“You need any help, ma’am?” I shouted out to the haggard woman wandering near the water’s edge. She didn’t look up, just shuffled along, her eyes fixed on the ground until she stopped suddenly at the live oak with the rope swing. Moonlight glinted off the damp knots of her tangled hair as she stooped down and combed the rye grass with her fingers.
“Edna Mae Respess,” Landon whispered from the rail of Duck Creek Bridge, where we sat together sharing a flask of bourbon.
“Can’t be,” I said.
Mrs. Respess, Sloat Tatum’s grandmother, had been dead for years, long before I had even moved to Aurora County. I gazed back at the creek bank. The woman was gone.
There had been prior reports of spectral sightings at Duck Creek Bridge. But they had all come from Sloat Tatum—always the ghost of Maw Maw Respess, a teetotaler, who only showed up for his late-night drinking binges. Most of the time, she just glared at him from the creek bank, though Sloat claimed she had met him on the bridge once and scared him so bad he dropped the fifth of Ten High he was drinking, shattering the bottle on the concrete deck. Landon and I never believed Sloat. We just assumed those visions occurred during the rare instances when our buddy’s conscience spoke. Tonight, we were the only witnesses. Everyone else, including Sloat, had been too busy discussing our football team’s latest victory.
We headed down to that patch of creeping wild rye, hoping to find what Mrs. Respess had been searching for.
“Looks like human hair,” Landon said, holding his lighter next to a tight bundle of curly locks attached to a gold-plated fishing hook. “Mrs. Edna’s husband tied his first fly lure when he was 12 years old using a red-cellophane band from a cigarette pack,” he said with a chuckle. “It was enough to interest a five-pound bass. Maybe Abner Respess had even better luck with his wife’s hair.”
“He must’ve used up all her real hair tying flies,” I said. “The woman I saw had her head covered in Spanish moss.”
Landon glared at me. “Mrs. Edna donned a wig in her dying years,” he growled. “After cancer and chemo left her bald-headed.”
While growing up in Aurora County, Landon always had a seat at the Respess supper table, where he devoured Mrs. Edna’s smothered chicken and cornmeal dumplings. On Saturday afternoons, he had often joined Sloat and Abner to fish Goose Creek and the Pamlico Sound. By then, Abner had already given up fly fishing; instead, he preferred to use live bait. It was less work. Mrs. Edna passed away when the boys were 10 years old. Abner died six months later, leaving behind a collection of fly lures that his grandson didn’t know how to use.
Prior reports of spectral sightings had come from Sloat Tatum—always the ghost of Maw Maw Respess, a teetotaler, who only showed up for his late-night binges.I glanced up at the bridge. Naked, perched on the rail amidst hoots and hollers from our horde of friends, was Sloat Tatum. He stood still for what seemed like several minutes, before springing forward and silencing the crowd with a swan dive, graceful and perfectly executed. He disappeared into the water, and several seconds passed with nary a sound except for the bullfrogs and whippoorwills.
“This don’t look good,” Landon said, handing me the lure, as the crowd on the bridge grew silent. He kicked off his shoes and was about to jump into the creek when Sloat’s head broke the surface of the water.
“I didn’t scare nobody, did I?” he shouted at the stunned onlookers.
Nervous laughter drowned out the nocturnal noises.
I pocketed the lure. Boys and girls headed down to the rope swing, shucking clothes along the way.
“I’ve had enough,” Landon scowled. “Tomorrow, we’ll tell Sloat what we saw. If he survives the evening.”
“He will,” I said. “Maw Maw is looking out for him.”
Sloat Tatum’s hands shook. His eyes were wide, his body pressed against the car door. “Get that thing away from me,” he stammered.
Landon laughed. “It’s your grandma’s heirloom, son. It’s not a loaded gun.”
Sloat removed a plug of Taylor’s Pride from his pocket. He bit off a chew. “I don’t want no part of it,” he muttered, munching tobacco.
We were halfway to Crowder Lake in my daddy’s Chevy Impala with Landon’s jon boat strapped to the roof, when a gust of wind whipped under the bow and blew us into the oncoming traffic. Daddy’s station wagon wobbled under the 16-foot Waco flat-bottom, which fit the roof like an oversized hat. A semi dragging a mobile home barreled toward us. I swerved back into our lane just in time.
Sloat retched. Coffee-colored dribble ran down his chin. He wiped his face, and spat his chaw into a paper cup.
Landon handed him a Schlitz bull. “You know what, buddy? We’d all be road kill if we hadn’t taken this along,” he said, brandishing the lure. “Seems like Maw Maw has her eye on us.”
Sloat swigged malt liquor, cleared his throat. “That ain’t Maw Maw’s hair,” he said. “And even if it was, I don’t like carrying around the remains of the dead with me. Besides, I’m sick and tired of her showing up every night I decide to take a drink.”
“Suit yourself,” Landon replied, setting the lure in the top tray of his tackle box. “I’m gonna catch a bass with it.”
Landon wasn’t a fly fisherman, but he was eager to incorporate the lure—which he named the “Curly Killer”—into his afternoon repertoire. He did this through his harebrained variation on the winter flounder rig, even though we were fishing freshwater in the fall. He tied the Curly Killer to a leader, which he then attached to a three-way swivel. A second leader was added with split-shot sinkers and a fishhook baited with a live Georgia wiggler. He ran a bobber up a couple of feet and dropped his line straight off the side of the boat.
Not more than a minute passed before that bobber disappeared beneath the water. His rod tip danced around. He loosened his drag.
“Jesus!” he shouted. “I’m using six-pound test, I’m gonna lose her!”
“It’s not a marlin, goddammit,” Sloat retorted. “Just keep your rod tip up and tighten your drag.”
After a five-minute battle, Landon reeled in what appeared to be an eight- or nine-pound bass, suitable for mounting. And it was the fly lure that had interested that fish, not the wiggler worm as expected. Landon ran a stringer through the fish’s gills. Sloat’s expression grew sullen.
“That motherfucker’s mine,” he grumbled. “Maw Maw made it happen.”
“You can have the fish,” Landon said. “But it was my angling, my rig, and my Curly Killer that did the Lord’s work. Mrs. Edna, God rest her soul, is no longer with us.”
Half a day of sucking down Schlitz bulls and Ten High took its toll when Landon stood up to relieve himself.“Curly Killer, huh?” Sloat inquired. “I’m not sure I like that name.” He thought for a moment. “Let me borrow it for an hour.”
Landon clipped the lure off and gave it to Sloat, who lacked the patience and dexterity to fashion a similar rig and wound up making a bird’s nest with all the extra line in his tackle box. Aggravated, he stuck the lure in the bill of his cap and resumed casting his Mepps spinner, even though nothing had struck it all day.
It was hot. Damn hot. And we hadn’t brought along anything but alcohol to hydrate ourselves. Half a day of sucking down Schlitz bulls and Ten High took its toll when Landon stood up to relieve himself and fell over sideways like a bowling pin, flipping the boat.
“Holy Jesus,” he sputtered after we both came up, treading water. We scanned the surface of the pond. Only the cooler and floater cushions were visible. No sign of Sloat. “Maybe his cap will surface and we’ll know where to find him,” Landon said.
A full minute went by. Was Sloat playing with us again? Another minute passed. Landon’s sunburned face exuded despair. I must’ve worn a similar expression.
We approached the boat in silence, and with a little effort, flipped it back over. Underneath was an unconscious Sloat Tatum, floating on his back. His tummy rose and fell with every breath, and his John Deere cap was still on his head. Stuck in the bill was that fly lure. His dip in the pond had straightened out Mrs. Respess’s curly locks so that her hair appeared as a single thick strand.
“How the hell does he float like that?” Landon asked. “The motherfucker’s asleep. Anyone else would’ve drowned for sure.”
I grabbed a cushion and tossed the other two to Landon, who placed one under Sloat’s head. After we swam our buddy to the bank, Landon removed his waterlogged shoes and went back for the boat and cooler. Sloat was out cold for a good five minutes before he came to and belched up a belly full of pond water.
“We still got the fish!” Landon hollered, as he reached the bank and untied the stringer from the side of the boat. Sloat was stretched out on his back, his head resting against the trunk of a fat maple tree. Landon walked over and dropped the bass and stringer on his belly. The fish flipped around, flinging pond water on Sloat’s face, but he was too exhausted to care.
Landon also gave him the Curly Killer. The way he saw it, Maw Maw Respess was indeed responsible for her grandson’s survival that afternoon, and that lure was a manifestation of her presence. Knowing that she had an eye on her grandson was a good thing. It took some of the pressure off of us.
Someone had to look after Sloat Tatum.