English Department: Areas of Study

Fish Story

by Gary Parks

 

When the chief ranger drowned under a sudden storm in Yellowstone Lake, Jack Joyce and most everybody else in Grant Village knew the body would never rise because it wouldn't decompose in the freezing water.  It was late May, but winter's ice had broken just three days before on the high lake, and pale green patches still floated the surface in some places.  Before it was over, in fact, Jack would turn a few heads in the Grant Tavern wondering out loud whether old Tommy Rollins might not be found on a half-sunk piece of ice crust, that close to the air and the weak spring sunshine but slumped over underwater anyway, the dissolving raft of ice sinking slowly toward the bottom.  Right away the Park Service sent for deep sonar, Coast Guard equipment from the Great Lakes.  Everybody knew there was hardly a prayer toward finding old Tommy in a channel as big as the West Thumb, the part of the lake where he'd drowned.  He could be in ten feet of water or two hundred feet.  He might have drifted or he might have sunk straight down.  But there sat Sarah Rollins in that green government house, the one closest to shore, watching the big flag outside pop in the wind after twenty-five years in the park with Tom, and they just had to look, for her sake.

            Only half the maintenance crew showed up for work the morning after it happened""the half that didn't know yet, Jack among them.  When it was eight o'clock and Sal Galvin hadn't shown up, Jack and the others knew something had gone wrong.  Finally, at eight-thirty, Sal came shuffling through the door.  He was "Old Sal" or "boss" to most of the crew, but Jack referred to him as "the old rooster" or just plain "ass" whenever he could get away with it.  The cocky crew boss considered himself Grant's center of attention""sole jokester, fishing expert, and self-appointed spokesman for local history at all social functions.  It was probably true that the impish old man could have been elected mayor, if Grant had one, on a platform of sheer notoriety, drinking ability, and endurance.  Galvin made no secret of the fact that he'd notched logs on Grant's longest-standing building, the former general store that was now the post office.  He'd worked the springs and summers at Grant for 31 years, had been running the Maintenance Department for 20, and Jack had been his "new man" for the last two, which was the taproot, Jack knew, of the problems between them.

            Now, standing in the door of the maintenance shed, Galvin looked more worn than Jack had ever seen him.  His normally spry face was stony and overcast, his eyes splayed with red, his silvery hair blown around his head at odd angles.  He looked like he'd been drinking all night, still a distinct possibility even though Galvin was pushing sixty.

            "Boys," he said, in slow voice, "we'll turn a few valves today and go home.  Something too terrible for words has happened."  He told them about getting the call from Sarah after dark, how he and the rangers had searched all night in the Bertram with spotlights, searched right through the storm even though it was already hopeless""hypothermia would kill a person in that lake in half an hour no matter how long he could stay afloat.  They'd found the red canoe at dawn, but no sign of Tommy, not even a hat floating.  Old Sal and Tommy Rollins had been buddies for longer than most people at Grant could remember, salty old pillars of the place""they'd been friends for longer than Jack had been alive""so when the old man started to recite the good old days again, suddenly, catching those monsters out of Heart Lake again, 25 years ago, the others knew it was time to wander off and find a valve to turn.

            "And say, Jack," Galvin said, snapping out of his reverie just before Jack got out of earshot behind the boiler.  "Stick around and monitor the gauges this morning, if you would.  We need somebody to stay.  Most of these boys here, they knew Tommy from way back.  You can take the afternoon off yourself, if you'd like."  He nodded around the inside of the huge building.  "Go ahead and give the shed a good sweeping too, before you go."

            It was at lunch in the cafeteria, amidst the somber rumorizing and recollection, that Jack first heard talk of the sonar equipment.  He slapped his newspaper shut, finished his sandwich, and headed out the door towards the Headquarters office.  The sonar would be just like equipment he'd used for his thesis in San Diego, following blue fin tuna around because of a microscopic parasite they carried in their eyes.  He had over 100 hours of experience with the stuff.  At headquarters he claimed it was 200 and requested a transfer for as long as the search lasted.  A transfer away from Galvin, he figured, was just what he needed.

            Two years before, Jack had rolled into Yellowstone on his motorcycle, the last stop in a long run from a job in a microscope, his first job out of college.  Day after day in his white lab coat in San Diego he would drench various protozoa with oil-retarding compounds.  The vast majority uneventfully died in their tray, Jack dutifully reporting it all on the forms.  After almost a year, a long year, of small-time genocide and weekends on the beach, he left town one day on his motorcycle.  He spend two months riding the western U.S., the Great Square between El Paso, San Diego, Seattle, and Medicine Hat, until one chilly afternoon in late summer when through the east gate of Yellowstone, and saw Yellowstone Lake for the first time.  The lake was in the shape of a huge hand, with darkly wooded islands sticking up like sawblades in the flat palm, and gray deliquescent fingers spreading back into wilderness valleys to the south.  Two of the fingers""the South and Southeast Arms, as he now knew them""reached almost to the Continental Divide, which was visible that first day as an icy ridge thirty miles away, a brilliant scarlet dash on the horizon.  Jack was enchanted by the huge, high lake from the first minute he saw it.  It looked like a place where he could simplify his life, where he could get a certain something that he needed, something having to do with grandeur and freedom and the thin, cool air and the colors in the sky that was too elusive for him to put into words.  Sal Galvin had sensed this, Jack thought, and made a joke of it all from day one.

            "Graduate school in biology, huh?" Galvin had said, behind his desk with the application form.  He'd pronounced the word bee-ology, with a smirk.  "There's a thing or two we can teach you here, son, if you'd like to work." Galvin sat straight faced and told Jack that he was hired because he could read the computerized scopes and gauges in Grant's new kitchen.  Within days, though, Jack found out that what the old man's crew really needed was fresh young blood for the physical work.  The "other boys" had been on the crew for years, and they had already done their share of box loading, hole digging, and boiler cleaning, as Galvin was always quick to point out.

            Sally from headquarters called Jack's cabin that afternoon.  "Congratulations,"? she said.  "Be at the docks at seven sharp with all the jackets you own.  It's you and two rangers on the Bertram." She lowered her voice.  "Might be for a good long time, too," she said.  "Sarah's out of her head, not even having a body to bury.  And Jack," she went on, even more quietly, "you'd better know how to work that equipment, like you said you did.  It wasn't easy to get you transferred, if you know what I mean."

            Jack hung up smiling.  So it might last for a long time.  Maybe for good, he mused, if somebody up here finally notices that I learned something in school.  And at the very least it would piss the socks off of old Sal Galvin for a few days, which was plenty, Jack thought.   

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            He got away scot-free at first.  He watched for a cold half hour the next morning while six men (three of them department heads, Jack noticed) made circles around the patrol boat doing last minute check-offs before they backed it into the water.  It was a cream-colored 24-footer, a nimble boat with twin engines and a flying deck.  Galvin was there, unnaturally quiet except for long, steamy exhalations that he would send toward the lake from time to time.  He'd grunted a cold hello to Jack, first thing, and then not another word.  As soon as the boat warmed up and got its springtime spitting done, Jack put the crate of sonar equipment in and they pushed off.  He didn't look back as they left the dock.

            Jack kept himself hunched in the stern most of the morning, fidgeting with settings on the metal box, watching the luminous screen with enough ardor to show that he was indispensable.  The water eventually had its effect, though, and the three men relaxed and became friendly.  The lake had calmed from the storm that took Rollins under, and a pale sun broke out occasionally to touch off the snowy mountains around the lake.  The sonar showed nothing but deep, unobstructed water under the boat.  With the sonar recording on a graph sheet, Jack could even take his turns napping in the cabin now and then.

            "You must be a valuable man on that maintenance crew," the dark haired ranger on the flying deck piped up, sometime in mid-afternoon.  The ranger had a wide, sympathetic face, and bushy black eyebrows that sloped like the roof of a chalet.

            Jack looked to see whether he was joking.

            "No kidding," the ranger said, "that boss of yours raised a bunch of hell in headquarters office about us taking you along.  Says he needs you pretty badly."

            "In other words,"? Jack said, "he needs somebody to crawl in and scrape the boiler in the hotel before it opens.  And there's 30 sheets of drywall to haul upstairs for the renovation."

            "Galvin pretty obnoxious to work for, is he?" the other ranger asked.  He was a younger man, closer to Jack's age, with a bushy red moustache and cropped hair.  He was straddling the bow so he could peer into the water, though he hadn't been looking all that much.

            "He is obnoxious indeed," Jack said.  "One of a kind.  I hope to get off his crew soon."

            "And do what?"

            "I'm not sure.  What you're doing, maybe.  Something more intelligent.  I've got a biology degree."

            The ranger whistled and shook his head.  "Lots of those around here."  He gave the wheel an authoritative turn.  "But listen," he went on.  "It's an unwritten rule up here""your boss is always dumber than you.  Bosses are the ones who stick around."? 

            They all looked into the water and nodded, sizing up the way things worked.  The shifting swells made Jack think of the tiny organisms popping into view as he turned the focus knob on his microscope, back in San Diego.  He had looked at the lake water many times too, in his cabin on his junky microscope.  The life in this lake was sparse and strange compared to the sea off of San Diego.  Not much could survive the cold here.  He knew that many of the organisms that did survive either lived inside fish part of the year or secreted layers of their own protection.  A little like the men who stayed around, Jack always thought.

            "I wonder what Rollins was doing out here?" he said to the older ranger, "A guy of his age, out alone in a canoe that early in the spring."

            "He was fishing, that's what he was doing," the ranger on the bow said quickly, with accusatory emphasis, and his partner laughed and nodded.

            "Are you kidding?" Jack said.  "Fishing season doesn't start for another two weeks."

            "No, I'm not." The dark-haired ranger squinted down into the stern at Jack.  "Hell, you didn't know about that?  Everybody knew that, I thought.  He'd come out and cast for the first cutthroat after the ice broke, every year, him and that boss of yours, Galvin.  It was a reputation they had.  I guess they thought it was their right.  You couldn't exactly come out and catch them, they're such big shots around here." He threw up both hands.  "Rollins was our boss, after all.  What can you do?"

            "That's amazing," Jack said, though he wasn't surprised.  Galvin had always acted like he owned the West Thumb, and Rollins had been the same way.

            "How's Galvin taking the drowning, anyway?" the dark-haired ranger said.  "Those two were friends from way, way back."?

            "It hurts him pretty bad" Jack said, surprised at his own sudden answer.  But Galvin had looked awfully washed-out yesterday morning.  He'd give the old man that much.

 

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Jack discovered the fish almost as soon as he unfolded the graph sheet that evening, at home under his desk lamp.  They were pockmarks at 120 feet, big ones, just like the blue fin used to look.  He rubbed the marks with his fingers.  "Twenty to thirty pounders," he whispered, bending the lamp down.  You could tell by the spacing, the depth, the size of the mark.  There weren't supposed to be fish that big nor that deep in Yellowstone Lake.  Everyone knew that the only fish in the lake were cutthroat trout, that no other fish had ever been here but the pink-fleshed cutthroat, unless you counted tiny chubs, or suckers.  No new species of game fish could migrate to the lake because of the high falls at Canyon, and none were planted because it was a national park.  But here were fish, a school of them, bigger and deeper than the cutthroat ever got.

            Ideas began to bubble through Jack's head like a hot spring through moss.  He checked the sheet again and again.  They were fish all right.  Could they be lake trout?  The Snake River drainage, over the Divide, held lakers.  Or maybe they were a new species altogether, some prehistoric remnant that the deep lake had protected for eons, like an inland salmon, some strange strain of grandfather cutt.  It could make sense, Jack thought, with the park only a hundred years old, no one around for a good six months of the year.  "And I'd be the one who found them," he said aloud.  This search was turning out better all the time.

            The rangers called him crazy the next morning, but he bought their breakfast and got them to come back to the same spot.  It didn't much matter where they looked for Rollins now anyway, they said.  It was all for appearances, for Sarah, and the chances of finding the body were small.  Jack told them where to troll, both of them laughing at his seriousness until they got bored and began to take turns napping in the cabin.

            An hour later he woke up the boat.  "Fish," he yelled, jumping to his feet with his fists clenched.  "We got fish under here."

            The rangers joked about it, but they watched over his shoulder as Jack adjusted the instruments.  There they were""a cluster of green dashes floating on the screen. 

            "How deep is that?" t he dark-haired ranger asked.

            "Right at 110 feet,"? Jack said.  "They're big.  You can tell by the spacing, and the light they draw.  Something rare, that's for sure.  They're not cutthroat."

            The younger ranger let go a dry laugh, and Jack wheeled toward him.  "Listen," he said, "I know fish when I see them."

            "O.K., O.K.," the other ranger said, stepping between them, his eyes falling back to the screen.  "Let's all calm down.  Look, Kelley, I've got one of them little fish-finders on my boat down in the Gorge.  Nothing like this equipment, you understand.  But those blips, they do look like it.  They look like a school of fish."

            "This lake can't support fish that deep," the younger ranger said.  "It's a scientific fact."

            "I say we try and catch one," Jack said.  "Like tomorrow.  Get a line down there and bring one up."

            "That'd be one way to see," the dark-haired ranger nodded.

            The younger ranger shrugged.  "You'd have to wait for fishing season even to try," and that's two weeks."

            "No we don't," the dark haired ranger said.  "We can get a research permit.  Fish and Wildlife get them all the time.  Charley Phillips is the acting chief right now.  He doesn't need much excuse to let somebody wet a line."?   

            It was that simple.  They would go after the strange fish the next morning.  And if I catch one, Jack thought, it's bye-bye maintenance crew for good.  This would bring him plenty of attention.

            When they docked, Jack jumped on his bike and rode home quickly.  He dug to the back of his closet for the deep sea gear, pulled line off the reel and tried to break it between his hands.  It was strong and would pull up anything under fifty pounds.  In his arms and hands he anticipated the strike already, the astonished jolt as the pole bent deeply.  Jack Joyce, he thought, studying his sharp, dark features in the bathroom mirror, the guy who caught the fish.  People would be talking about it for a long time.

            He tried to sit and read for a while, but it wouldn't work.  Finally he stacked his tackle in the corner by the front door and headed for the Dry Dock Tavern.  He just couldn't stay still.  

           

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The next day dawned old and clear, the first gray hue of the sky changing only slightly to a pale blue that would last through the day.  Jack ate quickly and went to the docks early, still groggy from the night before.  Rumors about the fishing expedition had already made it to the Dry Dock by the time he got there, and there had been many mock toasts and lots of laughter about the venture, though most of the ones who'd laughed had also volunteered to go along before the night was over.

Jack eased his motorcycle around the corner into the marina and suddenly stopped cold, ripped his helmet off, and stared in disbelief.  Instead of the patrol boat at the end of the dock, the sleek Bertram, a steel, rectangular hulk of a boat floated in the slip, white smoke pouring from its rattling exhaust.  It was an old marine landing craft, a 40-footer painted solid gray.  Jack knew the boat well""it belonged to the Maintenance Department.  This was the "garbage barge," as they called it, used to collect trash from wilderness sites along the lake shore.  Jack's heart sank like a rock.  He knew who would be inside.

            Sure enough, old Sal Galvin stood up in the boat and watched from under his duckbill cap as Jack brought his tackle down the dock.  "Hello there, Jack," Galvin called.  "We're taking the fancy craft out today for this goose-chase.  She needs a run anyway." The dark-haired ranger stood up beside Galvin, looking embarrassed.

            "Thanks, Sal," Jack said flatly. "But we're fishing today, did you hear?"

            Galvin snorted and turned around, bending down to an ultra-light fishing pole in the bottom of the boat.  "That's what I heard, Jack," he said, keeping his back turned.  "Maybe you'll catch old Tom himself, if you set your lines deep enough, huh?" He laughed in a high pitch and slapped his knee, looking to the ranger for a partner in his joke.  The ranger gave a weak smile.

            "We're fishing, Sal," Jack repeated.

            "Oh you bet," Galvin said, turning around quickly.  "I know all about it.  I'm fishing for cutthroat myself.  Had a talk with headquarters yesterday, Jack.  You got a permit for this nonsense for one day, one only, and that's just because the barge here needs a good hard run anyway." He held up a stubby finger.  "One more day, and you can forget this fish story and get back to work.  That shed's starting to get dirty again."

            Jack stepped into the boat, took a seat in the stern, and didn't say a word as they left the marina, Galvin at the wheel.

 

                                                *                                  *                                  *

 

            The wind had picked up again, and they could tell it would worsen that afternoon by the high faint wisps that would thicken later to cirrus, the wind bringers.  It was a cold ride out.  The garbage barge had no deck apart from the steel hull, which was as cold as the water it ran through.  The only windbreak was the chest-high gate at the bow, pulled up like a drawbridge, with water steadily seeping through its bottom hinge.  A yellow bilge pump with wires running out of it sat nakedly in the bottom of the boat to suck up the water.  Jack was chilled when they finally got out to the spot.  The ranger pointed his thumbs down and Galvin slowed the boat smoothly, expertly.  The old man turned to Jack right away.  "Well, where to, fisherman?"

            Jack shrugged.  He really wasn't sure how to fish for them.  "Let's start here," he said, "and troll parallel to shore, toward Snipe Point.  When it gets too shallow we can turn around and come back, move out a little further."

            They did exactly that, back and forth in a mile-long troll, all morning long.  The ranger drove while Jack and Galvin fished off opposite sides of the stern, the sonar between them.  Jack put out two weighted lines, one at 110 feet, the other at 90.  Beside him Galvin cackled and cracked jokes as he hooked one cutthroat after another, throwing each one back after another mock argument with the ranger.

            The old landing craft started rocking more in the early afternoon as the wind picked up and the waves grew.  Jack hadn't felt a tug all day, not the slightest twinge, or seen anything on the screen.  He felt like going in, had felt that way all day with Galvin and his cocky smile right beside him.  Maybe it was something else he had seen on the screen after all, he started to think, some brush suspended in the water, a couple of sunken logs.

            "What will you do with this monster you catch, Joyce?" Galvin asked, sometime in the middle of the long afternoon.  "You think it'll make you famous or something?"  He looked up from the water and winked at the ranger.

            "I guess we'll find that out after I catch one, won't we, Sal?" He felt angry and he let it show.  "It's not too late to put heavier line on that little pole of yours, you know.  Maybe you can beat me to it and become famous yourself."

            "I still don't know why we got to waste good government time for some pup's harebrained ideas," Galvin snapped.  "You ought to get fired for putting people on like this."

            "We'd be wasting the time anyway, wouldn't we Sal?" Jack could see that he'd made Galvin mad, and it surprised him.  It wasn't easy to get under the old man's skin.  "And don't worry,"? he went on, "after today it won't be on government time again.  Legal season starts soon enough, and those fish I saw will still be down there.  I'll be out here every spare minute, until I catch one."? 

"I'll have you working so much overtime this summer, young man, you'll be too tired to fish."

            "We'll see," Jack said.

            Galvin gave him a smoldering glare, and Jack could see that somehow he'd incensed the old man. 

            A short time later, Galvin released his last cutthroat, let out a long sigh, and motioned the ranger away from the boat's wheel.  He drove them further east, into deeper water, and started trolling parallel to shore.  Jack held one of the deep-weighted rigs while the ranger held the other.  

            Twenty minutes later the sonar screen flashed.  Jack jumped to his feet.

            "Idle it," he yelled to Galvin, and the boat came out of gear.  "They're underneath us." Jack and the ranger braced with their poles.  Galvin stared at the dashes vacantly, one hand on the throttle, one on the wheel.

            It was incredible luck, Jack would think later, pure, incredible luck that the fish took his lure and dove with it, his and not the ranger's on the first pass over them.  The pole doubled and Jack riveted his hands against it, arching his body the opposite way to crank in line a few feet at a time.  It was a monster""he could feel the big fish heaving from side to side far below.  Later, he would remember yelling about how big it felt, the size of it, the size of it, over and over, and laughing out loud to think of sticking a fish like that under Galvin's nose.

            And suddenly Jack saw a dull silver blade sweep across the tip of his pole, and everything went slack.  He dropped the pole to the bottom of the boat and turned around slowly.  Old Sal Galvin had backed up into a corner of the stern, his feet spread wide, a knife in one hand.  The old man had cut his line.

            "Now wait a minute, Jack.  You just wait one minute there."  Galvin dropped the knife and stood braced, raised his hands as if to push Jack away.  "Listen a minute.  I know about these fish."

            Jack felt blood pumping to his head like a drum.  He took one quick step toward the old man, then caught himself, wheeled, and swung a fist through the air, yelling unintelligibly into the wind.  He backed up against the sidewall.  Behind the old man, blistering whitecaps were spreading across the lake. 

            "I'm telling you," Galvin said, "I know about these fish.  They been in this water for 26 years, Jack, 26 years this spring."  He looked hurriedly from Jack to the ranger and back.  "Me and Tommy planted them back then.  They're lake trout.  Lakers from Heart Lake."

            "You did what?" the ranger said.

            "We planted them," Galvin said.  "You used to be able to drive a jeep up to Heart Lake, and that's what we did.  Took canoes up, and nets, two or three trip loads.  Buckets and buckets of them.  Lots of lakers.  They caught on."  He looked fiercely out over the lake, eyes slightly crossed and red from the wind, blown white hair hanging onto his forehead.  "Things were different back then.  We wanted something else to catch besides cutthroat, don't you see?"?   

            "You're kidding," Jack said.  "You're full of it."

            "Am I?" Galvin said.  He was starting to look lively again, blinking back the wind.  "Am I kidding, young man?  You think old Tommy would just come out here and tip over in a canoe, just like that?  He was the best canoeist around here, bar none.  He's been all over this lake and back in a canoe, Jack.  It took a big one to pull him under, I guarantee you."

            The ranger gave a long, low whistle and started reeling up his line, which slanted sharply now under the drifting boat.

            "What are you talking about, Sal?" Jack asked.

            "Those lake trout,"? Galvin said.  They're fourth or fifth generation by now.  They're thinning out down there.  But there's some big ones.  Some granddaddies, Jack."? He held his hands wide apart.  "Rollins and me would come out and catch one, every spring, soon as we could.  Catch one and throw it back, just to see if they was still here.  Twenty-five years, and they always were.  You just hooked into one, boy.  One of our fish.  But I ain't sure you could've landed it."?  He winked, just an old man now with his face puckered and wrinkling in. 

            "They got big these past few years.  Bigger and fewer, harder to catch.  But you know Tommy.  I told him he was crazy to come out for one, as stormy as it's been.  I told him I just couldn't make it this year."?  He looked down into the boat, and when he looked back up Jack could see the misting in the old man's eyes. 

            "Just leave them alone,"? Galvin said quietly.  "They'll be gone soon enough.  It know it's a hot story, Jack.  I'd like to tell it myself.  But tell them it was weeds you saw on that blip screen.  Tell them it was anything else.  Nobody fishes for them now."? 

            Jack knelt and stared into the bottom of the boat, where the water that seeped in from the hinges had puddled up.  The paint would never hold, in the bottom, and curled flecks of gray floated around the bilge pump.  He was thinking about the wink that Galvin had given him.  It was a sly wink, one of those winks that bring you inside the closed doors of some all-pervading joke""even though he knew that everything Galvin had just told him was true.  It was the wink of smoke and bluff and hard fact all mixed together, the wink of the card room where all men must eventually belly up.  And Jack knew by it that things had changed, that life on the maintenance crew, and life at Grant, wouldn't be the same as before.  It was a sly wink, all right.  There was nothing else to do but look up at the old man and wink back.