Published in A Loving Voice, an anthology read to convalescent seniors
SALMON AND BULLHEADS
Millie and I have been married thirty-nine years, not as long as some couples, but a lot longer than many. We know each other pretty well.
Of course she could tell how I was feeling when I came back from my fishing trip up the delta east of San Francisco.
"Sit down and get warm first," she said. "Never mind taking off your boots, just yet. Here's some hot soup I made this morning. I put chunks of marrow in it, the way you like it."
I looked at my wife's sympathetic face, a little rounder than it used to be, and puffy in the mornings when she got up, but none of that had anything to do with the fact that I loved her. For some reason she loved me, too, though you wouldn't know it from the way she often got exasperated. When I retired two years ago, there were a shaky couple of months when I thought she was about to run out and look for a job just to get away from me.
The soup tasted wonderful. I began to relax. "The whole Bay isn't what it used to be, never mind the delta. When I wasn't getting snagged, then I was pulling up bullheads." I was growing depressed again. A man who finally retires from his daily labors and can go fishing on other people's workdays ought to be able to catch a fish worthy of its name, not ugly green things all head and mouth I wouldn't want on my dinner plate, much less my wife's.
I noticed Millie was sitting across from me quite still, with her hands folded and a peculiar expression on her face. I searched my conscience. Had I forgotten the drop cloth again when I decided to touch up the paint in the living room yesterday? I knew I had cleaned up the boiled-over milk when I fixed my own breakfast early this morning. Millie hates it when I turn the heat too high under anything on the stove. She says I shouldn't do that and leave the kitchen, because I'm bound not to get back in time to prevent a disaster. She's right, of course. And I have also told her that if she could spend one single day in the middle of the daily flare-ups in my office she'd never say another thing about my transgressions in the house.
That's not a good an argument as it sounds. Millie has worked in an office, too, though not in my line, which was fire insurance.
As I was reflecting on this, she produced some papers that I hadn't seen were hidden on her lap. Without a word, she showed me a page-size, colored brochure. Oh, it made the tears start in my eyes. There was a picture of a man holding a big salmon by the gills. The caption said: MEL RIEBERS GETS A 34-POUNDER. Below Mel was another picture. In this one, the man was sitting down with a monster fish lying across his thighs. That fisherman wore a grin that probably ruptured his jaw. JERRY LEGGETT WEIGHS IN WITH 70-LB. TYEE. A tyee, the brochure explained, was a King salmon weighing up to 80 pounds. The fish looked like a fat, silver-colored submarine with eyes.
Millie waved a smaller brochure. "It's a two-day package off Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The Vilas went last year and caught a big one. Arthur, I dare you," she said.
What could I say? Millie had plucked the sadness straight out of my heart, and she knew it. She grinned. "Have some more soup."
The Vilas next door, as usual, agreed to take in our newspapers and mail, water the plants, and do the things that neighbors do for each other when needed. I said to Burt and Isabel Vila, "If we get an extra fish, can your fridge handle a thirty-pounder?" Both of them laughed and Burt said to Millie, "Oh, have him throw a few back. Leave something for the rest of the fishing party." He sounded patronising, as usual. Burt thinks he's a wit, and there have been too many times, hours later unfortunately, when I've thought of a wittier comeback.
We flew up to Vancouver, and from the airport there transferred to a small plane that took us over some water and then a lot of green forest to Ucluelet, a village on the west side of Vancouver Island. Millie isn't comfortable on planes, especially small ones, but she said not a word in complaint. I held her hand all the way.
What we could see of the village was pretty, but with a two-day package there wasn't time to sightsee. We bedded down early in our room in the lodge by the waterfront. The next morning at six we were on the floating dock waiting to board the ocean-going cruiser, which was firing up its engines. The sun hadn't come up yet. Among other smells, I detected the scent of a fishy saltiness. This was the real thing! And there on deck was the crew, every single one a professional who would lead me to the big ones. I squeezed Millie's hand. She was very still, except for her free hand trying to wave off the diesel fumes from the boat's exhaust.
"Are you feeling okay?" Her nod didn't quite convince me. "Once we're aboard we'll be clear of the smoke," I told her, "then you will have all the fresh air you need."
That's what happened, once we were underway. Along with about ten other fishing customers, Millie and I leaned against the rail and watched the shoreline change shape and widen, then finally disappear.
"The clean, deep ocean," I murmured.
Millie understood what I was referring to. "No rocks to snag on," she said. "No kelp, no rubber tires, no bullheads."
The skipper picked up speed. We were out in the clear, and the sun's advance light began to show us where we were, which seemed to be no place. That really excited me. All the better for some real fishing, where the big ones lived.
The skipper cut the engines, and we slowed to a stop. The cruiser developed a slight rolling motion; also, the wind took hold of the diesel exhaust and blew it over everyone on deck.
Jimmy, our fishing guide, handed out the fishing rods and showed us how to use them. The best thing was the gold-and-green lure, already attached and ready to go. "No messy anchovies, no squid," I told Millie. She didn't say anything. I took a closer look. Both of her hands gripped the rail; her complexion was like tea leaves after five brewings. My wife is very saving of small things, like tea, and the water that comes out of the tap. She rode each lift and dip of the boat grimly, as if it were a balky elevator. "We shouldn't have come," I said.
"Don't say that!" she snapped. "You have a good time. Get your fish; I want you to catch a nice one to take home." She gave her fishing rod back to Jimmy, patted me on the cheek, and blundered into the cabin and sat down.
I felt terrible for her. Should I ask the skipper to take us back? I looked at the intent faces of all the other paying customers, jigging their lures up and down in the water, and knew such a request was impossible. I had a feeling that the company expected at least one customer to get unhappy the way Millie was, and to them that was simply too bad; they'd turn back when they were ready. While I was thinking about what to do, someone cried out "Fish on!"
Jimmy said, "Persons next to him please reel in. Leave him the field."
I watched, excited as the rest. The salmon was a beauty, big and hearty, a bounty of pink meat that I could see through the gills. Its owner, a man about my age, laughed and seemed to want to hold on to it, but of course he had to give it up to Jimmy, who stowed it away in the holding box. "Fifteen pounds," Jimmy said. "Pretty nice."
"Fish on!" Fish on!" People were giving the call from all over the boat. I kept on jigging my lure, imagining the flashy brightness of it swooping and diving, imagining it catching the eyes of hundreds of big salmon down there, imagining one especially big salmon swallowing it.
I had a side view of Millie in the cabin. She hadn't moved; her eyes were shut but I could tell she was far from being asleep. If she was capable of thought at this moment, I was sure it was about solid ground, about lying flat out, even if it was at home on our greasy garage floor, which I had promised months ago to clean up.
There was nothing I could do but continue to jig my lure up and down. Everyone around was getting fish. Well, not everyone, but it seemed that way to me. The man next to me hauled a great big one over the rail. I couldn't understand it. My line couldn't have been more than three feet from his.
At about eleven, Jimmy passed out box lunches. Inside my box were a sandwich, some cookies, and an apple. I went inside to make sure Millie had got hers, and she had, though it was obvious to me she had no intention of opening the box. I did it for her, but Millie shook her head and whispered for me to go away, she would be fine.
And so I felt a powerful relief when Jimmy said we were soon going to head for home. All I wanted was for Millie to feel better.
The moment the skipper made a wide turn and opened up, something changed. The rocking motion smoothed out to a fast glide; the freshest air I had ever breathed in my life flew into my lungs. I went into the cabin and coaxed Millie to come out. Within five minutes her entire expression came back to this world, and she was looking around and smiling. She probably also thought I had caught some fish.
When we got back to the dock and Jimmy opened the holding well and showed off the glistening treasure inside to all the people who came to the dock to rubberneck, I had to tell Millie that none of it was remotely mine. Again I felt awful. She deserved to have me catch a fish. She deserved to see a 1,000-pound salmon strung up from a hook and me standing beside it. My own disappointment was nothing compared to what she probably felt.
At dinner that night, we shared a table with another couple who had been on the boat that day with us. They talked about the three salmon they caught and how, when they got home, they planned to bake, poach, chowder, fry--and for all I knew--fritter some of it and freeze the rest, to use for the rest of their lives. The catching of those fish sounded as though they had personally fought and hauled three Moby Dicks into the boat with their naked hands.
After a silence, as they remembered we hadn't caught a single fish, Millie opened her handbag and brought out some snapshots. These are of our grandchildren, and even if I believe those kids are sweeter, better-looking, and brighter than anyone else's grandchildren, Millie goes further than that. She can talk anyone under the table about those grandkids. I knew she was boring the couple--not only that--she was killing the air around us with talking about them. Even the busboy stopped coming to our table to refill our water glasses. Millie has done this to people before; it is a trait of hers that sometimes raises hives on my arms.
But tonight I let her go on. I let her have the evening. After what she had gone through for me, I owed her fifty grandchildren to talk about.
In the morning, as I was closing out accounts at the front office, Millie said she had something to do and would be right back. She returned carrying a styrofoam box. In that box, she said, were two salmon steaks she had bought from the company store for us to take home.
And when we did get home, though I knew she felt like it, she didn't fall down and kiss the floor. That may have been because this was the garage floor, as we drove in. Its layers of grease and dust and leaves sprinkled over the top like cake decorations impressed even me.
What she did do, when she took our diesel-perfumed laundry to the washer downstairs, was give out a squawk that could have been heard in Vancouver. I went to see what had happened.
She was plucking clothes out of the machine; that is, they used to be clothes. Now they looked like tie-dyed things you saw on kids in the 70's. My undershirts had green-and-red streaks on them, and some other color--I can't find a name for it--that comes into being when you mix red and green. Sadly, Millie held up a pair of shorts. There seemed to be a picture of a raccoon, done in either red or green, etched into the left leg of the shorts. The right one was an interesting landscape, maybe trees and grass, with a pond in the middle reflecting a violent red sun. The basement smelled as if we were raising mushrooms.
"I'm sorry, Arthur," Millie said. "I did a last load while I was packing for the trip...and I just forgot about it. I'll go right out and buy you new underthings."
"Anyone could have forgotten," I told her, though that calm, even tone of voice cost me some effort. "Don't feel bad, Honey. That's still good underwear, and it wouldn't be the first time, would it?" I have gone around wearing pink underpants, their condition caused by being washed with Millie's red terrycloth bathrobe. According to my wife, sorting colors into separate loads of wash constitutes a waste of good water. I didn't want to know what she had thrown in with my things this time.
That little crisis passed over, we finished settling back into our home. Millie showed me the salmon steaks she had brought back. I was stunned. Our markets never carry any that pink, juicy, or wide around. But they are certainly cheap, considering that our two pieces cost $500 each.
"Let's give one to the Vilas," she said. "They gave us a piece of their fish when they got back."
After my bragging to Burt, I wasn't anxious to see him. "Maybe they didn't catch one, either. And anyway, what are you going to tell them about that steak?"
"Don't worry," she said. She didn't ask me to go next door with her, and I didn't offer.
I was curious enough, though, to ask her what had transpired at the Vilas' when she returned. "How did it go?"
She emptied, onto the kitchen counter, the grocery bag of newspapers and mail the Vilas had collected for us. "Look, Arthur, here's a letter from Dina. Probably the first chance she's had to write since the kids came down with chicken pox." Once she started reading mail from our daughter there was no talking to her until she was done. I asked, "Did he laugh, sneer, make a crack?"
"Well, sort of..." Millie slit the envelope, unfolded the letter, and started reading.
"What do you mean, sort of?"
"Oh...um...he said the fish that steak came from must have run to sixty pounds. He said...."
"What? What did he say?"
She was deep into the letter.
"Millie," I said, as patiently as I could.
"He said it had to be the biggest bullhead you ever caught, if you caught it at all. So...I told him he should have seen what the others got. I didn't lie, Arthur."
I put my arms around my wife and hugged her. Millie and I, we're a team.