Home of the Savages
If her father asked, Caroline planned to say she’d been waiting for the weather report. It was half true. She was parked outside his house with the radio on, not yet ready to go inside. A country song ended, and was followed by the forecast for east-central Idaho: tomorrow would be warmer, clear skies with a high of fifty-five. For now the potholes in her father’s driveway brimmed with rainwater, and the cottonwood leaves hung dull and heavy. To the north of town, the Bitterroot Range stood cloaked in snow clouds. Caroline noted that her father had yet to stack the firewood or rake the yard. Through the car’s air vents, she caught the faint hint of crab apples rotting on the ground.
A grey pickup was parked under the carport, beside it a camper shell under a blue tarp. The front curtains were open, and Caroline watched her father’s silhouette, his beer belly and shuffling gait, as he moved about the kitchen. She had the feeling, looking out one window and into another, that she was about to cross a threshold from which there was no return. Her car was packed with boxes of winter clothes and bed linens, her slalom skis and fishing rods, and a computer monitor seat-belted into the passenger side. Everything else was in a storage unit back in Missoula, on the other side of the Continental Divide.
Her father came out and stood on the porch while she wrestled her duffel bag from the trunk. He wore reading glasses, the lenses flecked with rain, and an apron with the strings hanging loose. The glasses he’d bought from a revolving rack at King’s Discount Store, but the apron was new; the fabric still held the creases from its packaging. Three weeks had passed since she’d last seen him, but in the porch light he looked older, and older still in the light of the door – the broken blood vessels of his cheeks, his patchy beard, yellow in the whites of his eyes. ‘I was beginning to think you wanted to spend the night in your car,’ he said.
He held the door and Caroline hefted her bag inside. The TV was on with the volume muted. A fire burned in the woodstove. She took off her coat, then slipped out of her white hospital clogs. She’d worked her last twelve-hour shift at St Pat’s before driving from Missoula, and she was exhausted. The past month had been a whirlwind of hard decisions, and this was how it had ended: she’d broken her lease, quit her job, and today moved to Salmon, Idaho to be closer to her father. At sixty-eight he was not yet of a state that required caretaking, but he was alone and depressed and careless with his health. A month ago he’d had an accident downriver, and Caroline, his only child, no longer felt comfortable with the 140 miles between them.
Caroline turned on the floor lamp and told her father to stand still; she wanted to see how his brow was healing. The scar was puckered and pink. The stitches, she remembered, were half-assed. ‘You’re not using the cream I gave you.’
‘Do you really think it matters at my age?’ Her father reached behind his back to tie the apron strings and winced. His left forearm muscle seized and his fingers curled. Last year he’d undergone surgery for a ruptured disc in his neck. The surgeon had fused two vertebrae with a titanium plate, and he could no longer tuck in his own shirt.
Caroline took hold of his hand and massaged his fingers until the muscle loosened. ‘You know you can’t twist like that.’
‘My daughter, the nurse.’
‘We’ll see about that come Monday.’
‘What time’s your interview?’
‘Ten o’clock,’ she said, though she’d told him twice already. In the last year he’d begun to repeat himself – from memory loss or lack of conversation or both.
‘You’ll do great.’
‘I hope so. Otherwise I’ll be giving sponge baths at the Discovery Care Center.’ He laughed. The apron, she saw now, had a picture of a T-bone on a poker table and read, ‘The Steaks Are High!’ She tied the strings at his waist, and he made a pretence of sucking in his gut. ‘Where’d you get this thing, anyway?’
‘Bought it off the TV. Came with five kinds of bacon salt. You like it?’
‘It suits you.’
‘Because I’m an old bachelor,’ he said. The oven timer buzzed, and her father raised one finger. ‘The potatoes are almost ready. Dirk and Trina are expecting us for dinner at seven.’
He walked into the kitchen, and Caroline rummaged through her bag for a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans. She changed in her father’s bedroom, which held the distinct smell of any old, convalescing man – skin and oils and sleep. His nightstand was cluttered with the contents of his pockets: loose change, wrinkled receipts, a spool of thread stained with fish blood, fingernail clippers, and three orange corkies. Inside his wallet, she knew, he still carried a photo of her mother, who’d left him two years ago for a retired stockbroker. After the divorce, he’d sold his welding equipment and retired to Salmon. The house had come furnished – a one-bedroom with a deck overlooking the Salmon River – and he’d brought only his fishing gear and a worn leather recliner in the bed of his pickup.
When the potatoes were ready, Caroline’s father added two kinds of bacon salt – hickory and original – and then Caroline covered the dish with tinfoil. They shouldered into their coats, and he retrieved a six-pack in a paper sack from the refrigerator. He carried it, along with a tallboy of Natural Ice, under his good arm to the pickup. Caroline took the driver’s seat and her father handed over the keys. The cab smelled of old sandwiches and rusted snow chains and the canned tuna he used for bait. They waited for the windows to defog. Her father put on his seatbelt, then took a drink from his beer and fit the can into the cup holder.
She said, ‘Since when do you drink and drive?’
He said, ‘I’m not the one driving.’
Caroline shook her head; she didn’t feel like arguing. She took the back way to Dirk and Trina’s without question from her father, who drank stealthily from his beer. It was a Thursday night in the last week of October, steelhead season. Main Street was quiet, a misting rain giving hum to the tyres. Storefront windows were painted for Homecoming with cartoon footballs and the slogan ‘Sack the Sugar Beets’. They passed the Trails End Motel, four real-estate offices, a used-car lot, and the Salmon River Coffee Shop. A young girl looked out from a window booth, her face framed by ads and flyers, and waved as the pickup passed by.
Salmon was a ranching community with roots in gold mining – valley land backed by the Continental Divide and named for its river, its river for the chinook that migrated nine hundred miles from the Pacific. River rafting companies, backcountry outfitters and bed-and-breakfast retreats catered to tourists seeking the true Western experience. The local newspaper ran excerpts from the journals of Lewis and Clark, for lack of other pressing news, and a sign on the outskirts of town boasted ‘Birthplace of Sacajawea’. Caroline remembered her father saying that the high school mascot was once an Indian chief. The school marquee still read ‘Home of the Savages’.
Caroline drove down Alder Street, past Sheldon’s house. The windows were dark, but his F-150 was parked in the driveway. She recognized the truck’s grill guard – dented from the elk he hit last winter – and the rusted headache rack. In a halo of porch light she saw a yellow toy Tonka truck, a pair of rubber boots, and two Adirondack chairs. A pumpkin sat slump-faced on the step, its triangle nose collapsing into its mouth.
Rain ticked against the windshield. The pavement glistened in the headlights. Caroline thought by next month there’d be snow on the ground, then Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s, and then she’d be thirty.
Her father said, ‘Heard from your mother lately?’
‘Not since the last time you asked.’
‘When was the last time I asked?’
‘Yesterday on the phone. I said, ‘Do you want me to pick up anything from Costco?’ and you said, ‘What have you heard from your mother?’’l
‘I don’t hear so great.’
Her father cupped his ear. ‘What’s that?’
Caroline laughed. It was an old joke. She parked the pickup. ‘We’re late.’
‘You better get used to that,’ her father said. ‘Around here, twenty minutes late is right on time.’
Dirk and Trina Vincent owned a 1920s ranch house with leaded-glass windows, a rusted tin roof, and a wrap-around porch lined with firewood. Most of the house was original, and therefore in a state of disrepair. Trina answered the door before they could knock. She took the potatoes from Caroline’s hands, then Caroline’s coat, which she slung over the back of the couch. From down the hall, the dogs came running, collars jingling, tails thwacking the furniture. Trina yelled, ‘They’re here!’ and the pitch of her voice sent Gypsy, the old English hound, and Roxy, the Black Labrador, into barking hysterics.
Caroline’s father said, ‘Hello, girls,’ and the dogs jumped at his legs.
‘Down,’ Trina ordered, and clapped her hands. Trina was ten years younger than Dirk, a freckled redhead who, at the age of forty-nine, wore her hair long and her crow’s feet with pride. ‘Dirk’s out back,’ she said. ‘The deep freeze is acting funny again.’
She and Caroline’s father hugged awkwardly over one shoulder, the potatoes wedged like a bible between two slow-dancers. He held up the six-pack of Moose Drool.
‘Beer in glass bottles?’ She gestured to her T-shirt and jeans. ‘I’d have worn a fucking dress!’ They laughed. Trina said to Caroline, ‘Your old man’s been talking about you moving here all month. We can’t get him to shut up about it.’
Caroline smiled. She’d moved here for her father, though her father had yet to acknowledge it. As Trina passed through a swinging door into the kitchen, Caroline asked if she needed any help, and Trina said that Caroline should make herself at home.
It was still raining outside, heavy drops that sounded like BBs against the tin roof. Caroline found her way to the living room with the dogs at her heels. The ceiling’s exposed beams were grey with dust, as were the head- and shoulder-mounts of deer and elk, cobwebs laced between antlers. The house was warm and smelled of wood smoke and the steelhead baking in the oven. Above the mantel, framed by old barn wood and barbed wire, hung Dirk and Trina’s wedding photo. The wedding party was dressed in matching camouflage vests, each with a hunting rifle aimed at the photographer. Caroline knew from her father that the boy in the photo was Trina’s son from a previous marriage. He too was looking down the barrel of a rifle, a small-calibre .22, and Caroline couldn’t see his face, only his russet hair and bandy-legged stance. No one spoke of the boy. All Caroline knew was that he’d drowned in the Snake River when he was eight years old.
Roxy dropped a bone at Caroline’s feet. It was a deer leg, the hoof still attached. Caroline gave the bone back, and the dog, in turn, dropped it at her feet. She would do this for hours if Caroline played along.
‘Roxy,’ Dirk said from the doorway. ‘Give it a break.’ He tipped a beer can toward Caroline. ‘Your old man says the Moose Drool is for you, but we can’t find the damn bottle opener.’ He popped the tab and handed her the beer.
‘I dated a guy in college who could open beer bottles with his teeth,’ she said. ‘He was a real hit at parties, but not much of a kisser.’
Dirk laughed, an honest and deep-seated laugh. He was a big man with a salt-and-pepper beard, a foot taller than Trina and thick through the middle. Caroline’s father walked in, and Dirk turned on the television. A game-show audience chanted, ‘No deal! No deal!’ The men stood beside the couch drinking their beers, eyes fixed on the television. They both wore beards and ball caps, Wranglers and hiking boots, and their beer cans wore matching cozies. Trina had knitted them from red yarn with the men’s initials on the front, and it looked like they’d dressed their beers in Christmas sweaters.
Dinner was baked steelhead, asparagus, mashed potatoes, and – because Dirk was watching his weight – Coors Light. Caroline sat across from her father. Dirk and Trina sat either end of the pine-top table, and the dogs lay beneath. An elk-antler chandelier threw shadows over the ceiling. Caroline complimented the homemade camouflage placemats and matching cloth napkins, and Dirk winked and said Trina was a whiz on the sewing machine. Trina complimented the mashed potatoes, and Curtis complimented the steelhead, and Dirk complimented himself for landing the fish in the first place.
Trina talked about her job with Idaho Fish & Game, about driving out to ranches where she checked fish screens along irrigation canals. She told Caroline that in the days before screens, hundreds of steelhead and salmon, in their migration to the ocean, swam down the canals and spilled into the hayfields. She said fifty years ago a rancher could look out his window and see salmon leaping through the alfalfa and startling the cattle. She said in the winter the steelhead would freeze in the fields, and when it warmed up again they’d spring back to life. Caroline imagined graveyards of fish, alfalfa sprouting up through eye sockets and castles of ribs.
Her father raised his beer in a toast. Dirk drum-rolled his hands on the table, and the dogs, confusing it for a knock at the door, jumped up and barked. When it was quiet again, Caroline’s father said, ‘The name steelhead refers to the fish and the fisherman!’
Everyone touched beers. The knitted cozies muted the cheers of the cans, and Trina said, ‘Clink-clink!’
Caroline’s father had been saying this for as long as she could remember. It was as close as he’d come to giving her advice about men. She took a long drink and wondered if Sheldon had taken his wife and son out to dinner tonight, and if so, where they had gone. Sheldon had come into Caroline’s life nine months ago, on the Salmon River. Her father had driven to Booker’s Outpost to pick up a pair of cheeseburgers, and Caroline was fishing alone. Sheldon walked down the riverbank and asked if she’d had any luck yet. He said the steelhead were biting on red hellgies, and he held out a handful of lures. His gray eyes pinched when he smiled. ‘Go on,’ he’d said. ‘Trust me.’
They saw each other casually through the winter, and by spring they were meeting every other weekend. Sheldon worked road construction on the highway connecting Idaho and Montana, and this had made it easy to meet between Salmon and Missoula. They spent summer nights camping out or shacking up in roadside motels. Caroline fell for the charm of these retreats – the skinny-dipping and intimacy of a two-man tent, the threadbare coverlet of a motel bed, a sportsman’s regulation guide in lieu of the Gideon Bible.
One night they’d gotten careless and two-stepped at the Stumble Inn, followed it up with a steak dinner at the Rocky Knob, their knees touching under the table, and Sheldon’s wife caught wind of the affair. That was six weeks ago, and he’d kept Caroline at a distance ever since. He said he had a son to consider, and she said she understood. Now it was only a matter of time before Caroline ran into them at the gas pumps or the only grocery store in town. Sheldon’s wife was named Tiffany, and Caroline had an image of her – a pale, fine-boned woman with a prescription for Ativan and the handshake of a hummingbird.
Dirk said to Trina, ‘What’s for dessert, honey?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said, and crossed her arms. ‘What’d you make?’ Dirk got up and went into the kitchen and came back with another round of beers. Caroline accepted, though she was feeling a little tipsy and didn’t want to have to walk her father, who was now drunk, back home in the rain. The thought struck her as depressing, and not because she hadn’t done it before, but because now there was no escaping him.
Trina said to Caroline, ‘Are you coming fishing tomorrow? Dirk and I are staying downriver in the camper.’
‘Why hell yes we’re coming,’ Caroline’s father said. ‘Aren’t we, Carrie?’
‘I guess I can always unpack later,’ she said.
‘I meant to tell you,’ Trina said. ‘There’s a nice place for sale up Fourth of July Creek. Hardwood floors and a wood-burning stove. There’s a big swing-set in the back, but you could always take that out.’
Caroline nodded. She didn’t know what to make of the swing-set comment but felt strangely offended.
Dirk said, ‘I got a joke for you, Caroline.’ He cleared his throat. ‘A woman is in bed with her husband’s best friend when the phone rings.’ Dirk made a telephone of his hand and batted his eyelashes. ‘She answers – “Hello?” – and after she hangs up, the man says, “Who was it?” The woman says, “It was my husband. But don’t worry. He’s not coming home. He says he’s fishing with you.”’
Dirk laughed and Caroline’s father laughed, though she knew her father didn’t find this funny. Trina threw her empty beer can across the table and hit Dirk in the shoulder. She said to Caroline, ‘Don’t listen to a word he says.’
After dinner, the men went outside to look at the broken deep freeze – an excuse to drink more beer – and Trina brought Caroline into the back room. She wanted her to choose a color of yarn for the beer cozy she planned to knit with Caroline’s initials. The room was small and neat with a table and sewing machine, several reams of fabric, baskets of yarn, and a gun cabinet. A mountain lion’s hide spanned the length of one wall, mottled with bald spots. Trina explained that Dirk’s mother had tried to vacuum it, and the women laughed.
For several years, Trina had worked as a big-cat hunting guide in Colorado, and she had photos of her old hunting hounds displayed in chronological order – Tank, Penny, Pete, Mark, Luke, John, Rick, Tally, Coop, Zip, and Doc – the way a parent might display a child’s school photos. She dusted the frames with the tail of her shirt as she told Caroline their stories.
In one photo Trina held a mountain lion up from under the arms. ‘That tom weighed 145-fucking-pounds,’ she said. Another photo showed a hound at the top of a cedar tree, way out on the limb, at a height only a squirrel would venture. ‘That’s Bell. Rest in peace, she was one of my favourites. When the cat jumped into the Colorado River, Bell jumped too. We never saw her again.’
‘I didn’t know dogs could climb trees,’ Caroline said. She realized it was a foolish thing to say and regretted it in the silence that followed.
Trina put her hand to the photo, and when she brought it away, the whorls of her fingerprints remained on the glass.
Caroline lay awake on the air mattress, listening to her father snore. Twice in the night he’d stumbled down the hall in his white boxer shorts, grunting as he flipped on the bathroom light. The Audubon clock he’d bought from the Home Shopping Network sang a different bird song every hour, and finally, at 3 a.m., when the American goldfinch chirped its high-pitched chip-ee! chip-ee!, Caroline got up and buried the clock between two elk steaks in the freezer. She slept a restless, shallow sleep and woke in the dark of morning. The living room was small enough that her father, unable to get around the air mattress, stepped on it as he crossed the room. Caroline’s body was thrust upward under his weight, then dropped as he stepped off. She opened her eyes.
‘Good morning,’ he said. ‘Did I wake you?’
‘No, not at all.’ She sat up and cracked her neck. The mattress had a slow leak, which her father had patched with a strip of duct tape. It was now half as full as when she’d gone to bed.
‘I got you something.’ He held up a pair of Carhartt overalls, identical to the ones he was wearing – brown bibs with a chap-style front and elastic suspenders.
‘Those are nice. Did you buy them off the TV?’
He laughed. ‘Two for the price of one.’ He sat in his recliner in his sock feet, and Caroline listened to his laboured breathing, the way he wheezed while tying his shoes. She imagined the hours he spent in that recliner, sleeping through movies or talking to infomercial sales associates in distant cities. ‘We better get going if we want a decent fishing hole. It’s a rat race downriver this time of year.’ He stepped on the air mattress as he left the room. ‘Dirk’s grilling elk burgers,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘And we’re bringing the buns and the bait.’
Caroline dressed in long underwear and the new overalls, the fabric stiff as cardboard, then washed her face and braided her hair. She had her mother’s looks but none of the self-awareness to expect anything from it, and she couldn’t be bothered with makeup. She sat on the toilet lid and pulled on wool socks and considered how often her father drank and how much. He’d worked ten-hour days when she was growing up, had welded what he called ‘Mare Motels’ for horse breeders, and Caroline remembered his arc-burned neck and the tiny white burn scars on his forearms and hands. He came home smelling of iron and blowing his nose. In the mornings he’d cooked breakfast and warmed her school clothes in front of the fire. It was he, more than her mother, who she’d relied on. Now, when she looked at her father, it was hard to see the man who had raised her.
A month had passed since she’d gotten the phone call from Trina about his accident downriver. Trina said he’d had too much to drink and passed out on a sleeping bag in the back of Dirk’s truck. When it began to rain, Dirk strapped a tarp over the truck’s backend to keep him dry through the night. When he awoke, confused and unable to loosen the tarp, he thrashed around until he knocked himself out on the wheel well. He had a concussion and a split brow and was badly bruised, but he wouldn’t go to the hospital. Luckily, Trina said, there was a veterinarian in the campground, and he’d stitched him up. ‘He was so disoriented,’ she said. ‘He kept crying out for Poppy.’ And Caroline told her, ‘Poppy was his name for my mother.’
It was a cold, clear morning – the first killing frost of the year. Caroline cooked a breakfast of scrambled egg whites and wheat toast while her father readied the pickup. He cleared the frost from the windshield with a spatula because he couldn’t find the ice scraper, and he left the engine running while they ate breakfast. He tucked a napkin into his shirt collar and rested both elbows on the table. Again he asked of Caroline’s mother, and again she told him what she knew – that her mother and the retired stockbroker were travelling cross-country on a motorcycle. He said, ‘A goddamned murder-cycle.’
‘Dad,’ Caroline said. ‘I hate to see you this way.’
He covered his eyes with both hands. ‘Then don’t look.’
She stood and stacked the plates in the sink. ‘Why don’t you let me take your blood pressure before we leave? It’ll only take a minute.’
‘Fine. But on one condition – tomorrow we go out for breakfast. I can’t stomach this egg-white business. It’s an insult to me and the chicken.’
Her father rolled up his shirtsleeve and Caroline slipped the blood-pressure cuff around his arm. Since the surgery for his ruptured disc, his left biceps was half the size of his right. When the doctor told him he couldn’t lift anything heavier than ten pounds for the first six weeks, he’d said, ‘What the hell am I supposed to do all day?’ After some contemplation, he’d added, ‘I guess you expect me to piss sitting down?’
Caroline inflated the cuff and listened for the sound of her father’s heartbeat to cease under the pressure. She read the gauge, then opened the valve on the cuff and listened for its return. Always when she did this, she felt a sense of relief to hear her father’s heartbeat again.
When she removed the cuff, her father made a show of flexing his hand. She wrote his blood pressure and the date in a notebook he kept by the telephone. ‘We’re almost done,’ she said, ‘but I want to listen to your lungs.’
She asked him to lift his shirt. He said, ‘Aren’t you gonna buy me a drink first?’
Caroline flicked him on the shoulder and told him to be perfectly quiet or he’d blow out her eardrums and they’d both be deaf. She tried to sound more like his daughter and less like a nurse when she asked him to take three big, deep breaths.
When she finished, she smoothed her father’s shirt back and straightened his collar. His eyes were closed. He said, ‘I don’t want to know if it’s good or bad.’
‘You don’t have to know,’ she said. ‘I’ll know for the both of us.’
Dirk was smoking a cigarette on the front porch when they arrived. His diesel truck idled in the driveway, and a single light burned orange in the house window. Caroline had never seen Dirk smoke, but now he lit a second with the first as he walked toward the pickup. He wore a brown coat with ‘Kimball Construction’ and his name on the front, and he hadn’t bothered to zip it up. Caroline’s father rolled down the window. ‘Trina’s gonna meet up with us later,’ Dirk said. ‘All right if she drives your pickup and you two ride with me? That way we only drive two rigs downriver.’
‘Fine with me. Everything all right with Trina?’
Dirk pitched his cigarette butt into the street. ‘She’ll be all right. It’s just that time of year.’
They transferred everything into Dirk’s truck. Dirk whistled for Roxy to load up but had to lift Gypsy, with her bad hip, into the bed. Caroline helped guide the camper trailer onto the hitch, and the dogs whined as Dirk cranked the wheel jack. When they were ready, Caroline climbed into the cab and swung her legs to the right of the gearshift. The radio played the only station for miles, a morning programme called ‘Swap Shop’. A man selling a bicycle with a gun rack welded to the handlebars gave his phone number and an asking price of forty dollars.
They drove over the bridge and north of town, following the river. The hayfields lay white with frost, irrigation canals overwhelmed by dying cattails. Creekside aspen shook the gold coins of their leaves. On the Big Flat they passed a ranch house with a pumpkin patch covered in old blankets, an image that reminded Caroline of children tucked into bed, and her thoughts fell to Trina’s son, drowned in the Snake River, and to Sheldon’s son, of whom she knew so little. In her mind they took the form of the same boy, neither dead nor alive, and she could see him pushing the Tonka truck across the front porch of Sheldon’s house.
When they arrived at the North Fork gas station, twenty miles from Salmon, the parking lot was packed with trucks and campers and RVs. Dirk slowed, and Caroline’s father read off the licence plates in an incredulous voice. The Idaho plates were marked by the first letter of the county and a number. Caroline had learned that the southern Idaho counties of Bannock, Bingham, Blaine and Butte were known as the Killer B’s. They had a bad reputation with the Lemhi County sportsmen for driving too fast on the back roads and shamelessly crowding the fishing holes during steelhead season. Dirk rolled down the window, honked and yelled, ‘Go home, flatlanders!’
They drove the river road slowly, looking for vacant fishing holes and finding them occupied. In another two months, when the single-digit weather hit and the city fishermen left, they’d have the river to themselves. For now, the campgrounds were at capacity, tendrils of smoke rising from morning campfires. The surrounding mountains were a patchwork of old and new forest – stands of charred trunks amongst the new, smaller pines, and the underbrush turning with the season. It had snowed in the high country overnight, and the snow gleamed in the sun. Caroline’s father told a story for every bend in the river. He couldn’t remember to keep his red shirts and white socks separate in the wash, but he knew every fish he’d ever hooked, lost, and landed.
They passed the old Gold Hill Mine, crossed a one-lane bridge and Pine Creek Rapids, and drove on to the Painted Rock hole. Dirk stopped, and the men started to unload their gear. Caroline searched the road ahead. Sheldon’s truck was parked at the next hole downriver. From where she stood she couldn’t see around the bend, to where Sheldon would be fishing from the bank. A single gnarled cottonwood grew out at an angle, its exposed roots clinging to the slope.
She wasn’t altogether surprised that Sheldon was here. She’d fished this stretch of river with him last February when the water was riddled with ice floes. They’d spent the afternoon beside a campfire drinking hot toddies and pretending to bobber-fish. Across the river, two deer had fallen through the shelf ice and frozen to death in the night, and the image returned to Caroline. Sheldon had never promised to leave his wife, and Caroline had never asked it of him. For a long time she believed she was in control of her feelings, that she could keep from falling in love – but now it seemed to have happened overnight, the way a single wind can strip a tree of its leaves.
Dirk lowered the tailgate, and the dogs raced to the bank. Caroline carried her fishing rod down the steep embankment and over a narrow trail thick with sagebrush and willow. The river was swift and green with a dense fog burning off the water. She fingered the current, then lowered a thermometer and announced that it was 46 degrees: cold enough for the fish to bite, but not yet cold enough to make it easy.
Her father opened his tackle box and asked which colour lure she preferred. This was their routine, one they’d followed since Caroline was old enough to hold a rod, to interpret the rhythms of a river, to know the slip and tug of the farthest unseen reaches. She was perfectly capable of baiting her own hook, but she allowed her father this ritual. She chose a bright pink jig-head, to which he attached a black plastic squid with chartreuse tentacles. From his coat pocket he retrieved a spool of thread. He bit off a short length and tied a piece of shrimp to the hook, then set the bobber knot at six feet and handed her the rod.
They all three cast in order, beginning with Caroline’s father because he was the furthest downriver. It was easy fishing – her only job was to watch the bobber, and, when it went under, jerk and set the hook – but she was distracted by the presence of Sheldon, by everything left undone between them. She sensed he didn’t believe she’d moved for her father, and this bothered her more than anything.
Twice in the first hour she cast out of order, tangling her line with Dirk’s. She apologized, and Dirk said, ‘Don’t worry, sweetheart. I know I’m a good catch.’ Two casts later she let her line drift too far downriver where it snagged in the rocks. She pulled too hard and snapped the braided line, and the Styrofoam bobber drifted away. Dirk whistled, and Roxy plunged into the river. The dog paddled back, shook the water from her coat, and dropped the bobber at Dirk’s feet.
An hour later Trina arrived in the pickup, blowing the horn from the road above the embankment. She greeted the dogs with a pair of pig’s ears. From twenty yards away, she called down to Caroline: ‘What’s with the matching overalls? You two look like the goddamned Bobbsey Twins!’
Trina rigged her line and took her place on the bank, and then there were four of them casting one after the other, yellow lines unfurling across the water.
Caroline’s father was the first to shout out, ‘Hog on!’ He raised his rod, reeled as he lowered, and the steelhead took off downriver, line zipping from the reel. He dug his muck boots into the rocky bank, trying for a solid foothold, then said through clenched teeth, ‘It’s a big one all right.’ Caroline, Dirk and Trina watched him fight the fish for twenty minutes, his left arm shaking. He reeled and waited, let the fish run then reeled again, and Caroline wanted nothing more than to take the rod from his hands, to make it easy on him, to make it easy on herself.
She said, ‘Are you all right?’
Trina said, ‘Let him be. He’s got it.’
They watched until the fish was right up to the bank, and then it jumped, its body a silver crescent speckled in green and streaked in pink. Caroline’s father asked for the net, and Dirk looked at Trina, and Trina looked at Dirk.
‘Don’t look at me,’ Trina said. ‘I brought the beer.’
In the absence of a net, Dirk moved in to tail the steelhead, but her father said for Caroline to do it. She stepped into the shallows with a blue hankie wrapped around her hand, caught the fish by the tail and lifted it from the river. It was a male with a hooked jaw and a clipped adipose fin – a hatchery fish and a keeper.
Her father was red-faced and wheezing. He rubbed the back of his neck, then flexed his left hand. ‘Let me get a good look at him,’ he said.
Caroline gripped the fish through the gills with her thumb and forefinger, then used her Leatherman to work the hook free. The steelhead was heavy and slippery, strong and lean from its long migration from the ocean, and before she could cut the gills it wrenched its body and sprung free. It flopped along the bank, and Caroline and her father fumbled after it. Dirk wedged between them with a rock in hand, and he smashed the fish over the head.
‘Well,’ Caroline said, ‘that’s one way to do it.’
Trina carried the fish with a kind of ceremony to a willow bush, where she hung it from the gills on a thick branch. She brushed the hair from her face and tried to smile. ‘Who’s ready for lunch?’
Dirk fired up his Hibachi and cooked five elk burgers from the tailgate – one for each of them and one for the dogs to share. Dirk, Trina, and Caroline’s father cracked beers on the roadside, but Caroline returned to the river and cast half-heartedly. She looked again toward Sheldon’s truck and wondered if he was having any luck. She knew his wife was not an angler. He’d said she didn’t eat fish and wouldn’t cook fish, and this had stayed with Caroline. It pleased her more than it should.
Trina joined Caroline on the bank. She reached into her back pocket for a can of Copenhagen and tapped it with two fingers. ‘I don’t know if I ever told you this,’ she said, ‘but when I first met Dirk he was married.’
‘No,’ Caroline said. ‘I didn’t know that.’
‘He was working then as a repairman for Allred’s, if you can believe that. He came out to work on my broken refrigerator and didn’t go home for two days. When he finally faced his wife, she’d filed a missing-person report.’ Trina pinched a chew, then wiped her hands on the thighs of her pants. ‘I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes who we love, and how we love them, is out of our control.’
Caroline smiled because she didn’t know what to say. She wondered if her father knew about Sheldon. She wondered if everyone knew.
Trina spat into the rocks, then nodded upriver. ‘Looks like we got company.’
Two fishermen and a small girl approached in a drift boat. The men dropped anchor and the boat stopped mid-river, current rushing against the stern. They were thirty yards away, close enough to see the poles in their holders, the Diet Pepsi they were drinking, and the girl as she struggled to blow bubbles with a mouthful of gum. The side of the boat read ‘Steelhead King II’.
Dirk called out that the burgers were ready, but Trina ignored him. She cupped her hands and shouted, ‘Hey there!’
The fisherman at the bow of the drift boat yelled back, ‘Catch anything?’
‘Yeah,’ Dirk said. ‘A 32-incher.’
Trina pointed to the older fisherman, who sat beside the girl. He looked like a Sportsman’s Warehouse model in a red flannel shirt and khaki fishing vest, a Ducks Unlimited cap and black neoprene gloves. She said, ‘Are you the Steelhead King?’
The men in the boat laughed.
‘What’s your name, Steelhead King?’
‘Thomas Jensen,’ the man answered.
‘Where you from, Tommy?’
‘Blackfoot,’ he said.
‘That your kid, Tommy?’
‘Yeah,’ Thomas Jensen said, ‘this is my daughter.’
Dirk said to Trina, ‘Don’t be an idiot.’
Trina said to Dirk, ‘He’s the fucking idiot.’
‘Hey, Tommy,’ Trina called. ‘How about putting a life jacket on your daughter, OK? Think you can handle that, Tommy Jensen from Blackfoot?’
No one spoke. The men in the boat looked at each other.
Trina yelled, ‘I can see the goddamn life jacket from here!’
Thomas Jensen said, ‘Hey man, how about getting your wife under control?’
‘We don’t want no trouble here,’ Dirk said. ‘Just put the life jacket on the kid and get on downriver.’
To which Thomas Jensen said, ‘The fuck I will.’
Trina waded into the river as deep as she could stand. Her voice cracked and broke as she strained to yell over the current. Roxy swam beside her, barking like mad, Gypsy howling from the shore the saddest howl Caroline had ever heard. Dirk yelled for the dogs to shut up, for Trina to cool it, and for Thomas Jensen to take his no-good 4-B ass back to Bingham County. The girl in the boat began to cry, then Trina began to cry, and Thomas Jensen lifted anchor and the boat drifted away.
Dirk waded out and put his hands around Trina’s waist. In the depths of the river she looked the size of a child. He picked her up in one motion and slung her over his shoulder and carried her through the water. Trina was still cussing and kicking and crying as Dirk walked up the bank and down the road toward the truck and camper. He swung the camper door open, pounded up the steps, and closed the door behind him.
Caroline and her father stood looking first at the camper and then at the river, as if for an answer. Her father said, ‘I think maybe we better call it a day.’ He patted his fillet knife, hanging from a leather sheath on his belt. ‘Why don’t we clean that steelhead?’
He started down the embankment, and Caroline called to him. ‘I’ll be right back,’ she said, and she motioned over her shoulder. ‘I just need a minute.’
‘You do what you have to do,’ he said. ‘And I’ll be right here.’
Caroline waited until he was out of sight. She removed her stocking cap and smoothed the static from her hair, then broke down her fishing rod and carried it so as not to appear entirely aimless. She passed the camper with its camouflage curtains drawn, kept on toward Sheldon’s truck, and paused at the edge of the embankment.
Sheldon and his son stood below, beside them a red cooler, a child’s backpack, and the tackle box she’d given Sheldon for his birthday. The boy tugged on his rod, and Sheldon took it from his hands. He spoke, and though she couldn’t make out the words, she guessed he was explaining that the boy must cast beyond the rock on which the hook was snagged. She watched them for some time, watched Sheldon work the line free and bait the boy’s hook, watched the boy struggle to cast past the rock. Sheldon pulled a hankie from his back pocket and wiped his hands, then bent and zipped the boy’s coat. They had the same dark hair, the boy’s curling out from under his hunter-orange stocking cap.
Caroline looked back at the Painted Rock hole. Her father stood in the shallows washing the blood from the steelhead. She watched as he sliced through the fish’s belly – its insides bright with viscera and meat – and she thought of what Trina had said about the hayfields of frozen fish, hundreds of steelhead resurrected each spring.
A canyon wind shook the cottonwood tree and scattered yellow leaves across the water. Sheldon, as if sensing Caroline’s presence, paused and looked over his shoulder, then up the embankment. He studied Caroline as she studied him, and Caroline waited – for what, she didn’t know. Sheldon took off his baseball cap and put it on again, and the shadow on his face made it impossible to read his expression.
They watched each other a beat longer before the boy called for his father. He was snagged on the same rock, his rod doubled as he tugged, and at this distance it was possible to believe the boy was fighting the biggest fish of his life.
Sheldon raised his hand in a wave, a wave that signified to Caroline neither hello nor goodbye, and he turned to answer his son.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 44 Autumn 2011