If you haven't read my friend Leslie Van Newkirk, you're missing out on something very special. Leslie is a natural and gifted storyteller. She creates unmistakable characters, placing them in smart, funny plots that are so engaging you don't even notice the subtle themes she slips in until you're done. And, she does it with zero pretense. Leslie wrote a wonderful book that I'll tell you about at the end of this entry, but first, here's a short story that will give you an idea of her talent.
by Leslie Van Newkirk
“I’m not sure I want to go fishing with Ben.”
“Why not?” Walt asks. We’re at home before our shifts. Walt is watching a fight on television. I’m in the kitchen emptying the dishwasher. From the other room, I hear the slaps of gloves upon cheekbones and the crescendo of the crowd when one of the fighters is knocked out.
“It’s fine when we’re all at the bar together, but doesn’t he have some kind of criminal record?” I ask.
“That was years ago. Besides, it was a juvenile center. He was too young to go to Leavenworth.”
“But wasn’t it something severe like murder?”
“It was armed robbery and two assaults. You watch too many scary movies. The guy is fine.” Walt answers with a slight tone of condescension.
“Are you worried that he’s going to revert back to his old ways and steal something? Liquor? Money? Someone else’s tips?” I ask.
“Ben is as loyal as they come. I give him a little power, and he gives me complete devotion in return.”
Ben is one of the bouncers at my husband’s bar. He has dark hair, homemade tattoos, and the squarest jaw I’ve ever seen. I have to admit, when Walt first hired him, I had a slight crush on him. The way he called me “darling” and sidled up real close like a cartoon cowboy at a saloon. And at other times when I would catch him staring off into space, appearing lost, wounded, a sad lobotomy of a young life wasted on the penal system. And maybe that element of danger surrounding Ben held some sort of attraction for me at first. But now I’m not so sure.
Still, Ben isn’t an overlooked man. Lots of women gravitate toward him. On the nights he works, he stands by his black stool at the door, checking ID’s and jerking his head upward at friends. Knocking knuckles with them if they are particularly chummy. Women love to flirt with him – tall ones with matte vermilion lipstick, the grandmother kind that always needs a touch up because it seeps into the cracks of skin above your lips. Short women with those Betty Page bangs. Curly brunettes, stunning redheads, gangly blondes. One at a time they all stand by Ben, twirling the little, red straws in their drinks and trying to elicit a “hello, darling” from his mouth. But if Walt’s comment about loyalty were true, then Ben would never try anything the boss’s wife.
Previously, I’d only encountered Ben on my own terms: chitchatting about our deadbeat dads. Bumming a cigarette from him after I slammed the register till closed at two a.m. and turned the key to total the sales for the night. This fishing trip would be the first time that I’ll be with Ben on his terms, or at least without the safety net of being able to say, “Excuse me, sweetie, but I have tables to clear.” And up until the day that Ben, Walt, and I are to go fishing together I calm myself with the thought that my husband will always be near, and it’s silly to worry about Ben’s past criminal record.
We meet at The Phoenix at midnight. It’s a slow Tuesday, only a few quiet patrons sipping drinks, and I detect an annoyance on Walt’s part over this. He never stops thinking about business and is constantly devising new schemes to lure people in. Although I have to say that I rarely do either. After I found out two years ago that I couldn’t have children, the bar became my baby too. For Walt’s sake, I try to be a model employee. I’ll wash dishes, sweep the floor, empty the pinball machines – anything to prove that I’m a workhorse and am getting no special treatment. But once I bitched to Ben about Walt, and the fact that he was so hard on me sometimes.
“You should be treated better here, darling. You’re his wife,” he had said.
“Yes, but I’m an example for the rest of the employees. You know, I can’t slack like the rest of you.”
“If you were my wife, I’d treat you like gold.” He had winked and I winked back.
I remember how he’d explained one time that none of his adult teeth had grown in. This mouthful of baby teeth seemed an uncommon orthodontist phenomenon, and one according to Ben’s dad, that did not require fixing. So when he had smiled that night he showed a mouthful of tiny, rodent-like teeth.
When we arrive Ben is waiting at the door like a watchdog. “It’s an excellent night for fishing,” he says.
“Are we going to Perry or the Spillway?” I ask.
“The Spillway,” Walt replies. Good, I think. Closer to home. Perry Lake is almost two hours away.
We pile into Walt’s Bronco, the boys in the front. Walt talks about business for almost the whole ride. Ben stays quiet. Not an unfriendly quiet, but a deferential silence. Ben is a man who seems to respect his superiors, and I wonder if this is left over from the penitentiary place.
As we reach the Kansas River spillway, we notice three or four other cars parked, lines in the water on the bridge, but we have a special spot already picked out. It’s deeper into the woods. Walt drives the Bronco past the parking lot and onto a marked path, and although it’s dark, I recognize where we are because I’ve been here countless times during the day. The night itself is beautiful, and through the rolled-down windows, I smell prairie grass and the muddy silt of the river.
After we park, doors slamming shut, Walt goes around to the back to get the poles. Ben takes a leak out of the glare of the headlights, but close enough for me to see his shadowy back, his hands shake, zip, and wipe on the front of his jeans.
“Do you hear something?” asks Walt.
“I don’t hear anything,” I say.
“That’s what I mean. Where’s the water?”
Hearing us, Ben steps closer to the riverbank. “It’s dammed up tight tonight,” he says. And adds, “Tighter than a Sunday school virgin.”
“I can’t believe he just said that,” I murmur to Walt, but he gives me a dismissive look and trots toward Ben, bounding like a superhero.
I trudge behind them, not wanting to subject myself to anymore gross comments. As we walk up the path and reach the concrete ledge we usually fish off of, I realize what Walt means – there is hardly any water on the river’s floor. For whatever reason, most of it has been drained away.
“This is amazing,” says Walt, climbing down into the spillway, his feet crunching on gravel as he lands. Ben follows behind him.
“Is it safe?” I ask.
“Sure,” says Ben, grinning, his tiny teeth pure white in the moonlight.
“If you hear an alarm though, start running,” Walt says, chuckling. Now who is the one who watches too many movies? I think, as I find a flat part of the bank and scramble down. Even though I’m wearing jeans, I can already feel wet mud seeping through the back of them. The draining of the spillway is recent, perhaps because the water has risen too high with recent storms.
The boys are in explorer mode, ricocheting off in different directions. The moonlight is enough illumination as are the streetlights from the spillway bridge. Standing on the bottom of the spillway’s floor – where the usual inhabitants have gills and shells – feels like an invasion of some creature’s home. The gravel and rocks are vaguely lunar, and with the men’s dark hulking shapes flitting from bank to bank, I feel as though I’ve landed on another planet. It takes me awhile to forget that water may come rushing down the spillway at any time.
Perhaps Ben has seen my worried look because he comes up behind me and says, “Don’t worry, darling, you’re safe.”
I exhale too heavily. “I’m not worried.”
“Well, then let’s catch some fish.”
“Can we? I just don’t see a pool that’s deep enough.”
But as I drop my line into a puddle nearby, I notice how far down it sinks.
“I got a big one over here,” Walt whispers as loud as he can. The fisherman’s golden rule: no raised voices.
“Don’t worry about shouting,” I say. “The fish have no where to go.”
And they don’t. Most of them are trapped in water-filled chasms on the spillway floor. I wedge my pole between two rocks and walk over, Ben already ahead of me. Walt strains with his line.
“It’s a monster!”
“Are you sure it’s not stuck?”
“No, Kathleen. It’s not stuck.” He says my name as though it were a curse word.
We hear a snap. His line has broken.
“Damn. That sucker was big. I swear, must have been twenty pounds.”
“She’s right,” Ben says. “They’re all trapped.”
“This is like a fish bonanza!” Walt’s eyes are wide like a kid’s.
“It’s not going to be any fun, if they’re that easy to catch. There’s no challenge to it,” I say, hands on hips. Ben is so close behind me at this point, I can hear him breathing. I take two steps toward Walt, who playfully punches my arm.
“You saw that Frankenfish. Are you telling me he was easy to catch?”
“Hey guys, over here!” I hadn’t even felt Ben move, but there he is at the far end of the bank about one hundred feet away, by another long pool of water. I can make out something white and shark-like swimming back and forth inside. A dorsal fin, translucent in the moonlight, slides through the water.
“That’s one huge cat,” says Walt.
“It looks angry,” I say, noticing how fast it swims, as if it knows it’s ensnared. It reminds me of a pacing tiger at the zoo.
“Ain’t like any cat I’ve seen,” says Ben. And I believe him. At the bar, he’s passed around snapshots of the human-sized catfish he’s pulled out of the Kaw River. Jaws like a bulldog’s, Ben’s hand inside holding onto the line of a giant hook.
“I want to see it,” I say. “Close-up.”
"Me too. Ben, you can catch that sucker can’t you?” asks Walt.
Ben throws his line in, but the fish swims right by it. Walt does the same, but the animal is uninterested. Strange. A normal cat, trapped and starving in a pool of water would have taken his bait. The guys keep at this for twenty minutes. Finally Ben throws down his pole.
“I know what to do,” he says as he bends down near the edge of the bank and pulls out a long, flat piece of wood. It’s too dark to tell if it’s driftwood or just a plank. He wades right into the water. The fish makes a beeline for the other end. With one swift movement, Ben whacks it head on. Again. Then again.
We watch as he pulls it out and slaps it on the bank, as if he’s preparing to gut it. It appears to be three feet long, a catfish, but unlike any I’ve ever seen. Its nose sticks out past its open jaw, flat like a paddle, the kind that you see in fraternity houses along Greek Row. It resembles something prehistoric, its nose one of nature’s beautiful deformities. And now it’s bleeding from Ben’s attempt to stun it.
Ben lifts the plank to hit it again, but I yell, “Don’t!”
“Yeah, wait, man,” says Walt. “Let’s get a look at it.”
We all circle around it, Ben sighing and looking over his shoulder in a thwarted manner. It seems like he enjoyed the promise of blood lust and didn’t want to stop. He steps a few paces away, while Walt and I squat by the wounded fish.
After a moment, Walt says, “It’s a spoonbill.”
“Is that a kind of shark?”
“No, I think it’s a catfish. But it’s rarely caught because it lives on the bottom of lakes. It’s a vegetarian. You see it’s wide mouth? It shovels in plankton. God, I’ve only seen these in pictures. Won’t ever take your bait. That’s why it ignored our lines.”
“I can imagine,” I say. I’m momentarily impressed with Walt’s encyclopedic knowledge of wildlife, but then I examine the gasping catfish and am struck first with shivers. Then a profound sadness.
“It’s dying, I think,” I say.
“Yeah,” Walt says, glancing up at Ben who hacks at some reeds up river from us. “He really got it good.”
I’m silent, trying not to cry, but Walt hears my sniffling.
“It’s gorgeous,” I say. “Like a dinosaur.” I have the sudden urge to put my lips to its mouth and blow in air to keep it alive. But then I remember it has gills. And I’m not sure if it’s the oxygen or the wound that’s killing it, but it heaves, its eyes wild, its body convulsing. I don’t know how much fish can hear, feel, smell, or taste but this one looks as if it’s afraid to die.
“I can’t take this,” I say, standing. “Get rid of it.”
Walt pushes it into a nearby puddle of water with his sneaker. It floats lifeless for a moment. Then swishes its tail and is gone in a trickle of current.
Ben comes back, still holding the plank.
“I want to go home,” I say. I put my arms in that stance that I hope both men find intimidating – as if I’ve suddenly gotten PMS, a hormone surge, or any number of womanly things that have turned me into an instant bitch. In truth, I’m too embarrassed to tell them that I’m disturbed by Ben’s brutality toward the spoonbill and feel guilty as if my own craving to see it spurred him on. The men complain, but I shake my head stubbornly.
On the ride home, Walt asks if I want to stop at TCBY. As if fat-free frozen yogurt will erase my memory of the pummeled spoonbill.
“No thanks,” I say. I crane my head to see Ben’s face, but to see it without him noticing me. He sits, quiet, guiltless, stoned-faced. We drop him off at his bungalow, a strange shaped house, next to a turquoise rancher. I’ve been past that rancher before and have seen pit bulls playing side by side with diapered infants in the dirt.
All night at home I wonder whether the spoonbill lived or died.
The next night is more crowded at the bar, so I have little time to chat with Ben about our fishing episode. Truth be told, I’m not sure I even want to talk to him at all anymore. He sits at his usual post – the black stool - flirting with a skinny blonde who wears a tight, metallic shirt, a mini-skirt, and knee-high boots. Her legs are all sinew. Her wrists and hands, white stalks which hold crimson fingernails. She flips her hair, twirls her straw like the rest of them. But that night I question what Ben does with the girls he brings home with him, and the way this blonde is flirting, looks like she’ll get herself a ride in his pick-up truck later. I wonder if he ever beats them, the way he did the spoonbill. I wonder if he ever leaves them bloody, their clothing torn, their lungs heaving for air. I shudder, and just before looking away, Ben flashes me his small-toothed grin until I lower my head and wash a table in circular motions.
Late that morning, while Walt sleeps, I log onto the Internet and type “spoonbill” in a search engine. Reading information that tells me they are almost extinct, makes me feel even guiltier. I’m not sure why. I’ve caught and eaten plenty of fish. But something about the majestic beauty of this creature we weren’t meant to see, and then how Ben bludgeoned it, makes me feel sick to my stomach like that time I was a little girl and watched The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and The Witch shaves all of the lion’s hair off and then kills it. I type two different words into the search engine next. “Infertility treatments.” Maybe I’m sick of bar life after all.
This story first appeared in Word Riot
The wonderful novel Leslie wrote is called Crush Dot Com, and here's what it looks like:
I know you can't read the blurb on the cover, so here's what it says:
"As lively as a singles bar at happy hour, Crush Dot Com will charm, delight and seduce you. Take it home! It's a date that won't disappoint."--Ellen Meister, author of Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA
I'm proud that Leslie chose to put my quote on the cover, because it's such a great read. To order it, or to learn more about Leslie, check out her website at leslievannewkirk.com.