Making Friends in High Places

LAST LAUGH
By Joe Novara
August/September 1998
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AMY YOUNG
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Fishing... New Mexico-style. 

Being a recent transplant to New Mexico, I was eager to be accepted by my neighbors. But, somehow, I kept getting things wrong. For example, I was used to walking from place to place back home. While in the mountains, well, all the streets were either up or down. And instead of potholes there were rocks growing in the road—which, I would guess, is all the same to an automobile's suspension.

But back to making friends with my neighbors. One day while my wife was sneaking up on our place in first gear, I decided to get some exercise. I slid out the passenger side and strolled along, continuing our discussion about the drought. I reached in for a Kleenex from the dashboard, wiped the bugs off the windshield, and was cleaning the wipers when Clifton "Clif" Hangor, my nearest neighbor and chief of our volunteer fire department, braked his 4x4, watched us for a while, and just shook his head. "It takes a while for flatlanders to get over walking," he declared.

Trying to be agreeable, I replied, "Well, it's easier than jogging and keeps me in shape for firefighting. Right, Chief?" I must have said the right thing, because Clif invited me to go fishing the next morning.

"Got to get some jumper worms and fireballs for bait," Clifton announced as we caromed from boulder to rock in the early morning light and I wiped the last of my coffee from my eyebrows. He pulled into Furr's super-mart and emerged five minutes later with a fresh cup of coffee and a yellow plastic bag with bait. I examined the blue container labeled "Jumpers."

"Why do they call them jumpers?" I asked, picking a particularly lethargic worm out of his peat moss bed. "Don't!" Clifton shouted.

I started to ask why, when the critter coiled like a rattler and catapulted from my hand doing a reverse layout in the half-pike position onto the dash board. I lunged to grab the slimy wiggler. It took a header into Clifton's coffee cup. Perfect entry. No splash.

Clif wasn't impressed. He wasn't very pleased with me either. Maybe it was because the worm drank so much of his coffee. Or because I stuck my fingers in his cup trying to get it out. Or because I held the worm in front of the air conditioning vent where, as soon as it cooled off and felt the caffeine, it executed a one-and-a-half gainer onto the floor board and kept bouncing against the seat, making its presence known between rock jolts. I was glad when we got to the river.

If you think jumpers jump when you hold them, wait till you see what they do when you try to poke them on a hook.

"They're sensitive," Clifton explained, "and twitchy. See, they're raised in habanera chile plots. Gives them a little extra zip over ordinary earthworms."

The last I saw of my jumper, he was doing a worm's version of handsprings into the pinyon scrub.

"How about fireballs?" I asked. "Do they stay still when you hook them?"

"Yeah," Clif answered. "They're salmon eggs."

"Ahh," I replied diplomatically.

I found a nice pool in the eddy of a huge rock just below the rapids. POW! Boy, the local trout sure liked those fireballs. As I slipped the ten-inch rainbow into my plastic creel, I could see Clifton, upstream, whacking his bait against a rock.

We ate lunch on a fifteen-foot cliff overlooking the river, waiting for the fish to calm down.

"You know, Clif, these fireballs really work. You should try them," I casually remarked as I held up the bottle. "They sure are a lot easier to use than those jumpy worms. Maybe if we sprinkled a little powdered Ritalin on them...?"

There were sure a lot of things jumping that day. Clif for one. He snatched at the bottle. It popped out of my hand and started to roll. We both watched as it gently spun past a rock that should have stopped it. I mentally counted 1-2-3 waiting for the quiet little SPLOOSH.

Now I really knew my neighbor wasn't happy. And here I was trying so hard to get along. Maybe it was the way he held his mouth open and I could see his first bite of my chile verde eggplant burrito with cilantro and chives.

I decided this would be a good time to make myself scarce. I wandered downstream, around the bend. An old fisherman with a limp yellow plastic bag tied to his hip was working a pool.

"Hey, how's it going?" I said, real friendly-like.

The old-timer eyed my sagging bag. "What are they hitting?" he asked.

"Fireballs," I said. He nodded.

"Thanks for the tip, pardner," he said.

"De nada," I answered. I thought I saw him grin. "Say," I added. "You don't happen to have an extra bottle of fireballs we could buy?"

"Naw. Sure don't have any to sell."

"Okay, see you..."

"But I got an extra bottle I could give ya. You haven't been around these parts very long have you?"

"Not long enough," I replied.


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