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by Ron Gibson, Jr.

On the edge of town, where the freeway separates factories from the last remaining farmlands, an old, muddy river rolls out of the mountains through the valley. Quiet, steady. Most people forget its existence unless catching a glimpse while driving or when the news issues a flood warning.

But when the pumpkins begin to swell bright and alien in early autumn, and the smell of blackberries sweetens the air like wine, another breed migrates to the river’s grassy banks. A hard-nosed bunch. Guys smudged with axle grease, hands soaked in battery acid, trucking- and machinery-branded ballcaps pulled low on their brows. They pop their trunks, assemble rod and reel, tie their rigs, and navigate the steep banks to try their luck. With king salmon going for ten dollars a pound at Safeway, they hit the river hard — mainly before and after work until dinnertime.

Hank and I would hit during the mid-afternoon lull on break from our line jobs at Fleetway Luggage. The only way to get to the fishing hole was to cross a railroad trestle next to the industrial park, balancing a rod and tackle box on our hips, skipping a railroad tie with each stride, while the river eddied and sparked between the gaps thirty feet below over a rusted car hull on the river bottom.

“This all used to be farmland.”

Hank was pushing sixty-something, yet still had the energy of a teenager. Though I was half his age, tagging along with him made me tired. He seemed to only subsist on coffee and cigarettes.

“When it rained for days, this whole valley’d turn into a lake, and that lake’d be filled with a gazillion ducks. You’d knock on a farmer’s door, ask permission to hunt, and bag your limit within a half hour.”

Every time we crossed that trestle, I’d replay the train scene from Stand by Me where Gordie and Vern barely dodge a train. But we never had an incident.

“What’s duck taste like?”

“Fatty chicken. It’s not bad.”

Once across and down the embankment, we’d bait up, cast into the river current, and settle in.

It wasn’t only about catching fish — though sometimes late-run Chinook leapt at our feet, causing our hearts to stop, fueling hopes. It was about being away from work for half an hour, about listening to Hank reminisce about salmon so thick you could walk across the river and never once touch water, about falling into silence and feeling yourself fade into the river’s song, the Canadian geese slanting overhead, the papery shuffling of grasses moving with the wind.

All around us was change: salmon returning home to spawn, trees turning into yellow and red flames, a morning chill that took longer and longer to leave.

I think Hank knew his use in the world was growing smaller, like the days growing shorter. Soon he knew there’d be more darkness than day, but he always kept moving, outpacing us all. Because, he once said, “Once you stop, you’re done.”

Ron Gibson, Jr. has previously appeared in Noble / Gas Quarterly, The Airgonaut, Pidgeonholes, Maudlin House, The Vignette Review, Cease Cows, Spelk Fiction, etc., and is forthcoming at WhiskeyPaper, Cheap Pop, and Jellyfish Review. Contact him at @sirabsurd.