The courts were forcing Cal to live with his mother, sending him to her house in Reno, where the mountains stopped and the high desert stretched out empty like a life where any sense of hope was missing. I hadn’t seen my own mother in years, since she left me with my father and took off, but I knew what Cal was feeling, and on his last day in town, we drove deep into Feather River Canyon, below the hydros and the town of Belden to the bottom, where the high peaks feathered into oak-dappled foothills and the river leveled out in long, deep draws broken up only by boulders that had cracked off the canyon walls and formed pockets in the water where trout held.
Cal parked on the side of the highway and we hopped out, taking our gear from the truck bed and sliding down the steep scree field to the gravel bar below, holding our Shiners and fly rods in the air as the loose rock carried us downward, to keep the beer from spilling and to keep the rod tips from breaking off. Our rods were already rigged, and when we reached the bottom of the hill, we stepped into the river immediately, fishing a deep run across from a tall granite cliff. On Cal’s second cast, he hooked into a huge fish that rolled up out of the water so we could see the size, both of us yelling loud as the trout shook its body in the air, smacking hard back into the cold water and diving deep, clinging to the bottom and bending Cal’s rod low so I thought that the tip would snap.
Cal was fishing indicators, as always, letting his nymphs ride deep in the foamline, weighed down with lead split-shot, and I was down below him, fishing emergers to small trout eating baetis mayflies. But when I saw the size of his trout, I reeled up, set my rod on the gravel bar behind me, and took up the guide net I’d tucked into the back of my waist pack, wading out in Cal’s direction—the current pushing against my legs, the felt bottoms of my boots sliding smooth over the moss that coated the river rocks—and when I made it out, I stood beside him as he fought the fish he’d hooked. The fish was hardly moving at all now, hugging the river bottom tight the way a son hugs his mother, knowing she will one day leave him, only running whenever Cal smacked the butt of the rod with his palm, sending pain down to the fish through vibrations in the graphite.
But even when the fish ran, the rod tip didn’t bounce like it does when a fish head-shakes. The shaft of the rod strained and the graphite made a clicking noise like it does when your flies snag bottom. And though I knew Cal wouldn’t want to hear the truth, I said, “I think you made him wear it, Cal. I bet you stuck him in the gut or somethin’.” Cal said nothing to me and focused only on bringing the fish in, pulling hard to make the trout run and tire itself out, reeling in the slack.
Down the canyon I could hear a kind of rumbling around the bend, which I knew to be a train cruising down the tracks carved into the mountainside across the stream from us. Cal heard the noise too and looked up, then focused once more on fighting the fish. The trout was finally starting to tire out, giving up and drifting down past me as it struggled to fight the current. Cal pointed his rod tip upstream, guiding the trout above him so it couldn’t take more line and break him off in whatever rocks were hidden underwater, and so he wouldn’t have to put so much tension on the tippet as he pulled the fish to the surface, where I would be able to scoop it up in the net. The trout rolled over on the side as Cal pulled it toward me and I took a step forward, but the fish took off again, diving deep and making Cal’s reel scream before it tired out once more. Then it rolled over on the side again and I plunged my net into the water, scooping the trout in the plastic webbing.
Looking down at the fish, I felt a tightness in my chest and I was breathing hard from the adrenaline. When I looked at Cal, he was grinning as wide as I’d ever seen him grin. I pulled the fish out of the water and I could feel the weight of him now, could see the fat on his belly as he looked up into my face with his dark eyes, could see the tippet wrapped below the kype-jaw. The fish was a rainbow, long and thick and still colored up for the spawn, dark scales on the back feathered into a deep red band along the side and onto the stomach, which was slightly discolored in places, scarred from all the other times the fish had been caught and put back. Cal let a Whoop! out in the air, putting his arms above his head and pumping his fist hard. I took one hand from the net and pumped my fist along with him, but the fish was so heavy, the net dropped into the water and the fish tried to swim out—making my stomach drop. I scooped him again and used both hands to carry the net to Cal.
The train reached us as I made it up to where Cal stood. The engine was a Union Pacific—the yellow and black paint chipping, the headlight glowing up front even during the middle of the day—and I looked up in time to see the engineer staring down at us from the window of the locomotive. I saw Cal see him, and without speaking or pulling the fly out of the fish, Cal grabbed the trout by the knuckle of the tail—his hands still shaking from the adrenaline—and slipped his other hand under the belly so the fat spilled over his fingers, picking the trout up and holding him in the air above his head until the leader snapped and hung loose from the fish. The man driving the train pumped his fist at us and blew the horn loud, and Cal kept the fish in the air even after the man was long gone. The trout was moving its eyes back and forth—the knob of the kype-jaw opening and shutting, the flaps of the gills trying to suck air as it suffocated—and Cal was breathing in unison with the fish, sucking deep in his lungs as though he was also searching for breathable air.
Cal brought the trout back into the net, and I could see that I was wrong then—he hadn’t foul-hooked the fish in the back but had stuck him in the eye with a black hot-head mini-leech made of strips of rabbit fur so the trout was blind in that eye now.
“Now that’s a fuckin’ fish,” Cal said and took the fly between his fingers and ripped it from the trout’s eye. The trout squirmed in the bottom of the net feeling that pain, smacking the tail hard against the metal and snapping a few loops where the net was connected to the frame. Cal wore the beat-up State of Jefferson hat his father had given him the first time he took him fishing as a boy, and he stuck the black fly in the top of the hat, right above the yellow logo. Scales from the fish clung to the barb, and when he pushed the fly into the hat, the scales were released, floating in the air the way feathers float when a quail is shot with a pump gun.
I looked into the basket, where the trout lay nearly dead now, and I dropped the net quickly, reached in, and picked the fish up around the gut—slime coating my fingers, rolls of fat folding over my hands—and walked over to the river, where I could revive the fish in the current and watch him swim away. But Cal grabbed me hard by the shoulder and I turned to face him. He stared me square in the face—eyebrows falling low, the deep scar his father left on his brow moving over the bone—and using both hands, he grabbed the fish from between my fingers, tossed it onto the gravel of the bank.
“I’m keepin’ this one,” Cal said, smiling. “I got big plans for him. Big plans.”
A kind of sickness rose in my stomach as I heard those words. I hardly ever kept fish, only when my parents ran out of money and I needed something to eat, and even then only trout that were small, fourteen inches or less. Looking at the fish, I could see it was over two feet and close to seven pounds—nearly the size of my chest—which meant it was an old fish. Ten years, maybe, only seven years younger than we were then. Though seven years can be a long time to live, especially when you are hurting, and I could see from the scars that the fish had felt pain.
“I think we should put him back,” I said to Cal. “I never seen a fish that big.”
“He ain’t your fish,” Cal said in a nasty voice. “I caught him, and I’m gonna keep him. I told you I got big plans for him.”
“You gonna mount him or somethin’?”
“Nah.” Cal took his hat off, looked at the ground, and smoothed his hair out. The freight cars were still passing us, rusted and covered in graffiti, and maybe a mile in the distance, just around a bend in the river, I could hear the Union Pacific engine’s horn blow loud in the thick air over the rattles the old freight cars made.
“I’m gonna leave him in Ma’s bed once I move into her and Jesse’s place, tuck him under the sheets or somethin’. I want Jesse to find him since he said he thinks fishin’s a sin. He’s a damn city boy. He’ll get freaked out. I bet he’ll fuckin’ puke.”
The grin on Cal’s face was mean, and I could see the anger he felt toward his mother and Jesse, an anger I wished I had inside my body. To me it seemed easier for a man to feel anger instead of the sadness I carried with me, thinking of my own mother—easier just to hit someone or leave a rotting fish in another man’s bed sheets. But I’d never seen a rainbow as beautiful as this one—all scarred up and old, but still glowing with the spawning colors—and I wished we could revive the fish in the current so he could pass his genes on, help the next generation to grow strong and resilient in all the ways me and Cal’s fathers had failed to teach us.
“You know my ma’s a damn liberal now,” Cal said. “Jesse too. Last time I went to visit they were watching CNN in the living room. You believe that? What a fuckin’ disgrace.”
“No,” I said. “I can’t believe it.” And really that was a hard thing for me to believe, though I wasn’t entirely sure what a liberal was. I didn’t think about that kind of thing very often, and I knew Cal didn’t either. Both of us had other things to worry about—in my case, whether or not my mother would show back up and where I would get money for food so I didn’t starve like when I was younger. All I knew was what my father had told me: Liberals were people who didn’t know what it meant to put in a hard day’s work, people who talked about their feelings instead of manning up, stuffing down the pain, and supporting their families. People who hated the military and the police, who went off to college and relied on their parents for money instead of earning it themselves. I wasn’t sure how a person could end up thinking that way, growing up in Quincy, where no one had health insurance and people worked part-time, minimum wage, but refused to take welfare checks, surviving off the mule deer meat that filled their freezers. A place where people fished all day to push the hurt from their hearts and act like men.
“Well, she is.” Cal shook his head like that was a despicable thing. “I think it’s why she left my dad. Or at least that’s what he told me. He said CNN brainwashed her and now she thinks she’s better than us, and that’s what liberal means.”
I met eyes with Cal, and I could see tears flooding his. But he made a little noise in his throat and looked away, and when he met my gaze, the anger was back in him.
“I hate Reno. That place is a shithole. All the fuckin’ casinos and prostitutes. That whole city’s trash, if you ask me. Not this place.” He gestured with his arm at the river, cutting deep blue through the granite bottom of the canyon, water reflecting the digger pines that clung to the mountainsides, jutting out of the rock in search of light. “How the fuck am I supposed to fish if I ain’t livin’ in Quincy?”
“You can fish the Truckee,” I said. “Or Pyramid Lake. I saw pictures of the cutthroats there and—”
“That ain’t the point,” Cal said. “I know these rivers. I could catch a fish whenever I want. Plus I get to fish with you—” He paused, and for a moment I thought he would say he would miss me when he was gone. That was not something you should say to another man, unless you wanted to be called a faggot, and I hoped Cal wouldn’t say a thing like that to me just then. “I don’t wanna start over, is all,” Cal said. “I love this town. I feel at home here.”
“Me too,” I said.
I tried to imagine then how it would feel to move in with my mother, wherever she ended up in the world. I still wrote her letters every day, once I got home from fishing, but she’d stopped writing back a long time ago, and I didn’t have a number to call, only her address. And I can admit that I missed her. I can admit that some nights I laid out in the front lawn, crying and petting the feral cats and praying to God that she would come home. Believe me. All I wanted was for her to come home.
The engine on the back of the line of freight cars passed, and a moment later, the end of the train disappeared around the bend in the river, heading in the direction of Chico. When I met eyes with Cal, I now had to look away, knowing there was water there from thinking about my mother. I stared down at the place where the fish lay on the gravel bar. The trout’s good eye was facing up, and I could see it moving in the fish’s head, taking us in as the life started to drain from him. The fish was hardly alive now. The gills were still working, but I doubted they could suck in any air. No matter what, we couldn’t save him at this point, could no longer revive him, and I was sad for that. I walked over to the dying fish, knelt beside the head. I rubbed my hand over the scales, which had been dried by the cold air, and used my finger to poke the fat on the fish’s gut, pressing down hard so I thought I could almost feel the insides. The sun was high, and the darker scales on the back glowed the color of gold, the red along the side deepening to the color of blood. Cal was still standing behind me, watching in silence, and I wondered if he even cared that a fish this beautiful would die, and that it would be our fault.
I picked up a rock and met eyes with the fish. I could see the life that was still in him, if only for the moment, and when I put my hand on the fish, I thought I could hear the heart beating, but I was listening to the sound my own heart made in my ears with the adrenaline I felt. I spun the trout onto the stomach, gripping him by the spine, and I brought the tip of the rock down hard on the back of the head. The fish squirmed from the impact the rock made, and I brought it down again on the head, and one more time before the fish stopped moving and the gills shut for good.
Then I turned and looked at Cal and he walked up to me with his head down. He stood over me for what seemed like a very long time without speaking, and I could hear him breathing deep in his lungs. Eventually he sighed heavily. He wasn’t crying, like I thought he might be, and all emotion had disappeared from his face. He shook his head hard and, kneeling beside me, reached out and took the trout by the tail, swung his arm fast with the whole weight of his body behind him, and flung the fish far out over the water. The dead fish flew through the air—the tail shaking, the fat bouncing—and smacked hard into the cliff across the stream, settling on a thin ledge that jutted out of the rock. Even that far off, I could see the blind eye staring back at us, and I felt almost as if I would puke from the shame.
Shaking his head, Cal turned to me and said, “Let’s go,” and I walked down the gravel bar, grabbed my rod, and caught up with him as we crawled up the scree field on all fours, breaking our rods down to keep the graphite from snapping. The whole time I wanted to say something about the shame I felt seeing that fish land on the rock when it should have been in the water, knowing we had taken something beautiful from the world. But I couldn’t find the words, and when we made it up to Cal’s father’s truck, we tossed our rods and packs into the bed, hopped into the cab, and cracked fresh Shiners.
Cal pulled out onto Highway 70, heading back in the direction of Quincy, and as he shifted gears, he said, “I’m gonna try and fuck Sky Larson tonight before I leave town. I heard she’s a fuckin’ liberal.” I wasn’t sure what to say to that, but I laughed, and then we both laughed and I listened to the sound of our laughter filling the cab of the truck, thinking about the pain I would stuff down tomorrow, watching the only friend I had left in the world leave Quincy for good.