The creek was low, shrunken from the lack of rain, although the weeds had flourished for early-spring moisture, water under the swamp’s crust. Midsummer weeds in the wild grow as high as your arms can reach, and they slap your face and sting your arms and drop their itchy pollen on your skin. You will stumble and fall abruptly into a narrow hidden stream, through the undergrowth that covers it. I had already gone knee-deep into a drainage ditch – no other way to cross it. In the middle of the summer pasture fishing is a better deal, but fifteen years back I had vowed I would never be the first of a group to turn chicken.
Far upstream, Frank was successfully avoiding me. I had read plainly in the glow of the dash the message on Frank’s face. Such a crime I had committed, and he knew all about it and would get his revenge in his own good time. Unspoken promises are as easy as pie to break. It’s impossible to talk about them, but the silent treatment feels better anyway. A lot I cared. Frank always fished alone anyway. It was no skin, you see, off my teeth.
I let my bug down into the weedy water. I could see bottom, but further downstream it got very deep. I wasn’t as good at putting in the line as the boys were. I snagged a lot. On these Otter Creek campaigns I packed extra line, extra hooks and sinkers, to replace these I was sure to lose. Fishing is like golf or bowling or arrowhead hunting; you have to pay your dues. You have to put in your time. After a while you start to score. Fishing was the only drawback in my double life, my two livings.
In the misty pre-dawn of the crick bottom, I re-created the sleepy swinging of Milo’s pocket watch, turning and bumping at the side of an upturned bale, hanging by a rawhide strip from the pants he had abandoned. I nearly missed the first nibble on my line. By the time I tried to set the hook, the fish had taken away the worm, as if to exact the price of my being lured away by a vagrant thought.
The seaweed wound like spinach around the hook and leader. I pried it off and re-baited. I let the line down into the water and watched the hook work its way downstream and settle, sucking down out of my sight. I kept my eyes and my trigger finger on the line and waited for it to tighten.
Milo’s hands are on my hips, big hands with wide, square, craggy nails, long fingers strong and certain, the sliding and scraping of the keys and pennies inside my pocket had shredded away the wrap from the condom, making handling simpler, but I think I should say at least something, so I say, “We’ve each put in lots of years surrounded by precarious diseases,” and he says, “That’s okay,” affectively stopping my talk. But, at least, it’s okay.
The line tightened, and then loosened. I waited, and then pulled back with all my forearm strength. Missed her. Reeled the line back in, to check the bait, hoping I had not spooked her. As I flipped the hook back into the water I saw a kingfisher with its large head and short tail, unruffled by my nearness, on a low willow branch just above where the fish had been.
“That’s okay,” that’s what he said, and then we are cleaving together warm and fluid. He says, “I got no quarrel atall with these uppity women. Look at the men they go after,” and his grin flashed by. We are watching each other, drinking in the sun lines on our bodies. We are measuring the intensity we feel. I lean down to kiss his eyelids. Moving slowly, I beat him to the corner in nothing flat, and then I sweep along to a new corner, another corner, like the tilt-a-whirl a the carnival when you get it to looping, carried along by its own momentum, greedily.
The fish was fighting, dashing upstream and twisting, hugging the bottom. I kept the pole high, but lost her anyway not far from my wet toes. She deserved the freedom she had won. She had been fighting for her vary life, while I had zeroed in on other fields, other places. I pulled up my weapon, and gathering the tackle into one fist, made my way up the stream, creel bouncing at my side, to find another curve in the creek bed, just under an eroded bank, the water dark and deep.
I breathe on his cheek, and my voice is fuzzy. I tell him I love the way he looks. “Whoa,” he says, “just hang on.” His fingers clamped around me like iron claws. Then with a long groan, he has turned his own corner.
In a lost block of time, the dark comes over us and the narrow door loses its silhouette. Crickets close by, initiate their counterpoint. Milo and I lie side-by-side on crushed shirts and prickly hay in helpless slumber. I find my leg flung across his stomach, his hands warm on my leg.
“Fella caught me about a pony,” he says. “Kept me way later than I wanted to be. I’m sure glad I didn’t miss the final round.”
“Me too,” I murmur.
“Thanks for the help,” he says. “You know. All the help.”
I hear his breathing. A night bird flicks across the peak of the barn. “I could sleep,” he says. “I could stay. I could stay tonight. Stay with you.”
“Well, I have to get up and fish at two.”
There is the sound of an animal far away, one of the cows calling halfway down the lane. I think of Grace, who will freshen within a month. Milo’s hands move on my leg. “You can call them,” he says.
“Call them?” I recall then about the fishing. “No,” I tell him. “I can’t.”
“I know you can’t,” he says.
I dug into the crusty black soil with my knife blade, five inches down, to bury the intestines of the trout I had caught. My creel was still teetering on the grass from the tremors of the freshly cleaned fish inside, training unreasonably to return to the water. Eight-inch browns, three of them, in exquisite color, a prize to take proudly. I would hand them to Frank, who knew how exactly they must be fried in butter – scale-less trout. Three impressive trout I had caught, and if that were true, Bob and Frank undoubtedly had filled up their creels and stuffed their pockets too. They were probably already popping cheap beer, lounging in the car. I wiped off the knife blade, back and forth across the grass, folded up the knife and dropped it into my jeans pocket, and picked up the creel, slung it over my shoulder, wrapped up the rod and the reel and buried the hook into the cork handle and checked out the surrounding ground for refuse I’d misplaced.
Half mile away I put each of the fish into the ice chest and threw away the green grass I had pulled from the soil to keep the trout cool inside my creel. It was time for me to leave. I would take none of the cheap beer. I wanted to write a note to the missing fishermen, but there were no pencils in either vehicle. I jumped into the Fiat and drove home, running about ten minutes behind my intended schedule. The sun was a half-hour above the horizon at the left front of the car. After the radio weatherman had propitiously promised another hot day, I tried to tune in public radio, but I pumped instead into Simon and Garfunkel in the middle of “El Condor Pasa.” The perfect omen, yes! Certainly, I’d much rather be a hammer than a nail (if I only could).
We shake out our rumpled flattened shirts and skivvies from the dusty chaff under our feet. It is very dark now. Two steps from me Milo is struggling with his trousers. I can hear the watch plinking and the jangle of change from his pockets. He is feeling for socks and finally sits to put them on, and he laces boots halfway up while I slide my bare feet into ripped Wisconsin Dells souvenir moccasins.
I take his hand, and he puts the fingers of his other hand inside the back waist of my shorts, and I lead him to where the door should be. I know the lay of the land. Outside we stand adjusting to the greener air and the cacophony of by-night creatures. We go separately across the damp grass and gravel to where his rusty Pontiac reflects sky.
“It’s almost tomorrow!” says Milo with vigor. “Could you, let’s see, call me tomorrow night?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Let’s toss for it,” he says, digging out a coin. “Tails you call me tomorrow at midnight.” In the timid glow of the car’s dome light, he peers at the quarter on the back of his hand. “Whoa. I lose,” he says mournfully. “Well I can call you, but it could be late.”
“Call,” I said, “nevertheless.”
“Oh — nevertheless?”
“Don’t make light of me: it’s dead serious,” I growl, grabbing his shirt front, and we come hungrily together again, my lips sore and salty, and Milo’s big hands tight on the rear of my shorts, as if it were all starting in again.