The World’s Greatest Fisherman
Erdrich exploded onto the literary scene in 1984 with her National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel Love Medicine, which follows 60 years in the lives of a small group of Chippewa Indians—a band of which Erdrich herself is an enrolled member. In her nearly forty novels, short story collections, poems, and children’s books since, Erdrich has often brokered the delicate politics of the American Indian Reservation System and explored the relationships between its residents and the adjacent communities. Her most recent novel, The Round House, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2012. In their citation, PEN/Bellow Award judges Edwidge Danticat, Zadie Smith, and E.L. Doctorow, who won the award in 2012, said of Erdrich’s career, “Some writers work a small piece of land: Louise Erdrich is not one of those writers. Her work has an awesome capaciousness—each person is a world…Erdrich’s eye is always fresh, her sentences never less than lyrical.”
Louise Erdrich is the winner of the 2014 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. The award is presented biannually to a living American author whose scale of achievement in fiction, over a sustained career, places him or her in the highest rank of American literature.
THE WORLD’S GREATEST FISHERMAN
The morning before Easter Sunday, June Kashpaw was walking down the clogged main street of oil boomtown Williston, North Dakota, killing time before the noon bus arrived that would take her home. She was a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved. Probably it was the way she moved, easy as a young girl on slim hard legs, that caught the eye of the man who rapped at her from inside the window of the Rigger Bar. He looked familiar, like a lot of people looked familiar to her. She had seen so many come and go. He hooked his arm, inviting her to enter, and she did so without hesitation, thinking only that she might tip down one or two with him and then get her bags to meet the bus. She wanted, at least, to see if she actually knew him. Even through the watery glass she could see that he wasn’t all that old and that his chest was thickly padded in dark red nylon and expensive down.
There were cartons of colored eggs on the bar, each glowing like a jewel in its wad of cellophane. He was peeling one, sky blue as a robin’s, palming it while he thumbed the peel aside, when she walked through the door. Although the day was over- cast, the snow itself reflected such light that she was momentarily blinded. It was like going underwater. What she walked toward more than anything else was that blue egg in the white hand, a beacon in the murky air.
He ordered a beer for her, a Blue Ribbon, saying she deserved a prize for being the best thing he’d seen for days. He peeled an egg for her, a pink one, saying it matched her turtleneck. She told him it was no turtleneck. You called these things shells. He said he would peel that for her, too, if she wanted, then he grinned at the bartender and handed her the naked egg.
June’s hand was colder from the outdoors than the egg, and so she had to let it sit in her fingers for a minute before it stopped feeling rubbery warm. Eating it, she found out how hungry she was. The last of the money that the man before this one had given her was spent for the ticket. She didn’t know exactly when she’d eaten last. This man seemed impressed, when her egg was finished, and peeled her another one just like it. She ate the egg. Then another egg. The bartender looked at her. She shrugged and tapped out a long menthol cigarette from a white plastic case inscribed with her initials in golden letters. She took a breath of smoke then leaned toward her companion through the broken shells.
“What’s happening?” she said. “Where’s the party?”
Her hair was rolled carefully, sprayed for the bus trip, and her eyes were deeply watchful in their sea-blue flumes of shadow. She was deciding.
“I don’t got much time until my bus. . . .” she said.
“Forget the bus!” He stood up and grabbed her arm. “We’re gonna party. Hear? Who’s stopping us? We’re having a good time!”
She couldn’t help notice, when he paid up, that he had a good-sized wad of money in a red rubber band like the kind that holds bananas together in the supermarket. That roll helped. But what was more important, she had a feeling. The eggs were lucky. And he had a good-natured slowness about him that seemed different. He could be different, she thought. The bus ticket would stay good, maybe forever. They weren’t expecting her up home on the reservation. She didn’t even have a man there, except the one she’d divorced. Gordie. If she got desperate he would still send her money. So she went on to the next bar with this man in the dark red vest. They drove down the street in his Silverado pickup. He was a mud engineer. Andy. She didn’t tell him she’d known any mud engineers before or about that one she’d heard was killed by a pressurized hose. The hose had shot up into his stomach from underground.
The thought of that death, although she’d only been half acquainted with the man, always put a panicky, dry lump in her throat. It was the hose, she thought, snaking up suddenly from its unseen nest, the idea of that hose striking like a live thing, that was fearful. With one blast it had taken out his insides. And that too made her throat ache, although she’d heard of worse things. It was that moment, that one moment, of realizing you were totally empty. He must have felt that. Sometimes, alone in her room in the dark, she thought she knew what it might be like.
Later on, the noise falling around them at a crowded bar, she closed her eyes for a moment against the smoke and saw that hose pop suddenly through black earth with its killing breath.
“Ahhhhh,” she said, surprised, almost in pain, “you got to be.”
“I got to be what, honeysuckle?” He tightened his arm around her slim shoulders. They were sitting in a booth with a few others, drinking Angel Wings. Her mouth, the lipstick darkly blurred now, tipped unevenly toward his.
“You got to be different,” she breathed.
It was later still that she felt so fragile. Walking toward the Ladies’ she was afraid to bump against anything because her skin felt hard and brittle, and she knew it was possible, in this condition, to fall apart at the slightest touch. She locked herself in the bath- room stall and remembered his hand, thumbing back the trans- parent skin and crackling blue peel. Her clothing itched. The pink shell was sweaty and hitched up too far under her arms but she couldn’t take off her jacket, the white vinyl her son King had given her, because the pink top was ripped across the stomach. But as she sat there, something happened. All of a sudden she seemed to drift out of her clothes and skin with no help from any- one. Sitting, she leaned down and rested her forehead on the top of the metal toilet-roll dispenser. She felt that underneath it all her body was pure and naked—only the skins were stiff and old. Even if he was no different, she would get through this again.
Her purse dropped out of her hand, spilling. She sat up straight. The doorknob rolled out of her open purse and beneath the stall. She had to take that doorknob with her every time she left her room. There was no other way of locking the battered door. Now she picked up the knob and held it by the metal shank. The round grip was porcelain, smooth and white. Hard as stone. She put it in the deep pocket of her jacket and, holding it, walked back to the booth through the gathering crowd. Her room was locked. And she was ready for him now.
It was a relief when they finally stopped, far out of town on a county road. Even in the dark, when he turned his headlights off, the snow reflected enough light to see by. She let him wrestle with her clothing, but he worked so clumsily that she had to help him along. She rolled her top up carefully, still hiding the rip, and arched her back to let him undo her slacks. They were made of a stretch fabric that crackled with electricity and shed blue sparks when he pushed them down around her ankles. He knocked his hand against the heater’s controls. She felt it open at her shoulder like a pair of jaws, blasting heat, and had the momentary and voluptuous sensation that she was lying stretched out before a great wide mouth. The breath swept across her throat, tightening her nipples. Then his vest plunged down against her, so slick and plush that it was like being rubbed by an enormous tongue. She couldn’t get a handhold anywhere. And she felt herself slipping along the smooth plastic seat, slipping away, until she wedged the crown of her head against the driver’s door.
“Oh God,” he was moaning. “Oh God, Mary. Oh God, it’s good.”
He wasn’t doing anything, just moving his hips on top of her, and at last his head fell heavily.
“Say there,” she said, shaking him. “Andy?” She shook him harder. He didn’t move or miss a beat in his deep breathing. She knew there wasn’t any rousing him now, so she lay still, under the weight of him. She stayed quiet until she felt herself getting frail again. Her skin felt smooth and strange. And then she knew that if she lay there any longer she would crack wide open, not in one place but in many pieces that he would crush by moving in his sleep. She thought to pull herself back together. So she hooked an arm over her head and brought her elbow down slowly on the handle, releasing it. The door suddenly sprang wide.
June had wedged herself so tight against the door that when she sprang the latch she fell out. Into the cold. It was a shock like being born. But somehow she landed with her pants halfway up, as though she’d hoisted them in midair, and then she quickly did her bra, pulled her shell down, and reached back into the truck. Without groping she found her jacket and purse. By now it was unclear whether she was more drunk or more sober than she’d ever been in her life. She left the door open. The heater, set to an automatic temperature, yawned hoarsely behind her, and she heard it, or thought she did, for about a half mile down the road. Then she heard nothing but her own boots crunching ice. The snow was bright, giving back starlight. She concentrated on her feet, on steering them strictly down the packed wheel ruts.
She had walked far enough to see the dull orange glow, the canopy of low, lit clouds over Williston, when she decided to walk home instead of going back there. The wind was mild and wet. A Chinook wind, she told herself. She made a right turn off the road, walked up a drift frozen over a snow fence, and began to pick her way through the swirls of dead grass and icy crust of open ranchland. Her boots were thin. So she stepped on dry ground where she could and avoided the slush and rotten, gray banks. It was exactly as if she were walking back from a fiddle dance or a friend’s house to Uncle Eli’s warm, man-smelling kitchen. She crossed the wide fields swinging her purse, stepping carefully to keep her feet dry.
Even when it started to snow she did not lose her sense of direction. Her feet grew numb, but she did not worry about the distance. The heavy winds couldn’t blow her off course. She continued. Even when her heart clenched and her skin turned crackling cold it didn’t matter, because the pure and naked part of her went on.
The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home.