Lost in Amsterdam

A fine mist fell. Jeremy zippered the slicker his mother had made him wear. Heading down Leidsestraat, he saw cheese, he saw cappuccino, he saw fries. He smelled pot, he saw Heineken, and he could have jumped on a canal cruise and taken a guided tour, passing houseboats and brasseries, experiencing the city as it should be done.

He walked north instead. 

The breeze blew cold. Walking quickly, he grabbed the slicker’s collar and tucked the ends together then pulled the hood up over his head, shading his face from the lively crowd, overflowing onto the sidewalks, standing under umbrellas and smoking cigarettes, speaking in Dutch and English. Locals sped by in cyclist caravans, probably off to fill another bar or restaurant. Passing through a square, dancers spun on their heads to beat music while people circled around them and clapped.

Jeremy continued on his journey. 

He stopped when he reached the corner of Oudezuds and another cross street whose name he could not pronounce. Two waist-high cement, cylinder barriers stood in the middle of the cobblestone road. Each barrier had small, red lights glowing from their tops, signaling a warning or a welcome. Jeremy breathed deep and walked around them. 

These streets – no chatter, just pitter-pattering feet – were filled with mostly men, lumbering up and down the constricting alleyways, heads down and hands in their pockets. Jeremy couldn’t help but look up. An excitement coursed through his chest that he’d never felt before. His pace quickened and he took shallow breaths. Jeremy glanced from side to side, inspecting each girl. The girls, standing behind glass doors, danced in bikinis and waved. Maybe at him. Maybe at the other men trotting by. Red bulbs glimmered through small fixtures next to each door. 

Jeremy stopped at one door. The girl inside, plump and Asian – nothing he’d date back home – smiled. Jeremy pulled the hood from his face and smiled back. He opened the door and walked in. Vanessa, she called herself, closed the shade on the door and shoved Jeremy onto a mattress. 

Forty-five seconds later, Jeremy pulled up his pants and handed Vanessa thirty Euro. “That happens to every man their first time,” she said in her Dutch accent. 

A man he thought as he walked back. He stopped at a whiskey bar. He figured a man would drink whiskey after doing that. He sat on a stool and threw down a smoky single malt. He didn’t taste its subtle hints of oak, but only felt it burn his throat. 

Back at the hotel, he slithered past his sleeping parents.  He got in the shower and scrubbed himself clean. Harder and harder. He lathered and scrubbed. He cried and scrubbed, using only his hands, his fingernails scratching red lines into his hot skin. He held in his bellows and let out puppy whimpers. 

Will I tell the guys when I get home? he wondered, toweling off. He grabbed his stomach and lurched toward the toilet, hugged the damp porcelain, and emptied remnants of his night into its whiteness. Probably the scotch.

—————————————

Originally published in Pure Slush on 16 September 2011

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Evening Soundtrack

We walked out of The Local, an Irish Pub in downtown Minneapolis, and onto the nearly empty street. Like any city late at night, there were a few groups of people coming and going to other restaurants and bars, a few drifters enjoying the cool end-of-summer night, and a few loiters passing time and tittering. And like in any other city, there were street musicians providing us with an end- of-week soundtrack.

Go to any big city – Philly, New York, LA, even Minneapolis – and wander the streets or descend into the subway labyrinth and you’ll find musicians jamming out with their saxophones, guitars, and trumpets. They play covers and originals. They open their instrument cases, exposing the dull, red, velvet interiors, hoping passersby toss in a few coins or dollars. The music is good; the musicians are experienced and you find yourself tapping your feet to their beat.

This night was different. Walking down Nicollet, we passed a middle-aged man who pressed a trumpet to his lips. He peered down from under the brim of his fedora and played the notes in the book that sat on his shiny, metal stand. If I could have seen the title of the book it probably would have read Trumpet for Beginners or Playing Trumpet: Lesson One.

He played a single note, his forefinger firmly holding down the first valve. The tone skipped and chirped. His notes were sometimes loud and sometimes soft. Sometimes elongated and sometimes staccato.

At first I laughed at the simplicity, but quickly I recognized and appreciated the courage – guts – it took for this man to learn trumpet, not at home or in a class, but on the street for all to hear. His playing was simple, amateur, and heartfelt. I don’t know his story. He may have been hungry. He may have been homeless. He may have gotten kicked out of his house for learning the trumpet. He was brave. He was passionate. Maybe the next time I see him his case will be filled so much that he won’t be able to close it. Maybe it will be so full that he’ll have to carry the case in his right hand and the trumpet in his left hand. Maybe.

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50 Minute Fight

Dylan stepped out of his small, black pickup truck and walked around to the bed. He picked up both ends of his collapsed fishing rod, lined up the guides, and pushed the two pieces together, making a ten-foot surf rod. He then picked up his tackle box – a soft, black fabric satchel-like container that slung over his shoulder and across his chest – and he popped it open. Skimming through his rig options, he chose a two ounce silver and brown eel spinner with a feathered teaser.

A few months before, Dylan had no idea what an eel lure was. He didn’t know how to rig a teaser. He barely knew how to tie a secure knot to a hook. He’d only been fishing for less than a year and this past summer he only rigged for fluke. Today, even though it was March, he was after the Northeast trophy fish – striped bass.

Dylan grabbed a plastic shopping bag from the passenger seat of his truck. The bag held two cold hot dog sandwiches and a bottled water. He secured all three items – rod, tackle bag, and lunch bag – closed his truck doors and walked to the boardwalk, toward the beach.

The sun shone bright, but a chilling breeze blew strong from the southeast, pushing the current to the northwest. Dylan looked at the terrain and picked his spot. To his left, large rocks forming the Manasquan inlet wall jutted out a good forty feet off the beach and into the crashing waves. To his right was nothing but sand.  Dylan had done some research: with this current, stripers follow bait fish into the rocky shallows, so he knew he wouldn’t have to cast too far. He looked at his black and silver diver’s watch. Exactly noon. He had an hour.

This was a nice respite from his situation just twenty minutes before. It had been his fifth conference call of the day. Something was wrong with the communication between the finance and production systems. Everyone could see the problem, but no one seemed willing to fix it. Voices rose, respectfully, but by the end of the call, nothing was resolved. Most calls were like this. As the new guy, he was expected to clean up past messes. As the new guy he was expected to keep his mind to himself. Don’t step on toes. Some were already upset that he’d pushed too much. Who? Dylan was unsure, but he was pulled in too many directions, sometimes by friends and other times by foes. He just couldn’t tell which was which. A good hour of fishing would clear things up. His head would be calm.

Dylan plopped down his lunch bag and walked toward the water and the hard sand. He swung his hips, arms, and rod to the right, letting the rod fall behind his right shoulder, and then he quickly spun forward, guiding the rod toward the ocean. The eel lure plopped with a small splash just past the rocks. He’d spin and drag the lure right through his target area, close to the rocks where large fish wait to catch bait.

As his mind drifted away from the office and into his fishing, he began his reeling method – reel three times, settle, and pop to the left. Reel three times, settle, and pop right. He did this a few times without thought and as he got into his rhythm, he looked at the sun and at the gulls. A forty-foot fishing boat, with its side rigging up, shoved toward the inlet, gulls swarming and squawking, waiting for pieces of the cleaned catch to be thrown overboard.

Snap!

Dylan’s arms flung forward as the rod bent toward the ocean. “Holy God! What did I snag?” The line ran out quickly but Dylan let it go. He’d read that stripers like to run and many times the hook won’t set unless you let them go a bit. He watched as the line sped away from the spool. Ten yards. Twenty yards. Thirty yards. “When do I start reeling back in?”

He tightened the drag on the spool and started reeling with his left hand, steadying the rod with his right hand and occasionally pulling the entire rod and reel toward himself. The reel was stiff and fought him, like grinding coffee, but with pebbles instead of coffee beans. Slowly and painfully he reeled and then pulled back, over and over, feeling like he was getting nowhere.

It was ten after twelve. He’d made one cast and landed something, something large and stubborn. After five more minutes, his arms and back started to cramp. The fish pulled harder and now moved against the current, heading south and parallel to the beach. Dylan walked the same way. “No sense in fighting you. I’ll just let you tire.” Ten paces down the beach, the fish stopped and turned out to sea, stronger than ever before. The rod’s arch bent dangerously toward the ground. “I can’t lose him.” So Dylan loosened the line and let him run more, reeling every few seconds to keep the fish from swimming to Portugal.

Twelve-thirty. Dylan looked at his watch. I had better end this soon. “I’m hungry and thirsty.” His lunch sat bout fifty feet away. Out of reach. “I’ll eat when this is done. How will I hold up the fish and take a picture at the same time? Worry about that when you have to.” Dylan tightened the line again and started reeling, against the fish’s wishes.

One revolution at a time, Dylan let his left and right hands alternate – reel and pull. Reel and pull. Each time the tension in the rod increased. He pushed on. Sweat built up underneath his sweatshirt, despite the cooling wind. Closer and closer he pulled in the elusive fish. “What does it look like?” Dylan followed the line with his eyes and saw his green feather teaser poking up out of the water right in front of a silver-white breaking wave. “It’s so close. I’m hungry, thirsty, and sore. Maybe I can grab the line and drop the rod. Then I’ll run into the surf and just jump on the fish and bring it in with my hands. The water isn’t too cold. I’ve been in colder.”

He laughed at his idea. He reeled, loosened the tension, tightened it again, and reeled again. At one point, with the drag as tight as possible, the fish still pulled out line. “How is this fish strong enough to pull through this?” The rod was bending and almost touching the sand.

Quarter to one.

“I just need some water. I’m so thirsty.” Dylan looked around and saw a middle-aged, barefoot couple walking toward him, their shoes by their sides. So he let go of the rod with his right hand and signaled to them with a friendly wave. The gentleman waved back, acknowledging Dylan’s call for assistance.

Snap!

This time the sound was less than exciting. Dylan looked away from the approaching couple and up at the end of his rod. His line was frayed and loose. The tension was gone. The eel lure was gone. The fish was gone. Exhilarated and dejected, Dylan walked to his lunch bag, gathered his gear, and headed for his truck.

At one o’clock, he was back on a call. Back to uncertainty.

During down time, he stopped by the bait shop and told the owner his story. “Sounds like you lost a big striper. They never left because the water temperature stayed warm enough. May have been a blue, but probably a striper.” Dylan thought about natural hazards. Maybe he hadn’t hooked a fish, but a crab trap or just snagged some submerged rocks. It ran with the line against the current, though. Day after day, he got on his calls.

Three weeks later, Dylan needed another detox session, so he went back to the same spot. He cast and got into his pattern – reel three times, settle, and pop. Nothing. Again. Nothing. After thirty minutes, Dylan noticed an old man walking toward him. “Catch anything?” the old man asked as he got close. The man’s face was permanently sun-burned. Deep wrinkles around his eyes closed tight. He was smiling and sincere.

“Nothing yet.”

“Well steer clear of the rocks. There’s a net about twenty-feet off them to the right and I lost a good lure to it last week,” he said.

Dylan’s mouth dropped. “If I hooked it, would it pull my line?”

“It might if the tide and current are strong enough.”

Dylan quickly told the man his story. The man laughed.  “Part of the fun. Sometimes you never know what you have on the end of your line. You don’t know what’s fighting you. You know what I do?”

“What?” asked Dylan.

“Put on a new rig and keep fishing.”

The old fisherman turned away and headed toward the rocks, climbed them, and then followed them away from the crashing waves and onto the boardwalk. He disappeared into a small crowd of mother’s walking their strollers, couples holding hands, and kids on bicycles.

Dylan cast and reeled for another hour or so, never getting even a bite. He didn’t mind.

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