The Guiding Principles

I park the truck in my nightly spot, just beyond the single streetlamp on Rainbow Road. Hopefully the lodge owner next door will let me use a shower tomorrow. He’s usually pretty good about that as long as I take him out fishing a couple times a summer. I change into a black cotton skirt and run a brush through my hair. I smell meat grilling and hear a banjo. I’ll go to Walton’s for just one beer and hopefully some free food. Living out of my truck makes it hard to cook a decent meal. PB&J is my standard lunch and dinner unless I eat out. I make coffee in the morning on my Jetboil and choke down a couple of PowerBars before I hit the river at dawn. Keeping enough protein in my diet can be tricky. A full day of rowing blasts a lot of calories. I make it work, though. I have to.

I grab some food and talk to a few other guides, a newbie and two veterans of the Mo. They ask how many days I’m getting. I tell them I’ve doubled my numbers since last season. They tell me to keep my head up, things will get better. I smile and say thanks. One thing I can’t stand is pity. I don’t need to hear it from them, but it seems that most of the guys around here find it necessary to tell me things like this. They give me a pat on the back for trying, for sticking it out, like I wouldn’t have made it without their encouragement. Like I couldn’t make it on my own.

“I’ll tell my outfitter to give you a day if I’m booked,” one says.

“Sure,” I say. “I’d appreciate that.” Thinking that soon enough these tables will turn.

I leave the guys by the keg and take a seat to watch the band. The sun has now slunk all the way under the mountains and the sky is darkening. I love this time of night.

The music isn’t bad. The fiddle player reminds me of my uncle. He’s wearing denim overalls and a straw hat. He could have walked out of a different time or maybe just from the sticks, Stickney Creek most likely. It’s the same old crowd here except for a few new women. These women show up in tube tops and high heels, looking for attention. The high-heel-to-penis ratio is in their favor for sure. The vibe has been changing over the past couple of years. More money draws a different crowd. At the same time, it’s more potential money for me. I have to take what I can get.

My stomach still stings with hunger, so I grab another hot dog, more sour-cream-and-onion chips. I don’t even like hot dogs.

I chat with a few people in the crowd. It’s all about who you know, right? I shake hands and talk to plenty of dudes who all seem to have important things to tell me and, of course, tips for fishing. I’ve been doing this for four years now, and I’m still fighting every day to prove I’m good enough to be here. But people are finally realizing I’m here to stay. I have a college degree to fall back on, but I don’t bring that up. I studied Education and got my teaching certificate, thinking I’d have plenty of time to fish during the summers and teach the rest of the year. Turns out, there’s not nearly enough time to fish just three measly months of the year. During winters I take odd jobs, waitress if I have to.

Some drunk A-hole stumbles into me, which leads to a full beer splashing down the front of my skirt.

“I’m so so sorry,” the dude says. He smiles at me in a goofy way.

“Whatever,” I say. It’s a pain getting laundry done, and this is the only decent skirt I own.

“I’ll get you another beer,” he says, digging in his pockets, pulling out all sorts of big bills.

“Don’t worry about it.” I wipe my hands down my skirt and flick the foam onto the dirt. He’s trying to help me, reaching for my skirt, so I back up. “It’s cool,” I say. Then I turn around and walk away before I say something I might regret.

I fizzle out before the music or the crowd does. I’ve had my fill. I walk back to my truck and settle in for the night. It’s hot enough I don’t need my sleeping bag. I slide the topper windows fully open and lie awake for at least an hour, sweating, listening to the distant band and the guys hollering. I put on my headlamp and try to read, but it’s too hot to read.

I wake up to the sound of someone pulling on my topper window. I sit still for a minute, then reach for my backpack and feel for my bear spray. All I can tell is that it’s a man. He’s wearing a hat, and I can’t make out his face through the dirty window. The man stops and puts both hands up to the glass, peering in.

“Who is it?”

“Alex? Alex? It’s Peter, Peter Bennett. Open up for a minute.”

I sit up and cover myself with the sleeping bag. Peter Bennett? A client from a couple weeks back. The banker guy. He was at Walton’s. He bumped into me. That’s who that was. I scoot forward and talk to him through the window.

“What’s up, Peter? You need something?”

He jabbers on about his wife. I’m not sure what he’s talking about. I rack my memory. I don’t remember anything significant about that trip. They were like plenty of other couples, the guy excited to take the woman out, thinking that having me as a guide will magically change things and the woman will end up thrilled about fishing. It really has nothing to do with me. I’m just there to catch them fish. He keeps talking, so finally I open the topper. I keep a good grasp on the window, though. He’s starting to annoy me. I’d finally fallen asleep. But I listen, ask about his wife.

“Did she tell you anything?”

“About what?”

“I don’t know. . . .” He’s mumbling. Drunk. I can’t understand him.

Finally, I’ve had enough. “You’ll have to deal with that on your own, sorry. Good luck, though, good night.”

“I’ll pay you double,” he says. “I know you need it. Just take her out on the river. Talk to her some, for me.”

Now I’m really pissed. Like I’m some kind of whore who can be paid whenever someone wants me for whatever.

“You’ll have to go through an outfitter,” I tell him. “Again, good night.”

I go to close the topper and he grabs my wrist. I yank away and fall back, and the next thing I know he’s crawling in. I’m ready to gouge his eyes out if he touches me. But he doesn’t. He jumps down. I look at him and I swear he’s crying. I tell him to leave and close the topper.

I lie awake for what must be hours, staring up at the scratched ceiling of my topper. If he really wanted to get in here, he could have. Anyone could.

I doubt I’ll sleep at all tonight. It’ll be a long day on the river tomorrow, but I have no other choice. I tell myself that this little incident means nothing. That I’ll find a new place to park tomorrow night. That people look out for each other around here. That soon enough I’ll be making more and I’ll be able to afford a nice room somewhere. Eventually, I’ll own my own place, maybe even run a lodge. It’ll happen. It has to happen. I lie there and listen to my own breathing, loud in the silence.

 Lisa Teberg-Johnson is originally from Helena, Montana. She received her MFA from Portland State University, and currently lives in Missoula.