The first thing you noticed about Murph was this deep notch in his chin. Not a dimple, mind you. Too large for a dimple. Besides, it wasn’t round. It was oblong and it reached from his lower lip down to the tip of his chin.
Everyone looked Murph directly in the eyes, so he wouldn’t think you were staring at his chin. I, for one, was always nervous around him. Usually, he did the talking. And when he talked, that notch disappeared. It flattened out, so his chin was almost smooth as mine. Then he would pause, and that thing deepened and narrowed to its restful state and, I swear, I probably got bug-eyed. I had to really concentrate, focus on his eyes, and try to remember what he’d been talking about.
Oftentimes you wanted to hear what Murph had to say because he made it seem important. He had that ability to say anything to anyone and get away with it. They said he was one hell of a used car salesman, something I could never do. It was fun to watch him bargain with people. You just knew he would get the best of them. And he always had a joke or two. Yeah, he was quite a guy.
Anyhow, this one time Murph and I were out fishing for crappies at the reservoir. We’d had a good run, using minnows on spreaders, and often as not pulling up two fish at a time. At least Murph was getting his share of double-headers. He was one fine fisherman and he talked constantly, like I said before. Long as I had something else to look at, my bobber, the minnow I was putting on my hook, them other fishermen down along the bank, I could forget that damn chin and just relax and enjoy.
“Pete,” he said, “I been meaning to tell you something for a long time now. I guess this is as good a time as ever, since the fishin’s good and it ain’t rainin, and you just told me how much you appreciate me inviting you out here and all.”
Now if that wasn’t an attention-getter, I don’t know what would be. I wanted to say “Sure, Murph, you got something we need to talk about, let’s get it out in the open.” That sounded a lot braver than I felt. I wondered what in the hell he had up his sleeve, cause he was known for pulling a leg every so often. Just then, of all times, I got a couple of real fighters on my line. I could tell there was two of them from the way the bobber disappeared and stayed down. I needed to set those hooks but not jerk too hard, for fear their mouths would give way and I’d catch me a fish lip or two. In other words, this conversation was distracting me at a pretty crucial time.
“Looks like you got a pair of them, Pete. Bet a quarter you won’t land two this time.”
If that wasn’t an ornery thing to do. Not only had he got me worried about this big thing he wants to talk about, but he knew damn well that I would have a hard time landing two crappies at once. In spite of myself, I said “You’re on,” and I gave my pole a jerk. Don’t you know, I set both of them hooks and in no time I had myself two of the nicest pan fish you’d want to see right there at my feet.
“I’ll be damned if you didn’t get them both this time, Pete. Looks like you’ve been hanging around me long enough for my luck to start rubbing off.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a quarter, which he flipped over at me, knowing I’d drop what I was doing to catch it.
“While you’re getting those beauties onto the stringer and re-baiting your line, I’ll tell you what I got on my mind. Once I start, you’ll have to just let me say my piece, because it ain’t going to be easy.”
I racked my brain to think of something I’d done that might have irritated Murph, but, for the life of me, I could think of nothing. I got those fish off the hooks and onto the stringer. I dipped my hand into the minnow bucket as Murph lit a Lucky Strike, cleared his throat.
“Pete, I told you long time ago that my old man was in one of those rest homes over in Lucasville. What I didn’t tell you was that he’s got this disease that makes you forget things and get people all mixed up. My brother, Jack, visits the old man and writes me letters telling me how he’s doing. I send money once in a while to buy him candy and fruit, but otherwise I don’t do much. Trouble is, I can’t stand seeing him this way.
“He was the one first brought me here to fish for crappies. Taught me how to set the hooks. Took me to my first big league baseball game. Taught me how to shoot pool. And I always admired how he could handle people. Not just selling cars and houses, which he sure was good at, but just making people feel better about themselves.
“The last time I saw Dad, he spent the whole hour staring out the window or complaining that the nurses were trying to freeze him to death while he slept, or crap like that. Worst part was when he thought I was Jack and talked about me like I wasn’t there. Afterwards Jack said the old man wouldn’t be as confused if I visited more often.
“Jack and me argued about what was the right thing to do. We agreed that neither him or me could take care of the old man at our house, so we made a deal that Jack would do all the visiting for six months and then I would take over for the next six months. We agreed we’d never visit at the same time
“Now it’s my turn to take over the weekly visits and I’m plain scared. I don’t know how to act or what to say. Most of all, I’m scared that I won’t be able to handle seeing Dad. He’s bound to look worse now than the last time I saw him and, according to Jack, his mind has gotten worse lately.
“So, old buddy, I need your help, bad. Can you go with me next Saturday for the first visit, in case I clamp up or freak out or whatever?. And you can help me get away if I have to. We can say we have a football game to go to or something. And you can help keep the conversations going when I’m stuck. I know it cuts into your weekend, Pal, but I’m desperate. All you have to agree to is this first visit. Once I get over the shock, I think I can handle it.”
Of course, I was relieved that I hadn’t done anything wrong. And I was surprised to see that Murph had his soft side, too. It did pass through my mind that maybe there was a little more to the story, but I’d known him long enough to know that he wasn’t one to trick his friends. So, I guess I was mainly flattered to think that for once Murph would be depending on me.
“I’m free all afternoon Saturday, plenty of time to get over to Lucasville by one. You know I’m not the most talkative person in the world, but I can sure try to keep the conversation from totally dying out.”
He didn’t say anything for a while. He lit another Lucky off that first one and took a couple of deep drags. Then just as I was casting out my line, his bobber dropped out of sight. All of a sudden, his mind was stuck on getting the hooks set and pulling in the pair of crappies. He didn’t say thanks, not then at least. In fact, we didn’t say more than five words more until the drive home and then we talked mainly about football.
Come Saturday, we show up at the nursing home and I got to tell you it wasn’t anything like I expected. I figured it would be like a hospital only smaller, but you could tell the minute you walked in that it was worse. First of all, the smells, like pee and sweat mixed with Lysol.
Once we checked in, they took us to a room where Murph’s dad was sitting up in bed with a tray of unopened food containers in his lap watching Jeopardy on TV. The nurse removed the tray and put it on a side table then turned down the sound on the TV.
“Mr. Murphy, look who’s here, your son Brian and his friend, Pete.”
Murph walked over and said, “Hi, Pop, how ya doin?”
Mr. Murphy looked up at us, first me, then Murph, then me again, saying, “Who’s this guy?”
“You remember Pete. Used to come fishing with us.”
“Are you Brian? Where have you been hiding?”
“Yeah, it’s been a while, Pop. Me and Jack are taking turns coming to visit you.”
“Where’s Jack? I need to tell him something after this damn nurse leaves us alone.”
The nurse smiled at Murph and turned toward the door. “I’ll let you gentlemen visit. Let me know if you need anything.”
His father stared at the TV for a while then looked at Murph and said, “Who is this guy you brought, Jack?”
“I’m Brian, Pop, and this is my buddy, Pete.”
I tried to help. “Mr. Murphy, I remember one time you took me to a ball game with Brian and Jack. We sat in right field and almost got a home run ball. The guy next to us had a glove and caught it. Do you remember that?”
“I don’t like baseball. Those guys are crooks.”
“You told the guy you would give him ten dollars for the ball, but he just laughed at us.”
He turned back to the TV. “These guys on these shows are crooks, too. They give people the answers. Where is that nurse when you need one?”
“Can I get you something, Pop?”
“They never feed you around here.”
We stayed an hour or so. I did most of the talking, covering high school football from the night before and the college games that were being played while we sat there. And of course, we talked about the weather two or three times. Even when we talked about fishing, the old man didn’t seem to care. Only when we talked about the food in the nursing home, did he have any reaction. He complained a lot, whispering like he was afraid someone was listening.
Afterwards, Murph said thanks to me once but didn’t talk much. When we got home, he asked me if I’d go back again the next week. Much as I wanted to refuse, I couldn’t.
Four months now, since that first visit. I’m sure I’ll be going with Murph every week until his time is up. It kills my Saturdays, but I don’t know how to say no to Murph. It’s been pretty hard on him. He gradually quit fishing and going to the pool hall. He doesn’t even seem to follow football anymore, or at least he doesn’t talk about it. Of course, he can’t really watch the Saturday games. Most of all, he just doesn’t say much about anything. And the funniest thing of all is that notch on Murph’s chin. I used to think it was a sign of strength, but now it seems like a sort of incompleteness.
And when he talks, that notch quivers and makes you think he’s nervous. I’m not the only one who notices it, mind you, but most folks don’t spend much time with Murph these days, cause he never has much to say. But when they do, nobody looks at his chin. They look directly at his eyes, sadder now than they used to be.