Liar’s Code

Fishing and hunting the hallways of Bishop Duffy High.

[by Richard Chiappone]

BEING FISHERMEN, my friends and I were all great liars. We fibbed about the monster perch caught in the Niagara River at the end of our street when none of the other kids were around. We jacked up the number of bullheads or sunnies hauled in on family vacations, far from the neighborhood. Fish that got away ballooned with each telling, like the river’s algae blooms in August. All honest “stretchers,” as Huck would have it. And we never called each other on them. We never would.

Deceit was in my blood. My grandfather once told me about being a young man in Sicily, playing cards with his friends. “Everybody knew everybody at the table was cheating,” he said. Then he paused, as grandfathers will when dispensing wisdom. “But nobody said anything!” He smiled at the memory and added, nostalgically, “Of course everybody had a knife.”

In our neighborhood, the liars’ code worked the same way, except without the weapons. And, really, who was hurt by our endless fish tales?

Then came Ninth Grade, when Catholic boys were seined from every junior high in the city to attend Bishop Duffy High, and all rules were off. There I met Kelleher, who was from a different world, and a different class of liars altogether.

Kelleher had the weary face of an old man, with eyes set darkly in deep sockets and further shadowed by a hint of pained experience…

Kelleher and I were the two smallest boys in a school known for its gigantic football goons of Irish, Italian, and Polish extraction. Those monsters bounced us off the walls like mice in a cattle car, used us for target practice in dodgeball, swung us on the gym-class ropes like pet monkeys. Too small to go out for any team, we nursed our wounds at the bus stop after school, while the varsity gorillas stayed late stomping school spirit into each other in the practice-field mud. When Kelleher and I discovered our shared love of fishing, the stories began.

Kelleher had the weary face of an old man, with eyes set darkly in deep sockets and further shadowed by a hint of pained experience a kid our age shouldn’t have known; somehow this gave his every story credibility. He lived in the inner city, far from the river, and shouldn’t have known a thing about fishing, but his father owned a cabin in the Allegheny Mountains, south of Buffalo, which, compared to my home waters, the fetid industrial Niagara, was like owning a beat on the River Spey or a floatplane in Alaska.

He told me about a huge brown trout lurking in the unnamed creek on their property, so old and wise it wouldn’t take a hooked live sculpin in the middle of the night, though it had once made a move on a Mepps Spinner he’d offered.

“I could see halfway down its throat,” he said as we waited for our separate buses. Kelleher made a circle with both thumbs and forefingers to show me the size of the trout’s mouth. “That fish’ll go eight pounds, easy.” The manic barks of the football coach and the pained grunts of clashing linemen hung in the damp September air. Kelleher’s bus pulled up.

“So what happened?” I asked, as he shouldered his book bag and took out his token.

“Struck too fast. Reflexes. Yanked the spinner right out of its mouth and snagged in the roots. You’ll see it hanging there if you come with us this weekend.”

“Will that be all right with your dad?”

I’d never met anyone with a cabin, and didn’t know if people routinely invited strangers to their retreats.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I bring guys with us all the time.”

He stepped up into his bus, took a seat, and hung out the window. “I bet that hog would go for a small Flatfish,” he said. “Frog pattern.”

“Maybe a Rapala!” I shouted over the roar of the bus.

But he’d already pulled his head inside, and my words were lost in a cloud of exhaust. From the football field, Coach Melvoy howled, “Defense!