free beer.

“Yeah, I did but couldn’t figure out just what kind of bugs they were. The trout didn’t seem quite interested yet and I wanted to get off the river before it got too dark.”

“Yeah. That’s why I was moving so fast! That river is no place to be stumbling around in after dark. I’m pushing 90 and my physical capabilities are not what they used to be. Besides, there’s a full moon coming up just over your shoulder in the east.” Turning around I saw the moon rising, big and bright. That fact made me wonder about Avery’s apprehension; the face of a bald, happy man shining light on the countryside begged an obvious question.

“Moon shadows!” He began, answering the unspoken query. “ Obviously a beautiful, full moon bathing the open landscapes in incandescent cosmic wonder is nothing short of spectacular– but moon shadows , the nth degree of blackness, darker than dark , will leave you in a state of total confusion: no time to be in the woods or on any stream . What was once familiar to you a half hour ago is now mysterious almost menacing. That’s why I’m getting the hell off the river while there’s still decent daylight.”

averyCALLOUTAt that point, knowing his approximate age (90 for god sakes!), I opened a different discussion.

“Aren’t you a bit old too old be coming out here alone? A little afraid something might happen?”

“I suppose a little…maybe.” He was pensive for a very long minute. “Got anymore beer?” Nodding in the affirmative, I fished a couple more Stellas from the cooler.

“Here’s the deal,” he began. As he talked, I looked into the deep pools of his blue eyes, saw clarity and an ability to communicate with few words, staring laser-like right into my eyes. I listened intently, holding the cold bottle next to my temple, cooling a jaw that was aching from too much wading (when the pain starts at my feet and invariably “socks” me in the jaw) that day. After every declarative sentence, there followed one of those extended time lapses that only a few minutes before had made me feel uneasy. I was warming to his style of communicating.

“I have no one to wait for me or, as a result, to worry about my skinny ass. I’ll never be late for supper or, for that matter, anything. My wife died almost 20 years ago. My son was killed in Afghanistan not long after she passed. Friends and family are either gone or pushing crab grass. I live in a cabin by myself, alone but not lonely. At my age I can still cut two cords of fire wood, hunt pheasants and an occasional deer. And, I fish more than most people dream of doing!

I love to read good literature. For several years I taught English lit. at the U. I was a professor and retired with an adequate pension years ago. I get along just fine financially. Nothing better than to open a good book, while listening to music, to fall asleep by… maybe escorted into the arms of Morpheus with a little aid of a smooth tasting bourbon.”

“How do you handle all those free hours you have, not having to account for anything or to anyone?” He thought, once again for an extended period then said, “I didn’t think about time for a long while. Just kind of shuffled around doing whatever I wanted. Now, I have no time-telling conveniences: no watches; clocks on the wall. No newspapers, magazines or television. Gave my computer away some time ago on my way to the post office to pick up my mail…which is just power and gas bills.

“I’m not at war with time, nor is this some kind of philosophical “re-arranging” of old theories. Time is really just an artificial contrivance to enforce all kinds of laws, agreements, meetings, work requirements and, I dare say, to arrange an occasional romantic rendezvous. Those, I actually don’t need anymore, especially the latter! So you might say, if sounding a bit contradictory, I live forever in the moment.”

“You certainly must miss your wife and son, don’t you?”

“Sure I do! I’ll always remember my son as a little boy. I would take him fishing right here on this river when he was five or six years old. Many times I would carry him on my shoulders as I waded. He’d grab hold of my big ears and hang on. I think of him every time I come here.”

“My wife’s name was Zelda. Yeah I know; just like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife but that was her given name. Her mother was a big fan of his novels and that is why her daughter got that handle.

But, my fondest memory of Zelda was watching her work over her beautiful flower beds, watering plants, dead-heading them where needed and pulling a rare weed or two. Kind of funny, she always wore my old loafers I would wear when cutting grass. They were so old they were shaped to my gnarly feet, bunions and all. I asked her once about it. She said it was her way of holding me close. I laughed at that, expecting her to laugh too, but she frowned and went back to her flowers.  It haunts me now. I shouldn’t have laughed at her answer. But, I’ll always hold close the image of her watering her flowers wearing my beat up loafers on her tiny feet.” He was quiet, longer than before. Finally he looked at me and said, “Did you know Fitzgerald was from Minnesota?” I knew that but for some reason didn’t answer. I got the feeling he wasn’t really talking to me.

I offered Avery another beer but he waved it off, heading to the morose-looking Buick. “You take care. Thanks for the beer.”  He started the engine and rolled down the car window. “Nice talking with you Lad!”

“Maybe we’ll meet out here again sometime,” I yelled over the rumble of the car exhaust.

“Hope not!  Nothing personal but if we should, you might try to put me in one of your time slots and I don’t need that!” He roared off down the gravel road, rock music blaring, car tail lights blinking to the beat.

As I watched the Buick with its shorting-out tail lights disappear into the gaining darkness, I opened another beer and tried to process what had just occurred. I wondered if I could handle a timeless world like Avery’s, navigating around moon shadows, living in the equilibrium of serenity. I wondered, but not for long. The answer was obvious. It was time to return to my home in Nebraska. It was indeed time. I missed my wife like never before. Her name was not Zelda, but it wouldn’t matter.





By Bob Johnston