The wind pushed his floatplane into a Canadian lake. He survived the impact, the breaking of wings. ‘Everyone OK?’ he yelled, and the water poured in. She would hear about this. He wondered if she would hurt. He couldn’t know that they would only find his gear: the tackle box busted open, his fishing rods snapped, the lures glittered on the plane’s floor. The fuselage – separated from its pontoons – had started to sink. He shrugged free of his seatbelt and dove for the submerged door. His breath was taken by the cold, his lungs aching. No one would know how long he struggled with the door. Had it opened as the water filled him? Had he pleaded please God, make me a fish?
They met in a fish house, out on the ice. He was the brother of her friend Sarah, and a fisherman by trade. With an auger he drilled a hole in the ice. Vodka passed amongst them, and Polly wondered if they would catch a fish in spite of the laughter.
She was impressed with him. A smile like new snow as he pulled on a line. ‘Gotta jiggle the line every once in a while,’ he said. Dedication was the word she was looking for. While the others drank and chatted, he fished.
‘The better part of fishing is waiting, isn’t it?’ she said.
‘So it may appear, but no.’
‘Then what is it? Drinking?’ she handed him the bottle.
He thought for a moment, took a swig, closed his eyes. ‘My family, we’ve always fished,’ he said, ‘it’s not because we need to. Hunger would rob fishing of its beauty, I think. No, I think the better part of fishing is just fishing to fish.’
‘So it doesn’t matter if you catch anything?’
‘Not really, just being out on the water or the ice with some good company. That’s good enough.’ He seemed to believe it, so she did as well.
They drank, occasionally dragging a lake trout out of the ebon water. Polly wormed in next to him, leaning on him as she laughed. He did not pull away. When they had enough, he cleaned the fish outside and cooked the filets on an electric griddle. He knew that in his absence Sarah would give her a look. ‘Are you hitting on my brother?’
Polly would want to lie, but would only manage a shrug.
‘Don’t,’ Sarah would say, but let slip a wry smile. A blessing perhaps?
They ate the grilled filets and polished off the last of the vodka. A weariness settled over the fish house. Content, they resolved to go home.
When Polly stumbled, it was him that caught her.
‘I’ll take her home,’ he said.
She gave him her address and slept as he drove through a world of black and white, snow banks at the edge of the road, flakes blurring through the headlights. Pulling into the drive he spoke her name, and she awoke.
‘Here we are,’ he said.
‘I’ll probably need help getting to the door,’ she said. He steadied her, his hands on her shoulders, and they walked up to the door.
‘Will you be OK to get home?’ she asked.
‘I’ll be fine.’
‘It was a good time.’
Yes, it had been.
She moved forward – almost falling – and hugged him. Her cheek melted the snowflakes on his jacket. He kissed her forehead then opened the front door for her.
‘Goodnight,’ he said.
‘I’ll see you again?’
The jacket was his, blue flannel and fraying at the shoulder seams. He left it at her little apartment the day he cooked beef stew for her. Polly had been sick at home, and when he had received word he showed up at her door, wrapped in the blue flannel a full Tupperware bowl in his hands.
Polly insisted that he leave, that he shouldn’t see her this way. She said he would fall ill too.
‘It would be worth it,’ he said.
He warmed the stew on her stovetop until steam rose from the pot. Polly sat and ate, cloaked in blankets and pajamas. He sat with her, saying nothing, yet it occurred to Polly that it was not because there was nothing to say, but rather because their being together required nothing else. A cake that needed no icing. Perhaps he had felt that way.
When Polly finished her stew, he stood to leave.
‘I’ll go and let you rest.’
She thanked him for the stew and he hugged her. But this time when he moved to kiss her forehead she pulled him down and her lips touched his. When they had released each other, he removed his jacket and hung it from her coatrack. He made to leave.
‘Won’t you need the jacket?’ she asked.
‘Nah,’ he said. He would have to come back for it when he got back in town.
‘Where are you headed?’
‘Up to Canada. I’m taking some rich fellow fishing.’
‘I hope you catch a lot of fish,’ she said, ‘even if it doesn’t matter whether you do or not.’
There’s no accounting for anything. Polly knew it at once. The phone call. Sarah’s tears would have dripped through the mouthpiece and all the way to Polly’s ear. Driving to her friend’s house, she knew the whole time. There were more cars than usual parked in the driveway. Sarah sat crying on the stairs. She hugged Polly, her wet cheeks cold against her own. She said, ‘They can’t find him. They can’t find him.’
Polly knew better than to hope, but hope she did. She fought the urge to explain or reason any of it. Instead, she asked, ‘What can I do?’ She thought of what she could cook for them. She answered the phone for them when people called. She washed their dirty dishes.
After she left them, in the still of her apartment Polly could hear the word never. She sat in the dark, telling herself not to look at the coatrack. She wanted to tell herself that it would have been better had they never met, even if that wasn’t true.
The family waited and hoped for two cold months before they arranged a funeral. The town, though small, had poured into the funeral home. Polly had arrived early enough to catch Sarah before the service had started, to see if she or her family needed anything.
‘You’ve done enough for us. Thank you.’
Polly took her seat at the end of a crimson cushioned pew, her eyes eschewing the walnut casket, the hollow centerpiece of a tragic tableau. Instead, she caught herself eyeing his family, his mother spangled in black, father resting his head in his hands. She wished desperately to sit among them, separate from all the friends and acquaintances, and when she realized this she felt herself blush. Who was she to compare her grief to theirs? She had barely known the man, even if that little knowledge had seemed enough. Had the family known what he had become to her? She was still dismayed at how his brief presence had left her with such marvelous wounds. Or was it her that had left the wounds? Had she not carved out a little of herself to allow for his inclusion in her life? Now there was only a cavity – hollow as his casket – that ached and could not be filled.
By the casket was a photograph of him, younger than she’d known him. How had that young man turned into the man of dedicated stillness? Her eyes fell to her feet. She wouldn’t let them see her cry. Better to keep what she had to herself.
After the service Polly shuffled and twitched in the line of mourners. What could she say to the family, waiting patiently beside the casket? Would she tell them that she had loved their son, even though she had never really known him, that she felt hollow when he was not around? Who was she to tell them that?
When Polly came before them, they recognized her as Sarah’s friend. She shook their cold hands and said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ She couldn’t meet their eyes. And she found herself at his casket, struck dumb by the fact that he wasn’t in it and never would be. All she could do was reach out to touch the smooth walnut.
Polly woke on New Year’s Day at her parent’s house, head throbbing from the night’s celebrations. Dirty wineglasses littered the sink, paper plates stuffed the wastebasket. She thought everyone would sleep until noon or later. How they had danced! Blue Swede blasting in the air I’m hooked on a feeling. Polly had faked it well, dancing with them, yet not willing to tell them she’d rather sleep, because in sleep she may dream, and in dreams the dead could come alive.
Polly finished a cup of coffee and drifted into the mud room. She put on her snow boots and his blue flannel jacket even though it swamped her. She had taken to wearing it, one last ditched effort to hang on to him.
In the garage she found what she was looking for: her father’s old rod and reel, a spin-caster with a neon-green jig, and a splitting maul.
She trudged through the morning’s snow and down the drive to the frozen pond at the edge of her parent’s property. Her father and his father before had always kept the pond stocked with fish, smallmouth bass she remembered. She had always ignored the fish, preferring to swim in the summer or skate in the winter, but now she would not ignore them.
Polly walked out onto the little pier and set the spin-caster down. She took the splitting maul, and even though she knew it would scare the fish, she started to chop away at the ice. On her third swing, the maul buried into the ice, stuck. She had to kick it free and lean over the pond to recover it. She kept swinging until she finally broke through and the cold water showered her, droplets like diamonds hanging on the blue flannel. Steamed breaths wheezed out of her. She dropped the little jig into the pool. She could see it three feet down, a tiny light shining in the dark water.
BRYN AGNEW lives in Missoula, Montana where he attends the MFA program at the University of Montana. He has a BA and MA in creative writing from the University of North Texas. His stories and essays have appeared in Mid-American Review and North Texas Review.