Trout Fishing in Virginia
Maxim D. ShrayerAt thirty-nine, Andrew Lance was the youngest poet-laureate. He told reporters and public radio hosts that he was working on a novel in verse about a middle-aged American man who felt like a samurai in the world of crumbling principles and decaying honor. “He’s done well for himself writing odes to rusting steel mills,” grumbled fellow poets who knew Lance back when he used to take summer courses at the famous writing school in the Green Mountains. They were certainly right that he had done better than most of them—an Ivy League professorship in poetry ("IV League," Lance liked to tell his students, stressing the “vee” part and alluding to the age of his “esteemed colleagues”); a Pulitzer plus a necklace of other prizes and awards; a waterfront house in Branford, Conn. and a summer cottage on Block Island; a Boticellian wife and two children—and all this achieved through rhyme and reason.
His peers were still teaching a writing course here, a seminar there, free-lancing and even ghost-writing, and still sending out work with the nauseating self-addressed stamped envelopes—while he now edited one of the nation's oldest quarterlies, occasionally publishing an old friend, but preferring to feature new names. The more or less established littérateurs, whom Lance once knew and later refused to print, spoke of his patronage of younger writers, especially female ones, as something political and therefore disingenuous; a pose. The jealous poets couldn’t fathom that in discovered authors lay for Lance the promise of a new life—enchanting, angular, winged.
This hunt for “new talent” had grown into an obsession since Lance was named poet-laureate. About once a month he traveled to a university campus to give a reading and meet the students in the creative writing program. A creature of routine, he liked to arrive on a Thursday, spend a few hours with students, in the evening give a reading followed by a book signing, and get home by midday or afternoon on Friday. From his trips Lance returned with a booty—a batch of poems and stories to be read during the week. Weekends belonged to his family: his wife Jill, an attorney with an old New Haven firm, who cooked Asian on Saturdays; his thirteen-year-old son Elton, crazy about sailing and the Japanese he was taking at his private school; and his eleven-year-old daughter, raven-curled, aquiline-nosed, dreamy Annabel. Annabel had taken after the Lance side of the family. (Their name used to be “Lansky,” and in her occasional moments of jolliness, Lance's wife referred to her husband's family as "the gangsters.”) Annabel composed rhymed poems and showed them to her father on weekends. Their ritual.
On a tepid Thursday afternoon, two weeks before Thanksgiving, Lance got off the plane at Dulles and headed to the car rental counter. He never checked luggage—he distrusted the aircraft's womb. He also didn't like limos and pick-up drivers, their wrinkled cheap tuxedos, their lurid tales and rancid breath. He enjoyed the sensation of driving alone through this vast country, which still enveloped and comforted the traveler as she had once opened herself to his grandparents after their flight from Podolia in 1919.
Tall and bony, Andrew Lance was wearing brown cords with a silverish sheen, an olive shirt and a navy sweater, a coat of very soft suede and matching suede loafers. Although his picture had been printed in many newspapers and news magazines, no one recognized Lance on the plane or later in the airport's afternoon crowd. The freckled, jovial lady who worked at the rental counter never even suspected that this masculine, crisply polite, unfanciful man with thick black brows, a long chin and a Caesar cut, was actually a poet visiting Virginia to read and collect poems. A poet? A Boston lawyer down here for the weekend would have been more like it…
He carried a beige garment bag over his shoulder, and in his hands a leather briefcase with gilded buckles, and also an aluminum tube covered in green canvas. The tube was a travel case; it contained his new fly-fishing rod. His wife had given him the rod for their fifteenth anniversary—an expensive present, an exquisite one to those who knew about fly-fishing. The rod had been hand-made in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and had his initials embroidered on the case and engraved on a copper plate; Lance intended to test it during the trip. He didn't bring chest waders this time, having packed only hiking boots, his vest and his fly hat. On the web, he had researched the area around the campus where he was heading and found a state park with accessible trout streams and a place to buy a permit during the weekend.
This November visit was unusual in two respects. As a rule Lance avoided reading at well-known colleges and universities, preferring instead the lesser, sometimes outright obscure campuses. He was especially reluctant to appear at universities with strong writing programs and extended faculties of poets, fictionists and playwrights. He acknowledged to himself that his was a kind of reverse snobbism—the more provincial the school, the more promise it would hold for him. This time, however, he had agreed to speak at an old Southern university with a well-respected MFA program, agreed mainly because Jeremiah McCloy, his friend from college, taught poetry there. McCloy was a native Virginian, a minister’s son. Even as a freshman at Dartmouth McCloy was ruddy and heavyset, a bit sedated. In his adulthood, McCloy was Lance's opposite in everything, from his passion for bird-watching to the cherry pipe he suckled even when it wasn't lit. McCloy wrote cavernous, uninspiring, meticulously researched nature poems about Virginia's shales and granites and toothlike roots and gumlike newts, and Lance admired them though he didn't even know why. Perhaps because he himself could never write something so close to soil and verity. And so Lance agreed to read at his friend's university, and also agreed to stay an extra day. He planned to give a reading Thursday night, spend time with McCloy and his writing students on Friday, get up early on Saturday, fish for a few hours and then drive straight to the airport. On clear days toward the middle of November, Lance knew, trout feed with abandon.
It took him over two hours to reach the southern corner of the Shenandoah Valley. He drove on back roads, taking his time, tasting under his tongue the smells of resting earth, of hay and manure, taking in the landscape with its silos, rolling hills, bobbing forms of farmers. He stopped at a rural luncheonette and ordered country-fried chicken steak, beans, mashed yams. "Hon, would you like sweet iced tea?" the waitress asked him. While waiting for his food and sipping his sweet iced tea that felt sour on the gums, Lance talked to a couple of farmers also sitting at the counter—about the weather forecast for the weekend and about local fishing. They had heard of the place where he wanted to fish—still an hour away from where he stopped—but had never been "down by the university." They said they fished for bass and catfish, never trout. "You a professor or something?" asked one of the farmers, a stocky fellow with pale brown skin and eyes set close together. Lance smiled. "Something like that," he said. "I teach poetry." The conversation died, and a few minutes later the farmers finished their coffees, carefully wiped their mouths and fingers, and left.
The campus, its oldest section built in the 1800s, was in a richer part of town. Driving through it on the way to his lodge, Lance saw groomed homes with wraparound porches and wide front and back lawns. The university had offered to put him up at a downtown Marriott, but he asked instead to stay near the campus. There was a university guest house, an old mansion, he was told, but Lance knew it could mean a trap in the form of uninvited admirers. The motor lodge on the edge of the campus was called Virginia Arms. Lance brought in his things, washed up, and then dialed the number of his friend McCloy. They agreed that Lance would walk over to McCloy's office, and the two of them would spend some time alone before joining a group of deans and members of the English department for an official dinner. The dinner was at six; Lance’s reading was scheduled for eight, at the university theater.
Lance showered, then lay naked under the sheets with his eyes closed, thinking of the dinner and the provincial pleasantries he would have to endure. He dozed off for a bit and woke up rested—something he had learned as a teenager from his father who always took a short nap after coming home from his pharmacy. Lance got up, brushed his teeth, put on a French blue shirt, a gray blazer and black slacks of weightless summer wool, and studied himself in the mirror. In his briefcase was his new collection of verse, from which he intended to read that evening. It was a little chilly without a coat, but he didn't want to turn back—a bad omen in Lance's post-Romantic anthology of superstitions. He was following a campus map that his friend had left for him at the reception desk, the way to McCloy’s office marked on the map in purple ink. Lance stopped on the way, in the shadow of a great sycamore, to read a memorial plaque attached to a limestone pillar. The plaque, or actually a wreath of cast iron with a sign inside it, marked the grave of a general’s horse; Lance chuckled as he read the plaque. He pulled out a small leatherbound notebook with a slender gold pencil and copied down the text: "Here lies Hannibal, the beloved horse...."
Lance had last seen Jeremiah McCloy at the funeral of A. D. Milch, their former mentor, in whose poetry seminar at Dartmouth they had befriended each other almost twenty years earlier. McCloy's office smelled of pipe tobacco and something else, musky. To a stranger it would have suggested, with all the objects on its shelves and walls, that its occupant taught geology or botany, not poetry. Reclining in a big chair, Lance remembered seeing his friend for the first time when they were nineteen and green. A spider web of wrinkles on McCloy's rubicund face, a double chin, a pot-belly...but otherwise he was the same southern boy with a twinkling smile and a rich and slightly archaic vocabulary. McCloy brought two cups of coffee from a kitchenette down the hall from his office. He settled into his leather chair and rested his mug on his right knee.
"So Andy," asked McCloy. "How's fame?"
"Fame's good. She's also transient," Lance laughed. "So you're next, Jerry."
"I don't think so. You know my stuff. Minerals. Grasses. It's tedious to most people."
"Your stuff is absolutely yours," Lance replied, with passion. "It's remarkable. By the way, did you get the proofs?" (Lance was publishing McCloy's long poem about a great-uncle’s funeral in Roanoke.)
"I did, they look clean. Just a couple of typos. Thank you, Andy. You know you didn't have to do it."
"I wanted to."
They chatted about three poets they both knew who had recently published new books. Then they turned to the topic of families—both had married in their mid-twenties and now had teenage children.
“Have you been in touch with Lydia?” McCloy asked.
"You know, the last years before his death there wasn't much love lost between me and old Milch."
"Oh, yes, I believe I knew that. Lydia's been having a hard time. I telephone her about twice a month, just to cheer her up."
Lydia Gershteyn, a translator of Spanish and Latin American poets, was A. D. Milch's widow. She and A. D. Milch had met in Spain. Lydia had been very kind to Lance and McCloy when they were her husband’s poetry students at Dartmouth. Lance last saw Lydia a year and a half earlier at the funeral. Gripped by a pang of guilt, Lance recalled the last time he and Milch spoke. That year's Pulitzers had just been announced, and Lance had been on national television for the first time. Milch called him that evening. Things had been tense between them for a while, and tenser since Lance assumed the editorship of his quarterly. Lance knew things would explode sooner or later. Sooner.
"I saw you on the network," Milch said in his bellowing voice.
"How are you, Axel?"
"Oh, don't give me that cordial crap, Lance. You know why I'm calling."
"To tell me I don't deserve it."
"Back in the 1930s people like you used to write touchy-feely poems about the Spanish Civil War instead of going there and fighting Franco."
"Not everyone is so brave as you."
"Don't placate me. I still remember you as a kid from a Midwestern suburb.”
“That makes two of you,” Lance tried to joke it off. “You and my mother.”
“You know what your problem is, Lance?"
"Fine, Axel, tell me what my problem is."
"It's not that you lack skill, Lance. You are just too bourgeois, too damn bourgeois to be an American poet."
Milch slammed down the phone, and Lance stood there clutching the receiver, unable to shake off his mentor’s wrath. "Bourgeois, too damn bourgeois," he chewed on Milch's words while going back in his mind to his parents' colonial in Cleveland Heights, to his mother's temple sisterhood....
"Andy, we should probably get going. It's almost six." McCloy's breezy voice brought Lance back from his recollection.
"The old man was jealous of you," McCloy said, turning to Lance.
"I don't know, Jerry. I don't know who was jealous of whom."
They walked to McCloy's green station wagon and drove in silence. The dinner in Lance's honor was being held in the candle-lit dining room of a renovated country inn. Logs were burning in a large fireplace near the far end of a long table. About twenty guests were already sitting along its sides. A few people applauded when Lance and McCloy entered. Smiling at no one in particular, Lance looked around the room. On the walls there were antlers and a boar's head, framed hunting scenes and old maps. After a walk round the table, during which McCloy patiently introduced him to those gathered in his honor, Lance was seated in the middle of the table between a bald man with a ferocious beard and huge arms and a petite woman with matte-white skin and a low-cut silk blouse. The man was the local eminence Robinson Dilliard; the woman, his wife Mary-Adaire. Lance vaguely recalled reading a story by Dilliard in an anthology of southern writers that he had picked up at a used book shop in Cleveland while visiting his mother. In addition to countless stories and eight or nine novels, Dillard had to his credit a book about ghosts in the fiction of Vladimir Nabokov. The book came out in the late sixties and Nabokov promptly and briefly demolished it in an interview. Ever since then Dilliard had worn Nabokov's comment as a venomous badge of courage, and no new acquaintance, Lance included, was spared a long retelling of the incident. Squeezed between Dilliard and his perfumed wife ("You must try the breast of duck with cognac reduction," she chortled into Lance's ear), Lance hardly spoke with any of the other guests during the dinner.
The university theater was packed. There were people standing in the back. A few students sat on the steps in the aisles. As a rule Lance never said anything before reading. This time, because he had overdosed on southern hospitality, and also because he liked what his friend McCloy had said in his introduction, Lance decided to start with opening remarks. He came out to the podium, a bottle of water in one hand, a volume of his poems in another.
"Professor McCloy has shared with you one of the many maxims of our late teacher," Lance began. "Axel Milch—you probably know him as A. D. Milch—passed away less than two years ago. When Jerry and I started college, Axel Milch meant the world to both of us and our other classmates. He knew everything about poetry. I confess, the late Axel Milch and I didn't exactly see it eye to eye during the latter years of his life, but being here on your campus, around you, and spending time with my friend Jerry, I’m inspired to remember Axel Milch and to share with you one of the things he told novices about writing verse. You've got to bleed over your poems. You've got to write each poem thinking you may die tomorrow, and this is your last one, and the world will judge you based on this one poem."
Lance raised his dark eyebrows, as though signaling to the audience that he himself wasn't sure what to make of his teacher's words.
"I try to do that in my own work,” he added. “It doesn't always happen."
Lance took a long sip of water and put the bottle down. He read for about thirty minutes in his humid voice with small consonants. Then he stepped down from the stage to a table with a spread of his books and a blonde girl from the bookstore who blushed when he sat beside her to sign books. Lance liked the signing part, he liked it because he got to see the actual human beings who bought his books and took them home. During signings he was at his most charming, lifting the guard that he kept on while on stage. As Lance smiled absently at a line of southern college students and local ladies waiting for his autograph, he thought about going back to his room at the Virginia Arms, having a drink of Scotch from a flask which, like his elegant fishing rod, was his wife's present, about the meeting with McCloy's students scheduled for the following day, and about the trout fishing that would crown the visit.
Lance must have signed fifty copies that evening; his hand ached from writing variations of the same words. He took the last sip of his water, put away into his briefcase his own marked-up copy with a black leather bookmark, closed the cap of his luxurious fountain pen, and waved to McCloy who was sitting in the front row and waiting to take him home.
"Good reading, Andy," said McCloy. "Whenever you're ready."
Lance was shaking the hand of the perpetually blushing blonde girl from the bookstore when a woman with long loose hair walked up the aisle to the table with his books. She wore an ankle-length skirt of rumply lavender material and a faded blue denim jacket. Dangling on her right shoulder was a bag made of embroidered sack cloth.
"Excuse me, Professor Lance, could you sign my copy?" said the woman.
"I'd be delighted," Lance replied reaching his left hand across the table to take the copy from the woman's hands while with the other hand removing his pen from his chest pocket. Then both his hands stopped in flight as he stared at the woman's face, arrested in the moment of recognition.
"Tammy? Tammy LaGrange?"
"Hello, Drew. It's nice to see you," said the woman. She spoke with a strong Virginian accent.
"My God, Tammy! What are you doing here?" said Lance, his mouth drying up.
"I live here. It's been a long time, Drew, hasn't it?"
"Let me see…Sixteen, seventeen years?"
"Something like that," Tammy tilted her head and smiled. "Fame becomes you, Drew. And I liked a lot some of the poems you read. I knew some already."
Lance walked around the table and stood next to the woman. He was stroking his thumbs with his index fingers—something he did when agitated.
"Tammy, this is so unexpected, it's great to see you. My friend's waiting....I'd like to talk and catch up when I'm not in a rush....It would be ridiculous to have been here and....What are you doing for supper tomorrow?"
"Well, I have two kids and a husband. Normally we go out Friday night. But I might be able to get a night off." She smiled again and Lance remembered kissing her dimples many years ago under the summer night sky.
"That would be very nice," said Lance.
"Where're you staying?"
"Virginia Arms,” Lance answered with a restless laugh. “Room 117."
"So why don't we say I'll call you in the afternoon, about three."
"Fine, Tammy. Could you give me your phone number just in case."
"I'll call you, Drew. Bye."
She walked toward the exit, swaying her hips with a graceful laziness. Lance noticed that she wore black cowboy boots….
"Meet an old friend?" McCloy asked Lance after he started the engine.
"Believe it or not—and here of all places. She used to write great stuff. Jerry, I think I might meet her for supper tomorrow night. I hope it's okay with you and Molly."
"Oh, fine. Maybe afterwards you'll just stop by for a piece of pie with ice cream."
"Sure you don't mind my breaking our dinner plans?"
McCloy nodded. He kept silent while driving Lance back to his lodge.
"See you a little before eleven—my office?"
"Yes, excellent. Jerry,” Lance paused. “Thanks.”
His first impulse was to call his wife. But the impulse died like those concentric circles formed after an object—a rock, an acorn, an angler's float—falls on the water’s surface. Lance took off his clothes and hung them slowly and neatly. Wearing only boxers and a white T-shirt he sat in a chair in front of the TV set and leaned his head back against the seat that felt rough on his neck. For a few minutes he flipped the channels mindlessly; then he got up and poured himself a drink from his flask. The Scotch burned his palate; it tasted of resin. Like a silver nebula, the image of Tammy LaGrange gyrated in his head. She had put on a little weight, and her face had a shininess that illumined the beginnings of a double chin. Her dress and manner were earthy, not in the artful way of university granolas, but rather as those of a woman for whom fields and arbors were more than a place—were her way of being. She's this, she's that, Lance thought, mocking himself. She’s still every breath as seductive, mysterious, and alluring.
Lance stood under the shower, stooping because the shower head was too low. The towels were too small and thin, and he got under the sheets feeling wetness on his chest and groin. He turned off the bedside lamp and closed his eyes; his eyelids felt hot and itchy, and too small to cover his eyes. Lance lay awake, on his back, for a long time, unable to sleep. He had lost track of time. A flood of memories rocked him as it carried him back to the old campus that lay, like a platter of New England country goods, in the rough arms of the Green Mountains. He had just finished college and turned twenty-one that summer. He had won a fellowship to spend a month in a poetry workshop with nine other writers from all over the country. It was an annual contest. Hundreds of applicants submitted ten poems each. The ten winners were hand-picked by the patriarch of the nation's poets, Walter Craft, who seemed to Lance a living extension of the previous century—although Craft was only eight when that century had ended. They were given free tuition, room and board. Lance's friend Jeremiah McCloy had also applied but wasn't picked for the award, and decided to go back home and paint his parents' house instead. The ten of them, the chosen young poets, arrived in the middle of June and kept to themselves for a month—an elite workshop among the paying students who had other writing teachers.
The campus of the writing school was a mile up the road from the village where Craft had a summer house. The students called Craft’s village “the incest capital of New England.” The miniature campus had three long dormitories, a little white chapel, and several smaller buildings with seminar rooms and faculty offices. When it wasn't raining, classes were held outside on the lawn. This writing school was part of a liberal arts college located in the valley down below; in winter it accommodated students who came up to ski, but in the summer the “writers” took over. On one edge of the campus was a narrow road that drilled its way between two mountains; on the other, a forest and a small trout stream that fed into a sleepy frog pond. A large part of the lawn was strewn with Adirondack chairs that had wide arm supports and could almost fit two people. Painted in red and yellow, from afar the chairs looked like strokes of paint on a grassy canvas.
The members of Craft’s workshop would gather at ten in the morning for two hours and then eat lunch together; at four they would reconvene for another class. They submitted new poems for a round-robin critique. Walter Craft presided over their discussions, favoring no one, giving advice only on form, never on subject matter. They all judged each other. They were, all ten of them, very good. And Tammy LaGrange was the most gifted one. Lance understood this immediately, after hearing her read a poem about lessons of lovemaking given by a farmer’s daughter from the Shenandoah Valley to a scion of southern aristocrats after they had both met at UVA. Lance sought Tammy’s company and friendship, and soon he knew enough about her past to read her poems as more than lyrical fictions.
Tammy was the first in her family to go to college. She grew up on a dairy farm with four siblings and lots of animals. Her father came back from Vietnam with two combat pals who were as lost and shaken as he was. The pals stayed on their farm for three months drinking beer and malt alcohol, and only left after a group of neighbors came over one evening with shotguns and asked to speak to Tammy's father. Soon after that Tammy's mother started drinking. A meek and kindly man, Tammy's father was the one who protected Tammy and her sisters and little brother from their mother’s drunkenness. The father's face would sometimes be bruised purple, his eye sockets crimson and swollen. He never hit his wife back. Fishing and hunting were his refuge.
And it wasn't even that Lance found Tammy's background so extraordinary. It was that he had never met anyone like her either while growing up in the Midwest or at Dartmouth. She represented a life he had known only from books and movies. And she was a poet. In her poems there was green sunlight that felt warm on his skin, there were bales of hay that gave away a dizzying scent, there were goats whose names were Josephine and Henrietta and who knew all about their owners' drinking and fights and country baking with lots of butter and sour cream. In her poems Lance could stroll and breathe and lose himself, and they made Lance forget that they were not real, not life or so-called life. Tammy LaGrange knew instinctively how to hide the seams of being.
By the end of the first week of the program Lance and Tammy had become a couple in the eyes of their peers. And in their own? After breakfast, before their morning class, they went for hikes up a rickety trail that led to an oval meadow overgrown with cornflowers. In the meadow they would talk about poetry and their families. She described the songs of the forlorn that her mother sometimes sang strumming the guitar when she was about to go on a binge. He reminisced about growing up in Cleveland—the lake, his father's pharmacy, the all-state spelling bee that he won in sixth grade. Together they made fun of the other poets in their workshop and the tired aphorisms of their teacher Walter Craft. Tammy had only left the state of Virginia once before—for a class trip to DC—and Lance told her about the semester he had spent at Oxford and about Paris and Rome and Barcelona. They sat next to each other at the cafeteria, and after lunch they pulled together a couple of the Adirondack chairs and composed side by side. On the lawn Lance gave Tammy a couple of lessons in fly-fishing—the art he had learned while at Dartmouth and was proud of—and they went fishing for rainbows upstream from the campus. They showed each other all their new poems, first, before making copies for the rest of the group. Lance moralized, reflecting upon history and politics, usually in first person, and even back then his poems were perfectly crafted, like a Swiss pocket watch: one opened the golden lid and stared at the filigreed face, having forgotten that the piece actually told time. "Gorgeous," Tammy would usually exclaim after reading his poem. And about her poems he often said "amazing" or "fantastic." He especially admired Tammy's love poems: the nakedness, the fairy-tale suspense, the unhappy endings.
Lance remembered a misty night he and Tammy went for a long walk after seeing a production of Midsummer Night's Dream by the playwriting students. They had been sitting in a stuffy chapel for three hours and both felt like catching some fresh air. They were walking downhill on a narrow road that sparkled tinlike under the moon, and Lance touched her hand, then took it in his. Tammy turned and gave him a bemused smile. They continued to walk. The road took a bend, and a clay path branched off to the right, into grass and darkness.
"You want to go this way?" he asked Tammy.
"Okay," she whispered.
The moon was behind a mountain peak, and in darkness they moved toward the outlines of haystacks like two sleepwalkers. The grass felt bristly and wet on the ankles. Lance stopped and brought his left hand around Tammy's waist. He pulled her closer, and their bodies came together.
"Drew-Drew," she said.
"And what will your girlfriend say?" Tammy whispered.
"I don't know, Tammy. I can't help it."
"Well I can't neither," Tammy said and brush-kissed him on his lower lip.
They started kissing with a fervor that Lance thought he still remembered on his lips so many years later. They must have kissed for an hour standing under a dim summer night sky. He now had his hands under her skirt, the edges of his palms feeling the rims and slopes of her body. A few feet away a haystack loomed in darkness like a windless sail. Lance could hear his heart pounding like a landed trout.
After they got up, as they were brushing blades of grass and strings of hay off their clothes, Tammy called his name.
"Drew, this isn’t right," Tammy said loudly.
"We can't be doing this."
"I know, I know. I'll tell Jill, I promise. I'll talk to her when she comes to visit in two weeks."
"Why not tell her sooner?"
"I don't know if I can break it to her on the telephone," he answered sullenly.
After that night and the haystack Lance thought that Tammy would pull back, but she didn't. They still went on their morning hikes to their meadow, and they still composed side by side on the green, trusting each other with their newest poems. She never brought up the subject of Lance's girlfriend for the next two weeks, and despite the ardent tension, Lance was content with the unsaid and with Tammy's company.
Jill came up to see Lance at the end of the program, in the middle of July. There was an old tradition at the writing school—a celebration at which all the participants would read from their new work: poets to other poets, fiction writers to other fiction writers. Jill had wanted to be at the readings, and they had planned a motoring trip to Montreal and Quebec City. Jill and Lance had been going steady since their junior year at Dartmouth. She was a blue-blood Bostonian; her father, grandfather and elder brother were all maritime attorneys. Lance never felt much at ease in their company when he and Jill would occasionally drive down to Boston from New Hampshire for a day visit. Jill was slim, ashen-blond, gray-eyed. At first Lance was bewildered by the zeal with which she pursued him—attending readings of the student poetry society that he ran, memorizing his poems, befriending his roommates. By graduation time their friends sensed the impending engagement; in the fall Lance was starting an MFA at Brown, and Jill chose Harvard law school over Yale to stay nearer to him....
She arrived after lunch—he was taking a nap in his garret room. She walked into his room wearing khakis, a white blouse and a silver hair band, bringing with her the air of certainty, resolve, and timeliness.
"Show me your new poems," Jill commanded, tenderly, after giving him a report on apartment-hunting.
Lance pointed to a batch lying on the small desk by the window. Jill quickly read the top two. "They're nice. You never used to write about trees and butterflies," she said, sitting down on his squeaky bed.
"Did you have lunch?" Lance asked.
"I stopped at a little sandwich shop, after I got off the interstate."
"Do you want me to show you around?"
"Yes, later this afternoon,” Jill said, kissing him on the cheek. "I'll go for a run now. And then I'll take a shower." Standing behind a half-open closet door, Jill changed into running clothes. Before leaving, she kissed him again, on the nape. "Back in half an hour or so. Love you."
She hadn't been gone five minutes when Tammy knocked on his door.
"I brought you a new poem. Do you mind looking at it?"
"Of course not," Lance said, trying to sound chipper. He had told Tammy Jill was coming in the afternoon. He had been preparing Jill, Lance had told Tammy, by describing to her Tammy's poetry and their friendship. Their "affinity" for each other, as Lance called it. But, he said, he hadn't had the heart to tell Jill about the haystack.
Barefoot, Tammy was wearing a dyed T-shirt and a long limpid skirt through which her legs shot white. "Here," she said, handing him two hand-written pages of five-line stanzas. "It's a bit longish. And I tried to rhyme. See what you think."
Lance, still sitting on his bed, laid the pages on his knees. Tammy stood by the window swaying and humming something. He finished reading the poem. "It's excellent, Tammy, excellent," he said. "And the half-rhymes are very fine."
"You like?" Tammy crossed the room and sat on the bed next to him curling her feet under.
"I like it a lot."
"You know what you're reading tomorrow?" she asked.
"Jill is here, Tammy," Lance said without looking up.
"Oh, where is she?"
"Out for a run."
"Did you tell her?"
"You're going to?"
"Yes, later today. I think you'd better go now, Tammy."
And then, like in films where desperate directors stab their characters in the back with daggers of chance and coincidence, the door opened and Jill came in.
"Jill,” Lance got up, “this is my friend Tammy LaGrange, the poet I’ve told you about." He moved to the middle of the room, between the door and the bed.
"Delighted," Jill said icily. "And how are you going to introduce me, Andrew, as your friend Jill Lorimer, the runner you’ve told her about? This is just great: three friends gathered for high tea and some poetry." Jill's face and neck, already sweaty and pink from running, became covered in red blots.
"Jill, must you?" Lance muttered looking neither at her nor at Tammy.
"Of course I must. You think I don't know what's going on here? You think I'm that thick?"
"Well, actually you don't know," Tammy said, but Jill interrupted her.
"Let me finish," she said clenching her fists. "You think you can write a few poems about cute prancing lambies, drunk rednecks and losing virginity at fourteen in a dark stable? You really think men go for it because they like your poems? That's not why they go for it. They like—"
"—Jill," Lance yelled. "That's enough."
Lips shaking, Tammy walked to the door. She put her hand on the door knob and turned, facing Jill. "I had feelings for Drew, you're right about that. But Drew, he just wanted to be friends. And he was a good friend to me. And nothing more. He's a good man, your Drew. Hang on to him." Tammy ran out of the room.
Lance spent the rest of the day trying to pacify Jill. They talked in his room for a long time. Then he took her to dinner in the neighboring town.
"What she said earlier, is it true?" Jill asked him in the car on the way back.
"Yes, sweetie, of course it's true. Tammy's a friend. And a fellow poet. We read and critique each other's poems. She's talented."
"Read and critique," Jill repeated. "She was sitting on your bed when I returned from my run."
"Oh, come on, sweetie. You're being jealous."
"I don't trust her, that's all."
Tammy wasn't at the gala reading the next day, and Lance learned from a woman in their workshop that she had packed her things and left in the morning. He never heard from Tammy after that summer. Nor did he try to get in touch with her. It had all happened a long time ago and he almost felt that it happened to somebody else, somebody whom he once knew but later forgot. Trying to unremember Tammy and that summer in the Green Mountains and Jill's jealousy and his own acquiescence, Lance finally fell into a haystack of dreamless sleep.
He slept until after ten and barely had time to grab a muffin and tea on the way to the campus. McCloy's poetry seminar was held in a room with chestnut paneling and a matching oval table. There were more women than men in the class. Lance talked for twenty minutes, first about the importance of craft, then about the way personal experience “sears” poems with a “brand of authenticity.” It all bordered on the platitudinal, and Lance knew it, but he was having such a hard time concentrating that he was grateful at least a section of his mind had remained free of Tammy and was now feeding his vocal cords with cadences of advice to a young poet.
Lance asked each student to read one poem. He nodded as they read. He didn't keep up with the beat of the students' poems. His nodding reproduced the rhythm of his own memory, of the word “Tammy.” Two beats. Tam-my. Stale mate. Tam-my. Tame me. Tam-my. At the end of the seminar, Lance forgot to perform his favorite ritual. He would usually have asked the students to give him their work to consider for his quarterly. This time, McCloy had to remind him, and Lance waited with a guilty smile while one of the students collected the submissions. Then he rose up, put them into a folder bound in morocco leather, and deposited the folder into his briefcase.
"What's wrong, Andy?" McCloy asked after the last student walked out of the room. "Not feeling well?"
"Just a bad night of insomnia. You ever get it?"
"Not really. Do you still want to have lunch at my house?"
"Of course, Jerry. Absolutely. I want to see Molly. I'll rest in the afternoon."
"What time's your plane tomorrow?"
"3:40, from Dulles. I plan to go fly-fishing in the morning, on the way back."
"I'd go with you, Andy, but I'm going bird-watching with a friend who teaches at St. Mary's. Derek Gill. You remember him, don't you?"
"Sure. Tall guy, red hair, freckles. Merrill chose his first book for the Younger Poets Prize. Hasn’t done much since. I remember him."
They drove to McCloy's house where a three-course lunch was served in a dining room with framed herbaria and landscape watercolors on periwinkle walls. After lunch, trying to stay awake in the lap of a stripy davenport, Lance had to endure an hour of Molly's stories about her talented students. McCloy's wife was a principal at the local high school, and Lance felt that his friend was slightly embarrassed of his wife's profession. When the cuckoo clock announced three, Lance began to twitch his fingers. Tammy said she would call around three, and he didn't want to miss her call. McCloy, who sensed that something was going on, offered to take him back. "You're okay, Andy?" he asked again as he pulled up to the lodge.
"I don't know, Jerry. I'm sorry I botched up your seminar."
"Don't worry about it, Andy."
"I'll e-mail you next week. And about the students' poems too."
"Stop by tonight after supper if you feel like it. Have a good trip, Andy."
Lance was in his room at 3:30. He called the front desk asking about messages.
"No messages, sir," said a high-pitched female voice.
"Are you sure?" he asked again.
"Pretty sure. Been here all day."
Lance sat in the armchair, then got up and started pacing from door to window. Then he opened his briefcase, removed the morocco leather folder, and took out the top page. His eyes slid across the surface, jumping from one stanza to the next over spaces of silence. The poem was about horses, and Lance thought it annoying and saccharine-sweet. He tried a poem from the middle of the batch, but found it tedious, rhymes awkward like a pimply teenager, metaphors jarring. He paced some more, then lay down on his bed in clothes and loafers and closed his eyes. The phone rang at 4.
"Tammy? Hi! Where are you?"
"I'm at home."
"I was worried I'd missed your call."
"So do you want to meet for supper?
"What's a good restaurant in town?"
"Well, Giorgio's is supposed to be very good. Expensive though."
"It's my treat. How expensive can things be around here?"
"Still a snob, Drew."
"My husband is taking the kids to a basketball game at Staunton. Why don't we meet in the restaurant at 7:30?"
Lance looked up Giorgio's in the phone book and called for a reservation. He undressed. He wanted to shower but decided to call home first.
"You sound tired, Andrew," Jill said in her unwavering voice. "How did the reading go? How's Jerry?"
"Fine, fine. I'm going out for supper, and tomorrow I'm getting up at the crack of dawn to go fishing. I just wanted to say hello."
"Is everything well with you and the kids?"
"Andrew, you sound funny."
"I didn't sleep well last night. And I left my sleeping pills at home. In the bathroom."
"I think maybe you should take a break from these campus trips."
"Maybe you're right."
"We are quite solvent, you know. And your magazine gets more submissions than you can read in your lifetime."
"I'll think about it, sweetie. I promise. So I’ll see you tomorrow."
"We're all coming to the airport to get you. Catch some fish. Bye."
Lance woke up from a nap feeling less anxious. He went out for a stroll, got a cup of watery coffee at an ice cream parlor, and returned to his room. He showered and shaved for the second time. He cologned himself and dressed slowly and pensively—a mercury-gray shirt, cords, a black cashmere V-neck. The restaurant was in the downtown area, and after getting directions at the reception desk, he decided to walk. It took about twenty minutes. The restaurant turned out to be in a pedestrian area of several blocks. Archy street lamps and cast iron bollards lined both sides. Well-dressed couples strolling, men in suits and hats. Retro, Lance thought as he walked past an art gallery to the restaurant.
At Giorgio's a corpulent maitre d' showed Lance to a table by the window, which had a good view of the walking area. A table light made of blue glass cast a thin shadow across the table. Lance leaned his head against the window and peered into the street. Babbly skirts and pants. Male and female silhouettes flitting by. Misty yellow lights. Rendezvous.
"Drew," Tammy's raspy voice startled Lance.
"Tammy…So glad you could come."
She wore a long black skirt with red arabesques, a velvet top, a necklace of gray freshwater pearls. Her lush hair was French-braided this time.
"You look very nice," Lance said. He summoned the waiter and ordered a bottle of Chianti.
"We don't usually come to this area," Tammy said after she took a sip of wine from a tall glass that she held with both hands. "Too pricey."
"Uh-hmm," Lance nodded.
"Caleb, my husband, he works for the local telephone company."
"Oh, I see. Does he know you're here?"
"No, does Jill?"
"No, I mean she knows I'm out to supper. Wait, how do you know Jill's my wife?"
"It’s in the bio blurb—in your book. Unless it's a different Jill."
"No, same Jill." Bridging an awkward pause, he asked, "How old are your kids?"
"Nat's fourteen, Abigail will be twelve next spring."
"Mine are thirteen and eleven. Also a boy and a girl."
"Does Jill work?"
"Yes, she's an attorney. Devilishly active. Are you working?"
"Course I am, I have to. Caleb drinks. Less now than before. He used to stay home and drink for several days straight. He's got gold hands, he can fix anything. That's why they haven't fired him."
"How's your mother?" Lance asked, remembering Tammy's family stories.
"She died three years ago, of liver failure.”
"I'm so sorry."
"That's okay. My dad, though, is doing pretty well. He's remarried and moved to Lynchburg."
"You haven't said anything about your work, Tammy."
"I'm a kindergarten teacher."
Lance put a piece of bittersweet salmon in his mouth. The appetizer had been baked on a cedar plank with coriander seeds.
"I know you're shocked and trying not to show it. It's all right. We haven't seen each other for almost seventeen years. A lot has changed."
"It's just that....Well, why aren't—"
"—why aren’t I where we thought I'd be? Publishing poetry and winning awards like yourself. Well, things just didn’t turn out that way."
"When did you get married?" Lance asked.
"The fall after I finished college. And met you. Caleb's a distant cousin on my mother's side. We grew up together. He's a good man."
They talked some more about their families and marriages.
"Are you still writing?" Lance asked what he had wanted to ask her the whole time.
"Sure, from time to time."
"Are you sending things out?"
"The same reason I can't deal with many other things. I tried teaching high school. The kids are okay, but the teachers….I tried the local paper too."
"Tammy, all it takes is to put a few poems in an envelope."
"I can't take ugly rejection slips. Not now. I'm almost forty and—"
"—so why didn't you write to me at the quarterly?" Lance interrupted her.
"A couple of years ago," Tammy continued, ignoring his question, "I got a letter from a Josephine Levinson, who teaches women's studies at a college up in Maine. She'd found a poem of mine in an old issue of Shenandoah from 1981—when I was a junior in college. She said she wanted to know more about me and my work. I never wrote back. What's the point?"
"Tammy, you were good. Oh, damn it, you were the best in our workshop. You had your own voice, whatever the hell that means!" Lance threw his blazer on the back of his chair. "Thanks, Drew. I know you really admired my poems. I never quite figured out why. I thought yours were so much better… elegant, shapely."
"Who cares about all that. Your poems were alive. They sparkled."
"I just wrote them as they came to me."
"Listen, Tammy, I'll make a deal with you. You give me a bunch of poems to take home with me, and I'll run a selection in the next issue. You'll see, you'll have editors calling you."
"I don't know."
"I'll tell you what else I'll do. After your poems come out in the magazine, I'll send them with a note to my editor at Knopf. Deal?"
"You're sweet. Let me think about it, okay."
"Don't think about it. Just go home and bring me some poems. Let's meet for breakfast tomorrow morning, and you'll give me the poems."
"I don't know, Drew."
"What's a place to get breakfast around here?"
"Well, there's Moosley's, at Laurel and Washington."
"Great. Meet me there at 7:30. I'm going fly-fishing and then straight to the airport."
They said good-bye outside the restaurant. Lance went back on foot, taking in the misty air, humming a Verdi aria.
A salad-green two-door Ford Granada was parked in front of his hotel room when he arrived there. Tammy was sitting on the hood, smoking and playing with her hair.
"Tammy?" Lance said, voice trembling.
"Do you want to come in?"
He unlocked the door and let Tammy in first. His hand was feeling around for the switch on the wall.
"Don't turn on the light." Lance felt Tammy's hand on his neck and cheek. "Oh, Drew," she exhaled, pressing her body to his.
Afterwards they silently lay in darkness, she smoking, he sipping water from a plastic bottle he kept at his side. Then the phone rang and he didn’t answer.
"This is probably Jill," said Lance.
"I hope you don’t tell her now."
"I don't know."
“You would’ve been better off with a Jewish girl,” Tammy half-whispered sliding her cool fingers across his forehead down to his left clavicle and chest. “See you tomorrow.”
Lance woke up at 6:30 feeling fresh and renewed, but also dimly anxious. He packed his things, put on khakis, a red turtleneck, a fishing vest and hiking boots. It looked like it was going to be a perfect day for fishing: sun coming up through wispy clouds, not a tremor in the leaves, the air dry and scented with autumnal withering.
He asked for directions to Moosley's, and the night receptionist gave him a strange look while explaining how to get there. For about ten minutes Lance zigzagged through empty streets looking for the intersection of Laurel and Washington. Moosley's turned out to be a rusty diner next door to a pool hall. In contrast to the groomed lawns and homes around the campus, the area struck Lance as depressed, the homes shabby, the façades of buildings squalid and left unpainted for too long. He walked into the diner and looked across the room. It was 7:35. An elderly couple was eating pancakes at a corner table. Three men, two of them wearing overalls, occupied the left side of the counter. Tammy wasn't there.
Lance sat at the counter on a cracked red vinyl seat and asked for some tea with lemon.
"I'm waiting for somebody," he told the middle-aged waitress in a dirty apron.
"Take your time. Going fishing?"
"Yes, after breakfast."
One of the fellows in overalls gave Lance a grim look from under his wiry slabs of eyebrows.
After waiting for about twenty minutes, Lance ordered eggs and toast.
"Any bacon or ham?" asked the waitress.
"No thanks, none. And could I have my check, please.
Lance quickly ate his breakfast, washed it down with the tasteless tea, and put a five-dollar bill on the counter. He threw another long look across the room, as if hoping Tammy might be reading the paper at one of the tables.
“Good luck fishing,” the waitress said so loudly that the other customers turned his way. Lance nodded silently and walked out.
He got into the rental car and slammed the door. Leaving behind the college town, he drove north on the empty county road for about half an hour. He checked the directions to the state park that he had printed off the internet. After Townsend Farms there was supposed to be a sign and a turn to a gravel road. “There it is, Clear Brook State Park,” Lance muttered and hit the brakes. The road into which he turned went up into the wooded hills. After driving for about five miles—gravel and milky dust coming from under his wheels—Lance stopped at a little store, actually a log cabin set back about thirty feet off the road. He walked into the store expecting a toothless old man with a bristly swinish face. Instead he saw a girl of about fourteen or fifteen, dark-haired, with quick green eyes. Sitting behind the counter, she held a decrepit paperback in her hands.
"Miss, I was wondering if I could buy a fishing permit for one day?" Lance asked the girl.
"The shortest we have is one week," the girl replied showing coral-white teeth. "Would you like one?"
"Sure. I'm only going to fish for a few hours though."
"It's twelve dollars. That includes a trout stamp."
The girl tore off a little form for him to fill out and asked for his driver's license. She put the bottom copy of the permit into an old cash register with large round keys.
"What's a good place to fly-fish?" Lance asked.
"Go up the road for half a mile. You'll see a trail going off to your left. Park the car and go up the trail until you hit the stream. There are flat rocks you can cast off of. My dad likes that spot. He's the warden here."
"Do you know what they're hitting on?"
"Oh, right now they're mighty hungry. Whatever you have, not too small, not too big. I hear ants work pretty good."
"Thanks." Not knowing why, Lance extended his hand to the girl in a handshake.
He followed the directions and found the trail the girl had described. He opened the trunk of his car and took the rod out of its case. He put on a hat with about two dozen flies on it. After feeding the line through the rings, he tied on a fly, a black imitation ant. The trail turned out to be longer than he had expected. Finally he heard the gurgling of the stream, then saw clear spaces beyond the pine trunks. “There it is,” Lance said to himself out loud.
He climbed onto a mossy rock whose tip hung over the stream, and stood there studying the water. He heard a splash to the left of him. Moving quietly and slowly, Lance walked over to the next rock downstream, then the next one, and continued this way until he found a perfect spot: a flat rock to stand on and enough space around him to cast. To the left near the opposite bank of the stream there was a pool of clear brownish water, to which the current brought red leaves and yellow pine needles. Lance cast upstream and waited for the current to carry his fly to the pool. He cast several times, then put on a new fly made of elk bristle. He was hot from hiking and casting. He took a sip of water from a bottle stored in one of his vest pockets. A bird carried its thin trill across the stream into the thickets on the opposite bank. Lance heard another splash.
He cast upstream and waited, watching his fly twitch as the current took possession of it. When the fly reached the middle of the pool Lance saw a splash, and his fly went under. "There you are, my sweet. There you are," Lance whispered, collecting the slack into the reel. He felt a series of pulls. Pangs. "You're beautiful, my sweet. My rainbow. And you love this fly. And I love you." He let her fight and kick and tire herself. Then he reeled her in and netted her, landing his first trout of the day. In his hands the trout sparkled, all wet and tremulous, like those poems Lance would never write.
Copyright © 2006 by Maxim D. Shrayer. All rights reserved.