Two Men in a Museum

Two Men in a Museum

  • By: Kent Cowgill
  • Illustrations by: Peter Corbin

The Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award, sponsored by the John D. Voelker Foundation and presented by Fly Rod & Reel, each year recognizes “distinguished original essays or works of short fiction that embody an implicit love of fly-fishing, respect for the sport and the natural world in which it takes place, and high literary values.” The 2010 First Place and Second Place short stories are published here. Go to for the Rusty Gates Memorial Honorable Mention story.

"None of his paintings work for me,” the woman said, her finger pointing at a winding band of silver running diagonally across a background that looked to her husband like a thick stand of pine. “It’s basically a trick, trying to obscure how labored and derivative the naturalism is by imposing this abstract pewter swatch across the canvas. Turner did it two hundred years ago, and about that many times more creatively.”

The retired lawyer sat on a bench in the middle of the small room, watching them. The woman was thin, attractive, though she’d have been far more so with longer hair and clothes less dowdy. He pegged her as an academic. Of her male companion, probably her husband, he wasn’t so sure.

“I don’t know,” the man answered, smiling nonchalantly. “I kind of like it. Maybe because that slash of silver reminds me of a good trout stream.”

The couple appeared to be in their mid-40s, perhaps 50, and were clearly from out of the city. The lawyer continued to study them, eavesdropping. He had retired two years earlier at 70, his wife had died suddenly a few months later and he had spent most of his days since bored and restless, idly searching for ways other than drinking to kill time. People-watching absorbed him far more than the squirrels and birds of Central Park, and art museums were among his preferred sites.

“You’re hopeless,” the woman said, shaking her head at her blond-bearded, curly-haired companion. A thin smile took the edge off the barb. “I’ve seen enough,” she added. “Let’s go up to the third floor. I want to see the Bernini’s and the Ghirlandaio’s.”

“You go on ahead,” the man murmured. “I’ll find you. I think I’ll hang out down here a few minutes more.”

He laid his hand on her shoulder with a familiarity that told the observing lawyer he was unmistakably her husband. His gaze remained on the couple as the woman left the room, his eyes dropping to the open book resting on his lap only when the husband turned and stared.

When the lawyer glanced up again a few seconds later the man’s eyes were still on him. A faint grin creased his large, ruddy face.

“Mind if I plop down myself for a few minutes?” he asked abruptly. “My wife could do this all day, but I’m good for about an hour. I don’t think the legs ever get tireder than they do from gallery fatigue.”

“Sit, by all means,” the lawyer answered, closing the book and shifting slightly on the bench. He studied the stranger more closely as he shuffled over and eased down beside him. Unruly hair. A solid frame. Slightly scuffed shoes beneath off-the-rack pants and a tan corduroy jacket. In his Savile Row suit and silk tie, the older man felt a flash of superiority, urban pride.

“I take it you’re a fisherman,” he said, glad nonetheless of the momentary company. He tried to keep any trace of condescension out of his voice.

The stranger stared again at him briefly, surprised, then smiled with sudden recognition.

“You heard what I said to my wife, eh, about that painting,” he chuckled, his face coloring. “Sorry. I’m not exactly a barbarian in an art museum, but I’d be lying if I said my tastes went much beyond the Impressionists and the Seventeenth-Century Dutch.”

“I quite agree,” the lawyer responded insincerely. In truth painting didn’t interest him at all, though his apartment held half a dozen original works by celebrated contemporary artists his wife had bought with the fruits of his long career on Wall Street.

“Clay Mitchell,” the younger man said, extending a meaty hand.

“Fred Corcoran,” the lawyer replied, shaking it.

Neither of them said anything more for some time. Finally the lawyer cleared his throat and spoke.

“You and your wife are here from out of town?”

“Yes. From Wisconsin. We’re in the same department—history—at a small university in Appleton. There’s a conference at Columbia. We ducked out of the early afternoon session. The butt can only take so many papers on what a shortage of goose quills did to the medieval scriptorium.”

He laughed again, and the lawyer felt his spirits lift a bit at the Midwesterner’s odd combination of boondock familiarity and academic verve.

“I am a fisherman though, yes,” the stranger added, grinning in answer to the conversation-starter the older man had broached. “You too?”

This time it was the lawyer’s turn to be surprised. In truth he had never been a fisherman, though as a child he’d fished at his family’s vacation home in Maine and had grown skilled enough later in life, mostly out of necessity with well-heeled hosts and clients, to have caught several species on a fly rod at various famed locations in America and abroad. Somehow the sport had never taken. He’d felt little more, landing even the largest fish, than a swell of ego at the impression he knew he’d made on the more experienced anglers at his side.

“Oh yes, absolutely,” he lied.

Pleased at the younger man’s fraternal grin, he found himself suddenly floating along on a windy narrative that snatched up every long-forgotten detail he could summon from those guided outings years earlier: a salmon landed on the Miramichi; an afternoon spent stalking large brown trout in New Zealand (had he in fact caught the one they’d netted, or was it Ben Hyman?); the morning he’d hooked and lost a permit (even the odd name of the fish he had to struggle to remember—was it the CEO on the yacht or the black man poling the skiff in Key West who’d mentioned they were even harder to catch than a bonefish?). Half-truths and exaggerations, all of them.

But when he hobbled to a self-conscious, embarrassed stop, the embarrassment quickly yielded to an even more powerful emotion—a stunned bewilderment at how much he had in fact remembered about those far-flung trips, how much more they stirred him now than they had at the time.

“Incredible,” the stranger murmured, smiling at him enviously. “What terrific experiences. Most of those are places I used to dream of fishing, almost from the moment I first read about them thirty-odd years ago, but probably never will.”

The lawyer peered into the other man’s eyes, misread them completely.

“So you have reached that age too,” he said, nodding. “How did Thoreau put it? The young man goes out fishing, until at last, if he has the seeds of a better life in him, he leaves the fish-pole behind.”

A long silence fell on the empty room as the historian gazed searchingly at the lawyer and then turned away, toward the painting on the wall.

“That’s not what I meant at all,” he said softly. “I know the Thoreau passage, and I couldn’t disagree with him more, my own experience has been so different. I love fly-fishing now as much as I loved it the first time it hooked me, possibly more.” He turned back to the older man as he finished, the passion burning in his florid face.

Disconcerted, the lawyer felt his eyes begin to water and his hands tremble in his lap. He had made a sterling career out of his acuity and intelligence—his ability to read people—and the alien words stunned him, the fact that an apparently competent man of prime earning years could love something as trivial as fishing with the ardor of a child. The fellow was from the hinterlands, that doubtless explained it. An ambition-less hack in some tiny “university” no one who mattered had ever heard of. Regaining his equilibrium, the lawyer cleared his throat and voiced a dismissive response.

“I suppose it happens. Whatever ‘turns one on,’ as the young say.”

It surprised, even slightly offended him, when the other man simply grinned and nodded. The fellow was in truth an even more hapless dolt than he had surmised.

In a heartbeat, the lawyer’s expectations changed entirely. In place of conversation, there was the prospect of amusement. The latter would momentarily relieve the boredom nearly as well. Only faintly did he recognize the deeper emotion the stranger had stirred in him—the hope, even the need, that he remain seated on the bench. For close to half a century his world had been stability, prosperity, things he knew and could trust. Then within a few months of his retirement came the dizzying whirl of changes that had left his internal compass reeling—his wife’s death and the economic meltdown and too many others in a wildly accelerating, cyberspace universe to count. Even three years earlier, he would not have believed it possible that a man of his stature could so quickly be swallowed up, passed by. Banishing the memories, he turned back to the stranger beside him with a forced jocularity, and spoke.

“You said something before that intrigues me. Something about ‘the moment fly-fishing first hooked you,’ I believe is how you put it. Be so kind as to tell me, what did you mean?”

The stranger peered back into his eyes with a keenness that cracked wide open his peremptory dismissal of the man’s intellect—a gaze the lawyer’s own keener instincts recognized instantly as the other man sizing him up. Again the room fell silent. After glancing again at the slash of silver bisecting the painting, the Midwesterner replied.

“I grew up on the plains of Kansas,” he began quietly, “about as far from trout water as it’s possible to get. Did I fish? Sure. Catfish and bullheads mostly, lots of carp none of us back then ever kept. But you’re not asking me about that. You’re wondering how a man of my age, a so-called academic, can care so much about a sport that didn’t genuinely stir you, even during those experiences you described.”

He stopped and peered again into the old man’s face, the grin on his own still boyish features hardening. The lawyer felt in his viscera the folly of his earlier impression. This was a man he would not have wanted to face across a negotiating table.

“You’re right,” the lawyer stammered. “I want to know how you became a fly fisherman. . . why it still means so much to you.” Belatedly he realized that the statement, especially its ending, was the truth. “I loved it once too,” he added honestly, “fished every chance I could get on those family vacations in Maine, back in my childhood. But after college, my life and career here.…”

His voice trailed off as he glanced up, saw the historian following him intently. “I’m not sure why,” he lurched on. “Somewhere in those busy years I came to perceive it much like Thoreau.”

It was his own eyes that drifted now to the painting, held there. The abstract belt of silver reminded him too of a river, some forgotten stream in his past. He was still gazing at it when the soft murmur of the stranger’s voice reached him, almost hypnotically, once again.

 “Back in 1985 I was a first-year graduate student at Michigan, studying medieval history. One of my professors was from Glasgow. At his urging, I spent that summer rattling around Scotland in an old rental camping van. He’d been shrewd enough to see that beneath the hippie hair and false bravado I was a total American hick, greener than a Kansas wheat field. Saw that what I needed far more than two more months cloistered in a library carrel was the experience of simply being abroad. He managed to get me a little grant money for research in Edinburgh, and off I went.”

The lawyer continued to stare at the painting. The narrator shifted his bulky body on the bench beside him, and resumed.

“I had no idea what to expect, of course. My images of Scotland nearly all came from Robert Burns and Ivanhoe. I won’t bore you with what I found there, other than to say the experiences turned out to be life-changing.

And one of the most important was a single morning, in October, when I fished for Atlantic salmon for the first time.

“I said I didn’t know much of anything about Scotland, which is true, but I did have a vivid if sketchy awareness of the Atlantic salmon. As a kid, I devoured every issue of Field & Stream the day it arrived in our mailbox, and once or twice a year there would be a story or article on this reportedly marvelous fish. I no longer recall any of them specifically, but I do remember some of the references. Most of them were rivers. The Restigouche. The one you mentioned, where you caught your salmon, the Miramichi. And a rhyming pair in Scotland, the Tay and the Spey. All of them were magic to me, years before I ever held a fly rod in my hand. But

I had wanted to hold one—wanted to own a fly rod—from the moment I read the first of those magazine pieces.…”

The speaker paused, remembering, as his auditor awkwardly shifted his feet. He was remembering too—felt his throat go dry with shame at the impulsive lie he’d earlier uttered. The Miramichi salmon had been caught by another fisherman. The truth had flooded back with the Midwesterner’s trusting openness: the fish darkly visible beneath the shimmering current, too far away for his straining casts to reach it; the forced deference of the Canadian guide, making excuses for him; the shooting arc of the brightly colored fly as the more accomplished fisherman beside him, an investment banker, flicked it elegantly, beautifully through the air. That the experience had meant nothing to him was another lie, a self-delusion. Just how big a lie began to course through the lawyer only now.

“There I was, knocking about alone in a foreign country. I’d tried all the conventional tourist stuff in the first week, after finishing my obligatory research in Edinburgh. Haggis. Scotch at a distillery. Even bought myself one of those jaunty tweed hats. All of it felt like prologue. What I knew, deep-down, I had come for—the reason I’d agreed so quickly to that Scot professor’s suggestion—was the chance to finally pursue the fish all those articles and stories had convinced me was the noblest, most thrilling fish in the world.”

The lawyer nodded and murmured a quiet “Yes” beside him—remembered the image of that great Miramichi salmon hanging over the water and crashing back in a diamond corolla of spray.

“I had no idea how to go about it, of course—even less of the long odds against it ever happening. That’s one good thing about being naive, I guess you could say. If I’d been older, known how difficult it was going to be—even known how hard it is simply to get a beat on a Scottish salmon river—I might never have tried.

“But I knew none of that at the time. I knew only that I was in Scotland, where the famous rivers were, and I was damned sure going to fish one of them with a fly rod or die on my shield.”

He laughed self-consciously at the words—the florid, untypical grandiloquence. Probably only this cherished memory could have swelled such a phrase in him. The older man beside him, recalling his own days flaming with youth and ambition on Wall Street, grunted with recognition and waited for the historian to go on.

“And so I set off, searching. The Tay, the Dee, the Spey. They beckoned like the rivers of Paradise, but I had neither the tackle nor the streamside beat necessary to fish them. Nor was there any realistic prospect, I soon discovered, of acquiring one. Every inquiry hit the same wall: ‘Private water.’ ‘Angling rights owned by this club or that lord.’ ‘Poachers will be prosecuted to the fullest reach of the law.’

“It seemed futile. I was beaten before setting foot on a beat, a fact as bitter as it was unavoidable. The truth was straight out of a novel I’d recently read called The Camerons: ‘The lairds own the salmon streams. The lairds own the fish in the sea.’

“I’d wandered through the Highlands for several days, over several hundred miles, when I reached a little town on the far northwest coast named Gairloch. A small hotel appeared on a hill as I rounded a bend on the highway. Discouraged and exhausted, I made the impulsive decision to stop. I hadn’t slept in a bed since Edinburgh. And the little stash of money I’d hoarded for the fishing was obviously not going to be of any use for that purpose now.

“The hotel was built out of that brooding, dark-gray stone you see in most such buildings in Scotland, its windowpanes gleaming as if they were scrubbed every day. A little intimidated, I was standing in the parking lot below, getting my bearings, when I heard another car round the bend and roll on up the drive. A wiry Scot of about fifty, close to my age now, climbed out of a mud-streaked old Ford and nodded curtly to me, his craggy face as expressionless as that dark gray stone. He was wearing wet wading boots and a baggy woolen sweater that might have been woven by the Druids. The butt of a cigarette dangled from his lower lip. Even then I was conscious of how I must have looked to him. A callow, long-haired American kid barely out of his teens.

“But his wet boots stirred some conviction in me—triggered a wild, desperate hope that he might be the fisherman he appeared to be. I had seen no river for a hundred miles—found nothing in the reading I’d done before the trip that mentioned a salmon stream in the area. He had the look of a fisherman, I’ll leave it at that.

“And so I simply asked him, point blank, if he’d been fishing. The granite face remained expressionless beneath his wool hat as he squinted back at me. Then he stepped to the rear of his car, unlocked the trunk and popped it open on a gleaming slab of silver so sleek and lovely it made my gut literally ache with desire.

“He said very little more, in the next couple of minutes, answering my babbled questions with that clipped Scottish thriftiness that makes words feel like pound sterling notes. But the few syllables he did utter were enough to make my heart soar. ‘Aye, I can put you on a beat.’ ‘Nay, the tackle will na be a problem.’ And the clincher, ‘Aye, the salmon are in the river. I canna say you will catch one, but the fishing has been verra good.’ The sum total of what I learned further came to nothing more than a scant few additional facts: his name was Angus, he owned the hotel and I’d have a room for the night.

“The next morning did nothing to shake my conviction that I had stumbled into Eden. The River Kerry was fewer than twenty yards across, a trickle compared to the big, famous waters I’d gazed at yearningly a few days earlier. But I was still stringing the rod Angus had lent me when a salmon suddenly materialized in the middle of the river, hung for a frozen instant above the rolling current and splashed down in a thunderclap of spray.

“For someone who’d grown up fishing Atlantic salmon it would probably have been routine—de rigueur on the Miramichi. To me it was the most exciting, great-God-almighty moment I had ever experienced as a fisherman.

“When I’d stilled the trembling of my fingers enough to tie on one of the half-dozen flies Angus had given me, a gorgeous purple and pink creation I learned later was an Aleutian Queen, I started casting. I fished on ineffectually for over three hours, struggling with the big, heavy rod, when the strike finally came, as I was strangely, almost preternaturally certain it must. The salmon took as the fly ended its swing and wavered for a moment, forty feet below me. A gentle bump, but unmistakable. Setting the hook awkwardly, I scrambled for position, stumbling on a rock. Somehow the fish was still there, a throbbing pulse-beat through the current, now deep in the heart of the pool. It seemed content simply to lie there sulking, and I lacked the knowledge or experience to move him. Lacked the courage, too, truth be told.”

The narrator paused self-consciously, his face reddening at the overheated rhetoric, but his eyes continued to burn with intensity. Carried away himself to a place he had long-since forgotten he could reach emotionally, the retired lawyer only nodded his head—murmured “Yes, I understand. Go on.”

Sensing a connection he’d thought impossible with the stiff, over-dressed old man seated beside him, the fisherman felt the vivid experience he was remembering burn still brighter in his soul. The last trace of self-consciousness vanished as he resumed.

“It was not only my timidity, the paralysis of inexperience. It was something more—something more positive—a savouring of the tension that kept building with every added second that fish and I remained joined. I knew I had to goad the fish into action. I had no idea what I would do when it moved.

“I built the nerve to induce it. I began slowly raising the rod, pricking the salmon with the hook, forcing his head up almost as a bullfighter’s barbed banderilla forces a bull’s head down. It did what I feared and expected. Yet when the surge came I was totally unprepared. The fish exploded out of the water and shot off on a searing run toward a tangle of submerged grass on the opposite shore.

“As the salmon neared the snag I panicked and put more pressure on the line than it should have been asked to bear, but somehow it held. Inches short of freedom, the fish’s run was checked. It wallowed there for a moment, subdued, before settling once again into a bottom-hugging sulk.

“This time—like a drunk who jumps into a bull ring using his coat for a cape and somehow escapes being gored—I was flush with the success of my bumbling and refused to let the fish recover. Again I prodded him, denied him time to gather strength, until he ignited on another run. This one, however, was shorter, a bit less bullish, and I knew I was more in control. What had seemed unthinkable a few minutes earlier now seemed possible. I actually had a chance to land an Atlantic salmon. The thought sent chills up my spine.

“I was on familiar ground. I had caught no salmon and few trout in my young life, but hundreds of fish. And for all his great weight, this one was performing now exactly like any of them nearing the moment of capitulation. If the hook held, all that remained was another minute or so, one or two weak runs quickly aborted, and then the silver side turned up in exhausted defeat.”

Remembering, the fisherman laughed sardonically, shook his head and went on.

“I looked at my watch one last time, curious to see how long we had been engaged, when suddenly the reel was screaming and the salmon was busting ass toward a stretch of choppy rapids downriver like a runaway truck without brakes. I fingered the line with a novice’s panic, trying to slow it, and as suddenly as the strike had come the big fish was gone. The leader, that frail artery through which its pulsing life had flowed into my own for a full half-hour, now drifted limply in the slack water below me. With the certainty of death, I knew there would be no more salmon that day, nor probably, given my grad-student penury, for many years to come.

“It felt like the worst moment of my life. And yet somehow, even then, one of the best.”

The historian cleared his throat, said nothing more. For some time the two men sat on the bench in the silent room, staring at the painting. Strange emotions he hadn’t felt in years, if ever, continued to course through the lawyer, feelings that left him momentarily incapable of response. That the stranger’s tale had filled him with a sense of tragic loss and profound regret was beyond his capacity for denial. What he didn’t understand was why.

The simple story of a lost fish. Something as trivial as that. Yet his heart was filled with sorrow and his eyes swam with suppressed tears. When the hard click of footsteps echoed down the adjacent corridor he quickly dabbed at his face with his handkerchief and looked up. The other man’s wife had re-entered the room, shaking her head and frowning.

“You’re still here, Clay?” she cried, her hand punctuating the comment with a dismissive sweep toward the hung canvases. “I can’t believe it. I’ve looked for you everywhere. You can’t possibly be that interested in these paint—”

“I’ve just been resting, shooting the bull with my friend Fred here.” The historian cut her off, a crooked smile creasing his broad face in mild embarrassment. “I’m sorry. We were talking fishing. The time just slipped away.”

The woman eyed both men skeptically, and then shook her head again with an intentionally dramatic sigh that said she’d been down this road too many times to count—that once more she’d have to simply acknowledge this incomprehensible part of her husband’s life, and forgive him.

“We’ve got to leave now if we’re going to make the three o’clock session. I need to be there for Linda’s paper on the Medici, and you said you wanted to hear the panel discussion on the iconography of the cloister capitals in Moissac.”

“Right,” her husband said obediently, rising. He turned back to the older man on the bench and extended his hand. “It was good to meet you, Fred. Thanks for letting me ramble on like some dewy-eyed freshman. If you’re ever out our way in Wisconsin, look me up. Maybe we could get out together on one of my favorite haunts nearby.”

The lawyer stood too—watched intently as the historian fumbled in his pockets and took out his wallet, apparently searching for his card. Unsuccessful, he plucked a slip of paper from the credit cards and scrawled his name, phone number and e-mail address. “Here,” he said, “in case you ever need it. Goodbye.”

The couple left the room so quickly the man who remained was able only to mumble his own short, muted farewell before their echoing footsteps receded down the tiled corridor and slowly dissolved in the museum’s enfolding gloom.

He sat down again on the bench, his mind swimming, laboring to come to grips with the turmoil the stranger’s story had loosed in him. A man who didn’t even seem to own or carry his own card. Who had to scratch his personal information on a scrap of paper, like some street person or store clerk. And yet his story, his very presence, had moved him as nothing else had in years. How was it possible? Something as inconsequential as a fish. A fish the man didn’t even catch. The whole overwrought experience, a failure, in the end.

Nothing in his life had prepared him to comprehend it. So rattled had he been at their parting he’d neglected even to give the man his own card—neglected that common, obligatory courtesy. The lawyer’s cheeks burned with shame.

“I grew up on the plains of Nebraska and have lived most of my adult life in southeastern Minnesota, teaching literature and writing at Winona State University. Every native Nebraskan bleeds Cornhusker red forever, but the wooded bluffs and fertile trout streams of my adopted home have left their own indelible mark in my veins. The stories in my first fiction collection, Raising Hackles on the Hattie’s Fork (The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990), are largely set in this local terrain along the Upper Mississippi, which its natives only half-ironically call ‘God’s country.’ My latest book, a travel memoir titled Back in Time: Echoes of a Vanished America in the Heart of France (Ibis Press, 2007), celebrates and eulogizes the vibrant prairie villages of my youth.”