BY THURSDAY I WAS MISSING questions even the football goons answered, failing tests I could’ve written. When I wasn’t staring out the classroom window at the smokestack of the graphite plant where my father worked, imagining that cabin in the hills, I was making lists of lures and baits to bring: salted minnows, nightcrawlers, and wood grubs for the trout; spinners, jigs, and soft-shell crayfish for the bass. I fasted like a monk, saving my lunch money all week. After school I went to Cruickshank’s Tackle Shop and bought split-shot, snelled hooks, and a small Dardevle spoon to fool that monster brown.
“You might bring a couple of big plugs,” Kelleher said as he looked over my list. “Pikie Minnows, maybe.”
I looked at him. “Pikie Minnows?”
“I was reeling in a small trout one time and something huge nearly tore it in half. Muskie, I figured from the bite radius.”
The bite radius? “A muskie? In the mountains?”
“Hey, who knows? Chautauqua Lake isn’t that far away. Maybe an osprey or a kingfisher picked up a small one and dropped it in the creek. Wouldn’t take long to grow big with all the food in there.”
A muskie. It sounded perfectly reasonable to me.
IF I ATTENDED CLASSES THAT FRIDAY I have no memory of it. I vaguely recall staggering through the halls, shoved and hip-checked from one giant to the next, and not caring. At lunch I got Kelleher to look at the schedule I’d worked out. We’d fish for bass when we got to the cabin Saturday morning, maybe cast some big lures for that muskie. Midday we’d go for the brookies in the feeder streams, and wait until evening for that old brown. We’d leave Sunday flexible, so we could fill our limits of each species, on the odd chance we hadn’t already. I’d drawn it all up on a chart.
“Looks good to me,” Kelleher said. Then, as if it had just occurred to him, he said, “I don’t know if you’re interested, but when we’re up this one feeder creek, remind me to show you a pool where I had something odd-looking rise to a Black Gnat one time.”
“Don’t get your hopes up, but have you ever heard of grayling?”
Obviously, I should have screamed, “Grayling? In New York State?” But by then if Kelleher had said, “giant squid,” I would’ve gone shopping for a harpoon.
That night, while the rest of the student body cheered and stamped their feet like buffalo in the football stands, I packed a lunch for the ride down to the mountains, spread all my tackle across the kitchen table, honed hooks, oiled my spinning reel, practiced tying barrel knots, and polished every piece of metal on every spinner and spoon I owned. I made myself a bed on the couch in the living room so the early-morning alarm wouldn’t disturb my parents and sisters. All night I lay there staring at the ceiling, trying to picture the mountains, the cabin, the creek.
Saturday morning, as the sun rose, my gear sat heaped on the curb and I paced the sidewalk in front of our house, my brain alternating between disappointment and hatred. I kicked our fence so hard I broke a slat, screamed at God Himself
in the heavens above, and later went to confession. I spent that evening down at the river, smashing bottles against the bridge abutments, too angry even to fish. Maybe too angry ever to fish again.