Chuck’s mother was beached on the living room couch. Her black hair was a tangled mess of seaweed draped across her face. She wasn’t dead, but Sammy only knew this because he could see her ribcage rising and falling. On the coffee table, a half dozen plastic cups. In the air, the scent of gin and menthols. The television was blaring some cop show.
Sammy didn’t know what to do. Why would Chuck’s sister leave him here to see this? When did the Lawrys become the kind of family where this was normal?
Sammy steeled himself and perched on the edge of a recliner. He tried to focus on the TV. A cop said to a criminal, “Do you really think you’ll get away with it? Do you? Really?”
Sammy tried to listen for noise from the back of the house, some sign that Chuck was almost ready and would come out so they could leave. If he held his breath and listened hard, he thought he could hear squabbling voices, but he couldn’t make out the words.
Mrs. Lawry murmured and shifted. Her arm flopped off the couch, fingertips grazing the carpet. As Sammy looked on, he realized that this new position had parted the top of her blouse and exposed her left breast. All he could do was stare.
Her skin was the color of fresh paper. Underneath it, he could see a delicate webbing of veins. Her nipple was cotton candy pink. Sammy forced himself to look back at the TV. A shootout was going on, but no one was hitting who they were aiming at.
Mrs. Lawry began snoring. It was a loud, almost painful rasp that might even be hazardous. People died like this. Sammy could no longer avert his eyes. He knew he should do something but didn’t know what.
“Christ, mom!” It was Chuck, finally emerged from the back hallway. “You look like a goddamn mess.”
Hearing her son’s voice, Mrs. Lawry’s eyes fluttered open. She looked around the room, then casually tucked her breast into her blouse and went back to sleep.
“You ready?” Chuck asked Sammy.
Sammy’s face was hot. He wasn’t sure what to say, if he should apologize for what he’d seen or pretend it never happened.
“Let’s go,” Chuck said.
Out in the garage, Sammy popped the trunk of the Lawrys’ Citation. He brushed aside a pile of balled-up fast food wrappers and loaded his rod and tackle box. Meanwhile, Chuck lifted a twelve-pack of Stroh’s from the garage fridge. He placed it in a cooler which he set next to the fishing gear. When they got into the car, Sammy noticed Chuck’s hair was wet-combed and he smelled like soap.
“You took a shower?” Sammy asked.
“I invited Candace,” Chuck said, craning his neck as he backed the car out of the garage. “She might join up with us later.”
Chuck and Candace had been dating for six months. She had frosted blond hair and wore tight, pocketless Wranglers. She was attractive in a way that would not last long. But for now she was easily one of the prettiest girls at Roosevelt High.
“You don’t mind, do you?” Chuck asked.
“If you want to invite your girlfriend fishing, it’s not my problem.” Sammy tried to sound flip.
“Maybe if you got yourself a girlfriend you could invite her too.”
“Yeah right,” Sammy said, “and watch her faint at the first sight of a ling.”
“I’m more worried about you fainting,” Chuck said. He threw the gearshift into drive and the transmission caught a second later.
They each cracked a beer and kept it nestled between their thighs. Sammy wanted to say something about what had happened in the living room.
“Is everything all right?” he tried. “At home?”
“What do you think?” Chuck snapped.
Heading west on Sixth Avenue, past the car dealerships and truck repair shops, the stoplights were timed. Chuck didn’t let up on the gas as they approached each red light, confident that at the last minute it would turn green and they’d shoot through the intersection unscathed.
For Sammy, the problem with the future had been that it never seemed to arrive – it was doomed to perpetually recede, like that part of the highway that always looks wet on the horizon. But he was a senior in high school now, and he could at long last see his future taking shape before him. He’d go away to college next fall, reinvent himself, correct the things he’d gotten wrong. The first eighteen years hadn’t been a disaster, but there were things about himself he’d gladly kill if he had the chance.
They’d both finished their first beer by the time Chuck nosed the Citation into a spot along the river. The juniper scrub was thick and the car was nearly invisible. Sammy wondered how Candace was supposed to find them here.
The bank was a steep five-foot drop that curved out at the bottom to provide a flat beach where they could set up their equipment, the cooler, firewood. The Yellowstone’s water was impenetrably dark. Eddies formed and made sucking sounds, hinting at a depth that Sammy found frightening. Every year someone died along this stretch of the river. Inner-tubers, drunken rafters, careless people who didn’t understand its power.
Sammy began pulling up rocks and setting them in a circle. Chuck arranged kindling in a tepee formation.
“Fire’s the key,” Chuck said, as he stuffed a wad of newspaper underneath the sticks. “Ling are attracted to the light. Makes them hungry, ready to feed on the first thing they see.” He held a match to the newspapers and it caught, releasing an inky smoke into the night sky.
Growing up, Sammy had had little exposure to the kinds of outdoor survival activities that were the currency of manhood in Montana. Chuck was more of an expert. He was the one who’d suggested they go ling fishing. Sammy had never even heard of ling before that. And all he knew about them now was the little Chuck had told him: they were a long, snake-like fish, and their meat was considered a delicacy, flaky as French pastry.
“Let’s rig up,” Chuck said. He flipped open the cooler, removed a plastic freezer bag and held it up to the light. To Sammy it looked like leeches, gorged on fresh blood.
“Christ, what is that?”
“Chicken livers.” Chuck’s voice sounded cheerfully efficient. “I let them age a few days at room temperature. Should be nice and pungent.”
He pulled the zip-seal open. Sammy caught a whiff and had to stifle a gag in the back of his throat. Chuck let out a cackling laugh.
“I’m not touching those things,” Sammy said. He didn’t care how weak or prissy he sounded.
“Maybe I let them get a little too ripe,” Chuck admitted. “Entirely possible.”
“Here’s my hook,” Sammy said, feeding line from his reel. “You put one on.”
Chuck shook his head, but eventually squatted next to the dangling line. He reached into the bag and pulled one out. It wriggled in his fingers as if it were alive. His face was set in a stony frown as he pierced and re-pierced it onto the hook. Occasionally, the smell would overwhelm him and he’d turn his head to the side to steal a breath of clean air.
Once Chuck had both hooks baited, they squeezed lead weights onto the lines. Then they gingerly heaved their rigs as far out as they could into the current. Sammy had a nervous feeling in his stomach, a feeling he got every time he went fishing. It was the anxiety of being tethered to something primitive and unknown.
They arranged piles of anchor rocks and propped their rods so they rested at forty-five degree angles, tips out over the water, monofilament lines disappearing into the dark.
“So that’s it then,” Sammy said, wondering if he meant it as a question. He cracked a beer and took a long slug. As he pulled the can down, he noticed his hands were shaking.
“I imagine so.” Chuck stamped his feet on the rocks to keep warm.
A plane descending for the airport north of town cast a roar that came on fast and faded slowly into the distance. The water before them did not reflect the canopy of star- and moonlight. It swirled and sucked like a thirsty drain gulping water.
“Do you really think we’ll do it?” Chuck asked. His face was shadowed, brooding. By now they’d drunk enough beer that words came more freely.
“Do what?” Sammy was sitting on a rock close to the fire.
“Go to war. Take out Saddam once and for all.”
“They’d be crazy to tempt us.” Sammy glanced at the rod tips, slightly bent from the tug of the current. “They’ll probably let the inspectors in at the last minute.”
“Yeah, but that shithead just wants everything his way.”
Sammy wasn’t sure who, in his friend’s view, the shithead was. “I do worry if things go bad, it could become a long term thing.”
“Long term thing,” Chuck echoed. His voice sounded distant, distracted, as if his mind had already moved on.
“Yeah, it could become another Vietnam. They could start a draft.” Sammy was parroting something he’d heard on TV the other day, even though he didn’t really believe it. When he actually watched the coverage, he regarded it all with a sense of distant curiosity, the way you might observe footage of a bad storm that had hit a neighborhood where you used to live.
Chuck didn’t say anything for a long time. He tossed an empty can on the fire and watched it. Finally, he said, “Do you ever wonder what it’d be like to live under water?”
Sammy was thrown by the sudden change in subject.
“You know,” Chuck said, “if you were a fish. What would it be like?”
“I’m not a good swimmer.”
Chuck didn’t crack a smile. “Scary then,” he said, frustrated. “Just say it would be scary.”
Sammy took a drink of beer. He looked again at the rod tips.
“You heard from any schools yet?” Chuck asked.
“Too early,” Sammy said. “Not until April.”
A breeze kicked up, riffling the water and shaking the branches of the cottonwoods nearby so they squeaked like rusty hinges.
“Don’t you want to know if I heard from any schools?” Chuck asked.
“I thought you said you weren’t applying anywhere.”
“Relax, I’m not. I was just kidding.”
“Maybe getting out of your house would be a good thing for you,” Sammy suggested.
“Ha! You think?”
“I’m serious. A change of scenery could only help.”
Chuck leaned back against a rock and kicked his legs out, soles facing the fire.
“I know it’s none of my business,” Sammy said. “Sorry.”
Chuck crossed his legs and let out a long sigh. “Hell,” he said, “maybe a draft would be a great thing for someone like me.”
The can he’d thrown into the fire was warping now, giving in to some elemental form. Very soon, it would be indistinguishable from everything else around it.
Sammy pushed up his coat sleeve and saw that it was 11:45. His legs were stiff and cold; he couldn’t feel his feet. They were down to the last piece of firewood.
Throughout the night they’d periodically reel in their lines to find that something had slipped the bait from their hooks.
“You think it’s a ling?” Sammy asked.
“Probably just the current,” Chuck said. “Make sure you put it on good.”
Sammy was drunk enough now that he didn’t mind handling the foul livers. Just one more item he could add to his list of disgusting outdoor things he’d done.
“Hey, Chuck,” he said, holding his hand out toward him, “smell my finger.”
“Fuck off,” Chuck said, batting his hand away.
They both laughed for a few seconds and then it grew quiet and the only sounds came from the river.
“So, is Candace coming?” Sammy asked, trying to make it sound like idle curiosity.
“Who cares,” Chuck said.
As the night had worn on, Chuck had become more and more restless. He’d taken to pacing up and down the shoreline, staring at the water as if he hoped to see through it to the bottom. He’d hurled his last two empty cans into the river. As Sammy watched him, he could foresee the ways Chuck would age – a thickening around the paunch, a filling out around the jowls, a retreat of the hairline. Sammy wondered if his own destiny was as easily discernible.
“Goddamn, where are all those ling?” Chuck shouted at the water.
“What did she say she was doing tonight?” Sammy asked.
“Who?” Chuck asked.
“Out with friends,” he said, more to the river than to Sammy.
“So she might not meet us then.”
Chuck turned. “You figured it out. Bravo, asshole.”
Sammy shifted on the rock. He’d exposed his thoughts in a way he hadn’t intended. “Dude,” he said, trying to slur his words, “I’m definitely wasted.”
Chuck shook his head. “I know you want to bang my girlfriend.”
Sammy opened his mouth, unsure what would come out.
“You can pretend all innocent if you want,” Chuck said, “but I can see right through you. It’s pretty fucking obvious.”
Sammy knew he had to say something, either to save face or smooth things over. But in the space where his words should have been, he heard a scratching sound. He looked past Chuck and saw one of the fishing rods flexing.
Chuck followed Sammy’s gaze. They were both frozen for a moment as the rod tip danced and darted and the anchor rocks began to shift. Then they scrambled. Chuck got to it first. He gave the rod a sharp snap back to set the hook.
“Get the net, get the net,” he said to Sammy.
The reel gave out a high-pitched whine as the tension pulled on its spool. But Chuck was good. He knew how to play a fish – even a fish deep in the current, as this one clearly was; even a big fish, as this one seemed like it might be.
He repeatedly raised the rod tip over his head and then reeled furiously as he lowered it back down. In this way, he steadily shortened the line.
Sammy gripped the net. He could feel his pulse pounding in his temples as he watched the line slice left, then right, through the water.
Dimly at first, he caught sight of it – a wavy slick of motor oil. Then it rose and broke the surface and he saw that it had actual substance.
“Net, net, net!” Chuck called out over the screams of his over-taxed reel. “Go, go, go!”
Sammy leaned out and sank the net mouth below the fish. Then, with a swoop of his arms, he delivered the fish into the night air.
It looked like it was made of some alien substance that might split into pieces, slip through the netting and reassemble itself in the water. Chuck tossed the rod aside and moved in. He grabbed the fish below the gills and worked the hook from its lip. When he pulled it out of the net, they could see it was as long as Chuck’s arm and twice as thick around. Black with greenish spots, it looked more like a snake than a fish. It seemed prehistoric, something not fully evolved.
Its slimy tail flailed wildly for a few seconds, then coiled around Chuck’s forearm.
“Christ, it’s disgusting!” he shouted. “Get a rock!”
All at once, Sammy realized what they’d come here to do. Before this moment it had only been theoretical. His body went sluggish; his feet were impossibly heavy.
“What are you waiting for?” Chuck said. “Get a rock.”
The fish’s gills flexed and bellowed, trying vainly to manufacture breath.
“You get a rock,” Sammy said, his voice quiet and low.
“Look at this thing, dumbass. It’s on my goddamn arm.”
“You get a rock,” Sammy said again, this time louder. “I’m not going to be the one to kill it.”
“Fine, grab it then.” Chuck held his arm out.
Sammy pinched the fish just below the gills. When he squeezed, the flesh felt like bread dough. He tugged until the tail uncoiled itself from Chuck’s arm and began waving about for something else to latch onto.
The skin was coated with a thick slime. And the muscles in the fish’s neck pulsed beneath Sammy’s fingers. Its face was ugly – big mouth, craggy teeth, eyes bulging. The tail was twisting into a corkscrew now, grasping itself.
Chuck came back carrying a large flat rock in both hands.
“Hold it over there,” he said, “and I’ll bash it.”
“Come on. Do it.”
Sammy started to turn, but even as he did so, he felt his grip weaken. The fish unwound its tail and began thrashing with a renewed force.
“Get a hold of it, Sammy. Bring it here.”
But it was too late. The head slipped through his grasp. The fish landed hard on the beach and rolled over. Bits of sand and twigs stuck to its sides.
Chuck pounced, but with one last thrash, the fish was able to heave itself back into the shallows. It sat there a moment, shedding its terrestrial debris, refilling its cold fish blood with oxygen. Chuck recovered and ran into the water, chasing it, but by the time he got there, the fish gave a few wriggles and turned back into oil.
Chuck, knee deep in the frigid water, slapped the surface. “What the hell was that?”
Sammy held his hands out at his sides. “It slipped.”
Chuck squared his shoulders, hands balled into fists. “The fuck it did.” His eyes were two narrow slits.
“Come on, man. It happened.”
“Do you have any idea what you did?” As his friend came closer, Sammy could see tears streaming from the corners of his eyes. His bottom lip was quivering.
“Are you crying?”
Chuck kept coming, chest out, fist cocked. “You ruined it.”
“Ruined what?” he asked.
Headlight beams appeared over the bank above them. Chuck stopped advancing. They heard the sounds of someone making their way through the brush near the bank. Both boys turned. Sammy figured Candace was coming after all, arriving in the nick of time – either to save him or to bear witness to his humiliation.
Chuck, staring up at the light, said: “Mom, is that you?”
Sammy couldn’t believe it. Those had to be the saddest four words he’d ever heard. He looked at Chuck, saw the irrational, childlike hope in his friend’s eyes. And right then the thought flared in Sammy’s mind that he would probably go his whole life without really understanding another human being.
More noise from above. Then a police officer materialized at the edge of the bank and looked down at them – hands at his hips, bulky gun reflected in the headlights.
“I thought I saw some light coming from back in here,” he said. “What’s going on, boys?”
Chuck and Sammy exchanged glances. Both of them were too surprised to speak.
“Is that fishing tackle?” The cop seemed old to Sammy, maybe in his mid-fifties.
“Yes, sir,” Sammy managed.
“You boys linging?”
They both said yes at the same time.
“There’s no ling around here this time of year. You’ve been wasting your time.” The walkie-talkie clipped to his shoulder gave out a pop and a hiss. “Awful lot of stray cans down there. You been drinking?”
“Just a few beers, officer,” Sammy said because it seemed pointless to try and cover it up.
“If you’ve been out here all night, you must be frozen.” The cop looked up at the headlight beams as they illuminated a path across the river. He seemed to be thinking. “I suppose in some way that’s punishment enough,” he said. “Why don’t you boys just pull your crap together? Pack up and get the hell out of here. We’ll call this a warning.”
They were both silent as Chuck drove back into town. Sammy was trying to figure out why the cop had let them go. What exactly had he seen as he looked down on them from the bank? This question seemed important to Sammy, but the more he thought about it, the further he was from an answer.
In the driver’s seat, Chuck gripped the steering wheel hard with both hands. He too was lost in thought. Sammy knew Chuck would tell people at school what had happened with the fish, that Sammy had gotten freaked out, that he couldn’t hold onto the ling for even a few seconds. Sammy knew there would be ridicule coming his way.
But this was of little concern to him as the Citation navigated the empty streets. He’d be graduating in a few short months. Off to college – new city, new friends, everything new – and he would reshape the story to make himself seem less culpable, more heroic.
The Citation pulled up in front of Sammy’s house.
“All right then,” Sammy said.
Chuck said nothing.
“I’ll see you later.”
Sammy got out. Chuck pulled away. The air felt suddenly cold on Sammy’s face. But he stood there motionless, watching the car recede until the taillights were red pinpricks in the night, until they were so far off he was no longer sure if they were coming or going.