Noah McGee
Well Out Over the Cabbage


           Lou pulled the covers off his son and scooped him up, straining a bit.  Stephanie had him sleep in his clothes so that they could get an early start.  Lou rang the doorbell at 5 a.m. sharp.  He was always punctual.
            Stephanie didn’t say much.  Her eyelids were droopy with sleep, but she had made coffee for him, scoop of sugar, no cream.  Lou appreciated that.  He told her so as he took the travel mug.  It was funny.  That was one of the things they always fought about before the split.   She said Lou didn’t appreciate her, what she did for their family of three.
            Lou dumped Andrew in the SUV’s passenger seat and tossed his stuff in the back.  He fumbled a bit with the keys but got them into the ignition.  He chalked it up to the unusually cold September morning, but his hands had been tingling a little lately.  Sometimes he had to rub them for a minute or two before he had any feeling. 
           As Lou started to pull out of the long driveway, Andrew opened one eye, reached for the seatbelt, and strapped himself in.  With the click of the belt he was asleep again, chin resting on his chest.
             Andrew woke up sweating, the morning light streaming through the windshield and warming his reddened face.  “Are we almost there?”
            Lou smiled.  “Sorry buddy, still about four hours to go.”
            “Four hours!”  Andrew leaned his head against the window.  “Dad, why’s the lake so far away?”
            “Because it’s in Canada.”
            “Why is it in Canada?”
            “You’ll have to ask your grandfather.  He bought it.”
            Andrew turned and wrinkled up his nose at Lou.  “But grandpa’s dead, dad.”
            “I know.” 
            “Then how am I gonna ask him?”
           Lou smiled, fishing trips he had taken with his father and brother, Kyle, flashed through his head; the same trip, nearly twenty-eight years to the day.
           
           Lou’s small, year-and-a-half-younger brother, Kyle, bounced off the pick-up’s wide bench and onto the floor when the truck sloshed through the craterous potholes in the dirt road.  The boys held on to the edges of the vinyl seats, grabbed the narrow, white piping with their small, but already rough, hands.  Watch out or your ass’ll leap right outta the window, Lou’s father roared with a gruff chuckle, his foot heavier on the accelerator.  They both slammed into the dash as the truck skidded through the gravel in front of the two-room fishing cabin.
           
           Lou blinked off the memory and flicked the turn signal, veering onto an off-ramp.  He put his hand on Andrew’s head, squeezed gently.  “Why don’t you play your Gameboy?  It’ll make time go faster.”
            “I don’t wanna.”  Andrew pressed against the passenger window, smearing it with his oily forehead.
            “Why not?”  Lou gritted his teeth and jabbed a button on the radio, scanning the AM stations.  “I just bought you that damn thing.”
            “Reilly Thompson’s dad buys him a game, like, every week.”  Andrew slipped down in his seat.  He didn’t look at Lou.  “I only have one game.  It’s stupid.”
            Lou didn’t say anything for a moment.  The radio stopped on a morning talk show.  The radio man’s voice droned.  “Andrew, don’t be a little asshole.”
            Andrew crawled up the back of the seat and rustled through his bag.  The small machine bleeped as it turned on.
 
                                                                           
*
 
            Andrew hummed along with the small motor, his voice two octaves higher, as the boat cut through the water.  They drifted for a moment after Lou shut it off, just around the bend past the small dock near McDonnell Road, the best spot in the lake, at least according to Lou’s father. 
            “Dad,” Andrew whispered.  The twilight of morning quieted him, plus, he had told Lou, he was afraid that he might scare the fish.  “Can I use Grandpa’s rod?”
            “Why do you think I brought it, buddy?”
            Andrew grabbed the old fishing pole and swung it around to grab the reel.  He immediately hooked his sleeve.  The end of the rod bent around, trying to extend itself out over the water.  Lou reached over and unhooked him.
           
           Lou’s father pulled the small, outboard motor out of the truck bed, barely acknowledging its weight.  He cradled the machine under one arm and pulled his rod off the rack with the other.  Each of you grab a couple cans, he called over his shoulder to the Lou and Kyle, bypassing the cabin and heading straight for the lake.  The boys could both hold four beer cans, hands barely large enough to wrap around them, both armpits stuffed.  The smell of gasoline trailed behind their father.
           
           Lou put together his latest toy, sliding each piece of rod into its socket.  He only went fishing once or twice a year, but bought a new rod and reel every spring.  He hadn’t even taken the price tag of this one yet, on sale: $279.99.
           Andrew fidgeted with his reel, fingers tangling the line.  “Do you want me to cast that out for you?” Lou called to him.
            “No, dad, I can do it.”  Lou ducked as his son whipped the shaft at his head.  The lure blooped in the water about five feet from the boat.  Lou chuckled as the boy quickly reeled it in and cast it out again.  It landed closer.
            “You sure you don’t need a little help?”
            Andrew offered the pole to his father, explaining, “I just can’t get a good grip.  Could you do it just once?”
            Lou sent the lure flying.  “Remember, Andrew.  Reel it in slowly.  If you hook a Muskie, it’s gonna fight.  You have to hold on tight or he’ll pull the rod right out of you hands.”
            “I remember, dad.”
            “Alright, but you better not lose dad’s rod.”
           
           Lou and Kyle uncovered the boat while their father attached the engine.  The three of them hoisted it into the lake.  The water soaked their feet.  Get in, get in, the broad man shouted out.  He pushed the boat out and jumped in behind the boys, pulling the cord to start the motor in the same motion.  The vessel pushed water aside, creating the very smallest of waves.
 
            Lou cast out and put his feet up on the edge of the boat.  This is it, he thought to himself.  It was such a change, being out on the lake.  It was a break from Libby, Boyer, & Murphy.  It was an escape from Stephanie and her lawyers.  It was a chance to remind Andrew that he was loved, to share the water and the fish with his son, like his father had shared with him.
            They had only been out a half hour or so when Andrew jumped up, making the boat rock back and forth.
            “Dad, dad!”  He wasn’t quiet now.  “I got something.”
            Lou grabbed his arm.  “Whoa, buddy, sit back down.  Just pull it in slowly.  You don’t want him to bite the line.”
            “I can’t.”  There was panic on the boy’s face as he yanked the rod back, the line taut.  “It’s pulling back too hard.”
            Lou laid his rod down to come to the aid of his son.  Andrew handed his grandfather’s rod and reel over to Lou like he was playing hot potato.  Lou gave it a gentle yank.  It didn’t fight back.  Lou pulled harder, jerked it free and wound in the line.  Out of the water finally, a slimy lake plant hung off the hook.
            “This is what they call cabbage, Andrew.”
            Lou frowned as he handed it back to his son, who was a bit crestfallen when he saw his catch.  As he rubbed the boy’s head, he caught a glimpse of his own rod out of the corner of his eye.  The line moved around in the water. 
            “Goddamn it!”  Lou lunged across the boat, but it was too late.  The reel bumped once on the side of the boat before it disappeared into the water with hardly a splash.
            “That fucking cabbage!”  When he slammed the side of the boat with his palm, a pain shot up into his shoulder, made the whole left side of his chest ache.
 
                                                                           
*
 
            The water was choppy, so Lou made Andrew put on the mildewed, orange lifejacket from the tool shed.
            “Dad, I’ve know how to swim since I was young,” Andrew protested, but Lou slipped it over his head anyhow.
            “Buddy, you’ve only been swimming for four years.”
            “But I stopped using water wings, like, three years ago.”  He unclipped the plastic catch.  “And it smells like the lawnmower.”
            “Hey!” Lou didn’t like raising his voice since the separation, but he caught himself doing it all the time.  “You wear the goddamn life vest or you don’t get into the water.”
            “OK, jeez.”  Andrew grabbed wrapped an arm around the half-inflated, canvas raft and took off out the screen door.
            “Don’t get into the water until I get there!”  Lou stepped back into the one-room cabin to get the bar of Irish Spring and some shampoo.  The old place didn’t have a shower.  The only running water was in a basin on the screened-in porch. 
           But this was always one of Lou’s favorite parts of going to the cabin: a nice bath in the lake after a couple days of fishing.  His scalp was itchy.  He was ready for it, and it would do Andrew good, too.
            Andrew’s feet splashed around at the end of the creaky dock, the waves spraying him occasionally as they slapped up against on of the thick posts.  Lou threw the towels over the bench of the boat and slipped the tight t-shirt off.  It was his father’s, left there from the last time he visited the lake, almost four years ago now.  His father had slimmed down an awful lot in the last year of his life.  Now, Lou could barely fit it over his increasingly round beer-belly.
            “Alright, in,” Lou called and Andrew leaned forward, going under for a moment, but popping right back up with the buoyancy of the life vest.  “See, it’s deep.” 
           Lou slipped in, the water coming up to his armpits.  He soaped himself up for a moment while Andrew attempted to vault himself onto the sinking raft, ending up back in the water after every try.  Sitting the bar of soap on the dock, Lou dunked down to rinse off.  The cool water chilled him, and he reminded himself that it was refreshing in the early-September heat.
            After sudsing his own head, Lou sidestroked towards his son, shampoo bottle in one hand, the waves smacking him in the face.  He squirted a daub in his hand, but Andrew kicked away, heading back to the dock.
            “Com’on, buddy.”  Lou reached for his ankle, but the boy was out of reach and the water was almost over his head, so he couldn’t stretch far.
            “Nooooo… Dad, noooo,” Andrew whined, now in water shallow enough to stand. Grunting, he pulled himself up onto the dock.
            Lou treaded water.  “Andrew, don’t you want to wash your hair?”
            “No, dad.”  Lou’s son stood at the end of the dock, looking small with the lifejacket draped over his shoulders.  “It stings my eyes.”
            “I won’t let it get in your eyes.”
            “Noooo.”
            “Andrew, how many time do I have to tell you?  No one likes it when you whine like a piss-pantsed baby.  You’re too damn old for that.”
            Andrew just shook his head, his attention no longer on Lou, but focused on the lake.  He squinted, straining to see something that was out on the water.  “Dad, I see it.  It’s your rod, the one the muskie took!”
            Lou paddled around and saw it, too.  Or, rather, he saw something glinting in the sun, about seventy, eighty yards out.  It would disappear below the undulating water and then pop back up, right where it was before.
            “I don’t think so, buddy.”  But Lou wasn’t so sure. 
            “No, dad.  I can see it.  We can go out and get it.”
            That’s not too far, Lou thought, kicking off the dock on his back and purposely soaking his son.  “OK, I’ll be right back, Andrew.  Stay right there.  If you come into this water I’ll kick your ass,” he called, launching into a freestyle stroke.  “Be right back!”
            He was only out about thirty yards when he began to get winded.  He tried the breaststroke but it moved him so slowly that he figured the water was carrying him back towards land faster than he could swim out.  C’mon, old man, Lou said to himself, almost half way there.  He kicked harder, trying the overhand technique again.
            Tiring now, Lou stopped and looked back at land.  His son was jumping up and down on the dock, trying to see him in the choppy water. 
           He thought about swimming the whole width of the lake with his brother, Kyle.    It felt like a hundred years ago.  They had stopped in the middle; just as far back as it was to go on.  It took them about an hour to finish, and almost four to hike back around the lake to the cabin.  Lou was there now, halfway, well out over the cabbage, as close to the shiny thing in the water as his son on the dock.
           Lou gave it one more try, dizzy, gasping for air in between every stroke.  It was then his leg cramped.  He reached for his calf and gulped the lake water.  His chest hurt and he dunked under the water with each wave.
           He was panicking and he knew it.  He tried to calm himself, focus on floating, but no matter what he did the water was over his head.  Lou thought about Andrew sitting on the dock, watching his father slip under the water.  He felt embarrassment creep over him, for his inept fathering, for his inability to stay on top of the water. 
           Lou stretched up, but his reach didn’t extend out of the water anymore.  He kept sinking, like there was no bottom.  He pictured Andrew coming to the lake with his son, taking the boat out and remembering the time a muskie pulled a brand-new rod and reel into the lake.
           His arms flailed around, clawing at the water as though there was something he might be able to get a hold of, something that might pull him up.  Lou breathed deep, felt the water deep in his lungs.
 
               Lou’s father sat on the boat between the boys, Lou and Kyle.  He carefully tied on the lure.  Always make sure you have quality tackle, he told his sons, you never want to lose a fish because of bad equipment.  Lou’s old man made the lure himself, hand-painted it to look like a small pike, so it sparkled in the sun.  The cast was long, well out over the cabbage.  He took a long drink of his beer, then handed the can to Lou.  Lou gently shook it, still about a third full.  His father nodded and he took a sip of the lukewarm liquid.  It was sour and tickled his nose.