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March 1, 2009

"Ted! It's not underwear!" Rudy Touchous was a chubby, little guy in his mid thirties, but he squealed like an eight year old on Christmas morning. Finding a fish on the end of his line sent Rudy into a happy dance that almost knocked Ted Foteo out of the boat.

Ted pulled up the sleeves of his khaki cargo jacket and grabbed the net from the rack. He dipped the net under the fish and carefully lifted Rudy's prize into the boat. With a practiced hand, he gently removed the hook and laid the fish out along the ruler on top of the cooler.

"It's thirteen inches, Rudy. This one's legal." Ted opened the cooler. On a good day, the catch filled the space in the ice chest left by the drinks Ted and his clients removed. Rudy wasn't much of a drinker, so there was no room for the eighteen ounce bass. Ted extracted two beers and a Coke, then nestled the expiring fish into the cooler and covered it with ice.

"Time to celebrate." Ted held a beer and the Coke in one hand and offered the cans to his still quivering client.

Rudy took the Coke. "Wasn't that great, Ted? I mean... a fish. An actual fish!" Rudy leaned back in the fishing chair looking like the poster child for Orvis catalog addiction: a new fishing hat the color of overcooked green beans sat on his head; he wore a tan shirt and khaki pants stuffed into pristine, knee high, green rubber, Le Chameau fishing boots.

Ted popped open a beer and they toasted Rudy's success. "Beats the hell out of work, huh?" He had discovered early on that Rudy had an uncanny ability to snag his fish hook on just about anything. The back of his own shirt, Ted's fishing cap, the rag that Ted used to wipe off the seats were all potential targets. The Columbia River offered a bounty of garbage waiting to be recovered, and the trash bag already brimmed with the results of Rudy's unintentional effort to beautify this stretch of the river. Today's take included a five gallon bucket, a tangled nest of fishing line, and a hot pink thong.

The two men sat quietly sipping their drinks. The sun dropped into the narrow gap between the sullen gray clouds and the sharp edge of the Cascade Mountains. Light flooded the landscape like somebody had thrown a switch. The sky burst into afternoon red and orange phosphorescence while the technicolor reflections shimmered off the water.

"Hot dog!"

"Yeah, Rudy, you did good today."

"No, Ted! The big hot dog!"

Ted wondered whether his rotund client had forgotten to take some kind of medication. Then, he looked past Rudy's outstretched arm. Above the black basalt rocks, a ray of sun illuminated a frozen ooze of mustard on a giant fiberglass hot dog perched atop the cliff.

"Yeah, that hot dog is right on the edge now," Ted replied. "It's going to fall off one of these days."

"What's a hot dog doing there?" Rudy asked.

"It's Wanderfalls. The old miniature golf course." Ted laughed. "The Boy Scouts were studying plants at the edge of the cliff when the windmill on one of the holes tipped over-knocked their sorry asses clean into the river." He sipped at his beer. "Looks like that hot dog might be next."

"What happened?" Rudy asked.

"The rock underneath was starting to break apart so the town shut Wanderfalls down. That happened right after I moved to town." Ted paused. "Wow, almost two years ago."

Ted admired the sky and drained his beer. He tossed the can into Rudy's recently retrieved bucket. "Okay, Rudy, looks like you have time for one or two more casts. Let's see if there's another fish out there looking to bite."

Ted reached a small net into the bait well and scooped out a minnow. He grabbed the leader on Rudy's spinner and deftly hooked the little fish through the lower lip. He dropped the line and pointed to the bow. "Right along the cliff, little buddy."

Rudy arced the tip of the rod back over his head and caught Ted under the chin. Ted pushed the tip free. "Careful there, Rudy," Ted said and rubbed at the old scar that nicked the right side of his jaw.

Rudy flicked his wrist again. The short leader swung out over the water, spun back around the rod tip, and slapped him on the side of the face. The minnow started to slide down his cheek.

"Remember," Ted gently reminded his client, "let go of the line when the tip is pointing where you want the cast to go."

"Okay, Ted." Rudy's brow furrowed. He got set to cast again, flicked his wrist, and landed the bait right where he aimed. "Like that?" he whispered smugly, already knowing the answer.

Before Ted could reply, the line went taut and Rudy jumped up and down with excitement, rocking the boat again.

"Yo, Two Shoes, watch out." Rudy's nickname slipped out. "The river is like ice water this time of year. You go in and you wouldn't last fifteen minutes."

"Ted! I caught another one!"

Rudy's shout startled a pair of night herons hiding in the reeds. When their clamor faded, the line was slack. The fish had spit the bait and quiet returned.

Quiet, but not quite silent.

Low voices drifted down the Wanderfalls cliffs. Another, louder, voice broke in and it didn't sound happy. The hairs on the back of Ted's neck stood up. The boat floated into the darkness gathering at the bottom of the cliff.

"Ted?" Rudy's voice wavered.

"Shh..."

Angry voices bounced off the rocks.

"Ted, what's happening?" Rudy asked, his voice an octave higher than before.

"I don't know. Hang on. We're getting out of here." Ted reached over to start the boat. Small pebbles falling from the cliff chattered on the deck. A truncated scream and two shots echoed off the rocks. Something big splashed a few feet off the bow of the boat. A loud rumbling, almost like thunder, reverberated from the top of the cliff.

"Ted!" Rudy shrieked as the giant hot dog plummeted toward them.

The jumbo frank slammed into the stern and sheared the engine off at the transom. The impact launched Rudy into the air, and he smacked against the cliff. His fishing vest caught on a point of basalt, and he hung like meat on a hook.

"Ted! Help!"

"I can't, Two Shoes. I think my leg's broke." One end of the huge hot dog bun had Ted pinned to the slanted deck. His head was spinning from the pain.

The boat drifted closer to the cliff. Ted grabbed the boat hook and tried to snag something, anything. Nothing. Icy water flowed into the unbalanced boat. The cold water stung like a sandblaster as Ted went under. He heard a muffled pop as his life vest inflated, and he rose to the surface like a bubble. He screamed as his broken leg changed angles.

Another rumble from above and a giant smallmouth bass toppled from the cliff. The fiberglass fish hit the bow, counterbalancing the hot dog on the stern. The hulking bass glared at him with a look that seemed to ask: "How do you like it, asshole?" Ted passed out.

Ted came to hearing Rudy's voice.

"Two Shoes," Ted said through chattering teeth. "It's fucking cold and my leg's stuck." His body was completely numb.

"I'm gonna get help, Ted." Pebbles splashed into the water.

"Two Shoes!"

"What?"

"Find Dinah. Tell her Juice loves her," Ted mumbled as his field of vision started to shrink. The river was now quiet as a crypt.

"Dinah? Juice?"

"Yeah. Dinah. She's my wife. I'm Juice. Find her. Tell her I love her," Ted said with all the energy he had left. Then everything went black.