The video was too cheerful: “If you’re a boater, like me, then the locks at Bonneville Dam…” But Charles didn’t own a boat, and the one time he had been on one, he found the instability on top of the water discouraging. Today he was just a visitor to the dam. The drive on Interstate 5, beautiful, windy, and prompting a sense of desolation, demanded he stop. The river, which had been his companion for most of his journey, kept going, but Charles pulled the car into the crowded parking lot.
As he pushed his body from the driver’s seat, he grunted. Thus continued his war of attrition with gravity. But it is a constant, and will win in the end. Age marks itself strategically, in heavy cheeks, a drooping neckline and a descending chest. Even the heart drops.
He felt old. Not a nice round number kind of old, which his age belied, but old nonetheless.
Admission was free; he needed only to let a guard look in his trunk, which was empty now. He’d dropped off his last child at college; his wife had beaten him to the grave; he was alone.
“You never let me win at anything,” his wife had joked after the doctor told her the cancer was terminal and had given her an estimate. The number of months she might live was like a payment plan for a small appliance.
It was true that during game nights, especially when they were younger, the children always said, “I’m on daddy’s team.” And he had won a lot. Only when his son had started listing boys won and girls lose in a litany of childhood facts did Charles try to lose more often. No point in giving the world another misogynist.
Still, after Delia was gone he found himself loving her and hating her in intervals. What right did she have to take death’s offer first? They had only settled into the first years of middle age when she went.
Now, alone and peering at the rush of water on the top part of the fish ladder, Charles struggled to accept her absence. On another morning he would have stopped somewhere on the highway and set up his easel, painting the changes of light, losing the sounds of traffic with each brushstroke. But not today, not when his solitude was confirmed so completely.
Before she had gone, Delia tried to find something new for him to do.
“Something different than painting. Not just a way to spend your time,” she said. “I don’t like to think of myself as that. But really, something useful.” It was a reminder that he still had to be present for the children, to serve as a role model.
She talked him into buying a book to help him learn Latin.
“You speak Spanish, so it should be simple.”
It wasn’t. While he recalled Spanish vocabulary, declensions in Latin felt like another reason to despise Delia. Still, he stuck with it because the book helped him remember her, even if he forgot ablative forms and how to feel in Latin when the text closed.
He spent a long time reading the signage in the visitor center, learning how locks worked. It felt like such a natural exchange: water either filled or drained so a boat could reach the level of the river; it was how Charles felt, needing to match up to the world. He wasn’t sure he wanted to take the tour, but they started every hour, and it was early in the day—he had been driving since five—so he delayed.
On the lowest level, visitors could watch fish climb the ladder or navigate the twisted path to their next stage of life, and learn how to identify the types of fish passing by. Some job, he thought, to numb workers with counting fish, sometimes more than two thousand in a day.
Still, without the pressure of numbers, the fish hypnotized him. Occasionally they were thrown back by the surge of water in the maze engineers had created, but usually the fish appeared suddenly and pushed on, disappearing again, unconcerned with being tracked.
“Here come some,” he said, his face a few inches from the window. Although he’d already watched fish glide by for fifteen minutes, he still spoke with a touch of surprise.
He became so absorbed in this study that when a voice over the public address system announced, “A tour of the dam will begin in five minutes,” he jumped, as though he were encased in glass, the victim of a sudden, incessant tapping.
A small group gathered for the tour, which began with a more technical video and a presentation by the ranger. Then, at last, they were moving, no longer held by the unseen force of the ranger’s green jacket or the authority of that voice.
The group took a short walk down to the powerhouse. An osprey had made its nest on one of the towers and Charles wondered how many fish it prevented from returning to spawn. Once inside, he marveled at the size of the turbines.
“That’s modern engineering for you,” a man next to him said.
“Yes, they’re so clean,” Charles admitted. This answer apparently failed to meet the man’s expectations and he wandered away. Charles stared. A line on the wall marked how high the water was outside the dam, and suggested, playfully, that visitors consider where they stood. If they were outside the powerhouse, they would be underwater. Charles envisioned the rush of noise and life around him.
The tour ended and parties moved back leisurely to the visitor center. A few moved singly, but more often they came in pairs or families.
Charles felt the day turning, time itself victim to the force and whirls of thought. He crossed the parking lot and retrieved a travel set of paints. In Delia’s absence, and with all his children at college, he always kept the paints in his car. You never knew when… he didn’t finish the thought. If you didn’t have the tools, you had only dark spots on the imagination.
The bathrooms in the visitor center were on the top floor. Charles picked his way up slowly, confident that no obstacle would be insurmountable. He almost laughed, looking in the mirror—how serious his face had been.
Besides Halloween, he seldom used mirrors for painting. The first curved lines took the longest, because he was at his most cautious. Soon though, his hand moved quickly; both the process of his flapping arm and the result seemed perfectly natural. He studied his new reflection. Yes, his face looked as though it were covered in scales. He’d become a fish.
Exiting the bathroom, he held one arm over his head. Now he moved swiftly, unable to contain his excitement, a journey near its conclusion. He took the stairs, knowing most visitors opted for the elevators, and that it was more appropriate to the moment.
When he reached the lowest level, a few heads turned, registering surprise first, then interest. Charles ignored their gaping and walked to the viewing windows. He sat against the glass in one corner and stared back at the people who came to watch.
After all, he wasn’t a boater, and not everyone needed locks to get through the dam. With fish patrolling behind him, he would stand, eyes unblinking and lips parted, in the basement of the visitor center, until they closed.
MATT KOLBET teaches and writes near Portland, Oregon. Besides stories and poetry, he is the author of the novel, The Futility of Nicknames.