A Beautiful Fish


"If I'd been smart I would have saved more of what I made," Allen nodded, agreeing with his best friend's observation that saving a dime out of every dollar was the smart thing to do, "but I was so smart I wouldn't listen to my dad. Hell, I knew everything, right? Right. I've worked my ass off for forty-nine years and what have I got to show for it? A lot of bills and not a blasted dime."
Another blue-collar worker entered the friendly neighborhood bar, a cool draft of air urging the usually-open door shut behind him. Allen's pal, Dennis Ellsworth, took another drink of beer—nodded 'hello' to the man who'd entered—then looked back at Allen.
"Well, you had fun, didn't you? You've had a good life, Allen. You're always talkin' about the things you've done…the places you've been. You got to see a few places when you were in the service. Hell, I've never been out of the state." He set the empty bottle down and looked around for the waitress. "My luck, I'll probably fall over dead with a heart attack exactly one day before I retire. Where did that new waitress go?"
Allen Baldwin was staring into a half-empty glass of beer like it was the Grand Canyon, chin in hands, elbows on the plastic-top table, eyes and mind on two different trips. He and Dennis had stopped in for a beer before going home after work, and one drink had turned into three.
"He tried to get me to open a savings account when I was around sixteen," Allen continued. "I don't think I started saving anything until I was sixty; and then that got used to pay for Nancy's medical expenses. It isn't fair, is it? All those guys makin' millions while we work ten-hour days, for what? To pay taxes and interest on everything else. What makes those sports guys and actors so rich? I'll tell you what. Us. If we didn't buy those tickets they'd be playing ball like they did when my dad was a kid...on some grass lot on Saturday afternoons and we'd be able to afford to go to a game. Look at those stadiums. Lord Almighty, it's as stupid as going to Las Vegas and throwing our money away. So who's to blame for that? We are, that's who. What happens if you or me gets sick? You think those rich bastards give a crap about us? They wouldn't give us the time of day."
He picked up his beer and finished it in one gulp.
"Two more?" the waitress asked, picking up empties.
"Two more," Dennis said, looking at his fingernails as if he'd never seen them before. "Listen, Allen…we're just working guys…we work until we die. If we'd both been smarter maybe we would have gone to college and gotten a better education. Hell, neither of us could have gotten into college, but we've had a pretty good life. We have good families." He paused, glanced at Allen and sighed deeply. "It's too bad about Nancy. I guess Helen and me, we've been lucky. No sickness or anything like that."
Somewhat uncomfortable with the turn of conversation, he watched Allen folding and unfolding a beer-dampened napkin. The waitress brought two more cold bottles and glasses, setting them on the table after giving it a cursory swipe with a bar-towel. When she left, Allen poured a glass and took another long sip. Neither spoke as Dennis poured his like a chemist about to perform some exacting experiment. On the old jukebox, the Sinatra ballad changed to an upbeat version of Mac the Knife and Dennis began keeping rhythm with his fingernails on the Formica tabletop. Behind Allen's back, a ball game on TV was holding court over the neighborhood bar, filled at the time by men without families.
"I'm gonna be sixty-seven in two more days,” Allen said. “Maybe that's what's bothering me."
"I thought you were already sixty-seven. Didn't you tell me you turned sixty-seven last year?" Dennis took another sip of beer.
"Did I? Lord Almighty…maybe I'm gonna be sixty-eight. No wonder I'm depressed." Allen wiped the condensation off of one side of his glass and watched miniscule bubbles making their way through liquid-amber to the surface. "Oh well, who the hell knows how long anyone will live anymore. I feel like I'm eighty. At our age I guess we're lucky to still have our jobs. Lots of guys were laid off."
"Right, there," Dennis nodded, bushy brows raised. "They let Paul go a week ago. Hell, he'd been there as long as us." He watched the TV screen for a minute after the bar crowd groaned, then looked back at Allen. "You taking your vacation this time?"
"Well… ." Allen sat, chin back in palm, fingertips against upper lip. "Peggy can stop by and take care of things if I do. Maybe I'll drive up to the lake and see what I can catch. It beats sitting around feeling sorry for myself."
"Right, there." Dennis nodded again and fooled absentmindedly with the bill of his baseball cap.
"You know one of the things I miss most since Nancy, you know…since last year… ." Allen stared into the glass in his hand. "Anyway, it's hearing her voice. But sometimes, and this is strange, I swear I hear her when I'm not even thinking about her. That's not often, but it's like she knows…it makes me wanna be more careful about swearing and things like that. Whata you think? Is there anything after this?"
The bar crowd groaned and fell silent. Pursing lips, Dennis looked up at the ceiling and rubbed his chin thoughtfully, lower lip between thumb and first finger. Sighing heavily, his right foot took over the job of keeping time with the music.
"Well…I'm not a very religious man…you know me…but it seems like something's happening, doesn't it? I mean, look at a fish. People make lots of complicated stuff but we can't make something as pretty as a trout. Something's happening. Hell, I don't know how to explain it, but something's going on to make all this… ." Dennis gestured, hand sweeping the air in no particular direction. " Maybe there's something after…maybe not. Maybe it just makes me feel better thinking there is."
"How big was that Mackinaw you caught last year?" Allen leaned back from the table. The bar was still quiet, most likely a lull in the game. "That was a Lake Trout, wasn't it?"
"That's right," Dennis said, smiling proudly and adjusting his cap after running fingers through thinning hair; then taking a frothy sip of beer. "Eleven pounds three ounces."
"Let's see that picture again."
Dennis took out his wallet, thumbed through a few pictures and handed the photo to Allen. "It looks bigger because I was holding it toward the camera."
Allen put on a pair of reading glasses and examined the dog-eared picture. "It's almost as big as the one I caught seven years ago."
"You never caught one that big. I've seen every picture you have. That Longe weighed two pounds more than any trout you ever caught."
"Not so." Allen handed the photo back indifferently. "I caught a thirteen-pounder when I was a kid."
"You can't even remember being a kid," Dennis said, grinning, fighting off the urge to laugh at his own sense of humor. "Hell, you can't even remember your age now."
"Can too." Allen frowned, and straightening slumped shoulders, sat up in his chair. "I just got confused there for a minute."
"You've been confused for years," Dennis said, slapping his pal on the back. "That's okay, old-timer. We all understand. Just make sure to take a scale or a ruler along with your camera when you go up to the lake. I want-a see that trophy trout."
A brooding Allen fussed with his beer glass, rotating it on its wet napkin.
"I may even rent a boat instead of fishing from the bank. There are bigger fish out there by the dam. That's where my dad and me used to fish when I was a kid...in deep water...out by the dam."
Deciding to ease up on sarcasm, Dennis was watching Allen's face, a face he knew as well as his own, a face he'd looked at for over fifty years. We've spent more waking time together than we have with our wives, he thought. Slipping into a nostalgic moment's magic, he saw Allen's face as a boy…then a teen…then a young man with a sparse beard. Years slipped past like a fast-forward movie over which some careless projectionist had lost control. Allen still looked like Allen, a boy with too many wrinkles and bigger around the waist, but still imbued with boyish curiosity. For a moment he felt a sadness, too, then smiled and put his hand on Allen's shoulder.
"You'll catch the biggest damn fish in the lake if I know you. You'll get it mounted just to make me look bad. I'll have to fish for the next fifty years just trying to catch one as big… ."
Allen's usually limpid eyes, now a bit soggy, turned toward Dennis.
"Think so? I'll give it my best shot. All I'll need then is a mantel to hang it over."
Dennis looked at his watch. "Guess we oughta get going. Wanta come for dinner? Helen always makes extra."
"I'll get the beers," Allen said, standing, coming up with a small roll of bills.
He tossed two on the table, went to the bar and paid the waitress when she gave him the check. Dennis, still reflective, waited at the door. Joined by Allen, they walked to the lot where they'd parked every day for thirty-one years.
"Time sure flies," he said, waiting for Allen to unlock the door.
"So does money," Allen mumbled, getting in and unlocking the passenger door for Dennis. "How about letting me donate to help out with groceries?"
"That's okay." Dennis watched Allen struggle to put the key in the ignition. "Better keep a few bucks for the vacation. Bet you haven't got your license yet. That's gone up again and so has the trout-stamp."
"Well," Allen said, revving the old engine, "don't say I didn't offer."
Pot-roast with potatoes was deliciously filling. A quiet usually smiling woman, Helen always made a good meal. Allen was aware of them exchanging time-crafted glances, body language developed over thirty years of living under the same roof. Three kids were grown and out on their own but the Ellsworths weren't grandparents yet.
Allen thought about his own two daughters and wondered if they'd ever marry. They're sweet girls, but aren't beauty queens...the kind of girls most boys ignore at the beach. Peggy’s gonna graduate from college in a year, bent on teaching grammar school. Elizabeth was working with Doctor Wilson, an old-time family doctor, the man who'd discovered Nancy's illness. Allen took the last bite of pot-roast he could eat and put his napkin on the table next to his spoon.
"Dessert?" Helen asked, solicitously. "I made a peach pie… ."
"Thanks, but I think I ate too much dinner." Allen patted his stomach like a pet dog. "Everything tasted so good I couldn't stop."
"You're welcome to stop by and eat with us whenever you want. It's nice to have people at the table who enjoy my cooking."
"I enjoy your cooking," Dennis said defensively, wiping his mouth on his napkin.
"I know you do, dear," his wife said, getting up to clear the table. "I didn't mean to imply that you didn't."
"The pie sounded good," Dennis added. "Maybe a small piece?"
Allen had a cup of coffee while the Ellsworths ate dessert. Not wanting to overstay a welcome, he excused himself when they'd finished.
"Thanks again for your kindness, Helen. You're a better cook than me. I woulda put a chicken pie in the microwave. Guess it's time I learned to cook, or get tired of frozen dinners…one or the other."
"I have some good cook books." Helen headed for the built-in kitchen bookcase. "It's not as difficult as people believe. I just fix what Dennis and I like to eat. There are lots of ways to make food seem different."
"She's a good cook, Dennis. You're a lucky man. Now all you gotta do is slow down on eating or you'll get as fat as me. Not good for the ol' heart. I'll borrow a book later, Nancy. Goodnight, folks. I'll see you tomorrow, Dennis. It's still my turn to drive."
The Ellsworths' stood on their covered front porch and watched Allen drive away.
"He's still having a difficult time, isn't he," Helen said, the remark not looking for an answer. "I hope he finds peace in his daughters and friends…and whatever else he might do… ."
"He's a tough guy." Dennis put his arm around his wife's shoulder. "I'm sure glad I have you. I don't think I could handle what Allen's been through as well as he has. What a loss… ."
As they prepared for bed, Dennis was pondering Allen's earlier question about there being something after this. He was still feeling unsure about his response. He watched his wife changing clothes, so filled with gratitude for her loving constant care that it nearly brought tears to his eyes.
Back home to what had become a too-large house, Allen took a long shower and washed his hair for the second time that day. He shaved again, brushed his teeth and examined his gums in the mirror.
Would it have been more difficult for you, Nancy? If I'd gone first? he though, almost aloud. I always thought I'd be the one to go first. I'm not doing as good as I wanted. I wanted to be stronger about this, but I guess I'm not the man I thought I was. It feels so strange being here alone.
He dried his hair, at least what was left of it, then went to his bedroom and turned down the covers.
"Am I alone?" he asked, this time aloud. "Sometimes I get the feeling that you're here in the room. I wish there was some way for us to put this to rest." He looked at her picture in the silver frame that sat beside. "You know me…I'm never going to look for anyone else. No one could do it, Nancy…no one could put-up with me like you did."
It was sometime late in the night when he sat upright in bed, wide-awake as if someone had called his name.
"It is you, isn't it? I wonder if it's the last thing we're thinking about that keeps or sends us on…I know the last thing I'll ever be thinking about is you."
He laid down again but didn't go back to sleep for some time, listening to the sounds of the empty house. When he woke it was still dark but he had the strangest feeling that he'd just been kissed on his cheek.
When he took his vacation at the end of the month, Allen packed as he usually did to go fishing. Both daughters offered to look after the house in his absence so he had no worries about home. He stayed at the same small hotel where he and Nancy had always stayed, ate two good home cooked meals daily prepared by the friendly staff, and fished from before sun-up light 'til almost dark.
He didn't get a bite for the first three days, but it didn't bother him in the least. The weather was warm and the skies clear. It was the sensation of being in the small boat on quiet water, the peace and serenity of a forest lined lake. At night he heard the haunting sounds of Loons and worried cry of Eastern Screech-Owls; by day, the hollow call of Pied-billed Grebes in the reeds, and Yellow Rails', repetitive voices like pebbles being tapped one against another. Just before sunset, the flash of white banding under a Common Nighthawk's pointed wings caught his eye as it swooped over the lake's surface hunting insects. Sitting motionless in the small boat, the silence of that idyllic space overwhelmed him. Sometimes, nature's sounds seemed woven into a fabric with remembered conversations, floating past like golden fallen leaves on autumn water, Nancy's laughter and the sound of his daughters playing.
The fourth day at just past noon, he had a strike. He'd just put his hat on to keep the sun off his slightly-burned head. For over an hour he played the fish on the two-pound-test line, letting it run, reeling it in, letting it run again. The water was deep and there were moments when he imagined old tree limbs entangling his line, the fish lost in the unseen snags. Breathing heavily, net finally under the fish, he lifted it into the boat.
Allen put his pole in the bottom of the boat and stared at the most beautiful fish he could remember seeing. Dark iridescent gray with light-red lateral spots, it was a male with awesome teeth. The hook had set just far enough back so as not to tear the trout's lip. After carefully removing the hook with a small pair of needle-nose pliers, he lifted and weighed the fish with the scale.
"Twenty-one pounds four ounces." He said that out loud, twice.
He set the gasping Mackinaw next to his pole and got a small camera out of his bag. It was more than a struggle to hold the scale and fish up at arm's length and snap a picture with his other hand. All he could see was the trout's head or the scale, not both at the same time. Frustrating him more, he couldn't hold the fish up for more than a few seconds. Out of breath, he set the fish next to his tackle box, sighed heavily…and took the picture. Then he took another one, just in case.
Exhausted, but heart rate back to normal, he examined the fish for injuries. There were none, nor was there evidence of it having been caught before. The glossy round eye seemed to be watching his when he put a leather-gloved finger in the finely-toothed mouth, lifted the trout over the side and lowered it into the dark cool water… . The fish swam away slowly at first; then, like a flame when a match is blown out, suddenly disappeared into lake darkness.
He sat out there alone on the quiet shimmering mirror, but didn't fish again for the rest of the day.
After dinner at the hotel, he went up to his room and sat on the edge of his goose-down bed and took off his shoes.
"That was a beautiful fish," he said, matter of factly, undressing methodically, his life a boat built of well-established habits. "I couldn't keep it. Dennis may never believe me if those photos don't come out. You understand, don't you Nancy. I think I understand something important, too. It's letting you go. I know you're still here…that you love me no matter what."
Outside in the dark, a Loon's plaintive call was answered by another.
"I guess I can't have everything I want...at least, not all the time," he said, and sighed. "That's hard for me to accept, but that's what I need to remember. I've been a very lucky man."
Lying on his back after turning off the bedside lamp, he pulled the down comforter up under his chin. "That sure was a beautiful fish."
Allen Baldwin slept all night without waking, something he hadn't done for over a year.

* * *

david coyote
July 7, 1999
Rewritten May 2, 2004

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