Here is a little story that grew entirely from the first sentence. It has maybe the smallest ending I ever wrote, but maybe it’s just more understated than my typical attempts. As always, only what you think is important, so please leave me comments and if you like it, Share it on FB with the buttons at the end of the story.
I admit it, I’m a snob. I like trout. Well, all salmonids, actually. I’ve had more than a few fun afternoons roping mountain whitefish. Once or twice out west I caught a steelhead. I even caught an Atlantic salmon on the Winnipesaukee one night, but let it go thinking it was a brown before I even realized what I was doing. But I never understood the appeal of bass. Every bass I ever caught, I caught while I was fishing for trout, except for one time when we hired a guide for stripers out in Pasco Bay. But even a 32” striper comes up like an old boot after thirty seconds of fight. I just don’t get all of the running around in over-powered boats tossing sex toys at these fish when any day you can catch your fill of them on wooly buggers while looking for trout.
It wasn’t until I moved to Manchester and I needed to get my jones on that I started targeting bass. Not on purpose at first. They are converting the hulking old textile mills into offices. I got a job in the exciting start up, The Software Mill. Clever, huh? The wall at the end of our hallway blanked off miles of empty, haunted space. They just keep moving that barrier and adding offices like nodes in an intestine. What was once a sweatshop for unrepresented industrial workers, was now a hive of cubicles for their 21st Century descendants. If you lean your forehead on the wall, you can hear the ghosts’ distant moans on your way to your desk. But outside that window is the gorgeous dam-tamed Merrimack. The old mill buildings crowd the shores, making river access difficult to impossible. When you do reach it, all of this beautiful pocket water and seams, it is permanently closed to fishing. So you are stuck fishing brushy, muddy tribs where old bicycles and tires constitute structure. When you find yourself hunting these brown waters, it’s an indicator, like an alcoholic putting whiskey in his coffee. You know you have a problem. But, at least the problem is you aren’t putting whiskey in your coffee. Well, not until the sun goes down.
And you know, at first I found some trout. Probably spawners swashed into the creeks during the spring floods, when that first head shake lets you forget momentarily the sucking mud that is eating through the soles of your All Stars and staining your socks pink with things you don’t want to wonder about. But after that, it was just bass. And mostly not your sexy basses, your large and small mouth, but your rock bass. Rock bass is considered such a trash fish, it’s illegal not to kill them around here, but I don’t have it in me to do the Rotenone’s work. You also got your other basslike fish, your crappie, your perch. Hell, I would kill for even a carp. But no, just your bass and your bass derivatives. All of those fish that worms crawl out of when you fillet them.
So it went like that. I moved to town. I found a few trout. Before I could get used to it, they were gone and there were only what the British call “coarse fish,” which were not really enough to keep me and my now exclusively pink sock collection out of the bars during happy hour. But still sometimes you gotta have your fix, and the thought of those accommodating trash fish bending my rod on every cast would sometimes draw me to the river the way that a toxic ex will take you to the phone late at night when there are things that become more important than pride.
One beautiful summer day, I realized I had been staring at the side of my cubicle and day-dreaming. Not even looking out a window; just lost in some rough-woven garbage-brown industrial weave on my cubical wall. On my screen was an email. Apparently because we had reached out last quotas, they had decided we would need to do more so that my boss could get his next bonus. Therefore, we now had new goals for lines of code and defect rates per programmer, per day. I’d already completed the application itself weeks ago, but since I wasn’t measured on actual application functions, I had continued to produce bloated code with just enough bugs to keep my friends in testing employed. I looked at the new quota and wondered how long I could continue to stretch out my code with obfuscating algorithms and weighing that with how many actual days of freedom remained in my ever-shortening tour on this mortal coil. In my head I could see the lines on the graph crossing like some high school Algebra problem, and I found myself mentally squinting to read the intersection coordinates. At that point, I knew my problem wasn’t that I had stooped to bass, so I tossed my Velveeta and tomato sandwich into the briefcase that I had bought when I had much higher aspirations, grabbed my sports coat off of my chair, and walked out. I think I just meant it to be for the afternoon, but the image of that graph hung in my mind like the ghost image on an old CRT screen that had been left on too long.
I spent some time touring around the White Mountains, poring over maps looking for beaver ponds, floating Profile Lake, hitting the source of the Merrimack. But then my clutch started slipping and I didn’t feel like outlaying the cash on it, so I was stuck in town. After that, I hung out at the river a lot. I used the bike bath where they had tried to gentrify it to scout some. Most of the tribs were on the outskirts of town, in the rundown neighborhoods where the never nice mill houses were now only slightly above modern drinking class slums. The kind of place where the most important parts of summertime family and social life happens on a run-down porch. It was in one of those little creeks, you had to walk up it ducking under scrub maples and other trash trees, that I found a pool. Not much bigger than the living room in my studio walk up, not much deeper than my car. So, not a pool really, more of a hole. And in that hole I found whitefish when it was cool after rain and bluegill when it was hot. Suckers randomly flooded the place. It was dumb really. I only carried one fly, a little beadhead bugger. I would take a 22 of beer with me and drag the bugger through the pool, catch a couple of fish. Sip my beer, rinse, repeat. You couldn’t even cast really, just kind of underhand lob the little bugger back towards the top of the pool. In reality, it was just another cubicle, and not even much of an improvement. Somehow I was sliding into a funk that even fishing couldn’t cure. Eventually, even the beer money would run out, and then maybe this really would become my living room.
One day, I walked up the creek, trying not to think about all of the things you go fishing not to think about, and as I ducked, slithered, and splooged up the bank, I came upon three teenage boys in cut-offs. They’d obviously been in the water and were sitting on the bank smoking cigarettes. Even though they were poor white trash, the look they gave me and my discount fly rod made me feel self-conscious.
“Hey,” I said.
“What are you doing here, mister?” said a kid with a shaggy mop of blond hair and a major attitude. He owned this part of the planet. Even if this was all he had, here, he was king. I liked him right away.
“Well, I, uh. Well, sometimes I come here and fish a little, after work.” I don’t know why I lied about the work.
“Fish?” The two other kids, both identically rail thin and dirty despite their swim, looked into the water. “You catch those?” The youngest, or at least the littlest, asked, pointing into the hole.
“Sometimes we try to catch them, too!” said the middle boy. The mop head shot him a look.
“Any luck?” I asked.
“Not so much,” he said looking down, clearly afraid he’d said too much.
I shrugged, “Well, that’s fishing.”
“So; fish,” said the mop head.
“Nah, I don’t want to bother you guys. Obviously you were here first.”
“It’s okay!” said the two others in chorus.
“Well, I don’t know…”
“Doesn’t make any difference to us,” said mop head, kicking at something in the mud that I couldn’t see.
I started to rig up. “Well, you might’ve put them down.” I flicked the beadhead towards them, let it sink for a bit, stripped, let it sink. I could see the school turning towards it. It didn’t take much, next strip, the bugger stopped sinking and wham! Tiny little fish on. And you know, the hook up still got my juices flowing like it was a wild trout. I brought him in held him up. Shrugged sheepishly, and let him go.
“What did you do that for?” the littlest one was clearly upset by this turn.
“Let it go!” they said in chorus.
“Well, so I can catch it again.”
“You don’t eat them?” asked moppy. Clearly, we had just exposed a defining cultural divide.
“Well, that and they taste like fish.” They all laughed.
“What kind of rod is that? I never saw nothing like it.”
“It’s a fly rod. Not really the tool for the job, but it’s all I have.”
They came around the pool then and we discussed the basic differences between a fly rod and a spinning rod. But you know, it didn’t really make any difference because we were catching crappie out of a hole in the burning New Hampshire summer heat, and whatever we had was good enough. I taught them the basics of the classic lob cast. And we caught fish. Every fish in the pool at least once, seemed like. And it was forty-four times more fun watching them catch those tiny, trashy fish than it was any fish I ever caught, except maybe my first tiny, trashy fish, which I had forgotten about until just then. I totally forgot about my beer warm in the sun.
Eventually, our antics put them down. The kids – Paulie (the mop), Darryl (the middle), and Louie (the runt) – had to go. They wanted to fish again. I told them to bring a bucket next time they came, and take some home. They thought that was cooler than ice cream cake.
I sat down and drank my warm beer. Somehow, the little hole in the trees seemed, I don’t know, more real. Like I had been seeing it through some gauzy filter and now it was gone. I should’ve been upset that my secret stash was blown, but I wasn’t. I had made some friends. Okay, some 15 year-old friends, but hell, deep down they were fishermen and that’s all that counts. Better than anybody I’d left behind in cubicle land. I think I whistled as I got up the bank and followed the road back to my car.
So, it was like that. Sometimes they were there, sometimes not. When they weren’t, I didn’t fish. I figured it was way more special for them than for me. As promised they brought a bucket, we caught a few and I taught them how to clean them, how to soak them in salt water to get the worms out. After that we didn’t have any more discussions about catch-and-release. We talked about places I’d fished, fish I’d caught. They made me feel like a movie star or something. Like a big league player coaching little league.
One day, Paulie turned to me. “So, we were thinking…” They looked at one another conspiratorially.
“Well, you know the golf course?”
“It’s got a big pond!” blurted Louie.
“Full of bass,” said Paulie.
“Indeed? How do you know that?”
“You can see them from the school bus,” said Darryl. “They make the big rings you were talking about.”
“And my dad was telling his friends how they used to sneak in there as kids and fish at night,” finished Paulie.
I put on my best British air. Pointing my index finger straight up and making little spirals to punctuate my points. “Sir, I’m aghast. Are you proposing we sneak onto the golf course and catch bass? Bass? What kind of a man do you take me for? Not even trout. Aghast I say!” They fell over laughing. Then I stroked my chin in my best evil dude manner. “What night do you propose we perpetrate this maleficent deed?” They looked at me. “The crime lads! The crime!”
They looked at each other. “What are you doing tonight?” Asked Paulie.
“I thought you would never ask.”
We made a day out of it. They all crammed into my twenty-year old Corolla and I took them to McDonald’s with my rapidly diminishing supplies of cash and clutch friction. It was like a feast to these kids.
“Won’t you parents wonder where you are?” I asked, realizing that at the very least I was taking three underage kids to commit a misdemeanor.
“Nah,” said Paul. “We stay out late all the time.”
I scratched my stubble, not sure I entirely believed him. We finished our meals, but in the summer it gets dark late, so I took them to see the new Bond film. A week of beer money right there, two weeks when you add in popcorn. After the humid heat of the day, though, the air conditioning of the theater was a total luxury for both me and the kids. I’m sure the most they had at home was maybe one rattletrap 20-year old AC unit stuffed in a living room window somewhere. Hell, I didn’t even have that, just a $20 box fan. When we got out, the sun was still a glow on the horizon. The kids were rolling around me like a baitfish ball, reliving scenes from the movie. I was kind of hoping they had forgotten about the adventure.
“Let’s go do the crime!” shrieked Louie as Darryl socked him in the arm. So much for subtlety.
I looked around at the people staring at us, shrugged and said something like, “Kids and sugar…” then shot him a withering look. “Some criminal,” I said under my breath. We got back in the car and I limped it to the outskirts of town so we could scope it out. Fortunately, golf courses are designed a lot more for keeping balls in than people out. We drove slowly by a line of heritage alders growing 70 feet up into the dark. The only hurdle, though, was a four-foot chain link fence. I drove around until I found a place to park, in a pull out from a field across the street where they drove tractors across the boundary ditch onto the road.
We parked, and I opened the trunk to get my rod and a box of bass bugs. Yes, I have bass bugs. I don’t know where or how, sometimes I think my flies breed in my trunk, coming up with new and wild patterns I’ve never seen before. We waited by the road, looking both ways down the long straightaway for oncoming cars.
As promised the pond was in site of the road, just across the fairway. “Okay, guys, here it goes. From here to the pond, every man for himself! And be quiet!” Then we ran across the road and clambered over the fence. I will admit they beat me over, but I also had the rod and the gear. The night was clear and the moon was bright, so it was easy to make our way, but it also exposed us running across the carpet smooth fairway. At one point a car drove by and I hissed “Down!” Everybody hit the dirt. It felt like the Hogan’s Heroes reruns I used to watch with my grandmother. That’s when I realized that I wasn’t corrupting anybody at all. This is what kids were meant to do, dammit, run free and have adventures on hot summer nights.
When we got there, it was a a beautiful little pond. Maybe 50 yards by 30 yards. But manicured right down to the last cattail and water lily. We walked up and stared at it for a moment, nobody saying anything, until suddenly there was a big splash. My rod was already rigged with a big popper, and I marked the splash by sound and looking at the ripples in the moonlight.
“Okay guys, this is a little different than the river. So what I’ll do is this, I’ll cast it out there, and then I’ll hand the rod to one of you, and then you strip it in, and we’ll keep doing that until you get a fish, and then we trade. If anybody comes, you drop the rod and run. We’ll meet back at the car. Good? Nods all around. “Okay, who’s first?”
There wasn’t even a moment’s hesitation, Paulie and Darryl pushed Louie forward. I made a nice long cast out into the pond to a few oohs and ahhs and realized they had never actually seen a cast before. The fly landed with a satisfying “plop!” (something nobody said ever about a trout fly) and I handed the rod over, showing him how to strip without actually doing it, lest I hook a fish by mistake. “Go like this,” I said, “and if you hear a splash, lift the tip of the rod up? Got it?” In the dark I could see his big eyes and serious face has he nodded.
Strip. Strip. Strip. Splash! Louis jerked the rod up and probably would’ve fallen over in his excitement, except the fish had inhaled the fly. As it was he was slipping around on the wet grass, and all of the kids were hooting and hollering. While I was going “Shhhhh! Shhhhh!” We were all giving him advice, even though the other two had never caught a fish before. All pretense of stealth was forgotten. I skidded down the bank in the dark and showed him how to keep tension on and let the fish take line and then take it up. I thanked my foresight for using 2x tippet as we basically manhandled the beast to shore. After what seemed like half an hour, but I’m sure was more like five minutes, I waded in and held up a stellar 3 lb. large mouth bass, the work of some diligent bucket bioligist. The kids crowded around me and I showed them all how to hold it. They touched it in reverence. Finally, I took my forceps and released the poor abused beast.
That first fish took the edge off. I made a few more casts as Darryl took the rod. We started moving counter clockwise around the pond and finally had a hookup right near the weed bed against our side. This fish was even bigger than the first, although the fight was pretty much the same hoot-and-holler-rope-and-wrangle.
Paul had been watching all of this and he decided that he wanted to try casting. Since we were doing as well near as far, I explained it in the fewest possible words and motions. He tried a few which resulted in some splashing and a wind knot.
“I suck at this!”
“Well, learning to cast a bass bug in the dark is not exactly the recommended procedure,” I said as I cut out and retied the knot in the dark. “Want to try again?”
His mouth was set in a line of grim determination as he held out his hand for the rod. When I heard the whipsnap of a broken off fly, I merely suggested we switch up flies for luck, then took the rod and tied on a mouse pattern. This one crashed down on the edge of the lilly pads, and before he could rip it off the water to recast, I reached over and put my hand on his forearm.
“Twitch it.” I shook my hand in explanation. He did as I said and although we couldn’t see the fly the motion looked reasonable. “Okay now twist it back like this,” and I mimed a slow retrieve, winding the line in my fingers. “Slowly.” I didn’t realize how quiet we were until I realized I was holding my breath and I could hear the crickets chirp. “You are doing great,” I said, more to break the tension than anything.
At that moment, the line went straight with a zizzing sound as something grabbed it. I thought he might drop the rod, but I underestimated him. He played that fish as cooly, probably more cooly, than I would. This kid had stones. Unlike the other two fish, everybody watched this battle in silence. Only occasionally did I say, “Give it some line” or “Reel, reel, reel.” All we could see was where the line met the water, but is moved back and forth in front of us like the ball in a tennis match. Finally, in a beam of moonlight, the fish made a leap and a splash.
“That’s a pickerel!” If only all bucket brigadiers were as successful as this. Now, I was really on edge. I wanted this kid to land this fish more than any fish I’d ever caught. I tempered my excitement with patience, because there was no wire leader, and after a good five minutes, I waded in and was holding a 24″ pickerel. Not a monster, just a hammer handle pickerel, but a monster first fish. The kids erupted into hooting, hollering, dancing, and back slapping. Just then, lights flashed on and we heard a bullhorn voice, “Freeze!”
Well, damned if that was happening. The kids took off like tadpoles into the dark. I wrenched the fly out, and got a nasty cut from the pickerel’s teeth, then I waded ashore. “Stop!” The light zoomed this way and that, trying to cover us all, and then I knew it was one person. I heard the whir of an electric motor and headed around the pond away from the light. The driver broke off from chasing the kids and circled the pond with me. As soon as I was out of view, I laid flat in the Ikibanaesque cattails and let him motor by me in his golf cart. Then I got up and sprinted towards the road. I hit the fence like a blind coyote, tumbling over it almost before I processed it. Then I ran down the road towards the car to the fading encouragement of our pursuer. “Goddamn kids! I called the cops!”
The kids had beat me handily to the car, partly because they were kids and took the shorter route, partly because somewhere between the fence and the car I started laughing and couldn’t stop. I could see the the fear in their eyes when I showed up, but my laughter was contagious. We all bailed into the car and blasted down the boundary road, me covered in mud and algae, them excitedly reliving the exploits over and over again.
“Dude, you caught a freaking pickerel on a mouse pattern in a golf course pond. Do you know how sick that is?” I looked over at Paul. “It’s like, it’s like, it’s like catching a steelhead in an Olympic pool, that’s how cool that is!” So sue, me. Memories are sewn from hyperbole, and I wanted this one to grow big. I turned to the back seat. “You guys killed it, just killed it. I hate to disappoint you, but you will fish for a long time before you catch fish like that again.”
“Until we go back,” said Darryl, grinning ear-to-ear.
“Shhhhhh!” I said, and we all burst out laughing all over again.
I dropped them off around midnight. When they were getting out of the car I had an impulse. I got out and went around to the trunk. “Hey, you guys, you are the Three Musketeers, I want you to have something.” I handed them my old yellow seven and a half foot Eagle Claw that we’d been fishing with. It was a glass rod I got from my ex’s dad when he died. I taught myself to fish on it and the Medalist and old dry line on it were probably the same as had come on it when he got it from some department store as a combo spin/cast kit. I had other rods, but this one was the one with all of the memories, and for some reason none of my high-modulus modern rods ever came to mind when I was chasing the brown water dogs. But just then, I knew it was time to pass it on.
Paulie took it, holding it in front of him with both hands like it was a crown on a pillow. “For all of us?”
“For all of you. You earned it tonight. I wish I had one for each of you.” With that, I shut the trunk, waved and drove off. They were still huddled on the curb when I turned the corner.
I got busy doing nothing for a while. I literally cannot remember the next few days. The next time I saw them was at the creek. Louie was holding the rod high, while Darryl and Paulie were wading in the water trying to unhook it from an old bed spring. They were straining and pulling, trying to jerk the rusted ball of wire out of the mud.
“That seems like a lot of work for one fly.”
“We hooked this damned thing so many times, we just decided to take it out,” said Darryl as he tugged away. I didn’t really think about it, I just waded in. I could see it wouldn’t come out without removing a veritable beaver dam worth of twigs, branches, and the leaves they had caught. I began yanking them out and tossing them ashore. In less time than I thought, I had moved a lot of it out, and the three of us heaved the rusted old carcass free from the sucking debris. The water already was flowing faster. We stood there soaked and muddy in the middle of the creek.
“You know,” I said, “we might as well finish what we started.” There were shrugs all around an Louie reeled in the line. In a couple of hours from the water and surrounds we pulled out the box spring, a TV, a refrigerator, a washer, two bikes, fifteen tires, and enough bottles, cans and fast food trash to fill a dumpster. It made quite a pile, and we stood back to survey it. Why is that people will drive out of their way to dump trash in water? I have never understood this.
“Damn, you kids should be proud of yourselves.”
Darryl made a good point: “Now what? We can’t leave it here.”
I looked at it and scratched my chin. “I suppose we could get a truck and take it to the dump. You guys too tired for that?”
“We can do it!” said Louie.
“Okay, I’ll go get the truck, you haul what you can up to the street, I’ll come back and help for the rest.” So I scrambled up the bank and headed out to the Budget rental up the street, where I got one of those box trucks. My rent money was rapidly dwindling to beer money, but I tried to focus on the good I was doing. I stopped to get some contractor trash bags and Cokes and when I got back, they had made a huge dent in the pile. I helped the older boys carry the really heavy stuff up, while Louie stuffed small stuff into sacks, and while we were taking a break a guy pulled up in an early 90s maroon coulda-been sedan. You know the era, back when everything looked like a used bar of soap: coulda been a Ford, coulda been a GM, coulda been a Chevy.
“What are you kids up to?” Said the lanky red-headed guy unfolding out of the car wearing chinos and a polo shirt.
“Just doing a little good Samaritan work,” I said. “Hauling some junk out of the creek.”
He ambled over and looked over the low parapet of the bridge. “I never really noticed this spot before. It’s kinda nice.”
“It’s ours!” blurted Louie. The tall fellow turned real slow and looked at him. “Nobody’s going to take it away from you. Hey,” he said like he just thought of it, “you know, I work for the Union Leader. What about if I take your picture and write a little blurb about this. Can’t guarantee it will make the paper, but you never know. People eat this stuff up, kids taking an interest in our old city and the environment. It’s a twofer.”
I put my hands in my pockets and shrugged. “We’re not exactly photogenic at the moment if you know what I mean.” The kids were looking back and forth between us, and I realized this just might be the biggest thing that ever happened to them. “Ah, what the hell, what do you want us to do?” So after that he had us pose on the pile and took some pictures of the creek from the bridge and then showed us loading up the truck. He asked their names, and Paulie said his name was Paul Norton and these were his brothers, Darryl and Louie, which he spells “L-O-U-I-S.” I felt dumb for never figuring that out. He got all my info then so that he could fact check and stuff. Honestly, by then, the fatigue was beginning to set in and I just wanted to finish this before the kids crashed and I was left alone. I think he got that and wrapped it up. So we loaded up the truck and everybody piled in and we headed to the dump.
The dump has changed a lot since I was a kid. They weigh you when you come in, then you drive around and put different stuff into different containers, and then you go into an office and pay for the dangerous stuff, like the TV and refrigerator and tires. I parted with a lot more of my cash than seemed right for a good deed, but as my Grandmother used to say “In for a penny, in for a pound.”
We dropped off the truck, after gassing it back up, and then I took everybody for pizza. I got to tell you, being an environmental hero is expensive. I could’ve replaced my much-abused and leaking waders by the time the day was over. Since my wallet was so well-lubricated, after I dropped them off I stopped for a shot and a beer on the way home. While I was looking at my fuzzy reflection in the back bar I thought how much we’d accomplished that day, and it only took us six hours. I compared that to how much I would get done in eight hours in a cubicle and definitely felt better about my current career status. I cheered my reflection, decided on another round, and maybe another after that, and then wandered home.
I slept late even though the day was mercilessly hot and humid and I was really only tossing and turning since dawn. A banging on my door got me out of bed. When I opened the door there were two guys standing there in matching paramilitary crew cuts, short sleeve shirts, and ties, wearing the kind of expression you can only get from holding in your farts for your entire adult life.
Even though I was only in my boxers, it was my house, at least for a little while longer. So I just crossed my arms over my chest and looked at them, pretending I was also trying not to fart. I was sore all over from yesterday and a little head sore from the corn in the Mikey’s Big Mouths I’d had last night. I didn’t feel like repeating myself to two assholes who had just woken me up. The looked at each other and then the fart-retainer on the right flashed a badge.
“Drift?” he said with the hints of a superior smile creeping around his lipless mouth.
“Yeah, that’s me. What do you want.”
He held up the paper. I had to squint to see it, but there big as life was me and the kids. I actually smiled. “Yup, that’s me!”
“You are under arrest.” All I could think of was that something had happened to the kids.
“For stealing city property.”
“What city property?” I was honestly bewildered.
His partner stabbed the paper. “This city property. Do you think you can just take whatever you want, whenever you want?”
“It’s trash. It’s been there for years. You didn’t care about it then.”
“Oh, we care,” said fart-retainer two, spinning me around while his partner slapped on the cuffs. I couldn’t believe it. It was too surreal.
“I don’t even get to put on pants?”
Fart-retainer one leaned over my shoulder and whispered in my ear like a lover, “You should’ve thought of that before you were a wise ass.”
And so in my tartan plaid wool boxers they perp-walked me out of my rotten little flat and took me to jail, just like that. I couldn’t believe any of this was happening, it just made no freaking sense. They did all of the usually bureaucratic theatrics to book me, just so that I would take it serious. Then they sat me in a puke green room for a while on a metal chair with my hands cuffed behind me, just to show they really were in control. And then they came in and old-schooled me, trying to get the name of the kids.
“Who are the kids?”
“I don’t really know. I was just kind of hauling stuff out of there and they stopped to help. Didn’t they give their names to the Leader? ”
“Turns out those names weren’t real.”
Freaking Paulie, what a little genius. Even when he had a chance to be famous he held back.
“Well, since I just met them, that’s all I know.”
“You know, this town isn’t that big, we’ll find them.”
“It’s that important to punish kids for picking up trash, even though you got the mastermind right in front of you?”
Their eyes were bugging out like bad taxidermy. I had to ask myself, if this was really the biggest crime they’d maybe ever worked.
“We could add a bunch of charges on here, you know. Adding to the delinquency of a minor and such. We will add them when we find those kids.”
“I have to pee,” I said. “Bad.” So of course they got up and left me alone for a good long while.
When they came back I asked about my phone call, even though in 45 minutes I hadn’t thought of anybody to call. They brought me to a room with a phone and I called my dad, the only number I have memorized. We talked about the weather like we always do. Then I talked to my mom, then I told them I loved them and I would see them soon. No sense in worrying them.
Since I didn’t have any money for bail, and apparently I was a flight risk perhaps to steal more litter in another state, they booked me into county where I got a nice orange jump suit to cover my shorts, and a pair of jailhouse socks like they give you in the hospital. I made it just in time for dinner, which was good since I hadn’t eaten all day.
It’s funny the things you remember. I remembered one guy, a badass I’d met working the fishing boats out of Portsmouth, and he’d told me this. “If you are ever in jail, when you get into gen pop, take off your socks. They slide all over on the linoleum tiles and make it a bitch to fight. And you are going to have to fight.” So as I walked into the lunch room and every eye turned towards me, I very carefully and very slowly bent down, took off my socks, rolled them up and put them in my pocket like I’d done it in a hundred jails before. A big guy, and I mean huge, like that refrigerator we’d hauled out of the creek, with a head and legs, walked up to me. He was tatted up and down and had a beard that stopped about even with my eyes. I stood obliquely to his right hand, what I hoped was his strong hand. That way he had to come around me to hit me. As big as he was, I might be able to dance with him for a while. I looked him in the eye.
“What are you in for?”
Now, I had a real Alice’s Restaurant moment here. Except I didn’t get arrested for littering; I got arrested for picking up litter. I was an unlitterer. You cannot possibly get more pansy than that. I almost laughed. But, as is often happens, while my brain was working on the perfect thing to say, my mouth was already running. I heard myself saying “Being free.”
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell sheer dumb luck from genius. He looked at me. Everybody looked at me. You could’ve heard those cops fart in the interrogation room over at the police station it was so quiet. He reached out a hand and put it on my shoulder and all I was thinking was, if I ever get out of this, I will never bemoan not being a pretty man again. He smiled down at me and with his other hand pointed to the lunch line. “Get yer grub, come sit with us.” It was then that I could see the Live Free or Die tattoo on his bicep. I did what he said and sat with my new friend, Earl, and listened to some pretty good stories at lunch. Like, when they arrested him, they took his Harley. Some dude outbid his club member for it at auction. “Shit man, that sucks, I’m sorry.”
He just laughed. “That man saved me from buying my own bike. My buddy got his address, when I get out, I’ll just go pick it up.” I didn’t know if he was putting me on or not. So I told them my story and man, they just fell out all around the table. I think the part about the kids got them though, and after that, I got along pretty good. One of the dudes asked me what the deal was with the socks and I explained it to him. The table was quiet. “You were going to fight Earl?”
“I was going to keep standing up until I couldn’t.” I looked around the table. This didn’t get any laughs at all. Just some nods and smiles. Earl looked at me and grinned. “I got that. I really like you, man.”
For the country with the most incarcerated population in the world, I got to tell you, they are not very good at what they do. It took me like a week to get to trial for picking up litter. I spent a lot of time playing cribbage and chess. This one guy, he was teaching us all how to hip hop. Man, I got serious crunk. I got snap and pop. Not like Earl, but he’d been practicing for three months when I got in. Except for the lack of beer and fish, it wasn’t so different from my regular days, which was is maybe the saddest thought I ever had. Of course it got sadder when I realized that before I’d walked off the job, I wasn’t really fishing any more, either. Most people, I bet you put them in jail and it wouldn’t really make a hell of a lot of difference to them. Somebody to house and feed them, well hell, that’s why you went to work, wasn’t it? Except I got in trouble for playing chess at the Mill, and I never say nobody dance there.
I finally got to court. They gave me a lawyer. Some girl just out of law school in a cheap skirt suit thing, her blond hair up to look professional but it was coming out all over the place and really she just looked harried, and maybe a little bit sexy. She came panting up to the long table where I sat in my orange suit with my hands cuffed in front of me, because us litter thieves, we can be a hard lot, you know.
“I haven’t read your file.”
I looked at her and smiled. I had long ago decided that somewhere Fellini was filming this with a hidden cam and I had given in to the script. Honestly, I think I was a bit mad. I had to be because surely the world was not sane. “That’s okay. I stole litter.”
“I cleaned up all of the garbage out of a polluted creek.”
She had big glasses and gray eyes and I thought if she didn’t live on vending machine food and gut-wrenching courthouse coffee she might’ve been okay-looking, even pretty.
“You were in the paper!” Then looked at me with so earnestly I could’ve kissed her. Does that make me a bad man? Sexist? I shrugged. I smiled. “Did they cover the grizzly criminal details of how I had separated my load into tiny pieces to dispose of it and paid to recycle it? That was the real crime, you ask me.”
She was leafing frantically through her papers. “This makes no sense.”
Right then they did the whole rising for the judge stuff and then the prosecutor stepped up and laid out how I had taken resources from the city property, which added up to enough money to be grand larceny, corrupting youth and all of the rest of it. When he was done, I felt like Dillinger.
She looked at me, frazzled. She spoke to the judge about “lost, mislaid, and abandoned property.” She said something like “A finder of property acquires no rights in mislaid property, is entitled to possession of lost property against everyone except the true owner, and is entitled to keep abandoned property.”
The other guy countered with “titled owner,” “Escheat,” and the “commonwealth’s right of eminent domain.” He threw in something about interfering with a public waterway, criminal mischief, and alluded to hauling my ass back into court as soon as they found the boys for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, three counts. I got an instant headache. I could tell she had lost, but I thought she must be a pretty good lawyer to rattle that stuff off the top of her head when clearly the other guy had spent a long time preparing. The judge listened to both sides, like he hadn’t already made up his mind, asked if they were done and said he was ready to give his ruling. They made me stand up.
“Sir, do you have anything to say for yourself.”
“Your honor, I have never been in trouble before and certainly never have I gotten into so much trouble for trying to do what seemed like the right thing. I listened to all of this back and forth here and I still don’t see how any reasonable person could make me out to be a criminal. I already spent a week in jail, and that seems like more than enough for unlittering.” Hillary was tugging on my sleeve something fierce.
He looked at me for a long time. “I don’t like your unrepentant attitude. Clearly, you have learned nothing from this process.” He looked down at his notes. “Do you have a job, young man?”
I felt like telling him it was none of his business, but instead I lifted my chin up and said “I do not.”
“This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to sentence you to six weeks house arrest, minus time served, and 100 hours of community service. Plus you will have to show proof to the court that you have a job within 60 days, or I will give you 30 days in the county jail. Do you understand?” Like he was doing me some kind of favor.
I looked at him for a minute, doing a little math. I was thinking of asking him how I was supposed to get a job while I was on house arrest, except when I working full time for free, and if maybe they could just send me back to my friends in jail and cut out all of this penance bullshit. I think I might’ve drifted off and started day dreaming.
“Do you understand?”
More sleeve tugging. “I understand.” My chin was still up. The judge banged his gavel and dismissed us. Hillary looked up at me. “I’m so sorry!” I looked down at her and smiled. “Actually, I think you did pretty good, and if you’d had time, you’d a whopped that pompous ass.” The prosecutor was shuffling papers but looked over at me under a lowered brow. He was going to say something but they hustled me out of there. I didn’t even get a chance to ask her if maybe, after I’d repaid my debt to society, she might take a chance on an unrepentant unlitterer.
It turns out that getting set free by a judge doesn’t mean you get to go home. It took them two days to process me, and then they woke me up just before midnight and kicked my ass out on the street. Something to do with budget, and if you are there past midnight then they have to pay for another day or something. At least they gave me a shirt and some pants. I walked barefoot to my house, but I was used to being barefoot now. When I got to my car, the passenger side window had been smashed in, and there on the seat was the Eagle Claw broken into pieces. There weren’t going to be any more memories made with that rod.
I had to wear this bracelet thing and show up five days a week to – get this – pick up litter by the river in my bright orange jump suit. Supposedly if I didn’t go right home after work, then the nice policemen would come knocking on my door and lock me up, taking me away from the very valuable service of picking up the very litter which for which I had been sentenced for picking up on my own. I rolled the irony around in my head for a while, but the edges never got knocked off and finally I just had to give in.
One day on the way home, I was walking by the creek and I saw a bunch of construction going on. The boys were leaning on the bridge’s parapet watching the work below. Paulie saw me first and I saw him hunch his shoulders and clench his jaw.
“I see you broke the rod,” I said by way of greeting. His eyes narrowed. “Must’ve been a hell of a fish.”
Darryl looked around from beside him. “You’re not mad?”
“Hell, you break rods all the time. That’s just fishing.”
“His dad did it!” blurted Louie and Paulie gave him the stink eye.
“You guys get in trouble?”
“No, but the cops came looking for us and showed my dad the picture.” I leaned forward and could see he had a black eye.
“That was why you lied, huh.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Well, I don’t care what happened, I’m proud of what we did, and I’m proud of all of you.” I looked down into the hole which was now a busy area of orange mesh fence, baby bobcats, and men in yellow hard hats wearing striped orange shirts that made them look like road barrels. “What’s this?”
“Farrel McWhirter Park,” said Paulie.
“Farrel McWhirter Park? Who the hell is Farrel McWhirter. Sounds like a Muppet.”
“Some politician saw the story and decided this ‘spawning tributary’ should be rehabilitated,” added Darryl. “Then he named it after himself.”
“If he wanted to rehabilitate something, be nice if he got me out of jail. I mean it was my idea, after all. Looks nice though.”
” ‘Cept first thing they did was put up NO FISHING signs,” said Louie.
I laughed. “Oh, man. It just gets better and better.”
“You on work release?” asked Darryl.
“Yeah. They got me picking up litter by the river.”
They all looked at me. And then we all started to laugh. The guys in the hole looked up, pissed like maybe we was making fun of them.
“I got a few dollars left, you want to go to Dairy Queen?” And with that off we went.
That was the last time I saw them, but once. A few days after, I was driving out of town, my window taped up and everything I owned in the car. I saw them walking along and pulled over.
“Where you going?” Paulie asked suspiciously.
“Up to Berlin,” which in New Hampshire is pronounced as two distinct syllables BURR-lin on account of the War. “Seems like they are putting software shops in the old mills up there, too.”
“You said to never let nobody put you in a cage, and an office is just another kind of cage.”
“I did say that, but having nothing on your own is different than when somebody takes it all away and can tell you what to do. I let them do this to me once, and so now, I got no way out.”
“Liar!” said Darryl. I was shocked at his vehemence.
I looked at them. Louie had tears streaming down his face. “You can’t leave.”
I knelt down and put a hand on his shoulder. “Look, just don’t start playing the game, and nobody can never tell you what to do. Once you start, you can’t win.”
I looked around at the three of them, trying to be brave, always trying to be so brave. “The mill’s right on the Androscoggin, best trout water in the state, and I saw a little house up in Milton. Not much, but I can afford it. When I get settled you can come visit.”
“Ain’t never going to leave this town,” said Paulie.
“Paulie, I don’t think this town can hold you.”
“Yeah, and what about them? Who will take care of them?” I looked at them, all three of them. I walked around to the back of my car and popped the trunk. There in the back was my backpack with every piece of fly fishing gear I owned: my boots, my waders, all of my fly boxes, and my entire quiver of rods. Enough for each of them. I lifted it out.
“I was wrong before; I do have enough for all of you. I’m going to lend this to you. You need to find me someday and bring it back.” Paulie wouldn’t reach for it, so I gave it to Darryl and Louie. “I will see you soon. I won’t forget you.”
I got in the car and watched them and the pile of gear get smaller and smaller in the mirror. When they were gone, I turned on the radio and started singing along with Molly Hatchet’s Danny Joe Brown growling out their version of the Allman Brothers song, “I got dreams I’ll never see:”
Just one more morning, I have to wake up with the blues.
Pull myself outta bed, yeah, put on my walkin’ shoes.
Climb up on a hilltop, baby, see what I can see, yeah.
The whole world’s fallin’ down oh babe, right down in front of me.
Cause I’m hung up, on dreams, I’m never gonna see, yeah.
Lord help me baby, dreams get the best of me yet.
Pull myself together, gonna put on a new face, yeah.
Gonna climb down from the hilltop, baby, Lord, get back in the race.
Cause I got dreams, I got my dreams, to remember, the love we had.
I got dreams, I got my dreams, to remember, the love we had.
Cause I’m hung up, on dreams, I’m never gonna see, yeah.
Lord help me baby, dreams get the best of me yet.
That closing riff, it gets me every time.