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The kid trotted off and walked backward for a ways to see if he couldn’t catch a glimpse into the turbine house, but Charlie made sure he couldn’t. The man studied Charlie cautiously for a brief moment. He had the look of someone about to say something, but then he smiled curtly and nodded and followed his kid to the water.
For a couple hours the father and his son stood out there fishing, and for a couple hours Charlie sat against the turbine house and watched them. A few times the boy tangled his line around the rod or hooked it on a drowned tree and the father stooped with his pliers and righted it. Charlie wished first that they’d move on soon, but after a while he relaxed and listened to their voices travel out across the water in soft echoes. He saw low-flying birds chase their reflections over the lake and vanish into the woods.
Then the kid went hip hollering and Charlie could see the rod buckle over and he heard the father shouting out instructions. What they pulled from the water, he could see from this distance, was a rainbow trout. He saw the color catch the sunlight, throwing off sharp glances of ruby and green. The father and the son marveled at the fish for a while. The boy ran his fingers down the wet, shimmering body. They looked back at Charlie and held up the fish for him to see.
They walked back to the camp, the father holding the rod and the kid holding the line and the fish hanging from it. The three of them looked at the fish in silence for a moment and agreed in that way that the fish was good. It was the best looking trout Charlie had ever seen. The father nodded to his kid.
“Here,” the kid said to Charlie. “Have it.”
Charlie thought about this and he said, “That’s your catch. Trout’s a good fish.”
“We normally catch and release,” the man said. “My wife’s back home. Probably got the meal ready. So go on. Or we’ll turn it loose.”
“All right,” Charlie said.
“You got some place to put it?”
Charlie gestured to the bucket.
“RJ,” the man said to his son, “why don’t you go fill that bucket with water.”
The kid handed the line and the fish to Charlie and then ran off with the bucket. The metal handle had cracked off in some past life so the kid held it in his arms against his chest.
Charlie watched the kid go and felt the man watching him. From this vantage, through the shack door, through a series of gaps in the old machinery, Charlie could see the dead woman’s feet.
“Let me ask you something,” the man said.
“Have we met before?”
“You and I?”
“Yeah,” the man said, a bit embarrassed. “You look familiar to me. Did you grow up nearby?”
“No,” Charlie said. “Not nearby.” He had grown up two states over.
“You look familiar is all. You ever know a Charlene Elligsen?”
“No,” Charlie said. “Not that I recall.”
“There was a guy who used to run with her sometimes. Used to see him coming and going. This would have been something like fifteen years ago.”
“Huh. Well then you look a lot like someone I used to know.”
Charlie had not thought about his appearance in a long time. Being called back into that visible existence, which he’d long ago either lost or discarded, inspired a vague uneasiness to well up in him. He felt his mind go to work closing those doors that had come ajar, and managing the floodgate of memory, and yet still remote visions of his old life came to him as softly, and as indistinct, as voices conversing through the wall. Then the kid returned with the bucket brimming with water, sloshing some over the lip as he labored nearer, and Charlie remembered the fish that hung from the fishing line, wrapped tightly around his own dirty hand, which was just then purpling darkly from lack of circulation.
The kid set the bucket down at Charlie’s feet. “There you go,” he said.
Charlie lowered the trout into the water, which was murky with sediment from the lake floor. The fish slipped noiselessly to the bottom where it lay stilly for a few moments, and then it turned itself upright and glided a lap around the bucket, which surprised Charlie. He’d imagined it was dead. It had seemed dead in his hand. And yet there it was, claiming its last few moments of life, even with the line in its mouth and the hook in its gill.
“What do you know?” Charlie said. Then he looked at the kid. “Thanks for the fish,” he said.
“Say you’re welcome,” the father told his son.
The boy’s father smiled and scratched the stubble at his throat. “Listen,” he said. “Figure we’ll call it a day here. Going to head back to town soon.” He looked at his son. “See what your mom’s cooked up, huh?” He patted the boy’s shoulder, then he peered up at the canopy and inhaled. “It’s a pretty place,” he said. “I came here once or twice as a kid. It is a pretty place. I’ll say that.”
He waited for Charlie to reply, but Charlie only nodded and stared.
“All right,” he said to his boy. “You ready?” Then the man turned his attention back to Charlie. “You know, if you were ever looking for a ride to town—It’s gotta be a full day or so’s hike, isn’t it?” He glanced down at Charlie’s bagged foot. “Well. We’d be happy to give you a lift, is what I mean. If you were looking to stock up on provisions or anything.”
Charlie stood with his hands in his pockets and squinted down the dirt road, which disappeared into gathering of pines.
“No,” he said. “That’s all right.”
“Really, we have the room. Wouldn’t be any trouble.”
“There’s a friend I’m out here with. He ought to be driving back in soon enough.”
“Is that right?”
“Figure I’ll wait for him.”
“Right. Suppose it wouldn’t be polite to leave him without saying so.”
“I don’t suppose so either.”
“Right.” The man seemed relieved. He exhaled. “Well. Saddle up, RJ.” The kid tromped off to the car with an untied shoe. “Thanks for sharing your spot,” the man said to Charlie.
“Well,” Charlie said. “Not my spot anyway. Only where I’m set up.”
“All the same,” the man said.
“Thank you for the fish.”
“Like I said, normally we catch and release.”
Then they drove away, and left Charlie with the forest’s immense quiet, and with a fish in a bucket of lake water.
Charlie went back to the turbine house and stood above the drowned woman. He looked at her hair, which had dried in lank, clumpy strands. He felt, after the fishers’ visit, he should check on her, though he wasn’t sure why. It was not as if she could have left, and of course there was nothing she could need from him. Still he stood above her, and felt some sort of relief. Perhaps she had meant to die, but he resolved that he would never understand what she had meant, and it felt then as if he had relinquished something burdensome. “They seemed like good people,” he said.
It troubled him dimly that he had been mistaken for another man. To have been mistaken for any living man at all was a surprise he had not known to imagine, not in those days, when his last and only company was a dead woman, even pretty as she was—not when he felt as though he himself had already suffered through some amount of dying. It had seemed to Charlie somehow impossible to go into town, even if he had been able to reach it, as though he might have passed through it as a ghost passes through a wall he cannot see. And yet, to have been mistaken for a living man gave Charlie, however fleetingly, the feeling that he had mistaken a dream of his life for the real thing, though now, in any case, things had settled as they were.
Charlie put another few pine boughs on the fire, though what reserve of firewood he had left was scant. The woodpile was reduced to a few twiggy limbs and a scatter of pine needles so that a stranger come upon it would not know it was a woodpile unless he’d been told so. The task of replenishing it, Charlie knew, was becoming too much for his foot. Though it was not just the foot anymore, he admitted to himself. The strength was leaving his arms too. His hands were weights that he could not set down. It was becoming troublesome to keep focused. A sort of smoke thickened in his mind. The color of the smoke was the color of light that shone through his closed eyelids. He was probably running a fever, it occurred to him, though, when he placed the back of his hand on his forehead, his hand felt warm against his head, and his head felt warm against his hand. It was his skin, he decided. It was a whole warm suit of skin he wore, and it was a tired scaffold of bones upon which he wore it.
Charlie took the fish from the water without any struggle. It floated there and watched Charlie’s hand eclipse the sun, come down and pick it up, and then, without motion, the fish let the water pour off its body in a small shower. The smell of the fish and the water was pleasant, and the scales were slick and cool and the fish’s eye seemed as lifeless to Charlie as a marble, though the fish continued to open and close its mouth as if it meant to speak but could find nothing to say. He turned the fish belly-up in his grip and, in a swing of the arm and swift snap of the wrist, he cracked the fish’s head against a stone. It was, undeniably, an easy way to go, Charlie thought—held in a great warm hand and killed instantly, with gratitude and without any malice. Charlie imagined he’d have gone ten years before his time if he’d been guaranteed such a way out.
There was no knife to clean the fish with, so Charlie used a nail, which he’d sterilized in the fire, to split the fish from end to end, moving slowly and messily, perforating a path he could tear apart with his fingers. The dark ribbon of innards, the red pebbled organs, the head and spine, Charlie collected into his palm and laid upon the sun-warmed face of a flat stone. It would make for good bait, though he knew the walk to the creek and the trap may be too far to manage. He put the fish on a wooden skewer and leaned that over the fire and watched the skin roast and curl, and for a while thought of nothing except the skin roasting and curling.
Imagine, if he had said, “Yes,” he wondered, to the man and his son. If he had rode with them to town. And where would he go once he had arrived? They would have had to drive with the windows rolled down, or else the cab would have gone putrid with the smell of his foot. No, it had not felt like a real possibility then, though now, slowly, and safely after the fact, it dawned on him that he might have changed his circumstances if he’d found the wherewithal to do so. Sam was not coming back, he thought. There was no sting in it. Sam was gone, he thought again.
If he had known then that those were to be Sam’s and his final words, he might have said something more. He might have said that, in their time together, they became like brothers, though he knew, even then, that it would not have been the exact truth. Perhaps he would have given Sam his forgiveness in advance. It was the greatest gift he could have wanted from anyone else at least. It would not have been fair, Charlie thought, to expect Sam to assume the burden of his condition. Charlie would not have wished it on him. He realized then that he had never known when he’d come to a final parting, not as he occupied the very moment of the parting. Neither had he ever apprehended the reddest day of fall as it came, only the day after it had passed, when the trees were just a bit browner, and when the wind bit just a little harder. Charlie had never once said a goodbye and thought it the last one. He had thought he’d see everyone he’d ever known at least one more time again before the end. And there was no sting in that realization either. It occurred to him as though he’d already known it, but forgotten.
Then the fish was ready. He picked apart pieces of that white flesh and sucked his fingers, and thought that he had eaten only crawdads for too long. He thought he had never tasted anything so good as that trout. There was nothing else to think about except for the joy of that white meat. Charlie only ate half the fish. He did not have the appetite for it. He had eaten enough. The fullness in him was not just a fullness of the stomach, but the sort that touched the heart, as in that overfull feeling one has after reading a long, sad book about love.
Charlie was very tired. He decided he would sleep. His pad and blanket were still, as they had been, laid beside the drowned woman in the corner of the turbine house. Though it was not raining, Charlie did not have the energy to move the pad back to the far, exposed corner, and he decided neither did he have the desire to move it there. So he settled down beside her again, and looked up at the ceiling, where she too appeared to be looking. Sure, he thought, it was a pretty place. And though it was not yet night, he knew the dark would meet him if he waited.