5.07 / July 2010

Notes on a Clean River

There’s no reason for the old man to weigh in; he’s looking out the window, toward the lake slicked nicely with nutrients: he’s not concerned with who they are or where they’ve been.   He doesn’t need to hear about the pregnancy test they picked up at the market in Dunsmuir, or the CHP turning them away from the river, or the week they spent along the tracks, or all of the other nights they’ve spent along the tracks, sampling this river before the spill.   He’s never seen them before. He wants to talk about where the plume of mustard oil is now.

Over the bar, he’s put up a sign: Un-Contaminated Beer.   He’s drawn Cole a nice draft and now Karen’s saying maybe they shouldn’t have mailed off the report.   But Cal-Trans ordered the damn thing, Cole says.   Cole tells the old man he never wanted to see a clean river.   He tells the old man it’ll be kinda funny when the E.P.A. gets that pristine report.

The old man says he’s been in and out of the hospital, but he still comes down every day, still makes the quarter mile walk from his home on the ridge, still carries his fly rod and creel and wears his vest and ball cap. The native rainbows would be taking yellow jackets, he says, but they’re washed up in the shore water and along the banks.   He says last week they were jumping onto the banks, clear over the scrub-grass. He says to Cole: Wouldn’t you want a choice in the matter?

But they don’t understand anything about that yet and now Karen’s crying a little, holding back a few tears and he can see he’s brought up something else entirely, though they don’t need to hear about him and how he came to live alone on the ridge. Still, he doesn’t mind the company, and every man’s cheated in some way, in this case only once, maybe twice, if you count certain acts of affection, or maybe then a few more times. But she’s out of his league—pretty in certain lights, a tight body, long red hair and slightly oversized nose, though it’s more the way she seems to always be searching for words, the way she moves her head from side to side, searching for a thought, that makes him think this about her; she really is pretty, and they’re the only customers he’s had in his bait and bar the past week, except for a few reporters—and now she wants to know about the ninety-five car train, about its rear-weighted ghost tankers pulling through the night.   She wants to know why she wakes in time with the quiet brack, easing every few hours through Box Canyon.

Maybe this is all hearsay, the old man says, the conductor and his lantern, someone telling him to check the damn manifest, all that in the upper arm of Lake Shasta now. I’m getting the hell out of here! That’s what the conductor said—maybe he’d already checked the damn manifest. But there’s the punctured tanker and the quarter mile gouge in the ballast and there’s the fish far off the bank. The thing is, a week’s passed and the trout look good for eating still.   Sure, there’s the yellow jackets, and the phoebes and hawks dancing oddly above, but you couldn’t say—if it didn’t smell like a septic tank—those trout aren’t good eating. He pretends to hold one and rub the film off its scales; he’s rubbing it through his fingers toward them.

Cole tells the old man about what happens without bacteria and asks for another draft and while the old man draws the beer Cole says, You don’t hear that? and makes a show of Karen playing her flashlight on the brush hanked along the tracks and then down toward the creek, where the beam thinned with distance, before he lifts his arm toward her and she’s laughing now, drinking little sips of his beer, laughing about lying down next to Cole and pulling under his arm, crying about pea-green foam in the dim light, and the smell she couldn’t keep down from the bridge.

We’re scientists, Karen says.

Everyone here works for SP, the old man says. He’s been through this conversation enough to see the scenes ahead—when Cole’ll stop off at his bar after the next wife or girlfriend finds the photographs of the green and yellow foam, the ones that’ll remind Cole of the small apartment he likes to talk about, with the mattress in the family room, where a breeze somehow managed in the valley heat, or the winter in Europe. It’s possible he’ll find Cole and his new wife fishing the Upper Sacramento some time down the road—it’s possible they’ll have their son and daughter with them, and Cole’ll be showing his kids how to clean the trout and then build a little smokeless fire and cook them along the river—it’s possible his beautiful wife will be sunning on a granite outcrop cleaved over the river, moving every hour with the sun—maybe even before the kids and before any desire to stop renting, and they’ll be sheltered enough, with the river turning its defile from the high-valley cusp, to feel alright about everything in the clear air and dirty river—it’s possible his wife still won’t eat meat, and Cole will decide not to wet his hands and cook the fish over the smokeless fire, and she’ll mix the flaked meat with hummus, and spread it over pita bread and they’ll laugh about it.

I know, I know, Cole likes to say.   He tells the old man maybe there’s something good to come of it all, about life coming out of ash, or maybe that’s just his too-young or too-educated mind working to make sense of it all. He’s talking about sampling the river now, before the spill: the fish they caught, the Game Warden coming down out of nowhere inspecting the barbs on the flies they’d taken such care to flatten with the little needle-nose pliers; the care they took wetting their hands, before they threw the undersized fish back, how tightly the Game Warden held onto his pistol when he gave them the ticket they’ll never pay.

That’s L.L., the old man says.   He started last month.   Judge down in Redding will laugh that ticket off—if you can make your peace with him. But that’s all in the upper arm of Lake Shasta now.