What We’re Left With - by Todd Davis

 

 

Halfway up the mountain trout are rising. Jenkins sits on a boulder and watches them. Dimpled rings appear where jaws brush the surface, fish drawing mayflies between sharp teeth. This high along the Allegheny Front streams are no wider than a good leap, and Bear Loup Run is no exception. Some of the rings vanish before they touch the bank, washed away by the current that flows through the center of the pool. Others disperse, then disappear against the eroded soil, subtle kiss-splash against stone and clay.

Exactly seven weeks ago Jenkins’s wife, Helen, died. He doesn’t consider it morbid that he’s been counting the days. Each hour drifts him farther away from her living body, and his chest aches at the gap in the bed. The minister at the church Helen attended told Jenkins at the memorial service, while patting his shoulder, that the ache would ease a bit over the coming year. Jenkins isn’t sure he believes him and is tired of people patting him like he’s an injured dog. He wonders what they’d say if he told them how he imagines Helen’s body as it burned in the crematorium, how he puts his fingers down into her ashes each morning. What remains of her is held in a piece of pottery she bought at a yard sale. A blue vessel with orange flowers—(they look like hawk weed)—with a lid that snugs down and can be turned to the left, like a key in a lock, so it won’t fall off.

Jenkins is an exacting man. Punctual and precise. Never late for his shift as janitor at the local middle school. Particular about his twice-a-month haircut, asking Randy, the barber, to use a number two clipper to keep the gray stubble the same height everywhere on his scalp. It’s what makes him a good tyer of flies. Fingers nimble, efficient. Eye for just the right feather or bit of fur. Once, while fishing an eddy on the big river in the valley, a doctor from the hospital in Altoona asked Jenkins what area of surgery he specialized in. He’d watched Jenkins tying a surgical knot and assumed it was part of his day job. “I specialize in cleanin’ chalkboards,” Jenkins said, “and makin’ sure the trash compactor’s in working order.”

He met Helen far from any water or trout. She worked behind the counter at the bakery where each morning Jenkins stopped for a black coffee and a glazed donut. He’d count the coins twice, then place them in Helen’s palm, a fifty-cent tip included. He sipped his coffee slowly, tearing away a small bite of donut, rolling it on his tongue into a ball of dough to make it last. He sat at a table in the corner and watched her greet the regulars with a How ya doin, honey?  and a Good to see yinz. After the bakery’s morning rush and before he headed to school for his shift, Helen would start to clean with a wet rag, arranging the stainless-steel creamers and sugar dispensers, pausing at Jenkins table to talk for a few minutes while continuing to push the rag in a counter-clockwise motion. He didn’t know how to broach the subject of a date and instead entertained her with stories about a buck he saw trailing among the rhododendron near the stream he hunted or about an accident he cleaned up the day before at school, some poor kid throwing up Cheetos and fruit punch from a classroom party. Jenkins wore an olive jumpsuit with his name stitched in bold cursive over the right breast pocket. Helen wore a traditional blue waitress uniform, white collar and matching apron, name affixed to a plastic tag.

From the beginning, Jenkins didn’t try to hide his love of trout from her. On their first date, as they ate eggplant parmigiana at Finelli’s on 4th Avenue, Jenkins told her about the wild brown he’d pulled from the river that morning. “You shoulda been there. Tail as big as a ping pong paddle. Cheeks all colored up, same blue as chicory when it blossoms in July. Fish jumped three times trying to spit my fly, but I got ’em in the net.” He pulled his phone from his pocket and brought up a photo of a 16-inch brown laid out on his left forearm. Helen smiled, saying, “You must be very proud of yourself.”

Jenkins hasn’t fished the river once since Helen died. He hasn’t cried either. There were plenty of tears before. Holding each other at 2:30 in the morning, burying his face in her hair until nose and forehead bumped against skull, snot shining against brown curls. He tried to memorize the smell of her but finds himself forgetting already. Now when he showers, he opens the shampoo bottle she left on the shelf at the back of the stall and breathes in deeply. 

In the first days after the diagnosis, Jenkins would stand in the upstairs hall and listen to Helen groan as the pain overtook her, removing her sense of presence, her sense of self, as if a big brown finning fast had chased her down, enveloped her in its craw, leaving her in a moist darkness.

He doesn’t want to see anyone. It’s bad enough when he goes to Hometown Market for groceries. People with their I’m so sorry and She was such a good woman. Stating the obvious doesn’t change things. So he climbs the mountain to the west of the house, bushwhacking up small streams with names like Snowshoe Run and Mink Creek. No one fishes these places besides the kingfishers. The hike’s too long and the trout too small. 

Helen began to feel ill the last week of January. Nauseated and pale. She was spending more and more time on the couch, sleeping through 60 Minutes and Dateline NBC, shows she loved to watch and talk to Jenkins about. “Did you know that water from the tap is usually safer than bottled water people buy at the store?” she asked Jenkins while they brushed their teeth before bed. “At least that’s what the reporter on 60 Minutes said.” 

One ritual that didn’t change was their Saturday drive up the mountain to where a spring flowed out of a rock outcropping. Somebody had hammered PVC pipe into the seep, and Jenkins and Helen filled used milk jugs, eight of them, one for each day of the week and an extra just in case. Moss formed around the mouth of the pipe, green with promise, and Helen teased Jenkins that if they kept drinking water from the mountain, they’d change into speckled trout and have to spend the rest of their lives in some small pool together. An idea that seemed perfect to Jenkins. 

As she grew more tired, Helen couldn’t keep up with the housecleaning. While she dozed, the television droning along with her gentle snoring, Jenkins did the dishes and swept the floors. He didn’t iron, but he kept up with wash, even remembering to sort Helen’s delicates from his work clothes before starting a new load.

Despite, as she put it, being under a grey cloud, Helen insisted he go to the woods. He tried to pretend everything would be alright, traipsing into the cold. He nymphed through February, pulling small brookies from eddies where ice scalloped the edges. Water thrown into the air froze on snags that had fallen across the stream, and ice bells formed along their undersides, glistening with refracted light. The male fish shined with last fall’s spawning fire, orange bellies brilliant against the white snow that drifted the banks. He loved the winter months for what they revealed: the tracks of lives he seldom saw, divulging the patterns of bobcat and mink and fisher. Seeing the brookies, touching their bodies, offered a bit of relief that something he loved so much hadn’t disappeared.

He finally convinced Helen to go to the doctor in March, but by then it was too late. The oncologist assured them it would have been too late in January as well. Pancreatic cancer stalks its victims quietly, stealthily, and by the time symptoms appear it usually has spread. It was a matter of six weeks before she died. 

They didn’t have money for Jenkins to take off work, but he sat by the bed when he wasn’t at school. Each day, despite Helen’s protests, Jenkins would say, “You might get better. Folks at your church talk about miracles all the time.” One night when she couldn’t sleep, Helen told Jenkins how she imagined that the soul flew into something else when it left the body. She liked birds, especially warblers that migrated to the Pennsylvania woods for the summer months. With pain in her abdomen stabbing like a hook, she asked Jenkins to get the computer and play some recordings of hermit thrushes. The bird’s spiraling song echoed in the corners of the room and flew back down from the ceiling. “You know, honey,” Helen said to Jenkins, “I’ll visit you as a hermit thrush when I’m gone.”

In late April there are blue-sky days when the leaves on the trees have barely opened and the light shines metallic, making every living thing squint with happiness. Jenkins looks out the kitchen window and notices that the apple trees are near to blossoming. Helen and he planted them when they moved into their house 25 years ago. As they dug the holes they talked about the apple crisp Helen would bake in October, the apple sauce Jenkins would can, how they’d eat it heavy with cinnamon and sugar. When the apple trees are in flower, it’s hard not to catch a trout. Caddis and blue-winged olives fill the air and the fish are always looking up.

Last year, when Helen was still alive and healthy, Jenkins went out on an early April morning, driving to a place on the big river that required some hiking and kept other anglers away. He was on the water by 8:30, air temperature still barely 40. Around 10:00 a blizzard hatch blew in. Gray and brown mayflies filled the air, just like snow falling sideways. They flew up the river, colliding with his body, his face, scudding around his ears, a few ending up under his sunglasses. Trout didn’t begin surfacing for another half-hour, but when they did, it was as if the river was nothing but fish, what the locals called a “boil.” He skittered his elk hair caddis across the end of a run and brown after brown rose, like submarines coming airside for supplies. Helen liked to watch Dancing with the Stars. She’d stand in front of the television and imitate a rumba or tango, tongue clicking against her inner cheek to sound like a castanet. Jenkins would watch from the couch. He didn’t have much rhythm, outside of his casting technique. As she shifted and spun unselfconsciously, Jenkins told her how a fish leaping has its own rhythm and how that morning, with the grannoms thick, he’d danced with a fish for more than five minutes trying to land it.

The last few nights he’s dreamt the same dream. Not really a dream but a strong memory of Helen in the backyard, walking from apple tree to apple tree. The blossoms just opened. Still more pink than white. A sunny afternoon. Bees discovering the petals’ unfastened doors. And Helen smiling, still wearing her nightgown, not planning on going anywhere. Simply standing among the bees, belonging to the place like the bees belonged. Each time the dream ends with her lifting her arms and swaying with the wind’s movements. Each time Jenkins wakes with an erection and a feeling like when he played fullback in high school, helmet to the gut and the impossibility of drawing breath. 

He sits down on some moss to tie on a new fly. The older he gets the harder it is to see an elk hair caddis floating through branch and leaf shadow. He’ll often miss a fish because he spies the mouth-splash a beat after and sets the hook on thin air. It’s still at least two weeks before he expects to hear a hermit thrush in these woods. He wonders how he’d know it was Helen and not a regular run-of-the-mill thrush. He decides on a royal wulff. The white and red will stand out on the water.

As a boy, Jenkins hated Sunday mornings, especially during spring and summer. The church sanctuary would grow hot and stuffy, full of the breath of the congregation and the sun on the tin roof. It was an old church, and the windows were sealed shut with layer upon layer of white paint. When the minister told the story about the Israelites being led out of bondage, Jenkins wished for God to come as a storm, freeing him by parting the roof like the Red Sea, only with a tornado or a windfallen tree. To pass the time he’d gaze at the stained glass at the front of the church. Two panels framed the pulpit. Blues and reds, oranges and greens. Sunlight banked through the panels, illuminating different Bible stories: Christ on the cross, a Roman soldier spearing his side, or Mary visited by the angel who would tell her she was pregnant.

There are few deep runs on this stream, but Jenkins plans on fishing all the way to the boulder pool. Water slides in where an enormous stone perches beneath a hemlock that was spared when they clearcut this part of the mountain. After heavy rains, or in the early spring during snowmelt, the stream rushes in, then circles, allowing a portion of the descending water to escape in a narrow channel that drops over a falls created by a massive beech that an ice storm toppled three years ago. The circle of water reaches beneath the boulder and digs at the hidden bank, providing safety and secrecy for fish to escape into. Over the years he’s startled more than one great blue heron holding in the shallows, hoping to spear a trout swimming out from under the great rock.

The wulff knocks against the flat side of the stone and drops softly. The water’s not too high today, so Jenkins doesn’t have to mend. The spooling water turns the fly gently, naturally. A nose crests, then the rest of a head, back turning like a crescent moon. The brookie tears at the fly and plunges toward the bottom, stealing line from Jenkins’s reel. He doesn’t understand. It’s been years since he caught a fish in this stream any longer than his hand, which from the end of the palm to the tip of his middle finger is 7 and ¼ inches. But this fish feels bigger. The rod tip bends in a question mark, trying to gauge the weight, the strength of the fleeing trout.

And just that quick the rod stops moving. Still bent but without a quiver. Jenkins pulls back and notices that his lime-green line extends beneath the boulder where the fish swam to break him off. He tugs again—nothing—and assumes that he’s hooked to a sunken log. He wades into the water, which reaches his waist, and slides a hand along the line. He begins to pull gently, then a bit harder. He’d rather not lose the fly and the fish.

A slight twitch, so slight he’s not sure if it’s his retrieval or something with a spark of life. Then another twitch, which he knows isn’t his or the water’s, and his heart wriggles, twists with a bit of joy. He used to feel this way when Helen walked into the kitchen. Jenkins sitting at the table with a cup of coffee, not believing any woman so sweet would live in the same house with him for this long. They played Yahtzee together a few times a week. She beat him most every game, with uncanny rolls. He didn’t care. He simply wanted to stare at her cheeks and lips, the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes that appeared when she smiled, the blue of her iris that reminded him of the halo on a brook trout’s side.

The brookie brushes his leg as it bursts from the shadows beneath the boulder, running for the end of the pool and the escape the beech-tree waterfall will provide. Jenkins shifts the rod upstream and begins to reel, trying to guide the fish back toward the net in his left hand. Instead the trout slides between his legs, wrapping him in an awkward cat’s cradle. Without thinking, Jenkins drops the rod and grabs the line. Little by little he tugs, slowly building a nest in his hand, until the fish tires and swim-drifts into the net. 

A 15-inch brook trout, an old female likely in her last year. The jaw, when he turns her over, is gray and black, as if she’s been smudged against coal along the stream bottom. He stares at her sides, more exquisite than any stained glass. Yellow orbs constellate the flesh, blue orbs haloing red planets. On the spine, mustard etchings worm the length. 

Jenkins thinks for a moment about taking her home, calling Rhett, the local taxidermist. But she deserves a better death, maybe one more spawn in the brisk colors of fall, and so he lowers her into the water, hand beneath the belly, and lets the current wash over gills. She gives a shake of the tail and vanishes. 

Jenkins hears a bird singing somewhere in the top of a tulip poplar and begins to cry. It’s not a hermit thrush, but it’s beautiful.

 

Special thanks to our final judge, Paul Schullery, who selected “What We’re Left With” as the winner of this year’s Sheridan Anderson Memorial Short Story contest. Professor Schullery commented: “This story is so well crafted, and by such a sure hand, that I chose it over the other very good stories. I’m pleased and encouraged to see all these people so interested in doing good fly-fishing writing.”

 

 

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