The Whispered Teachings of Grandmother Trout

Chapter One

            Ali Stephenson bolted upright in her bed and looked around the room, barely making out the edges of her dresser and the chair in the corner by the sliding glass door. No sounds of birds greeted her from the patio, where she had filled the feeder the night before. No sliver of sunlight emerged from the morning sky. Taking a deep breath, she swung her athletic legs off the bed and pulled back the drapes. A gentle pink glow was just beginning to wash across the horizon. She searched for the images from the dream that woke her with a start, and none emerged. Shaking her head, she turned and strode toward the shower.

            Thirty minutes later, she emerged from her bedroom, dressed for the day in white linen pants and a navy blouse. The coffee was waiting, and as she poured the cup of the steaming ebony liquid, she remembered she needed to buy a baby shower gift for a friend, and added that to the list on her phone.  She sighed. Just put it behind you, once and for all, Ali Mae. Her grandmother’s words echoed in her mind. It was her grandmother’s way of dealing with anything troublesome. Just shove it aside. Ali had learned that one well. Shaking her head again, she filled her travel mug, grabbed a green juice from the refrigerator, and headed toward her front door. She once again skipped a leisurely moment on the patio with her coffee, enjoying the birds that visited her feeder.

            Pausing to put her juice in her bag and take the keys from the drawer of the pine gate-leg table, one of her grandmother’s prized possessions, she spotted her fly rod in the tall woven Taghkanic trapping basket, made by a family friend out of maple reeds, many years before. She’d gone out casting the night before on the bay behind the condos and hadn’t put it back in her car. She checked her watch and decided she was early enough to go to the pond and cast for a while. That at least would make up for skipping coffee on the patio. It was much like a meditation for her, sometimes better than yoga or running. Casting took her to another place, a safe place.

            Joe Dryscoll parted the blinds, allowing the morning sun to stream through the window. Placing his hand against the glass, he estimated temperatures in the mid-eighties, and for a moment imagined the warm breeze dancing on his face. The view was pleasant. From here, he could watch the surf roll to the shore. It moved him, much like the sight of a beautiful woman. He lowered his gaze and such a woman was below him. Ali was a little earlier than usual. He never grew tired of watching her. Her graceful form, her lithe body, and her powerful stroke told a lot about her. She repeated the action over and over again, sailing a chartreuse speck through the air at the end of a fluorescent orange line. She appeared to be using the fountain as a target, taking care to miss the ducks and geese swimming in the manmade pond.

            Removing his dark wire-rimmed glasses, Joe rubbed his forehead. His feelings about her were complex––more than a daughter, less than a lover. It was that from that very first day she came into his office. That day began her career at the magazine, his magazine. That day seemed like a lifetime ago. They’d been through a lot together.

            The alarm on his watch sounded, shaking him from his thoughts. Glancing down at the gold face, he tapped it lightly and sighed. He took a set of keys from the pocket of his gray trousers. Bending his lean frame, he opened the drawer of his mahogany desk. Inside several prescription bottles stood perfectly upright in a black metal basket. He methodically opened each, removing one or two pills in different shapes and colors as he went down the line. He had a matching set at home. Reaching for the crystal decanter with his tan hand, speckled with liver spots, he poured a glass of water and then washed the pills down without hesitation. After wiping his mouth with a handkerchief, which he had removed from his back pocket, he refolded it with care and glanced down at the gold monogram JED in one corner. There was no junior. The Dryscoll family would soon draw to a close. But hopefully not too soon, not before his affairs had been put in order. He hated the sound of that phrase, but it was one that had remained at the forefront of his mind for some time now.

            After closing the drawer, careful to once again secure its contents, he returned to the window. Ali was still there. Her chestnut hair, which fell below her shoulders, glistened in the sun. This time she had company. Joe tensed as he watched her movements lose their grace until they ceased. The man next to her paced back and forth, his arms flailing about. She appeared silent––unable, or perhaps unwilling, to respond. Then she retreated from the water’s edge, carrying her rod, with her head hanging. The man followed her, with his mouth moving with exaggeration. Joe watched until they disappeared from his view.

            Turning back to his desk, with a clenched jaw, he picked up the assignment file for the next few issues. He glanced down at his typed notes until he came to “Fly Fishing South Texas Style.” He took his red pen, crossed out a name, and replaced it with Ali’s, topping it off with an exclamation point. She needed a break, not only from what he’d just witnessed but before…he wouldn’t allow himself to finish his sentence. He still had time, perhaps more than he deserved, but he was going to take every second of it and live to the fullest, only now in a more mindful manner.

            He hoped that his example would inspire others to do likewise, particularly Ali. While he admired her dedication and spirit for the magazine, he worried about her drive. It seemed, at times, a matter of will rather than passion. He wondered if he had expected too much of her. Shaking his head, he hoped that that wasn’t the case. He needed her now more than ever. And she needed a reprieve from Sam. He never approved of their courtship, and he’d like to do anything he could to sabotage it once and for all. Yet, if he could draw anything from the scene below his window, the end was likely near. His temples vibrated. He wanted better for her, always had.                              

Reaching across his desk, Joe picked up the phone and dialed a four-digit extension. “Ali, when you have a moment would you come by my office? Thanks, my dear.” His drawl testified to his heritage and his manners to his upbringing.

            He ran his fingers through his silver hair, a little sparse on top, but thicker on the sides, at least for now. He sighed, as he rolled down the cuffs of his starched white shirt, covering the forearm that was once darkened from hours spent surfing, but now bruised from repeated tests and transfusions. He leaned back in his black leather chair and looked up at the ceiling, opting to spend the time until her arrival contemplating his words. They were important. They always were, only there were times in his life when he couldn’t perceive just how impactful his words or his actions really were. The error of his ways had caught up with him, and he had only himself to blame.

            A knock on the door ended his reverie. “Come in.

            Ali showed no signs of the exchange he observed, except for the drawn expression and pale complexion that had become her trademark of late. Rising from his chair, he greeted her, “You have a lovely cast. Timing is impeccable.” He motioned toward the chair.

            A hint of color tinted Ali’s cheeks. “Perhaps your timing was a bit off.”

            “Seems my timing was perfect to witness yet another scuffle with your beau.”       

            Ali groaned.

            He stared at her over the top of his glasses. “It’s difficult to see you make another poor choice in a suitor.”

            “Seems to be my destiny.” Exasperated, she tucked a lock of hair behind her right ear, exposing a single pearl stud. “Is this all you called me in for?”

            “Not at all.” He stretched out in his chair, leaning back just slightly. Clasping his hands behind his head, he deliberately set the tone for a more relaxed exchange. “Been to the farm?”

            She crossed her right leg over her left and began tapping her foot wildly, loosening the heal of her navy pumps. “Not in a while.”

             “It’s been years according to my estimation.”

            “Maybe so.” She bit the side of her lip.

            “Done anything for fun lately?” His grey/green eyes twinkled.

            “Joe, what is this all about?” Her brow was now deeply furrowed.

            “When’s the last time you spent any significant amount of time outdoors? And I’m not talking about your fifteen-minute forays on the corporate pond.”

            “I actually went casting last night.” She looked defiantly into his eyes.

            “What happened to the young woman who finagled her way into a four-day workweek just so she could spend most of her weekends at her family farm, walking in the woods, smelling the carpet of decaying leaves and blooming dogwood along a bustling stream?”

             Ali sighed. “I guess she grew up.”

            “Dried up is more like it.” He leaned forward, with a mischievous grin. “But I’m going to change all that.” He handed her a file. “I have an assignment for you––one that will put some sunshine in your smile, some color in your cheeks, and while it isn’t the mountains, you’ll get to wield your fly rod at fish, rather than the ducks in the pond, and perhaps rekindle your desire to honor your roots again.”

            She looked at the red handwriting on the tab of the manila folder. “You’re kidding.”

            “There’s a list of contacts, deadlines, word count, etc. You’ll have to be the photographer as well.”

            “Why?” She glanced at him suspiciously, before turning her attention to the file.

            “You need a solo adventure.” He resumed his relaxed posture, studying her face as she read over the file.

            Her face softened as she flipped through the pages, and then a smile formed on her thick lips. She closed the folder. “I only have freshwater equipment,” she explained.

             “Buy what you need.” He rose, his lean frame towering above her. “Take ten days. Enjoy yourself.”

            Ali glanced out the window. “You hitting me with more staff cuts?”

            “Not in the foreseeable future.”

            She eyed him warily. “Then I’d better take a look at my schedule and reshuffle my priorities.”

            “Any idea when you might like to go?”

            She rose to leave. “My birthday’s coming up.”

            “A momentous one if I remember correctly.” He came around to the front of the desk near where she stood. He glanced into her bright blue eyes and for a moment regretted that he wasn’t younger. Things could have been different between them. “Forty is a great time to contemplate changes in your life.”

            Ali frowned and let out a big sigh. “I prefer not thinking about it right now.”

            “Any regrets?”

            “A few, but none that I can do anything about.” She put her hand on the doorknob.            “Thanks, Joe.” She waved the file folder.

            “Just have fun. You write better when you’re relaxed, just like your casting.”

             “Aye, aye captain.” She saluted and left the room.

             The afternoon sun filtered through the white vertical blinds, leaving shards of light on the floor of Ali’s office. Yet, she didn’t seem to notice. A vacant look rested upon her face, occasionally disrupted by the pursuing of her mouth. A sigh escaped her lips, and she stared momentarily out the window as if searching for something.  The dream had stayed with Ali throughout the morning, with vague images flitting through her mind as she went about her tasks. She tried to force them into greater clarity, but it did little good. This was one of those moments as she searched the skyline with her arms crossed. The dream wasn’t disturbing. She’d had her share of those and was never tempted to revisit them in the daylight hours. This one was inviting.

            Looking around the office, she could see why she wanted to retreat into the dream. Stacks of files framed two corners of her desk, and a pile of messages lay upon the desk blotter. The voice mail light was flickering, and an unfinished story stared back at her from the computer screen. She’d lost her ability to concentrate over a week ago, and much preferred sitting idly rather than engage in any meaningful or mundane tasks. Her thoughts continually drifted to her upcoming trip. The thought of being away––from the office, from Sam, and even from Joe–– was a relief. He had been right. She was drying up. She sighed, pushed her bangs away from her forehead, and straightened in her chair, determined to get back to work. A knock on her door ended her contemplation.

            “Come in.” She stood behind her desk, poised for her visitor’s entrance. With her shoulders squared and her head erect, she felt ready for whatever came her way. A young man, no more than twenty-five, carrying a rod tube, about two feet long, and a green paper bag with rope handles entered.

            “Ms. Stephenson.”

            She nodded. “Yes?”

            “Delivery from River Run Outfitters.”

            Her face brightened, and her shoulders relaxed, as she moved to the front of the desk.

            “Mr. Haskins said it’s all set. The line has been put on your reel and all.”

            Reaching for the package and the rod tube, Ali felt another image from the dream filled her with warmth, but once again the vision was unclear.

            “He wants a fishing report as soon as you get back.” He chuckled.

            She studied the young man standing before her for a moment, staring at his tall muscular body. His tanned face was framed with curly blond hair, and he had a dimple in his right cheek when he smiled. She envied his youth and wanted him to stay so she could bask in his freshness, in his carefree exuberance. His presence was a nice distraction, and she was tempted to keep him lingering. Lunch, maybe, a long one. She shuddered.

            Steeling herself against her temptation, she reached behind her desk and into her purse. “Tell Mr. Haskins that I’ll even provide photo support with my fish tales,” she said as she pressed a ten-dollar bill into the palm of his hand, pondering a long lunch one last time, before nodding toward the door. “Have a great afternoon.”

            The door closed behind him, and she leaned against her desk. She glanced around the room. It was much like Joe’s office. Same size and layout, with cherry furnishings instead of mahogany. Even her power wall was a close match to his, complete with regional and national awards. Her gaze fell to one side, a cluster of prizes for stories she’d written. They were but a handful, compared to the others. But they meant the most. Managing and editing had filled her time for the past several years. Only occasionally did she write a story. Most of those were fillers, needed in a pinch to fill space. Ali closed her eyes and crossed her arms, hugging herself tightly. Something was taking hold of her. Something that had the power to turn her life into a complete mess or turn it into something far better than she could ever imagine. She couldn’t tell which. She glanced out the window, this time at the surf beyond the corporate pond.

            “I’m ready,” she whispered aloud, wondering what she was ready for. The dream came back, clearly this time. She was standing in water up to her knees, holding a fly rod. Beside her was a man, whose face she could not see. But he felt older, wiser. Ahead of her stood another man, about her age, perhaps a few years older––also wielding a rod. Looking into the water, she saw fish swimming toward her, large fish, either in singles or in pairs. Their dark bodies glimmered through the surface. The man next to her whispered. “Speckled Trout.” His voice was reverent. The younger man went on ahead and cast, but failed time and time again to hook up. ”He can’t do it alone,” the older man whispered. “No one can.” He looked at her, his hazel eyes pierced through her soul. “Not even you.”    


            The door opened behind her, with a burst, and closed with a loud thud. Sam Hagan took off his glasses and frowned. “You stood me up. We were supposed to meet a half hour ago.”

            Ali jumped. “I’ve got a lot to do in the next few days.” She slipped the fly rod from its case, running her fingers lovingly along the glossy black surface.

            “You’re really going?” Sam came up beside her and wrapped his arms around her waist.

            She gripped the rod until her knuckles turned white.

            “I thought I could convince you to spend your birthday with me, somewhere in the mountains, perhaps the farm.” He nibbled her ear, sinking his teeth into her skin more forcefully than she cared for. “You’ve never taken me there.”

            “Not here.” Ali pried his hands from her waist, feeling trapped.

            His fingers clung to her black sweater. “What gives?”

            “I like to keep my private life, private.” She stepped away.

            “It’s a little late for that, isn’t it?”

            He was right. She did little to hide their romance. This one or any other. Not even with Nigel. Her stomach churned at the thought of him, and she quickly directed her attention back to Sam. Ali regarded him for a moment and was startled by her revelation. His physical features did little for her. He had a thick face and was far too polished. His shoes were never smudged, and his clothes were always immaculately pressed, even his jeans. She fought the urge to laugh aloud at the absurdity of what she’d settled for this time. She had always preferred darker men, with leaner features, a little rugged around the edges. Yet, she had never been with anyone fitting that description. They were all well-heeled as Joe would say. She abruptly tended to the task of joining the pieces of the rod together and then wiggled it back and forth. “Sweet.” She returned the rod into its case, letting her hand rest on it for a moment before she propped it against the wall.

            “I don’t understand this obsession,” Sam quipped.

            Ali stared out the window. A dreamy look fell upon her countenance. “Grandpa would get so excited when a fish hit his fly. He would squeal like a little boy. Brought back his youth.” She paused, and her voice softened even more. “And his rhythm as he cast the line. He was so graceful. It was really beautiful. There was just something very magical about it.”

            “Magic is what happens when you and I go to the mountains.”

            “Not lately, Sam.” Ali wasn’t the type to be cruel, but she was beginning to have a hard time playing games with men in particular. 

            He winced. “You’ve changed.”

            “I know.”

            “It’s all that yoga and meditating,” he said, snidely.

            They were the only things that could bring peace to her troubled mind lately, and she found herself turning to them more and more. “Maybe you should try them sometime.” Her words vibrated with the sting of a scorpion.

            Sam rubbed his forehead, turning it pink. He had sensitive skin and abhorred the out of doors. His idea of a trek to the mountains was sleeping late, and then sitting by the fireplace for hours on end reading Thoreau, sipping wine, and then sucking her into endless literary debates by evening’s arrival. For a time she found them thrilling, matching wits with a man she thought was her intellectual equal. Of late, she preferred Pam Houston or Brené Brown, much to his disdain. He said he couldn’t relate to a feminine voice, particularly of strong women. Ali knew he didn’t even try.

            “Send someone else on the assignment.” His husky voice bordered on threatening.

            “Joe wouldn’t hear of it.”

            “Oh, yes, our illustrious leader. We can’t override his decisions.”

            “Why should we?” Her piercing expression could send a chill up the spine of the most hardened criminal, but Sam seemed oblivious to it.

            “I’ll plan a special celebration for you upon your return.” He clasped her arm.

            “That won’t be necessary.” She lowered her eyes, aware that the pressure beneath his fingers had increased. Her heart raced, knowing she needed to make an exit. “I’ve got to go to production.”

            She pried herself from his grasp. The sensation of his fingers on her skin remained with her, reminding her of the other times when he tried to sway her into his way of thinking. She felt safe here, and subsequently courageous. She glanced in the mirror on the wall near her desk and tucked a few errant strands of her chestnut hair back into the bun which rested on the nape of her neck. Clutching the doorknob, she paused. “I can’t see you anymore. It’s just not been right for me for a long time.”

            His expression conveyed his disbelief. Then the anger took hold, and she knew a hasty retreat was in order, or she’d suffer another cold slap on the face, perhaps worse. She hadn’t seen the initial blow coming, and she chastised herself for being so stupid––and staying with a man who had harmed her. She wrote it off as a familial flaw that she learned to live with early in her life. With the others, it had been just words, and as an editor, she could erase them from her mind, at least most of the time. But with Sam, the stakes were elevated, and she knew she was no match for him in the end. She placated him for a time, sucking in her pride and suckling his.      

            With her hand still gripping the doorknob, panic seeped under her skin. But then the essence of the dream shrouded her with its cloak. It was time to move on. To what, she just didn’t know. She whisked out of the door and into the hallway, with a subtle sense of freedom following in her wake.

Chapter Two

            The heat of deep South Texas greeted Ali like a warm embrace. Standing on the walkway outside the airport, she paused, looked around at the tall palms, and relished the sweetness of the afternoon air. Great-tailed grackles, with their black feathers glistening in the sunlight, serenaded her arrival with their boisterous cackles, as she headed toward her rental car.

            For a girl raised in the mountains with oaks and maples, South Texas should have seemed foreign. But as Ali settled in behind the wheel of the car and aimed for the hamlet of Arroyo City, she had the odd sensation of going home. As she left the airport, the scenery around her shifted. Development gave way to mesquite and cactus. Spanish daggers stood like sentinels along the highway, ushering her to a new adventure. Entering the little town of Rio Hondo, she stopped at a traffic light and surveyed the sleepy village, deserted in the afternoon heat except for a few people moving slowly about their business. On one corner stood a bakery, boasting fresh tortillas. Two women, both in cotton, print dresses and with their silver hair wound in buns, entered, silent as they made their way through the threshold. On the opposite side of the street, a tall, teenaged boy with dark cropped hair, dressed in jeans and a red t-shirt, gathered abandoned shopping carts from the parking lot of a small grocery store. Immediately to Ali’s left, a two-story brick schoolhouse stood empty except for a bedraggled dog seeking shelter from the blazing sun, sleeping on the front entryway. And to her right was a cafe and gas station.

            A little girl with long, curly, dark hair and big brown eyes came out of the glass door, followed by a young woman, with similar features. Gripping a dripping ice cream cone, she grinned broadly at Ali as she and her mom stepped onto the curb and prepared to cross the street. After meeting the little girl’s gaze, sadness crept into Ali’s heart. Six years is a long time to carry the pain of a past mistake, but this was one Ali knew would follow her to her grave. She reached for her bottle of water and took a long sip. There was a time when she did the same with a fine bottle of wine, night after night until enough time had passed, and the demons had been tamed. Screwing the top back on the bottle, she switched on the radio to drown out any lingering thoughts. Lively Tejano music, with swift guitar rifts and dancing trumpets, floated through the speakers. Ali’s mood brightened as she waited for the light to turn green.

            A light toot of a horn sounded behind her. In the rearview mirror, she spotted a silver pickup truck. The driver gave her a friendly wave. She returned the gesture and stepped on the gas, forgetting the vehicle behind her as she continued her leisurely pace, and made note of other significant landmarks as she crept through town. Two more cafes in the next block, a dollar store, a beauty salon, and in the next the post office and a hardware store. Here, life’s basic necessities could be satisfied in just a few blocks.

            The town limits passed quickly, allowing the driver of the truck to take his leave and move by her on the open highway. She glanced at the pickup as it went by. It was towing a classy shallow water skiff that immediately reminded her of a 5-series BMW, white, and spotless, as was the truck. The man once again waved as he pulled back into the lane in front of her, and then sped away, leaving Ali to her steady, slower pace.

            Glancing at her instructions now and then, she began looking for the next intersection, noted as FM 106 to FM 2925. At first, perplexed about the FM, she soon discovered it meant farm to market. The directions to Mama Kate’s were precise, down to “the white house on the corner of the intersection” where she was to take a left. After doing so, Ali drove along the highway for several miles, passing only a few houses and equally few cars. Horses grazed along the road, dogs slept lazily under porches, and scissor-tailed flycatchers darted overhead, seizing their prey in midair. Crops of milo, cotton, and sugar cane stretched out onto the horizon for as far as she could see, broken only by occasional mesquite or ebony reaching skyward above the fields of green. And, the sky––vaster than Ali had ever seen before––hung like an azure umbrella over it all. Something stirred deep within her that was both exciting and frightening as she watched huge white puffy clouds float along on the backdrop of blue. She felt connected to everything within her field of vision and beyond.

            The sign for the Arroyo Baptist Church alerted Ali that she was nearing her destination. The beat of her heart increased, and she inched the gas pedal a little closer to the floor. She wasn’t one to know exactly what was right or wrong at any given moment without lengthy periods of contemplation, but she knew in every square inch of her body and soul that this trip was in alignment with anything and everything that could be aligned––stars, moons, planets, or tea leaves. She glanced at the directions and began watching for the next set of landmarks. Passing the only two restaurants in town, one nothing more than a corner bar with a half a dozen pickup trucks parked in front, she eagerly awaited her first glimpse of Mama Kate’s. Exactly one mile beyond the steel gray water tower, she pulled into the driveway of a quaint seaside farmhouse with a black lab sprawled on the front porch. Adjacent was a two-story guest house, with the same red doors and terra cotta trim.

            Emerging from the car, Ali was again greeted by the warm afternoon air. She inhaled deeply and savored the salty, sweet, earthy smell of the plants and grasses––and saltwater. The door to the house opened and a woman, a bit stocky and small of stature, in her late sixties said, “You must be Ali. I was expecting you ‘bout now.” She extended her hand, brown from the sun, and a bit gnarled from arthritis. “I’m Kate McGregor, known around these parts as Mama Kate.”

            “Ali Stephenson.” As she embraced the woman’s hand, she was transported to her grandparents’ farm, comforted by the memory. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Ali surveyed the yard. Lush vegetation with flowers of yellow, melon, and scarlet lined the fence. A wild patch of yucca, palms, and cactus graced the open space near the road. And in front of the porch, bloomed several roses in pinks, yellows, and reds. “So many roses!” Ali exclaimed.

            “Mary’s favorite flower.”

            Ali cocked her head and turned to Mama Kate.

             Kate glanced toward the towering mesquite tree in the side yard. Ali followed her gaze where a statue of the Holy Mother held forth among a bevy of bird feeders, and more plants, including a large shrub, rose in shades of pink.

             “Catholic?” Ali inquired.

            Mama Kate shook her head. “Just know a wise woman when I see one.” She looked deeply into Ali’s eyes, letting her words linger between them. “C’ mon in.” The woman turned toward the house, with Ali following. The Labrador lazily sauntered behind the two women. Without turning, Kate said, “Max, you leave her be.”

            “He’s fine. I love dogs.”

             “Let me warn you now. He’ll most likely follow you to your room in hopes of getting in your bed.” Mama Kate chuckled. “I doubt if he’ll be the only one. Not many pretty ladies like you descend these parts, especially to go fishin’.”

            Ali chuckled. “I’ve had my fill of men for a while.” The flatness of her voice was startling. “My work is much safer.”

            Mama Kate put her hands in the pocket of her flowered cotton tunic, her hand moving ever so slightly. She studied Ali. “Right…Your room is up the stairs and to the right. Gus is usually here to help my guests with their bags, but I sent him to town for groceries.”

             “Your husband?”

             “Not married. Did that once. The love of my life. Hard to replace a man like that.” Mama Kate glanced out the window.

            A reverent silence fell between them. Ali followed Mama Kate’s gaze once again. This time she noticed not a statue, but an expanse of water about a hundred yards wide, meandering past the dock––the Arroyo Colorado, with thick, native brush of sage, mesquite, and Spanish daggers lining the far bank.

            Mama Kate spoke first. “The Lord called him, and …well, I stayed and made the best of what we had going…which is this.” She pointed to a boat on the slip. “Cy used to do all the guiding. Now I hire the guides. Keep that thing around just in case I get a wild hair to go for a boat ride.” She grinned, and then made a move to end the conversation.

            “I’m going to take me a siesta before supper. I suggest you do the same. The sun and wind will likely beat you to death out there on the bay. Come week’s end, you’ll be thankful to go back home…” She peered intently at Ali once again. “Most folks are.” Mama Kate tilted her head to one side. “But then again, some stay longer than they expect. One look at the Mother Lagoon and I knew I’d found home.”

             The smell of fresh-baked bread and roasted chicken roused Ali from a deep sleep. She sat up and looked around the room. The off-white lace curtains hung loosely from metal rods framing a single window. An overstuffed chair sporting blue hydrangeas with a matching ottoman was placed nearby, affording a view of both the yard and the television. Allowing herself a big stretch, Ali swung her legs off the bed and sunk her toes into the celery green Berber carpet. Leaving her shoes behind, Ali left the room and descended the stairs. The noises from her stomach reminded her that she hadn’t eaten since morning. She entered the kitchen to see a multi-course meal in full production. “Mama Kate, I thought you napped.”

            The older woman had smudges of flour on her face. “I did…twenty minutes. Anymore then you waste the day away.” She raised her eyes to meet Ali’s.

    “I guess the trip took a bit out of me.”

            Mama Kate shrugged. “Concrete and glass zaps the life right out of most people. All that old air, foul energy, bad moods and such gets trapped inside them buildings. I see it on everybody’s face.” Kate passed a knowing look at Ali.

            “May I help with anything?” Ali asked, averting Kate’s observation.

             “Set the table if you’d like…There will be four of us. Jack Cooper will be stopping by. She rolled the pie crust onto the rolling pin and then gently placed it in the pie plate. “I wanted him to meet you before the two of you set off in the morning. Thought it might make it easier to get to know each other over dinner than on the water with that dang motor running.”

            “She’s matchmaking again.” An older gentleman wearing brown and green plaid shorts and a freshly ironed khaki fishing shirt strolled through the kitchen door. “Hates seeing other people live lonely lives. Jack’s a loner, living on the edge of the bay. Kinda like Kate and me.” His eyes danced as he patted Kate on the shoulder.

            Mama Kate scowled.  “Gus, this is Ali, the magazine writer.”

    Gus extended his hand and smiled. “Nice to meet you, Ali. Gus Lammons, the gopher around these parts.” He winked and then glanced around the house. “Jack not here yet, huh? Heard he got into some big trout earlier this week. Came up empty again, as usual.”

            With weathered skin and deep creases around his eyes, Gus appeared several years older than Mama Kate. He looked pointedly at Ali. “That man is obsessed with big trout. When he’s not fishing clients, he’s out there pounding those waters looking for her.” He set a bag down on the counter. “Kate, can I help you with anything?”

            “Keep talking. I’ll let you know if something’s needin’ to be done.”

            Gus sat down in a chair, as Ali set the plates with a bright blue, yellow, and orange mandala pattern, on each of the sage green placemats.

            “He just don’t get it yet.”

            “Get what?” Ali asked while placing the yellow linen napkins next to the plates.

            He leaned one elbow on the table and pointed a finger at Ali. “The secret to catching big trout.”

            “Which is?” Ali sat at the table and listened intently to Gus.

            “It’s not that easy to say.” Gus paused, struggling for the right words. “Not trying too hard comes close.”

            “It’s really about letting the trout teach you how to come into relationship with her. ” Mama Kate put a plate of carrots, celery sticks, and cucumbers on the table.

            Ali picked up a cucumber and nibbled on it. “Now I don’t get it.”   

            Mama Kate put a hand on Ali’s shoulder. “I have a feeling you’ll get it before Jack does.”

            Gus picked up a celery stick and took a bite. “Ali, let me tell you a little bit about sea trout.” His eyes twinkled and his features softened. “They’re special creatures. And the big ones are all females.”

            “Wise women of the bay,” Mama Kate added.

            Ali’s face brightened and she glanced out at the water. “My grandpa loved trout too––the freshwater kind. He said they spoke to him in whispers as he fished the streams. Sometimes I’d find him sitting on a rock just staring in the water, and when I’d ask him what he was doing, he’d say that he was listening to the trout.”

            Gus peered intently into Ali’s eyes. “Ain’t nothin’ like it.”

            “And you say Jack Cooper is obsessed with them,” her curiosity seeped out with her words.

            “Yep, and he don’t know why either, not the real reason,” Mama Kate said, as she poured sliced apples into the crust. “All the men think they’re out to catch a big fish, add another notch to their belts. Well most of them.” She glanced at Gus and a smile crossed her lips. “What they’re really after is communion.”

            “If they learn what that fish can teach them, they’ll know what real love is all about,” Gus explained.

            “Have you caught the big one, Gus?”

            He looked out toward the water. “I have indeed. All eighteen pounds of her. The record. It was a gift that will never come again.”

            Ali sensed sadness coming from Gus. “What about love?”

            “Just not in the cards, I guess, not in the usual sense. But I can’t complain. Life’s been good to me. Come to know lots of good folks.” He chuckled. “A couple of shysters, too.” He abruptly rose and headed for the door. “Kate, I’m going out to check something on the dock.”

            Gus lumbered down the slope, with a slight limp in his gait. It was the only thing that gave away his age. He sported strong arms, muscular calves, and a sturdy back. He took the pebbled stone steps with ease, stopping occasionally to remove a dead leaf off of a bougainvillea. The lush foliage, with the purple and crimson blossoms, ended about a third of the way to the dock, where it was met by an open expanse of thick, wide-bladed, carpet grass. As Ali soaked in her surroundings, a ruby-throated hummingbird hovered at the orange bell-shaped blossoms of the cape honeysuckle, which lined the fence on the left. That single bird reminded her of the day on the farm where she counted a dozen of its cousins buzzing like bees around her grandmother’s honeysuckle near the kitchen window. It had been a long time since she took note of such things. Too long.

            “Jack’s here.”

            “I didn’t hear your doorbell.” Ali turned from the window, to find Mama Kate staring at her once again.

            “I don’t need that.”

            Ali studied Kate as she went about her business in the kitchen. The older woman had an air of greatness about her. Her confidence beamed through her eyes, and the fact that she ran a tight ship was evident within moments of her arrival. Ali pondered the complexity of the woman who would be her host for the next few days. She seemed both at ease and guarded at the same time. With the passing of that thought, she realized Mama Kate was much like herself and wondered if it was the single event of her husband’s passing or the culmination of many of life’s disappointments that built the wall. A light tap at the front door pulled her from her thoughts.        

            Max jumped up from his spot by the sofa, his tail wagging to a rhythm of his own, as he approached the door. Jack Cooper rounded the corner and entered the dining room, followed by a dog that resembled Max, much smaller and with a large, white, star-like patch on her chest. Jack paused for a moment before her, seemingly startled at her appearance. She extended her hand. “Ali Stephenson.

            He took her hand. “Jack Cooper,” and then nodded toward the dog sitting obediently at his feet. “This here is Lily.”

            Ali scratched the dog’s ears, feeling Jack’s eyes upon her. She met his gaze, studying his face and taking note of his pronounced cheekbones and soft brown eyes. He looked uneasy, almost like he’d seen a ghost. “Thanks for helping me with my assignment.”

            “Mama Kate set it up. Made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.” He moved by her and into the kitchen.

            “I plum told him he had to take this one or never work for me again.”

            “Smells good, Mama Kate.” He put his hands on Kate’s shoulders.

            “Don’t go sweet talkin’ me now. I’m busy.” She glanced at Lily and Max. “Let your poor dog out for a romp with Max. Do him some good to stretch his old bones.” She winked at Ali. “Then you take Ali out on the porch, get acquainted. Wine is on the counter yonder. Beer’s in the fridge. Help yourselves.” She glared at Jack. “Might loosen you up a bit.”

            Reluctantly, Jack did as he was told. He poured two glasses of wine and beckoned Ali to follow him to the porch. Jack took a sip of his wine, leaning his elbow on the green mosaic table between them. “Ever fly fished?”

            She studied his profile while contemplating her answer. His skin was bronzed from the sun, and his hair was medium brown, with a hit of gray in his sideburns. Her survey did little for her composure. “As my grandpa would say, I cut my eye teeth on cold water streams in Virginia.”

            Jack squirmed in his seat. “This is different.”

            “I know what I’m in for.” She was annoyed that she felt like she had to prove herself and her abilities to this man she just met and who knew nothing about her.

            Jack took another sip from his green-hued glass. “We’ll see.”

            Mama Kate slipped out onto the porch, hearing just the last part of their conversation. She took a seat opposite Jack, which allowed her a perfect view of the pair.

            For the first time since setting foot in South Texas, a sinking feeling settled in Ali’s stomach as she glanced toward the dock. Gus was casting his rod, as gentle and graceful as her grandfather had. As she watched the rhythmic action, she began to regain her confidence.

            “Can you double haul?” Jack interrupted her thoughts.

            “Yes.” She met his gaze with a challenge.

            “How far is your best cast?”

            “Seventy-five feet, and accurate.”

            Jack gazed off in the direction of the water. He pursed his lips. Their conversation was suspended, and only the bright yellow-bellied kiskadees, with their black mask-like markings, dared to break the silence with their raucous calls. One sat on the piling high above the boat, another remained out of sight, but sang from the far banks of the Arroyo. The evening was descending upon them, and nature was unleashing a burst of glory in the western sky. Ali was grateful for the last rays of the day beating upon her face. She glanced at Mama Kate, and before she could satisfy her curiosity with any more questions, Kate stood up.

            “Jack, go get Gus. He’s got a feather out of place about something.” Mama Kate let her gaze settle on the older man. “It’s time to eat, anyway.”

            Ali watched Jack saunter down the hill, her eyes settling on the shape of his shoulders. Max and Lily stayed close at his heels. “Seems like Captain Cooper has a feather or two out of place as well.”

            Mama Kate squinted in his direction. “He’ll most likely warm up after he’s had some time with you out on the water.”

            “I hope so. Or else it’s going to be a very long week.”

© 2020 Kathy Sparrow