Time to Kill at the Holy Water

Time to Kill at the Holy Water

A Short Story

  • By: Michael Baughman
time_to_kill_sm


The years went by like unmoored boats borne on a river current.

Paul Nizan, Antoine Bloye

I didn't want to arrive at Serenity Meadows too early, and the morning paper bored me in a hurry, so with half a mug of coffee left I turned on the outdoor channel. What I got was the middle of one of those fishing shows with a pair of rustic anglers with names like Jethro and Clem-one fat and one skinny, resembling Abbot and Costello-out on their boat on some dismal Southern swamp after big-mouth bass.

Right away, the skinny one hooked a fish and took three or four seconds to crank it in.

"Ain't that a pretty fish,'" the fat one said.

"Man, that sure is one pretty fish," the skinny one answered.

"Ain't they all though?"

"Oh yes, oh yes."

"Ain't that pretty? Look at 'im! Look at 'im!"

"I am lookin', pardner."

"That ol' boy hit that ol' Tapdancer right up on the surface!"

"Right on top! Dang if he ain't a pretty fish!"

"Ain't he?"

"He is!"

I punched the Off button and never even finished my coffee.

Whenever I visit my father-in-law at the Serenity Meadows assisted living home-and I go once a week, on Wednesday or Thursday-I'm met by a little old lady called Sal, short for Sally I presume. On decent days, spring through early fall, unless it happens to be raining, Sal sits in a rocker on the front porch. Every time a new arrival pulls into the parking lot she stopsher rocking and leans forward in the chair, squinting at the vehicle, even if it's a UPS truck or the Serenity minivan hauling somebody home from a doctor's visit.

When I walk up the front steps she glares at me, her hands gripping the arms of the chair. "I'm 91 years old!" she proclaims defiantly. "You ask what's 91, do you? I'll tell you exactly what! Thirty years more than 61, that's what! How old are you, buster?"

"Sixty-six."

"What's 66? Add on 30 and it's 96, that's what, so you're older than me!" Then she nods emphatically and grins, leans back, places her gnarled hands on her lap and starts in rocking again, her attention on the parking lot.

"It's always good to see you, Sal," I told her today, as usual and, as usual, she ignored me.

Also as usual-I always call to let him know I'm coming-Mac was waiting for me in the lobby, sitting on the couch in front of the TV, a gloomy look on his round face. I understand his resentment about the fact that his daughter, his only child, my wife Elaine, died before he did. If anybody had to go ahead of what we all regard as the proper order he would have much preferred it had been me. That way Elaine could have cared for him, and he wouldn't have ended up at Serenity Meadows. I've never quite got around to telling Mac that, if I could have, I too would have chosen that alternative. What it amounts to, I suppose, is that both of us beat the actuarial odds and wish we hadn't.

After coming home from World War II-he landed at Normandy and though wounded there kept fighting, for weeks-Mac worked as a traveling country butcher for more than 50 years. In a customized Army-surplus two-and-a-half-ton truck he plied his trade among the farmers and ranchers of southern Oregon and northern California. The refrigerated truck, with its large assortment of knives, saws and cleavers, was painted baby blue with MAC THE KNIFE stenciled in large, block, blood-red letters on each side. Under that, in smaller letters, also in red, was the motto "I have time to kill." And kill he did, with a .22 rifle: steers, hogs, lambs and sheep, the infrequent bison and, during the last years, occasional goats, due to our growing Hispanic population.

Today I punched the code into the front door panel-2, 4, 6, 8, obviously they like to keep it simple-and walked on in, feeling about like I used to on a business trip when I entered an airplane (I hate to fly) headed toward an unloved destination.

The receptionist working the front desk knew I paid the bills and smiled widely and greeted me warmly.

Mac, sitting on one end of the long living room couch, waved at me without smiling. He looks like the stereotypical butcher, short and stocky. His head, the only surviving hair the bushy eyebrows, is round as a bowling ball. At the other end of the couch sat tiny white-haired Mildred, wearing a quilted pink robe, staring straight ahead and talking quietly to herself, her walker parked at her side.

As I sat beside Mac I said hello to Mildred, who ignored me.

"She doesn't pay any attention to anybody," Mac said quietly, not for the first time, "and nobody pays any to her either."

"I guess that could be part of her problem."

"I used to try to talk to her. I had to give it up. Is the stonefly hatch on yet?"

"It could be. Any day now. But it might not be quite warm enough yet."

"We could try it though.'"

"We could."

I glanced at the cold, colorful eye of the TV. One of those morning game shows was on. A host with a lifted face, dark, oily hair and a huge and perpetual smile, wearing a garish Spike Jones sport coat, was gesturing toward two women, one young and one not so young, who were jumping up and down, screaming, then hugging each other as they hopped in circles in their wild delight at having answered a simple question correctly.

"What's the program?" I asked Mac.

"Who knows? I don't watch that crap. I was waiting for you. We could try it tomorrow."

"The hatch?"

"Hell yes the hatch. What else?"

"Any coffee in your room?"

"I got some left from breakfast. You want some?"

"I could use a cup."

"Come on then. Let's go."

Mac's room was at the far end of an east-west hallway on the first floor. On the way there we walked by the beauty parlor. This was Wednesday, the only day they operate, and a woman of about 90 was having what was left of her hair styled while three other women sitting in chairs against a wall waited their turns. Human vanity dies hard I know, because I still shave and trim my beard daily, and choose my clothes with harebrained care. Two of the waiting women waved at Mac as we passed.

"You're a popular man," I said. "Is one of those the one who calls you up every night?"

"That one died."

"Really? When?"

"Last weekend. There've been two women in my life. You know that, don't you? I mean two women who mattered. Elizabeth and Elaine."

Mac's coffee was so strong I had to sweeten it with three spoonfuls of sugar.

"I got to empty both tanks," Mac said as I stirred my cup.

"What?'"

"I got to hit the latrine."

While I waited I chose a copy of an outdoor publication from among the magazines on the floor beside my chair, and by the time Mac finished and came back out I'd had time to read through six of 10 Surefire Strategies for Finessing Finicky Foul-Weather Bass.

That night I dreamed about fish: kumu and aweoweo in Hawaii, brown trout in Bavaria, dorado and tuna in Baja, steelhead here at home.

In the afternoon, cloudy and somewhat cool for our purposes, I picked Mac up at Serenity Meadows and drove him to the so-called Holy Water, a half-mile stretch of river between a dam and a hatchery. Releases from the bottom of the reservoir keep the water cool throughout the year, resulting in prodigious insect hatches and large trout.

To reach our destination we had to traverse the entire global warming catastrophe: a congested, treeless, littered stretch of highway complete with fast-food outlets, huge retail stores with their expansive parking lots, rude drivers, and the rancid haze of pollution from nearby factories and mills.

"Remember when this was a lonely two-lane road?" Mac said.

"Oh yes."

"Hell, I used to hunt pheasants right around here. Remember the river before the dam went in?"

"Sure. My favorite stretch was up there by Laurelburst."

"Back then you couldn't hardly see the bottom in October when the salmon spawned."

"I'm old enough to remember all that. Easily."

"The dirty bastards."

"Which dirty bastards?"

"All the dirty bastards," Mac said. "But mostly the ones who built the goddamn dam."

Beyond the commercial zone the drive was better. The road, back to two lanes, ran close along the north bank of the river. A few optimistic drift-boaters were out for early chinook, along with inflated Tahiti boats and rubber rafts carrying boys and girls, most of them in wet suits, many drinking cans of beer.

"Nobody's here," Mac said when I rounded the last curve beyond the hatchery.

"We're in luck."

"Maybe," I said. "I haven't seen a stonefly anywhere yet."

"There don't have to be many."

"There have to be some though."

"You got any nymphs along?"

"A few. Sure."

"I'd tie one on if I was you."

"A nymph?"

"A nymph. Weighted."

"If you say so."

"I sure do."

I parked in a small clearing beside the dirt road along the north bank. We rigged up, our rods leaning against the car. I had my usual trouble with my blood knots. Mac was finished and into his waders and boots before I had my leader tied.

"Go on down," I said. "No need to wait for me."

"You sure?"

"I'm sure."

As fast as Mac can rig up, he has trouble on his feet on rough terrain. It's not so much a loss of strength as of balance. I watched as be made his way slowly down the eroded stream bank toward the river. The rounded cobblestones near the water's edge gave him the most trouble. He stumbled once and barely caught himself. Anybody watching him now would see an anxious, tremulous old man. Nobody could guess he had been a linebacker, a shot-putter, a young soldier, a man who could lug a side of beef under his arm. Thinking of Mac that way, the Serenity Meadows women came to mind. Undoubtedly some of them had been hikers and campers, skiers, cheerleaders and beauty queens, tennis players and swimmers.

Nothing was hatching. I tied on a foam-body stonefly pattern anyway and followed Mac down. I started in about 30 yards above him, at a gentle bend in the river. As I worked out line I watched him make a cast that dropped his weighted nymph close beside a cluster of rocks near midstream.

He waved at me and pointed across the river. When I looked I saw a stately Canada goose swimming upstream against the gentle current near the bank, closely followed by eight goslings in a line.

The things we do don't change as much as we do. Soon I was into the easy, utterly pleasant rhythm of casting diagonally upstream, watching my drift, mending line, casting again. All else was forgotten. I covered rocks and ledges I could see and others, farther up and out, that I remembered.

For a long time nothing moved to the dry. Mac, knee-deep, in need of a wading staff but too proud to use one, worked his way slowly upstream, one unsteady step at a time. I maintained the distance between us.

In 45 minutes or an hour Mac landed three fish on the nymph, two of them 12 or 14 inches, one of them, the last one, at least 18, possibly over 20. He didn't waste time with any of them. I've never known or seen any fly fisherman land fish so quickly without ever breaking them off. "The faster you get them in, the better shape you release them in," he explains. Though he slaughtered thousands of animals over the years, I don't know that he's ever killed a fish.

My only action came shortly before we left. Finally a fish came up for the dry, a mere eight-incher. He made three quick splashy passes before he finally took hold. I hand-lined him in. Then, with the little trout no more than 10 or 12 feet from my waders, a huge fish surged up behind it, a bright, thick-bodied trout of 15 pounds or more that turned a fast figure-eight behind the eight-incher before it vanished.

I did what anybody would do. I tied on a streamer and made several casts and retrieves. But of course nothing happened.

Mac was already back at the car when I gave up.

With rush hour over the drive back was faster, more pleasant. Mac was in his best mood and so was I. We talked about our fishing and theorized about the hatch and made our plans to come again soon.

We stopped for beers at a tavern we hadn't visited in 25 or 30 years. The place had changed, even the name-what hasn't changed in that length of time-but we went on in anyway, because it beat going home to insomnia and solitude.

We took a booth near the back and the bartender, a short, lean man wearing thick eyeglasses, brought us two mugs of draft beer. The bar was lined with young men drinking beer out of pitchers. About half the booths were taken up by couples, also young. Country music played on the jukebox, not too loud but loud enough. Off to our right, a big TV screen over the bar showed a boxing match, two small Hispanics dancing and jabbing. The TV was louder than the music.

"The smell in here's still the same," Mac said. "Did you notice?"

"Pine cones and draft beer."

"I wonder why it's always smelled like pine cones."

"There isn't any sawdust on the floor."

"The odor must keep leaking out of the wood."

"After all this time?"

"What the hell else could it be?"

"One thing's better than it was around here 20 or 30 years ago," I said.

"Bullshit, " Mac said. "What?"

"The beer. You can actually get a decent beer in America now.'"

"OK. I'll give you that." Mac gazed somewhere across the room and shook his head and smiled thinly. "I haven't caught a trout that big in a long time. The last time I did Elizabeth was watching."

"Where was that?"

"A fat ol' redband up there on the Deschutes. Those stoneflies were hatching that day." He shook his head again, looking down at where he had drawn wet circles on the tabletop with the bottom of his mug. "Oh Elizabeth," he said.

"Elaine loved to fish, didn't she?"

"You know who taught her.'"

"Yes I do."

Between rounds in the boxing match a commercial for Cialis came on, concluding with a sober warning that erections lasting longer than four hours required medical treatment.

"You going to call a doctor if it happens to you?" I asked Mac.

"Hell no. But maybe I'll call the Guinness Book of World Records."

After serving a couple at a nearby booth the bartender stopped to ask if we wanted another round.

"Not just yet," I said. Then, after the bartender left, I said to Mac, "I guess that trout that chased my little one today was the biggest fish I've seen up close since Baja."

"When was that?"

"My last trip was-what? I guess five years ago. Remember? I took your great-grandson down."

"Roger's in college now, right?"

"Two thousand miles away. I got a card from him at Christmas."

"Me too."

"He caught dorado on that trip till his arms were tired."

Mac sipped his beer. "I say the hatch starts for real tomorrow."

"It'll be sometime this week for sure."

"Next time let's fish the south bank."

"Sure," I said. "OK. The wading's a little easier there."

"There's more trout on that side is the reason."

"Maybe so."

We each had about two inches of warm flat beer left in our mugs. "Should we down these and get two more?" I said.

"If I drink another beer I'll have to get up to piss all night."

"OK, we'll nurse these."

A few minutes after that, while we were debating the merits of foam-bodied flies as opposed to yarn, the bartender came back to our booth. In the dim light his eyes behind the thick glasses looked like the eyes of some strange aquatic specimen gazing at us out of an aquarium tank.

"Well," he said, "are you gentlemen still happy over here?"

"Yeah," Mac answered. "We are for the time being."