The One That Got Away

She went down to the river, only it wasn’t really a river it all. It was a muddy, swampy, tree sheltered, root infested bit of water, but it certainly wasn’t a river.

There were fish in there, she’d seen them herself. She’d even caught one once, a surprisingly large catfish which looked laughingly small when her father insisted he have it mounted and hung it in his den right underneath the marlin he had caught himself.

He like to say he caught the marlin right down at the river too. A different kind of fish tale. The one he caught instead of the one that got away.

She still pretended to believe him, long after she knew that fish like that marlin never lived in the muddy river waters alongside the catfish she had caught.

Her father loved the river. Loved spending Saturday afternoons down there with his cooler and his pole, and his plastic can of worms.

She sat down on the bank now, unmindful of the mud soiling the seat of her jeans. She was at home here, with her cooler and her pole and her own plastic can of worms, just like her father had taught her.

Even though she wasn’t there to fish, she knotted a worm on her hook, apologizing to it like she had apologized to every one of its squirmy brethren since the first time her father taught her own to bait a hook.

She managed to get the hook in the water without catching it in the trees overhead, but doubted she’d get it back out of the water without snagging it in a root.

She lodged the butt of her pole in the mud, propped it up with two bricks nearby, brought down by some long ago man for just that purpose. Then she opened the cooler, first taking out a slightly soggy cardboard box, then taking out two beers. On beer she cracked open and took a swallow. The second she cracked open and sat in the mud beside the box.

She sat her own can in the mud and twisted it, then lifted it, sat it down, twisted and lifted again. Over and over she did that, making dozens of can sized circles in the sand, focusing on the shapes they left in the sand. Watching an ant walk in circles inside one of the circles.

Where am I, she imagined the ant thinking. Where did my road go? Where did this trench come from. She lay a twig across the circle, building it an ant sized bridge which it scurried over, wiggling its antenna in thanks.

Her dad loved ants too. Never would smush them, even when they bit him.

“Ouch, damnit!” she say, but brush it gently off. “I probably deserved that.”

He had told her once, “I’m gonna write a novel one day. One about ants. Ants are special, and my book will make other people know that. It’ll be one of them New York best sellers. Just you watch them headlines. I’ll even sign your book for free.”

Across the river, on the other bank that wasn’t really too far away, a man hooted. It could have been excitement, but was probably frustration.

“Whatcha catch Larry?” the mans friend yelled at him.

“Caught me the biggest damn acorn I done caught all day!” Larry called back, and the men laughed together, cracking open cold beers of their own, digging their short, stubby, dirty fingers into their plastic can of worms, baiting and rebaiting as often as they felt like they needed to. Pretending like they actually expected to catch a fish.

The river wasn’t for fishing. It was horrible for fishing. Many lines hung down from the bank hugging branches of the trees. They danced in the wind like spiderwebs, and looked like silver threads when the sun was at the right spot in the sky.

If you managed to get the hook INTO the river, getting it out was unlikely. Logs and roots studded the water, making it dangerous to wade across to the other bank.

So close yet so far away.

Not for fishing at all. Her father had told her so himself.

“This place is for sitting on a Saturday afternoon and getting drunk in the sun. Its for bullshitting with the boys. Its for getting away from the women.”

She was happy to be there with her father, happy to be sipping from her own can of beer, with him saying, “Take it slow honey, your mum’ll bust me one if I take you home drunk” every time her lips touched the can. Her father saying he came there to get away from the women hurt her feelings a little. She was a girl, after all. She’d be a woman one day. When she was grown would her dad leave her at home. Would he come here to get away from her?

Chuck, her dad’s best friend, must have seen her face fall. He’d gently knocked her chin with the large hairy knuckles on his right hand and said, “Don’t get your panties in a bunch doll-baby. You ain’t no woman. You’re just one of the boys.”

“Got a beer for an old man?” someone asked behind her. It was Chuck, as if her just thinking of him had made him appear there.

“Of course I do!” she said.

Chuck took a seat in the mud on the other side of the box, and took the beer she held out to him.

“That your daddy?” he asked, nodding his head toward the box. She started at him, thinking he should be an old man now, but he wasn’t. He looked like he hadn’t aged at all, except his head was bald, and his knuckles had more hair than ever.

“Yeah,” she says. “That him.”

For a while that’s all they say.

The river might have been a place to bullshit with the boys, to swap fish stories, to get drunk and badmouth your boss, but it wasn’t really a place to talk. It wasn’t a place for telling Chuck about her daddy’s last days, his dying days.

After a while she looked over at her daddy’s old friend and she noticed the tears on his face, but didn’t mention them. Instead she said, “Give him his drink, Chuck.”

Chuck opened the cardboard box and started to open the beer beside it, but she stopped him.

“He’s done with that one now, give him a cool one.”

She handed him a fresh beer from the cooler, and as he pried it open with his huge and hairy fingers she noticed his nails were clean. She noticed drips of condensation falling off the can, into the box, making dark spots on her fathers ashes. They looked like raindrops, or teardrops.

The Chuck poured the drink in, and it turned into a grey mud. A batter of burnt body and beer.

Now there were tears on her face too, but she didn’t cry out loud. She didn’t blubber. After all, she wasn’t a woman, she was just one of the boys.

“You better do it now doll-baby, before the box sogs up and your daddy falls out.”

She nodded, and carried the box to her fishing pole, where she lifted one of the bricks supporting it and dropped it in the box. Then she moved to the edge of the river, and giving it her best softball throw, tossed the box into the river.

As she stood there, watching the ripples around where her father had gone in, there was a sudden whirring, then her fishing pole flew by her, bounced on the water a couple of times, then disappeared into the water, drug along behind the fish she hadn’t expected to catch.

The man across the street hooted again. His friend called over to her, “Whatcha catch girl?”

“Nothing,” she yelled back. “That one got away.”

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