Before Trout was a murky and mean time. It was a time of fishing for catfish in a minuscule and crowded pond, where Lenny and I didn’t really need rods and bait; we could have reached in and noodled the fish we wanted. The only trick (and possibly the only thing we were good at) was to drink enough.
It was then, Before Trout, that a small Norwegian woman named Jenny gained our attention as the star of a short movie, grainy and dark as our lives.
We had driven out to Lenny’s sister’s farm in the afternoon—a way to say we did something besides drink and slave at jobs. I sweated into vegetables and soup at an elegant restaurant. Lenny drove a riding mower for the county parks department over small squares of bare soil in the city, plots of land had been taken for non-payment of taxes. They were almost always in the weeds next to the interstate. He hated mowing those squares of dirt.
Far from that restaurant and Lenny’s mower, our heads baked in the late-July sun as we guzzled pond-temperature beer. Nothing moved except for Lenny and I—not a grasshopper, not a chicken in the coop on the top of the hill. The grass around the small pond smelled burned. We had fished for a couple of hours using chicken livers as bait, hauling in catfish after catfish until they all looked the same. We threw them back but the last two, our fingers smelling of fishy chicken guts.
On the way back to his tiny apartment, Lenny and I talked of catfish dinners we had eaten with fried catfish laid out next to fresh corn, baked potatoes and green salad. But neither of us knew how to fillet a catfish. At the apartment, we sawed those fish up, overcooked the ragged scraps, and ate them with potato chips and more warm beer.
“Man,” Lenny said, looking at his paper plate. “We shoulda actually stopped at the store for some potatoes and lettuce.”
“This is nature’s bounty,” I said. I was good and drunk.
“C’mon, those things baked for an hour in the trunk,” he said with a slur. “We shoulda left them there until they were done.”
We putted a golf ball around the room awhile, wondering what else to do. The day was too hot and we were too drunk. “Say,” said Lenny, “I got a video from a pal of mine. We should look at it. He has all the good stuff, or so he says.”
We putted some more while the movie started. In Jenny’s Barnyard Adventure (no credits), the star had shortish blonde hair done up with a garland of silk and plastic flowers. Her jean shorts were cut to accentuate her legs and buttocks. Her frowzy blouse was open most of the way to her navel. Her bare feet were muddy as she walked from the small farmhouse across the sodden courtyard to the barn. She was carrying two pails of animal feed.
Jenny opened the barn. It was a society of dogs and sheep, pigs and horses. All of it looked so ramshackle that a wind and a spark could have spared the world from Jenny’s adventuring.
As she closed the barn door, the dogs tugged Jenny’s shorts from her as she put down the pails. They licked her crotch excitedly, and she dutifully submitted to them, as if attending chores. When each had a turn, she stood, plucked her blouse from her back and picked up the pails.
By this time, Lenny and I were so stunned, baffled, and horrified, we couldn’t or wouldn’t turn away.
Jenny continued her chores. She manually tended rams and gently arranged the ewes for the camera. She pushed her fingers in and out of them, smiling into the camera. Picking up her pails again, she went into a stall with a giant hog and mischievous smile.
Then, Jenny mysteriously appeared outside with another small, blonde woman and a horse that looked into the camera with embarrassment. Jenny helped the other woman then had her turn with the horse. After, she picked up her pails, went back in the barn, donned her wrinkled blouse and shorts and walked back across the courtyard to the house—the pails empty.
It was the worst fifteen minutes of my life, and I had consented to it. As the television screen went blank and turned to random snow, Lenny stood slack-jawed. I swallowed, grass-smoked beer in my throat. I was confused—sick. The catfish in my stomach wanted back in the pond.
“I’m sorry,” Lenny said finally, opening a bottle of vodka. “I mean, goddamn, he said ‘good stuff.’ I figured housewives and mailmen.”
We tried to putt the ball some more, but there was nothing in it. I left Lenny, my head stuffed with sawdust. I drove home slowly, stumbled in to the couch and passed out. I dreamed of Jenny, the hog and the horse, a nightmare I would have for months.
Over the years, things have changed for both Lenny and me. The days are no longer dark, grainy and out of focus. I have no idea where that putter is.
A week doesn’t go by when I don’t think of Jenny. Only now she is Jennifer. She walks out of a brightly painted farmhouse in an airline pilot uniform. She is still blonde and small, but without the slavish look, without mud on her feet. She climbs into a sensible car and drives past the horse, who’s no longer embarrassed. The hog lays quietly in the mud, as hogs should. The dogs chase the car down the drive to the highway that takes Jennifer to the airport. She climbs aboard the jetliner into the cockpit, gives commands to her copilot and calls the tower for permission to take off.
In her carry-on bag stowed in a luggage bin is a fly rod and a small box of flies.