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Everybody has a story, so here is mine--the story of me and Kate and old Harry Wainwright, and the woods and lake where all of this takes place. My name: Jordan Heronimus Patterson Jr., son of the late Captain Jordan Heronimus Patterson Sr., USN, both of us Virginia born and bred, though now I live here, in the North Woods of Maine, where I make my living as a fishing guide. My father, a Navy pilot, loved the air, as I love what's beneath it--the sun and light and snow and mountains of this remote place, and the big trout under the water. To meet me, you might think I must be simple, or unambitious, or just plain lazy, a grown man who fishes for a living; that is, a man who plays. When I take a party out on the lake, or downriver for the last of the spawning runs, when they'll still take a streamer, the man may ask me, or the woman if there is a woman, "What else do you do?" Or, "Do you really stay up here all winter?" A question I don't hold against them, because I'm young, just thirty, and here is far from anywhere, the hardness of winter plain to see even on the sweetest summer afternoon in the twisted way the pines grow; they're asking about movies and restaurants and stores, of course, all the things they love, so it's natural to ask it: What else do I do? So I tell them about taking care of the boats and cabins, and hunting parties in the fall, which I'll do if I have to but don't really care for; and I may throw in a thing or two about college, how I didn't mind going when I was there (University of Maine at Orono, class of 1986, B.S. in economics with a minor in forestry, thank you very much); and the man will nod, or the woman, thinking: Why, here's a man of no account! And for one silent second they're me, and happy because of it, and then they'll ask me where to fish or what pattern to use on the line, and they'll catch something because of what I tell them and go home to Boston or New York or even Los Angeles, and I'll stay here as the snow piles up, something I can't explain to anyone, not even to myself.
And if I sound as if I don't like these people, that isn't at all true. The camp is far north, four hours by car from Portland and tricky to find, and the people who will make such a journey are serious about fishing. They are rich, most of them, a fact they cannot hide: one sees the evidence in their cars, their clothes, the good leather of their luggage and shoes. It's large what's between us, make no mistake, and I know that to such people I am just another body for hire, like the nanny who raises their children, the broker who sells them the stocks that make them more money, the lawyer they retain when they wish to divorce. But because they are rich enough to have these things, they are gracious to me, even respect me, for I know what they do not: where the fish are what they are likely to take. For this they rent me, body and soul, at two hundred fifty dollars a day, a hundred fifty for the half, as pure a bargain as I know about, and dirt cheap if truth be told.
There are regulars, too, people who come up here every year at the time they like best: early summer for the big mayfly hatches, or else the long dry days of August, after the blackflies have gone, the days are as crisp as a butterfly on pins, and the fish have wised up and aren't especially hungry besides--not the easiest time to catch them, but that's not why these folks are here, and not why I'm here, either. Which brings me to the last summer I saw Harry Wainwright--the Harrison P. Wainwright, he of the thirty-odd consecutive summers, the Forbes 500 and the NYSE and all the rest--who came up here at last to die.
We put on the dog for lifers like Harry Wainwright, which up here is really just a state of mind, since there's no way to be fancy. The cabins are identical, rustic and spare, each with a couple of creaky cots, a pot bellied stove and a tippy porch on the water with a view across it to the mountains. What I mean is, we're ready to see him, glad as hell to see him, because lifers like Harry are the bread and butter of a place like ours; we can't afford to advertise, and don't have a mind to anyway, having never bothered to begin with. At the time I'm speaking of, Harry was probably seventy, though until he'd gotten sick he'd aged easily, like the rich man he was. He owned a string of discount drugstores in the South and Midwest (I'd heard it said that if you bought a bottle of aspirin anywhere from Atlanta to Omaha, you probably paid Harry Wainwright for the privilege), and a lot of other things besides, a veritable empire of goods and services in which I had no stake, except for what he paid me as a guide. He hardly needed one; he'd fished this spot since Kennedy was in the White House and knew it as well as any man alive. His tips, always embarrassingly huge, were just another way of his expressing his pure happiness to be here.
Did he impress me? Who wouldn't be impressed by Harry Wainwright?
So, the story: In rolls Harry, whom we all knew was dying of cancer, late on an August afternoon in the Year of Our Lord 1994, with his second (i.e.,
younger) wife, his son and tiny granddaughter, all heaped into a big rented Suburban to haul them up from the airport in Portland with their gear: as beautiful a family as ever I've seen. The day's just tipped toward evening, the best time to arrive, and it's late enough in the season that the birches and striped maples are just beginning to turn in bright crowns of yellow and red, set against the blue, blue sky. Harry is stretched out on the second seat, his back propped against the door with pillows, like old Ramses himself; Harry Jr. (who goes by Hal) is driving; second wife Frances is in the passenger seat; January (named for the month of her birth or the month of her conception, take your pick) is tucked into her comfy car seat in the way back; the car cruises down the long drive. Everybody loves the last eight miles: when you finally arrive, it's like you've already done something, like the fun's already started.
We were expecting him, of course. The night before, we all sat down for a meeting, after Joe had taken the call from Hal, saying Harry wanted to come up, short notice he knew but was there space, and so on. We met in the dining room after supper: me, Joe's wife, Lucy, who ran the kitchen and took care of the books, and their daughter, Kate, who was a junior at Bowdoin and worked in the summers as a guide, and Joe told us what he knew--that Harry had cancer and wanted to fish. The rest, about dying, was in there, but nothing he dared say. The next afternoon Hal called us from the pay phone in town to tell us they were thirty minutes away, so when the car came down the drive, Kate and Joe and I were waiting for them.
Still, when Hall opened the old man's door, it was a shock, and for a moment I thought maybe we'd all missed something and they were bringing his body up for burial--though a man like Harry Wainwright should go to his reward in a pharaoh's robes, not the frayed khakis and tennis shoes and ratty blue sweater, all of it looking pale and loose, that he had on. The sight of a rich man dying is one to shake all your assumptions about a free market economy; here is something--life, health, a fresh set of orders for maniac cells run amok--that can't be bought. As Hal swung the door wide we all held our breaths a little, deciding how to be normal, looking at the sneakers, white as the underbellies of two freshly bagged trout. Hal gave Joe's hand and then my own a solid shake--as I said, he's a good-looking man, his hair gone prematurely silver and tied in a hipster ponytail, the skin around his eyes handsomely crinkled from squinting out over the world's warm waters at all times of year--and then said loudly, to me and everybody else, "Pop? Jordan's here to help us get you out."
Which proved tricky: the cancer, which had started in his lungs, had spread to the bones of his back. The poor guy was stiff as a cracker. Those last eight miles, as bouncy as a carnival ride, must have felt as bad as anything in his life. I scampered around to the rear passenger door; Frances climbed onto the backseat of the Suburban to hold his hands and keep him upright, and I popped open the door and let him sink into my arms. From the other side, Hal and Frances pushed his feet toward me, and as I pulled him out the old guy unfolded like a pocketknife; in a wink he was standing erect, me hugging him from behind, a little unsure if I should let him go or not. He weighed almost nothing, poor bird, although I also believed that if he fell the ground might actually shake, and it would be the worst moment of my life so far.
"Thank you, Jordan."
I looked past his ear and saw that I was supposed to hold him until Frances came around with the walker. Frances was maybe fifty, and I always thought of her as a little mannish, though in a pleasing way: she's a solid woman, her thickness like the thickness of a good book. Fixed to one of the walker's legs was a shiny chrome tank, about the size of a propane canister, with a clear plastic tube that ran to a heart-shaped mask that Frances wedged over Harry's head to ride in the folds of his neck.
"I am, as you see, much reduced, and I thank you."
This was Harry's way of speaking; he liked to use expressions like "much reduced" when he meant sick as a poisoned rat. It's easy to be dumb about the rich, but Harry Wainwright really was different from anyone else I knew. If you've read the articles, you know the story--Harry made sensational copy--a classic all-American bootstraps tale of ingenuity and elbow-grease, the hard lean years and the big idea and then the one-way rocket ride of his amazing life; point being, he was entitled to use any turn of phrase that pleased him. He also cursed a lot, though I could tell it made him happier to do than it makes most people. When Harry Wainwright called a fish "one whomping badass motherfucker," I knew it really was.
"Sure thing, Mr. Wainwright," I said. "It's great to see you again."
Silence, and I was surprised he hadn't corrected me. For eight summers the joke was always the same: I'd call him Mr. Wainwright, he'd say, for god's sake, Jordan, call me Harry, though I never, ever did. I wondered if he'd forgotten, and then if maybe he was too sick to remember who I was. But of course he'd call me Jordan. A dumb idea for certain, but still I thought it: How many Jordans could he know? My own father, who died when I was three, was the only other one I've heard of, and him I barely got to know, before his engines failed one summer night off Newport News and he crashed into the sea. (For a few bad months in college, when I'd fallen into a deep funk over nothing obvious, I went and saw the campus psychologist, an earnest young woman with a smile like something she had gone to school to learn. She got it in her bean that the fact that my father's body had never been recovered was probably the root of all my woes--not wrong, but not exactly rocket science, either. In any event, one day my bad mood lifted and never returned.)
By this time, little January had been sprung from her car seat and was toddling around the driveway, dragging a stuffed Humpty Dumpty. I should say at this point that Hal's wife, Sally, rarely came to the camp; I'd probably laid eyes on her twice in my life, though she was some sort of Wall Street lawyer and was probably just too busy. It was nice to see a man who would actually bring his eighteen-month-old along on a last-minute jaunt to the North Woods, but I could also tell that Hal was about at the end of his patience. He scooped his little girl up onto his hip and gave us all a weary look that said, Long day, not my idea, could we please just hustle this along and get the old man indoors? He lifted an eyebrow at Kate. "Could you?"
Kate stepped up and took January from him, making cooing promises about going down to the lake to see the ducks; Hal, his hands free, moved around the walker and pulled the mask up to Harry's face.
"We've got dinner waiting for you in the dining room, Harry," Joe said. "We can take your things to your cabin for you, so you just go along and get yourself settled."
Harry said nothing; for a moment, we all just stood there, watching him haul in the air like a man with his face in a two-pound rose. It hurt like hell to see him that way; no one should have to think about breathing, which by then every one of us was.
Then, from inside the mask: "Jordan?"
"Goddamnit, it's Harry, Jordan."
And what else could I do? I laughed, relieved as hell. And then Kate laughed, one of my favorite sounds in all this world, and Hal, and everybody else--even little January--all of us glad for the moment to hear a joke, to let the day's minefield of a mood and this god-awful sense of death in our midst evaporate like a morning fog.
Harry looked around like we had lost our minds. "What's so funny I'd like to know?"
Hal put a thick hand on his father's shoulder. "Nobody's laughing at you, Pop."