Since my days of fighting acne, the sloughs and islands of the California Delta have served as a source of solace. I’m an avid angler, and my favorite fishing spots are in the nooks and foliage-shrouded cuts along the 1100 miles of fishable shoreline. Barring illness or some other emergency, that’s where I can be found most Saturday mornings, under a red sky, amidst the tulles and pine trees that line the bank or perched atop a rocky levee. There I’m lulled into a sense of ease by the warbling of birds, the symphony of soft waves that brush against the rocks, and the sound of a breeze rustling the tall grasses nearby.
My favorite companion on these jaunts is my wife, Dorothy, who even after eighteen years of marriage, still has her svelte figure and smooth as peach flesh skin. Beauty aside, what I’m most enamored with is the fact she loves fishing as much as I. We sip coffee and manage to keep a sharp eye on our lines as they waltz in the ripples of the river, while we pass back and forth our observations about the surroundings. Dorothy and I nibble on pretzels, fried chicken, or sliced ham, as the lazy, orange sun pushes over the brown hills and burns away the fog.
During most outings, we leave the bank with an impressive allotment of hand-sized crappie and various sizes of whisker fish. By noon we’ll trudge uphill to old reliable, our ’94 Cutlass station wagon. I’ll carry up the gear and she’ll pack it in the cargo hold, and then place the fish-laden stringers into a couple of five-gallon buckets.
Depending on what fishing hole we venture to, the drive home takes anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour and a half. It’s always enjoyable even though we’ve committed the scenery to memory: lazing cattle, cottonwood trees, and silver silos in the middle of vast, brown, fields. We often engaged in playful banter or sang along with the tunes playing on the oldies station.
A few times the ride home took a bit longer because it included a stop at a roadside eatery located at the end of a table bridge painted a garish shade of green. The span, built in the nineteen twenties, separates the small town of Tinsley (where we live) from Highway 46. The trailer is parked a stone’s throw from the river’s edge, sandwiched between eucalyptus trees. To the east is a sprawling meadow of okra and asparagus.
There was a silver trailer that was attached to a red Ford F-150 where the fare served up included an assortment of snacks and sodas, but you could also get a homemade burger for a buck and a half, and it had more garnishments and flavor than anything from those fast food slop shops located within the city limits. More important, customers weren’t bombarded by images of clowns, kings or pig-tailed girls. Also on the menu was an assortment of wieners on a bun: hot or mild links, Polish sausage with or without sauerkraut, bratwurst, and Italian sausage. My favorite serving was the five-piece chicken wings, fries and can of soda for $2.50. You definitely couldn’t beat the price or the aroma that lingered in the car after eating.
The proprietor was a woman who stood 5’2” in her worn flats, looked to be in her late fifties, and who caused me to wonder how she was able to move around the grill, refrigerator, cabinets, and a food-laden counter. She was known simply as The Hotdog Lady, a person of few words without being standoffish. Her face had no distinguishing features, other than the usual lines that crisscross the faces of senior citizens. She looked like a grandmother out of a Garry Marshall film, with her square frame glasses and black hair streaked with shoulder-length strands of gray. No one, at least as far as I knew, ever learned her name.
For more than twenty springs and summers the Hotdog Lady provided a quick pick-me-up for weary anglers, or for folks just passing through and who were in too much of a hurry to stop at a restaurant for a meal. As I mentioned earlier, occasionally my wife and I patronized her establishment, but most of the time we drove past, and if she was outside we’d blow the horn and wave to her. She would look up, adjust her glasses, wave back, and embellish it with a smile.
The best thing about her locale was that seldom would you find more than four cars parked along the road, so the wait to be served was always a short one. I doubt if there was a single angler who didn’t know of her trailer, whether they were a regular customer or not. Even when it rained, she’d be there waiting out the storm, as were her customers.
As April fell upon the Delta, the Hotdog Lady was absent from her post at the end of the bridge. A ride through the long S-curves of the two-lane highway nixed the idea of her having moved to another location. The anglers familiar with the area and clerks at nearby bait shops speculated that she’d taken ill.
“It wouldn’t be summer without her coming in here to buy ice,” said Marge Wilkins. Marge was a lady of similar age, and she ran a tackle shop called The Angler’s Edge.
Early May arrived and there was still no Hotdog Lady.
One Saturday Dorothy and I entered The Angler’s Edge, and as such mornings went, there were a dozen or so hearty souls willing to brave stiff winds and gray skies. Fishermen are typically a garrulous lot, eagerly discussing various techniques or recent ventures. On this morning, however, the shop was as somber as a funeral parlor.
After Dorothy and I grabbed a handful of sinkers, several packs of hooks and two bags of fresh clams, we stepped into line. In front of us stood a six-and-a-half foot tall fellow whom we knew as Butch. He greeted us with a quick nod of the head and not the usually, “Mawnin’ folks!”
While standing in line, I looked towards the magazine rack. There were tide books, local reports, and copies of The Fish Sniffer, Bassin’, and a half-dozen copies of The Williamette County Bugler. My gaze was drawn to the newspaper headline. The hooks fell from my hand as I reached for a copy of the paper. A white-haired man standing behind me shook his head slowly.
“Mmm, mmm,” he mumbled. “That is a damn shame.”
Dorothy picked up the hooks, then took a peek over my shoulder. She threw one hand over her mouth and with the other put a vise-like grip on my bicep.
ROADSIDE CAFÉ OWNER HELD ON
MURDER, POISONING CHARGES
It wasn’t the word “murder” that threw me, but the fact that the last word in the headline was plural. The Hot Dog Lady’s booking photo accompanied the news article, and in it, she appeared to be on the verge of smiling, as if saying I sure had you all fooled. I held the paper in trembling hand as if I was staring at my mother’s photo. The other patrons stood in silence, already aware of the story.
I read the first paragraph in a whisper.
Tinsley Police on Wednesday arrested sixty-one-year-old Irene Radnich and charged her with committing a rash of poisonings last summer that led to the deaths of two South Williamette County residents, including a nine-year-old boy.
Police were able to connect the poisonings to the entrepreneur who operated a roadside eatery near the Drake River Bridge.
According to investigators, Radnich picked her victims carefully, serving rancid, maggot-infested meat often tainted with small traces of boric acid, or rat poison to regular customers…
My wife tugged at my sleeve and whispered, “Let’s go home.”
Never had we cut short a fishing outing before it got started, but it didn’t feel right to carry on as usual. I read the next line and for a moment stopped breathing.
Radnich said she served the bad food to patrons she thought were “greedy.”
“We need to go home and pray for her and her victims,” Dorothy said.
I turned her no verbal response. I stepped out of line, returned the goods back to their rightful place on the store shelves, and put the bags of clams back in the cooler at the rear of the store. I couldn’t help but think that another old but comfortable piece of fabric had been torn from time’s quilt.
Reading the news served as a stark reminder that killers today were no longer typically young males involved in criminal enterprises or poverty-stricken souls addicted to drugs. They came from all walks of life: schoolgirls angered over not fitting in; young boys looking to prove their mettle and that they have “heart.” Now an old woman borne from “the greatest generation,” and who should have known better, became part of this drastic new age.
The world wasn’t changing but had changed, and for worse. There were once songs about love, peace, and freedom; but have been replaced by post-teenage men who spew vulgarities and speak about women in the most god-awful terms. What makes my shoulders slump is the fact that an old fella like me is powerless to do anything about it.
I slipped my arm around Dorothy and she leaned her head on my shoulder. We left the store, and I inadvertently took the newspaper without paying for it. I’m sure Martha didn’t mind. I think she too, missed the way the world use to be.