Nick of Time: for Stoney Stoneback.
Nick of Time: for Stoney Stoneback PART I Train (gone), track, town (oops, also gone), bridge, and by God river. The river was there, holding itself steady. Pebbly bottom (b's are pebbles). Mist of gravel and sand. Hot day. Good beginning. Walking is writing. Out of the burn, into the pines, river glints off to the left through trees. Good. Black grasshoppers. Black all over like thinking. Don't think. (Write.) Sandy walking, sweet fern, Jack-leg pines. Brow of the hill. His brow. Rolling with the country. Carrying the rod-case into the sweet fern swale, crushed fern, smell of it. Down to a meadow and the silent river. Dew-damp pants legs (no: trousers). Trout rising, trout taking insects you cannot see, insects from the swamp beyond. Chopping, smoothing, three blankets for a Nick sandwich. He was hungry. How to make a tent (I'll spare you). The backpack looked smaller after the entire tent was removed from it. Think about that. Peg it out. Taut. Taught? Into the ground with the rope loops. Taut. Taught. Tight. Drum tight. Avoid cliches like the plague. The tent has an open mouth. It has a mouth? Sure. Various things from the pack to put at the head of the bed (head/bed) under the slant of the canvas. Various things? That's weak. But noticing brown light through the brown canvas, that's good. Canvas smell. Also good. He was home. Home in a brown mystery of canvas scent. Happy now. After the not-unhappy of the whole day. But happy happy now. Done-things happy. There had been nothing here and now he was here under his canvas wings, tight as a cliche. But not snug as a bug. Then: dark. Feeling various other things, driving one into a pine to hang up things. Various things now off the ground. He was hungry and his name was Nick. He was very hungry and very Nick. Opened a can of guilt-inducing pork and beans, a can of ditto spaghetti. "I've got a right," he said. It was the twentieth century. Nick did not like hearing Nick speak. Nick did not speak again. He's brought pork and beans and smokes and an onion--shot the works. But not a bit of whiskey? Not even a small flask? Hm. Fire, frying pan, wire grill. Food from cans: bubbled a good smell. Ketchup (wince) and bread, which, thank God, he had to slice himself. Tin plate half full of too-hot twentieth century food. Look at the fire. Look at the tent tight as a whatever. Fire. Tent. Remember the tragedy of the fried bananas, Mr. Sensitive Tongue. Mist in the almost-totally-dark swamp. Wait. Wait. OK, now a full spoonful: This is my body, this is my tongue ... Bread-mopping a second plateful. A good camp, a tight tent, an unburnt tongue. Canvas bucket down to the stream: white mist beyond (no, not like ghosts, do not mention ghosts). Kneeling on wet grass (do not mention prayer), cold grass: canvas bucket pulled by current. Another thingy varioused into a tree from which hung the full bucket. Coffee pot to fill, coffee pot to boil. (Don't think about Rum St. James.) Hopkins in his head: to boil or not to boil, that was the question. He decided. He boiled. Another can (really?) of apricots. Tin cup, like in cowboy movies. Sweet apricot juice. OK: syrup. Shall we suck the apricots down? We shall. Meditatively. Decadently concluding canned realist apricots are better, yes, than fresh romantic ones. Volcano pot, grounds for the lava, must hold on to the literal. Hopkins-happy he seriously sugars his Hoppy coffee. Hop of the unmoving lips, polo-Hop making millions from Texas wells. Telegrammed Hop handed Nick his Colt on the Black River. Bill was there and got Hop's camera. Serious Hop needed a yacht. Excited Hop hopped away. Forever. Black River. You hadda be there. The coffee is bitter enough to make Nick hop. His brain is beginning to work again. He undresses, shoes first of course. He puts his head on his shoes, sort of like Leopold Bloom--but don't think of that. A Nick sandwich. Cheesy fire glowing, night in its nighty, swamp swamping somewhere in the dark. Nick cremates a buzzing mosquito, might have burned down the tight tent. The Nick sandwich sails away ... PART II Light: Late: Damn. Out of the mouthy cheesecloth onto the wet grass. Cyclops sun eyeing him above the hill. (Stop Joycing.) Meadow, river, swamp (better): All still there. Birch trees. The water is clear, smoothly rivery in the early-enough. A mink crosses the river like Jesus (stop that) and goes into the swamp as if he owns the place. You can't make this stuff up. How to say this? You can only say Nick was excited. He is excited by the early-enough. And by the river. He is really too excited to eat breakfast, but he knows he better. He needs the carbs. He makes coffee. After building a fire, of course. Nick catches grasshoppers for bait. I'll spare you the details. He finds a grasshopper lodging house like something out of The Iceman Cometh, which has not yet been written. Commenced is a word Nick has used twice now. Isn't that surprising? Some grasshoppers fly. Nick knows why they fly. Then, he has a bottle full of good grasshoppers; he makes many of them better by crushing the poor things. (Desist.) He washes his hands at the stream. Nick is still excited. Back at the tent he rhymes grass with mass. Don't look for symbolism there. So much depends upon a brown grasshopper, spitted like a pig, beside the soft meadow. Like the tent, the bottle has a mouth. Nick gags it with a pine stick. He makes pancakes. (Fill in many blanks.) A handful of Hopped up coffee in the pot; a lump of grease out of a can sputtering like a mouth across a hot skillet. Doesn't have to be a mouth. Buckwheat batter spreads like lava (you knew that was coming) and spits, because it too is something of a mouth. Or not. Brown edges, then crisp, surface bubbling slowly to holes that could be little mouths. (I can't help it.) Nick spatulas with a pine chip, knows to shake the skillet sideways, hoping not to Hop flop again. Flapjacks, pancakes, hotcakes, choose your poison. He eats them with apple butter. He makes one into a foldover sandwich and puts it in his shirt pocket, I kid you not. In the pack he finds--not making this up--a big onion. He knows it will have silky outside skin when he slices it. He makes onion sandwiches, at least two. He puts them in the other pocket of his khaki (now he tells us) shirt. He drinks wimpy coffee, sweetened with condensed milk. It is a good camp, full of canned goods. Nick puts together his fly rod. Blah blah. He has a heavy, double tapered fly line worth at least eight dollars. He needs leaders so he--that's right--opens the aluminum box he keeps them in. Nick has used damp flannel pads. For something impressive. He fastens a hook. A thin, springy hook. Which, by the way, he took from his hook book. (Feeling tense?) Pulling the line taut (taught) gives him a good feeling. But not so good a feeling that he hooks his finger with the hook. Nick is careful. Grasshopper-bottleding, rod-holding Nick starts toward the rivernest of riverrun. He is wearing a thong--around his neck. No: the neck of the bottle. Sorry. He wears a net and a long flour sack that has ears. His legs are sack-slapped which makes him, apparently not just happy but professionally happy. There is something with or about stitches or hitches. Nick has the good grace to feel a little awkward. Grasshoppers thudding against his sternum, breasts bulging with sandwiches. Finally, finally, he steps into the stream. Yikes! Cold! Cold sucky current rising above his knees and all is as cold as any stone. Gravely his shoe soles slip on river-bottom gravel. Words are signs of natural facts. Keep focused. He loses one sucky grasshopper who'd rather swim for it. Nick sees a trout gulp him. Good. Grasshoppers have faces. And chins, not to mention. Nick puts a hook under one's chin and runs it all the way through his innards and out his anus. He felt good. Nick, not the grasshopper. The grasshopper, you will not be surprised to hear, takes hold of the hook with his front feet. Maybe you will be surprised that he spits tobacco juice on the hook. Tobacco juice, my ass. Nick fishes, thinking with disturbing detail about the grasshopper on the hook. This is not a cardboard grasshopper. This is a grasshopper with lots of organs, if very tiny ones. Nick lets the line run free but not the hopper. He can see the critter in the little waves of the current. Then it goes out of sight. Guess why. Hint: A trout tugs on the line, a trout with a grasshopper in its throat. Not to mention a sharp hook. (OK: Mention.) Nick has taught himself how to use a taut line (enough with the puns), how to use his left hand, his right hand. The rod is now a "living rod." Aaron's rod. The word tangent appears and so does the hooked trout. Left hand, right hand. The trout's back is mottled the clear, water-over-gravel color (yes, hyphenated, that adjective), his side flashing in the sun. Nick throws this pissant trout back. But first he pets the poor fellow, careful to wet his hand first. Nick pets a trout. He's all right, Nick thinks humanely. Is Nick all right? Nick knows a lot. Nick has seen dead trout furry with white fungus. They were killed by socializing but not social media. They were killed by men who fished together and cared about one another. The word spoiled appears here. Nick swallows down the stream--sorry, wallows down it, which is still pretty big of him, wallowing and all, not strutting, say. The cold water shocks his--let's say upper thighs. It's like that time Hemingway was so cold in the Swiss (?) mountains he couldn't get it up, or so he wrote to Ezra. Anyhow, Nick studies the water and the shadows, etc. He holds himself steady in the current. (Get it?) He pops a hopper from the bottle, again skewers the little fellow, chin to asshole. He spits on the grasshopper for good luck. Seriously. That is as real as his rod. As real as the fungus cited above. The water is fast and dark. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep. Nick does something with his right hand. Or his left. And his fingers. A long tug strikes the unseen and Nick's rod comes alive and dangerous, lightening, coming out of water, tightening ... Nick knows when to let himself go ... Ratcheting steel reel shrieking! It is all coming too fast! The reel note rising, Nick is like REALLY excited now, the cold current between his legs powerful. Nick thumbs something or other real hard. And a huge trout jumps high. Hardness, strain. Then it all goes slack. Nick, too, has a mouth and it is dry. Despite the hoppers sternum-hopping, his heart is down. Nick is sure that was the biggest trout he'd ever hooked, salmon-big, hand-shakingly big, thrill-too-muchly big. Nick thinks he might throw up. But then Nick thinks about the poor trout with a hook in its jaw and how angry he must be. Trout can be angry, it turns out. At least big ones can. Now another cliche floats into his mind: solid as a rock. Rod, rod. All this rod talk and now he thinks "God." Twice. Don't think about that rhyme. Out of the river, his shoes are squlchy. Yep, an outright neologism, that squlchy. Maybe because of the nausea. Nick really might throw up. In the water, he can't tell if he's pissed his pants. From between two onion sandwiches, he fishes out a cigarette. He imagines setting the river on fire. A trout takes his dead match. Litterer Nick laughs out loud, creating some kind of climax. Smoking, warming, river curving, glittering, shallowing into the woods ... He's OK now. He can hack being a loser. So: tying, crimping, knotting, baiting, trying again. The great uprooted elm is not a symbol, the one lying back into the woods, its roots dirt-clotted. Nick likes the word pebbly. He catches a trout. That rod is a live again. The word alive appears a few times. Rod, God, rushes, alive, easing, lifted ... Heavy trout, hanging heavy in the net, mottled trout with silver sides, heavy, good-heavy, heaving heavy, sack-sliding, shoulder-hanging in the running river. The sack, too, has a mouth. It drinks the river. Everything's alive. His neck is hot, is probably red, with hot sun, hot and good. Nick does not like contractions. But he likes one good trout in his sack. Believe it or not, Nick thinks of "the left bank." But maybe that's coincidence. Nick has x-ray vision when it comes to trout. Neither glare nor shadow can keep him from seeing trout. He thinks the word fun as in, It was no fun to fish upstream. A beech tree weeps. Another gutted grasshopper, another trout strike, another loss, logs, branches, it's all getting out of hand, isn't it? But Nick perseveres, switches hands, loops his line, half circles a heavy heaviness, slides another finny fellow (sorry) into the mouth of the sack. Two bigguns so far bagged. Everything's wet, log, sack, trousers, trout, rod, boots, even his sandwiches. A bump on a log, he drinks from his hat. Only water, of course. He smokes. The river hightails it into the cedar swamp. Trunks and branches close together. Branches and trunks. He has a wet sandwich and a good cigarette. And two big trout in a bag. He wants a book to read, sort of. A wet groin is quite enough. He does not want wet armpits. He does not pet these trout. He whacks the first one on the log, breaking his neck like Sam Cardinella's. Then the other one. He lays them side by side, like a married couple he has just executed. He slits them from the vent to the tip of the jaw. Guts them, sees they are both males, who could not be married in the early twentieth century. Nick knows this. All the insides and the gills and tongue came out in one piece, long gray-white strips of milt, smooth and clean, clean and compact, coming out all together. Like a happily married couple. Does Nick know anyone named Milt? He washes the trout in the stream, imagining the corpses alive. He washes his hands and dries them on the dirty log. Now the sack has no mouth, is a sandwich or a sleeping bag. His knife is still standing straight up, blade stuck in the log. Nick stands up on the log, holding his rod, the landing net hanging heavy like a bull's testicles. What about that trout inside that hollow log? Key Randolph says he would never do that. Even, I ask, if his name is Sigmund? Nick heads back to camp. He looks back once at the river just showing through the trees, like a glimpse under a girl's skirt. There were plenty of fish in the sea. You don't want to get your lines tangled, even if they are prose. Even if there are plenty of slippery trout in your funky swamp.
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.