© 2023 Robert Sickles
Part I. Trout Fishing in America
No, this is not about catching fish.
A writer of the ‘60’s from California, Richard Brautigan wrote a collection of comical, offbeat and surreal stories titled Trout Fishing in America. He used the title itself in various ways throughout the book of loosely connected vignettes—such as the name of a town, a state of mind, the name of a hotel, his actual boyhood memories of fly casting, and as the name of a fictional character, a man known as Trout Fishing in America Shorty. Shorty was a legless, foul tempered and abusive wino who reigned from his wheelchair, haranguing and tormenting the residents of his San Francisco neighborhood.
Don’t leave yet, I’m getting to it… I have my version to tell. A sorta short Shorty story.
One morning many years ago, I had just parked my truck near my house in Seattle when I heard a man’s impatient voice, “Aw f@*k! Hey you! Yeah, you!” He whistled, I looked around. “Dammit! Don’t ignore me! Over here… Couldya help me, for cryin' out loud!”
“Excuse me?” I turned around, took a few steps in that direction, and found a young man in a rickety wheelchair, legs apparently amputated to the thighs, his stumps wrapped in bandages. He was jammed between two closely parked cars on a busy street, unable to back out safely, and unable to push forward over the high curb. I could see he was either going to fall forward or roll back into oncoming cars if he kept struggling. “Oh, man, how did you even get stuck in there?”
Annoyed, he mocked my tone, “You mean, how did I get stuck in this miserable life... with you, a hippie dumb-ass, standin’ there, asking me a stupid-ass question? I really have no f@*kin’ idea how to answer that.” He begrudged me a civil reply: that he was supposed to meet what’s-his-face who was going to move his things to a new accessible apartment. He said that the old broken sidewalks in that neighborhood forced him to roll down 14th Avenue, dodging traffic. After a barrage of instructions on how to push his wheelchair, he screamed “Cheez & f@*kin’ crackers, you wanna dump me on the curb?!” I got him to the corner and waited with him at the intended meeting spot. But after all that, the "what's-his-face" guy was a no-show anyway.
He threw his fists up and cussed the sky. “Damn all the ignoramuses!” He groused about the idiots who caused and deepened his misery, the f@*k-heads who talk to him like he was deaf, blind or stupid, the jerk-offs who think he can’t do anything for himself, and the numb-nuts who drive around, unaware of wheelchair pedestrians. His little red flag, raised up over his chair, wasn’t visible enough for the driver who had knocked him onto the asphalt in a crosswalk several days ago. I asked if that’s what happened to his legs.
“No, F@*kin’ no,” he snapped. “My legs are gone because they got sawed off a year ago by our very own U.S. Army field surgeon. "Charlie", you know, a Viet Cong, lobbed me a grenade. Wiped out me and another guy who didn't make it. Other than that, Pal, it was a lovely day for a walk in a rice paddy. I woke up and a nurse said, ‘Congratulations Sergeant, your surgery went well, and you get to go home.’" Shorty gestured taking a bow to present himself. "Oh hell, look at me now! Do I look happy to be alive and home?”
I asked again about the bandages. "Cripes, no, that’s from being run down, dragged 20 feet over asphalt, and left in the gutter! Shit! The guy would say he never knew he hit me, never heard me yell. I f@*kin' don't buy it. It's like... go for it... yeah, hit n’ run the cripples… they think it's an arcade game! My good chair was totaled, that’s why I’m riding this rental clunker. I am at the f@*kin’ mercy of every drunk or ditz-head driver—they can’t see me down here and, I swear, they don’t give a damn if they run me over! I say ‘Go ahead, please kill me!’ What use am I like this anyway?”
I'd known another Viet Nam vet who had anger and stress enough to make his life horrible even without double amputation. OK… this Shorty guy had plenty to be angry about. I was thinking maybe there’s a way I could ease him down with kindness. You know, like Saint Francis' prayer? "Let me be an instrument of peace..." I could give him leeway to vent, then see what’s on the other side of his pain and rage. But I was too green to recognize that he was probably a bottomless pool of grievance—he was one who was so down, he couldn't see up. When it came to needing help from a stranger, he was unwilling to accept “yes” for an answer. Yet, there I was, about to offer help and to witness his bitterness. Was I up to it... was I that noble?
My earnest offer, “Is there anything I can help you with today?” was replied to with a sneer, a guttural snort, and a very emphatic, phlegmy spit.
“Yeah. Since "what’s-his-face" didn’t show up, you can move my shit. That's your truck? Good, Get me and my chair in and I'll tell you where to drive.” Sgt. Shorty assumed command and that is how an exhausting two day relationship began with this badly broken man. His name is long forgotten to me if I ever even knew it—I’ve always referred to him as Trout Fishing in America Shorty, or Shorty for short.
Shorty was in rehab at a nearby convalescent facility and would be released once his accident wounds healed. I thought it unwise for him to be rolling around the streets, but he was headstrong and anxious to be moved out of his old apartment at the end of the month, in just a few days.
I found out his "not much" stuff included table & chairs, bed, dresser, sofa, clothes, kitchen stuff, TV, workout equipment, book case, desk, and several big boxes. There was a dump-load of trash—clean-up was a big job. Shorty was a pack rat and pretty messy. It became clear why that what’s-his-face guy never showed up on moving day. Sadly, I had no one to call for help, so I moved everything Shorty owned singlehandedly.
All the while, I endured Shorty’s gruff manner of bullying, swearing, spitting and insulting. I rarely got a word in or a complete sentence of my own, his commands and complaints dominated my every movement. He hated the way I carried his furniture, complained about my driving, other people’s driving, his inability to find job training or work, the crummy treatment from the Army and VA (the “department of FUBAR” as he called it—and you can google that), Viet Cong disguised as farmers' wives, the field surgeon who wasn’t capable of saving his legs, weird sounds and smells in the convalescent center, the lack of wheelchair accessibility anywhere, and crappy hospital food. He told me about a letter from his Mom that started, “Why haven’t you come to see us? We thought you’d at least show up at Jean's wedding.”
“That f@*kin’ wedding.” He shook his head and sniffed, “That was Jean, my so-called true love, marrying Dave, my so-called best friend. The girl who said ‘Don’t worry, Honey, I’ll be here waitin’ for you,’ and the schmuck who sold TV sets at his father’s store while I was gettin' my legs shredded in 'Nam.”
I'd hardly say I disagree with much of what he said; it was just his repetitive and profane way of expressing it that got to me. To anything I said, even a simple “Oh, really?” or “Hmm, wow, man,” Shorty reacted as though I was interrupting him. I figured Shorty wasn't really looking for conversation. In my life, my only feeble complaint was about tired feet and worn-out sneakers—it was nothing compared to his gripes. But I did mutter out the side of my mouth, “Well, you don’t have to worry about buying shoes anymore…” That was about the only humor I could muster. Fortunately, Shorty didn't hear that. I expressed happiness that Spring was on the way—I saw crocuses—and he looked at me like I was a WTF idiot.
After a long day, the move was complete. I dropped him off at the center and I assumed my work with him was finished. But before he went inside, he said he needed one more thing, and I should come back with my truck tomorrow afternoon, around 4 o’clock.
“Ugggg,” I quietly sighed. Should I lie and say I'm not available? Was it being insensitive to tell a wounded veteran I’d come only if he'd stop the negativity? I rationalized, “OK, how could tomorrow with Shorty be any worse than today? He might be in a better mood, there could be brighter side to Shorty.” I did my Hindu head-bobble (yeah, maybe, OK) and said “All right, I’ll see you here at 4.”
Part II. Muffin
Next day, I picked up Shorty and his wheelchair. “Yeah,” he started, “so my cousin Meadow, she’s leavin’ the country, she wants me to take her stupid cat. If you drive me down there to get it, it will save her and me a lot of hassle.”
Shorty buckled up and continued, “Meadow’s goin’ to India to see a guru holy man or some BS. She f@*kin' better come back, ‘cause I don’t want to keep that cat."
As soon as we hit the road, like the previous day, it was Shorty’s all-fronts attack on the world as he saw it. He let me know I was following too close in traffic; then I was going too slow; the dump truck was spilling its load; the road was too bumpy; and “Are you asleep? Why can’t you haul butt past that van?”
We passed a convoy of Army trucks with soldiers seated in the back, I said something about them but Shorty didn't respond, he was turned away looking out the passenger window, uncharacteristically quiet for a mile or two. I was relieved when we reached cousin Meadow’s house.
Meadow introduced me to her cat, Muffin, a rotund gray ball of fur, curled on the couch. “Hmm,” I mused, “Meadow… Muffin… I wonder, had she never heard the term ‘meadow muffin,’ referring to a flop of cow poo?” Anyway, Muffin was so fluffy and obese it was hard to tell which end was which—her back, front and sides all looked the same. “Kitty, Kitty,” I said as I put my hand out to pet her, and I quickly found out which end of her had the teeth! She latched on and bit hard, and I dealt with a painful bloody finger for the rest of the night. “Arrr,” she sneered at me, like a little pirate. Seeing someone else in pain, Shorty laughed for the first time, clapping and whooping “A f@*kin’ attack cat! I love it!"
It was after-hours when we pulled up to the convalescent center. I helped Shorty to the door and he rang the bell for the night attendant. He whispered, "Forgot to tell ya, can't have a pet in here. I'll have to smuggle the cat wrapped under my jacket." I waited to make sure he got in OK, wondering what would happen if the attendant found the cat… and how he was going to take care and feed her, then I caught myself. “Whoa! Why am I waiting here? I’ll be damned if I want to take that animal, even for a few nights!” I moved furtively back to my truck and pulled away before anyone noticed. I turned the radio up in case they were calling after me.
[Cue Kenny Rogers “ya gotta know when to walk away, and when to run.”]
Trout Fishing in America Shorty came and went in my life like a freight train, leaving me by the side in a dusty whirl. What sort of man was inside the shell of Shorty? What would become of him? I thought it over and looked at my reaction to him. It took me several days to clear my mind of all that profanity—oh, and several more days to heal my infected cat-bit forefinger.
Did I feel good for helping Shorty? Not very much, at that time.
As you can tell here, I’ve long savored a story built upon the memory of my own anguish. The story of Shorty is in fact about me, but not just a recollection of my reaction to an abusive individual. I've come to expect that if I've retained something for so many years, there must be a lesson to be learned. Some observations:
Sure, he was difficult to endure. But now from an older perspective, let me try a better view. I have written before about my youthful self-centeredness, and how misjudged and put-upon I often felt. Yes, I helped Shorty, but then I lugged around resentment and grievance of it for years. How does that really serve me... or Shorty, if my intent is to be "an instrument of peace?"
And where was my boundary-setting in those days? Evidently I couldn’t see that being firm with someone wasn’t being mean to them. Was I afraid he wouldn’t like me if I called him out on his attitude? Hell, I already knew he didn’t like me, what did I have to lose but my integrity?
Retelling the story of Shorty has, in fact, brought me to the lesson for today: The truths about life can be taught by teachers who are disguised as difficult people. Don't turn away... look them in the eye and thank them for revealing your misperceptions. You just never know. To invert the line from Pogo, "I have met my brother and he is me."
OK, I'm a slow learner. It may have taken me 50 years to realize some of what Shorty had to teach. I hope it doesn’t take 50 more to learn the rest.