Man's Greatest Challenge

They say life is the struggle between good and evil, between man's divinity and his base nature.
No.
Not true.
All those concepts and abstractions have developed from conflict with man's most basic of all enemies - fish.
That's right.
Fish.
Since early man first stared at the blue sea, what might be hidden in its depths has stimulated his imagination and kindled his curiosity. That wonder caused the creation of speech as man tried to communicate his vision of what the abyss might conceal. It caused the establishment of tribes as men banded together to use this new ability to describe the one that got away. Man developed fire to hold back the night so he could finish his fish story, for as we all know, a fish tale can be long and convoluted.
So, light the fire my brothers, for this is one of those tales…
Clam innards. Yes. That will be perfect. What sea denizen can resist the lure of a free clam snack?
&#quot;Help you?&#quot; asks the spry octogenarian manning the bait counter. His question jolts me from my rumination. &#quot;Uh, yeah. I'd like some clams.&#quot;
&#quot;Ahhh, surf fishing, is it?&#quot; He reaches into a battered old freezer. &#quot;Half pint?&#quot;
With thoughts of giant gaping gullets, grappling for guts dancing through my mind, I don't think that will be enough. &#quot;Better make it a full pint.&#quot;
His bushy gray eyebrows arch. "Planning on a big catch, eh?" He pulls a white cardboard carton from the ancient freezer and plunks it down on the worn wooden counter. Well, better too much than too little." The bell on the antique cash register chimes as he rings up the sale. "If them Blues are runnin' they can strip a line faster than you can bait your hook." He leans on the counter, his eyes taking on a faraway look. "Yep. I can remember the time back in fifty-seven…" His brows furrow. "…or was it fifty-six… Well, it don't make no nevermind. Old Bob and I used to… Or was it Fred…"
Fishing out my wallet, I slap a couple of bills on the counter, scoop up my clams and hurry to the door. I cast a hasty "thanks" over my shoulder and leave. There's no time to hear someone else's fish story — I'm working on having my own by tomorrow.
Back in the wife's mint condition '69 Dodge Dart (my car is in the shop), I check the paper for the tide schedule — high tide, midnight. The best surf fishing happens on the incoming tide. The moving currents toss a lot of food near the shoreline.
At least that's what I've heard. Tonight will be my first try at surf fishing. I've read about it, dreamed about it, and listened to fishermen talk about it.
Now it's my turn to do it.
It took a bit of effort to arrange this fishing opportunity. My wife isn't a fisherman and can't see it as a sport, a challenge or even a physical exercise. She certainly doesn't see it as humanity's noblest endeavor, carried by race memory from the dawn of time.
She only sees it as an annoyance.
She stopped carping and consented to this fishing trip after extracting the promise to clean the garage and detail her Dodge.
Such is the yin and yang of my marriage.
Glancing at my watch, I realize I have two hours to kill in this warm summer night before high tide. With a guilty scoff at the diet inflicted on me by the wife, I pull into the "Wharf Diner" to add a little more yang to my side.
I slide out of my fishing vest, dotted with pockets filled with fishing paraphernalia, and doff my canvas hat littered with lures. I don't want to look the amateur that I am.
For close to two hours, I drink coffee from the diner's "bottomless pot" and knock down a cheeseburger with a double helping of fries. I rationalize that I'll be eating a lot of fish in the future, and besides, what the wife doesn't know won't hurt me.
Patrons come and go during those two hours and each of them kick something out of their way as they enter and exit the diner. Finally, an overweight blonde in pink peddle-pushers flounders in and kicks the offending item into view.
I stare at the object with the blank awareness that fills you when you see something you recognize, but see out of context. It takes me a full minute to recognize that it is my fishing hat. It must have fallen out of the car and hooked onto my shoe as I came into the diner. The patrons have been playing absentminded-soccer with it for the last two hours. Surreptitiously, I snag the tread-marked hat and flee the diner. I should take this trampled badge of avocation as a bad omen and go home, but the siren lure of man's paramount challenge is overpowering.
It's dark in the beach's empty parking lot.
Very dark.
Very creepy dark.
A lone streetlamp down the road thrusts feeble rays into the night. There's just enough light to guide in a maniac.
A homicidal maniac.
Glancing around the deserted lot, I unload the car, then make doubly sure it's locked.
Burdened with two fishing poles, a tackle box, a camp chair, bait and a water-buoyant flashlight, I head toward the beckoning crash of surf. The sand is soft, soundless, and fills me with wariness. I keep looking over my shoulder for I will never hear the homicidal serial-killer maniac when he tries to creep up on me.
It's even darker on the beach.
I didn't know it would be this dark.
My flashlight doesn't help much. The darkness swallows the light and I edge to the water guided by sound rather than sight. Setting my tackle box on the camp chair, I snap open the clasp and get to work. It's difficult to attach hook, sinker and bait in the dark, but I manage and I'm ready.
The penultimate moment has arrived. I turn to the surf and inhale deeply. The primeval thrill of the hunt rises in me as does the atavistic fear of the dark water. I shake off the feeling and with a soft whirring, cast my line into the waves.
Uh-oh. Now I've done it.
I'm connected to that black abyss and trying to lure something from the deep. Visions of snake-scaled sea monsters with squid-like tentacles fill my mind. My fist tightens on the rod and I glance over my shoulder, trying to spot the homicidal, blood dripping, serial-killer maniac that might be approaching. A wave breaks, drawing my attention back to the abyss, where a snaky, scaled, squid-tentacled, mutant monstrosity might be approaching.
As the water recedes I look back, trying to spot the homicidal, two-headed, blood dripping, serial-killer, knife-wielding maniac that must be creeping down the dunes.
Another wave breaks, yanking my attention to the abyss, where just under the surf, hordes of snaky, scaled squid-tentacled, venom dripping, mutant monstrosities are slithering closer.
The water recedes and I stare over my shoulder, sure that I've seen movement on the dunes. The homicidal, two-headed, blood dripping, serial-killer, knife-wielding, slavering maniac is close.
With a loud crash, the tentacled monsters from the deep slam into my legs! Screaming, I flail at the attacking beast only to thrash at the wave that has plowed into my body. The wave has not only bashed into me, but has up-ended my camp chair. The water buoyant flashlight briefly illuminates the scene as the surf carries it away. All my hard-won collection of fishing gear is either rushing into the ocean or sinking into the sand.
Monsters forgotten, I run up and down the shore gathering the ever widening pool of paraphernalia to my breast. Each crashing wave sends more of my precious equipment deeper into the water.
I'm done.
I'm soaked.
I'm tired and I'm mortified. The only sea monster or homicidal maniac I'm going to face is my wife if I track any of the sand clinging to my body into the house. I lug my grit-coated fishing gear back to the car and pat a pocket for the keys. I pat another pocket. I pat a third...
No keys.
My mind races with places they might be, then I see them peacefully hanging from the ignition. I dash around the car trying all doors.
Locked.
Desperation and anguish disappear with the sight of the passenger window open a pinky-width.
Yes! Grabbing onto this kernel of hope, I open my tackle box and cut a length of three-pound monofilament. If I can just lasso the door lock this trial will be at an end. I push the line through the crack and begin fishing.
Three hours later, I'm finally rewarded with a tightening of the loop and the click of the lock. I swing open the door and fall to my knees, thanking God with deep sobs.
Tossing all my fishing stuff onto the back seat, I drive home exhausted, struggling to keep my eyes open. Tiptoeing into the house, I throw myself down on the couch and fall into a frazzled, fatigued sleep.
Nightmares.
Monsters staring with hateful eyes.
Eyes that bore into my brain.
I jerk awake with a start, but the monster's hateful eyes are still on me.
"What — did — you — do — to — my — car!" spits the wife from the foot of the couch.
"What, Sweetheart?" I scramble to sit up, hoping she doesn't hear the cascade of sand falling onto the floor.
Without another word she stomps off.
Curious, I walk outside. The summer day is a blistering hot one with temps in the 90's. I circle her car looking for dings or dents. Finding none, I yank open the door and choke back a gag.
No! I don't believe it! Among the sand-covered fishing gear on the rear seat is a spilled box of clam innards. They have been baking in the heat for hours, soaking a foul stench into the fabric and rendering the vehicle nauseatingly pungent for all eternity.
I've never gone surf fishing again. Fishing is still a passion, but I only fly fish in bright sunlight these days. The placid lakes and slow moving streams are more my style. And my wife…
Did I mention she's my ex-wife?