Francisco poured milk into his coffee to match the North Fork of the Gunnison. Café con leche, he thought as he watched the river roiling thirty yards outside his window. He’d come as he did each year to fish the spring run-off and feel the river's pull as it made its journey South. He fished the morning, catching and releasing early season cut-throat and rainbow trout until the cold drove him into Nadine’s for coffee and a seat by the wood stove.
Nobody named Nadine had ever worked a shift during the forty three years that Nadine’s had stood sandwiched between Colorado 92 and this bend of the Gunnison River. Sarah however, had poured thousands of cups of coffee and slid countless cheeseburgers, BLTs, and Today’s Specials across the Formica counter-top to a proportionate number of shivering fishermen. Today, like any other, as she warmed Francisco’s coffee she asked one of the two things she would always ask of patrons, “Cold enough for you?”
"Mas frio que la teta de una bruja!" Francisco blurted. Then quickly, "Oh perdona, I, I mean...I’m so sorry.” Sarah laughed, “Don’t worry about it amigo. Some of the boys that come in here have said a lot worse without ever asking me to pardon their French. I suppose I can forgive you your Spanish this once. Tell me, just exactly how would you know if it’s colder than a witch’s tit out there anyway?” It was Francisco’s turn to laugh, a shade redder. Amused by Francisco’s embarrassment and touched by the sincerity of his apology, Sarah smiled and asked the other question she would always ask, “Catchin’ any?”
Knowing better than to continue pleading his case once the charges have been dismissed, Francisco launched into his account of the morning's fishing. He recounted each fish, the kind of fly he had tied, and which rock or eddy it had struck near. Sarah listened attentively (though she’d heard it all before) and when Francisco finished said only, “We’ve got peach pie today.” Then she winked with what Francisco noticed to be one of a pair of lovely brown eyes. She turned, walked half the length of the counter to the old circular glass pie safe, withdrew a wedge of pie and returning, set the plate on the counter in front of Francisco.
Before Francisco could speak, the door burst open with a blast of cold air and a new pair of anglers entered, batting arms against coats and scrubbing the boots of their waders on the doormat. Sarah gave them a wave, patted Francisco’s hand and pulling her order pad from her apron, moved towards her new customers, asking, “Cold enough for you?”
Francisco studied the waitress with newfound interest as she walked away and decided he liked her both coming and going. He forked some of the pie into his mouth and once again looked out at the river that would soon mingle with the Colorado and flow southward through the Grand Canyon. Farther along it would separate Arizona from California, on the way to the Mexican border. Most of the river would be siphoned off to irrigate a thirsty Southern California. Some though, would dampen the border along Baja before emptying into the Sea of Cortez. Only a trickle perhaps, but standing in the river’s icy flow, Francisco could feel the connection.
He finished his pie and was warm enough. He tucked four dollar bills under his coffee cup and on his way out, tipped his hat to the pretty waitress with the name tag that read Sarah.
Outside the sun had risen well above the ridge of Snow-capped peaks. The air was still brisk, but the sun was now warm on his shoulders as he hiked the short path to his pickup, retrieved his fly rod and then continued on to the river’s edge.
Anglers he passed along the way invariably inquired, “Catchin’ any?” At first, it had puzzled Francisco that so many would pose such a question without so much as slowing their pace for a response. Gradually, Francisco had come to understand this to be more pleasantry than inquiry, so he now replied a concise “some” or “a few” without slowing his own. Heard one, heard them all, he thought. This made him wonder if his story had bored the waitress, Sarah. She had no doubt heard her share of fish stories. Note to self: Be more interesting.
Wading into the river, being careful not to slip on the ice that still skirted its banks, he began casting. He whipped the line overhead before laying it flat on the surface and then twitching it ever so slightly to animate the nymph he’d tied to the leader. Standing in the current, sunlight bright on snow he knew would not melt away completely for weeks, Francisco thought of how far removed this was from the fishing he’d done as a boy in Mexico.
He remembered his father, Octavio, taking him fishing in the big, brightly colored panga boats. Francisco could almost smell the thick oily paint they would slather from bow to stern in preparation each summer. Octavio, would use whatever color paint he could procure, but he preferred a brilliant red, blue or green. His thinking was the fish would be first attracted to the boat and then to the bait. Nobody could question Octavio’s logic as he was widely regarded as the best fisherman in the village.
They fished the Pacific Ocean out of Bahia de San Quintin catching every manner of fish. In the summer they'd out muscle albacore tuna, dorado, marlin, or swordfish. In the winter they wound up rock cod and grouper from depths so great the fishes’ eyeballs bulged from the rapid change in pressure and sank their chicken wire traps outside of the kelp line for lobster. It was a fisherman’s paradise two hundred miles south of the border. The fish he caught today were smaller than the mackerel he used to catch for bait, he thought as he tossed his fly expertly into a small eddy created by the fresh erosion.
The fly only touched the surface, and the water exploded. The rod bent with such ferocity that Francisco stumbled forward several steps before regaining his footing. Line tore from the reel’s spool, blistering the pad of Francisco’s thumb. He needed to loosen his grip; he needed to give this fish line. He knew these things as surely as he knew he was standing hip-deep in the North Fork of the Gunnison fishing for trout. That, was the reason for his lapse. Had he been on his father’s panga, his reaction would have been automatic. Set the hook. Set it again. Loosen the drag. Use the rod to tire the fish. He’d done it a hundred times before when an albacore tuna inhaled a sardine and broke for the ocean floor. But this was too disorienting. His mind told him it was impossible; albacore tuna do not swim in the Gunnison River. His thumb, however, hotly disagreed. So, regaining his wits, he released it, adjusted his drag, and began advancing on the fish.
Line paid out at a rate Francisco could ill afford. At least the fish cannot dive, he thought, as he shambled over the cobbles to lessen the deficit. He angled towards the bank, every muscle straining, balancing and counter-balancing to remain upright. If he could reach the bank and scramble out of the river without losing the fish, he might stand a chance. He would need the advantage as his tackle was far too light for a fish like this. If he could just move in front of it...
...but his thought trailed off as forty yards upstream a silver missile with long, black, pectoral wings pierced the muddy surface and launched six feet into the air. The image would have been no more incomprehensible had the fish flapped those wings and flown into the sun. It was a Pacific albacore tuna, thirty pounds or better, twelve hundred miles up river.
Francisco was still trying to wrap his mind around this new development when one of the large, round, river stones he’d sought purchase upon rolled sending him to one knee. He struggled to right himself, but the icy water filled his waders. He was now part of the current. He remained focused as he was swept down-stream, despite the excruciating cold. His reel, which by all rights should be bankrupt, was no longer surrendering line. The fish had turned.
Maintaining his grip on the fly rod with his right hand, Francisco urged the dumb, frigid, digits of his left to unbuckle the shoulder straps of his waders. He poked and clawed in the vicinity of the clasps, his dexterity for the task oddly reminding him of clumsy backseat grappling and groping with his high school sweetheart’s bra hooks. Carmen Candamio, what a beauty she was. He hadn’t thought of her in years, and, given his current current circumstances, it seemed a poor time for reminiscing. Still,it made him smile to remember, and, with determination nearly as urgent, he was able to coax the clasp’s submission more easily than he ever had Carmen’s.
This at last accomplished, he held the bib of the waders agape, allowing the river to steal them. Free now, he rolled on his back and kicked towards the bank, reeling in the slack line as he went.
The water no longer felt cold to him, which should’ve been alarming. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew the signs of hypothermia. Gazing up at the cloudless blue sky though, he felt serene and even warm. He thought of the waitress, Sarah. She would be warm, he thought. She would be sweet like her peach pie too. Mmmm pie, he thought. He was drifting, almost dreaming. Maybe he'd close his eyes. Just for a few seconds. He dreamed he was floating, which wasn't really a dream. He dreamed he was floating in the warm sunshine holding Sarah’s hand. He dreamed of a pelican against the stark blue sky. He watched the elegant bird gliding on the thermal without beating a wing. When the pelican crossed in front of the sun its shadow fell upon them blocking out the warm sunshine. This chilled Francisco to the bone. He jerked his eyes wide open and resumed his kicking, aided this time by the twin engines of panic and adrenalin.
Teeth chattering, Francisco reached the river’s edge. He grabbed an exposed root with his free hand and dragged himself to his feet. He was out of breath. The fish, improbably, was still on his line. He reeled furiously, the line spooling on with almost no resistance.
Francisco regained all but perhaps twenty feet of his line. He could see the fish now, swimming only to maintain its place in the current. He wondered briefly why the fish still fought the current. Then with a rush of panic, it occurred to him that he had no gaff. The small net he used for scooping trout from the river was not only sorely inadequate, but had been jettisoned along with his waders.
For a stark moment, neither fish nor fisherman struggled. In that moment Francisco saw the deep lines of his father’s face. He saw the bright pangas, the blue water and the brown earth of Mexico. Then the water around the fish exploded once more and Francisco watched helplessly as the fish swam, at first with no urgency, and then as a streak, downstream.
Francisco staggered across the ice and collapsed on the bank. His head throbbed, and his heart felt the sorrow of a lover’s departure. His mind worked desperately to place order to this surreal turn of events. Had he hit his head in the river? Could it all have been a dream? Surely he was losing his mind because albacore tuna do not swim in the North Fork of the Gunnison River.
The sun was setting as Francisco laid the sections of the fly rod in the bed of his pickup. He walked down the path and up the steps to Nadine’s. Opening the door, he saw Sarah sitting on a stool by the cash register counting her tips. She looked up from behind a wall of ketchup bottles upended one upon another, smiled and asked, “Catchin any?” It was perhaps the prettiest smile Francisco had ever seen. “Pour us some coffee and let me tell you about the one that got away,” he said. Pulling the door closed behind him, Francisco felt the sharp sting of a fresh blister on his thumb.
Now knit something with that yarn!
Now knit something with that yarn!