I pull the boat into the shade for lunch. Harrison, renowned gourmand that he is, has learned over the years never to put the serious matter of his midday repast in the hands of his dirtbag fishing guide. I dig in the cooler. There is a large, oregano-scented hard salami sent from Jim's friend chef Mario Batali in New York. A huge block of Manchego cheese, a loaf of crusty bread, a jar of pickled hot peppers. I cut the salami and cheese and rip hunks of bread, and we pass the cutting board around.
For the first time, I bring up writing. I ask them what they're working on. As it turns out, both of them have just completed new novels. I ask them if they write every day, and both say yes, for the most part. Their work ethic shames me. I haven't written anything in months, since before the guide season started. Being around these two makes me wonder if there will ever come a day when I can call myself a writer and actually believe it.
I have a million questions I'd like to ask, not the least of which is if they would ever blurb my book if or when it ever comes out. But I'm also acutely aware of my role here. I'm their 29-year-old fishing guide. They have hired me to perform a service. When I guide investment bankers, I don't pester them for stock tips. When I guide chefs, I don't ask them about recipes. People come fishing to get away from their work, and it's important, as a guide, for me to keep that in mind.
Sometimes the clients will talk among themselves – especially on corporate trips – exclusively about the office, and it's your job to get them out of that mind-set. They are standing in a drift boat in the middle of the Yellowstone River under the shadow of the Absaroka Mountains with trout rising all around them, and they will talk over your head about the price of sweet crude and flow rates and what the market did that morning. I put up with this for only so long. If it gets unbearable, I will get their attention gently. "Hey, guys," I will say, interrupting their jargon. "Maybe we put the cell phones away for a bit?" Or, always a favorite, "How about we talk about pussy for a while?" At the end of the day, these men thank you for this.
So, with this in mind, I don't press Peter for details about his time in France after WWII when he founded 'The Paris Review' as a front while working for the CIA, or Harrison about his drug-addled days tarpon fishing in Key West in the sixties with Tom McGuane and Richard Brautigan. Instead I point to the sky. "Check out the pelicans," I say.
A group of the birds are flying in tight formation over the river. They pass between us and the sun, and we can feel the shadows of their wings cross our face.
"Spectacular," Peter says. And then we resume fishing.
Over the course of the afternoon, the men start talking about writing without my prompting. Harrison says that he is getting too old to write novels, that maybe the one he's just completed will be his last. Matthiessen snorts at this. "Hell,'' he says. "I don't want to hear that out of you. Look at me; I'm like Father Time."
We float in silence for a while, and then Harrison says, "I've been thinking – I'd like my gravestone to say, 'He got his work done.' " There is a very clear sense that this might be one of the last days, if not the last, these two spend on the water together, and I suppose a river is as good a setting as any to ponder mortality.
In the late afternoon, we drink our beer beside the river. It has been under ice all day and is teeth-achingly cold and good. They thank me for the trip, and we load up in the truck. Harrison immediately fills the cab with cigarette smoke. We talk about dogs all the way back to town.