The Fishing Trip
An Original Short Story
by Dave Micus
he phone call at 3:15 am was an answer, not a question, and I arose knowing that Jack was dead. I picked up the receiver and on the other end of the line was my ex-sister-in-law, Sarah, calling from Chicago.
“Mike,” she said, “your brother was killed.,” She said it with no emotion. I'm sure, like me, she had been expecting it. She said a few more things that I didn't hear, noting only that the funeral would be in three days.
I never bothered to ask how it happened. With someone like Jack, it was never how, only when. I put on a pot of coffee and stared out the window into the dark. The sun would rise over the marsh soon, spreading along the horizon, reflecting orange-red on the base of the clouds.
I thought about the fishing trip.
When I called Jack about the fishing trip, I was surprised at his enthusiasm. I had taken up flyfishing a number of years before when I'd moved from Chicago to the eastern seaboard as therapy, really, something to take me mentally as far from Chicago as I could go. I became quite good at it, contrary to my nagging expectations of failure.
I proposed that we meet at a lodge in upstate Maine known for its sizeable brook trout, and though our only contact the previous ten years had been the obligatory family affairs—weddings, christenings, funerals (and I'd even stopped attending those) —he readily agreed. I made the arrangements, a cabin for two in the Rangely Lakes for the last week in June. I said I wanted to get together, pretended it had been too long and now was an opportunity to reconnect.
I was lying.
I wanted his respect.
I arrived at the lodge ahead of Jack and was thrilled with the accommodations, a rustic but comfortable log cabin not ten feet from shore. I didn't bother to unpack, just dropped my bags in the fire-placed living room and moved right to the weathered Adirondack chairs on the front porch. It was late afternoon and the sun reflected on the lake, its rays turning the water that yellow-gold color seen only in nature and Russell Chatham paintings.
“Hey, little brother."
I snapped out of my trance. Jack walked toward me, the quintessential wealthy sport. He carried an expensive calfskin suitcase, and when he shook my hand I noticed a gold Rolex the size of a saucer. He looked at the cabin.
“Kind of small," was all he said.
e were only four years apart. That's not much of a gap when you're 30 or 40, but when you're four and your brother is eight, he can beat the hell out of you, and Jack took advantage of that every chance he could. These weren't childhood shoving matches but cruel and methodical beatings that I didn't understand.
I was already carrying the burden of being the youngest in an alcoholic family, the last hope, the last chance to accept the responsibilities of parenthood and stop the drinking and fighting. It always fails. And the blame for this failure hangs in the air, manifested in subtle ways. When my older brother beat me, I felt, in the perverse mindset of the abused, that I deserved it. My parent's failure to notice the bruises, accepting my transparent explanations for blackened eyes and broken nose, only reinforced these feelings.
Being a bully suited Jack. He focused on what he wanted and nothing stood in the way. He worked full-time as a longshoreman while attending law school at night, graduated and passed the bar. “If only my old man could have passed a bar,” he announced at the graduation dinner my mother threw for him (my father had died of cirrhosis six months earlier). She mentioned this later to me as a joke, but her pain was still evident.
Jack's first and only client was Alderman Edward Kulak. Kulak was very influential on Chicago's south side; nothing happened without his backing, and nothing was backed without a payoff. Jack was Kulak's bagman. I, in the meantime, left Chicago and settled for a mid-level position in the protective cocoon of academia, joining the multitude who don't exactly fail, but never quite succeed.
It was overcast and dreary as I boarded the plane to Chicago, which suited my mood, but the craft soon catapulted through the grey clouds into a world of vivid blue, and it wasn't long before the pilot came on the intercom to announce that we were nearing Chicago's O'Hare Airport. When we began our final approach I glanced out the window. The world looked orderly from up here, with its parallel streets, circumscribed fields, and neat hedgerows, but I knew better. It was an impressionist painting—lucid from a distance, chaos up close.
As I worked my way through the crowded terminal toward the baggage claim, I passed a newspaper stand with glaring headlines:
POLICE LOOK FOR SUSPECTS IN LAWYER'S SLAYING I bought a paper, forgot about my bags, went into the men's room, and locked myself in a stall.
Police still have no suspects in the murder of Jack Davis, whose badly beaten body was found in a farmer's field 30 miles south of Chicago. Davis, a lawyer and consultant for Alderman Edward Kulak, was found Monday morning by hunters. Results of the autopsy are not complete, but the preliminary cause of death appears to be multiple blows to the upper body with a blunt instrument. Two blood-covered baseball bats found at the scene are assumed to be the murder weapons.
he first four days of our five-day trip were actually fun. I had to put up with the “remember when you….” Followed by an oft-repeated story detailing something stupid or embarrassing I did when I was younger, but even these reminisces were without edge.
We never mentioned the beatings.
And we both caught fish. Mine were bigger and caught with more finesse, usually on a dry fly. I was, after all, the more experienced flyfisher, so it was only to be expected that I would outfish Jack.
That was the plan all along.
On the final day, Jack and I were out in the canoe, trying for one last trophy trout. I was fishing a #18 pmd, matching a brief hatch that was coming off near shore. Jack was fishing a #4 grey ghost that he found buried in my vest. I was at my best, elegantly throwing 50 feet of line, letting my backcast unfurl behind me before accelerating at the perfect instant into my forward cast, stopping abruptly and watching with self -admiration as the line propelled forward in a beautiful tight loop, straightening out the 6X tippet and landing the fly in the surface film with hardly a ripple.
“You're not going to catch a big fish with that tiny bug,” Jack lectured, and he flopped the gray ghost into the water ten feet behind him on the back cast, repeating the process on the forward cast. I smiled as the streamer landed with a plop, scaring every trout within ten yards of his fly. Soon Jack stopped casting, leaving the gray ghost dead on the bottom.
I paddled to a likely spot by a sweeper, stowed the paddle and continued with my casting display. Jack was unimpressed. He quit fishing and sat staring off of the stern, holding the rod I lent him with the gray ghost trailing behind the barely drifting canoe.
But sometimes trout aren't as smart as they are supposed to be.
“Hey, I got something,” Jack cried out.
I turned in the middle of my forward cast and fifty feet of line fell in a jumble in front of me. Jack's rod was bent double, and the reel was buzzing like a dentist's drill.
“Palm the reel! Palm the reel!” I shouted as I watched the line reach the backing.
Jack glanced at me like I was an imbecile and did nothing. When the fish finally slowed of its own accord, Jack grabbed the reel handle and began horsing the fish in.
“Jesus, easy!” I yelled. “That's 4X! You'll break him off!”
“Shut the hell up! I caught the damn fish! Go back to your prissy casting!”
Incredibly, it didn't break off. I wish it had. He got the fish to the canoe and hoisted it in. It was a brookie, and it had to weight eight pounds. It was magnificent.
“Now that's how you fish,” Jack said smugly, staring me in the face, trying to provoke a reaction.
Unfortunately, he got it.
The anger flew out of me like a hooked tarpon out of a shallow flat. I was supposed to impress him with my technique. I was supposed to read the water. I was supposed to match the hatch. I was supposed to catch the trophy trout. I was supposed to win his respect. Instead, I was, once again, the incompetent little brother.
I took my rod, an older Loomis with no warranty, and with a loud curse snapped it over my knee. When Jack saw this he exploded into laughter. I'd added another little-brother tale to the family folklore. He was thrilled.
We would have paddled to shore in silence if he could have stopped chuckling. The lodge had a policy of mounting the biggest fish of the season, free of charge, for the client who caught it. When they saw Jack's fish they immediately froze it for the taxidermist. Though the season was just beginning, there was no doubt it would be the largest fish caught that year.
s I entered the funeral home I could already hear my mother sobbing. I acknowledged some of my brother's old friends who loitered in the foyer, and made a point of seeking out Jack's son, my nephew, to give my condolences. My nephew glanced at me with a blank expression, then turned and walked away without a word. Who could blame him? I had not had any contact with him, not even a birthday card, in over ten years. He would only know me from Jack's anecdotes, the foolish younger brother. I went inside, made my way to the front. My mother stood and hugged me.
“He's too young,” my mother sobbed. I eased her back into her chair and turned to face the coffin. To my surprise, it was open.
Considering he'd been beaten to death, Jack didn't look bad. Of course he looked dead, with the pale-colored lip gloss and the flesh-colored powder, but, remarkably, his face wasn't damaged. The killers must have focused on the upper torso, and, looking down, I could imagine the crushed thorax, shattered ribs, mangled sternum. I gazed at him, gazed at his face. Even in death I detected a smirk.
“Do you know now,” I thought, “that this is where you were headed since you were six?” I was overcome with grief.
I turned from the casket, stumbled down the aisle to the foyer and out the front door. With all I was feeling, emotions colliding, I was lucky I could put one foot in front of the other. The arctic air coming off of Lake Michigan made me momentarily forget about everything but how cold Chicago can be, and I exhaled a visible sigh of relief. I was startled when someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“I'm sorry about Jack,” said Mike Kelly, a family friend and Chicago detective assigned to major crimes.
“Thanks, Mike,” I said, regaining my composure. “It's a tough thing. Especially for my mother.”
Mike looked at me hard, trying to judge what my reaction would be to what he was about to say. He leaned closer so that anyone going into or coming out of the funeral parlor wouldn't hear.
“I warned him, but he didn't listen,” he said softly.
“What do you mean?”
“I told him. He and that goddamn Kulak got carried away. They were putting the arm on everybody. Any kind of building project, they wanted their piece. And, hey, this is Chicago. I'm not naļve. But they got greedy.” Mike stopped. He waited to see if I wanted to hear more, wanted to know.
“Go on,” I said.
“DiNicola Construction wanted to build a mall. Everyone knows it's a front for the outfit. So what does Kulak do? He holds up the permits. Wants his share of the union kickbacks. He sends your brother to talk to them. 'Don't mess with those guys,' I told him. ‘They're not gonna take any shit from a punk like Kulak.' But Jack don't listen. He goes to the meeting and that's the last time he's seen alive. They killed him to send a message to Kulak.”
“Who killed him?” I felt obliged to ask. It really didn't matter.
“Two leg breakers from the South Side, trying to get inducted. The Campisi brothers. We heard them bragging about it on a tap.”
“So you have them?” I asked.
“No. The tap wasn't authorized.” Then Mike hesitated, worried that he'd told me too much. “You're not stupid enough to go after them, are you?”
“Don't be silly. I'd end up like Jack.”
Mike look relieved.
“Really, I'm sorry about your brother. I wish he would have listened.”
There was a big crowd at the graveside service. It's not uncommon on Chicago's South Side for grammar school classmates to show up at a funeral. Maybe they have nothing else to do. Kulak was conspicuously absent. He didn't even send flowers. But he, too, might be lying dead in a farmer's field.
Afterward friends and family retreated to a local bar. I didn't want to go, but didn't have the energy to come up with a reason not to. As I sat talking to my uncle about the difference in weather between Chicago and Massachusetts, my nephew approached.
“Come over to my place after this,” he said.
I didn't ask why.
I followed him in my rental car to his apartment just over the border in Hammond, Indiana. I was struck, when I opened the car door, by the stench of the steel mills. It smelled like a failing septic system. The people who live there get used to it; you can get used to anything until you leave it.
I walked with my nephew to the second floor of the three-decker where he lived. He unbolted the multiple locks and opened the door. Past him I could see boxes piled on the floor, chairs, and sofa.
“My dad wanted you to have this,” my nephew said, nudging a large box on the floor toward me with his foot. I bent and opened the box. Inside, in pristine condition, was the eight-pound, beautifully mounted brook trout.
Dave Micus lived in Ipswich, Massachusetts where he was an avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer, instructor and "star" of an episode of the outdoor show, Fly Fishing America. In 2006 he made the move from sea level to the Rocky Mountains of Montana where he has taken up fly rodding for trout, hunting and enjoying life in the "Big Country."
Copyright © 2003 - 2013 David Micus, All Rights Reserved