Chance of a Biggie – Sam Bradford

Turns out the serious fishermen don’t even mess with water anymore. Or fish. You can make a living off contest winnings with fly-casting competitions. At a conference, Tyler met Jill Blenkentyre, three-time world champion female fly caster. She was a foot taller than Tyler and her hair was tied back in a pony tail so tightly that her eyebrows were tugged halfway up her forehead. Tyler bought two copies of her book, one to annotate and one to keep nice on the shelf, and waited in line for her to sign them. Something about that struck her as sad, and consequently she opened up to him:

“I can’t bring myself to fish. I’ll cast twenty, twenty-five feet, tops, practically speaking. Can I tell you something? Fish or no fish, I just – what’s the fun in that, you know? What gets me going is setting up the old tires in the field, seventy-five feet away and giving myself seven seconds to land a wooly bugger in there. Now that’s a rush.”

The confession, not correlating with any of Tyler’s two or three hardwired beliefs, caused him to nod politely and walk on, thinking her a bit odd.

Wiley Dortmund, professional fly-tier, was less receptive of Tyler’s two-copy purchasing habit. A fat man with a polymerized shine and permanently sagging eyelid from an over-clenched monocular, Wiley’d invented half a dozen prize-winning flies, irresistible to trout and standards in the angler repertoire. His great secret was that Wiley knew very little about fish.

When his fashion school classmates had called his outfits with the feathers sprouting from the shoulders “garish,” Wiley had initially thought they were jealous. Several years after graduation, the slow realization that they were right settled in when fashion gigs did not. This made him bitter. Wiley stumbled on a fly-tying kit one family winter retreat at a ski lodge when he had a broken ankle. To pass the time, he read the short manual and quickly mastered the basic flies, enjoying the opportunity to work with thread. Then he experimented– a sprig of deer hair here, a crimson bead there. A fly-fisherman sipping cocoa saw Wiley’s arrangements and asked about them. The line “this is my spring collection” was entirely misinterpreted by the angler. He bought them off Wiley, and four months later, he received a note forwarded by the lodge with a picture of the man holding an enormous rainbow trout with Wiley’s fly stuck in the mouth. The photo was published in a regional fishing magazine, inquires poured in, and a legend was born.

Wiley never told anyone his secret, especially the freaks at the conferences. When the snaking droves of cut-off t-shirts told him they tossed his masterpieces in the water to be stuck in slimy fish mouths, Wiley’s patience went deer-hair thin. The man in line in front of Tyler was from Eastern North Carolina, same general area as Wiley. He mentioned this to Wiley as he selected half a dozen Jigglin’ Meanies from the portable display case (Wiley’s agent convinced him that “Jigglin’ Meanie” had far better sale potential than Wiley’s preferred name for it, “Melancholy of the Soul’s Despair”). The man from North Carolina told Wiley that he intended to fish the Neuse River. Wiley remembered the photos of dead swine, black hooves protruding from feces-tainted flood water. He winced.

“You’re going to fish in there?” Wiley asked.

“Oh yeah! See, that’s the thing, everyone overlooks the Neuse,” the man said.

“I can’t sell you these.”

“What?”

“They’re not for sale.”

“I got the money.”

“…”

“Man, I got the money.”

“Oh Christ, take them.”

“Thirty bucks?”

“Just take them. Get away from me.”

Wiley didn’t end up saying anything to Tyler.

Those were the serious devotees. Out on the shoals in North North Georgia, Tyler fantasized about having the cast of Blenkentyre, the tying of Dortmund, the stream-reading of Rosenbauer, and so on. Life devoted to it several times over – now that would be a fully-earned fish. That’s when he would achieve the ultimate goal, Awareness. To feel everything there was to be felt in a moment. The temperature, pressure, sunlight, shade, wind-speed, entomology, water current, how to cast, what to cast, where to cast – to have the knowledge and act on it – the fish was verification of the extent to which Tyler’s eyes were open.

His initial interests in fly fishing weren’t so noble. He just wanted to be like Brad Pitt. The scene in A River Runs Through It of Brad Pitt’s James Levine-like casting had mesmerized him.

Brad’s intricate cast was a big delusion. Tyler had tried it during one of his first outings. The line arced above him, churning, swirling in a steady rhythm. The more line he let out, the more beautiful it got, the longer the pause, the heavier the weight of the loop above him floating in the air. Tyler got it; he understood. With so much line out churning above him – a universe he created that orbited around him – three seconds of the fly’s trajectory was traced out in the sky in elegant cursive. Tyler had slowed down time. Any given moment held entire seconds.

But then the fly threaded through the loops of where it had been two revolutions ago, and when he pulled his arm forward, the loops closed, knotting itself in a tangle that fell from the sky and onto his shoulders.

It had taken forty-seven minutes of standing, crouching, squatting on the bank, arms wide open, arms closed, line in his hands, teeth, under a foot, to untangle that knot.

What Tyler doesn’t know is if he had practiced fly fishing then as he did now – trying to feel all there was to be felt in a moment – there’s a small chance he may have picked up on the brain function of ten-and-a-half year-old Royboy Beane, several miles up the river.

Perception so subtle that it borders on intuition, Shaman-like, Tyler might have been able to sense the hormones carried by the breeze that day, felt the complex oily molecules weighing down the air like wet laundry held up by a balloon. The almost pneumatic click of kisspeptin activating the gonadotrophin-releasing hormone, if Tyler couldn’t have heard it, he might have been able to feel the triggering of so profound a change, the beginning of puberty, so far ahead of schedule in the body of Royboy Beane.

Royboy hadn’t felt it as he walked up the river looking for arrowheads. He didn’t start feeling the effects until several months later. It started with a strange dream where he and Ms. Perez, the librarian at Riverside Elementary School, held hands and inserted and ejected the same tape from the school VCR over and over again until he woke up with sticky Batman underpants.

The cracking and deepening of his voice was an advantage to the bodily changes. It gave him more authority when discussing pro-wrestling moves with his friends. Professional wrestling had become a sociological bonding agent for the fourth grade boys of Riverside Elementary School. Phase One, at which Royboy now excelled, included demonstration of knowledge and devotion by repeating and re-repeating the same basic statistics about each wrestler, weight (down to decimal point), signature move, sworn enemy, and girl-friend (hair-type, hair-color, and, on occasion by the most daring of the fourth grade boys, the vague but hand-gesture accompanied reference to the status of her “bazoos” as either “good” or “very good,” the distinction between the two being somewhat mysterious and speculative).

If everyone agreed on the data, they would boast knowledge of the color and pattern of spandex leotard the wrestler wore. When the conversation reached such minutiae that a discrepancy eventually arose, and the trading card, left in somebody’s other pair of jeans, could provide no confirmation, the display elevated to a trading eights on the effectiveness of hypothetical move combinations. This was less about considering the physical possibility and more so about inserting your contribution at the emotional apex with proper volume and facial distortion:

“Bounce off the ropes, clothesline, piledriver!”

“No no no. What’d be better is to bounce off the ropes, clothesline, grab a chair, bounce off the other ropes, chair-bash, then choke-hold body-slam combooooo.”

“Yeah!” they cheer, unisonus.

Phase Two occurred after the teacher/administrator inevitably forced them to silence. Then they removed action figures of the wrestlers from their backpacks, the once shiny plastic pectorals now scuffed and dulled. After enough time, the original purchasers were forgotten. The victor of these silent marionettish duels was allowed to keep the wrestler in his backpack. Luckily for Royboy, who couldn’t afford one, the momentum from Phase One combining with a feign-injury, lure-body-slam meant he usually kept two figures in his backpack at all times.

Phase Three occurred at recess. Silenced for so long and knowing if they spoke out they would lose recess privileges, their covert noiseless matches provided the bare minimum fix of adrenaline. Now released to recess, the fourth grade boys began a highly choreographed ritual of wrestling reenactment. Slowed to savor the physicality of it, they approached one another, threw over-wound punches that landed a few inches from the punchee’s face, the puncher providing the aspirated “pshh” of the contact and the punchee dutifully twisting head and body to the other side with ballet-like precision. Even the spectator’s applause was muted and in slow-motion. They aimed to capture not real fighting but the heightened awareness real fighters must feel when “in the zone.” Every match was a draw, equal punches delivered and received, equally competent ducks executed, and final specialty combo moves delivered in the order opposite of who got first-punch honors.

All three phases complete, the ritual was often so effective in releasing and articulating their aspirations, frustrations, and social acceptance, that they often didn’t need to speak to one another for the rest of the day. Mrs. Patterson, fourth-grade teacher, attributed their marked improvement in behavior to her own teaching skills warming up after recess.

The problem with the change in Royboy’s body was a constant aching hunger. He ate the reduced fare lunch at school and could have eaten twelve of those peanut-butter-honey sandwiches every day. Lunch served only to return the Styrofoam, quartered lunch trays from the realm of semi-appetizing food-as-container à la the famed bread bowl of Free Soup for Faculty Fridays to actual disposable trash.

Royboy awoke one night sticky again from a dream of signature-shirtless Sockeye Simon rubbing lotion on the chest of Royboy as Royboy rubbed lotion on an action figure of Sockeye Simon. The confusion of this dream woke him enough to realize the hunger, which woke him completely.

The thing about hunger that Royboy didn’t understand was that even though it was an absence, he felt the hunger inside him like it grew into its own thing, something stony, weighing him down, impervious to digestive acid. And the more he thought about it, the heavier the stone got.

He wasn’t supposed to be up for school for another four hours. He felt like he was pinned under a bolder. It didn’t help that Royboy slept on a bench in what functioned as the kitchen of his mom’s trailer. He knew the cabinets around his head held nothing, but he looked anyway: an old tub of desiccant.

His mother never cooked anything except once every couple months for the free River Feast, which was still weeks away. Nothing in their half-refrigerator. It was unplugged.

Royboy’s mother didn’t work. She received alimony and aid from the state. She drank an awful lot of tequila. “Investing in Gold,” she called it, but she had taken that line from a t-shirt she saw once in Destin.

Initially, she cashed the checks and then left the money on the table, so it was equally up for grabs between her and Royboy. This strategy worked for a while because it coincided with her laziness. But then, instead of buying one bottle of tequila at a time, she figured she could save time by buying two. Cash the checks and go straight to the package store, all while Royboy’s at school. Royboy was left an average of four dollars every two weeks.

Waking up Mama was a seriously bad idea. The stone in his stomach moved, twisted a little. Royboy changed his underpants and pulled on his shorts and grimy foam flip-flops that his toes draped over. He walked outside. The river was nearby. They said in school that people in Africa eat bugs. Maybe he could do that. The night was too cool to be in shorts, cool enough not to smell anything. Royboy could hear the fat crickets; he imagined how each one was like a chicken nugget.

He couldn’t find any of them. Not even in the moon light.

Royboy followed the worn path to the water’s edge. He could always drink a lot of water. That worked for a while the day after a three-dollar Wendy’s binge, or when it was a teacher workday. No one was around. The moonlight flickered in the stream. He removed his flipflops. The mud peeled the warmth from between his toes. Fat crickets roared. Toads laughed at Royboy. He took a handful of water and started to cry. He could drink a gallon and the bolder would be back before he got back to the trailer. It was all so stupid. He couldn’t beat the bolder. All he had was cold mud.

Royboy remembered a stolen jar of peanut butter from the school’s collection box for the troops. A dollop of peanut butter sticks to your ribs. Good mileage out of that.

Royboy sank two fingers into the mud not far from his feet. They slid in so easily. If you close your eyes, you’d think it was anything. He thought of cookie dough ice cream.

He held his head back and opened his mouth as wide as he could. Moonlight glinted off a metallic cavity filling as his glasses slipped down onto his forehead.

He reached the mud dollop as far back into his throat as he could, avoiding his tongue. He felt it touch the back of his throat and he nearly gagged, but that’s when he lowered his head and swallowed and rinsed his mouth with three handfuls of water.

He felt it go down. It sank through the center of the stone.

As long as it didn’t touch his tongue, it was ok. You had to get just the right amount on your fingers. You had to close and swallow at just the right time. It could be done, but there was a process. Royboy swallowed six dollops. The stone was gone. In its place was mud, and he felt very tired.

II

Pollen swirled on the water surface, drifting silently forward, flicked apart by water bugs, each foot a dimple on the surface. Tyler thought they were like miniature Jackson Pollocks.

Bright morning, mid-May. The stream gurgled like something newborn and excited. Only thirty feet across, the stream had woods and a dirt path on either side. Granite outcroppings provided shoals, where the water flowed around each rock, creating two direct highways of food to the trout. That’s where they’d be, suspended in a row, facing upstream, letting the food come straight to them.

Tyler licked at a remnant of cheese cracker still ground into the crevices of his molars.

A lone cloud covered the sun and the blanket of shards reflecting from the surface vanished, dulling the water. Tyler’s eyes relaxed.

That’s when he saw somebody.

A scrawny man, sunburned so badly on his face and arms that blisters emerged like glue through a decades-ago posted sign. Mouth hung open to breathe, dip-eroded gums exposing more of each tooth.

Tyler nodded but the man didn’t move. His eyes were shadowed by his ratty baseball cap.

Tyler now knew that ninety percent of the time trout won’t strike the dry fly that sits on top of the water, the kind Brad Pitt used exclusively. Tyler knew all it takes is dividing a good spot into five equal sections with a short, medium, and long cast down each section. Just a mental grid.

Three casts into the series of five, Tyler stripped the line as it floated to mimic a natural drift. His technique gave him confidence that spoke for him, but the man on the bank still gave that feeling where a stranger in a public restroom chooses the urinal next to yours despite a line of clean, functioning vacant ones. Tyler finished the series and felt the cool water midway up the calf as he waded out to a fallen tree by the opposite bank.

Two more people by the opposite bank. A little boy with a crew cut and glasses next to a woman in cut-off jeans and plaid shirt with the front tied together, exposing her navel. Her face was so hideously pock-marked that her eye-sockets were just another two craters, only with beady eyes that had pooled in them. The little boy scooped mud in two fingers and put it in his mouth so easily and swiftly that it looked completely normal.

Despite them, the spot was so good it triggered something warm that spread from Tyler’s spinal cord to the ends of his arm hairs. Shade, the current slowed and swirling against the log and bank – i.e., safety, minimal effort, and constant food supply. Trout fought for spots like these.

Luck is always involved, but you have dozens of barriers to cross before you can make yourself available to the luck, and Tyler had done that and here it was.

An earlier Tyler would have casted straight down the center of swirling water, by the log. But now he knew that everything there was to know about himself as a fisherman and as a person was in how he behaved in the presence of the Luck. Perfect Technique. Nothing rushed. He took a moment to focus on the intake of his breath.

It helped Tyler to think of a song as he casted, for tempo, the pause before the down stroke. He thought of Sheryl Crow, “All I Wanna Do (Is Have Some Fun)” – up on the “do” and down on the “fun.” Grid. Five sections. Third section, mid-length cast would be the money.

Sun comes up over

Santa Monica Boulevard.

Five sections and no strike. Tyler returned to section three and fished it twice more. The second time he felt a tug, yanked, and realized his fly, a Dortmund Halfback, snagged on dead leaves. He purposefully extended his breaths, which he had lost track of.

Now an older woman on the bank. Gray hair in a thick braid that wrapped over her shoulder like a python. Unfurled, her hair must reach her knees. She rested against a tree, iron skillet at her waist. At the other bank, the sunburned man had moved closer. Three more people behind him.

Is have some fun.

The fly shot forward and snagged a branch on the log close to the boy. Twin men appeared behind him, matching overalls and seemingly matching stains on the overalls.

Tyler remembered Greek myths where nymphs could turn from trees to women. Ground cracker from the ridge of a molar loosened.

If he unsnagged the Halfback, he’d trudge through the ideal spot. Tyler clipped the line. It fell to the water like a broken spider web.

Another two at the opposite bank. They moved only when Tyler wasn’t looking.

Tyler repaired the line and was fishing again in twenty-five seconds. Amateurs can’t do that. They have to bring a guide. They don’t know about the Luck, how we can only dance in front of it and hope it approves. They think it’s about the fish. It’s not his fault they don’t bite. They can’t blame him for that.

I’ve got a feeling

I’m not the only one.

The sun came up over some clouds, catching puffs of golden pollen as they drifted off the water. It took a distinct glop thirty feet away and a tail flicking out of the water for Tyler to realize, for book knowledge to transfer into physical recognition – a hatch. Tyler yanked the business card-sized fly calendar from his breast pocket. Mid-May. Lawson’s caddis. He didn’t have to look in his box to know that he had three, self-tied. The Brad Pitt moment.

Tyler watched his hands clip and tie and pop the knot in his mouth. Movement on the bank caught his attention. Someone scratched himself.

All I wanna do

is have some fun.

The line landed straight, without slapping the water, and the fly floated down with the invisible tippet four feet behind. Like it just came out of the air. He knew the variables. He knew what he would be doing and thinking. The ritual gave confidence because it allowed him to see into the future.

But Tyler was ripped from it by the rumbling. The diesel coughing, gears shifting and clutch releasing. The sharp glint of the chrome bulldog, like it would burn if you touched it. The truck pulled up to the edge of the bank and the spiral-tread wheels slowly backed into the water, like some ancient beast stopping for a drink. The truck hauled an enormous metal tank with GA D.N.R. pasted on the back. A black guy and a thin white woman, both wearing waders and brown hats also with D.N.R. pasted on them, climbed out of the truck. Tyler’s line had bowed out in front of the fly as the water pushed it downstream.

They waded to the back of the truck, knee-deep on either side. They turned two circular hatches, which opened the back of the truck. Water rushed out, filling the ears with an angry buzz. The cascade did not have the normal table skirt look that the tops of waterfalls have. It was mostly glass, but disturbed in the middle. More like a broth with a lot of rice in it.

Before Tyler could process how this altered the variables in the fishing probability, the people from the banks entered the water. Ka-chug Ka-chug of thoughtless, heavy steps that fish can feel a hundred feet away. The newly-hatched insects floated upward, somehow impossible to grasp.

If Tyler had been more aware, he maybe could have felt the debilitating shock of twelve hundred hatchery-born trout being dumped into the cold stream from the hot truck:

Too soon for the time of the dark. Smell the stress on all sides. Must hide. Can’t hide. Fight. Too much to fight. Some killed on the bottom. Can smell them.

No current, just shake. My insides break apart. Too warm. Hard to breathe in this dark time.
Dark time too short. Light. Strong current. Falling. Bone chill. Head frozen. Chill in my blood. I, I…

One of the twins bends to the water, twenty feet from Tyler, and pulls out a nine-inch trout in each hand. Tyler only just realizes they aren’t handfuls of water before the man bashes their heads together and throws their limp bodies on the bank.

The woman with the python braid holds her skillet with both hands, smacking the water and scooping up fish.

The woman with the hideous face carries a baseball-sized river stone in one hand and a pine branch in the other. Strings of wildly vibrant algae cling to the stone. She drops the stone from shoulder height, daintily picks up a fish, lacing the pine branch through the gills and out the mouth. She picks up her stone.

The extremely sunburned man squeezes a large trout too hard, causing a spasm in the tail that smacks him on the cheek. His scream makes Tyler understand that the phrase “blood-curdling” is not a hyperbole. The man drops the fish and stomps.

The woman now has a string of trout on the pine branch like a cluster of iridescent bananas.
The tip of the python braid is wet.

The chubby boy with glasses stands apart from the others, up to his waist in the shoals. His pubescent, sporadically deepening voice carries very well over the water. Tyler sees a trout, at least twelve inches, cradled in the boy’s arms like an infant.

“Oh no,” the boy says to himself, distinctly clear to Tyler. “Looks like he’s gearing up for his signature move. It’s time for the no-mercy choke hold!” Tyler couldn’t see his eyes through the water glare on the boy’s glasses. The boy holds the fish up to his chest at the crook of his elbow.
“No mercy! No mercy! No mercy! Body slam comboooooo!” he chants.

The boy dives forward onto the fish with a large splash. When he stands up, the fish has folded over his arm like a waiter’s hand towel. Blood and feces have squirted from the fish’s anus onto his shirt.
“Sick!” the boy cries, not in the deep voice. He throws the fish on one of several piles of trout dotting the bank.

The words “Santa Monica Boulevard” flash across Tyler’s mind, and he realizes he is still casting. He looks at his feet. Four respectably sized rainbow trout, blanched in stress, flex their gills and transparent pectoral fins. He drops a fly in front of one. His caddis is damp at this point and sinks a few inches, bopping the trout on the nose. No response.

One of the twins stuffs fish into all available overall pockets, which bulge and jiggle with each step.

“Hellsmatter you?” he says when Tyler’s fly nicks his arm.

“Sorry,” Tyler says.

The really great part of the day for Royboy is that this counts as his bath. He dunks his glasses in the water and sets them back on his face. He watches Tyler through those lenses. Tyler thinks he hears the word “neat” carry across the water to him. But Royboy knows his friends would call him a faggot if he fished like that guy.

After five minutes, the remaining nine-hundred fish resuscitate and swim far out of sight. The people leave, dripping and carrying their fish in armfuls or paint buckets. Only one nut remains, singing about boulevards.

“I wish we didn’t have to publish the stocking day,” the girl says, adjusting the knot of her hair sticking through the back of her D.N.R. cap. The road back to the hatchery jostles her voice to the point of cracking.

“Got to,” says the man. He is annoyed by the new girl, who hasn’t learned that it’s pointless to have an opinion. He has made a habit of counting how few words he speaks to her at the end of each day. He has also convinced himself that if he can ever make it to under ten words, it demonstrates the self control that can definitely handle the purchasing of a new pornographic movie from the internet. Something Brazilian.

“But, I mean, we waste so many fish. It’s unfair.” Her voice is unbearable to him, like he will have to pick her words off his clothes later. “Don’t they know about this when they calculate how many fish we release?”

“It’s all in the numbers,” he says, counting it’s as one word.

 

 

 

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