Reads: 378

“You’re late again. What was it this time?”

“Nice to see you too.”

Despite being a naturally organized person, I’m not that great at being on time. For anything, ever. My mother of all people knows this. She normally takes the liberty of ordering for me when we go out, which is why there’s a steaming porcelain mug in front of me. I should stop after this cup though, otherwise I’m gonna be up all night.

“You’re avoiding the question dear,” she replies as she rips open a packet of Sweet n’ Low and dumps it in her mug, stirring it with her crooked spoon.

“I got held up at the library. Was zoned out while filling in my latest sketch and the time slipped away from me.”

“Ahhh.”

“Yeah.”

Speaking to my mother is almost always a minefield I never want to be a part of. Even though she’s the sweetest and most caring woman I know, she cares just a little too much while somehow also sounding condescending. For example: “Oh honey, did you draw that? That’s just so amazing! How on Earth did you come up with that? Somebody else must have given you the idea.”

It was wonderful when I was little, but as I got older, it was easier to pinpoint the fake enthusiasm and to be able to tell when she was talking down to me. I honestly don’t think she realizes that she does it.

I watch as she picks up a few Coffee Mate french vanilla creamers and carefully dumps them into her mug, trying not to splatter them all over after opening them. Picking up my mug, I gulp down a few mouthfuls before setting it back down on the cracked table. A ring of dark brown liquid appears around the bottom of the mug.

“Anything exciting happen at the library?” This time she picks up her mug and takes a sip, her perfectly manicured fingers clicking against the enamel.

I don’t understand how she knows the things she does, but it must be the ability to read people or feel a disturbance in the force. Either that or she’s a fucking wizard.

“Nothing too unusual. Just finishing up a sketch for Joe and met a guy who picked up a pencil that fell on the floor for me. He seemed like a nice guy.”

“Does he have a name, or did he just pick it up and leave?”

“Tucker Boone. No, we talked for a couple minutes. I don’t think he’s from around here. He had a bit of a southern accent. Wonder what he’s doing up here.”

“Strange. Maybe he’s on vacation or on a fishing trip.”

“Yeah, because you catch a lot of fish in the crappy public library,” I answer as I roll my eyes.

“If you keep doing that, you’re eyes are gonna get stuck like that.”

“I can only hope it happens. Cross eyed and missing a leg. I’d be a regular redheaded stepchild. People would think you truly neglect me,” I mumble.

Her face darkens, and I immediately feel guilty about what I’ve said. She sits silently for a minute, slowly stirring her lukewarm coffee with the stupid bent spoon. I take the opportunity to study the diner.

Julie’s is a tiny diner on the corner of Main Street and Springstead. You can’t miss it, considering the main drag of Woodpine is only about a hundred yards. Pink and yellow plastic tulips sit in windowsill boxes on the inside, and red checkered tablecloths adorn the tables. Kasey and I used to come here after eighth period in high school and sit in one of the red vinyl booths in the back, munching on fries and guzzling Coke. Patty, who’s been a waitress here since before I was born, knew our order by heart and would ring it up as soon as we walked through the door. It’s modest, but comfortable and cheerful. It hasn’t changed much since I’ve grown up.

Ma pushes back a red curl escaping out of her bun that’s falling across her forehead. In a lot of ways, she and I are carbon copies of each other. The curly flaming auburn hair, petite frame, and ivory skin are all inherited from her. However, that’s where the similarities end. She’s got a dash of freckles across the bridge of her nose, whereas I’m covered in them. I’ve got green eyes, hers a deep shade of chocolate brown. The sun never fails to shine out of Ma’s ass, and her bubbly and caring personality make her a huge people person. I avoid all human contact if possible and have evolved into a snarky, sarcastic, cynical asshole.

In my retrospective state, I don’t realize until too late that I’ve pushed up the sleeves of my hoodie. Ma narrows her eyes as she sees the colorful tattoos out in the open.

“Cierra Joy Keats, pull your damn sleeves back down. We’re out in public,” she hisses, yanking one of the sleeves down over my wrist.

“Gee willikers Ma, tattoos? Does this mean I’m going to Hell?”

Now I’m pissed. This is always a goddamn fight between us. I didn’t come here to get bitched at or scolded because of a personal decision. My ink isn’t even crappy or offensive. I paid good fucking money for all of it, and every single piece is gorgeous.

“It isn’t proper for a young lady like yourself to have tattoos, especially where they’re highly visible. A lot of people think it looks trashy. You don’t want folks thinking you have loose morals, do you?” Ma’s cheeks are flushed red and her eyes flashing, the way they always get when she’s angry.

“God forbid someone knows I have a tattoo. They might assume I smoke weed, pop pills and have casual sex too.” I unlock my chair and grab my keys and phone off the table, slamming down a five dollar bill.

Ma tries calling me to get me back to the table, but I’m not having it. After I roll out the door, I head for my truck, feeling the rain creeping down the back of my hoodie and soaking into my skin. By the time I buckle myself in and start the truck, the windshield is fogged up and I’m absolutely drenched. Reaching for the pack of Camels in the center console, I light up a cigarette and put it in drive.

***

By the time I’ve cooled down after the fight, I’ve got twenty seven messages, six missed calls on my phone, and there’s a hole where eight Camels are gone out of the pack I started a couple hours ago. My hair is a lion’s mane at this point, and there’s no hope of wrestling it into a hair tie with the wicked humidity going on. I give up trying to contain it, instead wrapping a bandana around my head to keep it from falling in my face. I also sigh and shut my phone off as I see a text that reads “Where r u????” from Ma.

The truck’s parked down by the Smoky Mountain River on a secluded road that almost no one uses. The only people that still even know about it anymore are a handful of the old timers who come down here once in a blue moon, claiming it’s their “secret fishing spot.” It’s my favorite spot to come and think about life, or to hang out in general. A no trespassing sign hangs by the mouth of the trail. However, I’m a firm believer that rules are meant to be broken.

Currently, I’m sitting underneath the massive oak tree that stands along the river’s edge, watching the dragonflies flit back and forth over the rushing water. The sun is setting, red blended with purple across the sky, bleeding down behind the trees. A deer appears on the other side of the bank about fifty yards away and trots into the shallow part of the shore. It lowers its head to take a drink, swishing flies away with its short, white tail. It’s a little difficult to tell, but it looks like the deer has a lame back leg from the way it limps around. Probably shot in the wrong place by an inexperienced hunter back in deer season. How the poor thing’s survived without being taken down by a wolf or bear so far is a small miracle. Ironically, I know how the poor fucker feels.

I light up another cigarette just as the deer lifts its head, frozen in place. Smoke floats above my head and across the river, creeping across like an oncoming fog full of carcinogens. A couple of seconds go by before it twists around and scrambles back up the bank before bounding away. The forest feels lonely without another living soul in sight.

“I hope you know that you usually head to the woods to escape pollution, not contribute to it.”

Whipping my neck around so hard I’m amazed I don’t have whiplash, I see Tucker standing uphill leaning against my truck, camping chair slung across his back, rod in one hand, and a plastic bag and six pack of Summer Shandy in the other.

Jesus H. Christ. Is he following me?

When I don’t reply right away, he shuffles down towards me, his cowboy boots thumping softly against the slick grass. He plops the chair down next to me and sets the rod and beer down at his feet. Taking the chair out of the bag and unfolding it, he straightens it out before taking a seat and grabbing his pole. He silently opens the plastic bag and fishes out a blue tub of nightcrawlers, setting it on the ground by the beer. Tucker makes quick work of selecting a crawler and ripping it in half before threading the smaller end on his hook. With that, he casts it perfectly into a calm section of the river. The line tightens, and he settles the rod between his knees.

“I hope you know that it’s rude to stalk somebody. And completely unnecessary. We probably would’ve run into each other eventually,” I scowl before stubbing out my cigarette.

“It’s also rude trespass on someone’s property.” He lifts the pole up a bit before setting it back down, making sure the line isn’t snagged on anything in the river bottom.

“You’re here too, unless you’ve forgotten.”

“This is my property. About five acres of it is.”

“Oh.”

Tucker glances over at me before grabbing a shandy out of the six pack and popping the top off. He holds it out to to me. I hesitate before I accept it, my fingertips brushing against his. A shiver runs down my spine, and I hide it by taking a drink. Satisfied, he grabs one for himself. His adam’s apple bobs up and down as he takes a few pulls before setting it in a cup holder.

I scowl again. “You’re so full of shit, dude. The Wallaces were the last ones to live in the small cabin a hundred yards up river before it was considered condemned after half of it burnt down in an electrical fire. No one’s lived there for almost ten years.”

“Yup. I know. I’ve been working on rebuilding it for the past year.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t like getting rained on or sleeping in my truck.” He takes another drink.

“No, smartass. I’m asking why you’re the one rebuilding it.” I take another cigarette out of my pack, but then think better of it, putting it back.

“I told you. It’s my property. I bought the land about two years ago and started working on it when I moved up here a year and a half ago.”

“How come I’ve never seen you around town? It’s fuckin’ tiny here. Word gets around fast, especially about newcomers.”

“I don’t get out much. When I run into town once a week, I make it quick.”

“Ahhhh.”

He clears his throat. “The trail down to the river is definitely a nice benefit to the property. And a great spot for sturgeon fishing.”

“That’s illegal, you know.”

“What is?”

“Catching sturgeon.”

“So is trespassing.” He grins as he notices my face getting red.

Fuck it. I need that cigarette.

I pull it out of my pack again and curse myself for not being able to find my lighter. Tucker taps me on the shoulder. I turn back around, where I find him with a hot pink lighter in his hand. He lights the smoke for me before putting it back in the breast pocket of his flannel.

“Nice lighter.”

“Thanks. I’ve had it since I was nineteen. At eight years old, it’s pretty much an antique now.”

“I’m impressed, but I’d keep it in your pocket. I’m a notorious Bic thief.”

“Duly noted.”

We sit in silence for a couple minutes, watching the sun dip lower behind the trees until it’s no longer visible. Night is approaching fast, and the air is getting chilly. I pull my hoodie closer to my body and cross my arms. I can just barely make out the cherry on my Camel.

Tucker clears his throat. “So how’d you even get down here? I don’t see your chair.”

Taking a drink from my bottle, I notice that it’s almost time for another one. I have a feeling I’m gonna be here for a while. I wish I’d thought to bring alcohol, weed, and more cigarettes. I’m down to ten.

“Magically.”

“Okay Hermione. How’d you really get down here?”

I sigh and polish off the rest of the beer before gently putting it back in the six pack container. I reach around to my left side and dump the prosthetic leg at his feet.

“Yeah.”

I already know the question he’s going to ask before he even opens his mouth.

“I only wear it when I want to come down here. It’s a pain in the ass to put on and take off. The chair is more comfortable. I usually just keep them in the back of the truck.”

“I wasn’t gonna ask why. I was gonna make a comment about how nothing’s biting yet.” Tucker frowns as he tests the line again. “Why is it so uncomfortable though?”

“Just the way that it fits. When I wear it for long periods of time, everything rubs against my scar tissue. Not only that, your leg bone isn’t naturally supposed to end in the middle of your thigh. It gets painful after a while.”

“I see. Why do you come down here? I mean, I don’t care that you do. I’m just curious.”

“I come down here to think about stuff and get away from all the noise and bullshit of town. I don't know. Some people drive around, others write angry letters to local legislature and state Senate. I sit down by the river and chainsmoke. It’s kinda my thing.”

“Hmmmm. How’d you find out about this place?”

“I had a best friend in middle school named Kasey. We used to come down this way in the summer and pick raspberries before the wild animals could get at them. We’d come down here with ice cream pails and pick raspberries until the pails were so heavy we could hardly carry them. Anyways, one day we stumbled down this way, hoping to find another patch. We found this place instead. Over the years, she stopped coming, but I never did. It’s my no bullshit zone. Not a very exciting story.”

In the fading light of the cherry, I can see Tucker shrug his shoulders. He grabs a battery operated Coleman lantern out of the plastic bag and clicks it on before getting up and threading it through a low hanging branch on the oak tree.

“Jesus Mary Poppins. What else do you have in that carpet bag?”

He sheepishly pulls out a battered copy of Where The Red Fern Grows and a tub of chocolate covered pretzels. Popping open the container and taking a handful, he passes it to me before reeling in his line to check the hook. A limp worm appears on the other end. He shakes his head before removing the dead end and throwing it in the river. I watch silently as he digs through the crawler tub and locates the other end, grabbing it out and threading it onto the hook.

“How often do you come down here?”

“Every chance that I get. The fishing’s good, especially around ten or eleven at night. I’ve been down here every night for the past week. I keep the Kwik Trip in business just by buying beer and crawlers.”

“Ahhhh. What’s the story behind the book? It’s pretty much held together with duct tape and a prayer.”

“I’m from Virginia. Even though the main character’s from the Ozarks, it reminds me of home. I read it when I get homesick. Keeps the feelings at bay.”

“Don’t ruin it for me. I haven’t read it yet. You get homesick a lot?”

“I did over the years. My parents bought me this copy when I was thirteen for Christmas. I thought it was a stupid present, so I didn’t actually read it until about six months later when I got bored one day. It’s been my favorite book every since.”

“Ahhh. You’re a long ways from home though. What made you decide to pack up and move to the middle of bumfuck nowhere in northern Wisconsin?”

Before Tucker has a chance to reply, the pole jerks violently against his knees. Standing up carefully, he gently lifts the rod, waiting for the quick tug of the line to dip below the water again. This time, he snaps his wrist and begins to reel, feeling out the tension of the line.

Don’t get me wrong, I love sturgeon fishing myself, but at night it’s a bitch. Sturgeon don’t get to be so big by being stupid. They’re bottom feeders that usually only come to the top of the river to bask in the shallows on sunny days. That being said, they fight like hell when being forced to surface.

 Reeling one in during the daytime is difficult enough, but at night you have a hard time telling where the line is. Some of the older ones can run a fisherman up and down the river all night. There’s an old chain link fence somewhere along the river bottom that the sturgeon dive for. They can snap the line on one of the rusty edges of the chain. Lots of people have lost a good size fish that way. I discovered the fence once when the river was low, but wasn’t able to pull it out. The water hasn’t been that low since.

I quickly yank up my capris and slip on the sleeve for my prosthetic, making sure that it’s centered on the nub before rolling it up. Frantically, I spritz down the sleeve and the inside of the prosthesis with alcohol spray before putting my leg in the hole. Feeling for the trunk of the tree, I eventually get myself off of the ground and step on the bionic limb until I no longer hear the whooshing of air being pushed out. Good to go.

“You make that look unrealistically easy.”

“I’ve unfortunately had lots of practice.”

I didn’t realize until I stood up how sore my butt was from sitting on the ground. I arch my back and stretch, feeling my muscles loosening up and cracking. Tentatively, I take a couple steps forward, almost tripping on a tree root. Now that there’s light, it seems really stupid that I didn’t see that. Bending over, I grab yet another cigarette and locate my lighter in the pack, also pausing to turn on my phone. This might him take a while.

The brilliant stars are set across an ebony black sky, grazing the bottom of the horizon and looking like tiny Christmas tree toppers. Moonlight glimmers off the river, racing by in millions of foamy droplets. Croaking of a hundred different bullfrogs booms through the river bottoms, echoing off the water. The only other sound is Tucker slowly working his reel back and forth.

My reverie is broken by him a couple of minutes later. “Would you be able to hold this for me quick please? I just wanna get this flannel off. Makes it hard to reel.”

“Sure. Give it here.”

He dumps the pole into my hands before turning to wrestle himself out of said flannel. I turn my attention to the matter at hand. Judging by the way the line’s running and how hard it’s pulling, this fucker’s at least a couple feet long. Good thing Tucker was smart enough to use heavy braided line. Some people make the mistake of using test that’s too light. It snaps within the first couple minutes of reeling. The line on all of my rods is at least eighty five pound braided line. It’ll take shit off if you accidentally get it looped around a finger. That’s how strong it is.

The line goes slack, so I take the opportunity to reel a little bit more. Just when I think the fish might’ve spit the hook, the line goes taut again, and I feel thrashing on the other end of the line. Yup. Still there.

I take a look at Tucker, who’s finally managed to divest himself of the flannel. Sweat appears on his brow bone, and I can tell that his hair is damp from all the humidity in the air. He’s wearing a thin white cotton t-shirt that strains against the biceps erupting from the sleeves. The front of the shirt is pulled tight across his chest. A huge tribal and koi fish tattoo sleeve wraps around his left arm. One of the plugs in his stretched ears looks like it’s about to pop out.

“Hey. Come here for a second.”

He hesitates before sauntering over, stopping about two feet in front of me.

“Closer.”

He steps so that he’s about six inches away. For whatever ungodly reason, I feel my heartbeat pick up.

“Bend down a little bit. You’re a foot taller than me, for fuck’s sake.”

He raises an eyebrow at me, but obeys, stooping a little bit. I reach up and pop the plug back into place, feeling it as it moves through his ear and into the right position. He opens his mouth to say something, but thinks better of it and steps away, reaching up to rub his ear where my fingertips just were.

“Sorry. It was bugging the shit out of me.”

“Yeah. They have a tendency to come out at inconvenient times. I’ve lost a lot of them that way.”

“That’s why I wear ones with a back that screws on. They don’t slide out so easily.”

He glances at the pair I have in and snorts. They’re huge cubic zirconia diamonds I picked up at Spencer’s on a whim while in the cities.

“I’ll be sure to pick up a pair of those. They’d match my sparkling personality well.”
When Tucker finally lands the sturgeon, it’s about twenty minutes later. I see that I was right as he struggles to pull it up on shore. The beast is at least six feet long and bigger around than both his hands. I pin it to the ground so that he can work the hook out of its soft, sucker like mouth. He reaches for a tape measure in his pocket and measures the sturgeon from the tip of its tail to the front of its snout.

“Sixty seven inches. That’s what, five and a half feet, right?”

“Yeah. I think so. Hold it up. I’ll get a picture for you.”

He grasps the monster by the back of its tail and adjusts his other hand so he’s holding it just underneath the gills, hefting it off the ground with one swift motion. He holds it at an angle and smiles at me.

Opening the camera on my phone, I snap a couple of quick pictures with the flash on before the fish starts struggling too badly. Tucker walks over to the water’s edge and carefully lowers the beast back down to the water, holding onto the tail and gently moving it back and forth. When he lets go, it moves slowly before eventually descending back below the murky water with a quick flip.

He starts gathering all of his things, putting the crawlers, pretzels, and book back in the plastic bag. I pick up his lawn chair and start working it back into the canvas bag, finding that I need something to do with my hands. I lean it up against the tree and try to take down the lantern from the tree branch, but I can’t quite reach it, even if I stand on my tip toes.

“Hang on a second, Peggy. I’ll grab that.” I turn around, and he’s right behind me, towering above me for a couple seconds before plucking the lantern off the limb as if it were nothing but an apple. I’m hyper aware of his body right next to mine, feeling the heat radiate off of him in waves. In the light of the lantern, his eyes are a brilliant copper fading away to honey. I never realized brown eyes could be so beautiful.

We grab his gear and make our way towards my truck. Unfortunately, I lag a little bit behind because I’m a midget compared to him and my prosthesis is really starting to hurt. Even though he’s holding almost everything, he holds my truck door open for me so I can climb in. I shut the door behind me and roll down the window. Bad idea. Mosquitoes swarm into the cab.

“Hey. Get in. I’ll give you a ride back.”

He plods to the right side of the truck and throws his gear in the back before swinging himself into the passenger seat. I haven’t cleaned the truck in a while, so his feet crunch a couple of Monster cans and fast food wrappers. He finds the bar that moves the seat back and groans as it squishes him up against the dash before shooting him backwards.

The drive to his place lapses into silence, each of us lost in their own thoughts. When I finally pull into the drive, I can see that he wasn’t shitting when he said he completely rebuilt the cabin. Brand new white cedar logs have taken the place of the rotted chunks of yellow pine, and the screened in porch looks like it’s been sanded down and repainted. A rocking chair sits in one of the corners of the deck, along with a glider. It’s sure a hell of an improvement.

He grabs his stuff out of the back before walking around to my window. I roll it down and grimace as a mosquito or two flies in.

“Thanks for giving me a ride home. I had a great time tonight, even if you were technically there illegally.” I can see the huge grin split his face from the porch light that spills out across the yard.

“Thanks, I guess. I had a good time too. Maybe I’ll see you around sometime.” I try to smile back, but it feels like I’ve got a cage of butterflies in my stomach. I don’t know why though. Nothing’s happened.

His face falters for a minute, but he quickly recovers by putting the shit eating grin back on. “Maybe I will. Have a good night CJ. Get home safe.”

“You too. Goodnight.” I watch as he heads toward the house, his huge strides covering a lot of ground quickly. I roll my eyes and put on my big girl panties, ignoring the brick in my stomach before I pussy out.

“Hey Tucker. What’s your number? I wanna send you those pictures.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Submitted: June 27, 2018

© Copyright 2023 A. R. Currson. All rights reserved.

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