For a year I worked in Eagle Nest, New Mexico as a fly-fishing guide. They call it the Land of Enchantment, and that’s exactly what it is. The rivers and mountains and people cast a spell you don’t want to recover from. I met poets and tokers, lawyers and six-figure housewives. I took them to places where trout lived. I showed them how to fool fish. They told me about their worlds. Everybody learned something important. The following story occurred on a regular day in June. The fish weren’t biting. But that doesn’t stop men from looking for what may change that.
“We all come from somewhere and the somewheres tend to be awfully similar.”
It’s been a relatively slow day. Mostly license sales. More 5-days than 1-days so far. It’s a better deal. The salmon peach Power Bait is really flying off the shelf. I can’t remember the last time I used Power Bait. Probably a lake trip with the girls. It’s easier for the kids. Still, I recommend salmon peach as if I’ve been fishing it because that’s what everyone tells me is working: the owner, the people that come in to buy seconds, the patrons that heard it from the woman on the bank with a stringer full of yellow perch and a single 22-inch rainbow. I’m a barterer of local knowledge. And once the word gets out around here on color, that’s what they’re biting on whether the fish know it or not.
I need to tell the owner to order more worms. We’re a fly-shop but we’d be stupid not to sell bait. We’d be guilty of fulfilling that perceptive persecution so often associated with our kind. Snobs. Fly-fishing aficionados that look down their noses on the gutter rats of trout fishing. I prefer to fish with flies it’s true. It’s mostly what I’ve done for a while now. But I’ll never forget what I was before - a t-shirt and jeans farm boy with a push button 5-footer and a package of liver from Mill’s Ideal Supermarket, sitting on the downslope of an Oklahoma panhandle tailwater pit waiting for the ugly and ever hungry bullhead to slip his wide and slimy grin over my bloody offering. We all come from somewhere and the somewheres tend to be awfully similar. We ‘ve all had a Zebco special from Walmart. We’ve all dug for worms. We’ve all snuck onto the golf course late at night to try for one of the monster large-mouths that feed on baby ducks while Mr. and Mrs. Sarchet chip onto the 7th green on Sundays. Well, maybe that last one was just me. But usually, when we think about our fishing youth, we’re all just kids trying to catch whatever’s in the water with whatever we can. It’s only later in life when we decide to paint our passions with the camouflage of our beliefs and values. The sheath of our evolved standards. But it’s too early for a natural vs yarn salmon egg discussion. Besides, I’m still trying to recover from this morning’s incident.
“I immediately stood up from my stool. I’m pretty sure I said the words holy shit. I grabbed the phone and started to dial 911.”
Actually, I’m not the one that’s recovering. The customer is, although I haven’t heard anything about her since she left. They came in to buy fishing licenses and they asked about the trout in Eagle Nest Lake. Two guys and a girl. Probably in their mid-30’s. From Texas like everyone else. I told them the usual:
Power bait and worms.
Stick to the west end.
If you have a boat go toward the damn.
This is all advice that I myself would indeed follow but I’ve said the words so many damn times I’m starting to wonder. Anyway, I finished the two men’s license registration and started working with the woman. She was attractive in the way all blondes are attractive to me and she was sparsely clothed in short blue nylon shorts and a tight white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. She wore a curved low-profile baseball hat low to her eyes so that I could barely look into them when I asked her for her address and phone number - a line of questioning grounds for pick-up lines in any other social setting but perfectly acceptable and dully routine here on the other side of the counter. She was obviously pregnant but not so obviously far along. She appeared to be drunk but then I realized it might just be a personality trait. The guys with her continued to ask me questions about the fishing as they walked in between the isles and grabbed packages of split-shot and hooks, reading the backs briefly before struggling to find the hole in the plastic tops as they slipped them back over the fumbling loose metal rods. One of the other guides, Scott, was in the shop too and he was looking at the fly collection and mumbling about the lack of selection and low inventory, a common gripe for him. And then just as I entered the zip code into the online form, the woman (who was standing directly in front me) fell down. She fainted. I watched her eyes roll back into her head and her shoulders went one way and her hat went another and she fell to the ground with a slow and gradual thud. It was like a Jenga tower when the second to the bottom piece is pulled and the rest of the blocks think about it for a while before unraveling themselves and piling onto the floor. I immediately stood up from my stool. I’m pretty sure I said the words holy shit. I grabbed the phone and started to dial 911. Scott was already beside her on the red carpet and he talked to her and asked her questions in an oddly calm and smooth tone, as if he expected it to happen or had seen it happen before.
“Can you hear me?”
“Do you know where you are?”
“What’s your name?”
“Can you see my face?”
She convulsed a few turns when she first hit and I thought she was working her way into a full-on seizure, but then she was asleep and then she was waking up and then she looked at Scott and started to answer his questions. The two guys were absolute stones. They said and did nothing. I tried to guess which of them belonged to her but neither showed any inclination. They didn’t offer to help. They didn’t even bend a joint, elbow or otherwise. They acted like two zombies frozen in time who had just seen a third zombie fall down and can neither comprehend the act or muster any emotion because they’re…well…brain dead zombies. They were in shock, I hope. One of them finally asked the woman on the floor an apathetic and almost accusatory what are you doing, as if she were embarrassing them. Keep in mind, THIS WOMAN IS PREGNANT!
It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen: both the sudden collapse of the childbearing semi-attractive blonde and the subsequent utter lack of sympathy and assistance by both of her assumed suitors. Before I hit the talk button on the phone she was up on her butt and talking to Scott.
“Are you on any medication?”
“Are you diabetic?”
“Has this ever happened before?”
No, no and no.
“I’ll be ok. I’ll be ok. I think I just got really hot. I just need to rest awhile.”
I paced back and forth from behind the counter to the front where she was, trying to decide if I should make the call anyway. Scott pointed out the fire station down the street and told them they should go there and make sure she was alright. He talked as if he were recommending #18 prince nymphs to a father and son on their way to fish the Cimarron. The two guys stood squarely in the same motionless pit of self-doubt and hesitation and dead chivalry and I grew more than a little angry at their pitiful banality. Even if neither of them was the father or the boyfriend, lend her a fucking hand for Christ’s sake. But I didn’t say that out loud. I maintained my dutiful post behind the counter and Scott, having been medically trained as a ski instructor, handled the entire situation with impressive grace and professionalism. I haven’t had much time to spend with Scott save a few guide trips when he showed me the ropes. He’s cordial but distant. He’s been guiding fly-fishermen in New Mexico along with wearing a handful of other titles for more years than I know. Carpenter, ski patrol, bartender - the usual mixology of random jobs and incomes necessary to live in the place he loves. He’s got kind green eyes and a thin, lean frame, reddish blond hair and a clean-shaven face with sun marks and hangover hues. He’s shy around newcomers. He’s seen too many come and go over the years to get attached, like a good blue heeler that’s been beaten by his first owner and now approaches a petting hand with a weary nose and a traveler’s heart.
“Scott went back to mentally inventorying the lack of fake bugs. The other guy remained,”
The girl stood and smiled and tried to brush off the event with a confused and embarrassing laugh. She was still clearly on the bad side of lucidity and she walked out of the shop before I could offer any other aid. Not that there was anything else to do. Maybe it was nothing - a passing blip on an otherwise flawless vacation. Maybe she’d had too much to drink the night before and was dehydrated and the altitude took her consciousness. Maybe there were complications with the pregnancy. I dearly hope not.
One of the guys followed her out of the door and his eyes avoided mine and his hat brim pointed to his toe tips and then he was out of view and into the world outside. Scott went back to mentally inventorying the lack of fake bugs. The other guy remained, standing in front of the counter now watching his friends walk away. I was still miffed at his passiveness and I hoped to gain some sort of explanation.
“Has that ever happened before?”
“Man, I hope she’s ok.”
His eyes went above mine to the shelf behind me and he scanned the articles on display and I thought he might be stalling or on the verge of unloading some secret to the girl’s fate. An apology of shock perhaps. Maybe a thank you to Scott. His hands shuffled the Eagle Claw #14 hooks he’d been holding throughout and he set them on the counter and reached for his wallet and scanned the green bills in between the sweaty worn walls of old brown leather.
“So,” he said.
“You said the rainbows were hitting salmon peach pretty good? Gimme a jar of that.”