Eno Publishers (2011)
The Lyons Press (1999)
Buy the Book
BROOK TROUT AND THE WRITING LIFE
Often, the connection between things is not obvious to the eye, and even when it is, it can take years, if not decades, for me to see just what is associated with what. The events of my life and brook trout often meet at the line of demarcation between the world of the fish and the world of the fisherman, between the seen and the unseen. This division will be the surface of a stream, which I imagine, from the fish's point of view, as a silvery horizon, but which I see as a green sheet. Still, the moment of illumination has often come here, with a trout taking a fly out of the boundary between its world and mine.
For instance, I caught my first brook trout not long after my father died. One of my earliest memories is of my mother and father looking around at the flowers and trees they had planted in the yard of the house where I grew up in Hollywood, California—lemon trees, boxwood, camellias, hibiscus, and sweet peas. My father had planted Victory gardens during the Second World War, before I was born, and I remember, too, that he spent an enormous amount of time trying to force four saplings he had planted so as to grow into the shape of a chair, until, defeated by their contrariness, or their wildness, he gave up. He told me that one dawn, when he had been up early, he had seen the light from atomic explosions in Nevada, four hundred miles to the east. He was not a fisherman, and I think he hated the out-of-doors in the way that I enjoy it. For him, the natural world, while profoundly beautiful, was an adversary more than anything else. We shared a senseof beauty, but where he wanted to control, I wanted to participate. My father died when I was in my late twenties.
I caught my first brook trout because of a woman I met at a party in New York City. Like all chance meetings that turn out differently than one supposes, I almost did not go to this party. It was downtown, in Soho, when it was illegal to live there, and the entire existence of many people had a furtive, almost hidden quality, as though they were doing something wrong. From time to time, people got put out on the street, but mostly they thrived, hidden from sight like trout lurking against a bank, or in the rubble of a stream.
The party was given by an illustrator who had run away from Arkansas, where he had grown up, to Chicago, where he got his start—if this is what one can call it—in a tattoo parlor. Often, people came into the tattoo parlor and looked over the ready-made designs without seeing one they wanted, and the illustrator's first job was to be able to provide, on the spot, just what it was the customer wanted but didn't see. One customer wanted to have Elmer Fudd tattooed on an exceedingly intimate spot. The illustrator used to tell this story with a smile and a shrug, as though this tattoo was a hint at how the ridiculous has its own insistence, and that fate has an instinct not only for wars and brutality, but for people sitting on wedding cakes, too.
Of course, memories come with varying intensity. A doctor once told me that a good question to ask, when trying to diagnose alcoholism, is this: "Can you remember your first drink?" A real drunk will be able to remember the moment with perfect clarity, the occasion, the clothes he wore, the smell of perfume, the time of day. In particular, he will remember the light. The real drunk will recall this moment with a sense of recognition. I have never had a problem with alcohol, and on those occasions years ago when I killed brook trout to eat, I liked to have them with new potatoes and a glass of dark beer. But I understand this sense of recognition, and it came at this party when I met the woman who was responsible for me catching my first brook trout.
At the time, she was working for television news. She was blond, about five feet five, and she was wearing a red sweater. She stood in a light that seemed bright and warm. We only talked for a couple of moments, which were awkward, since I had arrived at the wrong time at this party and in general it was somewhat trying. I went home early and forgot about it, although from time to time I recalled that light, that blond hair, and the red sweater. A smile and a kind of spunk, too. After all, she had started as an assistant cameraman, which in those days was not an easy thing for a woman to do. I imagined her hanging out of a helicopter with a sixteen-millimeter camera over one shoulder.
In those days, I was living in New York, doing my best to live up to the idea of just what a young novelist did when he wasn't writing, which, I found out, was a lot of the time, but this didn't mean I was getting much fishing in. Every now and then I would go down Minetta Lane, under which or near which, or so I had heard, ran Minetta Brook. It is hard for me to say why the notion of a brook so haunted me, but it did, and not just because it was in Manhattan, but because of the promise the word brook always suggested.
The fishing I had gotten in, before coming to New York, was limited to California. I remember a fishing trip when four or five teenage boys, myself included, had gone into the Sierras. We weren't great fishermen, and, in fact, I am not sure what the point of this trip was. We found a ranger who gave us a map with a wilderness section marked off, and in the middle of it there was a pond. The ranger pointed to the rectangle of wilderness and said, with an almost exquisite ignorance of adolescent boys, "Don't go there." As soon as he left, we started in that direction. The pond didn't look so far away, but then, what did we know then about maps and distance?
We didn't get there until it was almost dark, and by then we were good and lost, since we didn't know for sure if the small lake we had found was the one we had wanted to go to. At six or seven thousand feet, it started to get cold as the sun went down.
One of us, but only one, had had the foresight to stick a can of tuna fish in his pocket, and the rest of us caught him where he had slinked off to eat it. We managed to get out in the morning, not quite as certain as we had been just a day or two before of how benign the natural world really was. This was a healthful shock, since until this moment all of us had the notion of the natural world as something out of a documentary about bears. None of us felt good about the experience, since up there, when we had been alone, it became apparent that we weren't such good friends after all. I had to wait for real friends until I came east. Many of them are associated with brook trout.
The woman in the red sweater and I met again. She made me dinner in her apartment. When we were sitting in her living room she told me that when she had been growing up she spent summers on a lake in New Hampshire where there were loons, and to demonstrate what they sounded like, she put her hands together and made their call. I listened and thought, "This could be trouble."
She said that she had a house in the country. Would I like to go sometime? She also told me that there was a stream on the land, too, and later I found out that it was called Fish Cabin. When I first heard this, I thought that surely this was a good sign, although years of bitter experience with the names of water like this has given me a more healthy skepticism than when I first heard the phrase "Fish Cabin." But I was in my twenties then and had a lot to learn.
On the night we were supposed to go to this woman's country place, we argued bitterly. We were going to leave on a Friday night, and she told me that she had something to do for work, and that this involved going to a party. I was supposed to rent a car and then park it in front of my apartment, where I would wait. She would call me, and then I would pick her up about ten in the evening. Then we would go to the place in the country, where there was a stream called Fish Cabin.
I rented the car. I parked it on the street, and then went to my apartment. An hour passed. Then two. At ten o'clock, the hour when we were supposed to leave, she called. I could hear the dance music in the background. She said it wouldn't be more than an hour more. She would leave then. Fine, fine, I said. I paced around in my apartment, a small place on Sullivan Street above a candy store. My small bath was above the pay phone downstairs, at which the loan shark who worked out of the store used to make his business calls, every word of which I could hear. I started the day shaving and listening to him go through his serial threatening, one after another, just like a carpenter driving nails. "You didn't have it on Monday, and you didn't have it on Tuesday, and this is Thursday. Do you understand what I'm telling you?"
The phone rang an hour later.
"I'm going to be a little while longer," she said.
"Okay," I said. "Fine. Call me."
"It can't be too much longer," she said.
"Why can't you leave now?" I said. "It's just a party. It's not like you are shooting film, is it?"
"I'll call you later," she said. "Not more than an hour."
"I'll be here," I said.
I hung up. I idly thought about the things that had happened to the people who hadn't understood what the loan shark had been telling them. The clock showed one in the morning, then two. I looked out the window where I could see the car I had rented.
The phone rang.
"It can't be too much longer," she said. "Really. I mean it."
"All right," I said.
I waited another hour. She called again.
"I'm almost ready to go," she said.
"Look," I said. "I really have no business saying anything about what you do."
"What do you mean?" she said.
Old rock and roll in the back ground. The Rolling Stones. Otis Redding.
"You know, it's hard for me to hear," she said. "The music is so loud."
"I said that you can do whatever you want but don't keep me waiting around while you do it," I said. Right then I thought, That's it. We don't know each other well enough to argue like this. I glanced out the window at the car. Maybe if I took it right back they might give me a refund. That was about the best I could expect. Why couldn't I just say nothing?
More rock and roll music.
"I think we should talk about this," she said.
"When do you think we should talk about it?" I said. "In another hour?"
"What?" she said. "I can't hear you. Listen. I'll be at my apartment in an hour. All right?"
"Okay," I said.
I hung up, took off my clothes, and got into bed. Screw it. If they start treating you like that in the beginning, what can you expect later? Isn't this just a matter of reaching down and taking my courage with both hands, as they say in Spain? I sat there in the dark. Then I got up and dressed and took my bag.
She was waiting in front of her building. It must have been four in the morning, and since it was early summer, the sky in the east began to have that silky gray quality, like sheer underwear. She got in. I drove.
"You drive very well," she said.
"Uh-huh," I said.
"Look, I'm sorry, okay?" she said.
We sat at a deserted intersection, the light against us. No cars. Damp streets. Manhattan before dawn. I was thinking of Minetta Brook, of the water that ran deeply concealed there, of the years I had spent in the city away from such things as brooks.
"So, are you coming with me or staying here?" she said.
I looked at the cold sheen of the street in front of us.
"Well?" she said.
"I'm coming. How do I get there?" I said.
She moved closer, sliding across the seat. It made a little sound.
"Take the tunnel," she said. "I'll show you."