The weekend of the fourth of July I took a couple days off after the Monday holiday and drove up to Duluth on Saturday morning to visit Alan, an old friend. It felt like it had been a long time since I’d had a vacation.
Once I got on I-35 heading north and there wasn’t much traffic, I felt good. I opened the sunroof and had a cigarette. It felt awful good to be driving by myself on a sunny morning like that. I lost the signal for Bluegrass Saturday Morning on the jazz station in the Cities so I put on an album by a local country-bluegrass group. I finished my cup of coffee in short order and thought another one would be good and more importantly I had to pee bad from the first cup so I pulled off at Pine City.
I went in the gas station right off the freeway. I beelined for the bathroom. Its walls were gray tile and though it was clean and all, it made me feel very claustrophobic. I didn’t feel quite right so I left the bathroom quickly and went out and got a cup of coffee and some peanuts and paid for them and went outside.
The fresh air made me feel better. I didn’t want to get back on the freeway right away so I went along on the highway that I’d exited at, heading east. A mile down the road I came to the small town advertised on the freeway. I drove through and kept going east. I shortly left all indication of town and the highway was lined with woods and occasional pastures.
A few miles down a highway going north-south intersected the road I was on and I turned left. I saw few other cars on the roads, the land was quiet and lush in the long summer morning. Already it seemed as if a day of sunlight had fallen on the greenery but it wasn’t even noon yet. The sun fell on me, too, and I was warm and relaxed.
To my right, I saw a little lake nestled in some hills. On one shore sat a dairy farm with some cows in a feedlot. I couldn’t help but think of Little Shoe Lake and fishing out there. In the previous couple weeks I had fished on Little Shoe with the kids and the guys at least five times. When Miller and Landry were along they took one of the boys in their canoe because the kids were starting to get it and just need some more room. I’d told Ted about trout fishing and he wanted to try it (I think mostly because he was sick of being stuck on the bottom of the canoe) and I’d said we’d go the next weekend.
A pickup came up behind me. The passing zones were short and infrequent on the hilly, winding highway and he apparently wanted to pass. I dropped my speed a little and he went by. I figured it was just some guy with some place to be and I watched the truck disappear around the curve ahead. I wondered what he thought of me, who he thought I was.
I put Dylan on and had a smoke. When I’d gone 10 or 15 miles another highway went east-west and I turned west and went back to rejoin the interstate. I was happy that I got back on the freeway north of Hinckley, with its preceding miles of billboards towering over the roadside pines and its single freeway exit crowded with fast food restaurants and gas stations.
The land quickly began to look like the Iron Range. The lakes in wooded hollows within sight of the freeway appeared wild and quiet, largely because no one wanted to build an expensive cabin on a lake by the freeway. Twenty or 30 miles out from Duluth I passed what I thought of as a gateway to northern Minnesota: a sheet of exposed granite maybe 100 feet long in the wide median of the freeway. It was dappled with lichen and its shape was rough and irregular. I lit up the bat that I’d packed before leaving the apartment and turned up the radio.
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.
“Nope. I got trout on the brain. Let’s do it.â€
“Talk to Miller.â€
“You think Landry might want to go?â€
“Doubt it, but you could ask him.â€
Charlie was often like this when it came to trout. I knew that invariably he would catch more fish than me on Saturday and he would make it look easy. As we were hiking along the stream he would suddenly stop and watch the river — seemingly deaf — for five minutes. Then he would agonize over a fly to tie on and he would retie his tippet and tie on the fly, some unbelievably realistic nymph pattern usually. I wouldn’t complain. I might go upstream or downstream a bit and make a few casts with whatever I had on while I waited, or just have a cigarette and look around and enjoy the day and being out there, looking forward to maybe seeing him fool a big smart trout. He would then get into casting position slower than a turtle, taking some strange route to a little bar where he could stand, and he’d send a few casts into a hole, usually a deep one. Chances are there wouldn’t be a strike and he’d only send a few casts up. Then he might tie on another pattern, muttering about it, and try a few more casts, to my eyes not seemign to spend nearly enough time working the water, and then he’d walk right out of the river and continue along the bank, carefully watching the water again. At the end of the day, he would catch twice as many fish than me and if a big one was hooked it was probably him that would do it.
When I was fishing, he would try to explain some things to me about the bugs and the water and the fish, and I’d try to follow most of his advice and tie on the flies he suggested, but he’d eventually wander away and go fish and I would just keep standing there, eventually casting a No. 16 Adams to a likely looking bank or slowly working a generic beadhead nymph through the same eddy way longer than he would tell me I should and I wouldn’t catch a lot of fish doing it. I’d linger over lunch, he’d eat standing in the stream; I’d take frequent smoke breaks sitting on the bank; he is a master at casting with a cigarette in hand; I’d point out a cloud of bugs swirling in the bushes streamside; he’d point out flashes of white in the water where the trout were feeding on the nymphs and emergers below the surface.
But for some reason, I was the one trying to convince him to go.
That night, we got together at the Lighthouse. It was the bar we usually went to. Comfortable, walls covered in beer paraphanelia, Leinenkugel’s mirrors, Summit neon signs, Miller Lite NASCAR stuff, a big Sam Adams wall sign that was supposed to look like it had been bolted to the side of an old building but which was made out of plastic.
Charlie and I went down to the bar together and Miller showed up shortly after we got there. Seemed that Landry was working on a girl and was waiting to see if she’d call when she got off work and maybe he’d join us. Maybe not.
“Why doesn’t he get a goddamn cell phone?â€ Charlie said.
“I don’t think he believes in them,â€ I replied.
We drank some beer.
“So Mike,â€ I said, “You want to go fishing on Saturday?â€
“Spring Creek. Go after some trout.â€
“Goddamn it, why are you two so damn reluctant to go trout fishing? We’ve only gone once this year and I don’t think that time should even really counts.â€
“I’m in! I’m in. Calm down, I’ve just got some stuff that I was going to do on Saturday, that’s all. It’ll wait.”
“You?” I asked Charlie.
“Right on. To the trout,” I hoisted my glass and they did too.
“What about the kids? You going to ask them if they want to come?” Charlie asked me.
“I thought about it. I don’t think so. Not this time. It’d be a hassle getting them all geared out and whatnot.”
I was pretty stoked now and I drank that beer and a couple more pretty quick. The images of the stream became fuzzy and I could just feel the rush of a strike and the quivering of a fish on the other end of my line, that feeling of success I get from a day on the stream, success not in hooking fish but in being alive and living.
“You think anything might be hatching on Saturday?” I asked Charlie.
“Who knows. You seen the forecast? Maybe some Olives.”
“Where do you want to go? Wonderland? Stonehammer?”
“Wherever there are the least cars. I sure like Wonderland though. Or we could go downstream of Hwy 91. Big fish down there.”
“Sure, whatever. This is gonna be great.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I think we should go downstream of 91. There are some deep holes down there.”
“We should probably get limbered up on Friday. Want to go up to Shoe after work?”
“Miller, you want to go to Shoe on Friday after work?” Charlie asked.
“Or the river. We could make it up there and get a few hour float in before dark.”
“Yes, the river!”
“We could bring the kids along there,” I said.
If the kids had seemed determined to catch a fish earlier, it was nothing compared to the vigor with which they flailed the waters now. As I watched them, I couldn’t help but remember when I’d started fishing. I thought of how I had fished with such violence, how it had not been at all about the fish but entirely about me. I hadn’t felt the fish in the water or everything else on the lake, I’d only felt my own puny ego, my own smallness had made me want to make some sort of impact on this world, to be noticed and respected. And it looked like fun to be a good fisherman. Learning to want to make it look easy was actually the first step in getting past all that negative stuff.
I would like to say that I had long since left behind that inexplicable drive to hook a fish, but every once in a while the raw instinct would re-emerge and I would fish furiously, as Ted and Jesse now did. Those were usually the times when I didn’t catch any fish. Just then, I remembered something my brother had said to me once.
I put my rod down and picked up my paddle and pulled a few hard strokes to get the canoe cruising down the shore and away from the water they were abusing.
“Hey, guys, hold on a second.â€ They stopped fishing and looked at me. So did Charlie.
I hadn’t planned on anyone actually listening.
“You don’t have to whip the water to a foam. Take it easy, we’ll get some fish. Just get a nice long cast, reel in nice and easy, I think they’re ready to start biting.â€
Charlie went back to fishing. The kids followed suit.
I lit a cigarette and looked around the lake. Fifty yards down the shore, Miller and Landry sat in their canoe a ways out from shore. At first it didn’t even look like they were fishing, then I noticed that their rods were sitting across the gunwales. Jigging for crappies, I thought. Maybe we’ll have some fish for dinner after we get out of here.
Behind them, the farm on the far shore was as pastoral a scene as it could get. The red barn and the white house on top of the hill, a small feed yard, green pasture stretching up and down the hill. Holsteins scattered from the barn down to the lake.
The rest of the shoreline from the barn around to here and behind us was fairly steep except for one low, swampy bay in the corner behind us. Birch and maple and aspen grew thick on the hills.
I watched the kids for a moment, they were fishing much slower now, though none less intensely. Ted glanced nervously in my direction, saw that I was watching, and went back to his fishing. I remembered why I had really wanted to catch fish so badly when I was a kid.
On the shore by the landing the highway ran between this lake and its larger sister on the other side. We always came to Little Shoe, I don’t quite know why, we just liked it better. A Hmong family stood along the highway with a couple white plastic five gallon buckets. The whole family there, the kids that were too young to fish messed around by the landing, the fathers religiously working the waters with their bobber rigs. I couldn’t help but admire how regularly those people could get their whole family together and go spend an evening fishing at a pretty lake.
“Hey! I got one!â€ Ted called out and I looked just in time to see him nearly drop his rod over the side of the canoe in his excitement. Out in the water a small bass flopped to the surface and splashed around.
It was almost dark when we dropped the kids off at the bar. They said they usually got something to eat there at night and then would go home and go to bed and their mom would come home later. They had each gotten one fish. Each fish had been thrust in my face, displayed proudly. At the end of the night I had looked at Ted and seen him staring off at the shore, the sun turning it all orange and yellow, for just a moment before casting out again.
Life that summer continued just as it had been, except that now it was assumed the kids would be coming fishing with us when we went. Sometimes they didn’t, but more often they did. I don’t know why, but it was also assumed that they were sort of my charges. Nevermind that it had been Charlie who initially invited them. Never mind how I had no qualifications that the other guys didn’t have. The other guys obviously enjoyed them being there. We all joked with the kids, gave them a pointer here and there, told them the occasional stories about each other (usually sanitized to some degree). But they were my responsibility, there was no doubt it, and, after a few weeks, I discovered I was kind of glad they were.
Fishing for bass on Little Shoe was good enough for nights during the week. The drive was nothing. There wasn’t any hike. It was a known quantity, which was all we really wanted after work. But, after a month or two of lots of nights at Shoe, right about the time the kids started fishing with us, someone said that we had to get down to Spring Creek some Saturday, how all these bass were making us soft, and the idea stuck and thoughts of that little trout stream started working their way into all our minds at any time, without warning.
One afternoon I was driving the mower along the edge of the ninth fairway and suddenly remembered a hole on that river that I hadn’t thought about in a long time. I started reconstructing it in my imagination and soon I could see every clump of grass, every branch hanging over the water, the two rocks that dominated the middle of the pool, the nearly invisible seams between indistinguishable currents. And then I could almost feel the casting, the smooth control necessary to drop the line in just the right spot and as light as a leaf drifting to the water.
And then I ran the mower into a tree.
Trout streams do that. Their memories are more alive than other memories.
Two days later Charlie asked me at lunch again if I wanted to go fishing at Shoe again that night. I said “sureâ€ but then I said, “Do you want to go to Spring Creek on Saturday?â€
“I have to go over to my folks on Saturday. I said I’d mow their lawn and some other stuff around the house.â€
“Shit, do that tonight, man. We’ve been to Shoe enough lately, get that stuff done today and we can go get some trout this weekend.â€
“Hmm,â€ he grunted, which seemed say that wasn’t such a bad idea, but then he didn’t say anything else. He took a bite out of his tuna fish sandwich and chewed, staring off into space, like he was giving something a lot of thought. I couldn’t believe it might be the idea I had just posed.
“What?â€ I said. He could be like this and it killed me. So slow to action or even just a shift of course.
“Hmm.â€ He took another bite of the sandwich. “Yeah, let’s not go fishing tonight.â€
“Okay. And go on Saturday?â€
“You know what Miller’s doing?â€
“No. I’ll find out though.â€
“You don’t want to go to the river instead?â€
I hadn’t thought about the kids since Saturday night when I was sitting on Miller and Landry’s deck, full of steak and beer, and I’d thought how I was pretty fortunate. When we pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot I thought about them again. When we went in I looked around and saw them sitting at a table in about the same spot as last week.
Charlie went to the bathroom and then came back and we ordered.
“Did you see who’s here?â€ I asked him as we stood by the condiments waiting for our food.
“No, who?â€ He said it like maybe Julie, his ex-girlfriend, was there.
“Maybe we should get an extra order of fries.â€
Our food came and we got it and sat down in the same section as the kids but a ways away. They were both sitting there with an empty tray in front of them. They were looking out the window at the parking lot and the highway and not saying anything.
I opened up one of my cheeseburgers but Charlie didn’t do anything.
“Shit,â€ he muttered.
“I don’t now, man. What the hell are we supposed to do?â€
“About them? I don’t know.â€
“Do you want to see if they want to go fishing?â€
“Are you serious? We’ll be arrested as pedophiles. Their mom will probably come after us with a gun.â€
“Fuck it man, I don’t think she’s probably the type to be too concerned about what her kids are doing.â€
“You seriously want to bring them fishing? They could be little con artists. They might push us overboard and steal our shit.â€
Charlie didn’t say anything. He just looked at me. He still had not touched his food. The kids were still sitting across the room, small and silent but now there was no ignoring their pitiful presence. I looked over toward them and the older boy looked at me. He smiled a little and I waved and he waved.
“Hey guys,â€ I called over to them.
“Your mom at work again?â€
“What are your guy’s names?â€ I asked.
The older boy said, “I’m Ted, that’s Jesse.â€
Charlie blurted out, “You guys wanna go fishing?
I resisted shooting a look at Charlie, now was not the time to show dissent.
Ted looked at both of us and then said, “Are you going fishing?â€
“Yeah, you want to come?â€ Charlie asked.
Ted looked at Jesse. As always, Jesse said nothing. Ted didn’t seem to know what to do. He was trying to figure out why the hell we wanted to take him fishing. I didn’t want to, but that was beside the point. Charlie probably didn’t either. There was some ethic programmed in us by all those Big Brother/Big Sister advertisements above the urinals in the bars we went to that said us aimless, obligation-free, time-rich twenty something males should take disadvantaged kids under our wing.
“Maybe, I don’t know,â€ Ted said.
“Where’s you mom work? Should we call her and see if it’s okay?â€ Charlie asked.
“I don’t know what it’s called. It’s a bar.â€
“You know how to get there?â€
“Yeah, it’s just over there,â€ Ted pointed at and through the far wall of the McDonald’s.
“Should we go see what their mom says?â€ Charlie asked me.
“Yeah, why not?â€ I said.
“Can you guys take us over there and we’ll ask her if it’s okay?â€
It was okay with their mom. She looked us both up and down and said it was fine as long as they were back at dark. I offered to leave her my driver’s license and she shook her head and laughed and said it was fine. She turned and went back to work, only looking back to say, “Thanks.â€
When we got to the landing and the two kids got out of the back seat Miller and Landry gave me the funniest look I’d ever gotten from them.
“Guys, this is Ted and Jesse. They’re going to fish with us. Ted and Jesse, that’s Miller and that’s Landry.â€
Ted and Jesse walked down to the water and looked at the lake. They were funny kids, so restrained. As we unloaded, Charlie and I told the other guys why there were going to fish with us. I don’t know if they quite got it, but they didn’t have any problem.
We had plenty of spare gear and the canoe was empty on an evening like this, so Ted and Jesse sat on life jackets in the middle and we set off across the lake. It was a beautiful night. The frogs were singing a little, birds slipped from branch to branch over the water. The occasional breeze rustled the reeds and the leaves.
When we got to the far shore I used a regular spinning rod instead of the usual five weight fly rod so I’d be on the same page as the kids. Charlie and the other guys used the long rods. I put little Rapalas on the kids’ lines, gave them a quick run-down on casting it out there, pointed where the fish would be and told them to go for it.
Jesse couldn’t cast very far at first but that was fine. The kid still hadn’t hardly said a word, but he at least seemed a little relaxed now. I didn’t want to get in their way. There was no point in trying to make them expert fishermen. I let them fish and I didn’t fish much myself but tried to keep the canoe in a good spot for them. Charlie never was one to let something distract him from fishing â€“ “I fish to catch fish, if I want to talk, I’ll find a girl,â€ I’d heard him say a few times â€“ so he didn’t pay the kids much mind.
The fish didn’t seem as aggressive as the week before so it was a while before anything happened. Everything got quiet and still. The occasional plunk of a lure going into the water, the soft sound of the reels smoothly spinning, feet scraping on the bottom of the canoe. I felt my world shrink to the area of the boat and I forgot all else. Time, with all its power and terror, seemed to stop. Memory caught up with the present and longing lifted from my mind.
I seemed to blink and suddenly the whole big world was back. Everything seemed as far off as the dairy cows on the distant shore. I felt time again and realized that we had been fishing in absolute silence for I knew not how long. I became scared that the boys were getting bored, especially because there had been no sign of fish yet. I watched them for a moment and saw that Ted was putting his whole body into his cast, rocking the canoe each time he did, trying to force the lure to fly far.
His brother had been fishing off the other side of the canoe but he turned and casted to the same side as Ted. His lure landed 10 or 15 feet from Ted’s line and Ted â€“ without even looking in his direction, seeming to not think of anything but the fishing â€“ lashed out and punched Jesse on the shoulder.
“Hey!â€ I said.
Ted and Jesse looked at me. So did Charlie.
“What?â€ Ted asked.
“What did you hit Jesse for?â€
“He got in my way.â€
Charlie turned around and resumed fishing.
“Well, you didn’t have to hit him.â€
I didn’t want to say anything more and I didn’t feel like I had to. Jesse continued casting on that side of the boat and the silence resumed, though this time it wasn’t quite so comfortable. I picked up my rod from where it had been sitting at my feet and sent a cast toward a big log sitting on the edge of the drop-off. As soon as I started reeling in, a fish slammed the lure. I wasn’t ready for it but I set the hook and had the fish on.
“You got one?â€ Ted said.
“I got one.â€
“Right by that stump.â€
Both Jesse and Ted reeled in fast and then casted out toward the stump, nearly crossing their lines and nearly crossing mine. The fish wasn’t bad and had lots of fight in him, jumping out of the water twice and diving deep. He thrashed his head and swam in circles. I steadily brought him in, somehow managing to avoid the net of line that was now in the water around me.
When I got him in my hand I held him for the boys to see and they both nodded and Jesse leaned toward me and tried to touch it. I held it out and he just poked its side and then sat back. As I got to work on disengaging the hook with my needle-nose pliers I asked them if they had ever been fishing before.
“No, we ain’t,â€ Ted replied.
I put the fish back in the water and it swam off.
“Why didn’t you keep it? We not going to eat it?â€ Jesse suddenly asked.
“No. We don’t really keep fish too much. Especially bass, I don’t much like the taste of bass.â€
“We used to eat bass sometimes, it ain’t so bad. What do you fish for if you don’t eat ‘em?â€
Charlie had been sitting quietly in the bow, not fishing for once, and suddenly spoke up.
“We just kind of like it out here. Nice and quiet isn’t it?â€
“It’s fun to catch ‘em. You guys should get back to fishing and we’ll get you some fish,â€ I said.