Promised Land by Burt Barr

BOMB 11 Winter 1985
011 Winter 1985

It had rained all night and into the morning, a spring downpour, and now, in the middle of the afternoon, it looked like rain again, the sky a solid grey with dark clouds moving in from the south. Along the side of the highway the ground was still wet, and here, where water covered all three lanes, the cars slowed down.

For over a week the weather had been mild, each day clear, and every evening, just about the time it was growing dark, I wished I had left the city, leaving it all behind, for Montauk and for a night of fishing. Now, on my first free day, driving under a heavy sky, I became hesitant about my plans. I knew that the rain did not scare the fish away nor did it stop them from feeding, but as certain as I was of this, I felt uneasy. I did not like to fish in the rain.

Besides the usual traffic on the Long Island Expressway, there was one delay that had brought the cars to a halt. When I finally reached a rise on the road from where I could see, there was an expanse of cars clear to the horizon. After a mile or more of crawling ahead, flashing lights could be seen. There were police cars and in the midst of them, hemmed in, was an old car; leaning against it was a man, his face pressed against the roof. His arms were behind him, his hands shackled. After suffering past the trapped man, the cars broke free.

A gentle wind had been blowing since the day before, a southeasterly; it came from the sea, rolling in with the surf; it was a favorable wind for Montauk, bringing the fish in, close to the shore. But now, the trees by the road were showing signs of a stronger wind, their branches bending, and every so often sharp gusts hit the car. With the center of the storm approaching, the wind was shifting, and I was not certain of its direction.

The lane to the right was an unbroken string of cars, moving slowly. To the left, openings did appear, but each time I tried to enter, the car to the rear would close the gap. I had been locked into the middle lane for a long time, hemmed in by a bloc of cars, going at too slow a speed. Some of the same cars were alongside when I left the city; it was hopeless.

Certain nights while standing in the surf and casting, I would lose my position to the oncoming waves. Even though I wore chest-high waders, I would retreat to shallow water, sometimes out of casting range of where the fish might be, but I preferred to stay dry rather than get hit by a sudden wave. In the rain there was no escape; the water would eventually get in, trickling down my neck, seeping through the layers of clothing, and in time I would be drenched.

During another lengthy slowdown, one for which I could find no reason, I decided to try another road; the car needed gas and at least I would find a filling station. I had never turned off from the expressway in this area before and I was reluctant to do so, but I eased over to the right lane. Just as I left the highway, the rain started, whipped along by the wind.

If the wind continued for a few hours or more, it would wrench loose the weeds from the bottom of the sea. Fishing would be all but impossible with the floating weeds; they would snag the lure and cling to the line, and it would take a day, even more, for the water to settle and clear.

Casting into the wind is difficult, the lure goes a short distance. But it could happen that the baitfish, too weak to resist the water’s currents, would be swept against the shore, the large fish chasing after, and there would be no need to cast far. But I do not like casting into the wind; I like the feeling of the plug going a long ways over the water, the line forever peeling off the reel. Whenever catching a fish with the lure beyond the waves, it is like an arm of sheer muscle, a clenched fist, at the end. And in the darkness, not being able to see, struggling to reel under an almost breaking. rod, things floating and swimming by, bumping against my legs, I would become transfixed by the white of each incoming wave, scanning the water to see whatever it was that was hooked. Then there would be a great thrashing in the surf, growing closer.

In the lashing rain I reached another road going east, a four-lane highway. This route was lined with small businesses. Every quarter-mile or so the highway was cut by a crossroad and at each one I stopped for a red light, but in between the cars did move.

I looked for a gas station, but after many miles not one was open on my side of the road. It was difficult driving, the traffic unending; there was no choice but to go to the other side. Ahead, when the cars slowed down for an intersection, I crossed over. Because of the rain, I waited a long time for the attendant to appear.

After the tank was filled I edged up to the road and waited to cross back. The cars never stopped coming. I rolled down the window in order to see better and I discovered that another road came into the intersection on a diagonal, that the moment one light turned red for one road, it turned green for the other. There was never a break. It seemed impossible to cross. I stayed by the side of the road through several changings of the lights, looking at the rain, and I thought of returning to the city.

Finally a slowdown in the traffic came and I made it to the eastbound lanes. I continued on the highway but it began to feel as if the road was taking me out of the way. I wanted to return to the familiarity of the expressway and it was not until some time later before I saw the signs leading back.

There were few cars towards the eastern end of the LIE and in a short time I reached the exit to Montauk. Although the rain continued, the sky was growing lighter and it looked as if the storm would end.

Approaching the major crossroads, with South Hampton off to the immediate right and the Little Peconic Bay to the north, I came to the tail-end of a long line of cars heading east, all waiting for the light to change. From where I stopped I could see a police car in the middle of the intersection, hindering the flow of traffic.

Moving up in line I saw that another car was parked alongside the patrol car. The policeman was standing between the cars, speaking with the motorist. Only a car or two at a time could move around their cars before the light turned red again. When I came within a a few carlengths of them I saw that the motorist was making references to his passenger, another man who was looking away. The motorist and the policeman were laughing, seemingly at the expense of the passenger. From where I waited, I could hear the laughter.

When I was growing up, a man who worked in my father’s factory was driving me home from school. He stopped at the main intersection of our town to chat with a policeman who was directing traffic. He told the police officer how he caught a prowler in the factory, that he had come upon the intruder by surprise, told him to freeze, then put a gun to his head. In my father’s car, the man used me as a example in relating the story to the policeman. He held a gun to my head. The gun was loaded. Each time he yelled, “Freeze!”, they broke into another round of laughter. Each time, the gun barrel bumped against my head.

Before the light changed to green, I rolled down the window on the passenger side. I drew alongside the two cars and stopped. I raised my right arm and held it straight out from my shoulder, my thumb up and cocked, my index finger pointing. Before the cop could get his gun from his holster, I blew the fucker to bits. I aimed at the motorist. His jaw fell open. I fired into his face. Three times.

It was clearing. The sky was breaking with light to the east. Rays of sun streamed down to earth. I raced ahead.

In Montauk, it would soon be low tide. I would arrive shortly after, at sunset, the hour when the water would start to rise. Fish are hungry at night and they would continue to feed and be active until the end of the rising tide. I thought I would park the car in the lot, across the way from the lighthouse, and not go down the maintenance road that leads to the edge of the beach. The lot is paved; I could put my clothes and fishing gear on the ground without the worry of sand getting into them. Being early in the season, there would probably be no one there.

After changing into warm clothes and waders and readying the tackle, I would go down the path to the beach then veer to the right and fish in the cove. Having never caught a fish in the cove, it only serves as a place from which to start. I would move along the beach, making periodic casts, trying different lures, then I would make my way over the large boulders that form a breakwater for the lighthouse high above on the cliff. I would find the flat boulder where I could safely stand in the spray of the waves, and with the day ending and the water rising, I would begin fishing.

Past East Hampton is Amagansett, the last of the drive where the traffic is slow. But after the town and around the curve, the road opens and is long and flat, a hard road that streams along the beach. From the torture of driving from the city, it is a road where other cars can be easily passed; nothing is in the way, not even the village of Montauk miles ahead, which is but a pause on the way to the lighthouse.

When I arrived, not another car was there. On the bluff where I parked, I looked at the sun setting upon the water and at the last of the day. Fishing boats were a long ways out on the water; some of the smaller ones, distant specks on the sea. Over them appeared birds, circling and hovering.

I put the clothes on the hood of the car and placed the fishing tackle on the ground. After changing and making sure that I would not have to return until high water, some five hours later, I began walking down the hill to the beach. In the fading light I made the first cast in the cove, then walked on, stopping and casting. I reached the breakwater and made my way over the large boulders and came to the flat rock. I put a new lure on the line; it sailed above the water’s horizon, and in darkness now, I could not see where it landed.

I had cast a few times, settling into the night, when I saw a light in the sky, over the ocean to the east. It was a bright light, a beam, and it remained in one position. It did not seem to be a plane or a man-made light; it hung from the sky. By the time I reeled in the plug and cast again, the light was in the same place. I was not able to concentrate, the light was in my eyes.

A few years before, while visiting my parents in Maine, in the house where I grew up, I returned from a walk through the town, two miles away. I had planned on getting back before nightfall but it turned dark and I had a distance to go. I reached the street and was approaching their house when I noticed a strange light in the sky, a brilliant star perhaps. The star seemed to appear and disappear but it remained in a fixed position. I walked past my parents’ house, staring at the light, and came to a stop in front of the neighbors’ house. While looking up to the sky I was distracted by a figure in a window on the upper floor of their house. Soon another person appeared at the window, the two figures looking down at me. Because of my rare visits home, I no longer know who the neighbors are, nor do they know me. There in the night standing before their house, I could only be seen as an intruder. I did not like their looking, at me. I became alarmed that they would act, that they would call the police, or worse, that they would fling open the window and train a rifle on me. I took my keys from my pocket; I jangled them a few times then clenched them. I stepped back and walked away.

The front door to my parents’ house is always locked and I have never had a key for it; it is a door that is only used for special occasions. I had to enter the driveway that separates our house from the neighbors’. I walked up the long drive and saw that the two figures were in another window, trailing me. As I moved on, they went to yet another window. When the driveway reached the hedges, I disappeared from their view. I quietly went up the steps to the back porch of our house and became concerned that my parents, accustomed to living alone all these years, would also take as an intruder. I went inside; it was dark and I sat down in a chair at the kitchen table. A light was on in the other room but I heard no sound. I sat and waited. I was afraid that my father would emerge, that I would face the barrel of his rifle and that he would shoot his own son, point blank, before his old age could register who I was. I started to laugh, an uncontrollable laugh; I tried to smother it but could not. My father appeared in the doorway, and with the light from the room behind him, I could not see his features. He asked in an angry voice, “What are you laughing at?” I managed to say, “Jesus Christ, nothing,” and then added, “I’m waiting for dinner,” and I continued to laugh. He told me that I was a God-damn fool and that he always knew I was a fool, then he went back to the other room.

There was a tug on the line but it proved to be nothing more than the current, the water rising fast. The light in the sky was gone. In the backwash of the waves I could hear the pebbles and rocks rolling over one another and over the boulders below. Before the tide came in too far I wanted to try another area. I went to the end of the breakwater and slid down the face of a boulder to a small patch of shingled beach; this spot was surrounded by waist-high rocks and each time a wave came in, the water cascaded off the sides.

The last of the breeze died and the night was calm. In the silence between the breaking waves I heard a splashing, as if the flat of a hand was slapping the water, the sound of fish breaking the surface. I cast the plug over the sound, the line forever peeling off the reel; I retrieved it slowly, bringing it back through their midst.

The White Shirt by Burt Barr
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Originally published in

BOMB 11, Winter 1985

Ralph Humphrey, John Jesurun, art by Amanda Means, David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl, Jackson Pollack, writing by Luc Sante, Kimiko Hahn, Tim Dlugos, and more.

Read the issue
011 Winter 1985