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Ten: German trout

One of the Germans and I wandered off down the bank though the sycamores into the night. Several long, flat-bottom boats motored by, outfitted with huge spotlights and muscular men who spit mouthfuls of tobacco past the tines of their tridents.

Udo, the tall German, and I watched the men spear catfish and sculpin as the fish floated into the light. The men flung the fish over their shoulders into their boats like sacks of sand. Around the men, the night burped and beeped in the sycamores with tree and leopard frogs, and crickets. Every now and then, a muskrat or otter plopped into the river.

“Komish,” Udo said. “Is it allowed?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “These guys don’t pay much attention to the law. There aren’t many conservation agents around at night to enforce the law anyway.”

Five or six boats passed us. We felt like spies. None of the men on the boats could see us lurking in the bushes. After a time, Udo turned around and stared up at the glowing windows of our cabin.

The two-bedroom house in the middle of the state park intrigued the Germans. The house was one in a group of five, each a duplex with everything but a dishwasher. The television floated, suspended, in the corner of the living room above two couches, an armchair and coffee table. Behind one of the couches stood a dining room table with four chairs. The bedrooms were cavernous; the bathroom could accommodate six or seven people at a time. The kitchen was spacious as a television chef’s. Outside, neat parking lots padded up to the front walks beneath mowed and trimmed rolling hills. The Niangua muscled by just past cottonwoods and sycamores guarding the steep bank. Out back, towering walnut and elm stand across a wonderfully trimmed yard beyond a patio, Fiji ring and picnic table.

Udo and I walked on the bank and up the hill past the cabin. In the night under the red-yellow glow of street lights here and there, the park was like a picnic blanket thrown over the forest.

At the top of the hill, we decided to walk toward the spring that rolled out a mile-long watery path to the Niangua. The spring river burbled. Once in a while, a trout jumped, splashing into the water like waking from a dream.

As we walked along the road, the odor of freshets wafted up to us, smelling like rosemary tea. We walked without a flashlight, the night bright enough to show us the way. The forest across the river croaked and squeaked and rustled, elms and walnut bowed over us. The streetlights grew more frequent, illuminating large parking lots near the park store. It was like a stadium after all the fans had gone home.

“In summer, the parking lots are thick with cars,” I said. “There isn’t much room for anyone who doesn’t show up early.”

“Es ist wie Phantasia Land,” Udo said.

“It’s an amusement park for trout anglers,” I said.

At the hatchery, I shined the flashlight into the dark concrete troughs lined up and fed with spring water. Udo and I sidled up to the fence around the concrete maze and gazed at the thousands of trout darting about. Wherever my light went, the pools erupted into frenzies of spooked fish. In the larger troughs, trout jumped as if they could escape their concrete homes up the beam of light.

We walked as far as the dam below the spring, over which water spilled and foamed. We decided then that our warm dinner, prepared by the other Germans and my wife, was getting cold and demanded attention.

We walked slowly, listening to the forest, the river and the night. We spoke little as we were transported from catfish noodlers and modern accommodations. The trout world along the river was big enough for all of us.

When we returned, dinner was stone cold and the Germans and my wife were hot. “Why didn’t you think about us?” she fumed. “We didn’t know if you all had fallen in the river, broken a leg or what. You really had us worried. We were out back yelling your names down that damn river and were about ready to go find the park ranger. We wanted to drive to get you, but you had the keys to the car, and we couldn’t go looking for you.”

“Where were you?” said Andrea, one of the Germans. She stood with her arms crossed and looked very upset.

I fumbled with the keys in my pocket.

“I can’t believe you’d be so selfish,” my wife said. “Dinner was ready just after you left. We figured you’d be back in a few minutes, that you wouldn’t be rude enough to leave dinner on the table. Plus, you left without a sweater or a jacket or anything.”

“Ein bisschen hoefflichkeit. How do you say, politeness?” said Ivo. He looked much less worried than the other two. I looked at Udo. He seemed surprised.

“Come on,” I said. “We just went for a walk. It’s is like a suburb out here. You can’t get lost, and even if you did, you’d have to be an idiot. There’s civilization everywhere.”

“Don’t ever walk off like that again,” Andrea said, and Ivo nodded in agreement. “You can be so selfish and rude. You could have let us know you were walking off into the woods.”

Udo and I sat down to cold potatoes, squash, salsa and tortillas. “Sie haben recht,” he said, after a few minutes. “We should have told them something.”

“Sicher haben sie recht, aber so schlimm war’s auch nicht,” I said. “They were sitting around smoking cigarettes and began to tell stories to each other. Suddenly, we were overcome with danger, and they panicked. Come on.”

“Panic can be real, too,” he said.

The TV was on high in the corner of the living room. We ate in silence while Humphery Bogart became more paranoid about his gold in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. My wife and Andrea smoked out back on a little deck under the roof. Ivo sat in a chair with them, and all of them looked in at us. Udo and I tried not to pay attention, but while we watched Bogart, we could see them through the window.

Everyone’s nerves calmed. I could see Ivo laugh from time to time. I turned out all the lights in the house, and Udo and I joined our friends on the deck. We told stories, walked through memories like looking at postcards, and sat in silence listening to the night.

When it was time for bed, we all said good night and climbed into blankets. Udo, the odd man out, slept on the sofa. Soon, sleeping sounds echoed through the house.

The next day, everyone was standing in a line on the bank of the spring river. The Germans and my wife used my old rods with spinning reels. Trout flitted everywhere, thousands of them, but none took the lures. I did a little better with my fly rod, retrieving a few nibbles.

“I’m sorry, babe,” I said to my wife.

“You know why we didn’t stay mad?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “Because you came to your senses?”

“Don’t be a boob,” she said casting into a knot of rainbows. “It was the night, all the animal sounds and the river.”

I walked down to work a patch of moss toward the other bank. The trout at my feet looked up. They knew.


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