Fiction, Vol. 8.3, Sept. 2014
Most of the bank was spotted with bulrush, while the shallows were covered with thick mats of lily pads, making these sections inaccessible from the shore. Some stretches, though, were flat and open—a well-kept green lawn where picnickers would enjoy the day, and a lake where children could fish with bobbers and night crawlers. On the far, easternmost shore, a creek branched off and wound through a rich forest before emptying into a large cove fed by a natural spring. Now, some of the best fishing was along this creek. In the spring, the spawning bass would find their way from the deep water into the nestled and shallow banks, among lily pads and watercress, the males leading the females, urging them to drop their eggs. And some instinct would force them to this. Even in the face of imminent danger, the females would spawn and lay over their nest, watching like some silent guardians of life.
Mike fished the lake often, it being the closest to his home. Through the long winter he had waited, and though it was still early spring and cold, he was bundled and ready, standing on the boathouse dock overlooking the cove. His eyes worked their way down. The sky was a steel gray, the tree line jagged and bare. Picnic tables and grills sat empty on the opposite bank. The only sound was from the spring, which fell into a granite bed of rock then trickled down into the cove. The steady drumming was monotonous and strange, out place amidst the cold and starkness of the day. Mike set his pack on the ground, pulled out a tackle box, and selected a jig. He tied it onto his line with an improved clinch knot, pulling the end to check its strength. Satisfied, he left the dock and walked toward the back end of the cove to cast near the granite rocks, where the eddies formed along the bank. He cast a good dozen times and retrieved very slowly, twitching the rod’s tip so the blue grub would flutter up then back down to the bottom. But nothing came.
Occasionally looking about, he noticed he was the only one on the water. It felt like even the fish had gone somewhere else. The water looked flat, dark, and dull. He blew into his hands and backtracked to the dock, casting out into the middle of the water. He reeled and jigged his line and recast and mixed up his retrieve, but still he had no bites. He brought the lure back in, catching it as it swung in the air. Kneeling down, he took out a pair of nail clippers and cut the line. He opened his tackle box and took a chartreuse crank bait and tied it on, but as he stood to cast again, suddenly, a sharp and oppressive feeling swept over him.
Standing there, rod in hand, staring off, he looked like a man deep in contemplation. The still water, the lake quiet and cold, his actions felt futile. Other thoughts began to come to him, thoughts that had borne down on him all winter, mourning and death like a refrain. He pushed them back and gathered himself.
He left the dock and walked in the opposite direction as before, following the tree-lined path that ran beside the creek. The path twisted through a forest that seemed empty and lifeless without its leaves. Most parts of the bank were choked with dead brush and trees, but narrow cedar chip foot-paths cut down to the water, where there was space for one to fish. He decided on the third path, as good a place as any, and trotted to the creek bank to set his pack down.
The water level was low and the opposite bank was exposed. Roots protruded, stones, the craggy and uneven earth. The bank curved out into a large half-circle. The branches of trees hung over the water, their tips just touching the water’s surface in hesitant intimacy. Mike selected a new lure and cast toward them, twitching his rod tip on the retrieve. He repeated the same motion targeting spots, structure and cover, but nothing came.
He grew impatient and moved on, the creek slowly growing wider and deeper, and soon he came to where it emptied into the main lake. The lake seemed immense; the water rippling and somber. On the far bank the few trees were long and arterial. A wind blew in bursts, cold, as it kicked up off the water, flipping the brim of his fisherman’s hat. He stood in a popular spot; the ground was worn from the footsteps of the many fisherman that had come before. Setting his pack down, he changed lures and cast far out into the lake, slowing his retrieve almost to the point of standstill, knowing that the bass would be sluggish at this water temperature and laying in the deep water. Cast and reel, lock and cast, plunk, a concentric ripple…reel. For a time, no thought was on his mind. Still, he caught nothing.
He walked on and came to where a large fallen tree lay in the water. Its knotted branches projected out of the surface, bits of mono-filament tangled up in them. This was the perfect spot. He walked to the very edge of the bank. Flicking his lure toward the end of the tree, he began to reel very slowly, passing the lure through the zone where he thought the bass might be waiting. But still nothing came. He frowned and made to finish bringing the lure in. But as he was about to pull it from the water, he felt a slight tug and he yanked, thinking he was hung up. Abruptly, the line zigzagged and his rod bent over sharply.
So close to the shore, there was not much fight, and the bass was lethargic from the frigid water temperature. Yet he felt such joy as he pulled it close to the bank and scrambled to the edge. Heart racing, he tossed his rod to the side and knelt down and pulled the bass out by the lip and stood and thrust it upward as if all his preparation and struggle were triumphed in this one small, sleepy bass. He turned it back and forth in admiration, then removed the hook. Laying it in the cold water, he let its tail slide through his hands as it slowly slunk off, leaving a slight ripple on the water’s surface. Then, it was gone as if it had never been. Still smiling, he wiped his hands on his back pockets and picked his rod back up and recast in the same spot, but nothing came. Nothing good would come again that day.
Mike could feel the imminence and the cold of night. He walked back the way he had come. The lake now was like a flat, featureless void under the gray of twilight. As he passed back through the creek, the happiness he had felt began to fade. Slow and ominous, his thoughts coalesced like a brewing storm. He felt very alone. His hands were cold, the trees around him twisted sentinels awaiting him. It was dark and windy. That sharp feeling of futility returned, as if he were sliding backward and then was overcome. He dropped his pole, rushed to the bank, and crouched down. Memories rushed through his mind like a picture book: She was on every page.
With no other sound in the forest, his cries carried far and loud across the open water, resounding off the far bank like an eerie and singular plea unanswered. Alone, there was no comfort for him. In time, he gathered himself. He wiped his eyes, feeling ashamed. He stood and walked back toward the path, and as he rounded a bend, an older gentlemen appeared out of the gray, carrying two fishing poles and a tackle box. He wore dirty blue jeans, a black sweatshirt, and a camouflage hat. Approaching, he waved and asked, “Any luck?”
“I just caught one over on the main lake.”
“I got me a couple, but it’s slow yet, too cold.”
“I just wanted to get out. I haven’t fished in months.”
“Me and some of the boys caught a couple in the dead of winter over near the boathouse.” He gave him a broken-toothed smile. “Let me show you.”
The fishermen reached into his pocket and took out his phone. He pulled up a picture of a three-pound bass. “That’s a good one.”
“Yep, caught that one on a night crawler. You catch the big ones on the night crawlers.”
He put the phone back in his pocket. “What you got there, a bait-caster?”
“I had a buddy try it out. Damn near tore his lip off and tied up his line real good.”
Mike forced a smile. “You got to be careful.”
“Yep, give it ’bout a month and it’s gonna be a feeding frenzy. Out over where them barbeque pits is really good.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
The kitchen table was laid out like a banquet dinner. Stephanie had put a lot of work into the meal. To have the family sit down at the same time was good, but rare. She was happy to have them all before her. The kitchen felt alive and warm, filled with a dozen different rich aromas and sounds: the clatter of metal on ceramic, brother arguing with sister, her husband eating as if it were his last meal.
His mouth still full, her husband looked up and said, “I love the way you do these potatoes.”
Stephanie smiled. “It’s au gratin.”
Richard stuck his head back into his plate and continued shoveling food. She shook her head in amusement and asked, “Was work okay?”
Richard paused, gave her a look. “A pain. We had the new district manager visit the store today. Some young go-getter from Topeka with a fancy degree.”
“What was he like?”
“You know that British chef?”
“The TV show, Mom!”
“Yeah, he was like that guy. I could hardly stand it. John told me he went into one store and wiped the computer screen and came up with dust and had the whole staff scrubbing the floors within minutes.”
“Well, it would do you good to impress him, honey, with the promotion coming up and all.”
Stephanie stared into the empty space, thinking. Her wrinkles were deepened by her fake tan. The blonde highlights in her hair spilled down to her shoulders. Richard thought she looked like an older version of their daughter, as if she wasn’t quite sure who she was aging into. He leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms over his head and let out a deep breath.
“I think I’m going to go out back and get ready for tomorrow.”
“I wanted to talk to you.”
“Later babe, I want to get the stuff packed up.”
She frowned and he said, “Look I haven’t heard any news. You’ll be the first to know if I hear anything.”
“You know how important this is for us.”
“Well, all right. But please don’t be out there all night.”
“You going to pack some sandwiches for us?”
“In the morning.”
Richard walked around the table and kissed the top of her head. “You’re a good woman.”
He left. Stephanie now sat alone at the kitchen table. At once so full, suddenly, so gone. The only remnants: the empty chairs and dirty plates with their bits of meatloaf, a swirl of ketchup. The sound of the television from the living room.
The shed had lawn equipment hanging from pegs on the wall, an old riding mower tucked in the corner, and cardboard boxes that sat on the utility shelf, still filled with items never unpacked from the move. A lone incandescent bulb hung from the ceiling. Against the wall was a carpenter’s table, where Richard sat on an old bar stool, greasing the bearings of his spin reel. In front of him, a row of small shelves held a variety of tackle: saltwater, spinners, grubs, poppers, and flies. He liked to come to the shed. The warm air of spring cheating through the window, memories, a ballgame playing on the old rabbit-eared television.
After he finished greasing the reel, he put it back together, often glancing up to check the score. A wind-up, the pitch…a strike. The man saying, “Look at the cut on that slider, vicious… So now we go two-and-two with a man on first and one out.”
Richard took a spool of monofilament and placed it on a nail clenched between the teeth of a vise. He made a simple slip knot around the base of the reel and began to slowly turn the spool. Once the line was on, he set the reel aside and repeated the same process on a heavier model, pausing to get a beer from the mini-fridge. When he finished, he placed the reels into the rod saddles, and set them in the corner next to his tackle box. He wiped his hands on a blue mechanic’s towel with satisfaction. He took a slug of his beer and began to watch the final inning. The door opened, and his wife stuck her head in.
“Packing up, huh?”
“You gonna come to bed anytime soon?”
He took to watching the game again, but his wife did not move from the doorway, her hand still clasped on the doorknob, her face a glare.
“I’m going to bed.”
“I’m coming, just give me a sec.”
She pulled the door shut. Richard, frowning, swirled the last contents of his beer and finished it. He got off the stool, looking once more at his rods in the corner, then switched off the television and followed after his wife.
Sunlight pierced the shallow, muddy water like amber. Mike could see stumps, an old tin can. They were dressed in long pants and waterproof jackets. And they each wore a hat and a pair of polarized sunglasses. Richard patted Mike on the back and said, “Looks like a good day for fishing.”
“Don’t get your hopes up. I was out here last week and came up pretty dry.”
“Well, the water’s getting warmer, that’s for sure.”
The day was warm, warmer than any other in the last months, one of the first fleeting signs of spring, before leaves have grown or flowers bud. They stood on the bank of Turtle Lake, looking outward at the gentle roll of the water’s surface. Before them, a small island jutted from the shore, a dense thicket that was bare like a wigwam.
“You figure we start here and work our way down towards the creek?”
“There might be some action up along the edge of the island. See where them trees are coming out?”
Although it was warm, the wind was gusting. Along the edge of the island, they cast deep spinner baits with a slow retrieve, Mike using a bait caster, Richard using his open-faced Penn.
“I got something!”
Richard jerked his rod back to set the hook and it bent sharply, the line hooked into something that would not move.
“Damn, I’m hung up.”
He tried jerking the rod back and forth, but the line would not free. In frustration, he backed straight up, holding the rod point parallel to the ground until the line snapped. He shook his head.
“Not a way to start.”
“Don’t worry. Here, put this little guy on.”
Mike handed him a worm jig. “With a hook like that, you won’t get hung up.”
“Thanks, that’s a Carolina rig right?”
Both men were quiet, enjoying the sheer pleasure of casting and reeling. The knowledge that they had caught fish the same way before, and that they should catch them again, lingered and pushing them onward.
After a time Richard asked, swinging his lure up to re-cast, “How are things?”
“As good as they can be.”
“You know I haven’t seen you since…”
Richard saw the way Mike was looking at him. “I’m sorry.”
“You wanna try and head down towards the creek? This wind is driving me crazy.”
“Yeah, let’s do that.”
They packed up and began to walk. Ahead of them on the edge of the bank, were large granite rocks stacked atop each other, and the ground was covered in straw. A chain link fence enclosed the construction, running for a good fifty yards. They walked around the fence and entered the trail that ran along the creek, still quiet.
“Well, Stephanie wanted me to tell you that if you ever needed anything, all you have to do is ask,” Richard said.
“They said you haven’t gone back to work yet?”
“I just need some time.”
“I hear you, buddy. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like if I lost Stephanie. I know you don’t want to talk about it, but sometimes it can be good, you know.”
“I don’t need pity.”
“I’m here for you, and remember that Alice would have wanted you to move on and be happy. It’s been almost a year—”
Mike stopped in his tracks.
“You think you know what she would want?”
Richard turned around.
“I don’t mean anything by it, but it’s the truth.”
Suddenly, Mike’s calm demeanor changed as if the words had struck him as forcefully as a blow. “If I was in her shoes, I wouldn’t want her to forget about me. I wouldn’t want her to be happy or move on. I would want her to be miserable. Moving on would be an insult to what we had. People always say that they would want you to be happy, just trying to make you feel better. If she’s up in heaven and looking down, you think she would be happy seeing me with another gal? Or me, if I was in her shoes? Love don’t work that way. You get it once and that’s it, or it wasn’t for nothin’ in the first place!”
“But if she was with someone else and was happy, then shouldn’t you be happy too?”
“No! True love is just that—where you can’t live without the other, dammit!”
Mike was flush and breathing heavily, and he paused, taking deep breaths. Richard looked at him with concern, surprised that he could even summon such words.
“That’s just an idea, though. It sounds nice, but you have to be practical and move on at some point. Life ain’t an idea. It’s real.”
“It ain’t real, none of it!”
Mike didn’t answer for a while and then shook his head. “It’s still too soon. My mind don’t think right anymore.”
“You ain’t going to do anything silly, now are ya?”
“Of course not.”
Richard patted him on the back. “Life ain’t easy. You think me and Steph have it all good? Well, we don’t. She wants more and more, and sometimes I don’t think she can stand the sight of me. Like I ain’t the man she thought she had married, or it didn’t turn out the way she expected.”
“At least she’s alive.”
The men were quiet. Slivers of lake were visible through the trees, the sun glittering like glass. Finally, Richard said, “Let’s just forget about it and fish, alright? I’m sorry I brought it up. We ain’t supposed to be talking like that anyways. We’re supposed to be fishing.”
Mike, still staring off through the woods, nodded.
Mike stopped before they got to the boathouse.
“Why’d you stop?”
“I talked to a guy last week, and he said down where the barbeque pits are is a good spot. Want to check it out?”
They crossed the bridge and walked around the other side of the creek. After they passed the cove, the water widened into the main lake. The cold water had grown choppy, and a school of ducks was taking shelter along the shoreline. On the bank was a gazebo with a plain wood railing and a cast iron grill, bits of old charcoal scattered beneath it. A trash barrel was anchored by a four-by-four, and next to it, a green sign listed the fishing regulations.
The shoreline was empty of any tree or brush. Further down, long stalks of reeds grew outward from the shore, waving gently in the wind as if caressing the cloudless sky.
“This wind doesn’t look good.”
“Let’s try a jig.”
They cast straight out from the shore and reeled. Up and down, the jig fluttered along beneath the water’s surface. Mike brought his jig close to the shore and felt a tug; he jerked his rod back and set the hook.
“I got one!”
He turned the pole sideways and reeled, guiding the fish toward the shore. He bent down and took it from the water, holding it up for Richard to inspect.
“Look at that, now.”
“Yes sir, that’s nice.”
It was a fat crappie, the skin a glossy silver speckled with black symmetric dots. The mouth was large for its body, its gills gasping for what they could not find. The fish gave a spasmodic flick of its tail as Mike took out the hook.
He laid the fish back in the water. At first it lay motionless, then shot off with a burst of speed. Mike stood back up, his face suddenly bright and alive.
“That was a fat one.”
“Oh, shoot look at that.”
Richard’s line had grown taut. He began to reel madly, and before he could get the fish halfway to the shore, Mike had another. Their lines zigzagged madly across the water, almost tangling, and Mike took his rod and swept it over Richard’s head. Their eyes sparkled with amusement.
“Whooooeeeee, look at that boy.”
They took the fish out of the water and unhooked them, holding them up side by side for comparison.
“Bigger than yours.”
“Not as big as that first one, though.”
“…aha…you fat sucker.”
“They’re schooling right in that spot.”
“The depth must break there, they must be feeding on some shad.”
They moved a bit away from each other and cast again, and within moments they were both on again. And they caught another, and then another, all on the same jig. There was a period of time where all that mattered was the casting, reeling, hooking, fighting, catching. They reveled in the excitement and anticipation, such a break from the routine of their lives. The glorious splash of the water as they hauled up the fish, the flick of the tail as they released them. Laughter, a word, and then another cast…
After an hour they began to come up empty. Richard turned his head toward Mike. “Looks like they’re gone.”
“Man, oh man. How many did we catch?”
“Must have been a dozen or so.”
They brought in their jigs and hooked them to their pole guides and walked over to the gazebo and sat down.
“What do you figure, we got about an hour left?”
Mike looked toward the sun. “Looks that way.”
They did not catch any more fish that day. When the sun set, they made their way back to their cars, parked near the boat house. They walked on the path along the creek, the dark woods surrounding them on either side. A wash of orange like will-o’-the-wisps lay far head of them, the lights from the boathouse passing through the trees.
“You remember when Alice used to fry up sunfish with that panko?”
Richard smiled. “Yeah, that was good stuff.”
“Back then we wouldn’t have put them fish back.”
Mike laughed, then quieted. They came to a stop in the parking lot, the night fully fallen. Richard loaded his equipment into the back of his truck and they shook hands.
“Better than we expected huh?”
“We’ll have to try that spot again sometime.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I figure I’ll head home and grab a bite. That house now is so big. I’ve been thinking of selling it.”
“You’d best wait with the way the market is.”
“That’s about the only thing that’s keeping me from it. It’s tough, though. I still got all of her stuff in there. It’s a constant reminder. Sometimes when I go home, I know she ain’t there, but my body half expects her to be and it’s like I relive it all over.”
“Like I said buddy, I’m here.”
“I didn’t mean to yell at you earlier.”
“Forget about it. When you want to go fishing again?”
They shook hands again and Mike turned toward his truck to leave.
“Hey now,” Richard said, “if you want, you can follow me home and join us for dinner. We might not have kept them fish, but I’m sure Steph has something good for us. What do you say?”
Mike looked at his truck and back at Richard, his face serious, seconds ticking away. “No, I’m good. I figure I’ll head home. I’m tired.”
“All right buddy, see you soon.”
They got into their trucks. The engines came alive with a rumble, breaking the stillness of the early night. They slowly rolled backwards out of the parking lot, then shot off down the road in opposite directions. Soon, the night again was quiet. And the lake—dark and cold, all that fragile life within it, slumbering, waiting. Holding on.