Chapter 1: The Very Cruelest Thing

I don’t think of myself as a cruel person. Maybe when I was younger I did some cruel things. You know, mostly saying the most painful thing at the best time to hurt the one you love the most. I tried to get over that. Of course, it’s easy to be kind once they leave and you’re alone. Anyway, I thought I was past all that, but recently I did the very cruelest thing.

I was up on the Tumult in BC, a river I’d been going to for years. It was one of my favorite stretches, a long slick with a riffle that in one step steepened up and became whitewater. First day here, twenty years ago, I cast, took a step and nearly got swept away into that. Never quite seen anything like it.

I was taking my time rigging up, since I’ve never seen any other fisherman up there, when this old guy walks down with a pint, a cigarette, and a fly rod and stands downstream of me. I narrowed up my eyes some, giving him my Clint Eastwood stare, and see he’s hammered. One of those old guys that could really hold his liquor, but his eyes were glassy as a dead steelhead’s.

He took a puff, took a swig, and finally deemed to take a notice of me, but didn’t say anything. We were practically shoulder-to-shoulder and I was taking the notion he might just be in my way. That’s when I looked down and saw the rod in his hand, a custom Winston.

“Crump?” I said.

“Huh?”

“Rod say’s your name is Joses Crump.”

He looked down like he’d never read it. “Ah, nup. Musta been the guy givit to me. Years ago, don’t remember.”

“I have a friend named Joses Crump. Real unique name, dontcha think? Lost a rod just like that in Alaska. Funny thing, that one had his name on it, too.”

“Well, this rod ain’t lost, so it ain’t it.”

“Real cold bastard took it, too. Stole our boat in the middle of the night on the Pinglit and our island flooded.” I looked him in the eye. “That was a long night I tell you. Tide coming in, wind coming up.”

“You sound real stupid,” he said, and flicked his cigarette into the river. “Flatlanders like you should be bear food, had my way.”

“Didn’t plan on getting our raft stolen, that’s for sure.” We stared into our separate thoughts for a while, and then I remembered why I was there. “You’re in my way old man if we’re fishing, and really in my way if we’re just trading insults.”

He was looking at the river and quiet real long. I thought he might’ve forgotten me.

“Got the diabetes. And the liver disease. They said they were gonna take my leg. Then they found this ‘spot’ on the X-ray.”

He looked back at me. “I got me a full load on, and I’m going to wade out there and fish my way through the whitewater one last time, you know what I mean?”

“Be a shame to lose that nice rod. Why don’t you take mine?” I asked him polite as if I had a mouthful of pie.

“This’n’s my rod, had it a long time, why would I want to give it away now?”

We stared at each other for a while, high plains drift boaters. Way I figured it, I had a lot more time than him.

“You gonna watch or what?”

“I hate low-holers,” I said, then spit on the ground between us, turned around and went back to my Dodge. I stowed my rod and gear methodically and kicked it down the road, keeping an eye out for bears. Did a nasty job on a Subaru once hitting a bear up here, though I don’t think the bear noticed much.

I went down the road a piece and pulled over. Then I ambled back down to the river. Sure enough, here came that bastard floating towards me in his waders and plaid shirt. I fished him out by the belt and dragged him up onto the rocks. Then I laid him on his left side, and just like I learned in scouts, envisioned a point on my toe and kicked him hard right where the ribs come together at the diaphragm. Well not quite like scouts, but him and I weren’t going to start kissing now. He started puking water on the second kick, but I hit him one more for good measure.

I left him there on the rocks and waded around for the rod, but never did find it. I didn’t look too hard, though, I figured it was tainted. I mostly wanted it because I thought giving it back to Joses would make a good story. Still, things might’ve gone different if he’d just handed it over to begin with or I had run across it out there.

I picked him up and tossed him over my shoulder and was quite surprised at how light he was. I wasn’t very kind when I dumped him into the bed of the truck, either. Then I took my NASCAR tie down straps – you know the ones in the bin by the checkout that ratchet down, the ones you would never buy if you knew it took an engineering degree to work them? Anyway, I cinched one across his chest and cranked him down, imagining squeezing that spot and busting it into little tiny pieces to float loose in his blood and find new and numerous homes.

I guess sometimes you can get so mad about something it festers and becomes part of your brain, forgotten in there like a piece of sand in a pearl until something lets it out. I probably got rooms full of those monsters, up there, but this particular one manifested itself in the back of my truck and I wasn’t about to let it go.

I headed back for the Coquihalla, skipping the little towns along the way. I wanted a major city for this. I took him almost to Vancouver, keeping to the speed limit and letting the fall breeze dry him out real good. When I saw one of those big blue “H” signs I got off the freeway and drove to the hospital.

I unstrapped him, fished around for his wallet and put it in my jacket, remembering this funny story a friend told me once. This guy from the North Country, a real hard drinker, gets hitched. Well, he gets so drunk at the reception he passes out. When he finally gets home, there’s his best man a goin’ at it with his wife. He runs into the room and shouts “Olaf! Olaf! Stop it! You’re so damn drunk, you think you’re me.” I chuckled as I unstrapped him.

Man he was shivering some, but cold as death or dead, it didn’t make much difference to me by then. I took him into the emergency room and admitted him as Joses Crump. Told that pretty nurse and young doctor that he had this kind of breakdown, insisting he was me, then fell in the river. I tried to look real sad as I looked at my feet then said “You know, ‘cuz of the drinking and all.” Then I filled out some paperwork very carefully using the information on his license for my own. Figured it would take a heap of unanswered mail to straighten that one out.

The nurse was batting these big blue eyes at me, calling me a hero, and I felt a soft spot growing in me I haven’t felt since I lost my dog, but I make it a rule never to lie to a woman until I know her for a while, so I left.

You see the Canadians, that last vestige of civilization above our borders, have this real good health care. There’s no way in hell they are going to let some poor, insane old man just die forgotten. No sir, they are going to prod him and poke him and test him and drain his blood and refill it more times than Keith Richards. They are going to take more transparencies than a Disney cartoon. They are going to keep him alive and miserable just as long as they can.

I drove to the Chevron, and filled up with the cash in his wallet, then dumped it in the trash. As I was driving the Coq’, I thought back to that night on that island, with all of our gear floating in a sad little pile and the water up to our knees, shivering in wet clothes. I was thinking what a stone cold sumbitch would do this kind of thing and how we knew we were going to bug out when the tide came up, but just never thought somebody would motor up and steal that raft in the black of the Alaskan outback.

It started to rain and I turned on the wipers. Yep, that was a real cruel night. A real cruel night.

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11 Responses “Chapter 1: The Very Cruelest Thing” →
  1. What an effective short story, you get pulled along into what this main is doing, the cruel detachment of the thing even before you realize it, by the time he gets to the hospital as a reader you’re sort of shocked and disturbed and an accomplice all a the same time.

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  2. Eric J. Wilson

    December 4, 2012

    On my darkest days, those dark, delicious zero-consequence days, I can really dig this.

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  3. A hell of a dark but oddly funny story. I love the irony that the narrator is a hero to the folks at the hospital, but he’s just done the very cruelest thing he can do to this drunken lout. After this, I’ll never to go fishing at night on a submersible island in Alaska–or anywhere else.

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  4. A stunning, gritty piece. Thank you.

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