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Eleven: Trick or trout

A corporation bought the family newspaper I worked for, and I was scared. My fear was for myself, for my coworkers, for my family. We had worked to turn the paper into something we could be proud of, and the men in suits didn’t care as they walked around us talking into cell phones. In their chatter, we could hear things would change. People would be hurt.

In just a few weeks, suits strolled through the office. Uncertainty hung in the air like musty stink. The future was suddenly distant and blurry. I had to get away, to think, to pray.

My wife, my child, and I took a weekend to travel to my wife’s ancestral home, Independence, Kansas, near the Missouri and Oklahoma borders. They slept the whole trip down that Saturday morning, and I was alone thinking of changes to come, thinking of them as their sleep sounds filled the car.

I raced down two lane roads drenched in rain and autumn colors, the miles putting more worries into my foggy head. When we arrived at the parade, our first stop in the town, it felt like spies were there.

Floats, high school marching bands and politicians lined up in puddles along Pennsylvania Avenue. The carnival skittered in the distance toward downtown, the Ferris wheel and Spider flashing against the gray sky. Along side streets, busy mothers and fathers dressing their children in sweaters and raincoats popped out onto porches with friendly waves.

Every business in downtown peddled its wares to the 50,000 wet people strolling the town’s streets and standing in its watery gutters. In the drizzle, the place smelled like an obese, sweet orgy of hickory-smoked deep-fried oil. Trailer shops spewed thick fumes along the parade route. Food fried on grills and in deep vats of steaming oil everywhere—fried ice cream, fried candy bars, french fries, onion blossoms, onion rings, fried shrimp, funnel cakes, hamburgers, bratwurst, popcorn, doughnuts, cheese sticks, sweet potatoes, turkeys, turkey legs, chicken, chicken parts, and green peppers and fried jalapenos. Other vendors smoked and barbecued meat and sold homemade root beer and wrinkled bags of snack food.

The crowd had filled in between the food stands with folding chairs and umbrellas to watch the Neewollah Festival parade, a sort of Halloween for good Christians. The event was a once-a-year week of excess and reunion, a diversion from mundane, small town life. The festival culminated in banks, militia groups, fraternal organizations, high schools and chambers of commerce winding their way between the three- and four-story buildings and smoking, steaming vendor wagons.

We stood on the sidewalk and watched marching bands. Scantily clad girls twirling batons make their way past the fried food vendors on either side of us. It was good fun, really, a break from the worry of work. My child found new friends to play with. My wife and I commented on the floats and marchers, the mini- and historic cars and tractors. We ate our share of fried food.

Everyone seemed to be having a good time, downing soft drinks, fatty food and watching the parade—except for a group of trench-coated men and women standing on the opposite side of the street looking in the pet store window. They wore broad-brimmed fedoras pulled low over dark glasses.

“Babe,” I said to my wife. “Do you see those people over there?”

“Who?” she asked.

“The ones across the street there. The one’s wearing the sunglasses. They all have the same hair.” I nodded toward the trench coats.

“No, not really,” she said. “Which ones?”

“That is funny,” I said. “They are standing so still, as if they’re waiting for something. And how about those shoes?”

Below the trench coats, the men and women wore the same, large rubber goulashes, unclasped. The boots flopped when they shifted their feet. They seemed to stare forward, infrequently turning in unison to look at something. Occasionally, they reached into the deep pockets of their coats and munched on whatever they pulled from there.

The Junction City, Kansas, High School band marched by, playing popular tunes on sousaphones and snare drums. Then came the Labette County Correctional Conservation Corps shuffling like a troop of slouching army recruits. The masons spun their mini-cars and motorcycles about, followed by the Grand Order of Mirza marshal, high priest and conjurer, and captain of the guard in identical 1967 Ford Mustangs.

The group of trench-coat people, however, stood unfazed until the Coffey County Hawghunters drove by crowded into bass boats on trailers. Heavy men in camouflaged hats cast hookless lures down the canyon of storefronts and old hotels from the motorboats equipped with depth and fish finders, huge outboard engines, trolling motors and tall fishing stools. One of the men shouted into bullhorn something about “lunkers” and “structure” and “the big one.”

The crowd of trench-coated folks, about twelve in number, started to follow the bass fishermen and their boats. They walked down the sidewalk, bumping clumsily into strangers, slipping on discarded fried onion blossoms. They nearly knocked over a baby stroller and clumsily pushed a woman in a wheelchair to the side, bowing and nodding as they walked past.

I gave what was left of my food to my wife.

“Don’t hurt yourself,” she laughed. “They might be CIA.”

I darted across the street between the Joplin, Missouri, High School Band and a shoddy, rusted Mustang driven by the Kansas state treasurer (good politics if you want to be a man of the people in rural Kansas, now that I think of it). Drizzle turned to rain as I shot between funnel cake and fried ice cream stands. I followed the swaying, jerky trench coats and hats for a couple of blocks. Although several of them pointed and nodded in various directions—mostly toward the bass fishermen—I didn’t hear them say a word. They all had brown hair combed in the same style and of the same length. It struck me that they were wearing wigs. They didn’t really walk, they waddled.

In a wet breeze, I caught their scent and was stunned. I was in Independence, Kansas, the home of William Inge, whose angry poke at the town, Picnic, Hollywood made into a movie with a parade of stars. And I was standing in a crowd of strangers. But the aroma the trench coats put off was that of spring freshets and alpine bogs—the smell of mountains laced with thyme and mint. Kim Novak was never as fecund, William Holden never so raw and strong, the trout stream of the mind never so inviting as in that moment.

“Hey,” I called out to the trench coats. “Hey, excuse me just a minute.”

The waddling stopped and they turned to look at me, their faces all the same pasty complexion, some black, some white, just like the crowd around them.

“Who are you?” I asked. “I know it’s none of my business, but I have to ask.”

One of the strangers stepped forward and handed me a business card:

Bull Trout Survival League, Condon, Montana

Brothers and Sisters together

All welcome, bring freshwater mind

She reached a gloved hand into her pocket and pulled out a pinch of hellgrammites and caddis nymphs and swallowed them in a gulp.

“We are who you think we are,” she said with a voice like a mountain spring. “We came to see some things and to see you. You probably can’t help us, but we can help you.”

I felt calm, like sitting on the bank of a trout stream. She lowered her sunglasses and showed me the depth of stream elbows and pools behind rocks. There were foaming riffles in her pupils and pine trees in her eyebrows. The other trench coats moved in closer and touched me on the shoulders, patted me on the back.

“What am I supposed to do?” I asked. “What about my family? What is going to happen to them?”

“Do what you always do,” said the one who handed me the business card.

“Have you ever starved?” asked one. I recognized the accent as the same as the first brown trout I ever caught. He smiled with the grand air of the Laramie Valley.

“Did you ever get put out on the street?” asked another, with the slow drawl of the Confederate trout I once caught in a spring creek in southern Missouri.

“Ever hurt your family?” asked one whose twang was from Roubidoux Creek near Waynesville, Missouri.

“Don’t worry,” said one with the lilt of the Shoshone on the Wind River. “You will do what you always do, and they will be fine.”

“Come see us,” the first one said, as across the cloudy cloak of a yawning mountain range. “Anytime you are up our way. I think it might be soon.”

I eyed the card. Condon, high in western Montana, was a place where men and women went to start anew, to be baptized in infant rivers. When I looked up, they smiled, turned together and waddled away.

“What was that all about?” asked my wife as I returned to her from between the Chetopa, Kansas, High School Band and the Independence Chamber of Commerce float. “What were you looking for?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll know when I find it.”

I watched the rest of the parade in silence.

Later, I gripped the center pole on the bucket of the Ferris wheel seat. Usually, I avoided carnival rides. I couldn’t get off once they started. I was scared out of my wits of detaching my feet from the ground and letting ride operators have control. But this ride looked new and stable. It moved with seemingly easy slowness. I heeded the calls of my child when she asked me to ride with her and my wife.

Once on the Ferris wheel started, I had to ride, and I panicked. My knuckles turned white, and my throat tightened. My wife and child laughed.

When the wheel stopped to let riders off below us, we were far above Independence, and it looked still and calm and tame. I remembered William Holden and Cliff Robertson atop the grain elevators far above the town in Picnic. Independence was a lovely place, with the prairie stretching clear to Oklahoma and Missouri and full of Indian ghosts.

I looked down and saw the trench coats moving among the crowd between the Whiplash and the Sizzler. Each of the figures held little plastic bags I knew had goldfish in them—prizes from the ring toss. I relaxed a little, sat back and watched my wife and child laughing and giggling. I let the carnival ride operator have the controls, just like life.

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