Malcolm Kinkead’s eyes throbbed in their orbits as he stared at the ceiling. A sliver slipped through heavy curtains and lit the yellow wall. He remembered walking an overgrazed woodlot with his father some ten years back thick with coneflowers and sneezeweed “See how they make your eyes flicker?” his father asked. The shower was running. His phone was buzzing on the nightstand. He could smell coffee.
“Well hey,” Jake Stafford’s voice offered on the other end. “Did I wake you? I forgot about the time change until you picked up.”
“No worries,” Malcolm replied.
“Just wanted to let you know I made it back to Dallas.”
“Good. That’s good,” Malcolm said drowsily. “No major incidents? Missing luggage, drunken brawls?”
Jake chuckled. “No, none of those. Got drunk in Denver. Friend picked me up in Dallas, hung out by the pool all afternoon. Fooled around with some nurse.”
“Well good, good. That’s good.” Malcolm said.
“Is Kane with you? Or did his plane already leave?”
“Neither,” Malcolm said. “We found a bar last night,” he continued, standing up and ambling over to the dresser, pouring oily black coffee into a white styrofoam cup, tasting it before tearing the corner off a paper packet and dumping its contents inside. “Shut it down. He wandered off with some folks, some after party. I was drunk and pooped and didn’t want to blow the hotel room we’d already paid for, you know. I suppose I should call him, see whether he was mugged.”
Jake was chuckling on the other end. “Sounds like him.”
“He’s a big boy, I suppose. Surely he can take see to his own affairs.”
“Who knows?” Jake offered. “Honestly, I’m ready to go back.”
“I’m still out here,” Malcolm offered.
“I have a job.”
Malcolm sat at the corner of his bed, finishing the coffee. “That makes one of us.”
Jake paused. “What happened?”
“Funding ran out,” Malcolm replied.
“They didn’t let you know?!” Jake asked.
“Not until yesterday,” Malcolm said. “I called them after dropping you guys off. after dropping you guys off.” He didn’t want to talk about it. He was still angry.
“So what are you going to do?”
“Stay out here until the money runs out,” Malcolm said. “See if I can’t polish this turd.”
He left the girl in the shower figuring she was supposed to clean the room anyway and decided walking the six blocks to the diner the clerk recommended would do him good.
“I’ll have coffee,” he said after examining the menu. “And an apple juice. And The Stinky,” he said, grinning.
“Do you know what’s in The Stinky?” she asked.
Malcolm shook his head.
“It’s and omelette with liver and onions.”
“Oh.” He thought about it. “I don’t want The Stinky,” he said aloud.
He ordered eggs and sausage and a side of biscuits and gravy and doctored the whole thing heavily with hot sauce. He thought about calling Kane. He thought about calling Kinsey Chapman. He did neither, instead running to the car for an atlas and poring over his route.
Two hours later he was following a bony river winding tortuously through a broad valley laid out with neat blocks of alfalfa and sugar beets split by tongues of low, rocky hills. He passed two or three accesses and thought about exploring, but Kinsey had shared a secret and Malcolm was curious. He found the burned-out collection of trailers Kinsey had told him about. He bounced through BLM land and gaunt black cows towards the mountains. He parked four miles up the road, hiking up and around the most treacherous part of the canyon to the meadow Kinsey had described at its head.
Kinsey had called them mongrels, the bastard hybrids of cutthroats and rainbows and golden trout stocked haphazardly by miners, by lumbermen, by feds between the turn of the last century and the mid 70s. The state wanted it poisoned out and planted with native cutthroat, the place was probably only fished a dozen times a year but enough people made a stink about pioneer living and protecting western heritage the project had been put on the back burner.
Malcolm could see rings spreading across the surface as he ate a sandwich and drank a beer. He fastened a long-neglected Irresistible to his tippet, it had been in his father’s box a decade or more and its bend was blistered with rust. It didn’t matter. He finished his beer and stood, walking upstream and crouching in the grass as he paid out line and dropped the fly ahead of an overhanging willow on the opposite bank. He watched the single fluid motion of the fish rising and eating and returning to its lair. He set the hook.
It was a pretty fish with orange sides and purple parr marks flecked with dark spots, Malcolm couldn’t tell what it was and it didn’t matter, anyways. He cracked another beer and walked upstream, losing the fly after two more fish and tying on a House and Lot. There was a bull moose in the willows, Malcolm saw him raise his head and the big palmate antlers still covered in velvet. He caught more fish, nothing big but all pretty, even two little grayling as he drifted caddis along a cutbank.
By mid afternoon the clouds were turning solid, dark, their undersides roiling and looking like clusters of grapes. Malcolm wondered whether it would blow over, whether it was smarter to head down now or wait it out. He thought about the tracks on the trail and in the mud along the river. He found a sandy place under a dwarfed pine and opened another beer, watching. He watched the trees bend and the grass and the willows ripple through the meadow he could feel the cold air streaming out of them. He could go home, he thought. Get another gig. Another degree. He could teach. His sister says they always need male role models with science skills. He could call Kinsey, throw himself at his mercy, although he wasn’t sure it had been a sincere offer or an off-the-cuff remark. He’d never guided and he’d never rowed, although he had played shop rat all through high school and that must count for something. Hail knocked against the bole of the pine, icy shards dropped down the back of his shirt. Lightning pealed overhead. He clipped his line and reeled in as it started to rain.