by Arthur Vibert
part 1 of 2
“Fred, come quickly! The basement’s flooded and I can’t get the laundry!”
It had started out as a normal Sunday morning in the suburbs. He had gone into town to run a few errands and was just unloading the car when he heard his wife yelling at the top of her lungs.
Calmly he set down the 50-pound sack of expensive dog food he had been struggling with. He could hear his wife’s Saluki barking furiously. It was always barking. Shaking his head he walked into the house and down the back stairs to the basement. He wondered what the problem really was. Probably a puddle or something. Maybe the washing machine had flooded.
As he reached the bottom of the stairs he realized that for once in her life his wife wasn’t exaggerating.
There was a river in his basement.
Not a little river, either. This was no babbling brook or charming stream. It was a full blown river. A raging torrent right in his basement.
His wife came up behind him as he stood staring at the river. “What do you think, Fred,” she asked. “Is it a broken water main, or what?”
He regarded her with disdain. “That,” he said, “is not a broken water main. It’s a river.”
“But what’s a river doing in our basement?” She was clearly hurt. She didn’t need a river in her basement.
“I don’t know, Mary,” he said thoughtfully. “It’s been a while, but I can’t remember the guy who sold us this place saying anything about a river. I’m sure no one else around here has a river in their basement.”
They stood on a thin strip of concrete that was all that remained of the basement floor. The washer and drier had vanished — forever, for all he knew. The river roared on. A fish leapt out of the water and splashed back in with a resounding smack.
“I’m gonna give Barney a call,” he said, marching back up the stairs and into the kitchen.
He picked up the phone and dialed. Outside the sun shone, kids played in the street, neighbors mowed their lawns and life continued normally, except that he had a major tributary of the Mississippi in his basement.
After a couple of rings Barney answered.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Barney, it’s Fred. I got something unusual over here I’d like you to take a look at.”
“Is it something dead or what? This better be good. The game’s on and it’s gotta be damn exciting to tear me away.”
“Look, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you, but I promise you won’t be disappointed. You gotta come over.”
“Okay, but I’m telling you, this better be good.”
Mary was standing behind him as he hung up, looking even more severe than usual. “What do you think Barney can do about this that you can’t? Don’t you think we should call a plumber?”
She didn’t really approve of Barney. She considered him lazy, shiftless, something of a mooch. All of which was true, he reflected. Still, Barney was the one person he knew who never expected anything from him and that made him his friend, and therefore immune to criticism.
Barney let himself in without knocking, something he had been in the habit of doing for years. Walking straight to the refrigerator he pulled out a couple of beers, throwing one to Fred and cracking the other. After a long pull he finally condescended to speak.
“So, watcha got, Fred?”
“It’s in the basement. You’ll have to come down and see for yourself.”
“I knew it. Hadda be somethin’ dead. People always findin’ dead stuff in the basement.”
Mary regarded Barney with a cold stare. “Is this idiot supposed to solve our problem?”
Fred shrugged. Barney smiled. “Hi, Mary.”
She left the room, shaking her head.
“C’mon, Barney, let’s go.” He started down the stairs. Barney reached into the fridge and grabbed another beer as he hurried after.
“Jesus, Fred. Whatcha got here, is you got yourself a river.” Barney looked knowledgeably at the river, as if he had been the one to discover it.
“I can see that. I thought you might have some idea where it came from.”
Barney thought for a moment, rubbing his ample stomach reflectively. “Well, if it’s in your basement it oughtta be in mine, since I live next door.”
The two trudged back up the stairs, through the kitchen, across the yard and into Barney’s house.
The layout was the same, of course, but any similarity ended there. To describe Barney as slovenly would have been a kindness, and since he lacked the civilizing influence of women in his life, entropy was getting the upper hand. From the other end of the house Fred could hear the game blaring from one of several televisions Barney had.
Opening the basement door the two edged down the stairs, stepping carefully to avoid tripping on the accumulated junk.
“I hope the river missed my place,” mused Barney. “I’d hate to have my Penthouse collection wrecked.”
Reaching the bottom they were confronted by a sea of boxes and rubbish, but no river was in evidence.
“Not even a trout stream,” said Barney, kicking some boxes in a desultory fashion.
Fred looked at Barney with sudden interest. “I think I saw a fish leaping out of the river.”
“Hey pal, what are we waiting for?” Barney rummaged around behind some junk and came up with a fishing rod and tackle box. Together they reascended the stairs.
In Fred’s basement the two stood on the concrete bank casting far out into the river, reeling their lures artfully back. They’d only been at it a few moments when Barney got a hit.
“Whoa, this baby’s a monster.” He played the fish, bringing it in slowly, and soon had it netted.
It was an enormous rainbow trout, the biggest either of them had ever seen.
“That looks like dinner to me, buddy,” said Fred.
“My dinner, maybe. Catch your own if you’re hungry.” Barney had worked hard for his fish. He wasn’t getting involved in any of that New Age sharing crap.
Fred shrugged his shoulders, cast again, and immediately got a hit. He had it on the bank in minutes. If anything it was even bigger than Barney’s.
“Ha. Beat that,” said Fred, his eyes full of pride.
Taking up the challenge Barney cast again and had another fish in no time. For hours they fished, until they had several dozen stuffed into all the buckets they could find.
“I guess we should throw some back,” said Fred. “We’ve gone way over the limit.”
“What limit? You got your own ranger livin’ in your basement? Seems to me if a man’s got a river in his basement he should be able to fish in it as much as he wants.”
“I guess you’re right. Still, we probably shouldn’t take more than we can eat,” Fred said, concern on his face.
“You goin’ hippie on me or what?” Barney grabbed his buckets and started up the stairs, fish and water sloshing out as he went.
“I’ll leave my gear here so’s it’ll be all ready for me when I come by tomorrow.”
After Barney was gone Fred emptied his buckets back into the river, saving a couple of fish for dinner. As he went to climb the stairs he thought he could hear crickets, and a whippoorwill in the distance.
“Where did you get those fish?” said Mary. “Did you fix the leak? Can I finish the laundry?”
“I keep trying to tell you. There is no leak. That’s a river and these fish came from it.”
She rolled her eyes in frustration. “How am I supposed to run a decent house if there’s a river in the basement? Are you telling me you spent the whole day fishing with Barney and the leak’s still there?”
Fred got out his fish knife and started cleaning the trout. Before long they were ready for the pan. His mouth watered in anticipation.
“I’m going to fry these fish in that pan,” he said, pointing meaningfully at an enormous cast-iron skillet, “and you can have some, if you want. Then we’ll talk about the river.”
With that he put two big knobs of butter in the pan and turned up the heat. In no time the butter was melted and the fish were sizzling happily away. Mary came over and looked at them for a moment.
“Those smell awfully good,” she said and started putting together some things to go with them.
Presently they were sitting down and eating. There was not a great deal of conversation until they were done, when Mary finally spoke.
“That was without a doubt the best fish I have ever eaten.” There was no uncertainty in her tone. “Are you sure you caught these in the basement?”
“You bet. Me and Barney.”
“Hmmm. Maybe he is good for something,” she said thoughtfully as she got up to put things away.
That night he lay in bed thinking. Mary was curled up beside him, snoring softly. The dog was on his side between them, legs pressed into Fred’s back, forcing him towards the edge of the bed. In the basement the river roared on. He wondered briefly if he should mention it at work and decided not to. It would be their secret. And Barney’s, he thought as he finally drifted off into a fitful sleep.
Copyright © 2008 by Arthur Vibert