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Things Left Unsaid
Buford's Big Bad Breakthrough

Searching for a bridge with a man twice my age.

A slosh breaks the silence and draws my attention as Dad nearly falls in the water. Probably from misjudging an algae-covered rock or swift undercurrent. Knee-high in his waders and in the middle of a cast, he sends his rod jerking in mid-air and struggles to regain balance.

I watch as his mouth moves and a second later a muffled obscenity echoes along the riverbank only to be carried off by the wind. He pulls in line to make another cast so I look back to what I am doing and pull in my own line, my fingers aching from the ice water, and cast as well.

The water is frigid, but much less extreme because of our waders. They make us look like a couple of German officers on retreat from World War II. We wear them anyway because riverbank weather is never moderate, most often being at the base of a canyon, and if the heat isn't pounding down with bugs swarming, a numbing cold is the only alternative. Sometimes a rain would add to the cold, pouring an almost deafening shush, attempting to fill the void between Dad and me. But it's the only place we can spend time catching good times spent. So we brave it and fish in different directions.

I cast a few more times and wonder if I come fishing just to cast since I never catch anything. Tension in the rod grows as the river tugs at the lure and when the line straightens out on top of the water I draw it out and back. Then it glides through the air above and behind me until I feel the rod go slack in my hand and I send the fly out again. In the moment before the line lands, there is a finite suspension of time as the action is slowed to its basic parts. The line stalls just above the water where, moments before, it was sailing and drops flat, lifeless. It's similar to being stuck in the passenger seat with someone like my Third Reich look-a-like, who believes chattiness is the nature of a fool. He once told me during a commercial break that the people who go out of their way to say something usually don't have anything worth saying at all. I have yet to prove him wrong.

While drawing in line and waiting for the cycle to begin again, the surroundings liven up. They entertain as oddly-shaped tree limbs stand out and smaller fish eye the lure, then flip away without a second glance. Sometimes, waiting in the cold, I look across the river seeking warmth in the passenger seat of Dads 1970s Bronco. Though the truck has changed over the years, the essence remains the same from the passenger's side. The dashboard dust. The same end-of-the-world viewpoint as the hood drops off into oncoming asphalt. The roll-up windows, the manual-adjust mirrors and a slow, steady heater. The only change seems hidden in the unchanged space between us. We sit an arm's length apart now, reduced from two or three as a child, and the distance gapping our thoughts seems as easily bridged despite a lack of words.


Our fishing hole is about an hour or so from home. We usually head out at daybreak, bleary, through North Idaho hills and overpasses. Today I sat grappling with a cloudy conscience of the night before and because Dad never listens to radio, the only sounds are of the truck whirring at speeds on the freeway, bumping over dirt roads or humming down two-lane highways shouldering the riverbank.

When we are about half way, he asks, "Yeh tired, bud?"

I tell him I was out late the night before. I dont tell him that's all I remember.

"I figured as much," he says, his tone somewhere between pride and concern. From then on, I was stuck on what he could be thinking. Is he holding back a scorn? Does he see me rolling with the punches? Is he reminiscing? But I held my questions, having grown accustomed to short answers.

His intolerance for chat never bothered me as a child. Once when Dad drove me and my brother home from school, I told him that I hated somebody. It was a girl that was making my first months in high school miserable between snickering among her friends and spreading rumors. Dad interrupted me in a gruff voice, the only sternness in him, that I was too young to know anybody long enough to hate. He drove with one hand at the top of the wheel and the other on his lap. The hand from his lap rose up as if chopping away at the dashboard and the smell of axle grease caught my nose. I watched the black borders of his fingernails as they rose and fell together when he told us not to even think of saying such a thing. I realized I had never heard him say hate before.

His reaction was so sudden, so abrupt and so emotionally charged that I knew it wasn't a textbook answer, like it's not nice to hit, or keep your food on the table, or take your hat off inside. Instead, it was a learned lesson he didn't want us to learn. His voice told us what his words didn't: he had hated or been hated, neither of which I dared or could uncover if I tried. So instead of asking when I had the chance I looked out the passenger window at a clearing full of dead trees hunched against an overpass just minutes from the gated apartment complex we called home.

Through years of watching and listening to him my vocabulary shrunk. I heard words became rotted, tattered and overused by people who don't deserve to use them. Words like fine, thanks and love. We save them so when they're said they actually mean something. Instead, our conversation is an endless letting. We speak in choppy sentences. There's no warning or reconciliation, just a nod or a "yep" of understanding. Then silence.


My casts are getting me nowhere. I look upstream at Dad, who had made his way back to the riverbank and knelt to tie a new fly, then head to the water he nearly fell in before. The river suctions around my calves, behind my knees, thighs. The rocks rolled beneath my feet, kicking up mud. I cast where the river converges into a mini-rapid barely in sight of Dad. It only takes a cast or two to get a bite. When the thing jerks, my line and the rod bow to it and I shout something to the shore. Dad had finished tying on the new fly and stood with a cigarette angled upward between his lips. He looks up and sets his hands apart as if playing an imaginary accordion above his head but says nothing. I wedge the rod in the crook of my arm and return the gesture. It wasn't a keeper so he drops his arms and begins to pace with the glow of his cigarette lighting the way. It was the longest conversation wed had all day.

On the way home we sit in silence, empty-handed and tired, with the road like a river beneath us. But instead of a mire of questions and 'what ifs' about life or what he's thinking, the air is sedate with understanding. Full of silence. So we look out at the scenery flying by or at the road ahead, simply aware of each other and the things left unsaid.

This essay came about as part of an assignment where we were told to write about a place. It needs a little monkeywrenching, but I'd like to see it in Harper's some day...
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This page was posted on Oct. 27, 2003.