People who know about fishing but have never actually fished, except for maybe dipping a worm into a pay lake as a kid, think all fishing is the same. It is not. This fishing, that he was doing now, for trout in the mountains, is different from the kind of fishing he’d learned as a boy. Then, he and his father fished down-country rivers and lakes for bass mostly. Sometimes pike. The waters were wide and deep, unreadable to those who did not spend time out there as they had. The man and his son. Both of them named Frank, so he was Junior, which he hated.
They would rise before light and settle into the boat, he in the front, the old man in the back manning the outboard. The ride could be long or it might just be up to the bend in the river to what Big Frank had judged to be the best weed bed, gravel bar or drop off for that morning. As fishermen they were always looking for the best spot. He was right more often than not and big fish would rise to poppers as the sun broke the horizon then, later, dive for rubber worms as it burned overhead. As a boy he had learned from his old man how to lose himself in fishing. How to let it consume him so that there was nothing else for the time he was on the water.
Here, on the streams in the mountains, where Frank had fished since his war, it did no good to get there before the sun. The stream, deep in the cut valley, needed sunshine, especially in April, to awaken the mayflies and begin the hatches which in turn awakened the trout. He’d seen them in this pool yesterday when he and Bill had scouted the stream. That’s what made the stream different from the rivers or lakes. Here he was stalking fish that he could see, not intuiting where they might be.
And he saw them. The fish hadn’t been actively feeding when they saw them, just twitching in the current, moving a length this way or that, nosing upstream into the current but rising to nothing. Apart from the big brown that rolled flashing his speckled side, he couldn’t name them all. But that was fine. This was a sweet spot. An uncommon sweet spot.“You fish this one, Kid”, Bill had said, ceding it to him.
He appreciated the courtesy but knew that Bill had a bad knee from a fall out west over the winter and one walk up this mountain would be enough for him this weekend. He’d fish the flat water within easy reach of the truck.
Bill could fish where he wanted. Bill could do what he wanted. And if he wanted to call a grown man “Kid” he could do that too. Bill owned the mountain, or the thousand and some odd acres worth owning. A spot beyond compare. Mostly standing pine and hardwoods, nestling two excellent trout streams. One was fed by a small lake over the top of the mountain that Bill owned and a smaller bouncier stream that was fed by springs that he probably owned too.
Bill got the land and all else through his father and uncle who had left this world suddenly, rich from rapaciously logging and mining anything they could lay claim to. Which was, as they said around here, a shit ton. Truth was, had they lived, this mountain would not have. Bill often said that at night he could hear them raging at him from hell, damning him for turning such a rich resource acquired for ruination and enrichment into a personal playground. He usually ended that part of the tale by raising whatever glass he was drinking from at the time and saying, “Fugg ‘em.”
Bill’s a good guy. Has his quirks, sure. Who doesn’t? Over the last few years, Frank had convinced himself that even if the forebears, that’s how Bill referred to them, had lived they wouldn’t have been able to pull Bill into their life where money meant everything. That class of people always overreached, thinking that money could buy wisdom, insight or youth. Power though, was something different. Everyone had power, the secret is convincing someone to relinquish theirs. Everything came with a price. A tariff, Bill had called it.
Frank had come out of a thick stand of mountain laurel to approach the stream across the thin gravel strip. Sunlight was crawling down the opposite ridge as he tied on a Blue Wing Olive and tried to cast to a riffle downstream from a rock where he knew a fish would be holding. As was typical of his first casts, he missed badly coming up short, but the fly no sooner hit the water than it was engulfed by a small splash and the line snapped straight.
“Damn!” he said, setting the hook which the fish had already done a good job of. It wasn’t a big fish, but it was a frantic one. A pink flash on the jump showed it to be a rainbow. He brought it in quickly, not wanting to tire it too badly, and pinned it against his leg with his free hand. Then, keeping it safely in the water, he grabbed the shank of the hook and twisted it out of the fish’s jaw. The trout hung there suspended in the current for a moment flaring its gills. Then, with a flick of its tail, it was off into the current and gone. Frank smiled that he botched his first cast and still landed a trout. Would be one of those days.
He worked upstream slowly, moving to keep his legs warm inside his waders. Most casts seemed to raise fish-if not to be caught, to be missed. That was fine. He was only going to keep a few for dinner so there was no pressure to catch every fish. That was never the point. As the sun crested, and the hatch changed, he switched flies. Then when he reached a shady hole where he knew some big fish would be stacked along the bottom he went with the beaded woolly bugger-something that would go deep. His actions were rhythmic and thoughtless until they weren’t.
His mind wandered, it always did when the fishing was good, to the mornings with his old man. They were not all good, he knew. Sometimes they went out and his father was still drunk from the night before. Sometimes he carried a bottle. Sometimes the boat would arc in a long circle before he turned to see the old man sleeping against the tiller, cigarette hanging from his limp lips. He knew there were those mornings. But on days like this, when the trout were rising and the creel was filling, he remembered every morning as spectacular with great leaping fish and his father young and strong before whiskey, cigarettes and the world ground him.
He had met Bill in a stateside airport bar, awaiting the flight for his last leg on his final home trip from Kandahar. He had signed with the Army less than two weeks after putting the old man in the ground and signing everything over to the banks who had been dogging his father during his last, failing years.
The man in the bar had a rod case leaning against his seat and Frank asked about it. He had ditched his uniform, his boots and everything that connected him with the previous four years. At that moment, in the bar, he wanted nothing more than to talk fishing. And talk was something that the big man knew how to do. Frank took most of it as bullshit, of course. Who in their thirties owns a mountain and was building a paradise for himself?
When he left to catch his flight, Bill called Frank’s phone so he’d have his number and told him to feel free to visit him on his mountain. What a character, Frank thought as he called for another beer. Then his phone buzzed with a text from the big guy with the coordinates to his place. “Come up if you want to learn trout fishing”, read the text.
Three weeks later, with nothing to do and nowhere to be, he stepped out of his truck in front of Bill’s private lodge on his very own mountain. When he got there that first time, the place still smelled of sawdust and he parked next to the carpenter’s trucks. They were putting the finishing touches on the back of the house and his first tour of the property wound around ladders and chop saws. It was magnificent, he had to agree. “This will be your room”, he motioned into a room larger than his whole apartment. At least he thought it was big, until Bill showed him his own.
That night, long after the workers had packed up, Bill grilled steaks and they sat beside a snapping fire in the pit and watched a darkness as deep and any he’d seen overseas settle over the mountain. It was then, over bourbons, that Bill laid out the tariff that he would impose for complete access to the mountain and all that was on it. Frank paused of course. Who wouldn’t? It was a perfect spot though, and if the fishing were anything near what Bill said it was, it could be worth it. It would be worth it. Again, having nothing to do and nowhere to be, he agreed. Even with all of everything, Frank never regretted running into the man in that bar.
The shower was better than fine. The water was cold and prickly and he let it spatter the back of his neck until it hurt. The smell of the soap made him want to eat it, and the towels were thick and soft enough to pass as blankets. He’d never felt towels like these off of this mountain.
He stepped out of the bathroom and into his room. They were all like this: seven bedrooms, seven adjoining bathrooms. He crossed to the sliding glass door and slipped out onto the deck overlooking the valley. The stored heat of the sun radiated from the thick pine boards. He closed his eyes to the falling sun and savored the afternoon breeze caressing his body as he leaned forward, liking the railing’s warm wood against his bare skin.
The first time he’d stood on this spot he’d flashed back to the firebase in Afghanistan. Like this, it was on a mountain with a view of the valley below but over there, the view was a narrow one with cliffs on both sides funneling vision down to the crossroad and the town beside it. It was brown, it was gray, it was dusty. Then it was gone. That was it. That one thought. A blip. That one memory. It wasn’t a particularly bad one-not ominous in any way and it never happened again. Being up here had cleansed him of those years, he was sure of it. That one obligatory memory had to pop out like some kind of boogeyman to let him know it wasn’t far away if he let his guard down. But he wouldn’t. He was in a good spot.
He flopped on the bed without dressing. What would be the point? The books on the bedside table were all about fishing and he picked up one he remembered, opening it at random. He read easily, skimming the words one at a time but failing to find any coherent structure. It was as if the words were children’s blocks cast carelessly onto the floor. He tried again from the top. It wasn’t working and the more he tried to concentrate the more his mind scattered. He recognized the feeling even if he wouldn’t name it. He should have taken the drink when offered, but there will be time for that later.
Facing as he was, he could see the door swing open even with his nose in the book. The man stepped in wearing only one of those plush towels wrapped around his waist. He was carrying a thick rocks glass of bourbon with a single large cube. The way he was holding it, the brown of the liquor contrasted with his white middle.
“And there you are”, the man said.
“And here I am.”
The man set the drink on the bedside table and Frank rolled onto his stomach facing away. He didn’t have to see it. The first time the man had dropped the towel, on his first visit, he’d seen it. The first time he made the mistake of looking. Didn’t have to again. It would prod him, poke him, spread him and fill him. He didn’t have to see it. He heard the drawer open, where the lotions and rubbers were. He hadn’t looked in there either. He knew what was in there.
“You OK?” the man asked.
“Oh sure. I’m fine.”
The bed moved as the man maneuvered himself between Frank’s legs. “Those fish are perfect,” he said. “Stuffed them with thyme and lemons. They’ll grill beautifully.”
“They are perfect”, Frank agreed as he heard the packet tear.
The man’s hands were on him then, pulling and positioning, touching as he liked to. His skin felt cauterized. He could feel the hands rubbing and moving, but not the touch. Even when the fingers moved lower and inside, the feeling was dulled. Then he felt the cool of the oil right there and hissed a breath.
Then there was the stillness. Then the roll of the bed as the man loomed and covered him. Then the pressure at his bottom. Slow and burning at first but inexorable. He winced as the weight of the man settled on him and squeezed fistfuls of blankets. His mouth opened silently as he was penetrated.
It had occurred to him before, that this is something, for comfort’s sake, that one should do more often or not at all. But it was such a sweet spot up here he didn’t want to bring it up.
A winking bit of flash under the dead leaves that still littered the walking path through the old cemetery caught Aleson’s eye. She stepped off the trail, kicked at the leaves, her toe daintily avoiding a small pile of deer pellets, and bent over to pick up the gum wrapper. “People”, she huffed, slipping it into her pocket.
Straightening, she noticed a new deep pink headstone standing out from all the dull weathered gray ones just before the hillock. She didn’t remember ever seeing it before. She ventured further from the path and carefully made her way closer to read the inscription. It was for Larry Jollie, apparently a local man, who back in the 50’s spent four years in the Air Force and enjoyed it so much that, according to the stone, he was interred at Jefferson Barracks Military Cemetery in St. Louis.
Huh, she thought. That seemed somehow inappropriate; taking up two plots in two separate cemeteries for what was probably by now a box of bones. Unless he’d been cremated which would have made it worse. Probably not though-back then they wouldn’t have. Not as readily as now anyway. Seems she can’t hardly go into someone’s apartment for a visit or a cup of coffee these days without being joined by an urn or a box on a shelf or some other place of prominence. She paced off the space of the plot feeling less queasy about marching around on top of a hole that wasn’t and held nothing. It was the same size of the others, which bothered her even more.
She remembered her Granny Akers saying that when she went, they should “shove a bone up my ass and let the dogs drag me away.” Aleson had been six or seven when she first heard that and wondered how such a thing might work. Her neighbor at the time, Dottie was her name, had a dog. A big romping mutt named Randy that would run into the woods after balls that they threw. They could never throw them far enough for the dog to lose. She wondered if he could drag her Granny away by the ass bone. But then, would he drag her back like a game? The things kids thought!
It didn’t work out that way for Granny though. She was over in Hayes Memorial Park with a handsome if flat plaque-no upright stones in Hayes-laying next to her husband, Pap Akers. His plaque mentions that they had been together for 59 years which was true if you didn’t count the seven years they weren’t and he lived with Phyluria over in Mon City.
After her dalliance with Pap, Phyluria took up with Old Man Watson who lived on the edge of town and kept a pack of beagles that had fascinated her as a child. All kept in cages along with cages of rabbits! He had a fenced area in the back of his property that looked like an old field with bushes and such. He would release the rabbits into that fake field then train the dogs in the art of finding them rabbits. Which, looking back, Aleson thought was pretty simple. Didn’t beagles do that naturally? He must have been good at it though because the one time she’d been in their trailer she took note of all the ribbons and trophies lining the shelves he had probably built there just to hold them.
Phy beat them all into the dirt having gotten real sick with cancer and dementia, to the point that her husband took pity and shot her with his hunting rifle, which he then turned on himself. Which would have been fine but somewhere in there he’d shot his dog too. Which everybody damned him for. Phyluria, sure, bless her. Himself, definitely. But not the dog! “People”, she huffed.
The light came in soft and buttery, slicing through the bent blinds. It was after noon, certainly, but the sun stayed low-skirting the hilltop across the river and bleeding through the mill smoke. The crash and rumble of a coal train starting to crawl must have been what woke him. He felt better than he had when he’d awakened earlier and left her in the dark. Sleeping in the chair was good, he could keep his feet up. But still his knees ached. And his hands. The fucker was going to rain, or snow for that matter. His joints always let him know.
She must have been watching from the other room-for him to stir or his eyes to open-because she was suddenly there, sitting on the arm of the couch. Her hair was down, wrapping her face and she was wearing the same striped top from last night but had thrown his vest over it. Her jeans were gone in favor of dark sweats and her feet were bare.
She looked none the worse for wear but for the little mouse under her left eye which he would have remembered had he done it. Plus her gray eyes wouldn’t have been so soft and caressing had he hit her. She perched lightly-on her toes more than her butt-the air between them twitchy and alight. He didn’t feel tired as much as empty, though he wished he was still asleep.
She cleared her throat then asked quietly, “You okay?”
He shifted so the recliner would pop him up a little. Christ, everything hurt. He could manage no more than a phlegmy “Yeah”, before he had to close his mouth against the pain. He didn’t quite remember getting hit in the jaw, but he knew this particular ache too well. Wasn’t too bad, he thought as he moved his mouth around. Nothing broken, loose or bleeding.
She watched him for a few moments then stood, rubbing her hands on her thighs. “Alright. Now you’re up. I’m going in the bedroom. To get ready.”
“For what?” he asked.
She was already out of the room and he could only see her from the waist up as she passed behind the couch. “You said you were going to whip my ass in the morning. Remember?”
He let his eyes drift back toward the window as he kept working his jaw. He felt her eyes, so he said, “It’s afternoon…”
“It’s not my fault you slept through”, she answered. Then, “I’m going to go get ready…”
“You really think that’ll help anything?”, he asked the window.
“Trust me”, she said. “It will be worse if you don’t.”
She padded away down the hall. The bedroom door creaked open then, after a long rustling moment, the bedsprings squeaked and settled. He tried to remember what his old man had told him about younger women, but couldn’t. Truth be told, he had a helluva time conjuring up the old man’s voice anymore. He could see him on a stool next to him, even see his mouth moving around the bouncing cigarette, but couldn’t come up with his voice. One more glowing coal of sadness that he didn’t need right now.
He found himself at sea;alone, misfiled, misplaced:a spoon among the forks tryingTo understand where he fit. What did he know about menopause?About what years did down there Turning wetlands into deserts;Lush marshes into Craggy rocky places.One adapts, he was told.She had a plan.Will you take off your pantsAt least? he asked.She played tennis andknew her legs drove him wild. Of course, she said.But strip now.He did as he was told and she,Like a mom with a recalcitrant toddler,Took him by the ear and patted his bumToward the bedroom.Am I going to regret this In the morning? he asked.Of course darling, she purred.That’s what mornings are for.
From downstream-coming up on it-
It does look like an elephant.
Massive head and shoulders, reclining
Leisurely almost, facing the current,
Watching for what might be floating around
The upper bend and into its patch of river.
It’s watched as my old man taught us how to
Catch bait in it’s shallows and bass in
It’s channels or off it’s weed bed.
It has sat unperturbed as generations
Jumped from it’s head, climbed up
It’s back and swam around it’s bulk.
My old man tried to capture it in
Water colors, oils, pencil and chalk.
It’s been photographed from the water in
Summer and from the shore when it
Sat alone, icebound and snow swept.
It looks no different today than it did
In the fifties when my old man sat me
Up on its head and snapped away with
On videos, forty years later, my daughters
Hop and wave from its back.
Today, as the canoe bounces gently against it,
I reach up and rub the warm, gray shoulder.
“Hey, old man”, I say-not knowing if I’m
Talking to the rock or the man who had
First sat me upon it.
I pushed off, passed through its shadow
And continued on-
Making one last cast into its eddy.
She didn’t so much knock as scratch at the door. Might not have heard her had I not seen her pull up outside, two wheels crookedly over the curb. I opened the door only as far as the chain would allow. She reeked. Had been drunk recently but not presently. She held a steak, no doubt stolen from her work in the not recent past, almost wrapped in a stained paper towel. There was a shining need in her eyes that used to be for me. I opened the door and let her in.
We left her jacket and meat on the floor and shuffled toward the bathroom. She wanted me to undress her, to clean her, to anoint her with oils I never had. As the tub filled with scalding water and slippery bubbles, I pushed the shirt off her shoulders. There was a scrape on her lower neck that had been hidden by the collar.
“Who did this to you?” I asked.
She watched me sitting on the toilet, unsnapping and opening her filthy jeans. “Every mark on me is yours”, she said.
There are some mistakes that can be fixed, or at least forgiven. Wounds that can heal leaving nothing but a stain or a scar. Others though, remain open-seeping-to be carried or offered up every day, beyond lifetimes. I held her hand as she stepped carefully into the tub her spine pressing like white knuckles against her skin and put a towel behind her head when she lay back.
“You won’t leave me in here alone, will you?”
“I’ll leave the door open.”
“Stay. Please.” She was squeezing my hand.
There was an angry bruise on her left breast-just above the nipple. I wouldn’t ask where that one came from.
Back when they were separated, Dot lived in a house out in Pangburn Hollow. It was a smallish place with a stream out back, but big enough for her and the girls. Thelma and Denise were Irish twins, born-generously-eleven months apart. Let’s just say they were the same age 42 days out of the year. So, when they went off to the state university at the same time Dot was left alone in that little hollow house. Which was fine with her. More than fine actually. She had never lived alone in her life and it was a pleasant change to only have herself to look after. She had her cashier’s job down at Maracinni’s, which was five days a week, then she had card club on Tuesdays and of course, she had church, which wasn’t just a Sunday thing, what with choir practice and bible school and all. But then, before too long, she started to having Bud back again usually on Saturday nights. He first said he was “in the neighborhood” but that didn’t hold water because Pangburn Hollow wasn’t on the way to or from anywhere. She just accepted that he’d be showing up on the odd Saturday night when he was done cattin’ around, as she called it. He was still her husband after all and his railroad job paid for the girl’s school, so it was a small price to pay. He’d smell of liquor and cigarettes and she kept a bottle in the house for when he showed up. Sometimes they’d just set on the couch and watch the late movie and sometimes he’d fall asleep in the chair and she’d cover him before going up to bed. But sometimes he wanted what a man wanted, and she’d give him that too. But never in bed. It being Saturday night, her hair would be done up for church in the morning and she didn’t want to ruin it by laying in bed with Bud. So she would bend over the couch and he’d take her standing up from behind. He grouched about it at first, but he was getting what he wanted after all, so he shut up. Dot would never come like that, but she seldom did with Bud anyway. He was too quick. When girls used to call him Rabbit behind his back it wasn’t because he liked carrots.
Standing there in front of the open garage I thought of Joe for some reason. He was in his seventies when I took over managing the bar for him and he was tied up with Sherry who was a good thirty years younger. I knew Sherry for having a kid with my buddy Bull a couple of years before he killed himself. It wasn’t his only kid, just his only with Sherry and they are all still knocking around town, fun house mirror images of him. Even the girls, which is a shame. Don’t know what happened to Sherry but back then I’d find Joe’s Viagra everywhere; in the register, on the bar, the desk in the office, the floor…He couldn’t see too well but was too vain for glasses. I’d sweep them up into a small bank envelope and leave them in a drawer. I wished I’d have kept them. We buried Joe two years ago when the second fall cast a shadow over his brain. At ninety-six he wouldn’t have survived any surgery which was fine as he was pissed to have outlived everyone. Holly, the tenant in 703, was talking to me but I really wasn’t focused. Since the library was closed for this pandemic shit she was out of work and couldn’t make rent which I’d inferred. It was fine. Ma had really liked her, so she had a pass, which she didn’t know about. She was a nervous type who I’d once described as looking like a dark little man with long sideburns. Which was unfair but today she was dressed like a pile of dirty clothes left behind at the laundromat. I’d seen her out and about though, when we could go out. I’d seen her on the outside of a few vodka and crans. She cleans up well and, me being me, I’d watched her walk away a time or two or lean over a bar. I knew what she was bringing to the table. She was saying something about unemployment, and she’d have some of the rent next month for this month then when she got her big check…and on and on. She was squinting or smiling, I couldn’t tell. But then I heard her say something about making it up to me. That she could do that. That was it. That’s what made me think of Joe. And his pills. I wished I’d have kept some of those. I bummed a cigarette off her. She tossed me the pack. “I didn’t know you smoked”, she said. “I don’t”, I told her.