Art in the Valley

by J.K. Mason

Art had been through the valley infrequently during the past thirty years, and recently he'd noticed a change: the river was crowded, more so than he could recall, and he'd lived near it all his life. At any one time now, hundreds of drift boats dotted the water, and professional outfitters owned most of them. As a boy, Art spent entire days on shore without seeing a single boat; things had changed that much. Twenty or thirty cement ramps now lined the five-mile stretch below the dam, most with adjacent outfitter facilities--motels, restaurants, heliports, and parking lots.

If the river entered his mind for any reason, Art would find himself fidgeting, changing positions. The anxiety would come next, covering him like a soft wet blanket, sticky and a bit too warm for comfort. Sometimes it arrived like a car accident--blatant, demanding attention. Other times it was sly, insipid, creepy like the flu. And whenever he asked himself why he felt this way, he would trace it to the crowded river in his mind.

Art lived in a small house with his wife and young son Jason. Once or twice a year, he did survey work for an engineering firm in the valley. Fishing, once his favorite pastime, had at some point escaped him, so outside his work, he seldom went into the valley, and passing through as he did, it never struck him when it changed; there was no single day he could point to.

For Art, the river ran deep in family tradition. Photos above his fireplace showed his father and grandfather holding trophy rainbows. Art was there too, a boy then. From shore he'd witnessed the long battles. Jason had recently started asking about the river, and every time Art thought about this, the anxiety would settle in over him. His only relief, it seemed, was a good deep sleep.

They had an unwritten agreement between them. When Jason earned his yellow belt in karate, Art took him out for burgers and ice cream. For his green belt they went on horseback and camped two nights in the mountains. Now, they were riding home from the karate studio after his promotion to blue belt. Rain was curling down from the dark night sky.

"For my blue belt, I want to go to the river. Catch fish like in the pictures on the fireplace. Can we do that Dad?"

"I'm sure your father would love to," said Jason's mother. "He hasn't been fishing in years...wouldn't you Arthur?"

Art remained silent, slightly tilted in his seat, staring at the red, green, blue and yellow lights reflecting from the wet pavement, the drops hitting the windshield.


Art sat up straight. "Yeah sure, we can plan something. How 'bout we try a lake," he said, looking into the rear-view mirror at Jason. "The river seems kind of crowded these days."

"I want to fish the river, like you and granddad did. Can we do that Dad?"

* * *

Art loaded the car with poles, tackle, camera, and lunch. He wore his old fishing clothes (which he'd dug from a box in the garage): hip-waders, khaki pants, camouflage shirt, fly-vest, and a lucky gray hat with crusty hooks. Jason wore Levi cutoffs, a white t-shirt, and holey tennis shoes. They were on their way before the sun came up, and in the darkness, heavy with apprehension, Art drove while Jason slept. Forty minutes later, they left the highway and turned onto the road that ran along the river. Art parked the car at the pullout above his grandfather's favorite spot.

In the dim lighting, everything looked familiar to Art. The parking turnout was slightly larger, and the path leading down to the water seemed wider. The rusty railroad bridge just upstream was intact, and with the exception of a few glaring cabins, the hills and mountains hadn't changed. The river followed its old course (below the dam the channels never moved) and the water smelled the same--fishy. Shadows wavered up from the limpid pool before him, and Art felt a flutter of excitement as he came to the river's edge.

He helped Jason for the first few minutes, and by the time Jason was able to go it alone, he grew bored and set down his pole. Drift boats appeared; all held a lone man at the oars and another standing, fly-fishing. Common river courtesy--at least Art's understanding of it--required that boaters avoid the side where he and Jason stood, but that wasn't happening; the first boat was going to pass right in front of them.

"Dammit!" he said. "Look at those guys. They're coming right over." He watched the boat drift in. His plan was to wait until its occupants said hello (they would certainly come close enough), and then he'd stare back at them defiantly. But they went right by. "Keep your head down," he said as the drifters passed, lines whipping air. More outfitter boats appeared; all came within casting distance of Art and Jason. Apparently, it was a favorite fishing spot, and they weren't about to miss it.

One boat hooked a fish directly in front of them, not twenty feet away. The sitting man tossed the anchor over with a splashy "Kerplunk!" The standing man screamed, "Fish on!" and then almost fell over the side. After playing the tiny fish to exhaustion, he hauled it high into the air where he ripped the hook out; then he chucked it into the water like a rock. Following the spectacle, the standing man looked proudly at Art and tipped his hat. Art opened his mouth to say something offensive but shook his head and looked at the ground instead.

About noon, the temperature rose into the eighties. Small tight clouds, heavy with water, floated above them--precursors to an afternoon thunderstorm. At least that hadn't changed, thought Art. They had two fish. Art had allowed Jason to reel in the first one. The second had something growing on its side. A furry black fungus. Normally, Art released small fish, but he'd kept this one because it died before he got it in to shore. While he fished, he watched Jason turn over rocks, catch crayfish, skip pebbles, and throw in grasshoppers. Jason's pole was lying in the mud; he seemed in a different world, oblivious to Art.

The temperature continued to rise. A long bluish canoe came round the corner, then another and another behind it. Each held ten to fifteen people, and when they came in closer, Art saw the passengers were all teenage boys, mostly blonde, fair complexioned. They were laughing and talking loudly. Art heard them speaking a different language--probably Russian, he thought. A woman wearing green inner tube waders went by. As she worked from shore to shore, casting her fly line everywhere, she appeared to bounce across the water and at one point came close enough so Art could see the wake of silt behind her, roiled from the bottom by her flippers. A writhing flotilla of inner tubes and young people--many topless--rounded the bend, arms and legs in a tangle holding tubes. Floating alongside them was a yellow plastic swimming pool brimming with bobbing cans and bottles. Art caught the aroma of beer as they passed.

More drift boats went by. Then it was a man in a maroon jet boat wearing a headset and goggles. He spoke into a transmitter and steered with his foot while fishing. Another jet boat followed, identical to the first. Each had a blue computer monitor displaying what appeared to be a radar scan of the riverbed.

In the early afternoon seven men in ragged clothes walked down from the highway and lit a large fire on the shore downstream from Art. They were far enough that he couldn't understand their words but close enough that he could see they were cooking and tossing things into the water. They had a brown, oily look and passed a bottle of clear liquid among them.

Two heavy men carrying a boom box radio, a fifty-gallon ice chest, and red-striped folding chairs waddled down from the parking area and sat in the space between Art and Jason. They could have fished anywhere but for some reason sat there, six feet away. Immediately they popped open beers. Jason, now a muddy mess below the waist, was playing about thirty yards upstream with his bugs and rocks. Art tried catching his attention to wave him back. A cigarette butt floated by, discarded by one of the fat men.

Art looked down into the water. Old bottles and other trash sat on the bottom. Four or five Leafy-Spurge weeds grew there in stark green contrast to the blanket of brown algae that covered everything else. From the losing battle he'd waged against them in his own yard, he wasn't surprised to see they also flourished underwater.

Before the sun went down, Art decided to take a picture of Jason holding the two small fish. Jason couldn't stand upstream however, because the two fat men were there, sitting in their chairs, smoking and drinking. Downstream it was the now raging bonfire. When he tried to take a picture with the river behind Jason, every time he was ready to snap it, something drifted into view.

"Forget about it," he said in disgust, and they walked up the trail to the car.

Art's grandfather had always fished with tricks. "If you want to catch fish you'll need a trick," he'd say. "Sure, you can do like everyone else but you won't catch much." He showed Art how to fish a logjam with heavy sinkers, big line, and a tight drag; how to fish at night with floodlights; and how to imitate the sound of a minnow school.

The sun was long gone behind the tall mountains when they took the main road home. In the purple darkness, Jason fell asleep immediately and never knew his father cried silently as he drove the forty miles back to town. Art was dumbfounded by what he'd seen that day. In his mind, the river had always been private, a place of deep natural reverence.

That night in a dream, Art spoke with his grandfather, and when he awoke, the details of the dream were unclear, but he had a vivid reminiscence of a day filled with water and rainbows. He was young then, maybe five or six, and his grandfather had come to his bedside early that morning, saying, "Art, I want to show you a trick no one knows about. It's something my father taught me." They'd gone to the river wearing raincoats, heavy plastic ones with wide hoods and long fat strings with big knots at the end. It was raining--not hard, just steady--and the entire world seemed foggy and soaked. The river was deserted, and from inside the heavy coats, warm and dry, they caught gigantic rainbows, all day. "Because the smart ones come out when it rains," his grandfather said.

The memory had slipped away from him; now it was back.

* * *

"When can we go fishing again?" was the first thing Jason said the next morning at breakfast.

"Did you have fun?"

"Yeah. All those bugs are neat. Can we go back this weekend?"

Art shifted in his chair. "Oh, I don't think so. We'll see." In the same fashion that clouds gather quietly before a storm, the familiar feeling of apprehension settled in around Art.

After school, Jason said, "Bobby Sessions saw us on the river yesterday. Watched us catch our two fish."

"Oh really? Where was Bobby? I didn't see him there."

"On the Internet. He said there are cameras all along the river now. His whole family watched us, on their TV set. They taped it. Bobby's going to email the video capture files. He said he's got software that will make our fish look bigger, if we want it to."

Art's barrel of uneasiness with the river was already full, and he would never fish there again; that was clear to him. So it didn't matter that someone had been watching, taking pictures.

The next morning Jason again asked when they could return to the river. Every day, without exception, he asked his father this question.

One day his father said, "But you hardly fished."

"Yes I did. Come on. Let's go back. Can we?"

But Art always said no.

"OK," Jason finally said. "When I get my purple belt, I want to go fishing again. On the river. You'll have to take me then."

It was true. According to their agreement, he could ask for more than a fishing trip after his next Karate promotion, but if he wanted only that, Art was obliged to honor his request. In any case, it would be six or seven months into the future.

* * *

On a Sunday before the sun came up, it began to rain. The storm came in with thunder and lightning, and the water pounded the roof so hard Art woke from a deep sleep. As he lay staring up at the dark ceiling, something rose to the surface of his consciousness--fishing. He wanted to go fishing in the rain. The smart ones come out when it rains, he thought.

Without waking his wife, he got out of bed and went to Jason's room. He shook the boy's arm lightly and whispered, "Jason, I want to show you something no one knows about, a trick my grandfather taught me. Let's go fishing."

Immediately Jason was standing, rubbing his eyes.

Art spent time digging around in the garage for raincoats and finally had them. They were bright orange, both the same size--a bit large for Jason, but satisfactory.

"What's the trick?" Jason asked as they turned onto the highway.

"I'll show you when we get there. I think we might catch some big ones."

It was still pouring rain. The day's weather report indicated a statewide front with an eighty percent chance of showers. Art drove faster than he normally would under such conditions; he wanted to get there before the rain let up. They exited the highway and turned onto the river road. Rather than fish a single spot as they'd done before, Art's plan was to try different places until they found the big ones.

A car was parked at the first turnout. The rain was heavy there, and thick bushes blocked Art's view of the river. He didn't want to risk walking down to shore when it might already be occupied, so he kept driving. Two pickups were at the next turnout. Still unable to see through the deluge, Art drove on past, a bit faster now. He was coming to the spot they'd fished a few weeks before--his grandfather's favorite. Parked vehicles lined the road there, and when they got close enough, he could see blurry figures standing near the water--two light-blue raincoats. Upriver he saw more figures, in yellow raincoats.

Art drove on.

Three cars sat at the next turnout, beside the old bridge. From under the blanket of heavy rain that fell across the windshield, Art could barely discern a pair of red raincoats and three light-green ones beside the water. On the far side of the river, under the bridge, he saw purple raincoats.

As they drove on, searching for a place to stop, the storm subsided and the rain cleared, revealing shorelines dotted with color, all the way to the end.

Copyright 2002 by J.K. Mason. All rights reserved.