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The Old Man and the River

Here’s another gem from Pete Dexter.

The Old Man and the River

By Pete Dexter

Early morning, Seeley Lake, Montana. The sun has touched the lake, but the air is dead still and cooler than the water, and the fog comes off the surface in curtains, hiding some of the Swan Range three miles to the east. And in doing that, it frames the rest. It is the design here, I think, that nothing is taken without compensation, except by men and fires. They leave all the holes.

On the lake a cutthroat trout breaks the surface; pieces of it follow him into the air. He breaks it again, falling back. The water mends itself in circles; the circles disappear. You could never say exactly where, but that’s how things mend; it’s how you get old, too. Not that they are necessarily different things. The place is quiet again. The sun has touched the lake, but the lake still belongs to the night. To the night and to the old man.

He is in the main room of the cabin putting wood on the fire. I hear him humming—a long, flat note, more electric than musical. I think it is a sound he makes without hearing it. He moves from the fireplace to the kitchen wearing a fishing hat, runs lake water out of the spigot into a dented two-quart pan, puts that on the stove to heat. He starts a pot of coffee, leaves it on a counter, and pushes out the door to urinate in the yard. He and his father built the cabin in 1922 as a retreat from whatever civilization there was in Missoula, and they didn’t do it to come down off the mountains and have to look at an indoor toilet.

He comes back in, humming, and surveys the kitchen. He scratches his cheek, remembering where he is. He locates the coffeepot, checks to see what is inside. Part of him is somewhere else. Probably not so much of him that he’d piss in the fireplace and throw the wood out the door, but it isn’t impossible.

The guess is that the part of the old man that’s not in the kitchen is someplace tangent to August of 1949, Mann Gulch, Montana, where thirteen of sixteen smoke jumpers were killed in the first hours of a wildfire that got into the crowns of the trees there. He is in the last chapter of that story now—the jumpers have become his jumpers, he looks at tall trees and imagines fire in their tops, sucking the oxygen out of the air, and feels how helpless a man is in its presence—and while it’s still three hours until he sits down and puts himself back in Mann Gulch to confront it, he is headed there already, feeling his way over what has already been done, measuring what is left.

As far as I know, that’s the only pleasure there is in writing—until something’s finished, anyway. And the old man works carefully and is entitled to his time alone with what he’s done. I stay in bed looking out the window, waiting for him to call me for breakfast.


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