Rocky and Rose
by Henry Hughes
Rocky started his cannery shift at eight in the evening and finished at three in the morning, then went straight to the river, swinging big streamers with glow-in-the-dark heads, which some fly fishermen considered cheating. Those same men would start their mornings watching Rocky boot across the pasture carrying a couple of steelhead or a spring Chinook. He walked quickly to his truck, slowing down only if his heart raced. He drank coffee from a stainless steel Thermos, and didn’t have much time for talk. He was always on the move. Night shifts, graduate biology classes, weekend window installations, fishing, studying, coffee, Mountain Dew, Adderall.
Rose-Marie found Rocky handsome, with a tan face as shapely as his mind. She directed a small museum at the university, specializing in the Native American and natural history of Western Oregon. She herself was almost one-half Siletz Indian, but her mother always said she had the narrow nose and directness of her Russian father. After family, the museum was her great love, and she worked hard at raising money to keep it alive. The institutional bureaucracy, budgets and forms, were a strain on her, but she loved curating and showing the collection, and she took a slow, careful approach to her work. People enjoyed talking with her, but she frustrated Rocky.
“I sent you the link with the permission forms. We need tissue samples, starting with the otter skins. If you could just show me the boxes, that would be great.”
“When did you send that?” Rose-Marie slipped over to her computer.
“About an hour ago.” Rocky tapped the counter with a pen.
“An hour?” She smiled. He didn’t understand why she’d taken her eyes off her screen to address him. “I’ll need a little time to process this, okay? Can you come back tomorrow?”
Rocky wanted to get the samples done, then hit the Santiam River for a late-afternoon hatch. On break at the cannery, he’d tied half-a-dozen Elk Hair Caddis. He kept a portable tying kit in his locker, tightening the Thompson vise to the table in the break room. The other graveyard shift workers sprouted to life over the young man spinning tiny tinsel around fuzzy dubbing. “Amazing,” they said. An old woman in a hair net watched as he wrapped a pinch of elk hair into wings and a head. “Just amazing,” she repeated. “My daddy loved to fish, but never did no business like this. It was always worms.”
“Worms work great.” Rocky took a big sip of Mountain Dew and smiled at the woman. “I’ve used worms.”
The next day Rocky returned to the museum, expecting everything to be ready. Rose-Marie was finishing a tour with fifth graders, and Rocky noticed how patient she was with their questions. “Did they eat the eyeballs?” one boy asked, gazing up at a massive mounted elk. “They ate their butts,” another boy yelled, poking him. “Easy, now,” Rose-Marie said, going through the old lesson about Indians using as much of the animal as possible.
Rocky was less interested in the past. Even his own graduate studies left him doubting whether the histories of dead predators could help save fish today. The lessons of human history were even murkier.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Robert,” Rose-Marie said.
“It’s okay. I go by Rocky.”
“Are you a fighter?” She put up her fists and smiled.
“When I was a kid I skipped stones. My mother said it was the only thing I’d do happily for more than a minute.”
Rose-Marie had heard that Rocky was a superb student and fisherman, so she took him the long way through the museum, pointing to a map of the Kalapuya tribes, commenting on a case of brown baskets woven in hazel, spruce, and bear grass. “And this looks like a basket, but it’s actually a Siletz woman’s cap,” she said. “It was worn during the feather dance. Kind of a prayer to the Creator, asking for children.”
“I’d like to get to work on these samples, if that’s okay.” Rocky tilted his head.
“Sure,” she said, walking a few feet and then stopping before another exhibit. Rocky felt that throb behind his eyes, that familiar anxious surge when someone or something was slowing him down. “Native fishing,” she said, pointing to a willow fish trap and an array of spears, sinkers, and bone hooks.
“Oh.” He stalled in the air of his anxious climb. “Cool.” He stepped up to the glass and bent down for a closer look, his mind slipping though the hole in a stone sinker. “Very cool,” he said, turning his attention to a large hook bound with twine. “Tell me more.”
Rocky spent two afternoons in the museum’s storage room snipping hair and tissue samples from otters, seals, and sea lions. A new protocol allowed researchers to obtain good DNA from tanned skins and leather. There were also martens, fishers, and raccoons to examine. A parade of piscivores resurrected through the test tube and transilluminator.
On the second afternoon she came back and asked, “How’s it going?”
“It’s going,” he said, screwing tight a vial before looking up at her. “Hey, what’s with the red X’s on some of these boxes?”
“That’s where things are missing. The last director wasn’t so careful—or worse. We’re missing some skins and feathers. A few blue heron skins are gone.”
“That’s a shame,” he said. “You know there’s a real market for that stuff among fly tiers. Heron’s worth a fortune on the black market.”
“I know,” she nodded. “We’re very careful these days. I’d ask the guard to check your bags—if we had a guard.”
Rocky laughed and held up his hands. “I’m a rabbit and rooster man, mostly.”
“You and my dog would get along,” she said. He even had hound dog eyes, a bit drooped and bloodshot. Rose-Marie wondered if he might be a workaholic or an alcoholic. She had dated a man that was both, but found him impossibly interested in the next thing—the next drink, next project, next woman. Rocky went back to work quickly and deftly with a scalpel and tweezers, explaining the profile studies of mammalian piscivores. “You’ve heard about the sea lion population that’s out of control. There’s some federal money for a predator management study.”
“Mammals that kill lots of fish. Hmmm.” Rose-Marie knotted her face in mock wonder. “Let’s see. That would mostly be—ah, humans, right? Are you taking DNA samples from pioneer families?”
Rocky smiled and nodded his head in agreement. He looked up at Rose-Marie, at her clear brown eyes, her smooth skin, her mouth bronzed by a little lipstick.
“I’ve got photos here of wagons full of salmon and steelhead,” she said. “They used pitch forks on the spawning beds. They drained sloughs. And then the dams, of course.”
“Yes, yes, I know.” He drew the appropriate frown, but felt an inner impatience with these well-worn facts. “But what can we do now?” he asked. Rocky stood up and felt a little light-headed. He noticed that she was just as tall as he was, her name tag angled slightly on her blue denim shirt. “I wanted to ask you, Rose-Marie,” he started.
“Rose is fine. Yes, I eat fish.” She smiled.
That wasn’t the question he’d planned, and he froze for a second. “Uh. Great. So do I. Are you a fisherman?”
She played up a received insult. “You may have noticed—I’m not a man. You call yourself a biologist?”
The joke caught him off guard. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Just teasing. Yeah, I like to fish. My brother taught me to fly fish.”
Rocky had two jobs, three graduate classes, four fly-tying stations, six fly rods, and eight rivers to keep him busy. He slept about four hours a day and battled headaches, high blood pressure, and an intermittent racing heart. Diagnosed in middle school with ADHD, his parents were encouraged to put him on Adderall. It worked. Now he used it differently, along with caffeine, to fire his long days and nights. When the arrhythmia got worse, his doctors took him off Adderall and said, no more caffeine. And you gotta get your sleep, his doctors, parents, even his graduate advisor told him. He never slept well. Anxious half-awake or dreaming, he fumbled with bizarre knots, waded to unreachable spots, thrashed in rising waters toward fleeing fish—and now, toward Rose.
Something deep in his mind and in his lean body desired time with Rose. He called his boss at the window company and said he couldn’t work this Saturday. The man was surprised. Rocky always worked.
Rocky’s rented apartment was fairly clean—no plants, no pets, no visitors. He scrubbed the toilet. The kitchen didn’t get much use, but he scoured the sink and wiped the counters. Maybe they’d catch a steelhead and she’d come over for dinner. He hovered outside his bedroom, wondering if he should bother. He’d dated a few women but had only slept with one. It didn’t go well. He said the wrong things, had no sense of romantic timing, didn’t know how to hold on to and enjoy another person up close. The woman had said he was jittery and feverish and asked if he was sick.
A clear June morning, and he was early. He waited in the truck outside Rose’s little house for fifteen minutes, saw lights and movement, and finally went to the porch and knocked. A dog howled and Rose opened the door, smiling. “Good morning, Rocky. Come in. Would you like some coffee?”
He was eager to get going. “There’s a morning bite,” he said, stepping in and accepting a cup. Rose’s bag and a worn leather rod case stood by the door. “I’ve got a truck full of graphite,” he said. “You just need your boots and a hat.” She smiled at him. “I made us cookies,” she said. She filled the dog’s food and water bowls, taking time to rub the basset’s big floppy ears and say, “I’ll see you later, Tanner.” It took her another fifteen minutes to get ready, propelling Rocky through the ceiling. And yet here, as in the museum, seeing her finally emerge into the dim room slowed the blades of his anxious rotors.
He drove west faster than she liked. She turned down the radio, and asked about his family. His answers were brief. His parents and sister lived in the small Idaho town where he’d grown up. He hardly saw them. He didn’t tell Rose that he liked it that way, that it was simpler. Rose didn’t have to be asked about her family. She stretched back in the seat and began weaving a tapestry of grandparents, parents, siblings, cousins, dogs, and cats. Her mother’s family were members of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz; her father, a retired logger, was born to Russian émigrés from Canada. Rose talked a lot about her younger brother, Tommy, the man who taught her to fly fish. “I love that guy. He’s amazing. So smart, but he’s had trouble keeping a job. I worry about him. He used to help out at the museum when he was a student for a year. He’s a great fly tier.”
Rocky’s mind wandered into a clear-cut of fir trees, then to the lab at school, then back to Rose.
“We have great reunions down on the river. It’s amazing,” she said.
Rocky hated that word, “amazing.” People were always saying things were amazing. Nature came close, but it was still just nature—beautiful, pleasing, and useful. He thought about fishing the Siletz River that day, but he didn’t want to meet people, especially people to whom he’d have to give polite attention. He listened to Rose’s family stories, but his mind went here and there, like a fox along the riverbank. He scanned the road for animals to avoid or, if dead, to scavenge for fur or feathers—though he wasn’t sure he’d do that with Rose in the truck. He drank from a bottle of Mountain Dew.
Last week there’d been rain, and now the river was dropping into a blue-green clarity every steelheader recognized as fishy. Raring to run down to the gravel drop he always fished first, he held himself back, an animal on its own leash. Rose stared at the water, called it “aquamarine,” a word Rocky never used. There was a shrubby thicket blooming in soft pink flowers and she walked over to it. “It’s my flower, wild rose,” she said. “The leaves have healing properties. Did you know that?”
“Swamp rose,” Rocky said. “I’ve ripped my waders on those damn thorns.”
Rose slowly pulled on her hip boots, and slipped the hand-sewn rod bag from the old case. She unsheathed a well-worn three-piece cane Winchester seven-weight.
“That’s a real antique. You sure you want to fish with that?
“You know I love artifacts. This rod’s been good to me.”
Rocky never fished cane. Why would he? And he was impatient again with her methodical methods of getting ready. He had a fresh length of tippet in his hand when she got to the frayed end of her leader.
“Thanks,” she smiled, tying a perfect blood knot. “And I’ll let you choose the fly. But I’d use a Green Butt Silver Hilton.”
Rocky smiled, wondering if she researched famous steelhead patterns for this date. Was this a date? Did this woman really know how to fly fish?
“That’s a Rogue River classic—great fly—but we want something a little more chewy for these fish. How about a Bunny Hare Leech?” It was one of his own—a generous strip of purple-dyed rabbit on a glittering blue tube, capped with a florescent cone.
“Looks like a bass lure,” Rose said. But she liked the way it cast.
Rocky watched Rose. The action of the bamboo rod was slow and even, and she made good casts and mended well, covering the blue water before her.
“Are you gonna fish?” She turned to Rocky.
He fired fast casts above and below her, then started prowling the bank, stepping, looking, casting. She thought him frenetic, but this was how he fished. Changing targets focused him for brief moments while he imagined his fly dancing through the water. Fishing made him happier than anything, though he loved looking at Rose. Her graceful body and patient casts. She paused often without her fly in the water, which normally drove Rocky nuts. But she looked beautiful just stretching, gazing at the mountain river.
He moved further downstream, swinging his Bunny Leech behind every rock and through the deep cuts where he had previously hooked fish. He wanted badly to catch a steelhead in front of Rose. He pinched on some lead, making clunkier casts, but swimming the fly deep. He worked as far as he could downstream, briefly losing sight of her. Then, fighting a headache, he took his first Adderall tablets with a swish of soda and hurried back to her. “How’s it going?”
“Wonderful,” she said, as if sucking the word off a spoon.
“No,” she said with a smile. Her face held the serene pink glow of morning. She had moved only a few feet down river and was now watching a great blue heron hunt along the far bank. The stately bird billed a gunmetal minnow, making Rose wonder if she should switch to one of the gray Spey patterns her brother had given her.
“I’m gonna try upriver,” Rocky said. “Shout if you hook something.” Climbing up the bank and striding quickly toward a spot he liked, his heart rate suddenly spiked and he felt a pounding in his neck. Rocky stopped, set down his rod, and put his hands over his head. Rose couldn’t see him. His pulse slowed and he felt better.
Standing above the swirling river, he added an indicator to his leader and pulled a small bottle of goopy scent from his vest. He flipped the clumsy rigging to the top of the run and watched the pink float drift through. Once, twice, and then it went down. Rocky set the hook and felt that electrifying heavy pulse of a steelhead. It flashed silver-pink, splashed once, and was gone. No, no, he said aloud. He checked the fly and worked the hole again and again. Tried the spot above. Nothing. He wished he had some shrimp or eggs. The defeat made him suddenly weary, and he sat on a rock and dropped his head. School and work crept in: all the data piling up, Monday’s shift, and his final exam. He looked up and saw beside the river another patch of wild rose, the gentle arching stems and clustered pink flowers so understated compared to the bold roses around campus. He walked up to them and inhaled their fragrance. All his days on the river and he had never done this. How could he have said that about ruining his waders? What an idiot. He had left Rose alone. He should be working closely with her, urging her down the bank, guiding her casts. He walked quickly, anxious and flinty until he saw her again. Rose was casting slowly, carefully.
Rose enjoyed casting all morning—and it was good to be alone for a while. The rhythm took her away from the museum and the ever-tightening budget, the staff member they had to lay off. She didn’t think of her parents refinancing their house to buy an RV, or her brother Tommy, struggling with money. Although swinging that struggling brother’s Gray Heron through promising deep water, imagining its long strands pulsing, the hook touching a stone and fluttering up, all brought her back to the truth she wanted to avoid. Tommy could’ve been arrested, got her fired, discredited the museum. She should have confronted him right away. But she loved him. She made another cast.
Rocky was out of sight. She found something sexy about his individuality, his raw, taut energy. He was good looking and smart, but he could be distant, distracted. He seemed kind, but he had no connection to his family. Why didn’t he fish closer to her? Did he like her?
Rose felt hungry and was going to reel up and eat a couple of cookies. Rocky came into view, walking toward her. Her line went tight. She arced back and a large steelhead rocketed out of the river. Rocky broke into a run. The fish made several blistering charges down river, and Rocky felt his own surge of adrenaline. His legs trembled, and he worried over the half-circle bend in the old cane rod, her knots, the dragless reel she palmed to slow the speeding fish. The throbbing in his neck returned. “It’s a good one,” she said.
Rocky never used a net, but when she got the fish on the gravel shallows, he saw it was a fin-clipped buck and grabbed it. A huge, bright fish, maybe fifteen pounds. Rocky’s wild heart nearly beat him to heaven. Rose glowed. She thought about hugging Rocky, but he dropped the fish on the dry rocks and fainted.
“Oh my God,” she said. It scared Rose, but he came to in a few seconds. She splashed his face with river water and made him comfortable on the gravel bar.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “It’s happened before. I’ve got some problems, Rose. I’m sorry.”
“Hey, easy. It’s okay.” She spoke softly and felt his head for blood.
He rested for a few minutes and then said, “You changed flies and caught that fish.”
“Yes, but I thought it killed you.”
She helped him to the truck. He’d hit his head, but it wasn’t serious. He didn’t want to go to the hospital. She carefully broke down the rods and gear and packed up while he mostly watched, thanking her. She drove them to her house.
In the afternoon light, Rose’s old house was animated with books, plants, art, CDs, a phone blinking with messages. Through an open bedroom door, shoes and clothes. Olive oil and wine bottles on the cluttered counter. She helped Rocky to the couch, let the dog out, and came back with two tall glasses of water.
“Are you feeling better? You still look a little pale.”
“Yeah. Thanks.” Rocky felt weak, but better. He lifted his glass. “To that steelhead.”
“To you being okay.” Rose raised her glass. “I started wondering where you were. Thank God you didn’t fall into the river.”
“I’m sorry.” Rocky tightened his face.
He recovered steadily, sipping water. Tanner the basset bayed out back. Rose offered to make dinner, a couple of fillets on the grill. “Could you eat?”
“I should be going.” Rocky straightened up on the couch. “I’ve got so much to do. And you’ve had enough of me.”
“We’ve both got nothing to do but take it easy. Let’s just take the night off and relax, talk. Okay? Can you do that?”
“I want you to know that I love wild roses.”
“The wild roses, your roses, along the river. I’ll never say they’re thorns again. I get so crazy about things—fishing, even school and work—and I lose sight. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.” Rose felt close to tears. Something had let go. “I know what you mean. I can be that way about things. We all lose sight sometimes. Did you smell them? The roses?”
“Yeah, Rose, I did. They were amazing.”
Published on August 20, 2020