Each morning she stood on the bank casting her line into the water and reeling it in slowly as white smoke curled around her nose from a cigarette lodged between her lips. She never puffed, just let them burn away as she stared into the deep brown water. Butts, burned down to the filters, littered the grass at her feet as though they’d just been dropped from her mouth after the tobacco had burned away. Her face was the color of life winding down into a small gray door with a “Do Not Disturb” sign nailed into the center. Even her void black hair, short as it was, emanated neglect and uncaring like oil dripping from untended follicle taps.
Those were pretty much all the details he could make out from this distance. That was pretty much all he knew about her. That, and the fact that he was crazy in love with her.
She was there every morning for about ten cigarettes of fishing time, from nine till eleven, enough time to catch one or two pickerel — an amazing feat considering that she never used bait, just silver spinners and rubber worms. She hooked the long skinny fishes with the flaring mouths onto a large metal hook that clipped in at the end like a safety pin. The hook was attached to a chain that was moored to the ground with a long metal spike. She eased the dazed fishes into the water where they floated in fish-eyed disbelief.
After ten cigarettes, she reeled in, looped the spinner around the reel and tightened the line. She pulled the spike out of the ground, lifted the fish out of the water, turned and walked along a path up to her apartment building a couple of hundred feet from the riverbank.
Just one fish today.
Dale loved the way she walked, slow and easy, lazy-like and sexy. And yes, she was definitely sexy with her faded blue jean cut-offs and thin, well-tanned body. She was tall, but there was nothing lanky about her: every square inch of her body appeared hand-forged in the Fires of Worldly Lust. But her face — he imagined seeing her face against the river. Only her body would be visible, and her face would be indistinguishable from the river behind it, a deep river flowing out of a bog of haunted waters populated by dour things that had walked the earth long before the Indians and their Gods had set the power of myth loose in the bulrushes and bracken.
But he loved that face, even though he didn’t have a clue what color her eyes were, or if her nose were crooked at the end, or if her eyebrows needed plucking. If her brows were anything like her hair, they did.
Dawn laid the pickerel on a sheet of newspaper spread on the kitchen counter. She used a paring knife to cut open the center of the fish’s stomach. It made a “pluck” sound. The fish was dark, stiff and sticky. She shoved two fingers into the open stomach and pulled out a mash of red and white organs and fleshy tubes. She cut off the head. Just before she threw the head into the garbage, Dawn’s eyes and the eyes of the dead fish connected. For an instant, they exchanged what could almost have been a look of recognition.
She wrapped the fish in a clean sheet of newspaper and put it in the freezer. She stared into the cold darkness of the freezer for nearly a minute before closing the door. Then she sat down at the table. There was nothing on its dull wooden surface except a package of cigarettes, a green plastic lighter, and an ashtray half filled with cigarette butts smoked down to the filters.
She lit a cigarette and stared into the clouds of smoke that billowed from her mouth.
Dale hated his job. It was boring. There was no challenge to the work and absolutely no variation. It was the same thing every day, day after day. He entered data from hand-written reports filled out by field agents into the Wahberg Mutual Assurance database. They read like police reports: no colorful words or expressions, no opinions or poignant observations, no indication whatsoever that the person filling out the report had ever had an original thought. They were straight fact stripped of ownership: The house was seen to display smoke at approx 6 PM. Some were pared to fact so concisely that they ceased to make sense: Bar’d in row 8 to sembl w wat damage perim.
He hated his job. It reminded him of his life: going nowhere, coming from nowhere, and settled into a smooth, bump-free, never-ending ride down the slow lane to carbon copy days and notes-to-self to do something someday. His social itinerary was the TV Guide. He read his junk mail, with interest. He hated his life.
But now he was in love. He was in love with a woman he’d never met, a woman who fished by herself from a swamp-fed river every morning, who smoked cigarettes like a stick incense holder, and who never appeared to smile. She walked easy but looked hard. Maybe it was the discrepancies that attracted Dale to her; she was so much unlike anything that had ever touched on the unvarying days of his life.
“Off on another one of your tangents, Claw?”
It was Pat Duncan, his boss for the last three months, three months of pure hell, of humiliation and slow burning anger. She was a big woman who towered over most men and she knew it. She loved it. She played it up, standing as close to men shorter than herself as the edges of political correctness would allow, looking down on them, bullying them with her size. And she had the girth to match the height. She was mountainous. But she drew attention away from the abnormality of her size — except, of course, when she was using it to intimidate — by dressing in nothing but plain slacks and patternless business jackets over white blouses. It was like a uniform she wore at home and at work. She had a bloated Betty Crocker face and neck-length spray-stiffened brown hair.
One other thing: she hated Dale as much as he hated her.
Dale had a flaw she couldn’t stomach. She’d told him as much soon after she took over the office: “You look like a preening pigeon when you scratch your nose with it.” She was referring to Dale’s left hand. The inside and outside fingers were missing, severed by a lawn mower when he was a child. It gave Pat the willies so badly that she used it as an excuse to spend most of the day out of the office, leaving Dale to do most of the work. She was a bad boss and a bad worker. Dale assumed that she’d been promoted to manager of this office probably to get her out of somebody else’s hair, somebody higher up the company ladder but shorter than Pat in staff meetings and around the water cooler.
She called him Claw.
“If you’d spend as much time working as you spend daydreaming, we wouldn’t be so far behind on these reports. They want that database ready in three weeks, Claw. I want that database ready in three weeks.”
So sit down on your fat butt and do some work, thought Dale. He nodded agreement, but didn’t say anything.
“Three weeks! That’s all the time we have. You’ve been on this project since before I got here, and you’re still not up-to-date. What’s wrong with you?”
I’m all alone, he thought. I’ve got nobody helping me on this damn project, especially not you. He nodded as he entered data, eyes on his computer screen. Pat watched the two fingers of his left hand race over the keyboard faster than most people could type with a full hand of fingers. She frowned.
“I need a coffee,” she said, and she walked out of the office. Dale’s shoulders relaxed. He stopped typing. He looked out the window. There she was. Standing on the bank by the river, smoke curling around her head, right hand circling as she reeled in the baitless spinner. His heart pounded.
Some day, he thought, some day.
“Unfit,” they’d said. “Unfit to raise a dog let alone a child.” She’d known what was being said behind her back, the whispers and the knowing looks. And worst, most of it was coming from people she called friends, from family, people she’d grown up with, and people with whom she’d eaten Christmas dinners. They were people who knew her past. Some even knew her secrets. And suddenly, they were turning their knowledge of her against her.
“Two men at the same time in the back of the car. That was in grade ten.”
“Sat right down on the couch without a stitch of clothing on, beer in one hand, joint in the other, dozens of people around, most of ’em men, just talkin’ away as though everything was normal.”
“Stealing things from stores ever since she was seven. Amazing that she hasn’t ended up in jail by now.”
“She was my sister’s best friend. Or so she thought, until she found out that she was screwing my sister’s boyfriend. And helping my sister with her Math homework at the same time.”
“Unfit,” said the judge, and that was that. She’d be lucky if she ever saw her daughter again, and even then, it would likely be with someone appointed by the court or, God forbid, her ex, watching every movement, listening to every word, monitoring the situation because, let’s face it, the judge had said: “Unfit.”
Her line tugged — a muscular, resistant movement, a movement of sudden shock, of realization and running. She gripped the reel tight, and began to reel in the line in spite of the frenzied pull in the water.
That night, Dawn was sitting on the couch watching the test pattern on the television. She had no idea what time it was. She had no idea that she was watching a test pattern. The ashtray was filled with butts, bent in the center from having the fire squashed out of them. Behind her, pictures hung askew on the wall. In the pictures, people smiled. Dawn smiled. She held a dark-eyed girl — barely visible under a mass of red snow suit — in her arms. The girl laughed as she pushed both her mittened hands into Dawn’s face. Behind them, a wooden toboggan lay on the brilliant white snow under a flawless blue sky.
Staring at the television, Dawn’s eyes were as empty as the pattern on the screen.
* * *
In his dream, Dale stands at the riverbank. In his dream, the woman he loves casts her line into the water and hooks onto Dale and begins to reel him in. Dale swims away from the tug of the lure and feels pain. Then, in his dream, he stops fighting the tug toward the shore . and the woman, along with the pain, disappears.
And then Dale woke up and said: “That’s it! That’s it!”
He wrote a message to himself on the pad by his bed and went back to sleep, smiling and strangely calm for a man who’d just dreamed of being a fish hooked on a lure.
Dale was late for work, and for the first time ever, Pat was early. Early. On a Friday morning. Normally, she wouldn’t come in on Friday morning, showing up maybe an hour or so into the afternoon. But there she was . big and Betty Crocker-faced, white blouse, business jacket and all. She was frowning. She was always frowning, but today her frown took on new significance.
She actually had something to frown about as she stood by her desk, all starched collar and heavy perfume. This was a frown of self-righteous, better-than-thou, caught-you-in-the-act legitimacy.
Dale would have balked, but he was too excited about the large plastic bag he had in his hand. That was why he was late. He’d stopped off at the hardware store to buy something that, if everything went well, might just change his life.
“Whatcha got there, Claw? Hope whatever it is, it’s worth coming in late and putting your job on the line for.” The frown changed to a scornful smile.
“Sorry about being late, Pat,” said Dale. “I just thought . it being Friday and all . and I put in some overtime this week.”
“Stow it, Claw. What’s in the bag?”
Dale smiled immediately, his eyes neon with excitement. He lay the bag on his desk and pulled out a long clear plastic package. “Going to take up a new hobby,” he said. He turned the package so that Pat could see a complete angler’s set: rod and reel, fiberglass line, spinners and sinkers, two lures, an assortment of tiny black hooks, and a small plastic box to store the equipment.
Pat stared at the plastic package. Then she looked at Dale, and then back to the package.
And she burst out laughing. She laughed so hard her face turned red. She laughed for at least two minutes before the laughter started to break up into quick gasps for air and gurgling sounds that could have been strangled guffaws or screams from her stomach. She pointed a thick finger at Dale and smiled meanly while she brought her breathing under control. “You — you wouldn’t be able to catch a cold if it bit your nose.” Her eyes widened and she fell into her chair, shrieking with wild laughter.
Dale just stared at her. She laughed and she laughed, pointing her finger at him, slamming her fist onto her desktop. Not a muscle on Dale’s face moved as Pat laughed until she’d exhausted her stockpile of vindictive mirth. Then she shook her head, stood up and walked across the office to Dale. She took the fishing kit out of his hand, stared at it a moment, smiling even more scornfully now, and shook her head again. She tossed the kit on his desk, snapped around quickly and walked to the office door. Before leaving, she turned to Dale and said: “Have a great weekend with your new hobby, Claw.”
Dale could hear her laughing all the way down the hall, until finally, the elevator doors smothered the sound.
He looked at the fishing kit on his desk and smiled.
“She was the bad one in the family,” her mother had told the judge. “The others all turned out good. Don’t know what happened with her.”
A small gray cylinder of ash dislodged from the cigarette in her mouth and fluttered to the ground, shedding flakes and ash bits all the way down. She stared into the moody water as she reeled the line in slowly. A movement to her right caught her attention and she looked.
She saw a skinny man in a white short-sleeve shirt about fifty feet downstream. He was wearing a tie. For some reason, this irritated Dawn.
It just — irritated her.
* * *
Dale tried to keep his eyes off the dark-haired woman. His hands shook as he cast his line into the water. He was terrified. What am I doing here? he thought. What the hell am I doing?
He stared straight ahead, his head and body immovable like a stump of wood hammered into the riverbank. Whatever color he’d had in his face had drained into the ground around him like white blood.
What the hell am I doing?
There it was: the tug of muscle, so distinct from the snag of reeds or submerged logs. This was the feeling of instant, horrifying realization, telegraphed right up the line and into Dawn’s hands. She had a fish.
She let the line out a bit, playing the fish, and then reeled in slowly, played the fish again, and reeled in slowly. Each time she reeled in, she brought the fish a bit closer to her than before she played it. Now, she could almost see the swimming shadow just under the surface of water. And then she felt a strong tug and the line went slack. She reeled in a spinnerless, fishless line.
Just like my life, she thought. She glanced over at the skinny stranger, and caught him looking at her. He immediately made a face and turned away.
Was that anger in his eyes? she thought. Or was that disgust, or something? Does he know me from somewhere? She picked up her things and looked in his direction again. His head pointed stiffly at the river, as though he were deliberately trying to avoid eye contact with her, to ignore her.
Screw you, she thought. And she walked, without fish, up the path to her apartment building.
* * *
Not a single muscle in Dale’s body failed to shake. He felt like his stomach was somewhere at the back of his lungs. Lines of sweat streaked his face. The armpits of his shirt were soaked.
She caught me looking at her! he thought. She looked right into my eyes! And I didn’t even smile or nod or anything. In his mind, he reenacted the entire eye-brushing incident, each time with a different scenario: smiling at her, nodding to her, waving to her, calling out something about how’s the fishing, or nice day. All the things he didn’t do. All the things he could have done. All the things that haunted him as he packed up his things and walked back to the office.
* * *
That night, Dale made up his mind that he would approach her first thing Monday morning, even if Pat were in the office and he had to just get up and walk out right in front of her, he would do it. He had to do it. He would apologize for not being friendlier on Friday morning. He would tell her that he’d watched her — no, that sounded almost like stalking — he would tell her that he’d seen her fishing a number of times and it made him think that he hadn’t been fishing since he was a kid and so he bought a fishing kit, and here it was, thanks to her. That’s what he would do — he would approach her and thank her for inspiring him — no, too slick-sounding — he would thank her for reminding him how much fun he’d had fishing as a child. And that would probably lead into something to talk about, maybe into fishing in general, or childhood experiences, anything.
I should have said something.
* * *
It’s not a cold feeling at all, thought Dawn. Kind of warm and relaxing. If she kept her arms still in the soapy water, she couldn’t even feel the pain in her wrists. And then her thoughts turned to fishing. She stood by the bank of the river with a beautiful little dark-eyed girl. They laughed as they cast their lines into the water under the flawless blue sky.