“Who the hell is Walt Whitman?” Mouse asked. He’d been bouncing around on a sugar high ever since he’d consumed an entire box of Lucky Charms on a dare.
“He was the Michael Jordon of poetry back in the nineteenth century,” I answered.
“So, why are you quoting some dead dude?”
“Are you planning to help or just ask stupid questions?”
“You want me to cut my hand like last time?” He started to get up. “Fine. But if we wind up in the emergency room again, I don’t want to hear nothin’ outta you two.”
Joe looked up and over at me, shaking his head with subtle disappointment. He’d been in a sour mood all morning, but in true Joseph Miller style, he wouldn’t talk about whatever it was that bothered him.
Joe was my best friend. We’d known each other since daycare, and when you’re only seventeen, that seems like an awfully long time. Today was Saturday like any Saturday, and the idea for fishing had come about as the result of a coin flip. We’d been flipping a coin for a lack of a better option when Joe suddenly suggested “f-f-fishing,” that awkward stutter of his worse than usual.
Old Mr. Garrett sometimes let us borrow his old rowboat so long as we promised to return it to its rightful spot up on those old sawhorses. To be honest, none of us could figure why he was so adamant about making sure we put everything back the way it was. He hadn’t used that boat in years. He was too old to get it down himself, so it just sat there, the ivy growing over it until naïve kids like us came along wanting to spend an afternoon fishing on the shittiest mud puddle this side of equator.
“I’m thirsty,” Mouse complained. “Where’s the cooler?”
“Are we gonna fish, or what?” I grumbled.
“It’s too hot. Fish won’t bite when it’s this hot.”
“Then you can sit here and jerk off for all I care.”
“Ew,” Laura said, wrinkling her nose.
“Like you know what means.”
“I know,” she said.
“You’re too young to know.”
“Matthew Kiernan got caught doing it in the bathroom like two years ago. My friend, Jesse, saw him do it and told me.” When nobody expressed shock, she piped up, “in graphic detail, I might add.”
I stopped messing with the overgrown brush and wiped the sweat from my eyes with my sleeve before turning. Laura was sitting in the sand picking at a scab on her leg. She stopped what she was doing and looked up. “What?”
“I’m not sure I like your friends.”
“Well, you’re not my brother.”
I turned to Joe. He turned to Laura. “I’m not sure I like your friends either.”
“Well, you’re not my dad.”
Fishing out on Crooked Tree Lake on a summer afternoon in Fairmont would normally be a Mark Twain kind of moment, but due to the heat, it felt more like J. D. Salinger. The sun hung in the sky like a yellow ball of Hell that melted everything it touched.
Mouse walked toward my rust-bucket Tercel, a patch of sand sticking to his butt. He started fishing around inside. I think he was looking for the latch that would pop the trunk, but instead of hearing the ‘pop’ of the latch letting go, suddenly, the radio was blaring. Ozzy Osborn. The radio went off almost quickly as it came on.
“Your stereo sucks,” Mouse muttered over his shoulder.
“Does it?” I countered. “I mean, compared to the general awesomeness of the rest of the car, I’m surprised you even noticed.”
“Your car sucks too,” he called out in an adorably, useless sort of way.
“What about tackle?” Joe asked as he and I continued to fight the ivy.
“It’s in Mr. Garrett’s shed. We can take turns with the pole.”
“I heard he was a creepy cat hoarder,” Laura whispered, glancing up toward the house, those big antenna ears of hers sticking almost straight out.
“He’s a good guy,” I argued, tossing away the clippers. The boat was finally free of foliage. Joe and I locked hands underneath and lifted. The boat came off the sawhorses with no problem, and we began toting it toward the bank. “And he probably gets some kind of satisfaction knowing there’s kids still using it.”
“That’s kind of perverted,” Mouse murmured, returning while lugging my cooler.
“I’m not a k-k-kid,” Joe grumbled.
“I am,” Laura said.
“Who’s thirsty?” Mouse asked.
“The fish aren’t going to bite on this,” Laura complained as she looked through Mr. Garrett’s tackle box.
“It’s too hot anyway,” Mouse said.
Joe was looking out over the lake. Not that it was a lake. It was more like a pond. Not really a pond either. Just a puddle with a lot of scum and old tires. He pointed toward the far end. “There’s some shade over there. If there’s any fish to be caught, that’s where w-w-we should start.”
I was about to load up the boat when I noticed a purple mark just below his left ear. “Did you get in a fight?”
Joe turned to me. “Huh?”
He ran his hand over his ear and neck before nodding. “Yeah, with the dog.”
“The dog punched you?”
“No. The dog bit Laura. I punched the dog. I must’ve run into something.”
“It’s barely a scratch,” Laura said, showing me her arm.
I knew better than to believe their concocted story, but Joe was in one of his moods, so I grabbed the tackle and pole and piled it into the boat, kicking off my shoes and shoving off into the water. “You guys comin’?”
We all piled in and settled down. Mouse chattered on with lively enthusiasm, but Joe was still wearing that frown of his. It irritated me. We weren’t at work, we weren’t at school, we had the whole afternoon to screw around on the lake, yet he was acting like it was the end of the world.
He even caught me glaring at him, and he glared right back. I rowed us across, the water dirty enough to hide the ends of the paddles. It was like rowing in a large cup of black coffee with little floaty things everywhere, water bugs hopping across the surface, the smell of rotting fish adding the kind of color even J. D. Salinger would leave out.
“Well, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m excited,” Mouse said sarcastically. “If you’re anything like me, you know the only fish worth catching is the fish forced to grow up in shit like this.”
“Then why don’t you make yourself useful and tie on a lure?”
Mouse was out of my line of sight. He sat at the front of the boat, and my back was to him as I rowed. “I’m way ahead of you, bro,” he said. “I got one of those orange ones from the bottom of the box. Even a blind fish would be able to see this bad boy.” He cast his line, and there was the distinctive ‘ploop’ as the lure hit the water.
“What are you doing?” I said. “We’re not there yet.”
“You’re not fly fishing. You’re not even close to fly fishing. You don’t have the right kind of reel to fly fish.”
Laura giggled, and I smiled. She had been pretty quiet all morning, so the sound of her laugh brightened my mood. Mouse muttered something, and Laura giggled again. I let Mouse have his moment and rowed ahead. He wasn’t much of a fisherman, but given our tools, none of us were. It was just like I figured; this was an opportunity to get out on the water on a beautiful Michigan afternoon where the possibilities were endless.
“I think I got one,” Mouse hooted. He reeled the line, pulled back, gave it slack and reeled some more.
“That’s not a fish,” Joe said.
“The hell it isn’t.” Mouse was really concentrating now, tongue in cheek, eyes wide, foot braced against the side of the boat for leverage.
“It’s probably a carp,” Joe muttered.
“I don’t care if it’s a hairy mermaid. It’s a record breaker.”
“The record.” Mouse busily reeled the line, and we all leaned forward, eager with anticipation. Mouse was intense as he reeled, gave the fish slack and reeled again, his nose wrinkling, his teeth gritted, his eyes slanted as he reeled and reeled.
“How much slack did you give it?” Joe asked.
“He’s tiring out.”
“You’re tiring out.”
“Almost got him.”
“Well, hurry it up,” I said. “It’s about a million degrees out here in the sun.”
“We came here to fish,” Mouse panted. “Are we fishin’ or are we bitchin’?”
“You’re fishin’, we’re bitchin’.”
“I hate you guys.”
Laura laughed, this time out loud. Joe laughed too. I tried to hold back, but Mouse looked like such a turd burglar that I couldn’t help but join in. This is why I wanted to go fishing in the first place. Somehow, out on the water, life’s burdens are lifted. In a Walt Whitman kind of way, sour moods are turned upside down with laughter echoing over brown, shitty water. There we were, content, happy in being together, speaking little, perhaps not a word.
Mouse reeled and reeled and reeled, and finally he hauled in the ugliest damn fish we’d ever seen.
“Holy, oh my god!” Mouse screamed, dropping the pole and scrambling toward the back of the boat. The fish flopped around in the bottom of the aluminum boat, and we all backed away. All except for Laura. She was laughing. She thought it was the funniest thing in the world to see us freaking out over a frightened fish.
“What do they put in the water here?” Mouse complained, settling down.
“How does this even happen?” I asked.
“Poor thing.” Laura. “He’s just scared.”
“Don’t go getting all ‘poor thing’, Laura,” Joe said. “That is an abomination.”
“It can’t help it.”
I couldn’t help but smile. I wanted to give her a hug—my little buddy. She had a heart too big for our group. Somehow, she found compassion in ways that never would have occurred to me. Things like a deformed fish slapping its tail against the bottom of a leaky old boat. Its mouth continued to open and close, its eye staring into nothing.
“Swallowed the lure,” I said, my tone soft. Like Laura, I was starting to feel bad.
“As far as I’m concerned, it can choke on it,” Joe muttered.
“It is,” I said.
Laura crept through the boat. She stopped beside the fish and watched it a moment. She even sat down—her back to us—hugging her knees while staring. She didn’t say anything. We’d all fallen silent, and it was the weirdest thing. What had been a funny moment had become…awkward. I could still see the fish, and its eye still stared. Its tail continued to occasionally slap the bottom of the boat, but it became less frequent. A thin stream of blood ran from the fish’s mouth where it glistened under the blistering sun and reminded us all of our own mortality.
The boat rocked gently, the peaceful sounds of the tiny waves rolling up underneath soothing the afternoon to sleep. The fish stopped fighting. Only its gill opened every few seconds as it tried to breathe with a hooked lure lodged in its throat.
“Throw it overboard,” Joe ordered. When Laura didn’t react, Joe punched the side of the boat, the sound carrying, the boat shuddering. “Throw it overboard,” he repeated, his tone gruff.
I reached for the pole and lifted it up. The fish came off the floor, and Laura watched as I swung it over the edge of the boat. I released the line, and the fish dropped into the water. I set the pole down and cut the line. The fish floated to the surface lying on its side, its eye staring stupidly at the sun.
Everything had fallen silent except for a few birds chirping from the trees that lined the edge of the pond and the tiny ripples that slapped the sides of the aluminum boat. Something had happened to our perfect afternoon. Something hidden and dark. Something nobody talked about.
I couldn’t get Walt Whitman out of my mind. My tenth grade English teacher had crammed Whitman, Shakespeare, Dickinson and Poe down our throats for nine months. In the beginning, I hated her for it, wondering why we were supposed to think some old farts who’d died hundred years ago should dictate how I spend my weekends. I’d wasted so much time memorizing bad prose for no purpose more significant than a stamped letter on a report card that would be forgotten the moment I stepped out of high school and into the real world. But by the end of the year, I had developed a quiet appreciation for the angst those men must’ve felt. We were separated by time, so we’d never meet, but we were in the same metaphoric boat, and not one all that unlike the leaky piece of shit with a blood soaked bottom we were floating in now.
Whitman’s words were boring when recited in front a mirror, but when staring at a dying fish while sitting in an aluminum boat floating in the middle of a brown lake, his words came to life like one those old school TV shows where there’s no one around to hear anything other than the sound of the sun evaporating the world.
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier