Two days in an aluminum, flat-bottomed fishing boat, and Bam had not spoken, except for the most cursory, abrupt, and unavoidable replies. His muteness began before they crossed the long bridge between Indiana and Kentucky. Denny had counted: Bam used two-syllable words fewer than five times on a three-hour drive and in one complete day of fishing on Reelfoot.
So on the second day of fishing, anchored inside a bed of lily pads and near a fallen cypress tree, Denny gathered his boldness and attacked Bam’s aggressive quietness. “So you know? Of course you know. But nothing has changed. Between us,” he said, all in a burst, not turning to look at Bam. When he did not reply, Denny repeated, “Nothing,” and fled again into his own silence.
Bam and Denny fished the shallower, northeast end of the lake every summer, the first week after school dismissed. Bam’s vacation could float — he owned the garage. Denny’s teaching locked him into the summer. Their first year, 18 ago, they obsessed with jokes about cottonmouths, and their nervousness kept them from fishing under the cypress trees. Bam, always the pilot, never allowed their boat to get crowded against lilies or banks. Every wet, twisted tree root looked like coiled death until you got real close. And if you glided in near enough to see that the root was just that, a root, and a real snake you didn’t see took exception to your proximity, you were screwed. So back then, they anchored in the open waters of the lake, clear of the fish.
But as the years and trips mounted in number, experience bred casualness. Boldness and courage increased. Locals claimed that no sportsman had ever been snakebit.
This year, something other than Reelfoot’s banks, trees, and plants frightened them.
Shallow waters for a shallow friendship, Denny thought in less than charitable moments. A vague, weak friendship built around the solid relationship between their wives, Janice and Margie. The women’s closeness injected durability into the friendship of the men, and the fishing trip expressed their connection more definitely than anything else the men did.
Janice and Margie had grown up on the same block. They took identical courses in high school, enrolled in the same nursing school, and joined the same sorority. Neither had a sister, so they promised the role of maid of honor to one another before they had settled on husbands. Janice committed to Bam first; Denny took his time asking Margie. After achieving their RN’s, the women worked the same shift at the same hospital and had lunch together almost every day. All four had attended the same high school and college. Bam pledged the trendiest fraternity on campus. Bam and Janice had been dating for two years before college, and when Margie and Denny started hanging out at the university, the guys’ friendship slowly moved beyond vague reminders, “Yeah, you live on the east side, right? You were in Cordon’s physics class with me?” But they never became conversationalists, even as their girlfriends became their wives and the women’s closeness thrust them together.
When together, they never talked a lot. Men fishing speak to one another in bursts, about their cars or their baseball teams or their golf scores. Bam and Denny maintained a steadier conversation through long hours on the lake than at any other time of the year. Until this trip, when Bam now refused to speak.
Denny’s question remained unanswered for over 10 minutes. Bam reeled in a line, taking care not to hook a lily pad, vegetation that looked elegant and floated weakly on the top of the water, but which was actually so fibrous and tough that it might break his eight-pound-test line. The pole showed no sign of a hooked fish. He discovered his bait missing — stolen by a talented, finned diner — so he reached for the yellow-and-white cricket tube in front of him, staring at his angling partner’s back with a coldness that Denny could feel even through the heat of the summer day. “You’re a fool,” Bam finally said, retrieving one of the squirmy bugs for his hook. “Everything’s changed.”
Denny swiveled on his chair and knocked his tackle box over on its side as he turned to face Bam. “Tell me how,” he demanded. Bam scowled, and Denny said, “Don’t act like it’s obvious. It’s not obvious to me. How has anything — between us — changed?”
Bam flicked his cricketed line back into the water, toward the cypress log, wanting to fish away from the lily pads. The log, less likely to snag and break his line, looked like a haven for bluegill, bass, or crappie. After setting the drag on his line, he put the rod down, leaning against the side of the boat, and said, “You’re kidding, right? You can’t see it?”
“No, I’m not kidding. How has anything changed between you and me?”
“Jesus, Denny! I was in your wedding. We’ve been friends since we were in college, been down here for almos’ 20 years straight, slept in the same room together, and you’ve been lying to me.”
“Oh,” Denny said. “That’s what it’s about. Sleeping in the same room with a fag.”
“I never said that,” Bam replied. “I never use that word.”
“You used to,” Denny said. “Back when you think I should have told you the truth.”
After some silence, Denny continued. “How’d I lie to you? I lied to Margie — for a long time. Not as long as you might think. But this stuff didn’t concern you, and if Margie hadn’t told Janice, you’d never have known. We don’t go around talking personal stuff with each other. I don’t know anything about the private parts of your marriage.”
A 14-inch crappie — a surprise catch this late in the season — interrupted their conversation, dragging Bam’s orange-and-black bobber underwater.
Both men knew it was a crappie before Bam landed the fish. Crappie accept their fate immediately when hooked and allow themselves to be dragged in without resistance. Bluegill and cats fight all the way to the boat, with muscle and fear in the water and with barb and fin in the boat. After landing the silver and black speckled fish, Bam expertly removed the red, barbed hook from the crappie’s lacy mouth and pitched it into the cooler with the seven or eight other fish he’d have to clean at the end of the day. He’d caught all but one of them. Then he prepared his line again and returned to silence.
Denny finally said, “I’m not a crappie, Bam.”
Bam’s brow creased in thought, but Denny didn’t see it, again facing in the opposite direction, watching a bobber that floated inside a mass of lily pads. He heard concentration in Bam’s voice though, when he replied to Denny and said, “I have no idea what in hell that’s supposed to mean.”
“It means I’m tired of being dragged through my life, tired of feeling hooked, tired of not fighting back, of giving up!”
Bam immediately responded this time. “Seems to me that’s exactly what you’ve done. Given up.”
Denny rotated his seat to face Bam again. “Explain.”
“You’re not even trying anymore. Margie told Janice you’ve moved into Benjy’s bedroom, you don’t even touch her anymore. That sounds like giving up to me.”
“You think if I try hard enough, I’ll be straight?”
Bam did not answer.
“I’ve been trying that my whole life. Hasn’t worked. So if you mean I’ve given up on faking, given up on something that wasn’t working at all — well, then I guess you’re right. And if I kept on faking, I’d be just like that damn crappie. Hooked and dragged. I can’t do it anymore.”
He scuffed his feet against the flat aluminum of the boat’s bottom and, without thinking about what he was doing, tightened the anchor rope by his side. “I want — no, I need the people who care about me to know, to know me, not everybody in the world to know. I’m giving up on being dragged through life — and I’m giving up on pretending to be something I’m not.” He sat silently for a moment and then said, “And I’m afraid I’m getting gutted at the end of the day.”
Denny rotated again on his seat, adjusted his line and discovered he was snagged on the lily pads. “I don’t have that many friends,” he said. “So I wish you could see that this has nothing to do with you. You don’t have to hate me in order to be loyal to Margie. And Janice. Even Margie doesn’t hate me.” He broke the line and left the bobber floating in the center of the lilies.
An hour of silence ensued. They moved their boat two times, assenting to the changes of location with grunts, pulling up the anchor and using the gentle power of a small trolling motor to wind their way through cypress trees.
Denny gave up on further conversation until Bam broke the silence and said, “I don’t hate you. But I don’t understand it. I’m sorry, I don’t. So I don’t know if I can adjust. It doesn’t matter if Margie’s mad at you or not, she’s hurt, bad, and that’s sure as shit because of you.
“I can’t tell if you want people to know or not, but she doesn’t. She’s scared Benjy’ll be able to tell, ’cause of you living in his room. But I hear you saying you want your friends to know, and her biggest fear is her friends knowing.”
“It is. Her biggest worry, I mean,” Denny replied. He jerked his smallest combo and laughed, reeling in a bluegill no bigger than a pack of sweetener. As he unhooked it and gently released it back into the warm water, he continued, “I think we’ll be able to put his room back into shape whenever he visits. All I do is sleep there. I wouldn’t need to move anything but a phone charger and a few books. And if you were listening, I said I want people who really care about me to know, and that’s a perilous low number. I’d never have told you.”
Good fishing calls for good watching, staring without losing focus, interpreting movement and responding to it. The art of angling is the art of being comfortable with silence and stillness. They sat and stared and thought for another quarter of an hour before Bam said, “You don’t think I care about you?”
This time Denny’s reply came quickly: “Only if I stay the person you want me to be.”
“No, only if you stay the person you always said you were!” After several seconds, “I didn’t mean that. I don’t think I did, at least. But here’s something I do not get. You been sleeping in that bed with her for 25 years. Why can’t you just keep on doin’ whatever it was you were doin’?”
The art of angling covers uncomfortable silence, too. The men sat silent again, over a quarter of an hour, until Denny responded. “Margie keeps thinking that this is somehow about her. That if she does the right thing, makes the right move, wears the right nightie, it’ll be different. There isn’t anything she can do, Bam. It’s not about her. She wants to fix something that can’t be fixed, something that I don’t even think is broke anymore.”
He spat into the water at the side of the boat and watched the spit bubbles slowly drift away. “I used to think I was broke,” he said, “but I can’t stand the pressure. The pressure of thinkin’ I can do something about it. The constant sayin’ no, and her tears. I just can’t. I don’t know how I’ll stand it if Benjy comes home and stays any time at all.”
“Can’t you fake it?” Bam asked.
“No, I can’t,” Denny said. “Faking is how I lived my life up to here. And every time, every damn time, it was driving a corkscrew into my stomach and twisting it. Something supposed to be wonderful just hurt. I can do without it, especially at my age, but I can’t fake it anymore. Nuh-uh. Never again. I’d rather pick up that cottonmouth over there and be done with it.” He pointed to a dead cypress twenty yards away, where a wet, intricately-patterned serpent rested, tightly wrapped around the tree’s base.
“Damn, that one’s big,” Bam said.
In the motel room, for the second time in their fishing trip history, the second time in two nights, Bam wore full-length sweat pants to bed, and he changed into them in the small, uncomfortable, steamy bathroom. Denny, already showered and in white briefs, climbed under his covers as fast as he could, turned away from Bam, and cried hot and shameful tears, as silently as possible, into the pillow he brought from home. But he couldn’t weep in total silence, or chose not to.
“What the hell are you crying about?” Bam barked from the other bed, turning the lamp between them back on.
“Nothing. Leave me be,” Denny said, but the sob was in his voice now.
“You said nothing’s changed. But you ain’t cried in front of me since your mom’s wreck.”
Denny squeezed the pillow at his side tighter and cried harder.
“C’mon, Den,” Bam said, and Denny noted that his voice did really sound like Bam’s voice that time. “What gives?”
Denny turned to face Bam, careful not to lower the covers he had pulled all the way to his nipples.
“All I want,” he said through his ripe tears, “all I hope, is to be who I am, and to find out that my friends would still be my friends if they knew the real me. I knew Margie’d be hurt and mad, and I told her we could split up, she could have everything, I’d be the villain, the bad guy, the asshole. She could say whatever she wanted to say about me, I wouldn’t defend myself, contradict her, or ever slam her. And she knows I’ll keep my word. On that.” He raised up on one elbow and mirrored Bam’s position in his bed.
“But here you are, my best friend, and I knew you’d be disappointed and maybe mad, too, but I kept sayin’ to myself, ‘He’ll get over it, he’ll come around,’ but I never thought, I never thought one time you’d act like you aren’t safe around me, that you’d feel like I wanted to come on to you or something, and don’t say that’s not what you’re thinking. You never wore that much to bed ever until last night. And you never felt like my seeing you in your underwear would be like porn, either.” A long pause. Then, “Hell, Bam, I don’t even like blonds. And I really don’t like blonds named after Flintstones.” A short laugh.
Bam laughed, too, like he was supposed to, and he thought about denying everything that Denny had said, but Denny had always been the most perceptive, and he’d called it exactly right.
“I don’t know what to do about it,” Bam said, his voice suddenly raspy, phlegmy, and he fell back into the bed. “But you crying won’t help me figure it out. Go to sleep now, okay? Den? Okay?” After a minute or two: “And he was a little Rubble, not a Flintstone.”
The next day, their last day, blossomed cold, rainy, wet above and wet below. Cypress trees offered some shelter, but Bam motored them to a ditch that cut between one finger of the lake and another. He remembered an overhanging sycamore tree that would give greater protection than the smaller cypress trees, not only from the rain but also against the brisk morning wind. They caught nothing and sat for an hour, hunkered down in a silence uncomfortable in every way one could imagine comfort.
Denny hoped the cold and wet might move their departure up by some hours, but the rain slackened and Bam reeled in a two-pound blue cat, caught on what had to be a dead minnow by the time it worked. The wind softened and warmed at the same time, and it wasn’t long before they’d shed their upper-body gear.
“So. What do you think about me?” Bam asked.
Denny scrunched his lips, the way his students imitated in mockery, the way he did when he was thinking hard. He took his time to answer.
“Same I’ve always thought about you,” he said. “Sometimes you’re a real jerk. Think you’re the boss of everybody around you. Most of the time, you’re about the same as everybody else. Time’s made us good friends. Time and our wives. Is that what you mean?” He paused for ten, fifteen seconds. “Or are you asking if I’m queer for you?”
“No,” Bam replied, too quickly. “No, I mean, not … hell, Denny. Yeah.”
“I’m not,” Denny replied. “You know the computer term firewall?”
“I’m an ace at building them. Personal firewalls. Around things I can’t allow myself to think about.”
After some silence, Bam chuckled. “So I’m not good enough?”
Denny swiveled and shot Bam a questioning look. “Are you — oh, this is you being a jerk.”
“Nah, I’m pulling your leg. But you gotta understand the question. What have you been thinking about me all these years? Any guy’s gonna wonder about that.”
Slowly. Carefully. Denny spoke: “I can’t say what was goin’ through my mind when we were in high school, college. If I ever thought — dirty thoughts — about you, I know I was tryin’ not to. I was tryin’ all the time back then to be straight. But, well, you know. I’m sure you noticed girls other than Janet. Marriage did give me a lot more control. And I’m not attracted to every man I see.”
Bam caught another fish, a smaller cat, and then said, “You have a boyfriend on the side?”
“No.” Denny decided to rework his heaviest set of gear. The drag had been messed up since yesterday, and he could think, talk more precisely while he clipped and reeled and fastened and baited. “I don’t do well with real guys, Bam. Or, I haven’t yet. I create men and fall in love with them, but the real ones never work out. You’d be the worst. Whoever it is I create, the guy I build the fantasy on busts it. He’s never as romantic, never as nice, never as loving, sometimes never as masculine as I need him to be. So nothing lasts. I write this story in my head, with him as the main character, and then he doesn’t stick to his part and I have to wad it all up and throw it away. I think it’s because — at least partly because — I have been living this two-person life. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Gay.”
Denny swiveled and again and saw that Bam was looking straight at him.
“It must be hell. I’m smart enough to know that. But I’m not deep enough — kind enough? — I’m not smart enough to know how to handle it. Scares me a little. What if I’m something else that I can’t hold in, hold back, and if it’s okay for you to up and be somebody you’ve never been, to me at least, then what if I can’t stick to who I’m supposed to be?” He looked away from Denny, because their locked eyes revealed too much. “I’m probably not expressing it very well. I really don’t hate you. And I believe you about me. But no matter what you say, everything’s different. It scares me.”
Denny soon noticed that the wind had stopped altogether and the surface of the lake was glass-like. They became as still as the lake, and after two or three more fish, Bam said, “You ready to call it?” and Denny said, “Yeah.”
Bam opened the cooler and dumped the five cats and two bluegill back into the lake. The cats would survive. Other cats would eat the dead bluegill. Denny wondered why Bam had returned them to the water, but he knew. Bam needed it to be over, needed to get in the truck and head for home.
They motored back to the dock and motel, showered the rain and lake and fish off, packed and stowed their gear and returned their keys.
June, who owned the motel, opened the register for the following year and asked, “You want to make your reservation for next year, Mr. Fields?”
Denny knew next year’s dates and would have spoke up, but Bam spoke first. “We’ll be in touch.” He reached up, rang the bell that always sat on the counter to summon June from the back, and then walked out to his truck.
Featured image: Shutterstock.com
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