The leader twists stupidly in the air, impotently, beneath his giant hand. He looks at it in disgust, spits into the dirt of the river bank: a bad knot. In the black center of the river now a largemouth bass, one of the two things he loves, swims with his hook in her mouth, the bright red feathers he’d tied to it trailing and pulsing like blood. He groans at the thought of it. He looks out over the water, thick with dragonflies in this the late summer. The sun is high over the water and he thinks of the woman in his bed, his wife. She will be wanting breakfast. He spits once more into the dirt, then ties the bare leader to one of the rod guides and walks to his pickup truck and drives home.
Back from the river he plods heavily through the house, the old pine floorboards creaking under his weight, and to the bedroom. The woman in his bed has stripped off her clothes and thrown the sheets to the floor. He finds her there uncovered and spread-eagled, her old tired breasts flopped over to her sides.
“About time you come home,” she says.
“Ain’t you been up yet?”
“Naw,” she says. “I ain’t been up.”
“What you waiting for?”
“Not waiting for nothing. Can’t an old woman just lay around if she wants? Lay around all damn morning if she wants.”
“You want breakfast?”
“You know what I want.”
He looks at the space between her legs. “I’m tired,” he says. “I been up all morning.”
“You and me both,” she says.
“I’ll make us some breakfast.”
“You gave it all to the fish, didn’t leave nothing for me.”
“You’re talking like an old crazy lady.”
“I am an old crazy lady.”
“Well you talk like it.”
“That’s not all I do like it.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“Come over here, let me smell your fingers. You got fish on them fingers I know it.”
“I don’t even. Didn’t catch a single one. Had one on but the knot gave. She’s going to die most likely. Less the hook rusts out first.”
“Oh,” she says. And for an instant becomes serious, her look turning fearful. He sees the fear in her eyes, eyes normally clouded with hate and only hate. She knows him and she knows how much it hurts him to hurt fish and he thinks she is almost fearful now for his feelings. But then the fear leaves her and the hate returns, and she says, “Come let me suck on them fingers.”
“Jesus woman, I just want some breakfast.”
“Come let me suck on them just a little. Make me suck on them.” Her legs start to shift, her knees rolling up one and then the other on the sweat-soaked mattress.
He sighs. He holds his hand out to her.
“Tell me,” she says.
“Suck on them.”
She does, making like she’s giving him head, taking all four fingers at once, then trying to fit his entire fist in there. He looks down at her. Like a snake, he thinks. Like a goddamn water snake.
“Now ram them down my throat,” she says. “Get them all in. I want to choke on them. I want to choke on them and die.” With her free hand, the hand that is not gripping his thick forearm and trying to stuff it down her throat, she reaches for him. She grips him firmly, desperately. And then she stops, stops the whole thing, and takes his hand out of her mouth like it was a big lollipop.
“Damnit Leon, ain’t you got a hard thing left on you?”
“I told you I was tired,” he says, wiping the saliva from his hand onto his shirt.
“You’re too sensitive,” she says. “You give it all to the fish and then you come here like a soft old man and don’t have nothing left for me.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Well. I’m gonna go make us some breakfast. Maybe some breakfast’ll make you feel better.”
That evening they read together by the fire. He is reading a book on knots, practicing them on a length of rope as he reads and sipping from a tall can of Budweiser. Four tall cans just like it stand empty on the floor by his armchair, neatly arranged. She is on the couch with a glass of wine reading a romance novel. Looking over at her Leon thinks: Seems like every time I see her she’s lying down. Seems like all she can do is lie down.
She feels his eyes on him. She puts the book down on her lap. “What are you looking at me for.”
He fidgets with the length of rope on his lap. “How can you read that trash?” he says.
“Same as you read yours.”
“I’m learning something.”
“You ain’t learning shit. You read that book a hundred times.”
“Maybe so,” he says. He sips from his Budweiser and returns to his book. He cannot say that she is wrong. Each of the knots in the book he could tie in the dark. But like the fish the knots soothe him, because he understands them, because they make sense. He has turned to a page on non-binding loops. He rests the Budweiser on his sizable belly and without looking ties a bowline into the rope. He unties it and turns the page.
He reads through the book, untying and tying knots into his piece of rope, drinking. When the beer in his hand is empty he places it neatly beside the others and rises from his chair. He walks to the fire and puts another section of maple on.
“Another glass of wine, hon?”
He returns from the kitchen with the half-drunk bottle of Merlot and his beer. It’s a wonder she don’t just drink from the bottle, he thinks. What’s the use dirtying up a glass if you’re just gonna drink the whole thing. But she holds the glass out for him, and dutifully he unscrews the bottle cap and pours, the wine almost black in the dim firelight. She does not look at him, or at the glass of wine now full in her hand. Her eyes are on the book. He takes the glass of wine from her and sets it on the floor.
He sits back at his chair. He looks back over at the woman. Her hand now free she has slipped it under the elastic of her skirt and begun to work her fingers there as she reads. He stretches out his neck to get a better look at her. With the beers cooling his nerves he finds himself, more than anything, a little curious.
“You want to read some of that to me,” he says.
The fingers stop; she looks over at him. “You want to hear it?”
“You’re just gonna make fun of it.”
“No,” he says. “I want to hear it. I’ll read you some of mine when you’re done.”
“Go to hell.”
“No,” he says. “I really do want to hear it.”
“You make fun of it and I’ll kill you.”
“Alright,” he says.
“I’ll smash this wine glass right here on the floor and grind it into your neck.”
“Alright,” he says. “You just read on.”
She sighs. But he can tell she is not truly angry, is curious herself. Her hand gets back to working as she reads the words out loud. He cannot believe what he hears. At first it embarrasses him, but then he finds his own hand working, his cock tightening slowly against his shorts. He puts down his beer and stands unevenly.
“Goddamn you Leon, I told you–”
But he is already standing over her. He takes the book from her hand and throws it to the ground. He kisses her, tasting the earthy taste of the wine, and reaches his hand down to pull up her skirt. He pulls his shorts down. He enters her, thrusting wildly, thoughtlessly against her.
“Who are you,” she cries. “I don’t know you.”
“Don’t do that,” he says, panting already, struggling for breath.
“No,” she cries. “No no no. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.”
So he stops. He is nearly passed out from exhaustion anyway, after just this minute or so of action. He flops his fat body down on the ground, spilling the glass of wine, gasping.
“Goddamn it Leon,” she says from the couch. “You’re half dead. What’s wrong, afraid of a little pussy?”
“You know,” he gasps, “I ain’t. And. That ain’t. No little pussy.”
Now from the couch he hears laughter. A wild, maniacal laughter that sprays down on him like pesticide.
“You’re lucky you’re funny,” she says. “Else I wouldn’t have no reason to keep you.”
Next morning the dragonflies are even thicker on the river. They land coupled on anything that will hold their weight, be it the meniscus of the water, or a lily pad, or his own hands as he stalks through the tea-colored shallows, still as a heron. Out of caution he has retied all of the connections in his line. Each connection its own knot: Albright, blood, improved clinch. This last to tie on a dry dragonfly pattern with foam body and bristle wings that imitates the real thing so perfectly that some of them land on it, curling their long bodies in attempt to mate.
The river is languid and thick and requires no mending of line. As he stands there, twitching his dragonfly occasionally, his mind gets to working. He thinks of the evening before. He sees it, hears it. Sees the look of hatred in her eyes, hatred not fear, as she pretended not to know him. The black wine spilling on the floor like his own blood leaving him. And he hears her poisonous laughter, laughing down at him there on the floor. He looks down at his ample gut, feels heavy, feels the fat all through him constricting his heart and lungs. He knows he is incapable of pleasing her. He is as incapable of that as she is of being the way she was before. Thinking of it saddens him. He wants desperately to please her. He loves her almost as much as he loves fish and he does not blame her for the way she is now.
A splash on the surface jerks him from his thoughts. He feels a weight in his hand and strikes instinctively, raising the rod upward. The fish drives downward in response, shaking her head. Immediately his anxieties of the nighttime are replaced by anxieties of losing the fish. His hands tremble as he plays her. He feels her weight, she is a good old fish he can tell, heavy and deliberate. He knows he has tied the knots well this time and that he will land her.
And he does. Stretching the fly rod back behind him he brings her in close, to where he stands thigh-deep in the water. He jams his thumb into her mouth, over her hard pale tongue, and with the rod tucked backward between his legs uses his other hand to remove the hook.
He strokes her, running his hand from her eyes back along her dorsal spines, which flatten uselessly under his palm. She is cool, smooth but for the rigidness of the flattened spines. Her coloration has darkened over the years so that the thick horizontal band on her sides is barely distinguishable from the rest of her dark body. Her eyes are black and dull and dead: an old girl. He strokes her once more, then returns her to the water. She swims slowly away, a shape much smaller underwater than above it. A shape only, and then she is gone.
His hands still tremble as he inspects his line and all the connections. Satisfied with what he sees he casts again. And again he gets to thinking. Thoughts of the old girl fish have stirred themselves into his thoughts of his wife. Both of them brilliant once, and new; now old and tired and, despite their spines, helpless when it really comes down to it. And then, watching his fly drift almost imperceptibly on the water and seeing the little blood knots of his leader resting like midges on the surface, he gets an idea so perfect that he thinks he must have had it all along.
She is standing, not lying down, when he comes in from the garage. He sets an old coffee can down on the countertop which he has brought from outside.
“What are you doing up, hon?” he says.
“Fixing myself some sandwiches.”
“You didn’t think I was making you a five-course meal did you?”
“No. I didn’t think that.”
“Just fixing myself some sandwiches.”
“Alright,” he says. “Well.” He studies her a moment, then makes a step toward her tentatively. Wrapping his big thick arms around her, pressing his fat gut into her back, he gives her a little kiss.
“Leon,” she says, “I got me a knife here. What’re you trying to do.”
He backs away and, taking up the coffee can again, slides over to the fridge. He takes out a Budweiser and brings it to the living room and sits down on his chair. He looks out absently through the opened window into the yard. Cicadas buzz in the heat and no breeze blows to cool the little room. He feels the sweat collecting on his neck and dripping down his back.
“Bring me a beer on your way in,” he calls to her.
“You just got you a beer.”
“Just bring me another then.”
She drifts into the living room and drops the beer on his lap, then collapses onto the couch with her sandwiches. He looks down from the window at her lying there. She seems exhausted from the exertion of sandwichmaking and he thinks, pity filling his heart, Hating everything must make you awfully tired.
“You gonna watch me all day like that or what,” she asks.
But he ignores her question. Instead he says: “Hon, do you ever–”
“Do I ever what.”
And he drinks his second beer, waiting for it to cool him down. It occurs to him that she may need some cooling down too before it all starts. “Want a glass of wine?” he asks her.
She looks at her wrist, where no wristwatch sits, and says, “At this hour?”
“At any hour. Who cares what hour. We’re just setting here anyways.”
“Alright. If you’re pouring.”
He comes back with a glass of wine and another beer. She looks ridiculous with the glass of wine in one hand and the two peanut-butter sandwiches resting on her belly, one of them with a few round bites taken from it.
“I know you ain’t laughing at me, Leon,” she says.
“No,” he says. “I ain’t laughing at you.”
“Then what then.”
“Just something else.”
“You know if you stopped thinking about something else all the time we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“Are we in a mess, hon?”
“You’re goddamn right we are.”
“Well. Turns out I got an idea for getting us out of it.”
“Ha,” she says. “Leon you couldn’t get yourself out of a pair of pants.”
“No? Want to see if I can’t?”
“I’m tired,” she says. “I don’t want to see nothing no more. Just leave me to my sandwiches.”
He sits back on his chair and drinks his Budweiser and feels his mind calming, beginning at last to cool pleasantly with this his third beer of the hour. He reaches down for the coffee can and removes the lid and fondles the old fly line he has curled up inside. Firm, smooth, and uniquely plasticky it gives him great pleasure to feel it in his fingers, and he nearly forgets what he has brought it for. He looks over at his wife on the couch. He sips at his beer. Then he puts the empty can down on the floor and lifts himself heavily from the chair.
“Hon,” he says. “Put down them sandwiches.”
She looks at the sandwiches resting on her belly. Before she can say anything he reaches down and takes them and tosses them onto the floor. She looks at them in amazement.
“I was eating those,” she says.
“You can eat them later. Now put down that wine glass too.”
“What are you–what are you going to–”
He has hoisted her upright on the couch and is wrenching her shirt off. He tosses that onto the floor with the sandwiches. Her eyes are wild with disbelief, and yet she does not object. He takes out some of the line, uncoiling it from the coffee can. Pulling her wrists back around behind her he holds her two frail forearms as one with his giant hand and binds them with a double half-hitch, wrapping the fly line many times around them first. The working end of the line he bites off with his teeth.
“Wait,” she says. “We need a safe word.”
“A safe word. Something so you know to stop.”
“Just say stop and I’ll stop.”
“No,” she says. “I might want to say stop and not mean it. We need a word I don’t normally say. Like yeller or something.”
“How do you know about all this?”
“My books,” she says.
“Well. Give me a word then. Does it have to be a color?”
“Just anything I don’t normally say.”
He offers the first thing that comes to mind, which is: “Largemouth.”
“Fine,” she says. “Now. Don’t forget what you were doing.”
He unzips his shorts and takes himself out. His cock is hard, full despite this interruption.
“Open your mouth,” he says.
She takes him into her mouth and he thrusts deeply, trying to gag her. But she will not gag. It should not surprise him. He imagines her gag reflex atrophying over the years, seared off by the acid hate that courses endlessly through her: her throat nothing more than a conduit for hate, wine, and sandwiches. He grips the back of her head with his meaty palm and forces her against him, until he can feel her teeth on his balls. Still nothing. Does she not even breathe anymore?
He lets her go. A string of drool hangs from her mouth and she spits it on the floor. She says, “Is that all you got?”
“I got more than you want,” he says. “I got enough line to cast clear acrost the river.”
“Well let’s see you cast then.”
“No more talking.” The tainting of his sacred fishing by this filthiness has begun to soften him. He pushes her down onto the couch. She lies there on her back waiting for it, staring at him. He turns her over, pulls down her skirt, and throws it to the middle of the room. Then he sits down on the floor. The exertion has tired him and he needs to catch his breath. She doesn’t seem to mind; she seems to like waiting there exposed. Her ass is right beside his head. He slaps it. A muffled sound of pleasure comes from the couch cushions where her head is buried. Finally he stands. He enters her roughly. He thrusts deeply into her, wanting desperately to hurt her or to feel some wall that would tell him he’s gone far enough. But he finds nothing.
She does start to kick at him, like a horse, and he stumbles backward. She kicks again and catches him in the balls.
“Jesus fucking Christ woman,” he says. She kicks once more and he catches her leg in his thick arms and turns her over on her back.
“Stop,” she says. “You’re hurting me.”
He lets her go. She kicks him square in the face, not an upright kick so much as a mashing of her heel into his nose. A trickle of blood starts from his right nostril.
“I told you don’t stop less I say the word.”
“You gave me a bloody nose,” he says.
“I know I did. I can see it. Come on now, you a man or what? Come on take me like a man.”
Enraged and harder than he has been in years he picks up her wine glass, spits blood into it, then throws the whole contents into her face. She laughs, spraying from her mouth a dark red mist. He takes up more line from the coffee can and looks at her dangerous legs, but sees nothing to tie them to.
“Well,” she says. “What’s taking you so long. I’m drying up.”
He pulls her off the couch onto the hard pine floor. The blood and wine has already begun to dry on her body. Sitting on her legs to restrain them he just ties her ankles together. He stands up, nearly fainting, then squats back down. His cock softens and hangs down from between his haunches. He knows she sees it. When he feels his strength returning he squats over her wine-stained mouth. Half expecting her to bite it off he drops his failing cock into her mouth. But she sucks at it obediently, lovingly even, and he wonders if this is what they’ve needed all along.
At last he flops down on top of her. He thrusts against her, pawing at her breasts with his broad hands, gripping them until his fingers turn white. He closes his eyes. His feet kick against the floor looking for purchase. She begins to cry out. “No,” she says. “No. You’re hurting me. My arms.”
But he knows better this time, and does not stop. Feels, in fact, that he cannot stop, even if she were to say the word. He hopes she will not. He has soiled what he loves for the other thing he loves and if they must be so joined then by god he will at least finish it.
“Stop,” she says. “Oh god please stop. You’re killing me. You’re breaking my arms.”
But he keeps going at her, his great bulk mashing her body down into the hard floor, scraping her shoulder blades against it, rolling the bones of her wrists like marbles.
“Yeller,” she cries. “Yeller goddamnit.”
“That ain’t,” he says, “the word.” And he keeps going, blindly, feeling it coming, something coming, orgasm or death he does not know which. His breath fails him, he grows weak. But he does not stop. He feels his heartbeat in his throat. She is crying now, tears soaking her temples and strings of saliva webbing her mouth.
“I don’t remember it,” she says, sobbing. “I don’t remember the word you said.”
And this is too much. His heart gives and he collapses on top of her. A sound like gunshot comes from her shoulder as it pops out of its socket but he scarcely hears it. Before he loses consciousness altogether, his body already swimming through a rivery darkness, he says, three times, like the chanting of some holy man delirious with god’s love: “Largemouth. Largemouth. Largemouth.”