The Marble Run

  • By: Fly Rod and Reel


2010 Rusty Gates Memorial Honorable Mention Story • Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award presented by Fly Rod & Reel and the John D. Voelker Foundation


The Marble Run

Short fiction by Michael Doherty


I. The Marble Run, 1997
On the border of Jensen’s land the river makes a slow turn around a granite bluff. On the opposite shore are granite boulders, perhaps fifty of them, onion-skinned and out of place. Jensen, and everyone else round here, calls them Devil’s Marbles. Like sentinels, they watch over the river where it buckles up over dozens more, shaped there more by waters than by wind and frost.

It’s been thirty years since I’ve fished the Marble Run. My casts are slow, methodical. I work down the run, above Jr., who works the head. He’s my age and height; he’s got thirty pounds on me. Jr. Jensen looks different, much older—like a stranger. Once though, Jr. and I were the best of friends.

The flies I have swing deep and nothing's tempted. I switch to a cone-headed streamer. It bumps rocks and when I look it over, tiny scratches mar the bright metal. After fishing the run I walk back up, I nod to Jr., who is tangled up and smiling. His reel free-spooled on him, kicked up a mess of line. His casts looked poorly timed. He hadn't fished in decades. As I walk I dry the cone on my shirt, take out a sharpie, and swirl it around the metal. Now it looks less like a bullet, more like a warbird’s nose-cone.

I fish the run again, nothing strikes. I switch to one of Old Man Jensen’s flies, the ones Jr. didn’t want, a jumbled mess of a thing that looked like Old Man Jensen tied it. A strand of wire veined under wraps, just buried, along with ragged hackle mummified in cotton. The hook was bright from when he last sharpened it, the only clue of how potent a tie it might be.

I start the cast. Above are contrails and my line moving, it floats on and on and lays down slow and I know this will be the one, there is voodoo here. I wish that Tom Finlayson could see this moment. As I do, Old Man Jensen’s fly is savaged. I’ve hooked a Marble Run fish again, for the first time in decades.

II. Quang Tri Province, March 1967- Marble Voodoo

We moved single file along a road that threaded between terraced paddies and low jungle. Rain, heavy and warm, fell nearly constantly. Tom Finlayson was talking. He had a savant’s fascination for marbles, and we made fun of him for it—at least at first. But when you’ve heard the stories of one another’s girls—stories that you could, with a little imagination, own-—Finlayson’s marble talk became exotic and weird.

When things got tight, when the jungle made noises you couldn’t place, when you needed some ambient constant, there was marble talk. His voice was monotonous, his lectures heavy on detail, devoid of the kind of bullshitting that the rest off us offered. He never revised what we’d heard before, never altered the delivery, made no effort to impress us. He used the same phrases, lists came in the same order, like he was reading text. No one else told it like that except Finlayson.

Gutierrez asked:

“How do they get the eyes in them, cat eyes?”

And when Finlayson told him Carter asked:

“How do they make them round?”

And so it would go. By the end of the day we covered twelve miles and knew, again, what a pontil mark was, how marbles get swirled, and that commies could mean more than Charlie jumping out of a tunnel or from behind a banyan tree with his gun going off.

Here's part of the Finlayson Gospel:

“Commie means common, inexpensive, mass-produced marbles.”

Amen. We knew a marble gets rolled into shape, and that a cullet wagon would be about the right shape and size to move scrap glass across a factory floor.


Gutierrez said: “It would probably work to get a body to a medic.”

“The cullet wagon is too deep, the body would fold. Plus it’s full of chipped glass, not to mention the wood sides could give splinters, either wood or glass, on the way in and out. A gurney, wheelbarrow or caisson would move a man or a body better, that’s if you could use wheels. A stretcher is still your best option here in Vietnam.”

That’s how Finlayson spoke, no humor, without pause, in monotone. A real weirdo. It didn’t stop Gutierrez from calling for a cullet wagon when a man got shot.

In 1967 I had, maybe all of us did, a young man’s understanding of girls, parents, emotions or conflicts. I believed then in hierarchies, the wisdom of age, the necessity of what we were doing. I believed in timelines. I respected authority, particularly if supported by knowledge I didn’t have. Finlayson knew everything about marbles, he had authority. It was better, much better, to think of marbles than scraping your buddy up for a retrieval, or thinking about your old man teaching you to fly-fish, or remembering how a girl’s breast felt. It was better than hearing Gutierrez call for the cullet wagon.

Maybe Finlayson didn’t know or imagine those things, maybe he did. He was the best shot, the least afraid. When the worst of Finlayson’s hecklers died (Chacon, Spitz and Wrobleski- ambush) and we didn’t, Carter said marble voodoo kept us safe. No one disagreed.

By nightfall, the LT said we should rest up. Finlayson asked me about the Marble Run.

“Where’d you hear about that?”

“Bangkok, R&R September 1966.”

Presumably it was an eight-beer segue from Finlayson’s world to mine. Maybe it was back in the days of ridicule, a pitying attempt to derail Wrobleski from bullying Finlayson. I had forgotten the conversation. Not him though. He corrected me, it wasn’t a conversation. I lectured Gutierrez, Finlayson, Carter and Thoms on fly fishing at a place called the Marble Run. After fifteen minutes, only Finlayson was left.

“Must have been a boring lecture.”

“Not at all. Just hard to hear because you were slurring.”

I told him about the rivers and waters that I knew. I told him about Old Man Jensen’s land, and its field of boulders. I described the Marble Run, and the fish that swam there. I talked of how I fished there with my Dad, with Jr., my best friend—who unlike me and Finlayson, didn’t get drafted. Who promised to enlist but never did.

With a stick and a stretch of parachute cord I showed him how to cast—badly—and how to mend. I described reading waters, and how here in Vietnam it was much harder on account of the silt and slow flows. All of it lying face-up in mud. I told him of streamers, dries and the nomenclature of insects. We covered the metamorphosis of nymphs. For several hours, under a dull, warm rain and black sky, in mud-filled holes not five feet apart. I spoke as easily about fishing as he did on marbles.

Two years and a lifetime earlier, Jr. and I floated twelve miles of the river in a day, fishing all the way, through the Marble Run and beyond. Dozens of fish, all of them fat and strong. I told him how we’d got drunk and raced our cars on those empty roads. How we met some twins from G—ville that were easy and none to bright. I told him you could move a Marble Run boulder with a car, but if you did, Old Man Jensen would hunt and hurt you. (He said you’d be cursed if you moved the boulders. Nez Perce warriors buried below would emerge silently and scalp you in the middle of the night. No one wants a scalping. I respected his authority, Old Man Jensen concerned me.)

“I’d like to see it. When I get back I’ll drive from Tucson to see it.”

That was the second time I thought I saw him smile; I’ll tell you about the first time soon enough.

While I spoke he didn’t dig in. His entrenching tool’s blade remained half folded. He didn’t dig down into the filth and muck. You know now that Finlayson is going to die, you know that he will never see the Marble Run. Someone in the jungle drew on their ordnance a devil’s curse that would take Finlayson away. Not because he didn’t dig a foxhole deep enough. In Vietnam, in any war, you died just taking a leak or because you stuck your head up at the wrong time. You died because your time had come. You died because you were cursed, because you rolled some boulders somewhere, sometime, that you shouldn’t have.

Perhaps they were listening to us, perhaps all of us were thinking about Jensen’s boundary, the Marble Run. While we dreamed of those waters and rocks, Charlie loaded a mortar and sent it on its way. That shell, Finlayson’s shell, floated out of that warm rain and took him, scalped him, shattered half of his head. It could just have easily taken me.

 III. Estate Sale, 1997

 In March of 1997 I came back home to help my parents out. Old Man Jensen died two months earlier, and that got Dad and Mom to thinking that if I wasn’t coming home, and I most certainly was not, that they didn’t want to be there any more. They'd rather be with people in a place that wasn’t so miserable in winter. They were moving to Phoenix, a place with games like golf, bridge and shuffleboard to play.

“You know there’s no fishing there right?”

“I know that. I can’t wade, I can’t cast, we can barely see.”

Fishing was no longer fun for my father. Maybe without me, Jr. or someone with him it was never fun. I didn’t say it but I knew it.

Jensen’s kids had an estate sale while I was there. Dad said he was going up to see how Jr. was doing and see if there was anything good to get. Both of us recognized this excuse to visit and maybe to fish one last time.

“Jr. will get a kick out of having you back, he always asks after you.”

I packed a box of Dad’s flies, all of them store-bought and unused, neatly arranged. I borrowed my father’s rod. The fish would likely be in, and after the visiting was done, we’d hit the river.

“Like old times” he said. He was deeply happy.

There wasn’t much of an estate to sort through. Some tables and chairs that weren’t antiques or fashionable, framed prints, his clothes. There were knick-knacks, formal plates, old power tools and things that Old Man Jensen never gave his daughter-in-laws or grandchildren like his wife’s beads and jewels.

Jr. was a little drunk but seemed happy enough. His wife, one of the twins from G—ville, was fussing and delusionally eager to make a sale. I found a box of fishing flies and, politely ignoring her, paid Jr. instead. My fistful of tens proved an ultimately un-needed icebreaker. Jr. said each one was tried and true and told me my money was no good and that I should take them. He’d taken all the well-tied ones, the new ones anyway. And after shooting the shit for an hour or more, drinking beers, I finally got the courage to ask if Dad and I could fish the Marble Run.

On some level we both knew, were it not for the draft, for Vietnam, he and I would have fished the Marble Run together hundreds of times and I would have never needed to ask permission. And now it takes me two beers to have the courage to ask him. Things get awkward when your paths split. Sometimes they never cross again. As far as I was concerned up until now, and without animosity, there was no good reason that Jr. and I needed to see each other.

Jr. asked if I would mind if he came with me and my dad, as though he needed our permission. In half-an-hour the three of us were walking single file, slow, cautiously, between fields and on the pace of my father, down to the river. All three of us walked this way decades earlier.

 IV. Fried Marbles, Iron Triangle, January, 1967

One day Finlayson showed us a magic trick. We were frying meat in a safe village that a month later we would incinerate. As we ate he told us to gather round, he was going to show us something beautiful. He showed us a clear marble, and rolled it into the still-hot pan. He put it on the flame and let the small chunks of remaining meat burn and smoke. He rolled the marble for several minutes, the ball busting through walls of gas, the pan progressively blackening. He tipped the marble into a bucket of water. You could hear it splinter, and then he fished it out and held it up. He was smiling.

What was once clear was now fractured inside. He passed it around. A hundred tiny cracks were in it. Finlayson held it up to the sunlight, and out of it mirrored small reflections. I can remember that thing sparkling there in the sun like some grand jewel. And like a birthday kid Finlayson gave us each a favor, a marble, in a ceremony of his own devising.

“For my friend Gutierrez, for my friend Carter, for my friend Thoms, LT—for you too.…”

He said they were commies. While in Manila, when we were drunk, he’d found a toy shop, and with us in mind, he bought a dollar bag of marbles. He’d saved them up for now, for this safe village, for this party.

We fried them one-by-one just like he did. Some of them split in pieces, some came out just like his. We were kids again, laughing, comparing, shit-talking about whose was coolest. I remember that day well. I can smell the burnt meat and the hot oil. I can hear the dull monotony of his voice. The thing is, I knew he smiled, I knew he was happy then.

After he was blown up, on patrol again, walking by those paddies, Gutierrez said:

“You know Finlayson, I got him in the bag, his eyes looked at me. Like he was still there. I mean I knew he wasn’t, but he was looking at me. And I was thinking how they get the cat eye in the marble. I can’t remember. What did he say about the cat eye?”

And Carter or Thoms would tell him. Because all of us knew, when Gutierrez asked, all of us knew we had to remember that. All of us wanted to believe that even if he wasn’t there, his marble voodoo was.

“That what he said?”

What Finlayson said would be revised, refined, until we all agreed that that was what he said. And in that way, time would pass. We’d come up with a history, some substitution for terror, an annealing for all of us.

Then one day, toward the end, when things were tying up and our physical war was near done, Gutierrez asked us as we walked:

“Did he ever tell us how to actually play marbles?”

“You mean the game?”

“Yeah. I mean I can tell you how they’re made, I can tell you a good one from a bad, I can tell you what’s valuable and what’s not, I know how to shoot one, but how do you actually play marbles?”

There was jungle silence. None of us could recall Finlayson saying anything about it. None of us played. It occurred to us that not even Finlayson played, he collected.

Thoms said: “You ever hear him tell a story about a friend?”

Silence again. Thirty paces, maybe forty, each of us recalling what Finlayson might of said. I knew I was one of Finlayson’s friends. I know that Me, Carter, Thoms, the LT, Gutierrez—we were his only friends. Vietnam, for Finlayson, may have been the best part of his life.

Then the LT spoke:

“That’s sad. When I get back, I’m going to learn from some kid how to play marbles. Somewhere there’s a geek like Finlayson just waiting for someone to take an interest.”

V. March 2010, What to do with Finlayson’s Marble?

That fried marble Finlayson gave me sits in my fishing vest, top pocket. My kids never played with it, I won’t let my grandkids either. I don’t want to get mad at them when they lose it—they don’t know what it is worth. One day it’ll end up in an estate sale as unloved and meaningless as Mama Jensen’s bead jewelry.

Me, Gutierrez, Thoms, the LT, and Carter know what that marble means. And all of those guys have vanished from my world. My parents are gone. I know the Marble Run is still there, I know in March the fish are there, maybe Jr. too, and I also know I will never go back. A child should take that fried marble, a kid that might yet appreciate the shiny things this world gives us, who might figure out a game to play with a friend. Or maybe I should let it go, drop it in the sound on a strong tide, watch it sink, and forget it all.

That’s what I’ll do. My granddaughter will be beside me. I’ll ask her to throw it in, for me and her, for good luck. Then I’ll show her how to cast and how to mend.

• • • • •

Michael Doherty was the winner of the 2008 Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award. He lives in Seattle. Please see the Autumn 2010 issue of Fly Rod & Reel for the 2010 First and Second Place Traver Award stories.