“I took up fly fishing when Danny was in Iraq, to keep my mind off of it. It was the only thing I could do to stay focused. You just watch the water all day. Your line. It was the only thing that worked for me when Danny was in Iraq.” Dave is Dan’s father and he is seated to my left. Dan is seated to my right. We’re in Dave’s elevated 2002 Dodge Ram pickup and I’m riding bitch, awkwardly adjusting my legs whenever we need to downshift. We’re driving to northwestern Maine. Dave is telling me how he began fly fishing.
Dave is about six foot even, 275 pounds. Bald, he wears a baseball cap most of the time. Far-sighted, his glasses fog up when he fishes in the rain, but he can’t tie his flies (flies being the fly fishing equivalent of regular old fishing lures) as well with contact lenses on as he can with glasses. As life is a constant compromise, he chooses to wear glasses the morning we go out to Magalloway River, betting on the high pressure system moving into the region. That morning it rains, hard, for several hours. We all get soaked. We all hike about on the banks of the muddy Magalloway wondering exactly how we got ourselves into this situation in the first place, and when the sun comes out (finally) we rejoice until we don’t, and when we don’t it’s because it’s raining again. Because it rains and rains and rains on the Magalloway over Father’s Day weekend — at least, it does on Saturday morning.
But in the end the sun comes out. You can watch the sunset over Rangeley Lake. It’s pretty.
The moose we eventually see is a yearling, but we have to admit that we were grimly hopeful that the ambulance we saw turn around and flash its lights was responding to a moose-automobile accident. It is not. We never figure out what the ambulance was for. Anyway, “Watch out for moose,” Dave says. He’s been saying it all weekend. I’ve never seen a moose in the wild. I don’t know that I’ve ever even seen a moose. Jesus Christ, how can I not have ever seen a moose? I must have seen a moose. Maybe I have seen one, after all.
I realize that I’m at the age where I can’t be sure about things in my memory anymore, and it worries me, because that means I’m dying. Which of course you can only do while you’re still alive.
“So your dad died, huh?” Dave says. We’re alone. Dan was inspired to fish our campground’s lake during a lull in the wind. Dave and I are barbecuing asparagus and carrots in steak juice and butter. They will be delicious.
“Yeah,” I say, cheerily. I’d made a toast to my Dad the previous night, in the context of a long and drunken conversation about God and the age of Planet Earth (Dave says 6,000 years, I say 5 billion-ish; he’s a card-carrying member of the Christian Right, and he’s pretty cool). I’d said, “I actually am more religious now than I’ve been since I was a child, because I want to believe. I want for there to be a heaven, where my Dad is happy and looking over us and saying hello in sunsets and shit. But I’m also shitfaced, and honest enough to admit that committing to that isn’t something that jives with the rest of my worldview. But, fuck that, I’m drunk. My point is, I have become slightly more religious lately, because I’ve never wanted that before, but I kinda do now? I don’t know, man. I’ve never just fucking longed to say hello to someone again,” — and this is the part where you, or I, tear up, and STOP, goddamnit, because we are men and there is a campfire and you are never going to see anyone who’s gone ever again — “And, fuck it. Fuck it, you know? I’d just like to say that my old man was a great man, and I miss him, and I always will, and that’s that, and cheers.”
And we have a cheers all around, and I look hard into the fire, because it’s the only way I can avoid breaking down.
Sunday morning. Today. Androscoggin River. 30 minutes up an old logging road, over a bridge with no railings, spindly, spiny, foresty Maine all around us, wind ripping like caterpillars if caterpillars ripped, which they don’t. Dave stays in the truck while Dan and I wade down the river. I bring three beers, even though we begin at 8:00 in the morning, because fuck-it-I’m-on-vacation-and-I’m-fucking-fishing-and-I-want-to-nap-on-the-ride-home, that’s why. I practice my roll cast. It’s getting pretty good after three days, but I still don’t know how to tie a knot worth shit, and ultimately this will be the difference between adoptees of fly fishing and rejectors: this tolerance for knot-tying. I can’t really get with it. But I do like to stand in the water and wish for fish.
“Your main problem,” Dan says, “is that you don’t know when you’ve got a catch,” which is undoubtedly true. I can’t tell the difference between a genuine bite and the motion of the line in an eddy, or down a rapid, or stuck on a rock. I can’t snag the bites I get if I don’t know they’re bites, which makes catching the fish my flies are tempting a bit more difficult. “Yep,” I reply. “I can’t.”
“Let’s get going.”
We go. Along the way I snag my first fish of the weekend, an eight-inch landlocked salmon, accidentally. I go to reel my line in and notice a pull, and I say to Dan, “I’ve got one!” and he says, “Bring it to shore. Rod up!”And when I pull it off the hook, the salmon wiggling and striving for something not made-up, I say to myself and no one else, “Hey, Dad.” And the fish stops wriggling because it’s out of oxygen, and I pull it off the hook and coax it back to life under water, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t just splash its way out of sight against a backdrop of mountaintops and swamp grass and dangerous bridges. I’ll be damned if it doesn’t disappear down the river, never to be seen or heard from again.
I’ll be damned, old man.