By Dennis Staples
Lucan liked being ignored.
He preferred that no one talked to him at all, especially in class. It will be no different this time, he told himself.
On the first day of the second semester of school he walked reluctantly to the classroom. It seemed to him strange that he was taking a class called Fishing Basics when he’d never used a fishing rod before. Lucan didn’t remember why he had signed up for it the year before—probably to get out of doing textbook work. As he walked into the classroom he froze when the instructor addressed him.
“Can I help you with something?” asked the heavyset health and fitness teacher.
“I. Where. This is that fishing class, right?”
Lucan had a habit of stammering out a response too fast.
The classroom was at the edge of the cafeteria and near the front doors of the school. There had been many times he passed the glass doors and wanted to leave. He lived nowhere near the school, but he always told himself he’d find somewhere to go. The only thing that stopped him was the cameras and the cop that usually patrolled around this area. It also happened to be that the same cop was in the classroom, speaking to the teacher about some sports team.
“Yeah, this is it,” the teacher answered and resumed talking to the cop.
Lucan sat down quickly at the table closest to the door and waited. No other classmates came in yet, so he glanced around the room and stared at the posters on the wall. They showed the dangers of alcohol, meth, and other drugs that were rumored to be the secret economy of their town. Lucan dragged his headphone cord from his pocket and placed one of the tiny speakers in his left ear where the teacher couldn’t see.
The other students shuffled in while he was lost in his music. There were nine others in the class. He didn’t really consider any of them friends, though he could name all of them. Before long the teacher, who insisted everyone call him by his nickname Ox, was addressing the class. Lucan put away his headphones fast so Ox wouldn’t notice as he spoke of what they would do this semester.
“How many of you have fished before?”
Every student’s hand rose except for Lucan’s. He crossed his arms and slouched forward a few inches.
“Has anyone built a fishing rod?”
One student in the front row raised his hand, a young man named Mason that used to ride the same bus as Lucan did.
“So this will be a learning experience for a lot you,” Ox went on.
For the remainder of the class period Ox talked about his history in northern Minnesota as a fishing guide and how he lobbied for a class like this to teach apart from his usual classes. Lucan watched him interact with a whiny girl named Elaine, who always had something to complain about. Ox, along with a few of the others students, teased her about some of her airheaded statements. Lucan thought then that this class would be just like most others where the teacher played favorites.
The bell rang and the students danced into their programmed routine of rising and leaving the classroom. Lucan hesitated, waiting for Ox to say it was alright for them to leave, but when Ox said nothing, he left the classroom quickly. Lucan noticed how warm the room was compared to the rest of the school hallways. He made his way outside over icy sidewalks and onto a cold bus.
On the ride home he tried to read a book while listening to music and decided that the music was more important. The town passed by to the crunchy sound of guitars and crestfallen screams, old music to him but much younger than the town. He wondered whether or not he should switch classes. Building the fishing rod didn’t sound fun to him, but the enthusiasm that the rest of the class showed made him want to stay.
The bus rounded the street his house was on and stopped. His younger brother Ivan was sitting just a few seats ahead, and their younger sister Nina sat up front where all the elementary kids did. In a year Ivan would be in high school with Lucan, but it would be the only year they would have together. Lucan was halfway done with his junior year and not sure if he really wanted it to end.
It was still winter and Lucan felt relief when he saw a steady pillar of white smoke emanating from the chimney as they walked up to the house. Feeling the warmth instantly when he walked into the house, Lucan thought, “Sinclair isn’t completely useless. At least he can build a fire.” The scent of the fire in the basement always took him back to Christmas—not just a few weeks back, but to when he was eleven when his dad was still around.
“Mom?” Lucan said.
“She’s gone,” was the reply. It came from the living room, where his cousin Sinclair stayed.
“Oh. Ok,” Lucan said, walking to his room. He set down his bag on the floor and took off his tennis shoes that were soaked all the way through from the snow. The room was cold, and in the corner was small space heater. Lucan’s room was in a corner of the
He remembered the river, the fireworks, and green bottles of beer all over. But not fishing.
house where the heat from the basement didn’t reach. Something about a pipe that fell underneath the house, Sinclair always told him, but he never took care of.
Lucan walked back into the living room and over to Sinclair. Not too close though, because he was smoking a cigarette.
“Where did my mom go?” Lucan asked.
Sinclair didn’t take his eyes off the TV and the blurred sitcom that was playing. Lucan couldn’t tell if it was static or laughter, but knowing the shows Sinclair watched, probably static. The man was near forty and watched old shows that were outdated, and therefore in Lucan’s opinion, unfunny.
“To my mom’s place,” Sinclair replied.
Lucan knew that was code for the casino, since Sinclair’s mother lived next to it. Lucan’s grandmother and Sinclair’s mother were sisters. Lucan had known his cousin for his whole life.
“Can you at least open a window when you do that?” Lucan said, walking away to the kitchen. He didn’t wait for a reply. Ivan was cooking a box of macaroni and cheese for Nina to eat.
“Do you want some?” Ivan asked.
“No, I don’t like that stuff,” Lucan answered. Instead he searched through the cupboards and fridge for anything else, but nothing looked satisfying. There wasn’t much there, like usual, and nothing he liked.
“Is there enough for me?” Lucan asked, giving up his search.
“Should be. Thought you didn’t like it,” Ivan said while stirring.
“I do if there’s salt,” Lucan said. He opened the cupboards again and looked at the plates and bowls.
When it was done Ivan made Nina a plate and she came running into the kitchen from their mother’s room.
“Is there hotdogs?” she asked, grabbing the plate and trying to walk back into the other room.
“Get back in here!” Lucan said. “You know you can’t eat in there.”
Nina turned around and walked back to the table without a word, head tilted down after being yelled at.
“No, I looked,” Ivan said while fixing himself a bowl.
Lucan felt a little guilty for yelling at Nina, so he walked to the fridge and pulled out a can of soda for her. Of the little food they had, cans of soda were always present.
He made a bowl after the others did and told Ivan about the class.
“It sounds really fun. I haven’t been fishing for years,” Ivan said.
Lucan smiled. “I was the only one in the class that hasn’t before.”
Ivan looked up from his bowl and raised an eyebrow. “You’ve been fishing before. Don’t you remember the campsite by the river? Before dad went to jail?”
Lucan stopped eating and thought about it. Their camping trips in the summer were a blur after five years since going on one. He remembered the river, the fireworks, and green bottles of beer all over. But not fishing.
“I don’t think so. I think that was just you,” Lucan answered.
“You were there. You were too scared to touch the hook when a northern was on it. Sinclair had to take it off for you.”
“I remember dat!” Sinclair shouted from the living room. He laughed a few seconds before he started coughing. Lucan looked back down at his food, ignoring the chain-smoking cousin in the other room.
“You must have caught it,” Lucan said. “Will you finish this?”
Lucan handed the bowl of macaroni to his younger brother and went to his room. He needed a nap after that long day of school. The space heater slowly warmed the room and he was only shivering a little when he finally fell asleep.
The morning bus ride always froze his feet, and his only solace from the cold was his music. The ear buds blared songs into his head and allowed him to forget the icy winter. In the mornings he liked slower, sad songs but as he got closer to the school, he’d want something loud and angry.
The Blue October song he listened to was a somber, violin-led ballad about how a family used to be. The voice sang in a pleading tone about how things in his family had gone wrong.
A new song ‘cause the family’s wrong
So don’t lecture me.
Lucan stared out the window into the snow-covered trees and fields and thought about his family being wrong.
His dad had been in prison for the past five years, and Lucan rarely got to see him or even speak to him on the phone. Lucan felt guilty for not writing many letters, but also angry at his dad for the choices he made that got him locked up, and then guilty again for thinking ill of him. Nothing had been the same after his dad was gone, and it felt like nothing would ever get better. Lucan changed the song and closed his eyes.
When the fast-paced and angry songs played, Lucan wanted to scream with them. But he didn’t know who he was angry at or why, or if he even was feeling anything at all. He changed the song; it was too early for anger. Instead he found another slow song and listened to it all the way to the school.
The first few steps inside the building made him change it to another angry song. Something about the crowd of kids in the hallway he didn’t like. He put his bag and the music player away in his locker in case one of the crabby staff members who did nothing but roam the halls and harass children tried to take it from him. Lucan kept his sweater on, though. It was cold in the school, warmer than the bus or home, but cold still. He was used to being cold everywhere he went.
Lucan went to check what the school breakfast was and passed by the room where fishing class was being held. He wondered whether his dad knew how to fish. Ivan had said so, but Lucan didn’t like to remember much about the family camping trips. None of that mattered now. At least someone would be teaching him how to fish, even if it was boring.
The school breakfast was pizza and he eagerly ate the sloppy, greasy mess.
When the class began building the fishing rods, it was not what Lucan expected.
Because it was still late winter when the semester began, the class focused on paperwork before they started building. One day they were assigned a crossword puzzle with answers related to fishing. Lucan had no idea what most of the terms were and just listened to the others to fill his out. Halfway through the period, Ox revealed that he lost the answer key and couldn’t remember them either, so they started thinking of the answers together as a class.
“Number six down is pontoon. That’s what we’ll be in when the lakes open up,” Ox said with a laugh.
“That’s like a boat, right?” Lucan said. He really didn’t know exactly what it was.
“Yeah, a slow one,” Ox said, barely giving Lucan a glance.
“Is number three across ice armor, Ox?” the whiny Elaine said.
“Armor? No. Auger.”
The class laughed, all but Lucan.
“What’s ice auger and how do you spell that?” Lucan asked.
Ox stared through him with a blank expression.
“Are you serious, kid? It’s the tool that drills through the ice when we’re ice fishing.”
Lucan filled the last few words in silence, thinking to himself that no one could ever get him to go out on a frozen lake.
About a month into the semester, they began to put together the fishing rods. It began as just a grey-black stick of tight-wound fiber. Ox gave them specific measurements, starting from the base to mark for the grip, reel seat, butt cap, and guides for the string.
Before they could start putting those parts on, they each had to use some rough tool to shave down the inside of the cork grip so it would fit the pole. By the end of it, Lucan’s arms were sore and his clothes were covered in cork dust. When that was over, the class started putting the rods together.
By far the most complicated part was the guides and their windings. The rod had to be placed on two wooden stands horizontally and twirled as colored thread was wound on it. To keep the guides on, the thread was wrapped over them and would later be treated with powerful glue. Lucan liked picking out the different colored threads because it was a
When the sun was shining, the whole river looked like gasoline.
nice contrast to the dull rod. Ox had to show him how to thread the windings more than once. When Lucan thought the teacher was losing patience, he tried to lighten the mood.
“What do you think of these colors? Aren’t they pretty?” he asked, referring to royal blue and crimson that looked like Superman. Just recently Lucan had gotten a dog and named him Kent after the man of steel.
“You’re asking the wrong guy,” Ox said flatly.
“Why?” Lucan asked.
“He’s colorblind!” said Elaine in her bitchy voice from two tables over.
“I. I’m sorry. I forgot,” he said, his face flushing.
To his relief, Ox laughed.
“Don’t worry about it. Just finish your guides.”
Lucan completed each of the windings in the Superman colors in honor of his new puppy. He had to start over on the thread more than once, but soon enough he got the hang of it. Over a weekend, the glue was applied to the thread-wrapped part of the guides, and when it dried it made a glass-like surface above the thread. With a golden reel, Lucan’s fishing rod began to look pretty nice.
Towards the middle of the second half the semester, when the ice was long gone and the lakes were beginning to warm up, the class began to prepare for their first trip to test what they built. Ox had the class gather around a table to learn how to attach fishing line to the reels. He pulled out a roll of the line from his tackle box and began to unravel some.
“What kind is that?” asked Mason.
“Fluorocarbon invisible line,” Ox said, holding the round case of string.
“But I can see it,” Lucan said as a joke.
The class laughed, but Ox’s face wasn’t amused. From the tackle box he grabbed a small scissors out for the line. Elaine pointed at a jar of squiggly green shapes that Lucan didn’t recognize.
“That stuff stinks!” she said, strangely excited.
Ox looked at her confused and picked up the jar.
“No it doesn’t,” he said, unscrewing the top and putting it to his nose. If it did smell bad, he didn’t react.
“Are you serious?” she said, gesturing to jar.
Ox held to it her nose and she sniffed. Quickly she turned away and made a gagging noise, much to Ox’s amusement.
“Of course I know it stinks,” he said, closing the jar.
“What does it smell like?” Lucan asked.
“It smells like your ass after you haven’t wiped for two weeks.”
The whole class laughed, including Lucan.
The first trip was on a windy day, and a fast current moved the pontoon all around the river. For nearly two hours they drifted around in cold water until their time was up. Lucan tried casting a few times, but mostly his attention was focused on a group of houses that birds had built underneath a bridge. It looked like a large collection of beehives piled next to each other, and small grey birds flew all over, shitting into the river and onto the pillars holding up the bridge. The birds seemed just as uninterested in fishing as he was.
The second trip was less windy and a little more successful. The fish were not biting, but another two hours away from schoolwork was good in Lucan’s mind. This time he mostly sat down and only fished when the teacher was looking. Maybe it was being away from solid land or something else, but Lucan felt awkward and out of place. At one point Ox had used some machine to locate the fish underwater and had one on his line.
“Hey, one of you kids wants to catch a fish?”
Ox handed his rod over to Lucan. He reeled it in as quickly as he could and the small green and white form rose out of the water and into the pontoon. Lucan didn’t have gloves on and hesitated to grab the fish.
“How do I take it off?”
“Grab it and pull the hook out,” Ox said.
“What if it bites me?”
“Oh, give it here, you baby.”
Ox grabbed the fish and removed the hook. It was a small fish, a yellow perch of about seven inches.
“Throw your fish back,” Ox said, handing Lucan the slimy creature.
The fish struggled in his hand before Lucan tossed it over the side of the boat and watched it slip away into the green depths of the river. When the sun was shining, the whole river looked like gasoline.
Lucan brought his fishing rod home on the last day of school, careful not to let the very top get damaged in the corner of the bus. He had no idea what he was going to do with it, as he had not planned on fishing again. His brother-in-law liked to fish, so maybe he could let him use it.
Lucan’s dog Kent came running up from the porch to greet him in the driveway. He was a pudgy, white, fur ball, just a few months old. Lucan patted his head as the pup jumped on his leg and licked his hand. As Lucan tried to balance holding the fishing rod and his bag while petting the dog, he had an idea.
After he brought his bag inside, he went to his fridge. Back outside, he attached a small piece of hotdog to the snap swivel at the end of the fishing line and dragged it across his driveway. Kent chased it around, tripping over his own feet and the ears that were too large for his head.
The pup didn’t catch the bait.