I see water.
"You see that dark spot?"
Ted Prus, 37, at the Muskegon, Mich., construction company where he works.
(J. Carl Ganter)
"There. The dark area where the rapids and the still water meet."
I see water.
"It's cold and deep. Something is hiding in there."
Ted baits my hook with a lure, helps me cast. As instructed, I reel it in, slowly. I cast again, reel it in. Again. One more time. Then Ted baits his hook and casts. The lure plops squarely into the area Ted was eyeballing.
All conversation has stopped. Ted is slowly drawing the lure back, the way I was, but a little faster and with more purpose. Also, he's holding his fishing line away from the rod, in his left hand, the line resting lightly against his fingertips, which are splayed as though he were playing a C chord on a guitar. He's feeling for nibbles at the other end.
Then he tenses, whips up on the rod, and zzzzzzzzzz, the reel starts spinning. Ted whoops and starts bringing in his catch. It fights tenaciously. He's breathing heavily by the time he draws it up onto the bank and into a net. She's a 32-inch, 10-pound salmon, so gravid her eggs are literally spilling out of her.
We fish for a while more, without luck, and Ted decides we've taken what this part of the stream has to offer. He heads farther downstream. He's carrying more than I am, but it's hard to keep up. Ted is uncannily sure-footed on the muddy riverbank.
As we are walking, I ask him if he has any thoughts on what happens to us after we die.
"After we die?" he says, not breaking stride.
"Right," I say. "What's after death?"
"Well, I am gonna be . . . what do they call it -- incinerated?"
"Right, cremated. I'm going to be cremated after I die."
Apparently, that's all Ted has to say on the topic.
In a while, we find ourselves at another spot, beneath a bridge. Once again, I make a few futile casts. Then Ted tries. The ripples from the lure hitting the water haven't yet subsided when Ted gets a bite. Another whoop, another fight, another big fat salmon, 31 inches, this one male.
For the rest of the day, when passersby ask us how the fishing is, Ted impassively shows them the two monsters in the cooler in the back of the truck. He anticipates compliments and deflects them, simply reporting that he was using 25-pound test line and a Hottentot-type lure, as if that explains it. Out here in the woods, there is nothing confused or tentative about Ted. Magnanimously, he informs everyone that I, also, almost caught a fish, which is a mighty considerate lie.
Ted spends a lot of weekends here, alone or with friends. Sometimes, if he's feeling bad, he doesn't even fish. "I'll just dangle my foot in the crick. It's real cold, spring-fed, and I'll just relax and drink a beer, and the bad day goes away. I consider myself lucky, really. I got two healthy sons, and I get to hunt and fish." As he walks, Ted bends to pick up someone's discarded snack food wrapper. His truck is full of other people's garbage. He'd rather it be there than in the woods.
I ask him if he has any particular dream for the future. He says he'd love to be an outdoor guide, charging people money to take them hunting and fishing. He knows a man who makes $350 a day doing that, a figure he relates with near disbelief. Three hundred and fifty dollars a day, just to hunt and fish! But that requires a boat, which Ted can't afford, and it takes clientele, which he's not sure how to go out and get. Plus, Ted says, characteristically blunt, he's just not certain he's got the kind of swallow-hard-and-risk-it-all nerve to try something like that.
Ted's happy enough with the job he has. His dad has urged him to consider factory work, because it pays better and often has benefits. But factory jobs -- "shop jobs," Ted calls them -- keep you indoors, and he finds that asphyxiating. So he's holding fast at $15 an hour. He's pretty much living paycheck to paycheck and worries about meeting his $550 mortgage payment. That's just how it is, and Ted concedes it isn't likely to change very soon.
After the fishing is done, Ted takes me to a small dam in Hesperia, the town in which he grew up. He used to come here all the time back when he was a kid, and he still visits now and again. The dam is Hesperia's claim to fame.
It's quite a sight, actually. The dam controls the flow of the White River, which is the same river we'd been fishing downstream. Just a few feet past the dam wall, there's a two-foot-high concrete step over which the released water cascades. If you wait here long enough, on this far side of the dam, you're apt to see a sight most people never see in their lives.
We're standing and waiting, and there it is. It happens a couple of times. Salmon, swimming upstream to spawn, ignited by instinct and powered by unimaginable determination, will every so often make a run at the concrete step. In an instant, they flash out of the water and fling themselves up over the top of it.
It's glorious. But their triumph lasts only seconds. In front of them now is the dam wall, which no leap can surmount. So they just wash back over the step, plopping futilely down into the puddling river.
ON THIS SUNDAY EVENING, like many Sunday evenings, there's a party at Ted and Kim's house. Guests start arriving mid-afternoon, bearing beer and potluck dishes. Today, the main course will be fish -- walleye that Ted caught the week before, and the two salmon he pulled out of the White River this morning. Cooking is usually a family affair; Kim prepares the side dishes, Ted bakes the fish, which Slate seasons with gusto.
The decor in their home mostly reflects Kim's tastes, which mostly reflect Kim: They are cheerful knickknacks and curios, unapologetically hokey -- smiling trolls and lamps in the shape of owls and squirrels. Ted's touch is the plastic clock on the wall; it's got a picture of star NASCAR driver Mark Martin. Martin is an older guy who claims he once got cheated out of a lot of money by a sponsor; he failed, then came back strong.
Both Ted and Kim are NASCAR fans. Recently, they packed up a motor home and drove to Brooklyn, Mich., for a NASCAR event with their friends Anna and John and Patty and Mike. Someone sneaked under the motor home and affixed a cardboard sign to the chassis that flapped down when it got jostled by the rumble of the road. It said, "Honk If You're Horny." Ted and Kim thought it was the darnedest thing how many people were waving and honking at them, until they figured it out. Some people might have been angry, but there isn't a touch of self-importance to Ted and Kim. They stopped and took a picture.
Patty and Mike are here tonight, and Anna and John, and Ted's brother, Tony, and their families. Kids are running around. The talk is loud and merry, and, because of me, there's some good-natured teasing going on. Someone prompts: "Tell him why you registered to vote, Ted."
Whoa. Ted registered to vote?
Yes, he concedes. Two weeks before, at NASCAR.
"Tell him why!"
Ted produces a T-shirt he says he got for free from Rock the Vote, in return for registering.
"That's not why!"
Kim agrees. The shirt was a different freebie. "Tell him!"
Ted is just laughing.
Anna taunts him, nanny-nanny-boo-boo style:
"Ted registered for earplugs."
Ted grins sheepishly. Yeah. He registered to vote, at NASCAR, so he could get free foam earplugs.