By J.B. Kish
“Finding the right person is—arguably—the same as fly fishing the Kenai in July. It’s less about the salmon. Understand? There’s plenty of salmon.”
“It’s all about where you set that hook.”
Mary opened and closed her fist. The flesh on the outside of her index finger yawned, splaying open three cuts where fishing line had repeatedly eaten into her knuckle. She examined each wound mindlessly, picking at a few specs of dirt that had become embedded inside the flesh. She squinted and blinked wildly—only half aware of how exhausted she really was. Her eyes were sore, and they burned from all the crying. She was out of tears for now. But that truly was just for now. There were always more tears in this place.
The Central Peninsula Hospital Emergency Room was a sterile, white canvas that had been handed over to a community college art major of an interior decorator. Below was your obligatory checkerboard tile floor. Above were picturesque lake-scape paintings and a small TV that played old episodes of Roseanne. The vending machine—though she couldn’t see one, but was sure existed—was likely filled with junk food and crap microwavable burritos.
Mary—61 years old and peppered grey—was still in her waders when the doctor came out to break the news. They were tan with brown boots and clips that fastened over her shoulders. With these waders, she could walk out up to her tits and fish for salmon until her toes went numb. And she did often.
She remembered thinking that he had a familiar face. But then again, didn’t they all? Soldotna was a small town. His name was Doctor Jimmy…or…Doctor Eddie. Or something of the like. She was fairly certain they’d met on the river once or twice before. This Jimmy or Eddie always wore his backpack in the water. He never set it on the bank. He’d retie his leaders right there in the current because he didn’t want to lose his spot.
Tourists are always trying to steal what isn’t theirs.
When Jimmy or Eddie was speaking, Mary couldn’t quite make out the words. The world was stretching to a sluggish halt around her, and the man’s huge bottom lip was flapping incomprehensibly. His long, pointed face resembled that of a sockeye. And she couldn’t help but think of her leader sliding across his cheeks. She imagined herself whipping back and setting a barbed fishing hook right in ole Jimmy or Eddie’s cheek. A single, graceful maneuver.
A legally set hook.
Anywhere else, and Fish and Game would have your ass and a pretty pink fine too. Not the belly, not the back, and definitely not the tail—that was foul. A salmon had to be hooked right in the mouth for you to keep it.
Before she blacked out completely, she thought she’d heard her husband’s name—Nathan—sputter out from ole Jimmy or Eddie’s throat. She was sure she had. And she was sure it was bad too. Terribly bad. As she crumpled to the floor, all she could make out in the darkness was the phantom of a salmon. A single, beautiful fish breaching the water and trying wildly to shake the foul hook from its back.
Later, when she woke on a stiff hospital bed, Mary felt the unmistakable tickle of a cold coming on.
“Nathan, stop screwing around. You’re sick.” Something pricked Mary, and she frowned. The summer rain had brought the mosquitos from the woods. She slapped her neck and wiped the tiny insect onto her blue jeans.
The sky above their cabin that day was overcast and washed out. It threw no shadows, but still it covered the woods with a darkened veil. Everything—the trees, the creek, even her husband—it was all muted.
“It’s July, Mary,” said Nathan. “People don’t get sick in July.” He swung his backpack up onto the truck bed and pushed it back. Then he walked to the shed and returned with his fly rod.
Nathan’s face had always been a charming one. His chin was large and chiseled, like the edge of a cliff, and his hair was golden blonde and gently curled. He was six feet tall and barrel chested. But today his appearance was unfamiliar somehow. He was slouched and slow-moving. His nose was bright red, and that charm in his eyes was missing from his gaze. His eyelids were drooping and he sniffed a lot. Too much for a man about stand in a freezing cold river.
“—Six, Mary.” When he spoke, his voice was gravelly and congested. “They just raised the limit to six fish this morning. You know I won’t miss that.” Despite the way he sounded, his words had still come across as intended: curt and final. He turned and slid his pole into the back of the truck.
Mary sighed and crossed her arms. “Then I’ll come with you.”
Nathan stiffened. It was a single, fleeting moment, but Mary was sure she’d seen it happen. His broad shoulders slouched and he turned. “I thought you had book club today?” he asked, his tone noticeably softer.
Mary shrugged. “The book is shit anyways.”
“Won’t the club be upset?”
“Let them,” said Mary. She turned toward the shed and retrieved her pole. “Besides,” she continued, “twelve fish is better than six.”
Nathan didn’t respond. He stared at her incredulously before climbing into the truck and starting the engine.
Their trip down to the river was familiarly quiet. Mary felt like she’d interrupted her husband somehow. She got that feeling a lot lately. He was agitated of late, and typically spoke in grunts or nods. But it was probably just his cold, she told herself, handing him a hanky. She thought, he’ll be right as rain on the other side.
Nathan took the rag and blew his nose, pinching his nostrils and wiggling. He coughed—that deep, chest cough of a man who should be in bed—and rolled his window down, spitting some phlegm into the breeze. Mary smiled shyly, and then she turned to look out her window, her heart skipping a gentle beat.
They were coming up on Redoubt Avenue.
Nathan slowed the truck, stopping just before the tilted sign. The four-way intersection was empty. Straight ahead, the Kenai River awaited, along with a 6 fish limit. But the truck was steadfast and unmoving. Nathan sat with his foot on the break, the engine rumbling, and stared out the windshield. Mary smiled nervously, glancing down Redoubt Avenue. The road stretched half a mile, and there was a large white house at the end. Its enormous French doors smiled back at her. The vaulted roof wiggled like a suggestive eyebrow. There was a greenhouse along the north side next to a well and clothes line. Mary studied the house, and then looked back to her husband, placing a hand on the back of his neck. “Nate?”
Her husband’s upper lip rolled, and he sucked in through his front teeth. He took his foot off the brake and accelerated through the intersection.
The funeral home was surely decorated by the same person who’d done the ER. The walls were paneled with dark oak and mahogany. It conjured images of age and refinement. It said to Mary, “Only the best are laid on display here.”
“This is where the head of your family will say his goodbyes.”
Pictures of sunsets and clouds and even a painting or two of Christ lined the halls toward the room where Nathan was lying in a box. She hadn’t walked down to see him yet. She wasn’t ready for all the people and their eyes and the God damned sympathy. She’d had enough of it the past 72 hours. On top of that, her head was splitting. She felt like her brain was ballooning out against her skull. This cold had overtaken her faster than she thought physically possible, and it made thinking all the more difficult. Planning a funeral is devastating enough.
But planning a funeral on three bottles of NyQuil is next to impossible.
“Mrs. Blake, we’re ready for you now.” The funeral director was a short, balding man with a thick beard and soft eyes. He placed a comforting hand on Mary’s shoulder.
Mary feigned a smile and placed her palm on his own. This man was the closest thing she’d had to a best friend since Nathan died. He’d practically planned the entire service for Mary, and still she couldn’t remember his name.
“Try to remember the good times,” the funeral director suggested. “His touch. His smile. Perhaps talk about the first time you met.”
A single cry leapt from Mary’s throat and she cupped her mouth, nodding her head. She started down the hallway, blowing her nose into her handkerchief. She just wanted it to be over with. She wanted to be done with the whole mess. Wanted to be done with this ceremony and this funeral. As she blew her nose—her nostrils aching and raw—she wanted more than anything just to be done with this cold.
She stopped just short of the doorway and took a deep breath. From where she was standing, she could make out the top of the casket and the lectern. Nathan was lying peacefully on display—like a trophy salmon.
Mary’s trophy salmon.
She thought in some ways he was lucky for the heart attack. Some people die terrible gruesome deaths. Some get mangled or eaten. Bear maulings are not all that uncommon in these parts. But at least a heart attack kept you clean. At least it gifted you an open casket and one last chance to say goodbye.
May turned and stepped into the room. The audience of friends and family turned, and all the air was collectively sucked from the room. Mary took a step toward the lectern, nodding politely at a vast number of people that had taken puddle jumpers from Anchorage to attend the funeral. There was Bill, Nathan’s younger brother. His wife and two children. Doctor Brents was there—and old family friend. Shannon O’Riley from the salon. And there was—
Mary tripped over a long orange extension chord, and Doctor Brents leapt up from his chair to catch her. Her heart leapt into her throat, and she struggled to swallow it back down.
She was here.
The woman from Redoubt Avenue. The one from the white house with the French doors. Mary watched her from the corner of her eye, hunched over in Doctor Brents arms. Why? She asked herself. How could she be here?
Mary thanked the good doctor and corrected herself. She flattened her dress and approached the lectern, turning to face the audience. It was a good long while before she found the courage to speak. She thanked everyone for coming but wasn’t exactly sure what to say next.
“Perhaps talk about the first time you met,” the funeral director had suggested.
So Mary took a deep breath and said the first thing that came into her mind. “Finding the right person is—arguably—the same as fly fishing the Kenai in July.”
The audience laughed quietly.
Mary continued. “It’s less about the salmon. Understand? There’s plenty of salmon. It’s all about where you set that hook.”
As Mary spoke, she tried to look around the room. She tried to make eye contact with everyone in the audience. But after a few moments of painful pretending, she simply gave up. Mary was done. She wanted to be free from the weight. Free from 25 years of marriage and fishing. She flashed a short, polite smile. Then she folded her hands over the lectern and turned, looking to the woman from Redoubt Avenue.
“Nathan left another woman for me.”
An unexpected wave of discomfort rolled across the audience. Those in attendance were understandably quiet. Mary wasn’t quite sure what she was trying to say herself. She could feel a chord of snot slipping from her nostril, and she wiped it with the back of her hand. The woman from Redoubt Avenue’s expression was flat. Mary realized that she too had a bright pink nose and flushed cheeks.
“Back in California,” Mary continued. “He was engaged. Not many people know this story actually. His Fiancé’s name was Catherine. She eventually married someone else and lived in Germany for a short while. She was—” Mary took a deep breath. “—killed during a robbery. A gas station or maybe it was a grocery store. I’m afraid I forget which.”
The woman from Redoubt Avenue shifted uncomfortably. She glanced around the room.
“Nathan broke it off with Catherine in a letter. It was one week before she was supposed to return from the Peace Corps.” Mary chuckled, as if unable to believe the words coming from her own mouth. “They were supposed to be getting married, and instead we were running away together. To Alaska.” She paused to blow her nose before looking down at her husband’s face. “It was a particularly cruel thing to do. And I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. A whole lot.”
The chain-link fence behind the funeral home rested atop a small ridge that looked down on the Kenai River. Fisherman lined both sides of the water. Every few seconds, someone below shouted out for more room as they walked a salmon down the line. “Fish on!” they called. It was music to one’s ears. The reds were running thick—the limit still holding at six a day.
The woman from Redoubt Avenue leaned against the fence, smoking a cigarette and watching the fishermen. She was a thin, blond creature with pale skin and a mess of freckles. Mary thought her quite beautiful actually, though she wouldn’t have admitted that out loud.
Mary approached her from behind, but her cough gave her away. The woman from Redoubt Avenue turned, and her eyes widened. She bit the cigarette nervously and pulled. Mary paid her little mind and leaned against the fence. She looked down on the fishermen below.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” said the woman. Her eyes were watery. She balled up a few tissues in her palm and stuffed them in her pocket.
“It’s Interesting,” Mary said flatly.
Mary smiled. “Just something Nathan said to me the other day. He said, ‘Mary, people don’t get sick in July.’”
The woman from Redoubt Avenue lifted her eyebrows.
“Anyways,” Mary continued. “Shows you what he knew.” She took out her handkerchief and trumpeted her nose. Then she offered it to the stranger.
The woman from Redoubt Avenue studied her closely. She licked her lips and turned back toward the river. “No, thanks,” she said with a wave of her hand. “I’m on the mend. Another day. Maybe two, and I’ll be fine again.”
Mary nodded and then—much to the woman’s surprise—held her hand out, motioning for the cigarette. The woman from Redoubt Avenue stared at it coldly. For a moment, Mary thought she might be stupid enough to argue with her. “Don’t stop sharing now,” she said bluntly.
The woman from Redoubt Avenue blinked, swallowed nervously, and handed her the cigarette. Mary placed it between her lips and inhaled. She filled her lungs with the smoke. Filled them with harsh tobacco and the taste of this woman’s lipstick and saliva. She took it all.
Below a young boy—maybe twenty or so—shouted “Fish on!” and his pole bent sharply toward the water. But he held his ground. For a second, his line hissed across the water, and Mary thought he’d forgotten to set his drag. But the boy placed his palm on the reel and it came to a halt. The women watched as he slowly began to reel and step back toward the bank.
With a sharp jerk, the line changed direction and headed down river. It was moving fast—too fast. The boy grabbed the reel, and Mary watched skeptically as the sockeye salmon breached the water, flipping marvelously through the air. The boy’s green yarn winked at them from the salmon’s back, and it crashed down into the water.
Mary took another drag. The hook was foul.
The boy’s shrinking posture was sign enough that he’d realized the same. Angrily, he fought the salmon up onto shore. It was a lengthy battle. They always are when you foul them. It’s like trying to ride a bucking bronco instead of walking it by the reins. When he’d finally pulled it up onto shore, the fish thrashed around, and threw river stones like shotgun rock salt. But once suffocation set in, the fish slowed and then all together stopped moving. The boy dropped down, placing a knee on either side of the fish. He pulled a pair of needle nose pliers from his vest and ripped the hook from the fish’s back.
Slipping his finger up into the fish’s gill, he walked it back out into the river and placed it in the water, but the salmon rolled belly up. Carefully, the boy took it with both hands and rolled it back over. Slowly, he pushed and pulled the fish through the water, forcing oxygen back into its gills. He did this five or six times before the fish snapped back to life. With a few quick jerks, it freed itself from his hands and disappeared into the river.
Both women watched. Each taking a drag.
© 2014 J.B. Kish