Shake and Float

Shake and Float

Rod Crossman After much begging the kid gets the keys to his dad's truck and drives to the fly shop in town. There he is talked into more flies than he

  • By: Josh Greenberg
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Rod Crossman

After much begging the kid gets the keys to his dad's truck and drives to the fly shop in town. There he is talked into more flies than he wants, and a new powder flotant-highly recom-mended-and a spool of 5X. He spends all his money. Then he leaves.

He drives the father's truck back to their campsite and the father is asleep in the tent and the mother is off on a run and that is how they'll stay for as long as his mother can run.

She will run fearfully through the unknown roads with a water bottle in her right hand and a can of mace in her left. When she returns she will leave again to the shower and after that she will leave again, into a book and lie there reading and batting at mosquitoes and the father will drink beer and the kid will trundle his overweight self to the river and disappear into that. The next day they will leave for another campsite and this will be repeated, in more or less the same fashion, until the vacation is over and they return to their home and school begins again.As the kid strings up his rod the father awakens and comes from the tent, shiny with sweat, scratching at his neck. He seems OK.

You going fishing?

Yep.

All right. Where's Mom?

Running.

Still?

Yeah.

That's not right.

I know.

This is hillbilly country.

Is it?

Oh yeah.

The father comes to the kid and takes the fly rod from him and wiggles it. You in charge of dinner?

It's catch-and-release.

What?

You got to let them go.

Bring us some anyway.

No way. I'll get busted.

The father looks around and the campground is half-full. Hide them in those rubber pants.

We'll see. I won't catch anything.

The father hands him back the fly rod.

Grandpa used to hide them in his rubber pants. He'd chop them up so the warden wouldn't know how many he had. It was like putting together a puzzle, putting together Grandpa's fish. That was some man, your grandpa. We'd put together his fish just to see how big they were. Some of them were pretty damn big.

The kid runs his fingers along the leader. I won't catch anything.

And a river runs through it.

Stop.

Ha-ha.

C'mon.

The father looks down the road. She's still running. Probably I'll go look for her. This is thick hillbilly country.

All right.

If she's here when you get back and I'm not here?

Well…you tell her I went to look for her.

The kid, wearing his dumpy waders and vest, walks across the campground to the wooden steps and descends only to see another fisherman in the water and moving downstream.

He walks to another set of steps farther downstream and there is no one there. He sits on the bottom step and ties on one of his new flies and bites off the excess and spits it out. Then, from a pocket in his vest, he removes a can of tobacco and sticks some in his lip and spits.

He moves into the water, makes one preliminary cast into the nearest foam line, and hooks an enormous trout.

The fish takes with a great explosion-as if it too were startled-and rushes immediately around a log jam and down through a very shallow riffle, spotted back and tail exposed. The explosion shocks the kid, and he drops his rod. The trout tows the rod away, the reel spinning and choking on the water.

The kid curses, lunges, falls in, misses the rod, stands and bounces through the riffle following his white line, and dives again, grabs the butt of the rod, and reels frantically but he, in his panic, is reeling backward. He screams, tears in his eyes, tobacco in his stomach. He vomits. He reels frantically forward, shaking, until the disengaged fly is stuck to the top eyelet.

He smacks the water with the rod. He kicks the river. The tobacco has him dizzy and he walks dripping to the bank where he sits behind the tag alders and cries into his hands. This isn't working. His cries grow louder and he is ashamed that he can't, with his hands, muffle them.

His cries draw the attention of a bearded old fisherman who pokes through the tag alders. The kid looks up, ashamed now, figuring this bearded old fisherman will tell all the fly-shop guys about the kid, about how he cried.

What happened?

Nothing. I just lost the biggest fish of my life.

Bigger than the biggest fish you've ever caught or bigger than the biggest fish you'll ever catch?

I don't know.

The old man's face is all beard, a thick curl of salt and pepper. In the beard rest artificial flies. At first the kid thinks they are bits of food, or wads of gum, but then his eyes clear from the tears and he sees they are only flies. A lot of flies there. Maybe 20.

You like my flies?

The kid shrugs.

The old man removes a mirror from his vest, stares into it, and removes a fly from the right side of his mouth and hands it to the kid.

You fish this. I tied it from my wife's sweater. I tie all my flies from my wife's sweaters.

The kid takes the fly. The old man smiles.

One day you'll catch a trout twice the size of the one you lost and the only reason you'll catch it is because you lost that one.

The kid nods.

Put that fly on.

The old man stands there over the dizzy kid until the knot is tied. The old man grabs the line and tests the knot, nods, and walks past the kid and the kid listens to him crash and crack through the woods until everything but the river is silent. Then the kid, who is scared-like his mother, says his dad-emerges from the alders red of face and upset to his stomach and begins to cast fearfully into the river.

He fishes for some time with the old man's fly before, along the edge of fallen birch, he hooks a medium-size trout that he plays very carefully to his hand. It is a nice brown and he wonders if he should keep it, despite the rules. He hates coming home empty handed because even if he has caught a few trout the father will not believe him. Even if he sticks his fishy hand before the father's nose, the ashy nostrils will suck in the air and the mouth, cavernous and old, will pronounce nothing.

He returns the fish and squirts some gel onto the old man's fly. It is a ratty fly, purplish even, with wings of wood duck and the hackle of an Adams and tails of moose mane. The next cast the fly sinks and the kid false-casts poorly and snarls his line.

He sits on the birch to undo the snarl and as he does the sun comes from behind the clouds and suddenly there are flies in the air, and they look, to the kid's eye, not unlike the fly in his hand. It happens quickly, this transformation, and he is excited by it and the flies keep coming, moving upstream, mating, and the birds swoop between and the wings of the nighthawks roar above the cedars and what is that sound he keeps hearing, that angry whir, and it was the nighthawk, his teacher said, it was the nighthawk's wings that frightened him last summer. He picks excitedly at his leader and when he's nearly finished a nice trout rises and he is so excited that he sticks himself with the hook, slightly-not enough for the barb, but enough for a single bulb of blood on his finger, which he sucks woozily. Then, finished with that, and more trout rising, he stands and casts, but the old man's fly sinks still and, fearful of more false casting, the kid grabs the thing of powder flotant-Shake and Float-that he was talked into at the fly shop. He looks at the back for instructions but the instructions, or whatever they are, appear to be in Japanese. Then he dumps some of the powder into his palm but that doesn't work. Finally he sticks his fly in the vial and closes the lid and shakes and as he's shaking he bursts out laughing, finally. Duh, Shake and Float. The name is the instructions: shake, and float.

Now he casts above the ring of a trout along a gravelly drop-off and the fly floats as magnificently as he's ever seen a fly float and the trout takes in a single, subtle gulp and he lifts his rod and the trout leaps into the air-red stripe: rainbow. Leaps again, like a spear flung upward from the bottom of the river. Again. And again, the kid rotating as the fish has leapt a complete semi-circle upstream of him and is now racing toward the same birch tree he'd only moments before been sitting on. The kid calmly angles his rod downstream and low to the water and the fish turns at the last second, comes close to hand, thrashes on the surface, and-just as the kid is leaning with the net-the fly comes free.

No problem, smiles the kid, the fly in his hand. Just a little Shake and Float and we'll be all set.

By now the mayflies are low around him and they are processional but long-tailed and graceful, at once purposeful and once again they are hardly more than seeds, blown into each other by the wind, because that is the mysterious way of chance and the mysterious odds of Nature. Nature: She keeps winning. He knows they fly upstream so their eggs are washed back into roughly the same place they lived as nymphs. He looks about the sky and the flies are in columns above him and the nighthawks take the high fliers but even the nighthawks are lower. Above the nighthawks is an azure sky that intensifies into a pre-sunset sun that is warm and softening on the eyes. The air in the cedars is dark with shadow. His throat burns from the vomit but the tears have released his face somewhat, and increased the pleasure of the smile.

The river reflects the sunset in the middle, the shadows on the sides, and fish rise confidently in the bubble lines, and the kid shakes his fly in the powder and is aware that this river, which he fished last summer, is a river of mystery. Last year he saw none of this. Last year they came here in August and the river clanked with canoes and he caught two chubs and one trout, a brook trout, which was smaller than the chubs. While in the river he was hit by a canoe steered by two oldish women. One of the women said to the other to show the kid her boobs and the other did-two huge globules of flesh with enormous but nearly transparent areolas and she said, you like? And he said, with great anger, they look like cow teats. And the women howled with laughter. Teats. And the other woman, perhaps jealous, pulled out her teats as well. The two women went down the river, with their fat white knockers resting on their stomachs like the heads of old sleeping dogs on white cushions, and the kid cast in a pissed-off way until he tangled and he left the river as more canoeists-drunk men-rounded the corner and hollered at him and the kid threw up the middle finger and stormed up the first set of stairs back to camp.

This is a magnificent river, with its banks of cedars, with its wild air, with its reaching limbs and its inky backwaters surrounded by the purple irises that are slowly, like the sun, losing their color. The kid is catching some trout now. And if a fish ignores the old man's fly the kid immediately powders it up, makes another cast, and gets the fish. They are nice trout, mostly small, but some are over 12 inches and they are far larger than what he normally catches. As he casts into the shadows there are times when the kid cannot see the fly and he again, without hesitating, shakes up his fly and cast it into the shadow and it glows like a beacon as it bobs toward the next spreading ring. Three, two, one…and the fish is on, and leaping from the shadow and the kid, who has never had this, is beginning to giggle away the left-over, cat-food taste of puke in his mouth. The fishing is so good that as he's playing one fish he's searching the shadows for another. There. Shake and Float. Cast. Mend. Lean forward. Bam! The reel gagging with the runs of these punky little trout.

He is trundling downriver quickly and the river goes from wide and light to narrow and dark. In this tunnel large fish are rising and the kid knows he is far downriver and is off the beaten path, out of sight of everyone but himself, and these large fish are wallowing in the dark like elephants and all the light is gone from the sky save an eerie glow in the west, like the ghost of the sun, which rises like vapor and mingles with the gentle light of the first few stars and still the nighthawks whir about and thunder the air with their wings and still the trout rise and still the kid casts deeply into the night, now unable to see the fly, but feeling it toward the trout, but still with slack, and striking at the sound of the rise and every time it is him and every time the fish barrels downward into the dark water, toward hidden, aquatic, silent wood structures.

He wades farther into this clasping darkness, the trees like fingers of a hand curling around him. His body disintegrates with this pressure; here in this dark night he has no skin, he does not stop. A very large fish rises right beside him and after a careful shake and float to the tattered fly he hooks the fish.

The trout leaps immediately and grandly, invisible in the darkness, hits him in the chest, bounces off and leaps onward, madly, like the counter-image of a bright television tarpon, bounding down the tunnel and the kid bounding madly along with it. When he stumbles in the muck, as he does, he does not cry or lose his temper. He is already wet, and he has already lost the big fish, and if he loses this big fish he will shake and float and catch the next one-and he thinks these relaxed thoughts as he plays the fish of his lifetime and he sees, clearly, in his head like the rising of the moon the cocked face of the old man who wore flies in his beard and who emerged, in his moment of shame, from nowhere and the kid wonders if perhaps he's dead, or entered some alternative universe. He reads fantasy books and he thinks, at times, that some of these things are possible.

Without a flashlight the kid lands the fish in the dark, dumps it onto the bank and with his hands and measures its heaving slickness against his rod. He cannot see it. He does not know what kind it is. But the nose is one hand-length from the first guide of his rod. He thinks to keep it but does not. Why? For him? But this is a large fish, he knows. Over 20 inches. Ten inches better than he's ever caught, at least on a wild trout river. He slides it into the river. He shakes and floats. He faces the darkness, ready, but the darkness is silent.

He walks downstream until he sees a light on the campground side of the river and he gets out there, near a house. He ducks under the dark windows in case someone is home. But it is a weekday, and most of these places are weekend homes, and there is not a car in the driveway as he walks the driveway up toward the road. It has been his best fishing day ever, perhaps his best day ever period. It comes to him like a story, those two hours-two hours that were probably better than the best 24 hours of the rest of his life, he thinks. He relives the story as he walks along the dead and dark road, following its sticky night glow.

Headlights appear behind him and his shadow falls in front of him. He keeps his head low and hopes it is over quickly-that he, in the dark, alone on the road, is ignored. The vehicle approaches fast and he is nervous and so he steps off the road. Then he hears the sound of gravel beneath tires. He turns; he is about to be struck. He leaps into the ditch. It is a truck, the father's truck, and it swerves from this shoulder to the other and back again, squealing. Then the truck straightens up and carries onward toward the campground.

The kid is shaking in the ditch-a cold and wet anger-and he stands and continues to walk down the road watching the father turn on the blinker and drive into the campground.

The father had fallen asleep at the wheel-it has happened before, and that was what happened to the truck.

The kid begins walking down the road and far ahead in the darkness of the pine trees he hears the truck's door shut and that sound snaps in his head, again and again, between his steps.

He marches into the campground and to their campsite and the father is by the fire with a beer in his hand and the mother is in the tent and the tent is lit from within and he knows she is reading with headphones in her ears and her hair will be wet from her post-run shower and she might be mouthing silently the words to her songs. How can she read while listening to music with words? Does she even read?

The kid walks into the heat and light of the fire. He leans his rod against the picnic table.

You almost hit me there when you were driving.

I didn't see anyone.

That was me on the road.

Nope.

You swerved all over. I had to dive in the ditch.

Naw.

You fell asleep.

I was wide awake.

The father chucks his empty beer can toward the picnic table, where there are others, and stands and goes to the cooler and grabs another. The kid steps out of his waders and stands by the fire, shivering.

The father goes back to his camp chair.

You're soaked.

I fell in.

You didn't catch anything?

Nope.

So much for a river runs through it.

Yeah, so much for it.

That's some attitude.

You found Mom?

Yep.

Where was she, at the bar?

She made it back while I was gone.

Shocking.

That's really some attitude.

The father shakes his head and tosses the kid the beer he grabbed, which is unopened.

Drink that one if you want, I'm going to bed.

The kid holds the beer and stares at the father who crouches into the tent. He hears the zipper of the tent, of the sleeping bag, then the turn of bodies.

He stands by the fire, drying. Drinks the beer the father gave him, and another too, which is all he can stand at 17 and by himself, and stares out over the campground, which is silent and purple, and the tents, bright of color during daylight, are nothing but shades of gray. Then just as he is warm and dry and getting sleepy by the fire a pack of coyotes begins to yammer behind him, but they are distant and the sound, to him, is joyful. They howl when they leave their dens. That's what that is. It's a morning song. And instead of sleeping in the tent he grabs his sleeping bag and lays it over him in the camp chair, which is also a rocking chair, and he props his feet up on a log, leans back in the chair, and watches the floating embers, hears the coyotes, and is asleep.

Josh Greenburg is a 28-year-old guide on Michigan's AuSable River. He writes and ties flies during the winter.