The Fall Run
Ricky’s Grandpa Carl untied the line and pushed the boat away from the dock before yanking the motor into action. In less than a minute, the dock disappeared. Ricky hated fishing.
The little Smokercraft bumped over the low waves of the Columbia, slamming the plastic seat repeatedly into Ricky’s boney butt. He held on tight and hoped he wouldn’t bounce over the side. Like clockwork, his throat grew thick and his stomach destabilized. He had some dramamine in his vest pocket, but he didn’t dare let go of the seat to get it. Instead he focused on the increasingly distant lights of the shore.
Grandpa was an inscrutable shadow at the stern, steering them to one of his favorite fishing holes. He never told anyone where his secret spots were, and he made sure to obscure the locations whenever he took anyone out. That meant when they packed up and headed back to shore he would shoot up and down the river, in and around little islands, double back and then reverse until he was sure his passengers were totally disoriented.
The engine whine dropped to a growl as Grandpa slowed down to find the exact place from which he intended for them to catch the fall chinook who were racing below them to their spawning grounds. Ricky quickly took advantage of the moment to pop his dramamine, and then spent the next fifteen minutes concentrating on keeping it down. Grandpa always looked disappointed to see his descendant so easily fazed.
Fortunately, the drug was kicking in by the time Grandpa cut the engine, and the Columbia was calm, the waves gently rocking the boat like a mother would a cradle. There was a vague paleness to the east, and Grandpa’s features were now picked out in shades of gray and black. With the deep lines around his mouth and his eyes sunk back in their sockets, he looked like a primitive god.
Grandpa rarely smiled, even when he was joking. His deep baritone rumbled, “Climb over and drop the anchor, Ricky.”
Ricky scrambled into the bow to lift the heavy anchor. He crouched on the ropes awkwardly as the anchor sank with a heavy plop into the dark water. The task had become more difficult now that he was bigger, and he almost fell over the bench as he made his way back to his seat. Grandpa asked for the tackle box, and he reached back over and lifted the heavy case out and around and set it on the floor between them next to the cooler.
They leaned over the box, selecting their weights and tackle, and a breath of whisky puffed across the space from Grandpa Carl.
He had done it again, not that Ricky could prove anything.
Grandpa learned sleight-of-hand as a young man, and had a habit of producing coins and cards out of thin air as if it were completely ordinary. Ricky loved it when he was a kid. Grandpa would do the coin in the ear trick, levitate while he put his coat on, bend spoons, and make all kinds of things disappear. All while telling stories or talking with his parents like nothing was happening. Later, he used those skills to hide the alcohol. No matter where he was, who was with him, he still managed to keep drinking, though you’d never catch him with it. Not once.
The two of them cast out on opposite sides of the boat and settled in. Ricky looked at the nearest shore. They were next to one of the many islands that dotted the river, but which one he did not know. The wind picked up and chafed his skin. He turned to zip his coat and saw his grandfather writing in a notebook.
It was hard bound, about the size of a paperback. Ricky had never seen it before, and his first instinct was to avert his gaze back out onto the water. Grandpa scratched a few more notes down, flipped some pages, flipped some more, scratched another note. Ricky reeled in to check his line, then cast out again. Looking for something else to do, he opened the cooler and pulled out the sandwich he’d packed last night. When he closed the cooler, he found Grandpa’s hand extended out to him holding a battered tin flask.
Ricky thought about the D.A.R.E. lectures in health class, about his mother’s lectures about genetic predispositions, and the parties he went to where coolers just like the one next to him lay filled with luke-warm beer that he’d circled, but failed to sample.
He took the flask and threw back a slug, then handed it back to Grandpa while pretending not to choke.
Grandpa smiled a little more, took a sip, and sat back in his seat, looking down the gorge toward the point where the river disappeared between the cliffs.
“They’re not going to find anything at the house. I haven’t slipped that much.” Ricky stared at his line. The dramamine was making him sleepy and he briefly wondered if mixing it with the whiskey was a good idea.
“I may be old, but I’m not stupid.”
Ricky jerked his head up. “I don’t think you’re stupid.”
Grandpa sat and scratched his head for a second. He hadn’t vanished the flask yet. “Sorry. I’ve gotten touchy since my brain started to swell.”
Ricky felt something in his chest drop. “What?”
To his amazement, a sheepish look crossed Grandpa’s face before he took a final swig and turned out to the water. The flask disappeared.
“My brain is swelling on one side. It’s giving me some problems.”
Ricky turned back to his own line. The horizon continued to lighten, but there were still no fish biting. He kept his eyes on the water anyway.
“What kind of problems.”
“Hm. Well, things slip my mind, mostly. Mostly recent things. For instance, when I think about it, I have no idea how I spent yesterday afternoon. I mean, I have some ideas, I’ve made some deductions, but I don’t remember. Took me awhile just to keep it in my head that my brain was bulging in the first place.”
Ricky wondered if he was supposed to know this. Wouldn’t his mom have told him? Did she know?
“Is that why you got the notebook?”
“Yep. Writin’ things down helps a lot. Sometimes it jogs the memory when I read it again, sometimes not. Helps keep me on my toes though.”
This was not how a morning fishing with Grandpa was supposed to go. He was supposed to be bored and nauseous, and nervous about impressing the old man, not terrified by this honest confidence. He shivered and wished a goddamn fish would bite already. The silence yawned out between them, but it was no longer comfortable, but fraught.
“Does it hurt?”
“Nah,” Grandpa dismissed the idea with a wave, then started reeling in. “More ‘n’ more, though, I wake up in the morning, and my dreams keep going, even when I’m walking around.” He chuckled, checked his line, and cast out again. “Good thing I’m not prone to nightmares.”
“So, do you hallucinate?”
“Something like that, except it feels more like dreaming, like the dream world and this world are bleeding into each other.”
Ricky tried to imagine what it would be like; if his dreams came to life, and horrifically embarrassing ideas came to mind. “So, you ever dream you’re naked in public, then realize its true?”
Grandpa gave him a dirty look, then focused really hard on the horizon.
“No. But I spent a day showing my old friend Don around the neighborhood before I remembered he’d died in the war. He sure didn’t seem dead at the time.”
“Are you dreaming now?”
“I don’t think so.”
They sat in the boat, staring in opposite directions at their lines in the water as dawn crept through the gathering fog. Sometimes, dawn is an incredibly beautiful time, but Ricky noted that today the sunrise was pretty drab, just lighter and lighter shades of grey. The fog rose off the water and thickened until the only shore they could see distinctly was that of the unknown island. Somewhere out on the water a curlew called the opening notes to a disembodied dawn chorus.
“Will you die?”
“Of course, son. I’m old, remember?”
“I mean, will it kill you?” His voice was steady, and he did not turn to look at his grandfather when he asked.
“No. I don’t seem to have much time anyway.” Grandpa growled at the dark western sky, “The drinking seems to be getting worse.”
Ricky waited a moment.
“I mean, I’m running out faster. I don’t remember drinking more, but I must be.”
A flood of thoughts battled for speech inside Ricky. It was a subject known, but unspoken, and every suppressed question and comment now vied for the opportunity of this moment of honesty.
“The doctor says my liver’s shot. I thought I could slow down, but apparently the opposite has happened.”
A pale sun crept over the horizon, and Ricky fished out his sunglasses and took a few deep breaths.
“Does Mom know?”
“No. Jeanne’s a good girl, but she’s always been fussy. As a kid, she went into hysterics everytime anyone got a sniffle. She had to go to a shrink for a while. It wouldn’t do her any good.”
“So why are you telling me?” sighed Ricky wondering if this new closeness with Grandpa Carl was something he could handle. He felt a tug on the line and held his breath.
“I don’t know, Ricky.” There was another tug on the line and Ricky jerked his rod and felt the hook set.
Somewhere far below them, a fish shot up river, and the reel spun as the line played out. Grandpa reeled in quickly while Ricky battled the fish. Everywhere birds were singing and chirping and cawing as if cheering him on rather than greeting the dawn. The fish leapt about thirty feet from the boat and he heard his Grandpa yell in satisfaction as he got the net. It zipped under the boat and Ricky dropped the tip and released the line while he worked his way to the stern and started reeling in again. As he worked the tired fish up to the boat and Grandpa’s net, he saw that it was big.
“That’s a good one, Ricky! At least twenty-five pounds.” Ricky grinned as his Grandpa slipped the net around the fish and gently slit its throat. The fish seemed to calm as it bled out. Grandpa stood watch as the fish died, then wiped his knife clean and lifted the fish into the trash bag Ricky had ready. He watched as Ricky removed the last of his snack food from the cooler and arranged the fish inside.
“They say salmon are the soul of this place.” He always said this when they caught a fish.
“It’s sacred food. Eating it is like taking communion.”
“Yeah.” Ricky sat down and checked his line. It was pretty chewed up, so he opened the tackle box and set to work while Grandpa cast out his own line after a brief inspection.
“You’ve become a good fisherman. Maybe you can have the boat.”
Ricky couldn’t help but laugh. Grandpa looked at him.
“I hate fishing, Grandpa.” They both looked out toward the little island. Dawn had passed, it was daytime now and the fog was beginning to burn off.
“Yeah, I know. That’s why I like it when you come.”
Ricky put a new line of tackle on his line, baited it, and cast. He glanced back to see Grandpa writing in his notebook again.
“Maybe I’ll remember this.”
Ricky looked back on the water, but the glare was now too much, so he started eating his sandwich. Grandpa finished writing and tossed the notebook into the tackle box.
“Will you burn that for me afterwards?”
Ricky forced himself to swallow. The wind was still up, but he was no longer cold. “Why me?”
“Don’t read it.”
“Okay.” They sat in the boat, Ricky’s head bent to the sun, Grandpa Carl facing west. Ricky looked at the tail of his fish sticking out of the cooler.
“You’ll have to teach me all your secrets.”
“How’ll I find it before Mom and burn it if you don’t?”
Grandpa didn’t answer for a long while, and Ricky had almost given up and settled in to watch his line again, when he heard him sigh.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED