The River Roux
The jasmine rice sits like a baseball split down the middle, a tangle of cork and string hidden by what’s on the outside. The mound has been perfectly rounded not by hand but by a utensil or small bowl. I slide the plate from the bartender and my nostrils are consumed like I’ve dipped my nose in a warehouse-sized peanut butter jar. I know it emanates from the flour and fat that must turn the color of peanut butter before the chef stops stirring. The fragrance precedes the sight somewhere before the flour burns. I’ve heard it referred to as a two-beer roux. It’s a Rembrandt you inhale, I want to admire it, but my nose outvotes my eyes, and I reach for the white mound. I flip my fork over and rake at the pile as if they are leaves. The grains fall not in a clump, connected, but as individuals unencumbered by the others. I count them, there are eight.
It is March, I’m in Orlando for a conference, it is 55 today back home in Connecticut heading towards the upper sixties on Friday. I’ve already looked at my calendar and seen when my last phone call of the day is, after that I will go fly fishing. My thoughts are wishful, after all, I am 56 and have never caught a fish. Not with a spinner and a worm, let alone a fly rod and dry fly. It will be my second time out, I don’t have the right fly, the right cast, don’t know what sections of the river to fish. But that is all fine, my Orvis equipment is still new enough to return.
The first etouffee I cooked was five years earlier. The roux started with little hope, starting with a clump that could stick to a wall, saved by melted butter gathered from the edges to moisten the middle. The color remained for minutes, a sun-faded tan shoe, with little change. I paused and re-read the recipe before I noticed the quick burn of flour in the wake of the last stir. I stirred again, fast, quick, until the burn disappeared. Then, I placed onions, green peppers, and celery on my Boos cooking board. I looked forward to cutting vegetables, stirring the roux and relaxing in something slow, mindless, repetitive. I picked up my Santoku knife and made my way through the celery, feeding the stalk into the blade. Thin, even slices, almost transparent, then too thick. The peppers fell in quick order before I switched to the onions. Saved for last, I knew they would make me cry. Not the cry I needed but a cry, nonetheless. I slit lines horizontally, then across the top, before toppling the onion into small pieces, like a Jenga. The roux’s nutty fragrance beckoned, and I gave it a few stirs before returning to the onion for a finer chop. Left and right, through the mound, before I pulled far right and rolled the knife over my thumb. The skin tore and then the knife ground against bone. I looked down for the gusher. My thumb turned pale white, stayed like that, one one-thousand, two one-thousand, before it started surging. “Owww,” I yelled.
“What did you do now?” my wife, Ronee asked.
“I sliced my thumb wide open.”
“There’s plenty of gauze in Justin’s bathroom.”
“What an idiot,” I heard, my older son, Brandon chortle.
I stood at Justin’s vanity, running cold water and applying pressure. I released it every minute to see if the bleeding was slowing. It wasn’t. What if it didn’t stop? Determined not to take the family to the hospital on a day off from Justin’s radiation treatment, I pressed harder. The bleeding slowed.
“Dad?” Justin called from the bottom of the stairs, “Are you OK?”
I looked at the mirror, shook my head and wondered how a child with a bone tumor in his neck could be the one asking if I was OK.
“Yes, Justin, I’ll be OK. The bleeding has almost stopped. I don’t have to go to the hospital.”
“I’m glad you’re OK, Dad.”
I looked in the mirror and let out a long breath, overwhelmed by the person my son had become. I wrapped my finger with gauze, pulled it tight until the finger turned purple, then I loosened.
The previous night’s crawfish etouffee was the best I’ve ever eaten and so I return to the restaurant the next evening. Landry’s is not a shack off a bayou, but a chain, owned by Tyler Fertito, who owns casinos and is a Shark Tank guest shark. I work an initial rake of rice onto the slurry of onions, peppers, celery, and crawfish. The rice sticks to my fork, falls in a clump. I fold the etouffee onto the grains, coating them in the liquid. Running my fork through the etouffee it is decidedly thinner, the taste off, I sense that the roux burned. Still, as the crawfish slide down my throat, I determine it is a top five etouffee.
It takes 32 hours to fly home from Orlando, and so I don’t hit the Norwalk River until Saturday. The fog oozes from the rippling water, like pus from a scab. My legs and torso remain dry in the waders while a steady drizzle wets my upper third. Knots are more challenging to tie on the river than the couch and my hook finds my thumb. The hook slides like a knife and inflicts constant pain until I pull it out the same path it entered. My line ends up tangled, a drunken spider’s web, again and again. I catch five trees, my boot, but no fish. Still, in several casts, I sense that someday, the line will release from the water, slow, and deliberate in motion and thought, profound like a graduation tassel moved from left to right. And if those things happen, the rod will rise to midnight and pause as the line, leader, tippet and fly race for the trees. I will draw them back, following a heartbeat of delay.
I begin following the weather, not in anticipation of a flight delay, but for the opportunity to fish. My return to the river is the following Saturday. My casts improve over the several hours I am in the water. I move to a section where the river widens, and the branches seem out of reach. I move towards the center of the river and let my casts air out. All disappears into the whistle of the line and the rush of the stream as I find a rhythm. I gain confidence, strip more line and cast further.
My next fly never hits the waters as it snags on a tree. Pulling as I have done dozens of times before, left then right and still the fly does not release. My hands tighten, strangling the cork as I bear down. It’s an awful snap, the same crack a bird’s leg must make as it breaks. The bottom of the rod gives way, the butt handle jerks into my waders. I can tell it is a break without even looking. The rod is fractured between the first and second sections, jagged as a break appears on an x-ray. I cup my wounded rod in my hands, like a fireman holds a baby, walking to the riverbank, glancing through the trees, hoping no one sees my new waders, boots or busted rod.
Bob at Orvis purses his lips as I hand him my rod. I sense he takes pity on me because we talked about Justin’s cancer as he taught me how to cast in the parking lot. He goes into the stockroom and returns with a loaner. “Orvis’ rod makers should have your rod as good as new within weeks,” he says. I nod, but doubt that the body broken, the roux burned can ever be truly fixed.
I return to the Norwalk on Monday evening with Gerald from Trout Unlimited. We talk as Gerald attaches my line to leader, leader to tippet. He clinch knots caddis and stonefly to form a double nymph rig, explaining all. They are words, techniques, knots I didn’t know a month earlier. Gerald seems to be in his thirties, but as we talk I find out he has just graduated college, like my older son, Brandon. Gerald ties his own flies and knows knots and how the water flows and when and how a fish might rise. He has grown up on the Norwalk which widens, bends and ripples through his small town. He describes Trout Unlimited’s mission as we walk to one of his prime spots, explaining how will remove a dam, just upriver several months later. We fish a popular pool first and three fish bite. I am slow to set the hook. We proceed to a fast ripple of water formed where a stream meets the Norwalk.
Gerald crosses the river the way I cross a street. I step with caution. My ankle pulls as I roll over a rock and my hip jams into its socket as another step is deeper than I expect. The ripple is no more than fifteen feet wide, two feet deep, but it churns like the rinse cycle in a washing machine. I am surrounded by trees overhead and on both sides, leafless, pre-spring, naked wood calling for my hook. A tree hangs lower on the opposite bank, it’s branches reaching for the water. There will be no cross-river shadow casts, not even a roll cast. Gerald shows me, it will be a simple palm down to palm up, as I move the rod across my bodyas if I am opening a gate. I get a bite on my second cast, but I am slow. My third and fourth casts are limp before I feel the rhythm on the following half dozen casts.
The indicator goes down hard, the line pulls and this time, my hand shoots up as fast as a fifth-grade math student. I have the fish. The line runs through my fingers, I pinch the line, lead him upstream, then down. I reel in, the trout breaks the dark water line, the unmistakable pink streak of a rainbow. Gerald helps me shepherd the fish to the net. I take a picture as he releases the hook. This is the first fish I have caught in my life. A twelve-inch rainbow, caught in waters black as night, as the sun touches the horizon.
A calmness invades my body, my ribs, arms, shoulders lowering into my waders. A reading of A River Runs Through It and resultant obsession in it’s every word has brought me to this point. A bloodied thumb, maybe to Landry’s two nights in a row. As I drive home from the river, I know this is just the first step. There will be a first time when I locate a fish without Gerald tying my line. Where he will not be there with his net, and I will be using my own rod. There will be a first time when the gills are clean and strong and the fish wild. When a fly I tied during the winter will present and a trout will rise as the sun hits the horizon.
In life, there are few moments of perfection. Fleeting seconds when you stir your best roux or when the first rice grains fall into a master’s etouffee. Moments when the first forkful contains six grains of rice, the holy trinity, and a crawfish soft as a marshmallow. Bumps in time that can only be described by Norman Maclean’s words spoken in Robert Redford’s voice, Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Perhaps, I’ve only seen perfection once as my twelve-year-old son, four months away from his death, asked if I was OK. Times when all the hooked thumbs and burnt roux result in moments earned. Maybe, I’ve learned that somewhere there must be a perfect etouffee. Now envision how a trout might one day rise into the still of a crimson spring sky. For now, those pursuits take me one step closer to a place I’ve only known once.
Born and raised in New York City, Tom Cowen currently lives in the beautiful New England town of Ridgefield, CT. He is an above-average software sales engineer, retired amateur boxer, and barely serviceable hockey player. His work has been published in the Forge Literary Magazine, Montana Mouthful, and 2021 Connecticut Literary Anthology, amongst others. He is a graduate of New York University and the Newport MFA at Salve Regina University. He writes about courage and his incredibly brave son, Justin.