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smelt 3

Rick Pillsbury—he always felt more like a Rick than a Richard when doing something outdoorsywas somewhat relieved. Yesterday morning when his Judy had blurted out the invitation to Moran—why, he had the urge to hit the girl, slap the foolishness right out of her. But instead he’d sunken into fearful imaginings, picturing Frank Ford standing in the frigid water with his arms around Judy; Ford demonstrating the proper technique for operating a smelt net. It was a scene from an old Elvis Presley movie in a fever dream, featuring Frank Ford as Elvis-in-chest waders, the big stud hitting on the pretty girls and serenading the provincial locals with ballads about record catches and long-drowned smelters.

How foolish romance can make one.

But what Rick was seeing now was Dan Moran standing along the shoreline talking and gesturing, demonstrating his dip-and-glide method with one of those peculiar smelting-type nets that had a v-shaped metal-mesh basket and a long wooden handle. Judy and the guests—the pharmacist from Goldfine’s by the Bridge, Roger Bergson, and his fiancé, Linda Turnbull—were giving Moran their rapt attention. Moran resembled death in suspenders but he was polite and keeping his distance. And besides the smelting nets, he’d brought along an extra pair of hip boots, a set of chest waders and even a seine, things that Rick had, like a greenhorn, neglected to bring.

Rick’s good mood was tempered somewhat when he saw Frank Ford and the hippie (Waverly?) walking across the beach in his direction. Seemed like a good time to grab one of those bottles of Beck’s beer Judy had insisted he buy. He was squatting down at the brand new red and white Igloo cooler when the two itinerants crunched up the stones and placed themselves in front of the fire, the curly-headed one clad in denim and reminding Rick of someone in that Woodstock movie, while Ford was neat and clean in a green lightweight jacket and a reasonably decent pair of Levis.

Playing host because he knew his fiancé wanted it that way, Rick smiled at the new arrivals. “Welcome, glad you could make it. Care for a fine German beer?” This brew was likely out of their normal price range, so why not show some generosity and give them a taste of the high life? Perhaps it would make them feel grateful and motivate them to work a little harder on the house. Let them see that their employer is a decent, honest, generous man.

Rick lifted out three bottles and set them on the rocks, closed the lid on the cooler. He took the bottle opener—they called them church keys around here—snapped off the caps and stood up with a smile. He handed a bottle to Frank Ford and one to his companion Waverly. It was Waverly, wasn’t it? Up close, that one seemed a bit jumpy and spaced out, if that was the correct term. Maybe the man just wasn’t used to polite company. The car he drove—side mirror hanging down on the door for God’s sake—certainly seemed to indicate a disdain for the values one needed to succeed in this world. But both men thanked him for the beers so at least they were polite.

“We sure got lucky on the weather, eh?” Ray Ford’s older brother said, foregoing formal greetings. “Perfect for the smelt, perfect for the smelters.”

“Indeed,” Rick said. “It is quite pleasant—for Lake Superior, this time of year. I’m afraid I’m not yet adjusted to what passes for spring along the North Shore.”

“So you don’t get rain, wind and cold in North Dakota in the spring?” Waverly said, swallowing beer and wiping his lips with the sleeve of his denim jacket, the hippie’s jaw set at a strange angle and moving slightly, sort of a chewing motion with nothing to chew.

“Oh indeed we do,” Rick said, pushing back his annoyance and pasting on a smile. “Just not with the frequency and consistency that seems to be the norm around here. But this spectacle,” gesturing with a wave of his hand at the smelters, “is like nothing I ever experienced in North Dakota.” Hearing his fiancé give a gleeful hoot, Rick turned to the water’s edge to see Moran lifting out a net full of wriggling silvery fish, water droplets cascading off the netting and shining in the firelight like tiny diamonds. “And now it seems the smelt are running.”

He hoped he’d used the proper jargon.

(To be continued)

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