After we got back from fishing and dropped the kids off on Friday night, Charlie and I cleaned up at home and went to the Lighthouse. When we got there it was about 10 o’ clock and the place was crowded and loud. I got up to the bar and asked Alexis for two Premiums.
“How’s it going?” She asked.
Miller and Charlie left the place around midnight, our plans for the morning, just a few hours away, figured out and finalized. I stayed and waited for Alexis to close up and then we went out and had a cigarette as we leaned on the hood of my car.
It was still warm and the air was damp. Everything in the town was really quiet. A couple hundred feet down the bluffs, downtown looked like a model railroad town, the streetlamps matching and at perfect intervals, the brick buildings like daubs of the same color paint from different brushes. The river was wide and tired and the far shore a dark and still wood.
“Do you want me to drive you home?” She asked me.
“No, I’m fine.”
“Maybe. But you know you’ll be screwed if you get pulled over.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Seriously screwed,” she said. “I heard Mike say he would drive tomorrow, so it’s not like it’d be difficult to pick up your car tomorrow night or something.”
When we pulled up in front of the apartment I asked her if she wanted to have a beer and she said yes.
I got a couple beers from the refrigerator and we sat on the balcony. She leaned back in the bench and put her feet up on the iron railing.
“I’m glad you came in tonight, that I saw you.”
“I wanted to tell you something, I was hoping you would come in.”
“I’m leaving. I’m moving to Seattle.”
“Are you kidding?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Well, that’s fucking great!”
“It is. It’s great.”
“The end of the month. Sam.”
She didn’t seem able to say anything else and she leaned toward me.
We went to my bed a while after that. I wasn’t even nervous. We kissed for a while and I took her shirt off and then I dropped down to my pillow and we stopped kissing.
“Aren’t you tired?” I said.
“Yeah, do you want to sleep?”
“I think I better.”
My eyes felt heavy and I laid there on my side with my head on the pillow and we looked at each other and then I closed my eyes.
“Do you think you’d ever move out there?” Alexis said quietly.
I thought for a second before opening my eyes.
“Isn’t it always raining out there?”
She smiled. “I think that’s an exaggeration.”
“I don’t think I want to leave Minnesota.”
“There’s mountains out there. And rivers. Lots of mountains and rivers.”
“And coffee…” I said.
“Yes, and coffee.”
“This is where I’m from. I like it.”
At six o’ clock Charlie knocked on my bedroom door and said, “Ready to fish, Chuckles?”
I opened my eyes but didn’t move another muscle and Alexis just whispered in my ear, “Tell him to fuck off. Tell him you’re not going fishing.”
I moved my arms. “No, I can’t. We’re going fishing.”
“I want to stay here, I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s fine. I understand. Can I stay here?”
“Yeah, sure. That’s fine. I’ll leave my door key out there and you can slip it back under.”
“Maybe I’ll still be here when you come back.”
“Don’t tell Charlie I’m here, okay?” She said.
“Okay.” I kissed her on her forehead and then on her lips and I got up.
I stumbled out of the apartment, we threw our stuff in Miller’s trunk, and I got into the back seat of the car. The day was gray and looked like it might hold some rain. I leaned back and closed my eyes. As we pulled away, Miller said, “Is that Alex’s car, Sam?” I pretended I was asleep.
I dozed off and woke up when we pulled into the drive-thru at the McDonald’s in Hudderton.
“What do you want?” Miller asked.
“Number two. Coffee,” I said.
We got on the freeway and drove along. It was about another half hour to the river.
“This weather ain’t bad, is it?” I said.
“No. This is good weather. I’ll bet we’ll see some Olives,” Charlie replied.
After a few miles it started to rain very lightly.
“Yeah, this could be pretty damn good,” Charlie said.
I felt a little better with some food and the hot coffee, though for a short time I thought I might not keep the food down. After that, the food sat like a rock in my stomach, but I knew it would keep me going for a good long while on the stream.
After hiking a mile from the car we got to a narrow riffle that Miller liked to fish and he stopped at it and said he was going to give it a go. Charlie and I went further on. Without saying it, we were both thinking of the pasture section with a big corner hole about another half-mile down. The last quarter-mile was usually pretty rough in the summer. The section was equidistant from two of the furthest apart accesses on the river and it didn’t see a lot of people except the folks that came down once-in-a-while from the farm above.
That last stretch of hiking was brutal. There was no trail and the weeds and grass came up to our armpits or above and there were lots of nettles. The banks were typically uneven and the foliage concealed all the holes and dips and ruts and walking was spine jarring. We didn’t talk except to occasionally curse. This was all expected, known, but it would never scare us off and the thought of turning back didn’t enter our minds as we fought through it, hands raised straight above our heads, holding our exposed skin and our fly rods above the weeds and nettles. Charlie once described it as a unique form of Thai Chi, this kind of hiking.
We arrived at the pasture section abruptly. The river widened out as the bluff on the other side disappeared. A strand of barbed wire stretched across the river and below it the banks were all open and the grass was like a lawn compared to what we had just come through. We squeezed through a stile in the fence and stopped for a moment. We looked around at the broad green pasture studded with trees and cowpies.
“No cows,” I said.
Right out from us, just below the barbed wire, a fish rose splashily.
“Give him a try,” Charlie said.
“No, go for it. I’ll watch and learn.”
“No better way to learn than by doing.”
“I just need to catch my breath. Give him a shot.”
I sat down and lit a cigarette. Charlie walked down to the river’s edge and worked on stringing up his rod, putting together a leader, tying on some tippet, choosing a fly, tying it on, all the while monitoring the occasional rises of that fish.
Just before he started fishing, Charlie said, “If there is a heaven, I don’t know how it could beat this.”
I sat there and thought and thought about heaven. I wondered if it did exist. I wondered if it could be a better place than this. How. I wondered â€“ if it did exist â€“ who went there and why, who didn’t go there and what their fate was instead. But mostly I just wondered if it existed. I didn’t want to hope that there was some immortal life, I wanted faith.
“How could it beat this?” I said to Charlie. “I mean, I don’t think heaven could be that great if you didn’t get it all. This wouldn’t be perfect if it didn’t rain sometimes, if you didn’t come to it with a headache sometimes.”
“How do you think we could understand it?” He asked me.
“I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Charlie waded further out into the stream and got lost in the fishing and after a while I walked down around the bend and sat on the bank to see if I could see a fish. I ate some bread and cheese and the rain came up and I retreated under a lilac bush, its leaves and flowers stopped most of the rain and I laid down and pulled up the hood on my jacket and I fell asleep and dreamt a dreamless sleep.
When I woke up I looked to where the sun was and sat up. It was no longer raining though it looked like it might again. I drank some water and then stood up. I walked around the bend and saw that Charlie was no more than 50 feet downstream from where I left him.
He spotted me and yelled, “I got a few out of that riffle before the corner, right below you, earlier. Put on one of those green Caddis pupae and some split shot, you’ll get some fish.”
I did what he said and started methodically casting up into the riffle and watching my little piece of foam putty float down the riffle, bumping along on the bottom just enough to make me strike a few times when there was no fish. That kind of fishing can wear out the brain. I’d been at it for 15 or 20 minutes when the indicator jerked underwater in a completely different way and I was unprepared enough for it that it took me half a second to strike, which meant the fish had a good bite on it when I struck and I immediately felt the firm pull of the fish. It ran up and then down through the riffle and then tried to get to the other side where the water was deeper under a big elm. It didn’t feel too big but I didn’t let myself horse it, just gave it a little line and then slowly worked it in. I didn’t like this relationship we had all of the sudden. My heart was racing a little and it made my head hurt.
But, when I had the fish near me and then in my hand, I forgot about all of it. It was a 10 inch brook trout, wild in this river of stocked brown trout. Though its colors were subdued compared to the fall spawning season, the fish still sparkled and glowed with green, orange, yellow and red. One eye looked at me or who knows what. Seeing it in my pale hand brought back memories of a summer a couple years before, a summer when everything seemed a lot brighter in retrospect. A summer surely as mixed up as any other.
On the hike back up through the thick weeds I wondered if this would ever scare us off. Someday it would have to. I opened myself up and tried to let it all in. Not to remember it, that was impossible I already knew, but to just let it flow through me and around me for this short piece of time.