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“Lie thou there; for here comes the trout that must be caught with tickling.” — William Shakespeare
Though his eyes were squeezed tight, Gas could hear Loretta standing in their bedroom doorway, his lunch bag crinkling in her hand. He also knew from a variety of signs and smells what the day outside was like: cloudy, damp, cold. He had no desire to do what his wife had in mind, though he’d been a fisherman all his life like his father and grandfather before him. But the money earned from throwing a line in the water no longer put much food on the table, and Loretta was after him to get a job at one of the tilapia farms if he was determined to stay in the fish business.
“Just take a good look, Gaspar,” she’d said, stretching her arms out. “This place is fallin’ down ‘round us, case you hadn’t noticed. Fish from a Dish pays a livin’ wage. Nobody earns a livin’ sittin’ in a chewed-up boat anymore. Termites own more of it than you. If you’d stuck with one of the big operations—like that Buster Bragg crew—maybe then….”
Even the name of the tilapia farm made Gas cringe. He belonged out on real water, not in one of those huge aquarium-like structures where his job would be hauling out fish, or delivering them to a slaughterhouse or treatment facility. That wasn’t fishing at all. He liked to imagine that every fish he caught had enjoyed a full, free life before he landed it in a fair fight. There was mutual dignity in this time-honored contest. Taking part in the butchery of trapped fish—that had never known a minute of liberty in an actual body of water—was disgusting.
“You’re turning into a sentimental old fool,” his wife said. “What do fish know about freedom? You know how big their brain is?”
About the size of yours, he felt like saying.
But instead—“The domestication of fish through farming is an environmental disaster.” The pamphlet was in his pocket, and he patted it. “It’s no better than how chickens are raised.”
“Fancy words for a man with a leaky boat and a leaky house.”
“You’d better get cracking,” she said now, shaking the paper bag harder. “The ice-out’s nearly over. You might even make a decent haul if you get out there early.”
Loretta rolled her eyes as she said this—making it clear there was no chance of such a thing. She’d lost all respect for him years ago when he quit going out on the Atlantic with Buster Bragg and his crew. Their noisy camaraderie and rough behavior had not been his style either. What kind of fishermen drink beer all day and lunch on the pier’s fast food, pock-marking the ocean with aluminum and paper trash?
“No breakfast?” he said. Eyes open now, he looked out the window glumly. What was that poem about November? No sun was one of the lines. No comfortable feel in any member, another, he remembered. He didn’t know what that meant exactly—by member did they really mean…. And anyway it was May, wasn’t it?
“In here,” she said, shaking the bag yet again. His Sam’s Club breakfast bar was probably in pieces by now. “Your thermos is on the table, and there’s a beef pasty for your lunch—should you need one.”
This was a slap at his early departure from the river yesterday. How long could you sit waiting for what wasn’t going to come? He grimaced at the thought of the coffee—probably from yesterday’s pot if a drop remained. She’d been known to hold the used grounds under the hot water tap in a pinch. He’d give anything for just instant.
Tossing the bag on the bed, Loretta left the room, her feet heavy on the bare wood. She’d become stocky in the last few years. Of course, who was he to talk with his face wizened from the years on the water? On the day they married, people sighed at her beauty when she came down the aisle on her Dad’s arm. But thirty years had passed, hadn’t they? Loretta never was able to have the children they both wanted, her job at the jeans factory had gone overseas, and all of her brothers left Maine long ago for better opportunities. She held all that against him too.
“If Gil and Jaime had the gumption to move across the country, why can’t we? California has an ocean. You can stick a pole in the Pacific if that’s what you have to do.”
But California was another country. With its movie stars, orange trees, and surfers. He’d sooner take off for the Azores.
Fifteen minutes later, Gas headed for the St. Croix River and hopefully some salmon. Maybe some bass too. He’d never been much of a saltwater fisherman, even before Buster and his antics, always preferring the inland waterways. The Atlantic was too vast—you could get lost in it—in your head at least. Instead he usually headed for a lake, other times a river. He could fish there in solitude—a condition he preferred.
Half-drowsing, half-puttering along in one of the little alcoves he favored, Gas was thinking about the Red Sox’s chances when the water suddenly grew choppy. A larger motorboat approached. The wake was sizeable because of the larger boat’s speed, and Gas slowed to a standstill to compensate, pointing his boat toward the wake to save it from overturning. Clearly, the man at the helm hadn’t even noticed the small boat on its port side in the weeds. The name, The Clytemnestra, was painted on the boat in large blood red letters. What sort of name was that for a boat? A far cry from the typical Lady Luck you usually saw around here.
Seconds later, as the boat sped around a bend in the water, Gas heard an enormous splash. Perhaps a large catch fell overboard? Or even one huge fish. This happened occasionally. Inexperienced fishermen—like the idiots likely to be on that boat— didn’t always secure their catches adequately, and the fish skidded back into the water. But the inland waterways Gas knew boasted no fish big enough to sound like that. Sturgeon—fish who might splash that way—were only in places like the Kennebec River.
He spotted the object. Whatever it was—and it looked like a single fish as he drew closer—was undulating madly, thrashing about. What sort of fish swam like that? He pulled closer still, wondering if he could possibly catch the fish without capsizing his own boat. The thing had to weigh two hundred pounds. On closer inspection, whatever it was, seemed to be wrapped in a dirty tarp and tightly duct-taped every eight inches or so. Huh? Then he heard screaming, and it became obvious there was a man inside the bundle. Holy Mother of God!
Gas grabbed at the canvas, succeeding in grasping an edge on his second try, and yanked it as hard as he could. After considerable effort, the squirming body was in his boat along with several gallons of river water. The boat rocked violently, then shuddered to a more controllable sway. Catching his breath, Gas slit the tarp open cautiously. The man inside was unconscious now. Water streamed from his mouth: a gaping hole in a gray face that appeared lifeless. It was hard to decide whether to expel the water or supply him with more oxygen first. Gas flipped him over, put his head to one side, and began forcing water from the man’s lungs. After a minute or two, the man’s left eye popped open.
Minutes later, he was still wheezing, and occasional pieces of tarp and seaweed as well as brackish water continued to seep from his mouth. Gas pressed on his back until the flow stopped. Then he turned the man over, did a minute or two of old-fashioned mouth-to-mouth, and helped him to sit up against the bench. The guy’s color began to return; his panting slowed. Gas grabbed a towel, a bottle of water, and a heavy blanket from his dry box. The water temperature of a Maine river in May was in the forties. The guy could still go into shock—he was plenty old enough to have a heart attack, even. Gas dried his head, wrapped the blanket around him, and offered him the water.
“Drink.” It was more a command than an invitation.
Looking at Gas skeptically, the man finally obeyed, still shivering so intensely that his teeth chattered. Gas looked around for another blanket, finally coming up with a piece of dry canvas. Then he waited—his hands and feet under attack by pins and needles—for the man to recover. In all his years at sea, nothing had equaled this.
“Someone trying to murder you?”
It sounded like a joke when he said it aloud, but what else could it be? The man continued to pant and shiver, and Gas waited some more.
“So it would seem,” the man finally said, rubbing his head with the towel. He coughed up some more debris. “If you hadn’t come along I’d be swimming with the fishes.”
Neither man laughed. In fact, Gas had no inclination to discuss the event beyond this brief exchange, and neither, it seemed, did his passenger.
“Where should I take you?” Gas said, starting up the motor again. “Need to get out of those wet clothes pronto.” The man’s shivering had not abated.
“Anywhere on shore. Have a cell?”
Even a poor fisherman didn’t travel without one, and Gas tossed it to him.
“Not much of a signal,” the man said, looking at the phone.
“We’ll be ashore in five minutes.”
“Hey, thanks.” The man paused as if considering his words. “A thank you isn’t enough, of course. What could be enough after something like that?”
Gus and the man looked out onto the lake; the other boat was gone for now.
“Give me your address and I’ll send you a check. A check big enough for a long vacation.” The man shrugged. “Or whatever you want. Something anyway.”
“I don’t want your money.” And Gas certainly didn’t want to hand this man—someone who would’ve been dead if he hadn’t come along—his address. He was anxious to put a wide berth between them. And an even wider berth between himself and that boat—whatever its crazy name was. Men like that would have guns onboard.
“Well, what then?” The man stared at the phone as if an idea would come from it. “You have to take something.” He coughed and shook his head. “I can’t be in your debt. It’s too much like unfinished business.”
“Nothing. Nothing at all.” All Gus could think about now was that speedboat reappearing on the horizon. What would happen to a witness of an attempted murder? “And you’re not in my debt. Anyone would’ve done the same.”
The man shook his head. “Not the men I know.”
“Then you know the wrong men.”
The man said nothing but from the look on his face, Gas knew what he said was the truth.
Dockside, a few minutes later, Gas helped him climb out of the boat.
“Look, take my card at least,” the man said, reaching for his pocket. But he’d been stripped of any identification. In fact, to both of their horror, his pockets were filled with stones.
Gus thought once again of the boat that sped away. Had they spotted him? If they had, they certainly would’ve returned to see to him. The weeds and water plants in the boggy alcove must have hidden his boat. Did they believe this man was at the bottom of the river? They must.
“Make your call,” Gas said, nodding toward the phone.
After a brief discussion—and Gas couldn’t help but overhear the name “Pinto” said twice—he was back. “Look, my name’s Pasquale Trota. I’m putting my number in your contacts.” He punched it in. “If I can ever do anything for you, give me a call. I mean it,” he said. “Something might come to you later.” He paused. “I have friends in lots of places.”
And enemies in others, Gus thought. But he said nothing.
“I won’t even ask your name. It’s probably better for me not to know it.”
Gas watched as the man headed for the blacktop. A dark SUV soon picked him up. The man turned back and nodded before he climbed inside. Gas held up a hand. He was glad he’d never given the man his name, glad Trota (he’d immediately looked at the new name on his phone) hadn’t asked for it. This affair, strange and worrisome, would end right here.
Back home after another disappointing day fish-wise, he thought about telling Loretta about Mr. Trota. But she had a way of making even a good deed or something entirely innocent seem foolish. And the more he ran over the story in his head, the more he could imagine her saying that he was dim-witted not to ask for a reward. It’d be hard to make her understand the terror with which that enormous splash and the quick departure of that boat had filled him. He’d done nothing brave—hadn’t even really known what it was he was pulling out of the water.
Instead, he got a tongue-lashing for coming home with only enough fish to make a dinner. And the next day, when it poured rain, Loretta insisted on him going down to Fish in a Dish and filling out an application. As he sat in the HR room with several other fellows, all younger than he and twice as muscular, he was full of despair. Why would anyone hire him when clearly these younger and stronger fellows would make better employees? So even here— at this terrible place—he would fail. And predictably, the man behind the desk hardly bothered to read his application once he took a quick look at Gas.
“My father did commercial fishing when I was a kid,” he told Gas. “Takes the stuffing out of you,” he added, looking Gas up and down. “And look Mr….” he looked down at the application, “Rios. You wouldn’t like it here. It’s not like fishing at all. It’s back-breaking work even for a young man.”
“But it pays a wage, right,” Gas said, feeling he had nothing to lose.
“Probably not much more than you can earn on your own.”
Gas nodded, and the two men parted.
“Any luck,” Loretta asked before his foot was inside the door. She was darning his wool socks, an activity she only engaged in when she wanted sympathy for the hard life Gaspar had dealt her.
“The guy who interviewed me said I’d have to wait and see,” Gas said, not wanting to go into it with her now. She’d blame him for not convincing the powers-that-be that he was a man who could haul a half a ton of fish out of a tank. “Looked good though,” he added, trying to get a few hours peace. “I got the feeling….”
She smiled, but he could tell she wasn’t convinced. “You did go down there, didn’t you?”
He reached into his jacket and threw his copy of the paperwork he’d filled in on the table, then strode off, trying to look like a man who could pull half a ton of fish out of a tank. But having no experience with what that looked like, he probably wasn’t persuasive.
“Mr. Trota,” he found himself saying into his cell phone a few weeks later. He hadn’t planned the call at all—but somehow ended up making it, bringing up the contact and pushing the button.
“Who wants to know?”
It was the lowest pitched voice he’d ever heard and not Mr. Trota’s. “He won’t know my name.”
“He knows everyone’s name,” the man said.
“Yeah, but I….”
“Look, if you want to talk to him, you gotta tell me your name. Go ahead. I’m not gonna tell anyone your name but the boss.”
“Okay, well, it’s Gaspar Rios.”
“What kinda name is Gaspar?” the man asked. He didn’t sound curious as much as he seemed to be preparing the information for Mr. Trota.
“Portuguese. I fish in the St. Croix. That’s where we….”
“Oh, sure. Probably you’re the guy that pulled him out of the lake. Right.”
“Right, river. Told me all about it. Okay, then. He’ll be right here.”
“Gaspar Rios, huh?” Mr. Trota said a few seconds later. “Is that Spanish?”
“Portuguese,” Gas said again.
“Sure, sure, I shoulda figured.” He paused. “Things okay with you? Didn’t hurt your boat, did I?”
“My boat’s good.”
“Well, how can I help you, Gaspar?”
“Gas,” he said. “My friends call me Gas,”
“And I’m gonna be your friend, huh.” Mr. Trota paused. “Well, you deserve it. I wouldn’t be sitting here drinking this beer or smoking this Robusto if it wasn’t for you. Pulling me out of the water like you did. Like the biggest fish you ever caught, huh? So, how can I be your friend, Gas?”
Gas took a deep breath and plunged in, still not knowing exactly what he wanted.
“I wondered if you might have a job for me. Doesn’t have to be anything fancy…” Gas felt as awkward as he had at Dish of Fish or whatever it was called. What in the world would a man like Mr. Trota have for him to do? Why hadn’t he had an idea in mind before calling?”
“A job for a fisherman?” Mr. Trota laughed. “I don’t even eat fish, Gus.”
“Gas, right. You wanna sell me fish. Is that what you’re saying? Maybe you think I have a restaurant. Louie, do I have a restaurant?” Both men at the other end of the line laughed.
“No restaurant, I’m afraid, Gas.”
“Maybe I can watch the river for you.”
“Watch the river?” Mr. Trota paused. “You mean the St. Croix? Like watch the current move the water?” He laughed again. Gas had never known a man to laugh so much. Especially one nearly murdered a few weeks before. Before he could answer, Mr. Trota answered his own question.
“Of course, that’s not what you mean. Just yanking your chain. You mean watch the river in case someone tosses me off a boat again? Hey, I got Louie here to do that. And a couple other amici. Look, that’s not the way it works, Gas. If they come after me again—which they will—it’ll be in some other way. Unless they’re dumber than I think.”
Gas heard him say to Louie, “We can only hope.” Both men laughed. Gas got the feeling they used laughter in some other way than he did. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed. No one he knew laughed.
“Look, how much do you earn a year hauling fish out of that lake, Gas?”
Gas told him.
Mr. Trota whistled. “You actually live on that? What’s your wife, some corporate bigwig?”
“Nah, she takes care of me and the house,” Gas thought of the lunch waiting in his paper bag. He’d bet anything it was last night’s leftover meatloaf. Loretta put pickle relish on it when she made a sandwich—like it was an added treat. Thirty years on, and he still hated sweet pickles on his meatloaf sandwich. But that didn’t stop her.
“At church, they rave about my meatloaf sandwiches,” she told him.
Mr. Trota sighed now. “Hold on a sec, Gas.” Gas heard him talking to someone else—probably Louie—again. “Look, Gas, tell you what. I’ll match your earnings for a year. So you can go out on the lake and fish, and I will equal what they pay you for that fish down on the docks. Maybe by the time the year is up, something else will come along for you. Or maybe we’ll come up with an idea.”
Gas thought about it. “So you’re gonna pay me just to do what I’ve always done? Just sit on the water and fish?”
“Sure. You can keep an eye out for that other boat in case it comes along again. You might save my ass twice. Never know. Right, Louie?” Louie murmured his assent.
Gas could tell Mr. Trota didn’t believe such a thing would happen and neither did he, really. He thought he’d recognize the boat, but he couldn’t remember the name anymore. Mr. Trota must’ve read his mind because he said, “The Clytemnestra, Gas. Must be a Greek, that cattivo who wants my ass in a sling hired. Everything’s global now, isn’t it? Want a hitman today, call Serbia or Cambodia.” He was laughing again, but the laugh still had no mirth in it. “So keep an eye out. Not that I think Pinto’s boys are still out cruising the waterways of Maine. But you never know.”
Weeks went by. Every time Gas sold fish to the wholesalers, he sent a scanned receipt to Mr. Trota’s number and Mr. Trota deposited money in Gas’ account. As summer came, the daily haul picked up. He finally broke down and showed the numbers to Loretta, thinking to improve her opinion of him.
“Guess you were right to stick with the old way of doin’ things,” she said, staring at the figures. “Sure the bank didn’t goof it up?”
“You think a bank ever makes a mistake in my favor?”
She kept nodding but he felt like she was really shaking her head, convinced he was pulling something over on her.
The St. Croix River runs 71 miles in length and forms part of the Canadian-U.S. border and Gas usually fished either the river itself or one of the lakes that lay along its path. He was usually just a few miles from the ocean and yet it never drew him.
“It’s like you’re afraid of it,” Loretta once theorized. “The big bad ocean. Ooh.”
“No, but I give it the respect it deserves,” he told her. “I’m comfortable where I am.”
“Comfortable,” she’d said. “Well, I’m not comfortable where I am.”
He had grown slack and lazy over the winter, telling himself he was too old for the sort of jobs he could find. He even turned down the church’s offer to plow their lot, an easy couple of grand.
But now, for the first time since his arrangement with Mr. Trota, a month had passed without a bank deposit. He feared he was at the end of the soup line and began to look at the pecuniary of a forced retirement.
Seven bridges crossed the St. Croix, but Gus wasn’t near one of them in May when he saw the boat again. The Clytemnestra. It was slowly making its way up the river, hugging the Canadian bank. Gas, on his boat, was sitting inside a marshy alcove half a mile south of the larger boat’s entry point from a canal. It was a good place to fish and a good place to spy, although truthfully he’d long ago given up any idea of spotting the boat. If the name hadn’t caught his eye that day, he’d never have given it any thought. He’d long ago concluded that Mr. Trota only gave him this assignment to justify paying him off for his good deed.
After a few minutes, Gas watched the boat drop anchor at a point where a rusty old truck with a beat-up trailer was waiting. He couldn’t even tell the color of either one. It was certainly not a normal place to either load or unload cargo. There was no beach at all, and the incline was such that the nose of the truck was nearly in the water. In fact, the man who got out of the cab had his hands full not sliding into the river. Clearly something was wrong with this operation. Before Gas could think about what exactly seemed wrong, another man climbed out the other side of the truck, and together the two men opened the trailer and dragged five women—no, make that girls—out. All of them were bound at the hands, blindfolded, and gagged. Each wore a very short skirt, was preternaturally thin, and staggered in high heels. From their uniformly dark, straight hair, Gus thought they were probably Asian although they could have been wearing wigs.
Within a minute or two, they’d been loaded onto the boat. The next-to-last girl fell, losing her shoe. The man holding her arm seemed ready to strike her. Then he grabbed the heel that was stuck in the mud, pushed her down, and put it back on her foot. Although Gas couldn’t hear, he knew she was sobbing from her shaking shoulders. Even from this distance, he could tell they were very young girls—perhaps under fourteen. It could have easily been his niece, Theresa, getting loaded onto the boat to hell.
His stomach in his throat, he picked up his cell and called 911, telling the dispatcher what he’d seen. The words tangled as they poured out of his mouth. He realized he was sobbing a bit. His heart hammered away.
“And where was this?” the officer asked.
Gus gave him the coordinates, the name of the boat, and information about the truck and trailer that made the delivery. The boat was practically out of his range already and the truck had pulled out of the drop spot, the trailer moving in a jerky fashion as the driver tried to back up.
Gas also gave his name and number.
“Do you want me to wait here?” he asked.
“Is the boat still in sight?”
It wasn’t. So the dispatcher said he might as well go home and wait there for an officer to take down his story.
“Might have saved four lives today,” the fellow said. “Who knows what those men had in mind for those girls. They probably picked them up in Toronto or Montreal. They could end up anywhere in the States.” He paused. “Leave it to us, Mr. Rios. We’ll get the guys who did this.”
“Five,” Gas corrected him. “There were five girls.”
“Right. You saved five lives today.”
Gas debated going home to tell Loretta. But that would take more than an hour so he called his friend instead. He’d called him once or twice over the last few months, mostly to thank him for a few deposits he made when the river was frozen and there were no fish to be had. When Gas had let the man’s money put food on their table.
“That was real nice. You didn’t have to do that.”
“What do you usually do for cash in the winter?” Mr. Trota has asked him.
“Plow snow for some people I know. Chop wood for some shut-ins. Doesn’t pay much but it covers my oil deliveries.” Except this year when I got lazy, he thought but didn’t say.
He’d resisted calling Mr. Trota last month when no deposit turned up. How long could he expect such an arrangement to last? How could he hold his hand out again?
Today he expected it would be him who was warmly thanked. Surely this would put the crew of that boat behind bars for some time. Mr. Pinto’s goose would be cooked. His friend would not have to worry about taking a dive off that boat ever again.
“Hello,” he said, recognizing Louie’s voice but not wanting to hazard using his name. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to know any of these guys. “It’s Gaspar Rios. Is Mr. Trota in?” Then his excitement broke through. “Guess what? I saw that boat today. You know, The Clytemnestra?” He wasn’t certain if he’d pronounced it correctly. “You know the one I mean.”
“Yeah, sure,” Louis said. “Funny thing you should call. I think he forgot all about how you were out there looking for it. Looking for the boat. But it’s okay ‘cause he’s out on that boat himself. Weird, huh?”
“Yeah, he bought the boat about a month ago from Mario Pinto. Decided a nice little boat with a crackerjack boss might come in handy. He decided to turn his enemies into friends for some deal he had goin’.” When Gas didn’t respond, Louie added. “His business sometimes works like that.” He laughed. “But more often, its vice-versa. Friends turn into enemies.”
Gas’d never felt worse in his life. More than anything, he wanted to ask Louie not to tell Mr. Trota he’d called. But instead, he hung up and sat thinking quietly for a minute, then got some of the California brochures his wife kept forcing on him out of the hold. As he slipped the rubber band off, he wondered if the car was too old to make a cross country trip. Or if he and Loretta were. He guessed they’d find out.
More than 100 of Patti Abbott’s stories have appeared in various print and online venues. She is the author of two ebooks through Snubnose Press, Monkey Justice and Home Invasion. Her novel Concrete Angel will be out in Winter of 2015 from Exhibit A Books.