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I observe that Chili's is a big company and probably wouldn't mind losing a couple of those cheap little thingies.

Ted looks at Kim. Kim looks at Slate.

Ted Prus, 37, at the Muskegon, Mich., construction company where he works. (J. Carl Ganter)

Probably happens all the time, I say. They probably just throw them out when they get dirty, anyway.

"No," Kim says.

"It's not worth feeling bad all the way home," Ted says.

"I can make us some," Kim decides.

As we leave, they ask me what my story is going to be about. I tell them I'm not really sure, that it's getting a little complicated.

SUNDAY MORNING, 6:30. Ted and I meet to go fishing.

Other than his family, fishing is Ted's life. The rivers and creeks around Muskegon are churning with tasty life -- trout, salmon and walleye, mostly. Ted was born around here, in Hesperia, and he's been fishing since he was Slate's age. The area is still pretty much Prusville -- driving around, Ted points out one home after another belonging to uncles and cousins and boyhood friends. You grow up here, you hunt and fish.

A few years ago, one of Ted's friends shot a 300-pound bear. He brought it home and skinned it, but he couldn't eat it, because lying there, naked, it looked like a big fat man. Worse: Bear hunting is illegal; someone ratted him out, and he got popped. State agents came to the door. Ted adopts an official-sounding voice: "We know you got a bear in there, sir." They took his hunting license for five years, so for five years, the poor guy would go out in the woods and watch Ted hunt.

After high school, Ted left for the Army and worked his hitch in Europe as a mechanic. When he came back, he moved to Tennessee, got married, had a son. Allen is now 12 and living with his mom in Tennessee, who remarried after the divorce. Allen visits Kim and Ted from time to time. When the boy's schoolwork began to slip, Ted refused to let him come until he improved. "He's in advanced math now," Ted says laconically, in that same prideless tone that is full of pride.

We set out in the dark for Ted's secret fishing spot. Ted is happy to talk about politics, but he just frankly doesn't have all that much to say. If someone frog-marched him into a voting booth with a gun to his head, he says, he'd probably go for John Kerry over George Bush. That's because, as Ted sees it, Bush got where he is strictly on account of his father. It's just another example of the world being stacked in favor of the haves.

"It's the same with NASCAR drivers," he says. "Just 'cause your dad was good at something doesn't mean you're good at it. Other people could do better, but the son gets the shot." Ted is no particular fan of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

I point out that if Ted favors Kerry but doesn't vote, he's really voting for Bush. Ted doesn't see it that way. The way he sees it, a vote for either man is a vote for a liar, a member of the privileged class who will promise whatever it takes to get your vote and then do whatever it takes to keep the country safe for the privileged class. Screw 'em all.

What about voting as a moral issue? The only moral issue, Ted says, is the immorality of the guys asking for our votes: "I feel fine about myself. I can look at myself in the mirror and not feel bad about not voting."

I ask Ted if there are any circumstances under which he'd actually cast a ballot. Let's say, for example, that one of the candidates for governor of Michigan was a pantywaist animal rights activist who wanted to outlaw fishing. Would that, at last, bring Ted Prus to the polls?

Ted considers this: "No, because I wouldn't have to worry about that guy. Michigan wouldn't vote for him in the first place, because there's too much tourism based on fishing." If he'd lose anyway, Ted figures, why bother to vote against him?

And if, somehow, he won, and made good on his promise to ban fishing?

"I'd fish anyway." Heh-heh.

We stop for coffee and fishing tackle at a Twin Lake gas station owned by a friend of Ted's. On the shelves are Zig-Zag cigarette papers, which I've seen plenty of, and Zig-Zag tobacco, which I'm stunned to discover actually exists. A lot of people here roll their own. It's more economical.

The gas station seems to sell everything but gas. The pumps are closed. After we leave, Ted explains: Some months ago, the owner got into a price dispute with his gasoline supplier, and rather than cave in, he just turned off his pumps. He may be losing some money, but he sure got satisfaction. Ted likes Twin Lake. He likes the people, especially.

Ted once actually tried voting. It was 1992, and he liked what he heard from Ross Perot. Perot seemed to be the only guy who was a straight shooter. So Ted registered, but when he got in the voting booth, he got confused. "The way they got it set up, with all kinds of levers and buttons, I'm not even sure who I voted for. And I didn't know half the names."

Didn't voting make him feel powerful, in a way?

"No, it made me feel stupid. I don't consider myself a stupid person, but I felt stupid."

We've left the blacktop and are jouncing over rutted paths on the back roads. I ask Ted what is the worst thing that ever happened to him.

"When my mom passed away. I was 26."

Ted takes a sip of coffee.

"She shot herself."

It's quiet, out here in the woods. Only the shuddering of the truck over the ruts in the road. "She didn't die right away. She blinded herself. Afterwards my dad set up ropes from the sliding door on the back of the house to the lake, so she could still fish. She liked to fish, and that was one of the few things she could still do. She died a few months later."

Why did she do it?

"She was an alcoholic, and she was taking Prozac, and they don't mix."

That's all he knows. His mother wrote a suicide note, but Ted never saw it. Ted says he asked, but the cops said no, and he accepted that.

Ted's father has remarried; he still lives in the area. I ask Ted how his father took his mother's death.

"I don't know. We never really talked about it."

And Ted? How does he feel about it?

"I try to wipe it out of my memory."

We pull into Ted's secret fishing spot. It's getting light now.

"So, yeah, I guess that's the worst thing that ever happened to me," he says, grabbing the fishing gear from the bed of the truck.

AS WE WALK ALONG THE BANK of the salmon stream, Ted's eyes are reading the water. They're a lot busier, his eyes, than when he was reading the menu at Chili's.

"You see that eddy over there?"


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