Southern Legitimacy Statement : I grew up running barefoot through the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains chasing crappie by day and visiting with family on the front porch as lightning bugs lit up the night sky. I ran off with the U.S. Air Force and ended up with a law degree somewhere years later, but those hills called me home. Nowadays, I ply my trade in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I still crack a smile every time I get one of those coastal lawyers on the phone and they get their first taste of the Ozarks.
They waded a hundred yards up the creek before they felt the first tug. It wasn’t much. Just a nibble, and it was gone. A couple hundred yards more and still, they hadn’t caught a damn thing.
“Hold my pole,” Adam said, moving toward his younger brother, arm outstretched. Brandon obliged, shit-brown water lapping just below his nipples.
Adam reached into the muddy soup swallowing him, his shoulder shifting and searching, eyes scrunched tight with focus. A plastic sandwich bag emerged from the swirling brown, pinched tight in Adam’s pale fingers. Adam peeled the baggy open and pulled out a rough-rolled joint. Next, a lighter. The tip of the paper crackled as the fire caught, the edges glowed bright orange as Adam sucked somewhere in the thicket of his wiry beard. He held in the sickly-sweet, let his eyes roll back into his skull, blueish gray smoke seeping from his open mouth. Adam offered it to Brandon, smoke still creeping free.
“You know I can’t.”
“Ain’t in the Marines no more,” Adam said, pushing the smoldering piece closer to Brandon. “Come on little brother.”
Brandon turned and moved away, pushing through the loose mud and water, two poles raised just above the creek. Adam took another drag. Then a second. Another. The spent husk pushed away downstream when Adam took his pole back, eyelids hanging, so damn heavy.
“When you gonna let that hair grow?”
Brandon ran a hand along the fresh fade, the hair on the side of his head cropped close to the scalp, the top longer and combed to the side.
“Look like a fag from Fayetteville.” Adam watched as Brandon dipped his pole back then slashed it out and forward. A Rapala lure with two tri-hooks sliced through the air and plopped into the creek, vanishing beneath the brown.
Brandon didn’t acknowledge his brother. He started reeling, slow and smooth.
“My brother,” Adam said. “A fucking fag . . .”
Adam smiled, waiting for the rise.
“Still love you anyway, but boy.” Adam sucked air through his teeth. “Daddy’d be rolling over in his grave.”
“I’m not gay,” Brandon said. “I just like it clean.”
“Guess that’s why you shave too?”
Adam scanned his brother, watched the eagle, globe, and anchor tattoo on Brandon’s arm flex and coil as he spun the line in. Brandon was lean and muscular, in the all the places Adam was soft and bulging. He’d been like Brandon, once. He’d been cold, head down.
“Drank the Kool-Aid,” Adam said. “Drank it deep.”
Again, Brandon ignored him. Adam felt the coldness, the distance that had grown between them. He wondered what had happened to his brother in the Corps. Wondered what they’d done to break him, to make that boy loosen into putty, fit for molding. Wondered what it would have been like for him.
“It’s a good thing I didn’t go.”
Still, Brandon ignored him.
“Wouldn’t have put up with it. The first time one of them sergeants got in my face, I’d a knocked his ass out cold.”
“Couldn’t have handled me.” Adam said.
“Don’t have a damn clue,” Brandon said, half laughing.
“I’d a been a Marine if not for my back,” Adam started.
“Here we go,” Brandon interrupted. “Would have been a damn SEAL if not for the bad back.”
“Damn straight,” Adam said.
Brandon didn’t push it. Adam wondered why. This usually riled Brandon up, but today, something was off. Brandon had been different ever since he got back from the service and got his honorable discharge. Something had come loose.
“Remember when I climbed up the hackberry in the front yard?” Adam said.
“Which time?” Brandon said, set the line and reeled it slow, keeping the line straight.
Adam unhooked the lure from the keeper, let it tap the water a time or two as he reeled in the slack line, and readied to cast.
“You forgotten everything Pop taught us?” Adam’s lure sailed through the air, tri-hooks sparkling, and plopped thirty yards ahead near a downed limb.
“Not all of it,” Brandon said, “unfortunately.”
“Shoot. Wasn’t half bad,” Adam said. “A little rough around the edges, but not half bad.”
Adam barked as his line yanked tight, the tip of his pole curling slightly. He started reeling, fumbled, then reeled faster. His eyes were hazy, his focus muted, but all he needed to do was keep that little spinner spinning, round and round. He managed it, letting out a laugh, as a small green and brown fish with fat stripes came free of the water.
“A perch.” Brandon laughed, almost dropping his pole.
“Shit,” Adam said, staring at his catch. The perch offered little resistance. Just hung there, flexed once, then surrendered. Adam imagined angels crying, then pulled the hook loose and held the fish toward Brandon, squeezing at its mouth, making the lower jaw rise and fall.
“Howdy there, Brandon.” Adam said, squeezing at the jaw bone.
Brandon smiled, the same child-like smile Adam had seen a million times. Adam felt something spark inside, something warm, something old and forgotten.
“Miss them jarheads? Miss them bulldogs? Them leathernecks?”
And then, he ruined it. Brandon slashed an arm toward his brother, knocked Adam off balance and sent him crashing into the water. The sad little perch swam free.
Adam exploded from the water, sucked in air, coughed, and laughed, “Got my pole wet.”
“Got more than your pole wet, brother.”
Brandon put as much space between him and Adam as he could. Adam laughed, slicking the hair back out of his eyes.
“Now where was I?” Adam said, smiling. “I was up in that tree and you couldn’t get up it. Kept busting your ass.” Adam laughed. “But you sure as hell tried.”
Adam watched, waiting for Brandon to smile.
“Had some grit,” Adam said, prodding.
“If that’s what you call it.”
“Probably why you are the way you are.”
“The way I am?” Brandon said and turned toward Adam.
“Yup. Gone and became a jarhead. Just lower your head and plow on through life’s shit. Come what may . . .”
Brandon didn’t respond, just looked away and kept reeling.
“Come what may . . .”
“Worked so far . . .” Brandon said.
The water seemed to sit still, specks of leaves and debris floated bored, nudged along as the two pushed their way ahead. A breeze had lifted and they’d both felt the temperature drop. There was a crispness in the air, a charge pushed ahead of the gray clouds collecting overhead.
“A storm’s coming,” Adam said, then flicked his pole. “Gonna tag a monster.”
“Haven’t caught a damn thing all day.”
“Caught that perch.”
“Just enjoy the quality time.”
“Shoot no,” he said and ran an arm across his forehead. “Don’t wanna be around your sorry ass.”
“The water,” Adam said. “Good old Spadra.”
“I can think of a thousand places I’d rather be.”
“But,” Adam started, “here you are . . .”
Adam’s words dangled as gray clouds smothered the sun, the truth of them soaking into Brandon’s raisin flesh.
“As much as you hate us . . . You sure do love the thought of us.”
“The hell you talking about?”
Adam ignored Brandon, savoring the shift in power. He smiled, wanting nothing more than Brandon to pursue.
“I wanna hear it.”
“Ain’t the time,” Adam said. “Them small mouth can taste the hard feelings in the water. You’ll run em off.”
A condom floated next to Brandon. Its bottle neck rose toward the surface rolled all the way out, a logger. Brandon eased himself away, casting his line clear of the ribbed snake, bubble-tip waiting to spew. Adam didn’t mind, just stood there and let it float on by.
“You’d understand if you’d seen what I’ve seen,” Brandon said. “You’d get it,” Brandon looks Adam square in the eyes, “if you’d ever gone anywhere.”
“Why would I?”
“Everything I need’s right here.” Adam spread his arms wide and surveyed the creek.
“Paradise,” Brandon said.
“You act like you went and done something,” Adam said, feeling the power slipping through his fingers. “Just moved across the state is all, to some fucking hippy town. We ain’t so different.”
Brandon’s face twisted as something caught fire in his eyes.
“You served? Tell me little brother, you been to war?” The dagger slid between Brandon’s ribs, right to the life thrumming under all the noise.
“Shoot, you never even left the country. Came on back to Spadra with all your fingers and toes? Ain’t service unless you lose a little skin.”
The dagger twisted.
“I put my life on the . . .”
“Fuck it up the ass,” Adam said, the smile curled on his face. “You wrote a blank check, offered up your life on a silver platter. Same thing the recruiter told me. Heard it all before.”
The sparks in Brandon’s eyes blazed as the gray clouds darkened, suffocating the last of the sunlight.
“Job’s a job,” Adam said. “You got paid. Got a free education. Don’t act like you gone and done something special.”
Adam could see Brandon shaking, the top of his pole swishing and swaying like a lightning bolt.
“All on my tax dollar,” Adam said, pushing.
Brandon laughed, let himself drown in righteous fury. “How many tax dollars you think they get out of a gas station clerk?” Brandon turned to Adam, chest squared, shoulders back.
“Didn’t pay for one goddamned bullet,” Brandon spat the words.
“Didn’t shoot no bullets did you?”
The blaze caught a gas line, a fiery plume erupted, a mushroom cloud in each eye. Brandon’s hands trembled, fingers white around the pole half submerged in the brown water.
“We all play our part little brother,” Adam said as Brandon took a step toward him.
Adam pulled the baggy free of the water, as one hand still squeezed his pole. The joint. The lighter. Blueish-white smoke crept between the tree lines framing Spadra. The bag slipped beneath the water, back into the pocket. Brandon watched it happen and didn’t say a word. Just shook his head, almost like he understood his brother for the first time in his life.
“Trying to tell a damn story and you keep on interrupting me,” Adam said as a fresh joint hung between his lips. “I was up that tree and you was trying to climb after. Kept busting your ass.”
“Then Momma . . . ” Brandon paused, the thought of her calming him, like a sedative straight to the veins.
“Yessir. Momma straightened you out. ‘Gonna break your neck,’ she’d hollered. I’ll never forget it. Had that broom out too. About to whip your ass.”
Adam sucked the joint deep leaning his head back, hands free. Let it soak into every crevice of his lungs.
“Remember what she told me?” Adam said, coughing the words out in chops.
Brandon shook his head as Adam turned away.
“‘Keep an eye on your brother.’”
Brandon turned toward Adam, but he was was faced away, a spindle of smoke climbing into the swirling gray above.
Adam flexed the reel back, readied to cast, but felt the weight of the world pressing down. His footing gave a little, slid in the muck. His head swooned like a balloon. He jerked, cast it long and hard and sloppy. He didn’t see the lure, didn’t see any of its hooks cut through the air or slice into the brown water. He felt it though. There was a tug. A sharp yank through the haze. He saw it crest the water, a mesmerizing cascade of green, white, a mouth that could swallow the world. Another yank. Then another. He tried to focus on the line, but the world swirled. Everything was slow. Another sharp yank. He heard Brandon scream, but couldn’t make sense of it. There was pain. Anger. He could feel it.
Adam crashed back to Spadra, turned toward Brandon who pressed one hand over an eye, the other holding the line strung to Adam’s rod.
“My motherfucking eye,” Brandon hollered.
“Shit . . .” Adam said and stumbled toward Brandon, reaching.
Blood dripped between Brandon’s fingers, diving to the cloudy water beneath.
“Easy,” Adam said. “Easy there. Let me see.”
Brandon surrendered. Didn’t have much choice.
The Rapala was a wicked sonofabitch. Two sets of tri-hooks sunk deep into flesh, one caught in Brandon’s brow, the other, stuck clean through his eyelid. A scarlet spear poked right on through, the flesh pulled tight and puckered around it.
“It’s past the barb,” Adam said. “Can’t push it through, neither.” Adam paused, studied the work he’d done. “You know what that means.”
Brandon took a deep breath, “Do it.”
Adam tried to steady himself, still stumbling in the blue haze. He looked calm, too calm, but anxiety bubbled beneath the shit-brown water. Adam knew it was dangerous when the brain and the body stopped talking. Adam pulled the line tight, bit hard at it, twisted and jerked and freed the lure with a snap. It dangled from Brandon’s brow, as Adam wiped his own forehead, then pinched the base of the tri hook sunk in Brandon’s brow, and yanked as hard as he could. Brandon didn’t make a sound as the hook ripped free, a wet popping noise pierced the air as the meat came loose.
“One down,” Adam said as he glanced down at the blood mingling with the brown in cloudy plumes.
“Fucking do it,” Brandon said, almost shaky. The one in the eyelid would be worse. Couldn’t just rip it out. He’d have to work it loose.
“Shit,” Brandon screamed as Adam pulled the hook backwards to the base of the barb, then twisted the point back into the flesh, working the barb back into the hole it had ripped wide open. Adam saw Brandon’s hands tense, fingers white with strain. Couldn’t blame him. The hook was too damn close to the eye. There wasn’t a yank. No jerk. The hook pulled through, ripping and slicing, slow. Adam could feel every split second through his brother, and then, it was gone.
Brandon pressed a hand to his eye, checking to see if it was still there.
“Finally caught me the biggin,” Adam said and laughed.
“Damn near blinded me!” Brandon screamed and shoved Adam hard, his footing sinking into the mud. “If you weren’t fucking high all of the time, maybe you wouldn’t be such a fuck up.”
“Easy,” Adam said and backed away a step.
Brandon just pressed at his eye, glanced at his blood-covered hand, then pressed the eye again.
“Shit,” he said, rasping. “Not a goddamn thing to show for it.”
“Fish?” Adam said. “The small mouth don’t matter. Ain’t never been about the fish.”
“Tell me then,” Brandon started, “big brother. What’s this all about?” A single drop of blood crested his lid, slid down his cheek and held at the edge of his jaw. It pooled, collected itself, then dove from his smooth flesh and cut into the brown water beneath.
Adam smiled, turned his head from left to right and raised his arms.
“About all this,” Adam said. “You, me, and Spadra.”