The Californian

It was only true because people believed it.

“There has to be a reason.”

“An explanation.”

“Yes—as to why.”

In normal years the region was pleasant by summer. Temperatures were mild. Storms came over the high mountains, snow-covered through summer, and watered the hills around Mr. Hubert’s small town.

It was Mr. Hubert who first met The Californian. The young man was searching through his red nylon backpack for his rain slicker. The storm was clawing at his back. Clouds had stalked the town through the morning and released themselves in an afternoon riot. In recalling the day, Mr. Hubert, who raised rabbits for meat, would be reluctant to share that it was pity that forced him to approach the dripping traveler.

Around Mr. Hubert’s table, the two men shared coffee; The Californian took steamed milk to kill the cold. Though he tried to save wood in the spring, Mr. Hubert started a fire in the stove, a large porcelain-tiled box set into the wall with one tiny cast iron door. The room filled with smoke until the chimney began to draw. Mr. Hubert brought out salt pork and cheese from which he cut slices onto the table. It was quiet, aside from The Californian’s repeated thank yous. Mr. Hubert motioned for the young man to take food. The meat was thick with chewy fat that was hard to work through, and the cheese was sharp.

Mr. Hubert was too pleased to find that The Californian was an enthusiast—indeed a student—of the natural world. He was aware of the local university of course; it was in the next town, five stops down the bus line. But it was not large, and Mr. Hubert had never imagined that there was any draw for foreigners.

“Yes, an exchange program. Just for the summer.”

“What do you study here?”

“Apex predators. Like sharks and seals: how balance is maintained in ecosystems.”

“Here we have a lake. But no sharks.”

“Yes, I’m sure. It’s just an example.”

Mr. Hubert owned a small lot of land, inherited from his father, near the lake, where he cut grass for his rabbits and split wood for the stove. He often thought he’d be happiest living as a hunter in a cave.

“Yes-yes. Snakes and hedgehogs… I am seeing. Wonderful studies.”

Mr. Hubert’s wife was surprised when he invited the young man to join them for dinner that night. The Californian was, furthermore, surprised when Mrs. Hubert insisted that the young man rest the night.

#

 

For the first weeks of The Californian’s visit, it was like summer in April. The angry black thunderheads that gathered over the big mountains would break up over the town. The townspeople gathered umbrellas only to shield a few drops—as if a wet dog had shaken itself overhead and nothing more. At first it the warming sun was pleasant but, when the apple and pear trees leafed and flowered a month early, there was concern. The fruit was a staple for the region’s brandy. Every basement was filled with glass carboys and steel kegs waiting patiently for the fermenting musts of fall. The old farmers, who noticed these patterns, had heard of early springs, and they assured the town that all was well.

Indeed, it was the lake that started the most wide-spread anxiety. The lake, which allowed no boats or fishing, was beloved by the townsfolk. Often frozen through in February, this year it was ice-free by March. It was not a large lake and, toward the end of a normal summer, the water became warm and the algae could be unpleasant. The elders began to talk.

“It will be thick this year.”

“Unswimmable.”

“Like porridge.”

The anomaly was discussed at the town’s only bar, which occupied the bottom floor of the Grange Hall. Proceeds from the evening sessions funded youth activities, church improvements, and events such as the annual father-son Olympics.

Mrs. Sabrina Melhous, who ran the Grange Hall bar, was 16-years the widow of the renowned hunter and butcher, Mr. Udo Melhous. It was said that Mr. Udo could carve a deer in 20 minutes, nose to tail, and that each cut would be the perfect portion for a 200-pound man. In truth, it was often Mrs. Melhous who did the butchering, as after a weekend waiting in the deer blind with a bottle of his brandy, Udo Melhous was of no use with a knife.

#

The Californian’s room at Mr. Hubert’s was off the main foyer, where guests left their shoes. The foldout couch occupied nearly the entire space. The items from his towering nylon pack were organized as best as he could on a small bookshelf, which Mr. Hubert had cleared for him. There were two pairs of jeans, three shirts, three pairs of wool-blend socks, hiking boots, flip-flops, a brown-leather bound journal, a utility knife, binoculars, and the dried scale of a gigantic Amazonian fish, which, as he demonstrated to Mr. Hubert, served as a nail file.

Three days a week, The Californian took the bus into the university. Two days a week he could be found around the lake with a 100-meter measuring tape, oftentimes crisscrossing the fields of 7-foot switchgrass in the boggy flats that were too wet to farm. When he could, The Californian helped Mr. Hubert at his shop. He quickly picked up the basics of the CNC machine that carved the small cogs, housings, levers, star wheels and sprockets out of assorted plastic blocks. Each of Mr. Hubert’s orders was a tiny piece of the complex machines that littered the floors of factories and produced crayons, or zippers, or toothbrushes, or chocolate bars. The Californian was genuinely interested.

“It’s the tiniest things that make systems function.”

“Yes. These, by example, are for a chicken factory in the Texas.”

“And without these? No chicken?”

“Yes. No chicken?”

The Californian was most helpful with emailing, a task that typically cost Mr. Hubert most of his afternoons. Lunches and dinners came from Mrs. Hubert, who introduced The Californian to 7-ways of pork and rabbit, beef parts in gelatin, salads of vinegar, thick grainy breads, and always cakes—Mrs. Hubert’s favorite since The Californian gladly took two pieces. Coffee, a brandy, then a walk finished the afternoon.

Mr. Hubert, chief of the volunteer fire department, past chair of the community fund, was well acquainted in town. He introduced The Californian like a show pony. The young people hung around him like gnats, laughing as he tried to repeat their slang. He was everything they’d pictured a Californian being in real life: blond, confident, and chiseled. The Californian shook everyone’s hand, said “Hello,” whenever he passed, as if it was he who’d been born in the old pine crib at Mr. Hubert’s house. It was, as well as anyone could remember, the first time that a stranger sat at the Grange Hall bar. Simple fascination lured people to the young man.

“So humble. So humorous.”

“Imagine that. Here, in our town.”

“He’s mad for nature.”

“Kills hours at the lake.”

There were catfish in the lake. Townsfolk claimed to see them in the shallow flats where the water was clear. But, as fishing was not allowed, nobody could be certain of their numbers. This ambiguity gave way to the beloved local legend that there lived in the lake a single catfish so many generations old that it could swallow a man whole. Young children were taught to stay where they could stand for fear of the giant catfish in the deep waters.

#

After her days in black Mrs. Melhous was a radiant presence in town. Her husband Udo was, she’d always felt, a drag on her potential. After his passing, she took up tennis and bought a new VW Cabriolet convertible in gun-metal gray. She worked behind the bar pouring beer and wine and brandy and compiling tips, which she spent on her love of kitchen gadgets. She watched the noontime cooking shows and late-night shopping channels and filled her cupboards with plastic potato slicers, milk frothers, automatic can openers, spatula sets, and non-stick ramekins.

That summer, as farmers fretted, Mrs. Melhous was a comfort from behind the bar. She provided sound counsel, sometimes too direct, but her concern for the goings on was legitimate.

“The rain will come.”

“It always does.”

“It must.”

But these were not people accustomed to waiting for rain. In the second month, abnormality pushed quickly to calamity. Crops failed. The apples and pears, which had flowered so early, quickly lost many of their blossoms from stress. There was no irrigation infrastructure. Some farmers went to buy aluminum pipes from dairies in the north. Others mailed in their insurance claims and sat at the bar.

By June, the lake was already losing clarity. The water temperature was two months ahead of normal. The children swam with abandon. They littered the dock, sunning themselves like seals on a wharf, sneaking sips of brandy siphoned off their fathers’ barrels. After his monitoring around the lake The Californian would emerge from the switchgrass covered in dander. He vanished under water and emerged what seemed like minutes later far out from the dock in the deep water. He taught them the California Cannonball, the novice Twister and Pencil Drop, and the Flying Squirrel, which drew the greatest cheers, as the attempts of the young boys often turned to belly flops.

Mrs. Melhous was the first to propose, albeit in half-jest, that if the weather kept up this way their little town would be renamed New California.

“Sunny all year round.”

“Lots of tourists.”

“Kids doing surf on the lake.”

#

Mr. Hubert was a thin man, neatly mustachioed, with glasses that slept on the slender ridge of his long, chiseled nose. He was reserved in larger groups—almost mute. But when the chatter lulled he would sigh and provide a poignant summary that always drew the heartiest laugh of the evening.

Take the matter of the schnauzer at No. 3 Looder Street, which had nipped at the Bischel boy causing a minor wound to the leg: after much discussion Mr. Hubert mused, working his mustache from side to side over his lip. He then remarked, “That dog is so fond of fetching, he’d follow a stick off a cliff.”

Regarding Conny Fritz’s venture into vegetarianism he sighed, pushed his brandy away, and urged calm. “After all,” he said, “eating grass isn’t just for rabbits anymore.” Ms. Fritz was allowed to bring a salad to the Grange Hall and the troubled dog never bit another soul.

For his wit and age Mr. Hubert had earned a place at the ten-seat bench table at the corner of the Grange Hall bar where the elders sat and discussed matters of politics, crops, weather, arts, and made important decisions regarding the town.

Each night, after Mrs. Hubert had retired, Mr. Hubert and The Californian worked on killing a bottle of three-year-old brandy, which Mr. Hubert had distilled from the cherry trees flanking his rabbit hutches. Mr. Hubert was quite fond of the batch and had been able to sell many bottles to Mrs. Melhous for the bar. The Californian asked many question, and Mr. Hubert was delighted to have the answers.

“The catfish in the lake, have surveys been done?”

“Certainly not.”

“In America, they’re voracious eaters, anything they can fit in their mouths. You could learn about the whole system with gut analyses: frogs, invertebrates, other fishes, even birds.”

“Not the catfish.”

“No?”

“Certainly not. They are protected.”

“Not even through the university?”

“Especially not. There is no question.”

#

As time passed the heat grew oppressive. Life’s rhythms were thrown off—laundry dried on the line faster than the afternoon newscast, a person couldn’t work outside past 11 a.m., grass grew faster than it could be cut or grazed. There were those in town—young men who had lost the attention of young women, elders put off by The Californian’s facial hair—who were not eager to embrace the stranger. Whispers started.

“Isn’t it odd?”

“So you agree?”

“How does one afford it?”

“He claims he’s a scientist.”

“A shark scientist.”

“No such thing.”

“Sharks in the lake?”

“Catfish…could he mean catfish?”

“Absurd.”

“Agreed.”

Mrs. Melhous poured more beer, wine, and brandy in the final weeks of June—when the farmers gave up—than she had in the previous nine months. With her extra tips she bought a set of ceramic kitchen knives. (Mr. Udo Melhous was rigid about German steel for butchering.) Though she had no access to deer, Mrs. Melhous did enjoy breaking down a pork shoulder or deboning a chicken almost as much. At times she would provide a meal for the elders at the Grange Hall and delight in their approval.

She worked long days in the bar. Men and women, unaccustomed to sitting idle, were left alone with old thoughts and memories that festered.

“Surely we’re being punished.”

“Nonsense.”

“The rain will come.”

“It’s too late now. I say it’s punishment.”

“Or warning?”

“Yes, this too.”

#

By the time The Californian left it was apparent that brandy of that vintage would be scant. Brandy was one thing—every house had stores dating back years—but for the beer to suffer felt akin to apocalypse. Hops leaves burnt, wheat was stunted, and the barley came up strong but then gave up before flowering.

“Prices will have to rise.”

“That’s inevitable.”

“Imagine—$5 for a pint.”

“Unless they use foreign wheat.”

“Polish barley? Panamanian hops?”

“Never.”

Two days after The Californian departed, the rains returned. It came first in a three-day spit, and then in a torrent that sent brown runoff into the now thick green lake. The sun was unseen for three weeks. Farmers couldn’t get equipment into their fields. What was left on the stem quickly rotted as mildew, smut, and fungus made it into waste. But the rain calmed nerves. Service slowed at the bar. People returned to tend their homes.

#

The following year, The Californian returned on a May day of brilliant sun. The young people greeted him as a celebrity. In his absence they’d learned his songs and slang.

“How long will you stay?”

“Will you drink a brandy with us down at the lake?”

The elders, Mrs. Melhous as chair, were polite of course, but they could not bring themselves to chat idly with him at the Grange bar.

“You could say it was humorous last year—a child’s fable—but not again.”

“What do you suggest?”

“Something.”

The Californian’s first week was stifling. The townspeople stayed indoors. The old men studied the sky from their windows and the old women did their shopping early.

“Mrs. Melhous?”

“Yes, yes. A meeting. And soon.”

#

The Californian had come prepared with shorts, sunscreen, and loose-fitting t-shirts. His towering nylon bag included plastic sampling jars, rubber boots, bird netting, bird bands, measuring wheels, measuring tapes, camera traps, live-capture traps, and all-weather writing pads. He set up six 200-meter transects radiating from points around the lake. In the morning, before starting his work at Mr. Hubert’s shop, he would walk each transect, stopping at 20-meter intervals to record any bird, insect, or mammal species seen after a 10-minute period of observation.

On occasion, when orders were low, Mr. Hubert would join The Californian on his surveys. He was quiet, as the work demanded, but in between transects there were moments when the two would pause, tear at bread and hydrate.

“Has it changed?”

“The forest? Yes. As a boy I remember more deers, more eagle. But it’s hard to trust memory—the past is changing every day.”

Mr. Hubert and his wife had made space in the front bedroom by moving some items into the attic. In their place sat a dresser, a lamp, and a book Mr. Hubert had found discarded in an old shop comprised only of pen and ink drawings of local flora.

“You’re welcome as long as you like,” Mr. Hubert insisted. “Such is the generosity of our town.”

#

After three weeks there had been two days of rain.

“This is absurd!”

“He’s trampling all around the lake.”

“I can’t get my girls away from the mirror in the morning.”

“Indeed.”

It was decided. Mrs. Melhous would speak to Mr. Hubert.

 

When she arrived at the workshop Mr. Hubert was calibrating the CNC machine to cut a set of grooved flywheels.

“Mr. Hubert, if you have a moment? I’d like us to have a chat…about the weather.”

“Splendid isn’t it?”

“There is some concern…regarding your guest. I’m not saying it’s my opinion, but it might be useful—to calm some others—if he moved on.”

“So you believe it?”

“Not necessarily…. I believe in being prudent. What is the risk in caution? We miss the company of this singular young man? While the consequences of doing nothing impacts so many.”

“Mrs. Melhous, I believe we may be reaching a touch far afield.”

“Why not extend an offer that he might enjoy travelling the wider region? Or move closer to the university? Surely there are other lakes to study.”

“He’s doing fine work. He understands systems. We can learn things.”

“We don’t need lectures on sharks.”

“It’s not sharks.”

“Well, we can’t have him poking around the lake—for sharks or anything else.”

“It’s not sharks—you can’t keep saying it’s sharks when it’s not sharks. He’s not doing any harm.”

“Says you.”

“Whether it’s sharks or unicorns he can stay in my house as long as he wants.”

“We’re decided, Mr. Hubert. He must go. We cannot shoulder another season of loss.”

#

The next week sweltered and Mr. Hubert felt the cool of his townspeople. His opinions were easily dismissed at the Grange Hall; his quips met with silence. Passing him on the street people would mumble. The pressure found his wife as well.

“I was denied bread today. They claimed they were out while I could plainly see seven loaves on the rack.”

Mr. Hubert began to take his brandy alone in the kitchen.

The Californian remained bright and carefree. He spent mornings on his transects around the lake. Young people made an effort to pass by in hopes of a chat, a story of California, or a simple “What’s up?” in his strange accent.

The following week, a man of 82 collapsed with heat stroke and, thanks only to the speedy reaction of a passerby, survived with no serious repercussions. That Wednesday, Karl Biles, the 45-year old accountant whose eldest son was left by his girlfriend for being “closed-minded,” was elected to take Mr. Hubert’s seat at the Grange Hall table.

“Perhaps he should move on,” Mrs. Hubert suggested. “If only to appease….”

“Perhaps.”

“It’s not really for us to decide is it? Whether it’s true or not, at this point, doesn’t really matter.”

“I will speak to him.”

“When?”

“Soon.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Soon. I’d like to join him once more around the lake.”

#

When The Californian left there were no goodbyes. His transects were picked up, his binders of data gone—indeed there was no evidence of his research. The shelves in his room were left bare, save for one item. Mr. and Mrs. Hubert sat on the corner of The Californian’s bed in the empty room. Mr. Hubert rasped at his thumb with the Amazonian fish scale until the greasy grit under the nail was ground away.

“Sharks keep the balance,” he said. Mrs. Melhous patted his hand. She took the fish scale and started a fire in the kitchen stove. Mr. Melhous laced his boots and walked the few blocks to his shop where there were orders to fill.

It rained the next day. The elders slept late. Mrs. Melhous had an extra poached egg and toast with her coffee. She purchased a new set of hair curlers that came with a heated nightcap. That afternoon she served 10-year reserve brandy at the bar.

“A toast to health…”

“To wet soil…”

“To heaven’s intervention!”

The rain cooled the lake. The young people stayed away from the dock. The sun took shelter in the clouds. Everything felt normal.

In the center of the lake, in the deepest area where the water was dark, sat the heavy nylon traveler’s pack. Dozens of catfish fought for access to the opening. They swam in a ball, a moving pulse that darted, ripped, and pulled at the hunks of meat inside the pack—each the perfect portion for a 200-pound man.


Alex Palmerlee is a previously unpublished writer living in New Orleans, Louisiana. 

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