The pickup's clock flashed 7:30 a.m. The weather report coming over the radio called for sunny skies and a high of around 45°F. Not bad for early November. If it did make the 40s, it'd be the warmest day in a week of freezing temperatures. Downing my last bit of coffee, I rolled into an old corner gas station on the farm country two-lane to check the boat gas.
I pumped a few gallons. No pay-at-the-pump here, so I stepped inside the station. A cowbell jangled against the front door when I pulled it open and again when it closed behind me. Straight ahead was the register. To the left, past the chip rack, was a small diner counter where two men were tucked up on swivel stools. They gave me an appraising look; I nodded, and they swiveled back to their breakfast. I was just a passerby. I suppose they expected to see someone they know when the cowbell clangs.
I handed the cashier a twenty. Waiting for change, I looked at snapshots taped to the counter of fishermen holding their catches. Dates covered at least three decades. Walleyes, pike, crappies, catfish, probably from the river I'd be fishing shortly.
I decided to have a coffee at the counter and let the sun climb higher and warmer. Heck, this late in the season, there's usually no need to go for catfish too early in the morning. Two of the four stools were occupied, and another had a cup of coffee sitting there waiting for someone. I sat on the last stool.
"What'll you have?" asked the attendant.
"Coffee, thanks," I said.
"Need a warm up, Coach?" she tipped the pot to the half-empty mug of the man wearing the crooked Twins hat.
"How 'bout you, Jack?"
Jack wore a DeKalb seed hat. Both men were older, likely retired and regulars at the station each morning.
I overheard them discussing fishing, their conversation quickly turning to baseball as I settled in. The World Series had ended about a week and a half earlier. Quite a contest thatwent seven games.
Coach swiveled in my direction. "Taking your boat down to J&E for storage?"
"Not yet," I replied. "Just gassing up. Still have maybe a couple weeks left of good fishing for channel cats."
"Catfish? It's a bit cold for catfishing."
Coach stabbed Jack in the side with his elbow and said, "You know, it was so cold this morning I saw a dog chasing a cat," he paused, tearing open a packet of Sweet'N Low, "and they were both walking." They laughed. I chuckled. The attendant shook her head.
"Mickey Rivers, Texas Rangers — darn good outfielder," Coach said. "Said that before a game postponed because of cold and rain. You're probably too young to remember him. Don't make 'em like Mickey anymore."
"You guys going fishing today?" I asked.
"I say too cold for baseball, too cold for fishing. Waste of time." Coach replied. "Don't do much catfishing, except in summer. Upstream of town." He pointed over his shoulder.
"Downriver from the launch you hit Johnson's Bend," Jack said. "Never did well in the Johnson's stretch, so don't waste your time there."
"Thanks for the tip," I said, as the cowbell jangled on the door and a man wearing coveralls walked in.
Coach and Jack swiveled toward him. "It's about time, Al," Coach said. "Beginning to think your rustbucket wouldn't start today."
"You boys ready?" Al said.
Coach and Jack stood up. "Been good talkin' with you," Coach said to me. Jack nodded and smiled. "Hope you get lucky and catch a cat but don't count on it this time of year."
I took another sip and looked out the window. The sun was higher now. The counter club boys climbed into an old Wagoneer and pulled away with ariver jonboat in tow. Must be taking it into storage, I thought.
After finishing a warm-up refill I stopped at the register to pay.
"Coffee's on Coach," the attendant said.
I looked down at the photos one last time. In the corner was an old yellowed Polaroid. Four men in warm coats and hats were holding a stringer full of nice catfish. There was writing on it:
Coach, Jack, Al and Joe
November 21, 1972, Johnson's Bend
I supposed the coffee waiting at the empty stool was a tribute to the memory of Joe, a catfishing friend and a coffee-club regular at the station who'd passed along but was still there in spirit.
Motoring downriver, the air was warmer now. The river turned up ahead. Must be Johnson's Bend, I thought. I made my way into the bend. It was then I knew I'd been had. There sat Coach, Jack, and Al, anchored on the outside turn. Coach grinned and hoisted a stringer with a couple cats, a sort of salute to my initiation, I suppose. I smiled, waved, and continued downstream.
Too cold for catfishing? Sure, Coach. It was at that moment I suppose I became an official member of the catfish coffee club.