Strange Days

As a bored, pimple-faced high schooler, I read a science-fiction story about a character who gets trapped on the wrong side of the mirror. Duped by his reflection, he lives in a world not quite normal—a dimmer alternate universe populated by imposters he does not love. I could not tell you the name of the author or the magazine, but the story stuck with me. I’ve been reminded of it lately.

It’s all very strange, this limbo created by the pandemic. The smoke obscures the sun as we creak along to Armageddon. We feign an interest in NFL games played to empty stadiums. How long has it been since I heard a yellow school bus shift into gear? All I seem to do is read news articles about crime and policing. This is not an aspect of my behavior I like. I look at brick buildings and wonder if they will still be there a month from now. The police and the city are like a fucked up married couple.

It’s only logical that I turn my back on it all and face the river. But I find myself on the wrong side, gazing at the parapet of the Ford dam from a sister city. My wife and my youngest son exist in my memory beyond the tree line. It is just me and the boy and I cannot get back to them. A span of concrete completes my exile.

I keep the boy close. Under the bridge, we encounter a white dude with a shaved head. I sense he is annoyed by our presence as he brings a bottle to his lips. I acknowledge him gruffly and he advises us on the safest path down the gorge. We continue past him through a dark cave filled with graffiti, devil women and goat skulls.

They cannot harm us so long as we do not show fear. This is something my son understands instinctively, even though I always tell him never to come to places like this by himself. I am probably a fool to bring him.

Dented cans of Krylon and alcoholic beverage containers litter the ground. A street artist has tagged the wall with an image of a banana–a nod to Andy Warhol and the first Velvet Underground album, I suspect. Someone should sell tickets to this place. You don’t even need a mask. I take some quick shots with my phone and usher my son ahead.

We amble down a riprapped slope and I encourage him to get a line in the water. I have some preparations to do with my flyrod.

The last time we came here I caught plenty, but he just took pictures under the bridge while I fished. The graffiti obsesses him, calls to him as a form of expression and empowerment. Each morning he watches graffiti videos created by a Youtuber from Slovakia named Doke. He learns the different styles and techniques, filling up drawing notebooks with variations of his tag in marker.

Sandal-clad, he wades into the calm, gunmetal surface of the river. I get a new leader attached to my line and select a big wooly bugger from my streamer tacklebox that is decorated with a photo I took of a monstrous northern pike lying dead on the shore of Lake Nokomis. The picture is lucky to me for reasons I can’t explain. I have trouble getting the line through the eye of the lure without my glasses. This makes me feel rather inept as well as blind.

The moment is ticking away as the sun sets. My son pitches a Road Runner lure I bought him recently. It is a jig with a spinner attached to the head, perfect for all the little bass cruising the shallows for minnows. I get the knot tied through sheer persistence and tell him to keep at it as well. Seven casts later I have a fish on, a smallie that puts a proud bow in my nine-foot rod. I call out to my son. He either doesn’t care or can’t hear me over the traffic noise. I call out again and this time get his attention. His shoulders are slumped and he’s frowning. I can tell he’s getting discouraged.

“You’ll get yours.  Just keep trying.”

The fish comes off right by shore, a good deal smaller than the fight would have indicated.

“That’s ninety percent caught,” I say.

He laughs.  “You didn’t catch him.  He got off.”

“Quick release.  I meant to do that.”

He shakes his head disdainfully as he comes over to cast in the exact spot I hooked the bass. I’m suddenly startled by a sound overhead like a giant plastic bag rustling. I see a flock of pigeons scattered in flight by a Cooper’s hawk.

We keep casting. The graffiti seems to watch us. I see the tag “Fuck 12” spray painted in several places on the bridge. Someone has misspelled fuck a couple times, leaving out the “c.” I’m hopeful they allow the return of students to classrooms soon. I hear teenage girls giggling from the bridge’s dark recesses, a bottle breaking, more laughter. It isn’t a trout stream, but it’s my home water. The weather has been chilly and the fish aren’t slamming it the way they were back in August.

Without my noticing, the boy has migrated south of me.  He is up to his knees and he has a fish on.  Very excited, he acts like he doesn’t know what to do even though he is doing everything exactly right. 

“Just keep that steady pressure on,” I say.

The fish jumps feistily out of the water.

I need to get to him, but the footing is treacherous and my hands are full. He can’t land the fish on shore because he has waded out so far. I yell at him to back it up, but he just reels until the fish is a foot from the rod tip. He’s going to break his line. I set my rod down and take a step that doesn’t go well. I feel a sharp piece of limestone tear into the meat of my middle finger as I try to catch myself. I fall forward and my leg strikes another rock. The pain is overwhelming. I manage to stand. Blood gushes out of my throbbing finger and a massive welt has risen from my tibia. I take a deep breath through my nostrils and steady myself. I’m ok, nothing is broken. Disregarding my apprehensions about parasites, I soak my hand in the river water. Good and cold, it seems to staunch the flow of blood. I quickly check my son’s tacklebox for band-aids but can’t find any. Instead I wrap my t-shirt around the finger and limp over to my son. The riprap is covered in chain-link with a slippery tarp coated in algae underneath. Either could have been the reason I slipped. I communicate this to the boy who says he knows about the fencing and grabs onto it with one hand if he has to walk on it. I unhook the bass—a nice thirteen incher—and have him hold it by the mouth so I can preserve the moment. My hand hurting like hell, I tell him to let it go.

“Gently,” I say. “Don’t just chuck him back.”

This mission accomplished, I go by the bridge pilings and try vainly to catch a fish until it starts to get dark. This is really not a place I want to be at night. Also, I could really use a shower, a band-aid and an icepack.

“It’s time to go, son. I’m really messed up here.”

We pack everything up and ascend the rocks nimbly like a pair of mountain goats. The boy’s eyes linger on the graffiti.

“I got your pictures.  You don’t be coming here by yourself or with your friends.  It’s dangerous.”

“What’s dangerous about it?”

“It’s the kind of place that attracts sketchy people.  You know folks getting high and stuff.  And it’s too private, the kind of place a crime might happen.”

We walk along the bike trail back to the car.  I pat him on the back.”

“You out fished me today.”

He smiles. I wish my hand wasn’t so sore, but I’m happy for him. He has a picture to show his mother. It will likely be his last fish of the year. The leaves along the river are turning red and yellow in occasional patches. We travel back across the bridge to the people we love. When they are in bed and it is quiet, I write another story. It’s not a symphony or a novel, just some observations with a beginning, middle and end–a slice of time I’ve decided to preserve in amber even though the days, strange as they are, might best be forgotten.

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