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I have been told to write to you concerning my sentence. My lawyer says maybe you will understand and be a little more lenient, even if I won't say I'm sorry. Which, by the way, I'm not.
I guess I should just start at the top. It was his cigar. An Arturo Fuente, all the way from Cuba. It was a big swollen thing, and he stroked it, back and forth, back and forth. It was obscene, the way he handled it. I was building a rod for him, a $1700 bamboo with a nice whipping action, and I tried not to look at that cigar and the way his hand moved on it. You know that old saying, "A woman's a woman but a cigar's a good smoke?" I never understood that; I'm not sure I do yet, but whenever I'd glance at him petting that thing, I thought I had a better idea. I don't know if the cigar was a good smoke, but it was smoking, and burnt swatches of ash were breaking off all over the store's floor. "Dr. Freud, you'd love it," I said as I tightened his reel to the rainforest cork handle.
"What's that, honey?" He was from the Midwest, southern Indiana, to be exact, and he had a voice like a blue tick hound.
"You're gonna love it, this rod, Mr. Tichener." Obviously, your honor, I lied to him about what I said, and maybe if I'd told him the truth then, how obscene I thought he was, things would have turned out different. But in defense of myself, if you please, my job at the fishing store is not to tell the truth. That's why Tichener bought the rod, reel, vest, waders, float tube, brimmed hat, $100 worth of flies, polarized sunglasses, surgical scissors in vest pocket, clippers dangling from retractable pin, and Patagucci pants and shirt . . . the only thing on him that he hadn't bought at Pete's was his underwear and that cigar. Why, he'd even bought me. "I need someone to instruct me in the use of all this shit," he said. "Someone up at my place for the day," he told Pete. "I prefer a woman. Her." He nodded at me. I did not like his use of language. I do not believe in swearing, Judge.
There are two kinds of clients that make Pete nervous: those that don't want women and those that do. The first request is easy for him to fix: Pete assigns a male guide, and they all go out to the river or spring or pond and bond with peanut butter sandwiches. The second he always give the once over, making sure they aren't rapists or anything. The problem this time was that Pete should have given me the once over. Of course, he didn't know that. And, I swear, Judge, neither did I.
"Pete tells me you gotta little Indian blood, honey," he said to me the next day.
"Yessir." I was picking a dry fly out of his new $75 flybox to tie on his line, a big, bright Royal Wulf so he could really see where it went when he was practicing his casts.
"I got Indian blood myself," he said, taking his cigar out of his mouth and examining it, then licking its soggy end.
"What tribe?" I asked, concentrating on my knot. I knew what he was going to say. Cherokee. Every Midwesterner I ever met who has told me they are Indian says Cherokee, which has made me think that the Trail of Tears must have been one long trail of red and white fornication (pardon my language, your honor).
"There you go." I handed him his rod and picked up my own. I was being nice still. Not only was it my job, but Pete is my friend.
The beautiful rod made him look uncomfortable, humble, and I began to think he wasn't so bad. I mean, really, your honor, he wasn't bad looking, just like a blue tick hound isn't bad looking. As a matter of fact, he looked sort of like a hound--well shaped and with the potential of muscle, reddish hair and smooth Italian leather skin that people with lots of time get, and walnut brown eyes. He even had a hint of red to his eyes like hounds do, from his whites being bloodshot. Also, his ears hung a little long like a hound's; he had those dangling lobes that are going extinct, and if anything they made him a little vulnerable, as if he himself was on the endangered list, rather than just his ears.
"Well, honey, give it to me." He meant the lesson, but he said it in a way that meant something else as he rolled that cigar around in his mouth. His vulnerability disappeared in that motion. All I could see was pornography, and he was it.
I know what you are thinking, sir. That I'm some sort of weird minority sex maniac off the reservation who's taken her natural skills of fishing from her tribe and eked out a living in the backyard of the United States of America. And maybe that kind of sentimentality would make you take pity on me and give me a lesser sentence. I don't want this to happen, though.
So here is the whole truth about my heritage. As you know, my name is America Vespucci. The Vespucci is from my father, a native Montanan, and the America is from my mother, a second generation San Franciscan and a Crow. I grew up in the bay area and here in Montana, on my Grandfather Vespucci's ranch. As you are no doubt figuring out, my family is all backwards. My mother's parents, aware of the dangerous mix of liquor and Indians, left the Crow Agency in the early fifties, my Grandpa Horse Catcher taking advantage of a government program to help Native Americans. He was taught welding, and then he went on to college and became an Indian ethnologist. About the same time Grandfather Horse Catcher started college, my Grandfather and Grandmother Vespucci were moving to Montana from San Francisco so Grandpa could teach art history at the state college. My dad was born here, and when he grew up he went to the bay area to go to art school, where he met my mom. My mom's an anthropologist at Berkeley, and my dad . . . well, my dad's a wonderful man, but he's a drunk. He lives and paints at the Crow Agency. It's ironic, but it's the Vespuccis, not the Horse Catchers, who fight alcoholism.
And, by the way. The Crows, like all plains tribes, hated to fish. They thought trout were dirty. It's my grandfather's Italian Catholicism that made me a fisher. He saw the soul in trout. When he drew the coppery, crescent-shaped Browns out of his stream, all inlaid in gold and blue and red, he would say to me, "Oh, Meri, we're in Byzantium." And then he would tell me about that empire, and the narrow creek we fished became the Bosporous, linking the Marmara and Black seas, linking my grandfather and me, linking his time and mine.
That creek, the place my grandfather and I liked best to fish, was where I ended up that day with Tichener. And it was under about ten feet of water. You see, that hounddog of a man had bought my grandfather's place from my dad, who got it when Grandfather Vespucci died. As you can imagine, a drunk artist who, when he manages to work does so in the middle of nowhere, doesn't make a lot of money, so my dad sold the land. The psychologist has told me that all of what happened could be blamed on my dad for his lifestyle; the lawyer has told me that all of what happened could be blamed on Tichener. However, I take full responsibility. I am just trying to explain to you how all this came about.
Anyway, as soon as Tichener had the title free and clear, he tore down the old log house my grandparents had lived in, piled it up in a heap, kerosened it, and burned it. He didn't give the wood to anyone for anything, just because it was his. On the old house site he built a . . . you guessed it, your honor . . . a log house. Only this sucker was big: 8,000 square feet; I know. Tichener showed it to me. It had huge hinges on these big castle doors. The hinges had been rusted with acid so they looked old (he could have just kept the old ones from my granddad's if he wanted rust). One of the bathrooms had an old tub with clawfeet, but the feet were platinum. And so were the fixtures on the sink. The only thing I recognized as something I could afford was the toilet seat--it was your average American white plastic.
It used to be that my grandfather and I would walk out the door of the old house and follow the stream down the slope to this spot which leveled out. It was where the stream had a deep pool, and we could fish the Browns and talk and look out over the valley.
But here I was now, looking out over the valley and standing on the brink of Tichener's Hoosier fishing pond, stocked with the biggest trout that ever lived on the top of the world. It didn't matter that they'd come from a farm and were old and mushy.
Behind us was Tichener's fishing cabin, a little postcard log affair with old basket creels hung around and antique rods leaning against the walls, and a humble little iron cot wrought with gold plated fish and a brand new antique quilt on it. The walls were barbecued with brands from the valley. The whole scene was supposed to look old, like he'd grown up there, and his pappy Louis L'Amour and his grandpappy Zane Grey had fished the stocked pond. But I knew different, your honor.
"Okay, honey, show me how to do it good. Real good." That's what he said to me, and I swear, I did. It was my job. I started him real good on the roll cast. I explained--just like I was supposed to--the need for metronomic fluidity, showing him how to start his arm moving at high noon--straight up--and then bringing the hand back to eleven, then ticking it forward to one. I cast and cast around the clock so he could watch and copy my motions.
For a manufacturer who had made a fortune, Tichener was a slow learner. He kept bringing his arm back and throwing the line out as if it was a baseball. He was getting impatient. I will not write down what he said to me, as I don't use words like that. But he ended his necklace of blue jewels by telling me, "Honey, you're gonna have to do better than that for me."
I was still working and working hard, your honor. I sighed and put my rod down, coming along beside him, trying to get him to keep his shoulder down and his elbow in. All I met was stupid, muscled resistance. Then I went behind and spooned him, leaning into him, letting my body follow the contours of his, letting my arm rest on his, letting my hand grasp his which grasped the rod. It was disgusting. Every time his arm swung up, I would get a blast of his chemistry--Ralph Lauren Chaps and Old Spice Musk. The smells of him stole the smells of my world away, of astringent sage and tannic willow, and I began to hate him.
"Feels good, honey. Real good."
I backed away and to the side to let him try the cast by himself, which he seemed to be figuring out. But his arm immediately went haywire again, the fly snagging in the brush behind him. He threw the rod down and turned on me. "Get over here, goddamnit! I didn't pay to have you stand over there and watch me fuck myself over!" Pardon my French, Judge, but this is what he said to me.
"No, this isn't working, Mr. Tichener." I meant everything--the lesson, the pond, my grandpa's place, the big old fish.
But he didn't know that. He just looked at me like I hadn't earned my money. "Pick it up and straighten the damn thing." His line was all knotted.
"Do you have a book around anywhere?" I was doing what he asked, pulling line, redoing knots. He scared me. "I've got another idea."
"Yeah, in the cabin."
Of course they would have fake books in there to go with the fake brands, the fake rods, the fake everything. Near the cot I found a bible. I opened the cover, and, believe it or not, it was a Gideon's. The rich man who bought my grandpa's ranch for pretty much nothing because my dad was desperate had stolen the good book from a motel. I went back out and shoved it under his arm, into his pit. "Okay. Cast. Only don't drop the bible."
"Shit." He had thrown, and the bible fell, cracking face down in the dirt.
As I bent to pick it up, I thought about how sacrilegious the day had become, not only on a personal level but a cultural one, too. I turned the book over and brushed it off, and all at once a hatch of little black words flew around my head. It was the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and it seemed an accurate description of my situation. Tichener had told me that he had fertilizer plants down near the Ohio River. He said he was having a terrible time with the environmentalists for dumping chemicals into the water, so he'd sold his plants and come to Montana where the fishing was good. Here we stood 3,000 feet below the spring of a stream, started high on a west-facing granite mountain, a mountain that my family had once belonged to. We were at the headwaters of the world because this stream fed into the Madison River which helped start the Missouri at the three forks, and the Missouri ran to the Mississippi, and the Mississippi dropped south and was fed by the Ohio, where Tichener's factories dirtied it. He had wrecked the downstream waters and then, like a Sodomite, he'd fled. He was like some kind of disease traveling up the currents of America, into its heart, into its origin, and he was going to dirty it here, too. Heavens, he already had.
After that biblical revelation, the dropping of the good book became a game for me. It would fall, Tichener would swear at me, and I would pick it up to see what message there was. If I could make sense of it, I got a point. If I couldn't Tichener got one. Since I am a lapsed Christian, I was losing.
As the afternoon wore on and the bible got dogeared, Tichener's casting got better. Eventually, he was hardly dropping it, and his fly was landing in the middle of the pond. The last time the book fell, the pages spread to the story about Jonah and the great fish. And right after that, it happened.
I'd tied a red humpy on the line earlier, and the fly, whose hump was beginning to fray, lay exhausted and resting in the still water, smack dab in the summer sky's reflection. As I was looking down into the puffy clouds, they parted, and this leviathan rolled up and then disappeared when they closed. It had Tichener's fly. The man didn't even have to set the hook. "Oh, baby, oh yeah, baby, oh, yeah!" he whooped as he awkwardly reeled it in, and the bible fell again.
It was a rainbow, the meekest of trout, and she fought little despite her 20 inch size. But how could she have fought? She was a granny, her nose all smashed in from beating against some cement wall for a few years, her sides scarred white. And when Tichener made me gut her, her feeble eggs spilled into the stream water below the dam.
He was excited now, your honor. He had me tie on another fly because he didn't know how, impatient at the time it took me; he made me shove the bible under his armpit again--for luck, he said. He cast. He caught another. And then another and another, another, another, all of them putting up no fight, all of them beat up bad, all of them strung on a willow stick by me and floating attached to the bank of the pond, and he kept casting, and his shadow was long like Ahab's, and the bible was under his arm and he had won the game. The water was his, the land was his, and he was righteous. It didn't matter that it was a massacre.
I caught myself whistling "Garry Owen," old General Custer's theme song, and I wondered at the fishbelly of the world, that one that floats silent till it bursts into the light and flashes. The Crow, you no doubt know, sir, had been on the side of Custer, and I felt all confused because I wasn't thinking history; I was feeling Indian.
Finally, Tichener quit fishing. Flushed and cocky, he dropped his rod and came over to hug me. He squeezed my air out, leaving me more deflated than I already was. "Oh my America, my newfound land!" he yelped, and then he slapped me on my bottom. "Pick my shit up and bring it to the house." He started to walk up the creek.
I didn't know if he was including the trout floating on the willow stick as . . . well, pardon me, your honor, but as . . . shit. "What about the rainbow you caught?"
"How bout that, America? How many'd I catch? Tell me again! How many? Eight?" He whooped and barked like the dog he was.
I dismantled the rod--the beautiful third world rod he'd bought--and gathered his gear, then I went down to the willow branch with the gutted fish. One by one I pushed them off the pale green stick and watched them slide down between the rocks, carried by the currents that lead far away to places I didn't want to be. I dropped his gear off at the big house and pocketed a $200 tip, feeling like a Crow, eating crow. Not for long, though. I knew what I would do. This is where you come in, Judge.
It was a halfmoon sky, giving me enough light to lumber without headlights up Tichener's road in my pickup. I knew the land well enough that in the semidarkness I pulled off where I had to. It was a sagebrush flat near the pond, and it was all too perfect. There had never been a way to drive to the stream when my grandfather lived on the place, and we had walked around sage and boulder, the walk being part of the ceremony we practiced. But when Tichener wanted his little fishing lodge, the building crew had dozed a lane to get supplies in. Now I slowly drove that scar, worrying about the garbage cans full of water in the truckbed sloshing and spilling with the bumps, until the truck was right at the side of the pond.
I turned my engine off and got out, listening to the pop and smack of the pond's surface as the artificial, swollen fish desperately took advantage of the drowning bugs in the half lit night. I walked to the truck's hood and opened it, then went to the truckbed to check the cans, which were still pretty full of water, and to grab the starter cable. I returned to the engine and connected the clamps to the battery. I got out my float tube and inflated it, setting it aside for when I would need it. Then I started the engine, praying the growl it always made would not wake Tichener, if he was even home.
Your honor, there are more convenient ways to stun fish. There's a battery pack the Fish and Game folks wear on their backs. I know a lot of state people, and I could have begged one. But it wouldn't have been right. I didn't want to get anyone in trouble if I got caught, and when I was planning my raid, I wasn't sure how big a trouble I would make. If my Indian side ruled, it would be more a raid for counting coup. If my Italian side won out, it would be a raid for killing. In that event, I had taken my rod case out of the rifle rack in my pickup's back window and slid in my .22. If I ended up feeling like it, I would shoot Tichener in the eye.
Once the engine settled down and broke into its hum, I crept up the stream and through the trees to a point where I could see the house. It was a little past midnight, and no lights were on.
When I got back to the truck, I pulled on my chest waders and then took the two unattached cable clamps and touched them together, sparking them. They jumped in my hands, and I slowly walked toward the water. I waded two or three feet out from the bank, joined the clamps and watched a flash of lightning magnify in the water, right next to a reflection of the moon. A few seconds later, two pale blue trout bodies floated to the surface, barely knocked out from the feeble shock, and I scooped them up in my net. I struggled out, sloshing and making a lot of noise, the heavy fish in one hand and the cables in the other. Once out, I threw the clamps down and ran to the pickup bed, gently dropping the trout, who were already wriggling desperately from the claustrophobia of net and air, into one of the garbage cans. As I headed back to the pond, I could hear them bumping against the plastic sides.
The liquid moon moved as I methodically worked the pond. I had stolen ten garbage cans from town, and in each I put about a dozen trout. I was beginning to worry about the air they had left. Given the size of the pond, Tichener should not have had more than about a hundred fish, but he was a glutton. Nevertheless, the moon was disappearing into the graying dawn, and I figured I should go. Even if there were more fish, they wouldn't be so easy for that man to catch.
Three miles from the pond is a private road with access to the river. I know about it because the man who once lived on the land it goes through was a friend of my grandfather. Now it belongs to a New York publisher. In that opaque green of summer morning I opened the familiar old barbed wire gate and drove through and down to the cottonwood bottom. When I got there I backed the truck up to the river and started dumping about 400 pounds of garbage--120 of the biggest trout that ever lived on the top of the world. Despite their swollen and misshapen size, they were fine and beautiful when they slipped into the pocket of water and disappeared as water themselves.
Judge, I must tell you that I felt good. I felt proud. I wondered where they would go and how far they could get. Certainly not to the Ohio or the Mississippi or even the Missouri . . . no farther, really, than the power company dam fifteen miles away, if they had enough wildness left in them to survive the fishing pressure all along that stretch of river.
I thought of Tichener casting a line on the dead waters of his world as I drove east toward town, into the day I had just caught and released. "Carp are dyin'," I crowed to myself. "Carpe diem." I would get a few hours rest and then be back out to the old place. Tichener wanted me for another session.
When I got back to his pond, the cops were waiting with Tichener. "Well, my America," he said as I came up. "You have been found out."
And the rest, your honor, is, as they say, history. It is for you to sort out.
# # #
Glen Chamberlain Barrett is a novelist, essayist, and short story writer. She received a B.A. from the University of Michigan and an M.A. from the University of Wyoming. Barrett has recently garnered a number of literary awards for her work, including a Pushcart Prize for her creative nonfiction piece, "Off the Road, or the Perfect Curve Unfound." This year she is the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals including Northern Lights. She also teaches writing courses in the English Department at Montana State University and is presently completing a novel entitled A Travel Book.