The Book of Fishing

By Mark Holden


The river ran cold and clear, alive with minnows. He waded in until the water reached his knees. Above him, the sun. Around him, the minnows: churning, flashing, crashing into his legs and bouncing off, each with barely the force of a fly. Yet there were hundreds, thousands, of jittery fish passing him wave after wave until white-crowned, gray-bellied clouds shrouded the sun and stole its power, and stole whatever had made the fish a moment ago vital; as if they had died and now drifted inanimate like water-soaked seeds, moving only with the current’s flow… until, as he stood in the chill of their shadow and felt the threat of rain, the clouds passed by and the sluggish seeds became minnows again. Rejuvenated and surging, they glittered like tossed confetti or broken glass….

Illustration by Tyler C. Gore

Illustration by Tyler C. Gore.
(Source graphics: Sunnycatty and Ekaterina Panova via Dreamstime;

Then more minnows, this time like bullets, ricocheted away from the school to plunge headlong into weeds. Maybe they were afraid, not of him or the clouds or the sun, but of bigger fish chasing them. Of monster hook-jawed trout. He tried to look into the deeper, maze-like weed beds, to see the bigger ones if they were there, but glare prevented him from seeing past the rippling surface and his own reflection.

And weeds that reached the surface—as not all were completely submerged—rose to air and light from their anchors of sand and silt, their tendrils hanging in the current, their tips newly emergent with yellow blossoms erect and swaying like snakes’ heads, like sidewinders. He avoided the ones he could see, but he could not avoid the deeper ones he couldn’t see, not until he was on top of them and into them, and then it was too late. Then, caught and entangled, he lurched forward as if freeing himself from a net and broke their stems.

The water caught him too, friend of the weeds, and curled around his legs. It seeped into his pants and weighed him down. It was swift and resistant and cold. It made him bend his knees to keep his balance. His mother had said he was too young for hip boots, so he waded in jeans and sneakers. If there had been one thing instead of three—just minnows or weeds or just the push and pull of water—he wouldn’t have been afraid. He tried to be as brave as his brother.

Shielding his eyes from the sun, he looked downstream for Allen, who waded deeper and farther out, his body hidden by a boulder, his head visible above it, seemingly perched on it like a balanced ball or another rock. Allen was fifteen years older, old enough to be his father, really, and he sometimes thought of him like that, but not always, and not then. Then he was his brother or a ball.

He wished he’d come back. Allen was hard to see as the sun shimmered off the water. It dried and bleached the tops of exposed rocks. Still shielding his eyes he saw tree swallows with pure white bellies, and bank swallows with brown-banded throats, swoop and glide and dimple the surface to snatch an insect or to get a drink. Higher up, away from the river, he saw a chimney swift. Flying cigars is what his brother called them, and that’s what they looked like. Its wings beat unceasingly in the blue firmament. Then it flew into the sun.


The bill went to the wrong address. Miriam Macgregor lived on campus, and not with her mother and father, as she had done the first semester. Her parents most often called her Mickey, but in moments of impulsive or confused affection her father called her Mouse. Ruth, her mother, never called her Mouse. Sometimes she called her Miriam.

Mickey was going to college ten minutes from home in Pine Gate, Massachusetts, and where her father was a professor of forestry. She would live in a dorm now; she would not be a townie. At least, not the worst kind: the kind that lived with their parents. Still, her father paid for her tuition, so when campus health services forwarded the bill which they received from the Springfield clinic, they sent it where it wasn’t supposed to go. It was supposed to go to Mickey. Mickey had wanted to receive it. Goddamnit when she didn’t. Goddamn the rhythm method and Skinner’s dick.

Ruth didn’t know at first what the bill was for. The envelope had one of those clear windows in it. She pulled it out of the mailbox, along with a couple of catalogues with good-looking women on their covers, and a letter from her older daughter Sylvia. Why couldn’t Sylvia be happy? A child of her own womb who’d come out stubbornly feet first—maybe that was why. She’d read that letter later. Ruth’s cheeks flushed when she thought of Sylvia’s unhappiness, then her whole body spiked like a sun-struck thermometer.

She wiped her brow, plopped the mail on the kitchen table, and made herself a cup of tea. She looked back and forth between the envelope and her tea bag, which she nervously dipped up and down. She thought about taking up golf or reading Cancer Ward as she watched the water darken in the cup, then, letting go of the teabag, she slipped a hand inside her bathrobe and felt her breasts for lumps. There, along the sides? No. Around the nipple? Nothing.

Then she went back to the envelope. She picked it up. It had Mickey’s name on it, but it said Miriam, and it had come to the house. That gave Ruth permission to slip a fingernail under the flap.

Skinner, Mickey called him. Most everyone he knew called him Skinner. His name was Arthur Skinner, but almost no one called him Arthur or Art. Sometimes his father might, if he didn’t call him Newt.

Ruth opened the envelope. She saw then that it was about Mickey’s health care, but it took her a minute to understand that it wasn’t about a flu shot or a blood test or the thing she hoped it wasn’t: it wasn’t about birth control pills. Then she realized that that’s how things went. You couldn’t imagine the worst thing.

She poured the tea down the sink. She got herself a glass of sherry and a Valium, which stuck in her throat. The thought of her husband, Dr. Nathan Macgregor, didn’t help it go down. Ruth didn’t know what he would say or do when he found out, but she hoped it wouldn’t be impulsive or violent. She hoped he wouldn’t take it out on a kitchen chair. They were old Windsors. Two of them had loose dowels between their legs she had meant to reinforce with Elmer’s glue. They were nice chairs.

She retched suddenly and spit the pill out in the sink. She took another sip of sherry….

Mickey was glad it was over: the pregnancy, the abortion at the clinic in Springfield, and the ride down and back with Skinner, who’d been passive and meek and unhelpful, unhelpfully vacant, who’d driven like an old lady through traffic. Speed it up, she’d wanted to say, but she hadn’t. The last time they had driven on route 91, they were on their way to the big movie theater in Westfield. They were going to see Jaws. She’d sucked Skinner off while he drove. It wasn’t her favorite thing to do, but they were both looking forward to seeing the giant shark.

That time on the highway he’d come in her mouth and she’d swallowed his semen. Skinner was thrilled and grateful. He stroked her hair as if her head were a cat; he caressed the rim of her ear. Then Mickey was horny herself, but reluctant to masturbate in the car. With both hands on the wheel, Skinner couldn’t help her; they were fast approaching the theater. He had to signal, take the off ramp, and find a place to park.

In Springfield, Skinner sat in a chair in the waiting room and thumbed through Sports Illustrated while she’d had the abortion. The staff at the clinic had made a mistake, too, but she was glad they had, after she realized it. They thought she’d been counseled and prepped and that a nurse had gone over the procedure with her, but somehow she’d been overlooked and none of that had happened, and Mickey didn’t say it hadn’t because she hadn’t known, right then, that it was supposed to have. She followed a nurse or aide—right this way, please—who, oblivious of the oversight and wearing white, rubber-soled shoes, led her into a changing room, handed her a gown, and left. The woman closed the door quietly behind her.

He was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, and had his fingers stuffed into the back of her daughter’s shorts…

The room was not much bigger than a closet. There Mickey removed her clothes and put on the gown. She sat in a wooden chair. She held her hands in her lap. This is how dunces feel. She admired a framed print of foxhounds—some running across a field; others in the foreground leaping a stone wall. In the background, horse riders wore black caps and handsome red jackets. Apparently they were chasing a fox, but the fox wasn’t in the picture.

Mickey sat like that for fifteen or twenty minutes before a different person came back and took her to another room, white and sterile with stainless steel instruments, where she was instructed to lie down on a padded table. Thank you, she said. The doctor came in shortly after and stood beyond the stirrups in which her parted legs rested. The woman who had brought her in touched her hand and smiled. The doctor said All set? Mickey nodded, then he sucked out the fetus and left the room.

Later Mickey thought he had hummed a song—Patsy Cline, Roberta Flack, or someone—but no, she must’ve made that up. A doctor would never do that. She had tried to imagine a fox, but hadn’t been able to. It was easier to picture what she’d actually seen: the hounds, and especially those leaping the wall. There were three of them: big eyed with brown heads and white muzzles, and one with a black back, like a saddle. That’s the one she most clearly remembered.

After it was over, she hadn’t known, not at first, that it was gone. It left her the way it had come: a sharp surprise in an otherwise ordinary day, a bee sting you feel profoundly, yet forget quickly. The first nurse with those quiet shoes led her out by the elbow to the waiting room. Now she could go home. She was glad she hadn’t been prepped. She hadn’t wanted to think about it. That’s how you did it. You didn’t think. You just went in and out.

She looked at Skinner. He wasn’t thinking either. He was pretending to read. Then he looked up, guilty and relieved and, it seemed to Mickey, willing himself towards an expression of sympathy. She didn’t think he’d make it. He blinked, smiled, and sighed, and looked nothing like a man or a boy who could become a father. He looked more like what his father sometimes called him.

“You look retarded,” she said, regretful at once for saying so. Then it came to her: killing me softly… that’s what she thought the doctor had hummed to himself, as if he’d been alone, vacuuming the carpet, while Mickey, feeling naked and splayed, had failed to imagine the fox.

Her father paid the bill. Her mother confessed to Mickey that she’d opened the envelope. She told Mickey that her father knew all about it, and he was, of course, disappointed. That’s what he was. He simmered and stewed and bit his moustache but he didn’t smash his fist against the wall or break a chair, and that’s what he said: I’m disappointed. She said he paid the bill and didn’t want to talk about it anymore—not with Ruth, Mickey, or anyone. Then he’d removed his glasses, cleaned them, put them back on, and buried his head in the newspaper.

Ruth herself didn’t have much else to say anyway; she didn’t want to stir the pot, but she wondered who the father was, or would have been. Ruth had known Mickey had recently been seeing someone else without telling Skinner, and her mother knew that because she’d seen them together—Mickey and that other, muscular boy—when Ruth went to pick up her husband at work. She had pulled into the parking lot in their old Mustang and was about to step out when she saw them crossing the campus between Nathan’s building and Rand Hall: Mickey and the gymnast Anthony Petroffski. Ruth recognized him from a newspaper photo Mickey had shown her in the sports pages. At the time, she’d thought it strange that Mickey had pointed it out.

The article had said that Petroffski, at five-six, excelled on the still rings, but was vulnerable in the all-around competition on floor routine. In the photo, she thought he looked like a spectacular, well-groomed Jesus as he hung from the rings in an Iron Cross. Jesus as Jack LaLanne. Jesus as the Terminator.

Ruth had been surprised to see Mickey without Skinner. When she saw them, Tony Petroffski was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, and had his fingers stuffed into the back of her daughter’s shorts, below the visible waist band of Mickey’s pink underwear. It looked as if he were trying to tickle her ass. A bulging vein on his shoulder seemed about to blow.

Ruth stayed in the car, hot flashed, and melted in her seat.

Later, on the college tennis courts, Mickey broke two strings on a wild forehand. The ball, sailing high, was probably headed out, but she swung at it anyway and broke the strings. The following day she dropped by her parents’ house to retrieve another racket. The old Wilson in the closet wasn’t strung as tight. She hoped it would give her more control. She passed through the kitchen, Hi, Mom, and ran upstairs to fetch it, then came back and poked around in the refrigerator. She held the racket in one hand and, with the other, reached for the cranberry juice when her mother said Who… When her mother said father, Mickey let go of the juice and closed the door.

“I’m sorry,” her mother said. “What did he think?”  

“Who?” Mickey said.  

 “You don’t know which boy.”

Mickey swung the racket like a flyswatter, backhanding boy. Don’t bite on a bad return, she thought. She tapped the top of her head with catgut. “I’ve got to go to try-outs,” she said.

She had told Skinner it was his child, only she didn’t say child. She had said You’re responsible. She didn’t tell Tony anything. He didn’t know she’d been pregnant and she didn’t intend to tell him.

Skinner believed her. He wanted to believe it, not because he wanted the child: it wasn’t really a child, it was nothing like one; it was more like an abstract painting someone tells you about, and you can’t imagine it, but you pretend to understand: Yes, yes. I see what you’re saying. He didn’t know if he wanted a child—then, or ever—but he wanted to believe that he did. He wanted to believe in responsibility and love. Allen had just gotten married, and he was responsible. But Skinner didn’t always follow his brother’s moral compass.

A pretty Ukrainian in Prince Rupert whom he’d met on the train told him he had bush fever, and said he needed a sexual healing…

Goddamnit, Mickey thought. She should’ve been more careful. Fucking calendar. Fucking period. She was Catholic, she’d used the rhythm method, and she used it until it was too late not to.

Skinner’s father was dying; that was another problem. So Skinner drank and cried, sometimes pathetically—and said he loved Mickey. She felt she had to say it back. Sometimes she thought it was true. Well, of course it had been true. She’d pulled his dick in the woods near Puffer’s Pond. Yes, it’s awful, she said, pointing the head away from her sweater. She didn’t really know his father, she’d only met him once, but I’m so sorry, and she meant it because she would be sorry for anyone who was dying, she was sure she would be, and then Skinner came in the grass, powerfully, as if grief were an aphrodisiac, as if orgasm were atonement, his semen clinging to the blades like the white foam of leafhoppers, and then he drank from a half pint of blackberry brandy. Want some? he said. No. After he drank they rested awhile and fucked on a blanket. His lips were sticky. He went down on her and used his fingers and tongue. Either she’d come or she wouldn’t, and then he’d say things like: He doesn’t eat anymore. It’s been months. Maybe a little Jell-o…

After the abortion, he said he wished they’d talked about it more. “You didn’t care what I thought,” he said.

“Maybe I didn’t,” she said.

“You can’t even say it.”

“Maybe I can’t. Maybe I just don’t want to.”

Sylvia called soon after her mother had told her the unfortunate news about Mickey. She wanted to offer support to her baby sister. Sylvia lived in Burlington, Vermont, and was getting a new kitchen. Maybe she could tell Mickey about her refrigerator or the new linoleum. The linoleum was a pattern of black and white squares, like a big chess board, and at first she didn’t like it, but now she did. Maybe she could talk about that, how at first you don’t like something, and then you do. Or you do, and then you don’t. She’d think of something—and she reminded herself to be kind and gentle. She could do that. Couldn’t she do that?

She knew what it was like to have trouble. Sylvia knew about leaky faucets, tuna stains, and carpenter ants. And then there was her husband’s stubbornly tumescent penis poking her in bed from behind, sometimes wet on the tip like a puppy’s nose, but less cuddly and more insistent, like a gust of cold wind or a rising tide, opening her up to be spread-eagled and devoured. She’d be splayed, filleted, and fucked. He’d grab her hand and lead it to his balls. Don’t be a rag doll, honey.

The kitchen, yes, was coming along, but the granite countertop was still at the quarry in Quebec. When will it ever get here? How will they put it in place?

 Sylvia called Mickey. She talked about the linoleum and the refrigerator, as she had planned, and then she improvised, moving from one thing to the next, from marble to granite to crossing the border; then she realized it. Too late. “So,” she said to Mickey. “How are you?”

“Pretty good,” Mickey said. She started talking about the clinic. She mentioned the white shoes. She mentioned the doctor, so professional and aloof. She didn’t mention Roberta Flack or the fox. Then she said, “He put this tube in me…”

“Stop,” Sylvia said. “Stop.”  

“What?” Mickey said.

“Bruce’s penis,” she said. (Mickey wasn’t surprised she hadn’t said dick.) “His was the first one I ever saw. Ever touched. Can you imagine that? It scares me,” Sylvia said. “I haven’t gotten used to it. I don’t think I like them. I want a baby, I really do, but I don’t know… it’s like a baseball bat. Are they all so…”

“I’m sorry, Sylvia. I didn’t know you were having…”

“Oh God,” Sylvia said. “A truck’s pulled in the driveway. Mickey? I think the countertop’s here.”

“Okay. That’s great, isn’t it? You’d better go.”

“Forget what I said, will you? I need you to. I need to…”

“Sure,” Mickey said. “Of course.” It was easy for her to forget what she didn’t want to imagine in the first place. “Good luck with the countertop,” she said.

Mickey made the college tennis team. She loved tennis. Her father would be proud. That would be gratifying, to him and to her. And she loved Tony Petroffski whether he loved tennis or not, who continued perfecting his double-flip dismount, who kept trying to stick it. More dragonfly than butterfly, he buzzed in and out of Mickey’s dorm. Hi. You alone? Great.

Nathan Macgregor had been a professor of forestry for over twenty years. He’d graduated with a Ph.D. from Princeton. He had a chainsaw scar on his forehead that made him look tough and handsome. A pine branch under tension had whipsawed back and pushed the whining steel teeth into his safety helmet, splitting it in half, then slicing open his forehead. He was very proud of the scar, and hung the helmet like a broken relic of war in his office. Mickey was proud of her father’s pride. It made Ruth alternately numb or frightened.

Still, Nathan loved his wife. He loved his three children. He loved that his son Andrew was in his last year of law school at the University of Vermont, not far from where Sylvia lived, and that Sylvia had married a dentist. Dentists were all right. Bruce Winslow was all right. Nathan didn’t know anything about his daughter’s disdain for sex or the mournful and pathetic letters she sent to her mother. Ruth kept them to herself. Sylvia wrote things like I hate Vermont… I can’t… I won’t… Life is…

But Nathan loved them and was proud of them and he loved that he had made them, and he loved his daughter Mickey best of all. Not a whiner. Strong as a boy. She was a tennis player and skier, and her legs would take her places.

The Macgregors owned a camp on Cranberry Lake, in New Hampshire. That was where they drank and water-skied. That was where Mickey once slipped off her panties in one of the back bedrooms with Skinner—We’ll just be talking, Mom—while her mother read John Fowles in the kitchen. Her father had been outside, balanced barefoot in the stern of his boat. He kept twisting the needle valve, searching for the sweet spot on his outboard.

Ruth wasn’t completely fooled, but she’d wanted to be, so she kept her nose in the book. Mickey and Skinner fucked, and then she pulled his dick. She pulled it and tickled the tip with her finger and told him she’d slept with someone (not Tony Petroffski, but someone else) while Skinner had been away. What’d you expect me to do? Skinner had gone to Alaska for a month, after his first year at college and after his father died, but then he came back… And now she pulled his dick.

“The other guy,” she said, “wasn’t circumcised.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I don’t know. I guess because I didn’t like him. Aren’t you glad?”

“Sure,” he said.

“How was Alaska?”

“Pretty good.”

Mickey pushed him down between her legs. “Please,” she said.

Skinner didn’t tell her what he’d done. He’d slept with a couple girls in Jasper, Alberta, and a pretty Ukrainian in Prince Rupert whom he’d met on the train, who told him he had bush fever, and who said he needed a sexual healing, which turned out to be a  teasingly slow blowjob ending in a full-out finish. He didn’t tell Mickey that he wanted more of that, either, because he’d already mentioned it before; he knew that Mickey was more inclined to fuck and diddle. She often said she’d blow him later, maybe. She would say her mouth was dry; it felt like cotton. Later, baby…

At Cranberry Lake he slid down between her legs and spread her crimson, pink, and purple lips, from which mucous glistened like saliva in a hungry mouth.

When they were finished, they walked out sheepishly to the kitchen, but they had no one to tell a lie to. Mickey’s father was still outside, tinkering with the motor. Ruth’s head rested on The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Her damp hair stuck to the crumpled pages. Her left arm hung down from her shoulder, but her right arm rested on the table, with her hand stretched suppliant to the dregs of her glass.

Tony Petroffski went to Africa after he graduated from college, became a musician, and brought back handmade drums of exotic wood and stitched antelope hides. Everyone loved Tony’s music. It was primitive, jazzy, and cool. He reunited with and married Pamela Mills, a woman he’d met years before, after he and Mickey had broken up. Pamela had been a gymnast on the women’s team, and she’d been a star on the balance beam. She competed in the Pan Am Games, but that’s as far as she got. Still, they found each other again, after Africa, and had two children: a bouncy boy, skinny as a cricket, and a rubber-legged girl who could tie herself in knots.

Mickey moved away after college. She had earned a dual degree in forestry and entomology, and she moved to Maine where she worked for a paper company and helped control the spread of pine weevils and gypsy moths. She was lonely at first, but then she met and married a logger. He had his own skidders and trucks. He had big hands like the best quarterbacks. She forgot about Petroffski, but she didn’t forget Skinner. She wished she could, but she couldn’t.

She took long, intermittent leaves of absence from her job to have four kids. She didn’t care if they fired her or not, but they never did. The company needed her expertise about weevils and pesticides, and knew that not every educated woman would move to nowhere to work in a world of men.

Ruth kept drinking sherry and eventually decided to try electric shock treatments. They scared her, but after she’d had a couple, she felt pretty good. She felt better for a while. Now Nathan left her alone. They slept in separate beds. Sometimes, out of gratitude—aside from the salad she made for him each evening, with lettuce and black olives and blue cheese dressing, which he ate obscenely, like a starving horse—she slipped into his bed, maybe after a sherry or two, and pulled his dick. That seemed to be good enough. He never said it wasn’t. Sometimes he simply softened in her hand and fell asleep.

Skinner drank heavily after his father died and after Mickey left for Maine. He graduated from college with a degree in Wildlife Biology. It had the easiest curriculum, and its classrooms were in the same building as forestry, so while they’d still been attending, he got to see Mickey even after they had stopped being a couple. Stop following me, is what she most often said when she saw him.

After he graduated, others said, Wild what?

“Wildlife Biology,” he said.

“Are you a teacher?”


“Shoot bears with darts or something?”


Skinner was neither one of those things. After graduating he took a civil service test he’d seen announced in the newspaper classifieds. He sat in the post office one Saturday where the test was administered and answered multiple-choice questions. He scribbled in his choices in small rectangular boxes with the lead tip of a number-two pencil. It took forever. The questions were mind numbing. He was the first one to finish and to leave the room.

Two weeks later, he received a letter from the Army Corps of Engineers. They were impressed with his education and high score on the civil service test. They wanted to interview him for a new position: they needed Park Rangers.

Skinner went to the interview. He got the job. He drove around in a black jeep with the Army Corps insignia—a red castle in a white circle—painted on the side. His territory was a large triangle in Western Massachusetts defined by the three locations of Tully Lake, Knightville Dam, and Barre Falls. When he’d first arrived at Barre Falls, where his office was to be, he wondered where the water was and where the falls were.

“This is a storage facility,” Esther, the chemist in Water Quality, had told him. “We store water when it floods. No flood, no water.”

He looked out the window. Both of them were standing and looking out on a massive concrete dam and earthen dike, which dropped down into a waterless glen of beautiful trees, of mixed pine and oak and hemlock. “So this dam, and this place…”

“Is where you were assigned, Ranger Rick.” Esther smiled and winked. “Welcome aboard.”

 On Fridays, he’d drive over to Knightville as part of his routine duties and to have a barbeque in the garage with old Lou and young Joe, the two dam attendants who managed the spillway, mowed the grass, and recorded important data, things like air temperature and rainfall. They set up the grill, in case it rained, in one of the three bays where, normally, they parked a tractor and a brush hog. But on Fridays, Lou opened up the bay doors and Joe drove the tractor outside.

They stored hot dogs and hamburger in an old refrigerator, along with beer and mustard. They sat in folding chairs and talked mostly about Lou’s upcoming retirement and Joe’s young wife.

Sometimes Skinner would have a hot dog and a couple beers and then drive to the Indian Falls campground, which the corps also managed, as it was federal property. He walked around the campsites, assuring people that the toilets were working properly and that bears were not a problem. Usually things went smoothly, but once he had to reprimand a biker gang. They weren’t supposed to rev their motorcycles near the tents. Their women weren’t supposed to go topless. “This is a family campground,” he told them.

Fuck you, they’d said. One biker chased him away with a stick.

That time, Skinner had driven back to Knightville to get young Joe. Together they drove back to the campground, and on their return, the bikers looked at Joe and said, Okay, we’ll be quiet.

Those bikers had known what Skinner was: peach-cheeked college boy, or if not exactly that, no one they couldn’t handle. Joe was thirty, thirty-five, a big and powerful man, older and more experienced. He stood in his T-shirt and Chippewa work boots and commanded the bikers’ respect. We don’t want any problems here, he’d said. No Sir, one biker said. It was the one who had chased Skinner. Joe had what Skinner did not: presence and poise. Presence, poise, and power you could see in his forearms.

Skinner in his grey uniform stood beside him. Beer churned sourly in his stomach. Then he saw himself in the reflection of a Harley windshield and felt his ears turn red. With matching grey hat, he looked like a flying squirrel.

A month later, he got drunk on Black Russians when he attended a meeting at headquarters in Waltham. He spent a wild night on top of the big-breasted secretary in in the motor pool dispatch. She disappeared in the morning. He didn’t know where she’d gone. His fingers smelled like pussy. He hoped she’d say something to someone about the jeep. It had a bad thermostat and was prone to overheat.

He thought he’d be in trouble or even fired the next day, but no one seemed to object to his antics or drunkenness. In fact, Skinner’s whoring raised his status among the civilian employees and military men alike—even the visiting general, a two-star blowhole from Tennessee.

With matching grey hat, he looked like a flying squirrel….

Still, he hated his job. It required no special skills or talent. If you could drive a stick shift and wear a hat, you could be a park ranger.

Skinner worked six more months, and then he quit. He went back to live with his mother, and he got a job at the Rolling Green Condominium project. Allen said he’d heard that they were looking for carpenters. They were hiring on the spot, he said.

Skinner went to Aubuchon’s Hardware and bought himself a tool belt, framing hammer, and a Stanley ¾ inch tape rule, then he drove down to Rolling Green. He knew a little about rough carpentry and power tools from his father. He found the foreman, who was telling a man on a forklift to move a stack of two-by-fours to building five.

“I just fired three guys this morning,” the foreman said, turning to Skinner. “Couldn’t do shit. Drilled a hole through the floor for a toilet in the bedroom. Wrong room, wrong place. Read a blueprint?”

“Sure,” Skinner said. He never had, but he thought he could. How hard could it be?

The foreman eyed the new belt, the shiny new head of the hammer. “Jesus Christ,” he said. “I’m so fucking far behind….”

He handed Skinner some folded-up papers. “Follow that forklift to building five and… Hey, Dummy! Building five!” he yelled down to the driver. Then he said, “Ask for Johnson. Help Johnson fix that hole in the bedroom, then we’ll take care of your paperwork at lunch.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

“I’m Tom Kudryko,” the foreman said. “What’s your name?”

“Arthur Skinner. People call me Skinner,” he said.

“Skinner,” Kudryko said. He reached inside a pocket for a can of snuff. He opened it and put a wad behind his lip. “If that’s no lie, go fix the bedroom floor. Then drill that fucking hole where it belongs.”


He fished the Deerfield River. He’d fished it all his life, at first with his brother, who showed him how to fish and where the best pools were, who drove him to the river before he could drive, who pointed to the swallows and the chimney swifts, but later—when Allen got married and had a son of his own, and fished less, and looked less often in the sky for birds—he fished the river by himself. Now he worked his way upstream, wading in sneakers, casting into the pools above to let his bait, a worm on a number-six Eagle Claw hook, drift back in the current. Sometimes he could watch the worm tumble across the sandy bottom; other times the water was too deep and he just had to trust it. He liked it best in May, when the river ran cool and fast, yet it was warm enough to wade and go shirtless in the sun.

He caught mostly rainbows, but sometimes a brown or brook trout. He kept the ones over nine inches long and released the others if they weren’t gill- or gut-hooked or bleeding. He carried them on a forked stick, poking the stem with whittled point behind and through their gills and through the mouth, then pushing them down to the Y of the stick. He always carried them that way. He laid them down in an inch or two of shallow water, or placed them on the bank in shaded ferns, and fished upstream until he caught another. Then he’d go back and put the fresh one on the stick, move them up to another pool or patch of ferns, and continue.

He’d let them flop and thrash about until they died, to keep them fresh as long as possible, but once he gutted a rainbow after landing it on a sandbar. The trout seemed tireless and unyielding, unfazed by its predicament, but its eyes, glossy black and gold-speckled, saw nothing more of nymphs or colored stones or cut banks. It opened and closed its mouth and flashed its gills….

He kneeled down and removed the hook. Then holding the fish in his left hand, he used his right to slip a belt knife from its sheath. The blade was razor sharp—a high-carbon steel drop-point—and with that he slit the belly. Intestines spilled out and he placed his knife in the sand. Then he reached inside the fish behind the gills and removed the heart, no bigger than a blueberry. He laid it in the palm of his hand where it jittered and jumped, wildly and desperately, before it stopped.

He flicked the heart into the water. He picked up his knife and rinsed it. Grains of sand and strands of slime and blood sloughed off the gleaming blade. He watched them fall away and become a part of the river. He slipped the knife back into its sheath.

“Golden brown,” his mother said one evening, serving trout with salt and pepper and potatoes. “You’re a good fisherman. Not like your father. He wasn’t much for… not like you and your brother. Still, he loved to eat them. And you’re old girlfriend Mickey did too. I don’t know if you remember how she loved…”

Skinner was about to interrupt, Yes, I remember, but he hesitated and let it go because in many ways he could not remember—not clearly, casually, or innocently, and not, he believed, in a way he could explain to his mother, nostalgic and kind and proud of her cooking. His deepest memories seemed the truest; memories of the body, too private or shameful to talk about.

As his mother reminisced, he concentrated on his fish. He clutched the spine and ribs between his fingers. He pulled gently, wanting to lift out the string of bones as one from the flesh. He’d always thought it meant something because it was hard to do and you had to do it right, but if the bones broke apart, as they did now, he told himself he would do it right the next time.

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About Mark Holden

Mark Holden teaches creative writing at Plattsburgh State University in New York. He received the Lamar York nonfiction award from Chattahoochee Review and the Kurt Vonnegut fiction award from North American Review in 2005. His work has also appeared in Georgia Review, Bellevue Review, New Millennium Writings, Indiana Review, and others. His chapbook, No One Wants to Live Here, is forthcoming from New Michigan Press.

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