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After the great muskie h.., p.1
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       After the Great Muskie Hunt, p.1

           J.G. Sandom
 
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After the Great Muskie Hunt


  After the Great Muskie Hunt

  A short story by J. G. Sandom

  For Zane

  Copyright 2012 J.G, Sandom

  Cornucopia Press

  Forever Free - Kopimi

  It was in 1938, on the muskeg side of Eagle Lake, as a fog sluiced through the pine trees and a thunderstorm took hold, that Joseph Widmark trolled his way back to the boat slip and the lake unraveled with his first and only muskie. He was only eighteen then, a freshman in college, and although the fish weighed less than thirty pounds, he won the trophy and a check for $27 that they told him he could cash at any bank in West Ontario.

  They drove along the highway in a rented Ford Granada. Joseph was sixty-two now and his son, David, had heard the story many times. In all the years since that first muskie hunt, Joseph Widmark had never hooked another. He and his son had traveled to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario. They had caught their share of pickerel and pike. But the only muskies they had seen were nailed up on the doorframes of old roadside motels, or gill-pegged by some fishing cabin, their prehistoric mouths alive with jagged teeth, their long, thick bodies ribbed with orange tiger stripes.

  The muskellunge was like a dream to the old man, as wild and nameless as the forests and the prairies racing from the highway to the glistening horizon.

  David had been planning this fishing trip for months. His last showing in New York had been a great success. He had sold a dozen paintings, gathered commissions, and the thick manila folder, which his father kept inside his cherry wood credenza for significant reviews, was growing tattered at the edges.

  At first the old man had been reticent. “I’m flattered but it isn’t a good time,” he’d said. “I may be working those two weeks. Besides, it’ll soon be Christmas. Your mother’s been cooking round the clock.”

  David looked down at his telephone, at the charged cream plastic line that ran into the wall, along the highways and the malls, and down into the rich New Jersey soil. “I already talked with her,” he said. “Come on, Dad, it’s only for a week. You used to take me fishing all the time. If it’s the money, I already told you. My treat.”

  “No, it isn’t that. But won’t the lake be frozen?”

  “I checked. They just held the Great Muskie Hunt ten days ago. Winner caught a forty pounder.”

  “We’d have to buy new line, you know.”

  “I did.”

  There was a pause that stretched across two states. “How would we go?” the old man asked.

  “We’ll fly into Duluth and rent a car.”

  There was another pause and David heard his father cover up the mouthpiece. He looked up at the pencil sketch of Windsor Castle that hung above the telephone. It was a Judge’s reproduction, with chestnut trees and a brace of desultory cows. Rising high above the foliage, the northern tower wavered like a flag. It had been a present from his father on his fifteenth birthday, the year that he had won the Harrow Art Prize, the year that he had gotten drunk for the first time and lost his innocence in London, the year he’d realized that without his painting nothing seemed to matter. Nothing. “Dad, are you still there?”

  “I’ll drive the rental if you knot my wire leaders for me.”

  * * *

  Yeager’s Fishing Camp could only be approached by boat, seaplane or a long-abandoned logging road. The camp had been designed by Fritz Yeager himself, a man of legend throughout the Vermilion Range. He had left the town of Ely as a boy, become a kind of hero in the War, and prospered as an architect until his ascendance to Ontario’s Premier in ’68. In truth, the man had been a middling politician. But the people didn’t care. He was one of them. And, when he finally retired to his camp, they welcomed him with a celebration of such opulence that it drew national attention and put the town of Ely on the map.

  Fritz Yeager drank. At night he sat out on the front porch of the Trading Post, pulling at a bottle whose label had been boiled off years ago. He was out there every night, regardless of the weather, smoking Player’s Medium Navy Cut cigarettes and talking to the fishermen and hunters. The camp was usually deserted by November. A few still hunted moose throughout the winter but most observed the same internal timepiece as the birds, migrating south to warmer climes, retreating as the ice advanced across the lake.

  The Trading Post was a massive clapboard structure with a hint of Maine design. The dining room took up the western wing, the Yeagers the rest. There was a kind of general store just off the dining area that featured fishing gear, thick rods the size of walking sticks and garish muskie plugs with feather, steel and rubber band attachments. Behind the counter, a local high school girl named Daisy Leech ran through the merits of each lure with practiced salesmanship. “They call this the Torpedo.”

  Joseph picked up the jointed plug and flicked the stainless steel propeller. It was at least six inches long. “Do I get my money back if I don’t land a muskie by tomorrow?”

  Daisy looked aghast. “I’m sorry, Mr. Widmark. I can only guarantee the plug, not your luck.”

  “We’ll take it,” David said. “Put it on my tab. No, don’t bother to wrap it up. I’ll eat it here.”

  Daisy wrinkled her nose. “Okay. I guess.”

  David and his father sidled off to their dining table, snickering like a pair of schoolboys. “Eat it here,” Joseph repeated once they were sitting down. He looked down at the muskie plug, curled up beside his fork like some gigantic hornet, bright yellow and chartreuse. Daisy had forgotten to remove the price tag. “Seventeen dollars,” he said tightly. “That’s a bit steep, isn’t it?”

  “Don’t worry about it,” David said.

  “No, really,” Joseph answered. “We don’t need another lure.”

  David put his menu down. “Dad, it’s alright.”

  “I bet it cost them only fifty cents to make it. I’m going to take it back.”

  He began to stand but David reached across the table and held him by the shoulder. “Dad,” he said, “for crying out loud, you’re embarrassing me. I told you, it’s alright. Maybe it’ll change our luck.”

  For the rest of the meal they barely spoke. Joseph stabbed at his stroganoff half-heartedly, while David talked about the northern pike which they had spotted on the north side of the lake. The fishing had been disappointing. For five days they had combed the shores of Eagle Lake, their fingers growing numb against the wind, the silence only broken by the sound of anxious errant fins and the stutter of their outboard motor.

  Their coffee came, followed by a fifth of scotch, and the room began to warm.

  “I’m sorry,” Joseph finally said.

  “What for?”

  “About the plug, I mean. I guess I over-reacted. It’s just . . . ”

  David put his empty glass down on the table. “How’s business, Dad?” he said.

  “A little slow. But it’s the holidays.”

  “I talked with Mom.”

  “What did your mother say?”

  “She told me to ask you. You know how she is.”

  The old man smiled. “Yes, I know how she is.” He sighed. “It’s just a little slow, that’s all, David. It’s the recession.” He slipped the bill for their supper under the tablecloth and glanced about the room.

  David laughed. “I think they’ll find it.”

  “Next year, perhaps. After they clear these dishes. We’ll be long gone by then.”

  It seemed to David that his father only came alive when he went fishing. No, more than that; it was as if the journey from New Jersey to the camp had been along the temporal plain, as if the roads and air routes were mementos on a line of gradual regression.

  David
recalled a fishing trip to France. He had been a boy, no more than ten, and they had motored on the Continent. All those years in Europe had passed by in a snowstorm of discovery. Joseph had still worked for US Express then, and his American salary had led them to believe that there would always be a little more next year. David’s mother, Kirsten, came into her own. Her business parties always drew the most outlandish personages – concubines and priests, film directors, media tycoons and ministers of state. They lived in Italy, in England, France and Greece. They summered in Dubrovnik, and wintered in Marrakech.

  To Kirsten, it was what she had expected, a bright extension of her youth and the world which she had fashioned on the ceiling of her childhood bedroom late at night in Wellesley, Massachusetts, the daughter of an orthodontist. But to Joseph it had come with patience and devisal, the product of hard work and the ethic he had learned in the storeroom of his father’s tavern in Cicero, West Chicago, stacking cases as a boy.

  Their compact was a merger of ideals. His duty was to bring the grist to mill, and hers was to refine it.

  David had just been accepted to Harrow in England when his father informed him they were moving again. The old man had been offered a position in New York, a new bank after more than thirty years with US Express, a new title, and a raise of such dizzying significance that he just couldn’t say no. For four years, David traveled back and forth between boarding school and home on Trans World Airlines.

  At first, the new job proved to be exactly to what Joseph had aspired. Kirsten bought a house in Greenwich, Connecticut, and Joseph joined the Club. It was expected. It was the prize, the averment of success. Then the go-go years were gone and the promise was rescinded. The man whom Joseph had been told he would replace remained to fill the same space on the ladder. Responsibilities were shifted and Joseph found himself one day with a Conrail monthly pass inside his wallet but without a destination.

  For weeks he traveled to the city only to wander along the streets and avenues, confused and purposeless, unable to find work or the courage to tell Kirsten that the morning ritual – the kiss and car ride to the station – was a sham.

  It was at college in Massachusetts that David first learned the family was in trouble. His sister told him that the old man’s stocks, secured as options, had fallen in the slump, and that the bank for which he’d worked for years was calling in the loan. The entrepreneurial schemes he chiseled late at night in his home office turned out to be unsuited to the times. The market was going through disintermediation. The family moved again, to a condo in New Jersey. David was told to get a scholarship, and then a student loan that Joseph promised to repay as soon as things went back to normal. Time passed, and with it all their savings. Joseph tried to keep his courage up. He still had faith in all the dreams his father had bequeathed him. He still believed that if he worked a little harder, a little longer and a little faster, the prize would come to him again.
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