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Inmate trout

Fishing the North Platte River under crystalline sky, Molly cast a Royal Coachman on a #8 hook behind a large rock midstream. Immediately, a big trout pulled her rod over, silencing the wind on the sagebrush hills and rocky outcrops where the night before she had heard mountain lions.

The trout fought up and back downstream, narrowing Molly’s vision to a foot either side of line as it telegraphed messages to her hands. Reading code, she could tell when its fear turned to determination, and she lowered her rod tip to keep the fish from jumping and getting a good look at her.

She played that trout several minutes before it tired and moved in fits toward her. It was a healthy rainbow, twelve inches long, not fat but not skinny. It was picture book. The silver of its belly blended like sunset into blue and red on its sides. Black flecks started at the pectoral fins, gathered momentum along the sides and melted into themselves along its back.

Had the trout been human, Molly would have just caught the perfect physical specimen—ideally proportioned, with wiry arms and shoulders to gather fruit and carry babies, and legs made to walk.

She held the trout up from the water, and in the clear depth of its black eye, she saw a couple she met three years before. Standing there with a trout inches from her nose, the sun stopped and the river turned into a flowing mirror of memory.

The couple seemed old beyond their years as they moved around the gourmet coffee and cheese shop. They lightly touched chocolate covered espresso beans and tiny packets of saffron with their callused fingers. The racks of wines packed between shelves of ceramic cups and specialty mustards intrigued them for a moment. Then, they shook their heads and moved on. As they walked the narrow aisles, they stopped now and then before bins of tea leaves. They whispered to each other, shifting in their worn shoes and adjusting their dusty spectacles.

Molly noticed they were both bent, probably from years of work. The man’s tall frame dropped like a waterfall about to dry up in a curve into his loose jeans from beneath his ball cap. The woman wore a translucent polyester scarf over her gray mane and a fading pink button-up sweater. In their eyes flashed dreams like rays of sun through pines reflected off dark, blue trout pools.

Store clerks ignored them, and customers for the boutique restaurant and coffee bar in the back of the crowded shop shuffled past them as if they did not exist. After packaging up some Stilton cheese and a jar of Devonshire cream for a blustery and parsimonious real estate agent, Molly came from behind the counter of glass bins full of coffee beans.

“Can I help you find something?” she asked the old people.

“We’d like something special for our son,” the man said quietly, his wife nodding as she stood close to him, love of decades binding them into one. “He is far away. We need something nice.”

“Any idea what he would like?” Molly asked.

“We think he might like some sausage,” the man said, “the kind you have in the case there, and some cheese. He would probably like some crackers to go with it. We will have to send it to him, so it can’t be something that spoils.”

The three of them walked over to the deli case. Shelves were lined with tins of caviar, glass jars of marinated sardines and anchovies, wheels and odd pieces of cheese laid out on decorative mats and surrounded with plastic grape leaves. The man pointed to some hard salami from Italy, some pepperoni and wheels of Swiss cheese.

Molly took the things out of the case and sliced a hefty length of sausage from a long moldy link. She gathered some pepperoni and cut and wrapped a piece of aged Swiss cheese and folded it all among wafts of tissue paper in a box on the counter. The woman placed a small jar of mustard and some expensive crackers gently, but firmly, into the box, like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Molly closed the box, taped it, began to fill out a form for the parcel delivery service. The woman handed Molly their son’s name and address on a small piece of paper.

The coupl’s son’s name was written in tight, neat script. Molly recognized it. The story of the murder and his trial had been front-page news. The stories recounted the boy’s terrible mistake, a murder.

But it seemed he was not the murderous maniac the news made him out to be. His lawyer had been a drunken, dottering sot throughout the trial. His parents attended court every day of the trial. They were in pictures in the papers, holding each other as they did in the food shop.

They thanked Molly quietly after paying their bill for $20.46 and $4 post. She had no idea what prison regulations were for packages to inmates. The couple disappeared through the door, still holding on to each other, as she finished the form and attached it to the box. She never saw them again—until she looked into that trout’s eye.

Molly thinks about that couple frequently now. She knows the sausage and cheese never made it past the door of the Kansas State Maximum Correctional Facility in Lansing. The couple’s son never knew the moment his mother placed the mustard and crackers into that box.

Sometimes, the old people come to Molly late at night, when she is not sleeping well, and she dreams she delivers that package to their son. She swims past wires and bars, walls and guards on a stream of light flowing from his cell window. She sees him open the box while he sits on his bunk staring into forty years. He pulls one of the carton flaps back, and the ice-blue sky over the North Platte streams from the folds of tissue paper and fills his cell. The river itself flows through the holes in the Swiss cheese, spilling over riffles of crackers and falls of salami. He peers into the pool behind the mustard jar and finds his parents with their arms open to him.

And there are trout. Lots of trout.

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