By Michael San Filippo
It rained that night and I dreamt about water. I was standing up to my waist in a lake or a river, wading toward a shore that never seemed to get any closer. Something swept over my foot but the water was too dark for me to see what it was. The water got deeper and so I swam, fast, not wanting to feel that dull weight brush against my skin again. I swam until my hands hit sand, and as I stood up near the shore something unseen crashed out of the water and over my face.
I gasped and woke up in time to see Casey laughing in daylight above me behind a black curtain of hair, her long fingers recoiling from my nose.
She exhaled and her hair parted neatly down the middle. “Dude, you snore so fucking loud!”
“Well, you don’t have to try to murder me for it. Go watch TV or something.”
She lay back down next to me. “I don’t want to. I don’t want to get out of bed today. Feel that breeze... we finally got a breeze.”
It was mid August and the past week had been brutal... five straight days near 100 degrees, the nights hardly bringing any relief, and mornings starting hot and early on stagnant, sweaty sheets. But this morning was cool and clean, with some soft rain still falling from light clouds left over from last night’s heavier storms.
Casey had her back to me, and her head blocked my view of the clock. “What time is it?” I asked.
She leaned up a bit on her elbow, and I saw the clock blinking 12:00. “Shit,” she said. “Power must have gone out again.” She reached for her phone next to the clock, then asked, “Hey Jack? What time are you supposed to be at work?”
“11:00… why? How late am I?”
“20 minutes.” I heard her punch out a text before setting her phone back on the nightstand.
“Who was that?”
She flipped over to face me. “My sister. She said thanks for letting me drive home last weekend.”
“Thanks for not wrecking my car.”
“No problem.” She closed her eyes and bunched up her pillow under her head. “Well... what are you waiting for? Get dressed. Say you overslept.” Her voice trailed off into a warm murmur as she added, “It’s not too late…”
I watched her exhale and shrink back down into the mattress. The crossing signal from the tracks began to chime, and the drapes billowed with the rain and the whistle of a train, and I could only imagine the amount of shit that Marc, my boss, was ready to shovel on me.
“It’s too late,” I said, and the train rolled past and the breeze rolled in and I dove back into sleep.
She had called me on a Saturday morning in early June, angry and apologizing and asking if I could move her out of Dale’s house. It took me a bit to process what she was saying. Since I had met them over two years ago they were DaleAndCasey, the center of a group of about a dozen or so of us in town, and it was hard to imagine them not being together.
Unlike the rest of the group, Casey and I were transplants. We had both come to Onida three years ago--she from Madison, me from Chicago--to attend the university in town, but dropped out after one year. She met Dale that year and partied a bit too much, failed a few classes and that was it for her. My grades were OK, but I had no idea what I wanted to do. I got a job delivering pizzas that summer to make money for school, but I enjoyed the ease of my work and the company of the friends I had made in town, including Dale and Casey, and I wasn’t really upset when I realized that I had missed the deadline to enroll for fall semester.
She was waiting out front when I drove up. She smiled at me when I got out of the car but didn’t say much as we carried her things out of the house. Everything she owned after three years in town fit in boxes and bags that hardly took up more than the trunk of my car.
When I asked her what had happened, she lifted the sleeve of her shirt to reveal a row of grape-sized bruises on her biceps. “There’s probably a nice one on my back, too,” she said. “But of course he’s probably out telling everyone how much of a bitch I am.”
I looked up at the house. “Is there anything else I can do?”
“Just get me out of here before he comes back. I don’t want you getting in trouble, too.”
She sat quiet with her head on the window as I backed the car away from the house and onto the highway. “So… where are we going?” I asked her, and she started to cry.
“Since when do you have a fishing pole?” Her question lifted me back out of sleep. It felt like a minute but when I looked at the nightstand I saw it was nearly 2 o’clock. I heard the clasps of my tackle box snap open from the back of the closet, and plastic lures being pushed and prodded in their cases, the hooks skittering about.
“If you’re looking for weed don’t bother,” I said.
“I’m not looking for weed. I’m bored. Why do you have a fishing pole?”
“Because I fish.”
“No you don’t. Are you really out of weed?”
I grunted an “uh-huh” as I rolled myself out of bed and into some jeans. I did fish, at least I used to, when my family vacationed in Minnesota, before I moved up here for school. My dad packed it even though I told him not to bother. Since then it gathered dust for a year in the dorms, and now here for two more.
I could see her sitting on a suitcase, hidden behind the shirts hanging from a rack on the side of the closet. “What happened to your boxes?” I asked. They had been stacked below my shirts since I moved her out of Dale’s. Now they were gone.
“I brought them back with me to my sister’s last weekend. Maybe if you changed clothes more than once a week you would have noticed.”
I took a whiff under my arm. “I’m good.”
“Oh, Marc called,” she said. I heard the tackle box slap shut, and saw some shirts fluttering on their hangers. “I told him you were in the hospital.”
“Good. Did you tell him what was wrong with me?”
“Nah... I’m still trying to figure that out.” She came out of the closet with the fishing pole pointing like a saber toward my chest. We locked eyes as she advanced toward me with a crooked grin, and I held my ground. She kept walking until the tip dug into my chest and the pole bowed between us like a frown.
“You still bored?” I asked.
She smiled and nodded. “Yeah.”
I finally swatted the pole away. “Put your shoes on.”
The first time I saw Dale that summer was in early July, after he moved out of his old place and into an apartment with his brother downtown, not too far from me. They dealt weed, which is why I was there. I sold a little to friends of mine on campus, enough to smoke for free and have a little extra spending money.
I told him I was going back to school when the year started up again at the end of August. “Sweet,” he said. “You still got people to sell to?”
I said that I did and he handed me my quarter. “Well, let me know when you need it and I can get you ounces for $170. You should be able to make a bit off of that, yeah?”
I told him I thought so. He invited me to stay, smoke a bowl with him, play some Call of Duty on the Xbox. “I haven’t seen you in forever, Jack,” he said. “Whatcha even been up to?”
I told him thanks but I had to run. I didn’t tell him that Casey was waiting for me back at my apartment.
The deal was she’d go fishing with me if she didn’t have to fish.
“Deal,” I told her, then waited for her to finish tying her Chucks before adding, “I need to swing by Dale’s really quick. It’s on the way.”
“Do I have to go in?”
“Nah… it’ll just take a minute.”
It was a short walk down Third to Dale’s apartment, not even enough time for Casey and I to finish our smokes. I was about to walk up but she grabbed my arm and asked me to wait.
“So this is where he’s at now?”
“Yeah, he moved in with his brother last month.”
She exhaled a laugh with her smoke, gesturing toward the used bookstore they lived above. “With Danny? Perfect. Too bad neither of them can read.”
I flicked my cigarette into the street. “Can I go up now?”
She slumped her shoulders. “Hold up, Jack, I’ll go with you... I don’t want to stand out here by myself like a hooker or something.”
I leaned my fishing pole against the wall in the landing, and Casey followed me up the stairs, which ended at Dale’s door. I knocked, then turned to Casey, who was standing on the top of the staircase.
“Is this the first time...”
“You want me to, you know,” I shook my fists in her face. “Rough him up a little bit? Give him the business?”
She knocked my hands away. “He’d beat your ass so bad.”
I wheeled as Dale opened the door. “Hey,” he said. “My man on campus.”
“Hey,” I said. He hadn’t seen Casey yet, hidden behind my back.
“Well, come on in already. You’re letting all the smoke out.”
I paused, but Casey put both hands on my ass and pushed me into Dale, knocking him against the door. “Go dude!” she said, then followed me past Dale, who stood stunned with his back to the door. “Hey,” she said.
I thought he’d be upset, but he smiled and seemed happy to see her. “Holy shit,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
She walked down the hall and into the dining room confidently and thoughtfully, looking from wall to ceiling as if she was thinking about buying the place. “Jack and I are going fishing.”
Dale followed her slowly, looking dazed and pleased, and left it to me to close the door. I caught up with them in the living room, where Dale motioned for Casey to sit before taking a seat on a couch next to his brother. Danny was in the process of weighing buds on the silver disc of a digital scale. Next to the scale were a dozen or so sandwich baggies rolled like cigars into eighths and quarters.
“You been by the dorms yet?” Dale asked. “Freshmen moving in already... must be orientation weekend. So long peace and quiet. How much you want?”
“How about a couple to start. I got some guys coming in mid-week that I’m sure will be ready to buy.”
“You sure you don’t want to get more?” Casey asked. “Considering you might be out of a job?”
Dale looked up at me. “You get canned from Deeno’s?”
“He was supposed to work today but we overslept,” Casey said, placing her hand on the back of my knee. “I tried to cover for him, but... we’ll see.”
“Interesting,” Dale said.
“Nah, two should be good for now.”
“Alright, two it is.” He nodded toward his brother who slid eight bags across the table.
I set my tackle box down next to the scale, then kneeled down to open it. Casey put a hand on my shoulder, leaned over my back and plucked a lure out of the box. She sat back but kept her hand on me. “This one’s my favorite,” she said. It was green and yellow and had what looked like a giant red tongue sticking out of its mouth, where you tie it to the line. She held it up so we all could see it and rattled its hooks, then stuck her tongue out and blew raspberries.
“$340, right?” I asked, counting through a roll of $20s.
“$380.” He said. Danny looked at him, started to say something, then stopped.
I held the roll at 17 bills. “You said $170 per last time I was here.”
“Nah, that doesn’t sound right.”
I added two more bills and handed them over to Dale, who dropped them into his front pocket without looking at me and sat back into the couch. He picked up his Xbox controller and was back into his game. I swept the eight baggies into my tackle box and Casey and I split.
I had tried to kiss Casey once, the night after I moved her out of Dale’s place. At that point we hadn’t talked about where she would be staying, but after sharing a joint and cracking a few beers each there was no doubt she’d be spending the night.
We were out on my deck, talking and watching the traffic at the intersection below. It must have been after midnight because the traffic lights had switched over to flashing yellow. She was hurt and lonely and grateful for my companionship, which I mistook as something more. When I leaned in to her during a lull in the conversation she took a step back and turned her head toward the street.
“No,” she said, nervously. “We can’t…”
She rubbed her arms, and I saw the bottom of one of her bruises peeking out from beneath her sleeve. “Shit, I’m sorry,” I said. “Forget that happened.”
“No,” she said, crossing her arms in front of me. It was cold and I wanted to put my arms around her, just to keep her warm, but now, certainly, wasn’t the time. “It’s not that, Jack… I don’t know.” She looked up at the sky and laughed but her eyes were wet. “ I just… I really need a friend right now, OK? And I think you’re all I’ve got.”
I raised my eyebrows. “I’m all you’ve got? Damn… poor you.”
She laughed again, and let her arms down. “Yeah… poor me, right?” She smiled at me and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “Let’s go inside … it’s freezing out here.”
We argued over who would sleep on the couch but wound up in bed, first just to talk, then falling asleep, and that became our silent agreement for the summer. Besides the occasional arm falling accidentally over the other’s body during sleep, we kept our distance, and I waited for any sign that she might be ready for something more.
“You know you cost me forty bucks back there,” I said as we walked west under the summer sun, starting to sink orange above us. We stopped at a red light and Casey grabbed the box of smokes from my shirt pocket. She lit one, pulled a drag, then set it carefully between my lips with her middle and index fingers, her palm cupped under my chin. She lit another for herself before returning the pack, and smiled.
“Yeah,” she said looking back toward the bookstore, then squinted back up at me. “But it was worth it, don’t ya think?”
The light turned green and as we stepped into the street she pulled a remote control from the front pocket of her jeans and dropped it through the hole of a sewer grate at the curb.
“Was that Dale’s?” I asked.
“Won’t he need that?”
“C’mon.” She pulled me by my elbow across the street.
We walked up Sixth to where it crossed over the lake and out toward the highway. Dale was right: Traffic filled the northbound lanes of the street, splitting up on Pine and emptying out in the lots of the dorms. Casey followed me to a spot where a concrete pipe connected the lake from beneath both sides of the road. I took a seat on the pipe and she sat on the concrete barrier above me, next to the road. Behind her, freshmen in the backseats of their parents’ cars kept pouring into town.
I had asked her to re-enroll with me, and while she originally seemed high on the idea of going back to school, she soon started hedging, saying she didn’t have enough money, or didn’t know what she wanted to study. I told her I had the same problems, but if I didn’t get back now I was afraid it would never happen. But the deadline came and went, my enrollment went through, and she brought me the envelope when it came in the mail and gave me a hug when we learned I had been accepted.
I opened the tackle box and poked around for some bait. “Hey, toss me one of those bags, ay?” Casey said.
I threw her one of the quarters. “Don’t sell any to the freshmen.”
“No worries.“ She pulled a pipe out of her jeans and began filling it with some of the shake from the bag.
“Where’d you get that?”
“Jesus… you’re good. You get anything else?”
“Nah, I think that’s it,” she said and slipped the bag into her pocket. “Maybe an STD from that nasty chair.”
She took a hit and handed me the pipe. I hit it and handed it back, then tied a jig onto my line. She sat in profile, perched up there like a bird, watching the traffic roll into town from the highway. I thought of the empty space in my closet, those boxes taken back to her hometown. We had never actually talked about her moving in… it just happened. I wondered if it would be the same when she moved out.
She turned to light a cigarette and caught me looking at her. “You fishing or what?”
“Yah,” I said. “Watch this.”
I cast my line into the lake, and sure enough, something immediately went for it. The bobber sank before it could even settle. The hit went through my hands, but as I pulled back to set the hook I felt the line go slack.
Casey leaned in. “You got something?” she asked.
“Had something, but I lost it.”
I reeled the line in and the jig was gone. I turned to Casey half expecting to see it dangling from her fingers, but she was just holding her cigarette. I tied another one on and cast it out to the same spot as before.
Casey watched for a bit, but after a few minutes of inactivity she put her feet up on the barrier and took out her phone. I sat and watched my bobber, which just floated there in its spot on the lake, red and silent. Over the steady hum of traffic I could hear Casey’s fingers tapping across the keypad, then a few minutes of silence, waiting, reading, then more tapping.
She laughed, and I asked who she was talking to. “Oh, just… nobody,” she said. She put her phone back in her pocket. I watched as my bobber sat as still as the sun reflecting off the unbroken lake.
“Hey, Jack… come check this out,” Casey said. I set my pole in the rocks around the pipe and climbed up next to her. The daily Amtrak from Minneapolis to Chicago had stopped at the town’s station, blocking the intersection and causing the traffic to pile nearly all the way back to the highway. I sat next to Casey and scanned the cars… almost all of them had a teenager in the backseat, with boxes and suitcases and laundry baskets filled with books.
“Your new classmates,” she said.
“You can still apply for spring semester, you know.”
“Yeah,” she said, flicking her cigarette out into the empty lane of traffic closest to us. “Hey, dig the chick in the green Explorer, she’s checking you out.”
I found the truck in the lineup, and there was a girl looking my way, a pretty brunette, sitting behind her dad, who drummed the steering wheel waiting for the train to pass. She smiled when I looked at her, and I smiled back.
“She’s cute, yeah?” I asked.
“Ahh, you can do better.” I thought about that and smiled at my freshman, and Casey leaned over and kissed me soft on the cheek. Her nose drifted up near my eye and I saw my freshman turn away from us, toward the train, now pulling away, and I turned to Casey but she turned to the lake. And then the train was gone, and all the traffic, and it was just me and Casey again.
She stared out into the lake, squinting and serious as if she was looking for words. I waited for whatever she had to say. Finally she broke the silence. “Hey Jack? Where’s your bobber?”
I looked at the lake and saw nothing but ripples on the surface. Then I saw my pole bending into a question mark on the shore. I scrambled down the embankment and grabbed the rod from the stones and pulled back to set the hook. Two muted shocks came back in response through the pole and all the way up to my elbows.
“Holy shit. I got something here.”
I felt her position herself behind my shoulder. “Can I do something?”
The fish was pulling left and right, trying to run free, and I was able to reel it in closer between these dashes. At one point it shivered up near the surface and slapped its tail on the water like a whale.
“It’s a bass,” I told her. “If I get it up to the shore can you grab it?”
“Are you serious?”
“Let’s go, Wisconsin! You can do it… just pinch its lip.”
She put her hand on my shoulder, slipped her shoes and socks off and stepped into the tall grass that rimmed the edge of the lake. The fish was probably about 10 feet out. It had stopped its side-to-side flights and was now just pulling back toward the middle of the lake, and down, and the silt it had stirred up was now muddying the water below Casey’s toes.
“Get ready,” I told her, as I reeled it in closer. I pulled the pole over my shoulder so the line headed straight toward her. She stood with her hands open above the water, squinting into the lake.
“Where the hell is it? I can’t see anything.”
Suddenly through the stirred mud emerged an enormous yawn of a mouth, gasping out of the water and into the air, looking like it was ready to swallow a softball.
“Grab it!” I said.
Casey stepped into the water and reached for its lip, but as soon as she got her thumb on it the fish gave one final thrash, snapping the line and dropping me to my ass on the embankment. “No!” Casey shouted. She splashed further out into the lake and plunged her arm into the water, reaching for the tail but the fish just disappeared back into the cloud of mud.
I looked to Casey, who was panting with her hands on her knees, staring into the lake as if she expected the fish to come back for a second chance.
Finally she turned to me and blew the hair up out of her eyes. “Dammit, Jack! We almost had it.”
Onida was awarded 3rd place in Curbside Splendor's 2010 Winter Writing Award Opportunity for Short Stories
About Michael San Filippo