The Iron Nymph
by Ace Toscano
There would be no good-night kiss. Not tonight.
Marge was hot.
Not Angelina-Jolie, Charlize Theron, Maria Sharapova hot.
Not sweaty, ninety-nine degrees in the friggin' shade hot.
Marge was snorting, snarling, spitting, teeth-grinding, red-in-the-face hot.
Marge. Was. Pissed.
And, she was holding it in. Which wasn't good - for her or him.
She hadn't said a friggin' word since Kalispell.
She hadn't been making any of her usual casual observations about the weather or the scenery -- oh, how she loved the Montana scenery -- during the drive south, nor had she graced him with any of the little reassurances she habitually served up, like reaching over to gently touch his hand as he held the wheel, while softly declaring, "Love you, Cuter."
Cuter - that was her nickname for him. He called her Dolly, because she was and always had been, a doll, that is. She'd been a doll when he met her thirty years before when they were sixteen, and she was a doll, now. He couldn't remember exactly how long she'd been calling him Cuter, but he believed it had started shortly after he had confided to her that, growing up, his father had enjoyed telling him that he had a face only a mother could love. She had never thought much of his old man and after hearing that she had thought even less of him. Of course, in truth, Johnny really wasn't much to look at, but, if he pointed that out to Marge, she'd always insist "You're cute to me. That's all that matters."
But, he probably wasn't looking that good to her, today. At least, she wasn't saying so. She hadn't even squawked when he made an unannounced detour West on I-90 to St. Regis where he left her alone in the camper for three hours while he tried his luck on an unheralded stretch of the Clark's Fork he had heard about from Freddie, the guy in the Whitefish fly shop.
And she hadn't done much yakkin' during dinner at the OK Cafe, at least not to him. She spoke to the waitress long enough to order and later to rave about the "wonderful" grilled salmon. Not to be outdone, Johnny had complimented the chef on the "divine" burgers, fries and onion rings which really were pretty good. He usually didn't get a chance to eat that kind of stuff, not with Marge actively making sure he didn't over-indulge his artery clogging fetishes. But, for the time being, she apparently didn't give a shit if he died or not, so, he had stuffed himself with all the high-cholesterol food he could stand. He kicked himself later for not having added a couple eggs to his order.
Marge hadn't even reminded him to take his pills.
She was extremely pissed.
Of course, it wasn't a mystery why she was pissed. She was pissed on account of the way things had gone down with Jeannie Logan.
While, for him, the trip had been all about fishing the blue ribbon trout streams of the west, for Marge it had been about visiting her cousin Caroline in Ukiah, California, and Jeannie Logan, a grade school friend who she had reconnected with on facebook.
Caroline had been a sweetheart. They had stayed with her and her wife, Denise, for a week and, honestly, he had enjoyed every minute of it. The girls were delightful in every aspect of their being - in the way they got the kids ready for school in the mornings, the way they worked their garden, the way they watched their favorite shows on TV, and, especially, the way they worked together in the kitchen producing some of the best meals Johnny had ever eaten. Of course, he tempered his compliments, not wanting to hurt Marge's feelings by creating an impression that her menu was somehow lacking. She was kind of sensitive like that. They had hated to leave Ukiah, but the girls had to get back to work and, besides, the Deschutes up in Oregon was calling.
Jeannie Logan, who Marge knew from Miss O'Brien's third grade class at the Pickaninny Elementary School somewhere south of civilization in rural New Jersey, currently resided in a sparsely furnished, nearly finished, unpainted hovel that sat on the shady side of a mountain just outside of Kalispell, Montana.
Suffice it to say that the reunion with Ms. Logan had not gone well. There was a Hampton Inn in downtown Kalispell and Johnny had been looking forward to parking the camper and sleeping in a real bed for a few days, but Jeannie Logan would not hear of it. She had an extra bedroom and she insisted they stay with her. What she had failed to relate was that the extra bedroom was a particle board cell, unfinished and unfurnished. They had slept on the bare floor. Johnny's back was still aching.
Then, there had been the matter of food. Of course, anything would have paled in comparison to what Caroline and Denise had prepared, but, still, he thinks they had a right to expect more for the main course of their Welcome-to-Montana dinner than boiled moss. It had been disgusting. While Marge listened intently to the gripping tale of the particular rock at the edge of her property where the moss grew and how her neighbor had tried to lay claim to it, he simply stared at the green discharge on his plate. Finally, he pushed it away explaining that he wasn't hungry. Evidently, that was just the start of Marge's annoyance.
Later, as they laid side-by-side on the wafer-board, she let him have it.
"I didn't tell her it was disgusting," he said. "I just said I wasn't hungry."
"I already told her we were starving."
"Not for that shit." When no reply was forthcoming, he added, "And what about these deluxe accommodations? We'd be better off outside in the camper. Hell, we'd be better off outside under the camper."
"She said there are bears," offered Marge.
"I'll take my chances."
When he got up in the middle of the night, aching, Marge had begged him to stay because leaving would surely hurt Jeannie's feelings. So, he had suffered.
Then, in the morning, Jeannie had served up a "special" breakfast comprised of flour-free muffins that tasted, he imagined, the way horse-biscuits would taste, and a muddy chickory-blend coffee-substitute she guaranteed would keep him regular. She had flashed him a conspiratorial wink as if she knew what was going on in his bowels. That was it. He couldn't take any more. He had abruptly rose from the table and announced that it had been nice visiting with her but he and Marge would have to be moving on. Immediately.
"Right now?" Jeannie had asked with disappointment. "I thought we might take a hike up the mountain this morning. I was going to pack a lunch."
"Oh, darn. Maybe, another time. But, I've got an appointment with a guy in Missoula. I'm committed."
So, he had a hair-triggered temper and, more often than not, he'd come to regret those angry spur of the moment decisions. One way or another, they usually managed to fuck his life up royally. Calm down before you explode, he'd tell himself. Cool off. Chill. But, there was no fighting it - he'd had enough of Jeannie Logan and he had to boogie. Pronto. And, now, here he was, fleeing south on 93, on the lamb like a B-movie fugitive, with his loving life partner and wife of thirty years at his side, seriously clammed up.
They had made a brief, two-day stop in Melrose on their way north but he had had to pull out prematurely because of Marge's eagerness to get up to Kalispell. Now, he couldn't wait to get back to the Big Hole and the huge brown trout that lurked in its deep, quiet pools.
With darkness fast approaching, they sped on along 93 through Lolo, Florence, Stevensville and Victor. The last glint of a pink sunset slowly slipped behind the mountains to the west. Normally, Marge would have been enthralled by the spectacular beauty of it all, but, if she was, now, she gave not a hint of it. Her gaze remained glued to the road ahead.
Johnny was having a hard time keeping his eyes open. He hadn't slept more than a couple hours on Jeannie Logan's floor and it was catching up to him. He'd been looking for a place to stop for the night when off to the left he spotted a paved lot where a couple of tractor trailers seemed to be resting. He eased into the lot, backed into a space and turned off the engine.
"I'm tired," he announced and that was the end of the conversation.
Marge didn't speak, though she managed to emit an audible sigh that was laced with dissatisfaction. She made her way to the back of the camper, used the john, then climbed up into the shallow compartment over the cab that had been designated as her sleeping area. Johnny rearranged the kitchen area and stretched out on the seat cushions. It was peaceful here. Aside from the squeaks and thumps that accompanied their own movements, there was only the occasional hum of passing traffic and the constant not-too-distant drone of water flowing. There was a river nearby. Johnny would have bet on it.
It occurred to him, somewhat sadly, that only three days before he had joined Marge up in her cubby hole for some serious snuggling. He decided this probably wasn't a good night for that.
The door of the cab slammed shut. He reluctantly opened his eyes. Light. Morning. There was Marge sitting up front in the passenger's seat. Would she be talking to him, today? He hoped so. He'd never tell her, but life was pretty joyless when things weren't right between them.
"We're out of egg beaters," she said, turning, "and the milk's bad. There's a little restaurant about two miles back the way we came."
He realized it wouldn't be a real conversation unless he said something. "Two miles?"
"That's what I was told. Good food, not too expensive."
He dropped his feet to the floor and sat up, squinting. Outside was a rather large assemblage of pickup trucks and boat trailers. "Jeez."
"Tour guides and float trips. That's the Bitteroot," she said glancing toward the river. "Over there," she nodded toward the western horizon, "are the Bitteroot Mountains."
"Aren't you a font of information this morning."
"Ask questions. Get answers."
There was a knock on her window. She lowered it. A young man in a cowboy hat peered in at him. "Your wife tells me you're a fly fisherman."
"That's why I'm here," he replied.
"Well, it's kind of crowded around here with trailers, boats and rafts. But if you go back to town," he turned back toward Marge, "past the restaurant I told you about, and turn east, you'll come to a bridge. There's pretty good fishing just below it and it's wadeable."
"East of town," repeated Johnny.
"Yep, there's only one road that heads off that way. You can't miss it."
"No problem," said the cowboy as he tipped his hat and moved off.
Something happens when you live with someone for more than half your life - their likes and dislikes, their hopes and disappointments, their joy and their pain become your own. It's not just that you're on the same wavelength; it's as if your hearts and nervous systems have merged.
As they entered Nel's Country Kitchen, Johnny's eyes scanned the floors, the window sills, the counter and the tables, noting their cleanliness and knowing this set of circumstances would be pleasing to Marge. A week earlier, on the Oregon Coast, he and Marge had walked into a Waffle Hut just as one highly motivated employee was going through the motions of mopping the floor. Unfortunately, she hadn't swept up first, so her mopping served only to coat the floor with an unsavory mucky sludge which Marge declared "disgusting" as she turned and charged out the door. Luckily, for Johnny, there had been a Perkins just up the road that satisfied her hygienic requirements.
They settled into one of the tables.
Though she definitely showed signs of mellowing, Marge was far from ready to put the episode in Kalispell behind her. She chatted it up with Nel and listened intently as Nel confided to us that she was serving triple duty as waitress, cook and dishwasher because her sister had spent the night up in Missoula "whoring around" and said she "didn't feel good enough" to come to work this morning. The conversation kind of ended there - there was no small talk for Johnny.
Nel didn't believe in egg-beaters, which he requested to show Marge he was willing to let bygones be bygones, but she served up a better than average high cholesterol breakfast - extra large eggs over easy, home fried potatoes, toast, generously lathered up with fresh sweet butter, and four links of sizzling, fat and juicy country sausage which, undeniably, are much superior to the urban variety. Just to be safe, he thought he might double up on the Lipitor.
God bless that Nel! While she wasn't into egg-beaters, she did embrace the latest technology, offering "Free WiFi" to her customers which was why Marge didn't raise a stink when he revealed his intentions to try out the fishing spot by the bridge the cowboy at the parking area had suggested. All she said was, "Bring me the laptop before you go." He was glad to oblige.
As Johnny stood on the concrete bridge facing upstream, it was obvious why the cowboy had not encouraged him to fish there. It was deep, very deep, waders-fill-with-water-and-drag-your-ass-to-the-bottom deep. It was almost impossible to fish. If a guy wanted to try his luck with worms from the bridge, he might tie a hunk of lead to his line and put his bait on the bottom. Or, maybe, if he had a boat, he could tie onto the bushes that lined both sides of the stream and toss a weighted spoon or a spinner around. But he hadn't traveled 2500 miles to beat the fish to death with hardware. He was here to catch trout on flies.
The water just below the bridge looked much more hospitable. Spilling out of the deep hole was a short stretch, maybe fifty feet or so, of shallow riffles. These merged into a deeper run that went on for another fifty yards. Here, the current was slower, yet steady. Since there was nothing going on on the surface, he figured it would be a good place to fish with streamers or nymphs. As he went back to the camper to don his gear, he felt the familiar surge of adrenalin that accompanied every fishing excursion.
There wasn't a path to the river, so he wound up sliding feet-first down a steep embankment and across two waist-deep side channels to get to the main stream. He opened his fly box and selected a green wooly bugger. From what he had read over the years, it seemed western trout weren't terribly selective. What you wanted to do was toss something out there that would grap their attention. A big fat wooly bugger with tinsel ribbing, undoubtedly, would do the trick. He took five or six steps into the river, let out some line, and started casting up stream, allowing the fly to float naturally with the current until it was well past him. He covered the water in front of him pretty thoroughly without getting a strike, so he figured he'd try something else.
Most of the flies in his fly box were meant to imitate insects that inhabited the streams back east, the streams he had fished in most of his life. He had quite a collection. His eyes settled on one particularly attractive pattern he had tied according to Swiebert's Matching the Hatch. He'd used it a few times over the years, but without success. It had a gray thorax near the eye of the hook, followed by a yellow silk body ribbed with brown chicken hackle, clipped short. He tied an ultra fine leader to the end of his fly line, then attached the fly. As an afterthought, he placed a strike indicator about eight feet up from the fly. He didn't have much experience with them, but friends back east had been raving about them for a while, now, claiming they were a godsend. Basically, they were very much like a bobber. Any movement of the indicator that deviated from the normal downstream float could indicate that a fish had grabbed the fly. It was as good a time as any to see if they lived up to their billing.
As he started playing out line, he couldn't help noticing his surroundings. Snow-capped mountains to the west, cloudless skies up above, clean, clear water rushing by - he couldn't imagine a more beautiful setting. He felt pretty lucky - lucky that Marge had conceived this little trip. True, the fishing part had merely been a concession to him. She had no interest whatsoever in trout or trout fishing. Still, she had wanted him to enjoy the trip, too. He sort of wished things had ended differently up in Kalispell. He would apologize, later, when he picked her up.
He had made a couple casts but, lost in thought, he hadn't been paying close attention to the strike indicator. On his third cast, it made a slight move toward the opposite bank. Could that be a hit? For the hell of it, he lifted his rod and all hell broke loose. A fish was on. It made a quick run upstream causing the line to burn his fingers as it shot out from his reel. He maintained a steady tension, but not so tight that the fish would break free. Then the fish decided to head downstream. Slack. Too much slack. Fearing the fish would shake the hook, he, quickly, stripped the line in to pick up the slack. There it was - he could feel the fish again. Then, as quickly, he had to let it feed out again as the trout made a long run downstream. His heart was in his throat - he feared the reel would run out of backing. It never had before, but this was Montana. Through all, he kept his rod tip up, applying a steady resistance, until, finally, the fish was spent. It made a couple short runs as he brought it to net, but it was tired. He held his net aloft though there was no one around to see the beautiful eighteen inch brown trout. Glancing up at the bridge and couldn't help feeling disappointed that Marge wasn't standing there watching.
The nymph was still intact, though a little roughed up. He decided not to replace it. First cast, the strike indicator jogged off course, he lifted the rod, and tied into another fish, a brownie. As he worked the fish upstream getting ready to bring it to his net, he lost it. An examination of his line revealed that the fly had pulled loose. He would have to do a better job of tying them on, he thought.
Luckily, he had six more of the same yellow silk bodied flies in his box. He tied on another. Next cast, a large trout took the nymph but Johnny struck too hard and snapped the fly off in its mouth. That made two fish that were swimming around with his flies dangling from their lips. Easy, easy, he told himself. Just lift the rod gently. He tied on another fly, through it upstream, and damned if he didn't snap off another fly.
He was just standing there, trying to pull himself together, when a raft carrying two men and a woman appeared above the bridge. Paying him no attention at all, and certainly not granting him the space proper fishing etiquette would dictate, they brought the craft to shore just ten yards below him and commenced fishing. He couldn't tell what they were using and, had they asked, he may have showed them the fly he was having success with, but they were in a world of their own and the one young man who apparently was the guide didn't seem to be the sort that would need advice on catching fish. So, Johnny kept his mouth shut. And fished. In the space of ten minutes, he pulled in three nice sized trout, two browns and a rainbow. After conferring with her partner, the woman called out and asked him what he was using. "A nymph," he said. "What kind?" she asked. "I don't know," he shrugged apologetically. He really didn't - it had been years since he tied them. He was about to walk over to them and show them what the fly looked like when the trio jumped in their raft and continued downstream. Guess they thought he was being cagey.
An hour and a half later, he was down to the last of the yellow-silk-bodied flies. He thought briefly of saving it so he could tie more like it that night, but the urge to keep fishing won out. He tied it on, caught another half dozen good sized brownies, then, reacted too strongly to a strike and snapped it off. He tied on a different pattern, one with a gray body ribbed with peacock herl, and cast it up stream a few times without provoking a single strike. He'd had a hell of a day fishing - it was time to pack it in.
As he started up the camper, he glanced at his watch. One o'clock. Shit.
He hadn't even thought about lunch. Well, Marge had money. If she had been hungry, he was sure Nel could have fixed her up with something tasty, filling and high in cholesterol. He pulled up in front of Nels, grabbed his Schwiebert's from the back and headed into the restaurant, eager to detail the morning's experience to his wife.
Inside, he found Marge and Nel sitting together having coffee at one of the tables.
"Your wife's one hell of a worker," said Nel. "I told her she's got a job here whenever she wants it.'"
An alarm went off in his head. Was Marge looking for a job? Had she decided to dump him, here and now, on account of what had happened up in Kalispell? Jeez, he knew she was mad, but not that mad. He just stood there, gawking.
"Grab yourself a seat," said Nel. "I'll get you a cup."
He pulled up a chair. While Nel was fetching him coffee, Marge said, "A tour bus stopped here for breakfast."
Nel set the cup in front of him, along with a glazed doughnut. "On their way to Las Vegas."
"Las Vegas?" said Johnny.
"That's what I said," continued Nel. "Guess they were taking the scenic route. Anyway, they were plenty hungry. I don't know what I'd've done without Margie. She saved my butt."
He looked at Marge. She seemed happy, like she had enjoyed herself. "Well," he said, "guess it was lucky for you we stopped by."
"Guess it was," she agreed.
Marge wasn't mad anymore. He could tell. Things were back on track. He was thinking about how happy that made him when Marge plucked him from his reverie. "How'd things go?"
"Fishing. How'd things go?"
"Oh, fishing." At that instant, fishing did not seem quite as important as it had just a little while ago, but no sense getting into that now. "It was good. Real good. It's a nice place to fish."
"Want to stay another day? We can."
"No," he replied. "We can come back."
"Yeah," he said. "I was thinking, maybe, tomorrow we'll head back up to Kalispell for a few days. Stay in a hotel. You can go see Jeanie. I can fish and tie flies."
Marge leaned over half way. He joined her in the middle and they kissed.
"Isn't that sweet," said Nel. Marge kissed him again.
The girls continued to chat while he poured through the pages of his Schwiebert hoping to identify the fly he'd been using. Finally, on his third time through, he found it on page one-eighty. The Iron Nymph. You could bet your ass his fly box would be stuffed with them next time they came through.