The Trout Went One Way

Submitted into Contest #138 in response to: Write a story about an afternoon picnic gone wrong.... view prompt

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Fiction Funny

The trout went one way. Foster went another.

           He leapt out of the water, arching over its surface, then dove into the depths of the cold pool. For a trout, such a move is a graceful display of instinctive acrobatics whether to catch a fly that’s risen off the surface or to argue with the bite of a hook in its mouth.

           For Foster, the move was his attempt to get out of the water he’d fallen into when the fish, a large one, indeed a very large one, took him and his fly and his rod by utter surprise. The rod had slipped out of his hand, already numb from the cold water. He followed after it, slipping off a slimy rock he beneath the surface and into the river.

           In the millisecond before his face went under, he noted the dozens of stoneflies on the surface and was pleased to think that at least he had the right fly on until he went below the film and realized that, of course, he had the right fly on; the fish had taken it, didn’t it?

           Foster half swam, half crawled, along the bottom, spitting out the cold water, worrying he might get giardia and not wanting to swallow the rising stoneflies. He had managed to hold onto the rod, a spanking new $850 contraption with an equally obscene reel, which along with the fly line would have cost nearly $2000 to replace. He would have kicked himself had the water-filled waders not been holding down his legs like lead attachments to Navy frogmen. The reel alone had cost him $900. It was an Abel, the Mercedes of fly reels, with the Dancing Bears of the Grateful dead engraved on its surface, a limited edition he justified as an investment.

           Those costs were actually only his third concern. His second was that the fly at the end of that line had worked and it was the only one of its kind that he had.  Foster’s first concern was that he was soaked. He felt a damn fool for chasing the rod, the reel, the fly, and the bloody fish that got away, and fallen into such a deep pool on a day like this in a spot that had to be a good three hours from his car. What would that be in miles? Walking at two miles an hour would make six miles, but then how fast could he walk in his soaking waders, and what if he saw fish rising along the way? 

           His waders. He’d dragged himself to the bank, thinking how lucky he was that he held onto that rod and only now realized how cold he was. The water had gushed over the top and into his waders, filling them. If they hadn’t already leaked so badly, he would have noticed the additional cold water sooner. 

           On the bank, he turned onto his back, lifted his legs into the air, kicking like a little baby to allow the water to gush out. That water fell out all right, splashing over his belly and flowing down onto his already chilled head. So much water, gallons it seemed. That was way too much to get in even he had fallen face first, fully immersed in the stream. Where was his wading belt? He remembered cinching it tight at the car, having let out just a bit more to accommodate his slightly expanded gut, and thinking again that maybe he should try to lose weight, but that might mean exercising more and fishing less. Like on previous occasions when his wife or doctor had made the suggestion, he concluded that it wasn’t an option.

           Foster looked into the river, trying to see if he’d lost it in his fall, but through the glare of the sun on the water, he couldn’t see more than a blur. He felt for his glasses, the expensive polarized ones with the magnifier clipped over them. The glasses were missing but the clip-ons had fallen into his waders. “I’ll be god damned,” he said to no one but himself before tossing the magnifiers into the brush.

           A cold day to start with was made all colder by his now soaking pants and socks. Foster pondered his options. One, stay in the waders and very wet clothes, get colder but fish anyway because once he started fishing again he might forget his discomfort. Two, take off the waders—a difficult task—wring out his clothes, put the waders and boots back on—a more difficult job—and fish in still damp clothing. Three, call it a day, walk back to the car, and keep warm by moving. Or four, make a fire, dry off, and resume fishing.   

           When taking off his boots, Foster managed to pull a muscle in his lower back struggling to get his feet out of the neoprene socks attached to the waders. It took minutes to get the waders off and strip off wet socks and pants, although he left his underwear on for modesty’s sake, even though there was no one around. He took off his fleece sweater and wool turtleneck, wrung them out, and immediately put them back on. Part of that was the cold; goosebumps rose off his skin when a breeze combed the exposed parts of his body.

           The other reason was that the sweater and turtleneck hid his girth. He looked about as he tugged the fabric away from his belly. I really had put on some pounds.        He pushed some rocks into a circle and filled the space with twigs and dried leaves. He added some bark ripped from a birch tree, remembering from his scouting days that birch bark made a brilliant fire starter. Problem was he didn’t have a match.

           Foster thought back to when he first took up fly fishing and the images of pipe smoking anglers he’d seen on covers of old magazines. Even one of the major rod maker’s logos was of a guy with a bent rod and pipe in his mouth. Foster bought himself a pipe and tobacco aptly called Forest and Stream. He smoked it once or twice but keeping it lit and in his mouth when traversing a river proved impossible, even if he admired himself in the reflection. He had a lighter then, a Zippo, which at the time seemed nostalgically appropriate. He gave up the pipe to a garage sale and lost the Zippo who knows when.

           The breeze picked up enough to give him a chill, and he started to shake. He laughed at the idea of the pipe-smoking killing him sooner than the cold.

           Foster had wrung as much water out of his clothes as he could, and waved them to the breeze to dry them further. 

           He looked down the trail he’d followed to this pool, wondering if anyone else would show up. Robert Frost came into his head, “and both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.” No, this wasn’t a path many would follow no matter how good the fishing might promise.

           Foster gave his clothes one final squeeze, barely getting a drop out of them. That’s good. He’d done what he could. He put on his socks and waders but left his pants off. At least the waders would block the breeze and maybe retain some warmth for the trek back to the car. If he hurried, if he pushed it, he could make it in maybe two hours. But he’d have to hoof it. He went into his vest to set the stopwatch app on his cell phone. It dripped as he took it out. He could see beads of water had accumulated behind the screen. “Not my day,” he said, then yelling to the trees, “NOT MY GOD DAMN BLOODY DAY!” He thought he heard the trees giggle back. A pickup in the wind sent shivers into the still damp interior of those waders.

           He was tempted to throw the phone against a rock, not so much in anger, but it seemed the right thing to do. Until he suddenly remembered a YouTube video on using a cell phone for survival. Fire! He could use it to make a fire.

           How did they do it? They busted open the case, took out the battery—yeah, that was it—and touched the battery to steel wool, which set it off. Steel wool. Who had steel wool? He scrounged through his fly box and wondered if he could use the thin hooks or unwrap the metallic floss on the nymphs. He started to do just that, unraveling the flies he’d painstakingly tied over the desk in his home office. Feathers and fur got caught in the breeze flying into the stream. He saw one feather floating high on the surface and a trout, a huge one, take it in his mouth, which still had the fly it had taken from Foster minutes before. “Damn fish,” he muttered as he went back to work.

           He put the thin metal findings on a leaf, took his phone, and smashed it against a rock again and again until the case crack and he could pry it open. There, inside, was treasure. The video said you could use the mirror-like plastic sheet under the screen for a signal mirror. The speaker contained a magnet, which could be rubbed along a piece of metal, like a straightened hook, turning it into a compass—if you floated it on a leaf in water. The circuit board could be sharpened to make a knife. And there was that battery.

           He stripped off the plastic coating to reveal the positive and negative ends. That’s what the video showed. He also found thin copper wire in the works and remembered that’s what the video used. Attached to the positive and negative ends, the wire would get red hot and could spark tinder. When he swung around to his collected twigs, he kicked the hooks and floss over, under, and into the leaves that surrounded him. This warranted another “Goddamn!”

           Foster didn’t want to take any chances. He shredded the birch bark into the thinnest possible fibers and rubbed dried grass and leaves into a fluff that would hold a spark. The resulting ball he put next to the twigs. He then held the battery in one hand and touched the copper wire to the ends. At once, the center glowed a bright red, which he touched to his pile, spreading a spark into an ember. He blew on the ember until it burst into a small flame that caught the twigs, which, in turn, lit the sticks he’d put over those in teepee fashion, a trick he also got off the Internet.

           Or so he had hoped.

           The wire never got red. Of course not. Had the battery worked, the phone would have turned on and timed his anticipated walk back to the car. He kicked the debris from the phone into the stream, half hoping the trout would eat some and choke on it. He was tired now, depressed, and laid back onto the ground trying to take in some of the bright sun overhead. It must be just past noon, he thought. The sunshine forced him to squint as he looked up. The sun.

           He jumped up, pulling another muscle in his lower back that had cramped up from his cold plunge or the uneven ground or all the above combined with the age on his bones and the weight of his belly. If he had hoped to walk quickly to his car, his potential pace had just slowed markedly.

           But the walk wasn’t on Foster’s mind just then. It was on the sun, the sun and his glasses. He could get a spark going. He’d done it when he was a kid burning leaves and ants. That was, could it be, 50 years ago? 60? Yes, he thought, but he could do it. And, maybe, he thought, maybe global warming made it easier. He laughed at that, conscious he was laughing alone.

           Foster got his pile of tinder back together, took off his glasses, and held them at an angle to the sun to focus the small, bright dot that would start a spark that would spread into an ember that he would blow into a flame. The fire, he determined, would warm him up immediately and dry out his clothes in an hour, maybe less. It would be a story he could tell his wife who teased him about wasting all that time on YouTube. It might even be a lecture at his Trout Unlimited meeting: “What to take with you if you’re trekking up a river.” Maybe the spill wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

           He moved his glasses up and down, trying to focus the bright beam that would create the pinpoint of heat. That is if there had been a beam. Foster moved his glasses up and down, back and forth, squinting to make sure they were hovering over his little pile, which though just a couple of feet from his face, were a vague blur to his nearsighted eyes.

           Oh Christ. “Oh, damn damn.” He was nearsighted, very. His glasses spread the light out to correct for distance, the opposite of what magnifying glasses do. But he’d had magnifiers. He had them, and he threw them away. Why had he been so stupid?

           Foster looked around, careful now lest he step on the magnifiers. He saw nothing but made a careful, slow, circle of the area. He kept his eyes down. He had tossed them, not thrown them. And not into the water, oh, please, not into the water. He was sure he just tossed them nearby. They had to be close. 

           What caught his attention was not the magnifiers but smoke. Just a thin wisp, far less than a cigarette in an ashtray, but there it was. The magnifiers were dangling from a low branch and the lens had caught the sun enough to narrow a pinprick of hot light onto a leaf. A small, tiny hole was there, blackened on the edges with a teeny glow from the focused light. He half didn’t believe he’d found them and was back on his knees holding them lovingly in his shaking hands.

           He recollected the tinder bundle, fluffing it again, eyeing the still high sun to get an angle. He held the magnifiers between it and the tinder, focusing the bead of light as best he could as his hands vibrated with excitement.

           The bright bead swayed back and forth, but close enough to heat a spot that started to glow, then smoke, which spread as Foster gently blew on it. More smoke rose as the glow turned into an ember. He blew harder still, sparks flying about as he held the precious nest in his hands, ignoring the sparks burning his hands as the ember burst into a flame. He put the nest on the ground, covered it with twigs, which caught and added larger sticks, until he had a decent fire. “Goddamn,” he said with a smile. 

           He built up the fire, and walked around the flames, finally warming himself up and drying his increasingly less damp clothes. He took off his waders, pulled them inside out, and held his socks and underwear on a stick closer to the fire. The heat felt good against his bare skin.

           “Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

           Foster turned around to see a man in a green uniform, a Smokey the Bear hat on his head, and a silver badge catching the brilliant sunlight just so. The man was large, which made the scowl on his face all the more intimidating. Why, wondered Foster, why did he have a hand on that holster?

           “Hi! It’s great to see you. God, I fell in and, well, it’s kind of cold in there.” The ranger didn’t share his laughter.

           “It’s not that cold. You’re naked. Why are you naked? What about kids seeing you like that?”

           Foster started to put his clothes back on, struggling with the damp pants that just didn’t seem to want to go on. “Kids? There’s no one here. I was worried about the hike back so I built the fire. To get warm, dry off.”

           “Fires are illegal here. So is prancing about in your birthday suit. I got the call about that.”

           “The call?”

           “Those people,” said the ranger nodding across the river to a group of smiling Girl Scouts pointing down from the top of a hill. Foster knew they were Girl Scouts from the sashes across their adolescent chests. One waved at him. He waved back.

           Turning, he saw the ranger writing in a booklet. “I’m going to fine you for the fire, at least. You have a fishing license?”

           Foster held up his fly vest, dripping still, with the license.  “You’re okay there. Now indecent exposure….”

           “What! I had to dry my clothes. I could have died out here!”

           “Died? Mister, you’re five minutes from the parking lot.”

           Foster looked confused. “What are you talking about ‘five minutes?’ It took me hours to get here.”

           The ranger looked over Foster’s shoulder. “Which way did you come from?” Foster pointed south.

           The ranger followed Foster’s finger. “Hah! You took the long route buddy! That trail circles back. The parking lot’s this away.” He pointed his thumb over his shoulder. Foster felt a warmth, an uncomfortable warmth, rising in his face.

           “You’re kidding.”

           “Nope. I’ll let the indecent exposure go but put out that fire and don’t piss on it.”  He nodded again to the group of girl scouts in the not too distance.

           “Goddamn,” said Foster shaking his head.

           “Mind the language ‘round the kids,” said the ranger handing out the fine. “Nice rod by the way.”

March 23, 2022 13:55

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