Fishing With Frank

A man and his pet tiger teach the author of Big Fish how to become a writer.

When I was 24 years old, I asked my brother-in-law William to take me fishing. I had just bought a computer and started writing fiction, and I wanted to have “experiences.” I read once that Hemingway fished, so I felt it was something I should do too. Up until then, for most of the quarter of a century I’d been alive, I had stayed indoors. I was an avid indoorsman, an aficionado of hot showers, soft pillows, and central air.

William was the kind of man Hemingway would have liked, the sort who could be dropped into the jungle with no more than a half-chewed piece of bubble gum and the pop-top from a cola can and recreate Western civilization. He was brilliant. He climbed mountains, kayaked rivers, and slept in trees, and he wrote books about it.  He let me borrow one of his rods, and we got up early and bought some night crawlers at a place called Johnny’s. Night crawlers are huge, prehistoric-looking worms, worms with muscle, worms that can arm wrestle. A friend of William’s had a pond stocked with bass and bream. We took the poles and night crawlers and an ice chest big enough to hold two six-packs and fished, and when the six packs were gone we were done fishing whether we’d caught anything or not.

The pond’s owner was named, let’s say, Frank. Frank was 35, a deep-sea diver. He explored the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina looking for shipwrecks. He found some, too, and he wrote books about that. He was a big man with long black hair and a mustache in the style favored by Mongol invaders, and he wore the kind of glasses that turned dark in the sun. He also knew something about computers, and in 1984 very few people did. William and Frank knew each other because both of them were adventurers. They were men who saw the world as something to be a part of, something to be fathomed through experience. Their experience in the world was something I wanted to have without actually having to experience it.

Frank never fished with us, but after our third or fourth time out there he joined us for a cigarette. I didn’t smoke. I’d quit a few years back, but I enjoyed standing in tobacco clouds. I lived for this sort of secondhand pleasure.

“Your brother-in-law told me you were a writer,” he said.

“Not really,” I said. “I’m learning. Giving it a shot.”

He nodded. I felt him take my estimation behind his dark glasses, giving me the once over, as if he could determine the cut of my jib just by looking. “I want to show you something,” he said.

He took us about 20 yards away from the pond, and we edged through a copse of thick pine until we came to a clearing where there was a large metal cage. Inside the cage was a Bengal tiger, all golden brown with slashing black stripes and I-Will-Eat-You eyes. It paced from one end of the cage to the other.

“Can you go in there?” I asked.

“In the cage? I can,” he said. “But just me. Anybody else, she’d rip you apart. Want to give it a shot?” He smiled malevolently.

“No thanks,” I said.

It was against the law to have a tiger, he said, but the law was a new one, and since Frank had the tiger before the law was passed he was allowed to keep it. The tiger was grandfathered in. I never asked to get into the cage with the tiger. Some other writer might have, but I didn’t, and I wondered if that meant I was going to become a Not Very Good Writer.

We did catch some fish though. Most of them we threw back because they were only slightly bigger than the worm. But I did haul in a bass that weighed over a pound and William taught me how to kill it, scale it, gut it, and cook it. This seemed like a great experience and one I could easily write about, but this is the first time I’ve mentioned it in print.

At home I was writing about other stuff. It’s hard to remember exactly what kind of stuff; a broken heart, probably. I was writing on an IBM XT, which had 128 KB of RAM and a monochrome monitor. When you turned it on, you were greeted by the flashing and vaguely unsettling C> prompt. To engage the text program you had to insert a floppy disk into the slot. I had amassed a hundred or so pages, which impressed me. I was impressed with myself because there was no one else around to be impressed for me.

The only problem is that I didn’t know anything about computers, so when something went wrong with it I was stymied. But Frank knew things, so I began to use him as a resource. The guy who had a pond and a tiger was also the guy who shone a light on the dark and scary technological path on which I was so often lost.

One day, something very bad happened. I couldn’t access my files. I called Frank and asked him what to do. He was cool, as usual. No problem, he said, all I needed to do was erase my “temporary files” (whatever those were), and he told me how simple it was to do it: at the C> prompt, after typing “erase,” simply type star dot star [*.*], he said.

I did exactly what he told me to. Then I tried to find my writing. But there was nothing there. My computer was completely empty.

“This is weird,” I said. “My stuff is gone. Everything.”

“Oh,” he said, casually. “I meant to say star dot tmp [*.tmp]. You just erased all the data on your computer. Completely. But you have a backup, right?”

Long pause on my end as I found the breath to speak. “Of course,” I said.

But of course I didn’t. Three years a nonsmoker, I walked across the street and bought a pack of cigarettes and reacquainted myself with the joys of tobacco. I thought of quitting altogether that day—not smoking, but writing. I was still young; I could do something else. Maybe this was a sign.

Then again, Hemingway himself actually kept all his stories in a suitcase, which were once accidentally left in a train station in Paris and stolen, gone forever. He had to begin again, with nothing but a few well-sharpened pencils. That’s the real adventure, I realized: bringing these unruly words together into sentences, and the sentences into stories. This is the dark and unexplored forest, the reef where ships sank, the wild animal secreted behind tall pines. So I went back to it. I got into the cage with the tiger.

Daniel Wallace is the author of Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions and The Kings and Queens of Roam.

Illustration by Sam Kalda

Originally Published February 2016