By then we needed solace. We stood out on the deck of the club and listened to a northeaster rattle the rigging of the yachts in the marina and howl through the little town. It didn't look good for the next morning. Francis hung moodily over the rail and wondered aloud if he could charter one of the big boats to use instead of his own 26-footer. We went back inside to stare at the 60-pound striper set up on the wall, until I sensed that Brennan was getting homesick for Miss Maloney's salmon.
Next morning we woke early, well before the 4:30 a.m. call that Bob had promised us, mainly because Brennan was still operating on Dublin time, five hours ahead of EST. We listened for wind but we couldn't hear it, maybe because the town was sheltered. We also lacked an indicator, like the skeleton of an old apple tree in Mrs. MacNamara's yard on which rooks would settle if the wind was not too hard; you could pick them out black against the false dawn. But in Nantucket we had no such guide. We had to wait until Bob appeared and be content with his "We'll go and take a look."
The street still black, we lumbered out of the door bundled up like Michelin men and saw the stars fade as we drove out to the dock, white tails of rabbits bobbing out of the headlights, the profile of the low hills beginning to show and then the sea. Sheltered here, of course, but a sharp ripple over the gray showing that the outside would be rough going. It was the same low, gray seascape that you see in protected water from the Baltic to County Wexford and on west, the same skeins of geese arrowing through the growing light, the same ribs of old hulks showing through the muddy grass.
We were going to head out. The sea would be up, Francis shouted over the engine noise, but that meant good fishing if we could get to the right rips. The wind was easier than the previous day and the forecast said it would go on dropping. He was steering the McKenzie bass boat straight for a line of breakers that had to be the sandbar that protected the harbor. As we closed on it, though, we saw a gap, fully big enough for Brennan's old station wagon. "Nemesis is about to get a wet rear," I told him.
Another correct prediction. Two wild minutes, though, and we were through, punching into a steep chop that was manageable enough. Ahead of us was the first of the tide rips, but we turned from it and ran close under the land until we were in the lee of a sandspit that cut across the weather, forming a small area of comparative calm. Francis stopped the engine. "Now cast," he said.
Striper experts Brennan and I were not. But a minimum of research had taught us that this was not the kind of locale where bass might be expected. We looked at one another, shrugged and did as he asked. "All wrong!" Francis yelled. Brennan bridled, as well he might. The poppers had gone out straight and true, a good 50 yards or thereabouts. For 30 years, ever since he caught his first mackerel off the end of the North Wall dock-in Dublin, Brennan had reckoned he could cast. And Gaelic football players active in that same city less than 20 years since would have recognized the full red flush now rising up to his cheekbones. "How do you mean, wrong?" he said. It seemed like a full three-second pause before he pronounced the last word.
You don't practice the barber's art for long without learning a little tact. Francis saw his error. "Let me tell you," he said, somewhat dramatically. "Every time I turn my motor off at the end of a trip, I say Thank you, God!' No matter how smart you are, no matter how educated you are, you can make a mistake with a plug. In the excitement. Lose an eye. Both eyes. Had one up my nose once. Bunch of men from Maryland. So now I have this drill. First man goes into the stern, backs up, watching his plug all the time. Casts overhead. Moves up. Second man into the stern, backs up, casts. Soon as his plug gets within 18 yards of the boat, caster drops his rod tip to stop the plug's action. If a fish hits a plug that close to the boat, then comes loose, that thing is going to fly back like a bullet. I'm sorry," he said. "I spoke rough."
Brennan's flush had died away. After all, what Francis had said was reasonable. Except, possibly, for that 18-yard bit. Wouldn't it be natural to say 20 yards, or 15? Francis had either conducted a series of controlled experiments with some physicist from MIT, or there was something just a touch obsessional in his makeup. Not that that would be very unusual in a fishing guide.
But for the moment we seemed to have satisfied him. We swung away from the sheltered water and bounced out toward the nearest rip, a quartering sea lashing us with spray. As Francis worked the boat into range, Brennan and I lined up the casts like jets at O'Hare in the rush hour, moving up slowly until the tower gave us clearance. "Rod down!" I snarled at Brennan before Francis had a chance, thereby failing to spot soon enough the heavy brown swirl at my own popper. "See that?" I roared at Brennan.
"I was watching my own plug," he said virtuously. I cast again. So did he. No results. No results, either, for the next 10 minutes as we drifted parallel with the rip. I've blown it, I thought. All those miles of travel, all those months of making arrangements, and the one chance I would get to show Brennan a striper had gone. The way I was feeling, even the weather would deteriorate and keep us from trying the next rip, and my natural pessimism interpreted the fact that Francis kept heading out as a sign that he probably didn't know what to do next.