Authors: Donald S. Smurthwaite
Tags: #ride, #retirement home, #cross country, #North Dakota, #family, #car, #road trip, #bountiful, #Utah, #assisted living, #graduate, #Coming of age, #heritage, #loyal, #retirement, #uncle, #adventure, #money, #nephew, #trip, #kinship
As it turned out, I didn’t have long to wait to see Uncle Levi. The little voice in the back of my head reminds me that I have not brushed my teeth. I tell the little voice to go away, I am tired, and I don’t want to go down the hall to the shared bathroom to brush my teeth. The little voice turns into a big voice and reminds me that I’d had orthodontics, and it meant my family didn’t go on a vacation for two years, and that if I don’t brush my teeth, even if the water here is bad, they might all chip and fall out and I’ll have nothing left but gums in the morning, and my mother would cry when she saw me, and my dad would never allow me in a family photograph again. Then the little voice, in fact, starts sounding just like my mom.
With that, the little-voice-turned-big-voice wins, and I sit up on the bed, fumble around for my Big Bird toothbrush and toothpaste, and thump down to the bathroom.
Uncle Loyal is there, in his plaid pajamas. He’s brushing his teeth. He seems not to notice me, although I’m sure he does, since it isn’t like there are dozens of other people in this small room. His hand moves up and down, the brushing like a slow metronome. He slowly, mechanically, finishes brushing his teeth, then rinses his mouth and turns toward me. He looks at me for a full five seconds. He seems to be searching for thoughts and the right words to express them.
“Levi. My thanks to you.”
Simple words are best.
“You’re welcome, Uncle Loyal. Good night.”
With that, he half waddles by me and turns to go to room six.
I can hardly wait until tomorrow.
If You Slap the Water with Your Line, the Fish Will Hear You and Not Rise to the Fly
I saw Levi just before retiring. It was in the common bathroom. He entered while I was brushing my teeth. He seemed a little reluctant to interrupt me, so he just stood quietly while I finished. Then I told him thank you. It seemed the right thing to say, for driving me, for not being annoyed or peevish about our side trip to visit Glenn’s grave. And there’s more. He had spoken enthusiastically about fishing and climbing mountains, and I believe we will attempt to do both on this strange journey to my destination. It may sound odd, but I really do want to fish and hike and see places that I will never see again. The thought of me wiggling my toes in a snowbank in mid-August appeals to me more than most would understand. I come from the plains. Do you know what a treat a late-summer clump of snow underfoot would be for me?
He told me, “You’ll love to fish. We’ll fish tomorrow, Uncle Loyal. We’ll catch some fat trout, and then we’ll show the world what good guys we are. We’ll let them go. Catch and release. They can go back to their deep pools and tell all their buddies about it. Their close encounters with humans. All the fish will want to hear their story.”
Then he said, “You’re welcome. Good night. Sweet dreams,” and I left.
I climb into bed. The long fingers of dark blue and gray had stretched down the sides of the mountains, through the gullies and washes, and firmly clasped this little town that will be my home for a night. Sleep comes easily for me. I see my girls when they were little. I see Daisy when she was young. I dream of Glenn. I dream of my home. And in the morning, all my dreams having run their course and planted their thoughts, having lifted me as though I were in the hands of angels, I awake, ready for what this new day will bring.
As it turned out, it brought me a lot.
I hear Levi in the hallway a little after seven. I had been awake for an hour but decided to rise when he began to rustle. We go downstairs together and find the irrepressible Libby hard at work by her grill, a restaurant full of people, mostly old, mostly men, most of whom look as if they’d known hard work in the mines with little reward and less still to show for it. She brightens when she sees us.
“Sleep okay? Good. We’ve got sausage and eggs and toast, and that’s about it. Maybe a little orange juice. I’ll fix you gents up in a heartbeat. No coffee, eh?”
The breakfast is delicious. The stories, in snitches of conversation, are humorous and good-natured, slightly raucous, and it strikes me that these people who worked deep under the surface of the earth had a bond and a feeling for each other that went beyond mere friendship. We pay Libby, who also ran the cash register, for breakfast and for the two rooms. “Thirty bucks will do it. I know what I said last night, but I’m not in this motel business for money; I’m in it for the people I get to meet and help. I like you fellows. Come back and see us.”
And then Levi and I are on the road, leaving the small, dying, mountain mining town in the early morning light.
A few miles closer to the Glad Tidings Assisted Living Home with each passing hour
, I think.
We drive south. Bigger mountains in that direction, the map seemed to tell me. I don’t want to ask Levi about fishing, but I hope he remembers; I hope he was earnest. We drive across plains, big monstrous seas of wheat or alfalfa, but in the distance, no matter where you look, the mountains shimmer in the hot sun of the morning, beckoning.
I thought of the streams that must come tumbling down the mountainsides, the lakes cupped gently near the tops of their slopes. I thought of the fish, content, cool in their watery homes, living in the deep parts of a creek or lake, under a rock shelf, or in the fizzy roil of a rapid. I thought of God and how much He planned and His unabashed brilliance to dream up and then create a world where men and fish could both thrive in atmospheres as wildly different as liquid and land.
Levi says to me, “I talked with Barbara last night. She wanted to know how we were doing.”
“And what message did you give her? I also would like your assessment of how we are doing.”
He takes his eyes off the road ahead and looks at me, a grin, pure and boyish, and says, “I told her we were doing great and that we were going to go fishing today. She liked that idea. It took a little convincing, but she came around. She’s worried that you’re going to fall and I’ll have to pack you out on my back or something like that, but I told her it was more likely the other way around. I’d fall and crack my head open, and you’d strap me on your shoulders and haul me out. I think that made her feel better.”
“If that happened, we’d find a way. But it won’t happen. We will be fine. We will triumph in the mountains,” I tell him.
“We need gear. We need to find a place and pick up everything. We could be fishing by the end of today, or tomorrow morning. That soon. But we need to keep our eyes open for a place that could sell us some gear.”
I am happy to hear that fishing is still paramount in his plans. I looked forward to it. When you are old, you look forward to the things, small and large, that give you hope. Ten years ago, it would have been adding another grandchild or celebrating a baptism. Ten years ago, it would have been looking ahead to a long span of many years with my Daisy.
But our hopes change, and sometimes they diminish and sometimes they go away, and then our hope becomes our hope: we hope that a new hope will sprout, send a tender green shoot from brown earth, and find a way to stretch toward sunlight and flourish. From sharing a long life with Daisy and then to her passing, my hopes had changed and now centered on a place called Glad Tidings and that it would not be too stifling and eventually suffocate me; and in the near-term, that I could go fishing in a Rocky Mountain creek. That, and the allure of some kind of salvation, are about the only hopes left to me. And one more hope: the hope I am beginning to feel for Levi.
That, and the hope that I would go fishing today, or tomorrow, and then maybe go again. Utah has mountains, I told myself. Utah has streams and lakes. Therefore, Utah must have fish. I would find out.
I feel sleepy. I had wanted to stay awake and alert on this drive, keep my great-nephew company, prove to him, and to myself, that I could be a good companion. The pearl-blue skies, the gentle rhythm of driving down the state highway, the warm-but-not-hot temperature in the car. My thoughts drift pleasantly. The little mountain town and the plucky cook, cashier, waitress, and proprietor Libby; the visit to Glenn’s grave site; Levi telling Barbara I would be fine in the mountains.
And then I am asleep. And my dreams come to me again.
I dream of my daughters. I dream they are young, small enough for me to hold in my arms, to toss them gaily in the air and catch them amid their laughter of delight. I dream that Daisy and I are young, too, that the townsfolk peer in the windows of my pharmacy, then become my customers and later become my friends. I dream of the hand-lettered signs that Daisy had made that I hung in the pharmacy’s windows announcing specials and the opening and closing hours, the one in black block letters, “In an emergency, call . . .” with my home phone number listed. I dream of the gentle Dakota days in the springtime, when the breeze came from the northwest, the air clean and smelling fresh, and the sting of winter fading fast. I dream that those days, those times, will last forever and nothing will change.
And in the middle of these dreams, I see myself in a mirror, the mirror on our own armoire, just inside our bedroom door in the brown house. And I hear myself say, “Do you see? Do you see it all now? These dreams are your hope, they have been forever. You have more hope than you realize, Loyal Wing.” And all of these thoughts and dreams lift me.
How long I had waited to have my dream at hand, to be on the earth, with my family.
Daisy and my daughters, a good life, managing to stay true to what I felt and what I believed in. Yes, those were my dreams and, I suppose, my dreams came true, and now my dreams were my stories.
Somewhere in the filminess of my world of half sleep, I hear the car engine slow, the click of a turn signal, the sound of our tires turning off the blue highway. With labor, I lift my eyes and see that we are in a very large parking lot with a very large store in front of us.
I say, “Why are we here, Levi? I have been asleep. I meant to keep you company. But I fell asleep. I am sorry. I apologize. Why are we here?”
He says, “We are here to buy fishing gear.”
My voice, a little dry and a little flat, must have told him more than my single-word response. In that single word,
, there was much.
“Something not right about that?”
“Something’s not right.”
“It’s just that . . . that this is a large store and sells many items. There must be a small store that sells just to fishermen. It would be run by a man named Stan or Herb, and he would know every fishing place for miles around. I think we need to find Stan or Herb.”
“You don’t like the big-box stores, do you?”
“Not much. I have my reasons.”
“Let me guess,” my great-nephew says, his business acumen on the rise, his fingers wrapping around my thoughts and pulling them toward him. “Your pharmacy. I bet one of these big stores helped drive you right out of business. Put it smack under the old prairie sod. Am I right? Tell me I’m right. Of course I’m right.”
“What you say could very well be true. At least in part. Daisy was beginning to feel ill. That was part of it too. And it was time, just time, I knew that. Few decisions are made based on only one factor.”
“Okay. Look. I’m going to stop here, but only long enough to either ask someone where I could find a tackle shop named Stan’s or look something up in the phone book. This is a decent-sized town. We could wander around all day and not find it. Let’s take a shortcut. Fair enough?”
He slows the car, pulls to a stop, and hops out. I see him nearly accost a young man about his own age, gesture recklessly toward me, and jabber away. The stranger smiles knowingly and, in turn, makes motions with his right arm, which loosely translated, seems to mean, “Drive down this street for so long, turn at a light after a while, take a left after a block, and you will find Stan’s Fish and Bait Shop on the next corner, across the street from a filling station.”
Levi and the young man grin at each other, give each other a dangling slap of a handshake and brush of knuckles, and he returns.
“Stan’s is only a couple of miles from here. The kid said it was the best place in the state to find gear. Only it’s not called Stan’s.”
I’m mildly disappointed.
“It’s called Chuck’s.”
I feel brighter. “Stan’s, Herb’s, Chuck’s. All the same to me.”
“Me, too. I’m with you. In the groove, Uncle Loyal. Let’s go buy some gear.”
We find Chuck’s with no trouble. It was, from what I could tell, a fine shop devoted primarily to fishing gear. Levi obviously knows the sport. He strides up and down the four aisles of Chuck’s, quickly dismissing some items, taking short, intense looks at others, making split-second decisions on all we would need. Clearly, he’s an aficionado. Clearly, he has a good eye and keen judgment in all matters of mountains, clear flowing water, and stream fishing.
Our cache grows. Fishing poles—rods, Levi called them—an assortment of line, fishing flies, reels, and a large pair of rubbery long boots that he calls waders.
“I’ll let you wear the waders. You can walk right into the stream, get to the best hole, cozy right on up to Mr. Trout. I’ve got these long shorts, and they dry out fast. I don’t mind getting wet.”
He stops for a moment, looks at me with his dark eyes, and simply says, “I love this.”
He walks briskly to the front of the store, our bounty in hand. We purchase two five-day fishing licenses as well. The total comes to well more than three hundred dollars. Levi doesn’t blink. He hands the yellow credit card to the clerk, a young man whose name tag reads, “Jason,” who affably rings up the purchase.
“So where would you go if you were in our place—my grandfather here and me, generally heading to Utah, but we wanted to fish Montana along the way. Creek or small lake, something that we can wade into. Nothing difficult. Nothing too far out of the way. Gramps, here, has never been fly fishing.”
Interesting, I think, that I had been elevated from Great-Uncle Loyal to Grandfather Loyal. I take it as a promotion. I nod agreeably toward the young man, Jason, who is eying me with the knowing look of an experienced appraiser of mountain fisherman potential.