Taut Lines

By Leisha Douglas

Rapacious development consumed huge tracts of what she remembered as sagebrush, flowering cactus and thistle. The new golf courses and tennis courts were incongruously green against the red Colorado soil. Whenever she visited, her father and brother avoided talking about the changes seemingly overlooking the massive scarring on the mountain valleys of her childhood.

They remained almost fundamentalist about the glories of their home state and the lifestyle it offered denigrating other geographies particularly her chosen home of Connecticut. Their disdain was odious but she learned long ago how futile it was to argue with them.

Currently, her stomach roiled with apprehension and excitement about tomorrow's fishing trip to the famed Frying Pan river. At dinner, her father plunked a plate heavy with charcoaled sirloin and a baked potato in front of her saying “Tomorrow you're really going to catch some fish. I've got just the guide. He knows every inch of the Pan.” She wanted to ask “What about you, Dad? You knew where the fish were when we were kids.” She couldn't imagine fishing with some stranger.

After dinner, her father laid out reels in flannel bags, metal rod cases and plastic boxes filled with flies on the garage worktable. The amount of equipment startled her. “Dad? Um, I didn't bring much. I didn't want to lug fishing equipment to the business seminar.” She noted her apologetic tone which often surfaced when they were together. She believed that her gender always disappointed him.

“Ted caught a handful of good size cutthroat last week in the Eagle River. Even the pros weren't catching them but you know your brother... he makes everything look easy.” He shook his head, pursing his lips in what seemed to be combined envy and admiration. “Don't worry Pam, you're going to have fun tomorrow and you won't come home empty-handed. You'll be able to tell a few tales about all the fish you caught when you go back East.”

“Is there anything I can help you with, Dad?” His enthusiasm was both touching and frightening. She couldn't remember spending an entire day fly fishing. What if she needed a break? Got bored or tired? Images of past family outings spun by; wading icy streams with her jeans rolled up, she and Ted damming streams with rocks, her mom, seated on a tarp with her long tan legs curled under her, handing out turkey sandwiches soggy with mayonnaise, limp tomatoes, and Iceberg lettuce. Pam looked at the rapidly growing mound of equipment.

Something is different. Her father was always somewhat hyper, but tonight he was frenzied. Maybe I've forgotten. It had been years since they had done anything besides dine together.

“We'll rent you some waders. Your hip boots aren't any good for this outing,” he said.

“They aren't? They always worked fine before.” Her waders suddenly became familiars that she didn't want to leave behind.

“The Pan is too deep and fast for those. Besides, the new equipment is really lightweight and effective.”

Her lungs strained. Deep breathing was difficult. Her mouth and throat felt incredibly dry. High altitude air that Ted praised she found acrid and uncomfortable. After these family pilgrimages, her body relished stepping off the airplane into Hartford’s palpable moisture.

“We'll get going real early. It is a bit of drive plus we have to get you outfitted.” Lost in tomorrow, he continued. “Then we pick up Dave, some sandwiches and drive up the canyon.” She fingered some flies in their plexi-glass sections, silently saying their names ...caddis, wooly bugger, Green Drake, cahill. Their intricacy amazed her. She wondered about the people who found satisfaction in creating such life-like imitations out of feather and hair.

“Hey, Dad, you ever tie your own flies?”

He cleared his throat then looked up. “A while ago, but I wasn't much good at it and now I can't see up close. Hard enough to tie them on the line now. That's why I have all these different pairs of glasses - a pair to see, another for close work. But I can climb and fish with the best of them!” He stared defiantly at her as if daring her to disagree.

She nodded affirmatively. It was true. At sixty-eight, his physical stamina equaled men half his age. She never could keep up with him. She quit trying years ago after many experiences of strain, exhaustion, and cracking several vertebrae skiing. She wandered back into the house, anxiety pooling in her stomach. Hope I can last tomorrow, let alone enjoy it. I can take time out even if they make fun of me. It really shouldn't matter anymore.

When she opened her eyes the following morning, she thought she was dreaming. Three hot air balloons hung like neon colored ornaments against the azure sky. They moved leisurely across the valley casting the first shadows of the day. Pam stretched under the warm flannel sheets. Maybe it's a good sign, she thought then scoffed at her superstition. The delicious aroma of coffee permeated the room much like mornings when her mom was alive. Her dad had always been the self-appointed breakfast chef since he believed in a hearty breakfast.

Her mother lingered upstairs until the morning spread was almost finished, claiming she couldn't eat in the morning. Pam sighed and again wondered how two such opposite people got together. Breakfasts with her father had been stressful until Dr. Burgert warned him about his high cholesterol. He stopped admonishing her for eating like a bird and now joined her in consuming whole grains, yogurt, and fruit. A small change, but all the same a change. Her father resisted change until life pushed it upon him. Her mother sought novelty and grew restless with too much routine. She experimented with gourmet recipes and orchestrated trips to all kinds of cultural events. Pam credited her mother for her own affinity in the arts, particularly literature and music. God I miss her.

Her mother buffered the isolation Pam experienced around her brother and father, although it had been her mother who criticized her fashion sense and social diffidence. Thanks Mom, she whispered. Her mother’s lectures and forced socializing prepared Pam to successfully navigate professional situations she found herself in as a partner in the public relations and marketing firm. She still preferred her own company or one-on-one interludes with a close friend, but she could pull off a business dinner seamlessly.

Intermittent thoughts of her mother continued as they drove through the spectacular Glenwood Canyon, past the hot spring pools redolent with sulfur and pale people in bathing suits. The radio blared country music. Pam resisted turning it off because silence would be more uncomfortable. The store had a jaunty sign announcing Frying Pan Anglers. Some type of a young spaniel tied outside welcomed them with wags and licks. Their guide, Dave, was a giant enclosed in khaki from his feet to the cap on his head. He typified the guys who migrated to Colorado in droves when she was a teenager... blond, tanned, healthy-looking, and entirely focused on outdoor passions: rock climbing, skiing or fishing. These men didn't seem to talk of anything else regardless of what was happening either to them or in the world.

Dave's enthusiasm was evident as she watched the men exchange information about which flies were working and where. Ted was already engrossed in the repartee when she and her father entered. A plethora of fishing details lay around haphazardly; shelves stacked with videos and guide books, tools, clothes, hats and display case after display case of flies and reels. Assorted fishing prints and watercolors lined the walls with their titles and prices printed on cards underneath. Like an exclusive men’s club, there wasn’t anything feminine. She tried to look interested in the store's offerings while the men joked and compared notes. The owner dug up some wading overalls and boots for her which she donned in a grimy bathroom at the back of the store.

They finally clambered into the Jeep with sandwiches, more equipment and wound their way up the bumpy dirt road. Blue-green aspen leaves shimmered in the breeze and the sunlight bleached the tree trunks until they were almost opaque. The river thrashed against huge boulders then pooled into long expanses of shadowy water. Pam eagerly inhaled its fragrance.

Cars were parked at most of the road bends with fisherman either unpacking their gear or already standing in the water flicking their lines in rhythmic loops, their movements like some sacred, solitary dance. She sighed audibly. It had been several years since she used a fly rod and her casting was never anything more than passible.

“Keep going, Bob.” Dave said from the back seat. “We’ll work the top part of the river. I was up here two days ago and snagged four brownies and a couple of Cutthroats.”

They climbed up until evergreens and pines outnumbered the aspen. The river seemed faster and colder. She felt light-headed and thirsty reacting to the higher altitude. As they pulled over, Dave seemed to sense something was going on with her and said, “Bob, why don't you two start off below us. I’ll get Pam ready and into a good pool. Remember to keep any eye on each other though... these river rocks are very slippery.”

She perched on a rock alongside the road as Ted and her father donned their vests, waders, readied their lines and tucked small metal boxes of flies in their pockets. Ted looks great, she thought. His muscular lean frame, sun-streaked hair, and loose gait exuded health. He was not a man for words, but she could tell he was calm and pleased as he gazed at the surrounding mountainsides dotted with red paintbrush and blue gentian.

Tears of affection rose that she quickly squelched. She knew she couldn't share how she felt. Emotions made Ted nervous. He abruptly changed the subject or found something to do. She was glad her polaroid glasses masked her eyes when Ted looked at her directly and said, “Taut lines, Pam... Coming, Dad?” Their father grunted affirmatively and they scrambled down the crumbly shale slope to the river. Pam felt an old familiar sadness, her urge to yell, “Don't leave me with this stranger” but swallowed the words.

“I've got you ready to go.” Dave emerged from behind the Jeep handing her the rigged pole. She flicked her wrist to get a sense of the pole's weight and flexibility. It responded instantly.

“Wow, this is really something!”

“Yeah... graphite.” Dave said, adding, “Your dad wanted you to have the best. State of the art!” He smiled and jammed on a cap with an extra-long visor into his shaggy hair.

“Maybe I won't even have to cast. The trout will just magnetize to my fly, right?”

“It hasn't gotten that high tech yet.” Dave chuckled. “You still have to drop that fly lightly, tease them out. Don't worry, I'll help you remember.”

Was he inviting flirting? She wasn't sure. I was never very good at it, anyway. Dave's eye-stretching grin appeared to be his universal way of conveying all feelings. He signaled to her. “Follow me down and we'll find you a primo place.” He waited for her to descend the shale bank and join him riverside. “Let's go upstream. I caught quite a few there on Saturday.”

He talked softly to clue her in to monitor her voice and movements so as not to alarm the trout. She remembered her childhood wonder about their supposed sensitivity. She imagined vigilant trout stationary yet undulating above the rocks and sandy spots. When her father first told her, she even tried to tiptoe through willow thickets which was impossible given the way branches and roots grabbed. The river's tumbling was deafening and she again questioned if fish really heard above the river's roar. Dave moved deftly ahead of her despite his large stature enclosed in neoprene and held back branches until she passed by. They continued upstream about five hundred yards until the river widened into two arms. There were great dark eddies under tufts of wild grasses, lupines and Black-eyed Susans.

“I want you to land that fly in there. We've got to get a little closer for that to happen so you just put a hand on my shoulder and we'll step in.”

“I can walk in by myself,” she protested. Even if she wasn't a veteran fisherman, she was comfortable outdoors.

“I'd rather you didn't. These rocks tend to be slippery. I almost lost a client last week. The guy just didn't want to look bad in front of his kids and the next thing I knew he was down, sucking water into his waders. Situations like that makes me look bad if you know what I mean, so please oblige.”

Pam put her hand awkwardly on his massive shoulder. Coolness enveloped her calves and lower thighs as he led her carefully into deeper water. An old photograph of herself at nine in a T-shirt and pink underpants mid-stream came to mind. Her mother had claimed that as a child, she headed for rivers wherever they were. Dave's gray-green eyes fixed on hers, “You O.K.?”

“Yeah, good actually.”

“Well, let's start here and work our way up to that bend slowly. Roll casting would be best here. Try to keep the slack line off the water and let the river carry the fly downstream as naturally as possible. Aim for those frothy ripples. Like this.” He demonstrated after loosening the line on the reel with a quick flick. Pam held her breath until the fly landed perfectly in the pooled area on the opposite bank of the river. It was so suspenseful waiting for one of those dark shapes to rush up and seize the fly. There was a glimmer of silver as the sun rays bounced off the water, but nothing rose.

“They're in there.” Dave said fervently. “Just relax and try it.” She palmed the handle trying to get a comfortable grip and hold some slack line with the other hand. I wish he weren't here. What if I bomb and scare all the fish? She inhaled deeply to concentrate. The fly sailed high and plopped close to where Dave's cast landed.

“Not bad. Try to stop your forearm from coming down so far though. That way the cast will land more softly.” The dun-colored fly drifted across the quieter pool then tumbled downstream through foamy rifts. She continued casting with Dave looming silently at her left shoulder. The rhythm of the water was soothing. The light refracted in a myriad of patterns on the river rocks and sandy spaces. This feels terrific, solo familiar...

“You're doing well.” His voice was soft and low.

“Oh, well actually it feels pretty good. My right arm is definitely out of shape though.”

Dave chuckled “Yeah. It takes a little practice to build up the right muscles like any sport. Why don't you reel in and we'll move upriver? I’ll set you up in another spot and then check on Ted and your dad.”

“O.K., but what if I catch a fish when you're gone?”

“When you feel the strike, try to set the hook. You can either lift the rod a bit or take in some line. Then be prepared because the fish will probably want to run so you'll need to be ready for a little give and take.” She was ashamed of feeling scared about facing this possibility alone. Did he notice?

“Don't forget to holler for me in all the excitement. I'll come running with a net.” He fingered the net hanging from his belt and smiled. “I don't want you to lose your first catch of the day.”

They slowly picked their footing around large rocks and sudden drop offs in the river bottom. The solidity of Dave's shoulder now felt appealing to Pam. “It's a bit tricky in this fast water. Let's get you a good stable place to hang out.” Dave said as he maneuvered behind a mauve colored boulder midstream which blocked the water enough to create an ebb in the constant movement. “It can be tiring to fight the momentum of the river all the time. How ya doing?” He turned to look directly at her. She felt comfortably tousled by wind and movement. Strands of her thick blond hair escaped from her cap and curled along her cheekbones. Her vision was clear and relaxed. His eyes emanated what felt like real concern and interest.

“Ah, let's see if you cast into that sweet spot, I believe you'll...”

Pam's cast cut him short. She moved easily with the rod now. Although she didn't get maximum distance, the fly landed well. He saw the flash before she did and instinctively reached to pull her rod tip up. Pam froze for a few seconds. The hooked fish twisted then surged upstream trying to shake itself free. The rod bent under the stress. “Give him some slack!” Dave shouted but restrained himself from taking over. Pam reacted hypnotically to his instructions. The trout darted back and forth across the breadth of the river.

“I hope it doesn't wear itself out!” she exclaimed, bending toward the fish as Dave plunged into the deeper water net in hand. “Bring him in gently, a little at a time. We don't want to rip his mouth,” he called out.

Only his khaki-colored back was visible as he struggled to net the fish. He swung around and in several surging strides reached her side. “He’s a beauty, nice size cutthroat.” She marveled at the trout's brilliant orange and green coloring. I really didn't mean to catch you, she thought remorsefully.

“You can keep him if you want. There's a two-fish limit here.” Dave eyed her quizzically. He dipped the net in river while he waited for her answer. “I'll just keep him cool. I don't think the hook hurt him. I'm pretty good at removing them.”

Her instinct told her to let the trout go. Her pride wanted a display - wanted to show her father and brother that... what? That I am one of them... I can play their games? A familiar rigidity crept through her body.

Dave's large blunt fingers gently cradled the fish as he removed the hook. She moved closer, fascinated by the opalescent green against the ivory belly, pure orange slashes and perfectly etched black spots. The effect was stunning. Together they contemplated the netted fish as it breathed heavily. Wordlessly, Dave looked over at her. She nodded and smiled. He slipped the net into the water. After several flips of its tail, the trout melded into the blue gray shadows.


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