The bottle smashed against the pavement right next to the old man’s foot, startling him. He instinctively spun the shopping cart in the direction of the attack. A bunch of bangers, pandilleros, on the far side of the chain link were already walking away laughing and joking.
The old man turned his cart back and continued on his plodding way, patting a leather case on top of the cart to make sure it was safe. Those wannabes bothered him less as he was less able to respond, but they were still meaner than razor wire, and would never leave him completely alone. Fear was payment enough on a slow day. Usually, he went out late and came back early, but today he had taken in some new territory and was late getting back.
It took him a few steps to realize a good size chunk of glass had wedged in the hollow below the ankle bone and the shoe. He knew it was cutting into him, but he also knew he couldn’t stop or show weakness. He kept looking over his shoulder, thinking to himself, Not the feet, not the feet.
The old man’s route was at least five miles a day. Out here on the street, if something happened to your feet and you couldn’t keep your route, you were dead. You couldn’t forage for food or get water in the park. You had to take care of your feet. Your feet and your teeth. If you couldn’t get food and you couldn’t eat food – you were dead. If you got an abscess or your gums rotted, you could get an infection and die. Definitely, your feet and your teeth. Those were the important things. A few years ago his eyes started to go for up-close work and he could no longer read. He missed that: spending days in the cool library reading tales of far off places. Since that happened, he felt like he had lost all of his friends. But his long vision was still good. He could still see danger coming, and that was important too.
When he got to his bridge he looked carefully around, then he sat down where the concrete sloped up from the flat bottom of the river to the high bank above. Hard to imagine that the river that once swept through here washed LA away repeatedly, and once moved the LA harbor north 20 miles in one night. Now, it was dammed to hell and the city was too greedy to let any water flow. At best, there was sometimes a little trickle in the bottom from rain.
He carefully removed the shoe. The thick wool sock had done its job. There was just a speck of blood. It was close, but it wouldn’t slow him down and he wouldn’t have to worry about it getting infected. He put the shoe back on, a chore in itself these days, and took an old, black steel wrench out of his coat pocket. He fumbled with the front wheel of the cart until he got it off. Nobody is going to drag off a three-wheeled cart. Then stuffed the wheel into the pack and put the pack on his shoulder, finally, picking up the long leather case. He walked up the slope, not straight like he once did, but in two long zig-zag traverses.
At the top where the slope met the bridge, he had set lumber on the flanges of the longitudinal concrete I-beams bridge supports to form a platform. This was where he slept and kept his things. It was pretty safe, because nobody ever looks up anymore. He put his pack on the platform, then the leather case, and then wormed his own way up. If he kept the case, something else would have to go. He had a firm rule about that: one new thing meant one less old thing, otherwise your life was cluttered with garbage bags full of your possessions and it just dragged you down. He looked around in the murky light and spotted a book. He picked it up and ran his hands over it. It was one of his favorites, The Old Man and the Sea. But he couldn’t read it now and it was time for it to go.
That decision made, he picked up the case. It was boldly embossed PEARL GRAY. Out in the valley there were warehouses where they kept all of the old movie stuff they didn’t have room for in Hollywood anymore. Some dumb work-for-free intern had probably chucked this out, not realizing it was likely worth more than that kid would make in his whole ignorant, miserable career. He opened it slowly and pulled out an old bamboo fly rod. It was a Montagne, with nickel ferrules and red wraps. A 3-piece 7-weight with an extra tip. A fine specimen in its own right, but what made it valuable was the signature which said:
World Record Pacific Salmon, 53 lbs. Kenai, AK, 1930.
This was history. His hands trembled with more than age. Also inside the case was a wallet of fine flies which may have been for steelhead or salmon. Big bright things that looked like they fell off the brim of a fedora.
He didn’t know why he coveted this rod. There were no other luxuries in his little loft. And even when he was somebody, he only fished a little bit. He mostly new Zane from the books he read in his father’s library as a child. Still, there in the dark, it called to him, this ancient thing in the dumpster whose life was somehow not finished. He stroked it, then slid it under his bed roll.
When he curled up he could hear the rain falling on the abandoned road above his head. He had long since ceased having dreams worth remembering. But that night, he dreamed of the rains coming in a roaring, churling mass, angry at their confinement and seeking their natural course as they crashed down from the San Gabriels, trees and boulders tossed before them in coursing waves, filling the concrete channel and washing over the sides, taking the warehouses in the valley away in their wrath.
In the morning, he awoke. He didn’t remember the details of the dream, just its insistent urgency. The angry search for freedom. First thing he did was check his calendar, one of those insurance company jobs with the stock photos of old cars, that he found somewhere. What is the marking of time, but a way to spend it? It was last year’s, but as dates only advanced a day each year, he was able to keep it all straight in his head. It did take him a moment to realize tomorrow was Thanksgiving. That meant today was the anniversary of losing his job. He remembered it distinctly.
They all got laid off that Wednesday, and as he and his co-worker were carrying their boxes out to the car, his friend said, “Kind of poetic, you know? All year long, the turkey sits on the farm and the farmer takes care of him. Feeds him, cleans up after him, keeps him healthy. And the turkey thinks This guy is all right. He cares about me. Then on Thanksgiving, the farmer comes along and lops his head off. I’ve been here 17 years, and I thought they cared about me.”
And that’s what happened to the old man, too. He went home and told his wife. They decided maybe it was for the best and made the most of the holiday. He really believed something better was waiting for him. She was that kind of woman. Monday morning, he got up and went out for a job. When he got back, she was gone with the kids and anything of value in the house. He never blamed her; it was the thoroughly logical thing to do. Turns out the world was either turkeys or farmers, and you were one or the other, and that is the way it was.
He started to work out how long ago that was, but then caught himself. He had a rule about that, too. No thinking about the past. Just keep going. Like that turkey, you run around as long as you can, even if your head has been cut off for a while. He rolled over and reached under his pad for the case. Of course it was still there, but you don’t take anything for granted on the street. He stuck his head down through the hole and looked both ways, then let himself down. The rains had actually created a little stream, an ectoplasmic vision of his dream, in the center of the channel. No crossing that, he reminded himself, keep the feet dry. But his cart was near the edge of it so he would have to be careful.
He eased himself down the slope but before he could retrieve the cart, a young man dropped off the bridge right in front of him. He hit hard, his ankle buckling, and rolled toward the water. The old man winced. Not the feet! He could hear hooting and hollering on the bridge above him and rocks and bottles rained down. The boy looked up at the bridge as if to run under it and saw the old man, who instinctively made shooing motions with his hands. They locked eyes for a moment and then the boy got up and hobbled off downstream.
The old man watched him go and waited for the noise on the bridge to die down. Then he pulled the cart up onto the slope, out of the water, and shouldered his pack. No need for the cart today.
The rains came on hard. It gave him more time on the street, the bangers weren’t going to get wet just to hassle him. At night the dreams came. He dreamed the river filled up and washed him out from under the bridge, but the river was so full of fish there didn’t seem to be room for the water. They were insistent, irresistible. They buoyed him up on torpedo snouts, pushing him to the surface, taking him upstream to the wild mountains. He was one of them, a primal force, a water god. Always they came for him to share their dreams. He longed for it. He slept early and long, tossing on a sea of black and silver backs, with only the future in the wind and the rains.
The rains kept up for two days. The LA river became a rivulet, then a stream. One afternoon, the old man got the fly rod down, and looking in both directions, carefully assembled it. He strung up the line and selected the rattiest looking fly. He figured it would just get trashed anyway. But after fumbling around for a few minutes in the gray light, he realized his eyes weren’t up to the task. Instead, he plucked a piece of tattered cloth from the hem of his shirt and tied it on the line. That would be good enough for casting.
He never was much of a caster. He remembered that his loops were never tight enough and his presentation was about the same as a flapjack cook’s, but he’d caught a few trout and that was the memory that came back to him. The bend in the rod, the visceral dog-shake tugging on the end of the line, the feeling in the pit of your stomach like this was the most important thing that ever happened to you. That ever would happen. For what it was worth, the cast itself came back pretty quickly. The bamboo was both more forgiving and more finicky than modern rods. Because it was so slow, he had to be patient and let the line lay out. But he was past the time when he was in a hurry, which had always ruined his cast before. He stood under the bridge in the rain and went through the gamut of frustration to that first mindless, perfect, harmonized cast that can only come from practice or exhaustion.
That was where he was when the boy came upon him. “My dad said someday he would like to learn how to do that.”
The old man jumped. He looked at the boy and then took a few steps away, quickly reeling in line and looking around to see if they were alone.
The boy put his hands up. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.” He looked half scared himself. “I just come here sometimes to get away from them,” he jerked his thumb up. “They don’t like to wriggle through the fence or get wet.”
The old man had come to grips with the fact he probably couldn’t hide the rod behind him. He was trying to remember the last time somebody talked to him, and not just yelled at him. He said nothing because he had forgotten that people required answers.
When the old man did speak, his voice creaked like a rusty machine. “That was quite a jump from the bridge.” The words came more difficulty than the casting had.
“They almost got me.”
“Sooner or later they will, and what will you do then?” He didn’t mean to say it. He didn’t mean to talk at all.
“You run with them, or you don’t.”
“And if you don’t?”
“Death with honor.”
He looked at the boy. His whole life, he’d never heard anybody talk like that.
“Where does a boy learn to talk like that? I never heard that ‘cept in the movies.” The thoughts just spilled from his mouth.
“I heard my dad say it. About men in his unit. He sounds kind of, I dunno, jealous, when he says it.”
The old man was dimly aware there was a war going on somewhere. He lost touch with a lot when his eyes went.
“But your dad came back?”
“Parts of him. He lost both legs from the knee down and one forearm. But you should see him get around. He can walk and do stairs and everything.” He looked at the rod in the old man’s hand. “I bet, I bet he could do that.” He looked up. “I mean, not like you or anything. But maybe if you taught me, I could teach him.”
The old man thought about telling him it was a special rod. He thought about how much it was worth. He thought about telling him who Zane Gray was. Then he thought maybe the kid would just get bored and go away.
“Well, I was never much of a caster, or a fisherman. And this is an old, old rod I found in the dump. I’m sure your dad deserves better, but I’ll show you what I know.”
The boy brightened and they stood under the bridge, alternately forming wind loops and cracking the bits of fluff off of the leader like a whip. But the boy was an athlete, that’s for sure. It didn’t take him long to get the hang of it.
“Okay, that was ten good casts. I think it’s best to stop when you do it right, rather than when you are frustrated.”
“He’s taking awful beatings from the bangers, you know.” The woman wrung her mocha hands in a kitchen towel whose blue and white checks were faded almost white.
“I know,” the man almost whispered. He looked up at her, “Was a time, I would go out there and take care of it, myself.”
She looked down. “I know. I just don’t know what to do.”
“Well, what I did didn’t work out so good.” He slapped his metallic arm on the cheap Formica table. “Thought I would get out of here. Thought I would get a profession. Thought we would never come back. Turns out this is the only place we can go now and I can’t even help my own boy.”
“He’s a strong boy, and he’s so proud of you. Why can’t you see that?”
“And what do I tell him? To cave in and run with the gangs? To sling dope and shoot other boys whose parents are having this same conversation?”
The boy had been in the hallway, listening. He burst into the room. “Happy Thanksgiving!”
The man and woman exchanged looks. She reached over and tussled his head. “I better check on dinner.”
“Where’d you go so early?” the man asked.
“There is a man down by the river, I see him sometimes. Today he was fly fishing and he taught me how!”
“Fly fishing in the LA River? Boy that thing is dry as Afghanistan eleven-and-a-half months of the year. What were you two fishing for?”
“Well not fishing. Casting maybe. He showed me how to hold the rod and make the line go back and forth.” He looked up from under his brows. “You know, like you wanted to do.”
The man looked at his boy. “That was a long time ago, son. A long time ago. That’s a rich man’s sport. I wanted to do it because it would mean I was rich. That I had leisure and money. It was going to be how I knew I wasn’t just surviving any more. A rich, white man’s sport. You understand?”
“Yeah, but dad …”
“How are we going to go someplace that has fish? I don’t even know if there are any fish in this whole state.” He looked at the boy. “It’s a good idea, Son. But it’s a dream. Why don’t you go wash up for supper?”
The woman came in as the boy left. “At least he’s got a dream,” she said. Then turned and went back into the kitchen. The man watched her back and then sat staring at his arm until dinner was called.
The rains came hard and left, came hard and left. The channel would drain, but the dams prevented any steady flow building up. The boy came intermittently, and they played with the rod. The weather kept the pandilleros away.
“You’re still limping.”
“Yeah. It’s a sprain, my coach says it’s worse than a break.”
“I run track. First, I figured the longer I stay at school, the safer I am, but it turns out I’m pretty fast.”
“Why they never catch you?”
“Yup. Might get a scholarship. Then I can get out.”
“I’d take that over death with honor, had the chance.”
The boy looked down at his foot. “If I get that far.” Then he pointed at the rod. “Who is Zane Gray and what is a Pacific Salmon?”
The old man told him about the rod and the man who used to rule both Hollywood and the sea. Zane Gray, born Pearl, who probably had almost 100 of his books turned into movies, and held a dozen world fishing records, and this was his rod right here in the old man’s hands. He told them about fish that used to run right here at their feet that were as long as the boy was tall. He told him how the rod seemed to hold dreams and maybe make them come true.
The boy listened and nodded and the old man talked a river such that he didn’t know was within him.
Thanksgiving plodded to Christmas. The old man often thought of the boy, and the rod. He thought about dreams that can come true and dreams that cannot. He thought about what a dilettante he’d been even when he fished, and looked at the pathetic algae-clogged storm drain that was once the mighty LA river of his dreams, and he wondered if he had any more right to the rod than the boy or his dad. He thought maybe it wasn’t worth a scholarship, but it was worth at least one of those guided fishing trips he used to go on.
That night he lay in his roost. By the calendar, it was Christmas Eve. He didn’t need dreams. The river was coming up, and coming up fast. He felt it. He took his rod out from under his bedroll and put it carefully together. He took the fly wallet and, using a candle, he struggled to tie on the fly. The race against time was familiar, like having a big trout rising in the last light and knowing, just knowing, if you can get the right fly on and present it in the time you have left, maybe, just maybe, that fish will be yours. But if you don’t, that little piece of glory will be forever gone. He squinted and slipped. Twice he threaded it and pulled it out by mistake. “More speed, less haste, fool.” Finally, more by luck than diligence, the line went through the eye and he carefully made it fast with a bit of spit to lubricate the knot. He knew it. He felt it. Tonight was the night. He was going to catch a fish. A steelhead. The first in the river since 1940. Then he would give the rod away.
He wormed out of his hole and the first thing he saw was that his cart was gone, washed away. The water was coming up faster than he could imagine. They must’ve finally realized that the rains weren’t going to stop and opened the dams. It was going to be a flood. The kind of flood the concrete was poured to stop. The kind of flood that would bring fish into a river. He slipped and skidded down the bank, having to stand on the slope to make his cast. Ambient light from the street didn’t reach here to the river bottom, and in the dark, with only feel to go on, his cast became effortless, perfect. Line unspooled ten yards past his best practice cast. He smiled and laughed. His feet were wet, but he didn’t even notice.
The next cast rifled off the rod, the big fly, streamlined by the water, was perfectly aerodynamic, out and out it went until he lost sight of it, but he knew in his sinews exactly where it was, felt it land, and then he felt the fish hunting it, following its tight trajectory as it swung back to the shore, a jaguar in pursuit. When the steelhead struck he was not surprised at all. He felt a viscosity in the water just before the hit, like he used to in the old days. He let it turn and only then set the hook. The adrenaline surged in his belly and his biceps spasmed with weakness. This was the moment. History. He had broken the bonds of time and place.
Just then, he heard mad splashing and looked up to find the boy wading across the river, wild in the eyes. The old man thrust the rod at him, “I was going to give you the rod tomorrow, but take it now! I caught a fish. You are holding the first steelhead in this river in 60 years!” He was wild with excitement. He didn’t know if he’d ever been this happy. He tried to hand the boy the rod, but the boy pushed it aside. The old man looked at the line and then he saw the other boy, a banger, wading across the river. Line screamed off the reel untended.
The banger was pitched and tossed, lost and regained footing, but he made it impossibly across, coming in downstream of them, putting the old man between the two boys. The man thrust the rod into the boy’s hands, and the boy held it, clearly astonished at the disconnection between the two scenes. He felt the weight of the fish on it, multiplied by the current, fighting for its own life, apathetic about what was happening above the surface.
The banger was closing the distance, shouting, “That’s not your fish dammit, that’s my fish. My river. That’s my rod and that sure as hell is my boy!” The old man saw the banger had a gun, pointing at the boy behind him. Pointing through him, screaming. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t think. The fish, he thought. I caught the fish. It was so confusing, why was the banger screaming about the fish? The banger was mad with rage, advancing on the old man and the boy. In the rain and confusion, the old man slipped on the slope, falling against the banger, clutching him, and the gun went off.
The old silk line was no match for the steelhead’s cold determination. It snapped just as the old man and the banger tumbled into the water. The two embraced as the river carried them down and down, bouncing along the bottom, the old man determined in his grasp.
Looking up, he could see the lights floating by in a cloud of his own blood, feel the hulled snouts bumping him, but this time, their shared dreams would not coincide.