I recently reread Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Whenever I pick up the book or watch the movie, I think of Clem. He was our Boo Radley before we knew who Boo Radley was.
It seems like every small town in America has a person with a mystery about him, just as it has a place to pray, and a place to go fishing. In my hometown, we prayed at St. Augustine’s Church. My folks prayed for the years they’d spend raising me and my seven brothers and sisters to pass quickly. I prayed that my older brother Greg would take me fishing at Tarbell’s Creek-and that I should never be hacked up and left for dead at the hands of the resident hobo, Clem Cledeedlehopper.
This, of course, was not his real name. It was just something we called a man whose name nobody seemed to know. And he wasn’t your Mayberry bum, a jovial drunk who hangs harmlessly around the post office. He was a tall and spindly figure dressed in rags who roamed the outskirts of town with no apparent destination or purpose, slinking across backcountry roads, disappearing between rows of corn, slipping through the trees along the stream bank. To us kids, Clem was the shadow you thought you saw pass by your bedroom window at night.
I’d heard plenty of scary stories about Clem before I first saw him, which was from the back-door window of the school bus. It was a normal day. My friend Jo and I were torturing B.J. Comstock in one of the back seats, when the other kids suddenly started hurling themselves against the right-hand row of windows, where they clamored to push their heads through the open panes and shout insults.
[NEXT “The bus driver…”] The bus driver, Mrs. Mueller, a real battle-axe type, built like the vehicle she drove, pulled to a halt and started reseating kids by their ears. I looked out the back-door window, and there was Clem, squatting on the side of the dirt road with his drawers around his ankles. I pushed my face against the window and yelled, “Clem’s a bum!” as he shot to his feet and scurried into the woods. The last thing I saw was a gleaming white backside streaking through the trees.
* * * * *
My prayers came true one spring morning when my brother Greg took me, along with his friends Kelly and Beasley, to Tarbell’s Creek for the opening day of trout season. We all looked up to Greg: He was the best shot with a BB gun, a deadeye with a slingshot, and by far the best fisherman. But as we arrived at the creek, we envied Kelly. Whereas Greg and Beasley both toted potluck spinning outfits, and I a stick wrapped with fishing line, Kelly had a spanking new Daiwa spincasting combo, straight from Kmart.
All morning long, little silver hatchery trout flipped and skittered and flashed their way into the buckets and creels of the dozen or so other people at the bridge pools-as well as into the plastic grocery bags we’d brought. Greg caught his limit of 10. Beasley caught seven, and even I, with my makeshift fishing stick, caught four. Kelly had five in his bag when a big goon of a kid on the far side, who’d been fishing unsuccessfully with a saltwater rod and a colossal Mepps spinner, screamed, “I’ve got one!” as he jerked back hard on his line. Suddenly, Kelly’s spanking new, straight-from-Kmart combo jumped clear off its forked stick and sailed end over end into the drink.
[NEXT “Later, as we walked…”] Later, as we walked down the Skerry Road toward home, Kelly’s canvas Nikes sloshed and slurped. The four of us were still laughing about his spastic dive into the culvert pool to retrieve his rod and reel, and about the fat lady who bawled him out for scaring the fish, when we were stopped in our tracks.
As if out of nowhere, between us and where we wanted to go, there stood Clem Cledeedlehopper. The four of us huddled close. I tucked myself behind Greg and peeked around his side, thinking, We’re all going to die.
For a minute or so we juust stared at one another, there in the middle of the road. I studied Clem’s long, sagging face, his bent and bony body, the rags he wore. After a bit, he didn’t look so scary.
Greg reached into his grocery bag, pulled out two limp fish, and extended them toward Clem, who stretched his arms out hesitantly and made a little cup with his hands. Greg placed the fish in his palms, and Clem started nodding his head, smiling like a jack-o’-lantern, as he stuffed the fish in the pockets of a torn down vest.
Beasley stepped forward and gave Clem two fish, then Kelly followed suit. When it was my turn, I took my grocery bag in both hands and slowly poked my head out from behind my brother. With my arms stretched out as far as they would reach, I closed my eyes and took two tiny steps forward. I felt Clem take the bag, then felt a hand on my head.
I only dared open one eye at first, but when I did I saw Clem grinning over me and petting me as if I were a dog. I took my fishing stick out of my back pocket and handed it to him. He nodded and stuffed it in his own back pocket. Then he shook our hands, each of us, and disappeared back into the woods.