Chapter 2: Fish traps

Pomme de Terre River by LocalOzarkian Photography
Pomme de Terre River by LocalOzarkian Photography

This is another installment in the saga of Jake and Wakesho, my long-running fictional tale of two people trying to figure out life. See my previous related post, “A Cape Catharsis.” 

DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. All characters are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual people, alive or dead, is purely coincidental.

Jake drummed his thumbs on the steering wheel in rhythm to the drum beat of the Congolese rhumba song playing on his stereo while impatiently eyeing the stoplight overhead. After what seemed like an eternity the light turned green and he released the clutch and began to roll into the intersection, only to slam on the brakes as he glimpsed a car speeding into the intersection out of the corner of his eye. The driver showed no sign of recognition that he was running a red light as he sped through the intersection. “Pay attention, asshole!” Jake yelled out his open window, flipping the man his middle finger at the same time.

His rage subsided quickly, and as Jake’s mood lightened he chuckled to himself, thinking that the forces of the universe had surely conspired against him today to delay him at all cost. After passing through several more intersections without further incident, he reached an open stretch of road that led out of town and onto the main four-lane highway heading north. He was speeding but he didn’t care. It was late in the afternoon and he was aware that the sun was fading fast. He had been delayed after class by that looney old bastard Dr. Krakow, who, convinced that Jake had been deeply interested in hearing about his microbiology research, regaled him with tales from his glory days in the research lab.

“That really is fascinating, Dr. Krakow. I never knew an autoclave could be used for such things,” Jake had said, stifling a yawn.

“You think that’s neat, you should hear about the time I was teaching at Webster College and there was this hotshot kid there who thought he knew everything about microbiology. A real arrogant little prick,” Krakow continued, waving an unlit cigarette clamped between his nicotine-stained fingers like a conductor with a baton.

“Maybe some other time, Dr. Krakow,” Jake interjected, eyeing the lengthening shadows outside. “I’ve really gotta get out in the field today before dark.”

“Sure, kid, no problem. Good luck with that field crap, maybe one day you’ll wake up and realize that real biology takes place in a lab under a microscope,” the professor needled. He was craving his nicotine fix or the conversation might have dragged on for hours.

Jake ran down the stairs and into his lab. He took down his rubber chest waders, checking that the feet were dry, and picked up several buckets, a small dip net, a field notebook and a ball of twine. He rushed out the door, nearly knocking over his advisor, Dr. Adams, who was just entering the lab.

“Shit, Jake! You almost knocked me down!” she exclaimed. “Where you off to in such a hurry?” she drawled in her thick Louisiana accent.

“Sorry about that, I’m just trying desperately to get out in the field today, but I keep getting held up.”

“Well don’t let me delay you any further, I’d hate to stand in the way of science.”

“Thanks, I’ll be back in a couple of hours, maybe we can go over some of my preliminary results?”

“Sure, that would be fine. I’ll probably be in my office until 9 or 10 tonight. Good luck!”

Jake mused to himself on the way to his Jeep that Dr. Adams would probably sleep in her office most nights if it weren’t for her cats at home. She was about 60, very overweight and would probably be single the rest of her life. But she was one of the best behavioral ecologists in her field, and he was learning a great deal under her tutelage.

From campus Jake had made his way slowly across town in rush hour traffic, growing more impatient by the minute. The red-light runner had pissed him off, but now he laughed at his misfortune and shrugged it off. “I’ll get there, inshallah,” he thought, remembering his days in Kenya. “If God wills it.” He could use a bit more inshallah in his life these days. He had always prided himself on his seemingly limitless patience, but lately he had grown irritable and increasingly frustrated by the littlest things.

After a twenty minute drive on a highway that wound its way through rolling Ozarks farmland, Jake pulled off the road just before reaching a bridge over the Pomme de Terre River. Shifting his Jeep into four wheel drive, he skillfully navigated a muddy access trail to a parking spot under the bridge on the banks of the river. He got out of the Jeep and inhaled deeply several times, relaxing with each breath. The air was crisp and cold and clean and smelled vaguely fishy. The river was running strong and he was happy to be near it again. Here, close to its source at the highest part of the Ozark Plateau, it was a narrow and swift stream, coursing over gravel and rocks, widening and slowing down as it wound its way north to meet the Osage River, which ultimately dumped into the big Missouri itself.

Jake sat on the tailgate of his 30 year old Jeep pickup and slipped his wool-stockinged feet into his waders, chills going down his spine as his feet entered the stiff rubber boots that had been cooled by the ride in the back of the pickup in the December air. He gathered his tools and slid down the bank into the cool dark water and stepped into a pool about waist deep. The pressure of the water collapsed the boots tightly against his calves and feet. Walking gingerly on the slick rocks of the river bed, he made his way to the first of his fish traps. Pulling it from its resting place on the bottom, he observed that it was empty. Dammit, he thought, this is not good. Not good at all. He tossed it back and watched it sink quickly back to the bottom in the clear water.

His next three traps gave equally disappointing results. The fifth trap contained only a confused and angry crayfish, which he released, and his sixth trap had contained a single cryptically-colored sculpin. He cursed the ugly bottom-dwelling fish and cursed his own bad luck as he started the tedious upstream walk back to his truck. His waders were not insulated and the cold water sucked the heat from his body. With the winter sun rapidly sinking below the horizon, the air temperature began to plummet. He checked the thermometer that dangled from a cord around his neck and noted that it was already 29 degrees. He shivered involuntarily and sped up his cumbersome wading pace.

Twenty minutes later he was back in the cab of his truck with the engine running and the heater on full blast. He recorded his data in his notebook quickly, put the truck in gear and splashed again through the puddles which now oozed thick chocolate pudding mud from under a layer of ice. Once back on pavement he shifted back into two wheel drive and headed south. Entering the small town of Fair Grove, he stopped at the town’s only convenience store and went inside, nodding a greeting to the old man behind the counter.

“That be all?” the old man asked as Jake placed two sticks of beef jerky, a candy bar, a bag of chips and a half liter of Coke onto the counter.

“Yeah, that should do me for supper,” Jake replied with a grin. “None too healthy but it’s quick.”

“My wife would skin me alive for eating junk like that,” the old man replied. “That’ll be five-fifty.”

Jake pulled out a ten and two quarters from his pocket and laid them on the worn counter.

“Yeah, I suppose I should be more particular, but I sure do hate to cook for myself.”

“Sounds like you need a wife, then,” the old man chuckled, giving Jake a five dollar bill in change.

“I thought so too, once upon a time,” said Jake. “But I guess she had other ideas.” The memory of Wakesho came rushing back and for a moment Jake was lost in reverie as he thought of her smile.

“Well, don’t worry, you’ll find the right woman one of these days. You have a good night, sonny,” the old man said with a smile as Jake carried his bag of junk food toward the exit.

“Thanks. You too.”

6 Replies to “Chapter 2: Fish traps”

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