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Fiction American

This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

           Gus Peterman had the rest of his days ahead to look forward to. Both of them.

           Of course, that wasn’t much of a surprise. Once you’re diagnosed with terminal cancer, once you’ve gone through the whole denial, bargaining thing, you’re left with a case of “yeah-I-get-it “and choose how you’re going to live what’s left. Then there’s that final phase, that final bout, when you’re in hospice and everything’s sort of a pastel cheery color and the nurses and aides sport bright scrubs to keep up spirits and that could go on for weeks or months unless a miracle happens, which occasionally they do. And don’t kid yourself, people in that situation still hope, if only a little, until it’s just a case of turning up the morphine.

           Peterman made a choice and lived in a state where he could exercise his Kevorkian therapy. That would be two days hence. In two days when the pain would end, when he wouldn’t need help with his adult diapers, when he could ignore his doctor’s admonitions and have a whiskey or two or three and let it slide. He had two days to joke that his was the only birth certificate with an expiration date, which would get uncomfortable chuckles from some, tears from others, and a lot of hands over aghast mouths. But it was his line and screw them if they couldn’t take a joke.

           A fatal disease had some benefits.    

           So, what do you do with your final 48 hours?

           Well the first thing is to make a decision, right? With only 48 hours, you don’t want to spend much time pondering the options and then conclude with the epiphany, “Oh, how time flies.” Money wasn’t an issue. He couldn’t spend all the money he’s saved up. Hell, his 401k alone was over a million and he hadn’t touched that. He couldn’t travel to exotic places. He couldn’t travel, period. He’d finished all the TV series he wanted. He’d almost finished a boring book. He’d liked that it was boring; it made the days seem longer. Hah hah. Not funny “hah hah,” just hah hah.

           A counselor suggested a fine dinner. Peterman finished her idea saying, “Like they’d give to a condemned prisoner.” There really wasn’t much difference between us, he said, at least in terms of timing. Steak would be on the list. Peterman loved steak and, due to a cardiac condition, had refrained from it for a long time. With a glass of a good red wine, one with a cork, not a screw top. Chocolate mousse to boot, one made with strong espresso and cognac. Maybe chicklets of dark chocolate mixed in. For texture. Why stop there? What about two or even three final feasts?

           That’s the thing about chemo. Even if you had an appetite, you wouldn’t want to overdo it and be nauseous when the doctor sticks the needle in. And if you had an appetite, chances are your taste buds had lost their mojo. A pile of mush wouldn’t taste much different than a butterscotch bread pudding, an overdone slab of tilapia from a USDA New York strip. Cancer sucks.

           Peterman looked at his watch. The doctor would show up in 47 hours and 53 minutes. Seven minutes down the drain, he thought. He was wasting time thinking about food when he wasn’t even hungry. He eyed a single malt, an aged and expensive Islay, and poured himself a dram. Smokey, rich, and as intense as the $250 price tag promised. He snapped his tongue against the roof of his mouth a few times to savor the vapor as it slid down his throat. Those were five minutes well spent. Now what?

           He’d left hospice a few days earlier on his own two feet. It wasn’t a miracle; it was what the doctor ordered. She’d given Peterman enough pain meds to kill a horse, a Clydesdale. “Oxycontin?” he’d asked when handed a vial of pills by the oncologist. “Is that okay?”

           She took his hand and smiled. “Gus, they’re fine. Take them as needed.”

           He looked at the pills, thirty of them, and smirked.

           “I guess I don’t need to worry about becoming an addict.”

           Peterman was tempted to take more than one but didn’t want to get all drowsy. He was in pain, unquestionably, but the pills only did so much, and he’d committed to the plan. If he went and fell back into the agony of a few days earlier, the pain that squeezed a vertebra and plunged to his legs, bringing him to the floor, he’d take another. Maybe more than another. For now, though, he was merely grimacing when a twist provoked the nerve that struck the muscles, forcing a sharp breath and then holding, waiting, and counting seconds until it subsided to almost tolerable.

Lying on the floor helped. But Peterman would have plenty of time for lying prone. Pain or not, meds in hand, he wanted to do something active, something alive. The hours in chemo followed by weeks of zero energy had worn the sedentary out of him. Peterman had been so focused on debating his choice of assisted suicide and taking on the euphoria of an end date—helped, no doubt, by more than a few tokes of medical marijuana—that he hadn’t thought about the legal requirement for a delay between signing away your life and the last bit.

           He’d gotten his affairs in order with the help of his estate lawyer, paid his bills, signed this, initialed that, met with a bereavement counselor—“Say, aren’t you supposed to come in after the fact”—and said his goodbyes via email. Peterman didn’t answer his phone. There wasn’t much left to be said, anyway. What was left was time to…

           There was that question again. Time to do what?

           Peterman heard the old clock still ticking on the wall. He’d wound it when he returned home, a habit whenever he’d been away, but didn’t bother to move the hands to the current time. What was the point? Still, the ticking was a reminder that time and tide wait for no man.

           He’d waited often enough in happier days for tides to change. It was when the tides changed that the stripers got active, feeding on the alewives, the herring, and bunker caught in the outflowing current. The stripers waited on the slower margins of the flow, stacked up next to the moving buffet, rushing in to grab a meal then returning to the calmer edge only to repeat the instinctive process.

           Man, he had his days, getting up before the sun to wade in and cast past the darkness, blind, but hearing the splashes of the bass chomping on the waves of fleeing prey. He smiled at the recollection of a forty-six-inch bass that took what felt like 30 minutes to land.

           Peterman typed in “tide chart” on his Mac. The tide wouldn’t turn for four hours, perfect timing for the drive to the ocean, and he didn’t have many hours to spare. “What the hell?” he thought. “What else is there?” He headed off to the shed to collect his gear when a spasm of pain drove him to the ground. He kneeled, holding his breath, counting until the pain subsided, and managed to stand with the convenient aid of a side table.

           Maybe wading in the ocean wasn’t such a good idea, even if he could manage the long drive, which he was unlikely, especially with the second oxy he was considering. But the fishing was a good idea, the best idea, and, at the end of the day, his only idea. Standing erect now, hand on the table, he could hold off on the pill.

           There was a river, really not more than a stream, close by. He’d fished it dozens of times, hundreds, maybe. It wasn’t a Montana trophy river, but it held fish, wild ones, and Trout Unlimited had designated it catch-and-release only, which meant that aside from the poachers, who ignored the sign in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese, there should be something. The wading was easy, the river was quiet, and if he could always cringe on the bank in solitude.

           His gear was still in the back of his car. He’d forgotten about that. He hadn’t fished in two years, ever since they started him chemo and got a bug, which turned into an infection, which threatened him more than the cancer for a while.

           It was a gorgeous day, perfect, and the trees caressed each other over the road that led to a favorite spot on the river. There was something about the drive that made him sad. Peterman saw the hollowed-out maple that marked a small area that would hold one car. It was empty, a small victory that should have made him happy. He was happy. But it was the familiarity of the drive, this little pull-off, the blue sky that made him realize that so much was the same and would stay that way. Except there’d be no Gus Peterman. No Gus Peterman to chat up other fishermen, provide advice, give over a few flies that work, or just a friendly wave. It was easy to think about death hooked up to an IV, the only thing on your mind when they hooked you up to monitors. It’s what getting your affairs in order is about. Dying wasn’t something that came up very often driving on a dirt road to rising trout on a sunny day. Until it hit you that this was the last time.

           Gus wiped his eyes from the dust that wafted through his window when he stopped the car. He took a swig from a flask that held the single malt. Both were an indulgence. The flask was sterling, etched with the outline of a mayfly, something he bought years ago and left to collect dust on a bookshelf. The Islay that filled it, which cost vastly more than the flask, was worth every penny.

           The poachers had not been busy. Trout were rising consistently, making big splashes as they chased caddis as they emerged from the depths. They rose like a cloud driving the fish wild with desire. Peterman had chosen the right day. The fish were hungry, and he only had to stop once on the path to wait for a pain to pass and it wasn’t even that bad.

           There is something about a blanket hatch, a condition when there are so many bugs to eat, naturals as they’re called, that make an artificial, a fisherman’s fly, not too enticing. Peterman cast to dozens of rising fish, changing his fly constantly to find one that would interest them. He got a few to look at it, one swiping it with his tail, but they all went back to the real thing.

           Fishermen have days when nothing works. Disappointment ensues, of course, but those are one day out of many. You have to hand it to the trout, they don’t make things easy, but that very fact makes the one you do catch that much more satisfying. Peterman, however, was in a different frame of mind. His mind said now or never with emphasis on never. It could have been a coincidence. The pain was coming randomly, frequently, so the bolt that hit him then was nothing new, nothing special. But he’d never cried this way from the pain nor ever cried from getting skunked.

           He was vibrating even after the pain passed. He explored the pockets of his vest for the vial, but he must have left it in the car and the car was a hike. What Peterman found were the flask and flies. A sign, he mused. A swig revived him. And he took out a fly that looked little different from the ones that had failed that day. This one was maybe just a little bushier. Trial and error had taught Peterman nothing if hadn’t taught him that the little things in fishing mattered—a new tippet, a tweak left instead of right, a softer cast. Or a slightly bushier fly. His attention at that moment was on something other than what brought him to the river. It’s a Zen thing that flyfishers experience and others don’t and that’s the very point of the matter.

           That moment of mindfulness was interrupted by a sharp spasm running down Peterman’s right leg. The leg crumpled from the shock nearly sending Peterman into the river. He held on, and straightened it as the spasm loosened.  He breathed in, breathed out, counting slowly to ten. With closed eyes he could feel the cool river flowing around his legs, visualizing the pain washing out. What was pain anyway? Pain was a message that for now he was still alive. And that was a very good thing because the hatch had started up again and the fish were feeding even more aggressively, bigger ones too. He wondered what they’d been waiting for, why this hatch and not the earlier one. Such was the mystery, the chance, the very tease of the game, mixed with an occasional dose of sheer luck.

           Peterman waded in deeper, standing in the lee of a boulder and holding it for balance in the current. It was second nature even if the pain wasn’t there, but the pain was beside the point. He watched as the foam line, the narrow part of the stream that carried the flies, flowed past another rock. A flash in front of that rock caught his eye. It flashed once more. It was big, almost too big for this small river. It was the side of a trout sidling into the current to take a bug before returning to the ease of the slower flow. It came out again, rising to sip a bug struggling at the surface.

           Then it leaped out of the water to devour a fly that had almost managed to escape.  Peterson couldn’t believe the size of its mouth, mesmerized as the beast swam down to its comfortable lair near the river’s bottom.

           He lobbed his fly five yards upstream. Let the fish get a look at it. The fish rose and turned back down. A refusal, the bastard. He cast again, closer. The fish rose again, circled, and shook its head as if to say, “Who are you kidding?” It liked the fly, just not enough.

           Peterman brought in the line and blew on the fly to dry it out, allowing the fluffy fly to sit a little higher in the water, in the film, and cast it still closer to the rock. Don’t give it too much to think about. He jiggled the line, barely, tickling the fly, giving an illusion of life, imperceptible to all but the eye of a hungry fish. It rose without enough time to inspect the fly. The trout flashed when it twisted to grab the fly and attempted to swim back to the security of the river’s bottom.

           Peterman had other ideas.

           He held the rod high, tip straight up. The power of the fish bent the rod nearly in two, the tip pointing down to the water, all the strain on the gossamer leader that connected the fly to the line to the reel. Peter had to use both hands to hold his end up against the struggle of the fish trying to break the line. He reeled in. The fish took off in objection.

           They both were tiring, but Peterman had the upper hand and reeled the fish close enough to see, its hooked jaw opening and closing, blood trailing from the fly. Its sideways twistings were slow, labored, exhausted. With one more turn of the reel, it came closer and faced Peterman. Was it anger or fear or just the cold eyes of a wild thing offering no expression or sentiment? Peterman held out his net, not sure if this trophy would fit into its twenty-inch opening. The fish’s eyes closed, seeming to give up, then opened when it swiped its tail against the net and tore away breaking the line, the fly hooked to its upper jaw.

           Peterman looked to the rock where it had lain but couldn’t see anything. It would stay there, not feeding again for a long while, if it survived. If it survived, he thought, if. That fish should have another few years in it. Trout go for five years, longer even. This one was fat and strong. Maybe he’d have ten years. Ten good, wild, years on this very river. The hook would come out eventually. It had to. It was just a sting. A little pain. The fish probably forgotten about that already. Who was he, Gus Peterman, to cut its days? 

           More fish were rising again as a new hatch came on. Peterman took a new fly, clipped off the hook and cast, teasing his quarry. He got hit several times. One fish, another big one, took the emasculated fly for a ride before contemptuously spitting it out. That one would make it to fight another day.

           He kept at it, moving up and down the river, sometimes casting, sometimes just watching. After some hours, he found himself back where he’d started, staring at the rock that was the territory of the fish he feared he’d murdered. But there, in the depth, he saw the flash of a belly. Then another flash, and still another. It was one hungry trout dashing in and out of the strong current to gorge. The thing rose from the rock to take a bug off the surface, Peterman’s fly still in its jaw. It wasn’t murder, after all, not even a case of assault. The fish would make it,. Peterman smiled. It had been a while.

           Peterman forgot to take any oxy until he got home. That was fine. He’d have some extra when he was back on the river two days later.

May 07, 2023 21:28

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1 comment

Mary Bendickson
22:20 May 07, 2023

I believe I see hope here. What a great day fishing:)


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