Tag Archives: fiction

The Length of the Day

Happy 40th birthday, Ed! Thanks for the idea and the encouragement.

The sun setting didn’t look much different than when it had risen that morning. Just the other side of the sky. Orange and red and purple, colors of trout as big as the heavens.

My body was sore from a long day of hiking punctuated by periods of time standing in cold water. Camp was a half-mile upriver and I trudged toward it, not yet allowing myself to think of its comforts. The day subsided around me, the birds quieting, the wind dying, leaving only the sound and movement of the water over the rocks.

The trail along the river was uneven, hardly a trail at all, and in the fading light I nearly tripped several times and frequently stepped into holes and dips that jarred my body. I stopped at the top of a riffle and stared up the slick above it, thinking that if I could make out a rise I would be somehow obligated to cast to it. But it was too early in the year to see bugs this late in the day.

As I was about to move on I saw a shape emerge from the brush next to the river, at the base of a tall bluff. It was a whitetail doe, and she slowly looked up and down the stream and then gingerly dipped her head to the water and drank. As she drank I got a cigarette out of my vest and lit it, my vision ruined for a moment by the flare of the match. When I could see again, she was gone. I wondered at her coming all the way down that bluff for such a brief drink from the stream.

The campsite was situated on top of a high bank overlooking a big corner pool of the river. When I waded across the riffle that poured into the hole and climbed up to the site it was full dark. I stumbled over to the truck and got my headlamp out of the front seat. I looked around in the beam of the light at the tent, the fire ring, the table. Everything else had been stowed away in the truck while I was gone and the site seemed impassive and unwelcoming. I needed to get a fire going.

I shucked off my vest and waders and wading boots and put on dry socks, a jacket and hiking boots. I had wood stacked under the picnic table and I moved it closer to the fire ring and shaved off some kindling.

It took some effort to get the fire going, coaxing it to life by blowing and carefully placing and rearranging pieces of wood, but when it caught it started to cast good warmth and light. When I could throw more wood on without too much care and it would burn I started on dinner.

My meal was simple: egg noodles, canned tuna and cajun seasoning. An acquired taste, it didn’t go over well at home. Sitting at the picnic table with a cold can of beer on a dark, quiet evening, it was perfect.

It was still early when I finished eating. The days had not yet lengthened to the point that finishing dinner would bring me to bedtime. I was fine with that. I had wood to burn, a bottle of Jim Beam and a book.

I mixed the bourbon with some water and sat by the fire. I had a familiar volume of MacQuarrie’s in my lap, but for the time being I didn’t pick it up, instead just sinking into the canvas folding chair, studying the fire and the silent, dark valley I was the sole occupant of.

When I was a younger man, 27 or 28, I had come here with my uncle Pete. He and I had fished and hunted many places before then, but this was the first place we had come that neither of us had been to before. We had explored the river and sat around this same fire, drinking the same whiskey out of the same tin cups and recounting the angling successes and failures of the day, the hopes for the next. We had discussed hatches and habitat and I had even clamped a tying vise to the picnic table and we had taken turns experimenting with feathers and fur to create some new patterns for the next day based on our observations.

The fact that this was a new river to both of us and that Pete hadn’t been showing it to me made that trip the first time I didn’t feel like on some level he was the guide and I was the student. We had simply been two men on the river and around the fire that weekend.

Now I was at the fire alone. Pete had passed away a week prior and I had driven directly from the cemetery to this river. Though the last several days has been marked by a deep, relentless sadness at losing him, on arriving here I had felt unusually peaceful, that this was the way of things, like generations of birds migrating north every spring and south every autumn, like rivers flowing toward the sea.

For a couple hours, I sat by the fire and alternately read the book about times and places I had never experienced, and put it down to look at the stars or the fire and think about times and places I had. Occasionally I would stand and walk to the edge of the firelight and take a leak, then walk to the top of the river bank and look over the starlit stream which rushed over the rocks below.

As I was walking back to the fire from standing over the stream, coyotes began to yip somewhere upstream and I stood still and listened to their calls.

When they were quiet again I returned to the fire and stoked it up high against the cool, damp air of the spring night. I sat back down in my chair and stared into the flames and decided I would fish upstream in the morning.

The McDonald’s Kid: Light

The first time I kissed Alexis I broke away after a moment and told her she was beautiful and she said, “Slow down.”

But what she had not understood is that I meant her skin was luminescent and when I kissed her it felt like I was filled with light, light like I had only ever seen in dreams. The me that told her she was beautiful was the me that awoke in my dreams.

Almost every time I ever kissed Alexis I experienced the same sensation and the same me was awoken, though I did learn to keep quiet with broad, pointless compliments whenI should have been kissing. There were a couple years where the dream me was awake more and more often and parts of him became parts of me all the time. My memories of those years are lit by her light.

Something happened a year ago, I don’t know what it was, but my memories were no longer illuminated like they were before. It seems I had lost my way.

Recently, everything in my life had been flatly lit, as if by a sun hidden behind high clouds. At best, certain memories were bright, but always over-exposed.

***

I had not opened my eyes under water for a long time and when I looked toward the surface the light playing on the water was very familiar. I kicked my legs and pulled myself up and when my head broke the surface I gasped and sucked in air. A strange head came over the side of Alan’s boat and I shook my head and dove back down.

I went straight down as hard as I could and strained to see the bottom. Weeds and a tree stump emerged and I held myself there and looked and looked, seeing nothing, no one.

As I swam back up something crashed into the water out of the boat and I saw James heading toward the bottom. When I made it to the top I was shaking and felt very weak and I closed my eyes against the bright day and suddenly arms were pulling on me and they pulled me into the boat that had Alan and the four kids in it. I laid prone on the floor and couldn’t think.

The kid, whoever he was, still down there. Dead now, to be sure. I closed my eyes against the too bright sun-filled sky.

***

The first time I kissed Alexis I had believed there was nothing I couldn’t do. That imagining was doing. The first time I kissed Alexis my world had been lit by dream light.

Previous Installments

 

The McDonald’s Kid: Resumption

This is the continuation of a piece of fiction I began about a year ago on this blog. Links to previous installments are at the bottom. Enjoy!

So there the three of us were, in the boat in the middle of the sunny and windy lake, our lines in the water, nothing biting, tired. Half-drunk, hungover, and stoned. Longing, in dutch with the wife, and lonely.

Alan had a private smile on his face, as if content in being proved correct that the one thing that had the power to make it all better would not. James sat hunched in the middle of the boat, silently a little angry at Alan for dragging him along today when James knew he should be home getting ready for the next day’s party. And he was also convinced the lake held nothing but panfish, no walleyes, probably not even northerns.

And I sat elevated in the bow, trying not to blurt out anything stupid, wondering why I was there, why I had come so far and for what, and how I was going to last another three days up here. My mind and body both felt empty already. I realized it hadn’t taken much to bring on that feeling, and that whatever condition I had arrived in Duluth in, I had left home not much better.

All around us there was nothing but water, woods and rock. A pure landscape that usually inspired a meditative state in me, but now I only found it lacking anything to distract me from the doubt and worry racing through my mind.

Sure, I was in rough shape now, and I was in rough shape when I left the Twin Cities, but would I fix things up here or down there, where the problems lived? And was I maybe even making it all worse by running from it for a few days?

The chop on the lake was building as the wind strengthened out of the west. The wind and the midday sun put me on edge. I felt very alone in the world, could think of no one I could confide in, no one who would care if I told them how aimless I felt, how much the distance hurt.

I slumped back in my seat and stared around the windy lake. A thought flashed across my mind: I need a purpose.

The boat with the kids that we had seen unloading at the boat ramp was headed in our direction. My eyes followed its approach, but it barely registered in my mind.

The boat passed in front of us about 50 yards off. It was no bigger than Alan’s boat, but there were five guys in it and a pile of gear in the middle. It was riding low in the water. Dangerously low, I thought. Kids. They looked like high schoolers. Maybe freshmen from UMD. The kid driving waved and I lifted a hand in response. They looked liked they were having a good time, despite their cramped conditions.

“Lot of kids in that boat,” Alan said.

They motored out of the bay we were in and toward the main body of the lake, probably headed toward what looked like a sandy beach on the far shore. The overworked motor was still audible, drifiting back to us on the wind they were forging into.

A couple hundred yards off now, I could still tell when they emerged from behind the last point of land and into the wind that was whipping the lake. Their bow started to rise and fall violently and it looked like they were rolling side-to-side a little too. But they kept plowing into the waves.

I glanced at Alan and James and they were both watching the boat.

“Maybe we should reel in in case they need some help,” I said.

“Yeah, maybe…” James said, and we all started to do so.

Not 30 seconds went by and suddenly it looked like they were going to turn around and retreat into our calmer bay. They got parallel to the waves and one caught them and as if in slow motion the whole boat tipped over toward us, I could see each kid lunge against the fall and then topple into the water.

“Holy shit,” Alan said. He yanked the starter on the motor and James grabbed the anchor rope and started cranking it in.

“Holy shit, holy shit.”

I threw my rod down and stared toward the capsized boat, I could see heads in the water but couldn’t see much else. We were suddenly ripping across the lake toward them and as we got closer I tore off my hat and jacket and then my shirt, thinking I might need to get in the water.

The kids in the water were looking toward us as we approached and they were yelling but I couldn’t hear them. I counted four.

The McDonald’s Kid, part IX

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII | Part VIII

Alan took us across the lake and dropped anchor in the middle of a triangle formed by an island, a point and a big piece of granite that jutted out of the water. There was a strong breeze blowing and we rigged up to troll so he could just motor us upwind and we’d drift back down. Hopefully we’d get some fish in there.

After he was sure that the anchor was holding, Alan looked around the boat, locked his eyes on his rod and his tacklebox, and then reached into the cooler and grabbed a beer. He leaned back and looked at James and me and then gazed around the lake.

Alan looking around the lake like that made me remember a trip he and I went on when we were younger. Twenty or twenty-one or so. We were living together in St. Paul then and he was in college and I wasn’t. We had some friends, Neal and Charlie, that had moved to Bozeman, Montana five or six months before and Alan and I drove out there the day after Christmas and stayed until a few days after New Year’s.

The first two days were spent recovering from the drive and drinking and recovering from that. Neal and Charlie were getting to know the town and we went to the bar where the college kids played pool, the bar where you could smoke grass and no one cared, the bar where the guy in the corner booth would play just about any song you asked if you bought him a drink.

Those were a good couple days. Alan had finished a hard semester at school and was enjoying the freedom of a well-deserved vacation. I had been feeling adrift, but felt okay just enjoying myself for a while.

On the third day, I woke up, made coffee and went out on the deck of the townhouse. It afforded a good view of the Bridger Range north of town. They were covered in snow and my mind began to wander over the ridge and wonder about the woods and cliffs and runs on the other side. Charlie came out on the deck after a while with a cup of coffee and said good morning. I said hi and he saw me staring at the mountains.

“Want to get up there?” Charlie asked.

“Yeah, I think we better.”

“It’s getting kind of late to do any hiking today, but should we plan on an early start tomorrow?”

“Yeah, I guess,” I said. I was disappointed that we’d spent another day staring up at the mountains from town.

Charlie sat, he stared at the mountains, he seemed to be thinking.

“Or…” He said after a minute.

“Yeah?”

“Or we could hike up and camp up on the mountain tonight.”

“Yeah?” That sounded fun, if a little bit of a leap for me.

“And we could ski down in the morning.”

I suddenly felt awake. I looked at Charlie and he looked like he wasn’t just thinking aloud but thought this might work.

We made it to the mountain about noon. We parked in the snowy shoulder of the road and hiked up a long snowmobile trail. The four of us had big packs and snowshoes, our skis strapped to the packs. The loads were heavy and the incline steady, the air a little thin, but all of us smiled and marched on at a good pace. It was beautiful and quiet in the mountains. It was different too, the deep snow and the thick stands of pine were not what I was used to.

The snowmobile trail terminated at a small lake, there was a Forest Service campground there in the summer, now picnic tables and outhouses were being swallowed by the snow-covered ground. We shoved several feet of snow off one of the tables and sat on top of it to have a drink of water and a snack. We had hiked two or three miles. I had unzipped my jacket, removed hat and gloves. I hadn’t been stopped for more than a minute when I zipped up and put everything back on as the sweat cooled on my body. We put on our snowshoes and set off across the lake.

It was mid-afternoon when we started up the mountain proper. The face was covered in at least four feet of snow. We took turns “postholing” the way, leading the way so that the rest of us could follow in the footsteps. It made things a little easier. Most of the way we were going through thin pine forest. Occasional gullies and ridges ran down and across the mountain. We talked a little, but mostly just leaned into the slope and put one foot in front of, and above, the other.

We trudged upward for two or three hours before getting to a depression in the side of the mountain. It was surrounded by several pines. Another couple hundred yards above us we could see what must have been the summit, and it ran a long ways to our right above us along a ridge that rose slightly toward the true summit a half mile or so south. Charlie declared that we should make camp here, it was where he and Neal had camped with some other guys a month earlier.

Everyone threw their packs down into the snow and looked at the site. Except Alan. I watched him turn his back on the site and look out. I followed his gaze and saw everything he could see: miles of peaks and valleys, covered in snow, penetrating clouds, no sign of man anywhere except one thread of road in a valley far below.

It was this long gaze, knowing, appreciating, absorbing, that I saw again on the lake that windy, sunny day as he sat on the boat and looked around. While the rest of us had started setting up camp on that cold mountaintop with darkness quickly approaching, and while James and I set to digging through our tackleboxes and rigging up our lines, Alan lost himself, and seemed to find the wholeness of life and the world before his eyes.

From There to There

We took the train across Italy from Florence to the port city of Ancona. The train was full that Monday-after-Easter and with our EuroRail passes and unreserved seats, Cameraman and I were relegated to sitting on our packs in the narrow walkway. There was maybe 18 inches between us and the compartments, but the guys pushing the vending carts still pushed right on through every half hour or so and we would have to stand and flatten ourselves against the windows and hold our packs over our heads and let them by.

It was a sunny day in spring in central Italy and it was okay to just sit uncomfortably and watch the countryside rush past.

When the train stopped in Ancona, we disembarked and stretched on the platform. Then we looked around. It hadn’t seemed like much of an assumption to plan on the docks being close to the train station, but we couldn’t even see the Adriatic from the platform. The station quickly emptied out of people and we wandered around looking for some indication of how to get to the ferry. There was no indication, or, if there was, it was in Italian, a language neither of us knew.

In the few weeks we’d already spent traveling from Madrid to here, via stops in Spain, Switzerland and Italy, Cameraman and I had found ourselves in more difficult situations than this. It was hours before the boat was scheduled to leave and the sea really couldn’t be that far away. So, we weren’t exasperated, but we didn’t exactly have a plan.

Then, a guy about our age asked us in broken English if we were trying to get to the ferry to Croatia. Yes! We were. I don’t know how he knew, but he did. He quickly led us to a small window in the station where we assumed we were buying tickets for a bus — not that he or the vendor really explained — and then led us through the station to where a bus waited. We got on. He spoke little English so we just rode and kept a close eye on him. The bus went into the city, a cluster of low buildings and warehouses. Not Tuscany by any means.

At a five-way intersection, still with no water in sight, he disembarked and we followed him like the lost puppies we were. He went around a couple corners and then there were several large cruise ships and ferries looming in front of us. At this point, our destination was pretty obvious, but our friendly guide didn’t abandon us with a point of his finger. He led us to the ticketing area where he battled a few old women on our behalf to convince them that we, as students and holders of the EuroRail passes, were entitled to a lower fare than they were telling us. Soon, we had a couple tickets and a couple hours before 9 p.m., when the boat was scheduled to leave for Croatia.

This was new. Cameraman and I hadn’t ridden a lot of ferries in our day, much less overnight ferries from one European country to another. Much less overnight ferries on which we had secured no bunk nor cabin, but just a ticket to roam the boat during the nocturnal hours. And we were also leaving the relative security of western Europe for the unknown shores of Croatia, a country best summarized by a question mark that contained war and Communism and much more.

This called for gin.

Cameraman and I went across the street, keeping within sight of the big boat, to a small convenience store. We bought a bottle of Seagram’s and a few cans of tonic water. Oh yeah, and some food, too.

When we got on the boat, a multi-decked vessel maybe a few hundred feet long, we navigated up through the car deck to the lounge area, which at 9 p.m. was already lit by dim red lights. We found a corner with a padded bench along one wall and a table with some chairs. We set up camp. It seemed like forever before the boat left the dock and when it did, we could hardly tell it was moving.

I set the gin and the tonic water on the table. We had no glasses, no ice. There was a bar in the corner. Not knowing the boat’s policy on us bringing our own booze on board, and not speaking Italian or Croatian, going up and asking the bartender for a couple of glasses of ice might not be terribly easy. Somehow, I ended up nominated for the task.

Attempt #1 resulted in me coming back to the table with two large glasses of white wine. Luckily, the Croatian prices for white wine turned out to be quite cheap. We drank them quickly.

Attempt #2 resulted in me coming back with two glasses of ice water. We slurped the water down fast and used the melting ice for a few drinks. On the third trip to the bar, I finally was able to finagle just ice, and from there on out, it was all good.

We had some journalling to catch up on so we drank and wrote. Soon, we both had closed our notebooks, unable to focus on the marks our pens made across the page. We drank some more. When I went to the bathroom, I had to concentrate on every foot as I battled both my internal imbalance and the rocking of the boat in the waves. We strolled up on deck once, but the idea of drunkenly stumbling over the deck and into the cold, dark sea was amplified by our inebriation, as was the idea of someone messing with our precious backpacks, so we quickly retreated inside to the dim red confines of the lounge.

There were other people in the lounge, but not too many. The guy who had helped us get from the train to the boat had told us of the summer months when the entire floor would be carpeted in sleeping families.

It wasn’t too late when my eyelids began to droop. The boat would land in Split at 7:00 a.m. and I wanted to be somewhat awake for the ordeal of entering another country and finding lodging. We slept end-to-end on the bench under our small blankets.

I woke as soon as it was gray out. The boat was very quiet. Cameraman was sleeping. My mouth was dry and gross and I went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth. Then I sat and looked out the window and watched the coast of Croatia appear out of the morning mist. My head felt as clear as the skies.

When we docked we were led through an area surrounded by chain-link fence and for the first time on the trip, someone actually checked our passports and stamped them. Then, we were set loose on the old city of Split. Everything we had read and heard had said that there weren’t the usual hostels in Split, but that a bunch of old women would meet the boats and offer rooms to rent. We were counting on such, but when an old women approached us on the dock with a piece of paper it took me a minute to realize why she was approaching us. She spoke almost no English (and, maybe you’re noticing a trend here, we spoke no Croatian), but she had a piece of paper someone had kindly written out for her in English that said her name was Maria and she had rooms and they were such-and-such price. We haggled down the price, though very poorly, as I’m not good at negotations anyway, much less at 7 a.m. on the other side of the world with a hangover. She got a good price out of us, and then led us up into the hills of Split.

When we arrived at her apartment house she somehow conveyed to us that the current occupants of our room weren’t quite out yet, so we should sit with her in her kitchen on the ground floor. She would make coffee and there would be cookies. She put the water on to boil and then added the Nescafe to it and gave us small cups of the brown, chalky liquid. She put a plate of dry cookies on the table in front of us and then, fatefully, I thought she asked me if I wanted a glass of water. Oh, did I. I nodded and Cameraman, thinking the same thing I thought, asked for one too.

Maria reached under the sink, which I thought was odd, and pulled out an almost-empty two liter water jug, stripped of its label, a couple inches of clear liquid in the bottom. Maybe her tap water’s no good, I thought. She poured the liquid into two glasses not much bigger than a double shot glass, and put them on the table in front of us. I sniffed mine. It was vodka. I saw Cameraman sniff his too and then set it down. I picked mine up again and took a sip which, when she saw me do it, she exclaimed, hands flailing, no no no, at once, all at once, drink!

I drank. One big gulp and down my pipes. I’m not a big vodka drinker, much less a morning vodka drinker, much less a morning homemade vodka drinker, but such is the country of Croatia. Cameraman nursed his coffee, partially hidden by me where I sat. The couple that we were waiting for to leave their abode came down, a nice British couple full of energy who forcefully but jovially refused Maria’s offer of a drink. They said “hello” to us and thanked and hugged Maria, and they left. Maria went upstairs to straighten up the room and Cameraman emptied his vodka into his coffee and drank it all down.

When we finally got to that room with its two beds and a view across the clothesline-choked rooftops of the neighborhood in the morning light, it felt very good. We didn’t argue long about who got the big bed. I laid my head down on the pillow, my belly warm and my body relaxed, and slept.


This is not fiction except to the degree that my memory has blurred in the past couple years, but it’s a story and it’s Friday…