The morning was overcast, the water high and murky from several days of rain. Poor conditions for fly-fishing, but it didn’t matter. I needed a diversion. I waded into the stream, stripped out some line and cast into the riffle along the far side.
Being at home is difficult now that the kids are gone. Neither one of us realized it at the time, but they were holding everything together. And we’ve talked about that, off and on, intending to air things out, make some changes and start over. But nothing’s changed. In fact, things have gotten worse. We’ve stopped talking altogether and just wander around the house as if the other doesn’t exist. I lifted the line from the water and snapped a cast toward a large boulder in the middle of the stream.
I’ve seen a counselor, talked with friends, made lists of pluses and minuses. I’ve questioned my expectations and searched for a choice that would square with my Ozzie and Harriet upbringing. I know she’s struggled with it, too. But the choices aren’t easy, and they all feel like failure. So we hang on, hoping things will get better. Thirty years is a long time. We were high-school sweethearts, my God.
I worked downstream, away from traffic noise on the overpass, and into the steep hills and pine forest. No fish for nearly an hour. Then hope kindled as a brook-trout came from behind a rock, looked over my fly, passed. I took a small rainbow in a riffle just beyond the footbridge. As I released the trout, the sun unexpectedly appeared, temporarily cutting through the gloom.
Later, ankle-deep on a sandbar, I was tying on a new pattern when a woman’s voice filtered downstream through the trees. Her words came in a sharp authoritarian staccato that shattered the serenity of the place. I thought at first she must be somewhere on the bank, but then wood clunked against aluminum, and a bright-green rental canoe came into view. It was drifting backward.
A thin, middle-aged woman sat in front. Her short hair and field vest jerked from side to side as she twisted in her seat and issued orders to a bewildered, gray-haired man in the back, wearing a much-too-small lifejacket. He was in the steering position, but held the paddle in the air as if he hadn’t a clue what to do. In spite of the woman’s thrashing strokes, without the rear-seat paddle in the water, the man’s bodyweight swung the canoe sideways and it drifted along in the current like a large twig.
The man spotted me, raised a palm and shrugged. As the canoe approached, I stepped into deeper water. “Want me to get you straightened up?” I said.
Seeming embarrassed, the man nodded yes. The woman, still facing upstream and issuing directives, didn’t hear me or even realize I was there. I smiled at her L.L. Bean outfit and imagined her having once been in a canoe as a Girl Scout forty years earlier, and therefore qualified to take charge of this excursion.
As it drifted past, I gently grabbed the rear of the canoe and let the current swing it around. The woman, confused by the sudden change, yelled, “What’s happening?” She twisted in her seat, spotted me and went silent.
When the canoe straightened, I let go. “The person in the back has to steer,” I said to the man. “If you want to turn left, dig your paddle in on the left side and drag it. If you want to go right, drag it on the right.”
As they moved away from me, the man smiled and mouthed the words, thank you.
The woman stabbed the water and made a jerking stroke, first on one side, then the other, and then, as if reclaiming command, pointed and shouted, “Harold, watch out for that rock!”
The man kept his paddle inches off the surface as if he were afraid he might make the wrong move. The canoe scraped against the rock and tilted. I gasped, but then it righted, swung sideways and resumed its drift downstream.
“Come on, Harold,” I said under my breath. “You’ve got to do something.”
I swallowed hard as the words hit home.
The woman’s voice clattered on as the canoe disappeared around the bend.
Russell Reece lives in Delaware along the Nanticoke River. He has had stories and essays published in Memoir(and), Raving Dove, The Delmarva Quarterly, Delaware Beach Life and Beginnings magazines. He is a University of Delaware graduate and a board member of The Delaware Literary Connection. When he isn’t fishing or bragging about his granddaughter, Russ is working through the second revision of a novella, Lenny’s Farm, set in rural Delaware in the 1950’s.