The man slit the last Lahontan cutthroat trout up the middle and scraped out the guts with his forefinger. It was probably the last one, anyway. Before the state had shut down the department of wildlife and parks, the biologists said the species had finally departed, swimming from the shrinking lakes into textbooks and memories.
He thought this could be one, though. They had been the kings of Nevada’s lakes and streams, one of the largest inland trout species in the world. By the time the man had reason to care, they were barely holding on in the alkaline lakes that were wisps of their Ice Age realm, victims of the constant upstream diversions and the air drying into poison. The one in his hands was much bigger than the rainbows or even the hybrid cutbows, and its last gasps before he hit it against the tailgate were that of a dignified refugee, the ceasing of a genetically pure line.
He could fish from the back of his truck now, a luxury brought on by decay. No one to tell him where to park or where to fish or charge him at the gate. Last time out here he broke the lock with boltcutters, and when he arrived yesterday, no one had replaced it. He could drive out to the end of the peninsula that was formerly an island. He briefly wondered how much gas he had left. There might still be a station at Tahoe, but the smaller towns he used to stop at had dried up with the lakes.
The man didn’t worry though, because his doctor had told him he shouldn’t. The mind could be controlled without medicine, as much as possible. At least his could.
A month ago, they had found his wife on the bathroom floor of the Wendy’s, her heart barely pressing out a distress signal. He met her at the hospital later, and as she lay on the gurney, miraculously still on this side of the veil, she looked more beautiful to him than on their wedding day. As she recovered, she told him everything, all the things she though he didn’t know and the uncomfortable details that didn’t surprise him. Contrary to before, he couldn’t shut her up.
It would be different from now on, to say the least. He was still trying to forgive her, more trying to understand. He didn’t know whose fault it was. Perhaps she had been trying to escape, permanently this time. Now he was, escaping from the house with the lights turned off in the still of the afternoon and the sound in his ears of the world humming, vibrating toward nothing. Fishing, both now and before, was a grasp at thoughts other than those of the futility of her revival, and his own looming extinction.
He seasoned the meat simply, light salt and a lemon. Fruit was rare and expensive these days. There used to be this stand in the town near here, an old couple selling the produce they grew in the mountains. Hell, there used to be a town. It had started with the canceling of the loon festival, which had become tragic in its last few years as photographers traced the last few birds on their fruitless hunts for the dwindling chubs.Next the fishermen stopped coming, from lack of sport. He himself hadn’t been here since before his son was born. And then the town simply vanished in what seemed like a glance, its inhabitants scattering with the dust to some place where they could never again be reminded of their declining lives.
The man pulled out his knife and ate a few pieces raw. The fish from this lake had never made him sick before, but they were weaker now and choking on the stirred up dirt as they were forced closer to the lake bed. The taste was the same as always, though he didn’t try to commit the last few bites to memory.
Though the lake was irrevocably different now, the area was as scenic as it had been when he had first waded into it as a boy. He could see the opposite shore, the tiny green and purple withered plants, and the mountains behind the shore glowing red as if heating up, though the moon was appearing, tiny against the black like a polished coin.
As he put the knife back in his pocket, he felt his hand rub against the soft leather of his wallet. He pulled it out, and the withered brown thing felt light and limp in his hands. He’d left all of his cards in Phoenix, and the firm had stopped handing out paychecks a long time ago. His fingers poked into an inner pocket with the mindless memory of those tiny muscles. He bundled the pictures inside with the fish remains, in an old newspaper he grabbed from the dashboard. One was of her, a print from a photo booth she had entered without him and returned from with four reminders shrunk down to 4 by 6 inches. The man pushed the newspaper tighter on itself, mixing the wrinkled paper of her black and white face into the crushed gills and the still glinting scales.
Without a sigh or a pause to let himself reflect, the man threw the bundle into the lake and got back into the truck, not waiting for the water to soak the paper and drag it down to the shallow gravel.
The faithful spark plug flickered and he drove across the isthmus, over the uncovered petroglyphs and fish bones. He turned north into the dark of the dusk, through the dead crystal sand, and the desert swallowed the sound of his retreat.
Alan Coats is studying Forest Hydrology at the University of Georgia. He won the Mississippi State University writing contest for Fiction.