The pair was feeling a bit old as they jostled in the cab of the truck creeping down the rutted sandy track to the river landing. They had both only just turned thirty but they had been fishing days and nights for a week and with the late hours and sleeping on the ground and the dirtbag diet they were feeling worn. Their backs were stiff and faces sunburned and the small bones and tendons in their hands were sore, being more practiced with a keyboard than a cork half-Wells.
They got out of the truck at the landing and stretched. This night would be their last chance at a good Hexagenia limbata spinner fall and they planned to savor it. The sun was still high so they drank a beer by the water and watched a pod of small trout chasing tan caddisflies in their skating evasives.
There was only one other car in the lot. It was a rusty station wagon and an old man sat roundly on its tailgate and his waders sat next to him feet dangling like another angler not yet inflated. The man’s circular face was fringed by a white beard and his blue flannel shirt looked to have never been buttoned and maybe could not be buttoned over his belly. Red-striped gym socks were pulled high up over his jeans in preparation of putting on his waders. He slouched on the tailgate eyeing the young men from beneath a foam-front Thermogas Propane trucker cap and they had to walk past him to get back to the truck.
“How’s it going?” one young man asked.
“It’s going,” the old man said, appraising them closely with raised eyebrows in the unashamed disapproving manner of old men. Checking off expected disappointments.
“Want a beer?” they asked.
“Nope,” he said and began rummaging about in his gear.
“We’re thinking of heading downstream. Don’t want to get in your way.”
“Hell, you won’t be in my way,” he said. The old man looked up but did not smile. The whites of his eyes were too wide and despite the beautiful night and the promise of rising fish there was no joy in his manner. “How about you guys walk the trail in with me? I could use a couple young guys to keep me upright. It gets a little hairy.”
Sure, they said, with a sideways glance to each other. Be happy to.
“How’s the fishing been?” One of the young men asked.
“Haven’t been out.”
Each attempt at conversation deflected as if he hated conversation or company but had to weather it. Like some harsh sentence handed down.
Back at the truck they pulled on their waders which had been wet for a week and smelled like it and drew their six weights out of the truck from among a dozen rods like arrows from a quiver. They were still rigged from the night before but they rerigged anyway and tied on new size four Robert’s Yellow Drakes and pinched Gink into the deer hair wings. Their packs slung heavily with granola bars and headlamps and in each a pint can of Two Hearted Ale.
“What have we got ourselves into?” one asked the other.
“I don’t know, but he sure could be nicer about it.”
They followed him single file down the trail. He was not frail but walked with a slight limp and as one distrustful of his feet. The path wound sidehill and precarious along the steep bank, held in place for a generation by giant second-growth pines which stood stoically above and below them on the slope ready to break their fall or their bones. Pine needles were slippery underfoot and downed branches and trees were obstacles for all three but especially for the shorter-legged old man who carefully negotiated each one.
“Used to be this trail was kept clear. We kept it clear for the old timers. Nobody gives a damn these days.”
So indicted the young men matched his ponderous pace. Waiting for him to gain a short lead and then taking a step or two and waiting again and warily watching his unsteady footfalls.
They glanced at the sun now drooping and wondered if they would make the river before dark, or if they might still be picking their way along this narrow track when the Hexagenia began their thrumming flight above the blackened current only to die and be eaten by great gulping brown trout, the echoes of claptrap jaws reverbing off the high bank. Wondered if instead of fishing at all they’d be waiting on paramedics or building a travois and hauling a broken old man out of the woods themselves.
But finally the outside bank became an inside one as is the nature of riverbanks and they descended to a marshy scrub forest where the path vanished into a lattice of headhigh grass and gnarled tag alder. Across this tangled isthmus they labored so that they might cut the river’s corner and emerge bankside at the chosen bend.
“Mosquitoes sure are bad,” one of the young men volunteered.
“Ha – you just wait. This ain’t nothing.”
“Hot tonight,” the other tried.
“It gets a lot hotter than this. You ain’t seen hot.”
They looked at each other, amazed and unnerved by the old man’s boundless acrimony. His bizarre grandfatherly disapproval. Not their grandfather of course and maybe no grandfather at all but both young men were, after all, grandsons.
“There’s the river,” one said now as blazes of sunstrobed riffle pierced the foliage.
“I know where the river’s at.”
With that the old man began to search upstream and down for an entry point neither too mucky nor brushy and finally one of the young men probed a mucky backwater with his own boots, that slurry of liquid wood and rank debris oily about his calves, and held back the alder brush curtain with one arm. His other hand was offered and refused and the old man slogged through the muck its depth now certain and into clean river current and turned upstream.
He stood there in the living river which roiled and unfurled behind him and was silent for a long time and the two young men stood aside, unsure of what would come next, the destination reached.
“It’s beautiful,” the old man said softly, maybe to himself. “Heavenly.”
The evening sun slotted by the pines gilt the scene in columns, the green pine boughs and the rusty dead ones and the river bottom itself so that the water glowed liquid amber. Isonychias looped and winked incandescent above the current as they passed in and out of the light. A small trout splashed at the head of a bubble line on the outside bank.
Without turning to face them the old man said that a knee injury had kept him from the river and he had not been to this place in five years.
“Just as I remember it.”
With that he waded upstream, his short strides now confident, and began to speak of the current and the river, pointing to submerged logs and telling of where sand became gravel and where lay the best casting positions for the seams on the outside bank. As if to repay the young men for their help without deigning to offer thanks.
They parted ways then, the young men at their chosen post for the night and the old man working his way upstream, rod in hand and fly in keeper. They wished him luck and he replied “Yep” without turning and they smiled.
The towering second-growth pines that held the high sandy dune in place leaned slightly riverward and their lowest limbs arched over the young fishermen with silent benevolence. They thought of the old man sitting on his tailgate watching them and understood something new of fear and pain and pride and of their own grandfathers or perhaps of all men.
They waited for Hexagenia in the spreading shade on an ancient cedar trunk sanded smooth and bonelike. The river and the insects hummed and they breathed the cooling air deeply and felt young and strong and good.